By Donella Meadows
–February 9, 1989–
“I want my government to tell me what to do when it comes to recycling trash, and I want them to make it easy.
“I want my government to appropriate money to solar energy research instead of things like star wars.
“I want my government to tax me heavily if I choose to have more than two children.
“If I fail to live up to the laws that will help us co-exist with nature, I want it to affect my wallet.”
This set of demands comes from Jonathan Bodge of Danbury, Connecticut, a reader who objects to a column I wrote about what individuals can do to help the environment. Separate and recycle your garbage, I wrote. Use energy more efficiently. Start a compost heap.
Baloney, replies Mr. Bodge.
He says, “Our little contributions to recycling aren’t going to do squat to save this planet. Economic considerations and population growth will overpower all our idealistic approaches. I feel no obligation to recycle packaging. The manufacturers should do it; they spew the stuff out and expect us to deal with their pollution. And hey, if I can go down to 7-11 and buy oil, antifreeze, flashlight batteries and styrofoam cups in five minutes, why should it take me hours to dispose of them properly?
He goes on, “Citizens have a small part to play, manufacturers have a greater role and the government has the greatest. It is legal for me to dump toxic pollutants down my drain, throw away as much trash as I can generate, have as many kids as I want, waste as much gasoline as my Cadillac will devour. These things should be illegal. Recycling centers should be as frequent as McDonalds. But this is America. It won’t happen.”
They say that the opposite of a small truth is a lie, but the opposite of a large truth is another large truth. I suspect that Mr. Bodge and I are on opposite sides of a large truth.
Of course governments and corporations can summon power and resources far beyond what you and I can do in our own households or neighborhoods or communities. If a dedicated few of us are the only ones to do our bit for the environment, while the great powers of the world do nothing, the ecosystems of earth are doomed.
But I’m not going to lean back until the government makes me shape up. The way I see it, there’s not a one-way flow of influence — governments make citizens do good. Just as often it works the other way around — citizens lead governments to do good. Or it works in a circle — the people lead, then the government leads, then the people again, individuals and institutions influencing each other in a complex dance.
The people nearly always lead first. When perfectly fine folks get into big government and big corporations, they become timid and unimaginative. Very few will try to make changes, however necessary the changes might be. If I were responsible for billions of dollars or millions of people, I’d be conservative too. I’d go slow. I’d probably hem and haw, make nice sounds, and take no risks, until someone else had shown the way.
But individuals can be adventurers. They can tinker with solar collectors in their back yards, garden without toxic chemicals, fool around with energy-saving lightbulbs. Blessings on them, plenty of folks are willing to put their time and lifestyles on the line to do experiments, make mistakes, learn, lead, and show the hesitant Powers That Be how to follow. They’re also the ones who put the pressure on, so the Powers That Be WILL follow.
Thousands of individuals discovered they could live without polystyrene-packaged hamburgers, and that brought the McDonald’s Corporation, then the plastics industry, and finally many state and local governments to start rethinking our wasteful, polluting ways with plastic. That story isn’t over yet, but it’s changed enormously in just a few years because of citizen pressure.
Joe Garbarino of Marin County in California has transformed his waste-hauling business into a huge facility to reuse and resell materials from trash. He is pioneering what will someday (not long from now) be both a profitable industry and a practical necessity.
In the 1970s individuals reacted to higher energy prices by demanding more fuel-efficient cars. They forced the auto industry to double the average mileage of new U.S.-made cars. The government didn’t do that, though Congress did impose weak mileage standards. In fact customers demanded and companies supplied cars more efficient than the standards, right up to 1985 when oil price went down again. At that point the government, pressured by industry, abdicated its leadership by rolling back the standards.
I can see why you’re frustrated, Jonathan Bodge. Our “leaders” can be unbelievably selfish and short-sighted.
But the last thing I’d do with my frustration is discourage the recyclers, the plastic-boycotters, the organic farmers, the folks who buy efficient cars, who insulate their homes, who write their Congressmen. They don’t deserve to be told they make no difference. They deserve medals. They’re the ones with the guts to make the crucial difference, the first little pioneering difference, the difference that leads the way toward the much greater difference that governments and corporations can and MUST make, if the environment is to be saved.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989