The Club of Rome at 40 – 27th June 2008
November 4, 2008

One of the organizations that helped trigger the post-war environment movement – The Club of Rome – has turned 40. I was in Rome last week for the commemorative activities. I have been a member since the early 1990s and I always return from the annual meetings full of new ideas about how the world is changing.

The Club grew out of initiatives from two people who found themselves speaking on the same issue on different platforms – what the high rate of economic growth was doing to the environment.

Aurelio Peccei was a leading Italian industrialist and wartime hero who opposed the fascist dictatorship. When the US began rebuilding Italy after the war, his military record and management skills made him highly suitable to run Fiat and then Olivetti. He was born exactly 100 years ago next week (on July 4).

The other co-founder was Alexander King, a British civil servant who specialized in mobilizing science for government and civilian activities. He too had had a colourful wartime career: in the corridors of power. After serving the British Government on science policy, he went Paris to work at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the club of rich western countries.

One of Peccei’s speeches caught the attention of Dean Rusk, then the Secretary of State in the Johnson Administration in the USA. He had the speech circulated because this was a new issue for him (and for many others). Eventually King got to see the speech and they met up.

Their message was an unpopular one. Countries were grateful to have recovered from the war and (assuming they could avoid a World War III with the Soviet Union), life would just continue to become materially better and better. And then in mid-1960s these two people started warning about the damage to the environment. We now know they were right – but this is not what people wanted to hear four decades ago.

Peccei and King commissioned a computer study to see what the trends were suggesting. The computer modelling was very primitive by our standards today. But the resulting book – “Limits to Growth” – became the biggest selling environment book in world history (about 30 million copies in 30 languages).

The book suggested that the planet would be in trouble by about 2040.

This was a very controversial warning – and The Club remains suspect in some areas to this day. Right-wingers argue that the “market” will solve environmental resource problems, while the communists argued that Karl Marx had said that all problems can be solved by new technology – and so (depending on where you were on the political spectrum) there was no need to worry. Ignore the alarmists like The Club of Rome because all will be well. Ironically their attacks helped publicise the book and foster sales!

The third (and current) edition still talks about 2040. Some people did listen to the warnings in the first (January 1972) edition and so some improvements have been made (eg the tabling of environmental legislation and the creation of departments of the environment). But the first edition did not foresee the dramatic rise of China and India in the past three decades.

When I was in Rome last week the media’s main concerns were the looming global food shortage and the increased price of petrol. It seemed that Peccei and King were right in their warnings.

The creation of The Club is a remarkable example of what two determined people can do to save the earth. We need many more of them.