By Donella Meadows
–March 20, 1997–
Though we humans grandly call ourselves Homo sapiens, “man the wise,” we also carry on a constant debate about how smart we really are. The argument goes on, because the answer isn’t obvious. There’s plenty of evidence of our brilliance and of our enduring foolishness.
The ultimate intelligence test is coming from the environment. Are we smart enough to stop destroying our own support systems?
I could argue either way. Clearly we can learn from our mistakes — we seem to be programmed to be learning creatures. But our rate of making mistakes might exceed our rate of learning, especially since we learn so much more slowly as organizations than we do as individuals.
Take the fisheries for example. Over the past 20 years one after another of the great ocean fisheries has collapsed, exhausted by overfishing. Individuals warned against every one of those crashes. Each could have been taken as a lesson to forestall the next. Many fishermen saw the end coming, but went right on fishing, and their commercial organizations denied any problem and resisted attempts at control. Some are resisting still.
Pretty dumb. But there are counter-examples. The New England lobster fishery regulated itself early on to ensure the long-term availability of lobsters. And cod and haddock fishers, having wiped out the enormous resource of George’s Bank, are now redefining their mission, I am told, to include the restoration and protection not just of cod and haddock, but of the whole ocean ecosystem that upholds those fish.
It comes a bit late, but that’s real learning.
Ecologists have known for decades that clearcutting is destructive, that it opens soils to erosion, extinguishes forest species and decreases the likelihood that a similar forest will grow back. People in industry and government laugh at those claims. Even the landslides in the Pacific northwest this year, slides that killed people and buried houses and roads, slides associated in every case with logging, have not stimulated any apparent learning in the clearcutting industry.
But there are breaks in the ranks. Recently I wrote an anti-clearcutting column. Shortly afterward I received an email message from a forestry school. Mostly it consisted of unprintable remarks from students making fun of my column. But the sender added: “Dear Professor Meadows. Unfortunately forestry students still think they have to talk this way to get jobs. But I want you to know that a lot of us agree with you. Clearcutting is not a sustainable or ethical way to harvest trees.”
Learning and resistance to learning. The race between education and catastrophe. Yesterday I got a fax from a logged-over town in Canada. It contained a recent paper from Nature showing that clearcutting changes the nitrogen chemistry of forest soils, inhibiting the growth of fir, the tree of value, the one the companies boast of replanting.
Canada has more than 4 million acres of failed replantings. The Nature paper explains why. But the fax also quoted an industry spokesman who refused to believe it. “I think this guy is … pulling the wool over people’s eyes. If trees wanted to be in the shade, they wouldn’t have long, wooden stems to get their leaves up above the other plants. They would have been shrubs.”
Homo sapiens can figure out complex soil chemistry; Homo economicus can refuse to take in inconvenient information. Which side of us will prevail?
I shouldn’t bash economics; last month there was a great demonstration of learning by economists. Two thousand of them, headed by six Nobel Prize winners, not only admitted that climate change is real, but told the government what to do about it.
“We believe that global climate change carries with it significant environmental, economic, social, and geopolitical risks, and that preventive steps are justified,” they said. “There are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which the total benefits outweigh the total costs.” They recommended carbon taxes and emissions permits.
My environmentalist friends, who generally fear the worst about our collective human intelligence, point out that scientists knew about greenhouse gases for roughly a hundred years before economists accepted that knowledge. Oil and coal companies are still fighting it. At the rate they’re going, it will take our politicians another hundred years before they’ll allow the words “carbon tax” to be spoken in their presence. By then the planet will be cooked.
Scientists learn, the pessimists would say, because that’s their business. (Unaffiliated scientists, anyway, those not employed by industry or government.) Then citizens’ organizations pick up the information. Then (unaffiliated) economists, and finally corporations and governments. It takes forever for knowledge to penetrate places of power. Given the rate at which we do damage, the rate of institutional learning is way too slow.
There are days when I agree. But I know people in government, people in corporations, even fossil fuel company executives, who worry about global warming. I’ve heard higher-ups in chemical companies say privately that the Clean Air Act should be strengthened — while their lobbyists were working flat out to weaken it.
People learn. Organizations balk. But organizations are made of people. Surely there’s an opportunity here to wise up.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997