Aurelio Peccei - founder of the Club of Rome, former head of Fiat and Olivetti, preserver of wild animals, author of many books, father of the children, fighter against fascism, golfer with no handicap - could not eat.
Not that he was not hungry. He had flown into Dulles to attend a symposium at American University on "Alternative Views of the Future." The schedule was hectic; he had agreed to spend half an hour with an interviewer during last week. But when a volunteer brought him a lunch tea, he protested warmly:
"How can I eat? You do not bring anything for my guest. A man cannot eat alone."
It is probably this simply charm, this gracious manner, that has allowed Peccei to be taken seriously as a dreamer. Through the Club of Rome he has questioned seriously the way the world is headed with a kind of positive humanism that could easily be laughed at.
He also could be called a hypocrite by the uniformed, a man seeming to do penance.Did he not for a quarter-century help build Fiat into the largest manufacturer of cars in Italy? Is he now doing penance, like any aging Italian, by calling attention to the problems of oil depletion and energy conservation, by decrying the sluggishness of bureaucracy after putting Olivette electric typewriters all over the world.
"I got to the point I am at now," he said "because of two things. One, I was an anti-fascist, one of the last students receiving honors without wearing a black shirt. I was a freedom fighter, in touch with poor people. Then I worked very much in developing countries after World War II. I saw so much suffering and so much stupidity on the part of the people trying to help."
So in 1968, Peccei brought together 30 individuals from 10 countries to form The Club of Rome and talk about the future condition of man. It seemed like one of those grand schemes that would lead to some pontific academic blither, but instead produced a report, "The Limits to Growth," that claimed the world would reach a calamity in the next century if some kind of limits were not placed on growth. It sold 3 million copies and became instantly controversial.
"Man is curious," Peccei said. "So if we say we need alternatives to growth, we have to come up with some other challenges for man. Why is there alienation and crime? Because people have not adjusted themselves to the reality we have created: much more complex, a faster pace. We have lost contact with reality. We are lagging behind reality. We have changed everything except ourselves and our institutions. There has been an acceleration of events: History is shrinking. Unless we change radically in the next 10 years, we may be forced to change by another oil crisis, a megafamine, an ecological blacklash or a riot in some major country. If we don't avert that, we'll be indicted by history: Those Who Had A Chance and Did Nothing."
The conference, in fact, sponsored by the U.S. Association for The Club of Rome, was a preliminary round for an upcoming intellectual battle on these very problems. Titled "Testing The Hudson Scenarios," it was a trial run for the October Alternative to Growth conference in Texas where the Club of Rome's concepts will be pitted against these of Herman Kahn's Hudson Institute.
"Many of the concepts of Herman Kahn are incompatible with this planet," Peccei said. "His concepts of energy, food availability, group productivity are wrong. There is not enough oil; there is not enough food. By the end of this century there will be 2 billion more people. We do we put them? The additional population will be bigger than the total population at the beginning of the century. The United States has problems with illegal immigrants from Mexico now. What will happen when the population of Mexico is doubled?"
Beyond his interest in the future of man, Peccei is also fascinated by animals, which he calls the "companions of man." Fifteen years ago he helped found the World Wildlife Fund.
"You know," he observed, "when carnivorous animals are penned up and not allowed to hunt, the only animal they can attack is man."
And then, a bit of wisdom: "When there are difficult problems, it is much better to be on the side of prudence."
He leaned back, and ran his strong, 69-year-old fingers through his silver hair.
"Do not worry about me not eating," he said. "I enjoy talking to people much more than eating."