By Donella Meadows
–January 13, 1994–
“THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN VALUES” reads a recent headline. The subhead elaborates: “Right and Left Agree on This: Spiritual Crisis Grips the Land.”
Two stories on the same page illustrate the point, one for the right, the other for the left. Michael Jackson denies allegations that he sexually abused children. A local bank president, found guilty of bribery and money laundering walks out of the courtroom saying, “I’d be proud to go to jail for the things I did. I’d do them over again.”
Depraved sexuality. Corruption in high places. Citizens shot down in subways by mindless misfits with powerful weapons. There surely is a breakdown of morality in America, and public figures from President Clinton to Jesse Jackson to Dan Quayle are sounding off about it. Conservative former Education Secretary William Bennett’s solution is, predictably, to roll back welfare programs, because “government arrogates responsibility unto itself, and this ends up taking responsibility from the American people.” The White House answer is, predictably, to increase police forces and urban renewal programs, and to reform, but not eliminate, welfare.
However they fulminate about what government should do or not do, most commentators, left and right, agree that the spiritual vacuum is not really a government problem. Columnist Cal Thomas says, “It is not a crisis in government — it is a crisis in us.” “Our problems lie beyond the reach of politics alone,” says Norman Lear. The man in the White House charged with doing something, deputy director of domestic policy William A. Galston, doesn’t think he can do much. “We don’t have enough carrots or sticks to put things right. If a majority of our citizens don’t do what’s right because it’s right, we’ll never solve our problems.”
That’s a touching sentiment. It would have been even more touching if Galston had called first not upon citizens, but upon government leaders, corporate leaders, media leaders to do what’s right because it’s right. Ordinary folks are far from perfect, but the rich, powerful, and visible demonstrate daily and for the most part unapologetically, behavior of a far lower moral quality than anything you and I are likely even to think up, much less do.
And we let them get away with it.
They sell, and we buy, society-rotting drivel. We switch on dials that bring their insidious messages of violence, lust, and materialism into our homes. We watch them make public policy out of purest self-interest, and then we re-elect them. They run banks into the ground. They enrich themselves openly at our expense. They let their own sexual urges run riot. They pad the expense budget, cheapen the product, lie to the people, arm the dictator, while ignoring the cries of the hungry and oppressed. The press reports these activities as if they are to be expected. Then everyone wonders what has happened to America’s values.
To take just a few statistics from Paul Hawken’s excellent new book, The Ecology of Commerce:
Every year the average Congressperson takes seven junkets, paid for by corporations, to luxury vacation spots.
Over 400 members of the Reagan administration were charged with criminal conduct.
Of the Fortune 500 companies, 115 were convicted of crime during the 1980s.
Hawken bursts out in one impassioned paragraph: “When the chief counsel of Louisiana-Pacific … is appointed Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the Forest Service, and his first act is to demand that timber sales increase in the national forests, and Louisiana-Pacific is the largest purchaser …, what shall we call it? What ideals were served when Perkin-Elmer, Honeywell, Hewlett Packard, and Unisys sold millions of dollars of equipment to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission …, equipment that is primarily useful for building bombs and missiles? When Senator Alfonse D’Amato receives more than $900,000 from individuals and PACs representing the financial services industry, … and then scuttles the 1985 legislation that would have forbidden savings and loans associations from buying junk bonds, a prelude to the S&L disaster that has cost taxpayers over $200 billion, and this is not called graft or corruption …, can it still be called governance? Or is it business when Neal Bush, director of Silverado Savings and Loan, waits until the day after his father is elected president before announcing the closing of that bankrupt institution with losses to the taxpayers of $1 billion?”
Spiritual renewal cannot be found in more prisons, two-parent families, prayer in school, gun control, voluntary reform of the entertainment industry, or revitalized block associations. It doesn’t lie in powerful people telling less powerful people to shape up. The most anyone can do to upgrade the moral tone of a society is to offer a shining example — and to do so while avoiding the sin of pride.
We citizens can keep blatant materialism, irresponsible sexuality, and everyday cheating out of our own lives. We can organize our households to depend as little as possible upon activities that despoil nature or demean people. We can work to heal our own wounds and addictions, to forgive and seek forgiveness. We can approach those who need help not with condescension or ideology or even advice, but with compassion and generosity.
And we can insist upon at least as much from our leaders, starting with deputy policy director Galston in the White House. We should remind him that if the majority of our leaders don’t do what’s right because it’s right, we will never solve our problems.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994