Maxton & Jorgen Randers
Maxton and Jorgen Randers are the authors of Reinventing
Prosperity, published by Greystone, October 2016. Graeme is
also the Secretary General of the Club of Rome while Jorgen is professor
emeritus at BI Norwegian Business School and member of the Club’s Executive
Licensing: This article is Open Access (CC BY 4.0).
How to Cite:
Maxton, G., and J. Randers. 2016. 'Solving the human sustainability problem in short-termist societies'. The Journal of Population and Sustainability 1(2): 11–21.
has so far failed to create a sustainable economic system because all
conventional attempts to change the current paradigm lead to a short-term
decline in the rate economic growth, resulting in higher inequality and
unemployment, outcomes which are politically unacceptable. This article
shows how to overcome this hurdle, by adopting 13 unconventional policies which
reduce unemployment and inequality while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions,
regardless of what happens to economic growth, and so allow for a gradual
transition to a sustainable system in short-termist
Economic Growth; climate change; population; unconventional policy options;
inequality; sustainability; green growth; limits to growth; short-termism.
Club of Rome has been searching for a solution to the sustainability problem –
that of fitting a big and materially rich human population onto small planet –
for more than 45 years. The problem was first defined in its famous first
“Report to the Club of Rome”, The
Limits to Growth, published
in 1972, and co-authored by one of us.
crux of the problem is comparatively simple. If there is continuing growth – in
population, resource use or pollution – on a finite planet, the likely outcome
is overshoot of the physical limits of the planet. Such overshoot will be
followed by collapse, back to sustainable levels, unless there is genuinely
extraordinary action to organise a managed decline. Pitted against the
ambitions of humanity, in other words, the laws of physics are unlikely to
would not happen overnight, of course, but rather over several decades, and it
is our belief that the fraying of the environmental and economic threads that
hold human society together has already begun. Climate change is the most
obvious sign, though rising levels of air and water pollution, the loss of
numerous species, and humanity’s rising migration problems are all indicators
of a failing system too.
biggest problem however, is climate change. Unless there is a very significant
change in human behaviour over the next 20 years, global temperatures will
reach a level that is +2ºC above the pre-industrial average by 2050. This will
intensify the already observable damage from extreme weather, increase human migration
flows, cause much unnecessary suffering to many life-forms, and threaten the
stability of many human institutions. In the long run, after the year 2100, the
+2ºC rise will be enough to start a gradual and unstoppable melting of the
northern permafrost. This will take several centuries but will be accompanied
by continually rising sea levels – from one metre this century to another half
a metre each following century.
do not dramatically reduce the level of damaging emissions in the next few decades
then, the subsequent warming will kick off a chain-reaction which humanity will
be powerless to stop, with serious negative consequences for the vast majority
of living things on the planet.
the first few decades following the publication of The Limits to Growth,
the Club of Rome directed its efforts towards informing the political
establishment about the sustainability problem, reasoning that politicians were
elected to protect the well-being of voters – and ensure their survival – and
that they would act accordingly. The results of this approach were positive at
first, but then suffered from a steady backlash from those parts of the
business establishment which wanted to stick to the current path, because it is
easier and more profitable, regardless of the long term consequences for
humanity and the planet. The views of these businesses were, sadly, also
supported by many voters who feared losing their jobs during the transition to
a more sustainable system.
Evidence and data are not
conclusion from this experience is that it is not sufficient to present solid
scientific data and then expect the political establishment to act. Creating
the necessary momentum for a transition requires something else.
we have been working on specific solutions to the climate challenge – knowing
that it will now require genuinely extraordinary action to stop global warming
before it is too late. The main problem, in a short-termist
world, is that the obvious steps needed are way beyond what will be profitable
or cost-effective and, most critically, far beyond that which is conventionally
possible in a free-market democratic society. Solving the problem requires
significant government intervention – in the form of well
designed restrictions and subsidies – yet this seems politically
impossible in much of the rich world, certainly for now.
with this conundrum, it is only mildly comforting to know that it is actually
quite simple – in principle – to solve the climate problem. All it takes is a
ban on the use of coal, oil and gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70-80
%. Sadly, this seems to be politically infeasible as well, because voters are
unwilling to pay more for electricity, gasoline and heating or cooling. Even
for the proponents of such a ban the rewards would be elusive unfortunately,
because the climate problem will continue to worsen for decades no matter what
society now does.
politicians will not do what is necessary to stop planetary warming because
this will not be popular with voters.
what to do?
Unconventional solutions are
new book Reinventing Prosperity (the German title One Percent is Enoughoffers a better summary of
what we are proposing) provides the answer. It lists 13 extraordinary and
unconventional policy measures that, if implemented, would make solving the
climate problem much easier.
proposals differ from other climate solutions because we restrict ourselves to
policies that should be politically feasible in rich-world free-market
democracies. We have limited ourselves to proposals that will provide an
immediate advantage to a majority of voters, in other words, and which will go
a long way towards solving the climate problem.
our proposals are designed in such a way as to avoid any increase in
unemployment or any widening of inequality during the transition from a
fossil-based energy world to a more sustainable one. This is crucial, because
it is a sad fact that conventional climate solutions cut the number of jobs in
dirty industries (those producing or using coal, oil, and gas) without
providing a safety net for those who lose their jobs. It is therefore
unsurprising that there is so much opposition from those who stand to lose.
central objective of our 13 proposals is to ensure that those who lose their
jobs during the transition continue to receive a steady income until they have
been trained for, and obtained, a new job in cleaner industries. As well as
work in the production and use of renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro and biomass)
these new jobs will typically be in services, care, culture or research.
the transition only affects around one percent of all jobs in the rich world –
which is one of the reasons for the title of the German version of our book –
it should be politically manageable to provide this safety net. (We deal with
the poor world separately, because the steps required in the poor world are
different. For decades, the poor world has been advised to follow the economic
policies of the rich world, and these have generally been to the poor world’s
disadvantage. We believe that the economic policies of the rich and poor world
need to be different, especially in the future.)
transition from dirty to clean still needs to be financed however, and the
simplest way to do this is for governments to impose slightly higher taxes. But
charging any sort of new taxes – to make the understatement of the year – is
unlikely to be welcome in some countries. Few people would favour a tax rise in
the US, Australia and the UK, for example, because the majority of people in
these countries seem unwilling to pay for a shift from fossil to the low-carbon
energy, despite the long term environmental rewards that would accrue to all.
have pondered long and deep to find a way around this problem. Our solution, as
described in our book, is a basket of policy changes that – together – provide
income and job security to those affected by the transition without any
increase in taxes. By raising the number of annual vacation days (we use the
example of two additional days each year) for example, without any reduction in
pay, the number of jobs available in an economy gradually increases, creating
new work opportunities (because the available work is more evenly shared). This
idea should be supported by the majority of people too, because it offers more
leisure time without any reduction in pay. The cost is a mild rise in
inflation, and so is paid equitably by all. Shortening the work year also slows
output growth and the growth in greenhouse gas emissions.
understand, of course, that it will take a lot of explaining to demonstrate
that our 13 proposals lead to increased income security and so eliminate the
resistance to strong climate action. Yet they actually offer much more, because
they would boost average well-being throughout the rich world too.
also acknowledge that our proposals do not further the economic interests of
the rich, and hence will be resisted intensely by business owners and many
business people. But even in rich nations these people constitute a tiny
minority and their special interests should not win the day if there is truly
13 proposals are listed at the end of the article in a table. In our view,
three of the most innovative and promising are:
1. Accelerate the emergence of
clean business sectors through the use of green stimulus packages.
simple terms, this means printing money to pay for whatever is needed to cut
greenhouse gas emissions. If governments can print trillions of dollars to prop
up the financial system, they can logically print money to stop climate change.
drastically slow climate change, humanity must stop burning fossil fuels and
find replacements for the three major uses of such energy; the production of
electricity, transport, and heating/cooling of buildings. This requires:
rapid expansion of renewable electricity capacity (solar panels, windmills,
hydroelectric plants, (some will argue nuclear)),
electrification of the transport sector (replacing all fossil-fuelled cars and
trucks, as well as many boats and trains, with electric ones, and establish the
charging infrastructure), and
vast increase in the energy efficiency of buildings (that is, to insulate them
better) before they are converted to electric heating/cooling.
three steps would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70 – 80 % and
are the core elements of the much discussed, and generally misunderstood,
printing money proposal accelerates the electrification of the economy by using
today’s existing stimulus packages for an unconventional purpose.
(Interestingly, President Trump has already suggested using stimulus packages
to create jobs in the US by improving the highways though he could actually
create the same number of jobs in the production of windmills, electric cars
and installing building insulation while reducing his country’s ecological
green stimulus packages should be welcomed by the majority of people because
they create jobs without any short-term cost to voters. In reality, and in the
long-term, there should be a small cost, through a small hike in inflation
(though, interestingly, this has not happened when the policy has been used to
bail out the banking sector).
Korea used green stimulus packages – paying people to create a cleaner country
– as a central part of its macroeconomic response to the financial crisis in
2008-09. China is adopting a similar approach in its effort to clean the air of
its mega-cities – by paying millions of workers to clean the air using newly
2. Tax coal, oil and gas heavily
and divide the revenue among all citizens equally.
proposal is to introduce a high tax on coal, oil, and gas – levied at the coal
face, oil well, or gas pipeline entry point (or at the port of import) – and
give the revenue to adult citizens equally in monthly pay cheque. It would make
coal, oil and gas more expensive, and accelerate the transition to renewable
energy. As the dividend cheque received by the majority of people would be
larger than the extra cost they have to pay for energy, since most people use
less energy than the average, the policy would benefit most people. It is also
redistributive, shifting income from the rich to the poor. The majority would
have an immediate short-term advantage and everyone would have an incentive to
use less dirty fuel.
used this method to remove its huge subsidies on fossil fuels. To gain popular
support, the government started by sending cheques to all households one month
before it eliminated the subsidies.
3. Increase the number of annual
paid vacation days – for example adding two more vacation days every year –
without any reduction in annual pay.
purely economic terms, this proposal offsets productivity increases with more
leisure time. Two fewer working days a year is less than 1% of a normal work
year – yet another interpretation of our book title – and can be compensated
for by increased productivity, which has been around 2% a year in recent
decades in the rich world. If productivity improvements are lower, then longer
vacation time will simply increase the inflation rate slightly and so will be
paid for by all citizens equally.
this proposal to work best, vacation time should be compulsory and
Germany and other European countries have already applied this policy since
1960 to great effect. The citizens of these countries have a work year (1,600
hours a year) that is much shorter than that of US workers (2,000 hours), yet
incomes remain high, vacations are longer, and average subjective well-being
The elephant in the room
this is a journal about population as well as sustainability, we should add
some comments on the population issue, as it is a central theme of our book
too. While the world has improved its energy and resource efficiency
dramatically in the last 30 years, these gains have been more than offset by a
near-doubling in the number of people on the planet, with the result that the
total human ecological footprint has continued to rise. Humanity lives today as
if there were 1.6 planet Earths (Global Foot Print Network 2003), something
which is only feasible for a limited period of time.
this problem is, of course, extremely hard. Without some sort of famine, war or
pestilence on a near global scale, the human population will continue to grow
for many years, and with it the pace of ecological damage. The only proven way
to reduce the rate of population growth, other than a one-child policy, is
through improved levels of education, especially of women, better healthcare,
especially of children, and, of course, through more easily available
our book we have made one additional proposal, which we believe will lower
birth rates further, and, at the same time, offer moral support to those many
hundreds of million of women who have already made
the decision to limit their family size.
making this proposal we have two objectives. First, we want to help a wide
audience understand that the human population is too large. We want to shine a
light onto a subject which has been insufficiently addressed for decades and
encourage debate. Second, we want to highlight the fact that the problem is not
only in Africa, south-east Asia and the rest of the poor world, as many people
seem to believe. Despite low and falling birth rates, it is a problem of the
rich world too, because the average child born in the OECD creates up to 30x more
environmental havoc than one in the poor world (Global Foot Print Network,
proposal is to reward women who have one child only, or none, through the
payment of a generous financial bonus on their 50th birthdays. We do not advocate removing
the existing incentives that encourage people in the rich world to have more
children (maternity and paternity leave, income support, and free
kindergartens, for example), because they have many other advantages. We
advocate instead the use of incentives that encourage fewer children, partly
because this will encourage a change in thinking.
proposal also helps strengthen the status of women and further increase their
influence over the crucial decision of family size. It represents a shift from
the oft-heard view that families without children are not doing their bit to
create the workforce of the future.
give the payment to women only? Because they are the ones who actually carry
and give birth to a child. This puts a pressure on women that
men do not experience, and we see our proposal as a way to recognize this.
not pretend that our idea will be easy to implement, or indeed easy to get
accepted. We admit too that there are all sorts of practical problems, such as
how societies should reward singles, same-sex couples, the infertile, those who
adopt children, and couples who have twins, triplets, or more when they plan
for just one child.
we are trying to encourage is a change in thinking—and for the rich world to
lead by example.
needs to understand that the problem of overpopulation will eventually be fixed
whether people like it or not. It will either be fixed by nature, through some
sort of ecological or societal collapse, or it can be fixed by choice – by
having ever fewer people living peacefully within nature’s bounds.
want to show that it is better for humanity to choose the way, and to make it
as positive an experience as possible.
One Percent is Enough
Thirteen proposals to boost
average well-being in the rich world
1. Shorten the length of the work
give everyone more leisure time
2. Raise the retirement age to help the elderly provide for
themselves for as long as they want
3. Redefine “paid work” to cover those who care for
others at home
4. Increase unemployment benefits to maintain demand during the
5. Increase the taxation of
corporations and the rich to
redistribute profits, especially from robotisation.
6. Expand the use of green
stimulus packages by printing money or raising taxes to help governments respond to
climate change and the need for redistribution.
7. Tax fossil fuels and return the
proceeds in equal amounts to all citizensto
make low-carbon energy more competitive.
8. Shift taxes from employment to
emissions and resource use to
reduce the ecological footprint, protect jobs and cut raw materials use.
9. Increase death taxes to reduce inequality and
philanthropy while boosting government income.
unionisation to boost worker incomes and
trade where necessary to
protect jobs, improve well-being, and help the environment
women who have one child or none when they pass the age of 50 to
reduce the pressure of humanity on the planet.
a guaranteed livable income for those who need it
most and give everyone peace of
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