By Donella Meadows
–April 28, 1988–
Boston – Singapore – Bangkok – Bombay – Nairobi – Dar Es Salaam – Jeddah – Kassel – Zurich – Boston, all in 24 days. Only this wondrous age of technology makes such a trip possible; only this crazy age of relentless time pressure makes me undertake it.
Workshops and meetings are suspended like pearls on a long string of droning airplane flights. Stop by stop the global statistics I work with become real; they turn into the smiles and tears, the richness and poverty, the cruel contrasts and small triumphs of this amazing world. It all goes by so fast.
Singapore: GNP per capita $7420; total fertility 1.6 children per woman; infant mortality 9.3 per thousand births; energy use 196 gigajoules per person per year.
Changi airport is bedecked with fountains, orchids, and money-changers, an appropriate entrance to one of the world’s newest, richest, cleanest, most resolutely commercial cities. The glittering shopping centers downtown offer all the world’s labels duty-free, Gucci to Sony, BMW to Magnavox, Timex to Tiffany.
Many of the shoppers are Japanese, some are European, most are Singaporean. These hard-working, mostly Chinese people have increased their standard of living eightfold in one generation. There is virtually no unemployment in their city-state, no illiteracy, no lack of housing. Across the straits in one direction are 16 million Malaysians, in the other direction are 175 million Indonesians. They supply Singapore’s water, food, and oil, but not its workforce. An island city with an international border around it can control in-migration as no other city can. Singapore’s population is nearly stable at 2.6 million; the authorities think it should rise to 3.5 million by natural increase. In Singapore the authorities get what they want, even in the matter of “natural” increase.
Thailand: GNP per capita $830; total fertility 3.5 children per woman; infant mortality 57 per thousand births; energy use 12 gigajoules per person per year.
After Singapore any city would look tawdry, especially Bangkok, recently swollen to 6 million people, many of them illiterate, unhoused, and unemployed. Instead of BMWs cruising on double-lane highways, Bangkok has overloaded trucks bumper-to-bumper with crowded buses whose bodies are made of metal salvaged from defunct ships.
Thailand is poor enough and ingenious enough to recycle everything. Car engines with a single working cylinder become outboard motors for canal boats. Worn-down tires are attached to wooden carts pulled by bicycles. When a barge dumps a load of garbage into the Chao Phrya river, the stuff has no chance to sink. Small boats dash out and scoop up aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and any organic material that might feed a pig.
In the villages sweating workers operate hand-saws that cut bamboo to precise sizes. Farmers plod through rice paddies on foot, flinging fertilizer out of plastic buckets. Children sit inside before color television sets, slack-jawed, watching space-war cartoons from America. People ride to the Buddhist temple on motorcycles, carrying offerings to the priest. Thailand is in a busy state that we would call “half-developed”, still in touch with its ancient traditions but undergoing rapid change, toward what no one knows.
Tanzania: GNP per capita $270; total fertility 7.1 children per woman; infant mortality 111 per thousand births; energy use 1 gigajoule per person per year (down 24% since 1970).
Dar Es Salaam is falling apart. The roads and buildings put up by the British and Germans are crumbling. The Tanzanians drive visitors along the coast road to show off the world-famous potholes. Party Chairman Nyerere says roads for city folk are less important than schools for the countryside. That seems to make sense, but one wonders about the economic wisdom of roads so bad that vehicles are shaken to pieces in two or three years. Children with shovels scoop up dirt from the verges, fill in the worst holes, and cheerfully stick out their hands for change.
There is no television in Tanzania. The Party Chairman says it is a luxury. On the flat humid plain around Dar Es Salaam there is still uncultivated, fertile land, though the slums and goats are spreading fast. No one seems concerned about the long-term implications of those 7.1 children per woman, not even the experts at the university (where the Apple II computers donated by aid agencies are out of commission for lack of diskettes and printer ribbons). Tanzania is one of the few countries in the world that is going backward; its economy is stagnant while its population doubles every 20 years. Deforestation, soil erosion, and water contamination are rampant, but the rains have come, the coast is green, and there is enough food — for now. Birth control, like television, is a luxury.
The Swissair jet climbs slowly above the hovels of Dar Es Salaam. It clears the spectacular snowy crater of Kilimanjaro, soars over the vast, crinkled brown wastes of Ethiopia, and crosses the Red Sea to Jeddah. Another newly-built rich city, superhighways leading nowhere, roads for still-empty subdivisions making geometric patterns on brown desert. Dar Es Salaam has houses without roads, Jeddah has roads without houses.
The endless wasteland of Egypt, the surprisingly thin green thread of the Nile Valley. Hours over the Mediterranean and down below, magnificent in evening light, are the shining peaks of the Alps. How is it that this mountain country, so icy and jagged, is rich, while that fertile African coast is poor?
United States: GNP per capita $16,400, total fertility 1.8 children per woman, infant mortality 10.5 per thousand births, energy use 280 gigajoules per person per year.
Now that I’m home how can I tell about the beaming smiles of the black kids filling in the potholes of Dar Es Salaam? Or the laughter of the brown kids splashing in the mucky Chao Phrya River? In this rich, self-absorbed country of massive green farms how can I summon up the tiny, walled, dried-up fields of India?
I don’t know how. I don’t think it can be done. All I can say is that the world we see on television, and much that we don’t see there, is real, is in rapid motion, is much more complicated and colorful than the television can tell. And it’s all closer to us than we think. It can be spanned, with plenty of time to sink in and capture the heart, in just 24 days.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988