Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Club of Rome is back


This picture was taken at the initial session of the meeting of the Club of Rome in Basel. Switzerland, held on Oct 17-18 2011 and titled "International conference on the future of energy."  From left to right, sitting at the tables, Guy Marin, mayor of Basel, Ian Johnson, secretary general of the Club  of Rome and Leena Srivastava of TERI (India). On the left, a glimpse of Martin Lees, former secretary general of the Club of Rome.

Yes, the Club of Rome is back. Actually, it had never gone away, but the demonization campaign that had been unleashed against its 1972 report, "The Limits to Growth," had largely convinced the public that the Club's approach to the world's problems had been based on a "wrong" model.

Instead, it turned out that the model was not wrong. The recent turmoil, the economic recession, the worries about "peak oil", and the rapid rise in the price of all mineral commodities have brought back the interest on "The Limits to Growth". That brings the sponsor of the report, the Club of Rome, again under the spotlight.

I am just back from a meeting on energy that the Club of Rome organized in Basel. When I have some time, I'll see to report on it in detail. For the time being, I can just note that I was surprised (but not so much) in finding at the meeting the kind of atmosphere that I had always imagined the Club's reunions would have. Of course, many things have changed from the time of the foundation of the Club, almost half a century ago. It may be that, today, the Club's activity is more focalized on practical solutions to the world's problems, whereas at the beginning it was more in understanding what the future had in store for humankind. But some elements of the Club's approach remain the same: the international vision, the "system approach", the attention to the interdependency of the ecosystem and the industrial system, the focus on the social problems and on the welfare of the poor.

That the Club of Rome could maintain its vision for all those years is all the more remarkable considering that it has been always defined as a "non-organization" that explicitly chose to avoid rigid and formal rules. It may be because of the personality of the founders, Aurelio Peccei, Alexander King, and several others. Or maybe it is because there is something intrinsically good in the Club's way of facing the world's problems. In any case, the Club of Rome still has a lot to say on how to manage our future.



3 comments:

  1. I remember the first time I saw a copy of The Limits to Growth, and it was like a light bulb going off. Not that I read or understood all of it. Just seeing the graphs, and grasping that the 'science' of economics existed in a bubble separate from the real world - that was enough to turn me off from free-market libertarianism, and onto ecological approaches.

    Externalities, third-party costs and resource constraints were mapped out -- factors that a capitalist system would never recognize. The need for a new way of doing things, connected to the reality of the physical ecosystem, became readily apparent.

    I'm just a little dazed to think that the Club is still meeting -- I thought they'd died with the 1970s and flares!

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  2. It's fascinating, but also sad, that the natural science of growth and development has yet to become part of the discussion. Such great effort, of such great consequence, for so long a time, shouldn't be so narrow minded.

    Growth of any kind starts by a system emerging to multiply its control of its environment, a divergent process, one exhibiting essentially “limitless greed”. That process of exploding scale can't continue, but the system can if like any plant or organism its growth changes from 1) diverging from its old form to 2) converging on its new form, by maturing.

    There’s a simple rule for the internal mechanism doing that. Growth requires the system to have a profit, that is used to multiply its process. That’s naturally unsustainable. The system can only then survive if its profits continue to be made, but stop being used for that purpose, and are devoted to other needs.

    Growth essentially always starts with unbounded greed. It then thrives in the end only by discovering generosity. Greed is ultimately no fun, like hoarding money till it destroys your community.

    I'm trying to make the physical science of this "cultural sounding enough", but believe me, it's the underlying certainty of the principles that you should also try to understand. That’s what really must be understood for us to see how to correct our cultural error in designing a society for endless growth.

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  3. "That’s what really must be understood for us to see how to correct our cultural error in designing a society for endless growth."
    Endless Growth is our Human destiny. Exploration put much of Europe, volunteers all, into the Americas, with vastly better lives and futures; from Brazil to Alaska.
    It'll continue in endless expansion outside our planet. It's our nature: quite different from Bacteria, Lemurs or Orang-Utans.

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