Globalisation’s first King

Alex King, a much-admired director of the OECD, passed away on 28 February 2007. He was 98. Now that the OECD has gone “global”, it is worth remembering that Alex King was also the founder, in cooperation with Aurelio Peccei, of the Club of Rome, which first put the spotlight on the crisis of globalisation (notably in a report published in 1972 entitled The Limits to Growth*).

Alex burst into my life in 1952 when he “rescued” me from doing a doctorate at Oxford. He was then a chief scientist in the British government, charged to do in peacetime what so-called “operational research” had achieved in World War II. Science for policy, and then a policy for science was the leitmotif of his professional life, both in Whitehall and in Paris.

Professionally he was a chemist, but he was also a Scot, and the mixture was potent, both in intellect and preparation. In his hands, “science” was both natural and social, and humanism was the driving force of it all. He could have been a poet, as the OECD Council was to find out when he had to convince them of some purpose or project!

In London, he formed an Intelligence Divison to conduct and supplement research, to raise British productivity. The King chemistry turned this into an amazingly adventurous effort to use science to modernise industry, ranging from the social and economic implications of automation, the management of innovation and the human relations in enterprises.

Internationalism was in his blood, so it was natural that the productivity issue should lead him to Paris as co-director of the OECD European Productivity Agency! The centre of the OECD (or then OEEC) was, in the early 1950s, dominantly macro-economic and, through the Keynesian heritage, economics had become a policy making science. But Alex King, with the war-time experience in his baggage, widened the Organisation’s vision of how analysis could set out policy orientation and option–bringing in the natural sciences, technological forecasting, education and social policy. If today the strength of the OECD lies in its capacity as a multi-disciplinary policy “pathfinder”, in a complex global environment, then King can be attributed a big chunk of the credit.

But it is on the question of globalisation that Alex King continued to write, after leaving the OECD on retirement in 1974. His memoirs, Let the Cat Turn Round, One Man’s Traverse of the 20th Century, were published only last year. He re-wrote the last chapter to issue a warning: that globalisation, through its adoration of money, risks descending into an inhuman, materialistic culture.

Let us hope that the OECD, with its essentially professional culture and political neutrality, can let the truth be said and hold the course for a better world. In that event, the cat would turn round with pleasure!

Ron Gass

Ville d’Avray, Paris


* A condensed version is available at See also Mark Tran's 2002 article, “Seasoned thoughts of the green King”, in The Guardian, 15 August. 

OECD Observer N°261 May 2007

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