06 November 2011

The Era of Small and Many

Reversing the trend of generations

By Bill McKibben | November/December 2011 issue | Orion
Painting: Suzanne Stryk

Earlier this year, my state’s governor asked if I’d give an after-lunch speech to some of his cabinet and other top officials who were in the middle of a retreat. It’s a useful discipline for writers and theorists to have to summarize books in half an hour, and to compete with excellent local ice cream. No use telling these guys how the world should be at some distant future moment when they’ll no longer be in office—instead, can you isolate themes broad enough to be of use to people working on subjects from food to energy to health care to banking to culture, and yet specific enough to help them choose among the options that politics daily throws up? Can you figure out a principle that might undergird a hundred different policies?

Or another way to say it: can you figure out which way history wants to head (since no politician can really fight the current) and suggest how we might surf that wave?

Here’s my answer: we’re moving, if we’re lucky, from the world of few and big to the world of small and many. We’ll either head there purposefully or we’ll be dragged kicking, but we’ve reached one of those moments when tides reverse.

Take agriculture. For 150 years the number of farms in America has inexorably declined. In my state—the most rural in the nation—the number of dairies fell from 11,000 at the end of World War II to 998 this summer. And of course the farms that remained grew ever larger—factory farms, we called them, growing commodity food. Here in Vermont most of the remaining dairies are big, but not big enough to compete with the behemoths in California or Arizona; they operate so close to the margin that they can’t afford to hire local workers and instead import illegal migrants from Mexico.

But 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. Think about our energy future—the phrase that engineers like to use now is “distributed generation.” Since our old fuels were dense in BTUs and concentrated in a few locations, it made sense to site a few giant generating stations where coal or uranium could easily be brought and burned. But the logic of sun and wind is exactly the opposite: millions of rooftops and ridgelines producing power. You can do it in cities as easily as in the country—new satellite and airplane mapping of New York City’s five boroughs showed that the city’s rooftops could provide half its electricity. If you can do that in New York, imagine Shaker Heights, not to mention Phoenix. And once you’ve done it, you’ve got something practical and local: an interconnected grid where everyone brings something and takes something away. A farmers’ market in electrons.

Many of us get a preview of life in the age of small and many when we sit down at our computers each day. Fifteen years ago we still depended on a handful of TV networks and newspaper conglomerates to define our world for us; now we have a farmers’ market in ideas. We all add to the flow with each Facebook post, and we can find almost infinite sources of information. It’s reshaping the way we see the world—not, of course, without some trauma (from the hours wasted answering e-mail to the death of too much good, old-school journalism). All these transitions will be traumatic to one extent or another, since they are so very big. We’re reversing the trend of generations.

But the general direction seems to me increasingly clear. Health care? In place of a few huge, high-tech hospitals dispensing the most expensive care possible, all the data suggest we’d be healthier with lots of primary and preventive care from physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners in our neighborhoods. Banking? Instead of putting more than half our assets in half a dozen money-center banks that devote themselves to baroque financial instruments, we need capital closer to home, where loan officers have some sense for gauging risk and need.

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.

All economic life is a bet—many small wagers at decent odds won’t make anyone a billionaire, but they should keep most of us out of the poorhouse. And that’s both the virtue and the trouble with this transition. The virtue is obvious; the problem is that there are always a few people determined to hit the jackpot. In our world, most of those people are not actually persons—we call them corporations. But their power over our democracy is very real, and on the farm and on the trading floor and in the hospital ward they’re doing their very best to block the transitions we need. Their money, earned under the old bigger-is-better paradigm, gives them great power to block change: just look at how skillfully the fossil fuel industry has used the Tea Party to stifle legislation that would speed the transition to renewable energy. Watch Big Ag write the next Farm Bill—it won’t be pretty. Big Pharma would happily keep our current medical system, never mind that it’s bankrupting us all even as we fall further behind other nations on everything from life expectancy to infant mortality.

It’s possible they can delay the transition too long—the physics and chemistry of climate change, for instance, demand quicker change than many of our systems can easily manage. But all the money in the world can’t, in the end, hold back history. It’s heading toward something different and new and interesting. Or many many somethings, each of them small and beautiful.

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