The Limits to Growth, 50 years later

“Earth For All” is an update to the landmark 1972 book that warned of our unsustainable growth. Jørgen Randers, the author who worked on both titles, tells Eco-Business what is at stake if we don’t fix our broken economic system.

Earth for all podcast

It is billed as a “survival guide for humanity”. Its warnings are dire – nations may splinter from social tensions. The solutions offered are a mix of long-standing calls and radical economic ideas that are likely to face pushback from the powers that be today.

A new book titled “Earth for All“, written for global think tank Club of Rome, suggests five “extraordinary turnarounds” to address the growing climate risks and social inequality plaguing the world today. It calls for firms to pay everyday people for the use of resources like oil, minerals and even new ideas, via a “universal basic dividend”. Inequality should be drastically reduced with heavier taxation on the rich and debt relief for poorer nations. The book also renews calls for gender equality, sustainable agriculture and clean energy.

“Earth for All” drops 50 years after “The Limits to Growth”, a landmark study that modelled industrial and population decline later this century due to resource depletion. While much has changed – climate change has arguably trumped resource limitation as the biggest worry, and new pools of oil, gas and minerals have been found, those behind the new book argue that human welfare in general is stagnating, just as computer models predicted.

Can humanity break free as it hurtles into what experts believe will be the danger years ahead? Eco-Business speaks to Jørgen Randers, author of both “Earth for All” back in 1972, and “The Limits to Growth”.

Tune in as we discuss:

Jorgen Randers

Jørgen Randers is professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian “Business School, and a member of the Club of Rome, a think-tank on global issues. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Why social inequality is so dangerous in the age of climate change
  • Challenges of large-scale redistributive efforts
  • What has changed between 1972 and 2022
  • The role of technology
  • How to stay optimistic

Full transcript

Liang [00:00] Fifty years ago, a publication titled “The Limits To Growth” warned of disastrous industrial and population decline later this century, if we kept up our plundering of the Earth. Now scientists are back with an update – that the stakes have never been higher, and the need for radical change, never greater.

This is the Eco-Business podcast, I’m Liang Lei.

The new publication, titled “Earth For All”, has just been released. It places a big focus on inequality. It says that without drastic interventions, social inequality could brew sufficient tensions to break apart countries at the end of the century, adding new details to how exactly civilisations could fall from “The Limits To Growth” publication in 1972.

Climate change, it says, will accelerate this process.

The authors of Earth For All says that, that future could be avoided with what they call, “five extraordinary turnarounds” in poverty, inequality, women empowerment, food systems, and clean energy. Some of its biggest ideas? It calls for the Earth’s natural resources, from underground minerals to intellectual property, to be regarded as common resources co-owned by the public. Whoever wants these resources, pay a “universal basic dividend” to the people. Taxation should be revised, the authors say, such that the richest 10 per cent, takes no more than what the bottom 40 per cent earns.

These are big, bold ideas. How do we implement them? Have we got what it takes to deviate from business-as-usual, and avoid the disaster that is predicted by computer models used for both books, 50 years apart?

Joining me on this podcast today is Jørgen Randers, who is an author of both “Earth for All”, and “The Limits To Growth”. Randers is professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, and is a member of the Club of Rome, a think-tank on global issues. Great to have you with us, Prof Randers.

Randers [01:49] Thank you.

Liang [01:51] I want to start with what really caught my attention, somewhere in the first few chapters of the book. It is mentioned that inequality will be the biggest cause of societal breakdown, not climate emergencies. Given the attention we have on climate today, how different is this from the prevailing thinking that we have now?

Randers [02:08] That is a good question. And it gives me the opportunity to repeat the fact that the real fundamental problem is still emissions of greenhouse gases that’s driving climate change. The problem is that inequality keeps us from implementing the totally obvious solution to the climate change threat, which is to reduce CO2 emissions.

So it’s indirect in the sense that inequality makes it very difficult to get political agreement on the strong action that is necessary in order to stop warming.

The same thing goes for global poverty, which is the other huge challenge of the day, there are obvious solutions to the problem. But it is very difficult to get those solutions in place, as long as you have unequal societies where the majority is paying the bill and the rich is on the surface.

Liang [03:13] I remember you cited examples such as the Yellow Vest movement, against higher petrol prices.

Randers [03:19] Which is a very good example, and very helpful that it exists, the fact that when the French elite decided on the absolutely correct policy to increase energy prices, they forgot about the fact that for the lower half of the French population, this is a really big problem. And the “Yellow Vests”, of course, organised that part of society and stopped what would otherwise have been a very good policy.

The simple solution is that you increase the energy prices for the richest 10 per cent. You do not increase the energy prices for the rest.

Liang [04:05] Inequality and the Social Tension Index are really major themes within the book. The Social Tension Index is represented in numbers, it rises to about 1.6 in the business-as-usual, “too little, too late” scenario compared to under 1.4 in a “giant leap” scenario where all the extraordinary measures are implemented. Can you tell me more about what these numbers represent, and how big are the regional differences?

Randers [04:28] So the main point here is that we believe that the social tension in society is a function of well-being. So when people think that well-being is improving, the tension in society is lower. In order to reduce tensions in society, the authorities need to be able to put in place solutions so that well-being goes up. This is very important, because if you are doing this too late, if the authorities allow well-being to sink for a very long period of time, social tension gets so high that it gets difficult for the authorities to implement and get support for policies. This is what we call the threat of social collapse or societal breakdown.

Liang [05:35] I’m just wondering about the numbers. I guess a good Social Tension Index is at one, where there’s no tension, but I see that in the models, it rises to 1.4, to 1.6. At what level is it a dangerous level of social tension? Is there an indication?

Randers [05:52] No, the numerical values in our study, are not reliable. It is the tendency, it is the fact that it either goes up or goes down, which is reliable. We are after all talking about a huge system, the global system, which cannot be represented with precision, in any type of mathematical model.

What you should be doing is to see that in the “too little, too late” scenario, what happens over the next 50 years is that incomes are rising, disposable income of people is going up, the social services per person is going up. But on the other hand, inequality is rising, and the temperature is rising, and the hope for the future is declining. And the sum of those five factors, make, in the model system, well-being peak and then start to decline over the next 50 years.

The numerical values of the well-being index are not reliable, but the fact that it actually declines because the world is getting warmer, and because inequality is rising as we continue liberalisation, that’s reliable.

Liang [07:18] Are there big regional differences? Are there specific countries that are more at risk than others?

Randers [07:24] Those countries that are safe are the ones where well-being as perceived by the public has been rising all along. And one of the best examples is China, where public long-term perception of well-being has improved dramatically, because of the consistent doubling of the GDP per person over the last 40 years.

That’s a situation where the tensions are low, compared to other countries, like the United States of America, where well-being has been flat, or perhaps even declining over the last several decades. The frictions between societal groups in America is much higher.

Take our country, Norway, it is one place where well-being has been growing dramatically over the last several decades, so social tensions in our country is very low. It’s much harder if you go down to the Middle East countries, with war, etc., where, of course, well-being has been declining for a long, long time, and where tensions are sky-high.

On a separate note, when you look at Chinese economic development, the day when they can no longer maintain the high growth rates, that means that the purchasing power of the Chinese will no longer grow as fast, then you run the risk of social tension arising.

Liang [09:02] Let’s move on to the next question. The role of stronger more distributive governments is probably key to many of the solutions offered in the book. But looking at the world order today, big businesses, corporate lobbies and the wealthy, they hold huge sway in the political systems in the world today. And they’re probably not going to like the solutions you offer. How do we overcome this? 

Randers [09:26] You’re absolutely right in highlighting that the proposals will not be well-received by the economic elite at this point in time. The only way to solve this problem in a democratic society is of course, to gather a political majority of voters that are in favor of a party that favors a well-funded active government, which either needs to raise its money through taxes on the rich, or do what China has done, to print enough money to actually do those things that the government wants to do.

But you’re right that the main opposition against the five turnarounds will be from those that do not like what is needed to implement these things, namely, an active government that has enough money to pay for the things that we need.

In non-democracies, it is important that the elite that runs the country runs the country for the benefit of the majority, instead of running the country for the benefit of themselves. Luckily, there exists examples of this. In my country of Norway, the benevolent elite took power in 1945 and kept it for 20 years while developing Norway. Democracy took over in 1965, and we at least could build on their shoulders. Since you’re from Singapore, of course, you know that your history is exactly the same thing, where someone decided that they wanted to make Singapore into something good, and did so.

Liang [11:26] I’m going to jump the gun a little. Looking at the world order today, how likely do you think that there will be these enlightened leaders, both in democratic and non-democratic states, to take on your suggestions and shift the world towards the solutions that it needs?

Randers [11:44] I think it is very unlikely that we will succeed. I wrote a relatively famous book 10 years ago, called 2052, which is my forecast of what will actually happen between 2012 and 2052. It is a sad book in the sense that the possibility for humanity to solve the climate crisis and the population crisis, etc., is there, but I’m afraid we will not do it.

The reason we will not do it is that most people are not willing to pay the bill, rightfully so. This means that it is the financial elite that ought to pay the bill. They will resist.

Of course it doesn’t mean that we will get total collapse of the world order over the next 50 years. It simply is that we will get a society where well-being is much lower than it could have been if we had an active state, that was well-funded, to solve those five totally obvious problems that we have.

Then all journalists then ask the next question. So why the hell do you spend your time on this? You know, and the answer is that it is much better to try to make the thing happen than it is to just sit back and relax.

Liang [13:23] You really got me there, I was going to ask that. Let’s move on to the next question then. Looking at the five turnarounds: poverty, inequality, energy, food and women’s empowerment, which do you think is the most challenging? 

Randers [13:44] I think the hardest one to implement is inequality. It is the simplest one in principle, because if everyone in a nation agree to support a political party that is in favor of introducing very steep, progressive taxation on the richest 10 per cent, it is very simple to get enough money to solve the five turnarounds.

At the same time, while this is the simplest one to solve, the resistance against that solution is very, very deep. Even in very rich countries, where one would have assumed that people would be smart enough and educated enough that they would understand that the concentration of wealth and income in the world is such that the richest 10 per cent controls 50 per cent of global income, and if you just tax them 10 per cent on income, that will be 5 per cent of the world’s GDP. If governments had that type of money, and spend it on what is needed in order to improve the well-being of the poor, or the majority, things would have been very simple.

The simplest one to solve is the climate one, because in order to solve the climate problem, you only need to do one thing. And that is to ban the use of coal, oil and gas. If you just phase out the use of coal, oil and gas in a linear manner, from 2022 to 2050, so you cut three per cent every year, that one policy solves the whole climate problem. All the other sources of greenhouse gases are so small compared to the 70 per cent that comes from the burning of coal, oil and gas. But of course, the resistance from everyone against that solution is also very strong.

Liang [16:09] It scares me a little if you say that climate is the easiest one, because from what I see, even that one policy to cut down on the use of fossil fuels has had so much pushback in recent years, even though the science has been growing clearer and clearer.

Randers [16:29] So you’re absolutely right in being worried. This is where I am trying to push the public debate. The pushback is not only from the rich, the pushback is from the “Yellow Vests”, from the ordinary people. So it means that we need to find a way of reducing the use of coal, oil and gas, which does not bother the average working man and woman. It must be paid for by the rich.

There exists concrete solutions for how to do this, namely the carbon tax, a very high carbon tax at source. Then you divide the returns by 8 billion people, and you hand it back to the to the ordinary people.

Liang [17:20] Got you, prof. The next question is about comparing 1972 and now. Back then, you already sounded the alarm that our growth rates are not sustainable. How different is the situation, and the call-to-action, now in 2022?

Randers [17:36] There are two huge differences. One is positive and one is negative. Let me start with with the negative. We are now in deep, established overshoot in terms of pollution. Emissions are now way above sustainable levels. We have a genuine overshoot. The public feels this, we’re already starting to see the negative effects. We have no collapse yet, but clearly we are in overshoot.

The positive news is that we have solved the population problem. When we wrote the book (in 1972), we encouraged the education of women, we promoted general health, contraception, the whole thing. Now 50 years down the line, we see that the world population is going to peak in another 30 years, roughly. So we have solved the population problem. And that is the good news.

Liang [18:44] One other thing I wanted to ask, in comparing 1972 and now, is the role of technology. Back in 1972, if I got it right, technology was seen as something to help us grow our resources linearly, against our exponential consumption, and hence that is why it wasn’t enough to help us overcome this resource challenge. Has the role of technology changed now in 2022?

Randers [19:09] You’re absolutely right, that in the first edition of Limits to Growth in 1972, in the basic model, technologies were actually stable, they didn’t even go linearly, but we changed that very quickly. So even in the technical report that came out two or three years after the study, we incorporated exponential technologies, and likewise in our 20-year update in 1992, and the 30-year update in 2004.

The main difference is that we are now making the point that people should remember that these exponential technologies comes from government investment. It is not the individual firms that puts in the university research and pays for it. Instead it is the rich societies that run universities and research institutes that actually come up with the fundamentals of technological advancement. With the big IT companies et cetera, they utilise the underlying, very very expensive stuff, and then make patents and make money, using what society has developed.

Liang [20:35] Are all technology equally good? In the book, you’ve mentioned things like green hydrogen, carbon capture, there was a quick touch on nuclear energy without elaboration. It’s also mentioned in the book that there was a debate about novel foods. Are we focused on the right technology to bring the world forward?

Randers [21:05] I have, fundamentally, a cause-and-effect understanding of the world. So you must always ask, what is the purpose. It is totally possible to use nuclear energy in order to produce electricity, but it has certain side effects. One of the side effects is not climate, it is the risks from storing nuclear waste. Nuclear energy, in my book, it depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to reduce emissions in the short term, you should use nuclear energy. If you’re worried about the ethical issue of storing for 10,000 or 100,000 years the spent waste, you should not use it.

This is the same with most technologies, that they have intended, primary effects, and a number of unintended side effects. Whether something is good or bad depends on your purpose.

Briefly, on the things that you have stated, I believe that one should not use nuclear energy if you have an alternative, because of the long-term side effect of storing nuclear waste. On the other hand, when people are going to freeze in Europe this winter because of the high gas prices, I would not hesitate for a second to start all the nuclear reactors of this nation in order to solve the short-term problem.

Concerning carbon capture and storage, because we have delayed climate action for so long, there is no way we are going to be able to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep the temperature rise to below two degrees centigrade, unless we install large-scale carbon capture and storage on fossil gas plants, so that we can make blue hydrogen. All my friends in the environmental movement fiercely disagree with me on this because they see carbon capture and storage as a continuation of the power of the fossil industry. And yes, it is. But if you do the math, you will see that either we get two and a half degrees centigrade of warming, or we use carbon capture and storage in the next 50 years, for what it’s worth.

This is the way I would like people to discuss technologies, by looking at the intended effects, the unintended effects, and then balancing them with what you would like to achieve.

Liang [24:10] Got you, thanks for that very comprehensive answer. Moving on to the next question, there are two very big global summits happening at the end of the year, COP27 on the climate front, and COP15 on the biodiversity front. In your opinion, what must happen in those summits to put us on the right foot forward?

Randers [24:28] Two things. First, an agreement to pursue the five turnarounds. So a global agreement, that these are the five things that needs to be done. Second, an agreement that the richest 10 per cent of the people on the planet should pay.

Liang [24:48] Right. So really the core ideas for the book.

Randers [24:50] Exactly. You have already asked the question, will this happen? I fear not. But I desperately, I would be very, very, very happy if it happened.

Liang [25:04] And in fact, the book mentioned that optimism is necessary now to move the conversation forward. What’s your advice on staying optimistic amid all the conflicts and stalling of climate efforts?

Randers [25:20] I am personally a pessimist and have been so for a very long time, since I ran the climate commission of the Norwegian government, 15 or actually close to 20 years ago, and produced the plan for how Norway could cut its greenhouse gas emissions all the way to zero within the next 40 years, at a cost of $300 per Norwegian per year, which is nothing in the Norwegian perspective. I thought we would be celebrated as heroes by presenting that plan at such a low cost. We were rejected. We formed a political party to push this solution, we only got 3 per cent of the votes. So it means that 97 per cent of the stinking rich Norwegians were not willing to spend $300 a year in order to create a better society for their children.

So why should one be optimistic? One could be optimistic because there is now a new generation. I’m 77. People who are 27, perhaps they hold a different view, so that they would be willing to start supporting a political party that is in favor of a strong and active government.

The second thing is that we did see during Covid-19 an amazing ability of weak governments to actually make strong decisions. In some cases, even printing the money. You’re seeing that the solution was not only to borrow from the rich, but actually, start borrowing with no intention to pay back, and in some few cases, printing money, just like during the financial crisis. It may be that some leading nations would follow what I see as the role model of China and start running a country with a strong government that actually does funds, in innovative ways, those things that really needs to be done, and can easily be done, if we decide to do so.

The interesting question is the following. You go into a society and ask, how happy are you with life at this point in time? How does this compare with five years ago? What fraction says that today is better than the past? And five years in the future will be better than today? In other words, what is the fraction of people that actually believe that the society is on the right path? That is what we need to achieve over the next 50 years, a situation where most people feel like things are moving in the right direction.

A lot of work needs to be done in order to turn the decline in well-being into a rise. I think that is the challenge. You know, that’s what it means to save the world.

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