One lousy analogy

Architect William McDonough has a guest post at in honour of the upcoming Earth Day, promoting his idea of cradle-to-cradle thinking. I like the cradle-to-cradle approach (see my microreview on EcoLibertarian’s books page), but McDonough’s gone a bit squirrelly with this particular call to arms:

Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Mead, and Mikhail Gorbachev are a few leaders who have expressed the notion that significant change can come from the actions of a few. Gorbachev once suggested that it took only 5% of the thought leadership in Russia to create Perestroika.

To move from improvement to revolutionary transformation, we need 5% of the human population committed to cradle to cradle flows—clean healthy materials in closed cycles seen as nutrients, clean energy, clean water, and social fairness. Only the internet has the power to bring this number of people together.

In the Soviet Union, it wasn’t as though no 5% of the population hadn’t considered the possibility that permanent political repression, corruption and forced labour were a bad idea. Probably something like that proportion of Soviets spent time in a Gulag camp at one time or another (the actual prisoner population peaked at about 2.5 million just after the Second World War, when the total population of the USSR was about 140 million). It wasn’t till liberalization became important to Gorbachev that it really caught on. It only became important to Gorbachev once he realized that the West was more prosperous and successful, and the USSR couldn’t keep up in an arms race, support its numerous even-more-economically-disastrous client states, and hold itself together all at once.

It took pressure from below, yes, but the Soviets had a long history of ignoring that, quite forcefully if necessary. What it really took was evidence, striking the right mind at the right time, of a superior way of being.

And in the end, tragically for anyone who wants to use Perestroika as an example of how entrenched ideologies can be changed, it took a profound, immediate, obvious existential crisis.


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