2052 by Jorgen Randers (Book Review)
Updated: Nov 26, 2021
Global Challenges, Part I
This post is one of four that I aim to publish as revisions of my integration essay for my Fort Hays State University fall 2020 graduate class, IDS 805: Global Challenges, instructed by my advisor Darrell Hamlin. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), there are seven "revolutions” that will shape our world by the year 2035: population, resources, technology, information, economies, conflict, and governance. These drivers of change compose the academic framework for this class, which is also the core class for the MLS Global Studies concentration. The key texts examined—2052: A Forecast for the Next Forty Years, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs—discuss these and other global issues through various lenses, identifying startling realities and possibilities for change. In this three-part essay, I critique these works, dissect the authors’ conclusions, and make inferences of my own with both the seven revolutions and the current COVID-19 pandemic in mind.
Back Cover Description
We know what we want the world to be like in forty years. But what do we know about what the world will actually be like in forty years? That is the question Jorgen Randers tries to answer in 2052. Forty years ago, Randers was one of the coauthors of The Limits of Growth, a study that addressed the grand question of how humans would adapt to the physical limitations of planet Earth while in pursuit of limitless growth. In 2052, Randers draws on his own experience in the sustainability arena, global forecasting tools, and the predictions--included in the book--of more than thirty leading scientists, economists, futurists, and other thinkers to guide us through the future he feels is most likely to emerge. This glimpse of the future asks: How many people will the planet need to support? Will there be enough food and energy? Will the belief in endless growth crumble? Will the shift to Chinese economic superiority be peaceful? Will the race toward renewables succeed? Will runaway climate change have taken hold? Where will quality of life improve, and where will it decline? These questions, and others, are deftly probed by an incisive, humane, and skilled look at the future before us, and offer some surprising answers.
Randers attempts to provide some answers to the climate change-related questions that continue to keep most of us up at night. It is a commendable goal, with the understanding that perfect accuracy is unattainable. Many writers find that they take to a project to appease their own desires first and foremost, and this rings true with Randers. He makes no attempt to hide that this project started as an antidote to the incessant "climate worrying" clouding his mind. As readers progress through the chapters, they may find that this admission is clearly reflected in the books content. And, with so much projection, commentary, and lifestyle advice, readers are also likely to start a healthy list of disagreements. It's best to approach 2052 with an open but inquisitive mind, understanding that this is the work of one man--a professor, a scientist, and an experienced climate strategist, but one man nonetheless.
After describing the purpose for this forecast, providing contextual foundations of global systems that have brought us to the twenty-first century, and building rapport with five guest essays, he walks readers through his logical process. He explains that his predictions, though sometimes complemented by guest essay "glimpses" from various scientists and economists, are "based on all information available to me: statistical data, anecdotal stories, impressions from traveling the world, and formal analyses of particular developments" (p. 53). He explains that his "guiding star" of the research is composed of two questions: "What will happen to consumption in the next 40 years?" and "Under what conditions--in the social and natural environment--will that future consumption take place?" (p. 54). The predictions are presented to the reader in a linear fashion, but they are obtained from a circular, intricate maze of global system feedback loops: consumption and energy use are determined by production (GDP); GDP is determined by workforce, which is determined by population; population is affected by urbanization, fertility, health services, and life expectancy; and so on (see figure 3-1).
After portraying the formulaic processes that brought him to his conclusions, Randers provides several predictions for the near and not-so-near future, influenced by five big issues. This bulleted list is directly from Michael Marien's 2012 review of the book--his piece, published in the Cadmus Journal, indisputably provides a better summary of 2052's content, and is a recommended read.
The End of Uncontrolled Capitalism: “slow and insufficient response to our challenges will dominate”; old-fashioned capitalism will survive in parts of the world, but will be strongly modified elsewhere
The End of Economic Growth: continuing technological advance will come to our partial rescue, but lack of space and cheap resources will force solutions with a lower ecological footprint to fit within the carrying capacity of the planet
The End of Slow Democracy: the fundamental question is whether democracies will agree on a stronger state and faster decision-making before we run into the brick wall of self-reinforcing climate change
Intergenerational Conflict: the era of generational harmony will come to an end, leading to slower economic growth and a smaller pie to share
The End of Stable Climate: negative impacts will be significant, but not disastrous before 2052; there will be more droughts and floods, and sea level will be 0.3 meters higher; “self-reinforcing climate change will be worry number one, with methane gas emissions from the melting tundra leading to further temperature increase, which in turn will melt even more tundra” (p47); the world will still be operational, but with higher operating costs and scary prospects for the rest of the 21st century
With these critical ideas in mind, Randers goes on to make several predictions:
The global population will stagnate earlier than expected due to drops in fertility in an urbanized world. It will peak at 8.1 billion just after 2040 and then decline.
Global GDP will reach 2.2 times current levels around 2050.
Productivity growth will be slower because of mature economies, social strife, and extreme weather.
Growth rate in global consumption will slow because a greater share of GDP will be going toward investment (both voluntary and forced). Consumption of goods and services will peak in 2045.
Resource and climate problems will not be catastrophic before 2052, but there will be much unnecessary suffering around the middle of the century.
Self-reinforcing and positive feedback loops of global warming will be apparent by 2050.
Short-termism of capitalism and democracy will hinder long-term climate solutions.
The world's population will be about 80% urban by 2050.
The impacts of global systems and climate change will differ between five regions: US, OECD nations (EU, Japan, Canada, etc.), China, BRISE (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, and emerging economies), and ROW (rest of the world, approx. 2.1 billion).
Randers’ forecasts seem thorough at a glance, and he includes plenty of economic and climate modeling to illustrate his statements. However, upon further investigation of his analysis methods, we can see that some of these predictions are limited, and perhaps even outdated just seven years after publication.
First, I believe much of Randers’ forecasting may be accurate, but only to the extent of a white, middle-aged, upper-class man’s knowledge acquisition and experiences. He discusses the subject of “paradigms” or different worldviews early on, mentioning that the current Western societies have the dominant paradigm but that we should understand it to change by 2052 (2012, p. 9). At least by prefacing his forecast with these few paragraphs, he gives himself a little wiggle room under intersectional scrutiny. I do not doubt the strength of his analytical and inferencing skills that come from forty years of climate experience, but even the outside perspectives he displays through the 34 “glimpses” written by colleagues and renowned experts in the field are painfully un-diverse. Besides Carlos Joly, Chandran Nair, Edgar Pieterse, and Jonathan Loh—the first, second, 23rd, and final glimpse in the book, respectively—the 30 other contributors appear to be white. I also counted only three women, all of whom are also white. It is evident that these climate forecasts, therefore, come from the eyes of mostly white, mostly male (and, most likely, well-off) academics and successful businessmen.
This is not to say that these climate testimonies and contributions are subpar; rather, that this
presentation does not paint a complete picture of the global climate situation. It is not difficult to find Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) populations who are environmental defenders with climate change mitigation expertise—just look at where the most deforestation and desecration occurs: in their backyards. From the Amazon rainforest to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Flint water crisis, Indigenous and other marginalized communities are on the front lines of environmental threats, and yet their voices are ignored in the conservation field. In fact, some noteworthy environmentalist leaders and organizations, like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Sierra Club, have come under scrutiny in the past decade for exclusionary and sometimes blatantly racist practices. Prakash Kashwan, co-director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights at the Human Rights Institute, explains in The Conversation that American environmentalism’s racist roots have long influenced global conservation practices, especially seen through prejudices against and silencing of Indigenous and poor communities (Kashwan, 2020). The most likely scenario in this situation, however, is not that Randers meant to discount the lived experiences of BIPOC populations, but that his implicit bias automatically framed 2052 around his familiar social spheres and, therefore, his privileges.
This lack of foundational inclusion is likely to blame for some of Randers’ jumps in judgement that seem somewhat limited in scope. For example, in chapter 2 he writes, “The sustainability revolution has already begun, that is for sure. The new paradigm already emerged forty years ago, or perhaps even fifty...It has spread since, but is still far from mainstream” (2012, p. 13). As a white person myself, I would clarify that yes, in a way, the “sustainability revolution” has ignited, but only in the eyes of Westerners. For Indigenous communities, and I would say People of Color in general more than whites, there was less of a need for such a revolution to begin with because these communities had not strayed far enough from naturally harmonic lifestyles to necessitate being reeled back in (Raygorodetsky, 2018; Sengupta, 2021). But even if we were to say that a sustainability revolution did begin, I imagine a tribal elder would say that it started much earlier, likely around the time of industrialization. Native communities have been fighting against dirty industry and corporate greed for hundreds of years; only when white Westerners were physically affected by our own polluting inventions did it seem appropriate to label such common-sense thinking as revolutionary sustainability.
Another prominent misstep Randers takes is in his claim that the “Dark Decades” will “primarily
affect the rich” (2012, p. 19). I understand the fiscal point of view he was using: the majority of climate infrastructure, investment, and adaptation tactics will be footed by the top 5% or so, since, well, that’s where the money is. But saying that the rich will suffer most because of the compounding effects of the climate crisis seems naïve at best, considering the shocking health disparities within BIPOC populations already, which will only worsen with climate change-related heat waves, food and water scarcity, and infectious disease outbreaks; and the fact that displacement, famine, sea level rise, and other damaging effects will be felt first and foremost by “communities of color and low income communities in the United States and around the world” (NAACP, 2020). After finding that Randers has also determined global societies will need increased investment to “maintain armed forces to fight off immigration” (2012, p. 81), my understanding is that Randers may be guilty of "us vs. them" mentality and a borderline
xenophobic perspective on climate migrants. Similar rhetoric, even mentioned in passing, incites nationalistic hate speech, discrimination, and ultimately violence. A United Nations (UN) working group on migration and xenophobia concluded that “the growth of often-violent racism and xenophobia against migrants and refugees is often fed by restrictive immigration policies” (International Labour Office, 2001). Randers supplies these comments casually, while simultaneously feeling bad for his good friends in the US “who will have to endure gradual and seemingly never-ending stagnation from the peak years of their empire in the twentieth century” (pp. 160-161). I see this as an alarmingly shallow take. The more I read, the more I became convinced that, intentionally or unintentionally, Randers was writing for a specific audience: people who lived, worked, and looked like himself.
It also became evident that Randers may have underestimated world population levels. In 2011,
we reached 7 billion; when first writing this essay in December 2020, it was about 7.8 billion according to Worldometer, which uses data from the UN (2020). World population is expected to reach 8 billion people in 2023 according to the UN (in 2026 according to the U.S. Census Bureau) and 9 billion by 2037. In contrast, Randers predicts the population to increase more slowly, peak at 8.1 billion around 2040, and then decline (p. 355). Marien, in his review of the book back when it was first published, also called this prediction Randers' "most questionable assumption" (Marien, 2012). Since population has such a foundational effect on the other global system operations, Randers' estimate being off by more than a billion people could dramatically affect all other calculations in the book. One can assume he is aware of this discrepancy by now. I would be interested to know if he has made any public response to amend his original predictions.
This significant error prompts another look at his forecasting strategies. His explanation of
methodology was thorough—and a little dry for an everyday read, as expected for the field—but he mentions that he has “based [his] forecast on average values,” and even admits that this is where he “depart[s] from strict science and venture[s] out on that limb” (Randers, 2012, p. 237). Our class has learned from Factfulness [which I will analyze in part 2 of this essay] that averages can not only be misleading but cause miscalculations. As my classmate Matthew Holloman noted in his 2052 discussion board post, “averages are dangerous because they omit outliers; and when we’re talking about a 40-year projection, outliers can end up having a dramatic impact on trends” (2020). While my expertise does not lie in data analysis, I find myself questioning how accurate Randers' other predictions will be.
One forecast that I do find to be accurate is that a revolution of some sort will occur in the US within the 2020s. The current social and political climate certainly gives the feeling of an impending revolution. However, I disagree in the assumption of who the so-called "leaders" of these revolutions will be. Besides problems with wealth distribution, Randers does not dwell on other deep-seated, systemic inequities that exist within global society—namely misogyny, imperialism, and white supremacy. These evils have a much larger role in global climate change than most people realize. The main victims of these evils—women, BIPOC populations, the LGBTQ+ community, and others—are far from the minority when added together, though historically they have been denied the authority and platform to be heard. Pair this with technological advancement, intergenerational value differences, and the terror of inheriting a doomed future, and what results is an incredible number of younger Millennials, Gen Z-ers, and the other coming generations rising as prominent leaders everywhere.
The year 2020 alone has seen more sustained protests and civil unrest than any in recent memory. Thought leaders have mentioned that the Black Lives Matter movement has strong similarities with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (Thomsen, 2020). Every organizer I have spoken with—many of whom have been publicly dissenting for more than 20 years—says this time, this year, is different. So, when Randers’ asserts that the main people opposing the traditionalist “pro-growthers” will be the old-fashioned (read: white) environmentalists, corporate heads, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (2012, p. 255), I see another miscalculation. Yes, NGOs will be there as their capacity allows, as more and more are changing their approach to climate justice and focusing on capacity building for underserved communities. But whatever revolution occurs will be sparked and led by youth, BIPOC folks, and others who have suffered under the atrocities of imperialist, racist, and capitalist viewpoints for a long time. Within the book, this argument is supported by Karl Wagner’s glimpse (pp. 36-39).
Between 2012 and 2014, Randers presented the book worldwide to thousands of people: to a variety of Nordic institutions, American universities, the Smithsonian, Club of Rome, WWF, the Brazilian Senate, the European Finance Forum, the Climate Institute in Australia, the Ecological Institute in Germany, South Africa's National Planning Commission and Development Bank, Dow Chemical Company (where Randers sits on the sustainability committee), Shell International, and the World Nutrition Forum, to name a few. The book's website, 2052.info, exists as a supplement, providing the quantitative basis for the predictions in the form of a spreadsheet, summaries, slide decks, and external reviews.
Though noticeably flawed, I admire Randers' honest commentary throughout the book as he attempts to forecast the future. While his goal seems to align more with placating the anxieties of an aging man than spreading his message to a wide audience, I acknowledge the impossibility of perfection, especially in this realm of infinite futures. I hope this work inspires future research and more preparation for what lies ahead.
Holloman, M. (2020). IDS 805: Discussion board posts. Fort Hays State University.
International Labour Office, International Organization for Migration, & Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2001). International migration, racism, discrimination and xenophobia. https://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/migration/taskforce/docs/wcar.pdf
Kashwan, P. (2020, September 2). American environmentalism’s racist roots have shaped global thinking about conservation. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/american-environmentalisms-racist-roots-have-shaped-global-thinking-about-conservation-143783
Marien, Michael (2012). Book Review — 2052: A global forecast for the next forty years. Cadmus Journal, 1(5), 53-61. http://www.2052.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/d121006-Michael-Marien-on-2052-Cadmus.pdf
NAACP (2020). Environmental & climate justice. https://naacp.org/issues/environmental-justice/
Randers, J. (2012). 2052: A global forecast for the next forty years. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Raygorodetsky, G. (2018, November 6). Indigenous peoples defend Earth's biodiversity—but they're in danger. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/can-indigenous-land-stewardship-protect-biodiversity-/
Rosling, H. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world--and why things are better than you think. Flatiron Books.
Sengupta, S., Einhorn, C., & Andreoni, M. (2021, March 11). There’s a global plan to conserve nature. Indigenous people could lead the way. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/11/climate/nature-conservation-30-percent.html
Thomsen, I. (2020, June 4). How do today’s Black Lives Matter protests compare to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? News@Northeastern. https://news.northeastern.edu/2020/06/04/how-do-todays-black-lives-matter-protests-compare-to-the-civil-rights-movement-of-the-1960s/
Worldometer (2020, December 7). Current world population. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/