Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies

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Shoulders We Stand On: Donella Meadows

barn
photo from here

“Simple miracles. Satisfying work, like baking bread or building a shelf. Fresh, delicious food. . . . Health for land and people. Sometimes I wonder, with all our supposed progress, what we’re rushing toward and what we’re leaving behind.”
—Donella Meadows, “An Ode to the Cow and the Milk,” The Global Citizen, January 25, 2001

It is important to acknowledge that our thoughts and inspirations never arise ex nihilo; there are those who have gone before that pave the way for our convictions, the things we feel beholden to, and our way of approaching wicked problems.

One such pioneer in the world of systems thinking, sustainable living, and environmental conscientiousness is Donella Meadows, 1941-2001. Meadows’ writings, research and practical demonstrations of living in a resilient manner have come to shape how we think about and understand global systems on both a macro and micro scale. Her work addresses the long delays and complex feedbacks that are common to systems, but also inspires people to think about individual choices in their daily living.

basecase
A chart from Meadows’ 1972 book The Limits to Growth. Image from here

In 1972, Meadows, along with two other scientists from MIT (Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, her husband at the time) created a computer model that analyzed global resource consumption and production. Their results shocked the world and created stirring conversation about global ‘overshoot,’ or resource use beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Shockingly, their model at that time was right, and the three co-authors have long been internationally recognized for their groundbreaking research into early signs of wear on the planet. The book launched a worldwide debate on the earth’s capacity to withstand constant human development and expansion, and we now know that their predictions for earth’s limits came quite close to the truth.

Cobb Hill
An image of Cobb Hill, the eco-village and organic farm that Meadows developed in Vermont.

One of Meadows’ more recent articles, titled, “Places to Intervene in a System” (1997), has found its way into the students’ fall reading list for their Systems Thinking class with Howard Silverman. You can access the whole article here.

Meadows has been right on so many levels, and we owe a great debt to her innovative thinking, desire for achieving sustainability, and her concentrated efforts to make others feel the same. In her own enduring words, “We have exactly enough time, starting now.”

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