By Donella Meadows
–August 10, 1995–
The Unabomber is a murderer. He is crazy and dangerous. I have no intention of reading his 35,000 word screed against technology and industry. I’ll take the word of those who tell me it is pretentious and repetitious. (I have to read college student papers all the time; I don’t need any more of that kind of punishment.)
But I have to admit there’s a small place within me, and I’d guess a small place within lots of people, that is tickled that an ordinary guy, who isn’t even properly grammatical, has managed to get a thoroughgoing blast at the industrial system into a major newspaper. The way he did it is revolting. I wish he were a better writer. But the system is ripe for criticism and far too seldom criticized. The trouble with the Unabomber is, he seems to think the people in it are evil (and hence targets for random murder), not the system itself.
I don’t believe anyone in corporate office sits around plotting how to poison rivers or subvert democracy. I don’t think they conspire to locate polluting plants in poor communities, emit greenhouse gases, or whittle down employees’ compensation while raising their own. But these things happen so regularly, so massively, that they can’t be dismissed as accidents.
The problem is not the people in industry. The problem is the industrial system. Within it good people must act rationally, deliberately, and with enormous power against society, nature, and their own deepest values.
A company I know can buy two kinds of plastic for its products, one easily recyclable, the other not. The non-recyclable version costs a few cents less, so that’s what gets used. A car company has test models that get 100 miles per gallon, but it lobbies against a 35 mpg requirement, fearing it might lose money and market share. A machine-tool maker hates to pull plants out of New England, but hey, the Mexicans work for so much less.
Every day decent people clearcut forests, fish the oceans bare, spray toxins, bribe politicians, overcharge the government, take risks with the health of their workers or neighbors or customers, cheapen their products, pay people less than a living wage for a day’s work, and fire their friends. “If I don’t do it, my competitors will,” they say regretfully, and they’re right.
The market rewards a business that can get someone else to clean up its pollution. Corporate accountants necessarily see workers as costs to be minimized. Industry has to regard nature as nothing more than a source of raw materials to be extracted as cheaply as possible.
Businesses can serve only goals that can be counted in dollars. Their balance sheets improve when they wrest tax breaks from towns, hire temps without benefits, avoid expensive workplace-safety investments. If a billion-dollar deal can be landed for just a few thousand in campaign contributions, who can pass it up? Businesses have to invade public and private spaces to impose on us ads that are always noise and often lies. If they don’t do it, someone else will.
A large corporation is a central planning agency as remote, secretive, and arrogant as any in the Soviet empire. Its mandate from its stockholders is to grow. For growth every other goal is sacrificed.
Perhaps because their souls are tender, people in industry are sensitive to criticism. They point out the faults of every other part of society, while maintaining the pretense that the corporate world is caring, all-knowing, efficient, honest. Since they own the media, they can broadcast this incredible image to us daily.
Sometimes, believe it or not, I consult for industry. I find that the main obstacles in the way of responsible corporate behavior are not the government, consumers, or environmentalists — though business people delight in blaming all of the above. The biggest obstacles are prices that don’t reflect social costs, weak regulations that can be bought away, fear of competitors, obsession with short-term stock prices, unthinking use of power, and too much distance from the lives and concerns of ordinary people.
It’s easy to suggest what good people can do to improve this bad system. Cut your carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent, I tell them. Stop wasting materials. Work toward zero emissions. This advice poses interesting technical challenges to which some heads-up companies can respond.
Then I go on. Drop harmful products, no matter how profitable. Slash your PR budget and make your ads quiet, informative, and honest. Stop buying politicians and contributing to industry cover groups with noble names that lobby against the public interest.
At this point they think I’m nuts, but I’m just warming up. Support ecotaxes that will make the prices of your products somewhat equivalent to their real costs to society. Pledge to communities you enter that you will stay, operate cleanly, and pay for the expenses you impose on the public. Close the gap between executive pay and employees’ pay. Offer only products and services that people really need. Grow or not, depending on how well you do that; never do anything just to grow.
Sometimes companies to whom I make these suggestions actually want to follow them. But they can’t. Not even a megacorporation, acting alone, can bring about the systemic transformation that is needed so that the rational actions of people in industry add up to a workable world. It would take many companies cooperating with government to impose upon themselves strong regulation, acknowledging that people, communities, and life on the planet are more important than next quarter’s profits.
I guess the Unabomber doesn’t believe that transformation is possible, so he turns his futile anger into random, brutal bombs. There he’s not only criminal, he’s wrong. The industrial/technical system can be transformed, because, though the system is bad, most of the people within it are good.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995