By Donella Meadows
–February 4, 1988–
It was six whole days before Superbowl Sunday, but in the capital city of the most powerful nation on earth minds, eyes, and television cameras were already turned toward San Diego. The evening news broadcast was devoted to a rock-video montage of cheerleaders, players, and fans chanting, “Go ‘Skins!”
Downtown the National Geographic Society was celebrating its 100th anniversary with a week-long symposium surveying the past century and the prospects for the next one. Society President Gilbert M. Grosvenor remarked that many opportunities for discovery have now been exhausted. The highest mountains have been climbed; the blank places on the maps have been explored.
Harvard Professor E. O. Wilson pointed out that the canopies of the tropical forests are blank places where millions of living species have not yet been discovered. He added that half those species are in danger of extinction. “To our glory or our shame, they will be saved or will disappear within the next 100 years. It will be a dreadful thing if 100 years from now the world’s people achieve unity and look back on this loss. They will never forgive us.”
The sportscasters in San Diego, with five days still to fill, interviewed the killer whales at Sea World. On CBS News Dan Rather and George Bush yelled at each other. The capital city throbbed with excitement. TV crews rushed to ask people on the street, “Who won? Bush or Rather?”
At the Geographic Society New York Times columnist James Reston said that even after all his years of reporting sordid events in this world, he wouldn’t have believed — until last summer — that a United States President would so violate the Constitution as to conduct a secret foreign policy and lie about it to the Congress and the people.
On McNeill-Lehrer a woman accused the FBI of spying on the Maryknoll Sisters, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other organizations opposed to the administration’s policy in Central America. The FBI man who answered her charges was far less nervous and more forceful than she was. He definitely won.
Professor Mohamed Kassas informed the audience at the National Geographic that the area of desert created by human mismanagement over the past 50 years equals more than half the amount of land currently cultivated. Dr. Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden said that human beings now divert for their own purposes 40% of the net production of plant matter on earth. What will happen, he asked, when the population doubles again, as it is expected to over the next century? Can one species appropriate 80% of the earth’s biotic energy?
In San Diego the reporters were reporting on what all the other reporters were doing. One of them interviewed the second-string players that the other reporters were ignoring and asked how it felt to be ignored. There was an Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania. A Reagan administration economist appeared on the “Today” show to say that government deficits and trade deficits are really no problem.
In the Society auditorium Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford talked about other kinds of deficits. A species is overpopulated, he said, when it stops living off its income and starts eating into the capital that produces that income. The human race is eating into its endowment of fossil fuels and concentrated mineral ores, rich topsoils, groundwaters, forests, and the other species on earth. We are squandering biodiversity, he said. We are threatening the ozone layer, the climate, the great cycles of the planet that support all life. Industrial civilization is destroying itself, and now, with so much of its capital gone, if it is destroyed, it can never be rebuilt.
Thursday’s news said that a new strain of AIDS virus has been detected in the United States. The sports reporters were interviewing fortune tellers. Who will win, the Redskins or the Broncos? An elderly gypsy-woman gazed into her crystal ball with tired eyes and said the Redskins would win but the score would be close.
Dr. Russell Peterson, the chairman of the Geographic Symposium, said that during the lifetime of today’s university students the world will use 80% of all the petroleum that will ever be used. A single Trident I submarine, he said, carries six times as much explosive power as was expended in the whole of World War II.
Hundreds of reporters clustered around the two quarterbacks in San Diego like honeybees around their queens. “How are you feeling, John? Are you ready, Doug?” New polls hinted that Gephardt may win in Iowa.
There were no reporters present when Dr. Peterson said that we face four truly great problems — war, population growth, poverty, and ecological degradation. “If we can win out over them, our great-grandchildren will create monuments to us.”
Will we win? Are you ready? How are you feeling, folks? I think the score will be close.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988