Donella Meadows Archives

Things Fall Apart; The Center Cannot Hold

By Donella Meadows

–November 28, 1991–

Every now and then I hear something in the news that reminds me of the chilling poem “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats. Usually the triggering event is a period of utter chaos in some distant part of the world:

Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda, the Middle East.
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood dimm’d tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Nowadays that passage comes to mind when I hear news from just about anywhere.

The Serbs are tearing the Croatians apart. Serbian grandmothers plead with their government to stop the fighting, to no avail. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Shells explode in priceless medieval cities. Hospitals fill with refugees.

In the Soviet Union things continue to fall apart. The Azerbaijanis and Armenians are at each others’ throats. Soviet Georgia is ruled by a ruthless fascist. Boris Yeltsin, who thought it was a fine idea for Lithuania to secede from the USSR, is now discovering that some ethnic groups want to secede from his own Russia.

The center cannot hold. Secession is an idea that doesn’t stop, once it gets started. When peoples’ mind are permitted or encouraged to dwell on what they don’t like about their neighbors, the blood dimm’d tide is loosed.

Ethnic divisions smolder in India, in Canada, in Indonesia, in Iraq, in Africa. In the United States ancient hatreds once again corrode the political process. The ceremony of innocence is drowned. OK, OK, so U.S. politics were never exactly innocent. Overt racists have run for office before and have won. But David Duke and the more polished racism of the Bush White House now seem like a retrogression, an ominous stirring of a monster we had thought was dead, or at least locked firmly away.

Many theories purport to explain why things are falling apart just now. Most of them have no predictive power. They are like the explanations of why the stock market did what it did, always AFTER the event. The only people I know who have foreseen the present chaos — not its specific details but its general unfolding — are those who believe in the economic long wave.

The long wave is a 45-60 year cycle of ups and downs in the economic activity of industrial economies. The last three downs occurred in the 1930s, the 1890s, and the 1830s. The present downturn began in the 1980s. It hit first in the oldest and most obsolete industrial plants of the world economy (many of them in the U.S. Midwest) and in the steel, machine tool, oil, and metal industries. The rich were sheltered from the slump for awhile by Reagan-era deficit spending, tax cuts, and junk bonds, but those devices were unsustainable, and their consequences are now coming home to everyone.

Long wave theory explains the economic causes of the ups and down, not the political consequences. Those consequences are worth pondering, especially since the long wave downturn of the 1930s provided some terrible examples of what can happen when people feel the economic ground shaking under their feet.

When times turn bad, there is a dreadful need to cast blame. Dashed hopes, aroused fears, and long-buried resentments need an outlet. Anyone will do for a scapegoat: the ethnic group next door, Jews, communists, blacks, Saddam Hussein, liberals, conservatives, stockbrokers, welfare recipients, environmentalists. The history of the 1930s tells us that the choice of whom to strike out against is almost random. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The direction it takes depends upon which voice of hatred rises first and loudest and sounds the most certain.

People who feel themselves cast adrift in a tossing economic sea will grab at anything that looks solid. They will listen to a David Duke; they will follow a Yeltsin; they will dream of a Mario Cuomo who probably doesn’t exist, one who will restore certainty, one who will point to a center that can hold. Sixty years ago the authoritative, assuring voices came from Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. Who will they come from today?

In that question is the present danger and the present opportunity, especially in East Europe and in the United States, the two places that are feeling most shaken in their old certainties.

The line in the Yeats poem that most reverberates in my head is: “the best lack all conviction.” The most decent people are honestly confused right now. They know that scapegoats and hatreds are not the answers, but they don’t know what the answers are. They don’t know how to put the pieces of a shaken economy back together. They refuse to give anxious people false answers. And so they fall silent.

It is the worst thing they could do. The decent people do know and should say, loudly, authoritatively, some important truths. NO ONE, no group, no leader, no scapegoat was totally or singly responsible for the present difficulties. NO ONE really knows for sure what to do next. In these uncertain times our best course of action is not to turn on each other but to stick together and to help out those who are hurt the most.

We don’t need a Cuomo or anyone else to say these things. We can say them ourselves and must, so the center will hold, so things won’t fall apart.

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991



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Since its founding in 1996 by environmental leader Donella Meadows, our Institute has been at the forefront of sustainability thinking and training. Our initiatives have addressed economic, environmental, and social challenges from a range of angles and at many levels. In everything we do, the disciplines of systems thinking and organizational learning inform and shape our work. It is this focus on whole-system analysis, combined with careful listening, truth telling, and visioning, that make the Donella Meadows Institute unique among sustainability organizations.  Read More

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