By Donella Meadows
— August 31, 1995–
David Orr, professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, likes to tell the story of the entrance exam for the insane asylum.
Candidates are led into a cement-lined room with a row of faucets on one wall, fully open, gushing water. Leaning against the opposite wall are dozens of buckets and mops.
The insane run frantically for the buckets and mops. The sane turn off the faucets.
If that’s the test, we live in a land that’s certifiably crazy. Name a problem. With astounding consistency we go for the mop-and-bucket solution.
We spend fortunes on prisons without any serious inquiry into the causes of crime.
We invade every wilderness looking for oil, we spend a fortune on armies to defend oil, we change the chemistry of the atmosphere with the wastes from burning oil, meanwhile refusing to examine why we need so much oil. We mop up large and small oil spills, assuming they’re a necessary cost of doing business. People tell us, indeed show us, how to accomplish everything we want to do with much less oil, even with no oil. We go on mopping.
We groan under the expense of our health system (at least 30 percent more costly than any other in the world), though study after study tells us how much money and effort we could save if we focused as hard on preventing illness as we do on curing it. Turning off the faucets in this case would include immunizing all our children, being sure pregnant mothers are well nourished, getting reasonable amounts of exercise, and recognizing that tobacco, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and most junk foods are slow poisons.
In a closely related area, E.F. Shumacher once asked: what would a visitor from outer space notice most, the skill of our dentists, or the prevalence of decay in our teeth? Dentistry, like doctoring, is a mopping-up profession.
Poverty is another problem that we attack with mops, when we attack it at all. (At the moment we seem more inclined to endure a rising flood.) A reader in North Carolina recently sent me a letter about a meeting of agencies that help the poor. When asked what would make their work more effective, one agency leader said, “We are dealing with the consequences of poverty, and that can go on forever. No one is addressing the causes of poverty.”
For decades we attacked pollution with mops and buckets, which in that field are called “end-of-pipe technology” — diapers on smokestacks to catch nasty stuff as it comes out. The sheer expense of that approach is finally shocking us into sanity. We’re learning that it can be much cheaper to engineer manufacturing processes so they don’t produce nasty stuff in the first place. (We’re still a long way from asking if we actually need all the stuff being manufactured.)
Similarly, with municipal garbage we’re moving in the direction of sanity by doing more recycling. But the faucets that produce the flood are still on. Recycling is just playing in the water. We haven’t stopped the junk mail, limited the packaging, or questioned either our addictive consumption habits or the pushers who keep us buying and discarding all that stuff we recycle.
Why are we so attracted to buckets and mops?
Because they make us think we’re doing something, I suppose. Working up a sweat, mopping away, we can feel heroic while avoiding the real problems.
Why are we so reluctant to attack the real problems?
Vested interests make money from them — that’s the easy answer. The world is full of rich bucket and mop sellers. The military-industrial complex is not interested in peace-making. The country’s burgeoning prison industry doesn’t really want crime to stop. The sellers of oil do not want us to get serious about energy efficiency or solar power. But pointing to industries that profit from our insanity does not explain the insanity.
Some of our mop-and-bucket tendency comes from honest perplexity. The world is not so simple as that insane asylum test. It’s hard to unravel the plumbing and find the turn-off valves for poverty or crime or our inner drives toward unhealthy, materialistic lives. It’s especially hard, of course, if we refuse to look.
Why won’t we look?
I don’t know. As I watch us put up with terrible social burdens at enormous expense, I wonder. Is it fear of change? Fear of having the finger of responsibility pointed at our own selves? Fear that we are too small to take on the really big problems? Fear of looking stupid if we try and fail? How do we know we’ll fail, if we never try?
One of our worst human copouts (it is certainly one of my own worst) is to go on doing what we’ve always done, because it seems so much easier than trying something new — even though the something new might actually work. It seems so hard to go to the root of our most intransigent problems. But it’s even harder to mop and mop and mop.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995