By Donella Meadows
–March 26, 1987–
Every time I walk in Laxenburg Park, which I have been doing off and on for ten years now, I’m charmed and I’m depressed. More depressed and less charmed as time goes on.
For 200 years the park, 20 miles south of Vienna, was the private hunting preserve of Austria’s Hapsburg emperors. Now it’s open to any commoner for an admission fee of 8 schillings (75 cents). There are still imperial riding paths and statues, fountains, and fake Greek temples. Canals lined with poplars conduct water to an artificial lake. On an island stands a fairy-tale castle. You can have coffee in its courtyard and watch the swans swim by.
I work periodically at a research institute in Laxenburg. When I’m there, I usually walk in the park early in the morning before anyone else comes. I listen to the birds, and sometimes I see the deer, which hide later in the day. I also hear the roar of the traffic on the Autobahn a mile away and the planes approaching Schwechat airport. In winter the air is permeated with the stench of coal smoke. In summer the lake and canals smell like the effluent from a primitive sewage treatment plant.
On weekday mornings, about the time I finish my walk, work crews come to prune the bushes, mow the meadows, dredge the canals. They remove dying trees as soon as they discover them. So it isn’t obvious, except to those who have watched the park over a long time, that the Waldsterben, the forest-death that is spreading across Europe, has arrived in Laxenburg.
One species of pine is gone and another is going. The sycamores are cracking at the trunk and throwing down huge branches. The rings in the stump of a huge oak, which must have made a good shade for Emperor Franz Josef 80 years ago, show that for the past 20 years the tree scarcely grew at all. The signs of sickness were there long before it died.
The cause of Waldsterben is air pollution. Too many chimneys and cars in too small a space. No one knows exactly which pollutant causes the forest death. The latest belief is that all of them together do.
North and west of Laxenburg is an unrelieved expanse of outer-city slurb — highways, small industries, houses, shopping malls. South and east are plains stretching into Hungary, covered with farms that are heavy users of agrochemicals. The park is the nicest place within miles.
So thousands of Viennese families come there on weekends with baby carriages, kids on tricycles, and dogs, lots of dogs. In winter there is ice-skating. In summer you can rent rowboats. People come in all weather; it seems to be an Austrian maxim that every weekend You Must Go Walking with the Family.
The grown-ups wear proper Austrian walking attire — Loden coats and hats with little feathers. They converse politely. No one shouts, no one is drunk, no one hands out flyers announcing a sale or the impending end of the world.
The kids stay on the paths. They put their candy wrappers in the trash containers. They don’t pick the flowers. The teen-agers do not carry ghetto-blasters.
The dogs are purebred. I doubt if there’s a mutt in all Vienna. The dogs also stay on the paths. They don’t fight with each other. They don’t even make messes in the park. To me they aren’t quite real dogs. And the people are not quite real people.
It’s not that I miss our good old American litter-wherever-you-like individualism. I wish Americans were as considerate of each other and of their public places as the Viennese are. But I wonder if, in order to have civility, it is necessary to give up spontaneity and aliveness. There is calm and order in Laxenburg Park, but there is no passion, no spirit, no joy. No outrage. The beautiful park is dying, and the people walk there politely.
Of course some people are outraged. On a tree-lined street in downtown Vienna someone has put signs on each treetrunk saying, “Save me! I’m dying!”. Every now and then a smokestack sprouts a banner that screams “Murderer!”. But the alarming signs, like the dying trees in the park, are quickly removed, so they don’t disturb the comfortable thoughts of Sunday walkers.
“Creeping degradation” is a term used by an ecologist I know to describe the effect of acid rain on the forests and lakes of New England. Creeping degradation is what is happening to the groundwaters of California, the saltmarshes of the coasts, the soils of the Midwest. Maybe the term even applies to whole societies, as populations become more dense and individuals more suppressed.
When degradation is slow and subtle, it can be covered over for a long time by careful pruning and determined politeness. Life can go on graciously. No one needs to raise hard questions about the purpose and necessity of smokestacks and car exhaust, about population growth and economic growth, about the long-term impact of the civilized, orderly way in which we live our lives.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987