Working with their Hungarian colleagues, scientists Donella and Dennis Meadows organized the first meeting of the Balaton Group in Csopak, Hungary, in 1982. Donella died unexpectedly in 2001, and Dennis relinquished all his responsibilities for organizing and financing the group after its 25th annual meeting in 2006. But he remains a steadfast participant in its meetings and a keen observer of its members’ highly diverse work. Here Solutions interviews Dennis about the group’s founding, the impact of its meetings, and the current thinking about sustainability around the world.

What goals led you to organize that first Balaton Group meeting 30 years ago?

In the early 1980s there was still generally a mood of optimism about global development. The threats of climate change and peak oil were not yet widely recognized. But there were concerns about natural resources—their quality and long-term availability. Our desire to help focus state-of-the-art systems thinking tools on natural resource issues at the regional and national level prompted us to mobilize the first meeting. Dana [Donella] and I wrote the first issue of The Balaton Bulletin in October 1982 to describe that first session:

“In September 1982, 30 scientists and managers met in Hungary to review the state of the art of natural resources modeling and to identify ways we could advance the theory and the practice of regional resource management. Those attending the meeting wanted to identify ways of supporting each other in the design and implementation of policies that:

  • greatly raise the productivity of each region’s natural resource endowment; and
  • maintain or increase its overall fertility.”

The first Balaton meeting in 1982 identified several questions that served as the framework for our early efforts, including: What is the current maximum sustainable use of the resource base: nationally, regionally, globally? What are the ways of facilitating the transition to more extensive reliance on renewable resources? And: What are the likely future consequences of unequal distribution of the world’s resources? We also studied how our answers to any of these questions could be most effectively communicated to other scientists and to decisions makers.

Since those questions confronted both East and West, we organized the meeting in Hungary, a very convenient destination for scientists in the Soviet bloc, the West, and the South.

Those questions were not often asked 30 years ago, but now they are the focus of innumerable books, studies, and meetings. And, of course, it is relatively easy these days for scientists from the former Soviet bloc to travel wherever they wish. So what is the point of continuing the Balaton Group meetings?

At the 25th anniversary meeting I seriously suggested to the participants that we should consider disbanding the group for precisely those reasons. The members debated the issue and decided it was important to continue. They felt, first of all, that although “sustainability” is now widely mentioned as a goal, its meaning has been changed. The Balaton Group uses the term in its biological and geological sense, to mean use of resources only at rates which will permit them to regenerate or be replaced by renewable alternatives. Most people today use the term in its social sense, to mean preservation of a way of life, modified only to let the poor catch up and the environment to sustain less damage. The latter meaning is politically appealing, but it is a fantasy and it does not lead to feasible policy. Participants wanted to continue focusing on the original meaning of the term sustainable development. And they appreciated the opportunity to meet annually for a week in a setting where they could express their honest opinions and questions without being dismissed as neo-Malthusians or prophets of doom.

The second incentive for continuing lay in the nature of the meetings themselves. Although we meet for almost a week each year, only nine hours—three three-hour sessions—are devoted to formal panels and speeches. The vast majority of the time at the meetings is organized ad hoc, by individual participants, to address an issue of direct professional interest.

Organizers of the meeting always book a conference hotel where we can live and work without distraction. They organize a formal program on some topic of mutual interest, but they mainly provide empty meeting rooms and a blank schedule. It is the participants’ responsibility individually to schedule sessions that will, for example, help them design the curriculum of a university course on sustainability they wish to teach, or identify potential funding sources for a research project they wish to conduct, or critique a draft of the book manuscript they are writing, or lay out the steps for an effort to change their country’s energy production that they wish to undertake policy changes for.

What evidence is there that the sessions have actually been productive?

They were not very productive at first. I remember looking around the room on the final day of the second or third meeting and thinking, “This isn’t working. We should quit.” But slowly bonds of trust and respect formed among the members. People began to identify partners with interests and resources that complemented their own goals. Informal meetings began to occur. There was increasing communication outside the formal meetings and a growing number of informal collaborations. Today I believe no single week ever passes without there being several meetings among Balaton Group members who assemble in various locations around the world to work at achieving goals they share.

This year there will be about 50 participants from nearly 30 nations in our meeting. Half of the attendees are long-term participants. They have attended 10, or 20, or even 30 of our meetings. They keep coming back, because the group gives them opportunities and information they can’t find in other conclaves. I have watched members come to their first meeting as graduate students and mature over the years into senior teachers and advisors, recognized throughout their country. I know many of our members who are prominent today would tell you that it was the information, the contacts, the learning, and the support of others in the Balaton Group that gave them the boost they needed to become leaders.

One concrete indicator of the group’s value is that our meetings are attended only by those we specifically invite.

During its first two decades the Balaton Group involved 342 different participants from more than 30 nations. It has been a very cost effective enterprise. The total budget expended for meetings, administration, and special projects during the period from 1982 through 2002 was about $1 million, or $50,000 per year.

We have no full-time paid staff, no formal office space—no overhead. The organization of the group is mainly carried out by volunteers. The money we collect, mainly from our own members, goes directly to support our meetings and our work. Members from the richer countries typically pay more, so that participants from the poorer countries can join us while paying less. We are incorporated in the United States, for administrative purposes. But the majority of our members and the bulk of our work are in East and West Europe and in Asia.

You use the term “prominent” to describe your members. Does that mean their work on sustainability has become recognized?

Yes, though it is important to note that “sustainability” remains a rather academic concept—more interesting to professors and NGOs than to politicians. The term may be used to justify politically expedient policies, but it seldom causes any corporate or political leader to do something that they perceive to be against their short-term financial or political interests.

And there is an additional consideration. The industrialized nations’ high-energy, resource-intensive lifestyles have grown so much over the past 30 years that they are not truly sustainable anymore. We have maintained them for a few decades at the cost of enormous depletion and damage to the natural ecosystems. And now there are growing signs that the decline is about to begin. You see, for example, less and less effort to solve global problems, such as climate change, and more effort simply to find ways of adapting to them.

The nature of the debate about sustainability has changed greatly over the past 30 years. Balaton Group members are now more likely to stress that our policies would give greater efficiency, resilience, or equity than to justify them as sustainable. But even during the period of change, Balaton Group members have remained relevant and, in many cases, influential. It is possible to identify dozens of books, courses, television programs, conferences, computer games, training centers, and other products that resulted from our work.

For me, the best indicator is simply that people keep returning to our annual meeting. Our members are grossly over committed. They wouldn’t spend a week in Hungary each year at their own expense if their participation there did not give them something really powerful and useful.

Professor Meadows, thank you for your time.

No problem! I always enjoy an opportunity to talk about the group.

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