From Sustainability Science to Real-World Action: A Short History of the Balaton Group


Zsolt Halasi
The Balaton Group is named for Lake Balaton in Hungary, where meetings have been held for most of the past 30 years. In the 1980s, Hungary proved an informally neutral ground between the Soviet bloc and Western nations.

The Balaton Group has been responsible for the creation or accelerated development of a number of innovations in the field of sustainable development. However, to understand the history of the Balaton Group, one must begin with the history of the Club of Rome, and the report that the club sponsored and published in 1972, The Limits to Growth.

The Roots of the Balaton Group

In April 1968 a group of 30 influential individuals from 10 countries—scientists, academics, economists, humanists, industrialists, and national and international civil servants—gathered in the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. They met at the invitation of Aurelio Peccei, a prominent Italian industrialist and economist, to discuss what Peccei called the “predicament of mankind.” This new group, which later grew to about 75 people, decided to continue meeting and to call itself the Club of Rome.

The club’s conception of the problem of mankind focused on the long-term environmental and resource problems that, they believed, would ultimately result from continued population growth and growth in consumption of limited material resources. To analyze the predicament more deeply, they invited Jay Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—inventor of the concept of magnetic core memory for computers and creator of the new field of system dynamics—to a meeting of their executive committee in June 1970. The result was the creation of an interdisciplinary research team at MIT, headed by a young protégé of Forrester’s and a talented computer modeler, Dennis Meadows.

Dennis and his partner Donella (“Dana”) Meadows, a young biophysicist who was also an excellent writer, had just returned from a nearly year-long, overland trip through central Asia—a trip that profoundly affected their worldview in ways that aligned well with the concerns being explored by the Club of Rome. They and their team of young colleagues (the average age was 26) used Forrester’s system dynamics World Model as a starting point and produced their own computer model (World3) together with a report, published in 1972 as the book The Limits to Growth. While Limits was widely criticized as a doomsday prophecy,1 it is more accurate to describe it as a series of scenarios, including a sustainable scenario in which the world avoids collapse.

Birth of the Balaton Group

A decade later, Dana and Dennis Meadows took advantage of the extensive global interest in their book and an offer of financial support from Laszlo Kapolyi, a senior Hungarian government official responsible for energy and resources, to create a new network of “managers of resources”—that is, experts in fields such as energy, water, biodiversity, and forest management. Their original idea was to invite up to 50 leading scientists from established institutions and different regions of the world for mutual inspiration and the promotion of mutual projects.

To convey the true flavor of the group’s origins, this formal description is best supplemented by an informal one: “I still remember the definitive conversation in our study,” writes Dennis Meadows, recalling his discussions with Dana about whether to accept the Hungarian offer. The Meadows said to each other, “Let’s bring together our best friends, who are systems analysts involved in environment and energy, and organize a meeting with their counterparts in Hungary!”

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Alex Proimos
Annual meetings of the Balaton Group have contributed to many influential international science and policy initiatives, like the work on planetary boundaries, a term that quickly entered the speeches of Hungary’s president. Pictured here is Hungary’s Parliament.

Thus was born the Balaton Group, named for the lake where they held their first meeting, a holiday resort for workers in the Hungarian oil and gas industry. Hungary proved an excellent location for the group’s meetings because that nation’s more relaxed policies made it possible for researchers from both the Soviet bloc and Western nations to attend. Early meetings were always opened by formal, Soviet-style speeches by Hungarian officials and closely observed by commissioners of the Hungarian Communist Party. The commissioners never said a word, yet seemed to follow everything very carefully. The members were nonetheless quite relaxed in this context, as they had nothing to hide and were interested in spreading their ideas about system dynamics, sustainability, and resource management as widely as possible.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, these Soviet-style practices ceased abruptly, but the group continued meeting annually in Hungary at the Hotel Petrol on Lake Balaton and followed a similar meeting format: formal presentations on a relevant topic in the morning, and “open space,” spontaneously created workshops in the afternoon. In recent years, the hotels for the annual meetings have changed, and on two occasions, the Balaton Group has held its annual meeting outside of Hungary (in Sweden in 2008, and in Iceland in 2010). But the group still considers the Lake Balaton region of Hungary to be its home base. Between annual meetings, the Balaton Group has often organized regional and topical seminars in different parts of the world as well.

The Balaton Group Process

From its earliest years, the Balaton Group was more than just an annual meeting of researchers (and later practitioners) in sustainable development. In the words of Dana Meadows, it was a “network of networkers”: members were selected partly for their capacity to spread ideas through their own professional relationships and institutions. The group was an intensive early user of the Internet, in particular the e-mail listserv (the group’s private listserv continues to host lively discussions and debates to this day). It also circulated an informal paper newsletter, the Balaton Bulletin, which mirrored the functions now served by social networking websites. This quarterly newsletter combined academic essays with personal and professional news updates from members, as well as cartoons, book reviews, and summaries of recent meetings and seminars involving Balaton members.

This kind of intensive information sharing and social networking, mixing professional interests with elements of personal friendship, is taken for granted today because of services like Facebook and Twitter. But in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, the Balaton Group’s email listserv, Bulletin, and annual meeting—expertly facilitated by Dana and Dennis Meadows—formed a highly valuable channel of communication that linked people across borders and disciplines in a unique way. New research ideas and new international projects could be quickly proposed, tested, and implemented, thanks to the high degree of mutual understanding and trust.

The group also evolved a set of unwritten norms that favored collaborative activity and discouraged using the group solely for personal gain. As Dennis Meadows notes in a recent interview, people who failed to recognize and respect these norms “simply weren’t invited back.” The group also continued to limit the size of its annual meeting to about 50 people, of whom roughly 30 were repeat participants, which allowed the network to grow while maintaining continuity and a sense of small-scale community.

A Global Incubator of Ideas and Programs

Many aspects of current sustainability research and practice owe some measure of their origin or development to Balaton Group meetings. However, the unwritten social norms noted earlier have also included the idea that the Balaton Group itself would not seek to own (in the sense of control or manage) the specific ideas and projects that emerged from its meeting processes. New solutions-oriented concepts and initiatives are routinely “spun out” of the group and housed in other institutions. And pre-existing projects, while often supported and greatly accelerated by Balaton Group meetings and network activity, still retain their own identity; very few initiatives have been publicly branded as “Balaton Group Projects.” This philosophy of working in the background—in service to the collaboration of its members, and for the benefit of sustainability generally—explains why the Balaton Group has remained largely invisible and unknown all these years.

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World Economic Forum
Though the Balaton Group rarely takes formal public policy positions, one instance was the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to commit to equal, personal CO2 limits for every human being. Chancellor Merkel is pictured here at the 2007 World Economic Forum.

Another reason why the Balaton Group is not well known is that it does not usually take formal, public positions on specific issues. Given the group’s diversity, achieving consensus on any major point of policy is difficult. However, in a few instances, members of the Balaton Group (though not all the members) have joined together to act on the global political scene.

One example is related to the 1987 publication of the Brundtland Report, entitled Our Common Future, which was also a main topic of discussion at the annual Balaton meeting that September. The Brundtland Report was scheduled for review at a United Nations meeting later in 1987, and members of the Balaton Group wrote a formal letter to the Norwegian prime minister proposing that the influence of the report could be enlarged if the Norwegian parliament committed Norway to following the concrete recommendations of that report, prior to the UN discussion. (That proposal, however, was not realized.)

Another example involved an effort to support the proposal of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, put forward in two speeches in 2007, calling for an international commitment to equal personal CO2 emission caps for all human beings on the globe by 2050. On the initiative of a number of Balaton members, a support letter was sent in October 2007 to Angela Merkel on behalf of 25 high-level researchers from 14 different countries (mainly from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). But, as anticipated, the opposition to this proposal from industrial countries (including German industry) turned out to be overwhelming.

Apart from these small forays into global sustainability politics, the Balaton Group has largely focused on generating new research, new action, and new solutions for sustainability. The actual number of sustainability initiatives around the world that have some decisive link to Balaton Group has never been studied or cataloged; it certainly runs into the hundreds. These include dozens of books, training programs, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research projects, reports, methodologies, journal articles, policy initiatives, films, and videos. Prominent examples, to cite just a few, include several pioneering energy-efficiency and wind-power policy programs in Denmark in the 1980s; the development and spread of the emerging field of sustainability indicators in the 1990s; and the establishment or expansion of several NGOs and training centers for sustainability in the 1990s and 2000s.

How the Balaton Group Inspires Solutions

Sometimes the Balaton Group’s impact has been immediate, practical, and very concrete. For example, at an early Balaton Group meeting in the 1980s, Thai researcher Chirapol Sintunawa described the growing problem of eutrophication that was destroying the fish stocks on which poor fishing villages relied for survival. The villages were themselves causing the problem, because their growth resulted in sewage runoff into the surface water. Chirapol described the problem at a Balaton Group meeting, in system terms. Group members responded with immediate donations, which in turn paid for the development of an inexpensive mold for creating toilets. Over a hundred Balaton toilets were installed in villages around Thailand using this mold, which significantly reduced the flow of sewage, helped repair fish stocks, and improved the health of the villagers, among other benefits.

Often the group’s impact in helping to create solutions to global sustainability problems has been more indirect, but no less concrete. Ashok Gadgil of Lawrence Berkeley Labs, winner of the 2012 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, notes that his participation in annual Balaton Group meetings in the 1990s deeply inspired him and “completely changed the direction of [his] research,” ultimately resulting in his development of “inventions and innovations [such as efficient stoves and water purifiers that] are improving the livelihood of more than 100 million people in more than 41 countries on four continents, with estimated annual societal economic benefits exceeding $5 billion per year.”2

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tk-link (via Flickr)
Balaton work sometimes has very immediate and practical impacts. For instance, work done in the 1980s by researcher Chirapol Sintunawa found sewage runoff from coastal towns destroying the livelihoods of Thai fishermen. Balaton members helped find and finance a solution.

Balaton Group meetings and network activities have also contributed to many international scientific and policy initiatives. An excellent example of how the new ideas generated in this process get spun out into other institutions can be seen in the planetary boundaries initiative.3 In September 2007, at a typical afternoon “open space” session during the annual Balaton Group meeting, a small group of scientists explored the viability of a new idea: measuring and indexing the extent to which humanity’s actions were pushing various global ecosystems toward (or past) system stability thresholds. They concluded that it had now become possible to create such measurements, given recent advances in scientific understanding.

After that annual meeting, Balaton Group member Tariq Banuri—then working at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)—convened a series of formal seminars in Stockholm to take the idea further and to develop it more seriously from a technical and scientific perspective. When Banuri moved on to a position in the United Nations, SEI director Johan Rockström took over and the project significantly expanded. It was soon adopted by other institutions as well, including the Stockholm Resilience Center and the Tällberg Foundation. The resulting research papers have become one of the most widely used contemporary reference sources on global sustainability.

In all likelihood, few of the people who participated in the formal planetary boundaries article-writing process are aware that the idea started its life at a Balaton Group annual meeting. And, of course, the Balaton Group was by no means the only (or even principal) source of intellectual inspiration on which planetary boundaries drew. But that small workshop at the 2007 Balaton Group meeting was the catalyst that launched the process.

Two years later, in early September 2009, Kevin Noone of Stockholm University—one of the lead authors of the Nature paper cited above—attended that year’s Balaton Group meeting and presented a pre-publication sneak preview of the planetary boundaries work. Officials connected to the Hungarian government were in attendance, and within a few weeks the president of Hungary was referring publicly to the planetary boundaries work in speeches that he delivered on an official tour of Asia. Noone later commented informally that this was one of the fastest adoptions of scientific work by a top policy maker he had ever witnessed And, again, that adoption was facilitated by the Balaton Group.

Accelerating Innovation Processes for Sustainability

The examples cited above are among the most prominent and visible of the group’s recent history, but there are many more solutions-oriented initiatives around the world that are the result, at least in part, of Balaton Group activity. Detecting the link to Balaton is not always easy because it is rarely identified publicly, but a conversation with project initiators or facilitators can quickly confirm that the link was real, and often decisive to the successful development of their projects.

Here are four examples:

  • The LEAD International training program. In the late 1990s, a team of Balaton Group members led by Dennis Meadows created a set of systems-based training methods and exercises, funded by Japan’s Sasakawa Foundation, that were adopted by many organizations, most prominently the nonprofit organization LEAD International. Thousands of leading sustainability professionals have been exposed to Balaton ideas through LEAD’s training curriculum.
  • Sustainability in Japan. Junko Edahiro, who first attended the Balaton Group as a 2002 Donella Meadows Fellow, credits the group with inspiring and supporting many of her high-profile sustainability activities in Japan. These include the creation of Candle Night, a turn-off-your-lights event that annually engages up to 10 million people; the expansion of Japan for Sustainability, which shares information on Japanese solutions for sustainability with the English-speaking world; and her role as an advisor to the Japanese government on reducing carbon emissions and on developing renewable energy options.
  • The C-ROADS climate model and simulation. C-ROADS is a climate change model and simulator that first became widely used and publicized during the 2009 CoP-15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. The C-ROADS creators have acknowledged the generative influence of Balaton Group processes in the early 1990s, in particular a climate change model and simulation game, SusClime, developed by long-time member Bert de Vries of Utrecht University.
  • Putting systems thinking to work in Indonesia. Balaton Group member and Donella Meadows Fellow Any Sulistyowati involved at least a dozen Balaton Group members in a variety of significant sustainability transformation projects, touching several Indonesian provinces, including biogas initiatives in West Java, zero waste initiatives in Bandung, community planning efforts in Aceh, and spatial planning programs in Papua. Balaton Group members provided many kinds of support including speaking and facilitating, providing books and articles, bringing advice and technical skills, peer mentoring, and peer learning. In the case of Papua, Any Sulistyowati credits Balaton Group involvement as having led to major policy changes there, including an 80 percent reduction in the amount of virgin forest slated for development, and a commitment to retain 90 percent forest cover in the province.
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Kahunapule Michael Johnson
Balaton member Any Sulistyowati credits the group’s network and involvement as having led to an 80 percent reduction in the amount of virgin forest slated for development in Papua, pictured here.

Looking to the Future: BalatonX

For its first 30 years, the Balaton Group has operated very much behind the scenes, providing a safe haven for its members to exchange ideas and create new projects. But times have changed, and the Balaton Group has begun to change with them. The group has started making its activities more public, seeking ways to replicate its highly effective model in hopes of inspiring even more people to create more ideas and solutions. Itself inspired by the TED Talks and TEDx phenomenon, the group is looking at ways to encourage the formation of other 50-person meetings, in other parts of the world, that adopt the proven mix of Balaton Group systems thinking, sustainability, mutual professional support, and informal, creative exchange.

Of course, the influence of the beautiful Lake Balaton should not be overlooked in this story. To those of us who have participated for some years, the natural and cultural setting of Hungary are an important part of that special mix of people, place, and process that we often shorten, in talking with each other, to a one-word signifier: Balaton.