University of Vermont

University Communications


Writer Bill McKibben Lectures on 'Thinking Small'

By Joshua Brown Article published April 5, 2006

Farmer’s markets, local currency and low-power radio stations will not save the world. But Bill McKibben, a writer and environmental scholar at Middlebury College, sees them as part of a patchwork of useful responses to the quickening pace of climate change and the increasing reach of giant corporations.

Speaking to several hundred people at the Ira Allen Chapel on March 30, McKibben warned that “the economic model that we have built — globalizing, high-growth, constant expansion — has only been possible by the existence of large amounts of very cheap fossil fuel,” and has been an engine for “ecological unraveling.” That era, he said, “is now coming to an end.”

In its place, McKibben — author of eight books, including his most recent, Wandering Home, about a three-week walk through the Champlain Valley — argued for what he calls a “deep economy.” This idea, also the working title of a new book he is writing, calls for organizing economic and social life around local connections.

McKibben pointed to the expanding farm operations in Burlington’s Intervale as a creative response to the sprawling transnational system of commerce we now depend upon, noting that most food travels more than a 1000 miles to get from farm to table and “the average organic food moves about 1500 miles.” In contrast, “seven percent of Burlington’s produce comes out of the Intervale” and is consumed locally, he said, presenting a model for other cities.

“This kind of smaller scale is totally necessary,” McKibben said. As the “magic” of fossil fuels runs out, he believes “we need to build this (local) infrastructure,” if we hope “to survive and thrive in the much more difficult period ahead.” But living and working at a scale closer to home is also a more desirable way to live, according to McKibben.

“In the last few years we have studied much more carefully what really makes us happy,” he said, pointing to reports from psychologists, economists and others that show that material consumption is a poor measure — or producer — of happiness. Instead, this new “science of happiness” has strong evidence that local economies and homegrown entertainment, like the bustle of a farmer’s market or the vitality of live music, intrinsically contain what we deeply want: “people desire more connection to other people,” he said.

McKibben’s lecture, “Thinking Small: Scale and Desire,” was the latest of 14 presentations in a seminar series sponsored annually by the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. This semester's offerings were coordinated by Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. Speakers, including President Daniel Mark Fogel and religion scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, were asked to reflect on this year's series title, “Beyond Environmentalism: Envisioning a Sustainable and Desirable Future.”

Video of several of the presentations and other information about the seminar series is available at Beyond Environmentalism Series.