By Donella Meadows
–April 12, 1990–
Earth Day is at its best at the neighborhood level with nature hikes and trash pickups — but it’s bigger than that. It features resounding speeches by politicians, some of them sincere, but it’s bigger than that too. Every school in Thailand is planting a tree; every church in Costa Rica is giving an earth sermon; there are concerts in the USSR, a Rainforest Roadshow in Japan, and a beach clean-up in Tanzania — but I think, and hope, that Earth Day is bigger than all that.
Earth Day 1990 could be one of those people’s demonstrations, like the ones in Leipzig and Prague, that launch a revolution. The revolutionary opportunity is not just the exchange of one government for another. It is equivalent to only two other revolutions in human history — the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions.
About 8000 years ago, when some hunter-gatherers started domesticating animals, cultivating plants, and founding humanity’s first permanent settlements, they could not have envisioned what an immense change they started. It altered the face of the planet and the thoughts of humanity. For the first time it made sense to OWN land. People who stayed in one place could ACCUMULATE things. The ideas of wealth, inheritance, trade, money, and power were born. Some people lived on excess food produced by others and became full-time potters, tool-makers, musicians, scribes, priests, soldiers, or kings.
As its inheritors, we think of that Revolution as a great step forward. At the time it was a mixed blessing. Agriculture was not a better way of life, but a necessary one, because of increasing population and decreasing game. Settled farmers got more food from an acre of land, but the food was of lower quality and less variety, and it required a lot more work. Farmers became vulnerable, as nomads never were, to weather, disease, pests, invasion, and oppression from their emerging ruling class. Since they no longer moved away from their wastes, they experienced humankind’s first environmental problems.
The Industrial Revolution was also an adaptation to the problem of populations growing beyond their resource base. Agriculture was a response to wildlife scarcity; industry to land and energy scarcity. The Industrial Revolution began with science and coal and led quickly to steam engines and capitalism.
Again, everything changed. There were roads and railroads, factories and smoke. The cities swelled. Again, the change was a mixed blessing. Human labor became harder and more demeaning. The environment turned unspeakably filthy. The standard of living for most workers was far below that of a yeoman farmer. But work in a factory was better than starving on the crowded land.
It’s hard for us to appreciate how profoundly the Industrial Revolution changed human thought, because we still think its thoughts. Historian Donald Worster described the thought-revolution like this: “The capitalists … promised that, through the technological domination of the earth, they could deliver a more fair, rational, efficient, and productive life for everyone…. That meant teaching everyone to treat the earth, as well as each other, with a frank, energetic, self-assertiveness…. People must … think constantly in terms of making money. They must regard everything around them — the land, its natural resources, their own labor — as potential commodities that might fetch a profit in the market…. As wants multipled, as markets grew more and more far-flung, the bond between humans and the rest of nature was reduced to the barest instrumentalism.”
That bare instrumentalism engendered incredible material success and severe environmental degradation. It created the necessity for the next revolution.
Few of us picking up trash and carrying Earth banners are thinking of a thoroughgoing revision of human culture. But down deep most of us know that’s the direction our concern will lead. We know it is impossible to go on finding and wasting oil, leveling forests, paving land, dumping poisons, and multiplying our numbers. A new way of life, a new set of thoughts MUST be found.
A new thought is already here, in fact, in the idea of SUSTAINABILITY — a word that has just surfaced in the discourse of the industrial world. It means, very simply, using the planet’s resources in a way that doesn’t diminish the resources of future generations.
It’s as impossible for us to describe a sustainable world as it would have been for the farmers of 6000 B.C. to foresee present-day Iowa or the English coal miners of 750 to imagine a Toyota assembly line. We only know that such a world would use energy with painstaking efficiency. It would respect, re-use, and recycle materials. It would have a stable population. The thoughts in people’s heads would be about harmony with nature, rather than conquest.
Like the other great Revolutions, an Environmental Revolution will require sacrifices and lead to enormous gains. It too will change the face of the land and human institutions, hierarchies, self-definitions, and cultures. It will take centuries.
If it happens. There is no guarantee. The alternative is the ecological and economic impoverishment of a culture that cannot adapt to its environmental necessities.
William D. Ruckelshaus, former EPA administrator, expressed in a recent Scientific American the enormity of the challenge, “Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation, guided by the best foresight that science can provide…. If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on the earth.” two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990