By Donella Meadows
–January 30, 1997–
Anyone who travels the world is bound to experience not only wonders but also crowds, poverty, pollution, ugliness and cruelty. Anyone who looks at the statistics can see population, factories and toxic wastes zooming up, while forests, soils, groundwaters and species plummet. I don’t think it’s possible to experience our planet, directly or indirectly, without a shock.
The shock deepens if you try to trace out the connections among the unsettling trends and seek their sources. I do that, and I work with others who do it. Many of us have concluded that the global economy is too huge and growing too rapidly to be either sustainable or governable. It is destroying life-support systems that we don’t even understand. We are consuming the resources and options of our children. We ourselves won’t be able to keep it up much longer.
The prescription that follows from this diagnosis is obvious: Slow down. Control our numbers and our greed. There is enough, if we all share. Find the joy in living with enough.
But we can hardly imagine how to do that. We think the economy would collapse if we even tried, though in fact the economy is much more likely to collapse if we keep tearing down its essential resources. So it can be tempting to deny the whole problem.
Some people make careers of denial. They say environmental problems are exaggerated. Human life expectancy is rising, they point out, and they are right. We are richer every day. We keep discovering more resources. Sure, there are a few messes to clean up, but better technology and more money will do that. So don’t worry, be happy; there’s no need for temperance or equity.
It would be nice to believe these folks, but they are too obviously picking out only favorable trends. We do discover resources, but we consume them faster. Our life expectancy rises but birds and frogs and forests disappear. Money can’t return a lost species or correct a crazed climate.
The main reason for denial, I suspect, is an unwillingness to bear the emotional impact of the global situation. It is just too horrifying to believe that we are destroying our world and that the only way to save ourselves is to stop living the only way we know how to live. Rather than accept that message, some people just screen out the evidence for it.
But it’s hard to keep one’s eyes and ears and mind shut down. Even artists of denial must suspect, down deep, that our economy and society and goals and myths are wrong — wrong for the earth, wrong for our health, wrong for our souls. There are more and more deserts of toxicity and swamps of human despair. Even the privileged, wrapped in their cocoons of big cars, walled estates, stocks and bonds, must sense the wrongness around them limiting their horizons and darkening their hearts.
So, one by one, we let the message in. Nature and people are in pain. Our way of life is unsustainable. There is not much time and there are many changes to make. So ironic — to sustain our world we have to change our lives.
I see this understanding hit college students, usually about the time they learn the science of greenhouse gases and species extinction. Their bright eyes glaze over. They go into mourning for a planet that is losing its beauty and a future they can no longer count on.
I first got hit that way listening to Professor Jay Forrester of MIT in 1971. I had just returned from a year in Asia. The global patterns Forrester was discussing weren’t just numbers to me, they were the faces of villagers and the feel, smell, and sound of shrinking forests and ballooning cities. Forrester drew the general picture; I saw in it fresh, specific memories. I had to leave the room in tears. I still have many experiences that bring up tears — watching the shadow of a jumbo jet sweep over mud huts bordering the runway in Bombay; walking through dead forests in Eastern Europe; waiting every spring on my northern farm to see which migratory songbirds will not return.
Sadness. Fear. Anger. I think it’s impossible for anyone to understand the state of the earth without feeling these emotions. In our controlled culture, we’re not welcome to act them out in public, but we do need to let ourselves feel what we feel. Strong emotions are appropriate. And, if we don’t sweep them under the rug, they could be a force for reversing the gloomy trends, which are, almost all, reversible. The only way we will ever engage in a shift to new, sustainable ways of living is by caring and feeling.
I don’t know about you, but when I really let myself experience the state of the world, my first reaction is bottomless, unutterable sorrow. That moves quickly into outrage. The sorrow I can deal with; the outrage I used to suppress — after all, it might offend someone. Now I use it to give me courage. When I get mad, I have to move. With half-suppressed anger, I tend to swing out and do something impetuous and ignorant. But a fully felt, grounded, familiar anger can move me through a lifetime commitment to make things better.
Feelings, like knowledge, don’t directly change anything. But if we don’t rush past the feelings or stuff them down, if we take time to admit even the most uncomfortable ones, to accept them, share them, and couple them with knowledge of what is wrong and how it might be fixed, then feelings and knowledge together are motors for change. The feelings make the doings of a technological, cultural, economic, and political revolution inevitable. Unstoppable.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997