Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Donella Meadows

Your paradigm is so intrinsic to your mental process that you are hardly aware of its existence, until you try to communicate with someone with a different paradigm.

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows lived from 1941 until 2001. She studied Chemistry as an undergraduate at Carleton College, and received a doctorate in Biophysics from Harvard. She went as a researcher to MIT, and worked there with Jay Forrester, the inventor of magnetic data storage, in the early days of computer modeling.

In 1972, Meadows published the book The Limits to Growth with her husband, Dennis Meadows, as well as Jorgen Randers and William Behrens. The book was a report to a private group, the Club of Rome, that is interested in challenges facing all of humanity. Limits modeled the consequences of a rapidly growing world population using finite resources, and predicted economic behavior.

Limits' conclusions indicated that humanity's situation is perilous. It has been criticized by commentators of widely ranging sincerity and understanding, and twenty- and thirty-year updates have been published.

The thing to take away from Limits and from Donella Meadows, though, is a way of thinking. For instance, predicting how long a resource, say oil, will last takes more than just dividing known reserves by barrels per year. Modelers need to predict discoveries of new reserves, relative difficulty of getting existing and predicted reserves, increases in population and industrialization, and changes in consumption due to new technologies. Good citizenship may not require fluency with modeling these variables, but it does demand that we know they are there and how they interact.

Meadows' Places to Intervene in a System is probably her best know paper (about two thousand words). It is available as a PDF at http://www.sustainer.org/?page_id=106,

As html at http://www.developerdotstar.com/mag/articles/places_intervene_system.html,

in the Winter, 1997 Whole Earth Review, in her posthumous book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and outlined at Wikipedia. She wrote a syndicated column, Voice of a Global Citizen, which is archived at http://www.sustainer.org/dhm_archive/.

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