Local Nonsense

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2007

in Environment, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living, Trade

Bill McKibben is no fan of industrial capitalism and globalization.  In his latest book, Deep Economyreviewed in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review — he calls on people to develop local economies and, hence, to reject most economic ties that span the globe and even the nation.

I have yet to read the book, but assuming that the NYT review by Lance Morrow does it justice, Mr. McKibben parades out all the now-familiar reasons why global commerce allegedly is a scourge — in particular, it depletes the earth’s resources and threatens to destroy the environment.  Local economies, McKibben argues, are the solution to these looming dangers.

I doubt that McKibben knows what he’s talking about.  That is, I doubt that he has any real appreciation for just how much our lives depend upon global commerce and industry.  I doubt that he understands that each of us daily depends for our standards of living — indeed, for our very lives — on the creativity and efforts of tens of millions of people worldwide.

If we were to follow McKibben’s advice, we would be not merely inconvenienced; we would suffer not merely small reductions in our prosperity; we would do without not just the latest trinkets, electronic gadgets, and clothing fashions.  Many of us would die.  And most of us who manage to survive to the ripe old age of 60 or so would live lives that are dreary, toilsome, perilous, poor, and filthy.

A while back, Jacqueline Passey sent to me a cartoon that now hangs on my office door.  In it, two cavemen are chatting as they sit in their cave-home.  One says to the other "Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty."  Funny — but very true.

Whatever plausible risks global warming and other environmental problems pose to humanity are nothing as compared to any serious attempt to reject global commerce and industry in favor of living in local economies.  McKibben’s prescription would kill billions of us.

And as my friend George Leef, of the Pope Center, points out, McKibben’s prescription would ironcially also likely require a vast, global government possessing awesome powers to force we humans to live — and to keep living — in local economies.

Humankind unimaginably poor and enslaved.  That would be the nightmare result for nearly everyone on earth of any real effort to implement the uninformed dreams of romantics such as McKibben.

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Sam Grove April 23, 2007 at 12:19 pm

It is truly amazing how some many apparently intelligent people can engage in such stupid thnking.

I wonder how many opponents of global trade also support direct foreign aid?

The anti-freedom people know not what they seek to do. They do illustrate the emotive nature of the human animal.

Sam Grove April 23, 2007 at 12:24 pm

I liked the cartoon of two cavemen feasting on large haunches by a fire just inside the opening of their cave. caption:
"It doesn't get any better than this."

trumpetbob15 April 23, 2007 at 4:19 pm

Maybe this is just me, but how exactly would local living improve the environment? I live in Michigan with an abudance of trees, so for all of us, we can easily chop down trees for paper and firewood. What happens in New York City? Do they chop down the trees in Central Park? What about places without trees? Are they not supposed to use paper? Also, what happens when we start having everybody farm to grow food since we can't buy stuff from elsewhere? Would I have to chop down the trees on my property to farm? How would that help the environment?

Maybe I should buy this book to find his answers. Oops, guess I can't since neither the author or publisher are in my "local" economy. Darn.

Jim Morse April 23, 2007 at 5:33 pm

Imagine: no Harry Potter!!!

David P. Graf April 23, 2007 at 8:54 pm

If you want to go back to a time when everyone got the chance to starve if the harvests weren't good, then this living local idea sounds like a good idea.

Ray G April 23, 2007 at 9:00 pm

Today I could have went to Wal-Mart to buy a new tube for my kid's bike and spent maybe 4 or 5 bucks. It's a few miles away, but not really enough to really give gas prices a thought.

But instead, I went to a local bike store and spent 8 bucks (including tax). I like buying from my immediate area if I can. I help keep that old guy in business, I don't drive far – which, living in suburbia means something – my kid gets to look at the cool, top of the line bmx bikes in the shop, etc.

Guys like this author, and the Lou Dobbs, et al, confuse my above sentiment with an actual economic doctrine that says all of that would be possible without a large, free, expansive market.

It wouldn't of course. None of the products in that bike shop were made locally, and I would speculate that very few were even made in the US.

And if they were, . . . well, let me tell you about the American made car I rented this weekend. As compared to my Japanese car that I favor. . .

Kent Gatewood April 23, 2007 at 9:06 pm

Ah yes give me good ole fashin Chinese wheat gluten.

stevesh April 24, 2007 at 9:19 am

Vermonters chuckle, and will tell you with typical Yankee self-deprecating humor, that the official "State Car of VT" is a 1997 Subaru Loyale (or, sub-genera of the NE Kingdom: '88 Volvo wagon). I would be curious as to Mr. McKibbon's take on that cultural trope (often encountered in Quechee).

True_Liberal April 24, 2007 at 4:59 pm

Kent –

because of that (probably intentional) Chinese wheat gluten spiking case, China has harmed its reputation in the global marketplace, and other producers will likely gain an advantage.

The free market is all about what goods (quality & quantity) get exchanged. Take a significant hit on quality, and someone else will move in on your turf.

nosanku April 25, 2007 at 8:16 pm

>>McKibben's prescription would kill billions of us.<<

That prescription is exactly what Gandhi and Nehru implemented and kept a billion Indians in poverty for 50 years.

Can you imagine if Gandhi had told his country, 'Embrace the world' instead of 'make yourself independent from the world'?

Beans Baxter April 26, 2007 at 1:57 pm

Here's the comic Don mentioned for those more visually-oriented.

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