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A Visionary’s Despair Creates Hope for a Better Future

by Langdon on August 18, 2013

While many of us admire the unconventional thoughts and unexpected ideas created by innovative and visionary members of society, and sometimes we envy their great intellect or deep insights, the life of a visionary has its own particular difficulties and challenges.  The unique quality of a visionary is a clear grasp of the future, but what if society does not act on that vision, or ignores that vision, or even scorns it?  This can lead to frustration, sadness, even despair.

During my career I’ve worked with a few visionary thinkers, among them the cybernetics pioneer and author Stafford Beer, the brilliant consultant Russell Ackoff, and the visionary architect and philosopher Paolo Soleri, and there’s no question that deep disappointments characterized each of them.  While they were tireless in the rigorous work of gathering information, defining their ideas and then in sharing their visions, and also in presenting the abundant evidence for their views, none of them received the acclaim that their work perhaps deserved, nor did society embrace the insights and solutions that they painstakingly developed and documented.

Hence, life is not so easy when you see the future for what it is likely to be, rather than just for what you fantasize.

And yet, given the acceleration of change that characterizes our society, and given the great challenges that humanity will face in the coming decades, there are few things more valuable than a clear perspective on what is coming, and guidance on how we can prepare for it.  Among the many scholars examining the future course of our world, and the many voices explaining the trends and advocating for specific sets of ideas, principles, or actions, the work of Jørgen Randers is my focus here.

Randers was a co-author of the highly influential 1972 Club of Rome study The Limits to Growth, and the 1992 follow-up volume Beyond the Limits, and now he has prepared a detailed study of the future entitled 2052:  A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Chelsea Green, 2012).

Near the end of the book, and commenting about the mental challenge he faces in looking in depth at the direction in which we are headed, he notes, “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.” (p 351)  Ackoff, Beer, and Soleri expressed similar feelings during their careers, and indeed this sense of despair is widely shared among many who look upon our situation and realize what probably lies ahead of us.

2052 is a compelling book, not only for its abundant insights into our emerging, shared future, but also for the deeply personal way in which Randers has crafted a narrative in which he examines the evidence and arrives at a set of conclusions.  He speaks throughout of his own views, discoveries, and reactions to what he has learned, and indeed he says at the beginning that his purpose in writing the book was to examine for himself what the future holds for him personally. Born in 1945, and having spent the last 40 years warning society that its choices were leading to a worsening situation, Randers notes that he expects to live another 25 years or so and that he simply wanted to know what his remaining years might hold.  He is quite open about his assumptions, his method, his logic, and the uncertainties that his forecast includes.  He’s also open about his data – you can download the massive spreadsheet in which his calculations are presented from the web site

Trained as a physicist, Randers brings a scientist’s mindset to the collection and analysis of the data, and in working through the logic of his forecasts, not everything he finds qualifies as a worst-case situation.  He discovers to his surprise that some things may not go as badly as he had feared.  Population growth, for example, is slowing, and by mid-century the global population should have already peaked and be on the decline.  He notes, for example, that from 1990 to 2010, the average number of children per family in Libya declined from 7 to 2, (p 64).  The decline in the population growth rate has many causes and as many consequences, and while my purpose here is not to recreate the argument of the entire book, this does give hope.

Randers also identifies that the critical factor that has the greatest impact on the future of society is the threat of climate change.  He notes that 770 billion tons of man-made CO2 are currently in the atmosphere (p 324), and draws on the work of many climate scientists and forecasting tools to analyze the rates of CO2 production and absorption, and to model various resulting future outcomes.  And while the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the problem that must be dealt with, an equally fundamental problem is that democratic societies often take too long to make critical decisions, allowing problems to significantly worsen before taking action.  Our ecological footprint, he notes, is now 1.4 Earths, meaning that we are consuming resources and producing wastes at a rate which would require 1.4 Earths to sustain.  Hence, the current economic model is in “overshoot,” and is not sustainable, and the worst-case consequence will be ecosystem failure due to massive climate change that brings disastrous weather events, rising sea levels, and disruptions to both agricultural and urban settings alike.

The forecasted likelihood of overshoot, and the subsequent fact of it are not news, as indeed one of the main arguments of the 1972 book was the possibility that this would happen.  Randers’ reputation as a forecaster must therefore gain credibility by the accuracy of his work of four decades ago, lending further credence to this work.

Compounding the problem, he notes that capitalism is systemically short-sighted.  In 2012 a speech he gave in conjunction with the release of the book, he commented that, “Capitalist systems allocate money based on a discount rate that is so high that anything that happens beyond five years is very close to invisible.”  (May 7, 2012)

As the consequences of climate change are manifesting gradually and could reach their worst well beyond 2050, he sees that the current political paralysis in the US as particularly bad timing.  With political and ideological gridlock rendering the US Congress incapable of meaningful action, the democratic process is literally (and tragically) undermining its own future (p 33).

There are additional consequences, of course.  Among them, he forecasts a growing dispute between generations.  For the first time in contemporary history going back hundreds of years, the current generation is at significant risk of leaving to the future a world that is fundamentally worse than the one it inherited.  The current citizenry will leave a massive CO2 overage and a sizeable financial debt for their children and grandchildren, and on top of that today’s generation expects tomorrow’s to pay for both its retirement and its (very expensive) future health care needs.  Randers quite reasonably forecasts significant inter-generational conflict, and he fully expects that in the name of intergenerational justice, the coming generations will balk at fulfilling their parents inflated expectations (p 36, 111).  Evidence for this conflict is fully evident in current politics of the US, Europe, and indeed worldwide, as a vibrant and sometimes violent debate about retirement age, pension benefits, government debt, and health care now fills the news, and sometimes (as in Greece), the streets.

As climate change has now emerged as the world’s primary economic and ecological problem, and too slow decision-making as the primary social problem, a solution pathway clearly presents itself: a global commitment to switch from a carbon-based energy economy to a climate friendly one.  In Randers’ view this change is inevitable, the only question being how quickly, or slowly, it happens.  The technical capability to create a solar economy already exists, and indeed the evidence is all around us.  For example, a hybrid car (the Toyota Prius) is currently the best-selling car in California, and solar and wind power systems are being developed and implemented worldwide (as in the photo above).

However, the sense of discouragement that Randers expresses is a consequence of his view that these changes are happening too slowly to avoid a great deal of unnecessary suffering.  “The main challenge in our global future is not to solve the problems we are facing, but to reach agreement to do so.”  (p 235)

It wasn’t all that much fun to read this book, but it was both engrossing and fascinating, and entirely worthwhile to encounter a visionary in such depth and intimacy.  The personal tone that Randers includes in the book adds significantly to its meaning, and he ends the book with a simple but profound request:  “Please help me make my forecast wrong.  Together we could create a much better world.”

What, then, can innovators do to “make him wrong?”  Well, in the realm of business it is innovators who are building the technologies and the business models and the companies that constitute the climate friendly economy.  It is innovators who are questioning the logic of the past, and constructing new social and economic logic for the future, and without them there will in fact not be this much-needed transition.

But what can the innovators do in the realm of politics and governance?  Can we develop innovations to promote faster decision-making, or better analysis, or make it easier to reach agreement on the changes that are required for our future?  In my experience, many people are engaged in this work, and at its root the characteristics that are essential include:

  • The ability to do as Randers has done, to gather legitimate data (not opinions)
  • To interrogate science as the source of data (not ideology)
  • To analyze with persistent self-awareness one’s own assumptions and biases (not to be a self-proclaimed carrier of truth)
  • To present conclusions in an even-handed way that invites further questioning and still deeper analysis and consideration.

These are all aspects of one crucial quality or ability, which is seeking the truth for what it is (or will be) rather than for what we wish it to be.  Innovation happens when we face the truth, respond to the truth, and act on it.  It may be the truth of what science has learned, or what technology can accomplish, or what customers prefer, or what the market says.

Seeking truth is what innovators are trained to do, even when it means that our assumptions were wrong.  Hence, Jonathan Ive, a key member of Apple’s design team, once noted about the team that “One of the hallmarks of the team is inquisitiveness, being excited about being wrong, because it means you’ve discovered something new.”  (Leander Khaney, Inside Steve’s Brain)

The great Italian physicist and member of the Manhattan Project team Enrico Fermi commented similarly, about what can happen when you do an experiment.  “There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement.  If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”  (As quoted in Nuclear Principles in Engineering (2005) by Tatjana Jevremovic, p 397)

Randers has also done an experiment, but it will take some time, perhaps decades, before we know the outcome.  Has he measured our incapacity to change proactively?  Or will he and we discover that society can indeed heed a powerful and profound warning, and alter its course to achieve a better outcome for everyone?

Stated differently, will his experiment influence our collective behavior, such that we avoid the worst outcomes that could befall humanity as a result of carbon overshoot?  Regardless of the specific outcome, we can all be grateful for the visionary work of Jorgen Randers, for showing us a clear and compelling view of the path that we are on and the one we would prefer, and how to get off the first and onto the second.


Please let us know if you read 2052, and if so, if you find it as compelling as we do.


Photo:  19.9 MW Gemasolar plant in Spain

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