Text excerpted from the book: PROTECTING THE PLANET-Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1-63388-225-6)
Budd Titlow & Mariah Tingerhttp://www.buddtitlow.com
Several landmark literary works—most dealing with the fact that the earth may be about to start spiraling out of control with no hope of recovery—also came to fruition early in the Seventies. In particular, two books by our Past Environmental Heroes—Barry Commoner and Donella “Dana” Meadows—provided early hints that we were on a doomsday track that could culminate in a radically changed Earth.
In a cover page feature in 1970, Time Magazine called Commoner “The Paul Revere of Ecology”.
Although widely criticized in many circles as a doomsayer, Barry Commoner was way ahead of his time in describing the dramatic consequences of zealous overconsumption, capitalistic greed, and abuse of natural resources. In fact, throughout his writing and speeches, he predicted the onset of the Climate Change crisis we are facing today. In a cover page feature in 1970, Time Magazine called Commoner “The Paul Revere of Ecology” and said that: “He has probably done more than any other US scientist to speak out and awaken a sense of urgency about the [world’s] declining quality of life.”
With his thick thatch of hair, warm smile, and intense but purposeful gaze, Barry Commoner would be a good choice for one of any environmentalist’s three dream guests at a dinner party. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917 to Russian immigrants, Commoner first studied zoology at Columbia University and then at Harvard where he received his doctorate in biology/ecology in 1941. Commoner was one of the new science of ecology’s most provocative thinkers and recognized that America’s technology boom following World War II was not all good.
As a leading opponent of nuclear testing, he was credited with creating the momentum that led to the passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Commoner also knew we were running the risk of poisoning both the land and ourselves with the preponderance of toxic substances we were spewing across the earth and into our skies. With the publication of his 1971 best-selling book, The Closing Circle, Commoner helped launch the Environmental Movement of the 1970’s—being often mentioned with such other notable activists and Environmental Heroes as Rachel Carson, David Brower, and Aldo Leopold.
The parallels of Commoner’s work and beliefs with those of the modern day Climate Change experts are intriguing. In the 1950’s, Commoner first became well known for his emphatic warnings about the hazards of fallout caused by the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Capitalizing on this newfound public forum, he next alerted the American public about the dangers created by the petrochemical industry and toxic substances such as dioxins.
Laying the groundwork for the environmental justice movement—a catch phrase in the current Climate Change debate—Commoner continually emphasized that environmental hazards disproportionately impacted the poor and racial minorities, since dangerous chemicals and associated hazardous conditions were typically located in rural and/or blue collar neighborhoods. Today, Climate Change analysts focus on these same points, while also emphasizing that poor people in most developing countries throughout the world are the primary sacrificial lambs of the fossil fuel, political-industrial conglomerate of deniers.
Just as do the leading members of today’s 350.org—which we’ll discuss later in this section—Commoner viewed the environmental crisis of the 1960’s as a symptom of a fundamentally flawed economic and social system. In his opinion, three primary culprits—corporate greed, illogical government priorities, and the misuse of technology—were driving the world’s infatuation with excessive profits and overindulgent lifestyles that were threatening to make the Earth an unfit place to live.
Commoner continually emphasized the parallels among the environmental, civil rights, labor, and peace movements in the US while also connecting the ongoing environmental crisis to world problems of poverty, injustice, racism, public health, national security, and war. These are the same arguments and concerns that are now being analyzed as the primary hurdles to discovering practicable solutions for dealing with Climate Change.
In the 1970s, Commoner disagreed with Paul Ehrlich’s view—as expressed in Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb—that overpopulation, particularly in developing countries, was responsible for depleting the world’s natural resources and deepening the earth’s environmental problems. In The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability, now a widely considered concept but then very controversial—often linked to socialism—during the 1970s. He emphasized that there is only one ecosphere for all living things.
In line with ecological thought, Commoner believed that “what affects one, affects all”. Encouraging the now widespread practice of recycling, he also noted that in nature there is no waste and—because of this—we can’t just throw things away. He advocated designing and manufacturing products that can be reused, thus maintaining the delicate balance between humans and nature. Commoner was one of the first scientists to bring the concept of sustainable living to a mass audience. He challenged the petroleum industry and—long before it became politically fashionable—touted solar power as the long-term solution to the world’s energy needs.
Barry Commoner ‘s Four Laws of Ecology from his book, The Closing Circle:
- “Everything is connected to everything else.
- Everything must go somewhere.
- Nature knows best.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
A man whose ideas were well ahead of their time, Barry Commoner would have been a prime candidate for the leader of today’s Climate Change movement. His courage to take stands and express philosophies that were contrary to—and in some cases, considered un-American—popular thought are exactly what is needed to get the message across and start implanting the major and significant changes that are required in the social, industrial, and political infrastructures of today’s world.
Donella Meadows and Her Limits to Growth
From the standpoint of standing behind your beliefs, Donella “Dana” Meadows is certainly the equal of—if not superior to—Barry Commoner. Meadows had solutions for dealing with Climate Change years before it became a prominent national and worldwide concern, plus she practiced exactly what she preached. In fact, the groundbreaking book she co-authored in 1972—The Limits to Growth—sold nine million copies in twenty-six languages and launched Meadows onto the global stage as a leading environmental thinker and writer. Limits made headlines around the world and began a debate about the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion —a debate that continues to this day, especially in the face of the pending Climate Change crisis.
Born in Elgin, Illinois in 1941, Meadows received her Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University in 1968. She then became a Research Fellow at MIT working in the department of Professor Jay Forester studying the application of the relatively new field of systems dynamics to global problems. Inspiration from this landmark research led Meadows and her cohorts to write and publish Limits.
While it was just a small book, Limits packed a huge wallop! Its writing analyzed “the predicament of mankind”—with its interrelated social, economic, and political problems—including poverty amidst prosperity, environmental degradation, unchecked urban sprawl, loss of faith in institutions, alienation of youth, inflation, insecurity of employment, and rejection of traditional values.
One of her primary conclusions was: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” As Meadows commented to an interviewer, “From my point of view as a scientist, there was nothing more stupidly obvious than to say that the Earth is finite and growth can’t go on forever.”
Of course, in 1972, this was considered to be an extremely radical point of view and—accordingly—Limitsprovoked a firestorm of criticism, ridicule, and vitriol from the business, economic, political, and even academic establishments. On balance, the book also garnered reasonable acclaim and applause from a cadre of skeptics who were gradually becoming more and more concerned about the ever-increasing human population’s negative influences on Planet Earth.
But many considered Limits to be heretical—especially the legions of people who steadfastly believed in the secular religion of perpetual growth and endless technological potential. However, anyone who took the time to actually read Limits was given a basis for serious insight and reflection about the human condition. The authors of this book were acclaimed scientists and scholars from one of the nation’s most prestigious universities—not sign-carrying, doom-predicting kooks in sandals and robes.
Lost amidst the hubbub, the optimistic solutions to this pending global crisis put forth in Limits, included this: “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.”
After the publication of Limits, Meadows spent 16 years writing a weekly syndicated column—which appeared in 20 newspapers—called The Global Citizen in which she commented on world events from a systems point of view. Through the years, her writing won many awards, including the 1985 Champion–Tuck National Competition for outstanding journalism in the fields of business and economics and the Walter C. Paine Science Education Award in 1990. Meadows was also honored as a Pew Scholar in Conservation and Environment (1991), and a MacArthur Fellow (1994), plus she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Posthumously, she received the John H. Chafee Excellence in Environmental Affairs Award for 2001, presented by the Conservation Law Foundation.
In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute with the mission of fostering transitions to sustainable systems at all levels of society, from local to global. After her death in 2001 in Hanover, New Hampshire, the Sustainability Institute was renamed the Donella Meadows Institute (DMI) and moved its offices to Norwich, Vermont. DMI’s overriding message was really quite simple: “We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.” Since its founding, the DMI has been at the forefront of worldwide sustainability thinking and training.
Meadows lived for many years on an organic farm, existing simply, and saving energy.
In the latter years of her life, Meadows truly practiced what she preached—adhering to her personal mantra that was couched in microbiologist and author Rene Dubos’ famous quotation, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Because of her worries about Climate Change, she restricted her own travel to only those events at which she felt her physical presence would do the most good. She also lived for many years on an organic farm, existing simply, and saving energy. She bought a hybrid gas/electric car as soon as they became available.
It’s truly a shame that Donella Meadows passed away at such an early age. Her philosophy and lifestyle would provide the perfect components of a Climate Change leader. On the one hand she understood all too well what the future bodes if we hold onto our “progress is good at all costs” mentality. While on the other, she firmly believed that humans had the potential and power to do what was right for the long-term future of the world and humanity. Plus she spent the last years of her life personally demonstrating exactly how the world’s population could live sustainably—both as individuals and as collective communities!
We think this last paragraph from one of her Global Citizen columns perfectly summarizes who Donella “Dana” Meadows was: “Personally I don’t believe that stuff [about just giving up] at all. I don’t see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants [both] polar bears and three-year-olds in our world. We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there’s something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the [polar] bear and for ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls.”
“We have no choice but to conform [to a more sustainable future]. If we don’t choose to, the planet will make us. And [in fact] our lives will be better if we do. It isn’t sacrifice we’re selling, it’s a more meaningful, time-filled, love-filled, nature-filled existence.”
Author’s bio:For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.