Home Jorgen Randers: Our Species’ Biggest Risk is Our Lack of Coherent Long-Term Decision Making

Jorgen Randers: Our Species’ Biggest Risk is Our Lack of Coherent Long-Term Decision Making

user profile picture Adam Taggart May 28, 2012
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Forty years ago, a group of researchers at MIT ran a study to address the question of how humans would adapt to the physical limitations of a finite planet. That study became the book Limits to Growth.

It should have been a starting point for a critical discussion at the national or even global level. It could have led to the birthing of many practical and then-implementable initiatives that mighthave brought our unsustainable demographic, industrial, and consumptive behavior under better control. But sadly, the book instead became a lightning rod for controversy. And decades later, the issues it warned of loom larger than ever.

In this interview, Chris discusses our collective failure to act on this book's message with Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of Limits to Growth and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update as well as a new book, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years.

While there are some differences in opinion between Jorgen and Chris, particularly on the acuteness of our resource predicament, both agree that continuing to pursue the status quo will result in a poorer quality of life for most of the world's denizens. We increasingly appear to be facing a future shaped either by design or disaster, and unless we actively decide to intelligently change our behavior, the latter outcome will prevail.

Chris Martenson:  The part that I personally am concerned about is the idea that it’s around money itself, and that money is a marker for real things and as long as there’s a balance between your real stuff and the amount of money, things are okay.

What we are discovering now is that a lot of promises have been made in Europe, in the United States, Japan. There are pension promises and entitlement. They are fairly long-range projects that say, “We are going to take some money in today, and we are going to give that back to people over time in their purchasing power.”  An important concept that you are bringing up: What will be delivered to them? We take it today; we deliver it back in the future? Those promises now are many, many times larger than the GDP of the world currently is, and so one thing is absolutely true in this model, as it’s constructed right now, is that in order for the pension and entitlement promises – those cultural, societal promises we made to ourselves to be true or to be kept, we need the economy to grow a lot, not in nominal terms but in real terms. Nominal meaning not inflation-adjusted, real being inflation-adjusted.

What you are describing is that we’ve already hit a period of stagnation for a set of reasons. It’s a very complex system, so those reasons could be manyfold, but at least part of that in my mind has got to be around what we are seeing with our net return from energy that we are getting back out of the ground; that’s a cornerstone of my set of arguments and thinking. And so as we cast forward over this next period of time, what do you see as — here’s the general sweep — I can describe all non-renewable natural resources like this: They are all of much, much, much lesser quality than they used to be. So we are not chasing ten percent copper grades anymore; we are chasing 0.2% copper grades. We are not chasing oil that is 1,000 feet down; we are chasing oil that has to be cooked off of sand because it’s not actually oil, it’s bitumen or something worse like kerogen. We are no longer finding vast surface deposits of things like coal; we are out of anthracite; we are through the bituminous, practically; we are into the sub-bituminous. Now we are looking at lignite.

So to these stories are all a story of saying "less and less concentrated resources, which require more and more energy in order to extract." So we have those sweeps coming along and we are on our way to nine billion from seven billion and all of these things come together. When you put all those in your model, what turns up in forty years?    

Jorgen Randers:  So what turns up is the first thing, namely that we will try to grow but we will not succeed. The second thing, which turns up, is that I don’t think resources are going to be the problem. If we were to put the finger on one problem it is lack of coherent long-term decision making.

So in order to make my view in contrast to yours or try to make the contrast between the two a little clearer, I think that the reason why the United States is not going to be on a per capita basis richer in 2050 than it is today has nothing to do with the resource unavailability. I think that are enough resources available to handle the U.S. need to 2050, particularly since the U.S. need is not going to increase very much over the next forty years. But the reason why I think there will be problems in the United States is that the U.S. is incapable of making the societal decisions that are necessary in order to move coherently in a progressive direction.

You know, and the current stalemate in your [Congress], you know, between the two sides that basically keep each other from making clear decisions on anything is the real head of the monster, the way I see it. And that’s the reason why I think that China is actually going to do very much better. They are in the same resource-constrained world as is the United States. And they are much less well endowed domestically with resources than the United States is. Still I think they are going to do much better because those gentlemen are at least capable of making a decision. You know, they analyze the problem, they see what is the problem, and if they have a problem – they solve it.

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