Future Scenarios How Communities Can adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change
Chelsea Green 2009
When I first saw David Holmgren’s Future Scenarios talk and slide at a permaculture design course in Slovenia in 2005 I was still quite new to the concept of peak oil and listened transfixed at what seemed to be a detailed vision of the future: not precise predictions but an outline of four possible scenarios that may unfold over the next generation and beyond as human societies adapt to the consequences of the peaking and decline of our primary energy sources, peak oil and natural gas.
A couple of years ago David continued his explorations of these issues first examined in detail in his earlier book, Permaculture- Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002) with a new website Future Scenarios.
Now in book form, Future Scenarios provides one of the most succinct and lucid accounts of the possible paths that await us as we start the new era of energy descent.
Holmgren is in agreement with John Michael Greer that while much mainstream discussion about energy futures centres on the first two of his scenarios- “Techno-explosion” and “Techno Stability”, and the doomer/survivalist meme amongst the peak oil community tends to focus on the fourth scenario of “lifeboats” or versions of collapse, the more likely would be the third possibility of “Energy Descent”- a more gradual adaptation to diminishing energy supplies resulting in a contracting economy and reversion to technological simplicity that may play out over many generations.
This pathway of earth Stewardship is assumed by the permaculture agenda- an adaptive approach in which human scale design and general sustainability practices are progressively implemented and are informed by the energy flows through human society and ecology, and the energy base of our economies is clearly understood.
The real problem is that this more likely future is currently still marginalised as the mainstream culture refuses to abandon its faith in the myth of progress- a belief that rests on the mistaken assumption that gains in human welfare over the past few hundred years have been as a result of some teleological process propelling us forwards, or of a general increasing application of our genious for technological improvements and innovation, while ignoring the underlying reosurce base that has made all this possible: technology is merely different ways of using energy that is usually dug out of holes in the ground.
The likelihood that this transition will be to one of less energy is such an anathema to the psychological foundations and power elites of modern societies that it is constantly misinterpreted, ignored, covered up, or derided. Instead we see geopolitical maneuvering around energy resources, including proxy and real wars to control dwindling reserves and policy gymnastics to somehow make reducing carbon emissions the new engine of economic growth.
Holmgren categorises the scenarios according to the varying potential severity of peak oil and climate change and how these tow factors interplay:
- Brown Tech- slow oil decline, fast climate change;
- Green Tech- slow oil decline, slow climate change;
- Earth Steward- fast oil decline, slow climate change;
- Lifeboats- fast oil decline, fast climate change
These typologies may necessarily be too simplistic- so many other factors may also come into play, such as financial collapse which, while no doubt linked to both peak oil and climate change, may impact in ways as yet unforeseen. However, Holmgren provides a deeper analyses by showing how the scenarios may be “nested” one within the other- each acting on the different scales of the household, local, national and international economies; or may take a stepped form over time- attempts by governments to keep the system going a little longer by following a Brown Tech path may hasten an eventual collapse; equally, an attempt to switch to green tech may result in the adoption of Earth Stewardship further down the line as renewables fail to fill the gap left by oil. The scenarios may also play out differently in different parts of the world.
Throughout Holmgren’s analysis is informed by ecological systems, the foundation for his permaculture principles, as he sees how energy dynamics in nature may be mirrored in human socieites:
Natural ecosytems tend to maintain homeostasis under stress through the allocation of stored resources. if the conditions continue to deteriorate, then further stress can fracture the homeostasis. If the stress involves a reduction in energy availability, the system may collapse. But total collapse and system disintegration are rare, at least in the short term. More typically a restabalization occurs at a lower level of energy processing and organisational complexity. The new homeostasis will typically be stable for some time before declining energy availability precipitates another crisis. This may also be a model for how human societies respond to the crisis of resource and energy decline.
Holmgren is keen to paint a more positive vision of the future in the earth Stewardship scenario- “conditions for ordinary people may actually improve when resources devoted to maintaining societal complexity are freed for meeting more basic needs”- a reference to the diminishing returns provided by endless growth.
There is a desperate need to recast energy descent as a positive process that can free people from the strictures and dysfunctions of growth economics and consumer culture. This is now apparent to many people around the world and is far more fundamental than a public relations campaign to paint a black sky blue. It is a necessary [process to provide a sense of hope and connection to fundamental human values expressed by every traditional culture throughout human history, among them, that the prusuit of materialism is a false god.
No doubt materialism without bounds, as expressed in modern society in unending growth and the development of consumer culture, is a false god; however, I am not sure that an awareness of this has always been present in every traditional culture. Holmgren here seems to betray a romantic view of the past, at odds with the ecological basis for his work, which is itself of course fundamentally materialistic. What seems more likely is the insights of anthropology and evolutionary psychology: that we have as a species a fundamental propensity towards getting more stuff, as is evidenced by the ready emergence in traditional societies of cargo cults after contact with the west.
This weakness is apparent in his assessment of the corresponding ideologies and belief systems that accompany the scenarios: he seems to equate secular humanism with the materialistic ideology of “Brown Tech” and suggests that these beliefs systems are inherently negative, giving rise to dysfunctional behaviours;
While the elites continue to be driven by a commitment to superrationalist beliefs, a sense of hollowness and lack of purpose characterizes the shrinking middle class, while fundamentalist religions and cults play a stronger role in the lives of the working and unemployed classes, partly through genuine reaction to the failures of modern humanism and partly manipulated by the elites to deflect anger and disenchantment.
While this may be very true, he compares this to a shift in values in “Green Tech”:
Civic culture strengthens where further transition toward nonmaterialistic society combines with the maturation of feminism and environmentalism, and a resurgence in indigenous and traditional cultural values.
It seems to me that there is a contradiction between “traditional values” -many of which may be parochial and overly conservative or reactionary – with post-modern feminist and environmental values; it is far from clear that they would be the same or even compatible.
Similarly, under “Earth Steward” Holmgren suggests that a “simplification in the material domain is seen as the opportunity for growth in the spiritual domain. There is a resurgence in leadership by women and a celebration of the feminine in nature and people”.
But what is the “spiritual” domain? This needs to be defined here becasue there is a vast range of possible interpretations. For the same reasons I have always had some difficulty with Holmgren’s domain of “Health and Spritual well-being” in the Permaculture Flower. I interpret it to mean “Health and Psychological/emotional well-being”. However, it is abundantly apparent that permaculture has become almost synonymous with New Age religion in many quarters, a reactionary and delusional trend that all permaculturalists should challenge strongly. Holmgren’s loose use of the word “spiritual” in this context, and his “celebration of the feminine” will inevitably be seen by many to sanctify pseudo-science and the worship of spirits and nebulous “energies”.
(Again “the feminine” and “feminine values” really needs to be defined: we are presumably not talking about the feminine values of Sex in the City; too often “the feminine” is associated with “the spiritual” in a quite meaningless way which I feel is rather patronizing to women.)
Here, Holmgren looses an opportunity to call for a celebration of secular humanism and rationalism- the most important legacy of the modern world, which will need to be protected less we fall back into a new dark age of superstition and delusion with energy descent.
Nor is it necessary to embody any kind of “earth spirituality” in order to foster more sustainable lifestyles- these should come of their own accord, naturally emerging from a scientific understanding of ecology and our place within it, combined with a simple sense of beauty and wonder at the natural world, unfettered by ideological presumptions.
There is a great danger within the environmental movement as a whole to replace the delusion of unending growth with the delusion of narcissistic spirituality, part of a wider failure to acknowledge the real gains of modernity through science.
For all this, Holmgren remains one of the most significant of contemporary thinkers, and Future Scenarios is an important contribution to peak oil literature, and one of the clearest assessments of the kind of world that awaits us.