The Club of Rome is inextricably linked to the legendary report that it commissioned to a group of MIT researchers in 1972, “The Limits to Growth.” Today, nearly 50 years later, we still have to come to terms with the vision brought by the report, a vision that contradicts the core of some of humankind’s most cherished beliefs. The report tells us that we cannot keep growing forever and that we have to stop considering everything we see around us as ours by divine right. 

Not surprisingly, the report generated strong feelings and, with them, there came plenty of disinformation and legends. Some cast the Club of Rome in the role of a secret organization with dark and dire purposes, others aimed at the Limits report, claiming that it was “wrong” or, worse, purposefully designed to deceive the public. I wrote an entire book on this subject (The Limits to Growth Revisited) — in short, most of these stories are false but some contain grains of truth and all of them tell us something about how we humans don’t just deny bad news, we tend to demonize the bearers.

So, there is a peculiar legend stating that the leaders of the Club of Rome disavowed their brainchild, The Limits to Growth and, in doing so, they admitted that it had been wrong, or an attempt to mislead the public. It is an old legend but, as all legends, it is surprisingly persistent and you can still see it mentioned in recent times (for instance, here and here) as if it were the obvious truth. It is not: it is a good example of how disinformation works.

The origins of the legend go back to Julian Simon (1932-1998), flamboyant defender of economic growth and self-styled “doomslayer.” Simon was a skilled polemicist who used with remarkable effectiveness all the standard techniques of disinformation. So, in his book, “The Ultimate Resource” (1981 edition, p. 286) Simon writes (highlighting mine)

The most compelling criticism of the Limits to Growth simulation, however, was made by the sponsoring Club of Rome itself. Just four years after the foofaraw created by the book’s publication and huge circulation — an incredible 4 million copies were sold — the Club of Rome “reversed its position” and “came out for more growth” [..] The explanation of this reversal, as reported in “Time” is a masterpiece of face saving double talk.

“The Club’s founder, Italian industrialist “Aurelio Peccei, says that Limits was intended to jolt people from the comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue indefinitely. That done, he says, the Club could then seek ways to close the widening gap between rich and poor nations — inequities that, if they continue, could all too easily lead to famine, pollution, and war. The Club’s startling shift, Peccei says, is thus not so much a turnabout as part of an evolving strategy”

In other words, the Club of Rome sponsored and disseminated untruths in an attempt to scare us. Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth. 

So, where does all that come from? I can’t find on the Web the original “Time” article that Simon cites, but there are other reports available on the declarations that Aurelio Peccei (founder, and at the time president, of the Club of Rome) released in 1976, during a meeting held in Philadelphia. The journalists who interviewed Peccei were impressed by what they perceived as a reversal of previous Club’s policies, to the point that Newsweek titled its report (according to the St. Louis Post) “Has the Club of Rome publicly abjured?” Peccei was said (according to the New York Times) to have stated that, “Naturally, we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable.”

Is that enough to say that the Club of Rome had “reversed its position”? Not at all. There was nothing new in Peccei’s statements. Already in 1973, with a document signed by the executive committee and titled The New Threshold” – the Club of Rome stated that  (referring to “The Limits to Growth” report)

An erroneous image of the Club has, therefore, formed as a group advocating zero growth. Again, the possible consequences of unregulated growth of the industrialized societies and, still more, those which would arise if growth were abruptly brought to a halt, has disturbed some of the less developed countries where, we have already said, the report is all too easily seen as a selfish proposal from the developed world which would still further aggravate the difficulties of the great mass of underprivileged on our planet.

And that is not a “face-saving double talk,” as Simon claimed. It is a necessary consequence of the views of the Club from its formation. Aurelio Peccei had started the Club on the basis of what he called the “problematique” or the “predicament” of humankind. From his first public speech on this subject, in 1965 (you can find it here), it is clear that he saw the problems facing humankind mainly in terms of a fair distribution of the available resources, avoidance of wars, elimination of poverty, health care for everyone, and the like. (see also this post by Irv Mills). Peccei didn’t imagine the future of humankind in terms of a collapse – no, the concept of “overshoot and collapse” of socioeconomic systems didn’t exist at that time, it was developed and diffused only in the 1970s by Jay Forrester.

So, the results of “The Limits to Growth” study, with their scenarios of probable collapse, must have been a shock for Peccei and the other members of the Club of Rome. Still, it is clear from what they wrote afterward that they understood the logic and the consequences of the report they had commissioned – they never “disavowed” it, even though over the years some individual members criticized the study in various ways, but that’s anther story.

Over the years, the Club of Rome and the Limits have been seen as the same thing, sometimes confusing who did exactly what. In reality, they are two distinct and different things. The Club of Rome had its roots in the “problematique” devised by Peccei and its members worked at integrating the Limits results within their worldview. It was clear to them that “The Limits to Growth” aggregated all the world’s national economies into average parameters. As a consequence, “zero growth” as a global policy would have meant maintaining the economic gap separating the rich and the poor country. And that was not what Peccei and the others had in mind. Hence, Peccei’s statement in 1976 “Naturally, we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable,” In another report, they said that the Limits “is a beginning and not an end.” That is the origin of the other 1976 statement by Peccei “the limits‐to‐growth report had served its purpose of “getting the world’s attention.

And here we are: no lies, no disavowal, no scare tactics. What we have, instead, is a stark reminder of how disinformation works. Note the narrative technique used by Simon: he says that “Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth.” You need about 3 seconds to deconstruct this statement and note how it makes no sense: if the Club successfully told lies to the public, why should it stop doing that? What could the Club possibly gain by publicly confessing of having lied? But narrative follows special rules: what we have here is a typical trope of many modern movies: at some moment, the villains may explicitly confess their crimes (sometimes called badass boast) out of pure arrogance, typically in order to humiliate the good guys. So, the trick Simon is using is to cast the Club of Rome into the role of the villains in narrative terms. It is an effective trick in an age in which we can’t distinguish reality from narrative anymore: it is the dark art called “creating one’s own reality.

Nearly 50 years have passed since the Limits report was published and it is safe to say that most people remember it the way it was described by the propaganda of the 1990s, as a “wrong-headed” study (if they remember it at all). But does that mean that it has been forgotten forever? While it is true that “Google Trends” doesn’t show any increased interest in the “Limits” itself, there is growing interest in the concept of slowing down economic growth or avoiding altoghether. And “The Limits to Growth” is showing a remarkable return of interest in the scientific literature. Does that means we will see a return of interest in it also in the mainstream debate? Why not? After all, in the long run, truth always beats disinformation.

Teaser photo credit: Aurelio Peccei, RIO en Club van Rome in Rotterdam; 3, 6: Tinbergen 4, 5: Peccei 19 oktober 1976