How the Club of Rome became a world agenda

This is the story about the creation of the Club of Rome myth in the years 1971 and on. It has never been told before in this format.

As a science journalist for Dutch television I travelled to the USA in the fall of 1970, meeting the key players in the then unfolding new green community. The World Resources Institute, Earth Watch, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, EPA and many others.

In Boston I ran into a group of brilliant young scientists, Dennis and Donella Meadows, Bill Behrens and Jørgen Randers, in a meeting on their research into the limiting factors of the earth system. I had never seen a computer, and had no knowledge of the methodology, systems dynamics, nor of the computer languages Dynamo and Fortran.

However, I instantly saw the scope of the study, the meaning, the drama, the power. And I grasped the idea of feedback loops and systems thinking. Several days later, I concluded to the scientists that they had ‘dynamite’ in their hands, which they could not believe. Their plan was to complete the study the next year, and to publish it as a report to the Club of Rome. Of the latter no-one had ever heard, including myself.

They handed me a draft, which I took back to the Netherlands. There, we produced a hundred copies, with the imprints confidential and not for distribution.

A long journey along major institutions began, to begin with the R+D directors of Unilever, Akzo and Philips. At the Philips Physics Lab, the famous Hendrik Casimir was in charge, friend of Heisenberg, and Chair of the European Physical Society. He took immediate action, a call to his staff to review it. At Unilever, Wiero Beek held the R+D position, and at Akzo Hans Kramers. All were professors, eminent scientists and prominent opinion leaders. At the Free University of Amsterdam, Jan Willem Copius Peereboom was the Chair of IVM, the Institute for Environment Research, and at Utrecht University, Jan Klabbers turned out to be one of the few who could handle the mathematical model at stake, called World3. There were just a few computers in the Netherlands to run the calculations, at Philips, Delft University and Utrecht. Large, black boxes.

The draft report got distributed by means of visits and meetings, creating a buzz in the inner circles of science, later of key stakeholders in politics and media.

In the meantime, the well-known Dutch society journalist Willem Oltmans met with the founder of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei, and fellow founders Carroll Wilson (American Academy of Sciences), Jermen Gvishiani (Soviet Academy of Sciences), Edouard Pestel (Volkswagen Foundation), Alexander King (OECD) and Hugo Thieme (Nestlé). Intrigued by the unusual combination, Oltmans ignited a gossip campaign, which soon merged with the spreading of the story at large.

My contacts in the world of science, industry, media, politics and NGOs were focusing on the variables and scenarios in the model. The Oltmans buzz kicked off the story about the “conspiracy”. A close look at the various components of the societal environment in which Limits was embedded, made it clear that something very unusual was happening.

Look at this:

Why Rome? Possibly, the Church was involved?

Why both the American and the Soviet academies? Did the CIA and the KGB have a stake in the conspiracy?

Why multinationals Volkswagen, Fiat and Nestlé?

And what is a computer? An unknown black box, at the time. Could it indeed predict the future? And soon it also became clear that World3 had forerunners in the anti-missile programming of the Pentagon. A booming surprise was in the making.

Aurelio responded negatively to our propositions about launching the story in full. Although he and Alexander King had deep worries about the predicament of mankind, and their choices were revolutionary, they also wanted to keep the course of a proper scientific publication, due for 1972. Their Dutch co-founder, Frits Böttcher, professor in Chemistry at Leiden University, opposed any efforts of the Dutch Limits protagonists like myself, whom he considered too much anti-establishment and too political. Böttcher, prominent Board member of Shell, Elsevier and other institutions, fiercely opposed any connection of his Club of Rome with the counterculture, as well described by Theodore Roszak a few years later.

Yet, the drama began to create the planned noise, and we decided to set the trip to fame into motion. Some (science) journalists got informed, a television programme planned, a soon (October) conference with Dennis Meadows scheduled, and September 1971 the prominent media NRC-Handelsblad and Haagse Post alarmed their readers with “Apocalypse on credit”, headlines.

Oltmans interviewed Aurelio Peccei on the whereabouts of the Club of Rome, and my team filmed Jay Forrester at MIT. Both television programmes were aired October 1971, and almost simultaneously went on screen in Germany, Japan and Scandinavia.

Fierce opposition came from futurists such as Fred Polak and Herman Kahn (Hudson Institute), and, above all, prominent economists.

In Dutch parliament, a famous speech was delivered by Hans van Mierlo, prominent leader of the liberal democrats, quoting Peccei and Forrester about ‘growth which will and shall stop, either by mastering the challenge, or by conflict, war, hunger and misery’.

Ever since, I have given innumerable speeches on Limits, relating it to the issues of climate change, energy, water, food and so on. Dennis Meadows became world famous, a science prophet of an unusual stature. In 2009, we have, as IMSA, published a review, together with the Dutch EPA (Planning Bureau for the Living Environment).

Numerous articles have appeared, in my estimate some 800,000. Although the information is misty, it is believed that some 13 million copies of the report were sold, but Ugo Bardi takes the guess at one million. In some 53 languages, but even that is uncertain, as control over copy rights and sales got lost. Meadows handed over his rights to Aurelio, but the Club of Rome lacked the management skills to control the global outbursts in media and politics. Updates of Limits appeared in 1992[1] and 2004[2]. They basically confirmed the original scenarios, which turn out to have been astonishingly accurate[3] [4].

The catalyst as orchestrated in The Netherlands is unparalleled in the history of science publications. Till today, the Club of Rome is puzzled by this extraordinary success, still the key-identity of the Club and the dream to be repeated. The paradox is that society is not attuned to a proposition which refers to a news story of decades ago. Society demands NEWS, as if it is not news that LIMITS proves to be highly accurate when todays data are compared with the 1970 input. “We are on track”, so Graham Turner in his recent review of LIMITS[5]. News hypes though want OTHER stories, and the fact that the 1971 alarm is the bell which rings today does not fit fast moving media consumers’ hunger for other, even more exciting stories. Ok yes, there will be overshoot and collapse in 2030-2050, but do you have something better than that?

Casimir, Beek and Kramer donated a then high sum of Dfl. 250.000 (€ 120.000) to our initiative to create a systems-dynamics group in the Netherlands. Colleagues Eric-Jan Tuininga, Roel Beijdorff and Maarten Koeman joined the systems dynamics courses in the USA and Denmark, and Tuininga took on the job to translate LIMITS into Dutch, with a motivated team of young scientists. Spring 1972, the Dutch translation came to market, soon peaking into sales of 250.000 copies. Countless debates, articles and conferences followed, the echo of which can still be heard today.

When alarmed now, the audience remembers, even if they were not even born then. I myself became Mr. Club of Rome in The Netherlands, often dismissed, yet rewarded, and always controversial.

The story is uneasy, and the establishment has its mechanisms to shoot the messenger. Every 8 years, they ride out for this shoot, especially the left, who could never really combine their promise of smoking chimneys and affluence for the working class, with the reality of nearing limitations.

Without a doubt that Limits became the most powerful scientific paper of the last 50 years. Ever since, uncountable references can be found, numerous actions have been undertaken, technologies have developed, faculties have started, regulation has come off the ground. Resource policies can be traced back to Limits, and so can climate and energy innovations. In his last year as president (1972) of the European Commission, Sicco Mansholt declared to his colleagues that the Club of Rome message had to become the fundament of the European Union. In many countries, the Club of Rome is still a myth and a hero, a messenger like Cassandra, honoured and despised. In 1990, at the first Perestroika conference in Moscow, hosted by Michael Gorbachev, the Club of Rome announced its comeback, under a new president, Ricardo Diez Hochleitner. In 1991, I myself was nominated member, having been too young before. In 1995 I published the Club of Rome report on the corrected GDP, and in 2009 we hosted the Club’s Global Summit in Amsterdam, in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix (who is honorary member), President Gorbachev, ex-Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers and 800 prominent guests from all over the world. The Club now has 150 members and 22 Country Chapters, organizing scores of meetings every year. Regularly, new reports are published, most of them related to Limits subjects, such as 2052 by Jørgen Randers (2012) and The Limits to Growth Revisited by Ugo Bardi (2013). The members belong to the elite of science, diplomacy, politics, industry and NGOs worldwide. And Royalty.

No question that decades of necessary action got lost because of the framing by vested interests to shuffle the work into the outskirts of scientific debate. PhD studies of the early days about the intentions, research, launching and effects are manifold. Though often requested, I have never written it down. Until now.

Wouter van Dieren

[1] Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. (1992). Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future. Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing. 

[2] Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. (2004). Limits to Growth: the 30-year update. Whiter River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

[3] Turner, G.M. (2008). A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change, 18(3), 397–411.

[4] Turner, G.M. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Ibidem