“2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” by Jorgen Randers

ISBN 978-1-60358-467-8 “2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” by Jorgen Randers was published by Chelsea Green in 2012. This is the hardback copy with 392 pages consisting of Acknowledgements, Preface, three parts with 12 chapters, Appendices, Notes and Index. Randers is, of course, best known for his role as co-author of the original Limits to Growth study in the early 1970s. This is, essentially, his third update – this time with a new twist. Rather than just offering scenarios, Randers chooses to perform an actual forecast for the next forty years based upon what we did (or didn’t do) since the Limits To Growth was first published.

There is somewhat of a parallel with Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus work in that it is a collaboration of the great and the good. Only the central forecast and narrative is Rander’s work. It is interspersed by lengthy essays by some 33 other academics. As such it has the same drawback that Lomborg’s work has: lack of objectivity. Lomborg selected a large number of quite conservative economists to work with him on “Smart Solutions to Climate Change” hence he got the result he expected. Likewise Randers selected a large group of co-authors all of whom largely think exactly like Randers. Voila: a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, this may well be the only criticism of this book. If you like people who work in the sustainability business then you will like this book. It certainly doesn’t spare the reader the grim realities but it is packed full of surprises.

As this is a “business as usual” forecast there is no attempt to sugar-coat the message. Randers described himself as a man who spent most of his life worrying about the future. The future he projects here is both re-assuring and alarming. It presents no collapse but it also presents the prospect of a collapse sometime after 2052 if we don’t get our act together. Much like us, Randers predicts a total decarbonisation of the economy by 2100 but there is a sting in the tail: since we will not do what it takes to cut our carbon emissions before 2052 then temperatures will peak at well over 2C putting us in the danger zone for runaway global warming. This is not a worst-case scenario, just a guess about the most likely outcome. It isn’t always easy reading and some conclusions are shocking.

For the cornutopians out there none of this will cut any ice. For them the glass is permanently half full. The flip side view for the deep greens (for whom every corner presents a new “crisis”) will be equally dissatisfied. [What?! NO crisis?] Neither will be happy with this book. Which probably means it has got the prediction spot on. Not by sitting on the fence, but by simple arithmetic & observation. There is a phrase that Randers uses over and over again:

“Humanity will not rise to the occasion, at least not rapidly enough to avoid unnecessary change.”

This is his central message. “We do not live in a rational world” he writes. Too true. The probability is good than the future will proceed on the same trajectory as the past. There is no green utopia around the corner because our democracies and markets are too short term to make the necessary decisions in time. The economy will double in size but this growth will be nothing like as fast as previously experienced. It will slow to a crawl before stopping. What economic growth there is will slowly be consumed by rectifying the damage caused by climate change. For some, growth will be good – China, Brazil, India, but for some – Europe, USA – their economies will face a long stagnation. This will not necessarily be a bad thing as Randers expects population to peak at the very lowest of projections – much lower than those put out by the UN.

Population decline is not the only ‘good news’; Randers expects renewable energy to take off such that coal and gas usage will peak by 2040… But on page 230 he writes “the shift from fossil energy will not be fast enough to avoid dangerous warming”.  Randers bases his assumptions about energy on a $70/barrel cost of converting coal to oil hence he doesn’t expect the price to go much beyond that. Funny that it has been beyond that for a while and it looks like shale, not coal, is the next big thing. I am sure many will disagree with his analysis about energy. He sees no sudden abandonment of nuclear but he doesn’t expect much new nuclear to be built. It will just fade away… There will be enough food, at least enough until the end of 2052. Surprisingly he also expects the rich world to choose to reduce their consumption of red meat. He also expects a “waning in materialism” which is music to the ears of the greens but it all seems to no avail. As we say, there is a lot here to be surprised about. And what will our politicians do? Well they will jockey for position so that they “lose last” as Mathis Wackernagel puts it on page 145.

It is Mathis who also states that he expects resource constraints to kick off social unrest long before any ecological collapse sets in. It is Randers who expects that this social disruption will lead to the slowing of economic growth. Stephan Harding reckons that so much spare biocapacity will be used that the world of 2052 will be a “zoo writ large”; “tiny islands of habitat surrounded by agribusiness fields”. To the surprise of many Randers expects a bright future for the megacity in which he expects most of us to be living. He reckons it will reduce our per capita carbon footprint and be easier to defend against climate change. For those of us who have read James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency” or anything by Rob Hopkins, we have, more or less, begun to assume the opposite – that large cities are doomed. They lack resilience and easy access to local food resources. Time will only tell.

Randers is one who thinks that we will not lack energy in the future – hence there will be plenty left over to build megacities and fight climate change. On page 230 he writes that “resource constraints will not be the main brake on the economy of 2052 [..] Much fossil fuel energy will be left in the ground…” Our economies won’t need it because they will not grow as fast as expected and our population will not peak as high as expected. Instead 2052 the world will be awash with tourists from the emerging superpowers of India, Brazil and China. Nature will have diminished to nothing and there will not be a solitary space left out there to be alone with nature. Randers suggests we all stay at home and enjoy the world on the internet and a 3D immersion home-entertainment system. The average Transitioner will choke on their home made wine!

Randers is product of the social-democratic Nordic regions he hails from. He believes that deep inequality will hamper growth in the USA and similar nations. This is an inversion of the usual neo-liberal thinking. He thinks the redistribution of wealth is a good thing and that the best performing economies are those with a solid social safety net. Clearly he has no intention of endearing himself to Conservative Politicians across the world. Clearly he doesn’t care. Which is a shame because his forecast is probably the most accurate we can expect. The future, to Randers surprise, is not spread evenly. Some areas will be actively managing their degrowth.

“They will try to build regional resilience in the face of global economic unrest and dwindling access to cheap energy.”

Sounds like a description of the Transition movement. Sounds like it is doomed to be swept away by the far bigger tides of history… But if you are in the ‘New North’ of Scotland and the Nordic nations you will be much better off. Such areas will do well in the next forty years whilst other will not. After that, all bets are off. You can just hear the cornutopians talking of him “moving the goalposts again”. Maybe the coming collapse will always be fifty years away…? Will those nations actively seeking a national “Transition” fair better?

On page 234 Randers delivers this: “My forecast does not see unsolvable problems concerning oil, food, water or other resources. One reason is that a large fraction of the world’s population – two or three billion people – will remain poor”. So much for the equity and social justice aspirations of the climate change movement. The Millennium goals of the UN will come to nought. Liberalisation of markets will not deliver the progress so many need. Only a few come out on top.

In the end you have to walk away with this phrase ringing in your ears:

“I believe the world will be sufficiently stupid to postpone meaningful action.”

At the back of the book Randers deliver his “What Should You Do?” section that is hardly any more cheery. Some of his advice is common sense such as “focus on satisfaction rather than income” whilst others will shock “don’t teach your children to love the wilderness” (because it ain’t gonna be there when they grow up). Our favourite was “visit world attractions before they are ruined by the crowd”!

This book is not a call to arms; it is a wail of despair from a man who has seen the future but no one wants to belief his story. Call him a modern day Cassandra. Randers remains vastly out of step with the politics of today precisely because he is living in the future. He asks us to put up with the grim realities to come, but work hard for the few crumbs of comfort that he can offer. So much of his forecast is surprisingly upbeat but the bottom-line is always depressing. Catastrophic climate change threatens. Stagnation awaits… And all because we are too stupid to do anything about it.

Welcome to the age of stupid.

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