The Club of Rome’s search for planetary well-being through the eyes of a reformed theologian

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In order to address the challenges inherent in the title of this article, the author investigates how different reports of the Club or Rome over the past 50 years overlap in important ways with Reformed ecotheology.

This places the article in the midst of the so-called science and religion dialogue in which theology is increasingly taking cognisance of empirical research and scientific data and, on the other hand, sciences are becoming increasingly aware of the need to transcend their traditional limitations in order to find a comprehensive paradigm. We all share one earth: the closer we all come to a point of omega, the closer we also come together. “I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation,” observes the naturalist Edward O. Wilson (2006:4).

This article applies an exemplary methodology by selecting the ecotheology of a Reformed theologian as a lens to analyse relevant results of scientific ecological research. The Club of Rome is such an example of social sciences striving to find a new inclusive paradigm for a world in peril. Not only do the two exponents of science and ecotheology provide the much needed knowledge and even the vocabulary for each other, but the preamble of The Earth Charter even provides the grammar for this engagement of ecotheology and science:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognise that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. (Earth Charter Initiative 2001:1)

The Club of Rome was established in 1968 at the Academia dei Lincei in Rome by Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King. It started with 30 members and an executive committee of 12. In 2018 Mamphela Ramphele of South Africa became one of the two co-presidents.

The aims of the Club are:

  • To foster understanding of the varied but interdependent components – economic, political, natural, and social – that make up the global system in which we all live.
  • To bring that new understanding to the attention of policymakers and the public worldwide.
  • To promote new policy initiatives and action. (Meadows, Meadows, Randers en Behrens 1972:9)

Except for official reports, study results and other literature, the Club publishes an updated report of its progress every 10 years. The following reports have been published: The limits to growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers and Behrens 1972); Mankind at the turning point (Mesarovic and Pestel 1974); Beyond the limits (Meadows, Meadows and Randers 1992); Limits to growth: The 30-year update (Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004); and the last centennial one, 2052. A global forecast for the next forty years (Randers 2012). Each of these reports is analysed in this article and the qualitative aspects are highlighted in order to map the mutual terrain of science and theology. 

The juxtaposition of theology and science provides the need for a new value system apparent in social sciences. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Index, for example, has been criticised as an unreliable instrument to measure well-being, whereas the Human Development Index (HDI) has been named as a much more reliable yardstick to determine well-being.

The first publication, The limits to growth (Meadows et al. 1972), was publicised widely and enjoyed much attention. The first 70 years of the last century were used as the point of departure and a basis in order to outline certain scenarios for the future. The team examined the five basic factors that determine, and therefore ultimately limit, growth on this planet as population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution. Of great concern were the discrepancies in the use of the resources of the planet: 20% of people in high-income countries account for 86% of private consumption, while the poorest 20% of the world’s population consume only 1,3%. The report concludes: “The equilibrium society will have to weigh the trade-offs engendered by a finite earth not only with consideration of present human values but also with consideration of future generations” (Meadows et al. 1972:182).

The second report, authored by Mesarovic and Pestel (1974:146), appeared only two years later. In it values and attitudes were also regarded of the utmost importance:

  • A global consciousness must be developed through which every individual realises his role as a member of the world community.
  • A new ethic in the use of material resources must be developed which will result in a lifestyle that is compatible with the oncoming age of scarcity.
  • An attitude toward nature must be developed based on harmony rather than conquest.
  • If the human species is to survive, humans must develop a sense of identification with future generations and be ready to trade benefits to the next generations.

The initial authors, Donella and Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers, updated their work personally in 1992 and called their new book Beyond the limits. Twenty years later they realised that despite more advanced technology, more information and stricter environmental legislation, the ultimate limits of sustainability had in many respects already been exceeded. Without realising it or intending to do so, humanity has gone overboard: “To overshoot means to go beyond limits inadvertently, without meaning to do so” (Meadows et al. 1992:1). After two decades the challenge rather became sustainable development. A sustainable society is “one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (Meadows et al. 1992:12).

The third decade’s update was entitled Limits to growth. The 30-year update (Meadows et al. 2004). It provided evidence that by the turn of the century the demand on the planet had already been 120% of what it could supply. They confessed: “We failed totally to get the concept of ‘overshoot’ accepted as a legitimate concern for public debate” (Meadows et al. 2004:xx). Noteworthy is that the Club of Rome emphasised strongly that a particular understanding of reality is indispensable: People who think in a different way will also act in a different way. The key understanding of such a new paradigm will be that there is only one planetary system. Again, it is stated (as in the Meadows et al. 1992 publication) that “visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving” are the five key concepts for a sustainable life. 

Jørgen Randers (2012) was the sole author of the last decennial report, in which it was made clear that the culture of consumerism had to be replaced by cultural elements that provide longer-term substantial satisfaction and increasing well-being: 

  • Darwin has to be reinterpreted not as survival of the fittest, but as advanced life that evolves through cooperation instead of domination.
  • Cultures that live closer together will contribute to a global society that exists on a higher level.
  • A new understanding of community with values of a more benign form of individualism which understands the value of collective solutions.

The Club of Rome’s latest appeal (on the occasion of their 50-year celebration in 2018) is urgent: “Come on!” as well as “We need a crash plan.” It stresses that the appeal of the Paris Protocol must be taken seriously, in spite of political opposition. In this regard Moltmann (2018:111), for one, mourns the withdrawal of the USA (“the biggest polluter of the environment”) from the Paris Protocol.

Hope was the concept with which Moltmann began his theological career in 1964. It summarised his entire theology. His recent book also bears the title Hope and thinking (Hoffen und Denken 2016). With this book, as well as his latest publication, The spirit of hope. Theology for a world in peril (2019), a circle of thought is completed and hope more clearly qualified. It was his involvement in scientific research which brought him to reflect on hope again. How one discipline is complemented by the other is shown by the work of Jørgen Randers, the Club of Rome’s one consistent author. His reflection about the future also prompted him to reflect on hope in contemporary times. Randers spelled out a message for the time to come:

Thus my final word of encouragement: Don’t let the possibility of impending disaster crush your spirits. Don’t let the prospect of a suboptimal long-term future kill your hope. Hope for the unlikely! Work for the unlikely! Remember, too, that even if we do not succeed in our fight for a better world, there will still be a future world. And there will still be a world with a future – just less beautiful and less harmonious than it could have been. (Randers 2012, loc. 7120).

Keywords: Club of Rome; ecological footprint; ecology; ecotheology; environmental care; Meadows; Moltmann; paradigm; planetary well-being; theology and science dialogue; Limits to growth; The Earth Charter; value systems


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Die Klub van Rome (“Club of Rome”) se soeke na planetariese welsyn beskou deur die oë van ’n Gereformeerde teoloog

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