E S S A Y S , A R T I C L E S A N D R E V I E W S
Economic Laws Clash with Planet's
Dana Meadows' final column, February 8, 2001
The first commandment of economics is: Grow. Grow for ever. Companies must get bigger. National economies need to swell by a certain percent each year. People should want more, make more, earn more, spend more-ever more.
The first commandment of the Earth is: Enough. Just so much and no more. Just so much soil. Just so much water. Just so much sunshine. Everything born of the Earth grows to its appropriate size and then stops. The planet does not get bigger, it gets better. Its creatures learn, mature, diversify, evolve, create amazing beauty and novelty and complexity, but live within absolute limits.
Now, when there's an inconsistency between human economics and the laws of planet Earth, which do you think is going to win?
Economics says: Compete. Only by pitting yourself against a worthy opponent will you perform efficiently. The reward for successful competition will be growth.
The Earth says: Compete, yes, but keep your competition in bounds. Don't annihilate. Take only what you need. Leave your competitor enough to live. Wherever possible, don't compete, cooperate. Pollinate each other, create shelter for each other, build firm structures that lift smaller species up to the light. Pass around the nutrients, share the territory. Some kinds of excellence rise out of competition; other kinds rise out of cooperation. You're not in a war, you're in a community.
Which of those mandates makes a world worth living in?
Economics says: Use it up fast. Don't bother with repair; the sooner something wears out, the sooner you'll buy another. That makes the gross national product go round.
The Earth says: What's the hurry? Take your time building soils, forests, coral reefs, mountains. Take centuries or millennia. When any part wears out, don't discard it, turn it into food for something else. If it takes hundreds of years to grow a forest, millions of years to compress oil, maybe that's the rate at which they ought to be used.
Economics discounts the future. So a resource 10 years from now is worth only half what it's worth now. Take it now. Turn it into dollars.
The Earth says: Nonsense. The Earth's rule is: Give to the future. Lay up a fraction of an inch of topsoil each year. Give your all to nurture the young. Never take more in your generation than you give back to the next.
Economics says: Worry, struggle, be dissatisfied. The permanent condition of humankind is scarcity. The only way out of scarcity is to accumulate and hoard, though that means, regrettably, that others will have less. Too bad, but there is not enough to go around.
The Earth says: Rejoice! You have been born into a world of self-maintaining abundance and incredible beauty. Feel it, taste it, be amazed by it. If you stop your struggle and lift your eyes long enough to see Earth's wonders, to play and dance with the glories around you, you will discover what you really need. It isn't that much. There is enough. As long as you control your numbers, there will be enough for everyone and for as long as you can imagine.
We don't get to choose which laws, those of the economy or those of the Earth, will ultimately prevail. We can choose which ones we will personally live under-and whether to make our economic laws consistent with planetary ones, or to find out what happens if we don't.
Copyright 2001 Sustainability Institute. Archives of Donella Meadows' last two years of columns can be found at earthdreams.net/articles/dana/archive.shtml.
Memorial donations may be made to The Sustainability Institute or to Cobb Hill Cohousing, both at P.O. Box 174, Hartland Four Corners, VT 05049.
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