By Donella Meadows
–October 19, 1989–
“We have no model any more,” a Japanese businessman once told me, glumly. He meant that Japan, which spent centuries trying to be like China and more recent decades trying to be like the United States, has run out of nations to emulate. The Japanese now have to define themselves without outside help. They have to find their own way into the future.
You’d think that would be a happy state, but anyone who has been an adolescent knows better. Finding a fitting identity requires self-knowledge and truthfulness — traits that are not well developed in the modern world. That’s why so many people and nations end up modeling themselves after someone they admire, or becoming the opposite of someone they hate.
And that’s why the current upheavals in the communist nations are so confusing for us.
The East Bloc is in turmoil, but at least it has a new model — us. That choice is flattering, but it also undoes us. For two generations we have defined ourselves as the antithesis of them. If they become us, and if Japan has already out-become us, who are we?
The USSR now admits that it is technically antiquated, grossly polluted, inefficient, and broke. We have an enormous defense establishment on guard against this supposedly fearsome enemy. We continue to allocate the major part of our national treasure to that purpose. As we begin to wonder why, vast bureaucracies and proud personal identities throughout our own society begin to shudder.
The East Europeans are liberating themselves without our help. Russian troops are leaving Hungary. The opposition has taken power in Poland. East Germans are crossing relatively peacefully into West Germany. The Iron Curtain is literally being torn down. We are no longer needed as the Protector of European Democracy or the Big Gun of NATO. Our whole foreign policy is up for question.
We could pretend these upsetting changes are not real, or that they will soon reverse themselves. Or we could use this terrible, wonderful opportunity to create a new model, a new identity — not by reacting to something outside, but by drawing on whatever is true within us.
Our present government does not seem likely to take the opportunity. By some quirk of history at this moment when leadership would be so welcome, we have a gutless Congress and a president who has never done anything but model himself after others. Perhaps that’s just as well. It leaves the job of self-definition to the people — just where it belongs.
In fact we have already begun the job. There is only one gracious way to respond to the sea-changes going on in the Soviet Union. In our own bumbling fashion, we’re finding that way. Like the Soviets, we’ve started a period of glasnost, openness, truth-telling, model-seeking. Telling the truth is easier for us than for them, because our truths, while painful, are not anywhere near as devastating as theirs.
We too have paid a high price for superpowerdom and excess. We have our own enormous debt. We have rising poverty and drug addiction, an obsolescing capital plant, a generation of poorly educated children. Our financial system, from savings banks to stock market, has become in some places corrupt, in some places a wildly gyrating casino. Our government is largely controlled by the wealthy and privileged, who cut their own taxes, divert the taxes of others to their pet ventures, and put out smokescreens of self-serving propaganda.
HUD is in scandal. There are radioactive messes at our weapons plants. Star Wars will never do what we were told it would do. The good news is that now we admit these faults, so we may correct them.
There’s some even better news. When the Soviets started peeling away their layers of mismanagement and corruption, they uncovered almost nothing sound underneath. Therefore they looked to us as a model. We do have a solid core of identity that is and always has been right. Our basic principles of government and economy are a good model for the Russians and an even better model for ourselves.
We were founded in opposition to tyranny and in favor of freedom, equality, democracy. We have never been fully true to those ideals — our history is blighted with slave-holding, robber barons, political machines, hucksters, scandals and greed. But we have always had a basic decency. We have had moments of unparalleled generosity and enlightened leadership. We have fought Hitler, helped reconstruct Europe, established a Peace Corps, helped found the United Nations. Our ideals have been a light and inspiration to others, though we haven’t always lived up to them ourselves.
There’s our model, if we want to reclaim it. It’s not drawn from an attraction to or a revulsion from anything outside, but from our own best inner instincts.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989