Bill McKibben was asked to address a workshop of Vermont politicians, and was tasked with summarizing his work in a way that could be useful to them as they govern and plan for the future. The governor actually gave McKibben a smart assignment: to present his ideas in a way that could guide them as they make real-world decisions among all the different policy options they content with. Here is a portion of what he said:
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.
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.