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How Doomed Are We?

Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome

by Mihajlo Mesarovic, by Eduard Pestel
Dutton/Reader’s Digest Press, 210 pp., $12.95

Two Cheers for the Affluent Society: A Spirited Defense of Economic Growth

by Wilfred Beckerman
St. Martin’s Press, 238 pp., $7.95

1

The metaphors of pessimism have been appropriated, in the past year or so, by the most prominent of political orators. People like Henry Kissinger now complain in public about the prospects for industrial civilization. President Giscard d’Estaing declares, “When we examine the great curves that project into the future the phenomena of our time, we see that practically all these curves lead to catastrophe.” Fears about the economy and about raw materials, which until recently were expressed only by a few environmentalists, are now commonplace. This new gloom is in large part, of course, a consequence of the recent disturbances which have beset the economies of all industrialized countries. Giscard and Kissinger, seeing recession and wildly unstable prices, scarcity and failures of economic policy, turn to portentous extrapolation.

Under the impact of worsening world situations, public opinion has greatly matured in the past few years,” two executives of the Club of Rome write graciously, presenting their recent Second Report. The Club of Rome is the group of businessmen and scientists who in the early 1970s described a world crisis which they called a “problematique,” and who sponsored, as their first report, The Limits to Growth. This study, which was based on the computer models of a group of systems analysts led by Dennis Meadows of MIT, concluded that, unless immense moral and political reforms take place, the world will face catastrophe within the next hundred years: the “modes of collapse” by which growth would suddenly stop included the depletion of nonrenewable resources, an increase in pollution, and shortages of food.

The views of the Club of Rome attracted widespread attention even before the present recession: executives of the group describe “literally hundreds of conferences,” many translations of The Limits to Growth, an international meeting on growth convened by Giscard d’Estaing when he was Minister of Finance.1 Yet much of this attention was hostile. The Limits to Growth was attacked by a most exalted selection of orthodox opinion. Optimists associated with, among other institutions, the World Bank, Nature magazine, and the British government considered the study. Social and economic forces, the optimists showed, can prevent catastrophe: for example, changes in prices and the progress of technology. The dispute was joined by more and more critics, as well as by exponents of a revisionist pessimism.

For the executives of the Club of Rome, the events of 1974 constitute some form of vindication of their early fears. Looking back, they write that “the energy and food crises exploded in the meantime with such vicious force that they cut short much of the hasty criticism leveled at this exercise [The Limits to Growth].” To put the issue specifically: in the three years since The Limits to Growth was published, while the argument of the book has been increasingly undermined, many of the troubles that the authors feared “well before the year 2100” have come about, from increased malnutrition to chaos in the world metal markets. Dennis Meadows, asked in a recent interview if he still thinks that the limits to growth will be reached soon, answered that “nothing has happened to alter any of the basic ideas of The Limits to Growth. If I had said three years ago that there would soon be an energy crisis, massive famine, beef sold on the black market, formation of cartels, and erosion of environmental standards, most people wouldn’t have believed it.”2

But the issues between alarmists and optimists have not been resolved by the events of the past year. On the one hand, the inflation and scarcity affecting food and oil have almost nothing to do with the difficulties that the authors of The Limits to Growth feared. On the other hand, the stabilizing forces—the price mechanism, for example—to which many optimists allude in their practical arguments against the Club of Rome appear less than dependable.

Beyond these specific questions, however, the issues are of interest for what they show about the preferences shared by the two opposing groups. Both camps have been reticent about describing the policies they favor. Yet there turns out to be a surprising resemblance between the future as imagined by the Club of Rome and the vision of prominent optimists. People in the two groups appear to agree on many issues. They emphasize the importance of coal and the prospects for telecommunications technology; they agree, too, about the virtues of long-term management planning as practiced by the more adventurous of large modern corporations.

2

The optimists have identified many faults in The Limits to Growth. As Professor Carl Kaysen wrote, “The most important question concerns the nature of the limits that enforce the growth ceiling in the model.”3 The important limits to growth, Kaysen argues, are not physical but social, political, and economic, having to do with the costs of using resources and with the possibilities of applying new technology. If catastrophe were to come about, it would be for social and political reasons. The alarmists of the Club of Rome emphasize, for example, the limits to food production imposed by the availability of arable land. But Kaysen observes that “new land can be created by new investment, as when arid lands are irrigated, swamps drained, forests cleared.”

The weakness of the alarmists’ argument is particularly clear in the case of food. The authors of The Limits to Growth describe themselves as Malthusians, and they make the same mistakes that Thomas Malthus made. The argument of modern optimists is in fact the argument that William Hazlitt used against Malthus, soon after the Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798: “Mr. Malthus wishes to confound the necessary limits of the produce of the earth with the arbitrary and artificial distribution of that produce according to the institutions of society, or the caprice of individuals, the laws of God and nature with the laws of man.”4

Not only are the “necessary” limits to food production as ill-defined in the 1970s as they were in the 1790s, but the food now being produced is also distributed most arbitrarily among nations, as well as among people, pets, and cattle. Last year, for example, at the time of the “massive famine” Meadows mentions, close to a third of all the grain produced in the world was consumed as animal feed. Hazlitt himself used the example of animal food as an argument against Malthus, and his words can be recommended to contemporary critics of beef consumption and pet nurturing. He wrote that

If [Malthus] means that the wants of the poor arise from the impossibility of procuring food for them, while the rich roll in abundance, or, we will say, maintain their dogs and horses etc., out of their ostentatious superfluities, he asserts what he knows not to be true.

Dogs and horses, Hazlitt wrote, “eat up the food of the children of the poor.”

The oil crisis of 1974 had as little to do with natural limits as did the food crisis. Meadows acknowledges that the recent oil shortages were caused by political decisions. In their original study, he and his co-authors wrote, farsightedly, that in metals and oil, “the political question may arise long before the ultimate economic one.” But Meadows now argues that “the Arab action was made possible by a physical reality: dwindling oil and gas reserves.” He does not explain how this prospect of lower reserves affects the political power and determination of oil corporations or of oil-exporting countries. Even in the United States, where oil is increasingly scarce in a geological sense, scarcity is local: according to a recent announcement, the Sohio Corporation’s Alaskan oil will not be needed on the West Coast and will therefore be moved to Texas.5

Propositions about natural limits cannot explain the present disturbances. Yet the optimists are often less convincing when they consider the real world and the future. Will the new investment that Kaysen mentions be found? Will the swamps be cleared?

Professor Wilfred Beckerman of the University of London has been for at least four years one of the most strenuous of optimists. In his new book Two Cheers for the Affluent Society he assembles a compendious selection of arguments against, to use his word, the “eco-doomsters.” He explains that “favorable social and economic feedbacks” prevent environmental disaster: “Essentially these safety mechanisms represent society’s responses, in one way or another, to the growth of some ‘bad,’ whether it be pollution or the increasing use of some material.” His book is of particular interest to the extent that he suggests a politics of optimism, rushing in where other critics hesitate.

Beckerman argues what might be called the strong optimists’ position. He believes that the crisis which environmentalists fear can be avoided; that it will be avoided; and that it will be avoided because of the more or less routine activities of governments and corporations which are more or less like existing governments and corporations. He rejects the political neutrality implied in phrases like “favorable feedbacks,” “safety mechanisms,” and “society’s responses.” “Society,” in most of his examples, is British or American society as it is now constituted. He writes that

we have surveyed the main ways in which exponential growth of “bads” has in fact been brought to a halt in the past, and the ways in which the process is likely to continue in the future…. These responses take diverse forms; in some cases they are mainly the introduction of governmental policies, as with the rapid spread of measures to control pollution during the last few years…. In other cases, these favorable feedbacks take the form of automatic market responses to changes in the demand and supply of raw materials.

The real-life responses that Beckerman describes cover many situations. He is optimistic about the application of economic theory to public policy (“it just happens that money is a convenient unit, or numeraire“), and about recent economic policies. He writes that “mass unemployment has been eliminated, and the pre-war trade cycle, which was the cause of so much anxiety and misery, has been replaced by, at worst, minor fluctuations around a high and generally rising level of economic activity.” (His book was completed, he notes, very early in 1974.)

The energy situation, he considers, is less than terrifying: “For there is general agreement among the scientists that, taking energy as a whole, the longer term prospects are, if anything, more favorable than they have ever been in the whole previous history of mankind.” Optimistic, therefore, about an “ultimate” technology based on plentiful energy, he looks ahead briskly: “Even though it may be impossible at present to mine to a depth of one mile at every point in the earth’s crust, by the time we reach the year AD 100,000,000 I am sure we will think up something.”

Beckerman devotes a long and interesting part of his book to the economics of pollution. He is optimistic about the will of US politicians to implement the Clean Air Act, and about the fertilizing properties of “a certain amount of air pollution.” But he is sometimes rather casually cheerful. In making the important point, for example, that economic growth is probably a necessary condition for reducing rates of growth of population, he writes that “the phase of rapidly rising population that the underdeveloped countries are now experiencing corresponds to a similar phase that the developed world passed through at various stages over the last fifty years or more.”

Since the average rate of population growth in underdeveloped countries now is at least twice as great as that in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, this correspondence seems loose. Beckerman offers the bleak encouragement that “when the Western world was passing through this phase there was no help from outside; there were no other richer countries to give aid and advice on birth-control devices.” But Europeans in the nineteenth century, although bereft of teams from the Population Council with intrauterine devices, were presumably more than compensated by the proceeds of their economic exploitation of the tropical countries which now aspire to a corresponding “Demographic Transition.”

Beckerman considers at some length the problems of natural resources. Here “safety mechanisms” proliferate, and we can see the strength of the optimists’ case. Beckerman describes what happens when a resource becomes scarce and its price increases. In the case of, say, copper, corporations spend more money, including money for research and development, on finding copper in difficult places and mining it from difficult sources such as low-grade ores and recycled copper scrap. Other corporations spend money and technological effort on using less copper and substituting other materials.

In any event, Beckerman shows, some materials become scarce a lot faster than others, and the exhaustion of a particular resource, “every scrap of copper or every drop of oil,” is not in itself a catastrophe. He describes some prospects for technical progress. People may need less copper, because “it is highly probable that telephone lines in future…will all be made of glass fibers acting as wave-guides for laser beams.” He notes new ways of softening rock, the exploration of low-grade porphyry copper ores, and, “one of the most exciting new sources,” “the recently discovered manganese nodules that apparently litter the sea-bed.”

This vision of new solutions arising in response to “feedbacks” is impressive; the technological possibilities are as “fantastic” and “spectacular” as Beckerman writes. But the argument about resources raises more immediate questions. How efficiently do these feedbacks really work? Is there a need for reform of government policies toward resources, or toward the resource industry? It is here that the experience of the recent “resource crisis” is of interest.

Since Beckerman’s own judgment is that “automatic market responses” are likely to work well in the future, he sees no need for reform of public policy as it concerns raw materials, and indeed very little need for governments even to have such a policy. “Government intervention has been desirable only in exceptional circumstances, such as war…. This does not mean that private industry always gets it right. It doesn’t, but it usually pays for its mistakes.”

Beckerman is no indiscriminate proponent of the free market, and he believes, for example, that government intervention is needed to preserve and protect the environment. His main argument of principle for laissez faire in resources is that there are “clearly defined property rights in mineral resources,” while “the environment is not clearly anybody’s property.” But Beckerman ignores the many “social” or public rights involved in questions about the use of resources, including the right to be spared the local social inconvenience of running out of some particular resource, whether it be copper or coal for an electric plant. He once speculated that “a fifth-century BC systems analyst would certainly have predicted the imminent end of the world by extrapolating the already growing shortage of timber resources and pointing to the overpopulation of Athens.” The discomfiture of these dead pessimists would not presumably do much to console Athenians of the third century as they surveyed the end of their local economic and political world, from the bare hillsides of the Peloponnesus.6

A considerable part of Beckerman’s argument about resources relies on his description of the way the free market worked in the past. But this sort of argument raises questions of method. He writes, “As a matter of straight fact, it has usually been the case in the past that however fast demand expanded and for however long, new mineral reserves were found (or some other painless corrective mechanism came into operation).” Painlessness in the past is however no guarantee of painlessness in the future, any more than the fact that chromium consumption grew at 2.6 percent a year in the past is a guarantee that it will grow at that rate in the future.

Beckerman concludes that “a prediction that took account of the preceding data on the way that resources have always matched demand in the past, however fast the rise in demand, would always have to indicate a similar capacity to meet demand in the future.” This is not too far from the sins of extrapolation for which Beckerman and others excoriate the environmentalists.7 As Beckerman himself writes, “What we want to know [is] the relationship between the growth of demand for the product in question in the future and the growth of supply of it, also in the future.”

In 1974, at least, the free market in resources looked disordered. Prices offered rather unreliable signals to entrepreneurs, and the atmosphere was thick with uncertain expectations and social costs. The price of many metals, for example, fluctuated wildly and the fluctuations had little relation to longterm or even to short-term economic conditions. Copper cost the equivalent of about $2,000 per ton on the London Metal Exchange in December 1973. By April 1974 it cost more than $3,000 per ton. Then the price of copper began to fall, and by December 1974 copper cost some $1,500 per ton.

One reason for these price changes was a large increase in the speculative demand for copper.8 Investors also held commodities instead of stocks or foreign currency. Meanwhile, the price of copper was believed to be affected by the elaborate relations among nations: hopeful commodity speculators learned in the business press that Japan, for example, was in 1974 selling copper which it had stockpiled in 1973 when it was trying to appease the United States by reducing its balance of payments surplus; they heard that the oil-exporting countries might also be stockpiling copper, perhaps as an investment and perhaps as a way of fortifying the OPEC-like cartel of copper-exporting countries.

In the vision of free market optimists, mining corporations are supposed to take account of these fluctuations as they look ahead in rational self-interest. They must consider the price of copper and the political situation of such copper-exporting countries as Chile and Zaire. They are also trying to decide whether to invest in the technology of mining low-grade ores in, say, the porphyry mountains of Maine. They consider the price of electricity and water in 1985, and the political situation of Maine. They have heard that the manganese nodules on the ocean floor contain one percent copper, and they wonder if Howard Hughes was serious about deep-sea mining. Through this fog, Anaconda Copper is supposed to find the path to the best long-term social solution. (Professor Kaysen’s view of prices will not be helpful here: “It is precisely their function to make smooth transitions possible as scarcities and demands change.”)

The issue of resources comes back to questions about political limits and about the real operation of feedbacks. It is not simply a matter of avoiding the sudden and global crisis of resources described in The Limits to Growth. If that were the only difficulty, it would be adequate to follow Beckerman’s policy of nonintervention and to rely on the invisible hand of the free market, or on the heavy hand of the resource extraction industries. But as far as more immediate difficulties in the use of resources are concerned, the optimists offer little guidance, beyond the conservatism inherent in reiterating that things might well turn out all right.

3

The politics of solving environmental problems are, unfortunately, at least as obscure to most environmentalists as to social optimists. The practical vision of the Club of Rome, for example, is concealed in rhetorical mystification. This mystification seems to be becoming yet thicker as the Club of Rome incorporates certain of the views of its optimistic critics.

In its newer pronouncements, the Club of Rome considers The Limits to Growth in a way that recalls Hazlitt’s comment on the second and extensively revised edition of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population.

Mr. Malthus seems fully aware of the importance of the stage-maxim, To elevate and surprise. Having once heated the imaginations of his readers, he knows that he can afterwards mould them into whatever shape he pleases. All this bustle and terror, and stage-effect, and theatrical mummery was only to serve a temporary purpose, for all of a sudden the scene is shifted, and the storm subsides.

Having frightened away the boldest champions of modern philosophy, this monstrous appearance, full of strange and inexplicable horrors, is suffered quietly to shrink back to its natural dimensions, and we find it to be nothing more than a common-sized tame looking animal, which however requires a chain and the whip of its keeper to prevent it from being mischievous. Mr. Malthus then steps forward and says…”As to the principle of population you need be under no alarm; only leave it to me, and I shall be able to manage it very well. All its dreadful consequences may be easily prevented by a proper application of the motives of common prudence and common decency.”

The Club of Rome acts out the same kind of pantomime. The Limits to Growth, an “exercise” and “a first attempt, crude and tentative as it may be,” according to the executives of the Club, raised “essential problems which, irrespective of the validity of the detailed findings of the study, may determine the future of society.” (Meadows himself suggests the theatrical character of his endeavor when he observes that if population, for example, is growing sufficiently fast, “You can put the physical limits anywhere you like and you’ll still get to them within a generation or two.”) The executives of the Club of Rome, presenting their Second Report, Mankind at the Turning Point, concede that

No doubt, the real limits to growth are social, political and managerial, and finally reside within the nature of man. In the Meadows model it was not easy to relate directly material problems with the political process or with changes in the value system. New tools were indeed necessary to allow for an organic socio-political-economic coupling.

In the Second Report, two more acolytes of “applied systems analysis” attempt to devise such a coupling. Their model is divided into ten regions and six strata. (Geophysics Stratum, MIC, MAC, and so forth. After all, as the authors observe gravely, “It is essential to acknowledge the fact that the world community consists of parts whose pasts, presents and futures are different.”) Like the optimists, with their “feedbacks” and “adjustment mechanisms,” these analysts are resolute in trying to describe the behavior of people as the interaction of “systems.” People become forces, in a heroic attempt at the inverse of anthropomorphism.

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. 1

    The Club of Rome Answers Its Critics—And Pushes On,” War/Peace Report, May/June 1973.

  2. 2

    Business Week, May 12, 1975.

  3. 3

    Carl Kaysen, Foreign Affairs, July 1972.

  4. 4

    William Hazlitt, Political and Philosophical Essays, 1807.

  5. 5

    Business Week, June 2, 1975.

  6. 6

    Beckerman is so contemptuous of the “eco-doomsters” that he is sometimes careless of logic, as when he endorses the following nonsensical proposition of a fellow optimist: “If the population of the world appears to be increasing exponentially, or if its consumption of iron ore or its production of disposable bottles seems to be increasing exponentially, it requires no flair for prophecy but merely a simple understanding of the differential calculus to know that exponential growth will sooner or later be replaced by some other and more moderate law of growth.” The differential calculus, of course, has nothing to do with the rate of growth of population. As Beckerman himself has observed, “Logical mathematical analysis by itself—i.e., without any empirical content—is quite unable to tell us anything about the behavior of the real world.”

  7. 7

    Beckerman also, I think, underestimates the extent to which the positive feedbacks of the past have been fortified by government policies and attitudes. He is sarcastic about the gloom of early alarmists. But as he himself writes, “In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt was alarmed at the impending exhaustion of mineral reserves in the USA, and called for a survey of resources which soon turned up many more reserves.” (My italics.) It seems possible that the reserves would not have turned up so easily without Roosevelt’s surveys. Beckerman also chides the “Paley Report” of 1953 (the President’s Materials Policy Commission Report). Yet the reforms recommended by that commission—in the operations of the US Geological Survey and the Bureau of Mines, the improvement of timber practices, the establishment of stockpiles of strategic materials and of an oil reserve—certainly contributed to the painlessness of the US materials economy in the twenty years after 1953. No doubt some modern readers of the report might wish that the commission’s recommendation for a federal energy agency to be concerned with the “long range energy outlook” had been implemented as expeditiously.

  8. 8

    The volume of trading increased much faster than the industrial demand for copper. The relation between speculation and price instability is described in the OECD Economic Outlook for July 1974 and in a new UNCTAD study, Speculation and Price Instability on International Commodity Futures Markets. (TD/B/C.1/171)

  9. 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.”

  10. 10

    Daedalus, Fall 1973.

  11. 11

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

  12. 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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