Note: This is a very drafty rough draft of my fifth chapter’s introduction.
To the men—they were all men—assembled at the Villa Serbelloni, their setting seemed an example of “incredible ecological balance.” Nestled on a narrow peninsula between Lake Como and Lake Lecco in the Italian resort town of Bellagio, this estate evoked a symbiotic harmony of humanity and nature that the men believed represented “the supreme end of planning.” It was an order, they thought, which stood apart from the chaos convulsing the industrialized world. By the time they sipped cocktails on the villa’s terrace in late October 1968, the twenty men at the estate had already witnessed—either in person or on television—a student uprising in Paris, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. All experts in planning, they were at the Rockefeller-owned Bellagio estate to attend the OECD Working Symposium on Long-Range Forecasting and Planning. The objective of this week-long conference, organized by Alexander King and Erich Jantsch of the OECD’s Directorate for Scientific Affairs, was to generate a “platform for the new planning,” to cement an interdisciplinary approach that could overcome the shortcomings of traditional, “orthodox” planning. While they failed in generating a new approach, they agreed that they were living through a moment of extreme “planetary emergency,” and unless societies made profound changes, the crisis would be “beyond any hope of peaceful relief.” 1
For Alexander King and the others, there could be no question: the chaos engulfing the world that year was the consequence of a massive political failure, and, more to the point, a failure in planning. In the years after World War II, in their view, technology, the world economy, and society had become increasingly complicated, but planning failed to take account of this new complexity. The people in charge of managing the world’s governments and firms were ill-equipped to handle this complexity, imagining the future as a short-term, linear outgrowth of their local circumstances. The consequences of this mindset, the Bellagio participants were convinced, was catastrophic. A single-minded focus on economic growth and its handmaiden, technological progress, threatened to destabilize the postwar order and—perhaps—doom humanity.
These were not entirely new concerns. In 1947, with much of Western Europe still buried under the rubble of war, the Hungarian economic anthropologist and social theorist Karl Polanyi warned that the problem that confronted the postwar world was “how to organize human life in a machine society.”2 Building on themes he developed in The Great Transformation, Polanyi argued that the logic of liberal capitalism had overwhelmed all other forms of social valuation.3 Before the nineteenth century, economic life was “embedded” in a complex web of social relations, where cultural, moral, religious, aesthetic, and other concerns regulated and constrained economic activity. By the twentieth century, as Polanyi saw it, the situation had reversed entirely. Society had become completely “submerged in the economic system.”4 All values were being replaced by concerns for efficiency, utility, and profitability. Polanyi desperately pleaded for a return to balance, writing that “today we are faced with the vital task of restoring the fullness of life to the person, even though this may mean a technologically less efficient society.” 5
In the twenty-one years after Polanyi issued his warning, the men at Bellagio had witnessed the reconstruction of Western Europe and the attainment of a level of material prosperity unseen in human history. Many, like Alexander King, were intimately involved in the construction and management of that prosperity. Yet, in 1968, they were more fearful about society’s state than Polanyi had been in 1947. While Polanyi feared that economic activity had colonized all other dimensions of social life, King, Jantsch and their associates worried that the discipline of economics and an ideology of economic growth had displaced all other measures of value. Growth in gross national product (GNP), they argued, had become a universal yardstick for human welfare, political progress, and the health of societies. This singular focus on GNP growth, they argued, had disturbing side-effects. Societies—especially the so-called “modern societies” of the industrialized north—were facing a deep crisis. Students were rebelling. Cities were crumbling. The population was growing exponentially. Pollution was ruining the natural environment. Crime was getting worse. Poverty persisted in the midst of affluence. Social discontent was spreading and people felt powerless to change things. Worst of all, these problems were interconnected, and King and his associates feared, mutually reinforcing.
As we saw in the last chapter, the OECD was (and is) an international body where government ministers and other officials came to discuss areas of common concern in economic and social policy, but the organization’s day-to-day research activities took place in the OECD’s secretariat, which was given wide latitude to define research priorities and even sometimes set the agendas of ministerial meetings. In the 1960s, most of the researchers in the organization were economists interested in refining the tools of national income accounting and developing “best practices” for countries to sustain economic growth. Alexander King’s Directorate for Scientific Affairs stood apart by being one of the only interdisciplinary departments in the OECD, staffed with natural scientists, a variety of social scientists, and historians. In its early days, the department was primarily concerned with technological forecasting and developing scientific and educational policies which would boost economic growth.
But by the middle of the decade, researchers in King’s division began to view this mission with skepticism. Their examinations into the relationships between science, technology, and economic growth had revealed shocking contradictions. They became convinced that humanity—and the “advanced” societies in particular—were on a path toward calamity. I call members of this informal network “crisis futurists.” In the coming decades, people associated with this school of thought would come to have many other names: doomsayers, Cassandras, global environmentalists and many others. In choosing this term over others, I hope to highlight two things. First, the future-orientation of these scientists and intellectuals was essential to understanding their motivations, methodological outlooks, and concerns. Most had spent the early part of the 1960s engaged in various kinds of technological and scientific forecasting and planning efforts. It was through this professional activity that they became convinced that the short-term, narrowly economic focus of their colleagues in the OECD was misguided. They took the long-term future in all its economic and non-economic complexity to be their object of inquiry and concern. Secondly, these planners saw themselves as living through a moment of planetary emergency. Their writings, lectures, and correspondence were all littered with the word “crisis.” They spoke of an institutional crisis, a political crisis, an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, a technological crisis, a global urban crisis, a crisis in values. Nearly every human or natural “system” the crisis futurists interrogated they thought was being stretched to the breaking point. The future, they feared, was likely to be much worse.
In the last chapter, I provided a brief history of a philosophy of economic growth which stabilized in the OECD and its forerunner, the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), exploring how OEEC officials came to focus intensively on GNP growth and how scientific and technological research came to be enrolled in the service of that growth. This chapter explores how King and his “crisis futurists” began to unmake this growth consensus within the OECD. In doing so, I look at two episodes: the Bellagio conference and the “Problems of Modern Society” research agenda, a project which culminated in a major OECD publication, Science, Growth, and Society.6
Aurelio Peccei, “Reflections,” Perspectives of Planning. “Bellagio Declaration,” Perspectives of Planning. ↩
Karl Polanyi, “Our Obsolete Market Mentality: Civilization Must Find a New Thought Pattern,” Commentary, no. 3 (1947): 109 ↩
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: Economic and Political Origins of Our Time (New York: Rinehart, 1944). ↩
Polanyi, “Our Obsolete Market Mentality,” 112. ↩
Polanyi, 116. ↩
OECD, Science, Growth and Society: A New Perspective. (Paris, 1971). ↩