Jorgen Randers is an optimist. When I met him in Washington DC in March at a Limits to Growth symposium hosted by the Smithsonian and the Club of Rome, I found him to be a delightful, cheerful man. Yet he has given up on humankind. The biggest take-away from his new book, the latest decadal Limits to Growth update, is that short-term thinking will continue to trump the long-term welfare of the planet, and of the future generations who will depend on it.
But 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years is far from a depressing doomsday read. In fact, based on my own worldview, informed by a decade of researching and monitoring our modern culture’s obsession with growth, Randers paints a far rosier picture of our future than I’m afraid we’ll see.
After 40 years of dashed hopes that we might heed the warnings inherent in the original Limits to Growth scenarios, we can’t fault Randers for giving up on us. We have proven ourselves to be fools. Randers writes,
“The main conclusion from our exercise in the early 1970′s was that, without big changes, humanity was poised to grow dangerously beyond the physical limits of our planet….overshoot and collapse were a future possibility that my colleagues and I really believed would be avoided through new, wise, and forward-looking policy. Once the potential dangers of endless growth and delayed solutions were understood, swift action would be taken.”
Of course this did not happen. Randers explains why in this prediction: “Democratic society will pursue short-term satisfaction and choose their leaders accordingly.”
Randers explains in the book how he has come to peace with this. He learned to accept and live with the loss. He celebrated small, “better than nothing,” victories. While I understand this, and may for sanity’s sake someday have to follow the same path, frankly, I felt let down.
So, in this report to the Club of Rome on the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth, Randers attempts to forecast what the next 40 years are likely to bring. Yes, this is a forecast, unlike the scenarios of the original Limits to Growth study. Randers goes out on a limb to actually offer a picture of what he thinks our future holds. He readily admits this is dangerous territory, but bravely shares his educated guesses. He explains how our lives will be affected by five central issues: capitalism, economic growth, democracy, intergenerational equity, and climate.
Randers has focused much of his energy over the years on climate change, so his report may reflect some bias. He clearly believes climate disruption is the most serious threat we face as we continue down the business-as-usual path. This leads to conclusions that the worst consequences of our continued worship of economic growth won’t be seen until the second half of this century. He also foresees that the very wealthy will not feel much of the pain. I see all that as optimistic. But Randers consulted many experts and computer models to reach his conclusions. I can’t claim anything close to his scientific rigor and experience in reaching my more pessimistic conclusion that life is going to change very drastically “for all of us” in the next two decades. You can view and download a spreadsheet of Randers’ 2052 scenario at www.2052.info.
My reading of 2052 leads me to conclude Randers also puts a lot more faith in technology than I do. I feel technology often creates bigger problems than it solves. At the very least our faith in technology excuses our lack of real action to rearrange our lives and economy in recognition of planetary limits. Randers sees a survivable future even with continued denial of limits, based largely on his faith that many technological solutions will be developed when times become desperate enough. He believes we have the technology to remove poverty and address the climate challenge. Unless that technology includes a pill to cure growth addiction and to achieve gradual population decline, I can’t agree. But I think we would agree that we need the political and public will to use that technology, or it is for naught.
His emphasis on climate change shortchanges what Paul Ehrlich fears may be even bigger, more near-term problems, like biodiversity loss, toxification of our air and water, and depletion of fertile soil and fresh water supply. These could take us down long before climate disruption.
One of his most depressing projections is that we face a future with a lot less nature. Virtual tourism will replace a lot of real experiences. We will increasingly live packed together in bigger and bigger megacities. To his credit, he laments this likelihood. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and accept a future that turns science fiction like Logan’s Run, Blade Runner and Soylent Green into science fact. And yet this picture is painted in a world where Randers believes population growth will have peaked (below 9 billion) and be in decline by 2052. While I hope that is true, it is counter to the UN’s medium scenario and I see no reason to believe that will be the case under a business-as-usual scenario, unless it is through mass starvation and conflict over declining resources.
There is so much wisdom and thought in this book that I’m tempted to provide much more detail, including spoilers. But that would be a disservice. You really need to read the book to find out for yourself what Randers foresees, and why.
While I’ve brought up what I feel are a few of its faults, I really cannot recommend 2052 highly enough. It should be required reading for every one of us, but especially college and high school students. Randers invited some great thinkers to contribute their thoughts to the book, which appear throughout as “Glimpses.” Some are brilliant; some in my view reflect a biased faith in the technology in which an author works. All of us should be contemplating the future we are creating with the decisions we’re making (or avoiding making) today. Many elements of 2052‘s forecast are likely to conflict with the worldview of most readers, in one way or another. Unfortunately our worldview tends to dictate our actions more than rational facts, logic and analysis. Still, 2052 raises all the important issues and provides a lot of food for thought going forward. Read it. Share it. Give it as a graduation gift. Give it to your school or public library. Give it to your elected representatives.
Jorgen Randers kindly sat down this past March for an on-camera interview about his experiences as a member of the MIT team that conducted the landmark Limits to Growth study. Here are a few moments from that conversation:
If you find this information at all compelling, if you’re concerned about the prospects for a civilization hell-bent to grow forever on a finite planet, please take the Think Small Pledge and encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do so. Thank you.
Dave Gardner is the director of the documentary,
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