By Donella Meadows
–December 15, 1988–
The media are buzzing with ecological consciousness. Garbage barges and the greenhouse effect are on Page One. PBS and CNN are making documentaries on the state of the planet. A researcher for “Entertainment Tonight” even called me the other day, asking whether I think television covers environmental issues adequately.
College environmental science enrollments have tripled this year. Preparations are underway for a bang-up Earth Day 1990, the 20th anniversary of the last big Earth Day.
As an environmentalist I greet these stirrings with mixed emotions. Part of me says it’s high time. Another part of me still bears scars from the last ecological fad. If this spurt of attention is to lead to real improvement, the environmentalists and the media together have got to do a better job this time around.
An example of what we shouldn’t do is a recent impassioned piece by John De Mott, a former Kansas City Star editor, in the Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He says, in part:
“It was the biggest, most important news story of all time, and we blew it. Blew it royally.
“Consequently, we and our readers have been sentenced to serve life terms in that big greenhouse ecological science has been talking about for so many years.
“We may have given birth, already, to mankind’s last generation. Our grandchildren, if not our children, may well participate in the final act of planet Earth’s human drama….
“While today’s environmental tragedy was unfolding, where was the press? The press was preoccupied with personalities and celebrities, hung up in triviality and glorifying lifestyles that have contributed to the destruction of our environment.”
I agree with De Mott’s point, but I would never make it with such fatalistic language. No environmentalist I know speaks of the final act of planet Earth’s human drama. That sort of talk will wear out in about one year, when the world doesn’t actually come to an end. It will cause another sappy-happy backlash against any hint of “malaise”.
Twenty years ago the environmentalists were blamed for the doom and gloom. We certainly contributed to it. But I know what we said, and I know how the media sensationalized what we said. We issued warnings; they turned warnings into apocalypses. That’s what we should avoid now. Together the scientists and the press have to explain problems and discuss solutions. Not scare everyone senseless. Not imply, emotionally but inaccurately, that we’ve already done ourselves in.
There could be some horrible futures ahead of us. There could be wonderful futures too. I know of no reason why all people on earth couldn’t be cared for, no reason why we couldn’t live in balance with the environment. The message that needs to be communicated has three parts: 1. We will end up badly if we keep on in the direction we’re heading. 2. There are many good places we could end up. 3. Here’s how we can get there.
A rampant greenhouse warming isn’t inevitable. We know exactly what to do to ameliorate it. Use fossil fuels much more efficiently. Develop solar energy. Stop decimating forests. Control our population growth. Control our senseless craving for material things.
Those things are worth doing in their own right. They will solve many of our environmental problems all at once. We will be happier. We will even be richer. If we don’t do them, we will destroy ourselves and a lot of other species. Is that a message of doom, or an invitation to make a better world?
Probably 99% of the editors and writers (and environmentalists) in the country read it as a message of doom, because they have given up on the common sense of the human race. What they seem not to notice — what we are culturally programmed not to notice — is that, though there is abundant evidence for human greed and shortsightedness, there are also plenty of examples of common sense.
We have seen in this decade an international ozone agreement, a 30% increase in U.S. energy efficiency, a China that is working hard on its population problem, a Soviet Union that is beginning to admit its environmental mistakes. American citizens are setting up recycling centers, African citizens are planting trees, even when their leaders give them no encouragement. Just think what they could do if they had some real leadership, and if the media gave them some credit and some hope.
A thoughtful editor wrote me a letter recently about his own despair. “In writing edits, I shamelessly play on guilt, fear, patriotism, motherhood — anything I think might make readers care enough to act, even if it’s just to sort their garbage. But progress is glacial. Do you have any suggestions?”
Yes, I do, suggestions for all of us. Don’t play on guilt and fear; play on reason and vision. Don’t castigate those who aren’t acting; spotlight those who are. Tell the truth, but don’t dramatize it. And don’t assume you have to make anyone care. Give people ideas of what to do with the care they already have, in much greater measure than most of us are willing to believe.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988