What the Future May Bring

In his latest book, sustainable development expert Jorgen Randers offers an analysis of what the world will be like in the year 2052. It’s not a pretty picture.

Randers predicts that the climate will continue to change, leading to more extreme weather events and floods.

Many authors writing about the future dismiss doubts and contrary opinions, striving with provocative titles such as The End of History and the Last Man (by Francis Fukuyama) or The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (by Ray Kurzweil) to persuade readers that the future they envision is not only plausible but inevitable. Thankfully, Jorgen Randers foregoes this temptation in his new book, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012).

Randers, an expert on business and sustainable development and currently a professor of climate strategy at BI Norwegian Business School, offers a nuanced analysis of the state of the world today and a forecast for global development for the coming decades. It’s not a pretty picture. Writing in the first person, Randers is not shy about discussing his worries about the resource, environmental and societal challenges the world faces. “I have lived my whole adult life worrying about the future,” Randers admits. His candor and expertise, gained over decades of work in sustainable development for businesses and governments, yield a book well worth reading and discussing with colleagues, friends and family.

In an interesting twist, Randers invited other experts to share their thoughts on the world of 2052. Their views on topics including population, food, energy, urbanization, culture, the future of capitalism and the role of spirituality are presented throughout the book as “Glimpses.” Randers also invites readers to participate: Through an associated website, www.2052.info, he provides his models for you to examine and modify.

So what does Randers expect the world of 2052 to be like? First, some background. In 1972, Randers, then a doctoral student at MIT, was one of the authors, along with William W. Behrens III, Dennis L. Meadows and the late Donella H. Meadows, of the groundbreaking book The Limits to Growth. Drawing on system dynamics work pioneered by Jay W. Forrester, Randers and his coauthors developed a simulation model that integrated population, economic activity, resources and the environment and then used it to examine future scenarios. The results suggested (1) that business as usual would most likely result in the collapse of the global economy and human population before 2100, (2) that there were ways to avoid that outcome and create a sustainable society, and (3) the sooner society committed to a sustainable path, the more likely we would succeed. The Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome, an international think tank, was an international bestseller and became both enormously influential and controversial. (Disclosure: I studied under Dennis and Donella Meadows as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, currently direct the MIT System Dynamics Group and have known Randers for more than 30 years.)

The debate continues 40 years later. Some people point to the tremendous growth in technology, increasing wealth and the rise of China and other emerging economies to argue that hunger and poverty will soon be a memory. Others argue that this much-needed progress has come through the unsustainable exploitation and degradation of the resources and ecosystems upon which all species, including ours, depend.

A sustainable society cannot consume renewable resources faster than they regenerate, cannot spew wastes into the environment faster than they break down and are rendered harmless and, in the long run, cannot rely on nonrenewable resources at all. But humanity violates all these basic laws of physics. Today, we are overwhelmingly dependent on nonrenewable resources, especially fossil fuels. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly changing the climate. Tropical forests continue to fall for firewood and farms. We have already overshot the limits. As Randers points out, by 2010 humanity’s global ecological footprint reached about 1.4 times the carrying capacity of the earth — we need 1.4 planets to sustain the current population and economy. That deficit is financed by unsustainable depletion of natural capital. Like a fiscal deficit, the party cannot go on forever. Unlike a financial crisis, nature does not do bailouts.

More troubling, our ecological footprint is growing. World population has increased from less than 4 billion in 1972, when The Limits to Growth was published, to more than 7 billion today. The United Nations forecasts population will exceed 9 billion by 2050. Randers instead expects population will peak before 2052, “much earlier than most people expect,” at about 8.1 billion, an outcome premised on optimistic assumptions about future fertility rates. “Families will increasingly be able to have exactly the number of children they want — because of steady improvements in education, health and contraception,” he writes. Urbanization will speed the fertility decline: “Negative practical experience from a crowded urban environment will win over old religious teachings that evolved when humanity was still puny and toiling on the land,” he writes.

Although population growth remains important, Randers correctly points out that environmental degradation is powerfully driven by increasing impact per person. Real economic output has been growing at an average rate of around 3.5% per year worldwide — far faster than population — and far faster in emerging economies. Billions of people in the world’s poorest nations legitimately seek the food, clean water, housing, health care, electricity and opportunities we take for granted. They aspire to the cars, air conditioners, flat-screen TVs, jet travel and consumption the Western lifestyle entails, while we in the developed world want even more than we have now. As the West pursues more while China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and other developing nations become more affluent, our already unsustainable ecological footprint will grow further, setting the stage for a harder, deeper and less predictable decline.

Many argue that free markets and technology will save the day. Randers celebrates the power of markets and innovations that are, for example, making wind and solar power competitive with energy from fossil fuels. But he also recognizes the long delays in the system. It takes decades to replace unsustainable capital stocks and infrastructure and to commercialize new technologies — not to mention the long lifetimes of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Moreover, Randers recognizes that market failures and politics further delay or prevent action. Many resources, from open-access fisheries to the climate, are subject to the “tragedy of the commons,” in which overexploitation is the result of rational behavior by individuals, businesses and nations. Overcoming the tragedy is possible, though solutions have so far proven elusive for critical issues such as climate change.

In reflecting on the years since the initial publication of The Limits to Growth, Randers discusses the consequences of the delays, market failures, political expediencies, disinformation campaigns by vested interests and other forces that have prevented the world from pursuing sustainable development. With sadness, he concludes that we will continue stumbling down that path, responding mostly reactively, mostly parochially and mostly too late. As a result, the climate will continue to change, sea levels will continue to rise and resource conflicts will intensify, all of which will cause an increasing drag on the economy. Although per capita income will continue to grow for a while, particularly in the developing world, Randers expects growth in the developed world, including the United States, to stagnate as companies increasingly move jobs and capital to lower-cost regions, the aging population worsens fiscal stress and environmental challenges become more acute.

Readers may be disturbed by Randers’ conclusion that democracies are ill-suited to address pressing global problems, and that authoritarian governments such as that of China may be better able to act for the long term and respond faster to emerging threats. Some readers may think that Randers has too rosy a view of authoritarians as benevolent despots. If that’s the case, he counters, the outlook for the world is even darker.

As Randers explains, “My forecast of global developments to 2052 is actually quite gloomy. Not catastrophic.” But, he notes, the worst consequences of delay and policy failure will manifest only later; around 2052, the “average per capita consumption level will peak and a worldwide decline in material standards will start.”

But it needn’t be: “Overshoot and collapse is solvable — at least in principle. But it is hard to solve in practice, because forward-looking policy normally requires sacrifice today to get a better tomorrow.” Although he expects that we will not rise to the challenge, he hopes that we will. His concluding words: “Please help make my forecast wrong. Together we could create a much better world.”

2 Comments On: What the Future May Bring

  • frankml | January 15, 2013

    I think this is a good issue for discussion among under-graduates. I teach a class preparing under-graduates for employability. They need to know these issues up close and personal. So I am thankful to MIT Sloan for publishing this article. I am curious to discover the outcome of this discussion by my students. They are a mix of Psychology, Business and Communication majors. All in the final year before embarking on a career or for post-graduate studies.

  • pete | February 5, 2013

    I recently read a rather less bleak (and less statistically complete) book regarding our future on this planet: An Optimists Tour of the Future (http://anoptimiststourofthefuture.com/). Nice to have some balance.

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