Sunday, October 8, 2017

Limits to Growth -- an Odyssey, part II

In last week's post, I outlined the way the Club of Rome fit into the nascent environmental movement of the early 1970s.  The Club's first major project, the 1972 publication of Limits to Growth, generated much discussion at the time but had little lasting impact on actual policy.  I reported the Club's effort to rejuvenate itself and renew its efforts to make an impact on sustainability thinking with its first Summer Academy in Florence in September.  I applied, was accepted, and attended.

A cobbled-together, 24-hour, multi-leg trip deposited me at the modest airport in Florence, Italy without my bags.  After waiting in vain and then filing a report, I was told they would be delivered to the apartment where I was staying within the next 24 hours.  I shouldered my daypack and headed across the city to my lodging.  Florence is an extraordinary city, and fatigued as I was, I managed to stop now and then to take in the scenery in the late afternoon light.

At my Airbnb lodging outside the city center, Mario and his family were very welcoming, and the next morning my bag arrived.  Friendly suroundings and a change of clothes having improved my outlook, I headed to the city center, where the University of Florence is located and where the Club of Rome Summer Academy was scheduled to begin on the afternoon of September 7.

The very first person I met was Luca, the caterer.  A charming, engaging man, he would become a weclome face during the rest of the week, both for his cheering presence and for his excellent food.  The Club of Rome ensured that we ate well during the Summer Academy.

Sampling some of Luca's food at the welcome reception, I met my first fellow participant, a young man from Switzerland.  We somehow gravitated toward one another and hit it off immediately.  Soon he introduced me to one of his friends who was also in attendance.  The two of them are working, in their own ways, on a variety of projects to raise the consciousness and improve the lives of their fellow humans.  From his bio: "His life is based on the decision to use his lifetime for the further development of humankind and for the conscious revolution of life."  I would soon meet a third young man who had made a similar commitment.  Considering that this was a conference devoted to changing the world, it seemed to have recruited the right participants.  I relaxed a bit; I was going to enjoy this week.

The first day involved a protracted ice-breaker game, in which we voted our answers to questions about various sustainability issues by standing with the group with simililar views: voting with our feet.  Having gotten to know one another a little, the 88 participants took their seats; the organizers welcomed us and showed us two vintage five-minute films that I will share with you here - they are worth a look:

Carl Sagan: the Cosmic Calendar

Limits to Growth: Last Call (2012)

After being welcomed by the organizers, we settled in to hear our first talk, delivered from the U.S. via the internet.  The keynote speaker was David Korten, a member of theClub of Rome.

Let me pause here to talk briefly about the Club of Rome again.  The Club consists of 100 members and a variety of associate, honorary, and ex-officio members and fellows.  I can do no better in describing it than to quote from its own website:

The Club of Rome is an organisation of individuals who share a common concern for the future of humanity and strive to make a difference. Our members are notable scientists, economists, businessmen, high level civil servants and former heads of state from around the world. Their efforts are supported by the Secretariat in Winterthur, Switzerland, the European Research Centre registered in Constance, Germany and National Associations in more than 30 countries.
The Club of Rome conducts research and hosts debates, conferences, lectures, high-level meetings and events. The Club also publishes a limited number of peer-reviewed “Reports to the Club of Rome”, the most famous of which is “The Limits to Growth“.
The Club of Rome’s mission is to promote understanding of the global challenges facing humanity and to propose solutions through scientific analysis, communication and advocacy. Recognising the interconnectedness of today’s global challenges, our distinct perspective is holistic, systemic and long-term.

The Club has associate national associations in 34 nations; the United States and Puerto Rico have chapters.  I honestly was not aware of this fact until just now; yet it seems to be a full-fledged organization in its own right, complete with lists of priorities and publications. The national associations were not mentioned at the Summer Academy, and as far as I know none of them sent a representative.

The interconnected set of problems identified in Limits to Growth  -- the "problematique" -- constitutes the foundation upon which the global and national Club organizations build their expertise and frame their policy recommendations.  Are they effective?  Obviously not, though they are participants in global and national conversations and may have subtle impacts that are not easily apparent.  In fairness, they have adopted a monumental challenge -- the Summer Academy subtitle was Challenging an Unsustainable Economic System!

Do they deserve to be effective?  Bear with me for the next few weeks; I'm trying to sort that out for myself.  For now, let me say that an organization that focuses our attention on the complex interplay between resource depletion and pollution as they constrain a growing population with a rising footprint deserves at least conditional support for intervening in what is otherwise a rather one-sided public conversation.

Club of Rome Secretary General Graeme Maxton addresses the Summer Academy on day 1.

Back to David Korten, Club member, co-founder of Yes! Magazine, founder and President of the Living Economies forum, and author of numerous books "framing a new economy for the Ecological Civilization to which humanity must now transition." (here is his web page).  His talk was entitled "Embracing Imperative as Possibility". In some ways, Korten's talk was the most challenging of the week, and I hesitate somewhat to begin (finally!) my account of the Summer Academy with it.  But here goes.

Korten stated that humanity is on a suicidal path, with global consumption currently 1.7 times the maximum sustainable level (see for information on how such estimates are made).  The wealth of eight individuals equals that of the lowest half -- 3.7 million people, the most extreme in human history.

A civilizational shift is required; this will involve overcoming the false ideas of conventional economics by:

  • moving away from growth, which largely benefits the few (though we are told all will benefit);
  • moving away from increased consumption, which increases competition for declining real wealth;
  • moving away from organizing the economy around corporations and back to firms and households;
  • moving away from the dominance of markets, which "run" the corporations, leading to wealth concentration and environmental collapse.

Korten offered three ideas to ponder:

  1. Earth itself is a living being that self-organizes to preserve life;
  2. Money is just a number.  Maximizing that number while destroying the environment and impoverishing people is an act of insanity;
  3. A corporation has a public charter; therefore, it must have a public purpose.

Challenging ideas - I warned you!  Korten is surely a dreamer, or a futurist if you will.  But I hope you can see from that last quote that he is quite clear-eyed about the challenges faced by a society trying to get itself under control.  He promotes something he called subsidiarity: the responsibility of a central organization to establish a framework of rules that supports local decision making.  This means organizing around local biosystems -- the opposite of corporate globalization.  And, in answer to a question, he pointed out that corporations once envisioned a responsibility to all their stakeholders, a responsibility that he said died out during the second half of the twentieth century.  Now a corporation that is "inefficient" in this way will be bought out by private equity and the "inefficiency" eliminated. (Are you familiar with Bain Capital?  or the concept of "unlocking shareholder value"?)

Korten asserted that leadership must come from an awakened citizenry and left us with this gem: "Sustainability is not politically feasible.  We must change the infeasible to the irresistable."  Here I experienced my first disappointment of the week: how?  How, precisely (or even approximately), does one get from point A to point B?

Discussion was lively, and it became clear already on this first day that there was too little time built into the program for the discussion that the group craved.  It was also clear that the Club's choice to invite mostly young people gave the room an energy that fed on itself.  My enthusiasm for the coming week was restored.

I could say much more about just this first talk, but I am out of time and out of space.  Please post your comments and questions and come back next weekend for the Club of Rome Summer Academy, day two.

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