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Posts Tagged ‘Balaton Group’

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.











What good is a volcano?

Photograph:  John Gustafsson/AP

Like thousands of people around the world, my April travel plans were no match for Eyjafjallajökullo, a smallish volcano located in the far south of Iceland.  I’m in Iceland now for a Balaton Group meeting and thanks to an enthusiastic soil scientist, I find myself  standing in a pasture not far from  Eyjafjallajökull. With its sleek, gray sides and surprisingly flat top, Eyjafjallajökull is far from the ugly, menacing volcano I expected.

I’m struck by the vibrancy of this place:  a  herd of Icelandic horses grazes about 200 feet down the riverbed and what must be hundreds of sheep roam over the hillsides down the road.  Thick vegetation covers the pasture and Icelandic birch trees line the roads. Even the soil I stand on has a bounce to it.

If you remember, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökullo created a massive ash cloud that eventually forced most of Europe’s airspace to close for five consecutive days, canceling almost all flights to and from Europe.   My family and I were not at all pleased by this turn of events.  When we had to explain why we weren’t in Scotland (where I was supposed to attend an IFF World Game), I had to explain, “We were ashed!”

If you had asked me “What good is a volcano?” I would have said, “not much!”               So, when I learned this week that volcanoes have a silver lining (or two), I had to laugh.  Even a volcano, the same one that ruined my travel plans, has a role to play in the tightly interconnected and delicately balanced phenomenon we call earth.

So, what good is a volcanco?

Thanks to Guõrún Gísladóttir, an enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable professor of Geography at the University of Iceland,  I learned one answer to this question has to do with soils.

In Iceland, the soils are called andosols.  Andosols are soils that are formed in the volcanic regions of the world. These soils have special properties that make them an important and unique natural resource.

Diagram created by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) agency


These soils form from tephra, the stuff blown out of volcanoes.

Professor Gísladóttir and I grab a few shovels and dig down four feet or so in the pasture near Eyjafjallajökullo.  We find six different colored stripes in the soil, each stripe telling a different story.

The author digging for tephra


As I learn, tephra is filled with nutrients.  If you taste it (which I did!), it has a crunchy, earthy taste, not far from a hyper-healthy granola.  With the help of the rains, the nutrients from the tephra wash into the underlying vegetation and into the soil itself.

Whether your soils are fed by a volcano, or by salmon in a nearby river, or good old household compost,  healthy soil provides a foundation for healthy crops, the cleanliness of  water,  and the livelihoods of  farmers.  If handled well, soils (and the millions of creatures living in our soils) also help to break down waste, turning it into food for other species.

We depend on soil to live, yet it is surprisingly easy to forget.  When we pave where pavement isn’t necessary, clear cut forests, over-graze land, or cultivate land without protecting the top soil, we leave our soil unprotected and vulnerable to erosion.

Dana Meadows, an American systems scientist, worked with great mastery and diligence to raise the level of public discussion about a variety of systemic issues, one of them being soil erosion.  Explaining how nonlinear relationships influence soil erosion, she wrote:

“The effect of nonlinear relationships is also not generally understood. The public debate on the seriousness of soil erosion, for example, has yet to recognize that the relationship between soil depth and crop yield can be sharply nonlinear – that a little erosion may not have much effect, but a little more erosion may reduce agricultural output dramatically.”

Of course, there is much, much more for me to learn about soils.  So for now, I have decided to become a student of soil, studying how to create and talk about healthy soil and prevent soil erosion.

What’s my motivation?    I share Dana’s desire to raise the level of public discussion about systemic issues.  I also want to be able to explain to my kids how the health of our soil effects the health of people.  I want them to be inspired by soil, to invest in it and to treasure it.  If they have all the money in the world, but poor soil, dirty water and less wholesome food and less natural beauty, what good is that?

Perhaps after we all learn more about soil, my kids won’t think their mother is crazy when she “puts the garden to bed” in the fall.  Maybe, just maybe, they might pause as they step out off the school bus or onto a field, and notice the feel of the soil beneath their feet, and even revel in it, just as Walt Whitman once did:

Underfoot the divine soil

Overhead the sun.

The press of my foot to the earth

Springs a hundred affections.

— Walt Whitman