Friday, September 16, 2005

The Balaton Group - A reslient afirming network that supports its members

Whatever their form, [networks] are made up of people who share a common interest in some aspect of life, who stay in touch and pass around data and tools and ideas and encouragement, who like and respect and support each other. One of the most important purposes of a network is simply to remind its members that they are not alone.

A network is non-hierarchical. It is a web of connections among equals held together not by force, obligation, material incentive or social contract, but by shared values and the understanding that some tasks can be accomplished together that could never be accomplished separately.

Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, (2004), p. 275

For the next several days, I will be writing about the annual meetings of The Balaton Group, which is the familiar name for the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC). Though 20 so individuals, including myself, could claim the title of ‘founding members’ – we attended the first meeting – the group was primarily the creation of two Limits to Growth authors, Dennis and Donella Meadows. Networking is one of four keys to a sustainable development transition that they identify (the others are visioning, truth-telling, learning and loving).

This is the group’s 23rd meeting. Today, Dennis Meadows (Donella died prematurely in 2002) gave the traditional introduction to the group’s history, values and culture for new members. What he said might puzzle organizational traditionalists and professional ‘human resources’ practitioners, whose institutional-cultural culture is quite different. The Balaton group has no defined purpose, Meadows emphasized, other than to support its members by helping them to succeed. It has almost no formal organization and needs relatively few resources. It is norm that group members do not list ‘The Balaton Group’ on their resumes. This year’s attendees were from 22 countries. Only 4 were Americans, all of whom work internationally. Among the group are international consultants, heads of centers and institutes, government ministers and department heads, media specialists, cartoonists, a small number of professors – all of whom work extensively outside universities – foundation officers and NGO heads. As Dennis Meadows emphasized, members derive their ‘stature’ not by the groups to whom they belong by but what they have accomplished. They have written major books, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, shaped government policies, recontextualized global and regional issues. Their work has impacted the lives of millions of individuals all over the world. The network has contributed in demonstrable ways to many of these accomplishments. Members sustain the network because they like one another support one another and are ‘decent, honest, smart people.’ They share a more or less common set of values about how institutions should function, how human beings should relate to one another and how the human race might evolve towards a symbiotic relationship with the Planet Earth that sustains it. Some call this ‘sustainable development.’

For many members, including me, Balaton meetings provide a humane, reaffirming and reinvigorating oasis. The compel us to reexamine our priorities and clarify what really matters to us. They enable us to return to day-to-day responsibilities with renewed confidence that what we are doing has value, is worth fighting for - even passionately – and can make a difference. Everyone needs that sort of periodic reexamination and reaffirmation, from time to time, to sustain them. Networks, like the Balaton Group, can provide it.


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