Montpellier Global Days 2024: At the crossroads of science and humanism

As a prelude to the Montpellier global days 2024On March 18, Carlos Alvarez Pereira gave a talk for the general public entitled "From alarm to saving the planet, science mobilizes". After 30 years in research, innovation and entrepreneurship, he is now putting his professional expertise and his desire for humanism at the service of the Club of Rome, a pioneering international think tank on sustainable development, of which he is Secretary General. Interview.

You are secretary of the Club of Rome. What led you to get involved?
I started hearing about the Club of Rome and the Halte à la croissance? during my childhood in France. My mother was an early fan. I studied aerospace engineering and then, during the first part of my professional life, I taught applied mathematics at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. I was doing research into systems dynamics, chaos theory... All this resonated strongly with the Club of Rome, which proposed a systems approach at the crossroads of science and humanism.

Is it a form of commitment?
Yes, it is. I became a member of the Club of Rome in 2016. I recently decided to make a full commitment: I've been Secretary General since January 1, 2024, after having been a member of the Executive Committee for six years.

The Club of Rome is best known for its report The limits to growth (better known as the Meadows report, which already pointed to the need for zero growth. How was it received when it was published in 1972?
The report caused a great deal of debate, even though it didn't change things. At the time the Meadows report was published, a new science was emerging: systems dynamics, which gave rise to what we now call sustainable development. The report set out various possible scenarios for the relationship between human development and planetary limits, several of which envisaged the possibility of civilizational collapse. Others showed that a balance could be found. It was this variety of scenarios that was not well understood. The report was attacked by people who didn't want to delve into its message, preferring to ridicule it as a doomsday prophecy, which was not the case at all. Even today, we hear arguments against the Club of Rome and the Meadows report that have nothing to do with what it says.

Do you think the message was heard, even if it didn't produce immediate action?
The message was heard, particularly in the political arena, in Europe and even in the United States... Unfortunately, there was a political about-turn in the early 80s, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power. The latter made several clear references to the Meadows report, notably in his speech in January 1985, after his re-election, in which he asserted: "There is no limit to growth, because there is no limit to human intelligence, imagination and prodigies. "

What happened next?
In 1979, the Club of Rome published No limits to learning, in which it argued that the education system should promote participative, innovative and inclusive learning. A revolution that still hasn't taken place 45 years later. In 1984, another book was published, entitled Before it is too late , invoking the need for a revolution in thinking to meet the challenges we still face today. 

This revolution is also slow in coming ...
The revolution is here, but we don't see it because the dominant culture has seen an acceleration of trends that were already at work in the 70s, such as consumerism and the extension of conventional development models. Yet things are changing on the ground, with overlapping and contradictory realities. 

What do we need today to get things moving?
Six years ago, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome, we questioned the relevance of the organization. We're whistle-blowers, and we'd like to have been taken seriously. It is still possible to achieve a balance between equitable well-being for all and a healthy planet, provided we take action. To this end, there are a number of essential levers, such as the role of women, the energy transition, regenerative agriculture, the fight against inequality, an unconventional development model... 

Isn't one of our challenges to be more in tune with citizens?
While we at the Club of Rome try to influence public policy, we also want to understand what is emerging in society. Not just in Europe and North America, but also in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We strongly believe in trusting people. Enlightened despotism is not the way to solve problems. 

History has already shown that omnipotent science can be dangerous ...
We have to stop saying that science has all the answers. Nor can it simply say that it's the politicians who aren't doing their job. Let's trust people and reverse the process: the research agenda must be driven by the essential needs of people and societies. Not the other way around.

So sustainable development is a collective challenge?
We all need to get on board together. We can't separate the environmental from the social. There is a misconception about sustainable development that perpetuates the idea that the economy is separate from society and that we are all separate from nature. But this is not true. And it generates the rifts we see at work today.

How can we get out of the box?
What I particularly appreciate about the University of Montpellier's slogan "nourish, care, protect" is that these three verbs put the human at the heart of the action. We need to return to our deepest humanity, which is relational. And leave much more room for self-management, as close as possible to needs, communities and people. 

About the Club of Rome

Based in Switzerland, the Club of Rome is an international, non-political association of scientists, humanists, economists, professors, national and international civil servants and industrialists from 53 countries. Pioneers of in-depth reflection on the challenges of sustainable development, the members of this international think tank aim to find practical solutions to global problems. Above all, the Club of Rome's role is to raise awareness of current global issues among world leaders. Founded in 1968, after the prosperity of the 30 glorious years, the Club of Rome became particularly famous in 1972 with the publication of The Limits to Growth,a report commissioned by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and better known as the Meadows Report after its two main co-authors, ecologists Donella and Dennis Meadows. With a circulation of twelve million copies and translations into 37 languages, this document already highlighted the need for "zero growth" to cope with accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable natural resources and global environmental degradation.