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Donella Meadows' "Visioning":
Global Citizens Designing a Sustainable World Together.

(a draft)

By Mr. Jan Hearthstone - ModelEarth.Org

There is a need for expediency--we find ourselves already on the downslope that comes after the set of exponential curves (representing the exploitation of resources, ability of the planet to heal itself, and the growth of population) starts indicating the downward crash-course, according to the Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Meadows 2004), the Global Footprint Network (Global Footprint Network 2009), and many other authorities on the subject. We are overtaxing our planet's self-healing capacities. We are in a state of emergency. The "crash", that is so obviously coming, would be unprecedented in magnitude in human history, if we let it happen. A great many horrible scenarios are presenting themselves, but there are no good scenarios in which the Earth is saved at the end. (I might be wrong, but where are they? I know that there are many good actions undertaken for lessening the burden, but I have to yet see a detailed good scenario, in which we all survive in a better shape than the one we are in now, presented anywhere.)

In our current situation we have many well founded reasons to be alarmed; any reasons to be optimistic about our prospects on this planet are not founded on any rational grounds.

Our situation is not hopeless; all the ills that plague the Earth now are individually possible to deal with. We have all the knowledge and resources for to deal with each of our exigencies and problems. But it is difficult to deal with all of them at once and also in such a manner that one remedy would not ever undo the effects of any other appropriate remedies. To imagine the combined effect of all the remedies, to see what the whole picture would look like after all of the remedies have run their course, is not practiced to any extend yet.

This is where a great deal of hopelessness, confusion, and cynicism about our collective fate stems from. We have no assurance that our efforts will ever achieve any lasting desirable results (what should "desirable" results look like anyhow?), all we have is a hope that our "stabs" at improvement might somehow (mostly we don't know how) help.

We have to enter the crash zone as a fully sustainable humanity--the sooner we become truly sustainable, the better for us. The longer we continue applying sporadic, disjointed, ineffectual remedies without any clear idea what it exactly is that we want to achieve by applying those, the less able we will be to deal with what is coming to us. Some humans might survive, but in no shape that we would still recognize as "human" (except, perhaps, anatomically).

It is very important to know what this "fully sustainable humanity" should look like so that we know what it is that we need to do in order to become such a "fully sustainable humanity" that would be able to deal with the coming and already existing exigencies. Without becoming truly sustainable we don't stand a chance. We could never hope to prevent the "crash" and to heal the planet while still continuing our unsavory non-sustainable societal and environmental practices.
The authors of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Meadows 2004) think that the next revolution will be the "sustainable revolution", and that it will happen "organically", and that it cannot be planned--a point I, the author of this article, would like to dispute! I think that this "sustainable revolution" has to, indeed, happen organically, but that it has to be very deliberately designed!. We have to know what it is that we want to achieve with our efforts! We have to know what it is that we want to achieve with this "sustainable revolution"!

Otherwise the very needed "sustainable revolution" will not happen at all, although it should already be in a full swing, considering that we, according to the data available from many sources, are already on the downward vital curves slope.

This "sustainable revolution" will happen only if we bring it into being very deliberately, using a concerted effort. The "deadline" in this case cannot kept on being extended indefinitely. There is no more time left to rely on "hit or miss" methods used in real time/space--every step of this revolution has to be "hit or miss" tested in models instead, in order to avoid any waste of time and energy in real time/space (not to mention loss of many lives--both human and non-human!). There is no more time to merely hope that all the well meant good sustainable deeds and good sustainable trends that there are being exercised now will (somehow, but we don't quite know how exactly, or even roughly) result in a sustainable humanity.

Donella Meadows(endnote 1) (1941 - 2001), well known to all serious environmentalists, was one of the very few environmentalists who realized that it is not enough just to want to improve on things in order to overcome the horrendous environmental and social crisis that humanity is facing presently. She knew that it was important that we have a vision of how the world we would like to live in should look like in order for our efforts to be successful in averting, in mollifying the effects of the "crash" that is to follow our having reached the limits of being able to punish ourselves and our planet without experiencing any repercussions sooner or later. For this see her "Envisioning a Sustainable World" (Meadows 1994), and the chapter 8 of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Meadows, et al. 2004) in which the need for "visioning" is described.

It was Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization 1990) who introduced Donella Meadows to Robert Fritz's "Technologies for Creating" (TFC) from where Donella Meadows learned of the need for, what she calls, "visioning" (or "envisioning" at times(endnote 2). Robert Fritz's "Technologies for Creating" is best explained in Robert Fritz's The Path of Least Resistance (Fritz 1984)--a "must" reading for anyone who wants to understand Donella Meadows' "visioning".
Donella Meadows' "visioning" gets misunderstood because "visioning" requires a bit more than mere intellectual understanding; it takes a while for the ramifications to "sink in" despite its being a very simple idea that says that we cannot get what we don't know what that, that we want to get, is. We have to first know what it is that we want, and only then we stand a chance of, maybe, obtaining it. There is nothing at all "visionary" about this. "Visioning" is not anything handed down to us--we have to generate our visions ourselves. To paraphrase Robert Fritz: instead of reacting to outside (relative to ourselves) conditions, we set our goals ourselves according to what we really want (not that we might feel that we should be wanting), and start working towards what we ourselves decided that we really want.

Donella Meadows writes at the end of the subchapter of chapter 8 of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Meadows 2004) titled "Truth-Telling":

All the models, including the ones in our heads, are a little right, much too simple, and mostly wrong. How do we proceed in such a way as to test our models and learn where they are right and wrong? How do we speak to each other as fellow modelers with an appropriate mixture of scepticism and respect?...

Donella Meadows died prematurely, and, as far as I know, did not pursue the matter of "...test[ing] our models and learn[ing] where they are right and wrong..." to a conclusion. (I would like to be wrong on this--please let me know whether there are any sources that I should be aware of.)

I, myself have run into this myself, if by a very different route; From wanting to live self-sufficiently, through wanting to be sustainable, to the recognition that a single family, not even a single community can ever make it to remain sustainable in a world that would swallow up such an entity without a hesitation! Naturally the whole world has to become sustainable in order for humans to survive without a shame!

I assume that this is the same with many other people who decided that to live sustainably is an itelligent way of existing on this planet for humans--while this decision might be easy for individuals, those individuals might start realizing that unless the whole of humanity becomes ecologically and socially sustainable, one's own living so makes little, if any, impact on the overall quality of life on Earth;

The problem becomes two-fold: 1) How to reconcile the different notions that there are about what "sustainability" is? 2) How to convince a decisive portion of humanity that to live sustainably is an intelligent way of existence?

When one surveys the sustainability movement, it becomes apparent (as it did to Donella Meadows) that although there is a lot of commotion about becoming sustainable, there are a very few people who would have an idea what a sustainable world should look like, because it is more common to hear about what people would not like to have in their realities, rather than what their ideal realities should look like. (note 3)

Things would be simple if everybody on Earth would like to live sustainably. The wide variety of what people understand under the term "sustainable" could be accommodated in one sustainable Earth model, providing, those ideas would indeed be provably sustainable--i.e.: it would be possible to demonstrate in models that they indeed are sustainable. Please see "Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth "Vision"1 Co-operatively." - .

But--since not everyone on Earth desires to live sustainably, a different way of ariving at the whole of humanity living on Earth sustainably has to be devised:

It may be safely assumed that most people are reasoble enough to see that resolving of any differences, controversies, and complains--such as there might be among all on Earth--might be imensely easier if done in models, rather than in real life where it causes a great deal of waste of lives, resources, and time. All that would have to be done would be to want for all those reasonable people to arive at a portrayal of an Earth that would offer the optimal conditions for life for all. This could be done by modeling of any appropriate kind.
It would be beyond and above the scope of this writing to describe all the possible implication of this approach, more on this is contained in this booklet, and at www.ModelEarth.Org .

By using modeling it would be easier to introduce into such an ensuing "portrayal" notions of ecological and social sustainabilty; This, also, could be a way of "...test[ing] our models and learn[ing] where they are right and wrong..."--done by unifying and vetting all of these ideas in models, by finding out in models what ideas are more "sustainable" than others, using all the available knowledge that we have of ecological and societal processes to determine the merit of the ideas inputted. Although everybody would have the access to the interactive modeling process, it would never be personalities that would determine the process; it would always be ideas that would be vetted on the basis of their merit alone. Politics would become a true science where popularity contests between personalities would cease to matter.

The purpose of such "global unification" of the great variety of any ideas pertaining to human society and the global environmental concerns would not be any other than coming up with a single global model of what a sustainable Earth should be, its being a single model because one Earth can only have one sustainable future at a time, and striving for various different models in real life/time is a waste of time, lives, and resources, since all the differences among all the various ideas would have to be reconciled by trial and error method in real life/time anyhow!--we do not have much time left to be able to do that; we have to expedite this process by modeling. The modeling process in the end would be no more (but not less) than a tool that would take the horrendously wasteful and very inefficient way of finding out whether an idea is good or not out of testing the idea in real life, and do exactly the same--finding out how good an idea is--in models! Why settle our differences on battle fields, if we can resolve our differences in models? It would not be necessary that everybody would have to take a part in modeling; this could be started with a few people from each opposing sides of any conflict currently underway on Earth (be it a ideological, or even an armed conflict), to start presenting rational, defensible resolutions to any problems. No personalities (that are so "necessary" in today's political process) would be needed--only ideas themselves would be entering the modeling process.

The model of an ideal world (ours) would be based on real hard data, on all that we know about this world and all life in it. The existence of computer games that depict entire worlds for, so far, entertainment purposes only, shows that the same, or similar approach could be used for designing an Earth where humankind's existence could be shown at its optimum.

It would not matter what means for modeling would be used as long as the means used would serve the purpose. On a local community level (where everybody knows everybody else well) discussions and finding out what what all members of the community wish for a happy life are would, perhaps, be a good start. But still--all the "visionings" made in all local communities would have to be all synchronized globally in order to see how all local sustainable communities would get along on the global scale. For this there hardly could be a better tool than the Internet where it would be possible to have a by all accessible interactive model of an ideal Earth.

In order to bring Donella Meadow's efforts to a fruitful completion, which could not be anything else but for humankind to become truly sustainable, the idea of "visioning" has to be introduced into the "sustainable movement" on a full scale, and all our various visions of what a sustainable Earth ought to be have to be synchronized and unified into a single, comprehensive design that then could be striven for by all of us.

It would mean that all our differences, controversies, conflicts, and complains would be resolved in models with much less waste of lives, resources, and time, instead of resolving those in real life and, at the same, time creating new problems, as the practice is today.

It would not be necessary that all people from the whole world would have to start modeling an ideal world together at first. At first it would be sufficient that the modeling would be started, if only by a handful of people (Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."(endnote 4). But--the modeling process would have to be accessible to anyone who would want to do so also! The whole process would be entirely transparent, entirely honest, non-hierarchical, no top-down at all; the process would have to be so clear that learning it would be an organic process for anyone--from the simpler elements to more complexity gradually and at everybody's own speed, learning that that the learner would have to know, would like to know in order to be able to contribute the modeling process sufficiently informed (please see "The Ideal Sustainable Earth Model: Proposal." - online: ).

This concept of unifying of individual ideas of what our common existence on this planet could be used also for resolving conflicts--it would eventually become an ideal grass-root government that would put our current way of doing politics out of business entirely. Please see Designing a Lasting World Peace Together. -


Donella Meadows co-authored together with Jørgen Randers and Dennis Meadows The Limits to Growth (Meadows, et al.1972), Beyond the Limits (Meadows, et al. 1992), and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Meadows, et al. 2004), and wrote "Envisioning a Sustainable World" 1994 (these are only a few of her writings from among many others). Back to text

The approach, which Donella Meadows calls "envisioning" and/or "visioning", is a part of "Technologies For Creating" (TFC), pioneered by Robert Fritz (Fritz 1984) is described in The Path of Least Resistance, (Fritz 1984) and is based on a common-sense notion that one cannot really ever get, achieve anything, unless one knows, as well as possible, what that something that one wants to get is. The best to show how difficult it is to get people to imagine what there should be in an ideal situation instead of listing everything that should not be there, please see a quote from Donella Meadows' "Envisioning a Sustainable World" (Meadows 1996)

A World Without Hunger
About ten years ago I ran a series of workshops intended to figure out how to end hunger. The participants were some of the world's best nutritionists, agronomists, 2 economists, demographers, ecologists, and field workers in development -- people who were devoting their lives in one way or another to ending hunger.

Peter Senge of MIT, a colleague who helped design and carry out the workshops, suggested that we open each one by asking the assembled experts, "What would the world be like if there were no hunger?" Surely each of these people had a motivating vision of the goal he or she was working for. It would be interesting to hear and collect these visions and to see if they varied by discipline, by nationality, or by personal experience.

I thought this exercise would take about an hour and would help the participants get to know each other better. So I opened the first workshop by asking, "What is your vision of a world without hunger?" Coached by Peter, I made the request strongly visionary. I asked people to describe not the world they thought they could achieve, or the world they were willing to settle for, but the world they truly wanted.

What I got was an angry reaction. The participants refused. They said that was a stupid and dangerous question. Here are some of their comments:

- Visions are fantasies, they don't change anything. Talking about them is a waste of time. We don't need to talk about what the end of hunger will be like, we need to talk about how to get there.
- We all know what it's like not to be hungry. What's important to talk about is how terrible it is to be hungry,
- I never really thought about it. I'm not sure what the world would be like without hunger, and I don't see why I need to know.
- Stop being unrealistic. There will always be hunger. We can decrease it, but we can never eliminate it.
- You have to be careful with visions. They can be dangerous. Hitler had a vision. I don't trust visionaries and I don't want to be one.

After we got those objections out of our systems, some deeper ones came up. One person said, with emotion, that he couldn't stand the pain of thinking about the world he really wanted, when he was so aware of the world's present state. The gap between what he longed for and what he knew or expected was too great for him to bear. And finally another person said what may have come closer to the truth than any of our other rationalizations: "I have a vision, but it would make me feel childish and vulnerable to say it out loud. I don't know you all well enough to do this."

That remark struck me so hard that I have been thinking about it ever since. Why is it that we can share our cynicism, complaints, and frustrations without hesitation with perfect strangers, but we can't share our dreams? How did we arrive at a culture that constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries? Whose idea of reality forces us to "be realistic?" When were we taught, and by whom, to suppress our visions?

Whatever the answers to those questions, the consequences of a culture of cynicism are tragic. If we can't speak of our real desires, we can only marshal information, models, and implementation toward what we think we can get, not toward what we really want. We only half-try. We don't reach farther than the lengths of our arms. If, in working for modest goals, we fall short of them, for whatever reason, we reign in our expectations still further and try for even less. In a culture of cynicism, if we exceed our goals, we take it as an unrepeatable accident, but if we fail, we take it as an omen. That sets up a positive feedback loop spiraling downward. The less we try, the less we achieve. The less we achieve, the less we try. Without vision, says the Bible, the people perish.

However, while it might be incomparably easier to decide on personal goals to achieve, or to get a small group to agree on what the preferred commonly shared existence (as in the quote above), the challenge in the case setting a goal for a favorable future of a whole planet is the need to unify coherently all the individual visions for a good, optimal future (developed to what-ever degree) of all who share and of all who will share the Earth! Back to text

The best way to see that a very few people can describe an ideal world that they would like to live in is to ask them. Usually they would tell you at a great length about what they don't want to have in such an ideal world, but when it comes to describing what they would like to have in it, the difficulty becomes apparent.

Margaret Mead with Gregory Bateson were at the beginnings of developing "Cybernetics" (Norbert Wiener) and "systems theory" (Jay Wright Forrester, Donella Meadows). Back to text


Fritz, Robert
        1984 The Path of Least Resistance.   Salem, MA: DMA Inc., ISBN: 0-930641-00-0. 

Global Footprint Network
        2009 September 25 2009 Earth Overshoot Day.
        (accessed October 5, 2009).

Meadows, Donella H. , Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows
        1972 The Limits to Growth.
        New York: Universe Books

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, and Jørgen Randers
        1992 Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future.
        White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company

Meadows, Donella H.
        1996 "Envisioning a Sustainable World." written for the Third Biennial Meeting of the         International Society for Ecological Economics, October 24-28, 1994, San Jose, Costa Rica
        In Getting Down to Earth, 1996 Practical Applications of Ecological Economics
        editors Robert Costanza, Olman Segura and Juan Martinez-Alier Washington DC:
        Island Press

Meadows, Donella H. "Envisioning a Sustainable World." is online:
<> (accessed 05/25/2012)
It is a must read document; it explains best what Donella Meadows' "visioning" is. 
as a video: (accessed May 25 2012)

Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers and Dennis Meadows
        2004 Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.
        White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company

A synopsis of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Online at the Sustainability Institute (founded by Donella Meadows): <> (accessed 10/06/2009)

The Systems Thinker--"Moving Toward a Sustainable Future." includes chapter 8 from Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update <> (accessed 09/19/2014)

More on designing of a sustainable Earth at Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth Vision Cooperatively - www.ModelEarth.Org

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