Ecosystems, Cybernetics and the Club of Rome

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace*

Adam Curtis

BBC (2011)

Part 2

Film Review

Part 2 in this series discusses how utopian ideas about computers led the scientific community to promote a totally erroneous model of natural ecosystems.

The term ecosystem was first defined by ecologist Arthur Tansley. He mistakenly believed that ecosystems work just like computers – that all of nature is linked through organized networks that self-regulate by means of feedback loops. As ecology became the predominant scientific discipline of the early seventies, he and his colleagues went so far as to portray these interconnected networks as electrical circuits. Meanwhile Silicon Valley computer engineers, heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s radical individualism (earlier post), as well as this erroneous view of ecosystems, made a deliberate decision in 1968 to focus on personal computer technology rather than mainframe computers.

The work of Tansley and his colleagues would be totally discredited by new data that would emerge demonstrating were chaotic and unpredictable and tended towards wild fluctuations that never returned to an equilibrium point. Like many scientists, the early ecologists had oversimplified and distorted the data they collected to fit their model of nature as a self regulating system.

The Rise of Cybernetics

Meanwhile the scientific community’s fascination with computers would also give rise to the field of cybernetics, which looks at society as if human beings were a vast interconnected system of machines. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, was a strong proponent of this systems-oriented view of both nature and society. A strong egalitarian, Bucky envisioned a society (which he referred to as Spaceship Earth) that did away with authoritarian hierarchies and allowed people to live together as equal members of a closed system that would self-regulate – as a spacecraft does.

In the early seventies, disillusioned by the failure of the anti-Vietnam War, a half million young Americans left the cities to start experimental non-hierarchical communes in the countryside. It would be the largest mass migration in US history. Their goal was to create egalitarian communities in which people sacrificed their individuality for the benefit of the system.

Most of these communes would fail. Curtis blames their failure, without any real evidence, on a rigid absence of structure that allowed stronger and more dominant personalities to dominate and bully weaker ones. He likens the failure of the commune movement to the failed Color Revolutions* of the 1990s – which left Eastern European countries even more corrupt and unequal.

He seems to be making the case that egalitarian societies are impossible, which I strongly question. In my view the Color Revolutions failed for the same reason as the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions: because they were instigated, organized and funded by the CIA, State Department (and George Soros in the case of Eastern Europe) for the purpose of installing new governments favorable to US corporate interests.**

Enter the Club of Rome***

Two additional outcomes of the new field of ecology would be the formation, in 1968, of the elite roundtable group the Club of Rome and the first international environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972.

In 1972 the Club of Rome commissioned a study based on the theory that all human and natural activity was merely a vast interconnected system of feedback loops. The MIT computer scientists they hired developed a complex computer model based on the best population, resource, industrial production, agricultural production and pollution data. Their modeling, which the Club of Rome published in their 1973 bestseller The End of Growth, predicted major economic and environmental collapse in the first decade of the 21st century. The book maintained that the only way to prevent environmental and economic collapse was for western societies to give up their fixation with continuous economic growth.

The European left became extremely concerned that growth restriction would lock the ruling elite (who ran the Club of Rome) into their existing positions of privilege and power. They launched major protests against The End of Growth. They argued the proper role of the environmental movement should be to end the greed of political elites. That being said, the computer modeling on which the book is based predicted the 2008 economic collapse.


* Title of 1967 monograph distributed free by California cybernetics enthusiast Richard Brautigan. Available for $400 from Abe Books

**Serbia Otpor (Resistance) Revolution (2000), Georgia Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine Orange Revolution (2004) and Kirghizistan Cotton Revolution (2005) – see The CIA Role in the Arab Spring

***The early Club of Rome was financed by corporate oligarch David Rockefeller, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (see  and the Ford Foundation. The two latter entities are well known conduits for CIA funding (see CIA-funded Foundations)

 

6 thoughts on “Ecosystems, Cybernetics and the Club of Rome

  1. It didn’t take a computer model to predict 2008 crash as we roughly have a depression every 80 years for last 800 years. thank the buddha that China pulled us out of this one without war.

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    • I think a lot of economists are seeing the current economic crisis as distinctly different from prior ones, i.e. they don’t believe that there’s going to be a recovery, mainly because of a growing scarcity of essential resources, such as oil, water, topsoil, phosphorus etc. They believe the economy has reset at a level where a much smaller proportion of the population will work – in most cases for wages that don’t quite meet their survival needs. The 20-25% of young people who have been unemployed for the last 6 years probably won’t get permanent jobs – they will remain permanently excluded from the economy.

      I don’t sure think there’s going to be a recovery, do you?

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  2. DR. If you can’t grow at 0 interest rates when can you grow? Living in so called poorest part of Thailand i see very little real poverty, my thoughts our world is rebalancing from west to east.

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    • I think you’re right about the world re-balancing. However this notion that an economy must grow to survive is relative recently. Until we began exploiting fossil fuels in the late 19th century, most of the world ran a steady state economy. With oil becoming less plentiful and much more expensive, I think we’re approaching a more or less constant steady state economy.

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