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Randers: What does the world look like in 2052?

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What will the world look like in 40 years time. In 2052, will we have enough food and water? Will there be too many people? Will our standard of living be higher. Will we have taken decisive action on climate change.

To briefly summarise Jorgen Randers, the renowned Norwegian futurist, the broad answers to those are yes, yes, maybe, no and no. But it’s the way he reaches those conclusions that makes his latest book 2052: A global forecast for the next forty years, so compelling.

Randers made his name as the co-author of the book “The Limits to Growth”, which underpinned the Club of Rome’s work on resource depletion and helped spawn the sustainability movement. Not that he thinks the book and his work had that much impact. “I spent 40 years working on sustainability and failed. The world today is a much less sustainable world,” he lamented during a visit to Australia this week.

Now 67, Randers runs the centre for climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School.  And having outlined 12 scenarios for the world running from 1970 to 2100 in his first book, he now feels there is enough information to make more concrete forecasts.

It is not a picture he finds particularly attractive, but one he sees as inevitable because of mankind’s inability to look beyond short-term solutions and the obsession with growth. “I’m not saying what should happen, but this is the sad future that humanity is going to create for itself.”

Here are the base numbers for his predictions. Unlike others that predict a world population of 9 billion in 2050, he sees it peaking at 8 billion in 2040 and then declining, because he says the rich world will choose jobs over children, and the poorer urban families will choose fewer children.

He expects the world economy to grow much slower than most, because it will be harder to increase productivity at the same rate as has occurred in the last four decades. The low hanging fruit in the agricultural, manufacturing and office sectors have been picked. And he does not believe the poor countries will “take off”. He says that by 2050, the world economy will be no more than 2.5 times bigger than it is today, rather than four times bigger as many assume.

The US has a bleak outlook because their average disposable incomes will not grow, because they have already gone further than most in productivity and have a huge debt to China. And, Randers says, because the US is not capable of making simple decisions, it will also be not capable of making difficult decisions. He puts the current debate around climate change, or the lack of it, as an example.

“China is the real winner and they will be 5 times as rich in 40 year time,” Randers says. That’s because of China’s ability to make quick decisions that are in favour of the majority. The rest of the world, he suggests, remains poor,

Still, while the economy and the population will not grow as fast as some predict, and there will be no huge shortage of food, water or energy, it will still grow fast enough to trigger a climate crisis, because the short termism of the political class and business means that greenhouse emissions will not be addressed. He expects emissions will peak between 2030 and 2040, and will have only returned to 2010 levels by 2050 – pushing the world beyond the 2°C scenario and locking in disastrous climate reactions in the second half of the century.

“We will spend more money repairing the damage of climate change after it has occurred instead of spending up front avoiding the climate damage,” he says. “We know what to do. The only reason we do not do it is because it is slightly more expensive than doing nothing, so we don’t do it. It is very frustrating.”

He says capitalism is design to allocate money in the short term, and any efforts by politicians to suggest that capital be allocated to the longer term is usually rejected by voters. (He could be talking about the Australian political debate). And he doesn’t hold up much hope for international agreements, at least not of the sort being sort by the UN from 192 nations on climate policy. “If you had 192 wives and were deciding where to put the sofa in the living room, you would understand the problem.”

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  • Jenny Goldie

    Randers’ view is interresting in that he doesn’t think there will be major crises such as climate or oil wars though he does say there could be local crises. Like Paul Gilding, I fear there will be. I can’t really see how he gets to an 8.1 billion population peak when there is so much demographic momentum – Africa alone will produce another billion people for instance, unless there is, of course, mass famine. He assumes everyone will do the logical thing and have only one child. Well, if only…I’d like him to be right but he speaks too much as a narrow-minded economist and seems not to understand the real gravity and ramifications of the climate and energy crises.

    • Dave Johnson

      Perhaps you have failed to give due thought to the word “urban” in the phrase “the poorer urban families will choose fewer children”.

      It may well be that rural subsistence farmers find it advantageous to have lots of children, because that means the family has that many more hands to work the farm. Plus, the cost of caring for those children is mostly in the form of food, clothing, and shelter, all of which can be produced right at home with little or no cash outlay.

      However, in the city each additional child necessarily means additional cash outlays for their care, while the family may have relatively little use for their labor. Some, perhaps, but not the obvious use that a farm family has.

      Thus, there may well be a definite incentive in the city to limit the number of children. In addition, the world has been moving to the city in massive numbers in recent decades, so it seems plausible that these trends might slow population growth faster than previously expected.

      Finally, it might be worth considering that being poor does not imply being either particularly stupid or particularly selfish. Mostly it means that a person has been born into a situation where it is necessary to hustle harder in order to find and exploit economic opportunities.

      It is easy for those of us in more prosperous countries like Australia and the U.S. to overestimate our relative intelligence and diligence. We need to remember that we were born with huge advantages that are simply not available to very many people in less fortunate countries.

      Indeed, if the problem is insufficient resources, then I would look to the prosperous parts of the world.

      Wealthier people can afford to have more children, if they want, and those folks also tend to consume far more per capita than poor people ever have. So, if you want to slow the exhaustion of finite resources, perhaps we should get moralistic about the rich and not the poor.

  • Tony B

    We are colliding with the worlds limits. How can our planet, as it is, survive climate change, the ballooning of global populations, the decline in live-supporting biodiversity and global depletions? Economist work with ideas, concept and numbers – abstract ideas. As such, they are infinite. This is not the case with our planet Earth. The economic-growth drive that benefited us in the past must be changed to a sustainable economic model.
    Governments and businesses assume that we can simply “fix” all these problems with enough money, and technology. It’s aspirational, but we can’t negotiate with Nature.