Dr. Donella H. Meadows, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and Environment and a MacArthur Fellow, was one of the most influential environmental thinkers of the twentieth century. After receiving a Ph.D in biophysics from Harvard, she joined a team at MIT applying the relatively new tools of system dynamics to global problems. She became principal author of The Limits to Growth (1972), which sold more than 9 million copies in 26 languages. She went on to author or co-author eight other books.
For 16 years Donella wrote a weekly syndicated column called “The Global Citizen,” commenting on world events from a systems point of view. It appeared in more than twenty newspapers, won second place in the 1985 Champion-Tuck national competition for outstanding journalism in the fields of business and economics, received the Walter C. Paine Science Education Award in 1990, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
In 1996, Donella founded the Sustainability Institute with the mission of fostering transitions to sustainable systems at all levels of society, from local to global. The Institute adopted the name of its founder in 2011 and renewed its commitment to the organization’s original mission and to making Donella’s work easily and broadly accessible.
Donella’s work rigorously analyzed the systems that produce the complex problems facing humanity, and she described with humor and humility what needed to be done to create healthy functional alternatives. Her affection and brilliance were contagious. Her guiding message was quite simple:
We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.
Three qualities that Donella combined brilliantly were dedication to scientific rigor, deeply grounded optimism, and the ability to communicate well. Her system tools enabled her to see clearly the root causes of seemingly intractable problems — poverty, war, environmental degradation, unsustainable growth — and her deep affection for people and the earth gave her a unique power to reach others.
We believe the world needs more people with this combination of skills.
Top 5 Resources by Donella Meadows
If you are interested in Dana’s work and looking for a place to start, we recommend the following resources. Each one is full of the deep thinking and deep caring that made Dana the exceptional leader and communicator that she was.
- Envisioning a Sustainable World—a powerful video of Dana’s speech on the crucial role that visioning plays in bringing about the world we want
- Tools for the Transition to Sustainability—in this chapter, Dana discusses the importance of visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving in the quest for sustainability
- Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System—probably Dana’s most famous article, this piece illuminates Dana’s deep wisdom about how systems work and how we can manipulate them to create the most change
- Dancing with Systems—another powerful piece about how people can work with systems once they lose the illusion of control over them
- The Limits to Growth—the groundbreaking 1972 study that launched Donella Meadows onto the global stage as a leading climate thinker and writer