The Club of Rome


The Club of Rome is an organisation dedicated to addressing the problems facing humanity in a systemic, holistic and long-term way. It consists of fewer than 100 elected members, many of whom are leading economists, scientists and thinkers. The secretariat is in Switzerland. 

Graeme Maxton is a best-selling author, economist and Member of the Club of Rome. He has written widely on the subject of economic growth and the environment.  In an interview with Open Citizenship, he spoke to us about the work the Club of Rome does to improve our chances of transitioning to a more sustainable society.

The Club of Rome is a highly prestigious organisation, but one that is not well known to the public. What is it, how can you join and what is your aim?

The Club of Rome was founded in 1968 by an Italian and a Scotsman, Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King.  They wanted to bring a small group of thoughtful and intelligent people together, fewer than 100.  These influential people had to share a concern for the problematique,[1] or the challenges facing humanity.

The Club then came to popular prominence when The Limits to Growth book was published in 1972, which put forward 12 scenarios for the future.  The resources of the planet are limited, it said, and if we carry on increasing our use of them, our progress will eventually be constrained.  With a few small changes though, such problems can be avoided, the book said.

The Club still consists of fewer than 100 members today, each chosen for their ability to think holistically and systematically about the long-term challenges facing our world.  The Club’s mission is “to act as a global catalyst for change through the identification and analysis of the crucial problems facing humanity and the communication of such problems to the most important public and private decision makers as well as to the general public”.  New members are normally, but not always, nominated by existing members.

There seems to be an interesting relationship between the Club of Rome’s elite membership (which includes some of the most powerful people in politics and academics internationally) and its revolutionary message. Does this create tensions with members or do you see it as natural?

I do not think it creates any tension.  I am sure every thinking person cares about humanity’s place in the world, and our place in history.  The membership of the Club is not so much an elite group, as you suggest, as an association of those driven by a desire for betterment.  We see the message not as revolutionary, but as common sense.  To put humanity on the right path may require a difficult transformation, perhaps even a revolution, of course.  But it is the end state that interests the Club of Rome.  It is the creation of a better, fairer and more sustainable human place in the world.

I am sure every thinking person cares about humanity’s place in the world, and our place in history.

The Limits to Growth, which you commissioned in the 1970s, has dramatically influenced the debate about sustainability in the decades since. Why do you think this publication has had such resonance compared to other writing on sustainability?

A lot of the success of The Limits to Growth was linked to the timing of its publication.  There had not been many environmental books published in 1972.  The message was also rather shocking to many people, who could not understand how there could be constraints on our development, when man had just landed on the moon and it seemed like almost anything was possible.  The response to the report was also part of the magic.  Because it was criticised so strongly and publicly, it made headlines around the world, fuelling a debate about our place in the world and our future.  It captured the zeitgeist.

One of your key areas of focus is a negative understanding of “growth”, including economic growth. How should this notion be implemented politically? To what extent can it be translated into an appealing political message?

I think it is worthwhile pointing out that The Limits to Growth did not focus on economic growth.  That is something that critics said.  The book actually talked about humanity’s ecological growth, about the sustainability of our place on the planet.

However, you are right to infer that we do not support economic growth in the same way as most people.  Our argument is not that we cannot have economic growth, but that we cannot continue to have economic growth that depends on us damaging the planet.  We can still have growth in services and in many other new ways.  But we cannot have endless growth that requires us to use ever greater quantities of raw materials, that creates more pollution and that leads to climate change.

More than that though, we think that economic growth is not much of a goal.  For years we have been told that it would bring us all sorts of benefits, and a better standard of living.  But it has not.  In much of the world, the growth of the last 30 years has only been made possible by rising debt and ever more environmental damage.  The gap between rich and poor has widened.  Because of the financial bubble the focus on economic growth created, hundreds of millions of people are now unemployed.  Obesity is rising in much of the world while millions are starving.

So the drive for growth has not achieved what it promised for most people in the developed world.  They are no happier now than they were in the 1950s.

More than even that though, we think economic growth is a pointless goal.  We want to ask, what is the growth for?  We think that this is the question we all need to answer, and then to align our societies with the answers.

Our argument is not that we cannot have economic growth, but that we cannot continue to have economic growth that depends on us damaging the planet.

The Club of Rome has some of the world’s most powerful, highly educated, well-connected people working on sustainability, and you’ve been warning us about ecological limits for over 40 years. At this point, anyone who cares about sustainability can’t be anything other than disappointed at the lack of progress made since these issues first came to light. What needs to happen next, and what role should the Club of Rome play moving forward?

This is an excellent question, but one that is also surprisingly hard to answer, even for us.

First, I think it is relatively easy to define a better model of human development.  Second, it is also relatively easy to understand the flaws of the current system, to define where we are now.  The great difficulty comes when working out a path from one of these to the other.

We need to completely redesign our world and the way we think about it.  We need to abandon growth as the means of progress and adopt well-being measures instead.  We need to stop climate change, or at least stop making it any worse.  We need to change the way we value the planet and nature so that our approach is sustainable.  And we need to change our education systems, so that they promote better ideas, to ensure that our tenure on Earth can continue.

To do all this, of course, also requires us to make huge changes to our legal systems, our political systems and our relationships with each other.

So how do we do that?  There are really two options as I see it today:  either we can do nothing, and carry on down the current path; or, we can try and make some vital changes now.  The former will eventually bring about a crisis that will force us to change (or will lead to our demise), so it makes sense to make the changes now.  It will be hard.    This is really what the Club of Rome is about.  It is about helping to educate all of us, from the presidents of the world’s nations, to the poorest people, about the need for change.  We want to be a positive force, a catalyst that helps move us towards a better path.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges facing Europe in relation to sustainability and the future? What are the main levers to help tackle these problems?

When I give talks around the world about the need for change, the region where I have the most difficulty is Europe.  This is not because Europeans do not understand the need for sustainability and change, but because they do.  So when I talk to audiences here I am left with a feeling that I did not tell them anything they did not already know.  They do not argue with me about the need for change.  It is the rest of the world where this is a problem, with the probable exception of China.  The leadership in China also understands that our current path is unsustainable.

So, for Europe, the biggest challenges we face in creating a sustainable future are mostly outside the region.  They lie in Australia, in the United States, in Britain and in many other countries where the pull of the free market is getting even stronger and the deniers of climate change are most active.

I am not sure there is much we can do to tackle these problems for now, because the people of these countries are not ready to listen.  It is best, I feel, for Europe to lead by example, working alongside China if possible.

Much of the discussion on sustainability focuses on the social transformation required to create a sustainable future. What role do citizens play in such a transformation? How can their efforts be supported?

This is also a very difficult question.  Many people think that they are helping the planet and our destiny by eating less meat, recycling their waste and taking a bicycle to work instead of driving.  And they are helping.  But not in any really meaningful way, I’m afraid.  The problems we face are still getting worse – from climate change to species loss and inequality – and a minority of people behaving responsibly will not improve that situation.  They are only stopping it getting worse.

Many people think that they are helping the planet and our destiny by eating less meat, recycling their waste and taking a bicycle to work instead of driving. And they are helping. But not in any really meaningful way, I’m afraid.

The best way most people can help is by learning, understanding and communicating with each other.  They should do all they can to be properly informed about the risks we face and then do all they can to help others to understand these risks, the options and the challenges.  They might want to become politically active, even.  But the more people who understand that the existing economic system is rotten, that it is leading us in a very dark direction, the more chance there is that we can change.  The more people who understand that almost all the choices we face are tough ones, the easier it will be for them to accept these changes.  It is not that we all have to go back to living in caves.  It is that we have to make some changes in the way we consume, and in the way we think about the world.  It will not be as hard if we all understand why.

Your analyses on global, social and ecological problems involve modelling and scenario building. How do you incorporate citizen behaviour and social variables in these analyses?

We see the behaviour of people as a small part of the problem, and a very large part of the solution. The main problems we face are climate change, our economic structure, the dominance of corporations, the weakness of many national politicians and the lack of global governance.  These need to be addressed urgently.

Changing the way we think can help change all of these of course, but not very quickly.

To try and understand the role of human behaviour better, we have recently completed a special analysis on values. This looked at how these have changed, what drives them to change and how they need to change again. The results of this work are now being integrated into our other studies.

One of the challenges for us today though is to answer the question: Who are we speaking to? Traditionally, the Club of Rome has addressed itself to those in power, to the politicians and presidents of the world. That is harder now, because many of these people have been corrupted by the existing economic model. They not only ask fewer questions of themselves, they have become part of the problem.

On the other hand, many of those who are damaged by the current system are without the political voices that are needed to promote positive change.  We need to resolve this dilemma, if we are to continue to shape opinions in the years ahead.  In my view, we need to act as catalysts for those who lead in the development of values, wherever they may be, not just for the heads of state where we once focussed our efforts.

[1] The problematique is a Club of Rome term, developed by the founder.  It means “the challenges facing humanity” (as a result of its own ambitions).