Imagine a book that on one hand instantly becomes a global bestseller with 9 million copies sold in 30 languages and on the other provokes the ire of the entire capitalist world. That book Limits to Growth now celebrates 50 years since publication in 1972 and owes its existence to the Club of Rome which sponsored the MIT-based computer modeling research.
Its team ran multiple world scenarios with different combinations of economic and environmental conditions, only to show that if society continued on its current consumptive economic path, overshoot and collapse would await in the 21st century.
The lead author, Donella Meadows, then a young MIT post-grad, grabbed all the project data and popped out the book in just two months. Meadows went on to become a world-famous writer about systems and sustainability and a professor at Dartmouth College, where I would eventually have her as my mentor between 1988 and 1992.
Yet despite her global impact on the sustainability field, the white old boys Club of Rome turned down Meadows’s nomination — twice — to become one of its elite 100 members. In the 1970s, in fact, only two women held that distinction and the Club had little interest in increasing their numbers, though Meadows’s male co-authors easily ascended.
Adding insult to injury, the German publisher calculated that if the book bore a woman’s name as first author, it wouldn’t sell well, so Donella ceded to Dennis Meadows, project leader and husband, the top spot in non-English editions. Donella, however, never surrendered the English version.
And as multiple recent scientific studies have now supported the half-century book’s conclusions, reconfirming that Limits to Growth ages like a fine wine, the Club of Rome has also done some fine aging.
Last weekend, in fact, it showcased how much it has matured at its annual meeting co-sponsored by the Earth Charter organization housed at the United Nations University for Peace in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica.
Women Lead the Way
The two-day conference, “Shifting from The Limits to Growth to Global Equity for a Healthy Planet: How Do We Ensure Transformational Governance?” did not inaugurate with stoic words uttered by a gray-haired white-faced European grandfather.
Rather, the first six speakers were all women. Their numbers included:
- The Club’s two co-presidents Sandrine Dixson-Declevè – A Belgian named one of GreenBiz’s 30 most influential women driving a low-carbon economy
- Mamphela Ramphele, a South African doctor, politician, and Apartheid activist.
- Mirian Vilela, the Brazilian executive director of the Earth Charter and 25-year resident of Costa Rica
- Sandra Xinico, a Mayan-Guatemalan activist and anthropologist.
- Mirian Cisneros of the Kichwa Sarayaku people and member of the Andean Parliament in Ecuador a
- Gabriela Rojas, assistant director general of UNESCO-Mexico.
A man didn’t step to the plate until the bottom of the batting order when the University of Peace rector Francisco Rojas graced the wall-sized projector screen with a pre-recorded message.
Dixson-Declevè introduced the conference by sharing an anecdote of a phoenix-shaped pendant gifted to her recently. She noted how the phoenix offers hope in face of what one speaker called a syndemic — when multiple pandemics gang up on society.
Indeed, Latin America, according to that same speaker, suffers from at least 10 simultaneous pandemics. Dixson-Declevè said that in confronting such tragedy and accelerating global heating, civilization cannot endure and plan through the pain of the present moment to achieve harmony, love, and togetherness that most of humanity so desperate craves. But this is precisely what the phoenix does.
“To get to that harmony, that love, and that togetherness, the phoenix must burn itself and rebuild from the ashes. This symbolism is so incredibly powerful as we are met today by the compound effects of a multitude of crises. We think to ourselves that it is not going to be possible. We cannot endure this pain — we cannot plan through this pain. And yet that is what the phoenix does.”
The speakers then proceeded throughout the two days to share both innumerable problems afflicting civilization and solutions that radiate hope.
Those solutions include much greater cultural inclusiveness, integration of ancestral indigenous wisdom, addressing developing countries’ blossoming debts and disjointed trade imbalances, reforming the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, applying new economic tools such as True Cost Accounting, and healing the UN climate change conference process.
Perhaps the biggest need of all, underlying all these remedies, is, as Colombian writer Isabel Cavalier said, a paradigm shift from separation to integration and extraction to care. “The culture and economy of care is to remember our way. Humans know how to care and be cared for.”
Why Costa Rica
I asked Mamphela Raphele just before the conference why did the Club of Rome choose Costa Rica to host its first in-person meeting in four years. The anti-Apartheid champion looked up, and a warm smile foreshadowed inspiration. “Costa Rica is a country with the courage to make decisions with high dividends like not having an army.
It was a very important choice to have human development and wellbeing for all rather than a never-ending race to be the best armed country.” Another smile. “This country has made radical changes. It chose peace and investments instead of war.
We need to leave this place and go back to building institutions that bring out the best in each of us, including the Club of Rome, to bring out the best not only in ourselves but in those we touch.”
Her co-president shared a more circumspect response. A few years back, she had been working with several prominent Latin American women, not the list of which was the UN’s chief climate negotiator and Costa Rica’s own Christiana Figueres. It had already been clear that the Club of Rome needed to visit Latin America where it suffered a low profile and even lower membership.
Alicia Jiménez, the program director for the Earth Charter, told me that the moment came when she attended a UNESCO conference and ran into the Club of Rome’s vice president, Spaniard Carlos Alvarez, who shared with her the Club of Rome’s Latin American desire. Jiménez right then and there offered up the Earth Charter and its home at the University of Peace.
Costa Rica was chosen, however, not just because of some conveniently placed UN university, but because of great things it has done. Vilela emphasized how the President of Costa Rica in 1948 had the “guts and courage” to change the narrative by shifting funds from an army to public health and education. “The current and predominant narrative is so focused on economic growth and material wealth. We need a narrative that cultivates concern for wellbeing.”
She pointed out that abolition was not the only narrative change that Costa Rica achieved. “Costa Rica went from a country in the mid-70s and 80s that was pretty much destroying its forests to a country that in the 90s turned that around, changed the narrative.”
It now enjoys national forest cover greater than 50%. And if that weren’t enough, she added, Costa Rica is a model of good water governance that supplies potable water to nearly the entire population.
Change Does Not Come Easily
Looking out over the audience of men and women, young and old, white, indigenous, Asian, and black African faces, former First Lady of Costa Rica, ex-wife of President Figueres, and now secretary general of FLACSO, the post-graduate social sciences university based in 14 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Josette Altmann Borbón underlined her preferred solution.
“When you need to change there are three main words to conduct that change: education, education, and education.”
No one disagreed with the importance of education, in fact, almost no one disagreed with anything. The event generated remarkable consensus among participants for equitable, inclusive, and multigenerational dialogue as central to any emerging governance regime.
The only minor tension I detected was when one prominent Club of Rome member declared that we are now in the Decade of Action. If we don’t act decisively, it will be too late. To that, Raphele reacted with another unscripted verse of inspiration.
Harkening back to her Apartheid struggles, she recalled, “We only got free when we stopped using the language of the oppressors.” Though I was not quite sure in which way “Decade of Action” represented such language, she continued: “Nature has no price. The mountains are sacred. Hundreds of years of pain.
I am a bearer of that pain. My country has lost its way. It has adopted the neoliberal path. We are dying because we swallowed poison. We need to go back and drink the wisdom of our ancestors.”
Change, however, has come to the Club of Rome. One long-time white-haired male member confided that before meetings basically consisted of people presenting their books, but now the Club of Rome has become activist. In fact, when the co-presidents started, they conductef a membership audit that demonstrated dire need to diversify its membership portfolio.
During the closing session, the co-presidents and Vanda Witoto, Amazonian indigenous leader and politician, attempted to synthesize the conference’s many contributions. But in typical Costa Rican fashion, a dog wandered through the crowd and onto the stage seeking attention or food.
It would seem the husky-mutt had a much simpler synthesis as Vanda’s and Sandrine’s hands excitedly caressed the intruder. That message was not lost by Dixson-Declevè who explained, “The dog is a symbol of being together with other species!”
Once the dog exited stage left, Dixson-Declevè returned to her serious script by again invoking the phoenix in our warming world: “We will have to burn a lot more before we begin the rebirth.”
Jon Kohl is a writer and director of the non-profit PUP Global Heritage Consortium. He lives in Tres Ríos.