By Donella Meadows
–June 16, 1994–
This is how it happens. Out of the blue on a bright June morning you get a phone call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, saying you have just been named a MacArthur Fellow.
You say, “This is a joke, right?”
They assure you it isn’t.
If you work in a field favored by the MacArthur Foundation (such as arts, social work, science, the environment), you know some MacArthur Fellows. They are stars in your firmament, people you admire, people whose ideas or research you use every day. You have a dim idea that “MacArthurs” have come to these folks, but you don’t understand the process, and they have never discussed it with you.
“Your award is $62,000 a year for five years,” says the voice on the phone. “The checks will come quarterly, directly to you.”
“With my name on them?” you ask stupidly, stupefied.
“Absolutely,” they say. “You can use the money any way you like. You don’t have to report to us.”
“These people are out of their everlovin’ minds,” you think, but by now you have assembled enough presence of mind not to say that. One thing that’s clear is that these people are having a lot of fun making these phone calls. “Of course you have to pay income tax on the money,” they say.
I don’t know about other MacArthur Fellows, but my first instinct after that call was to go someplace quiet to think for a few days. But I was late for a meeting, the hay was cut and drying on my farm, the weeds were doubling daily in the June garden, and the MacArthur Foundation’s formidable public relations department was already generating calls from the press.
Guess which two questions every reporter asked.
You’re right. “How does it feel?” And “What are you going to do with the money?”
I had no words with which to answer the first question. You don’t feel feelings with words; the words come later. Dazed. Immensely validated. Enormously humble. Deeply grateful. Joyous, shocked, a little scared of the responsibility of answering the second question.
I contacted some former MacArthur Fellows. What to do with the money?
Have a fling, some said. Go on a vacation. Do something for yourself. One woman bought a harpsichord. Another said she wished she had bought a harpsichord.
Put the money away to endow your work in the future, said others with a more sensible, long-term outlook. Where to put it? I wondered. I have wrestled just enough with the challenge of environmentally responsible investment to know there’s no easy answer to that question.
Prepare for a lot of genius jokes, the former Fellows warned. The press has dubbed this honor the “Genius Award,” which makes me squirm. I have worked with a few real geniuses, and I know the difference between them and me. When I scanned the list of other awardees — a dancer, a poet, a physicist, a man who works in Asia to grow rice without pesticides, a woman who has created a Native American college system — I decided that a better name for this award would be the “Different Drummer Award.” I can accept being labeled as a person who steps to a different drummer.
The press went away and did its work, and then came the best part of the whole experience. Calls and faxes and e-mail messages poured in. (Especially e-mail messages, given the crowd I run with.) They were from friends and colleagues at home and around the world, and they were expressions of pure joy. The joy had two themes, both of which made me inexpressibly happy. The first was love for me — something I often have trouble letting in. I had no choice but to let it in.
The second was the recognition that this award acknowledges all our work, theirs as well as mine. “I’m always looking for a sign that sustainable development is taken seriously and the world will work out — and this is one,” said a friend in Washington. “This sends encouragement all around the world for us to carry on,” e-mailed a sustainable agriculture expert in Scotland. An untiring environmental organizer in Thailand said, “When we get discouraged, we can remember this.”
These people and many others contribute in every way to my work. My research and columns and books and lectures are inspired by them and filled with their stories. We are one community, we who work toward a world in which all people can lead good lives in a way that preserves and loves the environment. We are a much larger community than you would believe. And if one of us is honored, all are honored.
Which is why there is no question about where the money will go. It will go to further the work of that community.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994