Monday, April 9, 2018

Saving the World: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? A Review of the Latest Report to the Club of Rome, "Come On"

Come On: Capitalism, Short-termism and the Destruction of the Planet. A new Report from the Club of Rome. By Ernst von Weizsaecker and Anders Wijkman -  Book Review by Ugo Bardi

Nearly half a century has passed since the publication, in 1972, of the first – and still the most famous – report of the Club of Rome, “The Limits to Growth.” That first report was heavily criticized but, nowadays, it is turning out that it had correctly identified the main lines of the trajectory that the human industrial society was to follow and is still following. To the authors of this report and to their mentor, Jay Forrester, goes the merit of having identified for the first time the critical problem that we are facing nowadays, that of “overshoot”, exceeding the limits that the planetary ecosphere can sustain and forcing humankind to a return within the limits that could be painful or even disastrous.

Today, the Club of Rome keeps following its tradition of studying the long-term prospects of humankind facing the twin challenges of resource depletion and climate change. The latest report of the Club on these matters is “Come On” by Anders Wijkman and Ernst Von Weizsacker, published with Springer in 2017, in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Club.

Clearly, this is a book which has been thoroughly planned and carefully created. The text is divided into three parts: 1) A review of the currently unsustainable trends, 2) A review of how to look at the situation 3) A discussion of solutions designed to avoid disaster. It is a sort of Aristotelian syllogism structure.

The first part, the review of the current trends, is – in my opinion – the best part of the book. It is a well thought-out review which doesn’t shun from facing some politically unnameable subjects, such as that of overpopulation and of the need to stop its growth. The unsustainable nature of the current agricultural system is also discussed in detail here. This section is also an excellent summary of the results of the first version of “The Limits to Growth” and how the scenarios of that early work have played out in our world. The “Come on!” here, refers to how obvious all this should be, but it isn’t in the current debate.

The second part of the book is a review of the theories and models currently used to understand the situation in which we find ourselves. This section provides a description of religious views of the relation of humankind with the world, starting with the Pope’s encyclical letter “Laudato si” and then moves to a detailed criticism of the current economic theories. It includes also a very interesting section on the moral imperative of change and on the need of a “new enlightenment” rather than a “new rationalism.” It is correctly recognized that a purely rational choice is often framed in a short-term vision and it may lead to effects opposite to those intended.

In this second section, the “Come On” is referred to the need of not sticking to outdated but still current philosophies, especially in economics. It is what the authors call a "mind shift," that we may describe in terms of the often mentioned (although probably apocryphal) quote by Albert Einstein, "we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them.” This is the context in which the quest for a new enlightenment should be seen. A fundamental element of this vision is the circular economy, returning to the ecosystem what we took from the ecosystem. It is a concept that's making inroads in the debate, but much work remains to be done to make it real and not just an empty slogan.

Finally, the third part of the book. This is the most ambitious section, indeed it is as long as the first two summed together. It is also the most difficult and complex: what to do, in practice? Here, the authors face a problem that has affected the Club’s analysis over the past 50 years: who should act to save humankind from destruction?

The initial attitude of the Club on this point was heavily influenced by the personality of the Club’s founder, Aurelio Peccei. In the 1960s, Peccei had developed a vision that saw humankind as an ekklesia, a gathering of free and equal citizens of the world. As a consequence, the Club tended to propose actions that were to be agreed upon by all the citizens of the Earth by means of a democratic process. It was a top-down vision, in the sense that it implied that the choices made by the people were to be enforced by some kind of world government, or at least by an association of all the existing governments

As we all know, this approach has not worked. Peccei was misunderstood and the Club of Rome was accused of planning a world dictatorship and all sorts of nefarious actions, including even a new holocaust designed for population control. It was all false. As you can read in my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited," it was just propaganda, but it turned out to be effective in demonizing the Club of Rome and protecting the special interests of various lobbies. But then, what to do?

50 years after that first report, the authors of “Come On” describe a different approach, basically focused on the “bottom-up” strategy. This choice appears most clearly in the third section of the book, which is dedicated to practical, implementable solutions, such as agro-ecology, the blue economy, regenerative urbanization, benign investments, and much more. The basic idea is always the same: do not force people not to do something with laws coming from a government (top-down). Encourage them to choose to do something for their own benefit (bottom-up).

For instance, instead of forcing people to emit less CO2, encourage them to use technologies which don’t emit it and that make people save money. Or help people seeing the economic advantages of waste recycling. Or show them how they can save money by using the public transportation system instead of private cars. Here, the "Come on" statement refers to pushing people to overcome their inertia and stop sticking to their old ways simply because they never thought there were other ways of doing the same things.

The third chapter goes on for about 100 pages and I won’t try to summarize it here – it is surely worth reading for the wealth of ideas it carries. But will this approach work? The answer remains unclear. If we compare the "top-down" and the "bottom-up" approaches, we see that neither has done much to stop the ongoing unsustainable trends. Decades of attempts of setting up top-down international treaties to reduce, for instance, the overexploitation of resources has brought very little in terms of results - for instance, the CO2 emissions keep increasing. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach is successful in some areas, but not with most people. Just as an example, it would seem strange that people buy the expensive and useless vehicles called "SUVs." It is not a rational choice, one feels like telling SUV owners something like "come on, why are you wasting your money in this way?" Yet - today - about one car in three sold in Western countries is an SUV. The fact that some people choose to use bicycles, instead, doesn't change the situation.

All this doesn't mean that the world is not changing, just that it is not changing fast enough (and this can be quantitatively demonstrated). It means, also, that we have to keep pushing for the change to occur in the right direction. Probably, neither a purely bottom-up nor a purely top-down approach can save humankind. We need an integrated approach. The "Come on" book is a step in the right direction.


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)