By Donella Meadows
–May 7, 1998–
I refuse to wallow in despair. I firmly believe that human beings are sensible enough not to destroy their own life-support systems. But I have to admit, sometimes there’s a spate of news that makes me wonder.
In April a deadly “red tide” suddenly appeared on the China coast, where one had never been seen before. It wiped out fish farms in a matter of hours, leaving thousands of tons of rotting fish. Scientists say it was caused by warm ocean temperatures and runoff from fertilizers and sewage. China responded not by controlling fertilizers and sewage, but by setting up a satellite-based early warning system.
A few weeks ago sixteen botanical gardens and scientific organizations said in a sober news conference that 34,000 vascular plant species are endangered worldwide, including 14 percent of the rose family, 32 percent of lilies, 29 percent of palms, and 75 percent of yews (in which an important cancer-fighting chemical was recently discovered). In the United States 29 percent of all higher plants are threatened.
Here’s a blow: one of those plants in trouble is the cacao tree, from which chocolate is made. Normally scattered through the understory of rainforests, cacao is not happy in plantations. In spite of heavy applications of fertilizers and pesticides, it keeps getting diseases. The standard response has been to clear more rainforest and start new plantations. Now candy-bar makers, faced with a worldwide shortage of both chocolate and rainforest, have come to a revolutionary decision: forget plantations; go back to production by small farmers raising mixed crops under native forest.
That’s the most intelligent industry decision I’ve heard in awhile. The least intelligent comes from the American Petroleum Institute, which is to global climate as the Tobacco Institute is to lung health. It spends millions to convince us that global warming is not a problem, so we can go on blithely driving our sports utility vehicles. Unfortunately for Exxon, Chevron, and the other companies attending a recent API workshop, the plan developed there was leaked, so we know exactly how they will brainwash us next.
Their target is the Kyoto agreement, the global pledge that industrial countries will cut their fossil fuel consumption by a few percent in the next few years. (Not enough to stabilize the climate, but enough to infuriate the oil industry.) To dissuade us from this foolishness, the API intends to set up a “Global Climate Science Data Center” from which journalists and legislators can find out “the truth” about global warming. And a “Science Education Task Group” to infiltrate the schools. And briefings for science writers, a stream of petroleum-funded op-ed columns and letters to the editors, and a major TV news report.
Finally they intend to find and train five “independent” scientists to counter the thousands of scientists who have concluded through an actually independent process that global warming is real and dangerous. I guess it’s a tribute to scientists that the oil companies assume only five can be bought. Or maybe an insult to the American public that they assume only five bought scientists will do the trick.
Meanwhile, toxic sludge from a ruptured mine reservoir near Seville, Spain, has buried 25,000 acres of crops and seeped into a national park, despite assurances by the Spanish government that the mine was safe. Park rangers are firing guns to scare away birds from contaminated areas, while volunteers clear away dead fish and birds.
And surprise! Studies have just shown that “restored wetlands” — places that developers scoop out and flood in order to get permission to destroy a real wetland somewhere else — do not attract wildlife, protect species, cycle nutrients, or accumulate organic matter like real wetlands do. Science magazine calls them “a kind of ecological counterfeit.”
Sigh. How many more alarm bells does the earth have to ring, before we slow down the destruction and learn a little respect?
Here’s the most mixed-message piece of news I’ve heard lately. A working group of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development met in March. It included representatives from Coors, Johnson & Johnson, Philips Electronics, Fiat, Proctor & Gamble, 3M, Shell, Dow, Unilever, DuPont, plus many invited economist and environmentalists. The topic was, believe it or not, “sustainable consumption,” and some remarkable ideas were discussed.
“All stakeholders, including business, will have to contribute to the development of a new paradigm, ‘sustainability in the marketplace.’ The notion that we can design our way ‘out of this mess’ emerged as a popular theme. It was countered by suggestions that this technological revolution needs to be accompanied by a deep shift in personal/social values — to really move us to a sustainable global society.”
So there, you see. We humans can be sensible. However, the sustainable consumption meeting also went on to this disturbing conclusion: “The businesses in the room were relatively quiet, and several participants commented on the apparent reluctance of business to take a high profile in the meeting or provide a clear vision of where they are headed. One telling remark was that the problem of business taking action on this issue … needed to be addressed by ‘someone.’”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998