By Donella Meadows
–July 22, 1993–
Last year Barbara Sable, head of the Human Services Agency in New York, sought welfare payments from her own agency, to see what the process was like. She applied in February, and finally got the help she was pretending to need in May. She had to fill out forms and more forms, get documentation from her landlord, wait in long lines, and endure suspicion and hostility from bureaucrats — all of whom worked for her.
She was pleasantly surprised by other applicants, who helped her through the maze. They gave her tips about how to survive from February to May without income. She heard them talk about how much they would prefer jobs to handouts. She noticed how embarrassed they were when, in the middle of a busy office, their names were called out loud. When she returned with a list of reforms, the first one was: train staff to respect the dignity of applicants.
I read about Barbara Sable’s adventures while I was living in Germany and wrestling with the German train system — a marvel of good engineering and ridiculous bureaucracy. I had been fantasizing a law that would require all Bundesbahn executives to buy a ticket to a different city every day. That would either give them ideas about how to streamline the process, or visit them with appropriate punishment for their incompetence. Either result would have been wickedly satisfying to me.
Then I got to thinking of other role reversals that might lead to useful changes, or at least to just retributions.
The head of every airline ought to spend one day a week riding tourist class, fitting elbows, legs, and briefcase into jammed-together seats, and eating airline “food.”
Executives of nuclear power plants should be required to store the radioactive wastes they generate in their own back yards or corporate headquarters. In fact any waste-generater who complains about NIMBYs (people who oppose waste disposal sites with the cry Not In My BackYard) should volunteer his or her own backyard before imposing on anyone else’s.
Supermarket executives who think it’s a neat idea to put a little price tag on every single apple should have to spend a whole day taking them off, surrounded by ravenous four-year-olds.
Bob Dole, fulminating at the “waste” of funding municipal swimming pools, ought to spend a summer as a kid on the hot, pool-less streets of New York.
Congressional salaries should be set equal to that of the median U.S. family.
There should be a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to abide by all laws it passes for the rest of us. (Among the laws Congress imposes upon everyone but itself are affirmative action, OSHA work-safety requirements, and the necessity to file environmental impact statements.)
Speaking of environmental impact statements, every environmentalist should have to go through the permit process to build a shopping mall in a town with strong zoning. Every mall developer should have to live across the street from his or her construction and contend with the ugliness and noise and traffic.
Every laborer should work in management for awhile and have to sweat to meet the payroll. Every manager should work one day a month on the factory floor and see that laborers are not just costs to be minimized, they are complex people and valuable partners, without whom there would be no production.
If I could, I’d ask that every “pro-lifer” become for awhile a scared, pregnant teenager, or a thirty-five year old woman with four children, a tight budget, a job to lose, and a birth control device that failed. I’d ask coal miners in Ohio to see what acid rain does to eastern streams, and eastern environmentalists to see what unemployment does to coal mining families in Ohio. (This exchange actually happened, and it led to a mutual effort to solve the acid rain problem in a way that respected everyone’s needs.)
I have heard that the U.S. Geological Survey makes a practice of rotating people from headquarters out into the field, so they have to live with whatever rules they promulgate from Washington. That’s an idea worth spreading to all federal agencies, though maybe it wouldn’t have as much effect as I’d like. Presumably IRS agents have to fill out the same forms as the rest of us, but that hasn’t led to any visible improvement in the forms. (Are IRS agents selected for their ability to fill out incomprehensible forms?)
I’m sure you can extend this list of fantasy exchanges, with glee. I’d be happy to collect and publicize your suggestions.
The principle involved is one that systems analysts call feedback — experiencing in a compelling way the consequences of your own actions. Socialists would say it’s a way of exposing injustice — making power-wielders live under their own oppressive thumbs. Ethicists say it’s the first principle of morality — doing unto others only what we would be willing to have done to us. Native Americans would call it walking for awhile in one another’s moccasins.
Whatever you call it, this kind of humanizing feedback doesn’t really require a magical ability to put people in situations they would otherwise go out of their way to avoid. It doesn’t require the courage of a Barbara Sable going out to experience the operations of her own agency. All it takes is imagination and empathy — two skills every one of us is born with.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993