Blogging from Balaton, Part 2: “Worth It”

Blogging at Balaton is always difficult. First, what is “Balaton”? I am referring to the annual meeting of the Balaton Group, a uniquely small annual gathering of sustainability researchers and networkers. We keep the meeting size to around 50, which creates intellectual critical mass and allows for fabulous diversity — over 30 countries, just as many different disciplines — while remaining small enough to create intimacy and informality. (One indicator: we don’t need a microphone to talk to each other.) This creates 5-day beehive of interactions, which we facilitate with a mix of formal presentations in the morning, and “Open Space” workshops in the afternoon. We call it the “Balaton Buzz.”
Yesterday I sketched a few notes on two of the opening presentations, by Dennis Meadows (on “Criteria for Successful Societies”) and Jamila Haider, on “Creating Successful Societies from Failed States.” These got things started on high note, even though the contents were not always uplifting. Dennis invited us to lower our expectations about what “success” meant, given unrelenting global trends; and Jamila gave us a personal account of what trying to make change in a so-called failed state looks like.

Good thing we’re talking about happiness today!

But first, why didn’t I blog on the last presentation? Because I did it, or at least opened it. We had a last minute drop-out, so I hopped in, with a collection of other members, on a collective presentation on the current state of sustainable development.

Here was my question: is sustainable development working? Is it a “success strategy”?

This is hardly a question you can resolve in a morning talk, but the serious dialogue I was hoping to start concerned where to spend one’s time, strategically, going forward. “Sustainable development” has grown and grown over the past two years … and yet, how much of it do we actually see? Anyone who knows my books knows the “Hope Graph” (see slide), a symbolic representation of the race against time. Bad stuff (climate change, pollution, resource depletion, ecosystem destruction etc.) is accelerating, and will eventually collapse of its own weight. Good stuff (renewable energy, policy change, clean technology, conservation etc.) is also accelerating … but with a delay. When will the “good stuff” catch up with the “bad stuff”?

This Group was not so optimistic about my curve. After some small group “buzzing,” one senior scientist pointed out, for example, that the “good stuff” curve was exaggerated … and he’s right. Renewable energy, for example, is less than 1% of energy use in the world today. The growth curve is steep and acceleration is amazingly rapid, but the state of renewable energy is nowhere near the scale that my curve suggests it is today.

“Well, I am an inspirational speaker, after all!” I joked, and “Yeah, but we didn’t buy your curve over here in our small group!” he laughed back.


I hop over a few good friends, their presentations and our discussions, to another good friend, John Holmberg. He is presenting right now about his (and his university’s) recent work on wellbeing, energy intensity, sustainable development, and what can actually be done to reorganize life — specifically urban life — to achieve wellbeing on low resource use and environmental impact. He’s using Swedish data; I’m (theoretically) one of his data points, showing that people who live in single family houses emit up to 3.5 times as much carbon as people living in apartments. Hm.
… and now it’s already the next day. Not much time for blogging. So much happens — including a football game, John seems to be limping a bit after that. Even our 80-year-old member, Ulrich Loening, was out there kicking the ball.

But we’re not just kicking footballs, or even ideas, around. Hundreds of conversations have occurred among these 50+ people. A couple of dozen workshops have already self-organized, around present, urgent topics for the members. New projects have already been conceived, planning is under way, concept notes are being composed, right now. Yesterday, group of experts on climate-related issues came to consensus (actually quite rare in this group!) on a list of 12 priority technological interventions that people with capital and willingness to invest should focus on. Yes, we all know, too well, that technology alone won’t take care of the problem of global climate change (or any other problem for that matter). But we do need all the new technology we can get, and if this input — supporting the work of a member who can actually deliver that message to large-scale investors — can make a difference in accelerating capital investment flows in the right direction, the meeting has already been worth it.

Of course, what really makes it “worth it” is just the people. Sitting down with friends from across the globe, digging into the fundamental questions, sharing personal stories, enjoying the sunset on the lake or the pleasure of singing to a guitar … priceless, really. Much more than “worth it.”

More later from Lake Balaton

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