By Donella Meadows
–July 7, 1988–
As I write, the sun, low in the west, is just shining out from beneath storm clouds. This is the third bank of clouds to come over this month, drop ten minutes of soft rain, and pass on. A few minutes ago I went out and scratched in the garden with a hoe. Under the damp surface the soil is dry, dry, dry.
It’s bad enough to watch the pasture turn brown and the wells and streams drop and to think it’s just a bad year. It’s much worse to think that this drought might be attributable to human causes. No one is sure that the wierd weather this summer is due to global warming from the greenhouse effect. But it could be, and the possibility is profoundly disturbing. What we used to call acts of God may now in fact be acts of man.
Here in New England we’re used to all sorts of icy, snowy, hot, dry, windy, or wet mayhem. Nature is variable and sometimes violent. We Yankees have developed a full armament of curses, prayers, patience, and ingenuity to deal with it.
But until now, whatever happened, we knew that natural cycles would eventually turn and make things right again. We never had to consider the possibility of permanent breakdown. And we never had to think of ourselves and our fellow human beings as perpetrators. We had to put up with wild weather, but not with blame or guilt.
Of course when the asparagus came up out of the ground all crooked I used to say it was because of the nuclear plant down at Vernon. But that was a joke. What’s happening now is no joke.
The maple trees look terrible this year. Whole branches are bare and dead. It’s a pear thrip, the experts say. Just another cycle, like the spruce budworm that defoliates the forest some years and then goes away. But it could also be that the trees are stressed by acid rain (tree rings show that their growth has slowed in the last twenty years). Maybe the pear thrip is just an opportunist, moving in to polish off an already sickened forest, and we have a real score to settle with the coal burners of Ohio — and with our own oil furnaces and car exhaust.
The experts are not sure that the slow growth of the maples is due to air pollution. They won’t be sure for years. Meanwhile, every time I look at the maples I feel a sense of creeping disaster.
When I moved here 16 years ago the whippoorwills drove me crazy every June with their night calls. I haven’t heard one in years. Friends who monitor nesting birds for the Audubon Society tell me there’s a significant dropoff in warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and most other migrants, most likely because of the destruction of tropical forests down south where the birds winter.
Again, the experts aren’t sure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it’ll be awhile before we can even be certain the downward trend is not natural variability. And then to sort out its causes over thousands of miles of migration routes may be impossible.
I’d love to be kept awake again by a June whippoorwill. It would give me at least some assurance that all’s right with the world.
All is not right with the world. There are now more than three times as many people on earth as there were in 1900. The number of machines and factories has multiplied at least twentyfold. The rate of fossil fuel burning has increased by a factor of ten, producing a sixfold greater stream of sulfur dioxide emissions and tenfold greater emissions of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide. Hence the acid rain, the global warming, and perhaps the world’s first human-induced drought.
In the drying countryside, where nature used to be a pleasure and solace, every little abnormality now generates dark thoughts. How come the bean leaves look so funny? Why is there such an outbreak of slugs? What will go wrong next? If human beings are unbalancing the atmosphere, changing the climate, acidifying the rain, eliminating whole species of life — rivalling acts of God and then becoming victims of those acts — where do we stand in the scheme of things? We have godlike power, but we ourselves suffer from that power, along with the rest of nature.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” The tremendous forces we have learned to extract from coal, oil, and gas have become, through the mediation of nature, forces exercised by city folk over country folk, by rich people over poor people, and by this generation over all future generations.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988