By Donella Meadows
–May 12, 1988–
Normally I can handle the glut of paper I find in my mailbox each day. Computer-generated stuff gets chucked out unopened. The rest I scan at lightning speed. Some I set aside to read carefully — interesting, timely reports, sent by friends and organizations who help keep me in touch with the world. They sometimes send upsetting cries of outrage or cries for help, but day by day I can handle it.
When I have been out in the world myself, though, and then come home to a month’s accumulation of mail, I can’t cope. Maybe it’s because I’m still bleary-eyed from jet lag. Maybe I’m so full of experiences of the poverty of Africa, the traffic of Bangkok, the acid rain of Europe, that the cries in the mail seem too real and immediate to absorb calmly. Whatever the reason, the month of mail has overwhelmed me, not only in its volume, but in the messages it carries about the state of the planet.
Starving children. Endangered species. Nuclear weapons. Here’s a publication from the Center for Defense Information about the nuclear disarmament agreement signed by Reagan and Gorbachev last December. The U.S. will pull 429 nuclear warheads out of Europe but will still have 4,150 remaining there and is planning to add still more. Europe is still a nuclear battleground.
The Audubon May issue features the beauties of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the oil companies’ intention to build roads, gravel pits, airstrips, garbage dumps, and drilling rigs there.
A paper by Gus Speth, President of World Resources Institute, says that pollution is more a problem of the Third World than of the industrialized world. Air pollution is worse in most Third World cities than in Europe or the U.S. In the past decade chemical industries have grown faster in the developing countries than in the developed. The highest human body loads of lead, cadmium, and pesticides are now being found in places like Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, India, and China.
My friend Nathan Gray writes about the deforestation he sees traveling in the Philippines for the American Jewish World Service: “We were crouched at the edge of a deep gash in the hillside; a slide had thrown a dozen trees and a small office-building-worth of mud and boulders down into the creek. Looking at the ridge above I saw a line of tree stumps. As I looked again at the cascade, I saw the story in the water. The living skin of Kanla-on was being peeled away, and precious soil was bleeding into her streams.”
“This is the work of loggers, followed by people who know little about growing food and nothing about protecting the soil. One company, slicing up 120,000 board feet of lumber a day, has cleared and left barren 125,000 acres in southern Negros. Now the refugees of the gluttonous campaign — the hungry, the displaced, the landless — are here unwittingly continuing the destructive work.”
Another newsletter begins with a quote by Thomas Berry that sums up the whole batch of mail: “In the twentieth century, the glory of the humans has been the desolation of the earth. The desolation of the earth is becoming the destiny of the humans.”
I feel like saying, “Hey, come on folks, these are the Upbeat Eighties, it can’t be all that bad.”
Indeed it isn’t all that bad. Here’s a publication from the United Nations Environment Program full of stories about energetic projects to combat desertification in Africa. The Hunger Action Forum has a nice piece describing how England during the most difficult years of World War II saw that “the health of its people was as indispensable as the strength of its weaponry”. Winston Churchill declared, “There is no finer investment than putting milk in babies.” The nutritional status of the British population at the end of the war was the highest in British history.
Remarkable things can be accomplished, if you get your priorities straight.
I guess that’s why the month’s mail depresses me so. It’s not about hopeless, unsolvable problems. It’s about unecessary, stupid tragedies caused by not having priorities straight. Poor countries choose chemical manufacture over the health of their people. The U.S. chooses one last possible Alaskan oil discovery over renewable energy and one last untouched wilderness. The Philippines chooses to clearcut the forest once and lose the soil forever. The superpowers choose nuclear weapons rather than making peace. These choices are made by a few to serve their own greed, at the expense of the many and of the future.
What can you do when the mail brings messages like that? Stop reading? Sigh and write out a few small checks?
You and I are capable of more powerful responses than those. They are the responses that would come naturally, if we knew our neighborhood were about to be despoiled by someone who would reap a quick profit and leave the place uninhabitable. After all, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988