The Value of Communities

I recently read the book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. In this book, McKibben aims to challenge the idea that more (stuff, money, etc.) always equals better. He claims that in the developed world we have long passed the point where more and better were equivalent, and that acquiring more money and stuff no longer contributes to our happiness (if anything, it detracts from it). He suggests that localized economies, which are based not on growth and efficiency but on drawing strength from the unique contributions of each individual in the community, and which require individuals to be dependent on each other, are both more sustainable and make us happier.

You can read my full review here, on my blog, Books and Other Miscellany; in this post I want to focus on a few thoughts the book triggered in me.

I have long been disgusted by the consumerism and hyper-individualism in this country, so many of the topics in this book were not new ideas to me. However, it got me thinking about the importance of communities. McKibben focuses on the economic side of communities – on how a local economy could work and on how this leads people to be more involved in their community. He suggests that this involvement – when you know the person who raised the cows that gave you your milk and when the solar panels on your roof contribute energy to the local power station – makes us happier even if economically it is less “efficient” than mass industrialized food and energy production. The idea that we are happier when we actually need each other is, I think, an important point and one that many people miss.

This in turn got me thinking about another benefit of living in an inter-dependent communities, one more directly related to peace. When people know each other and need each other, they are both less likely to hurt each other via criminal activity and more likely to make efforts to resolves conflicts in a sustainable, peaceful manner. McKibben does in fact mention that crime rates are lower in the types of communities he describes. This seems obvious – it is much easier to commit a crime when you don’t know the person you are hurting when you do it. I suggest further that although of course people are going to have conflicts, they are likely to be motivated to resolve them peacefully when the other person provides them a service and/or is their customer. Such communities are therefore the perfect place to use mediation and restorative justice techniques.

I also wonder if increased use of mediation and restorative justice can contribute to building more sustainable, inter-dependent communities with more localized economies. I think they can. Although they are not directly economic activities, they help individuals feel more involved in the community surrounding them. Both mediation and restorative justice can sometimes be alternatives to the government-run courts, representing a more localized (specialized to the needs of the community) approach to crime and conflict and avoiding the top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches handed down from the government.

I think that in order to create a non-violent world that is environmentally sustainable and in which there is no poverty, we must turn away from the path of globalised growth economies and hyper-individualism. We need to redirect our momentum as a society towards smaller economies that are based on the unique needs and strengths of individual communities rather than efficiency and growth. As we do so, we will live in both a more peaceful and more sustainable manner.


3 Responses to The Value of Communities

  1. Lyndsay says:

    Interesting. I just finished reading that book for the second half of my Globalization and Future Alternatives seminar class.

  2. Sarah says:

    That’s interesting that you read it in a class – I’m a little surprised, honestly, because I didn’t think much of the writing (I say more on that in the review I wrote on my other blog). I’m interested to know what the general reaction of your class was to it – I came to the book already expecting to agree with most of it, and I am not exactly a typical American, so I can’t tell how a more typical person might react.

  3. Lyndsay says:

    Hmm, I don’t know if 4th year “arts and science” students who chose to take the course are typical either. We enjoyed the book and I think we thought it was more optimistic than you thought especially after the first half of the course was about globalization in general and pretty depressing. The idea that we go from more would be better but we have community to more would not better but we keep getting more and losing community to hopefully where we are going next was interesting. Also, I don’t know how many people are arguing in a public place that we can live without growth. With the failing economy we keep hearing we need MORE growth.So I think overall we enjoyed the book and enjoyed that it was easy reading. It’s a nice change from most courses.

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