This is the first in a series of what amount to book reviews, where I'll be looking at books that have played an important role in shaping my thinking.
Late in the summer of 1977, on the way home from our honeymoon, my wife and I stopped at the Coles bookstore in Barrie, Ontario and I picked up a copy of the Limits to Growth. Remember, this was before the internet and before even big box bookstores like Chapters were a common thing, certainly in rural Ontario where I lived. A stop at a bookstore was an opportunity not to be missed, even if it wasn't very romantic conclusion to one's honeymoon.
The advent of the internet, which became available in the mid 90s around here, was a great thing for me. Now when I develop a sudden interest in a topic, I can read up on it within minutes. It used to be much harder and more expensive to find information on anything.
At any rate, The limits to Growth had been out for about 5 years at that time and I had heard about it somewhere, possible on TV or in a magazine. So when I saw a copy, I grabbed it.
I read the book, and my margin notes from back then sound like a progress worshipper trying to hold onto some hope.
I was (and still am) an avid reader of science fiction. The writers I was following took The Limits as a personal affront, and set about showing where it was wrong. They claimed that technology would save the day, especially space technology like solar power satellites and asteroid mining. This reassured me and I got on with the business of earning a living and raising a family
Sometime around the turn of the century I stumbled upon a Peak Oil website(The Oldavai Theory) and had my first encounter with that concept. I found it rather horrific and had trouble accepting the idea. But work as a supervisor at the provincial electrical utility (Ontario Hydro) and at home in my printing and graphics business kept me too busy to worry much. There was always the reassuring thought that surely technology will save us.
Multiple reorganizations and downsizings at what eventually became known at "Hydro One" made me even more cynical than I already was and sent me looking for more information about Peak Oil and Collapse. I'll cover some of the books I read in future posts, but at any rate, I was soon convinced.
I retired in 2005 and started looking much deeper. Improbable as it had once seemed, The Limits to Growth was right after all,
A few weeks ago I dug out my copy of The Limits to Growth and read it again, for the first time in nearly forty years. This lead me to do some further research in order to figure out how this book got written, in a world where growth was seen as an economic necessity.
As often happens, I found so much material that one post has turned into two (maybe more). This first one will cover the background and the second will consider the content of "The Limits to Growth".
(Much of what follows is taken pretty much directly from Wikipedia, interspersed with my comments on its significance.)
Peccei was born in Turin, Italy in 1908, making him about a year older than my father. He became an economist and worked for Fiat. He was under suspicion as an anti-fascist in the 1930s and was involved with the resistance during WWII. In 1944, when he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, came within an ace of execution and escaped to lie in hiding until the liberation.
After the war, Peccei was engaged in the rebuilding of Fiat. Furthermore, he was engaged in various private and public efforts then underway to rebuild Italy, including the founding of Alitalia.
In 1949, he accepted to go to Latin America for Fiat, to restart their operations, as Fiat operations in Latin America had been halted during the war. He settled in Argentina, where he lived for nearly a decade with his family. He quickly realised that it would make sense to start manufacturing locally and set up the Argentine subsidiary, Fiat-Concord, which built cars and tractors. Fiat-Concord rapidly became one of the most successful automotive firms in Latin America.
In 1958, with the backing of Fiat, Peccei founded Italconsult (a para-public joint consultancy venture involving major Italian firms such as Fiat, Innocenti, Montecatini), and became its Chairman, a position he held until the 1970s, when he became Honorary President. Italconsult was an engineering and economic consulting group for developing countries. It operated under Peccei’s leadership, on the whole, more as a non-profit consortium. Italconsult was regarded by Peccei as a way of helping tackle the problems of the Third World, which he had come to know first-hand in Latin America.
In 1964, Peccei was asked to become President of Olivetti. Olivetti was facing significant difficulties at that time due to the profound changes occurring in the office machine sector. Peccei, with his foresight and his entrepreneurial vision, was able to turn the situation at Olivetti around.
But Peccei was not content merely with the substantial achievements of Italconsult, or his responsibilities as President of Olivetti, and threw his energies into other organisations as well, including ADELA, an international consortium of bankers aimed at supporting industrialisation in Latin America. He was asked to give the keynote speech in Spanish at the group's first meeting in 1965, which is where the series of coincidences leading to the creation of the Club of Rome began.
It took me a bit of searching to find Peccei's ADELA paper on line, but I finally did. It is titled "The Challenge for the 1970s for the World of Today" and calls for an effort to spread prosperity to a wider area of the world, an effort to be lead by Europe, due to its "central" position in the world, but with a large role for the USA as well. What Peccei was talking about was what we would today call "development" and he advised that effort should focus first on the Soviet bloc and Latin America. It is probably worth reading this speech for the perspective it gives on the state of the world in 1965. It is clear that though Peccei was an economist and a business man, he was also very much an idealist with the best interests of his fellow man at heart.
Peccei's speech caught the attention of Dean Rusk, then American Secretary of State, who had it translated into English and distributed at various meetings in Washington. A Soviet representative at the annual meeting of the United Nations Advisory Committee on Science and Technology (ACAST), Jermen Gvishiani, Alexei Kosygin's son-in-law and vice-chairman of the State Committee on Science and Technology of the Soviet Union, read the speech and was so taken by it that he decided he should invite the author to come for private discussions, outside Moscow. Gvishiani therefore asked an American colleague on ACAST, Carroll Wilson, about Peccei. Wilson did not know Peccei, but he and Gvishiani both knew Alexander King, by then Director General for Scientific Affairs for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, so Wilson appealed to him for information.
As it happened, King did not know Peccei, but he was equally impressed by the ADELA paper and tracked down its author via the Italian Embassy in Paris. King wrote to Peccei, passing on Gvishiani's address and wish to invite him to the Soviet Union, but also congratulating him on his paper and suggesting that they might meet some time as they obviously shared similar concerns. Peccei telephoned King and they arranged to have lunch.
The two men got on extremely well from the very outset. They met several times in the latter part of 1967 and early 1968, and then decided that they had to do something constructive to encourage longer-range thinking among Western European governments.
Peccei accordingly persuaded the Agnelli Foundation to fund a two-day brainstorming meeting on 7–8 April 1968 of around 30 European economists and scientists at the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. The goal of the meeting was to discuss the ideas of Peccei and King of the globality of problems facing mankind and of the necessity of acting at the global level. The meeting at the Accademia dei Lincei was not a success, partly due to the difficulty of the participants to focus on a distant future.
After the meeting there was an informal gathering of a few people in Peccei’s home, which included Erich Jantsch (one of the great methodologists of planning studies), Alexander King, Hugo Thiemann, Lauro Gomes-Filho, Jean Saint-Geours and Max Kohnstamm. According to King, within an hour they had decided to call themselves the Club of Rome and had defined the three major concepts that have formed the Club's thinking ever since: a global perspective, the long term, and the cluster of intertwined problems they called "the problematique". Although the Rome meeting had been convened with just Western Europe in mind, the group realised that they were dealing with problems of much larger scale and complexity: in short, "the predicament of mankind". The notion of problematique excited some because it seemed applicable at a universal level, but worried others, who felt that the approach was valid only for smaller entities such as a city or community. Saint-Geours and Kohnstamm therefore soon dropped out, leaving the others to pursue their informal programme of learning and debate.
Thus started what Peccei called "the adventure of the spirit". He was fond of stating that, “If the Club of Rome has any merit, it is that of having been the first to rebel against the suicidal ignorance of the human condition.” Peccei felt "It is not impossible to foster a human revolution capable of changing our present course."
I think it is fairly amazing, from my perspective well into the 21st century, that a group such as this would even admit there was such a thing as a "problematique", a "predicament of mankind". Much less make addressing it their main goal. The "business as usual" part of society today resolutely refuses to consider that there is anything fundamentally wrong. But those were different times.
At any rate, a series of early meetings of the Club of Rome culminated in the decision to initiate a remarkably ambitious undertaking&emdash;the Project on the Predicament of Mankind. This was embodied in a document, "The Predicament of Mankind, a Quest for Structured Responses to Growing World-Wide Complexities and Uncertainties, A Proposal.". This is the heart of the proposal:
With reference to the project under consideration, the major objectives of the Club of Rome are:
1)To examine, as systematically as possible, the nature and configuration of the profound imbalances that define today's problematique throughout the world, and to attempt to determine the dynamics of the interactions which seemingly exacerbate the situation as a whole.
2)To develop an initial, coarse-grain, "model" or models of this dynamic situation in the expectation that such models will reveal both those systemic components that are most critical and those interactions that are most generally dangerous for the future.
3)To construct a "normative" overview from the foregoing models and to clarify the action implications &emdash;i.e., the political, social, economic, technological, institutional, etc., consequences &emdash;that such an overview might entail and substantiate.
4)To bring everything that has been learnt as a result of this initial effort, to the attention of those in political authority, in the hope that such findings might stimulate the conception of new lines of policy that would be effective in coping with our situation's overall dynamics and its world-wide dimensions.
5)To persuade governments to convene a World Forum,* with whose consent, support, and encouragement an intensive dialogue concerning the findings of the project would be initiated to the end that a much larger and deeper effort could be undertaken. Such an effort would aim at developing the needed operational "macro-models" conducive to endeavors at integrated policy-planning and to the development of new institutions within whose frame of competence such work could be carried out.
This proposal is a fairly tall order, even the first two items basically call for building a model of the world's systems and how they interact. Fortunately, someone was already at work on that job.
Jay Forrester was born on a farm near Anselmo, Nebraska, where "his early interest in electricity was spurred, perhaps, by the fact that the ranch had none. While in high school, he built a wind-driven, 12-volt electrical system using old car parts — it gave the ranch its first electric power."
Forrester received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1939 from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Inducted into Eta Kappa Nu (HKN) the Electrical & Computer Engineering Honor Society in 1949, and went on to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he would spend his entire career. During the 1940s and early 50s, he did research in electrical and computer engineering, heading the Whirlwind project and developing the "Multi-coordinate digital information storage device (coincident-current system), the forerunner of today's RAM. He is believed to have created the first animation in the history of computer graphics, a "jumping ball" on an oscilloscope.
In 1956, Forrester moved to the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is currently (2016) Germeshausen Professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer. In 1961, he wrote about the expanding effects down the supply chains due to fluctuations in demand, thenceforth known as the "Forrester effect" or Bull whip effect.
Forrester is the founder of system dynamics, which deals with the simulation of interactions between objects in dynamic systems. Industrial Dynamics was the first book Forrester wrote using system dynamics to analyze industrial business cycles. Several years later, interactions with former Boston Mayor John F. Collins led Forrester to write Urban Dynamics, which sparked an ongoing debate on the feasibility of modeling broader social problems.
At around the same time as the Club of Rome was releasing its "Proposal", Forrester headed a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on the implications of continued growth on population increase, agriculture production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.
At the Club of Rome's first annual meeting in Bern in 1970, Forrester made an offer to adapt his dynamic model to handle global issues. A fortnight later, a group of Club members visited Forrester at MIT and were convinced that the model could be made to work for the kind of global problems which interested the Club.
The results of the study were published in the 1972 book "The Limits to Growth". Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and commissioned by the Club of Rome, it was first presented at the St. Gallen Symposium. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems.
Dennis Meadows was the project Director for the study, heading a team of 16, including the other three authors of the book. In her "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System", Dana (Donella) Meadows tells us that
the systems community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have absorbed one of his favorite stories. "People know intuitively where leverage points are. Time after time I've done an analysis of a company, and I've figured out a leverage point. Then I've gone to the company and discovered that everyone is pushing it in the wrong direction!"
The classic example of that backward intuition was Forrester's first world model. Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems—poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment—are related and how they might be solved, Forrester came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Both population and economic growth. Growth has costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction—the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! The world's leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.
Even in 1972, the idea that growth might not be a good thing was sacrilege and The Limits to Growth met with a great deal of criticism. Much of this was from people that, judging from the comments they made, had not even bothered to read the book, but instead chose to attack a "straw man" version of the idea that there might be limits to growth.
In my next post I'll summarize the contents of the book and let you know what I think of it.