BURLINGTON, VT. - A full house of 700 people crammed into the Grand Maple Ballroom of
the Davis Center on Wednesday afternoon to watch Bill McKibben,
award-winning writer, environmentalist, and Middlebury College
scholar-in-residence, take on Russell Roberts, a prominent economist at
George Mason University and Stanford University's Hoover Institute.
The occasion was an event titled "Buy Local or Buy Global: A Debate,"
the inaugural match-up in a new debate series called the Janus Forum
featuring thinkers with opposing views on important social and economic
to a recording of the debate on UVM's iTunes U page.4 (Clicking on the
link will launch iTunes on your computer, or prompt you to download the
The event delivered Crossfire-like heat, on occasion, but a good amount
of light, as both speakers enumerated in detail the environmental and
economics analyses for which they're known, McKibben in support of the
buy-local movement, Russell in opposition.
The rules of the debate, spelled out by moderator Emerson Lynn, editor
and publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, called for each speaker to
deliver a 20 minute opening argument, followed by a 10 minute rebuttal of
the other's position, concluding with questions from the audience.
McKibben opened the session with a high-speed recitation of 14 points,
each one bristling with research citations, supporting the notion that
buying food and energy locally would result in both a more environmentally
durable economy and more cohesive communities. He challenged Russell to
answer his points - ranging from the fact that fertilizer-intensive
agribusiness is eroding soil, an historic hallmark of civilizations that
collapse, to the idea that Wal-Marts and other box stores deplete
community well being and actually shorten lifespan - any one of
which would win him the debate, he argued, if not factually disproven.
Russell allowed his analysis to range beyond food and energy, which were
set in advance as the twin focal points of the debate, McKibben reminded
audience members several times, to more comprehensively indict the
buy-local movement. Humans always want "more and better," Russell said.
While it's important to temper that basic human urge, he said, human
striving has resulted in a bounty of innovation unimaginable100 years ago
that has made life better. Eschewing global trade in favor of buy-local
style self sufficiency, he said, is the road to poverty.
The mismatch in opening statements - McKibben presenting a detailed
critique, Russell offering a macro-economic analysis - led to one of
the more pointed exchanges of the afternoon.
McKibben, describing Russell's remarks as a soliloquy, chided him for not
answering his points (helpfully going through all 14 of them again).
Russell, he said, was presenting "assertion without evidence" and warned
of the dangers of that rhetorical style by citing a radio interview
Russell did a year ago, where he downplayed the impact of sub-prime
Admitting that he and many others erred on the mortgage issue but clearly
piqued, Russell responded that it was ironic for a graduate of the
University of Chicago - where Russell earned a Ph.D. in economics,
studying under the legendary proponent of data driven analysis, Milton
Friedman - to be criticized for lack of evidentiary rigor by "a guy
in a sweater."
In his own inspired turn of phrase, McKibben took issue with Russell's
characterization of life in an overly romanticized agricultural past as,
in Thomas Hobbes phrase, "nasty, brutish and short," by asking audience
members if they had ever been to Burlington's Intervale.
"Does it look like a Hobbsian hellhole to you?" he asked.
The two went back and forth over the reliability of the research studies
McKibben cited. One study, by the United Nation Food and Agriculture
Organization, demonstrating that world poverty was on the rise, provoked
another salty exchange.
Roberts flatly disputed the study, saying poverty would be difficult to
define and measure in a nation, let alone over the entire global
"Then we live in an existential universe where data doesn't matter,"
"Numbers are important, Bill," Russell shot back.
While there was no formal adjudication to determine the debate's winner,
it was clear where the audience stood. During the Q&A period, nearly all
of the dozen or so questioners asked pointed questions of Russell and
seemed supportive of McKibben's ideas.
That was likely due, however, not to debating prowess - although
McKibben exhibited it in abundance - but to the audience's political
predisposition, which Russell, forewarned as he must have been about
Vermont, might have miscalculated.
At one point he asked the students in the audience to stand, then asked
those who did not intend to be farmers to sit. Quite a few remained
defiantly on their feet, as the audience hooted and applauded.
"When I survey high school and colleges students" and ask this question,
Russell said, most sit down, "but maybe it's a different crowd here."
The Janus Project at UVM was established to produce a series of debates
on important social and economic issues facing society and to stimulate
reasoned discussion of those issues. The debates will stress the contrast
and relative effectiveness of solutions that rely on freedom of individual
choice as opposed to governmental or regulatory-based approaches to
problems. The goal of the series is to improve our understanding of these
alternatives through a direct confrontation of competing ideas. The topic
of the next Janus Forum debate, scheduled for the spring of 2009, is