In spring 1972, two United Nations conferences were held on successive months in an effort to articulate and find answers to the problem of the deep divisions and inequalities in global society. Both their respective south/north locations (Santiago [Chile] and Stockholm) and their themes (trade and development, and the global ecosystem) have a profound resonance today. Even after a generation and more of practical experience and discussion of the issues addressed by these conferences, it is worth returning to the moment of the early 1970s to understand what it represented and what lessons it may still offer.
In April -May 1972, the third session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (“UNCTAD 3”) convened in Santiago (in a Chile then in the second year of Salvador Allende’s tumultuous Unidad Popular coalition government). The event was invested with great hope by what were then called “third world” nations in particular that, after the widely recognised failure of the UN’s “development decade” of the 1960s, a new process would move towards the establishment of a fairer international trading system as well as support for national industrial development.
In the event, a rich agenda (involving issues such as commodity agreements, compensatory finance, tariff preferences and allocation of the new special drawing-rights liquidity) was not matched by great progress in the outcome. The unity of purpose across an industrialised north intent on maintaining its dominant trading position, and a corresponding disunity among the poorer states of the “global south”, meant that the hope was to a great degree unrealised.
In June 1972, the UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) took place in Stockholm. The expectation was that the gathering would concentrate on the pollution problems of the old industrialised states, and thus be relatively limited in focus. In the event, the conference turned out to have a much wider frame of reference, raising the discussion of global issues onto a new level. Much of the credit for this was due to the publication of a slim book which had an extraordinary intellectual impact.
This was The Limits to Growth – an early analysis of global systems undertaken at MIT by Dennis L Meadows, Donella H Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, who had been commissioned by an unusual collection of industrialists, diplomats, bankers and others known as the Club of Rome. The volume sold more than a million copies in its first couple of months after publication (just in time to influence the Stockholm conference) and eventually as many as 12 million copies in thirty-seven languages would be purchased. It was a pivotal influence in introducing ideas of sustainability, environmentalism, and new economics to an emerging global community of professionals, activists, academics, and citizens concerned in fresh ways about the “fate of the earth”.
The core analysis of The Limits to Growth was that the impact of increased human activity would ultimately exceed the capacity of the global ecosystem to maintain itself, with potentially disastrous consequences. The vigorous reaction to the book at the time (especially by free-market economists) was part of its effect; many of its arguments, such as its estimation of the time it would take for problems to emerge (seventy years, in some cases), were subject to severe criticism. Yet today, The Limits to Growth and the warnings of many at the UNCTAD and UNHCE conferences that addressing global inequalities was essential in ensuring global stability are looking uncomfortably prescient.
The driving force of the Club of Rome, the singular group that commissioned The Limits to Growth study, was an Italian industrialist called Aurelio Peccei. For a period, the Club of Rome (founded in 1968) achieved a degree of prominence; this gradually faded, but as with the Limits project (which was updated on its thirtieth anniversary, in 2002) there are signs that its message has echoes in this new generation.
An example of this reviving interest was a Club of Rome meeting on 6 November 2007 in the grand surroundings of the Schloss Bellevue in Berlin, at the invitation of the president of the Federal Republic of Germany (and former head of the International Monetary Fund), Horst Köhler. It was an opportunity for the club to voice a new agenda which emphasises three linked aspects of the global system:
* the deepening wealth-poverty divide, as a globalised free market delivers patchy economic growth but singularly fails to enhance or even aid socio-economic justice
* the increasingly evident environmental constraints on human activity (most prominently climate change and intensifying conflicts over resources, especially oil and gas)
* the inability of the more powerful states to see such problems as matters for anything other than control, if need be by military force. All too often, their attitude seems to be that it is preferable to maintain the current system rather than recognise the problems of unsustainability and even survivability that it poses.
The participants in Berlin, as befitting the wellspring of the Club of Rome initiative itself, were an unusual mixture. They included former foreign ministers, ambassadors, industrialists, bankers, development specialists and even the odd academic; they were drawn principally from continental Europe and north Africa, secondarily from Latin America and India, with a smattering from north America or Britain. That alone gave the meeting a “feel” that differed markedly from the normal atmosphere in the numerous security conferences that dot the globe. It may not have been truly global, and it was most definitely an elite group, yet its very make-up insulated it from the familiar if almost intangible fate that attends many such gatherings: slipping easily into the usual Euro-Atlantic English-language mindset that effortlessly assumes it knows what is best for the world.
Instead there was a certain unease, born of a recognition that the status quo simply cannot be maintained. It is not just that the “war on terror” has proved to be such a disastrous example of the failure of the control paradigm, nor is it that the anticipated emancipatory promise of the globalising 1990s has been found so wanting. It is, rather, an understanding that socio-economic divisions are getting wider precisely at a time of encroaching environmental pressures and constraints. In such circumstances, the “old thinking” that is rooted in the maintenance of the current order is just starting to be recognised as obsolete if not dangerously counterproductive.
The past as prologue
In the same year as the Santiago and the Stockholm conference, the economic geographer Edwin Brooks envisaged the risk of “a crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes”. That seems in retrospect a projection informed by acute foresight, yet there is very little sign of the new thinking that will be vital if more peaceful world is to be achieved (see “A tale of two towns“, 21 June 2007).
In Britain, for example, senior defence chiefs on 8 November 2007 called (at the launch of the National Defence Association) for increased military spending. The appeal comes at a time when the Royal Navy is planning to build Britain’s largest ever warships, two 65,000-tonne aircraft- carriers designed to pursue advanced expeditionary warfare, no doubt primarily in the waters of the oil-rich Persian Gulf (see “British sea power: a 21st-century question” [12 July 2006] and “Gordon Brown’s white elephants” [26 July 2007]).
The government also plans to spend tens of billions of pounds in order to remain a nuclear-weapons state for at least the next half century. With its carriers and its nuclear “deterrent” British security policy entirely ignores the real security threats and persists in its desire to help the United States in its vain – but potentially hugely destructive – efforts to maintain control (see “Britain’s 21st-century defence“, 15 February 2007).
Here, in principle, “Britain” could be substituted by “France” or indeed most other leading states of the western alliance – where military and political elites are accompanied by think-tanks which too engage in deep exploration of the technical and political requirements for staying in control but with little evident concern for or real understanding of the underlying causes of insecurity.
There is some, all too disparate, evidence of new ideas (see, for example, here, here and here) but they often lack institutional and financial support. This is where the revived Club of Rome could have an impact. It may be drawn from an elite but its members appear to have some appreciation of the scale of current global predicaments and the urgency of creating new policies to match them.
Thirty-five years ago the Club of Rome, through its The Limits to Growth report, expanded the world’s understanding of the global ecosystem in a quite remarkable manner. As it approaches the fortieth anniversary of its formation, the ideas which the group embodies are more needed than ever.
Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
Paul Rogers’s latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament.
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