Learning by doing

November 16, 2009

Co-author of 'Limits to Growth' Dennis Meadows conducts one-day training in Szentendre

By Nathan Johnson

THE RULES OF THE GAME: Meadows helps to clarify team strategy. Photo: Club of Rome

On November 3, renowned author, educator, trainer and systems analyst Dennis Meadows conducted a one-day training workshop in Szentendre, Hungary for approximately three dozen people, most of them from the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC). The event coincided with meetings of the REC General Assembly and was followed by a reception at the REC Conference Center.

Meadows, best known as a co-author of 1972's Limits to Growth, is also well known for his unconventional teaching and training methods, which incorporate original games and interactive demonstrations. In explaining his training methods to workshop participants, Meadows turned to a Chinese proverb: "When I hear, I forget; when I see, I remember; when I do, I understand."

THE RESULTS ARE IN: A team member checks her team's yield during the Fish Banks game. Photo: Nathan Johnson

A good part of the morning session of the workshop was devoted to playing Fish Banks, a role-playing, multi-turn game of Meadows' creation in which teams attempt to build a successful fishing fleet through careful boat acquisition and allocation. With each team striving for maximum profit and maximum harvest, it becomes evident after a few years (turns) that overfishing leads to depleted fish stocks and, eventually, possible collapse of the entire industry. The game is a vivid example of un-sustainable development and practice.

Meadows spent the early part of the afternoon session describing some basics of systems thinking and analysis, enlisting the help of participants to help demonstrate some key concepts, such as positive and negative flows and their effects within a particular circuit.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Participants demonstrate positive and negative flows. Photo: Nathan Johnson

The remainder of the workshop was given over to separate discussions of oil and climate change. The former was eye-opening in terms of understanding just how unique this period of human history is. According to Meadows, oil has made possible a kind of life unimaginable for all previous generations; and it's possible that our way of life will be inconceivable - when the oil runs out - for future generations.

A presentation on global warming followed, and Meadows attempted to make it clear that carbon emissions are only one part of a multiple-level problem. During the closing Q&A session, he argued that 'sustainable development' involves so many considerations that it's not always easy to know the right way forward.

However grim Meadows' conclusions or modeled predictions might be, his many decades of work belie an optimism that humanity can - and must - find better ways to confront and solve human problems.