How to Cross the Ecological Abyss

By Chip Ward

Deep Ecology and the Commons: A close look at two important books that offer insights for changing our minds and behaviors in the face of troubling times, steering us away from the "abyss of immobilizing despair."
by Chip Ward
Now that we have heard the alarming news about climate chaos, peak oil, the widespread extinction of species and the imminent collapse of whole ecosystems, what are the options for recovery? How do we start to heal the enormous damage we have done? Two recent books offer important insights into how we might change our minds and embrace new behaviors that could lead us over the abyss of immobilizing despair we could so easily fall into. They offer the reader a refreshing change from listening to the cracked-record of doom that most environmental writers are playing these days.

Bill McKibben's groundbreaking and prescient book, "The End of Nature," nailed the meaning and implications of global warming way back in the '80s when even Al Gore was still a clueless fossil fool. Now, in "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future," McKibben is peeking around the corner again. This time he sees a future where the end of cheap and plentiful oil, the compelling need to reduce carbon emissions, and other unavoidable ecological limits we are facing will pitch our unsustainable economies into a ditch.

Forget all the hype about globalization. The Internet will still tie us all together but a new wave of locally focused economies, networked and distributed much like the Internet, is coming soon to a neighborhood like yours. And that will happen because the modern era of faster/bigger/ cheaper/more is unsupportable, especially if you factor in the impact of a couple of billion Chinese and Indian consumers carving up the planet and spewing fumes on the order of your typical American shopper driving to the mega-mall. Something has to give. There just isn't enough oil or room for more environmental damage.

Besides, says McKibben, all our material wealth is not making us happy. That's because people appreciate increases in their standard of living up to a point. If you are hungry, if you have inadequate shelter, if you are sick or insecure, then gaining more of the material basics of life is very important, indeed. Human history, right up to recent times, has been a relentless struggle to achieve those material basics and then build in more comfort and convenience as well. {quotes}The birds More and Better, as McKibben puts it, have always roosted in the same tree-you could strike both with the same stone. But not anymore. {/quotes}

Although America's material wealth has grown steadily since the 1950s, surveys that measure our self-reported satisfaction with our lives reveal a steady decline in our feelings of happiness and security. You know the drill: We spend our days rushing, striving, competing, worrying, and wishing it was different. We long for connection and meaning. The new car smell wears off and we are stuck in traffic.

According to McKibben, we overshot our goal. Once the basics were secured, we kept going. The ingrained habits from our long struggles against scarcity and an almost cult-like devotion to growth and efficiency as defined solely by the demands of the marketplace were the engines of our material dreams. We are spurred on by a constant barrage of advertising that tells us we are what we buy and more stuff will fulfill our deepest needs. So we shop till we drop at Wal-Mart, even though we know the big box stores destroy local economies, abuse their workers, and drive down wages across the board, because the stuff we can get there is cheap, you can find it all in one place, and above all else, we crave more stuff. Stuff counts.

We are becoming, he fears, insatiable "hyper-individualists" who change religions, spouses, houses, towns, professions and brands in an endless quest for meaning and identity, who think Donald Trump is worth watching when he fires the ass-kissing, back-stabbing competitors vying for his approval, and who dream that one day, like the winners of "Survivor," we will end up alone on our very own island with a million bucks and nobody left to bug us. We flock to churches where we are told God helps those who help themselves. We have created a society with the greatest disparity between the rich and the rest of us in the world under a president who wants to create an "ownership society" where Social Security is replaced with individual retirement accounts and Medicare with individual health savings plans. If allowed, his political bedfellows would turn over our national parks to Disney, sell public lands to the highest bidders, privatize water and replace public education with vouchers.

{quotes align=right}If unchecked, McKibben warns, our current economic system and the planet-consuming, hyper-individualist monsters it spawns will make the earth uninhabitable. {/quotes}But before that happens, he says, we will probably run out of oil and drinkable water. One way or the other, we need a new economic model, one that does not sacrifice the environment, public health, personal security and the nurturing bonds of community in the name of marketplace efficiency-a "deep economy" that tries to balance meeting material needs, especially for the planet's poor, while also creating a satisfying sense of community.

Community is key. Aside from meeting primal needs to belong to and relate to those around us, strong communities are also essential to surviving global warming together. Communities that can provide their own food and energy will better cope with the coming disruptions from climate chaos, oil shortages, and ecological collapse. In the near future, comfort and security, McKibben argues, will come "less from ownership and more from membership."

 Economies that make communities viable, he argues, are locally oriented. He explores potential versions of local economies, focusing on food, communication, and energy. In "The Year of Eating Locally," he describes how he and his family limited themselves to eating food that was grown within 100 miles of their Vermont home. The project was time-consuming and required much thought. He sometimes sacrificed variety and familiar pleasures (bananas, for example). But he gained more than his effort cost him. "In my role as eater, I was part of something larger than myself that made sense to me-a community. I felt grounded and connected."

More than a mere experiment in eating, McKibben's account underlines a key feature of the future: We cannot long sustain lettuce and tomatoes that travel thousands of miles to get to your salad bowl. Cheap, plentiful and global food is made possible by cheap, plentiful, and globally available oil. The era of massive industrial farms dependent on gas-driven machinery and oil-based fertilizers and pesticides will have to be replaced by small farms supplying local markets. {quotes}The burgeoning farmers market movement is a sign of times to come, and from the perspective of building living communities, a welcome change, too. {/quotes}You are likely to have 10 times as many conversations with your neighbors at a farmers market than in one of those big box stores. Local food not only means less oil consumption and less greenhouse gas, the food tastes better, too.

To imagine the difference between the future built around "local economies" that McKibben posits and the way we live today, think of the diversity, accessibility, and services of a local community radio station (like KRCL, KCPW, KUER…) versus your typical Clear Channel clone. Or imagine a locally designed and democratically controlled grid of solar panels and windmills networked together to replace our dependence on distant power plants controlled by faceless corporate bosses. McKibben makes the medicine we must take to recover from our addiction to bigger/faster/more seem quite palatable. That, he says, is the point: "To see if we can manage to make the transition tolerable, even sweet, instead of tragic."

If McKibben frets that we have internalized the dominate economic "ideal of the human being as a self-contained want-machine bent on maximizing utility," Peter Barnes worries that some of those "hyper-individualists" are corporations with the same legal standing and rights as human beings. Although treated under the law as if they are "persons," corporations act more like uncontrollable, profit-maximizing robots. They don't eat, drink, or breathe, so they have no compelling interest in maintaining environmental integrity or sound public health. They don't have grandmothers or children and fear no God, so they lack feelings of social obligation and remorse. But they can sue, petition and appeal like you or me.

Progressives have been wrestling with how to curb these soulless business machines, perhaps by issuing charters to them or creating covenants they must follow. Barnes has a new idea: Why not give the same property rights corporations have to what he calls "the commons." By commons, he means our shared and inherited gifts from nature, including air, water, seeds, wind, sunlight, species and ecosystems, and also culturally created and shared gifts like languages, the airwaves, and the Internet.

Governments change and so do their policies. Laws and regulations can be manipulated by the powerful. But a watershed with the enduring legal standing and rights of a person could effectively protect itself against polluters and greedy wasters. Rapacious corporations could be checked and balanced. They would no longer be able to "externalize" their costs by passing pollution downstream or onto future generations. Things we take for granted and assign no value to, such as a coral reef where fish feed and breed or coastal wetlands that buffer against storms, would assume new importance, attention, tangible value and respect.

And how would that watershed sue to conserve itself? In "Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons," Barnes outlines how public, non-profit trusts could be set up to serve as stewards of the commons for future generations. Trusts would monitor the health of the commons they are charged with managing and set sustainable limits and conditions for their use. Those who profit from use of the commons could be charged a fee for the value they subtract and the revenue generated by those fees could be redistributed to all citizens equally, as Alaska already does with part of its oil income. Such a system could even address the wide disparity between rich and poor.

Although this may sound like 'pie in the sky,' Barnes' treatment of how it could be created and how it could work is both logical and practical. As an entrepreneur, Barnes created Working Assets and has firsthand experience in trying to create new models for how we conduct business. He cites such popular examples as land trusts, farmers markets, community gardens and the Internet where we are already learning to democratically manage shared resources for the common good.

Like McKibben, Barnes believes it's time to rethink economics. He outlines three historic phases of capitalism, each with its own organizing rationale and a set of rules and institutions, or "operating instructions," designed to meet its needs. {quotes align=right}Our current version of capitalism has been prodigiously productive and largely beneficial up to a point but is now destroying the ecological operating systems that support life itself{/quotes} while resulting in enormous disparities between the few rich and the many poor. It needs an "upgrade" and by acknowledging the commons and empowering them with the same property rights and legal power that corporations have, Barnes hopes we will gain healthier ecosystems and communities with less destruction and waste.

We'll need new mental maps for crossing the ecological abyss we are facing. Global climate chaos, collapsing ecosystems and the end of cheap oil present us with epic problems unlike, say, figuring out a more effective way of delivering healthcare or crafting fair and workable immigration policies. Mere reform cannot adequately address such history-breaking challenges. The directions that McKibben and Barnes offer us are radical-they go to the root of our thinking, to the habits of mind that get translated into collective behaviors we now recognize as dysfunctional and destructive.

They may seem like wild ideas today, but no more than the notion that all individuals have basic human rights, or that slaves should be freed, or that women should vote, all ideas that invited ridicule and disdain when first introduced. Someday perhaps, we will live in cohesive, nurturing, secure and self-sufficient human communities that are embedded in restored, robust ecosystems and we will look back at these books, scratch our heads, and say 'what was so radical about that?'

Chip Ward, co-founder of HEAL Utah, now writes from Torrey. He is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the Land.

This article was originally published on July 30, 2007.