2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years

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In “2052,” Jorgen Randers draws on his own experience in the sustainability arena, global forecasting tools, and the predictions of more than 30 leading scientists, economists, futurists and other thinkers to guide us through the future he feels is most likely to emerge.

We know what we want the world to be like in 40 years. We know what the world could be like in 40 years if we all did what needs to be done to create a more sustainable future. But what do we know about what the world will actually be like in 40 years. This is the question Jorgen Randers tries to answer in 2052 (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). Randers’ glimpse of the future asks: How many people will the planet need to support? Will there be enough food and energy? Will the young revolt under the debt and pension burden of the old? Which nations will prosper and which will suffer? And several more pressing questions. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Worrying About the Future.” 

I have lived my whole adult life worrying about the future. Not about my personal future, but the global future—the future of humanity—on its small planet Earth.

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Now, at sixty-six, I see that I have been worrying in vain. Not because the global future looks problem free and rosy. My worrying has been in vain because it hasn’t had much impact on global evolution over the long generation since I started worrying.

It all began when I arrived as a PhD student in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January 1970. I had lived my prior life in little, safe, and egalitarian Norway, well shielded from global developments, focused on the mysteries of solid-state physics. Through a complicated sequence of events, by the summer of 1970 I was deeply involved in what was to become the first report to the Club of Rome on “The Predicament of Mankind,” working as a researcher in the A. P. Sloan School of Management at MIT. The report—called The Limits to Growth—described various scenarios for world development to 2100. The scenarios were based on simulation runs from a computer model, my new field of expertise.

Within a few months, my worrying was in full bloom. Our research task was to consider what would happen if the global population and economy continued their recent developments for a hundred years or so. It did not take much quantitative skill to discover that our planet was much too small, and that humanity was facing serious trouble some fifty years down the line—that is, unless humanity made a conscious and unconventional decision to change its ways.

We published The Limits to Growth in 1972, with our recommendations about what should be done in order to promote sustainable well-being on our finite planet. I spent the 1970s and 1980s worrying about whether humanity would in fact be wise enough to heed our advice and change its global policies and behavior—in time. I used a lot of time and energy, in various roles, trying to convince people that changing would be much better than following traditional patterns. After 1993 I left academia and upped the intensity of my effort by working through WWF—the big influential nature-conservation organization that is called the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. Since 2005 I have focused more narrowly on stopping climate change.

But I never stopped worrying about the future of humanity on small planet Earth. My worrying can be traced through some of my writings over the last twenty years.

Is there reason to worry? Are we facing a global future that makes it sensible to be concerned? Will the future be better than the present? Or will it be worse? Or is this simply a hang-up of an old man?

You are holding the book that is my answer to these questions. After four decades of worrying about a blurred future that I really did not know well, I decided it would help my pain to try to describe the next four decades as precisely as possible. I did not want a picture of an ideal world—one of the various dream societies pursued by idealists. I wanted a picture of the future that humanity is going to create for itself during the four decades ahead, the future that will result from the many human decisions of mixed quality and wisdom, the future that is most likely to happen, the future that will be written in the history books.

In short, I wanted a forecast of the most likely global roadmap to 2052 so that I would know what I am in for. So that I would know whether there actually is reason to worry on behalf of my children. Or the poor in Africa. So that I could possibly do what all other upper-middle-class people in the industrial world seem to do, namely, relax and contribute to societal development with an unworried mind.

Luckily my forecast of the most likely global future to 2052 will have other uses.

First, the global forecast will enable you to give your own answer to whether there is reason to worry. Your answer may be different from mine. Different people draw different conclusions from the same picture.

Second, it will satisfy curiosity. Having worried about the future for so long, I am genuinely interested in knowing what it will be. On my fiftieth birthday, my fondest wish was to awake from the dead for a week in the year 2100, to learn what had transpired during the twenty-first century. I believe many share this curiosity about what lies ahead.

Third, some will use the forecast to help them invest profitably.

Fourth, the more socially inclined will use the global forecast to clarify what new policies, legislation, and societal institutions will have the greatest effect in creating a better future, so they know where to put in their effort.

Others will want to know what the future holds in order to improve their chances for a better life during the next several decades, for example by moving to another city, country, or region before it becomes impossible, or by changing a profession before it becomes outdated.

Finally, some will want to adapt up front to the world of the future, to coming hot spells, sea-level rise, migration flows, more centralist government, and destruction of attractive tourist spots.

There are many motivations, and they are all valid. Our common interest is a desire to know how the world will develop over the next forty years.

Why Now?

In the middle of my worrying, a decade ago or so, my conviction grew that humanity, faced with great but mostly solvable challenges, is not going to rise to the occasion. I began to believe that the necessary change would not happen—at least not in time. Which does not mean, of course, that the world will come to an end. But it does mean that the global future will be less rosy than it could have been. In a way, this realization helped my pain. I started to accept my loss.

But this mental shift did not stop my worrying. It simply shifted its focus. Now I was worrying about how bad the situation would get before humanity resolved to change its ways. That probably would have been a better state of mind if I had been able to air the matter in the public arena. But I did not dare to make the shift public. Along with my small group of co-worriers—the avant-garde of the global sustainability movement—I worried that admitting that the human response was inadequate would be demotivating. I worried about reducing to zero the small ongoing effort to mend our human ways. Presenting my worries, however carefully, could trigger shouts of “Game over!” and “Game lost!” which in turn could become self-fulfilling. It could tempt the few who were hard at work on sustainable development to throw in their towels.

So I kept worrying behind closed doors, while observing continually rising emissions of greenhouse gases, increasingly dysfunctional global environmental governance, growing destruction of coral reefs, and the continuing loss of the remaining old-growth forests. I love old-growth forests—those quiet, timeless inventories of species, displaying the result of hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution.

Surprisingly the forests proved to be my salvation. One day I mentioned to a psychologist friend that I felt physical pain when I saw logging machines destroy, in one day, what nature would take centuries to repair—if that repair even occurred. She advised me in her quiet, professional tone that I had to learn to live with the loss. To express and accept that such-and-such particular forest was gone—permanently, with no resurrection possible. Actively handle the grief, as one should after the loss of a mother or good friend. Accept the fact that this old growth was gone, and that more would be going. Look the future straight in the eye and accept it. Get used to how things are. Stop worrying.

It took a long time to accept this wise advice. But over the years, it did help. Now I am genuinely happy whenever I see some remaining patch of undisturbed old-growth forest, in the middle of an ocean of clear-cut land. Regardless how small, it is much better than nothing. Before, I would have focused my attention on its messy clear-cut surroundings and been sad because it would remind me about how recently much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered by peaceful, deep, and undisturbed temperate and boreal forests. In Michigan this is less than one hundred years ago; in Russia less than fifty! And I would have grown even sadder when thinking about how fast the rest would go.

By analogy, I believe it will be calming to get to know the world that is likely to be our home in the future, rather than dreaming about the world that could have been. The first step down the road to mental peace is to obtain a precise description of what the future is likely to look like. Then to accept it. And finally to stop grieving.

Is a Global Forecast Possible?

But can this be done? Is it possible to make a forecast of global developments over a forty-year period? Clearly it is possible to make a guess—just like it is possible to guess who will win the soccer championship in 2016. And guessing is simple; it can be done without any knowledge whatsoever about the topic. There is a chance that your guess is right. And a much larger chance that it is wrong, as in all gambling.

In the normal use of the term, “forecasting” is a more ambitious exercise. A forecast is expected to have a higher chance of being right than wrong—ideally much higher. People understand that it is an advantage to know a lot about the system before one tries to forecast its future path. If rational players plan to rely on a prediction, they usually prefer an educated forecast over uninformed guesswork. Guessing is for the less informed.

My learned—and other—friends never stop pointing out that predicting the world future to 2052 is impossible. Not only in practice, but also in theory. Of course they are right. I am the first to accept this, having spent a lifetime making nonlinear dynamic simulation models of socioeconomic systems. But my critics need to be more precise. They are right in the sense that it is impossible to predict individual events in the future, even with deep knowledge about the system. The weakness of weather forecasts beyond five days proves this to most outdoorsmen. But they are not right when it comes to forecasting broad developments. Technically speaking, it is possible to say something about trends and tendencies that are rooted in stable causal feedback structures in the world system.

The forecast in this book is of that broad nature. It is an informed guess tracing the big lines in what I see as the probable global evolution toward 2052. I will use numbers to make my case, but always in the most indicative sense. The most reliable aspects of my forecast are its general trends or tendencies.

But isn’t this process disregarding human free will? Couldn’t people suddenly make a decision in 2033 that completely derails the system from its expected path? Yes, of course they could. But my view—which is shared by many professional colleagues in the social sciences—is that such out-of-the-blue decisions are very unlikely. All decisions are made in a context, and the context strongly influences the decision. One might be tempted to say that decisions, at least the major ones, are formed by the context—as Marx did. Yes, I agree that decisions may come a year earlier or three years later if the right leader emerges at the right time. And yes, they may arise as an Internet campaign rather than as a resolution in parliament. Details are hard to predict, but forecasting the big picture is simpler. It is simpler to tell whether it will be colder next winter than this summer than it is to tell whether next week will be warmer or colder than today.

Let us take a simple but highly relevant example of human decision making, namely, the decision to have another child. One perspective is that this is a prime example of the operation of the unpredictable and free will, that the decision to have another baby is done on the spur of the moment and that success is determined by a number of local conditions at the time of the conception. Another perspective is to observe that women on average have fewer children if they are urban, educated, and lower middle class than if they are rural, illiterate, and poor. Thus I agree that it is impossible to predict that my daughter will have exactly one child. But it is still possible to say that the number of children per mother will decline as a country industrializes. This is the difference between event prediction and trend forecasting.

In the pages ahead, we will explore the broad trends that will influence our lives and those of our children. Here and there you will find an imaginary future event described, but that is only to bring the possibilities to life. It is simpler to prepare for the future if you start by imagining it.

My forecast does not eliminate free will, but rather is based on the belief that human decision making is influenced by the conditions under which the decision is being made. Smaller families result when the education level is higher. More social unrest occurs when income distribution is uneven. If there is reason to believe that conditions will develop in a certain manner, it is reasonable to forecast the decisions that will follow suit.

Why 40 Years?

Why not ten or one hundred? The reason is boringly simple and personal. In 2012 it is forty years since The Limits to Growth was published, discussing how humanity could handle life on a limited planet over the next hundred years or so. Today we know what was done during the first forty years—and what was not done. We know a great deal about the rationale for the decisions made during these decades. And we have a fair understanding of the pressures that have locked us into nonaction on a number of fronts. We have experienced how fast technology can solve certain solvable problems, and how slowly humanity progresses on less tractable issues. Since we know so much about the first forty years, it seemed reasonable to extract lessons from those forty years, and try to look at the next forty. When studying a dynamic phenomenon one should start by looking as far back as one is planning to look ahead. If you want to say something about population growth from 2012 to 2052, it is helpful to know the population numbers from 1972 to 2012.

So my forecast for the next forty years is an educated guess at what I believe will happen, not a scenario analysis, and certainly not a description of what ought to happen. The latter has been done too many times. Global society knows very well what should be done to create a better world for our children. We need to remove poverty and address the climate challenge. We know that this can be done technologically and at a relatively low cost. But, sadly, as you will see, I don’t believe this will be done. Humanity, as I had feared, will not rise to the occasion, at least not rapidly enough to avoid unnecessary damage. The complex and time-consuming decision making of democratic nation-states will ensure that.

Different societal groups will fare differently. The poor peasant in rural China in 2012 will have a much better ride toward 2052 than the upper-middle-classer of the postindustrial world, who will lose many of his privileges.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from 2052 by Jorgen Randers, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. 

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