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Bill McKibben gets deep about beer and happiness

Beer, says acclaimed writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben, is the best way to understand the problem with conventional economics.

“I live in a college town and watch many students grapple with the fact that drinking three beers make them feel very good, but that drinking 12 beers doesn’t make them feel four times better—in fact, it makes them feel considerably worse,” the Ripton, Vt., resident says. “It’s the perfect example of more not being the same as better.”

McKibben, who applauds Missoula as “one of the great barroom towns in North America,” is coming to Western Montana Sunday, March 25, to share more examples of the shallowness of growth-obsessed economics and stump for a “deep, durable” alternative. The topic is that of his 10th book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and The Durable Future.

When McKibben talks of depth he’s referring to expanding our sense of self beyond personal income and the nation’s interests beyond gross domestic product. “What we measure is what we care about, it’s what we work on,” he says, but the last half-century of providing Americans more and bigger cars and houses has produced an enormous hangover.

“By most measures humans have used more raw materials since the end of World War II than in all of prior human history,” McKibben writes in the book. “We’re richer, but we’re not happier.”

Backing his claim is new interdisciplinary research able to assess individual satisfaction as well as income. For example, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, was trained as a psychologist and his research plays a part in McKibben’s book.

“Last year, The Economist, which is not exactly a left-wing rag, rated all the industrialized democracies on earth for their quality of life,” says McKibben. “The U.S. was not only not near the top, it was near the bottom.”

The problem, as he puts it in Deep Economy, is: “We have a surplus of individualism and a deficit of companionship, and so the second becomes more valuable.” Rather than ask how much money do I make, McKibben suggests people should ask: “How many close friends do I have and how much time am I able to spend with my family, my friends and my neighbors? These are things that have changed dramatically in this country in the last 50 years. Connections and relationships not only don’t track economic growth, but run in an opposite direction.”

That’s good news, then, to the typical Missoulian who sacrifices greater financial gain in other parts of the country in exchange for Western Montana’s quality of life. According to McKibben, you are among the most fortunate people in the world.

“In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears,” McKibben writes.

He backs the claim by sampling Forbes magazine’s richest Americans, who show happiness scores “identical” to those of the Pennsylvania Amish. Similarly, slum dwellers in Calcutta are “basically as satisfied with their lives” as an assortment of college students drawn from 47 countries. McKibben calls that $10,000 threshold “a useful number to keep in the back of your head—it’s like the freezing point of water, one of those random numbers that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet.”

Does the satisfaction research he cites mean the statistical threshold for poverty used by the federal government—$10,210 for a household of one—actually may be enough for Western Montanans to achieve nirvana?

“We have to work extremely hard in this country merely to accomplish what people in every other industrialized democracy take for granted: access to health care, education and retirement,” McKibben says. “That’s the bind. That’s why we need to reassess how well our economic system is meeting our needs.”

Complementing our personal depth in his vision is durability, achieved by localizing economies to survive and thrive in an age of peak oil and global climate change.

“The economy we’re in works only in optimal times,” McKibben explains. “When tougher times have come in the past, we’ve had to refashion pretty hard in the direction of community.”

Because Missoula boasts abundant farmers’ markets and festivals, neighborhood groups and nonprofits, community radio and television stations, and locally-owned bakeries and breweries, he says the Garden City “demonstrates that there are tremendous possibilities afoot for reshaping economies so that they work for people instead of people working for them.”

Western Montana’s many much-smaller towns, meanwhile, may be healthier, wealthier and wiser than their raw economic data suggests.

“Rural communities remain somewhat more intact in their sense of community than cities and suburbs precisely because people need someone,” says McKibben. “Where I live, only a tourist would drive past someone stuck in a ditch in winter. Everyone else would stop and pull them out because they know they might be in the ditch the next day.”

Pressed for specifics on how the region and its residents can make their economy deeper and more durable, McKibben offers this thought exercise: “Try to imagine a Missoula where 50 percent of the calories people eat are grown in a radius of a few hundred miles; where there’s a good local transit system that people are using; where people get half their pay not in federal greenbacks but in Missoula Money that only works in Western Montana, so they produce a thriving economy that supplies food and energy and entertainment and other essentials like beer.”

Yes, back to beer.

“I hope people never pick up another Corona. Why would you drink bad beer from 2,000 miles away when you have good beer close to home?” McKibben says. “The reply people will give is that local beer costs 20 to 40 percent more, and that’s true, because hopefully you’re paying a living wage to the people making it and it’s being made in smaller quantities. But there are very few of us who wouldn’t benefit from drinking 20 percent less beer and enjoying it 100 percent more.”

Bill McKibben speaks at the Bedford Building City Hall in Hamilton Sunday, March 25, at 7 PM. Free.
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