An Earth Day Tribute to Donella Meadows, Earth Missionary

by Craig Freshley


Published in the Portland Press Herald, Earth Day, 2001, as a tribute to Donella Meadows who died on February 21, 2001 of cerebral meningitis at the age of 59.


In the forest of missionaries, prophets and saints, a great tree crashed to the ground a couple months ago, Donella (Dana) Meadows. This is a fitting day to pay tribute to Dr. Meadows, consider her teachings about our impact on the Earth, and talk about how we might save ourselves from extinction.

Donella Meadows collaborated with two other scientists and wrote a groundbreaking book in 1972 called The Limits To Growth. The book discussed the findings of an MIT computer model of the entire world. (Can you imagine a computer model of the world in 1972? I got my first computer in 1983.) Global rates of population growth, food production, air pollution, oil production and other key global trends were all plugged into the model. The model told the scientists that the Earth has limits and if we continue certain behaviors we will eventually collide with those limits.

In 1992, using a far more sophisticated computer model, she co-authored another book called Beyond The Limits. The authors wrote: “Much has happened in twenty years to bring about technologies, concepts, and institutions that can create a sustainable future. And much has happened to perpetuate the desperate poverty, the waste of resources, the accumulation of toxins, and the destruction of nature are tearing down the support capacity of the earth.”

Meadows and her colleagues place hope in a combination of ever advancing technologies that help us use resources more efficiently, and a cultural change in behavior – a spiritual sea change. Both are necessary for our survival.

Recently, Donella Meadows has been writing a self-syndicated weekly column called The Global Citizen. It was carried by several newspapers across the country, some in Maine. She covered topics wide ranging from politics to genetic engineering to global warming to cohousing. For the past few years, the world-renowned systems scientist has been writing her column and quietly starting a cohousing community in Vermont.

Her last column published, Polar Bears and 3 year Olds On Thin Ice, was a Donella Meadows classic. She begins the piece with scientific finding, how the Arctic is the place to watch for global warming; how, in the Arctic Ocean, ice covers 15% less of the area it did 20 years ago, and how polar bears may face extinction in 50 years.

Then, as she often does, she illustrates the first principle of ecology: that all things are connected. She discusses the known causes of global warming. She describes the food chain from microscopic organisms that are fed on by lichens, fed on by clams, fed on by seals, fed on by polar bears. Less ice has resulted in less lichen and less polar bears.

Then the human element, the love part, the sad part. Dr. Meadows explains telling a friend about the polar bear at the top of the food chain at the top of the world. “A friend of mine, in response to this news, did the only appropriate thing. She burst out weeping. ‘What am I going to tell my three year old,’ she sobbed.” Imagine…….polar bears extinct. Do you think that could happen in your lifetime?

Thank goodness classic Donella Meadows always has one more part. Optimism.

Through her books and her columns Dr. Meadows has been telling us that science tells us that our future looks bleak if we don’t change our behaviors. We should not deny this. We should accept this as fact. But notice the “if” in the previous sentence. We don’t have to be doomed.

IF we continue to use non-renewable resources at this pace, continue to pollute at this pace, and continue to consume and make garbage as we are now, future generations will find themselves living in a very different world, I fear, a less desirable world. Some would say we are facing extinction (seen the website

Precisely this time last year, Donella Meadows published a column titled Earth Day Plus Thirty, As Seen by the Earth. She opens by stating that “If…..the human population and economy have become more respectful of the Earth, the Earth hasn’t noticed.” Second paragraph: “The planet is not impressed by fancy speeches.”

On the first Earth Day in 1970, she explains, the Earth felt 3.7 billion hyperactive critters called humans, now there are over 6 billion. The humans extract 78 million barrels of oil from the Earth each day, up from 46 million barrels per day in 1970. We mine 3.8 billion tons of coal and 95 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year.

Extracting these fossil fuels impacts the Earth in several ways, but mostly because we burn it. “Despite global conferences and brave promises,” Dr. Meadows writes, “what the Earth notices is that human carbon emissions have increased from 3.9 million metric tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.4 million this year.” It’s causing global warming and several other environmental and health threats.

Dr. Charles Darwin, the extinction expert, taught us “species that adapt survive.” Are we humans adapting to our changing environment fast enough to survive? It doesn’t feel like we’re facing extinction in Maine, but perhaps we should hedge our bets. Doesn’t it make sense that even to sustain our beloved Maine quality of life, if not life itself, we should lighten our step upon the Earth?

Science and technology will help save us, but also needed is widespread re-thinking of how we extract resources from the earth, use them for our convenience, and put them back into the earth. We need changes in behavior at the grass roots, a new sense of stewardship among us.

Donella Meadows, in the last words of the Polar Bear column, wrote “Is there any way to end this column but in gloom? Can I give my friend, you, myself any honest hope that our world will not fall apart?……..Heck, I don’t know. There’s only one thing I know. If we believe it’s effectively over, that we are fatally flawed…….that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything…..well, then yes, it’s over……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 the 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 for ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls.” The words of Donella H. Meadows, Ph.D., 1941-2001.

In the swirl of e-mails that surrounded her death, someone wrote, “when a great tree crashes in the forest, new saplings stretch for light.”