It’s wonderful, the Earth Day burst of publications with lists of things we can do to save me planet. It’s great to see so much energy behind recycling, energy-efficient light-bulbs, and fundraisers for the rainforest .
Most of these efforts are easy. Some even pay off. It takes no more trouble to throw an aluminum can into a recycling container than into a mixed-trash one. It’s as simple to swing into Burger King, where they package hamburgers in cardboard, as into McDonald’s, where they still use everlasting, ozone-destroying, greenhouse-gas-emitting, landfill-clogging plastic foam. And anyone who gets into energy saving is rewarded by immediate drops in electricity, gas, and oil bills.
Only some kind of Scrooge would belittle these well-meant, effective environmental actions.
Here I come, a summertime Scrooge. If we all did 50 simple things to save the planet, that would be a big help. But it wouldn’t be enough. The planet – or more accurately our civilization and the natural systems that support it – needs more than easy gestures to tee saved.
I think everyone knows that. We know that what’s needed is an end to our wild population growth and our untrammeled greed. What’s needed is real human justice and Earth stewardship. Sometimes I think we get enthusiastic about low-flow faucets, and high-mileage cars because they give us the feeling of doing good without seriously challenging our lifestyle.
The environment, of course, is much more important than any lifestyle. If we’re really interested in saving it, and therefore ourselves, there are some not- so-easy things we can and must do.
About Population: On the personal level we can stop at two, or one, or none – and learn to love other people’s children. On the government level we can give every couple the knowledge and technology to choose the number of their children, and then give them straight, honest reasons why they should choose no more than two. The US government, which used to be foremost in this field, has essentially stopped funding family planning and population education both domestically and internationally. We need to lean hard on our leaders to reverse that policy.
About Greed: What we can do individually is define what enough means for us and then live it. That doesn’t mean living in deprivation or unplugging everything and returning to a previous century. It means: unplugging the pattering sales pitches that tell us we are inadequate unless we buy certain products; achieving security and sufficiency but stopping short of waste and clutter; discovering what life can be about, when it isn’t about having more stuff; choosing real satisfaction instead of the empty satisfaction of mindless acquisition.
On the government level controlling greed means defining progress by human welfare, not by the growth of GNP. It means tax, loan, investment, and budget policies that meet real needs rather than promote perpetual swelling. It means ending all the ways the government helps the rich get richer, and all the ways our leaders try to convince us that getter richer is our goal, instead of getting better.
About Justice: We know that we will never have peace or environmental balance or pride in our collective selves while anyone still lives in poverty.
On a personal level what each of us can do is care for just one person in need, to the point where that person can care for himself or herself. And do it not with condescension but with love.
The government can remove obstacles to peoples’ and nations’ self-sufficiency. There are many ways to do that – provide truly equal education, forgive crippling debts, ensure that the next set of loans is aimed at sustainable productivity, make trade fair, make technologies available – and that’s just the beginning.
About Stewardship: Each of us can care for one piece of land. We can beautify a yard or a neighborhood park (and do it without harmful chemicals). We can build up the soil on a farm, or buy produce from a farmer who does. We can manage lovingly a large property and protect it in perpetuity with a conservation easement. We can support a land trust or nature conservancy to do the land-caring on our behalf.
As citizens we can insist that governments establish zoning that firmly protects farmland and wildland; create parks that demonstrate nature protection rather than commercialism; manage national lands in a way that does not degrade their resources; provide education and extension services that teach us to treasure land, not to exploit it.
In a mode of genial gesturing, these suggestions sound impossible. In a mode of intent to solve our problems once and for all, they sound obvious. They sound like change, but not sacrifice. And in that mode the simple "planet-saving" steps – the recycling, the energy-saving, stopping the junk mail, refusing the plastic bags at the grocery store – take their proper place as logical unheroic, helpful parts of a larger whole, a shared, deep commitment to protect and honor the environment that supports us all.
Donella H. Meadows is a contributing editor to IN CONTEXT.