Meadows - Thoughts on Consumption
from the listserv archives
of CNAD conversation with Donella Meadows
II. Economic Laws Clash With the Planet's
Excerpt of CNAD conversation with Donella Meadows
On this past Earth Day, April 22, 1997, members of the Center for
a New American Dream staff had the opportunity to sit down with
Donella Meadows and discuss consumption, quality of life, and the
environment. The following is an excerpt of our conversation:
Why is consumption a problem for the earth? What is the problem
with consumption, anyway? Why NOT have all this stuff that makes
There are a lot of problems with consumption, including the fact
that much of it doesn't really make us happy. But the problem
that motivates me is the one about the imposition on nature. There
is not a thing we consume, even the "services," that doesn't require
an underpinning of materials and energy. The materials and energy
come from the earth and go back to the earth. We change them,
use them for a while, transform them into pollution and waste,
and they go back to the earth.
is huge and it has a lot of resources and it can spare a lot of
material and energy for us to support our lives. But there are
limits. When we start taking resources faster than the earth can
regenerate them, and when we start putting out wastes and poisons
from our consumption faster than the earth can absorb those wastes
and poisons or render them harmless, then something suffers.
In the short
term, what suffers is the creatures that have to live with the
wastes and poison, or have their habitat taken away. Whoever lived
in that forest that got cut down, or whoever lived on that farmland
that got plowed up They are the ones to suffer. There is room
for us all, but not if we take up all the room.
In the long
run, if we take too much of a resource, renewable or nonrenewable,
it runs out. Then we have undercut not only all the rest of nature,
but our own selves, and our children, and our grandchildren and
their possibilities for having materially rich lives. There are
limits. We are never going to consume nothing, nor should we,
but we shouldn't go beyond those limits, because in the short
term we devastate nature, and in the long term we devastate our
for The Valley News, December 14, 1996
commandment of economics is: Grow. Grow forever. Companies 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.
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.
there's an inconsistency between human economics and the laws
of planet Earth, which do you think is going to win?
say: Compete. Only by pitting yourself against a worthy opponent
will you perform efficiently. The reward for successful competition
will be growth. You will eat up your opponents, one by one, and
as you do, you will gain the resources to do it some more.
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 the
competition; other kinds rise out of cooperation. You're not in
a war, you're in a community.
those mandates makes a world worth living in?
says: Use it up fast. Don't bother to repair; the sooner something
wears out, the sooner you'll buy another. That makes the gross
national product go round. Throw things out when you get tired
of them. Throw them to a place where they become useless. Grab
materials and energy to make more. Shave the forests every 30
years. Get the oil out of the ground and burn it now. Make jobs
so people can earn money, so they can buy more stuff and throw
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.
discounts the future. Ten years from now, $2 will be worth only
$1. You could invest that dollar at 7 percent and double it in
10 years. So a resource 10 years from now is worth only half of
what it's worth now. Take it now. Turn it into dollars.
says: nonsense. Those invested dollars grow in value only if something
worth buying grows, too. The Earth and its treasures will not
double in 10 years. What will you spend your doubled dollars on
if there is less soil, less oil, dirtier water, fewer creatures,
less beauty? 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.
rule is: Do whatever makes sense in monetary terms.
says money measures nothing more than the relative power of some
humans over other humans, and that power is puny, compared with
the powers of the climate, the oceans, the uncounted multitudes
of one-celled organisms that created the atmosphere, that recycle
the waste, that heave lasted for 3 billion years. The fact that
the economy, which has lasted for maybe 200 years, puts zero value
on these things means only that the economy knows nothing about
value ~ or about lasting.
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.
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 much. There
is enough. As long as you control your numbers, there will be
enough for everyone and for long as you can imagine.
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 economics law
consistent with planetary ones, or to find out what happens if
Meadows lives in Plainfield and is an adjunct professor of environmental
studies at Dartmouth College.