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Deep Economy

11/12/07 5:37PM By Frank Bryan
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Frank Bryan, commentator
(HOST) Commentator Frank Bryan has been reading Bill McKibben's new book - and that, in turn, has reminded him of the traditional Vermont values of Heart and Hearth.

(BRYAN) Bill McKibben of Ripton begins his latest book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, with an analysis of human happiness.

His artful and often funny trip through the evidence on happiness and material progress concludes that the more we buy, the more stuff we have, the more miserable we are.

But McKibben is not satisfied with taking a sledge hammer to the "more is better" thesis that has governed Western economics for over two centuries.

No, indeed. McKibben bellies up and provides an alternative. And this alternative is most likely to be found in places like Vermont.

The only wealth that can make us happy, says McKibben, is found on a human scale in communities, not on a system's scale in global conglomerates. The wealth of nations is to be replaced by the wealth of town and village.

As I read the book, I kept exclaiming, "Yes!" "Yes!" McKibben's book reinforced much of my own thinking about Vermont.

Moreover, Vermont permeates McKibben's book - from the Butterworks Farm in the Northeast Kingdom to the Full Moon Farm in Chittenden County, Thunder Road to town meeting, winter wheat in Bridport to dried beans in Shoreham, community-supported farms to Vermont family forests all over the state.

Deep Economy tells us not to accept the loss of our family farms, small towns, community schools, town meeting, citizen legislature - in order to "catch up" with the rest of America. McKibben is a world-class scholar/reporter whose powerful message is: preserve your institutions, learn from them, and teach America how to catch up with you!

I first learned of McKibben's book in a positive review published in The American Conservative. Understand: as American conservatism is currently constructed, McKibben is no conservative.

But a kind of American conservatism resonates from his work, the social conservatism best expressed in Robert Nisbet's classic The Quest for Community. This brand of conservatism is decentralist and values individualism and community. One senses that McKibben concedes that huge public bureaucracies are as damaging to local community as huge private ones; that the U.S. Department of Education may threaten community as much as Ford Motor Company.

Thus, as I read McKibben's book, I heard echoes of Vermont's premier conservative, John McClaughry. On some issues like global warming they disagree - profoundly. But on issues of the heart - like community and the need for a rebirth of civic humanism in America - they seem to have a lot in common. And to me, that raises the prospect of a kind of consensus that would surely be progress. And make us all a lot happier.

Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

Photo credit: Sabin Gratz

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