Donella Meadows

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Donella "Dana" Meadows (March 13, 1941February 20, 2001) was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher and writer. She is best known as lead author of the influential book The Limits to Growth.


  • Models can easily become so complex that they are impenetrable, unexaminable, and virtually unalterable.
    • Meadows (1980) "The unavoidable a priori" in: Randers J. ed., Elements of the system dynamics method, page 27.
  • The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological–social–psychological–economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable, simple, and infinite. Our persistent, intractable global problems arise directly from this mismatch.
  • Calculating how much carbon is absorbed by which forests and farms is a tricky task, especially when politicians do it.

Thinking in systems: A Primer (2008)[edit]

Donella H. Meadows, edited by Diana Wright, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008 (ISBN 9781603580557).

  • A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. [...] The system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior!
    • Page 2.
  • Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is “out there,” rather than “in here.” It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away.
    Serious problems have been solved by focusing on external agents – preventing smallpox, increasing food production, moving large weights and many people rapidly over long distances. Because they are embedded in larger systems, however, some of our “solutions” have created further problems. And some problems, those most rooted in the internal structure of complex systems, the real messes, have refused to go away.
    Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless.
    That is because they are intrinsically systems problems-undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.
    • Pages 3-4.
  • How is it that one way of seeing the world becomes so widely shared that institutions, technologies, production systems, buildings, cities, become shaped around that way of seeing?
    • Page 169.
  • Why are they [people] more likely to listen to people who tell them they can't make changes than they are to people who tell them they can?
    • Page 169.
  • There always will be limits to growth.
  • A quantity growing exponentially toward a limit reaches that limit in a surprisingly short time.
  • When there are long delays in feedback loops, some sort of foresight is essential.
  • The bounded rationality of each actor in a system may not lead to decisions that further the welfare of the system as a whole.
    • Pages 190-191.

Quotes about Donella Meadows[edit]

  • Mesarovic and Pestel are critical of the Forrester-Meadows world view, which is that of a homogeneous system with a fully predetermined evolution in time once the initial conditions are specified.
    • New Scientist. Vol. 66, nr. 947. May 1, 1975. p. 272

See also[edit]

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