Dennis Meadows holds degrees in both chemistry and management. Between 1970 and 2004 he was a professor in the faculties of business, engineering and the social sciences at three universities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire. His 10 books have been translated into more than 30 languages. He co-authored the first report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth. Written in 1972, the book sold 3 million copies, received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and has been cited as one of the 10 most influential environmental texts of the 20th century. Professor Meadows has received four honorary doctorates for his contributions to environmental education. He was appointed honorary professor at Moscow State University and at Corvinus University in Budapest, and he served as senior academic advisor to the international programme Leadership for Environment and Development, and to the United Nations University for Peace.
What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
My answer will sound trite, but it is true and sincere. I think of all the dedicated, intelligent, informed young people I have met who represent the REC in its 18 affiliated nations. I got to know many of them during two workshops I conducted at the REC headquarters — first in the late 1990s and then in 2009. They give me optimism that partially offsets all the gloomy news we read these days about environmental problems.
With the fresh emergence of new environmental issues and proposed solutions — SDGs, the Paris COP etc. — what special roles do you see the Central and Eastern European region playing in a Europe-wide or global context?
The unique location, membership and personnel of the REC qualify it to make many contributions. Of its avowed missions I would concentrate on capacity building, giving basic skills to people and strengthening environmental organisations. The pace of change is incredibly rapid now. Plus the political and economic conditions in the REC nations differ enormously. Thus it is impossible to develop and teach solutions that will be valid for very long or in many regions. But the REC does enormous good by strengthening capacity within its affiliated nations, so they will be able better to deal with their own urgent environmental issues as they emerge.
Can you share a memorable experience involving the REC or the CEE region?
I still remember the excitement of meeting with others in the REC’s first headquarters, the old silk factory building on the outskirts of Budapest. We had come from the donor nations as guests of Hungary. We sought to develop concrete goals and strategies for the regional environmental centre that was created after the first President George Bush pledged USD 5 million of support for it during his July 1989 visit to Budapest. There were momentous political and environmental changes under way in those days. We hoped we could work with our Hungarian hosts to create a new organisation that would be a constructive partner responding to those changes.
You co-authored the pioneering Limits to Growth in 1972, a book that has been updated twice over the years. What changes or observations have been necessary to add in the intervening four decades since the book’s original publication?
We redid the analysis twice, in 1992 and in 2004, and each time published a new report. Looking at global data since its publication, we found that our main conclusions remained valid. But the implications changed over time. We said in 1972 that it would in theory be possible to change pro-growth policies, avoid collapse, and achieve a global sustainable society at a relatively high level of welfare. But in practice that was not done. So now we believe a decline in the use of materials and energy is inevitable. The priority should shift from achieving sustainability to building resilience.
What do you mean by “resilience” in this context?
The dictionary defines “resilience” as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. A resilient community can quickly regain the capacity to provide essential goods and services to its citizens after a shock, such as a natural disaster, conflict, or economic and political disruptions.
You have developed many games and simulations over several years to teach key lessons in a variety of settings — Fish Banks being one of the most well known. What are some of the advantages of using these types of educational tools to communicate the information you’re trying to put across?
There is an ancient saying: “When I hear, I forget. When I see, I remember. When I do, I understand.” Games provide the opportunity for learning by doing. They permit participants to bring their own perspectives, expertise and goals into an exercise, test their ideas and learn from their mistakes.
You and your wife Donella founded the Balaton Group in 1982. Can you talk a little about the inspiration and purpose behind that, and what have been some notable outcomes of these meetings over the years?
In 1981 we were encouraged and supported by Dr. Laszlo Kapolyi, then Hungarian minister of energy, to create an annual meeting in Hungary that would bring together from East and West the best systems scientists interested in sustainable development. The goal was to share research results, form professional friendships and develop ideas for new projects. A maximum of 50 people were invited each year from about 25 countries, and we organised the meetings in the countryside, in Csopak, a small village on the shore of Lake Balaton, to minimise distractions. We wanted participants to use their time mainly talking with each other. The group’s 34th annual meeting will take place in September 2015. The group has been enormously productive. As one measure, over 125 books have been written all or in part by Balaton Group members since our first meeting.