The Brightest Star in the Sky

Published: February 25th, 2001

A Tribute to Donella H. Meadows by Alan AtKisson

~Keynote Speech, “The Festival of Faith”, First Presbyterian Church, Morehead City, North Carolina, USA, 25 February, 2001~

My purpose today is to introduce you to an idea, and the task is not a simple one. This idea has to do with how we relate past, present, and future. It has to do with preserving what we treasure, and transforming what we know to be damaging. It has to do with linking together the workings of nature, the economy, our social systems of support, and the well-being of every individual human being, so that all are uplifted and kept whole. It has to do with the lessons of science, and the inspirations of the spirit. It has to do, fundamentally, with what we believe to be our purpose here on Earth, and with how we rise to what has become our responsibility. And it has to do, ultimately, with a dream: the dream of building a world made more beautiful, more intelligent, and more delightful, a world that can be a far better testament to our Creator, a far better home for our children and grandchildren and all living creatures.

But before I introduce you to this idea, this vision, I’d like to introduce you to one of its most influential visionaries — someone who, in her too-short life, did so much to articulate the shape of this idea, to make the case for its necessity, and to inspire others to share it. I’d like to introduce you to Dana Meadows.


Donella H. Meadows, known as “Dana” to her friends, died on February 21 of this year at the age of 59. She succumbed to a brief but intense fight with cerebral meningitis. In an ironic twist of fate, Dana, a recipient of the well-known MacArthur “genius” grant and several other intellectual honors for her work on global environmental and economic systems, was killed by a bacterial infection of the brain.

But the disease that overwhelmed her body’s defenses could never touch her mind, her heart, or her spirit, for these will live on in her written works, the minds and hearts of those who knew her, and in some mysterious way, the fabric of creation itself.

Dana and I had a special relationship. She was at various times my teacher, mentor, colleague, collaborator, debate partner, and cheerleader. She was a pillar to me, a beacon, a guiding star. But I hasten to add that I am by no means unique in this. There are literally hundreds of people who would describe their relationship with Dana in a similarly special way. One of Dana’s many great gifts was her skill at the art of friendship. She leaves behind an extraordinary network of friends, from her current college students to senior scientists and decision makers. My guess is that this network, this enormous web of human relationships, will prove to be her most powerful legacy.

If you didn’t know Dana, I want somehow, through these words, to bring you into the wide circle of her friends. I want first to reassure you that she was not a saint: she could sometimes be, as she herself was first to admit, stubborn and critical. She did not like to suffer fools gladly, and she could be very impatient with those who did not try to overcome their own selfish interests. She was known to use the word “dumb” to describe a bad idea or a misguided politician. And she was an unrepentant lover of life, enjoying opera, and wicked jokes, and the occasional cold beer.

But she also, throughout the dozen years I was privileged to know her, demonstrated an astonishing compassion for other people — even the people who drove her crazy. While she enjoyed her moments in the limelight, she went out of her way to share that limelight with others — or to just give it away completely. And she spent much of her both her money, and her brilliance — whole-heartedly, and big-heartedly — on helping other people to become as bright and passionate in their work for a better world as she tried to be in hers.

The impact of her devotion to uplifting others and linking them together is difficult to quantify, except that it is enormous. As the coordinator of an international network of leading researchers known as the Balaton Group, as a participant in dozens of scientific committees and think-tank groups and boards of directors, as a teacher and farmer and community member, as the founder of the Sustainability Institute and an ecological village known as Cobb Hill, and as a scientific writer and newspaper columnist, Dana Meadows touched and inspired thousands of people directly, and millions indirectly.

She touched them through her extraordinary intelligence, and her equally extraordinary love of common things. She touched them through her insightful analyses, and her infectious laugh, and her tendency to tear up when moved by a beautiful song. She adopted people by the dozens, and encouraged them to follow their best skills and greatest passions. She introduced people to each other who would then start pioneering projects together, write papers together, build communities together, or even fall in love. Trained in chemistry, she lived the intellectual life of a catalyst; but in her social life, she was more of an alchemist, able to turn people and ideas, groups and institutions, into pure gold.


Future generations will largely come to know Dana through the written work that made her famous. In 1972, she was the lead author of a book called The Limits to Growth. The book reported on the results of the first computer model of the entire world, a model built at Massachusetts Institute of Technology by an interdisciplinary team of scientists, of which Dana was one. She had a degree in chemistry, a Ph.D in biophysics from Harvard, and training in the emerging science of system dynamics. More importantly, she had a journalist’s knack for explaining difficult things clearly.

Even before it was published, Limits, as it became known for short, began to make headlines. A leaked manuscript was summarized in Time magazine. The published version was ultimately translated into 28 languages, selling over 9 million copies. Most often, in the press as well as in the academic literature that arose to critique it, The Limits to Growth was summarized this way: “Civilization is doomed.”

While this made for good headlines, great publicity, and an easy target, this was not, unfortunately, what the book actually said.

What the book actually said was that humanity was on a collision course with the laws of physics, mathematics, and biology. Our present trajectory was unsustainable. Something in the system would have to give. If we kept expanding our numbers, our consumption of resources, and our dumping of various kinds of trash into nature, we would, within about a hundred years, exceed nature’s or society’s limits and run off the proverbial cliff, just as did the civilizations of Rome and Easter Island.

But the most important word in the previous sentence is “if.” Dana did not believe in an inevitable collapse of civilization, nor did The Limits to Growth predict it. Dana believed that humanity was capable of waking up to our dilemma, and taking action to avoid catastrophe. She was, in the classical sense, a prophet — and when the signs and portents warn of future doom, prophets prefer to be wrong. The best prophets issue their warnings because they hope to be proven wrong.

Unfortunately, Dana and her co-authors from 1972 have not yet been proven wrong, despite their own efforts to create awareness and motivate change, and despite decades of other people’s efforts to deny, disprove, and discredit their work. Even her published obituaries in the New York Times and the Associated Press, which imply that the book had been proven wrong, are infected by the negative propaganda campaign launched against Limits in 1972. Instead, evidence in support of the Limits team’s disturbing analyses and core conclusions is growing. True, there is some good news: population growth is slowing down, thanks largely to the education and empowerment of women (just as Dana and company hoped would happen). We have not yet run out of any critical fuels or raw materials (Dana herself said that she was surprised by how much more efficient technology had become than was imagined in 1972). But fresh water is fast becoming a source of conflict in the planet’s driest and most crowded areas. Food production is slowing. We are continuing to lose biological treasures like the cloud forests of Costa Rica. And we have decidedly, and irrefutably, begun to run out of places to throw things away.

Our greatest worry in this regard is not litter or old newspapers. The garbage causing the greatest difficulty, both for nature and humanity, is our molecular garbage, the stuff we make that we can’t see. We’ve made too much, and we’re still making it, and tossing it heedlessly into the land, water, and global atmosphere. This is the most dangerous limit that we, in our fundamental ignorance of how nature works, have now passed. This is our greatest industrial error, which we must now scramble to correct.

The Limits to Growth was one of a very few early books to raise the specter of climate change as one possible outcome of the unchecked expansion of humanity’s business as usual. There are several molecules involved in global warming, but carbon dioxide — which acts as a heat-trapping blanket around the planet — is the most important. In just a few generations of oil, gas, and coal combustion, we are raising CO2 to a level higher than the planet has seen in over 400,000 years. As a result, we are already witnessing the melting of the polar ice caps, the intensification of storms, the movement northward of tropical diseases, the rapid disappearance of glaciers and permafrost and even the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro. These conclusions are no longer seriously disputed; even the CEOs of major oil and car companies acknowledge that climate change is real. Insurance companies are worried that they could go bankrupt from its impact. The Dutch are quietly making plans to raise their famous dikes.

While combustion is changing our climate, other kinds of chemistry are changing our biology. Recent research has demonstrated that amazingly tiny amounts of certain common chemicals have the power to disrupt an animal’s fetal or sexual development — including the human animal. Bioengineered pollen recently drifted across the country and killed migrating Monarch butterflies by the thousands, and genetically engineered corn meant for animal feedlots got into human taco shells, causing allergic reactions and other health problems.

As Dana might have said in the “Global Citizen,” the weekly column she wrote for a network of 20 newspapers: while we’re very clever at building engines, doing chemistry, and engineering new life forms, we’re still not very good at it.

In her writing and teaching, Dana Meadows helped thousands of people to understand how, and why, we’re not very good at it. She helped us to understand systems — how one thing links to another, how driving your car links to stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic, how the food you eat links to oil from the Middle East and U.S. defense policy, how declining investment in schools links to a generation of diminished opportunity and capacity, hampering precisely the innovation we need to fix the other problems we’ve created.

But while she helped us understand global problems, Dana was herself a practitioner of local solutions. She lived for many years on an organic farm, living simply, saving energy, practicing what she believed must be preached. Worried about climate change, she restricted her own travel, only going where she felt she could do the most good. When the revolutionary new hybrid gas/electric cars became available, she immediately bought one, and wrote about how important it was to choose such relatively easy steps forward in our personal lives.

While she was worried, deeply worried, about the future of human civilization and the worsening ecological crisis, Dana was inherently an optimist. She believed in the possibility of transformation. She believed in a higher spiritual power. And she believed, especially, in the inherent goodness of human nature, and in our ability to rise up together, to care for one another, to overcome adversity, to reinvent the world.


In 1992, twenty years after The Limits to Growth had stirred such controversy, Dana and her team of co-authors, including her former husband Dennis Meadows and Norwegian banker Jørgen Randers, updated their study. This time, they titled it Beyond the Limits, because trends like greenhouse gas emissions had gone, they concluded, too far already. “Much has happened in twenty years,” they wrote, “to bring about technologies, concepts, and institutions that can create a sustainable future. And much has happened to perpetuate the desperate poverty, the waste of resources, the accumulation of toxins, and the destruction of nature that are tearing down the support capacity of the earth.”

They were not so surprised by the disturbing results of their research. “In a way,” they wrote, “we had known it all along. We had seen for ourselves the leveled forests, the gullies in the croplands, the rivers brown with silt. We knew the chemistry of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. The media had chronicled the statistics of global fisheries, groundwater drawdowns, and the extinction of species. We discovered, as we began to talk to colleagues about the world being ‘beyond the limits,’ that they did not question that conclusion.”

In addition to updating the statistics and computer models and the graphs of rocketing pollutants and plummeting biological capacity, Dana and her colleagues also updated their three major conclusions from 1972:

“1. Human use of many essential resources and generation of many kinds of pollutants have already surpassed rates that are physically sustainable. Without significant reductions in material and energy flows, there will be in the coming decades an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use, and industrial production.

“2. This decline is not inevitable. To avoid it two changes are necessary. The first is a comprehensive revision of policies and practices that perpetuate growth in material consumption and in population. The second is a rapid, drastic increase in the efficiency with which materials and energy are used.

“3. A sustainable society is still technically and economically possible. It could be much more desirable than a society that tries to solve its problems by constant expansion. The transition to a sustainable society requires a careful balance between long-term and short-term goals and an emphasis on sufficiency, equity, and quality of life rather than on quantity of output. It requires more than productivity and more than technology; it also requires maturity, compassion, and wisdom.”

“These conclusions,” they clarified, “constitute a conditional warning, not a dire prediction.”

Dana believed that ultimately the world would choose maturity, compassion, and wisdom over mindless growth, consumption, and pollution. You might even say that she predicted it. Her whole life was dedicated to making that prediction, that hope, come true, and not the “conditional warning” of Beyond the Limits. She felt so strongly about the human side of the equation, in addition to the necessary economic and technological changes we must make, that the final chapter of Beyond the Limits is practically a scientific ode to the expansion of human capacity, and to the power of love itself.

“One is not allowed in the modern culture to speak about love,” she wrote, with the support of her co-authors, “except in the most romantic and trivial sense of the word. Anyone who calls upon the capacity of people to practice brotherly and sisterly love is more likely to be ridiculed than to be taken seriously. The deepest difference between optimists and pessimists is their position in the debate about whether human beings are able to operate collectively from a basis of love. In a society that systematically develops in people their individualism, their competitiveness, and their cynicism, the pessimists are the vast majority.

“That pessimism is the single greatest problem of the current social system … and the deepest cause of unsustainability. A culture that cannot believe in, discuss, and develop the best human qualities is one that suffers from a tragic distortion of information. […]

“… It is difficult to speak of or to practice love, friendship, generosity, understanding, or solidarity within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams are geared for lesser human qualities. But we try, and we urge you to try. Be patient with yourself and others as you and they confront the difficulty of a changing world. Understand and empathize with inevitable resistance; there is some resistance, some clinging to the ways of unsustainability, within each of us. Include everyone in the new world. Everyone will be needed. Seek out and trust in the best human instincts in yourself and in everyone. Listen to the cynicism around you and pity those who believe it, but don’t believe it yourself.”


And so we come to the great idea to which I wanted to introduce you, the idea that was first introduced to me over twenty years ago, when, as a college student, I first read The Limits to Growth — the idea of sustainability.

In Beyond the Limits, Dana and her colleagues defined a sustainable society as “one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support.” In one sentence, they linked together the physical requirements for enduring over generations, and the human ideals and aspirations that make such endurance possible.

More than anyone I have ever known, Donella Meadows embodied that idea, and the action that makes it come to life. She embodied it in her willingness to take a hard, scientific look at the facts, and to seek understanding of both the trends shaping the world, and the systems that drive those trends. She embodied it in her efforts to change those systems, and to show other people how to change them. She embodied it in her passion for teaching younger people, and engaging as many colleagues as possible in what she saw as the greatest challenge facing humanity at this time. She embodied it in her willingness to change her own life to model, as best she could, the quality of sustainable living within the context of a world that needs to be changed. And she embodied it in her passion to bring together, as lovingly and intelligently as she could, her friends, her colleagues, and her readers; and to unite the great aspirations of the human world with the great beauty of nature.

For Dana, the idea of sustainability was not just a call to transform our economic, industrial, and agricultural systems so that they were fairer, smarter, and gentler to the Earth. It was not just an imperative to radically overhaul our energy systems, to reinvent our manufacturing technologies, to replace quantity of stuff with quality of life — though it was all these things. For Dana, the idea of sustainability was fundamentally about embracing a vision of a better world, and a vision of ourselves as better people.

“The ideas of limits, sustainability, sufficiency, equity, and efficiency are not barriers, not obstacles, not threats” say Dana and her co-authors in Beyond the Limts. “They are guides to a new world. Sustainability, not better weapons or struggles for power or material accumulation, is the ultimate challenge to the energy and creativity of the human race.”

Dana Meadows, who always preferred to call herself simply “a farmer and a writer,” who loved tending her garden as much as she loved designing scientific projects or writing newspaper columns, has left us too early. For those who knew her, her absence leaves an acute ache in the heart.

But as a great gardener of sustainability, Dana planted many, many seeds. She will live on in the ideas she promoted and wrote about so eloquently, the institutions she founded or assisted or advised, the people she cultivated and nurtured and brought together. She will live on in the intelligence, and passion, and wisdom that we all bring to our pursuit of the sustainability vision.

A dear friend of Dana’s (and mine) in India, Aromar Revi, has a daughter named Kaholie, seven years old. Kaholie never met Dana personally, but they had a close bond, connecting by email, phone, and presents ferried between Kaholie and Dana by her father, Aro. Several years ago, at the age of four, Kaholie announced to Aro that when people die, they become stars. Kaholie is very sad now, writes Aro, and she is worried that Dana, having never actually seen Kaholie, may have trouble recognizing her from her new vantage point in the cosmos.

To Kaholie, and to all of us who knew Dana or wished we did, I offer this consoling advice. Find the brightest star in the sky, and wave.

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About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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