Unlimited Activism

The first and only time I spoke with Donella Meadows, I was a sophomore studying in Dartmouth College’s Environmental Studies Program — and very nervous to be sitting in the office of one of the school’s most famous professors. I had developed an interest in writing about the environment and asked if she had any advice to offer. "It’s important that you continue to take science courses," she said as I got up from my chair. "Don’t ignore them." I smiled because I knew these words came from a woman who graduated with a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University.

Courtesy of Dartmouth College

Donella Meadows" death this past February at age 59, from bacterial meningitis, stunned the environmental community. As a leading advocate of the sustainability movement, Meadows, fondly referred to as Dana by her friends and colleagues, had co-authored The Limits to Growth in 1972. Drawing upon global computer models, the bestseller projected devastating environmental degradation if population and consumption continued unchecked. Two decades later, she co-authored Beyond the Limits, updating the international situation.

"There are a lot of people in the world, but very few can change the world the way Dana did," says Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute. "She had the uncommon combination of a sharp scientific mind along with the capacity to communicate effectively. For me, she was a cutting-edge thinker."

Meadows worked tirelessly to promote environmental awareness and sustainable resource management. She joined the faculty at Dartmouth in the early seventies, where she most recently taught classes on environmental ethics. In 1985, Meadows began writing a weekly newspaper column, "The Global Citizen," for which she received a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1991. She also co-founded and coordinated, with former husband Dennis Meadows, the International Network of Resource Information Centers — a coalition of systems analysts and activists in 50 nations. Just four years ago, she founded the Sustainability Institute, a "think-do-tank" that led to the establishment of a sustainable residential community in Four Corners, Vermont.

Meadows received numerous awards for her work. In the past decade, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and was selected as one of 10 Pew Scholars in Conservation and the Environment.

A staunch defender of the precautionary principle, Meadows urged readers to "look before you leap," in a "Global Citizen" column last December. "If you can’t afford to lose," Meadows wrote, "don’t gamble." In a world where countries, companies and individuals often risk irresponsible growth for short-term profits, Dana Meadows challenged us to think globally and helped us realize what was really at stake.