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Sustainability amidst humanity's decline (II/V)

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By Yury Erofeev

· 6 min read

This is part two of a five-part series on the rise of sustainability. You can find part one here.

The Club of Rome, founded in 1968, was pivotal in identifying and addressing the global threats posed by population growth and resource depletion. From the renowned "The Limits to Growth" report to the shift towards "organic development", the club's influence on global sustainability strategies remains profound.

The Club of Rome and “The Limits to Growth”

In 1968, people worried about this new global reality created the so-called Club of Rome. Its founders were the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei and the OECD Director General for Science, chemist Alexander King. Prominent representatives of scientific and financial circles from different countries and public figures became members of the club. According to the charter, active members of the club cannot be more than a hundred. According to the charter, the club avoids granting membership to active statesmen and members of state governments. In addition to full members, there are honorary and associate members.

What The Club of Rome does is it tries to formulate questions correctly and gives money for research to specialists who can give answers to them. The questions are about global issues. The answers to them are the so-called reports to the Club of Rome.

According to the memoirs of Sergei Kapitsa, who was a member of the club, from the very moment of its foundation, the members of the club discussed which of the global threats is the most dangerous, and what should be dealt with first. The nuclear arms race and other important problems were also discussed, but everyone came to a common opinion: the most important problem is the growth of the Earth’s population and the depletion of non-renewable resources associated with it.

The initial study of this problem was proposed by Jay Forrester, the famous engineer who developed one of the first general-purpose computers Whirlwind I, and, more importantly, the theory of system dynamics. The problem of population growth was calculated on the global computer models World1 and World2 he created. Based on the results of the calculations, Forrester published the book “World Dynamics”, according to which turned out that in the 2020s. while maintaining the same consumption rates, the world will come to an inevitable global environmental catastrophe.

The critical role of Jay Forrester and world dynamics

A diagram from the original edition of The Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome shows how, following the depletion of natural resources, there should be a decline in industrial and food production, and then a significant population decline.

In 1972, a report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, was published. It was written by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, and William Berens III, based on the World3 computer model, based on Forrester’s ideas but expanded, deepened, and refined. The model took into account the population of the Earth, industrialization, food production, depletion of natural resources, and environmental pollution. At the same time, several development options were taken into account with various additional inputs. The standard version, that is, to put it simply, “we manage as we are used to, we use what we have”, showed the beginning of a systemic crisis already at the beginning of the 21st century: first, the average per capita production within the planet would have to fall sharply, and then the demographic decline would begin, but not just any, but leading to the extinction of most of humanity. The option, which assumed no less than a doubling of resources (newly explored reserves, etc.), made it possible to postpone the onset of a worldwide catastrophe only by the middle of the 21st century. The only way to avoid self-sawing by the method of depleting the planet was seen in the transition to a coordinated globally planned development according to the global equilibrium model. The authors called the rejection of the expanded reproduction of the human population and the freezing of the growth of industrial production the necessary components of this model. People close to the aforementioned decent houses, sometimes this particular model is called the concept of sustainable development. This, of course, is closer to the truth than “regular increase in production capacity”, but it is still not entirely true. It is more correct to call this model the concept of zero growth.

The impactful insights of "The Limits to Growth"

“Zero growth” sounds incredibly sad for a modern, educated Western person, brought up on the idea of ​​scientific and technological progress and in the conditions of a desire for continuous economic growth constantly broadcast from everywhere. If you think about it, not much better than extinction. Still, development, and movement give at least some feeling, if not the meaning of being, then at least approaching it. “Global equilibrium” sounds better, but somewhere behind it the negatively colored word “stagnation” looms. Do you like stagnation? To me — no. It seems that it is better to fly into the abyss of extinction than to mothball and just move on the surface. There is nothing more depressing than stagnation.

Perhaps something similar was felt after the release of The Limits to Growth by members of the Club of Rome and the scientists with whom they spoke. The very next report to the club — “Humanity at the Turning Point” (in another translation — “Humanity at the Crossroads”) in 1974, prepared by the systems analyst Eduard Pestel and the mathematician Mikhailo Mesarovich, nevertheless allowed for some development. But the main thing is that it was based on much more accurate calculations: the division of the world into the industrial North and the agrarian South was taken into account, and the features of the development of ten macroregions were set; in general, if the Meadows group model was based on about a thousand equations, then in the Pestel–Mesarovich model there were more than two hundred thousand. The results of Pestel’s and Mesarovic’s calculations showed that, if society's old ways of existence in certain regions are preserved, a catastrophic crisis can begin even earlier than the Meadows model showed. However, organic development was proposed as a recipe for getting out of the deadly dive — as opposed to “zero growth”.

Organic development is a systemic and interdependent development when no subsystem can change to the detriment of another, and progress in one of them is possible only if there are progressive processes in all the others. At the same time, organic development is a multidimensional development, in which each subsystem changes in its way and the very nature of the changes also changes over time, taking into account new conditions, new knowledge, and innovative technologies. To ensure the consistency of the world, the goals of its development must be harmoniously coordinated. For the system to be mobile and flexible, the development of its constituent parts should not be hindered by unexpected influences that are inconsistent with the development goals of the whole. In terms of interaction with the environment, organic development must be non-destructive.

A new perspective

The concept of organic development immediately became the basis of the ideology of the Club of Rome and remained so to this day. Formally, the concept of sustainable development has also been adopted by the United Nations. The IMF is responsible for financing sustainable development. The message to form a functional global community necessary for sustainable development was included in the UN Millennium Development Goals program, the results of which should be summed up this year.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Yury Erofeev is a Business Analyst at SQUAKE, utilizing a solid foundation in Physics, Mathematics, and Sustainable Development to drive meaningful industry changes through data-driven decision-making.

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