Today is the eighth anniversary of the death of Donella Meadows, a scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world’s foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth—the 1972 book on global trends in population, economics, and the environment that was translated into 28 languages and became an international bestseller.
To commemorate the day, blogger Dormgrandpop rediscovered a gem of an article written by Donella for her weekly column, Voice of a Global Citizen:
Buddhists remember death aniversaries as a way of acknowledging and celebrating people that were important in their lives. For me, and many others, Dana (Donella) Meadows was one of those. For many years, she shared herself in a weekly column entitled ‘The Global Citizen’. Here is a column that particularly captures who she was – and is.
The Donella Meadows Archive
Voice of a Global Citizen
We Don’t Need Leadership to Know Right from Wrong
“Assaulted by sleaze, scandals, and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings,” the cover of the May 25 Time magazine says. The essay inside describes how the Reagan administration has failed in moral leadership — or, more precisely, how it has succeeded in promoting “mindless materialism” and a “values vacuum”.
Given the national confusion on ethical issues from Baby M to the defense of the Persian Gulf, we could use some moral leadership. But if I’m a typical example, I’m afraid we are likely to look for it in the wrong place.
My all-American public-school education was not exactly heavy on ethical analysis. In fact, since I took mostly science courses, my moral confidence was systematically eroded. Every day I absorbed strong messages — values have no place in the laboratory; observe what is happening outside you, not inside you; your feelings have no validity.
My scientific training taught me to determine rightness and wrongness from outside, from measurable criteria such as economic profitability, not from the promptings of an invisible, unquantifiable conscience. And my elders provided me with hundreds of examples of how to rationalize glibly just about any act I might want to commit.
Then I was asked by my university to teach a course on ethics. I didn’t know how to begin. How could I lead students through the thickets of moral controversy about population growth, nuclear power, acid rain? And yet what could be more important than to provide them with some ethical grounding?
To prepare for the course I sat in on philosophy and religion classes. I read books on ethics. I talked to pastors, priests, and gurus from many religions. I looked outside myself for moral leadership.
What I discovered was that I had known right from wrong all along.
Religions and ethical theories all have lists of moral rules. The rules generally boil down to the ones we learned at our mothers’ knees. Don’t hurt people, don’t steal, don’t lie. Help each other out.
The rules are not the primary authority, say the ethicists. They derive from something we all have within us, a clear sense of rightness, a sense that is given many names. We can get in touch with it whenever we want to. Prayer and meditation are ways — not the only ways — of getting in touch, of listening for moral guidance.
What that guidance says is consistent and simple. You are precious and special. So is everyone else, absolutely everyone. Act accordingly.
Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you. Don’t do what would cause society to fall apart if everyone did it. Try to do what you would want done if you were someone else — a homeless person in New York, a child in Ethiopia, a Nicaraguan peasant, a Polish dockworker.
You don’t want your spouse to commit adultery, so don’t do it yourself. You don’t want to raise a family on a minimum wage, so pay your workers decent incomes. You don’t want to live near a hazardous waste dump, so don’t create one. If everyone cheats on income tax or insider-trading laws, the government and the stock market wouldn’t function. So don’t cheat.
It’s really not hard to see what’s right. What’s hard is to admit how much of what we do is wrong.