By Donella Meadows
–April 30, 1992–
From corporate boardrooms to primary classrooms to the World Bank to the poorest villages, people know that the human economy is taking too great a toll on nature, growing beyond sustainable limits. We know that, and we mourn the disappearing forests, soils, clear streams, clean air — and we worry. Some retreat into denial, but most of us ask, anxiously: What can we do?
Government officials often underestimate our willingness to act, if we can just see something that makes sense to do. We’ll turn out to plant trees or to pick up litter. Give us a little municipal encouragement, and we’ll recycle like crazy. That’s wonderful — recycling helps — but most of us also know that the present situation requires more of us than recycling our bottles and cans.
What else can we do?
There are many good answers to that question floating around. Read and learn about the world. Limit your own family size. Be a green consumer, not a mindless shopper. Get the junk out of your life, from junk food to junk mail to junk media. Take care of a backyard garden or a neighborhood park.
Multiply your efforts by joining a group with common interests. Get on the tails of politicians; some things only governments can do. On a national level we need energy efficiency and solar energy; sensible, strict environmental regulations; unbiased resource pricing; better care of our common lands. On a global level we need concentrated efforts to protect the oceans and atmosphere, end poverty, and stop population growth.
People have been calling for measures like these for decades. Some of them are being carried out in some places, but much too slowly. My own analysis in Beyond the Limits suggests that the world has at most a few decades to make the feasible, affordable, beneficial, but enormous changes that can lead to a sustainable economy. Twenty or thirty years from now it will be too late.
So what REALLY can we do? In addition to the items on the above list, I’d like to suggest two more. I think they’re the true keys to a sustainable world. But they aren’t easy. They take great courage. They are so daunting that almost no one tries them. One: speak the truth. Two: operate from love.
SPEAK THE TRUTH. Speak it out loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power. Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence. All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as “enough.” Human progress must be assessed not by quantity but by quality. Our consumption-crazed society has lost its its direction and its soul.
I can assure you that saying these things will not make you popular. But if they are not said, over and over, so often that they begin to supersede the contrary messages that now dominate our airwaves and our lives, we will lose not only our souls, but also the natural systems that might someday support more enlightened souls.
OPERATE FROM LOVE. One is not allowed to say that seriously any more. Anyone who calls upon the human capacity for love, generosity, wisdom, will be met with a hail of cynicism. “Of all scarce resources, love is the scarcest,” I have heard people say.
I just don’t believe that. Love is not a scarce resource, it is an untapped one. Our jazzed-up, hustling, quantitative culture does not know how to tap it, how to discuss it, or even what it means.
I am a child of that culture myself, and worse, a scientifically trained one. I have been educated to trust in rationality, not in love. But I have also been trained to see whole systems, and the more I do that, the more I see that rationality and love are in fact the same thing. What is love, but the ability to identify with someone or something beyond your own skin? Love is the expansion of boundaries, the realization that another person, or family, or piece of land, or nation, or the whole earth is so intimately connected to you that your welfare and his, her, or its welfare are one and the same.
In truth, of course, we are all intimately interconnected with each other and with the earth. We have always been. Love has always been a practical idea, as well as a moral one. Now it is not only practical but urgent. It is time to accept the astonishing notion that to be rational, to ensure our own self-preservation, what is required of us is to be GOOD. We have to look far into the future, care for and share the resources of the earth, and moderate our numbers and desires. We have to — and we can — create a culture that draws out of us not only our technical creativity and our entrepreneurial cleverness, but also our morality.
Nothing is more difficult than to practice goodness within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams are geared to individualism, competitiveness, and cynicism. But it can be done. We can be patient with ourselves and others as we all confront a changing world. We can empathize with resistance to change; there is some clinging to the ways of unsustainability within each of us. We can include everyone in the challenge; everyone will be needed. We can listen to the cynicism around us and pity those who indulge in it, but refuse to indulge in it ourselves.
The world can never pass safely through the adventure of bringing itself to sustainability if people do not view themselves and others with compassion. That compassion is there, within all of us, just waiting to be used, the greatest resource of all, and one with no limits.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992