Donella Meadows Archives

The Club of Rome and sustainable development

By Umberto Colombo

Accademia  Nazionale  dei Lincei, Rome, Italy
Tel.: +39-064744359;  fax: +39-064824111.
E-mail address:  umcolombo [at]  (U. Colombo).



What remains  of The limits  to growth  after 25 years?  What impact  would  it have in the next 25 years? This essays attempts to answer these questions by examining the notions of sustainability  and eco-technologies.
Copyright 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.


The first report of the Club of Rome was the famous The limits to growth, brought out in 1972 by an MIT research team coordinated by Dennis and Donella Meadows. It caused a great sensation because of its clear message. At the time it was published the international monetary system was shaky, the economy was in a depression, the new environmental movement was gaining ground, and society was being stirred up by student protests. The conclusions of the report were dramatic. Briefly these were that in a basically closed system like the Earth it is impossible for the population, food production, industrialization, the exploitation of natural resources and pollution of the environment to continue to experience exponential growth without sooner or later collapsing. (The report forecast this to occur around the second half of the twenty-first century.) The report concluded that to prevent this disaster, a collective commitment would be needed to curb the indiscriminate growth of the economy and achieve global equilibrium.

As many of us will recall, while the report was enthusiastically received by environmentalists, it was less well received by politicians, managers and economists. Only the most enlightened of this latter group appreciated the MIT team’s courageous attempt to build a model for exploring the alternative futures of the world based on system dynamics computer modeling. Few realized the advantages—in terms of the governability of the planet—of a strategic approach underpinned by these advanced analysis and forecasting tools. The Limits report was also greatly criticized by both the right and the left. What they disapproved of was not so much its specific content but its implication of a “zero growth” economy, which many interpreted (and this was not the Club of Rome’s intention) as the underlying thesis of the report.

A year and a half after the report came out, the first oil crisis exploded in concomitance with the Yom Kippur war between Egypt and Israel in October 1973. This seemed to confirm that the excessive exploitation of non-renewable sources was triggering serious problems.

There was considerable anxiety from 1973 to the early 1980s (later proved to be excessive) about the inadequate supply of energy, mineral and food resources. But around the middle of the 1980s it became clear that the real limit to growth was not the imminent depletion of natural resources, it was the risk that production, consump- tion and pollution would reach the threshold of Earth’s inherent resilience. Sus- tainable development, therefore, means reconciling the need to extract resources from the environment with the equally important need to preserve a rich environment that can continue to supply what is required without sacrificing future generations. This is the definition of sustainable development as it was spelt out in Our common future, the final report of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, published in 1987. It affirmed that “humanity has the possibility of making development sustainable, that is of ensuring that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept of sustainable development involves limits, but not absolute ones, since they are imposed on economic resources by the present state of technology and social organization and by the capacity of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. Technology and social organization can, however, be managed and improved to usher in a new era of economic growth.”

It is an indisputable merit of the Club of Rome, and of Aurelio Peccei in particular, to have spelt out the central problem of our time (unsustainability of the world demographic and economic trends), and to try to find a way to stop the system collapsing. Peccei was worried about the devastating progress of humanity. But he was sure that once people had acquired a new power over nature they would have felt the need to guide Earth’s evolution towards a general improvement. In other words, Peccei was convinced that every inhabitant of the world needed to acquire a sense of responsibility, both global and intergenerational. To achieve this, it was necessary to rely on humanistic qualities and to eschew short-term visions leading to unacceptable imbalances.

Aurelio Peccei and the Club of Rome have always been on the side of democracy and free initiative. But they have never shared a completely laissez-faire vision of the  market economy. It is true that the market is indispensable for allocating resources, balancing the demand and supply of goods and services and stimulating innovation and competition; it is equally true that a complete reliance on the market, which is affected by an intrinsic myopia and therefore unable to anticipate problems and trends arising in the long term, could have serious consequences. Hence the Club of Rome’s idea of the irreplaceable role of the State in correcting and utilizing market forces. But the political management of such a complex system as Planet Earth can no longer be entrusted to traditional States: the nation-state is too large to tackle small, local problems and too small to tackle global ones. A much better coordinated system is needed, incorporating international and supranational insti- tutions to ensure the governance of the planet. At the other extreme, a bottom-up approach is needed, to “think globally, act locally”. This means we all have to aim for solidarity and acquire a sense of responsibility—global and intergenerational— in our own long-term interests and in those of our descendants.

Peccei’s works, and many of the reports to the Club of Rome, claim that global solidarity is the best stimulus for achieving the two, apparently contrasting, goals of economic and social growth: maintaining the quality of the environment and the stability of global climate. These goals are in our common interests, yet their connec- tions with daily life are too remote to be readily grasped. In the rich countries, underdevelopment is a remote problem, perceived only when faced with the pressures of immigration or the revolt of the socially underprivileged. In the poor countries, the pressing concerns of survival and satisfying the most elementary needs over- whelm worries about the quality of the environment. The rich countries cannot impose development patterns on developing countries which do not offer an improve- ment in their living conditions, without giving themselves an example of a parsimoni- ous use of resources. Rich and poor countries have to seek together solutions to global problems, as both can benefit from them. It just has to be ensured that the benefits are shared equitably and do not further widen the existing gap.

The so-called “ecotechnologies” have to be developed for a more effective use of resources. Today, we use the environment as a supplier of raw materials which, in turn, produce an environment that uses up energy and other resources to obtain all sorts of products, bringing about unnecessary pollution and waste. Ecotechnologies help to use resources more efficiently by encouraging their recycling and more com- plete utilization, and allow advanced industrial societies to progress towards an econ- omy of quality rather than quantity. These technologies must be developed and dis- seminated to control the excessive generation of waste from present unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. We can only agree with Giorgio Nebbia, when he claims in his admirable article in Futuribili, that if technology can decrease the amount of materials [and energy] needed per unit of service supplied, the advent of a completely non-material or dematerialized society is a Utopia.

The great challenge for science and technology is to find out which resources, industrial processes, and solutions can lessen the impact of human activities until they are consonant with the environment’s ability to regulate and restore itself. But if we want to understand and control the complexity of nature and human activities it is also necessary to learn more about the environment and natural laws, ranging from those on individual phenomena to those governing interactions between the environment and the ecosystems and between the processes occurring within them, including those due to human intervention. We could thus help the global ecosystem regain its sustainability, and prepare it to accept greater demands from human activi- ties; new knowledge and new technological solutions can pave the way to “inventing” new resources. It is true that the environment is finite and ecosystems are vulnerable, but this does not mean that there are fixed limits to the exploitation of nature and human interventions on ecosystems; these limits, although they have to be imposed, can be gradually eased as scientific and technological knowledge develops.

The development and dissemination of much more efficient technologies and organizational structures to achieve sustainable development worldwide should be one of the goals of international politics. Although this goal involves all countries, the industrialized regions must carry the larger share of responsibility. This is because they can rely on more advanced tools and technologies, as well as having the capital and structures to develop them. Moreover, although representing a modest percentage of the world population, industrialized countries still use a much greater proportion of Earth’s resources. Helping developing countries to achieve sustainable development is not so much altruism as a way of providing a safer future for all humanity. The problem of sustainable development, seen from both a socioeconomic and an environmental perspective, has been triggered by the extraordinary growth of the human species (5 million people 10,000 years ago when agriculture began to almost 6 billion today, increasing to probably 10 billion by the end of the next century) and the simultaneous increase (by over 100 times) of the resources used by each person.

I think it is fair to state that research on sustainable development was prompted by the work carried out by the Club of Rome in its first thirty years of life. Up to 1984, when Aurelio Peccei passed away, the Club of Rome was under his charismatic leadership. It then had to face a difficult identity crisis. In the 1990s, the Club of Rome tried to get rid of the doomsday image attributed to it by a simplistic interpretation of Limits and concentrated on the possibility of tackling global problems and starting to solve them. This is what prompted the report by Alexander King and Bertrand Schneider, The first global revolution (1991), on which, however, there would be much to discuss. And this is also the sense of the report Beyond the limits (1992) by Dennis and Donella Meadows with Jørgen Randers, who concluded that it is both technically and economically possible to achieve a sustainable society, and that such a goal would be much more desirable than a society seeking to solve its problems through maximizing short-term economic growth. But the transition towards a sustainable society requires a great effort to balance short- and long-term priorities, focuses on equity and quality of life rather than on the quantity of the product. In a situation where society rewards managers abilities to increase their companies’ short-term profits and the productivity of labor at risk of unemployment, the authors of Beyond the limits were brave to affirm that the most important talents of decision makers are maturity, wisdom and compassion.

Among the latest studies of the Club of Rome I would like to mention those on governance, which prompted a report by Yechezkel Dror (to be followed by a report being written by Ruud Lubbers) and a report on the evolution of labor (by Orio Giarini and Patrick Liedtke), as well as the more well-known report Factor four by Ernst von Weizsa¨ cker and Amory and Hunter Lovins, which aroused a lively and constructive debate on the effective use of resources.

I hope it is clear that the activities carried out and promoted by the Club of Rome have gradually evolved from discussing limits to using the know-how acquired for promoting new policies and strategies to lead humanity along more equitable and sounder paths. It is not easy to progress from denouncing the great problems of the world to finding effective therapies for them. And studies on possible futures are indispensable for mobilizing resources towards the great goal of sustainability.

The organizers of this meeting have posed the question: what remains today of The limits to growth and what will remain in 25 years time? Personally, I have no doubt that the memory of the Club of Rome’s first report and the prophetic messages of Aurelio Peccei will still be alive in 25 years from now and long beyond. What matters, as Wendell Bell rightly observes in his fine article in the issue of the Futuribili magazine being launched today, is that, after The limits to growth, it has not been, and never again will be, possible to ignore the global dimensions of the threats to the human community.

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