By Donella Meadows
–December 28, 1989–
The outbreak of freedom in Eastern Europe can be traced directly to just one cause: glasnost, truth-telling. A new openness about the activities of government verified what every East Bloc citizen knew but could not say — that their governments were corrupt, inept, and intolerable. The truths, when fully revealed, were even worse than anyone suspected. And the people rose.
Truth-telling is a powerful cleansing force, as the writers of the first amendment to our Constitution knew. When a government is compelled by its principles or its citizens or a free press to reveal itself, the people will see that its abuses can’t get too far out of hand.
That’s how it should work, anyway. Watching events in Eastern Europe and in my own country over this past year, I’m beginning to wonder whether there can be not only too little glasnost, but too much. Think, for example, of the truths about our own government that anyone can know who reads the paper.
Our national debt has tripled in one decade. Our Deparment of Housing and Urban Development diverted money intended for the homeless into the pockets of rich Republicans. Our government’s incompetent regulation of Savings and Loan banks will cost us hundreds of billions of dollars. For most of this decade our leaders have systematically undermined the nation’s environmental laws and shifted wealth from the poor to the rich.
The Defense Department has just admitted that the Star Wars program will never be able to protect us from nuclear attack by blasting incoming missiles out of the sky. (We have spent $21 billion on that program since 1984, and we’re still spending)
The U.S. intelligence community now says they were wrong in assuming that the Soviets could mount an invasion of Europe in 10 to 14 days. The real number, they say, is more like 33 to 40 days. That difference renders unnecessary huge investments we have made in troops and equipment. Energy Department officials have just abandoned a $500 million project to build the nation’s first dump for high-level nuclear wastes. They say they lack confidence in the work that has been done. They will have to start over. That postpones until at least 2010 the possibility of having any place to put the wastes from the nation’s weapons plants and its 110 operating nuclear power plants.
The General Accounting Office has reported to Congress that Reagan administration budget cuts created such lax management that they cost the nation much more than they saved.
What I find amazing about these revelations is that they have produced no reaction. Watching glasnost work East and West, I can only wonder WHERE IS OUR OUTRAGE? Why have we not seized the power, so much more readily available to us than to Poles or Romanians, to insist on a clean, capable government? Are we so sedated by consumer goods that we don’t care? (Don’t bother me with government, just leave me alone with my VCR.) Or are we so saturated by the steady stream of scandal revealed by our press that we are simply numb? (Those politicians are all crooks — there’s nothing we can do about them.)
The problem with our passivity is not just that we are being bilked of trillions of dollars and much of our nation’s natural wealth, but that we are missing out on a major turning point in human history. The people in East Europe know they have to redesign their governments and economies. We, awash in information about the failures of our own system, are leaning back complacently and waiting for them to become just like us.
If we were willing to confront the truths we are being told about our own system (and to insist upon hearing some of the truths we are not being told, for example about our dealings with Panama, El Salvador, Iran, Nicaragua), we’d admit that there are faults to correct on both sides of the Atlantic.
Their system can’t produce a decent pair of shoes or enough soap. Ours practices institutionalized cruelty toward any citizen who can’t or won’t, for any reason, compete. Their government constantly lies. Ours is for sale to the highest bidder. Both systems are riddled by corruption. Both turn out horrendous weapons to arm themselves and the world. Both interfere unjustifiably in the affairs of weaker nations. Neither has any real interest in protecting the environment (though the communist countries, with no public input at all, have gone much farther than we have in fouling their lands).
If we were not too satisfied or saturated to look, we would see that the opportunity before the East Europeans — and before us, if we’re willing to take it — is to think again, think hard, about how governments and economies should be structured, how they should protect people and land instead of draining them, how their excesses and corruptions might be controlled. Few generations are offered this opportunity as clearly as we are offered it right now.
Surely, surely, after all the terribly hard-earned lessons of this century, the human race can take the best of its past experiments in governance (there is much good, especially in our basic concepts of democracy and human rights) and come up with something better. Or dignify our present systems by insisting that their faults be corrected. Surely the East Europeans shouldn’t be the only ones with the challenge and the privilege of creating the new governing systems of the next century.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989