By Donella Meadows
–April 20, 1995–
The journalistic attention cycle has arrived at the point where we talk about the environment only on one obligatory day per year — Earth Day — and then we declare it a defunct issue.
The cycle will turn, of course. The environment will be hot again, This is the way of the media. First they discover something “new” — pollution, say, or the greenhouse effect. Then they make too much of it. They search out extremists and goad them into dramatic statements, which they blow up into screaming headlines. We are all being poisoned. The planet is dying.
When everyone is sufficiently scared, it’s time for the backlash. Reporters find a few doubters. They do stories about disagreement and disarray. They give the tattered believers condescending advice about how to “save the movement,” or they pronounce it dead. Then they drop the topic, until they discover something “new” and start all over again.
This cycle is applied to everything — to presidents, rock stars, the deficit, health care, crime. I have watched it grind through two full turns on the environment.
After the first Earth Day in 1970, the hype was sustained for almost a decade, thanks to a series of oil crises. Then came the backlash of the 80s. Ronald Reagan, James Watt, and Anne Gorsuch reigned, and environmentalism was over. Then, for awhile, there was silence. I remember being asked by a reporter in 1986 or so, “Where have all you environmentalists gone?” To which I could only reply in astonishment, “We’ve been here all along. Where have YOU gone?”
The second cycle began in the hot summer of 1988, when the planet suddenly appeared in flames on the covers of major magazines. We were entertained with garbage barges and oil spills and medical waste on beaches, but this time the cycle turned faster. By 1991 the backlash stories began. Now in 1995, with the Newtsies ripping up environmental laws, we have the dirge, the wake, the story of the demise.
This frenetic periodicity never does justice to anything, not to politicians that are lionized and then trashed, not to serious, continuous issues that are exaggerated and then forgotten, and certainly not to the environment. Nature thrives, fluctuates, gets pushed around, takes revenge, or dies on its own schedule, which has little to do with the media attention span. People learn about, care for, devastate, or get whomped by ecosystems more or less continuously, whether or not journalists take note.
In my experience environmentalism was never an organized “movement.” The public’s interest in it has never waned. Our understanding of the planet, the reasons for concern, the lessons learned from past successes and failures keep building as the population swells, oil is burned, greenhouse gases mount in the atmosphere, soil erodes, and species disappear. There is an enormous transformation going on, both on the planet and in peoples’ minds. It is slow, cumulative, and profound. The press has no idea how to cover it.
I see the environmental story not in the noisy halls of Congress or the membership figures for the Sierra Club, but in communities like Seattle, Denver, and Cobscook Bay, Maine, which are measuring their success not only by economic indicators, but by (respectively) whether the salmon still run in the rivers, whether you can smell sage when you open your window, and how many eagle nests there are in town.
The story is unfolding in Chattanooga, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and dozens of other cities that are writing “green plans” or declaring sustainability a major goal.
It’s happening in companies like 3-M and DuPont and Monsanto, which see that their wastes are in fact resources that should be reclaimed and reused. And in utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric, which are learning to make markets not only in energy, but in energy efficiency.
There is a whole new economic theory forming, in which prices tell the the truth about non-market costs and the GNP is junked in favor of real measures of national welfare.
The environmental “movement” is extending, painfully, to extractive industries like fishing, which are running into undeniable natural limits and realizing that they must live within those limits or die.
It is flourishing in Costa Rica, which is mapping its own biodiversity, using its own citizens as lay naturalists. And the Netherlands, which uses the expertise of its scientists to set environmental targets and the creativity of its industries to figure out how to meet them. And Denmark, which uses half as much energy to accomplish anything as we do in the U.S., and which is on its way toward cutting by half again. And the city of Curitiba, Brazil, with a public transport system that is cheap, efficient, convenient, and popular.
Some day the media will learn that the environment is not an intermittent news story, not a special interest, not a win-lose sports event, not a luxury, not a fad, not a movement, not discredited, not faltering, and not something to pay token attention to one day a year. It is a beat far more important than Wall Street or Washington. Its laws are stronger than Newt’s laws, its moves are more important than the Federal Reserve’s, its impact overwhelms that of NAFTA or the stock market or the next election. The environment is not one player on the field; it IS the field. It holds up, or fails to hold up, the whole economy and all of life, whether the spotlight is on it or not.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995