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Balaton Diary: A Letter to My Children

A week ago today, I attended the  Balaton meeting in Hungary.  For four days, I was immersed in heated discussions with scientists, modelers and researchers from around the world about the current and future state of our planet.   Now back home, I wrestle with other challenges:  how to get one kid to soccer, another to the orthodontist, while sitting still long enough to sew a stuffed bear with the third. 

To weave these two worlds together, and to make sense of the sometimes heady Balaton presentations, I decided to write home to my children about the days’ events.  I share with you here, one of those letters.   It is an honor to attend the Balaton meetings and to share these reflections with you.  Happy Reading.  

Momma’s in Hungary, Again!

Dear Jack, Teddy and Anna,

As I write to you, I’m looking out on the still, blue-grey waters of Lake Balaton.

This is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and it’s stocked with fish — grass carp, silver carp, marble carp, catfish, pike perch, and lots of different whitefishes. Once in a while, you might even see an eel.  So Jack, you need your fishing rod!

A view of Lake Balaton from Hotel Szemes

 I want to tell you about the meetings we’ve had here.  You might wonder:  what could 50 people from 23 countries, ranging in age from 22 to 82, all have in common?  And what could they possibly talk about for five days in a row!?

It’s actually simple.  We all really, really love life, and in particular, life on this planet.

In our own ways, each of the scientists, teachers, consultants, writers, modelers (I’ll explain that later), and students who come to the Balaton meeting, are passionate about helping the world see:

1.  itself as a living, interconnected system.

2. the need to take a long-term view, and

3. the power of focusing on positive change. 

Each morning, three or four Balaton members give presentations to the group. Then in the afternoon, we break out for “free” time, which might mean smaller presentations or meetings with different members, a walk along the lake, or even a volleyball game (these Balatoners are competitive!).

Growth on a Finite Planet? 

Dennis Meadows spoke on the first morning about the environment and the economy.  Funny how you often don’t hear those two words in the same sentence.  (Dennis  founded the Balaton Group with Dana Meadows more than 30 years ago.  If you’re curious, you can learn more about Balaton’s history). Dennis opened with this question: can we satisfy our growing needs – our need for goods and services — on a planet with limited resources?

It’s a good question.  If you look at three of his powerpoint slides (see below), you can see the point Dennis is making:  consumption, population and our ecological footprint (our demands on nature) are all increasing. Yet our planet’s resources, such as oil, are limited.

In his talk, Dennis reminded us that we live on a planet that is controlled by balancing feedback loops. We’ve talked about these loops before. Remember that conversation about predator-and-prey relationships?  Wolves and elk, or hawks and mice?  It’s the relationship that control the size of both animal populations, keeping both in check so one population doesn’t become too small or too large.

These controls (or balancing feedback loops) are everywhere in nature.  If a palm tree grows beyond its normal height, it will simply topple over, ending the growth of the tree. When these controls no longer function in the life of cells, for instance, the result is cancer, an endless multiplying of cells.

If you think about it, where are the balancing feedback loops in your life? You play hard in a soccer game and then you rest and you’re ready for the next game.  That would be a good example.  What if you didn’t rest though?  Eventually, you’d be so low in energy you wouldn’t be able to play.

That’s what Dennis is saying is happening to our planet.  But of course the consequences of the planet not being able to bounce much are much worse.

So, how can we live and grow, within the means of nature, what some scientist have begun to call planetary boundaries?

That’s the BIG question. And we should keep talking about this. They’re starting to round up some Balatoner’s for a volleyball game near the lake so I’d better wrap up for now.  Here’s a quick summary of what makes me hopeful that we’ll be able to find a way to answer Dennis’ opening question:

Modeling:   Bert DeVries and Harald Sverdrup are working to create WORLD models, computer models of the earth as one system.  According to Harald, these models can help us to “recognize that we have limited resources. When we do that, we can then work toward managing our common resources so there will be enough for all.”  The biggest ah-ha for me from these models?  We need to pay attention to phosphorous.  Without it, the whole link of food–> to people –> work –> wealth breaks down.

Get the Whole Community Involved:   Vala Ragnarsdottir is doing some exciting and important work with whole communities to model and better understand their food systems.  And Beth Sawin inspired us all as she shared her experience using a computer simulation (C-Roads) to support country leaders and other decision makers as they make decision related to greenhouse gas emissions.  Beth reminded us two key leverage points in addressing climate change:  population and consumption.

Dare to think change is possible:  I was thrilled to hear Colleen Kohlsaat talk about the ways Levi Strauss is cleaning up production of its t-shirts and jeans using life cycle assessment and other sustainability practices.

Colleen Kohlsaat, Jamila Haider, Momma and Karan Khosla, celebrating Balaton 2012

And then there was Phonchan (Newey) Kraiwatnutsorn, who showed us how Ashoka fuels the flame of passion for  positive transformation among young changemakers.  And so much more!

In many ways, these talks were filled with what Dana Meadows called “unpleasant truths.”  The reality of not living within the means of our planet are quite serious.  Yet, when I think about the three of you, I feel hopeful.

Here is what I wish for you, and for all the young people on this planet:

•   Learn the fact about our finite planet.

•   Get comfortable discussing uncomfortable ideas.

*   Stay curious about this question:  How can we live and grow, within our planetary boundaries?

We can talk about this more over dinner, when I get home.

Love you,


PS:  Did you feed the chickens today?




My thanks to Dennis Meadows who graciously granted me permission to incorporate slides from his 2012 Balaton address — Reflections about Resource-Capital-Finance Interactions  — into this blog post.











Loops or Lines: What comes most naturally?

Escola in Macae

Outside Escola Municipal Jose Calil Filho

More than 50 students from the Escola Municipal Jose Calil Filho, an elementary school in Macae (about four hours north of Rio de Janerio) cram two-to-a-seat in a steamy classroom.  It is the day before summer (and Christmas) break in Brazil and the tiny classroom is about to burst with excitement.   These students, ranging in age from 8-11, are here to listen to a lady from the U.S. talk about something called “living systems”.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

I would have thought so, but I was that lady and I couldn’t have been more impressed by the beautiful minds that greeted me that morning.

With students, teachers and SEED volunteers in Macae

I was there to pilot a workshop for SEED that integrated three “literacies”:  systems, science and self-knowledge.  Despite the steamy conditions, the students were curious, attentive and ready to learn.

Showing a straight line of causality (front row) and closed loops (second row)

Working in groups of three to four, the student-detectives were tasked with figuring out the connections, some obvious and some hidden, in a farm setting (using a systems playkit).  Many students were surprised to discover, for instance, the central role chickens can play in the health of the cows and the pasture.

There’s much to report from that December workshop (you can read more about it here) but for readers of this blog I have to report an observation that continues to fascinate and challenge me:

When asked to show the interconnections on a farm (what influenced what), some students, seemingly regardless of age and gender, laid out a straight line of cause and effect (see picture above), while others (see the second row) created twisty, curvy connections that, occasionally, looped back on themselves (what we would call a feedback loop).  (To learn about feedback loops in farm settings, see the Healthy Chickens, Healthy Pastures Curriculum Guide).

Badgered by Bateson

I remember being a little annoyed by Gregory Bateson’s claim that: “Adults have a chronic inability to understand cyclical, patterned phenomena such as interpersonal relationships and a variety of biological processes.”

“Chronic inability”.  Really?   After investigating children’s and adult’s intuitive understandings of complex systems for the past 15 years,  I’ve concluded that Bateson was on to something.   Deep misconceptions about the dynamics of complex systems — whether the focus is climate, food, energy, obesity, or the environment — do exist, even among highly educated adults (see my research with  John Sterman and colleagues, and Harvard’s Understanding of Consequence Project, for a multitude of examples). In my own research, I found that a significant number of students and adults used “open-loop” or one-way causal thinking when “closed-loop” causality or feedback was present, for instance, in situations involving predator-prey relationships  or savings accounts.

Caution:  Straight Line Thinking Can Be Dangerous

These deep misconceptions can be dangerous. In the natural world, we know that health and renewal occur through closed-loop cycles  — water, oxygen, nitrogen, even solar.  Yet when we disrupt these natural cycles*, we see big consequences — famine, flooding, and more.  And then there is policy resistance, when the solutions to problems often make the problem worse. Think road building programs meant to reduce congestion that end up increasing traffic, delays and pollution.  Or flood control efforts such as levees and dams that prevent the natural dispersion of excess water and so have led to more floods. John Sterman, who gives us these examples, argues that “policy resistance arises because we  do not understand the full range of feedbacks operating in the system.”

The costs of fixing any one these problems is high.  The cost of learning about cycles and feedback is low.

Back to the question of loop and lines.  What led some students to straight lines and others to loops?   I don’t have the answers yet but I’m hoping there are others out there who will think about this question with me.  In the meantime, I’m going back to George Richardson’s Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory for inspiration.

Please be in touch.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


…vs. lines


NOTES:  *For example, urban sprawl and the paving over of wetlands, grasslands and forests often disrupts nutrient, animal and water cycles.  Ground that is unpaved absorbs water and stores it for use by plants.  With more pavement, less water is absorbed by the ground which means there is less water for plants to absorb.

An Age-Old Choice: Renewal

The big, black spider with the blinking eyes is still up on our front lawn and my Day of the Dead “witch” still hangs on my front door.
They’re already selling candy canes in the grocery store.  Isn’t Thanksgiving next?  When I pass  the egg nog and “Christmas Blend” coffee, instead of feeling cheery, I feel a rumble in my stomach.  It’s a mix between dread and fear that even if I start now,  I just won’t get it all done in time.

Then I remember last year’s holiday “experiment” and I relax.  There’s hope!

Last year,  I realized that vacations helped to calm the jangly nerves of my family and give a boost to my over-worked husband, but they weren’t enough.  We needed a good dose of what my friend  Sara Schley calls Radical Renewal (and what Joe Lieberman calls “The Gift of Rest).*  Other than through sleep, how did I and my family renew ourselves? It was a good question.  So, I decided to try an experiment:  I’d go “merrily unplugged” — no computer, no e-mails — between December 23rd, my husband’s birthday and my birthday, December 31st.

Before I logged off, I quickly answered the most important e-mails, cleaned off my desk, mailed out the bills.  I had fun thinking up and “Out of Office” message (which I found out later was source of a lot of interest, imitation and consternation).  When I finally turned the computer OFF (not on SLEEP), I felt like I was closing up a summer home for the winter, turning off the pipes so they wouldn’t burst in my absence.

I quickly concluded that this was a big,  adventure.  The last time I went unplugged like this was when my babies were born.   I’ll always remember and cherish that cocoon-like state that emerged as each baby came home:  the noise of the outside world kept at bay, the magic of this new human being our only focus.

Would I be able to reclaim some of the insulated feeling?

Could I actually resist logging in?  Could I step off that well-worn path to my computer and back, the one I probably walk 10-20 times a day “to check”?

The good news is, I did resist.  But it wasn’t easy.  For the first 48 hours, I felt twitchy, my own version of EAW, e-mail addiction withdrawal.  In the end, I found it easiest to stay out of my office.  As my nervous system began to settle, I watched what was happening around me.  I sat down on the sofa one after to write Christmas cards, and stayed there. There was no “just a second, I’ll be write back” to check my e-mail.  I just sat.  I noticed my three children, ages 5, 9 and 12, gravitate to the sofa, and stayed, orbiting in and out of my bit of celestial space.  My typical restless, chattering, list-making mind – what the Buddhists call “Monkey Mind”–  began to settle.  By the third day, I was giddy with a sense of presence, as if my whole center of gravity shifted my head to heart and belly.

Just as I was beginning to feel the loud silence from the outside world, and I began to have a sinking feeling that my “system” wasn’t working, I started to receive a trickle of phone calls:

“Is Ted available for a birthday party tomorrow?  I saw your message so thought I’d better call.”

“There’s an illustrator I want you to meet.  When you get back on-line, check out his website.”

The folks who needed to get in touch with me, did.  The e-mails that weren’t urgent, just accumulated, like letters in my mailbox. At first I dreaded thinking about the number of accumulated e-mails, but then I reminded myself that if there was anything urgent, they’d call me.  This unplugged idea was working!

Six days in a flaw in my system showed up:  my husband took my two boys skiing in a low-cell coverage area in Vermont.  Essentially, we were both off the electronic highway — me intentionally, him unintentionally – for two days.  Anyone with kids’ sports schedules knows, that the schedules can change on a moments notice, and the way you learn about those changes is through e-mail.  So, neither one of us got the coach’s e-mail until it was too late.

So that one fell through the cracks (although the coach could have called).

When the New Year began, my patience level was way up, my anxiety level was way down and my capacity for deep thought was back again.  Did going unplugged work for me?  You bet.  Getting some good sleep helped too.

Now we’re headed into the holidays again, and it feels good to know I’ll be going unplugged again soon.   But I also realize, that just as Sara and her family unplug for Shabbat on Friday night, there are more frequent ways I can my family can unhook, unplug, and just relax and renew.

As we head toward the holidays, the kids are pushing to get Mom an iPhone.

I’ll become more efficient, yes, but…I’ll let you know how that one goes.



*I could write a whole  blog about Edith Cobb, (b. 1895), another inspiration for building renewal into our every day lives.

In her book, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, Cobb writes of the body’s natural “homeostatic wisdom”. I learned about homeostasis in school, but never thought to look for the wisdom in it.  Cobb referred to those cyclical “behavioral patterns of regulation and integration.” (P. 43), such as respiration, that allows us to maintain equilibrium. It was this state of equilibrium that allows species survive and thrive.  Maintaining equilibrium means a constant set of adjustments.  We know this well when we think about how a thermostat works.  
If the temperature in a house is too cold, the thermostat will turn on the furnace, seeking to reach the desired temperature (or goal) as set on the thermostat.  The furnace raises the temperature until the goal is reached and eventually the furnace shuts off.

This “self-regulating” or balancing system maintains a goal, in this case, a steady temperature in a room.  If we look at ourselves, the process of maintaining our temperature is also a self-regulating system.   We shiver when we’re cold to warm up our muscles and sweat when we’re hot to cool them down, all the while trying to achieve a steady temperature.  So, self-regulating or balancing feedback loops are goal-seeking but they also bring renewal.  Think about the dynamics of stress and exercise.  For many people, exercise is a helpful way to manage stress.  As stress levels kick in, we exercise, with exercise, stress goes down (of course, there are many folks who exercise regularly whether they’re feeling stressed or not).

Now my question is:  Where are the built-in adjustments that help me and my family to maintain equilibrium? Where are the cycles of renewal in my own life?




[i] In the 1930’s, American physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term homeostasis to describe the process by which chemical and/or temperature balance is maintained in the body. (See:  Walter B. Cannon, The Wisdom of the Body, New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1939.)