A personal appreciation of Grist contributor Donella Meadows
I was once speaking with Donella Meadows in her Dartmouth College office a few years ago, back when I taught with her in the environmental studies program. She was responsible for my appointment in environmental literature and writing and had become a mentor I could call on for advice at any time, no matter how busy she was.
Suddenly, the telephone rang. It was a representative from a top New England university calling to tell Dana, as she was known to her friends, that his school had decided to award her an honorary doctorate. He asked if she could come to graduation to receive the degree.
“No,” Dana said, without missing a beat. When, after a pause, the caller regained enough composure to ask why, Dana said, “Doctorates should be given to people who’ve earned them. I don’t believe in honorary doctorates.” She then hung up and resumed our conversation as if the call had never happened, albeit with a faint smile.
Like others around the world who were stunned last week to hear of Dana’s death, at age 59, from bacterial meningitis, I will remember her in many ways. She was a co-author of such seminal works as The Limits to Growth. She was the winner of such prestigious honors as a Pew Scholarship in Conservation and the Environment in 1991 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994. She was the inspiring instructor of a generation of Dartmouth students who clamored to take her courses. And she was a compelling environmental journalist, for the last 15 years writing “The Global Citizen,” a weekly column nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and syndicated in Grist and newspapers across the country.
More than anything, though, I will remember Dana for living what she believed. She abided by the highest standards for what a teacher, environmentalist, and environmental journalist should be, willing a fiercely principled life that I looked on with wonder. She was one of the few people I have known who refused to compromise, whether it be about what should happen in the classroom or what should happen in the world. And more often than not, she prevailed. Her commitment was evident in everything from her resignation as a tenured Dartmouth professor in 1983, so that she could devote more time to environmentalism, to her founding of an eco-village in Vermont in 1999, so that she and others could practice what they preached.
My years at Dartmouth were the most meaningful and rewarding of my professional career, including all my years in environmental journalism, because I had the privilege to instruct the finest students any teacher could ask for. But my years at Dartmouth were also memorable because I had the honor to work with Dana, who lived deliberately, as Thoreau instructed, embodying an idealism so many of us can only imagine.
“People not especially fond of Henry David Thoreau often note that he was not always alone in that cabin of his in Concord,” said Noel Perrin, an essayist who teaches at Dartmouth. “Thoreau, they say, had dinner with his family two times a week in town. He may have lived by much of what he believed, but not everything. To me, Dana was more consistent than Thoreau. It’s characteristic for many environmental thinkers to not carry environmentalism over into their private lives. But not her.”
In 1963, when few women ventured into science, Dana earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carleton College, then a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University in 1968. She burst onto the environmental scene in 1972 as the principal author of The Limits to Growth, one of the first books to sound the alarm over the ecological threats of soaring global population growth. Based on Dana’s research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an unprecedented use of computer modeling, the book’s thesis was that the planet’s resources would be exhausted within a century. The Limits to Growth sold millions of copies in 28 languages and helped spark a new wave of environmentalism.
But it was only the start of nearly three decades of teaching and writing about nature and humanity, marked by a talent not just for translating into common parlance the tortuously complex world of social, environmental, energy, and agricultural systems, but for giving this world a human face. In such later books as Beyond the Limits, in her column, and in the classroom — where in recent years she taught environmental journalism and environmental ethics — Dana made environmentalism matter.
“She started out in the most intellectual and pragmatic way, with computer models showing us where we’re going, but then evolved into calling us to account in the most moral, most emotional, most human way as well,” said Bill McKibben, an environmental author. “The sense that she was plainspoken yet loving was very powerful.”
Back in her office, about 10 minutes after the call from the spurned university official, Dana’s telephone rang again. This time it was the president of a national environmental group, calling to let Dana know that the group was hosting a major conference in Washington in a few weeks and wanted her to deliver the keynote address. Would she?
“No,” Dana said, without missing a beat. When, after a pause, the caller regained enough composure to ask why, Dana said, “We should not be holding conferences. We should be out doing the work we talk about doing at conferences.” She then hung up, and resumed our conversation as if the call had never happened.
At this point, I couldn’t resist asking how she could turn down so swiftly two opportunities most people could only dream of having. How could she be so sure?
“Because time is all we have, Bob,” Dana said. “And if we’re going to get done in this world what we must get done, then we have to guard it, have to protect it, have to use it as wisely, as productively, and as purposefully as we can.”
To learn more about Donella Meadows and her work, or to make a memorial donation, contact the Sustainability Institute.