Sunday, September 23, 2018

Did the Club of Rome Ever Disavow "The Limits to Growth"? A Story of Ordinary Disinformation

Aurelio Peccei in 1969, when he was appointed the first president of the Club of Rome


The Club of Rome is inextricably linked to the legendary report that it commissioned to a group of MIT researchers in 1972, "The Limits to Growth." Today, nearly 50 years later, we still have to come to terms with a vision that contradicts the core of some of humankind's most cherished beliefs. The report tells us that we cannot keep growing forever and that we have to stop considering everything we see around us as ours by divine right. 

Not surprisingly, the report generated strong feelings and, with them, there came plenty of disinformation and legends. Some cast the Club of Rome in the role of a secret organization with dark and dire purposes, others aimed at the Limits report, claiming that it was "wrong" or, worse, purposefully designed to deceive the public. I wrote an entire book on this subject (The Limits to Growth Revisited): in short, most of these stories are false but some contain grains of truth and all of them tell us something about how we humans don't just deny bad news, we tend to demonize the bearers.

One of these legends states that the leaders of the Club of Rome disavowed their brainchild, The Limits to Growth and, in doing so, they admitted that it had been not only wrong, but actually an attempt to mislead the public. It is an old legend but, as all legends, it is surprisingly persistent and you can still see it mentioned in recent times (for instance, here and here) as if it were the obvious truth. It is not: it is a good example of how disinformation works.

The origins of the legend go back to Julian Simon (1932-1998), flamboyant defender of economic growth and self-styled "doomslayer." Simon was a skilled polemicist who used with remarkable effectiveness all the standard techniques of disinformation. So, in his book, "The Ultimate Resource" (1981 edition, p. 286) Simon writes (highlighting mine)
The most compelling criticism of the Limits to Growth simulation, however, was made by the sponsoring Club of Rome itself. Just four years after the foofaraw created by the book's publication and huge circulation -- an incredible 4 million copies were sold -- the Club of Rome "reversed its position" and "came out for more growth" [..] The explanation of this reversal, as reported in "Time" is a masterpiece of face saving double talk.
"The Club's founder, Italian industrialist "Aurelio Peccei, says that Limits was intended to jolt people from the comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue indefinitely. That done, he says, the Club could then seek ways to close the widening gap between rich and poor nations -- inequities that, if they continue, could all too easily lead to famine, pollution, and war. The Club's startling shift, Peccei says, is thus not so much a turnabout as part of an evolving strategy"
In other words, the Club of Rome sponsored and disseminated untruths in an attempt to scare us. Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth. 
So, where does all that come from? I can't find on the Web the original "Time" article that Simon cites, but there are other reports available on the declarations that Aurelio Peccei (founder, and at the time president, of the Club of Rome) released in 1976, during a meeting held in Philadelphia. The journalists who interviewed Peccei were impressed by what they perceived as a reversal of previous Club's policies, to the point that Newsweek titled its report (according to the St. Louis Post) "Has the Club of Rome publicly abjured?" Peccei was said (according to the New York Times) to have stated that, "Naturally, we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable,"

Is that enough to say that the Club of Rome had "reversed its position"? Not at all. There was nothing new in Peccei's statements. Already in 1973, one year after the pubblication of Limits, the Club produced a document about the report signed by the executive committee and titled "The New Threshold."   The document stated that:
An erroneous image of the Club has, therefore, formed as a group advocating zero growth. Again, the possible consequences of unregulated growth of the industrialized societies and, still more, those which would arise if growth were abruptly brought to a halt, has disturbed some of the less developed countries where, we have already said, the report is all too easily seen as a selfish proposal from the developed world which would still further aggravate the difficulties of the great mass of underprivileged on our planet.
And that is not a "face-saving double talk," as Simon claimed. It is a necessary consequence of the views of the Club from its formation. Aurelio Peccei had started the Club on the basis of what he called the "problematique" or the "predicament" of humankind. From his first public speech on this subject, in 1965 (you can find it here), it is clear that he saw the problems facing humankind mainly in terms of a fair distribution of the available resources, avoidance of wars, elimination of poverty, health care for everyone, and the like. (see also this post by Irv Mills). Peccei didn't imagine the future of humankind in terms of a collapse: the concept of "overshoot and collapse" of socioeconomic systems didn't exist at that time, it was developed and diffused only in the 1970s by Jay Forrester.

So, the results of "The Limits to Growth" study, with their scenarios of probable collapse, must have been a shock for Peccei and the other members of the Club of Rome. Still, it is clear from what they wrote afterward that they understood the logic and the consequences of the report they had commissioned - they never "disavowed" it, even though over the years some individual members criticized the study in various ways, but that's anther story.

Over the years, the Club of Rome and the Limits have been seen as the same thing, sometimes confusing who did exactly what. In reality, they are two distinct and different things. The Club of Rome had its roots in the "problematique" devised by Peccei and its members worked at integrating the Limits results within their worldview. It was clear to them that "The Limits to Growth" aggregated all the world's national economies into average parameters. As a consequence, "zero growth" as a global policy would have meant maintaining the economic gap separating the rich and the poor country. And that was not what Peccei and the others had in mind. Hence, Peccei's statement in 1976 "Naturally, we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable," In another report, they said that the Limits "is a beginning and not an end." That is the origin of the other 1976 statement by Peccei "the limits‐to‐growth report had served its purpose of “getting the world's attention.

And here we are: no lies, no disavowal, no scare tactics. What we have, instead, is a stark reminder of how disinformation works. Note the narrative technique used by Simon: he says that "Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth." You need about 3 seconds to deconstruct this statement and note how it makes no sense: if the Club successfully told lies to the public, why should it stop doing that? What could the Club possibly gain by publicly confessing of having lied? But narrative follows special rules and what we have here is a common trope of many modern movies: at some moment, the villains may explicitly confess their crimes (sometimes called badass boast) out of pure arrogance. So, the trick Simon is using here is to cast the Club of Rome into the role of the villains in narrative terms. It is an effective trick in an age in which we can't distinguish reality from narrative anymore: it is the dark art called "creating one's own reality."

Nearly 50 years have passed since the Limits report was published and it is safe to say that most people remember it the way it was described by the propaganda of the 1990s, as a "wrong-headed" study (if they remember it at all). But does that mean that it has been forgotten forever? While it is true that "Google Trends" doesn't show any increased interest in the "Limits" itself, there is growing interest in the concept of slowing down economic growth or avoiding altoghether. And "The Limits to Growth" is showing a remarkable return of interest in the scientific literature. Does that means we will see a return of interest in it also in the mainstream debate? Why not? After all, in the long run, truth always beats disinformation.




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Here is the article on the St. Louis Post about Peccei's declarations, with several errors resulting from OCR, but overall readable

Time magazine wrote recently in an essay on futurology, "Men hunger for predictions as they hunger for bread in a famine." The starving have recently been thrown a few loaves by the self-appointed prophets of the twentieth century. The oracular prophecies out of the computer have been muted since the oil crisis of 1973 broke the back of their optimistic curves of growth. The guild of soothsayers fell out of favor. Now after a long penitent silence they are making a comeback. Herman Kahn, director of the Hudson Institute and an unshakable optimist, has published a new study of the future entitled. "The Next 200 Years." His conclusion is that in the year 2176 the world population will have reached a total of 15 billion and will be living comfortable with a per ants than were predicted for 1975. The Wall Street Journal says the dreams of unlimited energy, cheap nuclear-generated electricity, fivefold increase in farm yields and the final victory over cancer before the end of the century can be forgotten. The "revised future" looks somewhat different. By the year 2000 food will be three times as dear as it is now, hot counting currency inflation. Automatic highways will not be built. At best, automobiles will have a more efficient fuel consumption. The super-jumbo jets with 1000 seats will not be flying by the end of the '70s, but at the earliest, by the '90s. The future was being revised in Philadelphia also. "Has the Club of Rome publicly abjured?" asked Newsweek, in view of its new slogan. The club, a loose association of about 100 industrialists and academics from various countries, has been regarded so far as a stern warning against too optimistic forecasts. If the present growth trend continues, it said in 1972, the limits of growth would be reached sometime within the next 100 years. Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome, denied in Philadelphia that its members had put themselves forward as capita income of about $20,000. Kahn's collaborator, Edmund Still-man, in a study commissioned by a French private bank, prophesies a particularly rosy future for the French. Very soon after 1980 France will overtake West Germany in production of goods and services to become Number One in Europe. The "Club of Rome," which in 1972 postulated the "limits of growth" and attracted powerful criticism, has come up with a slightly less pessimistic view of the world. Its new motto is "organic growth" and the optimistic slogan for its latest congress in Philadelphia was "New Horizons for Humanity." In a 10-part series the Wall Street Journal discusses which of the prophecies made 10 years ago have come true and which of them have to be corrected. The paper's researchers have found that the biggest mistake made by the futurologists has been their projections of population growth. On the one hand a birth explosion and a declining death rate in the developing countries have combined to increase the total world population much faster than anticipated. But in the United States, for instance, the trend is reversed. Already now there are 12,000,000 fewer inhabit advocates of zero population growth. Their study "Limits of Growth" which has sold in the meantime, 2,000,-000 copies was only intended, he says as a shock and a way of directing public attention to the problems. "Naturally we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable," he said. According to the modified formula, developed by the West German, Prof. Eduard Pestel, and his American colleague, Mihailo Mesarovic, what is needed now is "directed growth." "The important thing is in which way growth takes place, with what technology and in what branches of the economy," said Professor Ervin Laszlo of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. The outlines of a new world economic order are being drawn up in a new study commissioned by the Club of Rome from the Dutch economist and Nobel prizewinner Jan Tinbergen. Working with 20 other experts, he expects to have it ready by autumn of this year. The rough outline was already plain in Philadelphia larger currency reserves for the speedier financing of development projects in the Third World, stricter control of the multinational concerns and a world-wide co-ordinator of energy 'Men hunger for predictions as they hunger for bread in a famine . . .

23 comments:

  1. Grazie for this, Dr. Bardi... ALWAYS look forward to your posts...

    Love, Cindy
    (Sadly "living" in) Dallas, TX

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  2. When published, title of "Limits to Growth" said it all. That the growth of anything on the surface of a sphere must have limits was so obvious that I was surprised that anyone could doubt it. Forty six years later I still am shocked by the vastness of human stupidity. When will we ever learn.

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  3. The issue is of course, that growth is considered an inalienable right of human kind .. and even the COR was obliged to state that (in various guises). Do we have a philosophy/social mindset to encompass reduction - or will it happen anyway (likely) and our attitudes will have to do catch-up. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Allen_Bartlett

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    1. "the American way of life is non negotiable"

      (a succession of American presidents)

      everybody knows that

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  4. I think that "growth" was introduced in the post-war period as a replacement for redistribution: the elite was no longer willing to give up power and wealth because of demands from the lower classes, but was willing to grow the economy so that the lower classes would see their fortunes improve, while the capitalists would not have to sacrifice any of their wealth - the conflict between labor and capital became a conflict between industrialism and nature.

    So growth became an important piece of our economic discourse: the panacea for all ills, something that can appease both the Left and the Right, workers and capitalists, in the developed world and in former colonies.

    Of course pointing out that growth cannot go on forever would not be well received: the whole political economy outside of the Soviet Union rested on it.

    If one was willing to concede that infinite growth is not possible, then the same person would realize that eventually redistribution would be required, or the system would have to suffer another Bolshevik revolution.

    So that is how I frame the "face-saving double talk": Peccei was probably interested in stabilizing the capitalist system (the process of which LTG was supposed to be a "beginning" of), with redistribution and growth being both useful tools, but both having limits.

    And since growth is not possible indefinitely, redistribution would have to be considered.

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    1. Actually, it would go beyond that: they would realise that even redistribution will be able to provide no more than a temporary palliative.

      The idea of redistribution is indeed,once again, part of political discourse, as real Socialism,etc, comes back in Europe and Britain, but it is a false hope.

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    2. Why is redistribution false hope?

      I see it as pretty much the only possible trade-off: everybody has to reduce consumption, but the government makes sure that everybody is housed, fed and cared for.

      Other than increased redistribution, and reduced inequality, I see no other "plan" other than waiting to die while resources run out and the planet collapses.

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    3. of course its a false hope. even with redisribution providing everyone with basic needs in a zero growth economy, humans will still be in a colossal overshoot situation, the bloated balloon population completely supported by fossil fuels on a planet almost totally devoid of natural vegetation. and with at least 3 degrees c global warming 'in the bag'! its far too late for this now but socialist utopias would require unthinkable levels of continuous human steralization to work so can never be more than false hope.

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    4. Zero growth? That is way too optimistic.

      Growth will have to be negative for several years or decades. It is not that you will get no salary raises: the real value of your salary will have to be cut, year in year out, for a generation or longer.

      This will happen either in a planned way, where redistribution replaces growth as social stabilizer, or in an unplanned way, where BUA continues for a while longer, and then the world hits the wall of resource and environmental constraints. Consumption crashes because there is nothing left to consume.

      But either way, negative growth is what we will get. You only get to choose between the sugar-coated red pill, or the cyanide blue pill.

      Also note that "socialist utopias" is probably something out of a US Republican propaganda playbook.

      Redistribution as social glue was extensively practiced in the immediate postwar years in socialist hellholes like Germany and the Netherlands - social housing, free schools, almost free university education, appropriate unemployment benefits, affordable healthcare for everybody and state-regulated pensions in both countries continue to this day, although on somewhat reduced scales. This was explicitly done to prevent Communist revolts.

      Another rathole of commie depravation, the USA, did something similar for similar reasons: saving capitalism from its discontents. See http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_772.pdf, page 14.

      It is not overpopulation that causes our problems: it is an overconsuming population. Bring consumption down immediately and population over the longer run, and we might just have a way out.

      Keep on saying that actually doing something about our problems is a socialist utopia, and consumption and population will go down anyway. In a much less gentle way.

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  5. 'To believe in endless growth on a finite planet, you have to be either insane or an economist'

    And their ridiculous idea of growth 'decoupling' from actual 'stuff' is as insane as the initial premise, and amply disproved by actual usage of said 'stuff'!

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  6. growth is the abstract concept of energy input---thus to have infinite growth requires infinite energy = infinite heat output as a product of that energy use. Hence the planet gets cooked

    but no matter, growth is a '[good thing''

    And Julian Simon provided us all with the ultimate hilarity:
    ///////" "The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving," Cato Institute Policy Report, September/October 1995 [1]
    We now have in our hands — really, in our libraries — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years."
    "The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving," Cato Institute Policy Report, September/October 1995 [2] Via Julian Simon.///////

    Simon compounded his unaware black comedy by returning to correct his figures, stating that he meant to say 7 million years, not 7 billion.

    So that's sorted that out. Whoopee!!!

    But take a comment by Paul Krugman on how the economy functions:

    " My neighbour's spending pays my wages, and my spending pays his wages"

    Krugman gets a Nobel prize, and I don't? Tell me if I'm missing something here?

    They, and many others at every level regard energy input as a side issue.

    Because of that we can look forward to conflict in the near future because leaders cannot accept that growth is finite, and they must keep delivering growth because that is what they promised. People get nasty when privation (energy shortage) kicks in and politicos tend to get lynched.
    It is a Ponzi scheme on a global scale, and all ponzi schemes collapse, and right up to the last moment, no one admits that it is a ponzi scheme. Everyone believes that ''they'' will win out.

    But of course they won't, because unlike all previous Ponzi schemes that sucked in money, this one sucks in energy. And that energy is immediately finite.
    That is the bit that no one can believe

    That our oilparty is finally over. (as is our foodparty)

    I've tried to explain it more comprehensively here:

    https://medium.com/@End_of_More/the-oilparty-is-over-c06d3c723655

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  7. Probably one of the most influential books of the 20. century has been a 19. century treatise on economy in three volumes, written by a German philosopher turnerd economist.

    Therefore, I think it is still possible that Limits to Growth becomes one of the most influential books of the present century.

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  8. A dollar only has value as long as more and more dollars are being generated behind it. Stop this process or even slow it down a bit and all hell breaks loose. Here is where everyone and their great grandmother says " but making more dollars devalues the existing dollars". WRONG!

    Sure in a finite space and time the more dollars you add into the system the more dollars people have to spend on any given item so the price of that given item goes up. You can also have a finite amount of dollars and a declining amount of any given item and the price will go up too.

    The greatest threat is that no more dollars can enter the system. If that happens everything...and I mean everything screeches to a grinding halt, dollars will disappear faster than anyone here can possibly imagine.

    TPTB understands all this and what has been happening over the last 10 years or so is an attempt to disconnect the growth of dollars from the growth of resources. Great Idea buuttt no can do.

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  9. Many seem to instinctively understand, that the end of growth does indeed implicate the end of capitalism. The shadow of an end of capitalism had always loomed behind "limits to growth" and this is the reason why it has been treated the way it has by the defenders of the status quo.

    But if not capitalism, what then?

    The reflexive "socialism did not work" argument, that follows any criticism of capitalism, points to state socialism in the former soviet union and its vassals and claims that capitalism is still better than "the alternative". This is just a sham and its purpose is to forbid any discussion about a postcapitalist system.

    But the end of growth forces us to think hard and long about alternatives. We need an open and real discussion about what had worked in the past and what had not. If we take the limits to growth seriously, we need to find a way into a postgrowth and postcapitalist future, but this is even less discussed and more demonized than the limits to growth itself.

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    1. Very true, Alien Observer: but you may have observed that societies and economies are not rational constructions, and that politics never deals in honest and open discussion - our 'goose is cooked'.

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  10. Most governments around the world no longer represents the people they represent the wealthy and big corporations. They are 100% convinced that this is the best way to serve the population, the best way to grow, and now the only way to grow. They are gradually manipulating the way an economy is measured so they can show growth in a declining environment. Obviously at some point this will no longer be possible but by then we will have long since breached the apex of the cliff.

    All that is left to do is to make sure everyone is taken care of equally, and I don't mean "taken care of" in a hitman kind of way.

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  11. iirc. the world's population consumes all that the world can sustainably produce per annum after eight months. Haven't we reached the limits of growth some time ago?

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    1. Yes, clearly. (Almost) No economist wants to admit it though.

      In theory there is a phase when a system is in overshoot where by intensivation productivity can be sustained or increased by exploiting future means of production (carrying capacity). This is where we are now and why a seneca cliff looms.

      See here

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    2. Or see here at paul chefurkas excellent site: http://www.paulchefurka.ca/CC_Overshoot.html

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)