By Donella Meadows
–June 21, 1990–
Last Saturday’s newspaper, full of the normal sorts of bizarre stories, struck me with a sudden sense of wonder. What kind of world are we living in? I found myself asking. Is there a trend, and if so, is it leading toward salvation or ruin? Is the universe just? Are we?
The paper, in the best Zen tradition, answered with nothing but paradox. The amount of oil spilled from the Mega Borg is now estimated at 4.3 million gallons, it said. That makes it the nation’s fifth largest oil spill. (The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons.) They are using bacteria to clean it up. “The bacteria eats the oil and reduces it to a fatty substance that fish can eat. When the oil runs out, the microbes die.” An ungrammatical and unscientific explanation of a good idea — using a natural process — to clean up after a bad practice — transporting oil by the millions of gallons to a world of wasteful addicts.
Speaking of addicts, another story said that farmers in Eastern Kentucky are paying off their grocery bills and buying new pickup trucks for the first time in history, because they’re growing marijuana in the hills. ($1200 per plant — wow! I’ve got the wrong kind of farm!). Four out of ten people in some counties are in the pot business, and apparently the other six approve. When the narcotics cops come around, the gas stations close, and the general stores don’t know nothin’ about nobody.
Now is that a sad story about the immoral practice of raising drugs, or a hopeful one about community solidarity and independence? Is it bad news or good that some ill-gotten drug money is reaching homefolks who need it? Meanwhile Donald Trump missed a payment of $31 million in interest and principle on junk bonds used to finance the Trump Castle casino. Ha! There is justice in the world. He who flies too high falls with a thump. What nasty fun it is to watch it happen!
But the article about dog fashion showed that the world is full of Trumps. Sixty bucks for a hand-knit dog sweater, $120 for a canine Burberry raincoat. Mary Jane Weiskopf of New York City says, “Tomorrow I’m wearing a red plaid Valentino jacket and Alice will be wearing her red raincoat…. Alice … has gone from her Southwestern mood to her Leopard mood to her Chanel mood — and now she has close to 20 sweaters.” For $120 Pet Limo in Beverly Hills will pick up a dog in a white stretch limousine, take it to a salon for grooming, dress it in a rented tuxedo or sequined evening gown and return it in time for a party.
Now we can do even a better job of training our children to fly high in the thin air of mindless materialism. Whittle Communications is trying to sell Channel One to Vermont schools — 12 minutes of news and two minutes of commercials every day in the classroom. Now even in school they can learn to love Burger King, Nike, Warner-Lambert, Columbia Pictures, Procter & Gamble, Frito-lay, M&M and Mars candies. I suppose church will be next.
What they don’t seem to be learning in school is arithmetic — though someone is teaching recycling. Another story says, “Americans are generating garbage in record amounts, but more of it is being recycled or incinerated and substantially less is going into landfills.” It says we are now recycling 13 percent of our trash; in 1960 we recycled only seven percent. But garbage output has doubled since 1960 and now totals 180 million tons per year.
Good news, bad mathematics. Calculate out those percents: in 1960 we recycled 6 million tons, in 1990 23 million tons — a terrific fourfold increase. Incineration has stayed the same, said the article, about 27 million tons per year. That leaves 56 million tons for landfills in 1960 and 130 million tons in 1990. More than twice as much is going to landfills, not “substantially less.”
Recycling more garbage, generating still more, and unable to calculate. Are we ahead or behind?
In an unexpected reversal of an unpopular decision, the Bush administration has agreed to contribute $25 million to a fund to help Third World nations find substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons. There’s one important step toward saving the ozone layer.
And then there is a survey showing that 89 percent of dairy farmers shipping milk to a local cooperative oppose the use of bovine somatotropic hormone, a product of genetic engineering that will rev up cows to produce more milk. The farmers fear it could be unsafe for cows and for humans, and that it would contribute to the dairy surplus and drive farmers out of business. But only 68 percent say they will refuse to use the hormone if it becomes available.
Putting down the paper I repeated to myself a saying I heard once: pessimism and optimism are two different forms of the same oversimplicity. I went out to the garden and picked a great salad of spinach, lettuce, and dill. The flea beetles were reducing the broccoli seedlings to dying stubs — good news to President Bush, bad news to me. A raccoon came in the early morning and killed our broody hen and her chick. The next night we shot him. The first strawberries ripened. We got the hay in dry before the rain. The sunset was gorgeous.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990