Donella Meadows (1941-2001)

At age 30, just two years out of grad school, Donella Meadows mounted a full-scale assault on the conventional wisdom confidently espoused by politicians, business leaders, economists, and the scientific establishment. With three co-authors, she wrote The Limits to Growth, a slim volume that appeared in 1972, selling millions of copies in 28 languages with the message that the world economy cannot continue to expand endlessly without severe environmental strains and eventual social collapse.

“From my point of view as a scientist, there was nothing more stupidly obvious than to say that the earth is finite and growth can’t go on forever,” Meadows, who died of meningitis in February, once told me in an interview. “I was simply astounded at the number and power and loudness of people who wouldn’t accept that.”

Reflecting on that experience, Meadows recalled how she was caught off guard by the ferocity of attacks from business, universities, and government. “They couldn’t allow that book to stand,” she said. “They threw everything at it they could think of. There’s a deep belief that growth is always good.”

Meadows and two of her co-authors updated their work in 1992 using advanced computer models that created future scenarios based upon current trends in 249 ecological, economic, and demographic variables. They came to the conclusion in Beyond the Limits (Chelsea Green) that the day of environmental reckoning is closer than they originally imagined. “Things moved a lot faster toward limits than we anticipated, and some new ones, like ozone layers, that nobody knew about have appeared,” she explained.

As a scientist and journalist who made a name for herself by challenging deeply held views, Meadows always made a point of looking at how her own beliefs narrowed her thinking. For many years, she noted, her training as a scientist prevented her from appreciating the value of spirituality. Her Christian upbringing came to seem foolish in light of the empirical methods of understanding the world she learned as a chemistry major at Carleton College and in the biophysics Ph.D. program at Harvard. “Scientists go through an anti-religious, anti-spiritual brainwashing,” she said. “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.”

Ironically, the research for The Limits to Growth–conducted according to disciplined scientific methodology and using the most up-to-date computer modeling of the time–led to a spiritual awakening. “I was trying to deal with the terrifying futures I saw ahead,” she recalled, “and I wanted to help steer humanity toward a more positive future, but I began to feel like a pretty frail instrument. I realized that I needed to feel a power greater than myself. Otherwise I would have just given up. I needed help.”

She took up meditation and explored the teachings of numerous faiths, wondering about the eternal questions of the universe in her own “pretty unorthodox, quite eclectic” way.

She also undertook the role of journalist, penning for many years, “The Global Citizen”–a weekly installment of fresh thinking about environmental, economic, and social issues that appeared in alternative publications across the country and occasionally in daily newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. The column was delightfully eclectic, ranging from provocative assertions that a soaring stock market is not necessarily good news to thoughtful praise for public libraries, ladybugs, and Pad Thai (as one example of ecofriendly peasant food from around the world that tastes great without a lot of meat or imported ingredients). She also traveled widely as a coordinator of the International Network of Resource Information Centers, a coalition of researchers, policy makers, and activists in 50 nations who bring a big-picture perspective to issues of sustainable development and resource management.

Remarkably for someone who captured public attention with dire warnings about the future, a message many did not and still do not want to hear, Meadows never grew discouraged.

“Two things keep me getting up in the morning,” she noted. “One is utter terror. This is not a feeling I really want to share with other people. It’s not a very good motivator. But I also believe that the terror scenario isn’t inevitable. There are strong possibilities for a sustainable society, one that lives within its ecological limits. I’ve done the numbers. I believe it’s possible for 7 billion or 8 billion people to live in a way that doesn’t degrade the earth, in a way that meets basic human needs better than we do today–including the nonmaterial ones.”

Meadows didn’t just dream about a sustainable world, she created a prototype of it at Cobb Hill, an ecovillage where she lived near Hartland, Vermont. It is a cohousing community where a number of families live in separate solar-powered homes but engage in common activities such as weekend dinners, gardening, yoga classes, volleyball, and child care. Cobb Hill encompasses a dairy farm, a maple sugar business, orchards, and organic gardens that supply many homes and restaurants in the region. Some residents make their livelihood through these enterprises, while others work off the farm. It’s also the home of Meadows’ Sustainability Institute (www.sustainer.org), where she wrote, researched, and taught about an alternative vision of the future. Her colleagues will carry on the institute’s work.

Adapted from the book Visionaries: People and Ideas to Change Your Life by Jay Walljasper, Jon Spayde, and editors of Utne Reader, to be published this fall by New Society Publishers (800/567-6772; www.Newsociety.org).

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