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.