Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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 . . .

Who

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)