Nature Previous - Next


Environmental Update:
Damage Report

By Donella H. Meadows  

The planet is not impressed by fancy speeches. Leonardo DiCaprio interviewing Bill Clinton about global warming is not an Earth-shaking event. The Earth has no way of registering good intentions or future inventions or high hopes. It doesn't even pay attention to dollars, which are, from a planet's point of view, just a charming human invention.

Planets measure only physical things energy and materials and their flows into and out of the changing populations of living creatures. What the Earth sees is that on the first Earth Day in 1970 there were 3.7 billion of those hyperactive critters called humans, and now there are over 6 billion.

Back in 1970 those humans drew from the Earth's crust 46 million barrels of oil every day now they draw 78 million. Natural gas extraction has nearly tripled in thirty years, from 34 trillion cubic feet per year to 95 trillion. We mined 2.2 billion metric tons of coal in 1970; this year we'll mine about 3.8 billion.

The planet feels this fossil fuel use in many ways, as the fuels are extracted (and spilled) and shipped (and spilled) and refined (generating toxics) and burned into numerous pollutants, including carbon dioxide, which traps outgoing energy and warms things up.

Despite global conferences and brave promises, what the Earth notices is that human carbon emissions have increased from 3.9 million metric tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.4 million this year.

You would think that an unimaginably huge thing like a planet would not notice the one degree (Fahrenheit) warming it has experienced since 1970. But on the scale of a whole planet, one degree is a big deal, especially since it is not spread evenly.

The poles have warmed more than the equator, the winters more than the summers, the nights more than the days. That means that temperature DIFFERENCES from one place to another have been changing much more than the average temperature has changed. Temperature differences are what make winds blow, rains rain, ocean currents flow.

What the Earth sees is that its species are vanishing at a rate it hasn't seen in 65 million years. That 40 percent of its agricultural soils have been degraded. That half its forests have disappeared and half its wetlands have been filled or drained, and that, despite Earth Day, all these trends are accelerating.

All creatures, including humans, are exquisitely attuned to the weather. All creatures, including us, are noticing weather weirdness and trying to adjust, by moving, by fruiting earlier or migrating later, by building up whatever protections are possible against flood and drought.

The Earth is reacting to weather changes too, shrinking glaciers, splitting off nation-sized chunks of Antarctic ice sheet, enhancing the cycles we call El Nino and La Nina. "Earth Day, Shmearth Day," the planet must be thinking as its fever mounts. "Are you folks ever going to take me seriously?"

Since the first Earth Day our global vehicle population has swelled from 246 to 730 million. Air traffic has gone up by a factor of six. The rate at which we grind up trees to make paper has doubled (to 200 million metric tons per year). We coax from the soil, with the help of strange chemicals, 2.25 times as much wheat, 2.5 times as much corn, 2.2 times as much rice, almost twice as much sugar, almost four times as many soybeans as we did thirty years ago. We pull from the oceans almost twice as much fish.

With the fish we can see clearly how the planet behaves, when we push it too far. It does not feel sorry for us; it just follows its own rules. Fish become harder and harder to find. If they are caught before they're old enough to reproduce, if their nursery habitat is destroyed, if we scoop up not only the cod, but the capelin upon which the cod feeds, the fish may never come back.

The Earth does not care that we didn't mean it, that we promise not to do it again, that we make nice gestures every Earth Day. We have among us die-hard optimists who will berate me for not reporting the good news since the last Earth Day.

There is plenty of it, but it is mostly measured in human terms, not Earth terms. Average human life expectancy has risen since 1970 from 58 to 66 years. Gross world product has more than doubled, from 16 to 39 trillion dollars. Recycling has increased, but so has trash generation, so the Earth receives more garbage than ever before. Wind and solar power generation have soared, but so have coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear generation.

In human terms there has been breathtaking progress. In 1970 there weren't any cell phones or video players. There was no Internet; there were no dot-coms. Nor was anyone infected with AIDS, of course, nor did we have to worry about genetic engineering. Global spending on advertising was only one-third of what it is now (in inflation-corrected dollars). Third-World debt was one-eighth of what it is now.

Whether you call any of that progress, it is all beneath the notice of the Earth. What the Earth sees is that its species are vanishing at a rate it hasn't seen in 65 million years. That 40 percent of its agricultural soils have been degraded. That half its forests have disappeared and half its wetlands have been filled or drained, and that, despite Earth Day, all these trends are accelerating.

Earth Day is beginning to remind me of Mother's Day, a commercial occasion upon which you buy flowers for the person who, every other day of the year, cleans up after you. Guilt-assuaging. Trivializing. Actually dangerous. All mothers have their breaking points. Mother Earth does not soften hers with patience or forgiveness or sentimentality.

Donella H. Meadows was Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College when she wrote this.


Donella Meadows Obituary

Donella H. Meadows, 59, a pioneering environmental scientist and writer, died Tuesday February 20th 2001 in New Hampshire after a brief illness. She was best known to the world as the lead author of the international bestselling book The Limits to Growth, published in 1972. The book, which reported on a study of long-term global trends in population, economics, and the environment, sold millions of copies and was translated into 28 languages. She was also the lead author of the twenty-year follow-up study, Beyond the Limits (1992),with original co-authors Dennis Meadows and Jørgen Randers.

Professor Meadows, known as "Dana" to friends and colleagues, was a leading voice in what has become known as the "sustainability movement," an international effort to reverse damaging trends in the environment, economy, and social systems. Her work is widely recognized as a formative influence on hundreds of other academic studies, government policy initiatives, and international agreements.

Dana Meadows was also a devoted teacher of environmental systems, ethics, and journalism to her students at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she taught for 29 years. In addition to her many original contributions to systems theory and global trend analysis, she managed a small farm and was a vibrant member of her local community. Genuinely unconcerned with her international fame, she often referred to herself simply as "a farmer and a writer."

Donella Meadows was born March 13, 1941 in Elgin, Illinois, and educated in science, earning a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton College in 1963 and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University in 1968. As a research fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was a protégé of Jay Forrester, the inventor of system dynamics as well as the principle of magnetic data storage for computers.

In 1972 she was on the MIT team that produced the global computer model "World3" for the Club of Rome and provided the basis for The Limits to Growth. The book made headlines around the world, and began a debate about the limits of the Earth's capacity to support human economic expansion, a debate that continues to this day. Her writing appearing most often in the form of a weekly column called "The Global Citizen," nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 has been published regularly in the international press since that time.

In 1981, together with her former husband Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows founded the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC), also called the Balaton Group (after the lake in Hungary where the group meets annually). The group built early and critical avenues of exchange between scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War.

As the Balaton Group's coordinator for eighteen years, she facilitated what grew to become an unusually effective global process of information sharing and collaboration among hundreds of leading academics, researchers, and activists in the broader sustainability movement. Professor Meadows also served on many national and international boards and scientific committees, and taught and lectured all over the world. She was recognized as a 1991 Pew Scholar and as a 1994 MacArthur Fellow for her work. In 1992 the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) presented her with an honorary doctorate.

In 1997, Professor Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute, which she described as a "think-do-tank." The Institute combines cutting edge research in global systems with practical demonstrations of sustainable living, including the development of an ecological village and organic farm in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont.

Donella Meadows is survived by her mother, Phoebe Quist of Tahlequah Oklahoma; her father, Don Hager of the Chicago area; a brother, Jason Hager, of Wisconsin; cousins and nephews; and a large community of colleagues and friends, both international and local, in the organizations that she founded and assisted.

Obituary prepared by members of the Balaton Group (INRIC)

For further information contact: In USA:, (In New England:, In Europe:, In

Previous - Next