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Dana Meadows' Legacy for Sense of Place:Make Dartmouth the Best!

By Jon Kohl '92

I'll never make the pilgrimage to Dartmouth I had planned last year. I'll never have another chance for a mentoring dose of career advise from Donella Meadows. As she lied in a coma, all I could do from my Guatemalan apartment was blitz one last email to her idle account, one last email she will never read.

If you are reading this, things have improved remarkably and I hope they only continue to do so. Aside from the many ways you helped me, the world needs you at full strength!

Five days later on 22 February 2001, Donella Meadows died. Silenced by a missed opportunity, I was heartened, after all, by the coincidental opportunity to pen my last words for Dana, but instead directed at Sense of Place.

My words would have focused on how much she affected my life, but instead, in her death, I now focus on the reincarnation of Sense of Place (SOP). Last year some Dartmouth students attempted to mount a resurrection of Dartmouth's and perhaps the nation's first formatted publication distributed across an electronic network. Between 1989 and 1993, SOP earned national exposure as a student-run environmental electronic magazine.

Unfortunately the attempted resurrection has apparently failed, and this article left without a home. But I know the interest is still out there and therefore share with Dartmouth students by way of The Environmental Studies Department how Dana Meadows's legacy offers an important lesson for SOP, starting the day she joined its advisory board. She believed SOP could do more than just educate students, but change sustainable thinking at Dartmouth for the better. That reason applies as much today as back when SOP and its predecessor, ESD News, were all the rage in the postnatal period of the modern Internet. (See the New York Times article about SOP.)

Dana was the perfect board member for SOP, as a scientist envisioning new ways information could change the world sustainably, as a writer and professor showing the world how to think sustainably, and a practitioner exemplifying how to live sustainably. All systems are governed by certain behaviors whether they be rainfall, blood circulation, urban expansion, planetary motion, or information flow.

As a systems thinker Dana identified myriad ways that human beliefs pervert these information flows, ultimately degrading our environment and quality of life. In her column, "Global Citizen," she showed us how people often do not understand exponential growth, uncertainty, lag times, or how feedback and redundancy are important for system health -- how scale, values, unseen physical processes and sleazy politics can change the human score.

For her the connection between human rights, democracy, and environmental degradation was eminently clear. She breathed a constant campaign against power's corrupting a system's original design and functions, how the media can be a weapon, how dark paradigmatic lenses cause us to walk into walls she called limits of growth.

But of all the concepts that she introduced in her writings over the years, I want to dial up one that is especially relevant to Sense of Place. It is the "informationsphere." I first found her discussion about this in the summer 1990 issue of the Gannett Center Journal, "Changing the World Through the Informationsphere." The piece was written for Columbia University journalism students and inspired me to write a paper on how lobbyists use information for Professor Lynn Mather's Government 6 class. Dana describes the informationsphere:

Information is the vehicle for feedback in systems, and feedback is the means of control. A feedback loop is a circular chain of causation from the physical world to points of decision and back through action to the physical world (system states and flows). Half of every feedback loop is information. In that half the system state is compared to some goal. If there is a discrepancy between what is and what someone thinks ought to be, that brings about a decision... For a feedback loop to bring the system state to the goal, its information must be timely, accurate, and noticed.

Between the lines of SOP's mission pulsed the informationsphere. The system state that we wanted to change back then was Dartmouth, from a very good environmentally oriented college to the best. The feedback loop acted through SOP, the actors were the Dartmouth community, and the information as timely, accurate, and noticed as we could make it.

Dana realized this potential and that is why she elected to be on SOP?s advisory board. But even before that decision, she had written as much when she covered ESD News in her 7 July 1990 Global Citizen, called "The World's First Electronic Magazine." She wrote:

The medium of the ESD News is unique, the format is lively, and the content is best. A recent issue described the unsustainable old-growth logging activities of the Plum Creek Timber Company, pointing out that the company?s chairman is a former Dartmouth trustee. There has been a sizzling exchange of letters on Dartmouth?s own environmental record, examining everything from where the dining service buys its beef to how often the college sprays its trees to what goes out of the smokestack at the power plant. The ESD News has [even] challenged Dartmouth to establish a dean of the environment.

While SOP is no longer a technological wonder, its function to challenge Dartmouth is as important now as when Dana first wrote about ESD News. While the work of Dartmouth environmental veterans such as Jim Hornig and Bill Hochstin is one in many millions, Dartmouth can still be pushed ahead to lead in environmental stewardship among American universities. That was always my vision when I was an undergraduate developing Sense of Place.

And no matter how hard I tried, Dana was there to push me a little further. When I was in her Environmental Journalism class, she frankly told me that I made a better editor than a writer. Perhaps I should have taken that as a compliment, instead I have spent a decade trying to prove to her otherwise.

And that should be the role of a resurrected SOP, to push Dartmouth ever further, even when it thinks it is doing the best it can. Push for an environmental dean or push for an environmental code as part of Dartmouth?s code of ethics or push for a college naturalist, and don?t miss an opportunity to promote Dartmouth?s many environmental resources. Whatever SOP were to promote, just remember that lesson in any back issue of "Global Citizen." Dana pushed every one of her readers and decision-makers around the world in every column, right up until the very last one. Allow me to quote her final three paragraphs.

"Does our only possible future consist of watching the disappearance of the polar bear, the whale, the tiger, the elephant, the redwood tree, the coral reef, while fearing for the three-year-old?

"Heck, I don't know. There's only one thing I do know. If we believe that it's effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUVs while they last -- well, then yes, it's over. That's the one way of believing and behaving that gives us a guaranteed outcome.

"Personally, I don't believe that stuff at all. I don't see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants 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 bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls."

While SOP's format would no longer be novel among university publications, its mission could still be novel in the informationsphere. There is nothing more motivating for a new publication than a palpable vision. Thus I call on students to bring back Sense of Place, not for me, not for Dana: Dartmouth has always been strong in the environment, and with the help of a reincarnated Sense of Place, it could become the best. Donella Meadows would want nothing less.

Further reading

For further reading on Donella Meadows, you may read a tribute I wrote for her on the occasion of her 20th anniversary at Dartmouth. Staff and students of environmental studies joined to write letters of appreciation. This is the first time anyone has seen this letter outside of Dana and I, now after nine years I want to share with you. You may also read about her at the Donella Meadows Institute.

Jon is currently a fiction and non-fiction writer and a consultant in park planning and ecotourism in Costa Rica. He lives with his Costa Rican wife and son and facilitates a group that is establishing an ecologically sustainable intentional community there. To read more of his writing or learn about his current events, please visit www.jonkohl.com.

Last Updated: 12/6/13