By Donella Meadows
–July 24, 1986–
How is it that every now and then a society lets a whole generation get the idea that it can really solve problems?
Portugal, though it is the poorest country in Europe, with an income level equivalent to that of Mexico, is one of the most upbeat, exciting places in the world. Its young people are full of energy and hope. It is not the kind of hope that comes from blindness to reality. The young people can tell you all about Portugal’s problems.
Lisbon’s beautiful beaches, they say, the magnets for a booming tourist industry and the recreational outlets for the city, are contaminated by raw sewage. The hazardous emissions from Portugal’s industries are unregulated. Soil erosion is so bad that deserts are forming in the southern part of the country. Overuse of groundwater causes intrusion of sea water into wells. In the hot, dry province of Algarve, seven golf courses for tourists take as much water as the 40,000-person city of Faro.
In most parts of the world people discuss such problems with exasperation or resignation. My young friends talk with excitement, because they have been asked to solve the problems — and they have good technical training, money, and above all, political support.
Actually they have political insistence, emanating from 31-year-old Carlos Pimenta, who last November became Portugal’s Secretary of State for the Environment and Natural Resources. Pimenta literally bounces up and down as he relates what he has accomplished in just eight months. The government has been reorganized so that public works (roads, dams, sewers) are under his control. Construction has started on a sewage treatment plan for Lisbon. The budget for national parks has increased tenfold. He describes with glee his plan to bulldoze the illegal second homes rich people are building in protected natural areas.
Pimenta has brought into the government a cadre of bright, idealistic young people. One of them, Francisco Nunes Correia, is working on Portugal’s water resources. Nunes Correia describes Portugal’s old water management system like this:
1. Too many organizations have power over pieces of the water system; ultimately no one is responsible.
2. Federal power is paralyzed; it can’t even manage routine maintenance. Local institutions are active, but they have a short-term perspective on problems and too few resources to act effectively.
3. There is no strategic plan, no direction. Endless discussion leads to no decision. Money is spent in scattered, uncoordinated projects.
4. There is no information about the state of the water resource. Statistics are dispersed in different agencies; the numbers are inconsistent and inaccessible. No one can figure out what is going on.
5. New ideas and technologies arise in the universities and never find their way into the government.
6. There is no public awareness. People don’t realize how important water is, how its quality and quantity is deteriorating, what they can do to help.
Undaunted by this devastatingly honest analysis, Nunes Correia then unfolds his plan. He is coordinating federal and local institutions so they work together. He is forming users’ associations of industries or farmers, to plan and manage their own water supply. (“People shouldn’t just wait around for the government to fix their problems.”) He is reviewing several-centuries’ accretion of contradictory water laws and preparing a new law, based on the principle that the polluter pays. He is assembling a data base, drawing up a national water plan, starting a public education program, setting up joint university-government projects.
Hardly pausing for breath, he says that when this is all accomplished for water, he will do the same for forest, soil, and fish resources.
The young people around him are ready to help, confident it will work, full of suggestions. Their energy reminds me of the fervor of the 1970’s in the U.S., when most national environmental legislation was put into place. From the hindsight of the environmentally-discouraging 1980’s, I have to wonder how long it will last.
Since the fall of the dictator Salazar in 1974, Portugal has had 18 changes of government. The longest regime has lasted 2 1/2 years. I asked my friends what is the life expectancy of this government.
“Three more months at the least, nine months at the most,” they said.
“Then how can you be so optimistic?”
The changes being made now are structural and permanent, they replied. The reorganization of the government, the new laws, the influx of young civil servants cannot be undone. New ideas have permeated everywhere, and a change of government cannot do away with them.
If they are right, and if the country can proceed on its bold new path, Portugal can show the world how to manage resources rationally, fairly, for the long-term good. If they are wrong, the energy and idealism will get frustrated and dissipated, as it has before in other places. Why would any country let that happen?
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011