Like so many buildings in Rome, the Villa Farnesina is more sumptuous on the inside than on the outside. Stroll through Trastevere to the Ponte Sisto and keep walking along the river, and you’ll pass right by it—a palazzo like any other, set back among trees and gardens. But the interior is filled with light and color. There are frescoes by Raphael. One room is famous for an experiment in trompe l’oeil perspective.

The villa was being built at exactly the moment when Michelangelo, a mile away, was painting the Sistine Chapel. Later it came into the hands of the Accademia dei Lincei, a scientific society whose original members included Galileo. And it was here, in 1968, that an assortment of midcentury grandees—scholars, industrialists, diplomats, bankers—met to create an organization called the Club of Rome. Its mission was to explore the “predicament of mankind.”

The technocratic Club of Rome was founded in the city’s 16th-century Villa Farnesina, in 1968.

It is easy to have some fun at the expense of groups like the Club of Rome. Step inside the Villa Farnesina, and you may well decide that the “predicament of mankind” could comfortably become the work of a lifetime. Some years ago, The Economist published a survey of the amenities offered by highbrow conclaves such as Pugwash, Aspen, Ditchley, and Bilderberg. The magazine called it “Our Good Conference Guide” and, like Fodor’s or Michelin, offered tart capsule descriptions of food and accommodations and conveyed its ratings with little symbols—crossed knives and forks; beds and pillows; dollar signs. I don’t recall whether the Club of Rome was on the list, but the restaurants nearby are certainly good.

Here’s the thing to remember. In 1972, half a century ago this year, the Club of Rome published a dry and data-laden report that looked at a handful of interlocking trends—“population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources”—and delivered a chilling verdict about the human and environmental future: the status quo was not sustainable. The 205-page report, prepared by experts at M.I.T., was titled The Limits to Growth. To the surprise of everyone, it went on to sell some 30 million copies, touching off a ferocious debate about what lay in store for the planet. The very title gave life to a phrase that even those who disputed the idea of limits had no choice but to use.

The Doomsayers vs. the Doomslayers

The Limits to Growth did not create the modern environmental movement, but it did foster a new way of thinking about global problems, and about sustainability in particular. The Club of Rome never put it this way, but its members were dismayed by the whack-a-mole nature of human endeavor. You celebrate an increment of progress in one area, only to see that same increment of progress causing problems in another. The discovery of antibiotics: great news! The Green Revolution in agriculture: also great news! But now there are more people. They enjoy longer lives. They burn oil and chop down trees like never before.

The report used system dynamics—and lots of space-age infographics—to analyze resource and environmental trends.

The authors of The Limits to Growth adopted an analytical approach to the study of global problems that they called the “world problematique.” The team at M.I.T. had been brought together by Jay Forrester, a computer engineer and the creator of system dynamics, a way of looking holistically at variables and consequences—in this case, on a worldwide scale. Using Forrester’s methods, the authors distilled much of their analysis into mathematical models—perhaps calling to mind the fictional “encyclopedists” who seek to guide the universe in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

The report laid out a basic narrative framework—rising population, dwindling resources, accelerating pollution of water and the atmosphere. Its tone was urgent: “Taking no action to solve these problems is the equivalent of taking strong action. Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world system closer to the ultimate limits of that growth. A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse.”

An assortment of midcentury grandees—scholars, industrialists, diplomats, bankers—met to create an organization called the Club of Rome. Its mission was to explore the “predicament of mankind.”

In the mid-1970s, when I was a young editor at a place called the Wilson Center, a think tank formerly lodged in the old Smithsonian Castle, the Gothic hallways and seminar rooms reverberated with debates over The Limits to Growth. It is commonplace today to lament the absence of “public intellectuals” from the most important debates of our time, but there were still plenty of such people around in the 1970s; and, as the decanter was passed in the Wilson Center’s ornate library, under a Flemish tapestry, all of them seemed to have something to say about the Club of Rome. The very name cast a spell. “Pugwash” conjured images of dog grooming. “Club of Rome” suggested an after-hours joint for the Illuminati.

The intellectuals were sharply divided. The environmentalist camp had been working up to The Limits to Growth for decades if not centuries—they could point to writers as far back as Thomas Malthus and to more recent books such as The Population Bomb. The Club of Rome report brought the power and cachet of system dynamics to the argument, not to mention the imprimatur of M.I.T. and the attention of a global audience. The onset of the OPEC oil embargo, in 1973, didn’t hurt.

A frescoed corner of the Villa Farnesina.

The opposing camp—sometimes called the “doomslayers,” even by themselves—portrayed the report as a version of the Chicken Little fable and took aim, often accurately, at what they saw as its simplistic methodology. The tone of the opponents was one of scorn, softening occasionally into snark. A trio of scholars at Columbia and Harvard greeted the report this way on the front page of The New York Times Book Review: “Its imposing apparatus of computer technology and systems jargon conceals a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg device—one which takes arbitrary assumptions, shakes them up and comes out with arbitrary conclusions that have the ring of science.” Looking back, decades later, the Nobel laureate Robert Solow accused the Club of Rome of “doing amateur dynamics without a license.”

Some of the methodology of The Limits to Growth was indeed flawed, as the Club of Rome would itself acknowledge; over the years, new iterations appeared. And many of the report’s predictions proved wrong, or at least premature. The world did not run out of arable land or natural gas by the turn of the millennium. You can still buy gold, copper, and oil, which were supposed to have been depleted long ago. The report predicted a global civilizational collapse by 2070. Maybe that prediction will be on target, though it’s starting to look overly optimistic.

It is tempting if not de rigueur in some quarters to dismiss The Limits to Growth as an exercise in technocratic hubris. Yet shoving aside the report’s message may itself involve an element of hubris: the idea that humanity will figure a way out. The debate over the report was rejoined this anniversary year in seminars and publications, even as the implications of climate change brought on by pollution became ever more obvious. The Club of Rome had decamped to the cooler high ground of Switzerland some years ago; no one was second-guessing that decision as Italy staggered under temperatures of 100 degrees or more this summer.

You can pick away at the specifics of The Limits to Growth—its assumptions, its blind spots, its emphases—and on point after point you may even be right. But the larger truth is that, 50 years on, despite all the critiques, The Limits to Growth has won the day. Ask yourself two questions: First, do we need to think seriously about constraints on natural resources and human behavior? And second, do we need to consider major challenges—involving energy, water, food, air—in a global context?

And then ask: How many people would now answer no?

To hear Cullen Murphy reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast

Cullen Murphy is an editor at large for The Atlantic and the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe