Heroes of Sustainability: Thom Hartmann

No one could accuse Thom Hartmann of not pursuing his interests. Probably best known as a radio talk show host, Hartmann has also co-founded an herbal products company, started international relief programs in a variety of countries, written more than 20 books, worked as a psychotherapist, developed a widely known theory on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and inspired a web movie from Leonardo DiCaprio on the environment.

Hartmann is, to be certain, a man of many talents. As actor DiCaprio has said: “Thom Hartmann seeks out interesting subjects from such disparate outposts of curiosity that you have to wonder whether or not he uncovered them or they selected him.”

However, just because his interests are varied doesn’t mean he’s a jack of all trades and a master of none. Hartmann has more than 2.5 million listeners a week and was named the eighth most important talk show host in America last year by Talkers Magazine, making him the top progressive host on the list. Many of his books have been best-sellers, and he counts legions of influential people as fans of his multidisciplinary work.

Waking Up
His latest book, The Thom Hartmann Reader, covers a wide range of topics, from his opposition to the corporatization of America to solar energy in cloudy Germany to the problem with schools treating children like they’re products on an assembly line. Of the book, fellow Hero of Sustainability John Perkins says: “Thom Hartmann is a literary descendent of Ben Franklin and Tom Paine. His unflinching observations and deep passion inspire us to explore contemporary culture, politics, and economics; challenge us to face the facts of the societies we are creating; and empower us to demand a better world for our children and grandchildren.”

Building a better world for those future generations will take a shift in consciousness, Hartmann says, but he believes we can do it. “I’m very hopeful, and I think that people are waking up,” he said in a video interview with The Nation. “Americans are waking up. They know that their way of life has been destroyed.”

One of our most pressing issues as Hartmann sees it is the corporate capture of government. “It’s our job, not just as progressives, not just as Democrats or greens, but as Americans … to help people realize that this unholy alliance of corporations and government is every bit as dangerous and destructive as the alliance of church and state was perceived to be 200 years ago, and frankly today far more destructive,” he said.

Movement Politics
Although talk radio hosts are known for getting into battles of who can shout the loudest, Hartmann takes a different approach — less shrieking, more calm, reasoned debate. That doesn’t mean, though, that’s he’s not passionate about his beliefs. If we’re going find solutions to the global warming crisis and the lack of clean water worldwide, that’s going to take action to change the way we live, find alternative energy sources, and organize our communities in a different way.

“Every time there’s been a significant change in the history of America, it’s been a result of movement politics — local movements, local people,” Hartmann said. “Get active in the political process, show up, volunteer … run for political office or support somebody who is, and get out there and get active. Really, the bottom line: Tag, you’re it.”

For more information on Hartmann, visit www.thomhartmann.com.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Rachel Carson

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

There is perhaps no book that’s made a greater impact on the environmental movement than Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, the groundbreaking work brought to the forefront of American public consciousness the impact of pesticides on the earth, making the New York Times best-seller list for more than 80 weeks. A decade after the book was published (and due to its influence), DDT was banned in the U.S.

Hard at Work
Who was the woman who wrote a book that spurred such action? Carson was born in 1907 and grew up in rural Springdale, Pennsylvania, where she developed a love of nature and reading from a young age. At the Pennsylvania College for Women, she first studied English but then changed her major to biology, and went on to earn a master’s at Johns Hopkins University in zoology. After the death of her father and needing to contribute to the family income, Carson took on a job that melded her two loves of science and writing, penning weekly radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries that were intended to get the public interested in aquatic life and the bureau’s work.

From there, she went on to become only the second woman hired full-time for a professional position by the bureau, and in her role, she wrote pamphlets and other educational materials for the public. On the side, she contributed articles to newspapers and magazines, with an Atlantic Monthly piece eventually turning into her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. It was well reviewed and today is considered one of the classics in nature writing.

Her next book, The Sea Around Us, garnered the financial security she needed, along with much recognition and a slew of awards. It was turned into a documentary that won an Oscar, although Carson was never happy with the script that was written for the project. She followed up her enormously successful sophomore effort with a third book about the sea, this one titled The Edge of the Sea. It was also quite popular, and completed her look at the oceans from deep under to the shores.

The Environmental Movement
The inspiration behind the work that would come to most define her to popular audiences, Silent Spring, started with a letter her friend published in The Boston Herald, about birds dying on her property because of the DDT sprayed to get rid of mosquitoes. After becoming aware of this, Carson largely focused her scientific research efforts on pesticides, spending the rest of her career examining and writing about their effects.

Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history,” wrote Al Gore in an introduction to the book’s 25th-anniversary edition. “Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”

Carson died of cancer less than two years after Silent Spring was published, and as such, never fully took in the legacy she left behind. Jimmy Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, and countless academics and citizens alike were influenced by her work.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

For more information on Carson, visit www.rachelcarson.org.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Edward Abbey

Many environmentalists have sterling reputations: They’ve used peaceful tactics to preserve nature, written beautiful prose to celebrate it, and inspired others to defend it. Edward Abbey is not one of those environmentalists.

Sure, he fiercely loved nature, wrote awe-inspiring accounts of it, and garnered a huge following — but he also threw beer cans out car windows, penned stories about blowing up dams, and married five times, earning quite the reputation as a womanizer.

He was one-of-a-kind, a conservationist of his own making, described by The American Spectator contributor Bill Croke as “equal parts Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, with an added dash of Mikhail Bakunin.”

Cactus Ed
The Pennsylvania native was born to a schoolteacher mother who played the organ in church, and a farmer father who was a socialist, an anarchist, and an atheist. Shortly before Abbey’s 18th birthday in the mid-1940s, when he would face the draft, he set out to explore the American West, getting there through a mix of hitchhiking, walking, freight train hopping, and bus riding. When he saw the desert landscape of the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet), he’d found his home.

After returning from World War II, graduating from the University of New Mexico (his master’s thesis topic: “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence”), and working as a park ranger, he rose to prominence with the 1968 publication of Desert Solitaire, a nonfiction book melding nature writing, philosophy, and political observations about the management of national parks. In it, he wrote:

“Beyond the side canyon the walls rise again, slick and monolithic, in color a blend of pink, buff, yellow, orange, overlaid in part with a glaze of ‘desert varnish’ (iron oxide) or streaked in certain places with vertical draperies of black organic stains, the residue from plant life beyond the rim and from the hanging gardens that flourish in the deep grottoes high on the walls. Some of those alcoves are like great amphitheatres, large as the Hollywood Bowl, big enough for God’s own symphony orchestra.”

Seven years later, he followed that book with one even more popular, The Monkey Wrench Gang. A novel centered around a group of anarchic environmentalists who conspire to blow up Glen Canyon Dam and sabotage builders’ efforts to develop in the desert, it inspired the founding of Earth First!, a radical green group.

Solace in the Desert
Abbey believed that humans would never know true freedom until they spent some time in wild, unexplored lands, and so he spent his life doing — and writing about — just that.

“Edward Abbey is one of our foremost Western essayists and novelists,” read an article in The Denver Post. “A militant conservationist, he has attracted a large following — not only within the ranks of Sierra Club enthusiasts and dedicated backpackers, but also among armchair appreciators of good writing. What always made his work doubly interesting is the sense of a true maverick spirit at large, within it — a kind of spirit not imitable, limited only to the highest class of literary outlaws.”

When he died in 1989, friends and family fulfilled Abbey’s burial wish by taking his body in a sleeping bag in the back of a pickup truck and laying him to rest in the wilderness as soon as possible, without embalming fluid or a casket (or regard for the law).

“I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree,” he wrote. Somewhere in the dusty Arizona desert, it’s doing just that.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Christopher Swain

Christopher Swain. Photo by Carrie Branovan.

The world is watching this week as the best swimmers go for the gold, but there’s a significant swimmer they won’t see: Christopher Swain.

He isn’t the fastest — in fact, he’s not that fast at all — but he is just as dedicated to his cause as Olympians are to pursuing their sports.

His first monumental swim came in 2003, when he became the first person to swim the length of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, all 1,243 miles of it. While a good workout was clearly a byproduct of the long swim, the purpose was to raise awareness about the people and ecosystems that have been disrupted in the Columbia River Basin. A documentary, Source to Sea: The Columbia River Swim, was produced about the effort, and it went on to win the Environmental Activism and Social Justice Award at the EarthVision Film Festival, and the Most Inspiring Adventure Film Award at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival.

“I seek to plead the Columbia’s case,” Swain told Smokebox.net. “I chose swimming because I didn’t want to put anything between me and the water. Advocating for the River required my getting wet. When I swim, I offer myself to the river somehow. In the end then, I suppose I answer to the Columbia.”

Just Keep Swimming
He didn’t stop his swimming career there. A year later, he took on the 315-mile Hudson River in New York, calling for a river with drinkable water and becoming the subject of another documentary, this one called Swim for the River. Since then, he’s taken on Lake Champlain, the Charles River near Boston, and the Mystic River in Massachusetts.

Back on land, Swain — who grew up on the water and sailed competitively as a youngster — has talked to more than 60,000 students about clean water, produced a major event for the United Nations Water Decade at U.N. Headquarters, and was chosen as a Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight.

According to his website, www.swimforcleanwater.org, he’s “survived collisions with boats, 12-foot waves, lightning storms, class IV+ rapids, toxic blue-green algae, Lamprey Eel attacks, and water contaminated with everything from human waste to nuclear waste.” And still, he pushed on, determined to do whatever he could to ensure that future generations would have clean, drinkable, swimmable water.

If commitment to a good cause were an Olympic sport, Swain might just find himself on the podium.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry. Photo by Jim Fothergill.

“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.” — Wendell Berry

Prolific writer and farmer Wendell Berry has spent his life sticking close to his roots. That doesn’t mean the Kentucky-based scholar has never gone out and experienced anything new — he studied at Stanford University in California, taught at New York University, and traveled to Italy and France as part of a fellowship.

“In high school, my teachers were telling me you can’t amount to anything and stay where you’re from,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “So when I left here, I assumed I would be an academic wanderer perhaps, that I’d be going with my ‘talent’ from one university to another so I could amount to something. When I decided to come back here, a lot of people I respected thought I was deliberately achieving my ruin.”

A Sense of Place
Instead, the Kentucky native was returning to the place where his “imagination took root,” taking up the tradition of farming that had been in his family for at least five generations.

Doing so was anything but the achievement of his ruin. A staunch advocate for the land, Berry practices what he preaches, living on a 125-acre homestead that produces most of the things he needs to eat. A team of horses plows the land instead of a modern tractor.

In addition to producing sustenance for his family, he’s produced an incredible number of written works — more than 50 novels, short story collections, poetry chapbooks, and volumes of essays in all. Much of his writing has focused on issues of sustainability and agrarian values, weaving in ideas of connection to place, local economies, and the miracle and interconnectedness of life.

Championing Causes
Although Berry is well into his 70s now, that hasn’t slowed down his activism. Earlier this year, he spent a weekend locked in the Kentucky governor’s office with others from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in an effort to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. In late 2009, he protested the construction of a coal-burning power plant in Clark County, Kentucky, a project that was successfully canceled earlier this year. Also in 2009, he teamed up with The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson (another Hero of Sustainability) to write an op-ed for The New York Times calling for a farm bill that addresses “the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”

While he’s a champion for the environment, he has criticism for that movement, too, given how some separate wilderness from farmland. “My experience over the last 25 years has been that not many people speak, or can think, from the point of view of the land,” he told Smithsonian. “As soon as the conversation shifts from issues actually affecting the land to ‘the environment,’ then you’re done for. People think of it as something different from themselves, and of course it isn’t.”

With simple yet beautiful prose and commonsense ideas, Berry has ideas worth taking heed of — and yet he’s still working to be heard. As writer Rod Dreher said in The American Conservative, Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”

To learn more about Berry’s works, visit www.wendellberrybooks.com.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Michael Braungart

Michael Braungart. Photo by Enith Stenhuys.

“Think about this — today the indoors air quality in most buildings is very poor, yet the insulation techniques keep improving, so by not looking at the big picture we’re effectively trapping ourselves in polluted air. My conclusion is that if you do something wrong, don’t make it perfect, otherwise you’re just making something that’s perfectly wrong.”
– Michael Braungart

Michael Braungart is driven by two big questions: How can mankind really integrate itself into life on earth? How can people be not just less harmful, but rather useful?

Throughout his career, the German chemist has strived to answer these questions, and in the process, has come up with some revolutionary ideas — including ones that have certainly raised a few eyebrows.

In design magazine Abitare, he wrote: “But I can tell you, sustainability is boring. It is just the minimum. Like when you were asked: ‘How is your relationship with your girlfriend?’ What do you say? Sustainable? I’d say: ‘I am so sorry for you.’ Design is the complete opposite of sustainability. We would still live on trees if we were sustainable. Sustainability just keeps the same things over and over again. Instead we should celebrate being human beings and our creativity, which is far more important than sustainability.”

A Real Shift
Elevating design to something that’s more than just the bare minimum is something he delves deeper into in the book he co-wrote with American architect William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The Cradle the Cradle philosophy is all about looking at the design of something from the beginning to end of its life span, eliminating the concept of “waste,” as everything can be reused perpetually. Instead of minimization, Braungart envisions a design world of optimization.

“Most of the time products that are labeled carbon neutral absolutely are not,” he said at EcoBuild 2010 in London. “We have to stop thinking we can protect the environment by destroying less. Carbon neutral is only achievable through nonexistence, hence it’s not something to aspire to — what we need to aim for is carbon positive, like trees. And that calls for a real shift.”

Spreading the Word
In Braungart’s earlier days, he was a Greenpeace activist who once lived in a tree as a form of protest. He went on to lead the formation of the Chemistry Section of Greenpeace International, and in 1987, he founded the EPEA Umweltforschung in Hamburg, which works with clients around the world to institute Cradle to Cradle principles. He is a professor of process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderburg and the scientific manager of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, a nonprofit research center that ranks the quality of environmentally sound products in the chemical industry. He is also co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm based in Virginia.

Although Braungart’s involved in a variety of activities, they all have one overarching goal: to promote the idea that we can do more than just reduce our negative environmental impact — we can make a better one.

For more information about Braungart, visit www.braungart.com/index_EN.html.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Janine Benyus

When working to create a new process or product, Janine Benyus recommends asking one simple question: What would nature do?

The biologist and science writer coined the term biomimicry (from bios, meaning “life,” and mimesis, meaning “to imitate”) to describe the process of taking designs from our natural environment and using them to create more-efficient and sustainable products and processes. For example, think about a plane emulating a bird, a spider’s web that’s as strong as a bulletproof vest, pharmacists studying organisms that self-medicate, and buildings that model themselves after termite mounds that maintain a constant temperature despite fluctuating heat outside.

Innovation Inspired by Nature
Benyus’ love for all things nature started early in life. “I grew up in a part of suburban New Jersey where there were still some open spaces — forests, meadows, ravines, streams,” she told The Sun magazine in 2009. “Then suburbia rolled over us, and my parents moved us farther out. This happened several times. I was always a little naturalist. I would go outside in the morning with my lunch packed and stay out all day. My parents had to ring the dinner bell to get me back inside. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I always found wilderness to explore. I firmly believe that wilderness can be found anywhere, even in the cracks of the sidewalk; it’s just a matter of seeing it.”

Her way of “seeing it” that others don’t is what has made her ideas so revolutionary. In her most famous book, 1997’s Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, she introduced the masses to this discipline of seeking sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs.

It’s an idea that’s genius in its simplicity. All around us are answers to the biggest dilemmas that face designers, architects, and businesspeople — we try to make things bigger, better, and more efficient, yet the earth has already found ways to do everything in an optimal way.

A year after the release of Biomimicry, Benyus co-founded an innovation consultancy called Biomimicry Guild, which helps engineers, architects, business leaders, and others solve design and engineering challenges in a sustainable way. She also founded the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that aims to spread the ideas of biomimicry to a larger audience.

Model and Mentor
In the article that announced Benyus as one of Time magazine’s 2007 “Heroes of the Environment,” scientist Amory B. Lovins wrote: “Biomimicry isn’t biotechnology. Biomimicry learns and emulates how spiders make silk; biotechnology transplants spiders’ silk-making genes into goats, then sorts silk from milk and hopes the genes don’t get loose. Biotechnology is smart kids in an oil depot with matches; biomimicry is wise adults in a rain forest with flashlights. Biotechnology is pure hubris; biomimicry is luminous humility — treating nature as model and mentor, cherished not as a mine to be stripped of its resources but as a teacher.”

And like nature, that’s just what Benyus is — a teacher. Known for her engaging speaking style and ability to translate complex concepts into layman terms, Benyus hopes that by getting people to care about the lessons nature has to teach, she’ll also get them to care about preserving the environment.

“I believe that every organism that I can see is sweetening this place,” Benyus told CNN in 2008. “I think if we were to learn from their strategies, we too might be participants in that process, not depleting this place that sustains us, but actually enhancing it to the point where it becomes more and more conducive to life.”

For more information about Benyus, visit www.janinebenyus.com.

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Heroes of Sustainability: E.F. Schumacher

One of the hundred most influential books published since World War II, according to The Times Literary Supplement, E.F. Schumacher’s internationally known Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered has informed thinking on Western economies since 1973.

The German-born economist and statistician was more than just a numbers guy — he was an environmental champion. In Small Is Beautiful, he argued that technological production shouldn’t mean damaging our finite natural capital and thus ruining it for future generations. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” he said. “It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Excessive Growth
The title of the book itself fought back against the idea of “bigger is better” — small can be beautiful, and enough is enough. Rather than using gross national product as an indicator of human well-being, Schumacher thought another model may be more appropriate. “The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption,” he wrote.

For 20 years, from 1950 to 1970, he served as chief economic adviser to the National Coal Board in Britain, during which time he championed coal over petroleum. His reasoning was that oil was a finite resource that would eventually be depleted and rise astronomically in price. Plus, he noted that the biggest reserves of oil were in some of the most unstable countries.

Up until his mid-40s, Schumacher was a proponent of unfettered economic growth, like most good economists. He came to realize, however, that modern technology was far exceeding human need. A trip to Burma inspired him to coin the term “Buddhist economics,” which referred to economic principles he created on the tenets of renewable resources and individuals doing good work to further human development.

Nature’s Potential
Instead of looking at natural resources as expendable income, they should be looked at as capital, Schumacher argued, since they can’t be renewed and will eventually disappear. He believed that sustainable development should be a priority, as the earth can’t protect itself against pollution forever. His controversial opinion that industrialism full speed ahead — with no concern for the impact it had on nature — wouldn’t stand up in the long run set him apart from his contemporaries.

While his ideas were fairly radical in economics circles, they made him popular with proponents of environmentalism, a movement that was gaining steam at the height of Schumacher’s career. A thoroughly readable collection of essays that stand the test of time, Small Is Beautiful still informs thought today on eco issues.

As Schumacher said: “There is incredible generosity in the potentialities of Nature. We only have to discover how to utilize them.”

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Heroes of Sustainability: William McDonough

“I can’t imagine something being beautiful at this point in history if it’s destroying the planet or causing children to get sick. How can anything be beautiful if it’s not ecologically intelligent at this point?” –William McDonough

When William McDonough co-wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things a decade ago, it revolutionized the way we think about design. Part of that was because of the book itself — instead of being printed on paper from trees, the words were pressed onto plastic resins and inorganic fillers that feel like paper (yet are waterproof) and can easily be recycled.

The physical manifestation of the book is but one example of the cradle-to-cradle design espoused by McDonough and co-author Michael Braungart, a German chemist. The concept calls for designers to think about what happens at the end of a product’s life just as much as they think about the beginning.

By using design principles that mesh with nature — harnessing the sun’s energy and making use of nutrient cycling, for example — buildings, products, and systems can become more than just a bear on the environment, but a tool for positive change.

Innovative Design
As an architect, McDonough has created buildings for corporations such as Nike and the Gap that have changed the way people think about green design and function. With his firm William McDonough + Partners, McDonough made history at the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich., covering the roof with 10 acres of sedum, a low-growing groundcover that retains and cleanses rainwater as well as moderates the internal temperature of the building. The Sustainability Base as part of NASA’s Ames Research Center is another feat of engineering, with solar panels, ample use of daylighting, and systems designed to eventually use only renewable energy and maintain water in closed loops.

Ford River Rouge Complex. Photo courtesy of William McDonough + Partners.

According to the William McDonough + Partners website: “The foundational principles we bring to each project derive from our vision of the future: a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world — with clean air, soil, water and power — economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.”

McDonough is also co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm that helps clients go beyond reducing a negative footprint and instead leave a “positive footprint.” The Cradle to Cradle framework for creation they’ve developed takes five dimensions into account: using materials as nutrients for safe continuous cycling; developing systems to safely close the loop on biological and technical nutrients; powering all operations with 100 percent renewable energy; regarding water as a precious resource; and respecting all people and natural systems.

Future Generations
The idea that buildings can be more than just “less bad” and instead do good is one that’s greatly impacted green builders’ thought processes, and led to a slew of honors for McDonough, including “Hero for the Planet” from Time magazine and the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development.

“If we look at money, currency is a fluid thing. And yet, what we’re talking about is transformation into values-based design,” McDonough said in an interview with Dwell. “In that context we express our values which are to grow capital, and the capital is currency with potential. And it’s really about having things for future generations, not just using everything up. Once you get the difference between currency and capital, your mind can change and you don’t cut down the tree to burn it for fuel and cause carbon, you look at the tree and celebrate it for its fruit and leave the rest for future generations.”

For more information about McDonough, visit www.mcdonough.com.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows in 1994. Photo by Medora Hebert, Valley News.

“Speak the truth. Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power. Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence. All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as ‘enough.’” — Donella Meadows

Remembered for her contributions to systems analysis and environmental science, Donella Meadows — known as Dana to her friends — gained international acclaim when she served as lead author for The Limits to Growth in 1972.

The best-selling book argued that our consumption pattern is not sustainable in the long run, using a computer simulation model to show how unchecked world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion could impact the earth. The book was translated into more than two dozen languages and sold tens of millions of copies.

It was not unanimously loved but instead fiercely debated. Plenty of economists, scientists, and other leaders criticized the message and methodology, saying that the predictions were too dire and that humans would find a way to make unfettered economic growth sustainable. However, nearly 40 years later, its arguments have stood the test of time, proving it a worthy read that’s only becoming more relevant as the years go on.

“[The Limits to Growth] should be given credit for emphasizing early on the interconnections and feedback between various sectors and trends,” wrote Jørgen Stig Nørgård, John Peet, and Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir in a 2010 article in Solutions journal. “Today we see, for example, how our fast depletion of fossil fuel resources is directly contributing to climate change problems.”

A Global Citizen
With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carleton College and a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University, Meadows became a research fellow at MIT, working in the department of Jay Forrester, who invented system dynamics. She offered many contributions to systems theory and global trend analysis herself, and began teaching environmental systems, ethics, and journalism at Dartmouth College in 1972, where she remained until her death in 2001 after battling bacterial meningitis.

She left a compelling legacy as a thought leader in her wake. A weekly column she wrote for 16 years called “The Global Citizen,” about world events from a systems point of view, ran in more than 20 newspapers, won numerous awards, and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

With husband Dennis Meadows, she founded the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC), better known as the Balaton Group, which played a role in facilitating exchanges between scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The information-sharing process she developed as coordinator has made a huge impact on science and sustainability development.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute (now the Donella Meadows Institute), an organization with the mission to apply systems thinking and organizational learning to economic, environmental, and social challenges.

Change Is Not Sacrifice
Even though The Limits to Growth was considered gloomy by many, Meadows had a hopeful outlook for the future of the environment, and she worked tirelessly to share her knowledge with others so that they, too, would recognize the damage being done.

As she said in a 1996 presentation: “As I travel on the path toward sustainability myself and watch my friends travel on it, I keep thinking of a motto I once heard: ‘Change is not sacrifice.’ It is learning, staying awake, being alive, moving to new places. It requires every part of us, our rational minds and our loving spirits. It treasures and protects the bottom of the pyramid, the magnificent planet and all its wondrous living things, and it moves us toward the top of the pyramid, the top of the mountain of sustainability, the ultimate end, the fulfillment of the highest and noblest human purposes.”

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