By Donella Meadows
–December 16, 1993–
When she was 16, Breezy Osborne suggested that her father Jennings string up some Christmas lights on their million-dollar house in Little Rock, Arkansas. He had fun doing it. So the next year he added more lights. And the next year still more.
Seven Christmases later the two-acre Osborne yard featured angels, a 60-foot tree, a Micky Mouse driving a train, a globe proclaiming “Peace on Earth,” a steam calliope playing carols, several Santas with sleighs, and 1.6 million lights. Thirty thousand people came to see the show.
The neighbors filed a nuisance suit. Jennings Osborne started something good, and then he took it too far.
Overdoing it must be the most common of human failings. We get fascinated with something, we plunge more and more into it, we are so self-absorbed we ignore the negative pressures building up around us. Sooner or later someone or something manages to get through to us, often by blowing up, literally or figuratively.
The right to carry a gun in America, a good thing, has been pushed way too far by the gun makers and the National Rifle Association. Organizing a militia or hunting a deer does not require shotguns in schools, concealed guns in commuter trains, or assault rifles anywhere. It would be no more an infringement on freedom (or manhood) to test and license gun owners than car owners — in fact freedom for citizens to walk their neighborhoods without fear lies in the direction of many fewer guns. But it is taking not one, not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of senseless killings and maimings to get that message through. Despite daily blowups, the gun lobby is still self-absorbed.
Nearly every community, including mine, pushes its own growth too far. We have an edge-of-town strip, indistinguishable in its ugliness from the one in your town. It already has more shops selling more stuff than anyone needs. Traffic is close to breakdown, and two more enormous stores are clamoring to come in. You’d think the town fathers would say “we’ve gone too far” and shrink the commercial zone. Instead they are trying to find millions of dollars to widen roads, so we can go even farther too far. One way or another, that money will come from taxpayers’ pockets, unless we blow up or break down.
Proponents of going too far like to argue that the alternative is to go nowhere. If we can’t have absolute gun freedom, that must mean no guns. If we stop expanding our shopping slurbs, then there will never be any improvement in the already-built part of town. That’s nonsense, of course. There is a vast middle ground called “enough.” Every parent of a two-year-old knows that the individual drive for “more” has to be tempered with social feedback saying “enough.” The very purpose of a toddler is to test the line where enough becomes too much. The purpose of a parent is to teach where that line lies.
Some of us, unfortunately, never grow up. Donald Trumps and Michael Milkens push to see how far out on financial limbs they can go before creditors or securities laws close in. Rock stars push to see how much we will let them offend us. Politicians turn democracy into corruption, testing for the point where we blow up or break down. The Serbs continue their genocide against the Muslims, wondering when anyone will make them stop.
Once I walked through the Hermitage, the magnificent art museum in what was then called Leningrad, in a nation that was pushing its citizens to the point of breakdown. Over a few hours I passed through thousands of years of history. I was struck by the repeated cycles and the immense cost of going too far. The calm, noble statues of ancient Greece evolved into the grandiose figures of the Roman Empire, which became ever more twisted and agonized, until there were no more statues at all. The simple lines of the Middle Ages developed curlicues and finials and layers of gold as the Church got richer and richer, right up to the blowup of Protestantism. The playthings of royalty, the Tiffany Easter Eggs, were encrusted with more and more elaborate jewels — until the revolution.
The lesson of history seems to be that we are much, much too slow at saying “we’ve gone too far.” We take too long to exert collective negative pressure against the self-absorbed. We build tens of thousands too many nuclear weapons and then worry about whose hands they might fall into (and what to do with the nuclear wastes). We don’t act against Hitlers or Milosevics until thousands or millions of lives have been desecrated. We create continent-size deserts and then belatedly plant a few trees. We pile up greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, waiting to see if (or more likely when) the climate will smite us.
There is surely danger in stopping too soon and missing out on the buildup of something good. But that doesn’t seem to be the kind of danger we get ourselves into.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993