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.


  1. The #1 reason that people continue to live unsustainably, and I include most if not all of the highly enlightened, educated on the topic individuals, is because everyone must continue to do what they do to make money in order to avoid the pain, suffering, and death for themselves and their loved ones when you run out of money. This is a fact.

    First thing to do is to restrict government to doing what it was originally intended to do. Government should make sure that everyone has access to the best available healthcare at all times. Provide top quality free education for anyone who wants it anytime in life. Make sure we have the infrastructure required for society to live sustainably. Do not allow individuals or groups to exploit, monopolize or harm other individuals or groups.

    I am sure there are other examples but the point is to remove the threat of suffering, pain, and death hanging over everyones head ostensibly to motivate them to work.

    Then pay people to do do the right things like grow food, plant trees, manage livestock, go to school, do art, etc.

    All of the calls for civilization to change involves restricting or end ones income stream or falsely claims that all of these changes can be done and we can still get rich doing them. Basic rule of thumb; If there is big money to be made it is not going to be beneficial to the biosphere or anyone other than the one making the money.

    Hawking was right in pointing out that it is capitalism that we need to fear most at this point.

  2. Also I have said it before but the original LTG model undervalued pollution. All industrial civilization is waste producing. All production ends up as waste including the production process itself. Even dealing with our waste stream generates more waste. 99% of production eventually becomes waste yet 90% of that waste remains for generations, 1000s of years or more.

  3. We fail if we do not address the fundamental problem: the excessive weight of humankind within the biosphere.

    Most humans have to go, and very quickly.

    Attempts at ethical, eco-friendly, behaviour is quite useless while there are so many billions of us.

  4. "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)"

    You know, this is what sustainable development has been preaching for more than a generation.

    Up to a few years ago, I believed in it: I belonged to a no-global group (a peaceful one). I thought that ecology and the economy were not mutually exclusive, and you could have both, given the right set of incentives and the right set of choices. Democracy and capitalism would take care of the rest.

    In university I took courses in organic agriculture and environmental economics. I visited trade fairs about solar panels. Factor 4, a book by von Weizsaecker, had a big impact on me.

    But I do not believe in sustainable development anymore. I have seen each and every possible solution (organic food, solar panels, wind power, led lights, hybrid cars, international treaties. Yes, even Bono concerts) turn into part of the problem. I look in disgust at my own hypocrisy.

    I do not think there is a solution, bottom-up or top-down. Eventually, the consequences of industrialism will undermine the system. It is probably too late to "solve" anything.

    I read the Laudato Si encyclical. The first part, about religion and the environment, is very inspiring. But the second part, about the solutions, is anodyne and disappointing. It advocates the same measures that have not worked ever since I had "ecology" courses in primary school, in the 1980s.

    It is no wonder to me, but equally disappointing, that von Weizsaecker wrote a new book restating what he wrote in Factor 4 years ago.

    Apparently, pretending to believe that what has not worked until now will somehow start working tomorrow, is the only coping strategy we have left.

  5. I have accepted we (humanity) won't change, just get worse with the accusations and finger pointing and rise of demagoguery. I have decided to adopt the approach suggested by Dennis Meadows of adding resilience to your life and home. I moved well able sea level, milder climate, off grid, zero debt, grow much of my own food etc etc A couple consequences of that, 1. super low emissions and consumption. I ride my mountain bike, read and walk the bush around me. 2. It also brings an amazing inner calm. The hardest thing to do? Change yourself.

    I am not looking to escape collapse just hopefully stay in the sidelines as much as I can.

  6. Anon - Sheer numbers is not the core issue, it is carbon footprint per.

    We can have 8 billion living very simple lives, 4 billion living well, 2 billion with all they need and more, 1 billion living simple but full lives with everything included but done in a sustainable way that allows for the entire biosphere to exist and evolve.

  7. Oh I left out one important thing in my to do list above;

    Make earth science the fundamental core of all education from beginning to end, and have research in earth science fully funded.

    There is only one Earth and it is our home forever. we would live at the bottom of the sea before we would move off planet and neither will happen.

    .climate change
    .melting permafrost and releasing of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia
    .CO2 and other gas serra already in atmosphere
    .shale gas/oil technology
    .Future technologies of capturing gas serra emissions

    -overpopulation: there's no world policies to control demographic population in the world, so che overpopulation is an uncontrolled variable for mankind and this factor it's on it's way.

    -climate change is made by antrophic actions to made energy by fossil fuels in the world. No doubt about that.

    -melting permafrost and releasing of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia it is an uncontrolled variable for mankind fate

    -CO2 and other gas serra already in atmosphere need long time to be absorbed by mother nature

    -shale gas/oil technology is not a good idea: nowdays it seems a cool stuff, but in the long run it's bad idea because it still releases a lot of gas serra emissions just to have at the end of the process, the same problems of fossil fuels, so this technology is not green, but it will have to face off the fact that in the future the cost of fresh water and fertile lands, they will rise up

    -In the Earth there's lots of continents in different status of socioeconomic development, those differents are opportunity for business and they are not a limits. It's a False variable it doesn't help to understand where mankind is going to in the long run.

    .Technologies of capturing gas serra emissions: probably they will be ineffective in the future because those structures will need fossil fuel energy free, otherwise the solution will be inefective. Those artificial or natural structures will have to be wide in extensive area otherwise those stuffs will be inefective to change che Earth climate. If mankind put those stuffs in the desert it will be cool, otherwise fertile land will decrease. Mankind can't put gas serra into the sea for acidificataion of the sea. Gas serra will have to be sequestrated, water proofed, stored into the earth, to put in safe conditions avoiding future risks of dangerous releasing. There's no real and present technologies to do what mankind need, and in the future those stuffs seem more science fiction than a concrete solution.


    False Return of the Golden Age: Demographic bomb will explode in the next years, melting permafrost and releasing of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia will rise up without human control, mankind will use fossil fuels. No impact of Technologies of capturing gas serra emissions. The world explode as Limits to growth report will foresee: WWIII in Asia and Punic Wars II in the Mediterranean Area.

    Ultraviolet Catastrophe: Demographic bomb will explode in the next years, melting permafrost and releasing of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia will NOT rise up, Occidental countries will try a transition to Hydrogen Economy on leaving fossil fuels, but 2ND and 3RD countries will continue to use fossil fuels so gas serra emissions will rise up for antrophic reasons. Shale gas/oil technologies will shut down because the costs of fresh water/fertile land will rise up for climate change strong negative impacts. No impact of Technologies of capturing gas serra emissions. The world explode as Limits to growth report will foresee: WWIII in Asia and Punic Wars II in the Mediterranean Area.

    Inertial Explosive Surrogation: Demographic bomb will explode in the next years, melting permafrost and releasing of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia will rise up without human control. Mankind will leave fossil fuels for synthetic fuels made by coal with very low gas serra emissions. It's a false innovation, because everybody in the world will start to make synthetic fuels by coal, so everybody use those stuffs on earth. The gas serra emissions will still rise, Shale gas/oil technologies will shut down because the costs of fresh water/fertile land will rise up for climate change strong negative impacts. No impact of Technologies of capturing gas serra emissions. The world explode as Limits to growth report will foresee: WWIII in Asia and Punic Wars II in the Mediterranean Area.

    Efficient Technological Sharing of Austerity -This is an adverse scenario towards WWIII but unfortunatly Punic Wars II are ineluctable just because the demographic bomb in Africa is already detonated in the face od European people-. In this scenario mankind leaves fossil fuels and Hydrogen Economy rises up, desert in the world becomes very important. 1ST countries will have to reduce their own energetic needs per person, so the life style in the 1ST countries will drop down. In the 2ND and 3RD countries the total consume rise up (because they need to grow up) but the energetic needs per person will remain stable (because they are lots of people). No royalties will have to pay 2ND and 3RD countries to 1ST countries on using "know how" and new energetic patents in Solar-Hydrogen Valor Chain. The problem of climate change will still remain for long time, with massive problems because melting permafrost and releasing of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia will rise up without makind control, and CO2 and other gas serra already delivered in atmosphere need long time to be absorbed.

  10. Jesus, jesus, we have no lack of doomy visions over here...
    They are all suffering from an all-or-nothing approach.
    This hasn't worked and that and everything else.
    Where are the shades of gray - where are the different colours?
    An all-or-nothing-approach at least is allowing me to show off stark statements, giving me a nice feeling of personal strength and of a weird kind of avant-gardism.

    Now about the top-down- and bottom-up-approaches. First the task is really a handful.
    It is an absolute novelty in the history of mankind, to have responsibility for the future of the whole planet. We are in the middle of a profound paradigm shift in our self-perception, as the "outside" we evolved in is ceasing to exist and the whole world is becoming "inside".
    Then, the modest, but existing emission decreases in Europe and even the US happen to fall into the maturing of the economic development of the rest of the world, especially China. If it weren't for the emissions explosion in China, we would have already a definite decrease in emissions. The Chinese mean per capita (!) is now about that of Europe, and in the industrial centres that of Germany or more. The Chinese expansion after the introduction of the market sphere there is absolutely remarkable and hardly matched by anything else in economic development. Climatewise this is just bad luck!
    Where would we be without the "futile" efforts of both top-down and bottom-up measures? I do not dare to think about it. Thanks to state intervention, we now have a flourishing photovoltaics and wind power industry all over the world, which gives us an option we simply wouldn't have otherwise.
    The world is incredibly complex, and no single approach can catch all the complexity.
    So, yes, in a couple of decades, a lot of problems will have arisen. But they will not have come out of blue sky. Many people know about it. The world can brace to tackle them, and it is already happening everywhere. Agricultural research is aiming for more resilient food crops. Even the financial sector, the dumbest part of mankind in a way, seems to wake up slowly.

    1. An optimist! Wait, what are you doing here? :-)

      I wear my doom as a badge of honor, I can never be convinced that there is hope - though I do enjoy positive suprises. I surely cannot be convinced by vague claims not backed by half-way reliable statistics.

      I do not mean to challenge you to show me your facts - as I wrote before, those would not convince me anyway (see also this blog latest post about the Empire of Lies). And I am sure Prof. Bardi would not appreciate this abuse of the commenting section. However, I would like to comment on your statement:

      "Thanks to state intervention, we now have a flourishing photovoltaics and wind power industry all over the world, which gives us an option we simply wouldn't have otherwise."

      Both my partner and I do work more or less related to PV panels (my employer builds machines for the production of PV panels, my girlfriend works for the Dutch authority paying out subsidies for solar and wind energy). I am not an expert, but I know a thing of two about alternative energy.

      The market stands entirely on what you call state intervention. In the Netherlands, you get subsidies to install panels, you sell your power at a subsidised price, and operators are forced to buy at that price, whenever the wind blows or the sun shines, regardless of whether they need the power or not.

      The panels are usually made in China, where producers get preferential treatment from the government and are exempt from environmental regulations. Shipment to Europe is usually tax-free ("Panamese" ships). PV panels are increasingly mandatory in building codes.

      Alternative energy is subsidized by the rest of the economy, which still runs on oil and coal. It is not "another option": it is a shiny project funded with public money, but of little practical use to the taxpayer.

      And I cannot resist from a quip about "The world can brace to tackle them".

      I am sure you read about the catastrophic decline of insect mass in Europe. Apparently no one has found the time to "brace" in the 56 years since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was first released. The only thing we can brace for is a crash.

  11. @dlen
    Scenario planning and Ooda loop are powerful stuffs, it's not a child play.

    Actually the reality is fully stocked into False Return of the Golden Age Scenarios.

    This not means mankid will be stucked all the time in this kind of scenario, mankind can change scenarios in the future:

    1-if the release of gas serra emissions with positive feedback in Siberia will rise up without human control. Sorry this kind of factor is uncontrollable for mankind.

    2-mankind will leave fossil fuels. yah!, this is a factor that mankind and nations can control. But there' s a lot of inertia in the system, a very poor control for the future of a single man (act locally and think globally approach), and a bit more control for 1ST country but not a full control because 2ND and 3RD countries.

    Sorry, no others drivers are necessary for changing Scenarios, things now and in the future looks quite sticky.

    A little comment about doomy Watching at the Early Warning Signal: WWIII is probable (not ineluctable) but it's on its way, and Punic Wars II are already ineluctable because demographic bomb in Africa is already detonated in the face of europeans and climate change bad effect will create much damages in Africa.

    Unfortunatly, all Early Warning Signal are on the "right track":

    Survivable IPCC projections RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are science fiction: reality is far worse!

    Geo-engineering debate on Climate Change

    Sea level rise, the climate crisis, Mediterranean area will be a desert.

  12. AMOC and its THC is slowing

    Doorway to Hell: expert talks Arctic permafrost thaw

    Hubbert peak is right, we are at 50% more or less

    Climate change early warning signals and climate change boiling points

    Shale gas/oil is not a good idea in the long run

    Arctic Methane Emergency: the Carbon bubble

    Lets talk about Shell Scenarios! Well, that's lot of unsaid, in those Shell stuffs

    Threat multipliers: the changing energy landscape, climate change, and water stress

    The multiplication of threats: Climate Change & the risks to National Security

    NATO, Climate Change, and International Security

    Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz VS Antoine Henri Jomini

    WWIII road map theory

    What is about Kyoto containment emission treaty: ineffective, just look at the CO2 curve.
    What is about Paris treaty: child's play, it will be ineffective.

    Time is running out, it's quite clear.

    Let's talk about future of the mankind: bla, bla, bla... Ok all nice stuff, but science are facts, not fiction.

    You say -where are the different colours of the future?-
    Well, there's 3 different colour of catastrophes, there's a big spacetime where it could explode many many kind of different variant of probable WWIII, infact there's all colours of death as you may think, all option are in the next future decades!.
    (sorry, it' in italian, but automatic google english translator runs quite well)

    What mankind can do?!
    Well, IMHO probabily very few, because time is running out.

    Now mankind is deep inside the False Return of the Golden Age Scenario, the paths towards the Efficient Technological Sharing of Austerity Scenario are quite unreachable today, because things happened and the context changed. Five or Ten yeas ago, well it was really another story. For example Desertech was still open and norh africa was not on fire. But things happen and the context changes.

    What can a man really do versus the climate change?! Is there still a hope in the act locally and think globally?!
    Well, I don't think so, instead I suggest to prepare a Bug Out Bag, it could be a cool useful stuffs in the next decades.

    Have a nice day :-)

  13. I still don't see my 2ND part of the post, it was full of useful links of Science Conferences about climate change, but the post was too long for one posting only, so I had to cut it in two part.
    May be the 2nd part of my post faded away.

    THC slowdow and AMOC shutdown: science not fiction!

    Doorway to Hell: expert talks Arctic permafrost thaw!

    Climate Change Boiling points

    Hubbert's peak is cool and right stuff, now mankind are at 50%

    Shale gas/oil is not a good idea in the long run

    What is about Shell Scenarios?! Well, that's lot of unsaid in those Shell's stuffs

    Other Climate Change stuffs now and for future, simply on clicking at #climate change tag

    So if we look at the CO2 curve, we can see the trend is rising and still rising up.

    Time is running out.

    Lets talk about Kyoto treaty: it's ineffective.

    Time is running out, countries are still bla-bla talking and doing nothing to leave fossil fuels.

    Fossil fuel are more important: look at the action in the north pole and the shale oil/gas stuffs and the price of oil doesn't discount the climate change damages and there's no carbon tax to reduce fossil fuels.

    Lets talk about Paris Treaty: it's a child play, probably it will be ineffective because USA is out, may be also 2ND and 3RD countries will be out, and in addition IPCC projections RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are science fiction as Geo-engineering debate on Climate Change showed.

    So the question becames dark, and it turns in another point: Act locally and think globally for small rich communities in the 1ST countries is it real a solution for trying to put mankind fate on the right track instead of falling down into a dark fate?!

    I don't think desperate actions done by small responsible communities in the 1ST countries (thinking globally and acting localy) will be the solution, just because 2ND and 3RD countries will rise up their emissions, on wiping out all small gas serra reduction.

    It's more useful to make a "Bug Out Bag" as emergency kit, for having this kind of resource always available for the next decades.

    Is it a pessimistic vision of the future?!

    No, I don't think so, IMHO it's a pragmatic view because facts from early warning signal are real and bad, and facts are not fiction.

    Hoping to be useful for the online debate: have a nice day!



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)