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An interview with Jorgen Randers: "2052" – “It’s the story of humanity not rising to the occasion

Jorgen Randers is professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, and among many other things, was coauthor of The Limits to Growth in 1972, Beyond the Limits in 1992, and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update in 2004 (you can read his full biog here). He has recently published ‘2052: a global forecast for the next forty years‘. You can see a film of him discussing the book at its launch here. I had the great honour of interviewing Jorgen recently, via Skype from his study at his home in Norway. You can hear the audio of our interview below, or read the transcript. ’2052′ is available here if you’re in the US, or here in the UK.

The first question I wanted to ask you is what your aim was when you sat down to write ’2052′?

I’m 67 years old, I’ve spent 40 years of my life working in vain for sustainability and I finally decided that it would be interesting to find out whether I really needed to be continually worrying about the future as I have over the last 40 years because I have now only 20 to 25 years left to live. I thought it would be interesting to try to find out what will actually happen over those 40 years.
That is of course in contrast with my academic discipline, which is systems analysis, where you of course know that you cannot make forecasts, all you can do is make scenario analysis, to basically say that man does like this then such will happen or if man does like this then that will happen. Or you can work as an ideologue, you can push a certain solution. You can say that we need to do such-and-such in order to avoid climate catastrophe.

But I decided that for my own sake it would be interesting at least to know what will happen in sufficient detail for me to believe in it so that I could then decide whether I need to continue worrying for the future, and that was the very clear ambition 18 months ago, and now the book exists and it gives me in many ways great peace of mind because I believe in the forecast I have given there and in many ways it makes life much simpler I think, for a person who has been worrying about unsustainability for such a long time.

For people who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell us about 2052? What’s it going to be like?

It’s a book that describes, as detailed as I can, what will happen from now until 2052, so it’s a story about world developments over the next 40 years. I ended up splitting the world into 5 regions. I looked at the US, I looked at China, I looked at the rest of the industrial world, I looked at the big emerging economies and I looked at the rest of the world, and my world forecast is the sum of the forecasts for each of those five regions.

At a very aggregate level what the forecast says is that humanity will try very hard to achieve economic growth, income growth over the next 40 years. Humanity will continue to try to put in place or get access to sufficient energy to run those economies. We will continue to work hard on energy efficiency matters. We will be talking a lot about climate gas emissions, we will to some extent be reducing those per unit of energy used, but we will not do enough of those things, so that by 2052 we will have +2 degrees Centigrade over pre-industrial times, which is the generally agreed danger threshold, when the temperature is 2 degrees higher than what it was in 1750.

Science basically says that we are on the threshold of starting to do real damage to the world, and if I run my models a little further in 2080, the temperature will be +3 degrees Centigrade over pre-industrial times and that in my mind is enough to trigger self-reinforcing climate change, basically melting of the tundra which then emits a lot of methane, which makes things much much warmer. So in many ways it’s a sad story, the next 40 years, because it’s a story of humanity not rising to the occasion.

On the other hand many of the critics of the book basically say that it is a positive story and it’s a soothing story because I don’t predict any crisis – any real crisis, any food crisis, oil crisis or whatever within the next 40 years, and my critics are saying that a book like this should not be written, because saying that there will not be a real crisis in the next 40 years I further de-motivate what little response could have occurred.

In the trailer for a forthcoming film, ‘The Last Call’, you say “democracy will not solve these problems, we need a paradigm shift in governance”. What do you mean by that, is democracy compatible with solving this crisis? And if not, what do you propose in its place?

When you get down to it, the reason why humanity will not solve the climate problem over the next 40 years is not that this is technically impossible. To the contrary, it’s technically quite simple, we all hope to build well-insulated homes and we do know how to make electric cars and we do know how to make solar panels and windmills instead of coal-fired utilities. The technologies exist, and the reason why we won’t do enough by 2052 is not that it’s wildly expensive to do so, it costs probably 1 to 2 percent of the GDP, which basically means that you and I will be as rich in July 2020 as we otherwise would have been in January 2020.

This is postponing gratification half a year to a year, that’s all that it would have taken to solve the climate problem. So when you ask the question ”why don’t we do anything?”, the technologies are there and the costs of applying them are fairly limited, the answer is that society, modern society as we know it, is extremely short term. It is finely tuned to a maximise short-term benefits, in some cases at the cost of future problems, and the two major institutions of today are of course democracy on the one side and capitalism on the other side.

Most people do accept that capitalism is short term, most people know that capitalism allocates capital to projects that have the highest return, and the discount rate used (the weight put on the future of things) is very low and the discount rate is very high, this means that capitalists don’t allocate money to projects that have most of the benefits 20 years down the line and the costs this year, they allocate to things where the benefits come in 4 years and less.

Then you could say that to be able to regulate capitalism in such a way that from the point of view of the capitalists it is most profitable to do the right thing, what is socially beneficial as opposed to what is profitable, and yes, this is true, and this is of course what we’re trying when we’re trying to introduce a price on carbon, a price on climate gas emissions, it basically means that one is trying to make it less profitable to run coal-fired power plants and more profitable to run windmills and things like this. But there you see the short-term nature of democracy emerges as the real problem, because when you try to pass legislation which makes fuel or power more expensive in the short term, most people don’t vote for those politicians.

In a democratic society it is very difficult to get the frame conditions around business decisions in such a way that businesses start to do what is socially beneficial rather than what is short-term profitable. The basic problem is that neither the capitalist machinery nor democratic society puts enough emphasis on our grandchildren’s benefits, and consequently we are basically doing things today that are for our benefit that will cost our children and particularly our grandchildren a lot. This is not necessary, it could easily have been done in a different manner, the technology exists, the costs are low, but because of the short-term nature of democracy and capitalism it won’t be done. This is my main message.

Do you have any sense of what long-term interest to democracy might look like or is the only way to avert climate change by introducing a kind of martial law or something?

I already gave the answer, you know what does it take in order to make capitalist society allocate capital to what society needs as opposed to what is profitable. And that is basically a change in some of the prices that are surrounding business and the most important one is of course the price on climate gas emissions. If one could get that up to 10 times what it is currently in the European market, or if one could pass a carbon tax on oil and gas that would in my book effectively solve the problem in time.

But how in the world do you then make democratic society pass such legislation? That is of course the big deal, and you should then start by asking if it is at all conceivable that democratic society delegates authority to someone over or beyond them in the sort term in order to achieve long-term good, and the answer is yes, dictators in Rome were appointed for a limited period of time, to be able to pass rapid technocratic decisions when Rome was challenged. Another more interesting modern example is of course the central bank, which is an institution invented by democratic society where parliament basically delegates to someone else to pass the situation on, how much money to print and many democratic societies have chosen to do so, to run monetary policy at arm’s length.

My dream would be to do the same thing with climate gas emission rights, that there was a global central bank for climate gas emissions that actually allocated to each nation the number of emission rights that they had to operate under, and that would, in my mind, solve the problem. Then my critics would say that this is what we are doing in the United Nations negotiations under the framework condition on climate change, and I will respond yes this is true, and we have now seen the conversations going on for 20 years and we have got close to nowhere for 20 years. Although the goal is the correct one, I’m afraid the two nations participating in these negotiations will not reach an agreement until it is too late.

One of the assumptions that you put in the book is that you believe the number of jobs will keep up with the workforce most of the time and in most places, just as in the past. But given the unfolding Euro crisis and fifty percent youth unemployment in Spain now for example, do you still hold to that?

Yes, I do, and the reason is that I am talking about the long run, again, from decade to decade. I’m not talking about month to month or quarter to quarter, half-year to half-year, year to year, and not election to election. I’m speaking about 10 to 20 year horizons. I basically believe that unemployment will stay within a reasonable level when we are talking about the long run, 10 to 20 year horizons, simply because if unemployment gets too high, you get social unrest or a revolution.

I think you already see the simplest examples of those evolving. It’s interesting for old people like me and my socio-economic middle-upper class in the last 40 years, you know, we have taken it for granted that our pensions will be paid. Now it looks like those countries that have lent money to the United States, to Greece and others also expect their money to be repaid. I ask the question in the book – it doesn’t make sense at all that a 28year old person who has a hard time getting into a labour market and a hard time finding somewhere to live that is even half as nice as that of his or her parents, is there any reason in the world why they should be paying the pensions for their parents, or that they should repay the national debt run up in their parents’ happy life over the last 15 to 20 years?

In my mind when you look at it from the outside point of view, I don’t see any reason whatsoever. That is the beginning of the redistribution that will take place when unemployment and skewed distribution of benefits in modern society gets too extreme.

That was one of the things that came out really strongly for me – the inter-generational tension that you paint that will emerge. You argue that young people will increasingly kick against the poor deal they’ve been given with pensions, climate change, austerity and so on. How do you see that playing out?

First of all I think it’s a very important dimension to have around, you know to keep that in mind, and secondly the question of how the young are going to rebel against the old at this moment in time and even more interestingly, how future generations are going to rebel against our current lifestyle. Concerning the young, it seems to me that what you are seeing in the South E.U. at this point in time my be the type of thing. Basically, that they decide against repaying the debt. If the person who owns the debt doesn’t go to war – which I don’t think they will - this will be a redistribution of wealth from those that formerly were wealthy to those who have the short end of the stick.

It’s an interesting question whether this will happen in the United States, of course, the country in the world where inequity has grown most dramatically over the last 20 to 30 years – at least, the industrial country where inequity has grown the most dramatically. Still of course when you talk to young Americans the idea of trying to create a revolution, to rebalance ownership in that nation, it doesn’t sound like that is just around the corner, you know, the idea of rebellion or revolution is very far off American thinking, even among the blue-collar people who have not had a raise for the last 30 years.

The Transition movement is focussed on an intentional localisation as a key part of the response to the threats you identify, and you write in the book, “at an even smaller scale, forward-thinking regions within some nations will increasingly focus on managing their inevitable de-growth. They will try to build regional resilience in the face of global economic unrest and dwindling access to cheap energy, and to do so they will organise systems that rely on local food, local energy and programmes that strengthen regional or local economies”. Why do you argue that that will be on an even smaller scale? What do you think will prevent this approach from scaling up, especially in the context you’ve just talked about of a whole generation of young people actively seeking different models?

Yes, there will be pockets where these things happen,but the reason it won’t happen large-scale is the same reason why it hasn’t happened over the last 40 years which I have been following this quite closely. When I started working on sustainability issues in 1972, or actually in 1970, the first thing that happened was the equivalent of the Transition movement popped up, assembled around the Mother Earth News and other American left-wing, revolutionary type magazines.

Enthusiasm was great and the number of followers stayed well below one percent of the global population. Later in the 1990s, I spent a decade of my life working for the World Wildlife Fund. Again it was interesting to see how far you can run a big NGO. It did stagnate at roughly 5 million members, again it’s one percent of each world population that is willing to pay £25 a year to support biodiversity conservation, so my main answer – and I apologise for this – is I don’t think that more than between one and five and possibly ten percent of the regions of the world’s educated population will decide within the next 40 years to sacrifice something today in order to get a benefit for our grandchildren. My argument is based on observation of our history. I can’t see what will be different over the next 40 years than over the last 40 years.

When I first got the book there was a bit in it which I read that I found very provocative, the bit where you talk about how one of your recommendations for people is that they shouldn’t teach their children to love wilderness because there won’t be any left. I put that on Transition Culture as a provocation to see what people thought and it caused a lot of debate. Many of the people argue that surely the best way to teach young people to take care of the earth is by grounding them in wilderness. Also now there is this identified syndrome known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ where young people who are denied access to nature and to wilderness shut down on many levels and don’t develop as well. Surely if we want to have a generation that care enough about this planet to do the things you set out in the book that we need to do, denying them access to wilderness is self-defeating?

I’m glad you picked up that aspect of the book because it is among one of the elements closest to my heart. I have spent a full 30 years of my life on the ‘other side’ of what I am talking about now. Basically, believing that if we could just educate the young of 30 years ago when they came to power now, they would decide totally differently. As voters they would also be much more in favour of Green parties, parties that argue for sacrifice today in order to get a better world for our grandchildren.

The sad fact is that I have then grown to implement environmental education in schools in the west and we worked very hard in WWF to get hundreds of thousands of environmentally-oriented teachers educated in China and other places, and now I live in stinking rich Norway, which is rich beyond anything on the surface of the Earth, that has had free schooling for 50 years for all levels, from Kindergarten to your PHD, and where democracy is working and has been working for 50 years, and still there is not a single tendency that there is a majority of the voters that is in any way interested in sacrificing anything in the short term in order to help our children in the long term. That’s my very pessimistic starting point.


The original Limits to Growth team presenting their first report in 1972.

Then you could say that it’s an obligation for elderly gentlemen like myself not to say this, because we should still hope that something would change and become different over the next 40 years and I hope you are right, but I wrote the book in order to find out how worried I needed to be and not for other purposes. Then to the concrete advice, don’t teach your children to love the untouched forest. The reason why I add that advice there is slightly tongue in cheek, slightly in order to make people really think about what kind of hell they’re introducing for their children and grandchildren.

But it is also because in retrospect when I think about my last 40 years, what has bothered me most is the incessant destruction of nature that has continued, we became aware of this with Rachel Carson in the 1960s, then I started working hard on these issues in the 70s, I worked very hard during my WWF life in the 90s, and all the time the coral reefs get destroyed by tourists and the forests are being cut at wild speed, faster and faster, the introduction of clear fellings, anything which is beautiful and natural is being attacked by the majority.

It is not capitalist society which is doing it. It is basically the forest owners and in our country there are tens and tens and tens of thousands of those who much prefer to have another hundred pounds in the bank than to have a good looking old-growth forest standing next door. So the sadness that I have had to live through over the last 30 years, because I see nature going faster and faster, I don’t think my children deserve that. And consequently it’s much better that they get to love computer games and virtual reality of which there will be a lot over the next 40 years than try to love the untouched, quiet surroundings of which there will be much less sadly.

Finally, you write that your findings are bleak, but not as bleak as you feared they might be. I wondered what, if any, grounds for optimism one might draw from the book. If you were a Spanish teenager for example, reading this book and already feeling like you don’t have much of a future, with youth unemployment, the 50% and the economy falling to bits, what might they take from this book that might motivate and inspire them do you think?

I basically think that what they should do and what they can do is take their future in their hands and starting to build a sustainable society from scratch. It isn’t more complicated than that, they have to adjust down several levels in consumer goods for a while, but basically it means start building your own home and build it in a way that doesn’t require a lot of energy, then try to accelerate or further move the energy supply away from oil, coal and gas and on to the windmills and the solar panels that are starting to exist.

Stop driving a car, stop spending all your money on aeroplanes etc, and try to create an enjoyable local community just like your movement is trying to do. Because then you can ask the question – will this be enough? The 10% unemployed chose to do so. The answer is probably not, because still climate change will occur. The problem does not become critical for another generation or so. In between there is a lot of hope and a lot of opportunity in trying to make smaller communities that actually find new ways, and that’s my recommendation and having now spoken about this book in advance of its publication, I’ve learnt that I always end up now saying what are the 4 things that people should do.

They should do the following: point one, they should have fewer children and particularly the rich world, they should see that the population of the world declines rather than increasing. The second thing they should do is stop using coal, oil and gas, anything which uses these for heat or for electricity you should stop doing. The third thing you should do is to try to work for a global redistribution and that should be done in the sense that the rich world should build and pay for a low-carbon energy system in the third world, so basically we should build the windmills and the solar panels and the hydro power plants and the carbon capture and storage for the poorer world and give it to them, so that they do not spend another generation building coal, oil and gas fired utilities which will then have to be dismantled before we can go to the real thing.

And finally the fourth thing, they should be noisily in favour of supra-natural institutions, institutions that could temper the short-term nature of the nation state. It basically means go out and be strongly in favour of a strong E.U. That could pass environmental legislation which is way more radical than the majority of each of the member states, or be in favour of a strong resolution in the Euro+20, well we now know that we didn’t get that, but in some way they tried to get international agreements in place which actually put constraints on what nations can do on the climate side. These are the four things that people ought to do, while at the same time trying to build a local sustainable community.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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