Donella Meadows Archives

History of the Ideas Underlying the Balaton Group

By Donella Meadows, 1982

In 1980 I organized an international workshop on approaches for ending hunger in the world. Two of my colleagues there, Vernon Ruttan, a distinguished agricultural economist from the University of Minnesota, and John Todd, a marine biologist who founded an institute focused on sustainable agricultural technologies, made two comments that led eventually to the program of The Balaton Group. The following is a partial and personal account of the path that lead from that workshop to formal initiation of The Balaton Group.

First Vernon said:

Each agroeconomic region is so unique that the concept of transfer of technology is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the transfer of the capacity to develop technology and institutions that are consistent with the cultural endowment and the resource endowment of each region. Until that’s done, a sustained solution to the problems of hunger and poverty will not be attained.

We have to understand how to develop local capacity to screen ideas from the rest of the world and to invent technologies that are region-specific, and also to invent the kind of land tenure system that will work for whatever population density and land conditions prevail. In both the invention of technology and the invention of institutions I see an interaction between the resource endowment of a particular area and its cultural endowment.

How can that happen? I wondered. How does a society develop the capacity to invent institutions and technologies that truly fit its own culture and environment? How can it filter through the inventions and impositions of the rest of the world and choose what really works in its own context? How can it learn enough about its own resources, environment, needs, and potentials? Does any society now have that capacity? What does such a capacity even look like?

Then John Todd provided part of the answer. It looks like a way of thinking, he said:

We need a broad theoretical base for looking at sustainable food production systems that could be implemented in a valley in Vermont or Nepal, or anywhere. I mean a system of thinking, not particular knowledge of particular regions, which is also necessary. People need to know how to think about complicated biological and social systems.

Each person needs to be the bearer of the kind of knowledge that allows that person to be a steward of the planet. The closest model I can think of is cooking. It’s the kind of knowledge that a cook has when he or she approaches a meal. There are the oil, spices, meat, plants, freshness, a constellation of untaught but experienced knowledge about these things. If one tried to make a computer model of French cuisine, one would be boggled. There’s more information than can be dealt with. But there’s an unstated theoretical basis in the cook’s head that lets him or her confront the ingredients and produce the appropriate results.

It’s the craft component, a combination of knowledge and esthetics, and it usually comes from apprenticeship, whether it’s a French cook or an earth steward. It involves not only knowledge, but genius and serendipity.

It’s a tuning in to the world’s complexity in both an intellectual and non-intellectual way. And if you think such a capacity is beyond Third World peasants, look at the crafts, the useful objects, the technologies they have developed out of local needs and local materials.

When I left the meeting I knew I was devoted to the concept that Vernon and John between them had outlined, though I only had the vaguest idea of what that concept was. Helping people and cultures all over the world develop and express their own capacity to solve their own problems, consistent with their own needs and with the ecosystems around them. And doing that through enhancing the power within all cultures and peoples to combine intellectual knowing and intuitive knowing, reasoning about the earth and living in consonance with it.
Any person receiving such a grand and unspecific mandate will naturally interpret and shape it with the skills, resources, and life experiences that particular person has at hand. What I had at hand was a host of purely intellectual tools based on the computer and the precepts of systems analysis, along with an international network of friends who share those tools. I also had twelve years’ experience of organic farming in a cold and rock-bound but ultimately bountiful bioregion, with all the appropriate frustrations and joys that come from interconnection with the cycles of the earth. And lastly I had knowledge that pointed to the limitations as well as the value of my – scientific, systems-analysis tools.

Out of that combination came a vision of a number of centers where information and models about resources and the environment are housed. There would need to be many of these centers, all over the world, each one responsible for a discrete bioregion. They would contain people with excellent minds and tools, but they would not be walled off, as scientific centers so often are, either from the lives of ordinary people or from the realities of political processes. The people in these centers would be at home with farmers, miners, planners, and heads of state and they would be able both listen to and talk to all of then.

The job of these centers is basically to enhance that capacity that Vernon and John talked of, the capacity to solve problems in ways that are consistent with the culture and the environment. The centers collect, make sense of, and disseminate information about the resources of their bioregions, and about the welfare of the people and of the ecosystems. They are partly data repositories, partly publishing and broadcasting and teaching centers, partly experiment stations and extension agents. They know about the latest technologies, and the traditional ones, and about which ones work best under what conditions. They are able, insofar as the state of know- ledge permits, to see things whole, to look at long-term consequences, and to tell the truth. They are also able to perceive and admit freely where the boundaries of the state of knowledge are and what is not known.
Above all, the job of these centers is to hold clear and true the context, the values, the ways of thinking, through which all development plans and resource management schemes proceed.
The values are:

  • sustainability,
  • efficiency (meaning high productivity and low waste),
  • true human welfare,
  • appropriateness, and beauty.

All these would be defined within the local culture even though they are universally applicable. All the information going into and out of these centers is passed through the filter of this set of values.

The context is also upbeat-—the centers are full of concrete and useful information about how these values actually can be achieved. They know the potentials of their regions for sustainable fruitfulness, and they talk about opportunities as well as obstacles.

The centers serve their particular regions, but they are also joined together, through their own informal network. They exchange methods and data with each other. People flow back and forth, to be trained, to spread news, to report on the state of their own part of the planet. When necessary, centers can join together to work on issues or problems that cross regional boundaries and that require a larger framework of data-gathering and analysis.

So much for the initial vision. The fun part of the exercise has been in watching it begin to become a reality.
At first I did not know what to do with this idea, except to share it with others, at every possible opportunity. That process brought (and continues to bring) the insights and the resources to take the next steps. Sometimes it brings expressions of confusion, which tell me I have to understand and describe the project more clearly. Sometimes the response is scepticism and doubt, out of which I can correct naive plans and learn to foresee obstacles.

The most heartening responses, of course, are offers of help or offers to join. From these have come everything concrete that has happened so far.

One of the first enthusiastic responses came from a man who was then a Deputy Minister of Heavy Industry in Hungary. (Why was I talking to him about local capacity to solve problems by sustainable resource use? I was talking to everybody about it). I was trying to get across to him the concept of the interconnections among all resources, and the importance of viewing the system as a whole. He told me about Hungary’s need to import from the Soviet Union nearly all the oil to run his heavy industry, oil that is paid for by exporting wheat. “What I should do to guarantee my oil supply,” he said, “is protect Hungarian soil!.”

He is a man of action. First he provided a grant from the Ministry of Heavy Industry to the agricultural university, to be used to promote soil conservation. Then he invited Dennis and me to hold the first organizational meeting of our envisioned network in Hungary, at his expense.

So that is how we got started. In September 1982 we invited 35 of the best resource systems analysts we knew in the world to come to Hungary, to talk about this idea of a cooperating network. We met in a resthouse for employees of the oil and gas industry, on Lake Balaton, Hungary’s beloved vacation spot.

We called ourselves the Balaton Group. We all were people who already shared great concern for the the value of sustainability; we already were trained to see systems whole. Beyond that we had many differences, in our technical training, our ability and willingness to see ourselves as public servants, our institutional base (some worked for government, some for universities, some for international agencies), and our national ideologies and personal philosophies. Among us we identified a few centers that already had at least some of the necessary attributes. We decided to form two entities; first the Balaton Group, an informal association of friends who have common professional interests in resource systems, and second a more official association of centers, called the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC).

We talked about our goals, we shared stories of our successes and failures, we came up with some ideas for joint research and personnel exchange, and we formed a very preliminary and informal network for staying together and for finding others to join us. We were particularly eager to expand participation from the Third World. We parted with great plans, no money, no institutional legitimacy, a lot of hope and doubts, and some enduring friendships.

Well, in the year and a half since then, much has happened. Many wonderful people have offered advice and assistance. We had a second meeting on Lake Balaton a year later, in September 1983. The Deputy Minister has now become Minister of all industrial and energy systems in Hungary. He is now forming a new Hungarian center that will join INRIC. Centers have joined from Switzerland, Denmark, Costa Rica, Thailand, and Germany. We are discussing the participation of centers in Poland and the Netherlands. We have inquiries from South Korea, India, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Portugal, and China, and we are looking for additional centers in the United States, since there are so many different bioregions there.
We have received financial support from UNESCO, UNEP, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and a private foundation called the Resource Group, to support the increasingly active networking process.

Visits among centers are frequent and fruitful. The Hungarians are helping the Mexicans model their entire agricultural system. The German spent his sabbatical at Dartmouth helping us study organic farming and portray nitrogen cycles on hand-calculators. The Thai completed a Ph.D. in energy analysis in Scotland, came to Dartmouth for awhile to borrow our systems teaching materials, and is now home again translating all this technical material into Thai for university courses. He is also taking students out into the countryside for some object lessons in resource use and misuse. Over the past year Dennis and I have visited Balaton group members in Mexico, Costa Rica, Hungary, Germany, the Soviet Union and Switzerland. At our current station in Vienna we have been visited during the past few months by members from Norway, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, and Mexico.

To me the essence of the exercise concerns what is happening in the centers. They are forming, becoming stronger, helping each other, despite the increasingly formidable barriers of international politics. The well-established centers are sharing some of their successful methods and practices with the newer ones. The very fact of belonging to the network is enhancing their prestige within their own countries, and we are able as a network to raise funds for each other.

We are beginning to conduct workshops on topics we need to know more about. One of those will be next September, on modeling the dynamics of coupled resource systems. Others that have been suggested include:

  • ways to quantify and communicate the concept of carrying ‘ capacity,
  • differences between temperate and tropical ecosystems, and their management implications, – ways for communicating better with government officials and with the public, and
  • advantages and disadvantages of more or less regional self-sufficiency.

Our two big joint projects, both just beginning, are the game and the book. We are making a management game, to be played by students, planners, and policymakers, which illustrates a complex, interacting set of resources — energy, the environment, industrial capital, population — and which allows the players to try out various development schemes and to see their long- term total-system effects. Vie are making the first version of the game generic — about a hypothetical region — so that each center can then take it and adapt it to the specific resources and state of development in its own region. Among the principles we hope the game will illustrate are:

  • a resource cannot be “created”; it can only be converted from one form to another,
  • a resource can be developed only by the investment of other resources,
  • the short- and long-term results of resource management decisions are often totally different from each other; resource development in particular is characterized by extremely long time delays,
  • resource scarcity can be managed on the demand side through conservation as well as on the supply side by exploitation and imports,
  • development makes no sense and has no end unless it is related to and measured by the real welfare of the population and the ecosystem,
  • high-productivity, sustainable use of resources to meet human needs is indeed possible,
  • wasteful, destructive use of resources to meet human greeds is also possible, and usually irreversible, and
  • the best programs of resource development require subtle programs of investment that produce balanced growth in many competing and complementary capital stocks at the same time.

Our book will transmit many of these same messages. We want it to be a textbook on sustainable resource management, to be adopted at the university level in all our countries. We consider it very important for Americans, Russians, Mexicans, Germans, and others gradually to acquire a set of common perspectives about the long-term dynamics of resource use. The book will have chapters on individual resources, forests, water, capital, and so forth, and then on linked resources, forest/water/soil and capital/labor/energy, and then on the total resource base.

Underlying each chapter will be simple computer models, available for microcomputers from a diskette, through which the students can simulate a watershed or a system of industrial capital, try different policies, and come to understand the dynamic results of those policies. We picture the book as very clear and colorful, full of illustrations from all our different countries, and especially full of good-news stories of actual, successful sustainable, high- productivity resource management.

These projects are not at all simple. In fact they are in themselves revolutionary. We don’t know how to make a game or a computer model or a book that interrelates all interlinked resources. There is not yet a proper theory in the world on which to base it. We will have to discover it, together. We are not at all sure that we can write a chapter about water resources, much less capital resources, that will tell the straight truth and be acceptable to Soviets and Americans and to economists, ecologists, and engineers. We can only try, and learn a terrific amount in the trying. Already our discussions about the intrinsic merits of managing resources through market systems versus central-planning systems are the most thoughtful, uncharged, and objective of any I have ever experienced. The very task of searching for good- news stories is eye-opening. Some of us have never before tried to find any, and we are amazed, when we begin to look, at the success stories we find around us.

So far my description of the network has been intellectual, and the intellectual component is very important. But now I am wondering how I can put into words for you the human and spiritual side of what is going on. It is hard because it is not often explicit in the dealings of the network, but it is felt by all of us.

When we describe to ourselves the characteristics of a member in the Balaton Group, we talk about resource expertise and systems abilities and political savvy and valuing sustainability, and then we end up saying “He or she has to be a nice guy.” That is our imprecise, American way of saying that the people in the network so far are extremely fine human beings. They trust each other and are worthy of trust. They very much reflect their own nationalities and disciplines and are unquestionably loyal to their own regions. But they are also citizens of the planet. Their caring encompasses their own region and far beyond; they are too much systems-aware to think that their own region can rise while any others, anywhere, fall. They are holders of a large vision.

While we share dreams of how the globe’s environment and resources could someday be, it is the day-by-day human interactions that provide the real foundation for work by the members of the Balaton Group. The Hungarians tell us their latest jokes. The Danes share the cartoons they have invented to communicate the joys of energy conservation. The Mexicans show us how many useful plants really grow in a part of their country that looks like the moon. We spend some of our evenings together in a disco. We have a Balaton Group T-shirt. Our quarterly newsletter. The Balaton Bulletin, announces our new books, but it also tells of our member’s new babies. We like to take hikes together, and we end most of our seminar days with hilarious volleyball games. All this seems necessary to the vision too.

This vision is obviously still very much in the making. We do not know exactly how to serve the network together properly, whether we should let it expand so fast, or how to pay for it next year. The tasks we have undertaken will take years, but they have the potential to transform the way people all over the world think about their resources and their options. We are finding out all too quickly how much we do not know. But we are having fun, and we think it will make a difference.

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The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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