By Donella Meadows
–March 16, 1989–
Ann Landers ran a tribute recently to today’s senior citizens, who have survived a lifetime of change.
She pointed out that they were here before the Pill, penicillin, plastic, and pantyhose, before television, Xerox, ball point pens. Before tape recorders, much less CD players, before the 40-hour week, co-ed dormitories, computers. They have gone through a lot. They have adjusted to great transformations.
Peggy Streit, the editor of “World Development Forum” was prompted by that tribute to think about the senior citizens of 100 years from now. What changes will they witness? Her imaginings were not cheerful:
“They will be the ones who were here before the seas rose to flood coastal plains around the world; before the Panama Canal was silted up; before the headwaters of the Nile became a trickle; before the AIDS epidemic decimated cities on three continents.
“They were around when the Amazon forests were something you could visit rather than read about in history books; when venturesome travelers could still see gorillas, elephants, sea turtles, and bald eagles; when only a handful of lakes had gone lifeless; when sunbathing was fashionable and not fatal; when Los Angeles was a megalopolis with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and free drinking water.
“They will remember when the USA and USSR — then called superpowers — still thought the name of the global game was ideology, not ecology.
“Those senior citizens, if they are not extinguished in a nuclear winter, may have to be an even hardier bunch than their ancestors of 1989. Unless, that is, nations heed their scientists and begin soon a massive, concerted effort to save their fragile planet.”
That vision of a dismal future is a common one these days, and understandably so. An ecologically deranged earth is at the end of the path our current world is hotly pursuing. The reason for describing it, as Peggy Streit has done, is to try to whip up some political will, some intention NOT to travel in that direction.
The trouble with such descriptions, though, is that they may stimulate not will but denial. They only point out the way NOT to go. Political will is more readily summoned for a way forward to a desirable future. We need to imagine not only a desolated world 100 years from now, but also one that has achieved sustainability, peace, and justice.
So here’s the beginning of another possible tribute to the senior citizens of 2089. I invite you to add to it.
The elders of 2089 were here before the cities were re-greened, when the streets were still unsafe and when people choked on pollution. They themselves helped to reclaim waste spaces, build up topsoil, and plant trees. They witnessed the harnessing of solar energy and the phasing out of polluting machines powered by coal, oil, and nuclear reactions.
They can remember when people actually tried to control pests by spraying poisons over the whole countryside. They helped pioneer the agricultural revolution that produced high yields using elegant natural controls instead of toxic chemicals.
They think back with disbelief on the times of their parents, when people tossed away mountains of paper, metal, and plastic and then went to great expense to wrest more from the soils and rocks of the earth. They remember learning how to recycle; some of them were enriched by investing early in the great materials recycling industry.
They were the first generation to think of the societal implications when they chose the number of children they would have — and they had two at most. They were also the first generation with whom society worked wholeheartedly to assure the sustenance, the health care, and the first-class education of every one of their children.
These elders saw with their own eyes the teams of tree-planters reclaiming the deserts and reversing the greenhouse effect. They saw the Amazon forests regenerate and streams everywhere begin to flow clear. They remember the news reports when, one by one, the populations of gorillas, elephants, bald eagles began to rise again.
They are the last generation to have experienced what it was like when much of the human race was hungry and desperate; when great areas of the world were poor, oppressed and angry. They are profoundly grateful that they can now travel anywhere and find sufficiency, stability, warmth, and welcome.
They remember living under the terrifying shadow of nuclear war. They also remember the historic day when the last nuclear weapons were dismantled and people everywhere turned out in the greatest celebration the world has ever seen. They love to tell stories of that day. They say their lives have been great, but that was the greatest day of all.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989