By Donella Meadows
–July 2, 1992–
If at any time over the past 50 years a message from God had arrived, written across the sky so that no one could deny its source, assuring the world’s people that by 1992 the Cold War would be over, that Russia and America would slash their arsenals, that the terror of communism and of nuclear annihilation would abate, we would have been overwhelmed with joy.
So now that it all has happened, where’s the celebration?
Enormous problems that drained our treasuries and our spirits are falling away. People can speak and hear the truth throughout the former Soviet empire. There are no hostages in the Middle East and no contras in Nicaragua. South Africa has abolished apartheid. Uneasy peace, but peace at last has come to Angola, to Cambodia, to El Salvador. Borders between peoples are essentially gone in Europe. Even the Israelis and the Palestinians, reluctantly, in fits and starts, are acknowledging each other’s right to exist.
You’d think these changes would be met with a tremendous sense of new possibility. But I can hardly remember a time when everybody felt so bad.
If you want a problem to go away, they say, just get yourself a bigger problem. Apparently that principle also works in reverse. When a big problem goes away, the little ones that have been unattended to come forward with such urgency that there’s no time for a breath of relief. With Russian troops gone from their vicinity, the Croatians and Bosnians try to escape the oppression of the Serbs. South Africa must raise its deprived black population to a decent level of education, employment, and citizenship. The former Soviet territories have to construct working economies. We Americans, with no evil empire to combat, have to focus at last on our internal problems. The whole world has to eliminate poverty and bring itself into harmony with the environment.
These are problems indeed. They are almost as tough as the seemingly impossible task of reversing the insanity that could have blown civilization to smithereens at any instant. But that insanity WAS reversed. It happened with amazing speed. It took one leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to challenge the crippling mindset that kept his part of the world in chains, plus millions of East Europeans, who sensed the fluidity of the moment and came out to stand, peaceably, in public, for the truths that had always been within them.
The reason to celebrate is to impress upon us all that such unbelievably good things can happen. We need that lesson, so we can turn with energy and confidence to the problems that face us now.
They are the problems we should have been working on all the while the Cold War was distracting us. It should feel good to get back to them, especially since enormous quantities of money, attention, and creativity are now freed up for better purposes than mutual destruction. A global environmental agenda recently put forth by the World Resources Institute asks for $77 billion a year for worldwide energy conservation, $33 billion for stabilizing population, $24 billion for reducing soil erosion, $17 billion for conserving biodiversity. That adds up to just about 15 percent of the global military budget.
Why do we suddenly feel so poor and paralyzed, with our major threat gone and so many resources available?
I guess it’s because we, and especially our leaders who forged their identities in the Cold War, literally don’t know who we are or what to do at this moment of opportunity. Our old habits of mind no longer serve. Many of us, trained to ideological rote responses, have not only forgotten how to think, we are panicked when presented by the freedom to create. An open space of infinite possibility can be terrifying. It requires us to admit uncertainty, experiment in new territory, make mistakes. People who like to appear cocksure and commanding would rather retreat into some form of false certainty.
The last time the world had the freedom to redefine itself, fifty years ago, the retreat to ideology won out, with terrible consequences, as Mikhail Gorbachev recently pointed out: “President Bush has again said that the United States won the cold war. My reply to this would be that the long years we spent plunged in the cold war made losers of us all. Europe and the world lost a very great opportunity between 1945 and 1947.”
A very great opportunity has opened to us again. It calls for a celebration, to acknowledge what has been accomplished. And some sober meditation, to strengthen us for what still must be accomplished. And courage to face the unknown. And above all the willingness to tolerate ambiguity, to permit plurality, to reject cynicism, to stand, by the millions, peaceably, in public, for the truths that have always been within us.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992