By Bill Densmore
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- The world economy after "peak oil" should be more focused on building community and human contacts rather than the efficient output of goods and services, says writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben. The result, he said, could be that Americans will begin for the first time in 50 years to have an increased sense of satisfaction with their lives.
"It's no longer clear that greater consumption is the thing that we need," McKibben told an audience in Williamstown on Friday. It may be time to trade economic growth for security, durability, companionship, and "communities that work," he added. "It's not easy to get there and it will not be all that familiar when we do." Maybe its time to label food as "certified neighborly" rather than "certified organic," McKibben said. The technologies that contribute to community "are at least as important" as technologies, which increase economic efficiency, he said.
Sociologists tracking American's sense of satisfaction with their lives find that index peaked in 1956, even though consumption and economic-growth indications have risen dramatically sense then, McKibben said Friday. We aren't any happier, he added. Three-quarters of Americans now don't know their next-door neighbor, he says.
McKibben is in Williamstown this weekend to kickoff a $239,000 fund-raising effort to secure the future of Caretaker Farm as one of the nation's earliest and most successful "community-supported agriculture" enterprises. He spoke both Thursday night to about 130 people at Williams College and again Friday to a similar-sized crowd at the First Congregational Church.
He described Thursday's talk as the gloom-and-doom portion of his message. On Thursday, he described the problems of global warming and the peaking of oil supplies while demand keeps rising. The era of easy energy “enables a kind of hyperindividuality that we've never seen before," he said Thursday, including the widespread use of cars instead of public transportation, suburban sprawl over dense urban development, and average house sizes much larger than in previous decades.
"It's very easy for me to be pessimistic," joked McKibben. "After all, I wrote a book called, The End of Nature. But on Friday, McKibben said he would track some hopeful trends, and highlighted Caretaker Farm as a case study for the “deep economy,” the title of a book manuscript he is wrapping up for fall publication.
Technology has made processed food transported an average of 2,000 miles to market inexpensive and plentiful in the United States, says McKibben. It takes 30 calories of fossil fuel to move one lettuce head that far, he said. A locally-grown head of lettuce may cause emission of five to 14 times less global-warming carbon-dioxide gas because less oil is burned to grow it and move it, McKibben says. "To visit your food, you'd have to travel a long way."
But there has to be something on "the other side" of coping with peak oil and global warming, said McKibben. He offered some hopeful examples.
U.S. sales at 3,200 community farmer's markets which feature local produce is growing at the rate of 10% a year, he said. Some 25,000 people are likely to show up each Saturday in Madison, Wis., to socialize and patronize a farmer's market pitched around the Wisconsin State Capitol in the middle of the 170,000-population city, he said.
In Burlington, Vt., a 200-acre urban tract, a former landfill, is home to four farms that produce collectively 10 percent of the fresh food that Burlington residents eat, says McKibben.
And in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area, where there has been a doubling of small farms in the last decade, consumers have created demand for local ingredients such that one restaurant chain, Burgerville, features an all-local menu.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's research says that 8-to-10-acre farms are more efficient than huge mechanized tracts.
None of these develops are necessarily more "efficient" from an economic point of view, at delivering goods and services. But sociologists who studied the phenomenon last year said that patrons at a farmer's market have 10 times more conversations than they do during a typical supermarket visit. "The point is that it is not as efficient system that we have built . . . [yet] we might appreciate that inefficiency . . . what is going on is precisely the desire for more human contact."