By Donella Meadows
–July 25, 1996–
When Josef Vavrousek was killed last year, buried by an avalanche with his 19-year-old daughter Petra while hiking in the Tatra mountains, the Czech people ached with sorrow. The budding green movement was especially stricken; Vavrousek had been their leader. After his nation liberated itself from communism, Vavrousek served as its environmental minister. Like his president Vaclav Havel, he fought for freedom and he did his best to bring humane governance to his newly free republic.
Recently I received from Pavla Polechova of the Green Circle in Prague her translation of an article Vavrousek wrote in 1993. Especially now that he is gone, the article reads like a testament, a warning, a benediction and a work program. It also shows how confused are the people who accuse environmentalists of being green on the surface and red underneath. Vavrousek knew first-hand the evils of a communist regime. That did not lead him to conclude that free-swinging capitalism is the way to go. He sought earnestly for a way to transcend both systems.
Here is my Americanization of Polechova’s translation of Vavrousek’s words. He outlines nine “relations” that modern society has got wrong and suggests nine alternatives.
The relation of human beings to nature is one of depredation, based on the assumption that nature is a bottomless resource for our whims and a passive playing field for our purposes. The alternative: an awareness that we belong to nature, a respect for life in all its forms, use of the environment only within its carrying capacity, and a rapid transition to the sustainable use of renewable resources.
The relation of individuals to society is either competitiveness and individualism, based on the assumption that the egotistical behavior of individuals somehow serves society as a whole, OR a false collectivity, based on the assumption that individual interests should always be subordinated to the whole. Either extreme leads to the concentration of power in the hands of a few, depriving the people of rights and freedoms. The alternative: a balance between competition and cooperation and between individual and collective — where the collective is not just family, community, state or nation, but humanity as a whole.
The relation to goals for society and self is dominated by an obsession with material growth, based on the belief (central to both capitalism and communism) that ever more production and consumption are evidence of progress. Individually that goal translates into accumulating money and goods as the measure of success. The alternative: qualitative development, focused on human relationships and on science, culture, spirit, and intellect.
Our relation to freedom stresses rights while ignoring responsibilities. The freedom of an individual is reduced to the freedom to make money and consume goods. The alternative: respect the symmetry of freedom and responsibility, both in our relationships with other human beings and with nature — and realize that there are more freedoms, and more important freedoms, than just economic ones.
Our relation to knowledge overestimates the extent, depth, and reliability of our knowledge and of our ability to foresee and regulate development. We glorify rationality and narrow causal thinking. The alternative: take care with our interventions into society or nature, expect consequences that are not foreseen, go more cautiously, complement the rational approach with intuition and feelings. Bring together the scientific and the artistic ways of viewing the world. (Vavrousek, by the way, was trained as an engineer.)
Because our relation to our own lives is one of alienation, we have a society full of people who see no positive purpose for themselves and have never been taught to correct unsuccessful or destructive behavior. The alternative: positive role models and continuous, systematic correction of negative actions against health and the environment.
Our relation to future generations is nonexistent, because of our short-term focus. We draw down nonrenewable resources and spoil renewable ones, leaving behind irreversible damage. Neither centralized planning nor the market has demonstrated its ability to act with a long time perspective. The alternatives: a commitment to future generations and sustainable resource use, regulation of the market within the framework of law, with the law written from a long-term viewpoint.
The relation to those who are different is one of intolerance. We try to solve conflict by force, we undervalue other cultures and fail to learn from them, we come to them with aggression, expressed through war or economics or culture. The alternative: better understanding of other kinds of experience, realization that we can learn from others, mutual tolerance while conserving our own ideals.
The relation to government is overwhelmingly passive and resentful, especially in the one-time socialist countries, but also in the Western democracies. Civic participation is limited to casting a ballot once every four years — if that. (Pavla Polechova told me of the years of fake elections under communism, when you were required to go vote but there were no candidates you really wanted to vote for. I told her we have the same situation, except that we’re not required to vote.) The alternative: a strongly participatory democracy where elections offer real choices and every citizen can truly take part in decision-making.
In one sense we all know these truths that Vavrousek articulated; in another sense, we are strengthened every time they are spoken or written, because so many people and especially so many leaders actively pursue their opposites. The Czechs were not the only people who lost a strong moral compass with Vavrousek’s death. The loss was the world’s.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996