Donella Meadows Archives

Surprise-rich Futures for New England’s Land

Fall Assembly on A Land Conservation Strategy for New England. Fairlee, Vermont October 18-20, 1987 (A reflection on the future as a choice)

Managing land is managing the future

Land is a permanent asset. To deal with it in any way is,
inescapably, to deal with time and continuity, with the past and the

The rocks, the soils, the forests, the minerals and fuels of the land
are our legacy from the past—sometimes from eons past. From the more
recent economic past the land carries a legacy of roads, mines,
quarries, factories, homes, the infrastructure, the built environment,
the investments that we have inherited and that make our current economy
possible. The land also bears dumps, wastelands, eroded soil, disrupted
watercourses, exhausted mines, ugly, badly-planned “developments” that
limit our options now because of past shortsightedness or just plain

And whatever we do with the land, carving out new roads, fields,
dams, subdivisions, industrial parks, dumps for nuclear or hazardous
wastes, planting forests, maintaining farms, preserving wetlands, we
shape, enhance, or limit the future—sometimes for eons to come—with
our own foresight or lack thereof, with our own benevolence or

Some of us, absorbed in the activities of the moment, couldn’t care less
about the future. But most of us, I believe, feel a strong obligation to
build something positive for the future, perhaps in gratitude for all we
have inherited from the past, perhaps in concern for our own children,
perhaps just because we were brought up that way. Our species is the
only one capable of taking thought for the future. We have probably been
selected through history for that trait—any society that does not
develop in its citizens a sense of identity with future generations is
not likely to last long.

Aside from the moral reasons to think about the future as we manage
land, there are practical reasons, primary among them that nearly any
transaction with the land requires investment up front, significant
expenditure of money and effort. That investment is unlikely to pay off
if it is based on a wrong expectation about the future.

The trouble is, this future we need to predict and are supposed to
care about is unknown to us. We are responsible to it, but we have only
the vaguest idea of what it will be like. Throughout history human
beings have tried hundreds of imaginative ways to predict or understand
the future, from astrology and mystic oracles to econometrics and
computer models. All these devices, even the most modern ones, testify
more to our great interest in the future than to our ability to think
about it clearly.

The most common approach to the future—extrapolation hedged with caution

I have spent the past 20 years in the heady arena between science and
policy-making where data, statistics, and computers are applied to make
what are supposed to be intelligent, reasoned statements about the
large-scale, long-term social future. Most of the statements I have
heard about the future during that time, even those derived from
sophisticated analyses, even those made in our greatest centers of
government, business, and academia, have been based on the following

  1. The future is to be predicted, not chosen or created; our job is
    to anticipate the future, be ready for it, take advantage of it, or
    protect ourselves from it.
  2. The future will be some continuous, recognizable extension of the
    present and recent past. It will be “surprise free”.
  3. But of course there will be surprises, and they will be the kinds
    we have already been surprised by (another oil shock, another nuclear
    power plant accident, another recession). The surprises will be mostly
    bad, and we need to insure ourselves heavily against them.

If these assumptions are at the base of your beliefs about the
future, you take the recent general patterns of the society or economy
and swell them up at a 3% or 5% or 7% growth rate, like blowing up a
balloon. You call that extrapolation a prediction, and from it you plan
electricity-generating capacity, public investment programs, sewage
treatment systems, taxation schemes, whole-herd buyouts, or whatever.
Then you think of what can go wrong and build in some kind of protection
against it. Extrapolation hedged in with caution is at the base of most
investments in land for speculative purposes, most zoning plans, most
major public or private capital expenditures. It is the primary
determinant of most land-use decisions.

Yet in the long term—over a few decades, say—there is probably no
more inaccurate prediction you could make than that the future will be a
smooth continuation of present trends. And the surprises that have come
along have often been real surprises.

Imagine, for example, the future you might have extrapolated for New
England in 1600. Just before white settlement, or in 1840 when the
economy was based on lumber, sheep, and local self-sufficiency, or in
1870 when the rural areas were being depopulated, or in 1910 when
textile mills, railroads, and hydropower was booming, or in 1950 just
before the interstate highways were built. In every case the
extrapolation would have proved wrong within 50 years. Surprising turns
in wholly new directions were taken, and, depending on whose point of
view you take, most of those turns were not catastrophic, not even bad,
actually too complex and far-reaching to be easily classified as good or
bad. The future usually turns out to be not “surprise free”, but
“surprise rich”, and the surprises are more sweeping in scope, detail,
and implications than anyone could have imagined beforehand.

Now we live in a world of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, of
biotechnology and superconductivity, global communications and trade
networks, rapidly growing world populations and rapidly depleting oil
reserves. The future is surely going to be surprise-rich, for better or
for worse. Extrapolation was never a very good guide to the future, and
it is probably worse now than ever before.

We can do better than to base our plans on simple extrapolation laced
with protection against unpleasant surprises. What I intend to do here
is suggest some other approaches to the future, some general ways of
thinking, which allow more of the surprise-richness of the world to be
taken into account. My comments will be general, not just about the
future of New England or of the land, but about THE FUTURE, because one
of my points will be that the topics of land and New England are not
separable from topics like the economy, the population, energy, and
indeed the whole rest of the world. Also, to be sure you aren’t
harboring any false expectations, I need to warn you that I am not going
to do any predicting here. That’s because another of my points, the most
important one, is that the future is not so much to be predicted as to
be chosen.

Start with the facts and with the whole picture

One advantage of extrapolation is that it does start with facts—with
actual historical trends, which are then extended into the future. The
problem with extrapolation, at least when it’s done blindly, is that it
doesn’t probe the reasons for the trend, and it doesn’t take into
account other, interrelated trends that might come along and interfere
with or reverse the one of interest.

Land prices in my part of New England have been going up lately at
about 25% per year. That’s a fact and a trend. To extrapolate it into
the future without qualification produces some amazing expectations for
future land prices—and that process of extrapolation is itself one of
the reasons for the trend. It is a self-generated and self-perpetuating
speculation process, based primarily on its own expectations, which
tells you immediately that it can’t last.

If you start asking why it started and what is likely to stop it and
when, you have to look at the whole national economy. The analysts I
most respect tell me that the current land speculation is a function of
two things, an increase in investable assets (a major goal of the Reagan
administration, which has been successfully attained), and an absence of
any real economic growth, any real expansion of production into which
those assets might be invested. There is overcapacity worldwide in all
major productive industries—automobiles, steel, electricity, machine
tools, oil wells. That overcapacity is in the form of real factories,
machines, buildings, which won’t go away quickly.

Therefore, according to this analysis, the phenomenon of money
unattached to real assets, looking for some way of increasing itself,
sweeping into gold or art or the stock market or New England land will
be with us for some time. It could be stopped by inflation, or by stiff
new taxes, or by real demand for industrial products finally rising to
catch up with supply, or by a general economic crash. For New England it
probably means turbulent times ahead with great economic volatility. It
already means, as we all know, that the market for land for purposes of
living, farming, and logging has been severely disrupted by the market
for land for purposes of increasing one’s money.

I mention this analysis partly because it’s relevant to this
gathering in itself, but primarily because it illustrates the kind of
analysis that’s needed as a basis for managing the future. The basic
facts are needed, and also, so far as possible, the interrelations among
the facts, the whole picture. Whole-system analyses are never perfect,
never complete, and often controversial, but they need to be at the
basis of the discussion, to enrich the debate, to lay out the
possibilities, to remind people of parts of the picture they may not
have been paying attention to.

One concrete suggestion I’d like to make, the only real
recommendation contained in this paper, is that there be a more
determined effort in New England to make data and analyses on our
regional resources and economy more available to decision-makers at
every level, from towns and businesses to states and the regional
Governor’s Conference. There is a tremendous amount of information in
the region, but it is scattered, hard to find, unrelated, and not at all
in a form that the ordinary citizen or even the extraordinary governor
can make much sense from.

I can picture state-level resource information centers, or even
better a regional-level center, a single place where one can go, a
single number to call, to find out what information is available, and to
ask for analyses on traffic flows, or future energy demand, or migration
patterns, or land prices, or whatever. I work with many such centers
around the world, each providing basic resource information for its own
government or private sector, and I can tell you that it’s not easy and
it’s not cheap to have such a place and to make it really serve the
decision-making process. But the investment and the effort are trivial,
compared to the cost of going into the future without the best
information you can get.

Predict when you can predict, choose when you can choose

Throughout history there have been some amazingly accurate prophecies
of a future very different from the past. Some of them have been
predictions that a great change was about to happen—such as Nicolai
Kondratief’s forecast during the booming 1920’s of the coming Great
Depression. Others have been promises, commitments to make something
happen—such as Gandhi’s statement, also in the 1920’s, that the British
would someday leave India of their own accord. And then there have been
conditional forecasts, warnings that a great change will take place if
or unless some current action is taken—such as the present message from
the scientific community that the earth’s ozone layer will be depleted
unless we quit emitting chlorofluorocarbon pollutants into the

You would think that the difference between predictions, promises,
and warnings would be abundantly clear to everyone, and that we would
recognize all of them as legitimate, helpful, but fundamentally
different kinds of statements about the future, calling for very
different kinds of responses. It was not until I published a
well-publicized warning, called The Limits to Growth, that I saw how
easily a warning can be heard as a prediction. Our public discourse is
confused, not only about the difference between warnings, promises, and
predictions, but about when it is appropriate to issue which. The
clarity and power of our choices about the future would be immensely
increased if we could clear up that confusion.

Predictions are possible only when one is talking about the physical
laws of the planet or about the immutable physical aspects of social and
economic systems. Promises are relevant primarily to the realm of ideas,
psychology, perception, and intention, where there are few physical
constraints and the summoning of human will can make enormous
differences. Warnings are appropriate for the interesting middle ground
where human choice can interact with and shape the physical world, but
where physical reality still does impose constraints. These three realms
correspond roughly to the short, long, and medium-term future.

In the short term the system is dominated by its present physical
state—buildings, forests, money, workers, technologies, and habits are
already present and likely to stick around for awhile. Buildings under
construction, workers in training, accounts payable, young forests
already seeded, pollutants already emitted are in the pipeline and will
soon appear, with high probability, to affect the system.

Fifth graders are likely to become sixth graders and then seventh
graders, so the need for seventh-grade teachers can be safely predicted
several years in advance. Building permits for new houses are very
likely to lead to houses, which are likely to be occupied by families of
roughly predictable sizes, so the rate of in-migration can be foretold
fairly accurately, at least over the period it takes for a building
permit to become an occupied house. In the short term, barring surprises
of astounding force such as nuclear war, the system is almost completely
predictable and very hard to change. From a policy point of view, it is
not very interesting.

In the long term most of the physical elements of the system will
have been replaced—there will be new people, new buildings, new flows
and accumulations of money, new technologies, new trees, new land uses,
and above all, new ideas. Almost nothing in the long term is
predictable. Almost anything consistent with the physical laws of the
planet can be envisioned and created, but only while the long term is
still the long term, before it has become cast in the concrete of the
short term. The seeds of real change have to be sown well in

In the middle term, some elements of the system are still physically
dictated by past history but others are open to change. Some things can
be predicted and some can be chosen, there is maximum confusion, and
maximum policy leverage. The middle term is where the action is. It is
the appropriate arena for warnings and for choice.

Take energy use in New England, for example. In the short term—say,
over the next 6 months—there are power plants of given capacity in
given places, flows of oil and gas in ships and pipelines already headed
our way, and an extensive physical infrastructure of cars, houses,
appliances, and factories, set up to burn a certain mix of fuels. There
are still uncertainties—people can reset their thermostats and decide
to car-pool, a generating plant may unexpectedly shut down—but
basically the system is predictable and not changeable.

In the long term, say 100 years from now, I can think of only one
certainty about New England’s energy picture—we will not be burning
oil. Energy sources could range from solar to nuclear. Energy demand may
have doubled or halved. The climate may even have changed considerably.
We don’t know how many people will be living here, how rich they will
be, or what their lives will be like. Most likely there will be ways of
supplying the demanding energy so surprising that we can’t come close to
imagining them now. But we can be sowing their seeds now, by opening
some doors and closing others, by exploring new technologies, new
lifestyles, by protecting the forests and falling waters as potential
energy sources, or not protecting them.

The middle term energy future is the one most under our control,
though we don’t always recognize that. Utilities extrapolate electricity
demand (in a sophisticated way, region by region, appliance by
appliance, but still the exercise is one of extrapolation). They know it
can take years or even decades to construct a massive, centralized coal
or nuclear-powered plant to meet that demand. So they reason themselves
into believing that they must construct a certain number of such plants.
They don’t see the many other choices, such as conservation measures to
reduce demand, renewable energy sources, enhancement or discouragement
of various kinds of economic growth, or the possibility of building many
small generation plants instead of one large one. In the middle term
energy supply and demand are not to be predicted, they are to be

Even the carbon-dioxide-induced climate change, which is too often
depicted as inevitable, is in fact up to us. If we go on burning fossil
fuels mindlessly and neglecting energy conservation and renewable energy
sources, we will be playing Russian roulette with the climate of the
planet. That is a warning, not a prediction. There is no law of nature
or society requiring us to go on burning fossil fuels in the present
way. It is a matter of choice.

We are governed by the laws of the planet. We are also creatures of
free will. We have to be able to hold those apparently opposite but
simultaneously true statements in our minds at the same time, and to
understand very clearly where we are really limited, and where we are
limited only by our imaginations.

Without vision the people perish

Speaking of choosing, that is the part of thinking about the future
we do least often and least well. One of the catch-words in the booming
literature on corporate excellence these days is vision, but I have
found it amazing how few people are willing or able to talk comfortably
about their vision for the future.

Where are we going? Where do we want to go? What should New England
be like 50 or 100 years from now? How can we manage land or anything
else, if we have no clear idea what we’re aiming for? And yet how often
is the question of what future we really want publicly raised, much less

If the question of a desirable future is not publicly raised, it will
be privately settled. Some private conservation organizations are
permanently removing the development possibilities from some land by
outright purchase or acquisition of conservation easements. To a far
greater extent, private developers are permanently removing the
possibilities for wildlife habitat, for farming, for timber-growing, for
watershed protection on a great deal of land. Both sets of actors are
having long-term impact on New England, some of it good from the public
point of view and some of it bad. The point isn’t the wiseness of
private decisions. It’s the limited number of people who are choosing
New England’s future by expressing their private visions on the

Private visions must be tempered by public debate, they must be honed
by the common wisdom of humanity, or they can go off in very dangerous

Of course there are public exercises in land planning, including
zoning and master-planning at the town level and a few statewide land
use regulations such as Vermont’s Act 250. These activities are
necessary and useful, but they tend to be dominated by a few active,
well-spoken individuals. They also get snarled in ideological arguments
about the sanctity of the free market versus the necessity for

These arguments have been so politicized that they no longer have any
content. They are battlegrounds for the ultimate victory of the market
or of planning, though we all know that either alone, untempered by the
other, would be a disaster. We badly need to sort out what the market is
actually good for, what public decision-making is actually good for, and
how to find the right balance of the two. That’s also a part of the
working out of our common vision.

In the right-left political fray we have lost sight of the essential
questions. Where are we going? What is growth and progress for? What do
we want for the future? Do we all want the same future? If different
factions of us want different things, who gets to decide? Can we
envision a future that satisfies a full spectrum of human needs,
including the needs of those whose voices are not loud and who do not
wield market power?

I am not going to lay out here a detailed plan for involving the
public in envisioning and choosing those parts of the future that can be
chosen. I’ll just say that a true dedication to doing it will produce
all kinds of inventive ideas. I’ve seen it done. The results are
rewarding. People harbor inspiring visions of how they would like the
world to be—visions that are more feasible and less divisive than you
might think. It is one of the tragedies of our culture that we make it
easier and safer for people to articulate their cynicism about the
future than their vision of how they would like it to be.

When I ask New Englanders their visions for New England I hear more
about clean air and water, natural forests, well-groomed farmland,
small, safe, stable communities, and buildings that look harmonious with
the landscape than I do about shopping malls and subdivisions. A place
to live is important, of course, one that is clean and quiet and not
ugly. A job is essential, one that is not humiliating. An opportunity
for personal challenge, a chance to contribute, to count, to make a
difference to someone, to be someone, to feel connected, these are
vitally important, much more so than a chance to indulge every
materialistic whim.

If you don’t believe me, just ask people.

We control both more and less than we think we do

I have been talking blithely about choice as if it were possible and
vision as if it were achievable. But New England is a very small region
of a very large nation in a very interconnected world. Sometimes it
seems that there aren’t really many choices. Much that concerns us is
controlled somewhere else, often somewhere far away, like Washington,
Moscow, or the Persian Gulf. In New England we import nearly all our
energy and food. We ride up and down on the national business cycles. We
get acid rain from the Midwest, cold spells from Canada, and competition
from Japan. Our songbirds are declining in number because in Central
America where the birds winter the forests are disappearing. Radiation
from Chernobyl is detectable in Montpelier.

It’s not easy to believe that one can make any difference or have any
choice as a small part of a large system. A small region has the same
problem believing it’s in control of its own destiny as a small
individual has in believing he or she has any control in the region. And
yet we all know that the only real guarantee of helplessness is to
believe one is helpless. And we aren’t helpless. We do directly control
most of what happens in our own region. We can become a model, a test
case, a guide for other regions. And we can be heard loudly and clearly
on the national and global level.

We are not in control of the energy and food we bring in from
outside, but we control our own resources, our soils, forests, and
waters, which are capable of producing much more energy and food than
they now do. We can make our own economic and political trade-offs to
achieve the ratio of self-sufficiency and outside dependence that we
want. We can’t dictate policy in California, much less the Middle East,
but we can reduce our own dependence on Californian food and Middle
Eastern oil.

We can put only limited pressure on the generators of pollution that
comes to us from outside, but we are in full control of the pollution we
generate ourselves. We can show others the way, perhaps even develop and
sell ideas, mechanisms and processes to lead productive lives without
devastating the environment.

We can’t control the attractiveness or unattractiveness of the places
that send us waves of in-migrants or that receive our out-migrants, but
we control our own attractiveness to different kinds of people and
businesses. We already have such controls, in the form of tax policy,
welfare payments, the quality of our schools, the quality of our water,
our support of farmers, our support of nuclear power. By attracting and
repelling different kinds of people, these selective inducements or lack
thereof are the most powerful way we shape future land use. But we don’t
always make that connection, we don’t work to make our inducements
consistent with our land-use plans, much less with our ultimate visions
or goals for the region.

Simply as examples to others, we’re more powerful than we usually
think. The bottling companies believe the states of New England can be
leaders of national trends; that’s why they’re willing to spend millions
fighting bottle bills here. The purveyors of nuclear power see Seabrook
and Shoreham as the reactors on which the future of the industry hangs.
We are running out of landfills faster than other parts of the nation;
our solution to that problem will provide examples for others to follow,
or to avoid. We can’t force anyone to follow our example, but we can
provide the very best examples we are capable of.

And we can act as responsible citizens of the planet. If our
songbirds are threatened by Central American deforestation, we can help,
financially and technically, to preserve those forests. We can stop
buying the hamburgers from the cattle that are raised there, for whose
sake the forests are being leveled. We can be much stronger activists
for acid rain control, for Law of the Sea agreements that protect our
fishing banks, for peaceful negotiations that reduce both the likelihood
of nuclear attack and our constant taxation to pay for the instruments
of nuclear attack.

One choice we really don’t have is to stay self-absorbed and aloof
from global issues. We are too tightly interconnected with the rest of
the world to be indifferent to its fate.

Keep the options open

Nothing I have said here comes close to predicting what the future
will be. As I hope I have made clear, we will never be able to make
sweeping predictions, partly because the future depends so much on free
will, and partly because it depends so much on the workings of the
planet, which we don’t fully understand. The future is intrinsically
uncertain and always will be. We can predict what is predictable, choose
what is choosable, articulate our visions, take control of whatever we
really can control, and still there will be plenty of surprises.

Therefore the best way to face the future is not to fit ourselves up
maximally to conform to a certain prediction or vision, but to keep
ourselves resilient, flexible, able to adapt, with all our options

What does that mean? What makes a social system resilient? I would
suggest that a lot of good ideas on the subject were expressed back at
the founding of our nation. That’s why the United States has proved
itself able, so far, to meet and take advantage of many different
challenges through its history.

Widely educated people who generate, tolerate, debate, and evaluate
many lively ideas are resilient. Resilience comes from many kinds of
competing technologies in many hands, lots of experiments being tried,
with honest evaluation of those experiments, with forgiveness for
mistakes and honest rewards for successes. Democracy is far more
resilient than totalitarianism. Widespread distribution of wealth,
resources, and information is more resilient than concentration of those
things. Small businesses, even the constant boiling up and frequent
failures of many businesses, keep open more options than fossilized big
businesses that have effectively eliminated all forms of real

In the realm of land use, forests and swamps control floods and
droughts more resiliently than do dams and concrete channels. Solar
power presents many more options than nuclear. Processes that use
renewable resources, that harvest the free forces of the planet, command
less power at a single moment, but are more long-lasting and resilient
than processes that depend on tight human organization to control
massive, short-term, nonrenewable forces.

And I think it must be true that undeveloped land keeps more options
open than developed land.

The real choices are unspeakably profound

It isn’t possible to talk honestly about the future without
acknowledging, without appropriate seriousness, the two most far-out,
hard-to-imagine, and yet truly likely futures for New England and for
the world. They are, on the one hand, utter destruction, and on the
other, a final solution of the age-old problems of poverty, war, and
environmental degradation. We all have a hard time believing in either
of these futures, and yet, from my own studies of global futures, I have
come to think that they are both very possible—far more possible than a
continuation of current trends.

Destruction could come in many ways, the quickest and most thorough
being nuclear war. But there are other, slower possibilities. Acid rain
could make New England look like some mountain ranges in Czechoslovakia,
where all the trees are dead, three attempts at reforestation have
failed, the soil is washing off the mountains, and soon there will be
just bare rock. A global climate change could make white pines and sugar
maples, farms and tourism, no longer possible here. It’s not at all
clear what would be possible. A depletion of ozone could destroy green
plants and lead to starvation, worldwide. We can’t dismiss any of these
possibilities just because they are difficult and disturbing to think
about. They are real, and our present actions are exacerbating all of

It is also true that all of those deleterious trends can be turned
around—we know what causes them and how to ameliorate them. A
significant global agreement was just signed to mitigate the destruction
of the ozone layer. The European nations are beginning to take concerted
action against acid rain. We are about to see the first small reduction
in nuclear arsenals.

Furthermore, there is more food raised each year than is needed to
feed everyone on earth—there is no longer any physical or technical
reason for anyone to be hungry. Thousands of times more energy falls
free on our heads than we now laboriously extract from the earth’s
fossil fuel reserves. Technologies to use energy and water much more
efficiently, to recycle urban wastes, to produce high-yield crops with
fewer chemicals and less erosion, to tailor resource use more
appropriately to end-use need, all are now available and cost-effective.
The information and communication resources on the planet are
awe-inspiring, as are the productive capabilities of industry, the
research capabilities of science, the human capabilities of a world
population that is, for the first time in history more than 50% literate
(a number that is still rising fast).

I see nothing in the way of a truly workable world except our
intention to have one, and nothing in the way of a destroyed world
except our courage in rejecting that outcome and in charting out a
future far different from anything we know about now—a future built
around our real visions instead of around what we think we can get.

New England will be swept up in whatever future happens—there is no
way to insulate ourselves from the rest of the world. New England can
take a leadership role in shaping that future.

That’s not a prediction and not a promise. It’s an offer, a warning,
a choice.


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