Last month Donella Meadows, a systems dynamicist, columnist, environmental and social activist and farmer, died at the age of 59.Why would we note that event here in the pages of the Quarterly? For many of us, reading her writings helped us begin to understand the enormous practical utility of using simple rules of systems dynamics to consider social change strategy and to think about how organizations function—and to think about how one affects the other. We acknowledge her life and her teachings to celebrate her willingness to push us to informed, good global citizenship and to remind us all again of the principles she espoused. For Dana, as she was known to most people, it was all about connecting—people, issues, and actions. She believed that everything is connected to and affects everything else.
Dana Meadows worked the contradictions of life. Next to her studious respect for the true complexity of life she upheld a simple and constant set of moral principles based on the concept of sustainability. A sustainable society is one that plans flexibly and wisely for the long-term—with love for ourselves, each other, our fellow creatures, and the planet as a whole. Threaded throughout her diverse work is a unifying faith that we are capable of changing our future from one of waste and destruction to one filled with care, foresight, generosity and sustainability.
She believed that our minds and attitudes represent a critical variable in our planet’s destiny. She reminded us over and over again that people exist in a certain context and hold a certain worldview (known as a paradigm). It is often hard to understand facts that fall outside of that paradigm, especially if strong institutional interests uphold that paradigm. If we want to make a case for radical change, then, we have to help people focus on a different set of facts now excluded from their worldview. Then we must propose a different analysis of the facts and a new vision for moving forward—over and over and over again. This is why Dana decided to be a weekly columnist. “Challenging a paradigm is not part-time work. It is not sufficient to make your point once and then blame the world for not getting it. The point has to be made patiently and repeatedly day after day.”
Dana strongly believed that you could not change a situation without addressing context and spirit. She saw pessimism as “the single greatest problem of the current social system” and the deepest deterrent to a more sustainable future. “In a society that systematically develops in people their individualism, their competitiveness and their cynicism,” she stated, “pessimists are the vast majority.”
In her work and in her writing, she urged us to change our larger context by fighting for better laws, fairer elections, and wiser policies. But she also educated us and sustained in everyone she touched that all-important hope that a better world was possible—that we could do what seemed impossible, and change what seemed immutable. Indeed, we had to.
But always the scientist, Dana urged us beyond our own convictions—to stay in continuous inquiry and a constant examination of our own assumptions. We leave you with these words of hers:
“Be humble. You don’t know everything… In fact no human being knows much of anything compared with the immense wonders and uncertainties of the universe. So keep a sense of perspective. Say what you can say and no more; say it with the appropriate degree of certainty and no more. That is a hard lesson to follow. It’s a torture every day and a duty, a discipline and a Zen koan, the bane of my existence and the best challenge of my life.”
Systems tend to seek equilibrium. Changes in one place are often counteracted by changes elsewhere. For example, a food pantry wins a grant and increases its service—but since there is still widespread hunger, more hungry people come and once again the budget and staff are strained to the limit. The action was not radical enough to impact larger policy issues that would result in widespread reduction of poverty and hunger. And so the system abides.
Everything is connected to everything else (including things we don’t know how to measure), and effects often relate back to causes—sometimes circuitously. When you drive your car, you affect the urban design of your town, employment in Detroit and Taiwan, the level of greenhouse gases, and the (in)stability of the Persian Gulf—and all of these affect the price of your gas. Or, a nonprofit loses a funder, so it asks staff to work extra hard, lays off some employees, and cuts back on programming. Clients complain, staff morale drops, and another funder ducks out. In this case the cycle is headed toward a crisis that may only reach equilibrium after a dramatic event.
Time delays and imperfect information matter deeply to a system’s health. If the board receives budget updates late or without a sense of how cash flow will affect the agency’s stability, they’ll be unable to take action to address budget gaps. If an executive director only attends to staff morale months into their dissatisfaction, it may be too late to rebuild relationships to reduce turnover.
There’s a lot we don’t know—yet uncertainty needn’t stymie action. Inform yourself as best you can and take the action you think will affect real change.
“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us; it’s what we do know that ain’t so.” Again, acceptance of popular mental constructs and assumptions and assertions as fact can lead us to positions we would not take with a little more investigation. We must strive to remain both a humble learner and a brave advocate for re-casting issues. Even in our organizations, this can be a painful lesson to learn. Beware, particularly, of the system that blames individuals for a larger dysfunction. It’s an easy way to regain the equilibrium (however uncomfortable and ineffectual) referred to in the first point.
“Don’t be a boiled frog.” If you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and then put it over a flame, it will sit there quite contentedly as the water gradually heats to boiling. We all can act in this way, particularly as regards complex social issues.
Dana Meadows wrote a weekly column called “The Global Citizen.” All of the columns since 1996 are available online. Also see The Global Citizen published by Island Press for a selection of articles from 1985 to 1991. Dana was the director of the Sustainability Institute, a “think-do” tank.