In 1994, the renowned environmental scientist Donella “Dana” Meadows — lead author of The Limits to Growth — was traveling to Costa Rica to deliver a keynote speech on systems modeling to a conference of ecological economists. During the flight, her traveling companion, the economist Bob Costanza, reminded her that the topic of the session she was keynoting was not modelling. It was envisioning a sustainable society.
That evening in her hotel, Dana set aside the speech she had so carefully prepared, including her illustrations of how the economic models of that time (and ours) drive unsustainable behavior, and she wrote a new one.
Dana’s choice to deliver a completely different speech would prove to be a fateful one. She focused not so much on a specific vision — ending poverty and hunger, transitioning to renewable energy, rethinking consumerism, and the other classic concerns of sustainability — but on the question of vision itself. No one of her stature, in her academic environment, had done that before.
The speech was recorded on grainy videotape. Though it was later transcribed and published in essay form, the videotape was circulated among researchers and got shown and discussed in university classrooms. The video conveyed, as no academic essay could, something of Dana’s infectious personal energy. For Dana had managed to take a topic previously seen as “fluffy” (who can measure a vision? or write equations about the process of visioning?) and imbue it with a sense of high intellectual urgency.
Dana’s choice resonates, then and now, because it was one of those moments when someone who has earned the respect of peers — she was honored with a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1994 — stands up and tells a very uncomfortable truth. The environmental movement was struggling, said Dana, because environmentalists, “perhaps more than any other set of advocates,” had failed to offer a compelling description of a future better than the terrifying one they kept warning people about.
“The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe,” said Dana. “We promise survival and not much more. That is a failure of vision.”
Having identified the problem, Dana spent most of her speech on solutions: how to create visions, how to cultivate them in detail, how to link them to goals and actions, and most urgently, how to shift attitudes and mindsets so that it was okay to have a vision. Academics and intellectuals, she noted, were especially prone to cynicism when it came to having a vision of a preferred future. But what was so silly about giving voice to a vision of clean water and air, no hunger, trustworthy people, a world free of oppression and war? Dana suggested to her colleagues that they could, at least, “occasionally take the social risk of displaying not our skepticism but our deepest desires.”
As Dana noted in her speech, there were some additional benefits for attempting this shift. People with a sense of vision and optimism are generally more charismatic than cynics and pessimists. She was a living example of that observation — though in making it, she somehow managed to avoid aggrandizing herself. Dana identified with her audience: they were all, she noted, in need of some serious rehabilitation, just as she had been.
“I didn’t always have such a vision [of a sustainable world],” she confessed to her friends and colleagues. “I had to learn, or perhaps I should say relearn, to create and express vision. In our industrial culture, particularly in the cultures of science and economics, envisioning is actively discouraged. We have to rediscover and practice it again.”
At that time, and in that context, Dana’s talk was a call for revolution. That’s why it spread — for the most part informally, quietly, from one academic cluster to another. I believe that Dana’s choice, in 1994, to toss aside her models and speak about visioning probably impacted the direction of the entire global sustainability movement, in a small but decisive way. It also strengthened the direction her own life was starting to take, as she became more and more serious about creating and realizing a very specific vision of her own.
As a side effect, Dana’s choice also had a profound impact on my own life.