Since the end of the Second World War, humanity has gone through an unparalleled period of expansion, based on the ethos of economic growth that did not – and did not yet need to – take into account the finiteness of our planet. As foreseen by many in the Balaton Group, most notably by the authors of The Limits to Growth, by the early 21st century the dominant model of development has come under increasing strain, manifested through a series of festering and interlocking ecological, financial, social and political crises.
- In which ways are such goals associated with particular values and worldviews?
- How could such goals become a powerful instrument in accelerating sustainability transformations in the directions and at the scale of effort needed?
- How could they be a force for transformation, instead of legitimation of what is unsustainable in the status quo?
By Sarah Czunyi, Donella Meadows Fellow
Systems thinking, as a discipline, tends to be quite technical – and thereby off-putting to more general audiences. Yet it is one of those ways of thinking that could and should benefit humanity as a whole; systems thinking has a wonderful story and message to tell, and I believe it should be spread as far and wide as possible. ‘Stocks’, ‘flows’ and ‘feedback loops’ should not be jargon cut off from the world – but rather should be absorbed, understood, and used creatively by more and more people who are interested in making positive change.
For these reasons, I was determined to use the opportunity of a Donella Meadows Fellowship project to broaden the audience and appetite for systems thinking, beyond the regular systems dynamics crowd.
Months of research, absorbing the writings of great systems thinkers and communicators – namely Dana Meadows herself, and also Linda Booth Sweeney – and creative brainstorming and collaboration with the team at BEE Environmental Communication, resulted in a final video. We decided to call this video “A Systems Story,” which introduces systems thinking, through a unique story frame: love.
While the end result of this project shows that systems thinking can be made much more accessible, the process itself showed me that communicating such complex concepts are far from simple – but it is this challenge that makes it even more necessary. As I recently learnt during the Balaton Group meeting, Dana herself was not a born communicator; but she recognized its necessity, and carefully honed this skill.
Higher education has opened up a world of intellectual possibilities, but it has also ensured I was indoctrinated into the halls of technical jargon. Once you enter this state of jargonism, it’s difficult to get out – and even more difficult to get your message out to those outside your discipline. For those of us who are given the privilege of education and exposure to scientific concepts and disciplines such as systems thinking, which can help to address the world’s most pressing problems, we must also accept the responsibility to find ways of communicating these to wider audiences.
The video was produced by BEE Environmental Communication with funding from the Donella Meadows Fellowship and support from the Balaton Group. VIEW THE VIDEO >>
This story of the meeting was put together by Vala Ragnarsdottir, Jamila Haider, Christina Apetrei, Sarah Czunyi, Hunter Lovins, Lazlo Pinter and Oliver Greenfield. It draws on crowd sourcing of BG meeting participants on key concepts, statements from speakers, meeting discussions, and the afternoon open sessions.
We are now at a critical juncture in human history to influence the trajectory of development towards resilience and sustainability. Business as usual will bring collapse, both ecological and financial. This is what The Limits to Growth indicated in 1972, and recent analysis from Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom has shown that we are following the “standard run” trajectory.
The 2014 annual meeting of the Balaton Group focused on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were recently created in an open, unprecedented participatory process by United Nations Member States and stakeholder representatives from around the world. Many Balaton Group members played key roles in moving this global process forward. The process has, for the first time in human history, resulted in a consensus on sustainability goals universally applicable to all countries of the world; this is a massive achievement. The Group took time to celebrate the achievement, naming János Zlinszky, who was senior adviser to the co-chair of the Open Working Group (OWG) that created the SDGs, as Balaton Group Member of the Year.
The work has only just begun. A window of opportunity exists to ensure that the political process that will consolidate the 17 goals takes into account systems perspectives. Integrated sustainable development indicators and targets can help turn goals into transition pathways at both the global and sub-global levels. We should all engage actively in this process. Balaton Group members have the knowledge, influence and experience—from science and local communities to governments and the United Nations—to influence strategy building and the transition towards achieving these goals. Balaton Group members can aid governments, and other key actors, to implement the SDGs.
Putting the goals to work will require a global citizens’ movement. Such a movement can not only demand real action, it can engage in data collection for regional and national authorities that can be linked with global systems such as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Shared goals can bring together global citizen actors with the growing ranks of investors who understand the unsustainability of the current path, and turn business away from trashing the planet to regenerating the Earth.
The Balaton Group can play a key role in developing multi-level transition strategies, targets and indicators aligned across sectors to provide common purpose, to support accountability, and to find important leverage points that catalyze successful implementation of the SDGs. Balaton Group members can further contribute by developing road maps for SDG reporting, and helping to build institutions and develop capacity—guided by the imperatives of good, effective and ethical governance. The SDGs are aimed at keeping us within the planetary limits, with underlying systems thinking that was led by Balaton Group members.
A plethora of positive examples of change exist, at different stages and at different scales, and can help us to craft integrated approaches to the achievement of the SDGs. These examples exist within the private, civil society, legal and public sectors—many of which have strong alliances with Balaton Group members. Systems thinking and models will be key to ensuring that such integration is positive and capitalizes on leverage points; the Balaton Group can provide a natural contribution to mapping such a transition.
We want to tell a new story to help the world achieve the SDGs.
The old story behind the present state of the world can be traced to a meeting in 1947 when 39 people came together in Switzerland as the Mont Pelerin Society and drafted the intellectual architecture that serves as a foundation of the neoliberal story, which goes as follows: the primacy of the individual, markets are the best way of making decisions, and government is the problem, not the solution. The Mont Pelerin Society placed three of its members as heads of state and as advisors to essentially every head of state, created the Chicago School of (neoliberal) Economics, and lead the political process to make this story the dominant global economic ideology. Economic growth was enshrined as society´s goal. It was as if a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario had turned into reality—a reality that has made inequality rise within and between nations. Today, 85 of the richest individuals have as many assets as the poorest 50 percent of humanity (3.6 billion people). But people still believe in the neoliberal story. Any effort to change policy is swimming upstream against this paradigm. In the interface between science and policy, systems models are useful and here members of the Balaton Group have many tools that can aid in finding another story.
The world needs a new story, one informed by systems analysis, one that recognizes both planetary boundaries and minimum standards needed to ensure human well-being and dignity. Analysis shows that we cannot avoid Limits to Growth, i.e. that population rise and exponential increase in resource use are linked with environmental degradation. The new story is of the world we want, a story that works justly for 100 percent of humanity (as Buckminster Fuller said). This is a story where we care for our Earth, care for humanity and share the profits. Donella Meadows, co-founder of the Balaton Group, brought the importance of visions to the forefront. She was instrumental in bringing values and the importance of acting from the heart, as well as the head, to sustainability leadership. It is time to take up her challenge to frame that vision, and to tell the story that will drive the transformation to achieve it. Balaton Group members are working on precisely that challenge.
The members who gathered at Lake Balaton in Hungary are going home to engage with their communities, NGOs, corporations, universities, governments and the United Nations. It will be interesting to follow how we all engage in the quest for the success of the SDGs. It will be interesting to see whether we manage to put forward a positive new story that engages people from around the world and replaces the destructive old neoliberal story. The Sustainable Development Goals are at the heart of a story that should set the direction for the sustainable development economy.
Appendix 1: Examples of initiatives mentioned at the 2014 Balaton Group meeting that can set the world on a course towards sustainability
- A discussion at the Balaton Group meeting lead to the Planetary Boundaries concept published in Nature in 2009. This concept has caught the attention of people around the world.
- Measure What Matters was set up to accelerate the SDG’s data revolution by aligning global, national and business measures of success.
- The Green Economy Coalition, with the aid of HRH Prince Charles’ Accounting for Sustainability team (UK), is inviting leading actors from industry, governments and the UN to align the aims of corporations with achieving the SDGs.
- Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity (ASAP) is linking together actors to lead towards prosperity for all, based on ecological economics thinking. Linked to ASAP, the Regenerative Economy initiative of the Capital Institute and Natural Capitalism is crafting a new economic system that works for 100 percent of humanity.
- Elephant energy and Hydrovolts are bringing to the market affordable energy for the developing world.
- Bloomberg is advising investors to divest from fossil fuels.
- The Just Transition Alliance is bringing together actors from environmental justice and labour organizations to halt pollution.
- Eradicating Ecocide is championing an international criminal law to be taken into the Rome Statute as a fifth crime against peace: namely, “ecocide”. This new law could bring CEOs of nature detrimental organizations to prison.
- The Pyramid2030 sustainable training methodology based on systems thinking will now retool to develop strategies for achieving the SDGs.
- The current President of Uruguay is leading his nation, not for his own glory, but for the good of society. He is a role model for other world leaders.
- The Balaton Group recommends that education should change from interdisciplinary environmental science education to transdisciplinary sustainability science education. Bert de Vries, a Balaton Group member and professor at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) has written the first textbook on Sustainability Science. Satish Kumar, also a Balaton Group member, founded the Schumacher College (Totnes, UK) transformative education centre for sustainability. There are many more examples of leadership by our members.
Note: Additional notes on the meeting will be available soon in the Member Login web pages.
Listen to Balaton Group members discuss key insights from the 2014 Balaton Group meeting on ‘How can sustainable development goals (SDG) advance sustainability’. This year’s meeting reviewed the SDG process and approach from the Balaton Group’s trademark systems perspective, asking tough questions about what has been achieved to date, what is the SDG’s relevance, and what it would take to ensure their ambition matches the scale of the global sustainability transition challenge faced by humanity.
Meeting right after the Balaton Group meeting, the panel discussion took place on September 16, 2014, at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. Panelists provided highlights of the meeting and their own perspectives, including insights from the Open Working Group process at the United Nations, the challenges SDGs represent for governance and the promise and potential of the regenerative economy. View the video >>