Donella Meadows' "Visioning":
Global Citizens Designing a Sustainable World Together.
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
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,
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
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.
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'
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
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." - www.modelearth.org/seed.html .
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
1984 The Path of
Least Resistance. Salem, MA: DMA Inc., ISBN:
Global Footprint Network
2009 September 25
2009 Earth Overshoot Day.
Meadows, Donella H. , Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows
1972 The Limits to
New York: Universe
Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, and Jørgen
1992 Beyond the
Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable
Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company
Meadows, Donella H.
1996 "Envisioning a
Sustainable World." written for the Third Biennial Meeting of the
Society for Ecological Economics, October 24-28, 1994, San Jose,
In Getting Down to
Earth, 1996 Practical Applications of Ecological
Costanza, Olman Segura and Juan Martinez-Alier Washington DC:
Meadows, Donella H. "Envisioning a Sustainable World." is
It is a must read document; it explains best what Donella Meadows'
as a video:
http://vimeo.com/13213667 (accessed May 25 2012)
Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers and Dennis Meadows
2004 Limits to
Growth: The 30-Year Update.
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):
The Systems Thinker--"Moving Toward a Sustainable Future."
includes chapter 8 from Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
More on designing of a sustainable Earth at Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth
Vision Cooperatively - www.ModelEarth.Org