Former Laureates

Alexander King


Alexander King (1909-2007), who was one of the founders of the Club of Rome in 1968, received the Erasmus Prize in 1987 in the field of ‘Technology and Society’. He is best known for his early awareness of the positive and negative impact of technological progress on society. As a professional chemist, he issued warnings, in particular about the pollution of the planet. He pointed out that as a result of progress in both transport and communication technology, the problems had to be dealt with in a global context. As a senior civil servant in Great Britain, he occupied a variety of positions involving science policy. Not limited to the natural sciences, he zealously incorporated both economics and behavioural sciences into his policies. As Director-general of the OECD in Paris, King insisted on the industrial world the need for requiring public servants to make science and technology policy part of their job. He initiated the Science Policy Surveys, which took a critical look at the state of science and technology in the OECD countries. Among other things, his initiatives encouraged new forms of education. After he retired from the OECD in 1974, he concentrated on the activities of the Club of Rome, becoming its president in 1984. Despite the massive scale of the challenges facing mankind, King remained convinced that many of the problems can be solved. At the same time, however, he stressed that progress should not be pursued at any price.

Alexander King used his Erasmus Prize to fund projects of the Club of Rome.


In accordance with Article 2 of the constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation concerning the annual award of one or more prizes to honour individuals or organisations whose contributions in the cultural, social or social science fields have been of outstanding importance to Europe, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Praemium Erasmianum for technology and society for the year nineteen eighty seven to Alexander King.

The prize is being awarded to Alexander King

  • because he opened the eyes of the governments of industrialised countries to the necessity of incorporating science and technology policy as an essential element of public responsibility;
  • because he commissioned various studies to be carried out on the subject of the strongly increased impact of science and technology on society and concieved the so-called Science Policy Surveys, critical surveys of the state of affairs in science and technology in member-states of the OECD;
  • because at a point in time that the general public and the world of politicians were hardly aware of any problems, he took initiatives to create awareness about the rapidly growing necessity to combat pollution;
  • because he emphasized at an early stage that in a world, shrunk in size by advances in transportation and communication technology, problems can no longer be viewed in the isolated framework of a single nation, but have to be studied within the framework of the total world;
  • because he was one of the most important auctores intellectuales of the problématique brought forward by the Club of Rome while stressing that progress should not be pursued at any price.


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

As long as man has lived he has looked for an all-inclusive and generally valid principle and has manifested a desire to see the world as a whole. Eastern and Western mystics put this idea into words centuries ago. From time immemorial philosophers have pointed out the unity of all existence and the interconnections of all elements of nature, man and thought. But rarely have their ideas been echoed in politics or in peoples' social behaviour.

When we look at the state the world is in today and realise how much we live in a world of interdependence, we become aware of the imperative need to create a unified model of the world and of existence based on a holistic view of life. The great virtue of our laureate is that he, prompted not so much by mysticism but by rational thought, shows us that 'all the world is of a piece and that it is only the blindness of men that obscures the essential oneness of it'. For is it not a feature of our time that we are literally able for the first time to consider the world as a whole, as is apparent from the programme which each of you has received. Alexander King tells us that now the moment has come for a total reversal in our thinking and for a synthesised view of the world given the alarming problems facing contemporary civilisation, like - the uncertain financial state of the world in which accumulated national indebtedness is becoming more and more evident; - the deadlock in the North-South dialogue which is widening the gap between rich and poor countries; - the failure to curb the arms race and the enormous amounts that developing countries in particular spend on arms - although there would seem to be some improvement in the offing; - the depletion of some global resources; - the continuing deterioration in our environment, including desertification and deforestation, something which I am confronted with daily as Founder-President of the World Wildlife Fund ; - and finally the enormous growth in the world population. And the list is not complete. These problems are dominated by a growing magnitude of rapid change.
Moreover, our uncertainty becomes greater because of the complexity and we are increasingly coming to see how little politicians and institutions can do to cope with all these problems. You have often said that the machinery of government is singularly ill suited to tackle the current complexity, because government structures consist of a series of vertically organised departments. What is more, the official machinery is trained to safeguard stability and continuity, instead of preparing for change. This is why you never cease to remind politicians that we are dealing with a tangled complex of mutually interactive problems which cannot be tackled individually and in isolation because of their very interaction and before which the vertical sectional structures of government, however powerful they may be, are relatively impotent. Political actions alone are not sufficient, nor are the efforts of the economist, the engineer, the scientist or the sociologist in isolation. But a different approach of this kind is difficult to achieve in our present versions of the democratic system which rely on parliamentary or presidential cycles of five years or less, thus forcing both administrations and opposition to concentrate on short-term cosmetic measures at the expense of more fundamental but also more distant problems. Totalitarian regimes do not have the problem but instead have to cope with an immobile administrative machinery. You once wrote, 'As a consequence, domestic policy-makers have a diminishing degree of freedom in facing up to their domestic problems and although the vessel of sovereignty is leaking, political leaders continue as if each nation was in complete control of its own'.

It is an illusion to think that new insights in the natural sciences or new technological developments can be confined by frontiers. This is why it was so important that you, as it were, forced the governments of the OECD states to pay systematic attention to science and technology to prepare their populations for all the changes which would inevitably be brought about. What we need is a simultaneous attack. And for that we need a new economic order, born of a deeper understanding and for which a new enlightened humanism is required, because the present problems transcend current ideologies. Erasmus, after whom this prize is named, would be gratified to hear that we need 'to recover our humanity' and do away with totalitarian tidings of salvation, social utopias or nationalistic feelings. With increasing energy and spurred on by your enthusiasm and immense realism, you have shown governments that more serious attention should be given to long-term and often more fundamental problems. And your energy does indeed know no bounds. Characteristic of you was your trip alone by bike to the North Cape and your canoe journey down the Danube - a short time later you led an expedition to the island of Jan Mayen. I understand that you have to leave early tomorrow morning to preside over a meeting in Atlanta. You make clear to us that the time is now ripe for the reassessment of the world order and the examination of alternative approaches which must be based on interdependence and self-reliance. We must shape our own destiny in good time before we destroy ourselves. Man, who now is responsible for his own evolution, will have to undergo a revolution the like of which history has never seen.

In the light of the above it is clear that in education and research basic reform and rearrangement of the existing sciences will be required if they are to be able to penetrate and interact sufficiently in the evolving totality of human knowledge. Even our universities and research institutes are mainly mono-disciplinary. In your important publication 'Science and Policy' of 1974 and in the Brooks report of 1971 on 'Science, Growth and Society' of which you were the initiator, you point out the importance of a national science policy for carrying out fundamental research and for promoting technological development within a social framework. It is increasingly becoming clear to us that science policy has now become an international concern. You discovered during the Second World War when you belonged to the 'think tank' set up by Churchill that science can be a major innovator rather than a servant of conventional technology. Already then the importance emerged of international research. The jet engine, the microwave radar, penicillin, DDT, and the concept of nuclear energy were developed on the basis of European fundamental research. Science and technology have become even more important, because the world, through all these new opportunities, is currently in the throes of a new technological revolution which is likely to have a greater impact on society than the industrial revolution in the last century. Developments in the field of biochemistry, your original field of study, microelectronics and new materials will determine our near future. From an industrial society we are shifting to a society essentially based on information. Our information society is emerging as a result of the interaction of scientific, technological, economic, social and cultural forces and is thus not purely the result of a technological development. Our society is recognising many parallels with what the biochemists are discovering in the genetic transmission of information with DNA which has proved to be a superb medium of information-transmission in nature. All this, too, will ultimately greatly increase the interdependence of individuals and nations because advances in science and technology do not stop at national frontiers. But let's at least hope with you, Dr. King, that this will not serve to reinforce the bureaucratic and impersonal image of the services sector of today, but produce a qualitative rather than a quantitative growth and an encouragement of creative activities.

As I have just said your encouraging initiatives have also been in the field of new forms of education. Our universities need to encourage the maximum of creativity and innovation to make people aware of contemporary global trends and the complexity of the present and to allow them to find alternative options. You advocate in this regard an improvement of the status of the teacher at all levels because you want to give this profession the highest priority. I hope I have given some idea of how great your own imaginative thinking is and how visionary your conception of the world, to which you couple an indestructible confidence in the creativity of man, his ability to adapt, and the final triumph of Good.
Among the many organisations in which you have been involved, your greatest efforts have been devoted to the OECD, where you were director-general of science policy, the International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Study (IFIAS), of which you were chairman from 1974 to 1984 and the Club of Rome of which you have been president since 1984. As such you are an animator and a stimulator of ideas who is capable of presenting an overall approach to problems and seeing connections and lines which point to the future. Fifteen years ago we were still living in an age of analysis, and now we have reached the age of synthesis. Complexity used to confound us; the fact that we now have a better insight into this complexity is largely thanks to you. You have succeeded, within international organisations, in getting governments aligned and making a first step towards a change in attitude in the world. You indicated concrete ways of acting on the basis of philosophy and analysis. In this context it is gratifying to hear that Mr. Gorbachev invited you recently to discuss the global future. Because of your worldwide approach to problems you know how to bridge the gap between the two cultures: science and the humanities. To illustrate this I would like to close with a quote from the philosopher and former laureate, Karl Jaspers. The aims of philosophy he sets could not be more aptly applied than to you who was originally a chemist, and to your work. I quote: 'Was soll die Philosophie? Sie lehrt wenigstens, sich nicht täuschen zu lassen. Keine Tatsache und keine Möglichkeit lässt sie beiseiteschieben. Sie lehrt dem wahrscheinlichen Unheil ins Angesicht zu blicken. Sie stört die Ruhe in der Welt. Aber sie verwehrt auch die Unbesonnenheit das Unheil fur unausweichlich zu halten. Dennoch liegt es auch an uns, was wird. Die Philosophie könnte, wenn sie in ihrem Denken kräftig, für Menschen überzeugend und durch Menschen, aus denen sie spricht, glaubwürdig würde, ein Faktor der Rettung sein. Sie allein ist es die die Denkungsart wandeln kann'. And with these words, Dr. King, I should like to present you with the 1987 Erasmus Prize.

(from Karl Jaspers, Kleine Schule des philosophischen Denkens, Vorlesungen, die Philosophie in der Welt, Serie Piper, 1974)

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends

The announcement of the award of the Erasmus Prize came to me as a complete surprise. I am deeply touched and greatly stimulated by the honour and greatly encouraged by it for future work. I would like to express my heart-felt thanks and gratitude to the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation and its leaders, and this especially because of the recognition through me of the kind of thinking which I have been trying to cultivate and which I think is necessary for the evolution of our society in the future.
I myself, I regard myself completely and essentially as a European. I was born in Scotland, later moved to that neighbouring Kingdom of England, undertook a research period in Germany, operated the IFIAS from Stockholm and for many years we have been residents of France. So, I think we feel, my wife and I, and those nearest, very much in this European spirit of that great European Erasmus himself.

It has been suggested that I should take this opportunity to say some words about my own general conclusions from my career, about society and, if you like, life in general, which is impossible in the short period which I have. But I say a few things. Our present society is of course dominated by technology. The consequences of the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago are not even now fully assimilated, and yet we are in the midst of a second revolution, as Prince Bernhard indicated, towards the information society which is likely to cause still greater changes in the nature of society and in the way in which each one of us lives in the future. Science and technology then shape greatly, very often subconsciously, our experience and thought, but they exist side by side with the rich and deep traditions of the European past, but the two aspects are by no means harmonized. The dichotomy is great and at some times even painful. Even the economic system which relies so heavily on technology has not yet fully come to terms with it. It is implicit and still in the thinking of many economists that new technologies arise essentially in response to the interaction of economic forces and is, as it were, one of the muscles of Adam Smith's invisible hand. There is, of course much truth in this, however the new technology in many cases arises from discoveries in the science laboratories which could not be foreseen and which lead to changes of the course of direction of society. Now the triumphs of technology have greatly magnified the materialistic preoccupations of our society. As Dennis Gabor, the Nobel Prize inventor of holography and a member of the Club of Rome mentioned: 'Our present society is based materially on an enormously successful technology and spiritually on practically nothing'. Every step in technological progress from the use of the first flint implements, tools, to the nuclear armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles have added to the physical capacity of the human being both in his struggle to better his physical conditions and, most obviously, in conquest over his enemies. The tragedy of science is that it has done so little to enrich the other aspects of human existence and the imperative needs now are to master technological development in such a way as to contribute to the general well-being of all people and to seek to balance the material advances by cultivating social, moral, artistic and spiritual attributes. For example the new technologies, through automation and the like, will erode the work ethic and greatly increase the lifetime quota of leisure for everyone. But will this merely generate a vacuum in the lives of the majority with a boredom which will be filled with mechanical entertainment and all sorts of trivia, or can it be used constructively to provide fulfilment and development of the individual? In the next decades we shall reach many crossroads requiring decision such as the one that I have suggested.

The relations between science and government were slow to develop. Although many governments had, from the beginning of the century, supported laboratories for particular sectors, it was only in the early sixties that science and technology began to be considered in strategic and policy terms. The concept of science policy, to a large extent derived from our work in OECD, was initially greeted with some suspicion. I remember that when we first announced the intention of the OECD to convene the meeting of science ministers, the Minister of Education of the Netherlands visited Paris to persuade the then Secretary General to cancel this meeting. He argued that science, if it had any policy implications at all, was a minimal element of cultural policy and that to discuss it in an economic context was a sort of prostitution. Things have changed very greatly from that period. Nevertheless much requires to be done and science requires to be regarded on the strategic level in a much broader sense than through technology.

Today however, we are interested in the wider problems, the impact of technology on the world system. The most serious of contemporary problems are global in nature and cannot be solved, as I was already quoted to say, by individual countries in isolation. This small planet is shared by more than 170 individual nation states, each proclaiming the sanctity of national sovereignty and pretending to be master of its own destiny. Arnold Toynbee put it: 'The cult of sovereignty has become mankind's major religion. Its God demands human sacrifices'. Yet the reality of sovereignty is increasingly illusory, the more so the smaller and poorer the country. The permeation of technology, the increasingly global nature of the economy, the international transactions of the transnational corporations, innumerable multilateral agreements, these and many other factors represent a de facto eroding of sovereignty. In this said situation and in face of rapid change, increasing complexity and uncertainty, existing institutions, both national and international are proving woefully inadequate. The structures of governments, created for earlier, simpler times simply do not respond to the present challenges. There is need for radical transformation and this is true also for institutions of many other kinds, including corporations and perhaps, more than anywhere, in the educational system. Perestroika must not remain the monopoly of the Soviet Union. But structural changes, structural innovations are by no means the total solution; they must be accompanied by new attitudes in politics and public life. Viewed against the threats and promises of the present situation, many of the antics of politics seem tragically absurd, such as the selection of leaders on the basis of the charismatic level of their television image, or the denunciation of politicians as vacillating and unreliable when they can made to seem to change their views, where and at the same time in reality capacity to do just this in the light of evolving situations should be a mark of statesmanship. Again, confrontation and mutual slanting between party representatives and parliaments appears to dominate parliamentary proceedings in many countries, when a striving towards consensus would seem to be called for in the national interest.

It seems to me that each individual exists in three different but linked environments simultaneously and that a projection of this concept describes the workings of society. There is the external environment of the planet, the internal world of the individual, isolated and hidden and, somewhere between and linked to both, there is a social arena where individuals react and evolve common action for security, prosperity and satisfaction. Little need be said here concerning the problems of the external environment; they are many and difficult and will become increasingly so as world population growth combined with more per-capita wealth increases the extent of human activity with its demands for materials and energy. I estimate that within my own lifetime the totality of human activity has increased between twenty- and forty fold, due partly to population, the increase of numbers, but partly to the increase consumption of each as prosperity and economic growth have been achieved. This of course has a very growing impact on the fragile biosphere.
However, I am convinced that the fundamental problems, both of the individual and of the collectivity of individuals which is society, lies deep within human nature. Egoism, or the life force as the Victorians used to call it, provides the urge to survive, to prosper and to excel; it is the driving force of innovation and progress. But it is also manifested as selfish and anti-social behaviour, brutality, the lust for power, domination over others and exploitation. The struggle between the positive and the negative aspects of egoism is the eternal Faustian drama. For centuries individuals have been disciplined and their negative characteristics kept in check by hope of Paradise and fear of Hell, but with the loss of faith in religion and indeed of political structures and institutions, restraints have evaporated; minorities refuse to accept the decisions of the majority, there is disrespect for the laws and mounting terrorism. These features, projected to the level of the collectivity, operate in the social environment. National egoism can appear as a desirable love of country or can be whipped up as chauvinism, xenophobia, hatred for other countries and finally war. These matters are seldom admitted and, when they are, are generally shrouded in taboo. The low efficiency of the Marxist economies, for example, seems to stem to a large extent from a naive faith in human nature, a presumption that people will give their best in agriculture, industry and elsewhere, without personal incentive; unrealistic. If this diagnosis is at all valid, it would seem that in addition to the traditional approaches, we need to take positive steps, individually, nationally and internationally towards identifying and extending zones of common self-interest recognizing the reality of egoism, its limitations and its possibilities. Living as we do on the edge of the nuclear abyss, in a world of exploding population and ecological threat and in the midst of a new technological revolution, it would seem vital to reassess the situation within all three of our simultaneous environments. Preservation of the external environment in which our biological existence is rooted, demands that our egoism be not limited to our own lifespan, but be extended to include that of our children and grandchildren with whom we can identify, so that we shall strive, selfishly if you like, to secure conditions which will allow a decent and humane life for the succeeding generations. This necessitates not only restraint, but also a much deeper understanding of the workings of the terrestrial and social systems with greater awareness of dangers and possibilities. This demands internal as well as external knowledge. Man is often regarded as a microcosm of the totality of all things. On the arena of human activity, I prefer to invert the concept to regard society as the aggregation of all of its constituent human units, in a conviction that fundamental reform of the life of societies and nations can only be derived from development, both moral and social of the individual to make possible a constructive and balanced use of the egoistic force. Transposed to a religious idiom, this essential need has perhaps been best expressed by the mediaeval Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius who wrote: 'I must be Mary and myself give birth to God'. It would seem to me that in the last analysis, real progress of the race must come from evolution within. Only through a deliberate cultivation within our separate, private environments, is a society of integrity, harmony and social equity likely to arise. Thank you.

The Club of Rome

Alexander King, one of the founders of the Club of Rome in 1968, received the Erasmus Prize in 1987.