The development of The Club of Rome

In the late 1960s a motley group of businessmen, academics and scientists met in Rome. They had come together from a wide variety of backgrounds but all with a desire to better understand our changing planet and express their concerns. Led by Aurelio Peccei, an Italian businessman, and Alexander King, a Scottish scientist, the group pondered the future of humankind on what they considered to be a planet limited in size.

Fundamental questions were posed about the destiny of mankind: Could the economies of the world keep growing indefinitely at the high rates experienced in the post World War period? Would population growth ultimately reaffirm a Malthusean future? An Italian film crew are currently making a documentary about Peccei and have uncovered interviews with those at the time. It is interesting and moving to note just how much influence the early photographs from outer space of planet earth had on Peccei and King. It reaffirmed, in their minds, that planet earth was finite. It started an intellectual dialogue that continues today: Could there be limits to how much our population and its economy could grow?

Limits to growth and the birth of systems thinking

A further chance meeting with Jay Forrester, an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) would eventually result in one of the most influential books of our time: “Limits to Growth”. Forrester was developing a new generation of models focused, at the time, on what he termed industrial dynamics later to be termed systems dynamics: the birth of systems thinking that could be undertaken with a new generation of powerful computers.

A team was assembled at MIT to undertake an ambitious program of modelling the planet and understanding the various interactions of economic change, population growth and pollution. “The Limits to Growth: A Report to the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind” was published in 1972 to a mixture of wide acclaim and derision. To some it revealed a new hope for changing our global production and consumption patterns to ones that would later be described as “sustainable”; to others (most notably economists) it was a shallow report ignoring the likelihood of technological substitution and innovation.

Despite its highly technical nature it sold well over one million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages. It started a debate that continues today. It introduced new ideas: the idea of connectivity and the need to analyze systems of issues and their relationships; it set out plausible and reasonable scenarios of the future and not, as was frequently noted, doom and gloom predictions; it opened our eyes to thinking about the long-term and the kind of world we want our children to inherit. Along with an earlier book by Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”), “Limits to Growth” spawned the ecological movement. The pioneers of ecological economics and the scientists working on planetary boundaries owe much to the MIT’s work and the Club of Rome’s support and advocacy for its findings.

Analysis & debate for influencing policy and thought

The Club of Rome has continued its belief that good analysis combined with insightful debate can have a profound impact on public policy thinking and intellectual reasoning. Since the publication of “Limits to Growth”, the Club of Rome has supported more than thirty books covering issues such as our common oceans, the role of knowledge, the future of work and employment, and, more recently and in light of the fortieth anniversary of “Limits to Growth”, a futures look at the world (“2052: A Global Forecast” by Jorgen Randers, a member of the original MIT team).

An independent forum for global thinking

The Club of Rome has held to its values of encouraging independent research on key issues that affect the future of humanity on earth; of assessing issues through a holistic and systems lens; of looking at global issues over the medium to long term; and of offering broad forward looking policy solutions. The Club of Rome was a pioneer in encouraging public policy debate on the future of our planet and of offering hope that solutions are there for the taking. Since the 1970s many think-tanks, academics and futurologists have emerged, all making a valuable contribution to our thinking about life on earth and, in particular, the environmental concerns have been amplified at both the local and global level. 

The forty year anniversary of “Limits to Growth” has stimulated a new debate and a growing concern about the future of humanity on earth. The Club of Rome is again raising issues and asking new questions:

  • on values and beliefs and how these will be reflected in a changing world;
  • on our fundamental relationship with nature and the fixed natural capital of the planet;
  • on how “off-track” our current economic and financial systems are in providing the resilience and the sustainability of goods and services for ourselves and future generations;
  • and how our political and governance systems are too short term to deal effectively with the issues we face.

Helping to design our common future

Over this past decade we have witnessed sufficient evidence that the world is not on a resilient and sustainable pathway. Much remains to be done to bring the 2 billion of fellow planetary residents to a quality of life above the dire poverty they currently endure. The evidence increases by the year that all humanity will eventually pay a price for the current and projected global environmental deterioration. Finding the pathways that provide jobs for all in a cleaner, safer and happier world remains a challenge but one which cannot and must not be shied away from. The Club of Rome hopes that it can continue to play its part in the effective design of our common future.

December 2012