By Donella Meadows
–May 15, 1997–
We have a hard time seeing straight when we look at countries as large and potentially powerful as our own — countries such as Russia and China. We see mainly our own fears or expectations, and so we deceive ourselves, at enormous cost.
During the long, terrible decades of Russia’s communist rule, we systematically exaggerated its strength and resolve. It was, to be sure, an awful place. Every time I went there, I would find myself in tears or fury at the way people were treated, the secrecy and fear and ugliness. But all it took was one look around with open eyes, seeing what was there instead of what we had been taught, to understand that the USSR was poor, shabby and crumbling both physically and politically.
Most of the Russians I knew were scientists fighting the regime on environmental grounds. Even in the relatively privileged parts of Moscow where scientists moved, toilets didn’t flush properly, handles fell off doors, and everyone, everyone, undermined the economy through black-market transactions, sloppy work, and outright stealing. Construction projects were full of mismatches and mistakes. Materials disappeared. Data were fudged. Huge farms grew spotty crops. Nothing worked.
If anyone’s nuclear power plants were going to blow up, missiles misfire or airplanes crash, it would be Russia’s. That was the reason to be afraid of this empire, not the organized, diabolical, relentless power that was depicted to us, as we spent trillions of dollars and smeared radioactivity over our own land, preparing to blast this enemy to oblivion.
Now that swashbuckling capitalism has come to Russia, some of us, stuck in those years of distrust, still think of it as a mortal enemy. But our leadership calls Russia a friend. Not a close friend yet, but on our side, in our camp.
In fact the struggling Russian people have just been captured by one more set of cynical, cruel thugs, stealing what they can while their nation goes through economic free fall. We avert our eyes, because Russia, which once demonstrated by extreme example the structural faults of socialism, is now doing the same for capitalism.
The rich there are getting immensely richer, the poor even poorer. Seven tycoons, all previous communists, now control about half the wealth of the country. Forests, fish, minerals, and fuels are being snapped up and shipped out with no thought for the future. The government is for sale. At the time of the last “election,” two Yeltsin campaign workers were caught carrying $500,000 in cash of mysterious origin. Yeltsin’s party spent $100 million for a blitz of publicity and payments to campaign workers.
These problems sound ominously familiar to us. Today’s Russia has unsettling lessons for those who advocate free-ranging capitalism. They are not lessons we want to learn. So we prop up Russia’s criminals, while its people suffer.
Then there’s China. For years we were horrified by the way it crushed human rights. What we never chose to see was that China’s regimes, while they see-sawed through crazy and destructive ideological campaigns, were also providing basic needs and hopes for a huge, desperately impoverished population. They had some good ideas — barefoot doctors, village biogas plants, universal education, equal for everyone. If we had been able to see economic rights as well as civil rights, the ability to survive infancy as well as to vote, the guarantee of a job as well as freedom of speech, our picture of China would have been more complex and more accurate.
Now China has turned rampantly capitalist with no pretense of democracy, reminding us of something we too often forget — capitalism and democracy are not the same thing. China’s economy has changed, its human rights have not, but now we smooth over what we used to denounce. We declare China a Most Favored trading partner, because, while it still imprisons people for their opinions, it does allow them to work in Nike factories and buy Marlboros and Coke. We shake our fingers and chant “human rights,” but everyone understands that commercial rights are all we really care about.
If your only tool is a hammer, said psychologist Abraham Maslow, you treat everything as if it were a nail. If your only mission is to sell things, you see every population as a market. If you’re an arms-maker and arms-dealer, you see nothing but military enemies. If you think mainly about the welfare of people and the possibilities for lasting peace, you see a completely different set of good guys and bad guys, opportunities and dangers. What we in America see, as our mindsets, fears and fantasies are reflected back to us from other countries, through the filters of our media and our leaders, are distortions. We see only ourselves, in a fun-house mirror. That imperfect view costs us a bundle, blinds us to real dangers while terrorizing us with false ones, and makes it just about impossible to learn.
Every society on earth is a unique experiment. Every nation, including our own, has successes and failures. There are valuable lessons to be gained from them all, especially from those that are, like us, populous and well endowed with resources. That means not only Russia and China, but Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Zaire. But we can only learn if we are willing to see what’s there.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997