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In this post, Desmond Berghofer deals with what the next four decades might be like for our grandchildren. His writing on “the moral dimension of economics” paints a “disquieting picture of where current economic thinking and practice are taking the world.” This post is adapted from the original article which is at grandparentsforthefuture. (Editor: Rolly Montpellier)

The Backdrop

Five groups of economies are trying to expand like balloons at the mouth of a funnel that gets narrower over time as the Earth’s resources and carrying capacity are depleted and diminished.  Soon the collective volume of all these economies fills the funnel, and the individual economies will just have to sort things out. They will have a variety of choices, such as managed contraction, conflict, cooperation and innovation.


Credit: GrandParentsfortheFuture, Desmond Berghofer

That’s the broad-brush reality, but what about specific components that together make up the whole – components like energy use, population, availability of food, climate and weather, governance, settlement patterns, and so on.  In other words, what’s it going to be like living on this planet for the next forty years, and what will a snapshot of 2052 look like?

2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years Those were the questions Jorgen Randers asked himself, and he set out about answering them.  The result is his new book, written as a report to the Club of Rome and entitled 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (2012). Jorgen Randers is well qualified to write about the future. Randers is a professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School.  He has been active for many years in influential circles regarding climate, the environment and the future.

He makes it clear that what he describes is not what he thinks should happen, but rather what he believes will happen given the choices he thinks humanity will make over the next forty years.  His general assumption is that “humanity will not rise to the occasion” to address such issues as inequity, amelioration of poverty, or preventing the impacts of climate change. “The complex and time-consuming decision making of democratic nation states will ensure that.”

Not a reassuring outlook for our grandchildren and their children

His main focus is sustainability, and he thinks this will become more front and centre in societal thinking as the years roll on, not because of any collective societal conversion to higher values, but rather because of growing awareness of how bad things are getting. His general conclusion is summed up in these observations:

“I believe the transition to sustainability will be only half complete by 2052, and may run into serious difficulties in the second half of the century. Global society will have to perform a miracle after 2052 if it is to end the century in a desirable situation….the next forty years will be strongly influenced by how we handle five central issues: capitalism, economic growth, democracy, intergenerational equity, and our relationship with the earth’s climate.”

Capitalism will continue to be used to make inappropriate allocation decisions based on markets where price signals don’t reflect environmental realities. Fixation on economic growth will continue to be seen as the best way to provide people with work, but rates of growth will be much slower than in the past forty years. Democracy will continue to produce endless debate rather than prompt action on critical issues like climate problems. The issue of intergenerational equity will come to the fore as more people come to understand that the way they are living is degrading the planet for those who follow them; but even with this realization decisions will still continue to favour the current rather than future generations, which does not augur well for children born in the second half of the century. Finally, the issue of climate change will prove to be the most troubling for humanity to address in a responsible way, so that the potential for runaway global warming in the second half of the century becomes a serious possibility.

It’s not a reassuring forecast for our grandchildren. Randers describes his forecast under five headings.

Population and Consumption to 2052

One of the surprising conclusions reached by Randers concerns an issue that has been a concern since the 1960s—a rapidly growing world population that seems unstoppable. The United Nations has projected a world population of 9 billion by 2050 with a probable continuing increase after that. Randers concludes differently that:

“the global population will peak before 2052 (actually ten years earlier), because of a continuing decline in the number of children per woman.  This decline will be only partly compensated by a continuing rise in life expectancy… These two trends will cause the global population to reach a maximum of some 8.1 billion people in the 2040s.”

The stabilizing and beginning decline of world population might be seen as a good thing in a resource-scarce future, but it is a mixed blessing, as most of the people will be living in megacities all over the world and labour productivity will continue to grow, putting more pressure on the environment.

All of this adds up to a world economy that will be twice as big in 2052 as it is today, but much smaller than what many economists expect. Randers describes it this way:

“It’s important to note that my forecast is not based on an assumption that humanity will come to its senses and deliberately try to limit economic activity on earth, in order to protect it from overload. What I am saying is that humanity will continue to try to create economic growth, but that it won’t succeed as much as desired.”

One of the ways we will be poorer in the future is that we will throw money at the problems we are causing. “In other words, society will try to solve the oncoming stream of problems through increased investment.” We will spend money on adaptation instead of in trying to find a solution. Randers calls this “forced investment”—repairing damage from extreme weather, spending more on substitutes for scarce resources, replacing ecological services that formerly were free like water from glaciers and fish from the oceans, and so on.

Energy and CO2 to 2052

Randers forecasts that “in 2052 more than one-half of world energy use will be from fossil fuels.” And it will be much more costly than it is today. This is bad news for CO2 emissions. However, the good news is that Randers expects “that the world’s consumption of fossil fuels will be in steep decline by 2052. The contribution from nuclear will be declining. The real winner will be the renewables—solar, wind and biomass—which, along with hydro, will grow from 8% in 2010 to 37% in 2052.” In particular, Randers believes that solar will be the power of the future as the costs of providing it go down.

Concerning CO2 emissions from energy, Randers forecasts that they will peak in the 2030s, but in 2052 they will still be a full 40% above global emissions in 1990.  This means that:

“the world will have lost its chance to keep global warming below the internationally agreed goal of plus 2 degrees C. . . There will be visible climate damage and growing worry about the future. The world in 2052 will be knee-deep, literally—remember that the oceans will have risen by more than one foot between now and then—in a self-inflicted climate problem. . . The crisis could become catastrophic if self-reinforcing climate change is triggered. This is a possibility in the latter half of the twenty-first century, when the temperature might go so high that it starts melting the tundra, thereby releasing vast amounts of methane gas that is currently locked in the frozen ground cover.”

What all this will add up to by 2052, says Randers, is enough awareness that citizens will launch a “tremendous effort” to reduce emissions. But will it be too little too late?  No one knows for sure.

Food and Footprint to 2052

Will we be able to feed ourselves? Randers says, “Yes—at least until 2052.” He qualifies this forecast by adding that “there will enough food around to satisfy all of us who can afford to pay,” though, sadly, many will still starve. Diets will change. Less red meat for the rich. Less fish from the oceans. But enough grain and chicken.

But what will be our ecological footprint? We have already overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth and eventually our descendants will have to come to grips with this reality. Randers points out that “there are only two ways out of overshoot: managed decline or natural collapse.” Of course, we are trying to avoid the latter, but not doing nearly enough to implement the former. In the process we will move to live mostly in cities, where we will do better at recycling and be more energy efficient, but overall the picture for the biosphere is bleak.

The Zeitgeist in 2052

What will be the spirit of 2052—the zeitgeist? There will be deep impacts on the world’s cultures, its political systems, and the general frame of mind—all of which will add up to a profound shift of mood and outlook.

One of the driving concepts at the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st was the idea of globalization and “flattening” of the world where there would be few differences across national borders. But the failure of nations to agree on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and on the liberalization of service flows across borders, leads Randers to conclude that globalization will wane over the coming decades.

This trend will reflect what will become a growing preoccupation within the rich world—how to manage inevitable de-growth. Forward thinking regions within some nations “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 organize systems that rely on local food, local energy, and programs that strengthen regional and local economies.”

The central shift in thinking will be away from the conviction of the last forty years that economic growth is the way to a successful society. Current evidence within the developed world is already showing more growth is not the answer. These are the voices of what Randers calls,

“the “sustainability crowd…..still a tiny minority, and the paradigm shift is probably several decades in the future. . . But by 2052, the new paradigm—‘sustainable well-being based on renewable energy’—will be exerting increasing influence on policy making.”

How this will come about, who will lead—the rich democratic nations or more authoritarian states like China—is not clear.  Perhaps the always-on Internet and its capability to foster collective thinking will lead to a spirit of “collaborative ventures” and a zeitgeist of “harnessing the wisdom of the crowd” across boundaries of nation states and ideology towards a world in which collective well-being of humanity will be seen to outweigh the selfish individualism of our own time.

With this shift in thinking Randers speculates that:

“thinking people will become increasingly concerned with what type of world they are leaving for future generations. . . It will become obvious that the current generation is adding problems to the shoulders of the next generation that far exceed the power of the new tools, which are also part of their inheritance.”


The possible future that Randers describes in his forecast has a high probability of unfolding much along the lines he has described. However, there are a number of critical factors not included in his deliberations, which could change things dramatically. One is the possibility that governing authorities will make changes to the monetary system that would lead to sustainability choices being made, in contrast to choices for economic growth, sooner rather than later. The following links (articles) illustrate how our current monetary systems can and should be changed.

Economics: Reform of the Money System

Economics: Money and Sustainability

Economics: Seeking Optimal Balance

Economics: Fixing a Broken System

Economics: Creating a Monetary Ecosystem

Another possibility not explored by Randers is that human capability for enhanced decision making will be greatly expanded over coming decades.  Science is already predicting the simulation of a non-biological human brain with the potential to augment human learning by many orders of magnitude in following decades. Leaders can potentially emerge who will use such enhanced powers for human learning to advance the sustainability agenda decades faster than it might otherwise occur.

A huge worldwide movement is currently underway in a kind of parallel universe to the mainstream political-economic-industrial universe. In this movement, millions are expressing heartfelt desire to give birth to a new human consciousness that would value connection and well-being over wealth and power. If this swells in strength, it could provide a different momentum than what Randers fears will actually be the case.

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  1. Sad, really, that even by 2052, we will not have addressed the inevitable. For a full and deep read on the subject, I highly recommend Mike Nickerson’s book, Life, Money & Illusion; Living on Earth as if we want to stay.

  2. The other thing to keep in mind is that that 2ºC “target” is bullshit (to be blunt, sorry). Even as a “guardrail” it is far too high. That’s because the ocean heat lag effect alone will double any global temperature increase we end up with — and that’s *before* we add in extra heating from climate feedbacks, especially in the Arctic, and extra heat from unmasking the cooling effect of air pollution aerosols (when we finally decide to quit burning hydrocarbons).

    We all really need to stop talking about 2ºC and start talking about zero carbon — and achieving *that* goal as rapidly as possible.

  3. Thank you for your comment GreenHearted. So right about the 2ºC “target. As you point out, ocean heat and feedbacks will take us past that point. Not to mention that we are increasing our consumption of fossil fuels worldwide adding millions of tons of carbon as I write this.

    At the end of the century, when people are struggling with a 4 degree rise in global temperature, the 2 degree target will be a distant memory.


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