At the end of the previous post on the moral dimension of economics, I set up a disquieting picture of where current economic thinking and practice are taking the world. It involves a conundrum: A determination to expand where there is no space left to do so. What does that mean for the future? We should think about that.
Let’s use the picture as a backdrop for life in the decades ahead. Here it is again.
Five groups of economies are trying to expand like balloons at the mouth of a funnel that gets narrower over time as the Earth’s resources and carrying capacity are depleted and diminished. Soon the collective volume of all these economies fills the funnel, and the individual economies will just have to sort things out. They will have a variety of choices, such as managed contraction, conflict, cooperation and innovation. Almost certainly it will be all of these and more. But one thing is clear: it can’t be business as usual when there is no usual to do business in.
That’s the broad-brush reality, but what about specific components that together make up the whole—components like energy use, population, availability of food, climate and weather, governance, settlement patterns, and so on. In other words, what’s it going to be like living on this planet for the next forty years, and what will a snapshot of 2052 look like?
Those were the questions Jorgen Randers asked himself, and he set out about answering them. The result is his new book, written as a report to the Club of Rome and entitled 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (2012). Because the future he describes is mainly an outgrowth of the interaction between economic activity and environmental conditions, it serves as a good transition to where I am going next in this blog. After discussing Energy and Economics as two drivers of human destiny, I am moving on to consider Ecology as the next factor affecting human life. So in this post I will use Randers’ forecast as a bridge from Economics to Ecology, as well as a good indicator of the kind of world our grandchildren will be growing up in—unless human choices change things.
Jorgen Randers is well qualified to write about the future. As a young systems analyst at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the late 1960s he participated on the team that produced The Limits to Growth (1972), one of the early reports of the Club of Rome. I have referred to it before in this blog as a controversial (at the time and continuing) report that incurred the wrath and condemnation of mainstream economists because it questioned that the Holy Grail of economic growth could continue indefinitely without incurring serious problems for humanity in the early decades of the 21st century. Randers, now forty years older, is a professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. He has been active for many years in influential circles regarding climate, the environment and the future.
Beyond The Limits to Growth
In the preface to 2052 Randers refers to The Limits to Growth and points out that it was not a forecast, but rather a scenario analysis. A credible forecast requires scientific rigour using many data points and reasoned comprehensive analysis. The Limits to Growth project made projections based on the manipulation of key variables using computer simulation. Randers sums up the output of that early work in this way: “The main conclusion from our exercise in the early 1970s was that, without big changes, humanity was poised to grow dangerously beyond the physical limits of our planet.” It was an indication of how things are likely to play out—and despite the criticism it received (and continues to receive) from mainstream economists, it has turned out to be uncomfortably accurate.
In his new book Randers says it is his intention to do something entirely different from what he and his associates did in The Limits to Growth. He says that with the help of others, “I will try to make a forecast of what will happen over the next forty years.” A forecast makes specific assertions about how things will be at a specified time in the future. A weather forecast, for example, states what the weather will be like tomorrow or for the next few days. The weather forecasters rarely go much further than that into the future, because things are too unpredictable. Randers is therefore doing something very ambitious in making a 40 year forecast. He acknowledges that it can’t be done with high precision because many things can happen that will affect the future. He claims, however, that his work is a good educated guess, written with the intent to satisfy his own curiosity of what kind of a world he will be living in for the rest of his life, and partly as an attempt to kick society into action to make things turn out better.
“Personally,” he says, “I am sure I am right, although this cannot be proven. But neither can I be proven wrong until we are well on our way to 2052.”
So, let’s see what he has to say.
Before giving the details of his forecast, Randers provides some background. He makes it clear that what he will describe is not what he thinks should happen, but rather what he believes will happen given the choices he thinks humanity will make over the next forty years. His general assumption is that “humanity will not rise to the occasion” to address such issues as inequity, amelioration of poverty, or preventing the impacts of climate change. “The complex and time-consuming decision making of democratic nation states will ensure that.”
His main focus is sustainability, and he thinks this will become more front and centre in societal thinking as the years roll on, not because of any collective societal conversion to higher values, but rather because of growing awareness of how bad things are getting. His general conclusion is summed up in this observation: “I believe the transition to sustainability will be only half complete by 2052, and may run into serious difficulties in the second half of the century. Global society will have to perform a miracle after 2052 if it is to end the century in a desirable situation.” Not a reassuring outlook for our grandchildren and their children. What does he look at to come to this conclusion?
Randers believes “that the next forty years will be strongly influenced by how we handle five central issues: capitalism, economic growth, democracy, intergenerational equity, and our relationship with the earth’s climate.” To analyse the possible interactions among these variables over forty years to create a picture of the most likely global future to 2052 is a daunting task. Randers summarizes what he did to come up with his best educated guess:
“I tried to handle the richness by calling on the expertise of a number of colleagues. I tried to handle the dynamics using my old friend, the dynamic simulation model. And I tried to maintain perspective by exploring new paradigms—by deliberately avoiding being stuck in the current post-World War II paradigm, which imprecisely could be termed ‘happiness via continued economic growth based on fossil fuels’.”
In the remainder of the Background section, Randers gives a brief overview of what he sees playing out in the five areas he has identified as key to the future. Capitalism will continue to be used to make inappropriate allocation decisions based on markets where price signals don’t reflect environmental realities. Fixation on economic growth will continue to be seen as the best way to provide people with work, but rates of growth will be much slower than in the past forty years. Democracy will continue to produce endless debate rather than prompt action on critical issues like climate problems. The issue of intergenerational equity will come to the fore as more people come to understand that the way they are living is degrading the planet for those who follow them; but even with this realization decisions will still continue to favour the current rather than future generations, which does not augur well for children born in the second half of the century. Finally, the issue of climate change will prove to be the most troubling for humanity to address in a responsible way, so that the potential for runaway global warming in the second half of the century becomes a serious possibility.
It’s not a reassuring forecast for our grandchildren. But this is only the overview, so we need to look more closely at the specifics to see where there may be potential to do better. Randers describes his forecast under five headings.
Population and Consumption to 2052
One of the surprising conclusions reached by Randers concerns an issue that has been a concern since the 1960s—a rapidly growing world population that seems unstoppable. The United Nations has projected a world population of 9 billion by 2050 with a probable continuing increase after that. Randers concludes differently that “the global population will peak before 2052 (actually ten years earlier), because of a continuing decline in the number of children per woman. This decline will be only partly compensated by a continuing rise in life expectancy. . . These two trends will cause the global population to reach a maximum of some 8.1 billion people in the 2040s.”
The stabilizing and beginning decline of world population might be seen as a good thing in a resource-scarce future, but it is a mixed blessing, as most of the people will be living in megacities all over the world and labour productivity will continue to grow, which puts more pressure on the environment. Productivity growth will be uneven with continuing spectacular growth in countries like China and India and other emerging nations, while the West stagnates and the poorer nations fail to take off at all.
All of this adds up to a world economy that will be twice as big in 2052 as it is today, but much smaller than what many economists expect. (This gets back to the issue of the Earth’s resources funnel shown in the figure at the beginning of this post). Randers describes it this way: “It’s important to note that my forecast is not based on an assumption that humanity will come to its senses and deliberately try to limit economic activity on earth, in order to protect it from overload. What I am saying is that humanity will continue to try to create economic growth, but that it won’t succeed as much as desired.”
To illustrate his point about the problematic nature of trying to achieve economic growth in a “full” world, Randers includes an essay by Herman Daly (whose work I covered in Post #15, “Economics: Sustainable Development”) in which Daly says: “I think economic growth has already ended in the sense that the growth that continues is now uneconomic; it costs more than it is worth at the margin and makes us poorer rather than richer.”
One of the ways we will be poorer in the future is that we will throw money at the problems we are causing. “In other words, society will try to solve the oncoming stream of problems through increased investment.” We will spend money on adaptation instead of in trying to find a solution. Randers calls this “forced investment”—repairing damage from extreme weather, spending more on substitutes for scarce resources, replacing ecological services that formerly were free like water from glaciers and fish from the oceans, and so on. His forecast is that “world society will face an increase of 0% to 6% of GDP in forced investment over the next forty years. . . The sum could easily exceed 10% in the long run in a badly handled future. And this is what I expect will happen. Not because it is unavoidable, but because slow decision making will expose us to damage before we obtain the answer from delayed investments in new solutions.”
Energy and CO2 to 2052
Randers forecasts that “in 2052 more than one-half of world energy use will be from fossil fuels.” And it will be much more costly than it is today. This is bad news for CO2 emissions as I will discuss shortly. However, the good news is that Randers expects “that the world’s consumption of fossil fuels will be in steep decline by 2052. The contribution from nuclear will be declining. The real winner will be the new renewables—solar, wind and biomass—which, along with hydro, will grow from 8% in 2010 to 37% in 2052.” In particular, Randers believes that solar will be the power of the future as the costs of providing it go down.
Concerning CO2 emissions from energy, Randers forecasts that they will peak in the 2030s, but in 2052 they will still be a full 40% above global emissions in 1990. This means that “the world will have lost its chance to keep global warming below the internationally agreed goal of plus 2 degrees C. . . There will be visible climate damage and growing worry about the future. The world in 2052 will be knee-deep, literally—remember that the oceans will have risen by more than one foot between now and then—in a self-inflicted climate problem. . . The crisis could become catastrophic if self-reinforcing climate change is triggered. This is a possibility in the latter half of the twenty-first century, when the temperature might go so high that it starts melting the tundra, thereby releasing vast amounts of methane gas that is currently locked in the frozen ground cover.”
The problem of global warming will be complicated by the fact that most people will be migrating to live in cities where they “will seek shelter inside modern city walls, leaving a small rural population to fend for itself against increasingly violent weather and ecosystem change.”
What all this will add up to by 2052, says Randers, is enough awareness that citizens will launch a “tremendous effort” to reduce emissions. But will it be too little too late? No one knows for sure.
Food and Footprint to 2052
Turning to the issue of food, the big question as time marches on is, Will we be able to feed ourselves? Randers says, “Yes—at least until 2052.” He qualifies this forecast by adding that “there will enough food around to satisfy all of us who can afford to pay,” though, sadly, many will still starve. Diets will change. Less red meat for the rich. Less fish from the oceans. But enough grain and chicken.
But what will be our ecological footprint as we strive to feed ourselves and try to do all of the other things we will still try to do? We have already overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth and eventually our descendants will have to come to grips with this reality. Randers points out that “there are only two ways out of overshoot: managed decline [reduction would be a better word—less pejorative] or natural collapse.” Of course, we are trying to avoid the latter, but not doing nearly enough to implement the former. In the process we will move to live mostly in cities, where we will do better at recycling and be more energy efficient, but overall the picture for the biosphere is bleak.
Randers includes an essay by ecologist Stephen Harding entitled “Nature Limited to Parks.” Harding’s assessment of human assault on the natural world is severe: “The list of atrocities that our culture has perpetrated on the living world makes for chilling reading. We could have eliminated a quarter of all of the organisms on the Earth by 2052. . . the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. . . will have laid waste to all of the world’s wild places. . . Virtually the whole biosphere is being uprooted in unprecedented ways.”
On that sobering note, Randers turns from describing the physical future to what he calls the nonmaterial future.
The Nonmaterial Future to 2052
Randers begins this section of his report by saying that the results of his work on forecasting the physical future surprised him. “I expected to uncover a bleak, even catastrophic future, ending in some kind of environmental collapse before the middle of the twenty-first century.” Instead, he found a world that was still trucking along, though with a lot of unevenness and difficulty, and with a potential to spiral into decline after 2052 because of the real possibility of self-reinforcing climate change.
The section on the nonmaterial future does not add a lot to the picture. Randers sees that a smaller world GDP than expected will push less harshly against global limits; that political decision making will still be focused on the short term; that economies will still continue to discount the future (“It is cheaper to push the world over the cliff than to try to save it.”); that as conditions worsen there will be more state intervention with mixed results; that there will be forced redistribution from the rich to the poor; that unemployment will be a major problem as economies contract creating the need for more social benefits and therefore higher taxes on those fortunate enough to have a job; that people will have access to more knowledge from an omnipresent Internet, but their ability to agree will not necessarily improve; that many of the charms of the life we know today will become increasingly scarce; that on the whole people will be healthy with good access to medical care; that the military will be used less to fight wars and more to repair the damage of climate change.
The last observation about the role of the military leads Randers to render a piece of pop-philosophy, that the “enemy picture” will shift from those we disagree with to what we have collectively caused, namely, human-made climate change. “It will be a shift from being someone else to being our collective selves. To quote a poster from the first Earth Day in 1970: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us’.”
The Zeitgeist in 2052
Randers rounds out his forecast by reflecting on what all of the change he anticipates over the next forty years will mean for the spirit of 2052—the zeitgeist. There will be deep impacts on the world’s cultures, its political systems, and the general frame of mind—all of which will add up to a profound shift of mood and outlook.
One of the driving concepts at the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st was the idea of globalization and “flattening” of the world where there would be few differences across national borders. But the failure of nations to agree on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and on the liberalization of service flows across borders, leads Randers to conclude that globalization will wane over the coming decades.
This trend will reflect what will become a growing preoccupation within the rich world—how to manage inevitable de-growth. Forward thinking regions within some nations “will try to build regional resilience in the face of global economic unrest and dwindling access to cheap energy. And to do so, they will organize systems that rely on local food, local energy, and programs that strengthen regional and local economies.”
The central shift in thinking will be away from the conviction of the last forty years that economic growth is the way to a successful society. Current evidence within the developed world is already showing more growth is not the answer. This leads Randers to reflect that “over time there will emerge an ever louder critical chorus arguing that continued growth is not sustainable and must be replaced with a new goal for society. . . Other voices in the chorus will . . . argue that continued growth is not desirable, even if possible, because never-ending materialism won’t lead to true life satisfaction.”
These are the voices of what Randers calls the “sustainability crowd.” Today they are “still a tiny minority, and the paradigm shift is probably several decades in the future. . . But by 2052, the new paradigm—‘sustainable well-being based on renewable energy’—will be exerting increasing influence on policy making.”
How this will come about, who will lead—the rich democratic nations or more authoritarian states like China—is not clear. Perhaps the always-on Internet and its capability to foster collective thinking will lead to a spirit of “collaborative ventures” and a zeitgeist of “harnessing the wisdom of the crowd” across boundaries of nation states and ideology towards a world in which collective well-being of humanity will be seen to outweigh the selfish individualism of our own time.
With this shift in thinking Randers speculates that “thinking people will become increasingly concerned with what type of world they are leaving for future generations. . . It will become obvious that the current generation is adding problems to the shoulders of the next generation that far exceed the power of the new tools, which are also part of their inheritance.” On this point, so close to the spirit of this blog, Randers gives the last word to John Elkington, a British environmentalist:
“[I]t seems a sure fire certainty that future wars will ensure we have a World Court of the Generations by 2052, where governments, companies, and other actors are arraigned and prosecuted for ecocide and gross damage to the interests of future generations.”
“I hope he is right,” says Randers.
The possible future that Randers describes in his forecast has a high probability of unfolding much along the lines he has described. However, there are a number of critical factors not included in his deliberations, which could change things dramatically. One is the possibility that governing authorities will make changes to the monetary system along the lines described in posts #20 to #24 on this blog. If this were to happen within the next two decades, 2052 could look considerably different, as sustainability choices are made, in contrast to choices for economic growth, sooner rather than later.
Another possibility not explored by Randers is that human capability for enhanced decision making will be greatly expanded over coming decades. Authors like Ray Kurzweil [How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human Thought Revealed (2012)] are already predicting the simulation of a non-biological human brain by 2023 with the potential to augment human learning by many orders of magnitude in following decades. Under the threat of deteriorating physical and cultural conditions on the planet, leaders can potentially emerge who will use such enhanced powers for human learning to advance the sustainability agenda decades faster than it might otherwise occur.
Randers said that one of his reasons for producing his forecast for 2052 was to kick start humanity into taking action to avoid the undesirable features he has described. Hopefully, this will turn out to be the most important contributions of his forecast. He certainly holds out hope that this will be so. In a brief closing comment he says as much:
“There is only one more thing for me to say: Please help make my forecast wrong. Together we could create a much better world.”
We might all say “Amen” to that.
In fact, by expressing such sentiment in 2012, Randers is tapping into a huge worldwide movement currently underway in a kind of parallel universe to the mainstream political-economic-industrial universe. In this movement, millions are expressing heartfelt desire to give birth to a new human consciousness that would value connection and well-being over wealth and power. If this swells in strength, it could provide a different momentum than what Randers fears will actually be the case.
As we proceed to further considerations in upcoming posts, we will assess the likelihood that a different zeitgeist might indeed take hold much sooner than Randers anticipates. We can use his forecast for 2052 as a projection we are seriously trying to surpass in sustainable well-being, rather than as an inevitable outcome of our current mismanagement of human activity on the planet.