The Assumptions We Make


Progress Namibia - The Assumptions We Make
12 September 2016

As I ride the train in Austria on my way to the yearly Balaton Meeting in Hungary, I think of humanity as I peer out at the rolling hills. In the early 1980s, a couple by the names of Dennis and Donella Meadows started a small group of deep sustainability thinkers called the Balaton Meeting. Donella has since passed, but her legacy lives on in her countless writings and life reflections. So does the Balaton Group, which meets annually at Lake Balaton to discuss important themes with a systems thinking lens. This year, 2016, it is about migration.

Donella has written some inspirational stuff. And all of it, despite now being more than two decades old, is still so relevant. In her memory, and as part of my voyage to Balaton, I thought I would share her musings. There were common assumptions of the current social paradigm that seemed to her unsystematic and problematic, that she spent a lot of her life consistently and optimistically contradicting in her award-winning newspaper column 'The Global Citizen'. Every time I read them I cannot help but nod my head enthusiastically in agreement.

  1. One cause produces one effect. There must be a single cause, for example, of acid rain, or cancer, or the greenhouse effect. All we need to do is discover and remove it.
  2. All growth is good - and possible. There are no effective limits to growth.
  3. There is an 'away' to throw things to. When you have thrown something 'away', it is gone.
  4. Technology can solve any problem that comes up. There is no cost to technology, no delay in attaining it, no confusion about what kind of technology is needed. Improvements will come through better technology, not better humanity.
  5. The future is to be predicted, not chosen or created. It happens to us; we do not shape it.
  6. A problem does not exist or is not serious until it can be measured.
  7. If something is 'economic', it needs no further justification. E.F. Schumacher writes, 'Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be 'uneconomic', you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow and prosper.'
  8. Relationships are linear, non-delayed, and continuous; there are no critical thresholds; feedback is accurate and timely; systems are manageable through simple cause-effect thinking.
  9. Results can be measured by effort expended - if you have spent more for weapons, you have more security; if you use more electricity, you are better off; if you spend more for schools, your children will be better educated.
  10. Nations are disconnected from one another, people are disconnected from nature, economic sectors can be developed independently from one another, some parts of a system can thrive while other parts suffer.
  11. Choices are either/or, not both/and.
  12. Possession of things is the source of happiness.
  13. Individuals cannot make any difference.
  14. People are basically bad, greedy and not to be trusted. Good people and good actions are rare exceptions.
  15. The rational powers of human beings are superior to their intuitive powers or their moral powers.
  16. Present systems are tolerable and will not get much worse; alternative systems cannot help but be worse than the ones we've got.
  17. We know what we are doing.
I find it incredible how we still make these assumptions today, despite the evidence pointing otherwise.