verwritten does not begin to describe Consumed, in which Benjamin Barber takes aim at kid culture, mass market juvenilia, and the infantilization of just about everything in American life. A political theorist, Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland, and author of sixteen books, including the best-selling Jihad vs. McWorld. Economy is not one of the virtues of his prose. Heres a typical sentence, from a passage on Puritanism in the New World:

Nothing wrong with it, of course, apart from some things it leaves out, like witch hunts and King Philips War and the price controls that were a ubiquitous feature of economic regulation in Massachusetts Bay. Its just long. Also, I doubt Barber can document an economics of investment, as distinct from thrift, in colonial North America. Thrift is simply a matter of pinching pennies, but you dont get investment before you have industry, which the colonists did not. Proto-Reaganauts, in short, they werent.

But Barber is determined that Paradise has been Lost, and on occasion he states this view without guile: Once upon a time, in capitalisms more creative and successful period, a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people. The problem is that this is not history. It is, rather, like all sentences that begin Once upon a time, the stage setting for a fairy tale, a rendition of truths for children. And this is curious, in a book that is, from soup to nuts, a critique of infantilization. Consumed is self-referential. It is, to some degree, an instance of the problem it describes. Barber serves up some of the longest sentences since Proust, yet underneath is largely a simple moral tale, an allegory not more complicated than, say, social Darwinism or Horatio Alger.

Infantilization exists, of course. Dumbing down is big business. In a rare moment of syntactic simplicity, Barber gives the basic contours of the culture: EASY over HARD, SIMPLE over COMPLEX, and FAST over SLOW. The stages of capitalism reproduce the stages of physical and psychological development, except in reverse. We are trapped in a world dominated by the reduction of physical and cultural artifacts to the tastes and capacities of children. Fast food, fast sports, cheap love, shout-fest politics. No one with cable television could disagree.

And there are pleasures to be found in this relentless, one-message book. On occasion, Barber can be witty and withering: he describes fast food as the grease and starch, sugar and salt business; he writes about instant messaging that [k]ids will [do it] for hours as if they have but seconds, the mad seconds accumulate, leaving them time to compose sonnets … But you have to search for these gems, buriedas they are in a vast bog of pop sociology and commonplace eruditionroughly, from Weber and Freud to David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. One gets the picture very quickly: Standards have fallen. Yes! We know!

The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to do anything about it? Almost fifty years ago, in The Affluent Society, my father wrote about this problem, which he defined as private affluence and public squalor. His solution was social balance: public goods, including schools and parks and libraries and higher culture. Liberalism stood for its own values. It stood against corporate dominance, business thinking, and commercial culture. And it was backed by the power of trade unions, of churches, and of the educational and scientific estate.

Barber offers no similar recourse. Everything he would do, he would do through markets, not against them or by bringing them under control. He speaks mainly of the slow food movement, of Hernando de Sotos property-rights-for-the-poor and of the Grameen Banks micro-lending programs, each of these the projects of enlightened voluntarism, presupposing that markets can be as much a force for good in principle as they are presently a force for ill in practice. The democracy he would like to build lacks social or political organization; it isnt about parties and agendas and laws and new government agencies tasked with meeting national needs. The New Deal and the Great Society are not Barbers antecedents. He seeks merely the willed capacity to conduct ones own life beyond the reach of mass culture, and offers the wishful thought that sensible people, each acting alone, will somehow manage to do just that. Good luck. Barber speaks of capitalism triumphant, and he proposes to leave it that way.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben is a better, shorter writer, and in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future he shows himself to be an adept critic of capitalism writ large. That is because McKibben, unlike Barber, drills into the fundamental question of the planets physical limits. (The term climate change doesnot appear in Consumed, while McKibben sounded the alarm on global warning back in 1989 in his first book, The End of Nature.) For as McKibben points out, the carbon blanketa mirror image in the sky of every drop of oil, every ton of coal ever burnedwill change everything, and quite soon.

So what comes next? Climate change and peak oil (the eventual start of decline in world oil production) are inevitable; we will have to scale back. But McKibben has hope, founded improbably on an emerging field withinof all subjectseconomics: happiness studies. Here researchers have found (and McKibben accepts) that happiness does not depend on economic growth, after the first $10,000 per capita in GDP.

So McKibben sets out to find happiness in simpler, less eco-destructive lives. His investigative technique is to travel the world and report what he sees, from factory life in northeast China (surprisingly humanized in his account) to organic farming in urban Havana, and as far afield as the Bengali river deltas. He is an elegant travel writer. But most of all, he writes from close to home, in northern Vermont, and most of what he is concerned with, here and there, is food.

Can we actually feed ourselves for less? Can we do it without sowing millions of tons of petroleum, in the form of fertilizer, into the Iowa soil, and without the billions of gallons of oil required to process grain and meat and move them around the world? McKibben thinks we can, and he has tried it, personally, with good results; local farming works in the Vermont woods if you have a good freezer to get the vegetables through the winter. The Cubans have tried it too, and theyve gotten back the calories they gave up when their Soviet markets collapsed. From this follows a larger lesson: when the oil-and-coal economy ends, some of us will get along fine, eating local potatoes and cheese. Incomes will diminish, but happiness need not.

Its a beautiful tale, but it cant be altogether right. The climate collapsewhich may bring the flooding of New York, Boston, London, Calcutta, and Shanghaiwill be a calamity next to which the end of the Soviet Union will seem very small. Long industrial chains, for jet aircraft, automobiles, telecommunications, electricity, and much else, will crumble, as they did in the USSR and Yugoslavia, particularly if new interior boundaries form and countries break up. And interior boundaries will form, as those on the high ground seek to defend it. The demographic effects will be similarly dire: Older, urban males (like me) with no survival skills will die. Rural New England will turn into a deforested exurban slum.

This brings us back to the sphere that both McKibben and Barber largely ignore: public policy. The function of the government, in principle, is to foresee these dangers, and avert them. The powers of the government exist to permit the mobilization of resources required. And only government can hope to do the job.

This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bushs FEMA, is no ones idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of governmentthe turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanaticshas been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.

Therefore: government will have to be rebuilt. The competencies necessary will have to be learned. The necessary powers will have to be legislated. Safeguardsagainst corruption, against abuse, against predation, against regulatory capturewill have to be designed. The corporate consumer culture will have to be brought to heel, and the long food production chains McKibben warns against will, indeed, have to be shortened. At the same time, a new project of physical, technological, and urban social engineering will have to get under way.

Id rather it didnt. But, to borrow Margaret Thatchers famous words, There is no alternative. John Kenneth Galbraith, let me suggest, got it right, not merely in The Affluent Society but in Economics and the Public Purpose as well:

James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith is the author of Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and and Future of Europe, forthcoming from Yale University Press.