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Saving the planet


IT'S WONDERFUL, the burst of publications with lists of things we can do to save the planet. It's great to see so much energy behind recycling, energy-efficient light bulbs and fund-raisers for the rain forest. If we all did 50 simple things to save the planet, that would help, there's no doubt about it.

Some of these efforts are not only easy, they also pay off directly and quickly. It takes no more trouble to throw an aluminum can into a recycling container than into a mixed-trash one, and it makes money, instead of costing for disposal. Coffee tastes better out of a washable china cup than out of a throwaway polystyrene one. Anyone who gets into saving energy is rewarded by immediate drops in electricity, gas and oil bills. Anyone who drives less and bicycles more becomes not only ecologically virtuous but physically fit.

These well-meant environmental actions are fine and sometimes even fun, but they aren't enough. The planet -- or, more accurately, our industrial civilization and the natural systems that support it -- needs more than easy gestures if it is to be 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 something good without seriously challenging our life style.

The environment, of course, is much more important than any life style. If we're really interested in saving it, and therefore ourselves, there are some not-so-simple things we can and must do.

About population: On the personal level we can stop our own families at two, or one or none -- and learn to love other people's children. On the government level we can be sure all couples have the knowledge and technology to choose the number of their children, and give them honest reasons why they should choose no more than two. The U.S. government, which used to be the world's foremost in the population 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 nattering sales pitches that tell us we are inadequate unless we buy certain products. It means achieving security and sufficiency but stopping short of waste and clutter. And discovering what life can be about, when it isn't about having more stuff. And choosing real satisfaction instead of the empty satisfaction of mindless acquisition.

On the government level controlling greed means defining progress by true 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 itself wastes money and resources, and all the ways our leaders try to convince us that getting 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.

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 piece of 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 wild land; create parks that demonstrate nature protection rather than commercialism; manage public 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. Then 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 an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. She also works at the stewardship of a 70-acre organic farm in Plainfield, N.H.

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