The Club of Rome’s first report, The limits to growth, appeared in 1972 and was ultimately published in thirty languages and sold over thirty million copies worldwide. It made many people aware for the first time that with continuing growth the world would eventually run out of resources. Today, 45 years later, its electrifying conclusions, which modelled the ‘overshoot and collapse’ of the global system by the mid twenty-first century, still provoke intense debates.
The report also brought international fame to the newly founded Club of Rome, which has since become a key reference point in the public memory of the 1970s and environmental discourses more generally. It boasts considerable authority as a private, non-state, and global group of experts concerned about the fate of humanity, and a wise warden for the ecological survival of planet Earth. However, this extraordinary public and academic attention has largely overlooked the constitutive entanglements with the OECD that characterise the Club’s foundation and early history.
This OECD–Club of Rome nexus needs explaining. The OECD, founded in 1961 as the successor of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) that had overseen the Marshall Plan aid, soon became, in the words of one of its Directors, “a kind of temple of growth for industrialised countries; growth for growth’s sake was what mattered”. By the late 1960s, however, faced by increasing popular anxiety about unsustainable growth in Western societies, scientists and bureaucrats within the OECD launched a debate on “the problems of modern society”. The driving forces of this growth-critical and ecologically oriented debate were two of the most powerful men within the Organisation: the head of the OECD since its foundation in 1961, Secretary-General Thorkil Kristensen, and the Organisation’s long-time science director and unofficial intellectual leader, Alexander King. The topic assumed such importance that it was central to discussions at the OECD’s ministerial meetings in 1969 and 1970.
However, Kristensen, King, and their associates around the science directorate and the Committee for Science Policy were frustrated by governments’ inability to deal with long-term and interrelated ecological problems and thus looked for allies outside the OECD. They got together with Italian industrialist and global visionary Aurelio Peccei, at that time an executive of Fiat and the managing director of both Olivetti and Italconsult, and in 1968 this elite group of engineers, scientists, and businessmen, founded the Club of Rome. They were fundamentally sceptical about the potential of existing political institutions to catalyse the controversial global debate they deemed necessary, because they regarded these institutions as the “guardians of the status quo and hence the enemies of change”. They saw themselves “faced with the extraordinary arrogance of the economist, the naivety of the natural scientist, the ignorance of the politician, and the bloody-mindedness of the bureaucrat”, all unable to tackle the ensemble of problems they had identified.
Thus, they built a transnational network to advance their view of planetary crisis both through the OECD (thus targeting key economists and ministers from member countries) and through the Club of Rome, whose reports forcefully shaped public debates. This network blurred the lines between the “official” OECD and the “private” Club, not only in terms of overlapping membership but also in terms of discourses. While the Club functioned as a “detonator”, its core members used international organisations “as transmission belts”, as Peccei explicitly put it, and thus acquired a strong leverage.
The personal overlap between the OECD and the Club of Rome in its initial phase is remarkable. Not only were three of the four persons that founded the Club working in or with the OECD (King, the Austrian systems analyst, astrophysicist, and OECD expert; Erich Jantsch; and the Swiss director of the Geneva branch of the Battelle Memorial Institute and Vice-Chairman of the OECD’s science committee Hugo Thiemann). Besides the Italian industrialist Peccei and the German industrial designer Eduard Pestel, who secured the funding from the Volkswagen Foundation for the first report, all the crucial personalities in the formative period of the Club of Rome were closely connected to the OECD. Almost the entire core group of the Club of Rome, its “executive committee” – which has been characterised as the true “motor” of the Club of Rome, and who signed Limits to growth – also had positions within the OECD.
This transnational group of experts at the interface of national governments, international organisations, and the Club of Rome formed a unique circle of elite environmentally conscious planners. Even though claiming to speak for the entire globe, they represented a very narrow fraction of the global population, in part because of their organisational base in the OECD, often dubbed the “Club of the Rich”. They were all highly-educated and largely white men and thus reproduced the tradition of upper-class gentlemen’s clubs, and all came from countries in the global North (mostly European, some US and Japan). With close ties to elite universities, transnational business, and international organisations, they acted from economic positions of privilege and power. Furthermore, the entire network had academic backgrounds in the natural sciences (in particular chemistry and physics) or engineering, with only a few trained in economics, and none in the social sciences or humanities. Finally, almost all had spent at least part of their career as national government experts or administrators.
All these factors influenced the perspective and politics of the network at the heart of the OECD–Club of Rome nexus. A more profound appreciation of the gestation, midwifery, entanglements, transfers, and tensions that characterise this nexus opens up a more complex understanding of both organisations and the actors driving them. It puts in perspective the public perception of the Club of Rome as a private, non-governmental, and global think tank by analysing its origins within an all-male elite group of engineers, scientists, and businessmen, and its intimate interrelationships and personal overlaps with the OECD, an intergovernmental organisation representing the industrialised capitalist countries. This social positioning fundamentally shaped the network’s outlook, most importantly with regard to its systemic analysis of interrelated global problems in a computer-engineering perspective, the technocratic outlook from the perspective of the global North, and top-down management approach.
How did the cradle of the Club of Rome react when its offshoot published its first report in 1972? After all, Limits to growth was consciously set up as a “detonator” to give a jolt to established governments and international organisations. At first, it did indeed impress and unsettle the OECD. But once the public debate took off, the views expressed in Limits deepened the internal fractures within the OECD and provoked hostile reactions, leading to a revitalisation of the strong pro-growth position.
The strongest force behind the backlash against the critiques of growth came with the onset of economic turmoil, soaring energy prices, and stagflation from 1973-74 onwards. While the energy shortages and their effects on industrialised countries were largely interpreted by the public as proof of the Club of Rome’s predictions, within the OECD these developments did not strengthen the faction critical of growth. On the contrary, the debate on the “problems of modern society” was choked by a combination of changing member-state interests, an attempt by the top level of the Secretariat to better position the OECD, and a shift of influence within the Organisation.
The growth critique sparked a bitter controversy between the macro-economic branch of the Organisation and the science experts and environmental scientists around King, which the latter lost when the OECD refocused on trade, energy, and growth. In particular, the publication of the Club of Rome’s first report polarised the debate to such a degree that not only the OECD but Western policy-making circles more generally returned to the promotion of quantitative growth. While the Club of Rome was born in the corridors of the OECD, its first report effectively ended these intimate relationships.
Matthias Schmelzer (2016), The Hegemony of Growth. The OECD and the Making of the Economic Growth Paradigm, Cambridge University Press