Envisioning a sustainable world – Donella Meadows (by Lindsay Barbieri)

2017-02-lbPrelude: Envisioning a Sustainable World.

As we move into the political realities of 2017, I have been thinking long and hard about this powerful talk – Envisioning a Sustainable World – that Donella Meadows gave during the International Society for Ecological Economics meeting in 1994. What I find most significant (and I really recommend watching!), is Meadows’ call to engage with the vision creation of envisioning a sustainable future. Her call to resist falling into the trap that modelers, politicians and everybody fall into: talking about implementation first and skipping over or taking for granted the vision.

She beautifully articulates how developing a concrete vision can prevent the settling or selling out to something less. Perpetual Economic Growth (for example) is the vision that the whole field of economics gives us; one reason that this goal of “growth” is so ubiquitous in every policy arena is because there are no clear, real and better alternative visions being offered. She highlights the practicality of visioning: a well-articulated vision can inform choices and allows one to see options, determine where to throw energy, and identify and rally partners.

Against the backdrop of our current world, Meadows’ call for Vision Creation – taking the time to craft clear, real, and better visions for our future – seems keenly relevant and of utmost importance.


The Life and Times of Donella Meadows.

There is a dynamic discussion happening in the conference room of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The conversation takes place not only amongst the University of Vermont students in the room, but also students at York and McGill by way of a large video screen. Ecological Economics Theory is one of the pillars of both the Economics for the Anthropocene project and the Ecological Economics Certificate program, and is a part online, part screen-sharing classroom discussion course. This structure builds a learning community between academic institutes, increasingly important in our global world.

During this first class, we began by discussing why we agree or disagree with the statement:

“Economic growth is fundamentally at odds with environmental protection.”

At the start of the discussion, two of us identified as feeling neutral, and my fellow natural science classmate put words to how I felt about the tug of neutral. For me, “Economic growth” does seem at odds with “environmental protection”, but aren’t we (humans) clever enough to make it work? Somehow? Maybe by changing the definitions and specificities? So, unsurprisingly, reading this quote from Donella Meadows really resonated:

“We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.” (Donella Meadows)

Donella Meadows was born in Illinois in 1941, just 35 miles north and 9 years prior to where the “Chicago school of economics” term was first coined. This neoclassical school of economic thought grew from the work of faculty at the University of Chicago, originally to distinguish from the mainstream economics of the time, though this distinction has become antiquated over the years as the thoughts of these two major schools have become heavily entwined. This “other” school of neoclassical economic thought was propagated from UC Berkeley, Harvard and, notably, MIT – which is where Meadows landed after her academic journey through chemistry and biophysics. At MIT, Meadows was a research fellow and worked with Jay Forrester, the inventor of systems dynamics and another major player in the Systems Thinking foundation of Ecological Economics.

Though it is not clear to me whether Meadows engaged with either the Chicago or the MIT economic powerhouses, it is clear that conversations of economic growth were launching points for her work in Systems Thinking, and her writings on economic, political and environmental topics. This is reflected in themes from her column The Global Citizen which she wrote weekly from 1986 until her death in 2001 (Global Citizens Columns), and of course as she formally tackled topics of growth and created many well-known pillars of work over her career. I’ve highlighted three.


The Limits to Growth.

At MIT, Meadows and colleagues wrote The Limits to Growth in 1972 about the models, ouputs and implications of simulated interactions between humans and earth. The creation of these models was led by Forrester, and the subsequent report was commissioned by the Club of Rome (a fascinating group gathered to discuss the present and future predicament of man) and demonstrated how exponential growth interacts with finite resources. The aim of this report is stated:

We hope that The Limits to Growth will command critical attention and spark debate in all societies. We hope that it will encourage each reader to think through the consequences of continuing to equate growth with progress. And we hope that it will lead thoughtful men and women in all fields of endeavor to consider the need for concerted action now if we are to preserve the habitability of this planet for ourselves and our children. (Foreward, The Limits to Growth)

Places to Intervene in a System (Leverage Points).

As a Systems Thinker, Meadows contributed significantly by describing “leverage points”, or places to intervene in a system. Inspired by her attendance at a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meeting, this 12 point list is crucial for creating meaningful and effective change from a systems perspective. Meadows enumerates these leverage points in a system from 12 (least effective: constants, parameters, numbers e.g. subsidies, taxes, standards) to 1 (most effective: the power to transcend paradigms). She wrote a summary of her creation of this list, as well as an official publication in 1997 which then became the basis for her primer book Thinking in Systems.

Donella Meadows Institute.

Donella Meadows’ thinking and work continues on after her untimely death. She helped to found the Sustainability Institute in 1996, which was then renamed the Donella Meadows Institute after her death. The mission of the institute to bring economic, social and environmental systems into harmony really underscores the crux of Meadows’ work and her reaction to the unsustainable world she saw around her.



Meadows, D. H. and Club of Rome (1972) The Limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Meadows, D. H. (2000) Places to Intervene in a System. Whole Earth


Donella Meadows Institute: http://donellameadows.org/…which articulates and archives much of her work:



blog-2017-02-lindsay-barbieriLindsay Barbieri is engaged in innovative research at the interface of Climate, Agriculture, Environment and Technology to understand and manage our natural resources. Her focus is on monitoring agricultural systems with regards to environmental impacts, mitigation, and adaptation to our changing climate. She is a PhD Student at the University of Vermont: Rubenstein School of Environment & Natural Resources and Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. twitter: @barbieriiv  website: lindsaybarbieri.com

Leave a Reply