Randers' 2052: A Global Forecast

Jorgen Randers' book reviewed by Arthur Dahl 12 March 2014

Jorgen Randers has written "2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years" (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2012) from a unique perspective. This report to The Club of Rome commemorates the 40th anniversary of "The Limits to Growth", the famous set of computer-generated scenarios that showed that economic growth could not continue forever in a finite world and would lead to the collapse of civilization, and that major changes from "business-as-usual" would be needed to put the world on a sustainable course. Randers was one of the authors of the original report and its updates, and after struggling for forty years to convince the world to make the necessary changes for its own good, he decided to analyze why they had failed and what that said about the next forty years ahead. This book in the result. It is not another scenario, but a forecast of the most probable future projecting the trends observed since 1972.

His major concern is that there is a natural tendency, reinforced in democratic systems and in the capitalist economy, to always choose the least-cost short-term solution. We only change when we have to, and no more than absolutely necessary, so the result is always too little, too late. Surprisingly, unlike the Limits to Growth, Randers does not see a collapse of civilization before 2052. We shall do enough to see population peak at 8 billion about 2040 because fertility rates drop in cities. We shall pursue GDP growth because it is the only way to create jobs and distribute wealth, but growth will slow down, only doubling by 2052, and most of that growth will be in China and the emerging economies. The rich countries are reaching the limits of productivity increases, so their growth will stop, and in the USA probably decline. However income per capita can still increase as the population declines, as in Japan. More economic effort will have to go into correcting environmental damage and rebuilding after natural disasters triggered by climate change, so we shall have to work harder to stand still. The beauties of nature and undisturbed ecosystems will disappear. There will be enough resources to meet the demand but not the need, with 5 billion people still poor and a billion still starving, since nothing will be done to address extremes of wealth and poverty. Inequity in the rich world will increase, producing more social instability. The young will rebel against their elders who expect to live comfortable retirements while leaving their grandchildren to pay the price for their excesses. The market will not solve these problems, and democracy will fail to align economic and social interests. There is a brief mention of wildcards that could upset this forecast, including a financial meltdown, a revolution in the USA, and a generational rebellion.

Randers sees huge regional differences, with U.S. income declining, China five times richer, and Europe flat for 30 years because Brussels can make long-term policy choices. Some emerging countries will succeed, but the rest of the world will stagnate in poverty. A much better future is technically possible, requiring a shift of only 2% of labour and capital, but this is slightly more expensive, so we shall do nothing. Most worrying, while Randers stops at 2052, he sees the major impact of runaway climate change hitting soon after because we shall pass the 2°C tipping point by 2050, possibly causing major methane releases in the warming Arctic. Disaster is just over his time horizon.

This rather pessimistic analysis is built around five central issues: capitalism leads inevitably to extremes of wealth and poverty, economic growth produces over-consumption, democracy is too slow for the changes that are necessary, intergenerational harmony will fail, and the climate will become increasingly unstable. The book includes separate reflections by other thinkers that bring up some interesting ideas, including changes in corporate values towards more responsibility, the potential for open and collective innovation with new technologies, the possible evolution in human values, and reaching peak youth with a generation that is more educated, connected and spiritual. There is even a discussion by Dag Anderson of the next step in human cultural evolution to a higher level of organization, with consultative decision-making, and the acceptance of our spiritual reality.

While I was reading this book, Professor Randers came to lecture at the University of Geneva, and he made some suggestions as to what should be done:
1. Further slow population growth with a one-child policy in the rich world.
2. Cut CO2 emissions in the rich world, with a ban on fossil fuel use within 10 years.
3. Reduce poverty in the poor world by providing climate-friendly energy systems.
4. Reduce the ecological footprint of the rich, perhaps by legislating long compulsory vacations.
5. Establish supranational institutions able to temper the short-term vision of national governments.
6. Reduce the focus on income growth by making an increase in well-being the new goal.
The challenge, of course, is to convince the rich to sacrifice today to gain an advantage in 30-60 years.

Such a logical and well-founded analysis begs the question: how should we respond? Clearly Randers is reasoning within our present materialistic value system, and projects that into the future without any significant change. He does not see that there are other forces at work in the world, and that the inevitable decline in our present disfunctional system can open the way for the birth of a new global civilization founded on new values. The main issue is whether we can turn the corner in time to avoid some of the worst of what Randers projects. Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, concludes his reflection in the book with surprise that denial has endured for forty years, and asks when we shall wake up with repentance and conversion, and if we shall have the spiritual strength and rational clarity for such a conversion. I think that our youth have that capacity, and that our best hope is to empower and accompany them as they use their potential for sacrificial service, innovation and collaboration to transform the system from the bottom up. Forty years is enough time for two generations of exciting change.

Reprinted from International Environment Forum blog

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Last updated 23 February 2016