By Donella Meadows
–August 29, 1991–
At least 1400 times last summer authorities closed U.S. ocean beaches or warned swimmers away from them because of pollution. There were 338 beach closings in California, 228 in New Jersey, 218 in Connecticut.
The states with the most closings weren’t necessarily the ones with the most polluted beaches. States have different beach policies. New York declared 311 closings last year; swimming was forbidden on three of its beaches for the entire summer. Maryland closed no beaches, not necessarily because its waters are safe, but because that state does not close beaches.
There is now a suggestion that we set national standards for beach closure. Not “clean up the beaches,” but “standardize the definition of pollution.”
That looks to me like a classic case of drift to low performance.
“Drift to low performance” (which I will abbreviate DLP here to save newspaper ink) is a pattern that pops up everywhere, unfortunately. Take, for example, the case of the formerly excellent car repair shop.
Once upon a time there was a repair shop, staffed by super mechanics, who worked quickly and charged reasonable rates. As you might expect, word got around. More and more people brought their cars there. Jobs began to back up. Waiting times increased.
One logical business response to this popularity was to raise prices. Another was to hire more mechanics. The once-great shop did both. It didn’t have time to search for the best mechanics or to train the new ones well. And it didn’t expand as fast as new customers came in, so waiting times went on increasing.
The customers got higher prices, longer waiting times, lower quality service. Drift to low performance. The problem of too much work solved itself, as the repair shop descended to the level of its competitors and the customers went away.
My once-great personal jogging program has experienced significant DLP. I used to aim at running six miles, then four, then two, now zero. Here’s another example of DLP: U.S. medical care. Some of us dimly remember when doctors came to our houses, answered our questions, and charged fees that we could afford. No one expects that any more.
DLP dominates commercial television programming. And the federal budget. There was a time, not long ago, when a $100 billion deficit would have been considered shameful enough to topple an administration. Then for awhile $200 billion was enough to cause apoplexy in the press. This year the deficit will be over $300 billion and we’re hardly even mentioning it.
People summon the energy to solve a problem when they sense a gap between their goal and their present state. In a drift to low performance that gap closes, not because performance improves, but because the goal is allowed to slip. Standards erode. The kind of performance that used to cause consternation begins to be defined as normal. Lower expectations, no discrepancy between goal and actuality, no action. Everyone goes to sleep.
Drift to low performance feeds upon itself. As everyone gets used to mediocrity it’s easy for standards to slip still further — which lowers expectations and allows even worse performance. I offer you the United States public schools. The state of our highways. Once a slide downhill gets going, it’s hard to stop, because no one believes that what was once possible is possible any more.
There’s a simple prescription to interrupt DLP. Hold goals absolute. No matter what disappointments there might be in the current performance, don’t set your expectations by them. Maintain the tension between what is and what you want, however painful it might be. To turn DLP around, to set off a drift to HIGH performance, set your sights by your best performance, not your worst. If I had set my jogging expectations by the days I ran my best, instead of the days I ran my worst, I might be doing marathons by now.
Our environment is suffering badly from DLP. Once we would have been outraged to find ANY sewage on our beaches. Now we just ask for a standardized warning when it’s present. President Bush has just dropped the goal of wetland protection from a firm “no net loss” to a declaration that it’s OK to lose a third of our remaining wetlands after all. (Half of them are already gone.) We have stopped expecting that local streams should run truly clear. Our new Clean Air Act asks for a reduction in acid rain emissions, but not for rain that’s normal.
The most damaging drift to low performance is in our politics — which why we’re seeing DLP in so many other places. We have come to expect campaigns to be mean and stupid, and politicians to be unresponsive, self-seeking, and for sale to the highest bidder. We make jokes about our vice-president; all we ask of a president is that he be likeable. We seem to have given up on the Pentagon’s corrupt use of our tax dollars.
No expectations, no tension between goals and performance, no outrage, resolve or intention, no action, no results. There’s only one way to get a government — and a nation — to stop drifting to low performance. That’s to wake up and insist on some standards.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991