Will we overshoot and collapse?

If ever an organization made an impression on public opinion with system dynamics it was the Club of Rome with The Limits the Growth, which sold 12 million copies since its publication in 1972. Last week, Jorgen Randers, who has been with the Club of Rome ever since, launched a new book2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years“.  According to Randers we are still headed for disaster and even if we are not, things look pretty gloomy anyway. For those of you who don’t know: overshoot and collapse means global societal disorder and large-scale migration. As avid readers of this blog might expect, I couldn’t resist making a concept map to summarize Randers presentation. And as usual it was great fun to do so.

The essence of both books is summarized in the left column: the human ecological footprint must not exceed the carrying capacity of the earth or else we will endanger our capacity for survival. In 1972, the Club of Rome thought disaster would be caused by resource depletion, whereas in 2012, Randers and many others think it will be climate change. In the model of Randers, global CO2 emisssions will peak in 2030 and will be down to 2012 levels in 2050. This is not enough to prevent serious global warming, which can be expected to be in the order 2 degrees Celsius in 2050 en 3 degrees in 2080, setting in motion the self-reinforcing (and hence irreversible) mechanisms of climate change. We have known this for about 20 years now and we can hardly escape from the conclusion that we have a serious global governance problem (“short-termism”) that is linked to democracy (“nobody wants to vote for a party that makes one suffer for a benefit 30 years from now”) and capitalism (discount rates make anything beyond a horizon of 5 years almost totally irrelevant). The model used by Randers to arrive at his conclusions and recommendations takes into account economic growth, purchasing power, population size, energy intensity of economic activity, and carbon intensity of energy use. This allows him to predict that economic growth will be less than often predicted. In the mature economies of the West, 2% is the upper limit for the time to come and global economic development will peak in 2040, after which an ever bigger slice of the economy will go into climate mitigation efforts. For the global South this means that the 140 low-income countries will not be able to do more than double average purchasing power, so global inequality will persist with 3 billion poor who will face serious limitations to their effective demand for food (euphemism for “going hungry”). Due to strong urbanization population growth will be less than often predicted, which combines with low economic growth (“thanks” to the poor) to limit CO2 emissions. All in all, there may be a way out of looming global disaster (see upper right corner): (almost religiously) strong ecological ethics can reduce our ecological footprint. Short-termism must give way to ecologically inspired global governance to minimize fossil fuel use, educate and empower poor women (as this will reduce fecundity), and carry out a massive programme of global investment in low-carbon energy supply in the South. Can mankind muster this kind of wisdom, if wisdom it is? One thing is certain: the type of global governance required will be a struggle to achieve. We don’t want authoritarian rule, do we? How are we going to harmonize the various economic systems (China, West, South)? Can we mainstream ecological ethics in western-style liberal democracies?


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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