Jorgen Randers: Our Species' Biggest Risk is Our Lack of Coherent Long-Term Decision Making
Forty years ago, a group of researchers at MIT ran a study to address the question of how humans would adapt to the physical limitations of a finite planet. That study became the book Limits to Growth.
It should have been a starting point for a critical discussion at the national – or even global – level. It could have led to the birthing of many practical and then-implementable initiatives that mighthave brought our unsustainable demographic, industrial, and consumptive behavior under better control. But sadly, the book instead became a lightning rod for controversy. And decades later, the issues it warned of loom larger than ever.
In this interview, Chris discusses our collective failure to act on this book's message with Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of Limits to Growth and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update as well as a new book, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years.
While there are some differences in opinion between Jorgen and Chris, particularly on the acuteness of our resource predicament, both agree that continuing to pursue the status quo will result in a poorer quality of life for most of the world's denizens. We increasingly appear to be facing a future shaped either by design or disaster, and unless we actively decide to intelligently change our behavior, the latter outcome will prevail.
Chris Martenson: The part that I personally am concerned about is the idea that it’s around money itself, and that money is a marker for real things and as long as there’s a balance between your real stuff and the amount of money, things are okay.
What we are discovering now is that a lot of promises have been made in Europe, in the United States, Japan. There are pension promises and entitlement. They are fairly long-range projects that say, “We are going to take some money in today, and we are going to give that back to people over time in their purchasing power.” An important concept that you are bringing up: What will be delivered to them? We take it today; we deliver it back in the future? Those promises now are many, many times larger than the GDP of the world currently is, and so one thing is absolutely true in this model, as it’s constructed right now, is that in order for the pension and entitlement promises – those cultural, societal promises we made to ourselves to be true or to be kept, we need the economy to grow a lot, not in nominal terms but in real terms. Nominal meaning not inflation-adjusted, real being inflation-adjusted.
What you are describing is that we’ve already hit a period of stagnation for a set of reasons. It’s a very complex system, so those reasons could be manyfold, but at least part of that in my mind has got to be around what we are seeing with our net return from energy that we are getting back out of the ground; that’s a cornerstone of my set of arguments and thinking. And so as we cast forward over this next period of time, what do you see as -- here’s the general sweep -- I can describe all non-renewable natural resources like this: They are all of much, much, much lesser quality than they used to be. So we are not chasing ten percent copper grades anymore; we are chasing 0.2% copper grades. We are not chasing oil that is 1,000 feet down; we are chasing oil that has to be cooked off of sand because it’s not actually oil, it’s bitumen or something worse like kerogen. We are no longer finding vast surface deposits of things like coal; we are out of anthracite; we are through the bituminous, practically; we are into the sub-bituminous. Now we are looking at lignite.
So to these stories are all a story of saying "less and less concentrated resources, which require more and more energy in order to extract." So we have those sweeps coming along and we are on our way to nine billion from seven billion and all of these things come together. When you put all those in your model, what turns up in forty years?
Jorgen Randers: So what turns up is the first thing, namely that we will try to grow but we will not succeed. The second thing, which turns up, is that I don’t think resources are going to be the problem. If we were to put the finger on one problem it is lack of coherent long-term decision making.
So in order to make my view in contrast to yours or try to make the contrast between the two a little clearer, I think that the reason why the United States is not going to be on a per capita basis richer in 2050 than it is today has nothing to do with the resource unavailability. I think that are enough resources available to handle the U.S. need to 2050, particularly since the U.S. need is not going to increase very much over the next forty years. But the reason why I think there will be problems in the United States is that the U.S. is incapable of making the societal decisions that are necessary in order to move coherently in a progressive direction.
You know, and the current stalemate in your [Congress], you know, between the two sides that basically keep each other from making clear decisions on anything is the real head of the monster, the way I see it. And that’s the reason why I think that China is actually going to do very much better. They are in the same resource-constrained world as is the United States. And they are much less well endowed domestically with resources than the United States is. Still I think they are going to do much better because those gentlemen are at least capable of making a decision. You know, they analyze the problem, they see what is the problem, and if they have a problem – they solve it.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Jorgen Randers (44m:05s):
Chris Martenson: Welcome to another PeakProsperity.com podcast. I am your host, of course, Chris Martenson. What do we want the world to look like in forty years? It’s a really important question. In any credible business, one develops a strategic business plan, and no matter which of the many excellent strategic methodologies one employs, the basic output is the same, and it consists of the answers to just two questions – Where are we going? How are we going to get there?
Of course, the challenge goes beyond deciding where you’d like to be and then simply arraying your always too-limited resources intelligently against that task, because there’s uncertainty, there’s competitors, potential disruptors – both positive and negative – along the way. Nothing is ever really linear and neat; the future instead is typically shaped by chaotic systems and exponential growth. So any good strategy must take note of these realities, put a stake in the ground, and yet remain flexible.
What then is our national or even global strategic plan? Do we even have one? Where are we headed? Do we have a far-reaching crisp and flexible strategic plan that all the key stakeholders understand and intelligently align their activities around? Well, if such a plan exists, it’s well hidden from my view. A simple reading of the daily newspaper reinforces the idea that if our current trajectory had to be defined by a single word, I would choose the word “unsustainable.”
Now, forty years ago, a group of researchers at MIT ran a study to address the question of how humans would adapt to the physical limitations of a finite planet. That study became the book, Limits to Growth. And it should have been a starting point for a discussion, but sadly, instead became a lightening rod for controversy with some dismissing the study without even having read it, as far as I could tell, let alone having a serious adult-sized conversation about it.
So here to discuss that study, is Jørgen Randers, one of the authors of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, as well as his new book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Welcome, Jørgen!
Jørgen Randers: Thank you!
Chris Martenson: So could you tell our listeners a little bit about your background, what you currently do and what you are up to in life right now?
Jørgen Randers: I am a 67-year-old professor, and obviously from Norway, as you can hear from my wonderful accent. I’ve spent one third of my life in business, one third of my life in academia, and one third of my life in non-governmental organizations. So I have a fairly broad perspective on life. I’ve spent the last year trying to write a clear description of what I actually think will happen over the next 40 years, and I’ve done this because I have spent the last 40 years trying to make the world a more sustainable place. And I admit, I don’t think I’ve had very much positive impact. And so now, since I’ve only 20 to 25 years left to live, I thought it would be interesting to find out what actually will happen, what kind of decisions humanity actually will be doing over the next 40 years.
Chris Martenson: Excellent, so let’s start with Limits to Growth. Because there’s some history there, some experience with what worked and what didn’t. First, what was the purpose of the study of that book? What aims were you seeking to achieve in its publication?
Jørgen Randers: This was way back in 1970-1972, that was the two year period of work. Largely what we tried to do was two-fold. First of all, to try to tell the world that the planet is actually very small, much, much smaller than you think, in resource and pollution terms, that is. And secondly, and much less observed, was the fact that we tried to answer the question What will happen when rapid population and economic growth hits the limits of the planet? You know: What happens when you crash with the boundaries of Planet Earth?
Basically, the way we told the story was to say that there are various possible scenarios. We described different ways in which the world future could evolve from 1970 to the year 2100. We had a fairly long time horizon, and the aggregate conclusion from all of those studies was that most likely what would happen was that the world would continue to grow throughout the 20th century and for a generation into the 21st century. And in the process, it would reach levels that could not be sustained, in the sense that they would require more resources and generate more pollution than the world could handle. And then we could get the crash basically back down into sustainable levels in the middle of this century.
The book was, however, not only a warning that this was the likely development on a 100-year horizon. It was largely written by young, enthusiastic, and optimistic people like myself who all believed that once people listen to this message, they would quickly do those very few things that are necessary in order to create the sustainable world. And that’s, of course, where I’ve been disappointed over the last forty years.
Chris Martenson: It turns out that sometimes information alone is not sufficient to really create the change we’re seeking. Before we talk about that, let’s get a definition under our belts – “sustainable” and its derivative “sustainability.” Can you define those for us?
Jørgen Randers: Yes, I can, and it’s actually simple, although most people think it is very complicated. Sustainable simply means that it can be continued for a very long time without change. So if you rely for your well-being on the use of a non-renewable resource, and that non-renewable resource, be it oil, or coal, or gas or titanium – if that resource is limited, and you are using a little part of it every year, this thing is not technically sustainable in the very, very long run. However, if at the same time you spend money on R&D to develop a substitute for this non-renewable resource, which you can then shift into, once you have used up the non-renewable resource, then I would say that your behavior is sustainable. So it’s simply to answer the question – how long can I do what I do now without changing style or behavior? And if that is more than a couple of hundred years, I would say that the thing is sustainable; if it is less than twenty, I would define it as clearly unsustainable.
Chris Martenson: Right. When I read Limits to Growth, I saw it as – first of all, it’s a modeling study, so there’s lots of inputs and, of course, uncertainties around these inputs. But the thrust of the argument to me seemed to be to say Listen, if we try and maintain status quo, indefinitely, that’s impossible. Because status quo requires us to indefinitely use up what are clearly non-renewable natural resources. So that will have to shift, and you are saying there will be some adaption to this scarcity that might arise because we all find substitutes and find other ways around some of these. And some of these will require us to adopt new stances, of course. Because once you run out of something that doesn’t have a clear substitute, then there’s not much you can do about that. You just have to simply adopt a different stance. So solar thin film that requires some thing like indium or gallium, which we just don’t have enough of, and some day we run out of that, well, if that’s it, we probably won’t be relying on those particular types of solar panels but we will shift to something else, would sort of be the message. As you look into again, with Limits to Growth, I’m very interested – to me, that seems so sensible. What was the controversy about, then?
Jørgen Randers: Well, I think that you are absolutely right, that there was controversy in spite of, as I said, their message being very optimistic and very positive. It basically said that as long as we watch out for the physical limitations on the planet, the planet is more than big enough. You and I know our ability to find substitutes or re-direct our society’s behavior. It’s big enough that we can create a sustainable world for very many people. But the reception was not along those lines.
First, since people apparently dislike intensely to change behavior, they are, of course, quickly looking for ways out. And the simplest way out was to attack the assumption that the world is small. You know, in 1972, most people seemed to live with the belief that the world is actually very big, that there are places where you can find those resources that are currently limited in one place, and that you can easily dump the pollution somewhere without bothering too many people.
And so I think most of the discussion in the 1970s was on the question of whether or not the world is small. And the antagonists argue that it is much bigger than we assumed in our model systems. And in many ways, they won the argument, because 20 years down the line, when the first Rio meeting occurred in 1992. Limits to Growth was in many ways discredited in the sense that it was viewed as a weird report by the Club of Rome, not to the Club of Rome but by the Club of Rome, which actually had the wrong message.
Chris Martenson: So this is an interesting sort of a point here, which is around what we might consider a challenging message – how that gets out and gets adopted and understood by people. And one of the things that I run up against a lot is – one of the primary logical fallacies sometimes when I’m discussing my work, is, people will say Oh, you know there was this guy Thomas Malthus who said something like that once, and he was wrong. Therefore, you’re wrong. Which is one of the largest logical fallacies there is.
So forty years ago, you were definitely ground breaking, and I’m really thankful that the conversation, even if it didn’t go swimmingly, got started on some level. First unpleasant messages are ignored, then they are attacked, and then you win. So maybe we’re somewhere along that spectrum – forty years has passed, and here we are today. And I would argue that the world is in a different position to begin to accept the idea that there are limits to some things. Maybe to groundwater; that’s certainly known in some parts of the world. Maybe to the amount of soil that you have. Maybe to the amount of oil, that’s certainly becoming clear – at least cheap oil is in the rear view mirror at this point. There are other forms but it’s vastly more expensive that what we used to get, etc. and so forth.
So before we dive into your new book, tell me about what you’ve seen shift. Here we are forty years later. What kind of a reception are you experiencing now?
Jørgen Randers: That’s a good question and an important question, because I think that the major thing that has occurred over the last forty years is that most people know that we are in unsustainable territory in the sense that the current way of life on Planet Earth requires more planets than the one we have got. We are requiring more resources than the planet can supply every year, and we are dumping more pollution every year than the planet can absorb. So we are in overshoot, which is the technical term when the footprint of humanity exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet. The simplest example of this is, of course, climate change, and the fact that humanity is emitting roughly twice as much CO2 every year as is being absorbed by the world’s oceans and its forests.
And so for practical purposes, in the practical debate about the limit’s and growth and sustainability, I think for the time being, it’s helpful to concentrate only on climate, on energy, and the use of fossil fuels and the resulting CO2 emissions. Because that’s such a clear case of overshoot, and it has the other pedagogical advantage, namely that the technology necessary to reduce our greenhouse our gas emissions, while at the same time maintaining the quality of life that we have and the purchasing power that we have. All those technologies are available as we speak, and the cost of implementing them, if we decided to do so, are miniscule; a couple of percent of your income.
Chris Martenson: Right, and yet in many cases, that isn’t being done. But at this time, across the surface of the globe, adoption of anything is going to be uneven. Where have you been invited to speak lately? Who is actually, at, say, a national level, beginning the process of looking at this idea of sustainability of limits, of things like that?
Jørgen Randers: It’s interesting that in spite of it being both technically feasible and relatively cheap to solve the climate problem, it is largely not being done. We have no one speaking as humanity for twenty years or so, since the Rio meeting in 1992, when we started the UN Convention on climate change and decided to do something. Since then, we have basically been speaking, and emissions are growing faster now than they have grown ever. You know in the history of man. So mostly nothing is being done except talking. If you then start looking at who actually does something, it’s interesting that – first of all, the European Union, is amazingly progressive on this score. The Commission in Brussels, which is a non-elected group of bureaucrats, are actually quite progressive on this score and are trying to push the members of the European Union into sane policies with some degree of success.
Another interesting player that is doing much more than people think are the progressive multi-nationals. You know the really big multi-national corporations. They are often doing a number of useful things in this area, largely because they have a much longer time horizon than most people. They are concerned about their own reputation twenty years down the line and would like to avoid mistakes.
And the third group, which is of interest and actually does much, much more than you should expect, is the Communist Party of China. The Chinese are at the same time organizing a tremendous economic growth and a tremendous increase in their resource use and in their pollution output. But at the same time, they are probably going to be the ones who will solve the climate crisis on behalf of the world because they are putting enormous amounts of money and effort into climate-friendly technologies and climate-friendly behavior.
Chris Martenson: Well, my reading of China is that they clearly do understand the resource limitations. Obviously their mercantilist policy of open checkbook, acquiring land in Madagascar, copper mines in Afghanistan, oil rights all over the world – they are scouring the globe looking for resources. And it turns out that good, good economic policy in a resource-constrained world happens to be good climate policy, it happens to be good environmental policy, it happens to be good reduced, reuse recycle policy – they all actually converge.
And so this is one of the mysteries to me, how the debate has been framed as you are either pro-environment or pro-business, when in fact, if you frame it correctly, they are on the same side of the playing field.
Jørgen Randers: I agree, and I think the most interesting example here is the United States of America. Where a sane energy policy would, of course, try to stop the reliance of the United States of America on imported oil from the Middle East. And this can be very easily done in the United States, by building a number of windmills in the prairie and then instructing Detroit to make electric cars. And as described by Al Gore in his book a couple of years ago, within that ten-year period, you could do this with great support from the farm lobby, which would be happy to have the windmills on their wind-blown territory. And Detroit is, of course, capable of producing electric cars if instructed to do so – you know, instructed to sell them. This policy, which would be sane energy policy, which would have short-term benefits in the United States because it would drop the reliance on the Arabs. You know it’s also exactly what you would do if you wanted to introduce a climate policy in the United States, namely, trying to phase out the use of coal, oil, and gas as fast as possible. And of course, this is the way to phase out the use of oil – which is largely used to run automobiles.
Chris Martenson: So it is a complete mystery, because there are many things that we can identify using existing technology – and in many cases, decades-old technology – which would, whether your lens was “I care about national security,” or “I care about the climate.” Or “I care about social justice.” Meaning people can’t afford energy anymore as it rises in price against disposable income. Or “I care about jobs.” I don’t care which lens you look through, I can find all kinds of technologies out there that you’d say…well listen…like heating hot water. You can do that very simply with a solar thermal panel – very easy technology. And we are currently burning hydrocarbons, lots of them, to heat water, which we don’t have to. We could cut that to zero in many parts of the country and by at least half in the remaining parts. And we don’t do it – even though it makes economic sense, political sense from the job standpoint, you know, social sense – it makes all kinds of sense, but we don’t do it, so we need to. That, to me, says we have a problem with our narrative. It’s not the information itself, it’s the story – there’s something they’re blocking us from doing that.
And I want to turn now to your new book, 2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. I presume one of the intents of this book is to sort of lean on the conversation – to open that narrative up. Tell us about your book, you spent a year writing it. What are you seeking to achieve and then we’ll move into what’s in there?
Jørgen Randers: At the personal level, what I’m trying to achieve is rather selfish. I would like to know what will actually happen over the next twenty to twenty-five years, in the sense that I have been worrying about the future for forty years. And it has really bothered me every day; you know that humanity tends to make the wrong decisions every week, relative to my world view. So, no, I thought it would be interesting to try to find out how much damage, how much wrong decisions in democratic society and in capitalist system – is going to create on that forty year or that twenty-to-twenty-five year horizon, which is my remaining lifetime. So that’s the personal motivation.
The professional motivation is basically to try to kick the system in another way. I’ve tried to work for sustainability in all possible ways thus far, but I’ve not tried to scare people into doing something. So this is that kick, trying to say that, you know, if we continue more or less as we have done in the past, you know we will really get the climate crisis in the second half of this century.
Chris Martenson: And I would go ever further, faster and suggest that preservation of the status quo will lead to an economic crisis of an extraordinary dimension. We’re already in the early throes of this, because our economic model is based on infinite growth – exponential growth. Not a lot, two or three percent a year, maybe five if we are having a good year. And that requires – you know, what is an economy but the flow of goods and services? So those goods, what are those? You chase them back, those are resources. So what we are really saying is we need two, three, four percent more stuff coming out of the ground next year compared to last year.
And that’s just...I think we’re already pretty close to that limit in a number of places, so this is fine, you know we have slightly less stuff coming out of the ground, it doesn’t sound like a disaster. But in fact, when your economic model, your money system, requires that growth in order to behave. It can be a problem – a huge problem – and so the reason I care about that is that many of the things you are talking about, in your book, in terms of things we could do or that Amory Lovins talks about from the Rocky Mountain Institute about things we could do, require a complex and functioning economy to get them done. Because these are, in many cases, very sophisticated technologies, and to adopt and implement them on a grand scale will require extra ordinary resources. So I concur with the idea that it’s time to kick the can...kick the patient? [laugh] Because time is wasting at this point, compared to the size of the predicament.
So, status quo, we don’t change anything, we just trundle along until circumstances really force us to take a good hard look at this as a culture, as a society, as a globe. What does that future look like?
Jørgen Randers: Well, this is the one interesting finding. I had thought a year ago, since I have spent forty years thinking about these things, that I have thought about most of the things that one could think about in this context. But I think I have learned one new thing from doing this study, and that is what you just said needs to be phrased. Basically what will happen in the rich world, or the oil rich countries – the one billion people that are in the industrial world – what will happen? Half of which are in North America and the other half elsewhere. What will happen is largely that we will try to continue economic growth – you know, we will try to pursue the model over the last forty years, and we will discover after the fact that we do not achieve any growth.
So to speak about it in simple terms, you know the autoworkers in Detroit have been hoping to have a raise sometime over the last thirty years, but when you look back at the raises, they have actually been eaten up by inflation. So in reality, the take home after tax pay of a guy in Detroit now, a blue collar worker, is the same as it was thirty years ago. In spite of living in a society that is trying to grow, has been trying to grow all along, and to some extent, even has succeeded in growth, what I think will happen over the next forty years is that the guy won’t get a raise even during the next forty years. And most of the Americans will be in that category, that America will try to increase its GDP, but it will not succeed. Meaning that the upturns in the economy through one or two or three years will be eaten up basically by the ensuing downturn two or three years, and so we will come out fifty years down the line more or less at the same GDP numbers as currently.
And we will luckily have a slightly smaller footprint, because there will be technological advances in the use of energy per unit of GDP and there will be also improvements in the climate game so that the footprint will be lower. The economy will be the same, and people will feel much, much poorer than they feel today, because they will have been through a endless forty-year period of stagnation, basically.
Chris Martenson: Well, I agree with the general sweep of that, and the part that I personally am concerned about is the idea that – it’s around money itself, and that money is a marker for real things, and as long as there’s a balance between your real stuff and the amount of money, things are okay. What we are discovering now is that a lot of promises have been made in Europe, in the United States, Japan. There are pension promises and entitlement. There are fairly long-range projects that say We are going to take some money in today, and we are going to give that back to people over time in their purchasing power.
An important concept that you are bringing up is, what will be delivered to them? We take it today; we deliver it back in the future? Those promises now are many, many times larger than the GDP of the world currently is, and so one thing is absolutely true in this model as it’s constructed right now: That in order for the pension and entitlement promises – those cultural, societal promises we made to ourselves to be true or to be kept, we need the economy to grow a lot, not in nominal terms but in real terms. Nominal meaning not inflation adjusted; real being inflation adjusted. What you are describing is that we’ve already hit a period of stagnation for a set of reasons. It’s a very complex system, so those reasons could be manyfold, but at least part of that in my mind has got to be around what we are seeing with our net return from energy that we are getting back out of the ground. That’s a cornerstone of my set of arguments and thinking.
And so as we cast forward over this next period of time, what do you see as – here’s the general sweep. I can describe all non-renewable natural resources like this. They are all of much, much, much lesser quality than they used to be. So we are not chasing 10% copper grades anymore; we are chasing 0.2% copper grades. We are not chasing oil that is 1,000 feet down; we are chasing oil that has to be cooked off of sand because it’s not actually oil, it’s bitumen or something worse like kerogen. We are no longer finding vast surface deposits of things like coal; we are out of anthracite; we are through the bituminous, practically; we are into the sub-bituminous. Now we are looking at lignite. So to these stories are all a story of less and less concentrated resources which require more and more energy in order to extract. So we have those sweeps coming along, and we are on our way to nine billion from seven billion, and all of these things come together. When you put all those in your model, what turns up in forty years?
Jørgen Randers: What turns up is the first thing, namely that we will try to grow but we will not succeed. So that’s the first one, and there are many reasons for that, which we can return to if necessary. The second thing which turns up is that I don’t think resources are going to be the problem. If we were to put the finger on one problem, it is lack of coherent long-term decision-making. So in order to make my view in contrast to yours or try to make the contrast between the two a little clearer, I think that the reason why the United States is not going to be on a per capita basis richer in 2050 than it is today has nothing to do with the resource unavailability. I think that are enough resources available to handle the U.S. needs to 2050, particularly since the U.S. need is not going to increase very much over the next forty years. But the reason why I think there will be problems in the United States is that the U.S. is incapable of making the societal decisions that are necessary in order to move coherently in a progressive direction.
And the current stalemate in your Parliament between the two sides that basically keep each other from making clear decisions on anything is the real head of the monster, the way I see it. And that’s the reason why I think that China is actually going to do very much better. They are in the same resource-constrained world as is the United States. And they are much less well endowed domestically with resources than the United States is. Still I think they are going to do much better, because those gentlemen are at least capable of making a decision. You know, they analyze the problem, they see what is the problem, and if they have a problem, they solve it.
You used the example that when they observe the fact that they cannot grow enough food, they buy land or at least lease land in Africa and elsewhere in order to provide the food. I can tell you that that is true. But it’s also very much against what the Chinese want to do in the long run. China has been self-sufficient for two thousand years, they are not interested in being elsewhere, and they would like to make a good life for the Chinese on Chinese territory. And that’s their long-term aim. And so the way I see it, their purchasing or leasing of land in Africa is a temporary stopgap and a very rational measure over the twenty-year period before they get their own agricultural system going. Plus their own population declining; they have pursued the one child policy now for twenty to thirty years, or actually since Deng, so it’s only twenty-five years, and the Chinese population will peak within the next ten years and then start to go down, which makes it much more easy to make China sustainable.
Chris Martenson: All right, so I agree with that, with the view that China definitely has a view of the future, I can detect a credible strategic plan, whether they will succeed in it or not – open to question, but at least I see that they are facing what I consider to be the realities of the world. In your book, you add up many of these realities and say, Listen, if we don’t change, there’s some disruptions – potentially some very challenging times. Sort of almost the best case is we wake up in 50 years and discover we are all just a little bit poorer.” But there are some other outcomes that exist in there as well. And I note that you start the preface of your book with a quote from Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, which basically says that Hope is as important as life itself. So you are 67; let’s subtract 47 years from that. What would you say to a 20-year-old today who looks through this lens, to what you are seeing in your book? Even if they are just reading the newspapers? And they are looking at a world that’s just fully indebted and crumbling, our lackluster infrastructure, and they see all of these challenges? That narrative that we’re asking our 20-year-olds to step into – how do you, what do you see for them, and what advice would you give them?
Jørgen Randers: Two pieces. First of all, be in favor of a strong government. You know, basically teach or learn that individual action or market system is not going to solve the problem. It will require collective action in the form of governments providing regulations or legislation that actually makes it profitable for the corporate world to do the right thing. Currently the whole world is doing what is profitable; the world is not doing what is needed. And the reason is that the ordinary voter carries the floor, and most of those are not in favor of strong government, and consequently we have a problem. So my first advice to a twenty-year-old person is to learn and understand the rationality and the smartness of stronger government in the next forty years.
The second thing the person should be doing is to be aware of the fact that the main challenge is the climate challenge. And that basically means that he or she should stop using coal, oil, and gas. These are the main sources of climate gasses, and it’s very, very simple. Each time you are faced – you want to do something, just stop – just be sure that it doesn’t require coal, oil, and gas to do it. So it basically means that when you want to buy a home, be sure it is well insulated so that it doesn’t need a lot of electricity to run the air conditioning, and when you want to buy a car, buy a car that uses little fossil fuel per kilometer. And when you to fly somewhere, instead of flying twice on vacation a year, fly once and stay twice as long. Reduce your three major parts of CO2 emissions.
Third one, when one is making a forecast over the next forty years and looking into the question of whether the young are actually going to repay the debt and the pensions of their fathers and mothers, my forecast is that they will not. Many of us expect that we will be paid handsome pensions, and many of the wealthy that have lent money to people expect to get the money back.
I think that that’s a pretty moot wish in many cases; it’s even unreasonable in many cases that twenty or twenty-five year old people cannot afford to buy a new home which is the same standard as their parents. That they in addition to this should then pay pensions and pay back the debt that was accumulated by their parents to have lived way beyond their means for a period. And so basically, what you see in south Europe now, I think, is the first step in that process. Where a number of pensionees will see that they don’t receive all the pension that they expected to receive. And many bankers or capital owners will see that they have lent money, but they will actually not get it back. And that’s one way in which the system will solve problems in another surprising manner over the next forty years.
Chris Martenson: So let me play devil’s advocate for a second. One of the things that’s really important, I think, is for individuals to have sense of agency, that their actions have consequence. What would you say to somebody who says Well, if I cut my carbon use, won’t that just mean that China burns it instead? Is there anything that you can see credibly on the horizon that says Humans will not extract every hydro carbon out of the ground and just burn it? Whether it’s us, an Indian, or a Chinese person, now or in fifty years?
Jørgen Randers: This is, of course, what I have spent one year trying to answer. So my book is a quantitative description of exactly what I think the societies of the various regions of the world are actually going to decide to do over the next forty years. So essentially that’s a question of, how many children will they have? How fast will they be able to increase productivity in their societies? In other words, how much GDP will they be able to generate? Then comes the question of how fast will they manage to increase the energy efficiency of their economies, and then finally, how quickly will they be able to move their energy systems away from fossil fuels and into renewable? And I agree with you that on my radar, there is no collective global agreement to do these things over the next forty years – we simply will not be able to reach agreement on that.
But at the same time, luckily there are much saner societies on the surface of the earth than the United States, which are actually starting to do things even if the others are not doing a lot. And my book is a quantitative position forecast of who will do what and how much. And the sum of all of it, as I said before, is that you know things will progress. But still, in 2050, I think that roughly 60% of all energy will be fossil-based, only 40% will be from wind power and solar and nuclear and, you know, the non-CO2 sources. The temperature at the time will be plus two degrees centigrade over pre-industrial time, and thirty years later, in 2080, we will be at plus three degrees centigrade. When there is a danger than the permafrost melts and we do get self-reinforcing climate change.
So it’s basically a story where humanity acts much too slowly and then basically forces their grandchildren to live in a world where there is self-reinforcing climate change.
Chris Martenson: Right, and so to somebody who’s young, stepping into this would like to feel that they’ve got some impact that they could really have on this. When I look at these large long-term forecasts, I see the grand sweep is easier to detect, which is that there’s shifting geo-political power and balances, a lot of it centers around resources. Interestingly, a lot of the so-called undeveloped world or developing world I consider to be in much stronger shape. Because they have less debt, they haven’t had the capital system there to really exploit the resources in a breakneck speed – Brazil, which used to be considered a developing world but it’s very much up the curve and they’ve got tremendous resources and what not – as we look into this future, what you are saying is, we need to really start making some changes very, very soon, very rapidly. These changes are going to happen to us, and I guess so we either face a future shaped by design or by disaster. And the idea here is to at least get the conversation going and saying what are the risk factors and we might not know everything about these yet.
But these are the risks as we see them and understand them today. How should we be arraying ourselves against these? And the puzzling part to me is, there is so much that we can do that doesn’t require any thing new to be discovered, understood, or introduced. It works – all we have to do is decide to do it. And that’s where this conversation gets interesting. And for me, when I talk to young people, I say that’s your opportunity right there! That’s where the hope is, is that we need to figure out how to just start doing – making – to put a term around it.
We either make the right decisions or the wrong decisions, and the right decisions are just sitting there. They are economically right, they are politically right, they are right on all dimensions except I don’t know what. They just run counter to our current narrative – whatever that happens to be. So in some ways, this is as simple as changing the story we tell ourselves.
Jørgen Randers: I think much of what you are saying is correct. I think that if I were to put the dot at the end, I would basically say that the one major problem is the short-term nature of humans, which in turn is reflected by this short-term horizon of the capitalist society and of the democratic system of governance. Both of those systems, all three actually – individual, the firm and the parliament – are strongly focused on the effect of what they are doing over the next two to four years. They are not strongly influenced by what happens twenty to forty years down the line. And that is the basic problem. Unless we solve that problem in some way or the other, we will not handle the oncoming barrage of problems that will face us over the next century.
And my view is, of course, that we ought to try as hard as possible to overcome the short-term nature of man and the corporation and the democratic parliament. But I don’t think we will do so. We ought to, but I don’t think we will do so. And that is, my final word on the 2052 book. You know, I dislike intensely to describe the future that I do describe there. Because it is not the future that I would like to see. I would like to see a totally different society, where man, corporations, and the parliament actually make decisions where they do consider at least 50% of the weight on the long-term consequence of what they are deciding and thereby manage to get a more decent society for their grandchildren.
Chris Martenson: And there’s the challenge. You’ve laid out the alternative to that more hopeful future in terms of your experience in watching trends and making your best guess as to where things end up. And there’s quite a few surprises in this book; you talk about how technology will both mitigate and create additional difficulties all on its own, and there’s quite a lot in here. And it’s very good. I’m looking at an uncorrected proof here, so it’s not yet in print here on May 24th. When does it come out?
Jørgen Randers: You can go on Amazon.com and order it now, and they will start shipping on the first of June.
Chris Martenson: Ah, very soon. Very good. This is Chris Martenson. of course, and we’ve been speaking with Jørgen Randers. Jørgen is spelled with a “J” – Jørgen Randers – and thank you very much Jørgen for your time today.
Jørgen Randers: Thank you. It was a great pleasure, and I hope many people read the book and get irritated and help change the way the world is governed.
Chris Martenson: Well said; thank you.