After spending the past few months combing through Donella Meadows’ letters to friends and family, scholarly literature, and over 700 Global Citizen columns (articles syndicated by 20 newspapers nationwide and eventually published in their own book), I have curated a small collection of my favorite under-the-radar Dana wisdom. These are the pieces that changed the course of my day or that I felt compelled to forward along to my mother or chat about with groups of friends. Enjoy!
If we all think that the end of hunger will be a great, grim sacrifice, that it will take away our own comforts or privileges, that it will require worldwide regimentation, that the only beneficiaries will be those who are hungry, or that if hunger did end the world wouldn’t be very different, what will we ever do to end hunger? If we see that there is more than enough food for everyone, that ending hunger would be easy, that it would be joyful, that it would allow hundreds of millions of people to become productive partners with us, that the lives of all of us would be enhanced immeasurably if 35,000 people per day were not dying of hunger, what might we do?
This piece will inspire you to take a few moments to get in touch with your inner-visionary. If you have half an hour to spare, and especially if you consider yourself an (aspiring) change-maker, it’s also more than worth it to watch Envisioning a Sustainable World, a rare piece of film of Dana presenting on the powerful potential of vision in science and social progress.
Out of the Mouths of the Babes 6/9/1988
You have to be very young to be in complete touch with your fear and grief and common sense. You have to be unencumbered by the rationalizations and pretensions of the adult world. Adults can’t bring themselves to describe problems and solutions simply…One by one, the children speak the truth to us.
A big theme for Dana is the power of simplicity; it is highly inefficient and overwhelming to get bogged down in the details, which frequently distract from the genuine truths and solutions. Dana reminds us to listen to the wisdom of youngsters and to channel the pure, simple thoughts we had as children in order to make sense of the world around us.
Let’s Have a Little More Feedback 8/15/1992
“We can’t solve a problem we don’t know about. We WON’T solve a problem that doesn’t impact us. The world works a little better any time we manage to make the invisible visible, embed real costs into prices, and impose the consequences of decision-making upon those who make the decisions.”
Imagine the world we would live in if we were forced to come face-to-face with the consequences of our decisions on a daily basis! This is probably my all-time favorite Dana advice.
One of our worst human copouts (it is certainly one of my own worst) is to go on doing what we’ve always done, because it seems so much easier than trying something new — even though the something new might actually work. It seems so hard to go to the root of our most intransigent problems. But it’s even harder to mop and mop and mop.
Brilliant systems-thinker that Dana was, she naturally advocates for us to fight the urge to let the consequences of a problem distract us from attending to the root of the problem itself. Dana was an incredibly busy and prudent multitasker and so she really understands the importance of simplicity and efficiency and applying those principles to the world around her!
Beyond Bipartisanship 2/13/1997
We have compromise, which entrenches positions. It forces each side to fight, because it if lets up, the other side will carry the day. The alternative, transcendence, doesn’t let us sink into our comfortable, oversimple positions. It leads us to unfolding understanding… That might sound hard, but it isn’t anywhere near as hard as slugging things out along the old, tired lines. Mostly it just takes a small switch inside our heads, so we become more interested in making things work than in being right.
Transcendence instead of compromise. Utilizing a broad-perspective, systems-thinking approach to problem-solving, everybody wins. (If you’re feeling disheartened with politics or any decision-making environment, this article will hopefully restore optimism/get your own creative juices flowing!)
If we human beings are ever going to live in happiness and harmony with each other and with the natural world, we will have to rethink our economics — starting with downgrading the importance of economics in our thinking.
Dana urges us to imagine a new economics centered around principles of quality, true values, and enough instead of an economics fueled by numbers, money, prices, bottom lines, and quantity.
Nature is More than a Commodity 11/21/1991
One of the main problems of the market system, every economist knows, is that it doesn’t put a price on nature…[but] treating nature as a commodity is dangerous and demeaning.
Dana articulates the dilemma that many ecologists face when encouraging the world to account for the cost of nature when price-setting; while it is foolish and arrogant to attempt to measure natural products and services in money terms, it may be necessary to communicate their value until we change public discourse!
We don’t get to choose which laws, those of the economy or those of the Earth, will ultimately prevail. We can choose which ones we will personally live under — and whether to make our economic laws consistent with planetary ones or to find out what happens if we don’t.
Dana compares the commandments of economics versus the the Earth and makes a pretty convincing case to heed the mandates of the latter.
Freedom of Speech, up to a Point 3/2/1989
The power of words is too strong to let just any tripe loose in the world. Hateful words can tear a community apart. Contemptuous words can crush the spirit of a single person or, if repeated often enough, of a whole people…Inversely, uplifting words can help people rediscover the strengths within them, which are so easily lost in the modern storm of cynical, crass communication.
Certainly one of Dana’s greatest gifts was her ability to communicate effectively and with warmth and love. It seems that few skills are more important. I really appreciated her gentle advice (in this article as well) to share opinions freely (as so much learning and growing only happens through exchange of ideas!) but to choose words with great care and responsibility.
What Does Sustainability Mean? 4/23/1992
Sustainability need not mean sacrifice. It could mean a better world, sooner as well as later, for ourselves as well as our children…I see no reason why a sustainable world couldn’t be democratic, market-oriented (with wise regulation), creative, dynamic, decentralized, flexible, diverse, tolerant, and technically advancing.
Dana reminds us that we likely won’t work very hard to achieve sustainability if we think it means deprivation, loss, and life without luxuries. She prods us to have conversations, instead, centered around the beautiful world we dream of creating for ourselves and our children, where sustainability would be a mere by-product.
Words for a Sustainable World 1/6/1994
Words exclude or include, they wound or heal, they clarify or obfuscate or disguise. They set up patterns in our minds, and those patterns cause us to act, or not. Follow the rise and fall of words … and you key into the evolution (or devolution) of history. Change words and you can change history.
Precise language is imperative in order to articulate and obtain what we- as humanity- truly want (and to be sensitive, thoughtful human beings).
Thoughts While Cleaning The Living Room: Domestic work is undervalued- but it doesn’t need to be Spring 1989
As a woman I don’t want to be liberated out of the middle class. I want everyone to be liberated into it.
Dana does not shy away from gender and class issues as she praises the value of the nurturing and maintenance roles that “hold the world together” and urges us all to recognize the virtues that come from cleaning up after ourselves and caring for the needs of others.
Dear Folks: March 24, 1995 3/24/1995
This is one of Dana’s longest and most extensive letters to her family and friends but it’s such fun to read because it’s her first real articulation of the vision she has for The Sustainability Institute (now the Donella Meadows Institute!) and her intentional community/farm (now Cobb Hill Cohousing in Hartland, Vermont) before they came into being.
Not So Fast! 11/14/1996
Suppose we went at a slow enough pace not only to smell the flowers, but to feel our bodies, play with children, look openly, without agenda or timetable into the faces of loved ones. Suppose we stopped gulping fast food and started savoring slow food, grown, cooked, served, and eaten with care. Suppose we took time each day to sit in silence. I think, if we did those things, the world wouldn’t need much saving.
A reminder so important it might deserve a spot on the fridge…
The people nearly always lead first. When perfectly fine folks get into big government and big corporations, they become timid and unimaginative…If I were responsible for billions of dollars or millions of people, I’d be conservative too…But individuals can be adventurers…They’re also the ones who put the pressure on, so the Powers That Be WILL follow.
To all the discouraged environmentalists out there or the people waiting for corporate or political leaders to make the first move, Dana is going to tell you why you and your actions matter and, in fact, make all the difference.