By Donella Meadows
–August 15, 1992–
The reason the market system and democracy work as well as they do is that they are designed around the principle of FEEDBACK. Feedback means, basically, giving people quick, accurate, emphatic information about the results of their own actions. A seller who sets a price too high gets no customers. A politician who thwarts the public gets no votes. Feedback can promote quick learning.
The reason the market system and democracy work badly, when they do, is that feedback is often distorted and delayed, sometimes inevitably, often deliberately. Politicians and merchants dominate the media with information that is — well, let’s just say inaccurate. Prices don’t carry full information about actual costs, especially environmental costs. The world is full of incomplete, late, deceptive feedback.
Quick, tight feedback promotes not only learning but responsibility. The pilot rides in the same plane you do — that gives him or her instant feedback and intrinsic responsibility. There’s responsibility in the New England town meeting where people vote directly on the expenditures that they themselves will have to fund.
The power of good feedback is remarkable. There was once a new housing development in the Netherlands, where, by accident, the electric meters were installed in the basements of some houses and in the front halls of other, otherwise identical, houses. Electricity use in the houses where the meters were easily visible was thirty percent less than in the houses where the meters were down below and out of sight. The only difference was feedback.
Dartmouth College moved a step away from good feedback when it fixed its thermostats so their settings can only be changed by a call to Buildings and Grounds and a visit hours later by a technician. That’s delayed feedback. It results in oscillating building temperatures that are seldom within the range of comfort. A step in the other direction would be to let the occupants of rooms set their own thermostats and charge them directly for their fuel use — or maybe, given the Dutch example, it would be enough to put up a meter telling them what the fuel use is.
One of the most effective exercises in feedback I’ve seen was a stunt organized by Dartmouth students, who talked a number of people, including me, into carrying their trash around with them for a week. We were issued large, transparent plastic bags, which got heavier and heavier as the week wore on. Carrying the trash all day and displaying it to my colleagues was enough feedback to make me, for one, opt out of the throwaway society. The throwaway society is missing many important feedbacks. Postage rates for junk mail don’t include the cost to communities of disposing of that mail. Packaging prices don’t reflect their disposal costs either. Prices of fuels don’t include the real cost in human and environmental health of burning them. Fixing these distortions is not interference with the market system; it’s improving the feedback of the market system.
Once you catch onto the notion of feedback, you start seeing lots of places where it doesn’t exist, but should. Health insurance rates that aren’t geared to lifestyle, for example. Government bailouts of bankrupt corporations. Government cleanup of corporate waste. Government exempting itself from its own affirmative action or pollution laws. (Why is it that government comes so readily to mind, when one is thinking of mechanisms that muffle or delay or remove feedback?)
Feedback would be improved if there were a statue in every community that disintegrates rapidly whenever it’s washed with acid rain. Or if there were large lurid pictures in every place where cigarettes are sold, showing what smoking does to lungs. The sign in Times Square that shows the national debt escalating every minute should be mounted on a wall in the Oval Office and on the front steps of the Capitol Building — and in every voting booth. There should be stoplights on irrigation wells that turn red when the groundwater level is going down, yellow when the water is holding even, and green when it’s recharging. We should all have water heaters in our bathrooms like the ones common in Europe with dials that show the gas bill rising as the hot water runs.
As you can see, the idea of feedback can lead to outrageous suggestions. Supreme Court justices who rule on abortion, it has been said, should be required to bring up unwanted babies. Leaders who declare war should be placed in the front lines. Hazardous waste processing facilities should be located upon the lawns of the executives and board members of the companies that make the wastes. Every town or factory on a river should be required to place its intake pipes downstream from its outflow pipes. Developers should have to live in their own developments.
We can’t solve a problem we don’t know about. We WON’T solve a problem that doesn’t impact us. The world works a little better any time we manage to make the invisible visible, embed real costs into prices, and impose the consequences of decision-making upon those who make the decisions.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991