Donella Meadows Archives

A Reaction From A Multitude

Donella H. Meadows
Summary comments on a Symposium on Biotic Impoverishment
held at Woods Hole, Massachusetts
October 20-23, 1986

Capitalized and bold letters reflect Donella Meadows’s emphasis and formatting choices in the original typewritten notes. 

Who is talking here?
“I am large. I contain multitudes, ” said Walt Whitman to explain why he sometimes contradicted himself. Every human being contains multitudes. I have never been more aware of the multitudes within me than at this conference of field ecologists describing their work.

I am not a field ecologist. Most of the research presented here is new to me. It has struck me at many levels, revealing both the multitudinousness of my own responses, and the inherent complexity of the planetary ecosystems, which can touch a person in so many ways.

I am trained in biophysics, which, although it is a different science from yours, allows me to understand and to admire the work you do, not only for its difficulty (to a lab scientist like me, studies in the Arctic, or under the ocean, or in a peat bog look difficult), but for its inherent elegance.

I am a systems analyst, and I am fascinated with the feedback systems you have been describing. They are full of synergisms, exponentials, nonlinearities; they are beautiful systems. They make me want to run to my computer and start modeling. My systems experience also makes me sensitive to the vital role of information in changing system behavior, a bias that you will find permeating my comments here.

I am a journalist, a syndicated columnist, and I have been wondering how to communicate in 800 words or less the important stories you are telling.

Something in my nature also makes me an activist. When I hear about a problem, I want to solve it. Throughout the conference, as you have described one environmental atrocity after another, I have been asking myself “what can we do about that?” That is the primary question I want to raise here.

But first I want to mention another person in the multitude I have discovered in myself. I am, like you, someone who intensely loves this planet and all its mysterious, inexplicable, weird, and lovely forms of life. The conference has taken me on an unexpected emotional roller-coaster. The ups have been joy and wonder as you have revealed the glorious intricacies of well-functioning ecosystems. The downs have been anger and grief as you have described the senseless impoverishment or destruction of those systems. I am surprised at how keenly I felt that grief. I didn’t know how much I care.

You have not only been doing interesting science, detailed systems studies, work worth writing about in a newspaper, and work that calls for action. You have also been documenting the desecration of my/your/our temple. The list of assaults is astonishing: oil spills, radiation, introduction of foreign species, acidification, eutrophication, deforestation, mining, heavy metals, hazardous organic chemicals, overgrazing, fire, air pollution, and finally disruption of biogeochemical cycles and global climate change. The effects seem to be irreversible – in Sudbury the red maple sprouts die off, in Winnipeg the lake trout have stopped reproducing, the palmetto did not naturally come back to Bermuda, the rainforest can’t regenerate itself in Brazil, the cheatgrass is spreading in Nevada. Damage is occurring everywhere – in the Arctic, the coral reefs, the mountains of New Zealand, the forests of New England.

Though I knew there were problems, I did not know how pervasive they are. Though I knew I cared, I did not know how very much. The facts that I didn’t know about the damage and that I wasn’t in touch with my caring are suggestive to me – if other people also don’t know and aren’t in touch, that may indicate some answers to the question I asked above – what can we do?

I am going to assume that the “we” in that question refers to us here and people like us, those who are most knowledgeable about what is happening to the planet. If the destruction of ecosystems continues, if the geochemical cycles are deranged, if the beautiful and stabilizing diversities of nature are destroyed, we may justifiably point blaming fingers at people who are greedy or shortsighted or ignorant. If I were talking with them, I could come up with plenty of advice for them. But fingers could also be pointed at us, the ones who knew and didn’t speak out, or who didn’t persist long and hard enough to penetrate people’s barriers and make them listen.

I know how hard it is to put forth information that tells people that their present, comfortable way of doing things is not working. I know how much incomprehension and resistance can be generated by simple messages of the type “if we don’t change our direction, we will end up where we are heading.” I know how much competing information, much of it disinformation, has to be overcome. But if we don’t operate from an absolute determination to make our information known and reckoned with, we will be as responsible for the environmental disasters of the planet as anyone else. It will be little comfort to say “I told you so.”

So, with that sobering introduction (you are the ones who have sobered me), what can we do?

With my systems bias, I can see three generic things to do: acquire more relevant and powerful information about what is happening to the world’s ecosystems; communicate more effectively the information we already have; and make sure that information is used to generate both political will and intelligent policies to stop environmental destruction.

More information: how can there be more of you?

I am always suspicious of any gathering that produces a resolution calling for more funding and work for the participants in the gathering. But since I am not an ecologist, maybe I can say for you what you may find unseemly to say for yourselves. Your work is vitally important, and it is hardly begun.

Some of the most important questions are still far from answered, either for specific ecosystems or for the planet as a whole. Are there indeed thresholds below which ecological assaults are tolerable, above which they are not? If there are thresholds, where are they, and most important, what are the signs of their approach? How resilient, really, are ecosystems? At what point does destruction become irreversible? Is irreversibility an off- on state, or a continuum of increasing time to repair damage? To what extent are the small cogwheels of specific ecosystems tied to the great flywheels of geochemical cycles? Aside from the disequilibria in atmospheric carbon dioxide and ozone, and the possibility of setting off nuclear weapons, are there other already-visible potential global ecological catastrophes?

To answer these vital questions at any rate commensurate with the rate at which we are losing ecosystems, there have to be more of you, better funded. There are plenty of other people who can make that happen, but I want to raise the question of what you can do to increase your own ranks and productivity. I do so with reservation, because above all you should go on doing your research. But there may be ways of doing it that can accelerate the field as a whole.

I would guess that, being typical scientists, most of you could do much better at showing young people why they should become ecologists — the heart and soul reasons as well as the mind reasons. Most scientists don’t easily talk about the thrill of their work, the love and dedication that propels it, the excitement and fascination. The more you can let your enthusiasm show, the better.

You probably could do better at telling governments and foundations about the importance of your work – if your scientific training was like mine, you were taught to be too modest, too careful. That training is fine for scientific presentations, but it has to be shed at fundraising time. Most of your competitors for funds and political attention do not bind themselves to the same standards of truthfulness or modesty as you do. As Eville Gorham pointed out here, Reaganomics and Star Wars have far less valid theoretical foundations or global importance than your work does. Their proponents have commanded power and resources because they
do not play by scientific rules in political arenas. That’s a lesson most ecologists have yet to learn.

I would also guess that, like most scientists, you have effective networks and organizations to pass around scientific results, but that you don’t use those associations as deliberately as you might to work together to get attention. I know, because I have just heard you, that all your voices raised together, from many parts of the world, reporting on many different ecosystems, make a compelling impression. You are much more powerful together than you are separately, and I suspect you have not fully exploited that joint power.

More awareness – how do you tell the world what you know?

I discovered how badly trained I was to communicate to the public when I worked with an activist group dedicated to ending hunger. I was one of their information sources, since I knew the statistics, the theory, and most of the experts in the field.

“How many hungry people are there and where are they?” they would ask me. I would respond with a long disquisition about the various definitions of hunger, the problems with the world data base, the confounding of hunger with poverty and poor health care. Their eyes would glaze over, and when I was finished, they would politely re-ask the question. They simply wanted to know where to begin and roughly how big a job it would be to end hunger. When you want to do something, you don’t need all the details and caveats of science.

After many discussions, this group, for strategic purposes, chose Africa as a major focus. For publicity purposes they reduced the mind-boggling big numbers in the statistics (somewhere between 13 and 17 million people die each year of hunger-related causes) to numbers graspable by ordinary people. EACH MINUTE 21 PEOPLE DIE OF HUNGER, they proclaimed, AND 18 OF THEM ARE CHILDREN. That statement is far from scientific, but
it is reasonably accurate, and it is compelling. It catches attention and initiates action.

I learned a lot from the hunger people about turning the sort of scientific information I normally traffic in, which is interesting only to other scientists, into information that makes a difference to policymakers and the public. ONE SPECIES OF LIFE BECOMES EXTINCT EVERY DAY is an unscientific statement, but one that makes people take notice. We need more such statements. If you can’t bring yourself to make them, then please at least don’t criticize the people who can.

We forget how unbelievably primitive is the information base upon which most policy is made. Several good examples have been given here. “We’re still catching fish; so everything must be fine.” “I’ve been in Saudi Arabia and seen healthy coral; the oil tankers can’t be doing any harm.” “It’s just normal insect damage that’s killing the trees.” We still have to get across the most basic principles – a renewable resource must be managed not from its stock level but from its rate of renewal; a single sample does not constitute a trend; a sudden visible stress may appear only because of the presence of long-term invisible stress.

I remember Paul Ehrlich telling me, when he was making many public appearances talking about the simple dynamics of exponential population growth, “I get so tired of saying the same thing over and over and over.” Nevertheless, that is what must be done. Society forms itself around the things that are said over and over. Our society says things such as: economic growth is necessary and good; if someone profits from an activity, it ought to be done; nature only has value when it is exploited; we can’t afford the luxury of cleaning up pollution; new technologies will come along and solve all our problems. Someone has got to start saying some different and more truthful things about how the planet operates. Who will do it, if not us?
Every one of us should communicate more often, more simply, more to the point. We don’t need to sacrifice scientific accuracy to do that. We don’t need to pretend that we know what we don’t know – in fact one of the greatest contributions we could make is to point out how much of what is taken as known in the policy world is in fact wildly uncertain. We do need to give up our compulsion toward precision and complexity. We need to understand what information is most needed to make a decision, and to deliver only that information, leaving out irrelevant details, no matter how fascinating we think they are.

Along that line, I would like to make an appeal for the development of indicators, simple numbers that could appear on the nightly news along with the GNP and the Dow-Jones average. We need indicators that give people an idea of whether their environment is getting better or worse. I have just come from a conference of resource analysts who began discussing how to create such an indicator. We quickly bogged down in complexity – how can we have one number when there are dozens of incommensurate resources? What can we do about inadequate data? How can we even measure such complicated things?

The economists apparently did not have such qualms when they invented the GNP [Gross National Product], which is an aggregate measure of hundreds of distinct economic activities, which had never before been measured, and which required an incredible effort in data-gathering. Nonetheless, within 50 years virtually all countries in the world have learned to calculate some semblance of a GNP statistic, and more important, all countries have come to rank themselves and set their goals by that statistic, not because it’s a worthy index of human welfare, but because it’s the only index they’ve got.

Probably the single most effective thing the ecological community could do would be to agree upon and support an ecological indicator, for single nations and for the world as a whole. It could be the Audubon Christmas bird count, the density of lichens, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the area of standing tropical forest, the number of miles of unpolluted beach per person, the amount of silt in the Mississippi River, or some weighted average of all these. Something, however imperfect, is better than nothing.

Environmentalists have gotten a reputation for being unnecessarily gloomy, and for liking birds and bunnies more than people. To some extent we deserve that reputation. Some of us deliver dire warnings with undisguised relish. Many of us unconsciously communicate disrespect for and resentment of the human race. If we want to be effective, we have got to stop that.

If you remember your own reaction to David Wingate’s description at this conference of the re-establishment of the native Bermuda ecosystems, you will see that some good news mixed in with the bad can be tremendously invigorating. It can communicate all the basic lessons about how ecosystems work, while simultaneously giving people positive ideas of how to act and what to do. People are more responsive to new ideas when they are challenged by example, rather than loaded with guilt. People aiming toward a positive vision have a better idea of where to go than people fleeing from a possible disaster. If you look for good examples of ecological stewardship, you can find them, and they are just as important to communicate as the bad examples.

I learned another valuable lesson from the hunger group when they told me, “we assume that every person we talk to is the key to ending hunger.” That made me realize that I had been assuming that nearly every person I talked to (except the few I had classified as good guys) was the cause of environmental destruction. It was a terribly negative attitude, which, though I never said it out loud, came through clearly anyway.

Now, after some practice, I find it natural to see everyone as a steward of the planet, as a partner in the protection and restoration of ecosystems. Of course some people may not be. But at least now I give them the chance. Even when I am talking to documented bad guys, gross polluters, I try to remember Gandhi’s admonition to distinguish a bad act from a bad person. Absolutely anyone can be enrolled in the preservation of the planet, and everyone has something special to contribute to that effort. If we can keep that in mind when we talk to people, we will suddenly find them much more responsive.

It may be too much to ask scientists to take on public relations activities, to develop indicators, to collect good-news stories, to develop benevolent attitudes toward the human race, when above all we need scientists to be scientists. In that case a closer partnership between scientists and expert communicators is called for. The scientific community could help in that partnership, not only by seeking it out, but by ceasing to hold “popularizers” in disdain. Popularization is exactly what is needed – popularization in a positive vein, which can bring forth positive action.

More political will – how do you awaken caring?

All the information in the world, delivered with punch and clarity, will have no effect if it reaches people who do not care.

Yossi Loya bemoaned the fact that the Israelis don’t seem interested in their coral reefs. He wishes they were like the Australians, to whom the Great Barrier Reef is as much a symbol of national pride as the pyramids are to the Egyptians.

Fred Grassle showed us a cartoon with one matron saying to another, “I don’t know why I don’t care about the bottom of the ocean, but I just don’t.”

The Hungarians, who have only one large lake – Lake Balaton, entwined in Hungarian history, song, and poetry – have recently committed hundreds of millions of dollars to save it from eutrophication. Residents of Oslo would probably exile anyone who tried to build a housing development in their Nordmarka, the vast area of trails and parks around their city. Yet in other parts of the world lakes eutrophy and cities expand into greenbelts and no one seems to care.
We all know that caring is the heart of the issue. But how do we create caring? Or where it already exists but is dormant, how do we awaken it?

Some clues can come from examining where your own caring came from.

Mine came from my mother. She took me to the (few remaining) prairies and forest preserves in suburban Chicago, where I grew up. She taught me the names of the trees and birds and helped me make a herbarium of wildflowers. I came to be at home in those wild places. The creatures in them seemed like my friends. The first experience of real pain I remember was coming upon a bulldozer ripping through my favorite wild strawberry patch to clear a lot for a new house. That happened when I was very young, and I still carry an irrational hatred for bulldozers.

I conclude that people have to know nature – preferably through direct experience – in order to love and protect nature. We ought to get kids, especially city kids, out into natural areas as much as possible, in every part of the world.

There are undoubtedly other keys to caring, which you may find in your own experience. I assume that in fact a deep identity with nature is inherent in the human species. One has only to watch a child react to a flower or an animal to get that impression. But caring can get covered over with concepts and rationalizations and social and economic pressures, and it must be uncovered, reawakened.

We are sometimes advised to capture people’s interest by speaking of matters about which they have been conditioned to care – economic matters. We are asked to explain why, in economic terms, biota should be preserved. I think we can easily meet that challenge. Nearly every straight economic analysis that takes into account the whole system with all externalities shows the enormous value of the biota. We should speak that economic language, do those calculations, and play that game – we can win it.

But at the same time, we should make it abundantly clear that it’s only a game. Economics must be demoted from the ultimate arbiter and accountant of modern society to what it really is – one discipline, one incomplete way of seeing things that is based too much on rationality and too little on morality. We should never let economics trivialize the moral enormity of the loss of a species or the destruction of a natural community. We should never fail in economic discussions to reiterate – without the slightest apology – that nature has its own worth far beyond the feeble calculus of human purposes. Under the spell of economics, society keeps forgetting what is really important. We have to keep remembering.

What I’m trying to say throughout this disquisition is: stay in touch with your own caring, keep it alive, and share it in order to waken it in others, as you have wakened it in me. Nothing is more unacceptable or more difficult in our culture of materialism and rationality than to share one’s deep moral commitments. But nothing is more effective.
Eville Gorham, who has a knack for bursting out with impassioned one-liners, said we should make “no discharge” an ideal toward which we strive, though we may never attain it – like truth. That comment said a lot, not only about “no discharge”, but about truth.

Though we may never find complete truth, the closer we come to it, the more clearly we see that we all love and worship this incredible planet we find ourselves inhabiting. We love and care for all species on it, including other human beings. Closer yet to the truth, we don’t know who or what we are without our connections with all other manifestations of life. We are essentially inseparable from the earth, from its creatures, and from each other. We are they and they are us, and when any one person, species, or ecosystem is impoverished, we are all impoverished. We have multitudes within us and we are interconnected with multitudes!

At the moment I write these words they are a complete reality to me. Five minutes from now I will surely forget that reality, accept the conceptual separations that make up my usual consciousness, and act in my usual self-serving way – I will return to my unawakened state. This cycle has happened to me many times before.

Moments of truth are fleeting. They are of value only if we seize them as opportunities to make commitments that we will abide by, even when we have lost sight of the truth. I guess that’s what caring is – a set of commitments we follow just because we have made them. We made them at a time when we knew their rightness, and we maintain some sense of their rightness even when we are half-asleep, and when we are tempted by expedience or short-term gain or selfishness.

To awaken the caring in others, all we can do is keep it awake in ourselves. We can remember that it’s there even when we are preoccupied. We can express it as best we can, every opportunity we get. We can strive to design the mundane details of our lives to be consistent with our caring. We can forgive ourselves and others when we and they forget, and then we can wake ourselves up again.

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The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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