Tribute to Dana Meadows

Published: April 22nd, 2001

By Amory Lovins

~Rocky Mountain Institute~

A biologist, perhaps E.O. Wilson, noted that bees, ants, and termites, though not very smart individually, display high intelligence collectively–and then he added, “People seem just the opposite.” Dana was an exception. She was one of those promising specimens that’s turning up more and more often in the search for intelligent life on earth–one of those much higher primates whose love, logic, radical stubbornness, courage, and passion awaken the rest of us to our ability and our responsibility to save the world. She knew, taught, and lived the lesson that love is not only an untapped but an expanding resource: the more you use it, the more you give it away, the more of it you have left.

When I first met Dana in 1963, I was a normal, healthy technotwit–a nerdy 15- or 16-year-old high-school student in Amherst–and she was a roughly 22-year-old biophysics grad student earning her PhD with Professor Oleg Jardetzky at Harvard Med School. We were both doing nuclear magnetic resonance experiments, so I went to see their apparatus and get technical advice. I was immediately struck not just by her powerful and subtle intellect but also by her fresh, free, friendly, and inquiring spirit. It was therefore no surprise when she turned up among Jay Forrester’s students who were advancing the frontiers of understanding how complex systems unfold, and then when The Limits to Growth burst upon an unsuspecting world.

As that debate raged through the 1970s, largely between those who apparently hadn’t read the book but were sure it was wrong and those who knew better, and then in 1982 when Hunter and I were Luce Visiting Professors at Dartmouth, we came to know Dana and Dennis, to stay with them in Plainfield and play with them in Csopak, and to gain a deep admiration and affection for them personally as well as professionally. While they were contributing profoundly to our common understanding what needs to be done, they were also quietly showing a better way to live in balance–rebuilding stone walls, processing honey, putting up preserves, spinning wool, gardening plants and people. Dana stayed grounded all her life in these real things, showing us how to find in daily life the gift to be simple, to be free, to come down where we ought to be. She gained her faith, hope, and clarity from the renewal of the seasons and the miracle of topsoil. Like Wendell Berry, what she stood for was what he stood on. The insight she lived and taught was rooted in the design genius of 3.8 billion years of life–a process of wild experimentation, rigorous testing, and continuous improvement in which whatever didn’t work already got recalled by the Manufacturer.

My old mentor Edwin Land said that invention is a sudden cessation of stupidity; that a mistake is a circumstance not yet fully turned to your advantage; and that people who seem to have had a new idea have often simply stopped having an old idea. Dana had these experiences all the time, and shared them ever more widely as she became arguably the world’s best environmental writer. She combined an unrivaled insight into system dynamics, a commitment to taking responsibility for the whole system even while working to change only part of it, a compassion for all beings, and an uncompromisingly rigorous quest for honest answers and honest questions so lucidly stated that everyone could understand them and would be moved by them.

James Branch Cabell wrote, “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true.” Dana fitted neither category. She wrote three years ago, “By nature I’m an optimist; to me all glasses are half-full,” yet she didn’t shrink from reporting bad news, always blended with encouragement about how to do better. She treated the future as choice, not fate, and she defined with luminous clarity how to do (as one sometimes must) what is necessary. She shared René Dubos’s view that despair is a sin, so when asked if we have enough time to prevent catastrophe, she’d always say that we have exactly enough time, starting now.

Two years ago, when E-mailing an unusually somber column about events that made her weep, she appended the following note as counterpoint: “A CEO was having to babysit for his young daughter. He was trying to read the paper but was totally frustrated by the constant interruptions. When he came across a full page of the NASA photo of the Earth from space, he got a brilliant idea. He ripped it up into small pieces and told his child to try to put it back together. He then settled in for what he expected to be a good half-hour of peace and quiet. But only a few minutes had gone by before the child appeared at his side with a big grin on her face. ‘You’ve finished already?’ he asked. ‘Yep,’ she replied. ‘So how did you do it?’ ‘Well, I saw there was a picture of a person on the other side, so when I put the person together, the Earth got put together too.’”

The truth Dana spoke fearlessly to power was not just about how much is enough; it was also about meeting nonmaterial needs by nonmaterial means. Ecclesiastes reminds us that “He who hath silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor he that hath abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” Dana gently but irresistibly deflated that vanity; she gave us comfort in abandoning vanity without fear. Gandhi-ji, asked what he thought of Western civilization, replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.” Like him, Dana did not compartmentalize her spiritual values from her analytic conclusions, but integrated them into wisdom and hope, as only a whole person and a great soul can do. As she wrote four years ago, “[I]n every society, and always, there have been a few people utterly compulsive about the exercise of power, and most people quietly content to live through the exercise not of power, but of duty, community, and love.” That contentment with what really counts defined her in service to her community.

Dana left big footprints for us to try on for size. While she left us far too soon, she also equipped us to discern and pursue what needs to be done, and how to intervene where it’s most effective–best of all by changing the mindset of those who make the rules. She helped us prepare for our species’ graduation test, already underway, when we’ll all get to find out whether this bold evolutionary experiment of combining a large forebrain with opposable thumbs was really a good idea. She was–and her legacy is–living proof that it was.

When another giant, David Brower, died late last year–another of my mentors–Walter Link asked, “Wouldn’t it be an implausible failing of evolution that a species like ours could come to be, that it would evolve to have a consciousness that can grow, that can spend a lifetime learning how to be effective, and then have the individuals of that species die in such a way that all that is lost to the universe?” Happily, Dana, like Dave, left much of her wisdom with us through her teaching, writing, and personal example, knowing that we would carry on the work. She knew too, as Robinson Jeffers put it, “that the enormous invulnerable beauty of things / Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, / And die without grief or fear knowing it survives us.” As Jeffers wrote in his “Incription for a Gravestone”:

I admired the beauty
While I was human, now I am part of the beauty.
I wander in the air,
Being mostly gas and water, and flow in the ocean,
Touch you and Asia
At the same moment, have a hand in the sunrises
And the glow of this grass.
I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth
For a love-token.

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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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