By Donella Meadows
–July 9, 1992–
Until now it was hard for people who care about the environment to get excited about the presidential election. We had a choice between George Bush, whose performance on environmental matters is graded D by the League of Conservation Voters, Bill Clinton, who gets a C, and Ross Perot, who says, when asked about the environment, “I don’t know the first thing about it.”
In fact none of them knows the first thing about it, a depressing prospect for those of us who believe that air and water may be necessary for life, and that the economy rests upon the environment rather than the other way around. Some of us were leaning toward Ross Perot on grounds of honesty, hoping that he is educable.
But now Bill Clinton has made the presidential campaign interesting. He has picked Al Gore for his running mate, one of the few U.S. politicians who has studied environmental science, who regularly shows up at important environmental events (he led the Senate’s delegation to Rio), who has been a consistent, informed, level-headed influence on the nation’s environmental policies.
No one has to guess what Gore’s environmental beliefs are, or where they came from. They’re laid out beautifully in his book Earth in the Balance. When I first read this book, I couldn’t believe that a U.S. Senator actually wrote it. Gore did, drawing on his experience as a newspaper reporter, on many years of hearings in which he has listened to and questioned the nation’s environmental experts, and above all on the weeks of emotional and spiritual turmoil while he sat by the bedside of his six-year-old son, who was struggling for life after a terrible accident.
It is an astounding book, because it is clear and readable, honest and human, and above all WHOLE. Gore has pulled together all aspects of the environmental challenge, not just the scientific and technical, but also the economic, political, psychological, and spiritual challenges.
On economics, for instance, he sees the capitalist system as the best the world has, but not yet good enough. “Our current system of economics arbitrarily draws a circle of value around those things we have decided to keep track of and measure. Then we discover that one of the easiest ways to artificially increase the value of things inside the circle is to do so at the expense of those things left outside the circle…. Our failure to measure environmental externalities is a kind of economic blindness, and its consequences can be staggering.” In the interest of rational decision-making he calls for a more complete accounting system, one that keeps track of natural assets as well as financial ones.
In the realm of psychology and ethics, his critique of the modern culture is severe, but patient. We are not bad people, he believes, not lazy, not helpless, only hypnotized. “The stress of coping with the complicated artificial patterns of our lives and the flood of manufactured information creates a pervasive feeling of exhaustion just when we have an urgent need for creativity….’What can we do?’ we ask ourselves, already convinced that the realistic answer is nothing.”
“We routinely choose to indulge our own generation at the expense of all who will follow. We enshrine the self as the unit of ethical account, separate and distinct not just from the natural world but even from a sense of obligation to others…. We do this not because we don’t care but because we don’t really live in our lives…. The engines of distraction are gradually destroying the inner ecology of the human experience. Essential to that ecology is the balance between respect for the past and faith in the future, between a belief in the individual and a commitment to the community, between our love for the world and our fear of losing it — the balance, in other words, on which an environment of the spirit depends.”
This language does not sound like that of a national political candidate. The challenge before Gore now will be to go on sounding like himself, instead of like a poll-directed, handler-manipulated candidate. He’s aware of the danger. He writes about his try for the presidency in 1987: “One of the main reasons I ran was to try to elevate the importance of the [environmental] crisis as a political issue… The columnist George Will … described my candidacy as being motivated by ‘a consuming interest in issues that are, in the eyes of the electorate, not even peripheral. These are issues such as the greenhouse effect and the thinning ozone.'” So, says Gore, “I began to doubt my political judgement… As a result, for much of the campaign, I discussed what everybody else discussed.”
He regrets that choice. “The integrity of the environment is not just another issue to be used in political games for popularity, votes, or attention. And the time has long since come to take more political risks — and endure much more political criticism — by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting hard for their enactment.”
May Al Gore have the strength to be guided by these, his own words, in the months to come. May he pass them along to Bill Clinton.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992