By Donella Meadows
–March 26, 1998–
When I got off the plane in Amsterdam last Saturday, I walked across the terminal to a clean, efficient train system that could take me to anywhere in Europe. I was headed for Groningen in north Holland. I didn’t have to wait long; trains to the north come through every half hour.
Why don’t we have a rail system like that? Two main reasons, I’d guess. The auto and oil industries are against it. And we won’t let ourselves think of paying for it the way the Dutch do — partly through ticket sales, but largely through (gasp!) taxes.
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I went to Groningen to say good-bye to my friend Wouter, who is dying of cancer. During four years of chemotherapy and surgery, Wouter has never had to worry about paying a medical bill. No HMO bureaucrat has denied him a test or procedure. When his wife Nanda decided to take an extended leave to care for Wouter, she could do so without losing either job or pay. The government would have supplied a home nurse, she told me, but she wanted to be home herself. Every remaining day is precious.
If you compare public support for that family in Holland with what a family would receive under similar circumstances in America, you have to wonder why we are so cruel.
It’s not that a national health system would cost too much. Per capita health care costs in Holland are half of ours. It’s not that our medical care is better. Dutch life expectancy is higher than ours, and their infant mortality rate is 30 percent lower. Our system does not give us more freedom to choose a doctor or treatment — have you had to battle lately with an HMO? The real reasons for our overexpensive, inhumane medical system are, again, two. It makes piles of money for some companies (drug, insurance, hospital). And we won’t take seriously the idea of a system paid for by (gasp!) taxes. Any such thought is dismissed as “socialized medicine” and declared unworkable, though we need only look beyond our borders or at our own Medicare to see public-funded health systems that work just fine.
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On the way home from the Netherlands I read about global fisheries in the Worldwatch Institute’s “State of the World 1998.” Two-thirds of commercial fish species are in decline. Catches in the Northwest Atlantic are down by 40 percent, in the Southeast Atlantic by 50 percent, in the Black Sea by 80 percent. The average swordfish caught used to weigh over 250 pounds; now it’s 65 pounds, too immature to breed.
How can we — and this time I mean not just the U.S., but the national managers of nearly every fishery — allow systematic overfishing? How can anyone be stupid enough to catch fish before they reach breeding age? Yet governments not only fail to control fisheries, they actually provide tax incentives, low-interest loans, and other subsidies to overfishing. In 1989 global fishing brought in $70 billion and cost $124 billion. Much of the $54 billion loss was covered by (gasp!) taxes.
Why will we tax ourselves to destroy a valuable resource but not to run a decent transport or health care system? To save jobs, we are told, as if jobs in publicly subsidized fisheries are real but jobs in publicly run trains or hospitals are not — and as if jobs in fisheries can somehow be propped up by money while the fish disappear. Where do we GET these ideas?
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I got stuck in Washington and had to spend a night in a hotel. I used the opportunity to scan the TV channels — our TV at home only gets two channels, neither worth watching. I discovered that the others aren’t worth watching either. Aside from ads, all I saw was fists socking into flesh (with appropriate crunching sounds) and people shooting people, who crumpled neatly to the ground.
The next day when I got home the latest news story was about kids shooting down kids in a schoolyard. Adolescents in camouflage suits with guns. Doing what they’ve seen thousands of times, since they were old enough to push the “on” button. Get mad, shoot, watch someone crumple neatly to the ground.
Why do we allow our public airwaves to carry nonstop, powerful images that corrupt our kids? Because someone makes a bundle from it, and because we have the idea that private, profit-making activity is inherently pure, while public regulation is inherently corrupt. Why do we allow anyone to have a lethal weapon without even as much training, registration, and inspection as we require for a car? Because the gun-makers give large amounts of money to our government and constantly imbue us with the patently crazy, demonstrably dangerous, socially destructive notion that somehow in a gun-saturated world we are free.
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You know, we don’t have to put up with schoolyard shootings, mind-rotting television, collapsing ecosystems, cruel health care, shoddy trains. They are not inevitable. They are just outcomes of often-repeated ideas, widely broadcast ideas, ideas brought to us by people who profit from them at our cost. “Privatization is the answer to everything; the only thing worse than taxes is regulation; we have to solve our problems as competitive individuals instead of cooperative communities; if the government runs anything, it will end up running everything.”
My friend Amory Lovins likes to say we don’t really need to have new ideas. We just need to stop having old ones.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998