During my first semester in college, I wrote a paper for an environmental studies class in which I cited an article by "journalist Donella Meadows." "A journalist, and much, much more," my professor wrote in the margin, high praise from a man not given to excess.
In recent years, Meadows was known to many as the author of a weekly column, "The Global Citizen," published in newspapers across the country. The column ran for 15 years and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Her readers were shocked to learn in February that Meadows had passed away at age 59, the victim of a short battle with bacterial meningitis.
Well before her foray into journalism, Meadows made her mark as a freethinking academic. After earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Carleton College and a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University, Meadows gained world renown in 1972 as the principal author of The Limits to Growth, a book that pioneered the modern debate about whether the planet could support continued population growth and economic expansion. Based on a computer model developed by Meadows and a team of others at MIT, The Limits to Growth sold millions of copies in 28 languages.
Meadows went on to teach at Dartmouth College for 29 years. Among other honors, she was awarded a Pew Scholarship in Conservation and the Environment in 1991 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994.
Impressive resume aside, what I and so many others admired about Meadows was her commitment to putting her ideas into practice, and her talent for putting a human face on environmental problems. She lived for 27 years on a small, communal, organic farm in Plainfield, N.H., and two years ago, she moved to Hartland Four Corners, Vt., where she worked to establish a co-housing village and another organic farm. In 1997, she founded the Sustainability Institute, a "think-do-tank" combining global environmental research with practical demonstrations of sustainable living.
Fame didn't mean much to her. She got reams of mail and e-mail, but always found the time to write back quickly. (I e-mailed her a couple of years ago with a vague description of a publication I hoped to start up - could I run her column in it? Yes, she wrote back moments later. No charge; just consider giving her group a small contribution.) In her column, Meadows wrote about carbon sequestration, cluster zoning, Sweden's chemicals ban, and globalization. Not the stuff of poetry, but somehow she managed to personalize the issues. She'd write about two brothers who had taken it into their own hands to reduce their carbon dioxide output; or she'd reflect on how milking a cow raised questions about modern-day notions of progress.
Meadows described herself simply as "a farmer and a writer." Worthy trades. But to her legions of readers and fans, Meadows was much, much more. She was a model of sustainable and sensible living.
To learn more about Donella Meadows and her work, or to make a memorial donation, contact the Sustainability Institute, www.sustainer.org.
The author, a former HCN intern, is editor of Grist Magazine, www.gristmagazine.com, a Web site that publishes environmental news and humor.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Chip Giller
"Is there any way to end this column other than in gloom? Can I give my friend, you, myself any honest hope that our world will not fall apart? Does our only possible future consist of watching the disappearance of the polar bear, the whale, the tiger, the elephant, the redwood tree, the coral reef, while fearing for the three-year-old?
"Heck, I don't know. There's only one thing I do know. If we believe that it's effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUVs while they last - well, then yes, it's over. That's the one way of believing and behaving that gives us a guaranteed outcome.
"Personally, I don't believe that stuff at all. I don't see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants polar bears and three-year-olds in our world. We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there's something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls."
- Donella Meadows, from the final edition of The Global Citizen