By Donella Meadows
–June 4, 1992–
A few weeks ago I was honored, I guess, to appear on National Public Radio with Dennis Avery, a self-described agricultural expert with the Hudson Institute. I had never met Mr. Avery, but since the Institute is a radically conservative organization, I expected the discussion to be lively.
What I didn’t expect, in this post-cold-war era, was to be Red-baited.
Mr. Avery began by accusing environmentalists of blocking agricultural research and “siphoning off the momentum of the Green Revolution.” We also exaggerate dangers, he said, such as the ozone hole, which could at most produce a bad case of sunburn.
Having warmed up, Mr. Avery moved on to his real complaint. You are telling us all to be content with what we have and to share it on a communal basis, he said. That sounds, said he with rising excitement, like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” a teaching of the infamous Karl Marx. Your hidden agenda, he continued, almost shouting, is to establish Stalinist government and Environmental Police over the whole world.
I was astonished. His accusation offended me deeply — I’ve had my own appalling experiences with the former Soviet empire. At the same time I was overcome with a sense of the ridiculous, since I’ve been attacked in similar tones by the far left. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or shout back. What I did was stammer out my actual position as best I could. Then I tried to dismiss the whole episode from my mind.
But I couldn’t. I kept wondering how Dennis Avery ever came by his preposterous view of the “real” environmental agenda. And I kept hearing that view expressed by others.
The Wall Street Journal puts it forth with regularity: “As communism exits history’s stage, the main threat to liberty may come from a utopian environmental movement that, like socialism, views the welfare of human beings as subordinate to ‘higher values’.”
George Will wrote in a recent column: “Some environmentalism is a ‘green tree with red roots.’ It is the socialist dream — ascetic lives closely regulated by a vanguard of bossy visionaries — dressed up as compassion for the planet.”
Alan Gottlieb, consultant and fund-raiser for the far-right “Wise Use Movement,” has said, bluntly: “For us the environmental movement has become the perfect bogeyman.”
I guess some people need bogeymen. If they’ve always had one, and then it goes away, they must not quite know who they are without their Evil Other. They must go on seeing Monsters, whether they are real or not.
But what are we to do, we who have been identified as the new Monsters, the scapegoats, the replacement communists?
At least we ought to set the record straight. I speak for myself here, but my views are shared by every environmentalist I know. I couldn’t possibly favor Stalinism, which has a far worse ecological record than capitalism. I am not anti-business, just anti-dirty-business. I believe in the market system, which is why I want to include the very real environmental cost of a product as part of its price, and why I’d like to eliminate government subsidies for polluting technologies, such as coal, oil, and nuclear power.
I’m pro-democracy. I’d like to remove the power of money over government. I’m pro-technology. I count on advances in energy conservation, solar energy, organic agriculture, materials recycling, and pollution control to help humanity live within the limits of the earth.
I’m not in favor of “redistribution,” if that means forcibly taking from the rich to give to the poor. I am in favor of giving the poor truly equal opportunities and ceasing to exploit them. I wish the rich could see that no one, no matter how wealthy, can ever live securely or sustainably while desperate poverty persists.
I am not anti-growth, but I don’t cheer for growth of any kind at any cost. I’d like to see negative growth in wasteful industries and technologies and positive growth in efficient ones. Growth in food, shelter, clothing, and jobs for the poor is obviously necessary. Growth for the rich, to trickle down to the poor, is a wildly inefficient way of dealing with poverty.
Are you listening, Mr. Avery? Not really, I suspect, because I’ve tried reaching across this paradigm gap before. When people and beliefs have been labelled devious enemies, nothing they say can be believed. Minds close. Listening stops. As with abortion, as with gun control, the environment could become a subject so distorted by ideology that Americans can’t talk about it, or do anything about it.
That would be a literal disaster, because the planet will respond to our actual physical abuses, not our precious beliefs. All I can think to do, to stave off this polarization of the environmental discussion, is to demand, as an accused subversive, a fair trial. I suggest that the Averies, Wills, Gottliebs, Wall Street Journal editors be locked in a room with a representative bunch of environmentalists, some neutral facilitators, and a TV camera to record the results. Nobody should be let out until everyone has listened to everyone else, questioned, probed differences, and come to understand each other, not as imaginary Monsters, but as complex, fearful, flawed, well-meaning, concerned, and searching human beings.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992