New Book – 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years
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.
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Steven Earl Salmony
Thinking globally, acting locally and defining sustainability
The Norman Transcript
June 24, 2012
NORMAN – Editor, The Transcript:
My opinion is that the current global recession will not end until human societies change. Very difficult, given the nature of political systems and the human condition.
Global human population tripled during the 20th century and is currently near 7 billion. Human population diminishes the planetary resource base, increases demand and prices, and is a cause of the present global recession. Nevertheless, global human population is presently increasing by about 80 million annually. Norman and the United States as a whole have contributed. The U.S. human population quadrupled during the 20th century and continues to increase today. Norman’s population was about 27,000 in 1950, 52,000 in 1970, 97,000 in 2000, and was 111,000 in 2010.
None of this population increase seems enough for Chambers of Commerce in Norman, in Oklahoma, and across our land. In The Norman Transcript on June 19th, John Woods, current chair of the Norman C of C, called for us to “build a community of economic success, strong quality of life amenities that attract the next generation of young professionals and families to help fund the critical components of our city that we all care about. We need to begin a dialogue…” This letter is an effort to contribute to that dialogue. My view is that we already have the above listed attributes in Norman and that CofCs call for more growth is detrimental.
One of our City Councilors recently said to me, “If you don’t grow, you rot.” This reminds of another local issue, NEDA, which is treated here only by implication. In my opinion, the City Councilor’s opinion is true only for cultural growth. Human numbers and society are past the point that physical growth becomes detrimental. Furthermore, all forms of physical growth are not sustainable, though often so-called. Malthus spoke more than a century ago to an imbalance between population growth and food supply, an imbalance detrimental to human welfare. Forty-five years ago, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, and Hardin published a collection of numerous papers with dire predictions. These authors were not mistaken, but they were premature because they did not and could not anticipate effects of burgeoning technology, which has greatly facilitated extraction of resources.
Technology does not contradict science; technology is science in application. The increased rate of resource extraction and still rising human populations are grave threats to future human welfare. But, what can we do? What should we do?
One action that should be helpful would be for CofCs to renounce population growth as an appropriate objective and to devote their intelligence and efforts to formulation of a healthful alternate paradigm of true sustainability.
Steven Earl Salmony
What we know about biological evolution as well as the finite and frangible physical world we are blessed to inhabit would lead sensible people to conclude that there is nothing or precious little that can be done to change the human ‘trajectory’. So powerful is the force of evolution that we will “do what comes naturally” by continuing to overpopulate the planet and await the next phase of the evolutionary process. Even so, still hope resides within that somehow humankind will make use of its singular intelligence and other unique attributes so as to escape the fate that appears ‘as if through a glass darkly’ in the offing, the seemingly certain fate evolution appears to have in store for us. Come what may. In the face of all that we can see now and here, I continue to believe and to hope that we find adequate ways of consciously, deliberately and effectively doing the right things, according the lights and knowledge we possess, the things which serve to confront and overcome the ‘evolutionary trend’ which seems so irresistible.”
Here are a couple of important links:
The entire GrowthBusters essay series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth: http://www.growthbusters.org/limits-to-growth
And here is an essay by Luigi Piccioni about how The Limits to Growth was received in Italy: http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/forty-years-later-the-reception-of-the-limits-to-growth-in-italy-1971-1974/