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  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
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  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#570 - Some Guiding Principles -- WW III, Pt. 4, 29-Oct-1997

Here is our situation. We are all passengers (or crew) on a long
rickety train heading south at 40 miles per hour, not rushing toward
doom but steadily chugging southward toward general environmental and
social destruction. Many of us are alert to the dangers and for several
years we have been earnestly walking north inside the train.

As we plod from train car to train car we stop to congratulate
ourselves on our progress. We slap each other on the back or we hug,
and we recount the many train-cars we have managed to pass through,
thanks to our stubborn persistence.

But if we would only pause to look out the window, we could all plainly
see that we are now further south than we were when we last stopped to
congratulate ourselves on our progress. Despite our best efforts, we
have been unable to reverse the direction of travel. We are all being
carried southward against our will, deeply violating our sense of

Maybe this is happening to us because we have spent our time engaging
the conductor in conversation. This seems like the natural thing to do.
After all, it is the conductor who sets and enforces the rules inside
the train --that's what conductors do. Furthermore, the conductor seems
pleasant and intelligent, and he also seems genuinely interested in
helping us make our way north through the train. He keeps emphasizing
how well we are doing, and, when we become discouraged, he urges us on,
reminding us that walking northward is a noble journey, and that
eventually we will get to the promised place.

Unfortunately, it has been many years since we asked ourselves the
fundamental questions: what fuels the locomotive? Who is the engineer
with his hand on the throttle? And what will it take to make him change

* * *

The time is long overdue when we must ask ourselves what it would take
to change our trajectory, to permanently alter our direction of travel.
Even if the means for actually changing direction are not visible at
the moment, we know that change is needed and has to come.

We also know that things can change quickly, unexpectedly. But if,
today, we were offered the opportunity to set civilization on a new
path, most of us would not have a clear idea what to do. We need to
think this through. We need a vision of a workable alternative to the
present, a clear set of goals (and benchmarks) and some principles to
guide us, if we are to make the shift whenever the opportunity presents

(We know of only one organization that is gearing up to tackle this
difficult, all-encompassing task, and to do it from the ground up
starting with economic redevelopment of local communities: Sustainable
America in New York City --telephone Elaine Gross at (212) 239-4221 or
E-mail: sustamer@sanetwork.org or http://www.sanetwork.org.)

* * *

Some things we know. For example:

Define Big Technical Enterprises

** Small IS beautiful, but in the coming world we will always need some
large aggregations of capital. We will always need large technical
enterprises like a telephone system, energy systems, broadcast media,
and large reuse/recycling parks to meet our needs for materials, for
example. How can we be sure that those aggregations will remain
responsive to the needs of humans and communities and not merely to
wealthy elites? How can large enterprises be DEFINED so that they
cannot become tyrants in the communities they are set up to serve? This
is perhaps our most compelling problem and one we must think through
and solve. (In the U.S., our predecessors discussed these questions
continuously from at least 1770 to at least 1920 but found no workable,
lasting solutions --the large corporations decisively defeated those
who favored democratic controls in the election of 1896 and our
democracy has simply never recovered.[1])

Now that the survival of the human species (along with many nonhuman
species) is endangered by mountainous aggregations of private wealth
and power, it is essential that our democracy be given a new life. As
we contemplate the nature of the transnational corporation, we must ask
ourselves, if we could replace it, what would we replace it with? How
would we avoid merely creating another Monsanto or another Union
Carbide thus replacing one set of deadly forms with another?

Learn to Measure Well-being

** Many of our problems are worsening --wages are declining,
inequalities of income and wealth are rising, chronic disease is
increasing, our central cities are crumbling, vast numbers of our
children are poorly cared for, poorly educated, and undisciplined. Yet
the government insists that the economy and American life have never
been better. This can only happen because our official measures of
well- being are counting the wrong things.

Nationally, our main measure of well-being is Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) --the amount of money spent by households to purchase goods and
services, plus the amount spent by businesses on investment, plus the
amount spent by federal, state and local governments on goods and

GDP counts everything as positive growth. It works like a calculator
without a minus sign. The costs of emergency room services, prisons,
toxic waste cleanups, homeless shelters, lawsuits, and cancer
treatments are all counted as positive additions to GDP. No wonder
people feel disconnected and out of touch --the President keeps telling
us the economy has never performed better (measured by GDP), but people
know from their own experience that something is not right.

As a result of this faulty accounting system, we take remedial measures
that aren't helpful --measures intended to increase GDP. As economist
Herman Daly has pointed out,[2] when we work to maximize GDP, we are
really working to maximize depletion of our natural resources, and we
are working to maximize pollution. (As we saw in REHW #516 and #518,
better measures of well-being are available, and they indicate that the
U.S. hasn't been making progress for about 20 years.) Meanwhile, people
feel the powerful "bads" in their lives and know things aren't right.

As Herman Daly[2] and Paul Hawken[3] have pointed out, the reason we
need new indicators of well-being is that our situation has changed
drastically. Two hundred years ago, when the industrial revolution was
getting cranked up, natural resources were abundant and humans were
relatively scarce. Now the reverse holds true --natural resources have
been badly depleted and there is no shortage of humans. Therefore,
ancient policies aimed at substituting energy and natural resources for
human labor no longer make sense. We need to count the depletion of
natural resources among the "bads" and we need to devise ways to use
more human labor (not less) to build a better world. This means --at
the very least --redefining the "productivity" of labor.

We can begin these changes at the local level, where we live. Happily,
smart people are developing "cookbooks" that can guide us as we develop
local measures of well-being. For example, the organization called
Redefining Progress in San Francisco has published an excellent "how
to" manual called THE COMMUNITY INDICATORS HANDBOOK.[4] Such local
measures can tell us where we are, where we are going (including where
we are going wrong), and can focus our political attention and our
public investments on making real improvements.

If we don't measure where we've been and where we are, we can't know
where we are going. This seems fundamental --yet relatively few
communities today are taking such measurements. Jacksonville (Florida),
Seattle (Washington), and Pasadena (California) are leading a new
movement that has started measuring quality of life and using the
measurements to guide investment and effort.[4]

Tax Bads, Not Goods

Herman Daly[2] and Paul Hawken3 also agree that we should tax the
things we don't like --depletion, pollution, and waste --and we should
avoid taxing the things we DO like, such as investment and labor. (We
would still have to tax the highest incomes to reduce inequalities of
opportunity and power, for the purpose of preserving democracy.)

As Paul Hawken says, the goal of the tax system should be to close the
gap between prices (which individuals pay) and costs (which society
pays). Individuals pay the price of gasoline, but society pays the
costs of hurricanes, droughts, and floods caused by the global warming
which results from gasoline-powered automobiles. If taxes caused prices
to reflect full costs, then alternatives to gasoline-powered cars (such
as light-weight hybrid hydrogen-and-electric vehicles) could be
competitive today --good for the economy and good for the environment.

A tax on toxic dumping would discourage this antisocial practice. Even
better: a tax on toxic raw materials would induce users to seek less-
toxic alternatives, thus eliminating the possibility of problems rather
than merely reducing the likelihood of problems.

Search for Least-Damaging Alternatives

We must insist that all reasonable alternatives be examined before
decisions are made, and that the least-damaging alternative be given
greatest weight. We could certainly embed this decision-making
principle in our public institutions, starting at the local level --and
eventually we will have to embed this guiding principle in private
decision-making as well.

As biologist Mary O'Brien says, "Our society proceeds on the assumption
that toxic substances WILL be used and the only question is how much.
Under the current system, toxic chemicals are used, discharged,
incinerated, and buried without ever requiring a finding that these
activities are necessary."[6] We need to institutionalize the search
for least-damaging alternatives and give priority to the least-damaging
alternative once it has been identified. (How do we measure least-
damaging? This goes back to measuring well-being, discussed above.)

Catalog What Works

We need an ongoing catalog of "what works." What innovations at the
local level are working? We need a place where we can all go to find
out. One effort in this direction is the magazine called YES! A JOURNAL
OF POSITIVE FUTURES7 but we also need a much more ambitious, cumulative
database of "what works" for sustainable development.

[There are other principles that should guide us, but we will suspend
this series for a time and return to it later.]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] See Lawrence Goodwyn, THE POPULIST MOMENT (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1978), and Gabriel Kolko, THE TRIUMPH OF CONSERVATISM
(New York: The Free Press, 1963).

[2] Herman E. Daly, BEYOND GROWTH (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

[3] Paul Hawken, "Natural Capitalism," MOTHER JONES (March/April,
1997), pgs. 40-53.

[4] Alan AtKisson, Kate Besleme and others, THE COMMUNITY INDICATORS
HANDBOOK (San Francisco: Redefining Progress, 1997). $19.95 plus $3.00
shipping and a bargain at the price. Telephone: (800) 896-2100. This
publication describes most of the "measurement" projects going on now
in the U.S.

[5] See M. Jeff Hamond, TAX WASTE, NOT WORK (San Francisco: Redefining
Progress, April, 1997). Available for $10.95 plus $3.00 shipping.
Telephone 1-800-896-2100.

[6] O'Brien quoted in Sandra Steingraber, LIVING DOWNSTREAM (New York:
Addison-Wesley, 1997), pg. 271.

[7] YES! A JOURNAL OF POSITIVE FUTURES, P.O. Box 10818, Bainbridge
Island, WA 98110; telephone (206) 842-0216; fax: (206) 842-5208. E-
mail: yes@futurenet.org; web: http://www.futurenet.org. Subscriptions:
$24/year --phone 1-800-937-4451.

Descriptor terms: world war iii; what works; yes! a journal of positive
futures; measuring progress; redefining progress; measuring well-being;
taxation; taxes; green taxes; sustainable america; democracy; control
of capital; gdp; gross domestic product; community indicators handbook;
herman daly; paul hawken; mary o'brien;

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