Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Enrico Cerasuolo
Directed by Enrico Cerasuolo
DVD , color, 90 min.
Ecology, History of the Environment, Climate Change, Club of Rome, Natural Resources
Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach
Date Entered: 1/6/2014
In 1972 a group of concerned scientists who had gathered in Rome since 1968 issued a landmark report in the history of the environmental movement. Entitled The Limits to Growth, the report predicted a potentially apocalyptic future in which consumption would far outstrip available resources, leading to an existence that would be, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “nasty, brutish and short.” The report echoed the 19th century political economist Thomas Malthus who suggested that populations grew exponentially while food supplies only increased arithmetically, thus creating a food crisis that could soon turn into a political and social disaster. The Club of Rome, like Malthus and the Malthusians before them, contrasted with the tendency to equate modernity with unlimited growth and development.
Four decades later this film revisits the ideas of the Club of Rome by interviewing its surviving members and with footage from the period when the group’s work was first released. The Limits to Growth had an electrifying impact, catalyzing the environmental movement and inspiring a generation of environmentalists. It suggested that individual crises, climactic and environmental, were really symptoms of a global crisis caused by the philosophy of unlimited growth on a finite planet. The Club’s focus on systemic, global connections was path breaking for its time, as well as a harbinger of the ethos of the computer age. That approach came from the Club of Rome’s MIT computer member, Jay Forrester, a pioneer of the modern computer age. Forrester provided his systems approach to answering the problem that the Club had first set out but had little idea how to implement: studying the future direction of the earth’s development as a complex of biological and human-made technological systems. Also unique was the Club’s attempt to bring science and humanists together—to build a bridge between science and the humanities—by applying scientific approaches to understanding human problems, a hallmark of the modern environmental movement.
As this documentary makes clear, the warnings of the group were not heeded. When the report first came out, it was perhaps possible to slow down consumption and spread both the philosophy and practice of more sustainable development. But that is no longer possible. Nearly all of the group’s gloomier predictions about resource completion and overshooting limits seem to have become nearly true.
While exploring the ideas of The Limits to Growth, the documentary also recounts the history of the Club of Rome – its origins in Italy, the derivation of its name, and the philosophy of its Italian industrialist founder. The Club of Rome attempted to transcend the global Cold War divide between right and left by falling back on science, and on scientists, as a supposedly objective voice regarding the troubles facing the world. Yet the group’s focus on sustainable development, much to the chagrin of its members, was attacked viciously in the media and elsewhere, especially by economists who accused the group of anti-capitalist tendencies. The Reagan-era Republican revival was in large part based on a rejection of the central theses of The Limits to Growth.
The documentary, like The Limits to Growth forty years earlier, raises questions about sustainable growth and consumerism that are perhaps even more urgent than they were in the 1970s. At the same time, the documentary provides historical insights into the origins of the modern environmental movement and its ongoing challenges. It is ideally suited for classes in environmental studies as well as the history of the 1970s and the counterculture.