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A Tribute to Donella Meadows

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 On February 20 we lost a daring pioneer of our collective journey to create a sustainable future. On that day Donella (Dana) Meadows died. On page 45 you'll find the last column she wrote before slipping into a meningitis-induced coma. Read it and you'll be reminded of the simple directness with which Dana spoke to the contradictions of our times, the critical choices we must make, and their meaning for the human future.

I first encountered Dana in 1974, shortly after she and her then husband Dennis had published their now classic work The Limits to Growth. The book was a frontal assault on modern civilization's most cherished and unquestioned assumption — that our prosperity depends on growing our economy without limit. These respected scientists had put their reputations on the line and not surprisingly reaped a storm of controversy and even ridicule. Their courage emboldened many who followed in their footsteps, including myself, to face the daunting implications of the finite nature of our planet.

My first encounter with Dana was at a presentation at Harvard of the model on which the Limits of Growth was based. Dana was the book's principal author, but it was Dennis who made the presentation. Dana sat in the audience — knitting. I was a young professional woman, struggling in a man's world, and the scene raised the hackles of my budding feminist consciousness.

Twenty years later Dave and I were visiting Dana at her farm in New Hampshire, where our daughter Alicia was living. We had a lively discussion about the relative contribution of population and consumption to the pressures on the Earth's ecological systems.

While we talked, Dana was spinning wool shorn from the lambs on her farm. This time, my hackles were happily quiescent. In the intervening years I had come to deeply appreciate this woman who could not only think about the limits to growth but live her life within them.

Dana brought that life alive to me — and hundreds of others — through her monthly newsletter. Each letter, addressed simply “Dear Folks,” started with the immediate moment.
“Heavy snow is falling, sticking to the branches.”
“I'm in a dorm room at the Budapest University of Economics.”
“Today the front yard is full of yellow daffodils and blue scylla.”

…She described the activities of the organic farm and its residents — young lambs careening in gangs around the barnyard, ducks that refused to leave the freezing creek where coyotes lurked to nab them, Stephen and Kerry's acreage that served a Community Supported Agriculture group, the yummy smells and tastes of home grown food.

About five years ago, hints of a new dream crept into her letters — the dream of expanding the farm to become an intentional community of some 20 families working for sustainability and practicing it in their daily lives. The story unfolded in subsequent letters as others joined to create the Cobb Hill community and its accompanying Sustainability Institute. Dana told of discouraging searches for a suitable site, the breathless wait for the bank loan approval, the arguments about whether the homes would have composting toilets, the endless permitting processes. She vividly conveyed the joy and the struggle of creating a sustainable way of living.

Dana's letters would then move to her life beyond the local community. She exuded appreciation of the students in her environmental courses at Dartmouth who were ready to ask the really big questions. She told of her excitement to help with the formation of the Center for a New American Dream. Each August and September her letters were full of the inspiration she gained from the annual meeting of the Balaton Group, a global network of sustainability systems analysts that she and Dennis organized. The narrative of her letters revealed the incredible array of avenues through which she inspired the lives of young and old and created lasting institutions to help us all live within the limits of our ecosystem.

Attached to each letter were her four weekly “Global Citizen” columns, syndicated nationwide in 20 newspapers (it should have been 2,000!) and picked up by independent publications such as YES!Dana used these columns to cut through the obfuscating rhetoric of most of our news sources. The plan to abolish the estate tax, the deliberations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Honda's 70 mpg Insight. For each, she pulled out the essence to help us see the significance for our collective future.

In her writings and her life, Dana never flinched from the reality of the limits to growth. Her special gift was to show us that learning to live within those limits is not a burdensome sacrifice, but rather a joyous adventure.


Fran Korten is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network. < Email Signup
Reclaiming the Commons
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