By Donella Meadows
–January 4, 2001–
Sending an opinion column into the world is a bit like tickling a sleeping bear. Sometimes you get back low rumbles. Every now and then you stir up a roar.
Who would have guessed that fluorine would touch such a nerve? Last year I wrote about the wisdom (which I was beginning to doubt) of fluoridating drinking water. In reply I got a flood of tales about teeth. Some folks told me I was very wrong; they had late-in-life dental problems, which they attributed to lack of fluoridation when they were young. Others thanked me for being right on and told of their dental bills to repair damage to their children’s teeth from fluorosis, a consequence of too much fluorine.
The stories fit a pattern. Fluoridation was more effective 50 years ago than it is now. Over the past decades our exposure to fluorine from other sources, including toothpaste, has increased. Now water fluoridation is less needed and more likely lead to overdose. But there are enough variations in exposure and in teeth to support just about any preconception.
I knew that genetic engineering was a controversial topic, but I didn’t expect the blast I got from geneticists. My columns on this topic are skeptical; my main point is that we don’t know what we’re doing when we mess with genomes. We don’t understand the health consequences, the ecological consequences, the evolutionary consequences. We need to be a lot more careful; we’re playing with self-reproducing fire.
Through cyberspace, one of these columns got sent to an email list of gene splicers, many of whom work for biotech corporations. With some exceptions they were furious (accusing me of wanting to stop scientific progress), condescending (“I read your strange article and your obviously naive qualms about genetic engineering”) and unscientific (“Given some 25 years of recombinant DNA experience, why, if your fears are grounded, have we had no disasters?”). They made my point better than I could have made it myself. People with their hands on this powerful technology can be arrogant, blindered, or unwilling to admit the limits of their own understanding, and that’s a problem.
The pollock fishermen were more polite. Again a column — this one about how fishing is decimating populations of sea lions and other denizens of the Alaskan coast — got circulated on an email list of fleet operators. They hated what I said, but they did so with reason, facts, and respect.
They chastised me appropriately for a mistake I made. I had said that their ships trawl the sea bottom and destroy crabs. They assured me that they used to do that, but at their initiative that practice has been banned.
More to the point, they objected to my premise that their industry, which takes millions of tons of fish from the ecosystem each year, is causing the collapse of sea lion populations. They pointed to the biological finding of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which asserts that pollock populations are still abundant. (If they weren’t, how could anyone be catching millions of tons of fish?)
I had read that finding. But I have also read reports of ecologists and environmental groups. I’ve watched the crashes of other fisheries under NMFS control. I’ve heard denials from fishermen, as they hauled in the last big catches right before the collapse. And I’ve talked to Alaskan ship captains who fled the fishery because they were appalled at what was happening there.
It’s a complex story that deserves more than a short column. My heart goes out to the fishermen, who are caught in the tragedy of the commons and know it, but who live in hope that their fishery can survive. Some fisheries do survive, when they are tightly controlled by coalitions of far-sighted fishermen who listen to ecologists. I hope the pollock fishery will be one of them.
The column that caused the most roaring last year was my complaint about Vermont’s land use law, Act 250. Long a supporter of that law, I fell under its grip when, with friends, I turned developer and applied for a permit to build a “green” cohousing community. I got to see why developers complain about the nit-picking, expensive, slow grinding of that law — not as written, but as administered.
So I wrote a column saying two things. (Very carefully — I knew there was a bear out there.) The law needs to be streamlined. The law needs to be strengthened.
Readers sent me stories reinforcing both points. Good projects that were hindered or stopped because of maddening unfairness in the regulatory process. Terrible projects, opposed by the public and devastating to the environment, that sailed through, often on some form of special privilege. Someone could make a movie out of the drama and heartbreak caused by this one great-on-paper environmental law in this one small, well-meaning, environment-minded state.
It was especially fascinating to watch opponents of the law seize upon my complaints without noting my praise. No one seemed to notice my Solomonic suggestion that the people who administer the law be paid more and worked less.
Readers teach me many lessons, above all that they are out there, aware and various and full of important stories about how general policies play out in particular lives. And maybe another lesson I’ve learned is that it’s not smart to tickle opposite sides of the bear at the same time.
Copyright 2001 Sustainability Institute