In Future Scenarios, permaculture co-originator and leading sustainability innovator David Holmgren outlines four scenarios that bring to life the likely cultural, political, agricultural, and economic implications of peak oil and climate change, and the generations-long era of “energy descent” that faces us.
The following is an excerpt from Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change by David Holmgren. It has been adapted for the Web.
The green-tech scenario is the most benign, in that adverse climate changes are at the low end of projections. Oil and gas production decline slowly as in the brown-tech future, so the sense of chaos and crisis is more muted without major economic collapse or conflict. This allows resources to flow to a greater diversity of responses at the global, national, city, community, and individual level. In some already densely populated poor countries, conditions worsen.
Higher commodity prices, however, allow some poorer producer economies to escape their debt cycle, while programs to empower women result in rapid reduction in the birthrate. The gradual reduction in the capacity of countries to project power globally, owing to rising energy costs, increases national security and redirection of resources away from defense and resource capture to resource conservation and technological innovation. The consolidation of global communication systems maintains global outlooks and understandings if not global economics.
As in the brown-tech scenario, electrification is a key element in the energy transition, but the renewable energy sources of wind, biomass, solar, hydro, tidal, and wave grow rapidly, developing a more diverse and distributed mix. The relatively benign climate allows a resurgence of rural and regional economies on the back of sustained and growing prices for all natural commodities including feedstock for biofuels.
The principles behind organic agriculture and ecological management and resource allocation become the norm in many farming systems, helping to stabilize agriculture challenged by increasing cost of energy inputs and (albeit mild) climate change.
The accelerating conflict between biofuels and food is stabilized if not resolved by government subsidies to support food supply from agriculture, with biofuels coming mainly from forestry waste. In many regions with prime agricultural land and small populations, wealthy farmers and agribusiness corporations are the main beneficiaries, employing both high technology and cheap labor from migrant workers. In some regions, with poorer and steeper land and more diversified land ownership, smallerscale polyculture systems designed using permaculture principles spread wealth more evenly through local communities.
Continuous contraction affects large sections of the economy, but the energy, resource, and agriculture sectors along with recycling and retrofit industries experience rapid growth based on high commodity prices that are sustained despite economic recession in the main consuming economies. In some affluent countries, reform of monetary systems lowers the scale of financial collapses and refocuses capital on productive and socially useful innovation and investment.
Information technology continues to yield gains in energy and resource management, from real-time pricing and selfhealing electrical grids, to Internet-based ride-sharing systems and telecommuting. Conservation yields the greatest gains with major public policies to change personal and organizational behavior. In other countries, especially the United States, the apparent opportunities for continued economic growth, combined with government policies to support a low-carbon economy, lead to a renewable-energy investment bubble followed by a severe recession.
State and city governments responsible for providing services are able to lead much of the restructuring to more compact cities and towns with increasing public-transportation infrastructure. Growth in large cities (especially in coastal lowlands) is reversed by public policies ahead of the worst effects of increased energy cost and global warming, while regional cities, towns, and villages see modest growth on a compact urban model that preserves prime agricultural land and develops mixed-use neighborhoods with more local work and radically less commuting.
The placing together of many of the more optimistic aspects of energy descent may seem artificial, but there are reasons to believe that the green-tech scenario will tend toward a more egalitarian structure with the relative shift of power from control of oil wells and mines to control of the productivity of nature via traditional land uses such as agriculture and forestry and more novel renewable technologies.
The inherently distributed nature of these resources will lead to more distributed economic and political power at the level of cities, with their hinterlands and organizations focused at this scale. For example, successful large-scale farmers who have reduced their dependence on energy-intensive inputs through permaculture strategies and organic methods may find new profits in more localized markets with prices sustained by policies that encourage regional self-reliance. Any profits beyond farming are likely to be invested into local energy systems that generate more employment and further reduce economic dependence on central governments and large corporations. It is possible that these same processes could lead to highly inequitable, even feudal systems. However, the universal focus on more sustainable production and reduced consumption that is not forced by remote and arbitrary central power has the tendency to foster more egalitarian responses than in the brown-tech scenario.
The substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that result from this scenario keep climate-change impacts to a minimum, thus stabilizing and reinforcing the scenario’s basic characteristics for at least several decades.
The success in radically reducing consumption of resources while sustaining modest growth in some local economies, combined with stabilization of the climate, encourages a new “sustainability” elite to consider further changes to consolidate these achievements in the face of ongoing net energy decline. The worst excesses of consumer capitalism are controlled by restriction and reform of advertising and other dysfunctional forces.
Civic culture strengthens where further transition toward a nonmaterialistic society combines with the maturation of feminism and environmentalism, and a resurgence in indigenous and traditional cultural values. These trends stabilize the accelerating loss of faith in secular humanism allowing the evolution of more spiritual “cultures of place.” Over time, an evolution toward the earth-steward scenario seems an obvious and natural response to the inexorable decline of nonrenewable resources. “Distributed powerdown” summarizes this scenario by emphasizing both the distributed nature of resources and power, and the planned contraction involved.
At their extremes the green-tech and brown-tech scenarios also describe many of the elements that could be expected in the techno-stability long-term scenario where new energy sources manage to replace fossil fuels without the stresses that lead to systemwide contraction. The current levels of ecological, economic, and sociopolitical stress are the indirect indicators that we are entering the energy-descent scenarios rather than simply a transition from energetic growth to stability. Relative insulation from those stresses and the persistence of faith in the monetary accounting “house of cards” by the upper middle class (if not the global elites) continues the confusion. The lack of understanding of net energy concepts and disagreement among the experts on appropriate methods of net energy accounting, combined with political pressures from the unfolding crisis, lead to energetic descent being mistaken for “business as usual.”