By Donella Meadows
–June 23, 1988–
I am proud of my country in many ways, but it never occurred to me to be proud of its two-headed staging nails, until Dmitry Kavtaradze identified them as a secret of our national success.
Dmitry is visiting as part of a USA-USSR exchange program in environmental education. At home he is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Moscow State University. For the last six months he has been visiting Dartmouth College, living at my farm, and teaching me a great deal about his country and mine.
Dmitry writes “stories” home to his wife Oksana and ten-year-old son Sergei, little vignettes about his life here. I’ve learned to ask him to translate the stories for me. Through them I come to appreciate things all around me that are so common I never notice them.
Teeth, for example. Dmitry’s first story home was about American teeth. Americans smile all the time, he wrote, even when they don’t especially feel like it. It seems to be a cultural habit that means nothing. But it does reveal for the close study of a foreigner the excellent condition of American teeth. Dmitry told his family about the tooth ritual at our place — baking soda, floss, rubber tips. It’s a pretty funny description, but an admiring one. “Nations should smile with healthy teeth,” he says.
Oksana and Sergei have also heard about buying eyeglasses in America — for a Russian it is an unbelievable flurry of personal service. (“The man FLIES around trying to please me! He puts the glasses on me to see if they fit around my ears! He bends them in hot sand and tries again and again until they fit just right!”)
Above all, Dmitry is fascinated with American tools. He wrote one story about his newly-purchased Barlow knife. And his most recent letter to Oksana and Sergei tells about the staging nail. To illustrate it Dmitry put a nail on a copying machine, and over its image he printed his story, written in Cyrillic script on a Macintosh computer.
Here is Dmitry’s story of the two-headed nail:
“I was struck by the obvious genius of this simple thing. But I couldn’t understand its purpose. Dennis explained to me that this nail is for the temporary putting together of wooden parts. It keeps them together very well, like an ordinary nail, but it is simple to pull out, taking the upper head with this tool — you know the tool? (Hand gesture here.)”
“We Soviets are trying to understand the secret of success of the American economy. We’re analyzing the system of management, the pricing structure, the computers. We’re so busy analyzing huge things that we’re missing the little things. We’re looking for the key. But maybe there is no key. Maybe there is a nail instead.”
“‘For want of a nail the kingdom was lost,’ you say. Today it is a nail with two heads. It should be put on the Official Seal of the United States, it should be your symbol, like our symbol, the hammer and sickle.”
“We need so much in our country things that work well without failing, simple things we use each day — faucets, ballpoint pens, electric bulbs, shoes, showers (really, you have in your country good showers). On the way to national success we can’t jump over these simple things. We can’t ignore the little, clever nails in our urgency to electrify all the country with nuclear power plants.”
At the top of his essay about the nail, Dmitry quotes a couplet from the poet Mayakovsky. He translates it: “The people who work hard for their country, they are so strong that if we could make nails from them, there could never be stronger nails.” Dmitry says, “we need good nails FOR the people, not FROM the people.”
It’s not that Soviets aren’t inventive. Dmitry tells me about a television program called “You Can Do It”, in which inventors show off their creations — electric wires on the roof to melt off icicles, new kinds of cars made from old parts. The trouble is, he says, that industry doesn’t take up these ideas. Until recently there was no way to move from being an inventor to being an entrepreneur.
Dmitry may have put his finger on an important observation not only for his country, but for ours too. We Americans are also, these days, looking at big things to try to recapture the success that once came to us so easily. We’re looking at trade barriers, at shoring up big business, at cheapening quality to be price-competitive, at convincing people to buy things they don’t need. We seem to pay less and less attention to small things that meet true needs, to self-reliance, carefulness and care, to high quality and real service, to the encouragement of small inventors and small businesses.
From our self-reliant, inventive, pioneer heritage we still have staging nails and Barlow knives, willingness to be responsible for our own selves (and teeth), willingness to serve others — enough to impress a Russian, anyway. Maybe we should take more notice of these small things, just in case it’s true that for want of a nail a kingdom can be lost.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988