Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thoughts on the historical context of planetary management, 35 years ago and today

I too really liked the book. While reading it, I was reminded of the circa-1990 atmosphere around the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day when I first encountered Limits to Growth, and its sequel Beyond the Limits. About the same time I also read Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb which was actually published in 1968 and discussed many of the same "overshoot and collapse" issues as Limits to Growth ... however within a framework of nation-by-nation population, technology, affluence, and impact variables, rather than on an undifferentiated globalized scale (and without computer models, though with mathematical models and heuristics). Ehrlich too was criticized for his "predictions" (were they predictions or thoughtful scenarios for analysis?) and he too published a recap about twenty years later, titled The Population Explosion.

So a question for Fernando: In your interviews and documentary research, did you find any suggestion that the Club of Rome / Forrester / Meadows folks might have expected some of the criticism they received, given the earlier reception of the Ehrlich book and research?

And a question for us all to ponder: The book argues well that behind our current practices of and understandings of globalization lurk the entwined conception and technology of population, resource, energy, and environmental management on a global scale, which are enabled by new digital computer based processing, monitoring, and communication technology. But even today, many of the critics of global environmental action (say, to reduce and mitigate the effects of global warming) invoke another kind of globalization "planetary management" discourse, that of free markets and military interventions (in the name of "security" rather than "sustainability"), which seem to also have arisen in the early 1970s, when political and economic actors faced the beginning of the end of US manufacturing dominance (auto industry), US military effectiveness (Vietnam), and cheap fossil fuel energy (OPEC). To put it really simplistically, today does the dream of "planentary management" mean something broader and more contested? Does it belong to the right or the left? To the progressive or the conservative? Or does it somehow complicate and transcend these rough categories?

1 comment:

Fernando Elichirigoity said...

The Club of Rome and the Limits to Growth people did expect some controversy but were taken aback by the vehemence and depth of the criticism. Of particular concern to them were criticisms within academia about their methods and their data gathering. There is a flurry of correspondence, increasingly testy, between members of the LtoG project and William Nordhaus, then a young economist at Yale who took them to task for the lack of data. Nordhaus became a figure around whom critics of “Limits” outside academia rallied. Perhaps, somewhat ironically, Nordhaus is now a big environmental economist.

The “Limits” team members saw themselves as scientists and thus tended to argue more within academia than outside it but because the huge impact of the book they found themselves often arguing in the media. They produced a more “academic” book titled “Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World” where they tried to address the scientific criticisms. Needless to say that book sold very few copies. Fred Buttel, a very distinguished rural sociologist at Wisconsin who recently passed on, was also a critic, especially of the “systems” thinking aspect of Limits.

There were critics from the political left as well, centered at Sussex University. Their concerns were about the way in which “systems thinking” erased the political and social issues that they saw as the cause of poverty in the developing world.

Perhaps most surprising for the Club of Rome people was the withering critique from the corporate establishment, represented by the Wall Street Journal, who saw them as wanting to destroy free enterprise. Given that the CoR was largely a group of male corporate figures this came as something of a surprise as well.