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

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.

 Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Jorgen Randers (44m:05s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Jorgen Randers said So my first advice to a twenty-year-old person is to learn and understand the rationality and the smartness of stronger government in the next forty years.

Chris, I like your information on the economy but you have to be careful as there is another narrative underpinning much of the environmental movement and that is a push for a single world government with unelected dictatorial power ruling all nations. It’s a platonic concept that the best and brightest should rule the entire world and they will do it on the basis of the environment. When this guest advocates stronger government and holds up <st1:country-region w:st=“on”><st1:place w:st=“on”>China</st1:place></st1:country-region> as the model he is obviously in favor of a communist style regime. The real solution is individuals doing the right thing and caring for the resources in their care, getting onboard with the narrative of individual sustainability as a smart idea, not a top down oppressive world government.<o:p></o:p>

Mark, the evidence is that humans are incapable of making wise decisions.Jorgen Randers and the Club are truthsayers to power.
Dmitri Orlov says that our trust in elected politicians is misplaced.
I am forced by circumstances to watch popular TV. This has given me an insight into the level of debate of the great unwashed. They are at best wilfully ignorant. How then, can they choose their leaders wisely?
My hope is that there will be an emergent property that springs from the interactivity of the internet.
At this stage the singularity is our best hope.
Already we augument our IQ with computer power.

Randers would like us to believe that a strong, centralized government like the communist government in China is the key to our long term sustainability.  Hmmmm.  If I had the time (and I wasn’t already sure of the answer) I’d like to research Randers’s opinions about this subject back in the 60’s and 70’s.  I have to believe he had a similar affection for the strong, centralized communist government of the Soviet Union back then, and for similar reasons. That didn’t work out too well for the Soviets and their oppressed people groups.  And undoubtedly China will melt down one day too.  Representative democracy certainly has its flaws, but at least in democracies the people have no one to blame but themselves for their failures.  I would urge Randers to shift his focus from what form of government might save us, and accept the fact that it is human nature that is our problem.  For instance, it is human nature to focus almost exclusively on short term thinking and neglect rational, long term thinking and planning.  This is not a fault of some forms of government but not others.  Forms of government cannot overcome the inherent flaws in the people in government and in general society.  I agree with markstay that if there is going to be a solution it will have to start from the bottom up from individuals, families and then communities who do the right and sustainable things. However, I don’t think human nature can be overcome and we are doomed to crash and burn.  Some of the survivors will be mightily impressed with that crash and will learn and adapt accordingly.  
Don’t get me wrong.  The Limits to Growth had a very big impact on me in the mid 70’s and I think they hit the nail on the head.  They analyzed the basic problems very well and have been proved right to the extent that we’ve gone down the road they predicted.  It’s just government-as-the-solution thinking that disappointed me over the years and holds absolutely no hope for me now.

It is the state that has legislated into existence the central banking institutions that exacerbate the insanity of the fractional reserve banking system by encouraging speculation by the banks that is at the heart of this mess. I believe it is this flaw in our monetary system that causes unsustainable consumption and utilisation of resources. When it is realised that peoples livelihoods cannot be sustained due to a lack of resources, the state solution is to try to paper over the consequences with new money disaffecting those who are most vulnerable and often the most prudent.
Randers compliments the Chinese and European states as visionary and asks us to support ‘strong governments’! It is beyond me how people can look at the current situation and find the solution in more state power. One place where state should be exercising existing powers and isn’t is in the prosecution of fraud. Of course politicians and state bureaucrats have a vested interest in maintaining our fraudulent money system yet this seems to escape seemingly intelligent people.


I found the book enlightening overall and somewhat prescient when it first came out.  It discussed a number of issues that, when combined  were likely to change humanities future.  Frankly, the Martenson message confirms that much of what the book predicted in the 70s is coming to pass.
The part I didn’t buy was the focus of the environmental message.  I still don’t  Jorgen is focused on climate change and ignores environmental issues that, to my mind, are far more likely to cost lives.  Soil erosion, reduction of farmland quality, water quality and shortage issues are far more likely to impact us than theoretical climate change issues.

Top that with the evidence that non-environmental issues are likely to be more lethal than environmental issues and I’d say Jorgen’s message today is a bit off track.

It reminds me of the deforestation focus of the book "Collapse." Another good book with a distorted focus.  "Collapse" lauded Japan for recognizing that they were destroying their land and switching to the oceans for a larger portion of their food needs.  The book didn’t even consider that the demands on the ocean were possibly excessive.  Japan saved their trees!

In the narrative, Jorgen denigrates democracy and then at the end calls for more powerful government.  That’s just scarry.  We’ve tried virtually every form of government that man has so far come up with and, flawed as it is, democracy has worked the best.

I’ll agree that the average voter is not sending anyone to Washington that I respect or wish to run the government, but I can’t get behind a non-elective government concept at all.  



[quote=markstay]Chris, I like your information on the economy but you have to be careful as there is another narrative underpinning much of the environmental movement and that is a push for a single world government with unelected dictatorial power ruling all nations.
I truly hate doing this to a first poster, but this is a load of nonsense…  I was a member of the Green Party for many years, stood in seven elections in Australia, and I can tell you there is no such agenda whatsoever.
All the environmentalists I know fervently believe in relocalisation and the end of globalisation.
in any case, there won’t be any surplus energy to run a world government soon, it’s all in your head…

"Soil erosion, reduction of farmland quality, water quality and shortage issues" are EXACTLY what Climate Change will cause.  Or worsen.
Non-environmental issues will hit us first, and may well be lethal to some unprepared people, but in the end we UTTERLY rely on our environment for everything.  Treat the environment badly, and we’re all gonners…

Thanks for sharing your experience with some of the green politicians of Australia.

To quote Antonio Gramsci:

"We can see that in putting the question "what is man?" what we mean is: what can man become? That is, can man dominate his own destiny; can he "make himself," can he create his own life? We maintain, therefore, that man is a process and, more exactly, the process of his actions.

If you think about it, the question itself "what is man?" is not an abstract or "objective" question. It is born of our reflection about ourselves and about others, and we want to know, in relation to what we have thought and seen, what we are and what we can become; whether we really are, and if so, to what extent, "makers of our own selves," of our life, and of our destiny. And we want to know this "today," in the given conditions of today, the conditions of our daily life, not of any life or any man."

I find its more profitable if society is steered away from looking down at the abyss. Presently, most of us work; drive our cars, eat our "three-thousand mile caesar salad" in our cosy suburban concrete cul-de-sac'.

We think it's a choice through 'free will'.

Telling us otherwise hasn't worked so far in the 40 years since Limits To Growth, even if there have been a few benchmarks since.

If we don't know now, we will do, but not in the way we envision, since we aren't equipped with the experience, coddled in a life of unparalleled expansion and unlimited resource - why should we change our ways?

And media isn't going to help. That's been done, with the odd leak of reality before the 'free press' closes ranks. Its back to business as usual - "shop-shop-shop" -  keep the economy from crashing.

Out in the sunshine today I counted seventeen women at a different stage of pregnancy in a world adding 90+ million new mouths to feed each year on dwindling resource - I'm sure none of them feel any real pain to change yet -

Are they paying attention?

Where I live it's tourist thick seven months, filled with families who saved fifty weeks of the year to get two weeks to blow it all and start all over again -

Are they paying attention?

I've a neighbor who's been to Afghanistan six times as a foot soldier since 2005. In seven years he's never thought to question why, reading one unrelated book in his entire life. He has a daughter under four and a wife who "does nails" -

Are they paying attention?

See, that's what they want to do. They'll never know the full story, and there's so much comfort they take in that. People are brainwashed by fiction. They think they know stuff, when really, all the fictional stuff they do know is an immunization against reality. It makes them know things they don't know. Enables them to have a kind of superficial quasi sophistication and cynicism - which is just a thin layer beyond which they're not really cynical at all.

I just went to Chris's You Tube site and note all his video have recieved more than five million views. Its not bad for four years work, here's a hat tip for trying.

Lets hope there comes a time soon when he gets an audience that big in one evening - an evening when 17 babies deliver before term, seven months worth of tourists stay home and make a "no dig" permaculture fresh veggie patch, my neighbor starts quoting chomsky and his wife thinks one single solitary critical thought

Yeah, and pigs might fly

I have to say that when I saw that the podcast was going to be an interview of Jorgen Randers I was super excited to hear it.  I was extremely interested to hear what he would have to say about what the future will likely look like over the next 40 or 50 years since his work seems to be based on analyzing actual data and computer modeling.  I have to say though that I was totally shocked and surprised by what Randers claimed about how the future will likely look in 2050. 
In the podcast he says "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." 

When I heard this I thought to myself this person can’t possibly be looking at any data at all.  Either that is the case or else he is afraid that a negative image will make people less interested in his message or his new book. 

Has this person not heard that the world population is increasing, that we are on our way from 7 billion humans to 9 billion?  What about resource depletion such as oil, coal, natural gas, minerals such as copper,  galium, lithium etc?  What about the fact that the economies of India, China and the rest of the developing world continue to grow rapidly and thus use more and more of these resources?  In fact Chris Martenson mentions this just before Randers claims that there are enough resources available to handle US need to 2050.

For Rander’s to make this statement is just plain shocking and irresponsible.

I hear this same sort of theme in many other talks, blogs, podcasts etc.   The theme seems to always be that in the abstract large scale sense the world is facing issues such as peak oil, resource scarcity and the like and that our future will change dramatically but then these same sources will try to  turn around and claim that on an individual basis nothing really has to change.  That somehow we can all go on driving our cars, expanding our consumption, and generally living the same way that we always have with maybe a little more recycling and taking the bus once in a while instead of driving the car.  They somehow claim that we can solve all of these issues by putting up some windmills and solar panels and that this will power a fleet of electric cars for us to all drive. 

There is a major disconnect between what is presented on a macro or grand level vs what is presented on an individual or micro level. 

I perhaps should have been more specific.  I am skeptic when it comes to anthropogenic global warming.  If I’m ever convinced that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, I’ll consider it’s impact on other issues.
In the mean time, anthropogenic direct soil erosion and water quality degradation are happening as we speak.  Large numbers of people exist in parts of the US that can’t exist without importing tremendous quantities of water.  No computer model is required to determine this and it’s difficult to debate.  You can see it for yourself every day.
Despite my skepticism regarding anthropogenic global warming, I have changed my life style completely, but for different reasons.  I have cut my C02 emissions in half simply because I very much believe in peak oil and peak energy.  My lowest mileage vehicle gets 30 mpg.  All my recreational vehicles are human powered.  But. I am doing it to reduce energy consumption.  I live a life style you would not be offended by but with different motivations.
I do however, believe that non-environmental issues may cause more destruction than your statement implies.  It is possible that over 7 billion people competing for Earth’s dwindling resources could spark a disagreement or two.

Les, I’ve always thought of overpopulation as an environmental issue.  Beause humans are part of the environment.  Just like locusts!
AGW?  It’s just part of the perfect storm.

 SingleSpeak,You are dead on.  Powerful central governemnts compelling population scale activity and competing for increasingly scarce resources = global war on unprecedented scale…
Pray for increasing scarcity causing decentralization of central governments!

 My take from listening to Mr. Randers was not that he was saying we have unlimited resources but more that the most limiting factor is our ability or lack thereof to make decisions in our best long term interests.   We may have lots of resources if we’re willing to evolve in how, what, and how much we use.  But our societal and governmental structure won’t let us change until we feel enough pain from limited resources in the way we currently use them.  Societies that can plan or evolve to adapt to limited resources, or individuals in absolute power of their own households, will outcompete those that don’t make good decisions.  It would be great if Mr. RAnders could clarify.

I’d like to build upon what Woodman stated.  The problem of limited resource management is that there is no long-term accountability for past decisions that went bad.  It is the tragedy of the commons:  there is no economic reward to conserve because the "reward" cannot be immeidately consummed in this generation.  And it is at this point I will take a side-step.  In Samuel Huntington’s view "traditional societies" (in other words a non-complex society) have an accountability system:  the village elder whose age and wisdom guided the village  community.  If s/he (mostly he) were wrong then the entire community would suffer, but there would be a collective memory of what not to do if such an instance would repeat itself.
I think complexity lends itself to consolidated power. 
In our contemporary democracies, there is no long term accountability.  And in our society where media pressures are idealising a youthful adult (approximately 25 years old), I feel that a political structure has evolved to give us the illusion freedom of choice while, and as parents with children do, limit the choices to those that are convinent for the one offering choice.
Then my question:  is a small-scale collectivist approach more efficient to manage limited resources? 

Mobius: what you pointed out is one of the core problems Hoppe described in his book "Democracy: The God That Failed". It’s a bit dry, but it’s a great read on the incentive problems inherent in democracy and centralization.

[quote=mobius]Then my question:  is a small-scale collectivist approach more efficient to manage limited resources? 
Perhaps in theory, but history has demonstrated repeatedly there will always be a larger collective that seeks to impose its will on smaller collectives because the larger determined that doing so would be more efficient…for itself.
And the cycle repeats - whether you subscribe to linear cyclical time, linear time or chaotic time models for observing the ebb and flow of societal (d)evolution.