by Donella Meadows
— January 7, 1999 —
By nature I’m an optimist; to me all glasses are half-full. Though I spend my days with news about the global environment — news that is rarely uplifting — I can usually spot a light at the end of the tunnel, a silver lining, a way out of trouble.
But every now and then I just lose it. The incoming information crushes me. Why keep trying? I wonder. Stupidity and short-sightedness are pulling way ahead of learning and wisdom.
I try not to spread that kind of mood around. I go off alone and wallow in despair until it passes. It always does pass.
But it occurs to me that it’s dishonest to share only the sunny side of my work. Collectively we are doing terrible things to our world and ourselves. Despair and grief and anger are totally rational responses.
My most recent breakdown started with a seminar on shrimp at Tufts Veterinary School. (Yes, there is such a thing as a shrimp vet!) After a day on shrimp genetics and shrimp diseases, I was horrified. The shrimp industry seems to be doing everything possible to destroy itself, and the rest of us aren’t helping.
We start with the world’s most wasteful fishery, where 5 to 10 pounds of other fish are caught and killed for every pound of shrimp. The favored technique is bottom-trawling, a practice that plows up the seabed, upsetting the whole marine food chain. Meanwhile, we landlubbers have a habit of discharging all kinds of pollutants into coastal waters and estuaries, where shrimp breed.
So we overfish and poison the wild shrimp. But so what? Shrimp farming is a soaring industry, so profitable that there is a huge temptation to cram shrimp into artificial ponds as if they were chickens in a modern chicken-factory. As with chickens, shrimp at high density are subject to disease; every now and then the ponds are devastated by viruses. The contaminated remains are likely to be dumped into the ocean, where they infect wild shrimp — and wild shrimp are the source of breeding stock for the ponds.
Furthermore, in the growing global market there are few inspection points for seafood, so shrimp diseases are spreading around the world. Processors import infected shrimp and heedlessly discard heads and shells into local waters. Viruses once known only in Asia are showing up in Texas. South American viruses are appearing in Asia. Both wild and farmed shrimp populations, their immune systems depressed by pollution and by reduced genetic diversity, are exposed, like the native Americans who first encountered smallpox, to completely new diseases.
Well, that day was so depressing that my colleagues and I talked about other things on the drive back from Boston. One woman told us about her recent stay in Zambia. She loved the country, loved the people, gave us a heartwarming report.
“What about AIDS?” I asked her. I had read that Zambia is one of several African countries where at least 25% of the population is HIV-positive. The disease carries off young adults of both sexes; average life expectancy has dropped to 37 years.
“It’s everywhere,” said my colleague, and her report darkened. People are constantly going to funerals. Families are stressed, trying to take care of all the orphans.
I know there’s no money in Zambia for expensive treatment, but I asked about prevention. Do people understand how AIDS spreads? Can they get, do they use condoms?
Not much, she replied. Given their history, they don’t trust what white people tell them. And they want to have sex their way.
There was silence in the car for a minute. “My gosh,” said another colleague. “If people with death staring them right in the face can’t open their minds and change their ways, why are we bothering with environmental work at all?”
The next morning, with all that on my mind, I read a Wall Street Journal article about the economic breakdown in Indonesia. It showed how the widening gap between the human rich and poor has tragic consequences for the rest of nature.
Taiwanese fishing boats, having overfished their own coasts, are now busy overfishing the rest of Asia. Compared to the average Indonesian, Taiwanese trawler captains are fabulously rich. When they pull into Indonesian ports for provisions, they can buy anything they want.
One thing they want is live baby monkeys. So people trek for days into supposed nature reserves, searching out the few remaining populations of endangered black crested macaques. They shoot the mothers and bring the babies back to the Taiwanese.
Says the Journal: “Aboard the trawler, galley hands bind the monkeys’ hands and feet. Then …” but you don’t want to know what happens then. Suffice it to say that the last black crested macaques in the world are being caught by desperately poor Indonesians to satisfy the appetite of rich Taiwanese for fresh, raw baby monkey brains.
Maybe I was tired. After I read that I had to put my head down on my desk and sob. I grieved for the monkeys and the orphans and the shrimp and the heedlessness of the human race. I gave up. Too much is going wrong too fast. I’m powerless over any of it. Maybe I should just quit writing, researching, farming, teaching, get a job that pays real money, eat shrimp while they last, and zonk out on television.
Of course I won’t do any of that. But there are days when I wonder why not.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999