Bill McKibben Predicts a Small Future

by Mark T. Mitchell on December 15, 2011 · 8 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

We are at a turning point, according to McKibben. The era of the big and few is being replaced by a new era of the small and the many. Take but one example:

Last year the USDA reported that the number of farms in America had actually increased for the first time in a century and a half. The most defining American demographic trend—the shift that had taken us from a nation of 50 percent farmers to less than 1 percent—had bottomed out and reversed. Farms are on the increase—small farms, mostly growing food for their neighbors. They’re not yet a threat to the profits of the Cargills and the ADMs, but you can see the emerging structure of a new agriculture composed of CSAs and farmers’ markets, with fewer middlemen. Which is all for the good. Such farming uses less energy and produces better food; it’s easier on the land; it offers rural communities a way out of terminal decline. You could even imagine a farmscape that stands some chance of dealing with the flood, drought, and heat that will be our destiny in the globally warmed century to come. Instead of the too-big-to-fail agribusiness model, this will be a nimbler, more diversified, sturdier agriculture.

And what works on the farm works elsewhere too.

There are practical policies that can help facilitate these changes.

Your average state or city leader could help push change in those directions: small investments in, say, slaughterhouses and canneries will help local farmers diversify. New zoning regulations can make rooftop solar quicker and easier to install. Higher reserve requirements will move money from Wall Street’s casinos back to Main Street’s banks. None of them will produce utopia—we will still have endless problems, but they’ll be more limited. A careless local farmer can still sicken his customers, but he can’t sicken millions of them at once. A corrupt banker can wreak havoc in his community, but not so much havoc that it topples the financial system. Problems will stay problems, instead of ramifying into disasters. If a hailstorm wrecks my solar panels, I’ve got an issue, but it’s not blacking out the East Coast.

This new era is one where limits are once again acknowledged. One where appropriate scale is recognized. It’s not utopian, but it is human.

 

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Andrew W. Soukup December 17, 2011 at 1:59 am

Unfortunately, Mr. McKibben’s idea of the “small and many” sounds much too like a Lockean social contract than a true society: “A careless local farmer can still sicken his customers, but he can’t sicken millions of them at once.” It’s a pessimistic view; life wouldn’t be as bad as it is now, but it might not be much better. I find that disappointing. For the more part, we need to find a way to work together, to build up our town squares and not our anchorages.

avatar pb December 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I don’t see that as endorsement of the Lockean social contract, just pointing out that when the scale is small, bad consequences are mitigated.

avatar Andrew W. Soukup December 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Identifying this piece to closely with Locke probably is not correct, but the same general theme (i.e., that the best form of social organization is the one where the individual members of society have the least affect on one another) seems to run through both.

avatar Michael Ulrich December 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Without going into a long explanation on the principles of thermodynamics in regards to “renewable energy sources” (the equipment is very complex and not renewable), the original article is an example of poor yet typical journalism, generated to delight a less sophisticated audience than I woudl imagine exists here.

Yes, it is true that small organic farms are popping up everywhere because of a rsing demand. And there is growing evidence that at least on a small scale, well thought out organic methods can lead to lower costs because of heightened draught tolerance with such practices, and greaer plant disease resistance. It’s labor inensive, though, and is probably why it can work pretty well on a small scale.

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avatar D.W. Sabin December 19, 2011 at 3:17 pm

In the vigorous reaction to the “Big”, long overdue in fact but still a reaction and so capable of replacing one evil with another, I wonder if we forget to keep our sights on the concept of subsidiarity.

Atomization is interesting as an abstract pursuit in reaction to a perceived wrong but , being reactionary, it generally suffers distemper. In this crowding new world we will need brilliance both locally and at a larger level.

avatar Christopher Check December 22, 2011 at 7:08 pm

It is difficult to take seriously a man who deliberately sterilized himself and then wrote a book defending his sin. McKibben’s small is so small there are just a few leftists left to enjoy what’s left. As Chesterton observed, however, the contraceptors are a problem that will solve itself. Want a family run business or farm? Have more children.
Pax et bonum.
Christopher Check

avatar Anymouse December 24, 2011 at 1:06 am

“Want a family run business or farm? Have more children.”
An excellent point.

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