Envisioning a Sustainable World

Progress Namibia - Envisioning a Sustainable World
06 February 2017

I have had two experiences now in the past three months where I am participating in a working session with some really bright people and we are tasked with the following hypothetical situation: The president has entrusted us with the power to suggest solutions towards creating a sustainable, resilient, successful country, he will do whatever we say, and there are no resource limits. And both times colleagues go straight into focusing on the current problems and then moving away from these problems. And both times I have suggested the opposite. More time-consuming, sure, but what if we actually did some visioning first. What would the country look like if it were successful? What does 'successful' mean? First we have to agree on that. We are so stuck on the problems that we don't bother to look at what the situation would be like if we did not have those problems at all.

The late Donella Meadows, gave a very powerful speech in the early 1990s on exactly this. She said that vision is the most vital step. If we don't know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make progress. If you think about it, we, at the moment, think limitless growth is success, but in fact it is only the process. We have, however, never really questioned if limitless growth, as the process, really does bring success to a country (and are in fact actually finding that it is often quite the opposite).

Donella shares a story in her speech that I thought illustrates vision as a vital step before implementation very beautifully: In the 1980s she ran a series of workshops intended to figure out how to end hunger. The participants were some of the world's best nutritionists, agronomists, economists, demographers, ecologists, and field workers in development. So, in other words, the people who were devoting their lives in one way or another to ending world hunger. Her colleague, Peter Senge of MIT, who helped her design these workshops, suggested that she opens each one by first asking: 'What wold the world be like if there were no hunger?'

She made the request quite visionary, i.e. asked them 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 she got was anger, frustration and refusal to do the task. Some of the comments were 'visions are fantasies, talking about them is a waste of time', 'the fact that so many people go hungry is enough to propel use forward', 'I never really thought about it', and 'visions are dangerous, and often unrealistic'. After much discussion, she got a little deeper. And deeper. And finally, she got to the bottom of it, when one person said '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 was an eye-opener to her. Why is it that we can share our cynicism, complaints and frustrations without hesitation with perfect strangers, but we can't share our dreams? Whose idea of reality forces us to be realistic? When were we taught and by whom, to suppress our visions? She maintains that the consequences of a culture of cynicism is tragic. 'If we can't speak for our real desires, we can only marshal information, models, and implementation towards what we think we can get, not toward what we really want. We only half-try.'

I share with you her vision of a world without hunger:

'In my vision of the end of hunger, every child is born into the world wanted, treasured, and lovingly cared for. Because of that, many fewer children are born and not one of them is wasted. Every person can become all that she or he is capable of becoming, in a world that is beautiful, where cultures are diverse and tolerant, where information flows freely, untainted by cynicism. In my vision food is raised and prepared as consciously and lovingly as are children, with profound respect for nature’s contribution as well as that of people. In a world without hunger I can take care of my own nearby community and be taken care of by it, knowing that other people in other communities are also doing their caring close at hand. There would be plenty of problems to solve — I want problems to solve – but I could travel anywhere in the world without encountering deprivation, terror, or ugliness. What I would find, everywhere, would be natural integrity, human productivity, working communities, and the full range of human emotions, but dominated not by fear and therefore greed, but by security, serenity, and joy.

I could go on. I can see this vision clearly and in detail. I can see the farms; I can see the kitchens. But you get the point.'

We are all very ready, always, to criticize what is wrong with our community, city, country. We very rarely vision what our ideal community, city, country would look like.

Through this article, and inspired by Donella, I ask you to build your vision of a sustainable world. What kind of a world do you want to live in? Imagine not the absence of problems, but the presence of blessings. Of course, a sustainable world is one in which renewable resources are used no faster than they regenerate, in which population is at least stable, in which prices internalise real costs, in which there is no hunger or poverty, in which there is true, enduring democracy. What else? Donella uses this guide:

'The best way to find your answer to that question is to go to a quiet place, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and put yourself in the middle of that sustainable world. Don’t push, don’t worry, and don’t try to figure it out. Just close your eyes and see what you see. Or, as often happens for me, hear what you hear, smell what you smell, feel what you feel. Many of my visions are bright, detailed, and visual, but some of the most profound ones have come not through “seeing,” but through sensing in other ways.

In short, relax, trust yourself and see what happens. If nothing happens, don’t worry, try again sometime, or let your visionary talent surface in your sleeping dreams.

But keep asking yourself: What would my home be like in a sustainable world? What would it feel like to wake up there in the morning? Who else would live there; how would it feel to be with them? (Remember this is what you WANT, not what you’re willing to settle for.) Where would energy come from, and water, and food? What kinds of wastes would be generated and where would they go? When you look out the window or step out the door, what would it look like, if it looked the way you really want? Who else lives near you (human and non-human)? How do you all interrelate? Go around your neighborhood and community and see it as clearly as you can. How is it arranged, so that the children and the old people and everyone in between will be surrounded by security and happiness and beauty?

What kind of work do you do in this sustainable world? What is your particular and special role? With whom do you do it? How do you work together and how are you compensated? How do you get to work? (Do you have to “get” to work? Is “work” a distinguishable activity in your ideal world? Is it separate from the rest of life?)

Travel farther in your vision, to surrounding communities. Look not only at the physical systems that sustain them — water, energy, food, materials — but look at how they relate, what they exchange with each other, how they know of each other. How do they make joint decisions? How do they resolve conflicts? (How do you WANT them to resolve conflicts?) How do they treat different kinds of people, young and old, male and female, intelligent and talented to different degrees and in different ways? ?) How do they fit within nature? How do they treat, how do they think about plants and animals, soils and waters, stones and stars?

Look at your nation (if your visionary world has nations — if it doesn’t, what does it have?). How does it meet its physical needs sustainably? How does it make decisions, resolve conflicts within and without its borders? What do your people know of other people, and how do they think about them? How much and what kinds of people and goods and information travel between your place and other places? Is your nation and your world diverse or homogeneous (the way you WANT it, not the way you expect)?

How does it feel to live in this world? What kind of consciousness or worldview, or tolerance of diverse worldviews do people use to keep things sustainable? What changes in this world, and what stays the same? What is the pace of everyday life? How fast, if at all, do people travel and by what means? What fascinates them? What kinds of problems do they work on? What do they regard as progress? What makes them laugh?

Whatever you can see, or can’t see, keep looking. NOT being able to see something in a vision may be as meaningful as seeing it.'

Of course, as she says, having a vision is not enough. But it certainly is the first step.

Image: Donella Meadows, author of the book 'Limits to Growth', one of the founders of the Balaton Group, and early advocate of systems thinking. Photo Credit: Donella Meadows Institute.

Dr. Dana Meadows: Envisioning A Sustainable World from UVM Continuing Education on Vimeo.