“Could you come and take some notes? And while you’re at it, have someone bring coffee”. So began my adventure with the Club of Rome: I actually entered through the service door. This invitation was put to me by Hugo Thiemann, Director General of the Battelle Institute of Geneva. A few months earlier I had sent him my book on Europe and Space and he had been impressed by it. It was June of 1968.*
The previous March he had taken part in a meeting in Rome organised by Aurelio Peccei at the headquarters of the ancient Accademia dei Lincei, when some of the participants had given their agreement to the founding of a think tank to be called “The Club of Rome”. For many years its President, it went without saying, elected without a formal vote, was Peccei himself, until his death in 1984.
Hugo Thiemann had invited the managing committee of the Club to hold a meeting in Geneva, at the Institute’s headquarters, route de Drize in Carouge, a city of Sardinian origin, which formed part of Savoy, forming a kind of advance frontier post at the time when the future kings of Italy were still sovereigns straddling the Alps between Savoy and Piedmont.
The huge Battelle park, with four main buildings and several small laboratories which accommodated a thousand staff between researchers and other employees, was a symbol of a period rich in research and thought. Thiemann was a physicist. Before the Second World War he had contributed to the development of the cathode tube which would be used in television sets. Thanks to these noble titles, the Battelle Foundation, Columbus, Ohio, appointed him Director General of Battelle, Geneva, right from its founding in the 1950s.
Aurelio Peccei had a great deal of industrial experience. Before the First World War he had worked in China and spoke a little Chinese. During the second conflict he had been one of the leaders of the anti-fascist resistance, and had risked being shot. Having worked for Fiat after the war he played a part in the normalisation of that great company which for many years was run by Valletta. Valletta with the intention of making the most of Peccei’s abilities, had sent him to Argentina where he developed Fiat’s investments and business, and also set up a large society for study and economic promotion in that part of the world, the ADELA.
On his return to Italy in the 1960s he became Vice President of Olivetti and of Italconsult (a very important consultancy firm) and began to devote himself to the study of social questions. His priority was to show that the world had become smaller and more interdependent: any event that took place in any part of the globe could have ever greater, significant and even serious consequences anywhere else.
The main danger was allowing the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States to explode in tragedy, added to which there was the problem of economic development in the world, the fight against poverty and all the possible conflicts and confrontations that could provoke global disasters. In 1969, through Macmillan, Peccei had published a book called Chasm Ahead (Sull’orlo del baratro) on the crises the planet would have to face. He did so in order to create a debate and find solutions. All of this led to his being the inspirer and organiser of the Club of Rome, supported in particular by Alexander King.
Alexander King was the Director-General of OECD in Paris for scientific and technological matters. King was a Scottish scientist, generous and tough, a member of an ancient clan that had fought against the king of England. He recounted how his family had lost their final battle and had had to change their name and take the name of the winner “King”. Alexander King contributed greatly by introducing to the Club of Rome the awareness of the role that science and technology could have in social development. He was however against their misuse.
Among other promoters of the Club there was Saburo Okita whose constant presence was particularly interesting. He had been an economic adviser to the Japanese government and later became Foreign Minister. At that time Japan was enjoying full economic growth.
Eduard Pestel was Minister of Science and Technology in the State of Hannover and a university teacher. As President of the Volkswagen Foundation he was to have an essential role in the preparation of the first report of the Club of Rome.
All these figures were the most consistent at the Geneva meetings which on average took place every two months. Peccei did not want too much bureaucracy in the Club. So much so that the statutes were not deposited till many years later. The members were simply coopted, with no fee to pay, on the basis of a confirmation of their commitment, or rather, as Peccei used to say of their “human quality” (he even wrote a book with the same title). The number of members was limited to one hundred, and this remains a strict rule to this day. There has always been a commitment to having every part of the world and every opinion represented.
1. Revealer of a State of Mind
The Club of Rome was founded in April 1968, just a month before the events of May. The unrest demonstrated by students concerning the economic and social evolution was to some extent shared by the management of the Club of Rome. The events were sensitive to the problems of the times, oblivious to the storm that the Club had unpremeditatedly provoked, becoming a kind of revealer of the true state of mind at the various levels of the population, even those under the communist regime.
The founding meeting apart, over several years I took part in all the executive Committee meetings in Geneva and in other cities. I had begun by arranging for the members to have really hot coffee. Then I used to take notes of the decisions and as a first important step I organised the first conference of the Club of Rome in Berne on 29th and 30th June, 1970, with the help of the Swiss Department of Federal policy, whose support Hugo Thiemann had managed to obtain. Once more I did not ask for payment for this work since the Club of Rome was completely informal. My textile section at Battelle was doing pretty well and had sufficient margins to permit it to be the mainstay of this event.
2. The Limits to Growth
Hasan Osbekhan was charged by the Club of Rome Executive Committee with preparing a project that would describe and analyse the world “problems”, and launch a debate on possible solutions. Osbekhan was an intellectual who had produced some reports for the OECD in Paris on how to think and develop a modern economic plan. He was brilliant, hot headed, of American nationality, the son of an ex-Turkish ambassador to Italy. At the beginning of 1970, at Battelle in Geneva, he finished drawing up his project of over 77 pages, almost completely devoted to the matter of a method for identifying the problems and highlighting their interdependence at the world level.
This project was presented to the Club of Rome Assembly in Berne in June, which was attended by about forty industrialists, politicians and researchers. Immediately before the assembly opened there was a small incident. Hasan Osbekhan, with unexpected frankness, declared that his proposal had no more than a 3% chance of resulting in anything concrete, or rather in anything positive. This unleashed the anger of Eduard Pestel who had promised his help in finding financing. In this odd crisis situation a miracle occurred. Among the participants was Jay Forrester who ran the MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston) Sloan School of Management. He took the floor with a certain brashness. He stated that he already had a method (called systems analysis) capable of putting together the ideas expressed in Aurelio Peccei’s book and all those being discussed at the meeting. He promised to supply, within a few weeks, a first result of the study, and not just a proposal. Hasan Osbekhan’s proposal was dropped at once and the opportunity taken up immediately. The first Club of Rome Assembly, historical in every way, had been saved.
On the plane that took him back to the United States, Forrester drew up the basis for what would become the famous report to the Club of Rome on the limits to growth. He brought together in one model the world tendency toward population increase, industrial investment, technological development, the use and depletion of resources and the increase in pollution. All this with graphs illustrating that within about forty years an unsustainable level of development would have been reached that would have led to a blind alley, or worse, a planetary crisis.
In July, four weeks after the Berne meeting, this preliminary text was sent to the members of the Club’s Executive Committee, who, in August went to MIT. They came back very satisfied and definitively subscribed to the project which Forrester then entrusted to his assistant, Dennis Meadows.
The substance of the report was already in place, but it was a matter of perfecting the simulations, checking the data, for example the available figures on population, availability of resources, investments and the foreseeable technological development. The model highlighted, even more than Aurelio Peccei had done, the increase in pollution. This plus demographic increase and their negative effects on growth became the key points in all the discussions that followed.
That year, 1970, and during the following two years, up to the publication of the report, Forrester’s results did not produce any particular reaction. I also participated in some meetings that Meadows had organised in Boston with some specialised centres, for each of the key sectors being examined by his work, such as those studying demographic evolution or that of investments. I never came across any negative reaction or criticism apart from a few.
At that time average economic growth was still at 6% and this study was no more “curiosity-inducing” than the one undertaken at Battelle to examine the hypothesis at least as “abstract” at that point, of a quadrupling of the price of petrol.
* “L’Europe et l’espace”, Centre de Recherches Européennes, Lausanne, 1968