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2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years Paperback – June 13, 2012
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In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Limits to Growth (CH, Nov'73), Randers (climate strategy, BI Norwegian Business School) forecasts changes in population, consumption, energy use, emissions, quality of life, and climate over the next 40 years. As one of the original contributors to Limits to Growth, the author's current forecast is based on the ‘overshoot and collapse’ scenario. Regional scenarios highlight the distribution of benefits and costs from climate change across the globe, underscoring the distinct consequences on the developed and developing world. The author emphasizes that shortsighted decision making associated with democracy is ill suited to handle climate change, given its long-term outcomes. A novel feature of this work is the inclusion of predictions from more than two dozen experts working in ecology, political science, industry, and economics. These individual contributions are woven into the larger story to provide comparison with the author's predictions. Overall, this work is accessible to a general audience; however, Randers's limited analysis and justification of model assumption restrict the usefulness of this book as a stand-alone text. It could be useful in conjunction with some formal texts on globalization, economics, and the environment. Summing Up: Optional. General readers and undergraduate students.
Randers has made it his life's work to caution the world about the dangers of unfettered expansion, and to seek out solutions to current and prospective problems. Beginning with The Limits to Growth in 1972, he has explored possible scenarios for our social, economic, and environmental future. In this global study, Randers presents a forecast for the next 40 years, supported by ‘statistical data, anecdotal stories, impressions from traveling the world…formal analyses of particular developments,’ and short essays by a variety of experts. While he discusses his own opinions―such as his belief that the world economy must shift its focus from ‘fossil-fuelled economic growth’ to ‘sustainable well-being’ ― the enormous amount of information and speculation here function additionally as an excellent springboard for a timely discourse. And open and informed conversation seems crucial to Randers's project―indeed, he posits that unchecked climate change is not a technological problem, but a political one. Randers and his colleagues present a portrait of the future that is radically different from today, but not entirely bleak: while he believes that the worst of his predictions are possible, he humbly asks his readers to ‘help make my forecast wrong.’
"This thoughtful and thought-provoking book will be inspiring, and challenging, for all who really care about our common future."--Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway; leader, World Commission on Environment and Development
"A sober, cogent, and courageous assessment of a future not dictated by fate, or economics, or limits to technology, but by the most egregious leadership failure in history. But there is still time to change course...just enough time and no more."--David W. Orr, Oberlin College, author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
"Read 2052 and get the views of a great futurist-one with a fine track record of being right."--Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Dominant Animal
"This is an extraordinary and profoundly important book. Randers' mastery of many fields is impressive, and he presents his 'best guess' future with clarity and force. As a result, he provides a challenging template against which we can judge our own expectations for mid-century."--James Gustave Speth, author of America the Possible
"An unconventional and lucid explanation of the likely macroeconomic developments of the world over the next forty years."--Lord Nicholas Stern, author, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change; chair, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics
"With clarity, conscience, and courage, global-systems pioneer Jorgen Randers and his distinguished contributors map the forces that will shape the next four decades. Their sobering but far from despairing insights will encourage all who strive in applied hope to build a society worthy of nature's legacy and humans' potential."--Amory B. Lovins, chairman and chief scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute; senior author, Reinventing Fire; coauthor, Natural Capitalism
"It's too late to wonder how different and refreshingly breathable the world would be if everyone had listened hard to Jorgen Randers 40 years ago. The question now is if we'll heed him this time. Here's our chance. Please seize it, everyone."--Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us and Gaviotas
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I read this book to learn more of how we might (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world (the theme of my life plus 2 meters project).
I am going to group my comments on this book into several categories rather than focus on details, as I made far too many notes. The book is organized into Why & How 40 Years?, Five Big Issues (capitalism, economic growth, democracy, intergenerational relations and climate), a Global Forecast (population & consumption, energy & co2, food & footprint, non-material "goods" and zeitgeist 2052), and ending with sections on Analysis, Straight Questions, Five Regions, Other Futures, and What to Do.
First, consider that Randers makes a forecast rather than a prediction by relying on trends and possibilities rather than probabilities. To oversimplify, Randers focusses on several macro trends in five main regions in the 2012-2052 period. These trends -- based on demographics, economics, engineering and politics -- are used to explain forecast where we humans might find ourselves in 2052.
One important interactions is among trends for population, consumption and impact, with the main idea that the footprint will be heavier -- and thus the chance of "run away climate change" (RACC) larger -- if there are more people consuming more stuff. I think that Randers is too optimistic in his forecasts here. He predicts that the world population will peak at 8.1 billion, that 2-3 billion people will stay poor (=low consumption), and that people in the rich world will consume less because they need to invest significant resources in responding to climate change (e.g., recovering from disasters, coping with climate migrants, paying more as supply chains are disrupted and so on.)
This path -- in the presence of little or no climate change mitigation -- will leave the world on a knife's edge after 2052, with 2080's global temperatures of 2.8C above pre-industrial levels and a 50/50 chance of triggering RACC in which melting permafrost, wildfires and other natural responses trigger positive feedback loops that accelerate warming and far worse living conditions.
Randers does not consider this forecast as good news (he says "global society will have to perform a miracle after 2052 if it is to end the century in a desirable situation" given that the transition to sustainability will only be half-complete by 2052), and he's admirably frank about our political mechanisms being too weak and short-termist to coordinate either mitigation or adaption, but I think that his underlying assumptions on population and consumption are far too optimistic. The UN recently forecast that "the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100." Turning to consumption, it is hard to see much sign of any government putting the brakes on the cult of GDP growth (e.g., Indonesia converting rainforest to palm oil, China promoting cars and suburbs, or economic refugees fleeing their dysfunctional homelands to go earn some money). Taken together, these "alt-guesses" would put the world in far worse shape in terms of RACC, temperature increases, and so on.
(You can download Randers's massive spreadsheet and change details to suit your own preferences, but I am focussing on aggregates. Am I "cheating" rather than "scientific" to say this? Not if a spreadsheet is merely an opinion dressed up as a model.)
Second, I want to congratulate Randers for his interesting use of "outside experts" who gave 20+ forecasts on various dimensions of the future (a few are a waste of time). Their contributions and Randers's own commentary really created a useful space for thinking about how systems interact (e.g., "more investment" means "less consumption") in our complex world.
There are many interesting, surprising and thoughtful statements in the book:
Nations will face climate change only after they give up on a global quota for carbon, tax fossil fuels and force adoption of renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon capture [the story there is grim]. They will only do this when climate damages are a clear and present danger (i.e. probably too late). Global investments will rise from a need to shut down fossil industries early [here's a nice perspective on its collapse in the near future] and cope with climate damages, but productivity will fall due to climate damages, loss of natural capital, more workers in services, etc.
There's not much support for "saving ecosystems" among voters who prefer Netflix... and will increasingly experience the world via screen. The impacts will be worse in nations without redistribution or social insurance (poor countries; the US), and especially if "democracy" leads to short-term consumption over long term sustainability.
The worst shocks will not be to the poor (who already suffer), but to the Americans who will face the twin-disasters of losing first place to China as well as greater conflict over national and financial resources due to its weak social welfare system.
The Chinese government will use its strength to force its people to sustainability.
National militaries will be much more occupied with climate-related risks and assaults. The "third flowering of humanity" will arrive via computers that may work for us (or not).
Temperature zones (microclimates) will move away from the equator at a pace of 5km per year and up mountains at a pace of 5m per year
Do not acquire a taste for things that will disappear (or give that taste to your children), as you will only be disappointed when your "favorites" are no more. Stick with digital hobbies, etc.
Live in a place that's not exposed to CC but where political structures function (NL is -1 and +1 on these!)
Third, Randers covers many topics but he is sometimes trapped by "current thinking" on technology or politics, e.g., discussing the impact of greater biofuel production on food prices (not good for the poor) when cheaper oil (via fracking as well as the shift to renewables) is crowding out biofuels.
Finally, I now think different on several big topics. For example:
Japan's consumption per person rose by 33 percent between 1990 and 2010 because GDP was "flat" while population and investment was falling. (One reason robots are so popular in Japan!)
Countries that import food may lack "food security" when times get tough and they cannot afford to buy food on world markets. (The same might be said of energy, manufactured goods, etc.) Thus a country like Pakistan may turn into a failed state with hungry people because it has mismanaged its natural resources ("liquidating natural capital") at an even worse pace than the rest of the world, thereby increasing its relative insecurity. We can see this problem today in Yemen but not in places like Japan or New Zealand that have protected their natural capital.
Younger generations will not respect older generations -- they will take part of their pensions to pay for damages. (A strategy that may not work if bitcoin, tax havens and corruption undermine government action.)
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for helping me think about our (potential) common future, which Randers summarizes as follows [snipped from several places]:
It is surprisingly difficult to maintain a happy outlook when you know deep in your heart that the world is on a path toward disaster (reducing age-old biological diversity and man-made cultural diversity in the process).
The world of 2052 will be well established on a path that I really fear—the path toward self-reinforcing climate change and climate disaster in the second part of the century. I certainly did not find a world on a well-planned path toward sustainability. I don’t know how to assess this future. It will be much better than a global cataclysm where population and production drop dramatically as a consequence of natural disaster and war. But it will be much worse than the now common expectation of continuing growth in GDP and disposable income. It will be good for me as an old Norwegian living in the New North, which will fare well over the next couple of decades. But it will be surprisingly bad for all my good friends in the United States, who will have to endure gradual and seemingly never-ending stagnation from the peak years of their empire in the twentieth century. And much worse for the two billion earthlings who will remain poor.
Even if your personal life is sound and satisfying, it is wearying to know that so much is being done systematically to destroy our common future. Thus my final word of encouragement: Don’t let the possibility of impending disaster crush your spirits. Don’t let the prospect of a suboptimal long-term future kill your hope. Hope for the unlikely! Work for the unlikely! Remember, too, that even if we do not succeed in our fight for a better world, there will still be a future world. And there will still be a world with a future—just less beautiful and less harmonious than it could have been.
The predictions from such a model will likely not be so surprising to those who have thought about this future timespan without being incurable optimists or pessimists. For instance: population and energy use will peak around 2040; global productivity will grow more slowly than in the last 40 years; consumption will generally rise but will stagnate in richer countries; food production will increase sufficiently overall, but high-quality protein will become more expensive; the 2 degrees C temperature rise will have noticeable but not (yet) disastrous effects; extra investment capital will be needed to in attempts to prevent or mitigate these effects, and states (rather than private capital) will get more involved in such efforts; increasing urbanization; and that China will become world leader and then a "civilization-state".
I have two reactions to the book. On the positive side, his analysis looks as good as possible within his chosen framework, which I would call "conventional economics meets ecological sustainability". On the negative side, despite occasional mention of "omnipresent internet" and social gaming, it seems set in an alternative reality in which Moore's Law never went into effect. Repeated mention of "economic growth based on fossil fuels" suggests that he has never heard of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon or the diametrically opposite view of economic growth based on (weak) AI. Like a forecast from 1850 ignoring railroads and industrialization. Of course I am no fan of extreme techno-optimists either, who simply ignore physical constraints.
Finally, the whole style of the project has an oddly 20th century feel. Invited contributions from experts are nice but most contributors seem over 60 years old; there is no sign the author has actually talked to any of the Millennials (outside his academic milieu) whose future he is considering.