By Donella Meadows
–August 18, 1988–
After three years of perestroika, the Soviet people still live with shortages of consumer goods. The grain harvest is still inadequate, the meat supply is still here-again, gone-again. The only real change is that front-page stories about the failure of the Gorbachev revolution now run not only in our press, but in theirs.
Those stories demonstrate a common confusion about how long it takes to change things. Ideas, prices, rules, and rhetoric can be altered overnight. They are information, not material, not bound by the physical laws of the planet. Concrete things like production lines or grain harvests may respond to new ideas, but the responses take a lot longer than most people expect.
During the energy crisis of 1973, President Nixon launched “Project Independence”, a plan to eliminate U.S. oil imports by 1980. He and his energy analysts vastly underestimated how long it would take to discover new oil deposits and bring them into production, build pipelines, insulate buildings, replace oil-burning machines and furnaces with substitutes that burn something else.
The price rises and policies of the Nixon era never came close to freeing the nation from oil imports. They did launch explorations, capital replacements, and energy conservation measures that gradually reduced petroleum demand and increased supply. Oil price finally dropped in 1985, 12 years and three Presidents later. Then President Reagan and Congress, misreading the price decrease as a sign of sudden abundance, undid many of the policies that had helped to shift the economy away from oil. Given the slow workings of the world, their actions will set up another oil crisis sometime in the 1990s.
When the value of the dollar started down in 1984, conventional wisdom and optimistic Republicans led everyone to expect a rapid end to the enormous U.S. trade deficit. The dollar dropped for three years before the trade balance even stopped getting worse. That delay unnerved everyone, including the stock market, but it shouldn’t have been surprising. A nation’s trade balance depends upon purchasing decisions, credit applications, orders, export-import permits, production changes, shipments, customs clearances, bill-paying. The value of the dollar can change in a day, but not the flow of trade.
Scientists first warned in 1972 that chlorofluorocarbon pollution could destroy the ozone layer. In 1985 the ozone hole over the Antarctic was discovered, in 1987 a global agreement to cut CFC production in half was signed, by 1997 that reduction should be in place. CFCs take about 15 years to work their way from the earth’s surface to the stratosphere, so a reduction in the rate of ozone depletion may start around 2012 — 40 years after the first warning. Many environmental problems operate on these inter-generational time scales. They have to be anticipated; they can’t be dealt with by waiting until all the proof is in.
There is one perverse blessing in the inherent slowness of physical change — reforms don’t take effect quickly, but stupidities don’t send us to hell in a handbasket as fast as some pessimists predict. The U.S. budget deficit has not yet collapsed the real economy. The deterioration of our education system is only slowly impacting our labor force and economic productivity. If we do nothing to correct them, those problems will hit us hard, of course, one, two, or three Presidents from now. But we do have time to work on them.
Causes and effects operate on time-scales far longer than the elective terms of politicians or the attention span of media. If we don’t realize that, we are doomed to expect too much, do too little too late, and give up too soon.
It took three generations to bring the Soviet Union to its present state. It will take at least a generation to revitalize it. It will take that long to restore our education system and make good the debts of the Reagan years. If we start tomorrow to reforest the earth and reduce fossil-fuel burning, we may be able to turn around the greenhouse effect sometime in the next century.
That’s not an argument to give up. It’s an argument to wise up, to be aware of the slowness of change, to be careful with snap judgements about what is and is not working, and above all, to get moving.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988