By Donella Meadows
–December 30, 1993–
Some opinion writers make a habit of filling their last column of the year with a review of their own work — where their prognostications proved right, where they went wrong, how their readers responded. I always thought they did that because they couldn’t think of anything else to write in the slow political week between Christmas and New Year’s.
But this year I’m going to follow their example. I have some loose ends to clean up, some mistakes to correct, and some reader responses that are especially appropriate for this time of resolution-making.
Back in August I told the story of an American aid program that trains Ghanaian midwives in family planning. On the way to that good-news story, I told a bad-news one, just to keep a journalistic balance. I wrote: “Our tax dollars built a milk-processing plant in Iquitos, Peru, where, it turns out, there are no dairy cows. The plant was finally put to work bottling reconstituted dry milk imported from New Zealand, but then it was discovered that people in Iquitos don’t drink milk.”
The words “our tax dollars” were incorrect. I discovered that when an incensed Vermont dairy farmer called upon his Senator to investigate why the aid project bought New Zealand milk, when Vermont is struggling with a milk surplus. The Senator’s office called me. I called the scientist in Ecuador who had told me the story. He found that the project had been funded not by U.S., but by Dutch aid money. The Dutch have a bigger dairy surplus than we do, but that’s a problem for incensed Dutch farmers.
In October, while outlining some mistakes made by the management of Biosphere 2, I made a mistake of my own. I said that the oxygen drop in the atmosphere of the Biosphere came from excess organic matter in the soil. Soil carbon oxidized to carbon dioxide, depleting oxygen. The carbon dioxide did not build up proportionately, because it reacted with the massive cement walls of the structure, coating them with powdery calcium carbonate.
So far, so good. My mistake was to say that, in their zeal to provide a super-fertile soil, the Biosphere 2 designers had souped up the organic content to 30 percent. Jeff Severinghaus, the man who solved Biosphere 2’s atmospheric puzzle, wrote me to say that the 30 percent was measured by VOLUME. By WEIGHT, which is a more normal measure, it was only 7-10 percent, still high, but not as excessive as I had made out.
I have a Ph.D. in biophysics, but I didn’t think to check whether that measure was by volume or by weight. We are all mortal fools, especially we scientists who get overconfident about our science.
In July I wrote about Barbara Sable, the head of the New York Human Services Agency, who applied for welfare in her own system, to see how it worked from the bottom up. I talked about other role reversals that might improve the the world — requiring airline executives to sit for seven hours in their own crammed coach seats, setting Congressional salaries at the level of the median U.S. family — and I asked for further suggestions. I got them!
Sponsors of TV ads should be required to watch each ad at least 500 times.
Everyone should work for a week as a garbage collector.
Public officials managing the national debt should spend a year as small business owners, wrestling with the specter of allowing any deficit at all.
Foundation officers should regularly have to raise money from foundations. (This suggestion was sent by a foundation officer.)
Urban consumers should spend a growing season helping out on a farm.
Hydro Quebec executives should live a year with the Cree people before flooding Cree lands with Hydro Quebec dams.
Pope John Paul II should exchange places with a Planned Parenthood clinic counselor.
A conservative “family values” spokesperson should have the experience of being the parent of a gay person dying of AIDS.
Animal rights activists should work for awhile with scientific researchers who use animals as study subjects.
Meat eaters should have to do their own slaughtering.
The one suggestion I expected came in floods. I had written: “If I could, I’d ask that every “pro-lifer” become for awhile a scared, pregnant teenager, or a 35-year-old woman with four children, a tight budget, a job to lose, and a failed birth control device.” I got back impassioned letters asking that those prospective mothers, or the people who help them with abortions, exchange places with the fetus. Conscious reactions of a fetus are unimaginable to many people, including me, which is one reason why this issue remains such a deep and painful division in our society. Whatever divides us, it’s a larger matter than a simple failure to be empathetic.
The point of this year-end exercise is to remember that every word in a newspaper is written by a fallible mortal, and read by fallible mortals. Mistakes creep in, despite the greatest care. Misunderstandings creep in too, as they do among any people trying to communicate in any way, through any medium. The lesson for me, and I hope for all of us, is humility. We don’t know as much as we think we do. We haven’t experienced all there is to experience. We don’t respect each other or listen to each other as much as we should. Which is why we need to stop every now and then for some clean-up and completion.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993