By Donella Meadows
–January 18, 1990–
When modern doctors want to eliminate rogue cells that have formed a cancer, they bombard them with lethal radiation. They use linear accelerators, marvelous instruments that provide steady, reproducible streams of radiation from any angle at any dose.
Inevitably most of the radiation does not hit cancer cells. It hits healthy cells, killing them, deranging normal body functions, weakening the immune system, and possibly inducing new cancers.
When modern farmers want to eliminate pests from their crops, they choose from an impressive array of poisons, crafted in laboratories, mass-produced in factories, available at amazingly low prices.
They spray the countryside with 430 million pounds of poisons each year, 98% of which never hit the pests. They hit the soils, the waters, the bugs’ natural enemies, and innocent bystanders of many species — including us.
When the President of a modern superpower gets mad at the tinhorn dictator of a country one hundredth the size of his own, he sends 24,000 soldiers to capture that man. The soldiers command machines and weapons breathtaking in their power and deadliness. They smash through a city, disrupt the civil order, kill hundreds of civilians (and a few dozen of themselves), and create such havoc that they must stay around to prop up the crumbling government and economy.
The technologies that support these activities are tributes to the knowledge, creativity and determination of the human race. The mentality that underlies them, however, is not far removed from that of the most primitive cave-man. UGH! BAD!! SMASH!!!
The difference between us and the cave-men is that our instruments for smashing are vastly more powerful and our rationalizations more complex. I like to think, anyway, that the cave-man did not suffer from enough guilt or hypocrisy to label his depredations “Operation Just Cause.”
The Smash Your Enemy mentality has always driven the practice of war, but in our society it drives much else. We fight Battles against Cancer and a War on Drugs. We call our pesticides Rambo, Salute, Top Gun, Command. We attack far too many problems through emotions of fear and rage. Act and act fast. Flatten the opposition. Lay waste the territory, if you must, but gun the bad guys down. Sacrifice anything and everything to the limited, violent objectives of the warrior.
There are, of course, more advanced ways of thinking. In quiet corners of our society people are working on problems like cancer, agricultural pests, dictators, and hostile foreign powers, starting from a premise much more thoughtful than “Nuke ‘Em”.
These people stand back and look hard at the whole system (body, crop, nation) that is suffering the problem. They study similar systems that DON’T succumb to cancer, DON’T get invaded by pests, DON’T submit to dictators. They ask, what accounts for internal strength in some places and not others? Instead of charging in and ravaging the system, leaving it less able to function, they build up its capacity to heal itself.
This kind of thinking can be found in the organic farming movement, the holistic health movement, the peace and community development movements. Organic farming is the one I know best. Those farmers have shifted their attention from the pests to the soil that nourishes their crops. Healthy plants on healthy soil have uncanny abilities to repel pests. If a bug does get out of hand, organic farmers mobilize nature’s defense forces, the pest’s natural enemies. Perhaps most important, they no longer plant the same crop mile after mile, year after year, thereby preparing a perfect pest breeding ground. They stop creating their own problem.
There are analogues of these techniques in other arenas — strengthening the body’s immune system, empowering people with the confidence and skills to govern themselves, stopping the destructive behaviors that cause cancer (such as smoking) and that cause the breakdown of public trust (such as funding and arming dictators as long as they’re on “our side”).
The trouble is, the alternative movements have been tolerated only on the fringe of our aggressive society. They are disorganized and scattered. They do not speak with one well-funded voice, as do the medical establishment, the pesticide manufacturers, and the military-industrial complex. They attract, along with effective practitioners, charlatans and flakes. When you’re suddenly faced with a cancer, an insect horde in your cornfield, or an annoying dictator, it’s much easier to listen to the authoritative voice of organized violence than to sort out the more sophisticated but less tested ideas of the peaceful fringe.
But somewhere on that fringe, I think, is where the answers lie. I wouldn’t yet turn a hospital, the nation’s corn crop or the State Department over to the alternative thinkers. But I would allocate to them thousands of times more resources and respect than they are getting. I would work hard to separate the facts from the fancies in their ideas AND in those of the establishment. I expect we’d find about the same amount of mythology in both.
We’d probably also find that even with the best internal defenses there are times when we will need radiation therapy, pesticides, and invasion forces. The difference would be that we’d use them far less often, and with an entirely different, more complete, kinder, gentler mentality.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990