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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One thought on “Heroes of Sustainability: Donella Meadows

  1. The ideas she shared can really open our eyes about the importance of maintaining the balance in nature. It is really possible to exist without causing any harm.

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