Donella Meadows was renowned for her capacity to envision a sustainable world, and to inspire others to do the same. As she notes in the “Envisioning” section of this issue, a sustainable society isn’t stagnant and authoritarian. She believed a community dedicated to the planet’s health relied on innovation and playfulness focused “on mindfully increasing the quality of life.”

This special issue of Solutions has been inspired by Meadows and the organization she founded, along with her husband Dennis, the Balaton Group. This issue is intended to share their creation. It’s been a long journey since the Group’s foundation in the 80s, following the ground-breaking publication of their book, Limits to Growth. Our history charts some of the successes and remaining challenges of the Balaton Group since then. Many of the objectives of the organization have now become standard writ for the global environmental movement. As we chronicle in the issue, sustainability has, in many places, moved from the textbook into practice, whether in the greening of a city like Adelaide, or the transformation (albeit slow) of water supplies in West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Part of the reason for the success of the Meadows’ ideas lies in the natural re-balancing of global society away from destructive consumerism. As outlined by Linda Booth Sweeney in this issue, it is notable how many children intuitively grasp the relationship between the Earth’s different systems. “They can see, for instance, how a common but limited resource, such as water, air, land, highways, fisheries, energy, or minerals becomes overloaded or over-used, and how everyone experiences diminishing benefits.”

Yet much work remains to be done, in the classroom and beyond. Few schools help children develop a deeper understanding of the global ecosystem of which man is an intricate part. We educate our children and university students to think in subjects and “boxes,” in linear fashion, making it impossible for them to develop a holistic view and see causes, consequences, and circular processes, as in nature.

In order to solve the immense challenges presented to us this century—population expansion, resource depletion, ecosystem degradation, climate change, and energy challenges—we need to include system thinking and envisioning in education for sustainable development programs at all levels.

People often find sharing their dreams and visions intimate and difficult, as Donella Meadows well knew. Only by teaching both system thinking and making envisioning “natural” and the norm can we build a critical mass among the public and policy makers.

In the past three decades the Balaton Group has demonstrated that through system thinking, networking, communication, and envisioning we can make a huge change for the better in global sustainability. We can thus learn from the Balaton Group that through collective action we can unite in finding solutions for a sustainable future.

In the words of Alan AtKisson, current co-president of the Balaton Group, “20 years ago, it seemed that the core of people who were seriously working on these issues was just a few thousand at most. It was an uphill battle to get systems, sustainability, climate, renewable energy and so many other issues into public dialogues of any kind. Today, many hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, are working professionally on sustainability issues. They know what a ‘system’ is, and most of them are actively trying to change systems, and make them more sustainable.”


Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir

Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir is Dean of the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences at the University of Iceland. She is currently working with the Idea Ministry in Iceland, a grassroots organization...

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