Monday, October 19, 2015

The Club of Rome, almost half a century later

The Club of Rome held its general assembly in Winterthur, Switzerland, on Oct 16-17 2015. In the image, you can see Ugo Bardi (center) together with the co-presidents of the Club, Anders Wijkman (right in the photo) and Ernst Von Weizsacker (left in the photo).

Almost half a century ago, in 1968, Aurelio Peccei convened for the first time the group that was later to be known as the "Club of Rome". The aim of the group was not what the Club was to become known for, "The Limits to Growth". At that time, the concept of limits was vague and scarcely understood and the interest of the members was, rather, in an equitable distribution of the resources of the Earth. What moved Aurelio Peccei was the attempt to fight hunger, poverty, and injustice.

That approach led the Club to commission a report on the world's resources and their limits to a group of researchers of the MIT. The result was the study for which the Club of Rome became known ever since: "The Limits to Growth," published in 1972.  From then on, the debate mostly moved on whether the scenarios of "The Limits to Growth" were correct and whether the study would really describe the possible trajectory of the world's economy and its collapse as the result of the combination of persistent pollution and resource depletion. It soon degenerated into insults directed against "Cassandras" and "catastrophists." Still today, it is widely believed that the study was "wrong", even though it was not.

But world models were not so much what Peccei and the other founders had in mind. Their aim had remained the initial one: justice, social equality, freedom from want. The discovery of the world's limits had made these objectives more difficult than they had seemed to be at the beginning, but not an impossible target. The "Limits" report, indeed, had sketched out how the world's economy could be steered in such a way to avoid collapse and to maintain for a long time a reasonable level of production of goods and services per person.

From what Peccei wrote, it is clear that he (and most members of the Club) thought that creating a better world was to be the result of a public debate and of democracy. In the debate, the world's leaders and the general public would have become convinced of the need to slow down economic growth, avoid overpopulation, conserve resources, and invest in actions against pollution. Then, the majority would democratically enforce these actions. Unfortunately, Peccei had badly estimated the power of propaganda to sway the discussion and to demonize all attempts to work for a better world. Peccei himself was the victim of propaganda, and, if you search the Web today, you still find plenty of pages describing him (and the Club of Rome) as working for the enslavement or the extermination of humankind or, sometimes, of the "darker races".

Almost half a century has passed from the first reunion of the Club of Rome, and its members are still struggling with the same question: how to create a more equitable, free, and prosperous world? Whereas understanding our future turned out to be feasible, acting on it turned out to be devilishly difficult. Today, we are still stuck at the most basic level of trying to have people understand the dangers ahead. Think of how easily the efforts to act against climate change are thwarted by the simplest propaganda tricks (do you remember "climategate"?).

So, the Club didn't stray away from Peccei's legacy and it has remained close to its initial approach and structure. It is a forum where people meet to discuss on how a better world could be created and show how we can work in that direction. That was clear at the general assembly of this year, in Winterthur (SW), where the discussion ranged from mineral limits to social structures; including politics and new business avenues. The members reported about long term modeling, but also on their practical, day to day results on how to improve the life of the poor and to reduce pollution at the local level. The magic bullet that will cure the world's ills may not exist, but we all can do something for a better world.

Thanks to Graeme Maxton, Alexander Stefes, and Thomas Schauer for having been the main organizers of this meeting in Winterthur!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)