By Donella Meadows
–June 29, 1995–
Suppose we all woke up one fine morning and decided, as a nation, to solve our problems instead of beating each other up over them. Suppose we quit twisting ourselves into knots trying to put all blame on one party and all credit on the other. What if we chose instead to move forward together?
Right, I know, fat chance. But indulge me. This thought experiment can help us to see things that are invisible in the dust of partisan battle.
We could start by admitting that anything a substantial number of people believe — that endangered species ought to be saved, for instance, or that abortion is an act of violence — probably has some truth to it. And anything people get hysterical about — the government is coming in jackboots to take our guns, or the corporations have a secret plot to take over the world — is based on a bit of reality, blown up by fear into irresponsible fantasy.
If we could admit the fear, we might calm down enough to sort out the reality.
Take affirmative action, for example. Those who have been targets of discrimination fear that we will slide back to the blatant prejudice of the past, or stay stuck in the more subtle prejudice of the present. Those who have been discriminators fear that they will be called to account, that they will lose their easy privilege, or worse, that the sharp edge of bigotry will be turned against them.
We could discharge those fears by admitting, thoroughly, from our hearts and souls, that our society has practiced and still practices oppression. White males who feel shut out by affirmative action could, before they plead for redress, express their sympathy and grief for those who have experienced a lifetime of injustice.
That would clear the way for us all to recognize what blunt tools affirmative action laws are. We could remove the worst of their Byzantine requirements and state clearly the conditions under which they are still needed. We could affirm and practice in every way possible our commitment to a society that doesn’t need affirmative action laws.
Or take the ever-divisive topic of taxes. The poor and middle class fear they are being robbed by the rich and powerful, paying more and more taxes, receiving fewer and fewer benefits. The rich are afraid that their wealth will be taken from them. Both sides could reduce the common burden by attacking not the purposes of government, but its inefficiency and corruption. Liberals could work with real dedication, not just rhetoric, to streamline social programs, while conservatives do the same for prisons, corporate welfare, and military spending. Maybe we could even trust each other enough to reverse those assignments.
Then we would be ready for a fundamental public discussion about fairness. How much of the tax burden should the wealthy bear? What would really (evidence, please) help or hurt the economy? What would support households and families? How do we set up a tax code so simple that it doesn’t sap hours of citizens’ time and so firm that it can’t be gamed endlessly to shift the burden onto someone else?
With a fair tax system, we could grow up and admit that it’s the duty and privilege of a citizen to pay his or her share of the common expense. It’s more a measure of patriotism to do that than to salute a flag.
What about welfare? Liberals could seriously address the problems of dependence and abuse. Conservatives could try to understand, rather than caricature, those who are caught in the trap of poverty. They could be willing to remove the structural barriers that hold the poor down. A public debate will be needed here to decide how much of a social safety net we want, not just for poor people but for all of society, and how — really how, as if we meant it — we can help people to lasting self-sufficiency. Radio commentator Jim Hightower posed the right question: some of us want to help those who fall through the cracks; some want to blame them; but why don’t we just get rid of the cracks?
Crime: Conservatives fear an increasingly lawless society. Liberals do too, but they also fear an overbearing police state. Together we could minimize those instances where protection of civil rights opens the door to untoward leniency, while still ensuring those rights. We could find a good balance, if we tried. We could also agree that it’s better to prevent crimes than to punish them, and then we could search together, openly and honestly, for the causes of the desperation and alienation that lead to crime.
Environment: enviros fear a desertification of the earth, anti-enviros fear that valuable natural assets will be taken out of their hands. All sides could work assiduously to take the stupidities out of the environmental laws. Those laws, written only 20-30 years ago, were experiments. They need to be evaluated and refined — but not weakened. Some of us need absolute assurance that we won’t destroy every wilderness for oil and every species for condominiums.
The necessary debate here is about how much nature to leave alone. Ten percent? (In many of our ecosystems, from tall-grass prairie to old-growth forest, it’s too late for that.) Five percent? Two percent? We will have to stop eating into nature when we come to zero; there are moral, practical, and esthetic reasons to stop long before that.
Economy: Conservatives fear that liberals want to undo the market economy. Liberals fear that conservatives will sacrifice every community, family, and ecosystem for the short-term dollar. The discussion here, after we back down from our polar positions, is about the strengths and weaknesses of the market, how important it is to preserve it, but also to correct its excesses and keep it in its place.
For the life of me, I can’t see why it wouldn’t be more interesting and pleasant and intelligent and effective to go at our national problems from a foundation of honesty and respect than to keep up the knee-jerk polarities that poison our political discourse. Doing so would ruin the raps of politicians and talk-show hosts, but that would be a small sacrifice to get back some hope for our nation.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995