Wise Words from Dana

Below we highlight some of our favorite quotes by Donella Meadows.

Speak the Truth
“Speak the truth.
Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently,
and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power.
Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence.
All growth is not good.
The environment is a necessity, not a luxury.
There is such a thing as enough.”

Though I didn’t grow up on a farm…
“Though I didn’t grow up on a farm, I’ve been attracted to them all my life. When in 1972 I finally came to buy my own home, it was a farm. My psychological roots grew instantly into its cold, rocky soil. I have tried several times to leave it, reasoning that I could write more if I didn’t spend so much time shoveling manure, that I need to be where the political action is, that I’m not a very good farmer anyway, that New Hampshire is a terrible place to farm. But I’ve always come back. Something deep in me needs to be attached to a farm.”

How do we appreciate the good…
“How do we appreciate the good without letting it be the enemy of the perfect? How do we keep a step in the right direction from becoming a stopping point? How do we get beyond shades of insipid light green?”

On Joy
“It’s because of the people who are working toward sustainability, and because of my own experience, that I know how quickly the decision to go that direction, though it may start out with a feeling of sacrifice, turns into a lifetime of rejoicing.”

If we believe that it’s effectively over…
“If we believe that it’s effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUVs while they last, well, then yes, it’s over.
Personally, I don’t believe that stuff at all. I don’t see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed…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 is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, February 2, 2001

My writing
“My writing is a search for Truth.
It comes out of love.
It empowers; it does not judge
or accuse or rob anyone of
dignity or respect.
It is clear and precise.
The passage of my words through
the minds of others leaves them
more open, more thoughtful,
compassionate, committed to
Quality.
Every one of my readers is the Key
to the Workability of the Planet.
I give in my writing of myself
and my struggles unstintingly;
it is all I have to give; the
“I” of it is unimportant; it is
the universal humanness that
is important.
I write to ennoble others, not myself.”

Start thinking
“In the old electric system, it cost utilities less to subsidize our more efficient bulbs than to build another dinosaur power plant. In the deregulated system, they have only one incentive: to sell us as much power as possible at the lowest apparent price. So much for efficiency.Don’t set up the poor to bid against the rich. Don’t try to control prices in only one part of the system. Don’t hide real costs. Throw away comfortable myths about how the market will do everything for us and start thinking.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, January 18, 2001

The Good News
“So here’s the good news. A knowledgeable and courageous U.S. president could help enormously in leading the world’s nations toward saving the climate, but an ignorant or servile president can’t stop committed nations, companies, or people from doing it anyway.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, November 30, 2000

Actions and Values
Dana, on driving her new Honda Insight car:
“Three weeks of information I never had before have changed 40 years of ingrained driving habits. I didn’t have to be coerced or rewarded; I didn’t have to change my values. I just had to see how my action did and did not conform to my values.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, May 4, 2000

The Earth has no way of registering good intentions…
“The Earth has no way of registering good intentions or future intentions or high hopes. It doesn’t even pay attention to dollars, which are, from a planet’s point of view, just a charming human invention. Planets measure only physical things – energy and materials and their flows into and out of the changing populations of living creatures.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, April 20, 2000

Freedom, stewardship, fidelity, family, community
“Freedom, stewardship, fidelity, family, community, all are casualties of a mechanism that selects only for cheapness and a narrowly measured efficiency that turns a living farm into a mechanized, chemicalized, one-product factory.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, June 3, 1999

Feeding the world…
“Biotech companies love to talk about feeding the world, but their products must pay off in the market, which measures dollar demand, not human need. The effort has gone into the potato that makes McDonald’s fries, not the yam eaten by folks with no cash. The corn that feeds America’s pigs and chickens, not the dryland millet that feeds Africa’s children.”
–Excerpt from the Global Citizen, March 25, 1999

On vision
“If we haven’t specified where we want to go, it is hard to set our compass, to muster enthusiasm, or to measure progress. But vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our culture. We talk easily and endlessly about our frustrations, doubts, and complaints, but we speak only rarely, and sometimes with embarrassment, about our dreams and values.”
–“Envisioning a Sustainable World”, Feb 12, 1996

I could see myself with fully gray hair…
In 1993 Dana did a visioning exercise in which she envisioned herself 10 years later:
“I could see myself with fully gray hair, looking vibrantly healthy. I was speaking in public. I was a constant presence in public discourse. I was calm and quiet, not flashy, not charismatic. My purpose was to insert into the discussion as much perspective, as broad a space horizon, as ethical a position as I could. My goal was to be clear, loving, wise.

I had no particular position or power, other than my willingness to show up and to speak truth. But – and here was the surprising and wonderful part – I was speaking from and for a community. This was a community in which I lived day to day. It was composed of people more clear, more loving, more wise, more spiritual than me. Together we studied and spoke about all the issues in public discourse and tried to work toward the clearest, most insightful position we could find. And then I was sent out (I was not the only one) to speak that position in public. The community prepared me for these appearances and critiqued them to help me do better next time. When I lost my way, when I got knocked off center, when I got scared or discouraged or angry, the community lovingly helped me find myself again.

I couldn’t see where I lived, on this farm [Foundation Farm in New Hampshire] or any farm, though it was clear to me that the community lived by the wisdom it preached. I did not see myself writing, only speaking. (That was weird. Maybe it was a recognition that hardly anyone reads any more.) As with every vision, I arched into the future without any concern about how to get there from here, so I have no idea whether I created this community, or found it somewhere and went to join it.

What I conclude is that I must find or create a group of people to live with who are dedicated to a just, peaceful and sustainable world, both in the way they live and in the way they reach out to impact the public discourse, the language, the context, the frame, the mindset of the larger community.

Well, who knows what will happen? I have a new vision now to work toward. Meanwhile, if there’s one more nice day outdoors I have raspberries to prune. If there isn’t, I have a basement to clean.”

A sustainable world
“I call the transformed world toward which we can move ‘sustainable,’ by which I mean a great deal more than a world that merely sustains itself unchanged. I mean a world that evolves, as life on earth has evolved for three billion years, toward ever greater diversity, elegance, beauty, self-awareness, interrelationship, and spiritual realization.”
–“Beyond the Limits”, speech given in Spain, Fall 1993

We have within us…
“We have within us the ability to wonder,
the intelligence to understand,
and the love to care about that which we wonder at.
I try to play to those abilities,
within myself and within others,
and in them I always find hope.”
–Dana Meadows wrote of her work in an online forum in 1992

Groping in the dark
“We do not need a computer model to tell us that:

  • we must not destroy the system upon which our sustenance depends.
  • poverty is wrong and preventable.
  • the exploitation of one person or nation by another degrades both the exploited and the exploiter.
  • it is better for individuals and nations to cooperate than to fight.
  • the love we have for all humankind and for future generations should be the same as our love for those close to us.

If we do not embrace these principles and live by them, our system cannot survive. Our future is in our hands and will be no better or worse than we make it.

These messages have been around for centuries.
They reemerge periodically in different forms and now in the outputs of global models. Anything that persists for so long and comes from such diverse sources as gurus and input-output matrices must be coming very close to truth.

We all know the truth at some deep level within ourselves.
We have only to look honestly and deeply to find it.
And yet we don’t live as if we knew it.

Some of us actively deny messages like the one from the global models.
Others try very hard not to think about them.
Most of us
feel helpless, shrug our shoulders, wish things were otherwise,
assume that we can do nothing, and go on living.

Meanwhile, on this planet,
twenty-eight people starve to death each minute
one species of life disappears forever every day
and one million dollars are spent each minute on armaments.

The current condition of our globe is intolerable and we make it so.

It is changing because of what we decide.

It could be beautiful. If we would only
decide to get along together, be open to each other and to new ways of thinking,
remember what is really important to us, and what is less so,
and live our lives for that which is important.

As sophisticated, skeptical, scientific Westerners
We always react to statements like that by saying
It sounds too simple, and is in fact impossible.
How could we ever decide to get along together?
You don’t just decide things like that.
And how could we get everyone else to decide it?
(It couldn’t be possible that everyone else is just like us and is saying that same thing)

When everyone is so sophisticated
that they can’t believe it could be simple to be honest and to care

And everyone is so smart that they know they don’t count so they never try

You get the kind of world we’ve got.

Maybe it’s worth thinking another way
as if we cared and we made a difference,

Even if it’s just groping in the dark.”

–Excerpt from: Groping in the Dark, Donella Meadows, John Richardson, Gerhardt Bruckmann, (New York: Wiley), 1982, pp 289-291.

About DMI

Since its founding in 1996 by environmental leader Donella Meadows, our Institute has been at the forefront of sustainability thinking and training. Our initiatives have addressed economic, environmental, and social challenges from a range of angles and at many levels. In everything we do, the disciplines of systems thinking and organizational learning inform and shape our work. It is this focus on whole-system analysis, combined with careful listening, truth telling, and visioning, that make the Donella Meadows Institute unique among sustainability organizations.  Read More

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