Donella Meadows (1941 to 2001) was an award-winning environmental scientist and writer. She is best known as lead author of the Limits to Growth, 1972, a study which predicted global collapse unless urgent action was taken to restrain growth. This work stimulated the formation of the Green Party (which was then called PEOPLE) in 1973.
Donella Meadows (nee Hagar) was born in Illinois. She earned a BA in Chemistry and a PhD in biophysics from Harvard then became a research fellow at MIT. There she was part of Jay Forrester’s team, applying systems thinking to a variety of complex problems, and was lead author of The Limits to Growth.
She taught at Dartmouth College from 1972 to 2001 and for 16 years wrote a weekly newspaper column – “The Global Citizen” – applying systems thinking to world events.
She received a number of awards for her work including a Pew Scholarship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, the Walter C. Paine Science Education Award and, posthumously, the John H. Chafee Excellence in Environmental Affairs Award.
In her later years she lived in an organic farm-based community in Vermont. Meadows died at 59 of bacterial meningitis.
Meadows’ most important book was undoubtedly the Limits to Growth. The book reported attempts by Meadows and her co-workers to understand the global economic/industrial/environmental system using the methods of systems dynamics. The authors built a computer model, World3, which showed the relationships between population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resources. They then ran the model repeatedly using a variety of assumptions about both the actual numbers and the relationships between them.
The major finding was that the most likely result if we continued with ‘business as usual’ was a collapse of the whole system sometime in the 21st century. The immediate cause of the collapse might, depending on the assumptions, be the exhaustion of key resources or an excess of pollution. The result would be a major decline in world population and production; a true catastrophe. The authors showed that this could be avoided by determined and timely action.
The work was attacked by many people but often for not doing things it did not claim to do – making specific predictions.
Meadows work remains controversial though attitudes seem to owe more to prior assumptions than to analysis. In general, scientists accept its general message whilst economists reject it. The same arguments can be seen in relation to climate change which is, arguably, a special case of Meadows’ argument.