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Envisioning A Peak Oil Future: Adapt, Evolve, or Collapse

The following is an excerpt from The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience by Rob Hopkins. It has been adapted for the Web.

Evaluating possible ways forward

I do not have a crystal ball. I don’t know how the twin crises of peak oil and climate change will unfold – nobody does. I don’t know the exact date of peak oil, and again, nobody does. Similarly, I don’t know if and when we will exceed the 2°C climate threshold, and what will happen if we do.

What I am certain of is that we are going to see extraordinary levels of change in every aspect of our lives. Indeed we have to see extraordinary levels of change if we are to navigate our societies away from dependence on cheap oil in such a way that they will be able to retain their social and ecological coherence and stability, and also live in a world with a relatively stable climate. In terms of looking forward, many people have set out different scenarios for what the future might hold. I have trawled through a lot of these for insights as to how life beyond the peak might be.

View the map in the viewer below. Use Full-Screen mode for a better view. (Projector screen-looking icon. Lower right.)

What I have set out to do in the figure above is to position these very varied scenarios in relation to each other, starting at one end with those that see technology as being all-powerful and capable of solving any problem put before it, and at the other extreme those who see technology as having no place and the fragmentation and decentralisation of society as being inevitable. I started out thinking that this spectrum would be linear, but actually both extremes taken to their logical conclusion result in collapse – what David Holmgren calls the ‘Atlantis scenario’ – where society implodes and disintegrates.1 As a way of underpinning this diverse spectrum of possibilities, I have used three mindsets:

  • Adaptation: scenarios that assume we can somehow invent our way out of trouble
  • Evolution: scenarios which require a degree of collective evolution, a change of mindset, but which assume that society, albeit in a low-energy, more localised form, will retain its coherence
  • Collapse: scenarios that assume that the inevitable outcome of peak oil and climate change will be the fracturing and disintegration, either sudden or gradual, of society as we know it.

From the diagram we can see that those scenarios in the top left hand section (the Adaptation wedge), all rely on technology, economic growth and the continuation of economic globalisation to solve the problems that peak oil is presenting. Many of them don’t even allow for the mitigation of climate change. Put simply, we don’t need to change ourselves, just our light bulbs. Scenario planner Pierre Wack has said that these kinds of scenarios have a fatal flaw, in that they rely on what he terms the “Three Miracles”,2 namely:

  1. A technological miracle (i.e. extraordinary new exploration and production levels or free/hydrogen energy)
  2. A socio-political miracle (that government policies and cultural values will allow social exclusion to be eradicated)
  3. A fiscal miracle, namely that the public sector will fund the implementation of that scenario.

The Evolution scenarios require the actual evolution of our culture as a whole, rather than just focusing on technological solutions to ‘fix’ the immediate problem. This approach echoes Einstein’s famous words: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” These scenarios argue that we have to evolve our way out of this one.

It is the unlikelihood of all of Wack’s three miracles occurring that leads me to believe that the Adaptation scenarios aren’t going to happen, and that the Evolution ones are the most likely. Collapse is, of course, always possible, but I like to think of it as being like The Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That is, it shows how the future will be unless we change what we are doing. It is not inevitable. As we will explore in more detail later in this section, much of what we would need to do to prepare for the Collapse scenarios we would need to do anyway to prepare for the Evolution scenarios. I would argue that rather than trying to terrify people into change through presenting them with visions of Collapse, the Evolution scenarios could provide a vision of an end goal so enticing that society would want to engage in the transition towards them.

Scenarios in the Evolution spectrum range from the idea that what is needed is a national concerted plan of action to break away from dependence on fossil fuels (what Heinberg terms ‘Powerdown’) to localisation – the concept that we re-prioritise the local, and that the influence of centralised systems begins to decline. It is my assertion that when peak oil and the need to respond to climate change are factored into our responses, Business as Usual (and the other scenarios in the Adaptation paradigm) has no long-term viability.

  1. Holmgren’s four scenarios are set out in Holmgren, D. (2005) ‘The End of Suburbia or the Beginning of Mainstream Permaculture?’, Permaculture Magazine 46, pp.7-9.
  2. Kleiner, A. (1996) The Age of Heretics, Nicholas Brealey Publishers.

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