The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Future of the Oceans: The two Souls of the Club of Rome


I was very happy when I finally managed to find a copy of the old report to the Club of Rome, "The Future of the Oceans" by Elizabeth Mann Borgese. A book published in 1986, one of a long series of reports that the Club commissioned to various scientists and researchers. And the only one, so far, that dealt with marine resources. Not so easy to find: I finally managed to dig out a used copy from an obscure bookstore in Michigan. But, eventually, it arrived here.

Of course, my interest in that old book was generated by having written a report on marine resources myself, "The Empty Sea," together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi (you see her with our book in the photo.) So, how do these two books compare, at 35 years of distance from each other?

I must say that I was surprised. Our book can be defined as a little catastrophistic: just the title should tell you what I mean. The one by Elizabeth Mann Borgese, instead, is completely different in tone, approach, and contents: you could define it as cornucopian. The first part of the book is dedicated to describing the abundance of the resources that the oceans contain, the second and third part are dedicated to how the international community was going to develop a "common heritage economics," and about treaties, regulations, and laws needed to manage the exploitation of these riches for the good of all humankind. 

Leaving aside for a moment the question of who is right and who is wrong, you may be just as surprised as I was to discover that the Club of Rome could sponsor two books that took such a different approach on the same subject. Actually, though, it is not so surprising if you know something about the history of the Club. 

The origins of the Club of Rome are in themselves a fascinating subject. Today, everyone associates the Club to their 1972 report "The Limits to Growth." A book that was not so pessimistic as it is often described, but that you surely wouldn't call cornucopian. It was the first study in history that quantified the limits to natural resources at the planetary level. It arrived to the conclusion that the growth of the global economy would come to a halt and start declining at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century (BTW, we are there right now!). 

But how did the Club arrive at the idea of producing such a report? The story is nuanced and it has to do with the personality of Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club in 1968. Peccei was a person that you would define as "enlightened" in the sense that he was deeply concerned about the future of humankind. But in the 1960s, not only it was not known what the limits to the natural resources could be; it wasn't even clear that such a limit existed. 

So, as you can read in the books he authored, Peccei was far from being a "catastrophist," and he didn't see depletion as an important point in his vision of the world. His main concern was how to ensure that the world's resources were fairly distributed. The 1972 report was commissioned to a group of MIT researchers with the aim of quantifying the available resources in order to plan for their fair exploitation. Peccei, basically, wanted to know how large the cake was before starting to cut slices out of it. 

Peccei, just as other members of the Club, must have been surprised by the results that "The Limits to Growth" reported. Nevertheless, they understood their importance and adopted them as part of the Club's views. But the earlier idea, the one that saw distribution as more important than exploitation, didn't disappear and it remained part of the way of thinking of many members of the Club, including Peccei himself. And there is a logic in that: abundant resources, even if they existed, would be useless if they were not used for the benefit of everybody. And that is an even more pressing necessity if the results are, instead, scarce. 

Now you can understand the line of thought that led Elisabeth Mann Borgese to write the book "The Future of the Oceans" It was part of the more optimistic section of the way of thinking of the Club of Rome that never was a monolithic think tank (and it is good that it wasn't, and that it isn't). 

So, what made Mann Borgese so optimistic? And are her views still valid, today? Here, unfortunately (and perhaps unavoidably), most of the book didn't stand the test of time. Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918 - 2002) is a very interesting and multifaceted personality: the daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, she was engaged in many fields: psychology, law, anthropology, and even writing science fiction. Among other things, she was the first female member of the Club of Rome and the only one for several years. But compared to the earlier "Limits to Growth" report, she had a very different approach  to the evaluation of the oceans' potential in producing food and minerals.

So, the first two chapters of "The Future of the Oceans" are, well, as a euphemism, I could say that they are a little outdated. The year before, in 1985, Elisabeth Mann Borgese had written another book titled "The Mines of Neptune," dedicated to mineral resources from the sea. I still have to read that book, but its conclusions are summarized in "The Future of Oceans"in the section titled "Ocean Mining." 

Here, Mann Borgese was clearly influenced by one of the periodic waves of technological optimism that sweep the memesphere about the possibility of extracting minerals from the sea. So optimistic that she even says that these minerals are "renewable" because they are continuously replaced by the volcanic activity at oceanic ridges. Alas, that's really too optimistic. 

I wrote about that subject in a paper that I published in 2010. Basically, it is easy to be led astray by the huge numbers associated to marine resources, but if you do an energy analysis, you see that the costs of extraction are outside the realm of practical possibilities. That's why people have been discussing about that for decades but, today, we are still extracting only those minerals that our ancestors extracted centuries ago, mainly sodium chloride, table salt. Minerals from the sea are like minerals from the Moon or from the asteroids: an incredible abundance that always remains decades in the future.

Something similar in terms of excessive optimism can be said about the chapter dedicated to aquaculture, but here Mann Borgese did identify the remarkable growth potential of a technology that has been, indeed, growing at a bewildering speed: think of a growth of 527% from 1990 to today  (!!) and you will be impressed. A lot. Nowadays, aquaculture produces an amount of food that compares with that produced by conventional fishing. 

So, Mann-Borgese was right on aquaculture, but was that development a good thing? What she missed is that farmed fish is fed mainly from wild fish, so when you sum the production of the two industries you count the same food twice. And the damage done to aquaculture to the environment is gigantic, as we discuss in detail in our book, "The Empty Sea.

The other two sections of "The Future of the Oceans" are a complex story that would need an in-depth discussion. I am not an expert in economics or international law, so I won't attempt to do that. I can just say that I have the impression that much of what was said in the 1980s on this subject was very optimistic. Over the years, the world of fishing became much more competitive, and the various actors engaged in the effort became much less interested in sharing a scarce result and engaged in defending it aggressively, even by military means

So, that's the story of this book. Even though it didn't stand so well the test of time, it is still a remarkable book. Part of the human effort to live in harmony on a planet that's becoming smaller and poorer every day. And, after all, in half a century from now, how many of the books that we are writing today will have passed the test of time?


  1. If we are near the limits of sea exploitation, and if we know that reaching limits is unavoidable, than it makes sense that competitors (nation-states) double down in exploitation, not to restrain from exploitation, because everything one competitor save "for the future generations" will be picked up by the enemies. I usually say to my friends that there is no point to save energy. In fact, it makes sense that Serbs spend as much of domestic resources as possible, to exploit it without limit, because that way the enemies won't have the reason to invade, the resources will be exhausted. There is always some enemies that look on your resources from outside and wait for the opportunity to grab your resources. Conservation is no longer an option, especially with the mentality that humans have.

    1. You must have read the Tao Te King, where it says, "a house full of gold cannot be defended"

    2. Another option is of course to stop having so many enemies! An idea might be to join the EU and become something more perhaps is one idea. Though oddly the UK has abandoned this approach and wants to become a little nation again, Perhaps the EU should now invade the UK ? :) Anyway, that is one idea idea that springs to mind, rather then gorge and destroy the future just in case some "enemy" comes to take it your stuff.

      or move to say they Chatham Islands with your stuff :)

    3. I take into account the reality of the world I live in and disregard the utopias full of contradictions, like EU. Beside, modern industrial utopias are usually a paragon of complexity, and that's exactly what we need to avoid. Neither we have necessary resources for maintaining utopias, nor are complex mega-machines reliable enough to invest in them. In fact, mega-machines are notoriously unreliable.

    4. Of course, Ugo, rich country is a magnet for invaders, that's why Chinese built the wall.

    5. Ugo I'm glad you quote the Tao Te King, though I can't find this sentence in my own book. Is it possible that some translations are not complete?

    6. I cited from memory -- I think from Ursula le Guin's version. Anyway, it is in chapter 9. There are several versions, one is "A house that is full of jade and gold cannot remain secure for long." (I forgot the jade!).

    7. True Ugo, thanks. I have found online another translation in which the house is full of "bronzes and jade". But my paper book gives another meaning. Strange!

  2. Watch this clearly-produced documentary - strangely coming with no deafening background music, which characterises most of other documentaries these days - a sign on that the 'producer' is willing not to traumatise the viewers but rather allowing them an understanding;

    Highly mild and 'lucky' cases of this nature can be heard about in Iraq in tens and tens of thousands.

    The cases look like an exercise of 'mass production' of trauma for the sake of trauma, social engineering and media purposes.

    The question is, can one sell these cases on the open, and assumed-to-be free and self-regulating, market of our fair, sane and just Civilisation - to compensate victims and share the potential rewards of the compensation with a wider base of beneficiaries worldwide, creating Wealth in the process?

    "A house that is full of jade and gold cannot remain secure for long" - but can we sell 'items' looted from it after the looting is done or still going-on, along with what that looting has caused of immense trauma - in a civilised way without feeling guilt and trauma?

    Can humans cause trauma to each other and then sell the trauma to each other?

    Can a Civilisation recycle people's trauma, making and pretending jade, gold and oil are an excuse?

    And, when we run out of trauma, we start all over again with another round of trauma?

    How much fossil fuels will be needed to continue that indefinitely for us to feel ourselves civilised humans, living in a civilised Civilisation?


  3. Hi Ugo,

    you write as following: "The year before, in 1985, Elisabeth Mann Borgese had written another book titled "The Mines of Neptune," dedicated to mineral resources from the sea. That book is even more difficult to find than "The Future of the Oceans"..."

    But when I search at, there are 35 books available, starting from around 5€/piece:

    Hope this helps and best,


    1. Thanks, Hardy. Indeed, after my first search, I tried again and I was more successful. I have already ordered that book -- but I need to remove that sentence from the text!

  4. Did you know that during April 6, 1941, bombing of Belgrade, Germans deliberately aimed at the building of Serbian National Library. The building was completely destroyed together with many rare Serbian medieval manuscripts and early printed books. For instance, famous "Rujan Gospel", printed in 1537 in monastery Rujan by the monk Theodosy (50km from my hometown) was destroyed, so that the two only existing copies are now in Russia and Czech Republic. Serbia does not have this precious early printed book. That's what you can expect from "civilized" western nations.