Interview: Jørgen Randers on being pushed to the limits

26th November 2021

Almost 50 years since the publication of The Limits to Growth, co-author Jørgen Randers tells Chris Seekings what we can expect for the environment and society over the next half century

When Professor Jørgen Randers is not too busy modelling the likelihood of imminent societal or environmental collapse, he spends much of his time planning a follow-up to his famous report The Limits To Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome.

It is almost 50 years since he co-wrote the groundbreaking 1972 paper, which is based on the computer-simulated consequences of exponential economic and population growth in a world of finite resources. The report concludes that, without substantial changes in resource consumption, humanity is likely to face a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”. Today, the forecasts are more relevant than ever, with the Earth’s resources pushed to the limit as climate change and biodiversity loss continue unabated.

After taking time away from building his latest computer model, Randers tells me about the world’s current trajectory, and what we can expect for society and the environment over the next 50 years.

Enduring debate

More than 30m copies of The Limits to Growth have been sold, in 30 languages. The report caused a storm of controversy on its publication – while some economists praised it for tackling uncomfortable questions, others accused it of being motivated by a hidden agenda: to halt growth in its tracks. “The reason it got so popular is that it was attacked so fiercely within a couple of weeks after publication,” Randers says. “It was on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, with three macroeconomists attacking it so savagely that people asked, ‘what the hell are these guys saying that makes these economists so angry?’ That’s when it spread and took off.”

“It’s possible to run a society as long as there is income growth, but once that starts to decline, people get very upset”

The report proposed 12 possible scenarios for 2100, with the most pessimistic suggesting “overshoot and collapse” in economic growth, characterised by devastating pollution and breakdown in production and living standards. Subsequent work continues to confirm that insufficient changes have been made to consumption, although the consequences are still debated. “We were the only people we knew at the time who were working on the biggest questions of population growth and environmental science as they were emerging,” Randers explains. “We took it for granted that growth in the extraction of resources, population and pollution would have to stop, but were asking whether this would happen through smooth adjustments within the limits of the planet, or through overshoot and collapse.”

With a career spanning politics, finance and academia, he is not afraid to speak bluntly about where the world is heading, and the widespread changes needed. “I’ve been a chairman of three banks and started a number of companies, so I have all the credentials, but now I’m starting to get hectic about things. Someone needs to speak very clearly about why we are moving so slowly, and luckily I’m totally independent now.”

Pollution collapse

Randers was working on his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he wrote The Limits to Growth. At the time, many thought the world would run out of coal, oil and gas. “Instead, we are following Scenario Two from the original report, which we called the ‘pollution collapse’,” Randers explains. “This is where there are no resource constraints, and consequently, human population keeps expanding, with more economic activity and emissions.”

He believes we are unlikely to control emissions fast enough, and that global temperatures are set to rise around 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2075, before starting to decline. “Humanity is emitting much more into the atmosphere than is absorbed by the oceans and the forests. The big task at hand is to decline the unsustainable emissions we have today down to zero, and then negative emissions for a couple of hundred years to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The question is, can this be done in a smooth manner?”

Randers published his first book as a solo author on this issue – 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, highlighting global environmental trends – in 2012. He says that when it comes to the climate and pollution, “we are clearly in overshoot”, but have yet to see large-scale global ecological collapse. “We have seen regional, national and small cities collapse, but not the big one. My feeling is that social collapse will occur before we get the total ecological collapse.”

“You don’t get anywhere by being a doomsday prophet. One must talk about the great opportunities that exist”

Political unrest

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were both symptomatic of societies growing increasingly frustrated with unprecedented income inequality, Randers says. “When you get beyond a certain point, people start to rebel. The best example I know is the decision in the UK to leave the EU, which was an act of frustration. It had nothing to do with the EU, in my mind. The same with Trump – people don’t know what they are for, but they’re absolutely certain they don’t like the present.”

Despite being home to the most billionaires of any country, the US has seen inflation-adjusted wages grow by only 0.2% per year since the early 1970s. With extreme weather becoming increasingly frequent, this creates the perfect storm for unrest. “It’s possible to run a society as long as there is income growth, but once that starts to decline, people get very upset,” Randers explains. “It is a drain on the spirits of the people who face increasing inequity and low labour participation rates. With ever-rising extreme weather, I think some people will get very frustrated, and then you don’t really know what will happen.”

These trends paint a bleak picture for the social structures we depend on. Is it possible to avoid societal and ecological collapse? “Yes, it is fully possible, but it requires decisions that are hard to get democracies to agree on, because they involve costs in the short term that only give a benefit 30 to 60 years into the future. The real challenge is to get short-term markets and short-term people to agree on action.”

The path ahead

A decade ago, after being tasked by the Norwegian government with studying how best to cut emissions by 2050, a commission chaired by Randers recommended a 15-point plan to the Norwegian parliament, which would have cost each citizen around €250 each year in taxes and slashed emissions by two-thirds. “I spent four years travelling Norway, trying to convince people this was a great deal, that the solutions existed with only a small tax increase,” he explains. “I thought it was an easy sell, but it proved to be absolutely impossible – even in stinking rich Norway, it is still impossible to get people to pay for a solution.”

Although it might be difficult to get people to agree on what is needed to tackle the climate crisis, the solutions are very simple for Randers. “Replace coal, oil and gas with renewable energy, replace agriculture with regenerative agriculture, and change the development model that we have been trying in vain to force onto the poor world,” he says. “It involves taxing the rich and making them pay for transitional costs to build wind and forest in the Global South where it’s most desperately needed, and just give it to them, so they then have the energy for economic development.”

But when talking about economic development, Randers says it is “totally ridiculous” to look at GDP in isolation as a measure of success. He argues that economists who have embraced a “neoclassical macro” approach to growth have too much influence over political discourse, and that new indicators are needed. “GDP is simply a measure of the activity level, which is why it increases when there are floods or hurricanes and a boom in construction,” he explains. “We need to use the quality-of-life indicator, which depends on how much food there is – not the value of food – how much pollution there is in the air, and the purchasing power people have.”

“My feeling is that social collapse will occur before we get the total ecological collapse”

Positive scenarios

One scenario that no longer looks likely to play out is the continuous sharp population growth witnessed during the past 200 years. Randers believes this is likely to peak in the 2050s at around 9.5 billion people, and then decline rapidly down to around six billion in 2100 – the same as it was in 2001. “The reason is simply that the number of children per woman has been falling like a stone in both the rich and particularly the poor world over the last 50 years,” he says. “The position of women has improved dramatically through education, health and contraception, and this is not going to change in the next 50 years. The population goes down not because people starve or heat and that type of thing, but because of the major shift in the self determination of women.”

This is perhaps one of the few positive trends that could give us optimism. Although Randers has spent decades watching as the environment has been trashed in the name of growth, he knows how important it is to convey an optimistic message. “The climate crisis is the most urgent crisis facing the world – even the poverty crisis is not as important, because if we solve that without solving the climate, then we will lose the poverty victory afterwards,” he says. “But you don’t get anywhere by being a doomsday prophet. One must talk about the great job opportunities that exist, or the huge floating wind parks we could build easily.”

Next year is also the 50th anniversary of the UN’s Conference on the Human Environment, known as the Stockholm Conference, and the celebrations in June 2022 will be used to launch the follow-up book to The Limits to Growth. “It remains to be seen what will be in the final version,” Randers says coyly. “This was a big group effort, and we haven’t finished yet. There has been a move in the right direction since 1972, institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been built, we have ministries for the environment – but our models show that we can’t continue progress at this pace. The only thing we can do is tell the world to stay away from the sad scenarios and try to implement the positive ones.”

Image credit | Tania Contrasto| Shutterstock


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