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‘Born in the corridors of the OECD’: the forgotten origins of the Club of Rome, transnational networks, and the 1970s in global history*

  • Matthias Schmelzer (a1)

This article re-examines a contested chapter in the international and environmental history of the 1970s. Even though largely neglected by historical research and in the public memory, the Club of Rome – widely remembered for its 1972 report The limits to growth – was not only born within the OECD, but was also in its early period strongly influenced by debates within this think tank of the industrialized countries. Using previously overlooked sources, this article analyses this highly unlikely OECD–Club of Rome nexus. It not only offers a privileged view into the social history of international policy-making and the related personal entanglements and ideological transfers at a key moment of post-war history. It also demonstrates that the social, intellectual, and economic turmoil of the late 1960s prompted a rethinking of the economic growth paradigm, even within those technocratic institutions that had aspired to guide the post-war industrial growth regime. The article argues that these links are not only vital for our understanding of the relationship between acquisitive growth capitalism and environmentalism, but also enable a more profound understanding of the role of transnational networks in global history and the appreciation of the place of the 1970s in world history.

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For helpful comments, suggestions and criticisms I wish to thank Christian Albrecht, Samuel Beroud, Iris Borowy, Ludovic Fulleringer, Matthieu Liemgruber, Mathias Mutz, Alexander Nützenadel, Dominique Pestre, Kim Priemel, Claudia Prinz, Laura Rischbieter, Elke Seefried, the editors of the Journal of Global History and various anonymous reviewers. The article has also benefited from discussions at several conferences, in particular the Winterschool Limits to Growth Revisited (Hannover 2012), the History of Recent Economics Conference (Cergy-Pontoise 2015) and the World Economic History Congress (Kyoto 2015).

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1 Ron Gass, ‘Back to the future’, OECD Observer, 276–7, 2010, (consulted 30 May 2016).

2 BardiUgo, The limits to growth revisited, New York: Springer, 2011 ; JacksonTim, Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet, London: Earthscan, 2009 .

3 OECD science director Alexander King, cited in Robert Shannan Peckham, ‘Alexander King’, The Independent, 26 March 2007.

4 For the broader context, see SchmelzerMatthias, ‘The crisis before the crisis: the “problems of Modern Society” and the OECD, 1968–74’, European Review of History, 19, 6, 2012, pp. 9991020 .

5 FergusonNiall et al., eds., The shock of the global: the 1970s in perspective, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010 ; Anselm Doering-Manteuffel and Lutz Raphael, Nach dem Boom: Brüche und Kontinuitäten der Industriemoderne seit 1970, 2nd edn, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010.

6 Jason Lemoine Churchill, ‘The limits of influence: the Club of Rome and Canada, 1968 to 1988’, PhD thesis, University of Waterloo, Ontario, 2006; MollPeter, From scarcity to sustainability: futures studies and the environment: the role of the Club of Rome, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1991 ; PauliGunter A., Crusader for the future: a portrait of Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome, New York: Pergamon Press, 1987 ; Guillaume Vera-Navas, ‘Le Club de Rome’, Maîtrise d’histoire, University of Chambéry, 2001; AlbrechtChristian, ‘“The Atlantic community in a global context”: global crisis and Atlanticism within the context of the Club of Rome, 1960s to 1970s’, GHI Bulletin, 10, 2014, pp. 163182 .

7 BlanchardElodie Vieille, ‘Modelling the future: an overview of the “Limits to growth” debate’, Centaurus, 52, 2, 2010, pp. 91116 ; ElichirigoityFernando, Planet management: limits to growth, computer simulation, and the emergence of global spaces, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999 ; Friedemann Hahn, ‘Von Unsinn bis Untergang: Rezeption des Club of Rome und der Grenzen des Wachstums in der Bundesrepublik der frühen 1970er Jahre’, PhD thesis, University of Freiburg, 2006; ClémentLevallois, ‘Can de-growth be considered a policy option? A historical note on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the Club of Rome’, Ecological Economics, 69, 11, 2010, pp. 22712278 .

8 ‘The Club of Rome’, (consulted 8 November 2016). Like other studies such as Churchill, ‘Limits’, p. 63, the standard reference, Moll’s Scarcity, pp. 61–81, refers to the OECD when discussing the background of people involved in the Club but does not analyse it. See, however, SchmelzerMatthias, The hegemony of growth: the OECD and the making of the economic growth paradigm, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016 , chs. 7–8; and SeefriedElke, Zukünfte: Aufstieg und Krise der Zukunftsforschung 1945–1980, Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015, pp. 235254 .

9 SörlinSverker and WardePaul, ‘The problem of the problem of environmental history: a re-reading of the field’, Environmental History, 12, 1, 2007, p. 124 .

10 KottSandrine, ‘International organizations: a field of research for a global history’, Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, 8, 3, 2011, pp. 446450 .

11 See, for example, BarnettMichael and FinnemoreMartha, Rules for the world: international organizations in global politics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004 ; TrondalJarle et al., Unpacking international organisations: the dynamics of compound bureaucracies, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010 .

12 See the contributions in DjelicMarie-Laure and QuackSigrid, eds., Transnational communities: shaping global economic governance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 .

13 CollinsRobert M., More: the politics of economic growth in postwar America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 ; PurdeyStephen J., Economic growth, the environment and international relations: the growth paradigm, London: Routledge, 2009 ; Schmelzer, Hegemony.

14 OkunArthur M., The political economy of prosperity, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1970, p. 33 .

15 SuriJeremi, Power and protest: global revolution and the rise of detente, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009 .

16 For the relevant literature, see Schmelzer, Hegemony, pp. 239–44.

17 Jim McNeill, cited in BernsteinSteven F., The compromise of liberal environmentalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001, p. 198 .

18 Elichirigoity, Planet management. On other international organizations, see JollyRichard, EmmerijLouis, and WeissThomas G., UN ideas that changed the world, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009 ; ConnellyMatthew J., Fatal misconception: the struggle to control world population, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009 .

19 SchmelzerMatthias, ‘“Expandiere oder stirb”: Wachstumsziele, die OECD und die Steigerungslogik wirtschaftlicher Expansion’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 41, 3, 2015, pp. 355393 . More generally, see Schmelzer, Hegemony.

20 Schmelzer, Matthias, ‘Thorkil Kristensen’, Biographical Dictionary of Secretaries-General of International Organizations, 2013, (accessed 18 October 2016). On the population debate see Connelly, Fatal misconception.

21 The National Archives, Kew (henceforth TNA), Records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (henceforth FCO), 55/417, Chadwick to Combs, 15 June 1970; Alexander King, Let the cat turn round: one man’s traverse of the twentieth century, London: CPTM, 2007.

22 King, Let the cat, p. 292.

23 Schmelzer, Hegemony, pp. 189–214. See also the forthcoming PhD thesis by Ludovic Fulleringer at the University of Geneva, provisinally entitled ‘The politics of “science policies”: the OEEC/OECD’s science and technology activities from 1948 to 1976’.

24 See LongBill L., International environmental issues and the OECD, 1950–2000: an historical perspective, Paris: OECD, 2000 ; Iris Borowy, ‘Negotiating the environment: the making of the OECD Environment Committee and the polluter pays principle, 1968–1972’, in Matthieu Leimgruber and Matthias Schmelzer, eds., The OECD and the international political economy, 1948 to present, Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming.

25 SalomonJean Jacques, ‘La tristesse de Cassandre’, in J. Thépot, M. Godet, F. Roubelat, and A. E. Saab, eds., Décision, prospective, auto-organisation: mélanges en l’honneur de Jacques Lesourne, Paris: Dunod, 1999, p. 345 .

26 Long, International environmental issues, pp. 28–30, provides a short overview; Borowy, ‘Negotiating the environment’.

27 Martin Sherwood, ‘OECD seeks a modern science policy’, New Scientist and Science Journal, 1 July 1971, pp. 4–5; Salomon Wald, ‘Umberto Colombo in memoriam: honouring his contribution to the OECD’, 2007, (consulted 8 November 2016).

28 Trondal et al., Unpacking international organisations, pp. 1–33, 111–37, 156–70.

29 OECD Archive, Paris (henceforth OECDA), Box 36486, Philip H. Trezise to Thorkil Kristensen, 29 September 1967; ‘An outline for an international research center and international studies program for systematic analysis of certain problems of advanced societies’, April 1967.

30 On these issues see IriyeArika, Global community: the role of international organizations in the making of the contemporary world, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002 ; Trondal et al., Unpacking international organisations; and, still relevant, CoxRobert W. and JacobsonHarold K., The anatomy of influence: decision making in international organizations, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974 .

31 KingAlexander, ‘The launch of a club’, in Pentti Malaska and Matti Vapaavuori, eds., The Club of Rome, Turku: Finnish Society for Futures Studies, 1979, p. 57 .

32 KingAlexander, ‘Research, development and problems of the industrialised societies’, in EIRMA, ed., Documentation and information in research and development, Paris: EIRMA, 1970, p. 131 .

33 KingAlexander, ‘Interview: Club of Rome founder Alexander King discusses his goals and operations’, Executive Intelligence Review, 8, 25, 1981, p. 19 .

34 Pauli, Crusader; PecceiAurelio, The chasm ahead, London: Macmillan, 1969 .

35 The Soviet scientist Jermen Gvishiani had read a speech given by Peccei in September 1965 to managers and bankers in Buenos Aires. Impressed, he sent the speech to the CSP delegate Carroll Wilson, who sent it to King’s office. On the conceptual links to Soviet economic debates, see the forthcoming PhD thesis by Yakov Feygin, provisionally entitled ‘Building a ruin: the international political economy of Soviet reformism 1956–1991’. See also PecceiAurelio, The human quality, New York: Pergamon Press, 1977, pp. 5052 , 63; Moll, Scarcity, pp. 61 ff.

36 King, ‘Launch’, p. 56.

37 Ibid.; JantschErich, Technological forecasting in perspective, Paris: OECD, 1967 . See also Salomon, ‘Tristesse’, p. 343.

38 Howard Brabyn, ‘Cool catalyst’, New Scientist, 24 August 1972; King, ‘Club of Rome’; Peccei, Human quality, p. 65.

39 On the RAND Corporation, see AbellaAlex, Soldiers of reason: the Rand Corporation and the rise of the American empire, Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009 .

40 Moll, Scarcity, p. 65; King, ‘Club of Rome’, p. 36.

41 The meeting is well documented in JantschErich, ed., Perspectives on planning: proceedings of the OECD Working Symposium on Long-Range Forecasting and Planning Bellagio, Italy 27th October – 2nd November 1968, Paris: OECD, 1969 .

42 Futures studies were more advanced in the US, where think tanks such as the RAND Corporation had been working in this field for several years. See also Moll, Scarcity, 151. More generally, see HughesThomas P. and HughesAgatha C., eds., Systems, experts, and computers: the systems approach in management and engineering, World War II and after, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000 .

43 ForresterJay W., ‘From the ranch to system dynamics: an autobiography’, in Arthur Bedeian, ed., Management laureates: a collection of autobiographical essays, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1992, pp. 337370 ; see also ForresterJay W., World dynamics, Cambridge, MA: Wright-Allen Press, 1971 .

44 Jay W. Forrester, ‘Planning under the dynamic influences of complex social systems’, in Jantsch, Perspectives, pp. 237–56.

45 HamblinJacob Darwin, Arming Mother Nature: the birth of catastrophic environmentalism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013 , ch. 7.

46 Aurelio Peccei, ‘Reflections on the Bellagio conference’, in Jantsch, Perspectives, p. 518. On symposium discussions, see Erich Jantsch, ‘Synopsis of papers and discussions’, in ibid., pp. 13–32.

47 Jay W. Forrester, ‘Reflections on the Bellagio conference’, in Jantsch, Perspectives, p. 509.

48 Jantsch, Perspectives, pp. 7–9. See also Forrester, ‘Reflections’, p. 503. On the meeting, see also Seefried, Zukünfte, pp. 248–9.

49 Churchill, ‘Limits’, p. 40. See also Forrester, ‘From the ranch’; Moll, Scarcity, pp. 70–5.

50 Peccei, Human quality, 73; KingAlexander, Another kind of growth: industrial society and the quality of life, London: David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies, 1972, p. 12 .

51 Peccei, Human quality, 75.

52 There was some overlap between the Club of Rome and NATO’s Science Committee as well, since both Rennie Whitehead and Eduard Pestel were members of both. Churchill, ‘Limits’, p. 166.

53 Vera-Navas, ‘Club de Rome’, p. 69; MeadowsDonella H. et al., The limits to growth: a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind, Washington, DC: Potomac Associates, 1972, pp. 189200 .

54 SchmelzerMatthias, ‘A club of the rich to help the poor? The OECD, “development”, and the hegemony of donor countries’, in Marc Frey, Sönke Kunkel, and Corinna Unger, eds., International organizations and development, 1945 to 1990, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 171195 .

55 Bernstein, Liberal environmentalism; BorowyIris, Defining sustainable development: the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), London: Routledge, 2013 ; see also Albrecht, ‘Atlantic community’.

56 Blanchard, ‘Modelling the future’; Seefried, Zukünfte, pp. 255–92; Elichirigoity, Planet management; Schmelzer, Hegemony, pp. 267–87.

57 See MetzlerGabriele, ‘“Geborgenheit im gesicherten Fortschritt”: das Jahrzehnt von Planbarkeit und Machbarkeit’, in Matthias Frese, Julia Paulus, and Karl Teppe, eds., Demokratisierung und gesellschaftlicher Aufbruch: die sechziger Jahre als Wendezeit der Bundesrepublik, Paderborn: Schöningh, 2003, pp. 777797 ; Moll, Scarcity.

58 HajerMaarten A., The politics of environmental discourse: ecological modernization and the policy process, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995 . On the ideological content of the technological modelling, see Blanchard, ‘Modelling the future’.

59 On these experts, see Ronald A. Morse, ‘Saburo Okita: Japan’s first globalist’, in Three Dialogues with Saburo Okita, Occasional Papers Nr 1, Washington, DC: The Wilson Center, 1980, pp. iii–viii; Saburo Okita, Japan’s challenging years: reflections on my lifetime, Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983; Wald, ‘Umberto Colombo’; Rennie Whitehead, ‘Memoirs of a boffin: a personal story of life in the 20th century’, 1995, (consulted 9 November 2016). For a list of members of the Club of Rome, see Appendix B in Moll, Scarcity.

60 King, ‘Launch’, p. 57.

61 Alexander King, ‘The great transition’, speech delivered to the Sandford Fleming Foundation, University of Waterloo, Ontario, 5 June 1987.

62 Pauli, Crusader, pp. 80–2; Churchill, ‘Limits’, pp. 62 ff.

63 OECDA, Box 36478, Aurelio Peccei to Emile van Lennep, 27 March 1970.

64 Ivan Head, cited in Churchill, ‘Limits’, pp. 20–1.

65 King, ‘Launch’, p. 59: ‘Access to the decision-makers was not difficult.’

66 HaasPeter M., ‘Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination’, International Organization, 46, 1, 1992, pp. 135 .

67 Peccei, quoted in Bowen Northrup, ‘Thinking big’, New York Times, 2 October 1972, p. 1.

68 OECDA, Box 36478, Club of Rome, ‘The predicament of mankind: quest for structured responses to growing world-wide complexities and uncertainties: a proposal’, 1970 (emphasis added).

69 OECDA, PRESS/A(69)10, ‘Problems of the modern society: statement by the Secretary-General, Thorkil Kristensen’, 14 February 1969.

70 King, ‘Research’, p. 126. OECDA, C/M(69/5), Minutes of the 180th Meeting, 13–14 February 1969; OECDA, C(69)123, ‘Problems of the modern society: note by the Secretary-General’, 18 September 1969.

71 Emile van Lennep, Working for the world economy: a personal history, Amsterdam: NIBE, 1998, pp. 225, 230. Another possible source was the Marxist philosopher and OECD economist Cornelius Castoriadis, who used this phrase in a lecture in 1965 and was also involved in OECD debates: see Schmelzer, Hegemony, p. 255.

72 On the ‘problématique’, see Club of Rome, ‘Predicament’; Peccei, Chasm ahead.

73 King, ‘Research’, p. 126. See also OECDA, C(69)168, ‘Problems of modern society: economic growth, environment and welfare: note by the Secretary-General’, 16 December 1969.

74 For more on the influence of the events of 1968 on the OECD, see Schmelzer, Hegemony, ch. 7.

75 US National Archives and Records Administration, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of OECD, RG 59, Box 17, David Beckler to Harvey Brooks, 7 August 1969, and attached report.

76 See RamunniGirolamo and RouxMuriel Le, ‘L’OCDE et les politiques scientifiques: entretien avec Jean-Jacques Salomon’, La Revue pour l’Histoire du CNRS, 3, 2000, pp. 4058 .

77 OECD, Science, growth and society: report of the Secretary-General’s ad hoc group on new concepts of science policy, Paris: OECD, 1971; Wald, ‘Umberto Colombo’. See also Francisco R. Sagasti, Jean-Jacques Salomon, and Céline Sachs-Jeantet, eds., The uncertain quest: science, technology and development, Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1994.

78 OECD, Science, p. 21. See also KingAlexander, Science and policy: the international stimulus, London: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 52 .

79 OECDA, Box 36478, Alexander King, Memorandum to Emile van Lennep, 20 October 1969.

80 Van Lennep, Working, p. 227.

81 OECDA, Box 36478, Peccei to van Lennep, 27 March 1970; Hasan Özbekhan to van Lennep, 22 March 1970. In 1971 van Lennep was invited to participate in the meeting of the Club of Rome but had to cancel owing to other engagements: OECDA, Box 36479, Peccei to King, 26 February 1971; King to Peccei, 18 March 1971.

82 TNA, FCO 69/52, ‘NATO and environmental problems’, May 1969.

83 Van Lennep, Working, pp. 225–6. See also OECDA, Box 36486, Manlio Brosio to van Lennep, 14 November 1969; TNA, FCO 69/52, John Chadwick to John Killick, 16 June 1969. On this NATO initiative, see HamblinJacob Darwin, ‘Environmentalism for the Atlantic alliance: NATO’s experiment with the “challenges of modern society”’, Environmental History, 15, 1, 2010, pp. 5475 ; MacekuraStephen, ‘The limits of the global community: the Nixon administration and global environmental politics’, Cold War History, 11, 4, 2011, pp. 489518 .

84 TNA, FCO 55/420, Roger to Arculus, 3 April 1970; van Lennep, Working, p. 226. On Dow, see Andrew Britton, ‘John Christopher Roderick Dow, 1916–1998’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 105, 2000, pp. 397–416.

85 TNA, FCO 55/417, Chadwick to Combs, 15 June 1970; Salomon, ‘Tristesse’, p. 344.

86 Archive of the European Commission in Brussels, BAC/1978 572, Report no. 455, 23 January 1970; OECDA, Box 36486, Gerard Eldin to van Lennep, 4 February 1970; OECDA, C/M(70)1, Minutes of Council Meeting, 13 January 1970.

87 OECDA, Box 36480, King to van Lennep, 25 February 1972; see also OECDA, Box 239707, Confidential memorandum from King to van Lennep, 25 February 1972. The Executive Committee of the Club of Rome did not endorse the MIT study entirely, but wrote a ‘Commentary’ with some critical comments. See Meadows et al., Limits to growth, pp. 185–97.

88 OECDA, Box 36483, van Lennep, speech at the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 2 March 1972; OECDA, Box 239707, Confidential memorandum from Bo Kjellén to Secretary-General, 8 February 1972.

89 OECDA, Box 239707, J. C. R. Dow to J. D. Fay, 21 March 1972.

90 DuvergerTimothée, ‘De Meadows à Mansholt: l’invention du “zégisme”’, Entropia 10, 2011, pp. 114123 . See also Sicco Mansholt, La crise, Paris: Stock, 1974, pp. 166 ff.

91 Van Lennep, Working, p. 230. See also OECDA, Box 239707, Ron Gass to King, 7 March 1972. More generally, see SabinPaul, The bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and our gamble over Earth’s future, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013 .

92 Almost all of van Lennep’s speeches in these years deal with these questions: see OECDA, Box 36483. Van Lennep kept close contact with the Club of Rome and attended its 1976 meeting: OECDA, Box 239707, Club of Rome to van Lennep, 23 June 1976; Peccei to van Lennep, 13 September 1976.

93 OECD, OECD at work for the environment, Paris: OECD, 1973, p. 8.

94 For more details on the Interfutures study, see Schmelzer, Hegemony, pp. 318–22.

95 TNA, T 354/438, Todd to Bayne, 23 January 1975.

96 OECD, Interfutures: facing the future: mastering the probable and managing the unpredictable, Paris: OECD, 1979, p. 61; GodetMichel, ‘Future memories’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 77, 9, 2010, p. 1458 ; Bernstein, Liberal environmentalism; Borowy, Defining sustainable development.

97 GilmanNils, ‘The New International Economic Order: a reintroduction’, Humanity Journal, 6, 1, 2015, pp. 116 ; RothsteinRobert L., Global bargaining: UNCTAD and the quest for a new international economic order, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979 ; MaulDaniel R., Human rights, development and decolonization: the International Labour Organization, 1940–70, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 , pt 3; Schmelzer, ‘Crisis’; Devesh Kapur, John P. Lewis, and Richard Webb, The World Bank: its first half century, 2 vols., Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1997.

98 King, ‘Launch’, p. 59.

99 OECDA, C(70)22, ‘Creation of an ad hoc preparatory committee on the activities of the Organisation on environmental problems relating to economic growth’, 5 February 1970. Bernstein, Liberal environmentalism; Long, International environmental issues; Borowy, ‘Negotiating the environment’.

100 Schmelzer, Hegemony, ch. 9.

101 Ibid., chs. 8–9.

102 Bardi, Limits; EdwardsPaul N., A vast machine: computer models, climate data, and the politics of global warming, Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2010 ; Sabin, Bet.

103 See, for example, HallRodney Bruce and BierstekerThomas J., eds. The emergence of private authority in global governance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 .

104 MaierCharles S., ‘Consigning the twentieth century to history: alternative narratives for the modern era’, American Historical Review, 105, 3, 2000, pp. 807831 .

* For helpful comments, suggestions and criticisms I wish to thank Christian Albrecht, Samuel Beroud, Iris Borowy, Ludovic Fulleringer, Matthieu Liemgruber, Mathias Mutz, Alexander Nützenadel, Dominique Pestre, Kim Priemel, Claudia Prinz, Laura Rischbieter, Elke Seefried, the editors of the Journal of Global History and various anonymous reviewers. The article has also benefited from discussions at several conferences, in particular the Winterschool Limits to Growth Revisited (Hannover 2012), the History of Recent Economics Conference (Cergy-Pontoise 2015) and the World Economic History Congress (Kyoto 2015).

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