30 Years Beyond the Limits – an interview with Jørgen Randers

Jørgen Randers (60) represent the forefront of Norwegian future studies. His work with scenario planning and system dynamics from the early 70’s has given these exotic fields attention from more than military planners and the literati. His articles and books promote views of a truly concerned scientist, many would say radical environmentalist. The controversy surrounding the now legendary book “Limits to Growth” resounds in the current environmental debate. The fact that energy demands are slowly reaching the limits of supply cause concerns even for big business. Randers is currently professor of policy analysis at the Norwegian School of Management (BI) and work with environmental strategy for companies like Tomra, The Dow Chemical Company and British Telecom.

A coming energy crisis has concerned futurists for decades. The most famous of all doomsayers of energy, professor of geophysics M. King Hubbert, proclaimed a coming “global peak oil” as early as in 1949. When oil consumption exceeds oil production industrial societies will undergo dramatic turbulence. The newly founded “Group for futures thinking” at the Polytechnic Club in Oslo invited Jørgen Randers to hold a presentation of his findings. I was there to learn more about the most pressing issue facing the planet.
Q: Many people seem to have some sort of self censorship when it comes to complex problems. The idea of a collapsing industrialized world is too much to grasp for most people. How can researchers communicate the prospect of an undesirable future that causes constructive changes?

The fundamental question is whatever societies react best when confronted with a threat or when confront with an attractive possibility. Looking back, it seems like doom-saying and scare-mongering about future events has little effect on society. It’s better to look for a positive angle that cause change in behaviour. It’s about possibilities, not threats. It’s hard to imagine presenting a sufficiently negative “worst-case” scenario to society and expect them to react before it’s too late. You often have to wait until the symptoms are visible. It was no problem getting people to help and pay for the damage after the tsunami had hit.You don’t need to look at something as explicit as our scenarios. Look at climate change in stead. Well informed people know that it’s perfectly clear that more CO2 in the atmosphere leads to “bad weather”. The cost of this “bad weather” is much higher that the cost of increasing energy prices to promote better technology. By making all sources of alternative energy profitable you can have all the infrastructure and technology in place in 15 years. The challenge is to convince people that increasing cost now is attractive when considering that the positive effect can’t be seen until 15 years. One way to do this is to look at the positive effects in the short term. By becoming more energy effective you also reduce energy cost. Companies are now realizing that cutting CO2 is good for business. Cutting CO2 means reduced energy consumption leading to reduced energy cost and increased competitiveness. Sort-term thinking leading to long-term goals.

Q: Are scenario planning and system dynamics more acknowledged today that it was in 1972?

Both are rather exotic methods. System dynamics even more that scenario planning because it’s much harder to make good models compared to making good scenarios. It can be hard to spot a bad scenario. It’s easy to spot a bad model.

Q: Has the evolution of these disciplines from the 70’s changed your view on the future?

No. I’d say to the contrary. The strength of the system dynamics method is that you rather easily get a grip on the fundamental forces at play. This becomes your perspective on the problem. The fundamental dynamics very seldom change. The question raised in “Limits to Growth” is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Look at the 20 years with over expansion due to delay in the system. (See graph.) This was exactly the same 30 years ago. Our model has been changed only slightly. What we tried to do was getting the message across. Most of the critics dealt with the wrappings, not the content and the message. We have only recently begun discussing the probability of over-shoot and collapse. We are not saying that the world is predetermined.

Q: Was “Limits to Growth” taken seriously? What was the most constructive criticism and did it lead to actual change?

Very few scientific books are translated to 30 languages and sell more than 9 million copies. Comparing the “Limits to Growth”-project with similar research projects it’s obvious that we were taken serious. The fact that editorials in The Economist still rant about how wrong the Club of Rome where and how bad “Limits to Growth” was – 30 years later – must prove something. Every year for the last 30 years many has talked about something very important and something very wrong. Most things that are terribly wrong get mentioned once.

Q: Complexity and the future has fascinated scientists throughout the ages. From Malthus and Spengler to Schumpeter and Kondratievv. From Forrester through you and “Limits to Growth” to the recent winner of the Nobel price in economy, Finn. E. Kydland. Do you feel that your work follows the tradition of these? Is there a red-thread through the history of future studies?

There exist a red thread in the fear of limits to natural resources and the belief in technology. Malthus was a strong advocate of a finite world. If the world is finite and you get a sudden jump in something else, you’re in trouble. A hundred years after Malthus it was polite to believe that human creativity could solve every possible problem. We represent a synthesis of these two perspectives. It’s obvious that human creativity can solve every conceivable problem as long as it’s principally solvable. The problem is that we might not have enough time. The problems are so many and coming at us so fast that even if they are solvable at a slower speed we get problems getting the solutions in place in time. We are forced into a passing period of recession and lower welfare before we get the solutions in place. The thesis is Malthus and the anti-thesis is neo-liberal economic theory. “Limits to Growth” represent the synthesis.

Q: There are several software tools for system dynamics. Stella, Dynamo and Norwegian PowerSim. Do you see any limitations with existing modelling software?

There are no technical limitations of importance today. The limitations are found in the ability of the builder of the model to abstract the important structures from reality. A system dynamic model is a small piece of social theory. In the old days people didn’t think that ordinary people was able to produce reasonable social theory. Only Marx and others where said to be able to do that. This was a bottleneck. Today software tools for system dynamics is good enough to represent any hypotheses a scientist could have. The problem is that most hypotheses are either wrong or irrelevant. There’s lots of models build every year, and most of them are terrible.

Q: Scientists are continuously building better and more precise models. Do you think that we might get a future system model that can simulate the entire world and help us manage it better?

No. Attempts at modelling the climate have proven this to be hard. The systems don’t behave deterministically and makes it impossible to get that precise. I don’t think the models have gotten much better over time. There are more models but not necessarily better models. Technical models of planes and constructions have gotten much better. What we are talking about are macro economic social systems with human decision making. You can’t model such things with that much precision.

Q: Some of the critics of “Limits to Growth” said that you focused too much on population growth and energy crisis. Do you still consider these two problems to be the most critical?

Energy consumption is at the heart of the problem. We are past the problems of population growth. The population has been growing for many years and has reached enormous proportions. The size of the global population is so big that if we would like to have a reasonable living standard pr. head the planet would be too small. Is this a problem caused by population growth? We have a population problem in North-America and Western Europe. We use the most energy. One billion Chinese doesn’t matter compared to one hundred million gas-guzzling Americans and Europeans. China will use at least fifty years to reach our level of energy consumption.

Q: A while ago large parts of northern America experienced energy black-outs. The problem was blamed on old technology and lacking standards of energy exchange. Do you think energy scarcity will lead to more black-outs? What does this say about infrastructural vulnerability?

Your question doesn’t make sense. You’re mixing a short-term technical problem with a long-term imbalance. If you ask the question: Do you think there will be times when we don’t have enough energy for every person and company compared to what is normal? The answer is “yes”. We might get there because the capacity is increasing too slowly, and will continue to be slow. Nobody wants a nuclear plant in their back-yard; nobody wants wind-mills on their hills. Your next questions would be: How do we rationalize the energy? You can do nothing and get a problem. You can increase the prize of energy. You can set a limit of kilowatt hours pr. head. Are we able to develop a system for rationalizing when the time comes? This is a very technical question that is very interesting for the engineers that work with the infrastructure. How do you adjust to a period of increasing demand and decreasing supply on the net? The question remains unanswered.

Q: At a talk you held at NVE you conclude that the best way to solve the energy crisis is through gradually increasing energy prices. This would push industry into more effective production. Alternative energy source amount to 3% of the global consumption. Some experts predict that we will reach peak production as early as 2030. How do we adjust in time?

We can adjust in time through gradually increasing energy price and rationalizing. OPEC tripled the price of oil in one day in 1972. It was uncomfortable for a while but the world didn’t end because of it. Some countries forbid cars on Sundays. This is a small cost compared to doing nothing. Many disagree with this. Many consider Sunday rides with their cars and heated swimming pools as bare essentials. By consuming less we can develop better alternative sources of energy. The few years with insufficient energy will be hard to measure in historical terms.

Q: Scenario planning isn’t about predicting the future but creating a better understanding of uncertainty. There is much critical uncertainty in the coming 20 years; fuel cells, robotics/A.I., stem cells, gene therapy, molecular manufacturing etc. Big changes often come unannounced. Don’t you think such disruptive changes make many scenarios as much a fantasy as a basis for sound decision making?

It’s much easier to look at the big changes in the last 30 years. The Personal Computer didn’t exist when we made the models in 1972. I say my first PC in 1979. There have been many fantastic technological breakthroughs, but the scenarios we made 30 years ago haven’t been much affected by the PC or mobile phones. We look at fundamental and heavy processes. There’s continuous progress done with alternative energy and if this enables us to change from fossil fuels in 5 years we will get different scenarios. This is not how things work. It will happen over 30 years with incremental transitions.

Q: Don’t you think catalysis of coal to gas and oil might lead to big enough changes in 5 years?

This is fascinating research. I’m educated in physics and was doing a Ph.D. on fusion. We were working on fusion reactors instead of fission reactors. 32 years ago I was walking across the street at MIT and met a professor that was sure fusion energy would supply the world with energy in the future. Things like this takes a lot of time to develop. So will nanotechnology.


Jørgen Randers gave a quick answer to my question about the consequence of energy shortages on security issues: “USA owns Saudia Arabia”. He didn’t know the anti-globalist pet Immanuel Wallerstein and said that “Many system-gurus are just doing verbal exercises. We are the only ones who model the world right”.

See chart from “Beyond the Limits” by Meadows, etc., Scenario 1 , p.133See also The “Longage of the Critters” Problem by Jay Hansen.See also Revisiting “The Limits to Growth”: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All? By Matthew R. Simmons October 2000