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How Doomed Are We?

If society is to preserve its integrity, widening of [various gaps between different social groups] simply cannot persist; sooner or later the gaps will either be sufficiently narrowed or the fabric of the society will yield to centrifugal forces.

In the view of the authors of the Second Report, the simple dispute for or against growth is naïve. They endorse something called “organic growth, or growth with differentiation,” which they distinguish from the “cancerous undifferentiated growth” of the moment, and which they urge on humanity. But there is really very little in the report that explains the political and economic difficulties of solving environmental problems. “Organic growth” seems to consist, simply, of growth in the things of which the authors approve. The authors disapprove openly of, for example, malnutrition in poor countries, which is more than can be said for all systems analysts. But the things they approve of are as abstract as “common prudence and common decency.” They write that “our computer analysis indicates, as before, that global cooperation offers much better conditions than conflict for all concerned.” Later, they say that “counterproductivity will be the ultimate consequence of any action confined solely to short term considerations.” Their model, in other words, recommends peace and foresight.

The Club of Rome’s own political observations are as obscure as those of the deferential analysts who delivered their first and second reports. The authors of both reports accept the idea of a “problematique,” or concatenation of different crises. Yet the Club’s own efforts to define this problematique are circular, or nonsensical. “The problematique consists of issues that require more than technical solutions…. We recognize that the complex world problematique is to a great extent composed of elements that cannot be expressed in measurable terms. Nevertheless…[we decided] to quantify the scale and time dimensions of the world problematique.” They favor moral change, and the generation of a new “supreme ethics of survival.”9

The political values of the group are apparent, all the same, in the executives’ vision of the future. They favor “new growth forms” with “radical changes,” and they write that “it is not inconceivable that a new school of quality entrepreneurs will arise as agents of such change.” Their vision of rational corporations, animated by long-term self-interest, is not so remote from the optimists’ view of an idealized Anaconda Copper. Their criticism of government, too, is based on an idea of how corporations might plan for the future. “The machinery of government gives little importance,” they write censoriously, “to the staff function found to be so important by the military and the large business corporations.”

Dennis Meadows, asked by Business Week to explain what he means when he recommends a “subtle decentralized process” of planning, describes similar predilections. He answered, “In our study of corporations, we found that the really outstanding companies—Polaroid and IBM, for example—tend to have a small leadership, maybe one guy, able to diffuse throughout the organization a concept of goals and values. He pushes these down, not decisions. It guides people in a fashion much more coordinated than you’d have with central planning. We have the capability to achieve that. It takes an image.”

The “organic growth with differentiation” of the Club of Rome allows economies to grow in “quality” and in what they see as quality enterprise. Like their optimistic critics, the executives of the Club write of recycling, mass transportation, the technology of limiting pollution. One executive of the group, Professor Carroll Wilson of MIT, is a leading exponent of Project Independence in American coal and nuclear power. Dennis Meadows favors “massive coal development,” and observes that the environmental impact of “massive strip mining in the West” is nationally “trivial”; “I’m willing to assume we can solve those problems,” he adds. The same changes, in fact, describe the future for optimists and for “alarmists.” The same technologies appeal to both groups: they will be achieved for the Club of Rome through moral regeneration and for optimists through changes in prices.

This shared vision of advanced industry is not new. American optimists in the 1950s and 1960s, seeing not crises but endless prosperity, imagined a similar “postindustrial” society. An aerospace executive of somewhat chiliastic views, Mr. Simon Ramo of the TRW company, explained the future of quality selling to a White House Conference on Business in 1990, held early in 1972: he described a “Social-Industrial Complex,” where the US government, just as it once encouraged the military, will also subsidize “social engineering,” from urban development to “the mass use of synthetic brain-power through electronic information networks.” A “Great Lakes Depollution Project” will be “like the moonlanding program”; industry will provide “urban rapid-transit systems…whose design takes account of meticulously detailed aspects of the economic and social future life of the given community.” Mr. Ramo aspired to “create ‘social technologists’ (perhaps we should say ‘poly-socio-econo-politico-technologists’).” “The availability of advanced information technology,” he assured the White House audience, “does not inevitably lead to a state-controlled economy. Instead, we can use it to reach a higher form of free enterprise.”

The apparent paradox of growthless growth is resolved in this more exalted transformation. Some industries grow and others fail. One celebrated Harvard engineer, Harvey Brooks, a calm optimist, explains the new society further in an essay, “The Technology of Zero Growth.”10 Progress, he writes, “will probably involve the decline of many technologies, such as that of the automobile, which are now regarded as sacrosanct, but it will also involve rapid advances in other technologies, such as communications, which are less resource intensive. In looking at modern societies we sometimes forget that to arrive where we are we required the decline or disappearance of many technologies which at one time were expected to go on for ever.” The cleanest survive. Or, as Brooks has it, “environmental protection should be looked upon as a product one buys like any other.” “Clean, clear fresh air. It’ll be one of our healthiest new markets,” the Tenneco Corporation declares in a recent advertisement.

For Dr. Brooks, as for the Club of Rome, there are no limits to the application of knowledge by industry. The domain of technology is coterminous with society. For example, the elysium of environmentalists, “the decentralized rural and small town society of early nineteenth-century America,” can be “re-created” by adequately advanced corporations. Brooks is enraptured: “One can imagine the country spotted with modest-sized towns joined by an immensely sophisticated information network….” Even political change itself is within the domain of technological adjustment. “Very little is known, in fact, about the relationships between industrial structure and income distribution, but it seems clear that redistribution, if it is to occur, will require very sophisticated social engineering….”

The Club of Rome represents the interests of the technologically and managerially sophisticated sector of industry which will prosper in a regime of growth without growth. A regime based on corporate planning, information technology, clean coal. To the French writer Michel Bosquet, the most perceptive and sympathetic of radical critics of environmentalism, the studies sponsored by the Club of Rome serve to prepare certain sectors of industry for the prospects of profit after a future crisis: for a “monopoly in the production and sale of clean air, drinkable water, recycled minerals, the protected environment.” 11 A contributor to the Sussex University study of The Limits to Growth, Harvey Simmons, suggests a similar purpose.12 He compares the discipline of “System Dynamics,” as promoted by the Club of Rome, to the Technocracy movement of the early 1930s. In that movement, Henry Luce, Colonel J. W. McCormick, and the president of E. R. Squibb, distressed by the “riff-raff of social institutions,” were concerned that democracy could not cope with the problems of the Depression.

As “technocrats,” the followers of the Club of Rome deny the doubts which they sometimes seem to understand. There are very serious questions about the modern use of technology which they do not even begin to ask. They do not, for example, consider the extent to which the new energy technology is sustained by military interests: very obviously in the case of nuclear fission, but also in the case of the elaborate projects for solar energy (gigantic solar farms, the use of satellites in solar power) which now attract most attention. Similar considerations apply to the technologies for conserving resources. Laser technology is used in weaponry. The Sussex study mentions the use of aerial and satellite photography to identify resources, “exploratory submarines,” “gas-burning jets” for drilling, new ways of exploding rock. “Seabed vehicles are being developed,” the authors write, and there is now Howard Hughes and the CIA to demonstrate the relation between deep-sea mining and national security.

Another question has to do with the complexity of technology. Is technology necessarily incomprehensible to more and more people? Is it necessarily exclusive? The communications and social engineering projects imagined by Dr. Brooks (“an immensely sophisticated information network”) would certainly exclude people who are destitute or otherwise deviant, as well as anyone whom the organizers of the network wished to exclude. The most advanced energy technologies exclude people in poor countries.

The authors of the Second Report allude repeatedly and proudly to the complexity of their model; the authors of The Limits to Growth congratulated themselves on their ability to see further in space and time than the workaday mass of humanity. The Club of Rome has no modesty about its own elitism: it is itself, in the mystification of its political pronouncements, an illustration of the incomprehensibility of technologists. Its “critique” of technology should be seen as a critique of older interests: its “problematique” is solved by more technology.

It is easy to see the appeal of millennial “pessimism” for modern statesmen. The Club of Rome promises organization, in the economic disorder that Giscard and Kissinger see around them. Its executives promise a new world, to be reached through the easy, empty change of moral regeneration. Yet their promises are false The world they foresee is nothing more than the tawdry old golden age imagined by corporate optimists ten and twenty years ago.

Even this millennium now, seems unlikely. Planning, after all, is not only a matter of cooperation and “images.” In the past two years of crisis, some plans have been more favored than others: in the case of oil, there has been planning for conflict and for tariffs, but not for the energy conservation that is clearly needed. The reform of transport policies for example, is an issue dear to environmentalists and optimists geopoliticians and to prophets a social technology. Yet planning for more public transportation has almost stopped in the United States in large part because of the political influence of the corporations that sell automobiles. The environmental alarmists are at the same time too gloomy and too conservative. They see in the recent inflation and recession a crisis of civilization; they so the resolution of this crisis in an impossible hope for planning without people, without politicians, and without changes in political power.

  1. 9

    The executives of the Club do observe that “a further major difficulty arises from the four-to-five year cycle of parliamentary elections in the democracies.” Some of their followers, of course, have very much less anodyne political hopes.

    For example the British authors of the Blueprint for Survival (Houghton Mifflin, 1972) expect to form a “national [political] movement to act at a national level”: their view of a desirable society combines on the one hand the life style of Malthus in Surrey before industrialization began to impinge on the lives of parsons, and on the other a conservative’s vision of daily existence in modern Szechuan; villages where “the arts would flourish,” “an infinitely more agreeable place than is our present one, geared as it is to the mass production of shoddy utilitarian goods in ever greater quantities,” yet where through “subtle cultural controls” the population of Britain has been reduced by twenty million people, and where “the best means of inculcating the values of the stable society [are] incorporated into the educational systems.”

  2. 10

    Daedalus, Fall 1973.

  3. 11

    Critique du Capitalisme Quotidien (Editions Galilée, Paris 1973).

  4. 12

    Published in book form by Sussex University/Chatto and Windus (1973) under the title Thinking About the Future, by H. S. D. Cole, C. Freeman and others, and in the US as Models of Doom (Universe Books, 1973).

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