The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World - Ehsan Masood (2016)

Chapter 5. The Talented Mr. Strong

The industrial civilization has promoted the concept of the efficient man. Groups or individuals who are less competitive, less efficient, are regarded as lesser breeds.

— Indira Gandhi, keynote address 
to the United Nations Conference 
on the Human Environment (1972)

In June 1962 The New Yorker1 serialized an excerpt from a book that has yet to be equaled in terms of its impact on ideas of how we measure economic growth, both in America and in the rest of the world. The book was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Such was its reach that President Kennedy ordered his scientific advisers to investigate Carson’s claims, and the author was invited to present her findings before Congress. Physically weak from illness, Carson laid out, using the best available evidence at the time, how unregulated use of chemicals such as DDT was harming the nation’s wildlife.

And yet Silent Spring had not been an easy book to write. Carson was in the late stages of cancer, though she hid this from the public. At the same time she was also subjected to the kinds of personal attacks that today can be found in the outer reaches of social media. Her critics homed in on her gender. They called her an enemy of the state and they impugned communism, the ultimate badge of treachery, as this letter to the editor of The New Yorker illustrates: “Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of the insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but as the current market slump goes, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be OK.”2

At least one chemical company threatened her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, with libel, and the National Agricultural and Chemical Association funded a PR campaign. In the words of Robert H. White-Stevens, a professor of biology at Rutgers University, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth.”3

At the core of their argument, Carson’s adversaries claimed that Silent Spring had created fear and hysteria about chemicals, which would undermine the many good things that chemicals do. There was undoubtedly some truth to this, but her opponents were not that interested in an argument over the balance of evidence in her claims. Silent Spring posed a deeper and more fundamental problem to its critics. Carson was questioning the wisdom of growth based on a lightly regulated if not unchecked industrialization. In doing so she was questioning the very basis of America’s economy and of the economies of other rich countries.

That is what made her a voice to be reckoned with, but at the same time it is this aspect of her book that attracted an influential group of followers, including many whom we will meet in this chapter. While Dudley Seers and Mahbub ul Haq were part of a small group of rising stars among GDP-skeptic economists, Rachel Carson would boost the ranks of another, potentially larger group of expert critics of GDP. These would be the environmentalists; they would question the routes through which growth was being achieved, and how we measured it, not so much from the perspective of the poor, but from the point of view of the planet.

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A decade after Silent Spring, four authors would write or publish their own books questioning how economic growth is promoted and measured. Aurelio Peccei’s The Limits to Growth, Fritz Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Herman Daly’s Steady State Economics, and Maurice Strong’s Only One Earth spoke to the same broad concerns: that growth as currently constituted carried environmental risks, and that this kind of growth on its own would not end poverty. All would to some degree trace their lineage back to Rachel Carson by drawing attention to the paradox of new technologies. Technologies such as the internal combustion engine, the jet engine, and industrial-scale farming, as well as the revolution in computing, had helped to boost economic growth and improve our lives beyond measure, they would say. At the same time, new technologies were also the cause of environmental problems, some of which were likely to be irreversible.

A fifth writer, Jerome Ravetz, the author of Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, had a slightly different message: he warned that science needed a better system of checks and balances as we deepened our ability to discover, invent, and alter the natural world. Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems drew attention to the lack of quality control in today’s scientific enterprise. Even today scientists cannot be censured for professional wrongdoing or for making mistakes in the way that doctors and accountants can.

Arguably the most influential among the readers of Silent Spring is Canadian diplomat and businessman Maurice Strong, the founding executive director of the UN Environment Programme, who died on November 28, 2015, at the age of eighty-six. That environmental protection and climate change are now thoroughly mainstream concerns has a lot to do with Strong and his genius at persuading world leaders to create ministries of the environment. Today, every country has such a ministry, but back in 1970 that wasn’t the case. It is largely because of Strong that we have a government department in every country whose reason for existing is to challenge and test the claims that new policies can create economic growth, and to test them against globally agreed environmental standards. That is why he is important to our story.

Rarely in the history of environmental policy has a single individual wielded as much influence as Strong. In his prime, time and again Strong would persuade heads of state and governments to do things that they thought they didn’t really want to do. “Maurice has this ability to reach out and grab world leaders by the arm, whether they liked it or not,” Jonathan Lash, former president of the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, told me in 2009. “He used his access and networks shamelessly for all of us. Long before iPhones, the net and Twitter, we had Maurice.”4 In a tribute shortly after his death, Strong’s one-time colleague, the writer John Ralston Saul, said: “What he brought to the table was not only conviction and organizational skill. He had a rare talent for bringing together two opposites—highly original conceptual thinking and highly pragmatic approaches to getting things done. He was able, for example, to conceptualize and explain sustainable development when no one knew what it was.”5

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Maurice Strong was born in 1929 in a rural part of Canada called Oak Lake and to a family that had fallen on desperate times as the Great Depression turned rural North America into a dust bowl. As he would write movingly in his autobiography, Where on Earth Are We Going?, his Depression-era experiences would never leave him. “The Depression was one of the great shaping forces in my life, a calamity visited not just on my family but on my community and my country and on many millions of people around the globe. Its cruelty stripped my father of his livelihood and his sense of self worth. It ruined my mother’s health and in the end it killed her.

“Human life, politics, the way society was ordered, had gone dreadfully wrong, that was clear enough even to me as a child. But no one seemed to know what to do, or indeed if there was anything that could be done. I used to watch the trainloads of the homeless and the desperate passing by my house, crossing the prairies, torn from their families by need and hunger, and their worn, pinched, anxious faces haunted me for years afterward.”6

The Depression meant that Strong’s father, Frederick Strong, lost his job as a telegraph operator at Oak Lake railway station, and the family was reduced to what Strong acknowledges was “subsistence level”; this is aid-speak for the kind of poverty experienced by only the poorest in the poorest countries. Throughout these years the family lived off irregular food from local farmers and the kindness of a local grocer who would extend credit knowing that the chances of being paid back were slim to nonexistent.

“The long and extreme prairie winters were especially difficult. At times my father had to go out into the bush to cut wood without proper shoes; he’d wrap his feet in rags to keep them warm,” Strong wrote. “We moved from one rented house to another, but none had central heating or indoor plumbing. Because we couldn’t afford the luxury of coal to keep the stove burning all night, the temperature inside on winter mornings was much the same as outside; our clothes would freeze stiff.”7 At times, the Strongs were reduced to eating weeds and dandelion flowers.

In spite of such painful hardships Maurice Strong says as a child he was happy in his own company and developed a deep love and knowledge of the natural world. He would spend hours and hours outdoors, sometimes skipping lessons to watch the busy, social lives of ants, bees, and the great variety of life in and around his home. His mother, the daughter of a medical doctor and a journalist, encouraged him to read and never tired of her son’s constant and perceptive questions. “If nature could be so right,” he once asked her, “how could human society be so wrong?” Later, when the economy picked up as unemployed men enlisted to fight in the Second World War, Strong would ask his teachers, “Why does it take a war to produce jobs; [why does it take a war to produce] the resources to get an economy moving?”8

Leaving school in 1943, at age fourteen, Strong, too, would join the ranks of young men heading for the front line. In his autobiography he recalls waiting to board a freight train near his home when he spotted a discarded copy of the local newspaper, the Regina Leader Post. Strong read that Churchill and Roosevelt had decided that once the war was over they would jointly create a global organization “to ensure that the world would never again have to experience the horrors of war.” Strong writes of being transfixed. “I remember the story so clearly. All around me people were going off to the front. People I knew were being killed and tales of human devastation were daily fare. So when Churchill and Roosevelt met and said that the world was going to be a different place afterward, I knew at once that I wanted to be part of that endeavour.”

The “global organization” Strong talks of was the United Nations, just an idea in the minds of two world leaders, but born of a desire for lasting peace and prosperity after the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and six tragic and bloody years of world war.

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In late 1969, at the age of forty, Strong would eventually realize his childhood ambition, follow in the footsteps of Churchill and Roosevelt, and take on a world-changing UN job. Strong was running Canada’s international aid program when he was approached by Swedish diplomat Sverker Åström, who wanted to know if Strong could help the Swedes to pull off one of the most ambitious projects ever conceived in international diplomacy: this was to be the world’s largest international conference on the environment, and it was due to take place in Sweden in June 1972.

If there was ever a country in the world that embodied the best of the early postwar, post-imperial European nations, that country has to be Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s under its Social Democratic Party government. As The Guardian newspaper columnist Andrew Brown writes in Fishing in Utopia, a memoir of his years living in Sweden, “The Social Democrats had inherited a poor, formal and patriarchal society, and turned it into a rich, feminist and fiercely egalitarian one.”9 Much of this transformation was conceived and executed by prime minister Olof Palme, the son of aristocrats, who had a taste for reform—radical reform. As minister of transport, he switched the entire country’s drivers to driving on the right.10 As minister of education in 1968, Palme took part in anti–Vietnam War protests.

Sweden under Palme’s premiership was in charge of the upcoming UN conference that would be held in Stockholm. Only this would be no ordinary UN conference (they occur around the world daily). It would be the first ever gathering of world leaders on the topic of protecting the world’s environment. The conference was due to take place on June 15 and 16, 1972, and would be attended by senior representatives from UN member states from both the developed and developing countries.

Sweden and the environmental groups that had helped to put it on the agenda saw the meeting as a genuine opportunity to apply some gentle brakes on the growth train. One way to make this happen was for the conference to agree to the creation of a new UN-backed organization charged with protecting the environment. Through such an organization, every nation would get to have an environment ministry. Having an environment ministry also meant having a full-time cabinet-level minister whose sole job was protecting environmental interests. This would be the minister who would ask awkward questions every time any of his or her colleagues wanted to rush through a new chemical factory or nuclear power plant.

Except that the Swedish plan, having gotten this far, had come dangerously close to unraveling. Important progress had been made, such as persuading world leaders and the UN machinery that such a conference had to be held, fixing the date, and finding a venue. But other things were not going according to plan.

United Nations diplomacy in the postwar years was organized differently from how it is today. The then Soviet Union also led a powerful bloc of nations that included much of Eastern Europe up to the Baltic states, as well as Cuba. America and its European allies, led by the UK, were the main counterweight. Countries that chose to remain outside of the US/Soviet sphere included India, China, large parts of the developing world, and Sweden. Arguments were raging over the conference agenda, over who could and couldn’t attend, and, perhaps most controversial of all, over the very existence of an environmental threat.

Paradoxically for our story, the countries independent of US/Soviet influence chose as their spokesman for the conference the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq. Haq, as we saw earlier, had left Pakistan shortly after his “twenty families” speech and was deep on his journey from growth-centered economic planner to GDP-skeptic. Ironically enough, however, his new perch was as a senior executive at the World Bank in Washington, DC, the very institution that would force many of the poorest countries down a growth-oriented path through a process called Structural Adjustment.11

Though Haq would later go on to co-found the Human Development Index as an alternative to GDP, when it came to environmental protection, he was decidedly old-school and regarded the Stockholm conference as a kind of suicide note for developing nations. Why, asked Haq, should developing countries attend a conference to protect the environment if the result meant having to take longer to industrialize? Worse, why should they attend a conference if the outcome was not being allowed to industrialize at all? It seemed to Haq illogical that any developing country would want to go, and, initially at least, he saw no need to make common cause with environmental groups in his own anti-GDP efforts. “The Third World is not merely worried about the quality of life, it is worried about life itself,” he said with barely disguised sarcasm.12

It wasn’t just developing countries that were angry at being dragooned into going to Stockholm. Many developed countries, too, would not have lost much sleep had the conference failed. This was the time of the Cold War. Germany was still two countries, and America wanted then communist East Germany excluded from the conference on the grounds that East Germany wasn’t a “real” country, as it wasn’t then a member state of the UN.13 Naturally, the Soviet Union begged to differ, but as the United States wouldn’t budge, the entire communist bloc withdrew.

Having succeeded in getting a global environment conference onto the UN schedule, Sweden had lost control of the agenda. Now with its diplomatic efforts unraveling, this small Nordic nation with outside liberal ambitions was looking out of its depth.

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Sweden wanted Strong to become the conference secretary-general, in effect its organizer in chief, and it is safe to say that Strong didn’t need much persuading. “This was an offer I was incapable of resisting,” he says in his memoir. The US government turned out to be enthusiastic about the appointment, even offering to host a meeting with Strong. One reason why America might have given Strong the green light so quickly is because the relatively unknown businessman was not expected to succeed where more experienced diplomats had failed. Strong acknowledges that his colleagues in Canada had also warned him not to accept. But, as he says in his book, “If this was intended to warn me off, it had the opposite effect.”

And so in January of 1970 Maurice Strong and his family relocated to Geneva, home to the conference secretariat. Priority number one was to improve relations with the Soviet Union and ultimately reverse the communist boycott. Priority number two was to bring the developing countries, an even larger group, back to the table. Priority number three was to create a conference agenda (and conference outcomes) that would somehow steer a middle course between competing interests, while at the same time staying as faithful as possible to Sweden’s original goals.

Strong’s memoir, Where on Earth Are We Going?, apart from being an account of a fascinating life, is also a series of master classes in diplomacy. One of his first acts upon getting to Geneva was to appoint a high-level Soviet official to his conference office. Strong didn’t just want any old official, however; he chose one of the country’s distinguished scientists. This itself could have caused a minor diplomatic incident, as usually UN civil servants cannot tell governments whom they should or shouldn’t appoint to their staff. But after some initial opposition from the Soviet delegation, Strong, not for the first time, got his way. The appointment had two effects: first it meant that the Soviet Union was now formally represented on the conference staff. Second and perhaps more importantly, Strong had engineered for himself a direct line to Moscow. He could now talk to the highest levels in the Soviet Union without anyone else knowing, or getting in the way. With the communist boycott on its way to being partially settled, Strong next turned his attention to another looming crisis.

The developing countries, strongly influenced by Mahbub ul Haq, were taking the line that environmental protection was something that countries did after they became rich. They were also angry at the fact that rich countries, those that had damaged the environment, didn’t seem to want to pay to clean up the mess they had caused. In the very least, the developing nations wanted the conference to conclude with a cleanup fund that they could draw on, but developed countries were opposed to this, as it would mean admitting liability and could lead to massive legal claims. When Strong saw the draft agenda, he discovered that their concerns had not even been acknowledged, let alone addressed. “Like a skilled lawyer [Haq] hammered home all the reasons why developing countries should not be drawn to participating in the conference on the terms set by the industrialised countries,” he recalls.14

Strong knew that the conference would collapse unless the developing countries participated, and once again he delivered his trademark diplomatic coup. Strong had sensed correctly that Mahbub ul Haq liked an intellectual challenge, and so, as with the Soviets, he invited the economist onto the conference’s preparatory team. Haq, said Strong, should devise a strategy for the conference agenda that would say explicitly that developing countries would protect their environments without compromising their ability to industrialize, and that richer countries should help to finance poorer countries to achieve this goal.15 And possibly to the surprise of many, Haq agreed.16

Co-opting Haq netted one of Strong’s more dangerous critics. When it came to the Human Development Index, Haq and his team would famously ignore the environment altogether. But in 1971, Maurice Strong’s offer was accepted, and Mahbub ul Haq would become the latest victim to an approach that Strong summarized to me in an interview in 2009 as “never to confront, but to co-opt, never bully but to equivocate, and never to yield.”

Within a few months of Strong taking over the conference organization, the mood was lifting and for the first time it seemed that the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment would not be the automatic failure that so many had been predicting. Still, Strong had more work to do. Indeed, there was still one country that had yet to be persuaded and this was the UK.17 Strong knew that getting UK agreement was critical in part because, along with China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States, Britain was one of the P5, the five permanent nuclear weapons states which in effect are the UN’s most powerful members.

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The British government’s opposition to the Stockholm conference was partly ideological and partly based on scientific grounds. The government of the day was led by the center-right Conservative Party. Prime Minister Edward Heath wasn’t convinced that the time was right to hold such a conference, and Heath’s officials had a list of concerns that they wanted answers to. Why weren’t all of the world’s top scientists agreed that the planet was in peril? What did scientists at the top British universities have to say? Back in 1972 there were far fewer scientists working on environmental problems than is the case today, and there was certainly no consensus on whether or not human activity was affecting the planet in an irreversible way.

Did the UN really need expanding? Did the citizens of the world really need more government involvement in their lives? At the same time UK officials were also concerned that more environmental protection would put a brake on growth. The Heath government published a forty-page color booklet titled The Human Environment: The British View, in which it said unequivocally, “Suggestions have been made for a central UN agency for the environment. The United Kingdom is not inclined to support the formation of a new body.”18

To put it more crudely, what was also happening here was that top officials from the UK, the nation of Keynes and Cambridge, the nation that helped give birth to GDP, were not about to let the representative of one of its former dominions (Canada) set the global agenda. And no one more than Maurice Strong knew this. At the same time, he also understood that his underdog status with the British delegation could also be a strength, especially when it came to building confidence among developing nations and with their spokesman, Mahbub ul Haq. In an interview in London in 2009, Strong shared the secret to straddling these two worlds. “I have always been radical but have always presented my arguments in non-radical terms,” he told me. “So I would never use terms such as ‘imperialist,’” he said. “I would always present a radical case in a non-radical way.”19

In the run-up to the conference, London canvassed its top experts and, not unexpectedly, the scientists consulted backed their government’s line that it was too soon to take concrete steps. Lord Solly Zuckerman, the government’s formidable former chief scientific adviser, who had served under Winston Churchill, said that the environmental threat was not as serious as claimed by Strong and his team. “The prophets of doom,” declared Zuckerman, were wrong. The history of the Earth tells us that the planet has great reserves of resilience and can bounce back when threatened—as it has in past times.

“There are some extremists,” Zuckerman would say provocatively, “professional scientists not among them, but men who comment from the sidelines, who see pollution as a menace which must inevitably grow. I, however, know of no scientific evidence for this view whereas I know from my own experience that devastation of the landscape can be corrected, that rivers can be cleaned; that skies can be cleared.”20

Strong could see that the UK would not be easily convinced and decided that he needed to work on parallel tracks. As before, he would try to co-opt Zuckerman and attempt to bring him into the tent. But at the same time Strong knew that in order to get London to take him seriously, he needed more scientific voices on his side of the argument; they had to be credible voices who could counterbalance Zuckerman’s. Furthermore, he needed to show the British government that he wouldn’t be a pushover, that he had steel.

Strong responded to the charge that his office was little more than a cardboard box of scientific flakes by searching for independent scientists who could confirm that there was a planetary emergency. One way to do this was to appoint his own brain trust, an expert group, respected by his critics in London, who could provide valuable intelligence on what London was thinking and who would ultimately be loyal to Maurice Strong.

Alongside Mahbub ul Haq, Strong enlisted the help of Martin Holdgate, environmental scientist and a former senior civil servant in the UK government. Holdgate brought the added advantage that he had worked closely with Zuckerman. Strong also invited the writer and economist Barbara Ward. A former foreign editor of The Economist and adviser to many a world leader, from presidents to popes, the well-connected Ward took the opposite view from Zuckerman: that lightly regulated technology was creating a planetary emergency and the world needed to take notice and begin to slow down the rate of economic growth. “I myself grew up at a time of wholesale depression and unemployment,” she would later write. “In a sense the whole fabulous market boom of the last 25 years had been designed to give enough stimulus to the economy to prevent any future depressions. But ultimately our planet is a finite system. Ultimately, its resources run out.”21

Strong asked Ward to consult with leading experts and then compile her findings into a book, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. “Only One Earth” became the conference slogan, and, against UN advice, Strong gave the book to every attending delegate and invited Ward to address the conference. It is easy in hindsight to see where he was going: the delegation from the UK would be forced to listen to one of their own telling them why they were wrong.

Strong also knew that, to counter arguments from powerful countries such as the UK, he didn’t only need men and women of influence, but he also had to find more and better scientific evidence, ideally in the form of research. This also had to be from one or more of the leading institutions of the developed world. The Swedes had clearly gambled in calling a major international environmental meeting with so little documented evidence of environmental degradation beyond reports of the London smog and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In 1972, knowledge on the global environment was a fraction of what it is today. Back then we didn’t know that species are being lost at a rate not seen since the last mass extinction. The debate over whether humans cause global warming (then known as “thermal pollution”) was far from being settled. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which confirmed a human role in global warming, were still seventeen years away.

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As sometimes happens in the lives of risk takers, fortune smiles just when you most need it. In Strong’s case, fortune didn’t just smile; it presented itself in the shape of Aurelio Peccei (1908-1984), a then little-known executive from the Fiat motor company whose own outsize environmental ambitions were not that far off from those of Maurice Strong.

Peccei, though not a scientist, was the publisher of a report written by an international team of scientists in 1972 that would become an international bestseller. The Limits to Growth forecast social and environmental collapse by the year 2100 if the world economy continued on a business-as-usual path. Collapse would happen, the report predicted, if population continued to increase and if countries continued to mine coal, drill oil, produce food, and release atmospheric emissions at current rates. The report also challenged another common assertion at the time (as is still the case today), that new and cleaner technologies would ultimately triumph over older and dirtier ones. Even if this were true, The Limits to Growth said, clean technologies would only delay a collapse in the Earth’s life-support systems; they wouldn’t prevent collapse. The report’s hard-hitting message, which came from scientists based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was what Strong was looking for. Strong got in touch with Peccei and the two arranged to meet.

It turned out that Aurelio Peccei and Maurice Strong, though separated by a continent, did have much in common. Peccei, like Strong, was a child of the Great Depression. He had also had to overcome adversity (he was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for opposing fascism). Peccei’s experiences, as was the case with Strong, would lead to a lifelong commitment to multilateralism and an aversion to nationalism. After the war, Peccei, like Strong, would climb the corporate ladder, expanding Fiat into Latin America, helping to create Alitalia airlines, and turning around the Olivetti typewriter company so it was ready for the digital age.

Peccei was restless with corporate life, his son Roberto, a professor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, told me in an interview. As a successful executive, Peccei was used to forecasting where problems might occur and then taking steps to solve them. His travels around the world on behalf of Fiat convinced him that humankind was conducting a giant experiment on the planet with unknown consequences, the younger Peccei says. Industrial pollution; extracting coal, gas, and oil; rapid population growth; and intensive farming were all taking place on an unprecedented scale. Peccei was desperate to know where this might take us and desperate that world leaders should take responsibility and prepare for the future.

“Much of my father’s thinking on global problems can be traced back to his first book, The Chasm Ahead,” says his son. “Our planet is facing an increasing set of macro-problems (population growth, resource scarcity, etc.), which nobody is worrying about. Faced with a world confronted by interlinked global problems, his reaction was to start a process of rational planning without being overwhelmed by the scale.”22

Aurelio Peccei began to give talks whenever the opportunity presented itself, and he would collar anyone of influence prepared to listen. It wouldn’t be long before he began to command an audience at the highest levels. One of his talks caught the attention of the White House, which meant that his name started to circulate in Washington’s diplomatic circles.

An early partner for Peccei would be Alexander King (1909-2007), a onetime senior UK civil servant and then head of science at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This was quite a coup, as the OECD is the very agency that had incubated one of the early GDP teams in Cambridge led by Richard Stone. Getting King on board was quite a coup for Peccei. While working for the British government King had been responsible for ramping up supplies of DDT during the Second World War, but he clearly had had a change of heart, just as was the case with Peccei. Others also began to join, and it wouldn’t be long before Peccei found himself rubbing shoulders with like minds from the world’s power elites. They decided, unwisely perhaps, to call themselves “The Club of Rome,” after the city that hosted an inaugural meeting to discuss the problem Peccei had by now adopted as his broader undertaking on economic growth. He called it his project on “The Predicament of Mankind.”23

The Club of Rome was inaugurated in April 1968, and it was at this point that Peccei faced more or less the same science question that would confront Maurice Strong in the run-up to the Stockholm conference in 1972. Peccei had captured the attention of some extraordinarily influential people, including Dean Rusk, then US secretary of state. Members of the Club of Rome enjoyed the gatherings he would organize and applauded his perceptive questions, but not all were convinced that anything could, or indeed should, be done about the direction of the world economy. Where, after all, they asked, was the scientific evidence? Where was the data to prove that the world was on the road to hell in a handcart?

Like Strong, Peccei also knew he needed more scientific evidence to back up his claim. His son Roberto Peccei says that he probably believed that science and technology had to be reined in, but that he also recognized that advanced nations paid heed to science. Peccei also knew that the state of actual knowledge on his Predicament of Mankind idea was pretty thin. Authoritative, scientific knowledge on global oil and gas reserves, on the long-term impact of carbon in the atmosphere, on the rate of loss of species, or on how many people the Earth can support was unreliable and geographically patchy.

Peccei’s tireless networking led him to a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were looking to answer just the kinds of questions that Peccei was asking. But rather than painstakingly record data from observation, this group claimed to have found a faster technique, which they said would be just as accurate: it involved the then infant science of computer modeling. The beauty of their work, according to the MIT scientists, was that they didn’t need every single environmental data point from every country, covering every sector of the economy. They claimed that they could make decent forecasts on population, or on the state of natural resources, based on relatively small quantities of actual information, which they would feed into their computers, and the computers would then do the rest.

Today, we rely on computing power to forecast trends and make predictions to a degree unimaginable to most in the early 1970s. We have even coined a new term to describe this phenomenon, Big Data. Back in 1972, computers were rare, and only big corporations and rich universities could afford them, which gave anyone working in computers a certain allure. Along with its “growth must slow” message, what made The Limits to Growth compelling for both Peccei and Strong was the fact that it had been produced by a multinational team of scientists and economists and that it used the most advanced methods of its day.

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Unsurprisingly, a report that claimed humankind was sleepwalking to extinction would not go unchallenged. Indeed, the questions, critiques, and commentary would come from many directions. Because the state of physical knowledge was so thin, many eminent scientists and economists doubted that a computer could accurately forecast environmental collapse.

The critics included Mahbub ul Haq, as well as the science journalist John Maddox, editor of Nature. Haq wrote a chapter in The Poverty Curtain dismantling many of the arguments in Limits. Maddox, meanwhile, wrote an entire book dismantling the entire concept and he called his book The Doomsday Syndrome.24 One British economist was so concerned that he commissioned his own team of experts to refute The Limits to Growth. Christopher Freeman (1921–2010), the founding director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, called his book Models of Doom, with the word “doom” in red on the book’s spine, for added emphasis. Each of the critics had essentially the same argument: that the model couldn’t possibly be so precise when precise data on many of its variables didn’t exist. Freeman called the first chapter of Models of Doom “Malthus with a Computer,” and in it he accused the MIT group of “computer fetishism.”

The Sussex team also concurred with Mahbub ul Haq in claiming that the MIT group’s recipe of a no-growth or low-growth economy was in effect consigning developing countries to a future of penury, while entrenching the power and privilege of rich Americans and Europeans. Making a bold prediction of their own, they said, based on the historical record, that all previous “end of the world” forecasts had proved to be wrong and that The Limits to Growth would go the same way.25

In the true spirit of academic debate, Freeman generously offered the Limits team right of reply in his book, and in their own strongly worded response to the Sussex critique, the MIT researchers gave as good as they got. They said that, as economists, the Sussex group didn’t really understand the new environmental sciences, nor did they get the new science of modeling. The charge of “spurious precision,” they said, was a straw man, as no forecast could ever be precise. And far from being a US conspiracy against developing countries, it was the Sussex group, they countered, that represented a Western, Judeo-Christian worldview, a worldview in which man is omnipotent and can do what he likes on Earth. The MIT team, they countered, was closer to pantheistic Eastern traditions that emphasize the interconnectedness of life. “People who share this concept of man, as we do, would also question strongly whether technology and material growth, which seem to have caused many problems, should be looked to as the sources of solution of these same problems in the future.”26

The Sussex critique to The Limits to Growth, though deeply held, articulate, and powerfully argued, did not echo far beyond academia and would have minimal impact on the upcoming Stockholm conference. But there was one UK voice who had the ability to derail Maurice Strong’s project. That voice belonged to Lord Solly Zuckerman, former scientific adviser to Winston Churchill. In The Limits to Growth, Zuckerman rightly spotted what Peccei and his colleagues were up to. He could see that they needed science to help make the case for a course of action that had already been decided, and he prepared an equally robust critique of his own.

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In Maurice Strong, Solly Zuckerman had met his match. In preparing for the conference, Strong had chosen to invite all three—Barbara Ward, Aurelio Peccei, and Solly Zuckerman—to address the Stockholm delegates. Ward would open the proceedings, Zuckerman would appear somewhere in the middle, and Aurelio Peccei would get to have the final word.

It is worth reproducing a little of what was said, starting with Barbara Ward, then continuing with Zuckerman and ending with Peccei.

The Stockholm conference, Barbara Ward said, was a moment of incredible excitement, fresh ideas, and new beginnings. She likened it to other civilization-changing epochs such as the founding of the Han dynasty and the Copernican revolution. But she warned that revolutions in science and civilization were never easy.

People had almost literally to turn their minds upside down and discover that the Sun did not go around them. In their passionate resistance to the idea we can see a terrible sense of vertigo. It was as though they hardly knew where they were any more. Such changes shook people to the roots of their being. That is the sort of time we live in now. We too are in one of those times of vertigo. We too live in an epoch in which the solid ground of our preconceived ideas shakes daily under our uncertain feet.27

Ward then moved on to what she saw as the conference’s three main challenges. First, “the fact that our total natural system could be irretrievably upset by man’s activities,” which she said was now not in question. Second, that poor countries needed to be helped to become prosperous without having to implement conventional ideas of economic growth, and third, that global environmental priorities needed global environmental cooperation. “We cannot run a functioning planetary society on the totally irresponsible sovereignty of a hundred and twenty different governments. It simply cannot be done.”

With half an eye on the skeptical developing nations, Ward said that economic growth based on lightly regulated industrialization had worked in the developed world for reasons that may not necessarily apply elsewhere. “We could lay our hands on the world’s vast supply of inexhausted resources,” she said. At the same time, “we [in the rich countries] have social instruments of transfer—taxation, welfare, insurance. We do in fact take something from the clever and the rich and the healthy and the strong to give to those in greater need.”

If the path to industrialization was to be slowed, Ward accepted that the richer nations had an obligation to provide more assistance to the newly decolonized ones. They would never accept “that they stay poor, while we grow richer.” And, in a statement that could never be more true, she said, “I frankly doubt if they will accept a world society which is so hopelessly lopsided. Their patience will blow up in anarchy before the biosphere reaches the point of no return.”

After Barbara Ward came Solly Zuckerman. The Stockholm conference, he began, was taking place in an atmosphere of “confused concern,” and he started by reminding his audience that the world owed a great deal to science, mentioning achievements including universities, radio and TV, and advances in medicine. “The developed countries may still be short of houses,” he said, “but they have more houses and more houses with baths, running water and indoor sanitation. And more and more people now enjoy the new dimension of personal liberty which the motor-car confers.” Hunger and poverty persist, he said, but thanks to science this was “not on the scale which the world has known in the past.”

Zuckerman then moved on to the main target of his criticism:

I have referred to a book, The Limits to Growth, which has been hailed—mainly by the scientifically uninitiated—as a scientific statement about man’s environmental problems. Its authors led themselves through the circuits of a computer to the conclusion that the only way out for mankind is to slow down economic growth abruptly and to change human nature drastically. We have to alter our social and political institutions so that we behave more sparingly than we do with raw materials and also so that we divide our industrial product more equitably than we do today. If we do not do such things then we shall be digging our graves.

I feel compelled to repeat something I have already said. I do not believe that catastrophic pollution of the planet is among the worst risks that mankind now faces. In Great Britain, pollution is not increasing. In spite of growth in the population and the continuing growth of our economy, our air is becoming purer, our land is becoming more fertile and our rivers are running cleaner. We are far from being alone in this experience.

In a sarcastic echo of the charge of “computer fetishism,” Zuckerman added, “The idea that a stationary state of human economy would have to follow a period of economic growth because of a scarcity of resources, population pressure and falling profits is as old as the industrial revolution itself and its formulation certainly required no modern computers. Whatever computers may say about the future, there is nothing in the past which gives any credence whatever to the view that human ingenuity cannot in time circumvent material human difficulties.”28

The gloves really were off. When it came to his turn to address the audience, Aurelio Peccei, too, dropped any diplomatic pretense for those he labeled die-hard apologists. “Man is a queer [meaning strange] animal—an arrogant, difficult and aggressive one. He stands in a category apart,” Peccei said. “The human system is in the grip of a very serious crisis. Our growth syndrome, if not cured, is going to make this crisis worse. However, there are still people who do not see, or pretend not to see, the mismatch between human growth as it is now and the finite nature of our planet.”29

Later interviewed by the BBC in Stockholm, a bullish Strong would aso drop any public pretence of evenhandedness. Appealing directly to Solly Zuckerman, Maurice Strong said: “The prophets of doom need to be taken seriously; doomsday is a possibility. We are today effecting more change [on Earth] in one generation compared with millions of years of human evolution. An increasing number of very serious-minded scientists have produced evidence that the natural world on which we depend is being destroyed at a rate that is accelerating. I am equally convinced that doomsday is not inevitable.”30

By the beginning of 1972 things were on balance looking good for Maurice Strong. Co-opting Mahbub ul Haq had helped to ensure that developing nations would end their boycott and there were high hopes that the Soviet bloc would do the same. A combination of some new science from The Limits to Growth team and a starring role for Barbara Ward at the conference itself was helping to keep the Brits in a corner. But there was still one more hurdle he had to overcome.

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The 1972 United Nations Confernece on the Human Environment would be a proper UN conference, in that it was pitched at the level of heads of state and government. But with the exception of the host country’s prime minister, Olof Palme, no other head of state or government appeared to be coming. Strong knew that without at least one heavy hitter, without someone capable of stopping city-center traffic, without a figure large enough to dominate the evening news, the conference’s message risked being lost. He needed an A-lister, preferably from a developing country, and he knew where he could find one.

In his final act of “let’s co-opt a critic,” Strong, not for the first time, boarded a plane to go somewhere his staff didn’t want him to go. His destination would be Anand Bhavan, the Delhi home of India’s socialist prime minister, Indira Gandhi. UN insiders warned Strong that the formidable Mrs. Gandhi, as the world then knew her, would be the last head of state to attend. She was, after all, from a developing country. Moreover, she didn’t have a huge amount of free time. India had just come out of another war with Pakistan, the result of which was the creation of Bangladesh. Gandhi had backed the new country’s freedom struggle and found herself not only on the winning side, but also responsible for negotiations to free a hundred thousand Pakistani prisoners of war.

When we spoke in 2009, Strong retained vivid memories of this more memorable of his pre-Stockholm encounters.31 “She had a habit of falling silent during conversations and said absolutely nothing for 10 or 12 minutes. Now I’ve lived among the Inuit [of Canada] and they, too, fall silent during conversations although for much longer periods, so this didn’t bother me at all. I waited for her reply and when she finally spoke, she said, ‘yes.’”

It turned out that Gandhi had little hesitation in going. And, just as Maurice Strong had predicted, her presence at the conference attracted global media attention and made the event more credible in the eyes of developing nations. Thanks to Gandhi, Stockholm was a truly global affair. When she addressed the conference in her characteristically soft, lilting tones, there was no doubt or ambiguity in her message that humans were guilty of “wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance.” She recalled how her father, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had objected to the word “conquest” to describe the scaling of Everest in 1953, as he thought it “arrogant” that man should have a “constant need to prove one’s superiority.”

The environment crisis, Gandhi made clear, was for real, but she was also determined to say that the answer did not lie in less science or less development, as that would be manifestly unjust. What was needed was a different kind of development, more humane, more respectful of different modes of thought and action, and not necessarily on an industrial model.

“The industrial civilization has promoted the concept of the efficient man, he whose entire energies are concentrated on producing more in a given unit of time from a given unit of manpower. Groups or individuals who are less competitive, less efficient, are regarded as lesser breeds—for example the older civilizations, the black and brown peoples, women and certain professions. Obsolescence is built into production, and efficiency is based on the creation of goods which are not really needed and which cannot be disposed of when discarded. What price such efficiency now, and is not recklessness a more appropriate term for such behavior?”32 she asked conference delegates.

Mrs. Gandhi’s intervention is probably an important reason why Strong and not his detractors prevailed at Stockholm. In spite of failing to get the Soviet bloc on board, he had nonetheless delivered 1,200 representatives from 113 countries. He had persuaded them to agree on an agenda that united the interests of rich and poor countries. To the delight of the developing countries, he had outfoxed a skeptical British government and he had made an unlikely environmental champion out of Indira Gandhi.

The 1972 United Nation Conference on the Human Environment ended in practical action: a new UN body would be created to monitor the global environment. It would be based in Nairobi, Kenya, and would be governed by ministers of the environment. As such a minister did not yet exist in most countries, Maurice Strong did not just create a new UN agency; his success ensured that every country would now have a top-level official to make sure that environmental impact would be considered before big industrial policy decisions. Every country would in the future need to appoint a minister to protect the environment.

As we know with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, such a minister would always be in a minority, but he or she would have a seat at the cabinet table and would be able to pose uncomfortable questions to those of his colleagues responsible for delivering growth.

It is probably true that many (perhaps most) world leaders had expected that the forty-two-year-old untried Maurice Strong would become chewed up in the UN’s internecine politics. But the man himself never doubted that, come June 15, 1972, there would be a world conference on the human environment, and that he would make it a success.