Future Scenarios

This month's book is 'Future Scenarios- How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change' by David Holmgren.  Published in 2009 by Chelsea Green Publishing

In many way, David Holmgren is the quiet, unassuming face of permaculture, working away in the background.  However, in Future Scenarios, Holmgren articulates loud and clear the implications of social, environmental and economic realities of the present and the future.  He is a visionary who forces us to open our eyes to the big picture. Future Scenarios is push to think about the present and future effects of climate change and peak oil.

Autumn in the Kootenays

Author's note: This blog post is a bit longer than usual. The complexity of the question of peak oil and climate change led me down many rabbit holes while writing it.  I know there are many experts in the field that have a greater understanding of the issues, and I have just explored a few.

It was also difficult to write this post while living in the idyllic and tranquil Creston valley where we have an abundance of clean natural resources as well as culture that is at least 30 years in the past.  The future scenarios seem out of place and time in such an environment. The same is true of watching a documentary that reveals that children are picking through landfills for something to eat in the Phillipines while I am safe and warm and comfortable in my life in Canada.  How can we reconcile the jarring realities of injustice, fear, beauty, faith, greed, prejudice, compassion and hope that are present, past and future?  Just because something is shocking, does not make it a lie.  It is time to explore our cognitive dissonance, and take action with our hearts and our hands rooted in our home, earth.

Future Scenarios

When we think of our future, there are several popular scenarios that we envision.  From all the futuristic movies I have watched, I have been led to believe that in the future, we are all going to be running around in silver onesies.  The politics, economies, human interactions, biodiversity, energy use are all up for debate in these perceived futures, but the fashion is definitely convergent to onesies. Let's just hope we look as good as Uma Thurman in a jumpsuit.

All humour aside, in Future Scenarios, Holmgren first explores four future scenarios that are popular in the cultural sphere when dealing with energy futures: techno-explosion, techno-stability, energy descent and collapse.

techno-explosion- usually involves a new large energy source which will allow continuous growth and wealth.  This scenario often involves space travel and colonization of other planets.

techno-stability-involves a conversion of all our current activities to renewable energies, and once in place, society will prevail as usual.

energy descent- involves reduction of economy and population that is directly linked the reduction of fossil fuels.  This scenario involves massive changes to societal structure, politics, densities of people, and cultural influences.

collapse- This scenario is just how it sounds: our linked geo-political-economic-industrial society collapses under the fall of fossil fuels and climate change damages.  The collapse is fast, and continuous, and major population loss as well as dying off of many key aspects of industrial society.

Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) turning yellow

Future Scenarios up close

Let's look at some of the future scenarios to see the underlying assumptions and psychology.

First up is techno-explosion.  This scenario relies not only on a new found source of energy but also on some assumptions that business will continue as usual.

Have you seen this fabled new energy source, that will replace fossil fuels? I mean, maybe we will find kryptonite or something that will be able to power all our cities and transportation needs with no ill effects, without taking large amounts of fuels to make more fuel... but so far this remains in the realm of science fiction.

So let's take business as usual.  What does this mean?  Business as usual assumes:

  • there will always be fossil fuels to extract and net energy will increase
  • any changes from one form of fuel to another will be a stable shift. (no significant declines in quantity or quality of the energy source)
  • economic growth will continue
  • the global financial market will be stable
  • there will not be any major geo-political upheavals or collapses
  • climate change will be slow and non- existent

So even if we think that there is going to be some new found energy source, business as usual relies on the idea that everything will remain the same the the future.... our economy will continue growing, it will be still feasible and economic to extract fossil fuels, there will be no negative effects of climate change, world politics will continue to be dominated by the USA with no changes to global poltical structure, that the financial market of wealth and debt will still be viable...

But will business really continue as usual? I think if we look at history we can say that change has been about one of the only constants through the ages.

The hiking club at the top of Haystack Mountain, BC

Next is techno-stability scenario.

The techno-stability scenario is unlikely for a few reasons.  First, has a technology, ever really solved our problems? Or has it just delayed or dispersed a problem? Second, Albert Einstein said: "Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them".  Meaning, that unless we get to the systematic root of our problems in our culture, we can't really fix it.

The techno-stability scenario also assumes that "human ingenuity, technology, markets, and social capital are at least as important in shaping history as raw energy and resources." (pg. 19 Future Scenarios). Furthermore, the techno-stability scenario assumes human capital in the form of service based economies, mass education, media, web based activities, etc., are not linked to ecological factors, and they will grow the economy without using more energy and materials.

It's true that when I work on a computer, I am not actively going out there to chop down trees, or mining resources from the earth... but somebody is.  The energy required to run the servers that run the internet, to power all our devices, the presence of coltan mines in the Congo, the vast problem of electronic wastes leads me to the conclusion that service based industries and technologies are not divorced from energy or materials use. ( and yes I realize the irony of blogging about this particular problem)

Industrial culture has created a dichotomy, a division between nature and humans.  This separation has created the idea that we can determine our future, outside ecological limits.   Now, while I like the idea of human ingenuity and self-determination to a certain extent- I don't subscribe to Nihilism or Extetensialism- there is definitely a missing ethic, a connection with the eco, (from the greek 'oikos' meaning our house), in our modern society.

Holmgren implies that this fracture, our dysfunctional modern industrial culture is directly related to the use of fossil fuels.  Holmgren says that human capital such as mass education are like ""stores" of high-quality embodied fossil energy.  Like more material forms of wealth, they depreciate over time and must be used and renewed to remain useful." (pg 20 Future Scenarios).

Holmgren continues saying, that enduring, mature, robust societies should be able to come up with real solutions to future challenges, and yet, this is not what we see in our global industrial culture. More often we see denial, myopia, and unwillingness to discuss future possibilities.

"We can interpret the shortsighted nature of information and decision making in our largest organizational structures as one of the may signs of cultural decay, reflecting the fact that our stocks of human capital may be declining just as our stock of natural capital is......This depletion suggests these less material forms of wealth my be subject to the same laws of energy and entropy that govern the natural capital of earth, air and water." (pg 22-23 Future Scenarios).

Now, whether you think our mass education system or human capital are related to ecological limits or stored fossil fuels, the question still remain: for the techno-stability scenario to occur, we need a massive conversion of all our energy stocks to novel renewable energy technologies.  This relies on a complex technological fix, that cannot occur without the social/cultural shift as well.  The same thinking that created a world dependent on fossil fuels, cannot transition us completely into the world of renewables.   The quantity, quality, distribution of renewable energies (as they are today) are not usable, markable, transportable in exactly the same ways as fossil fuels.  We also need to change of mindset and to add in the energy descent part for a complete switch to renewable energy to succeed.

Collapse is everyone's favourite and least favourite scenario.  Collapse is seen again and again in movies, fiction and in examinations of historical collapses of the Mayan empire, the Roman Empire and population collapses from epidemics such as the Black Death.  It is terrifying and fascinating at the same time.

"... the total-collapse scenario tends to lead to fatalistic acceptance, or alternatively, naive notions of individual or family survivalist preparations.  Similarly, the collapse scenario is so shocking that it reinforces the rejection by the majority of even thinking about the future, thus increasing the likelihood of very severe energy decent, if not total collapse." (pg 26-27 Future Scenarios)

The collapse scenario is exacerbated by the phenomenon of 'end of the world' predictions that are common in the Judeo-Christian culture, leading to a 'boy who called wolf' problem right now where people don't actually believe there are any future problems with climate change or peak oil.

In addition, Holmgren raises a debate about 'peak affluence'.  The rapid changes to industrial society in the last 50-70 years have created a set of normalized income, debt, wealth, technology, and standard of life in industrial society.  Any change to this affluent lifestyle is seen as 'the end of civilization', when in fact, changing ideas about what is affluence, and reducing 'wants' to fit within a more ecological and equitable limits, would not be 'the end of civilization'.

"Perhaps this reflects the egocentric nature of modern mentality where we consider our own survival and well-being as being more important than was perhaps felt by past generations.  It may also be interpreted as an intuitive recognition that this peak of affluence, like peak oil, is a fundamental turning point that will break the illusion of the - more or less - continuous arrows of growth and progress into the distant future." (pg 25 Future Scenarios).

I'm not saying the collapse couldn't happen, but I think it's a naive and sensational scenario, that impedes action and thought to create a positive community futures.

Energy descent is the least talked about scenario of the four future scenarios.  Holmgren focuses the whole rest of the book on energy descent.

I think that energy descent sometimes seems like collapse to us in our 'peak affluence' lives.  Any decrease in energy-use seems draconian. Holmgren says: "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." (pg 29, Future Scenarios).  Rob Hopkins, from Transition, talks about flipping the story of energy descent and peak oil upside down, in that we are emerging from the depths of a dark pond, towards a future of less energy use, yes, but also a future of healthier people, landscapes, more resilient communities.

The Four Energy-Descent and Climate-Change Scenarios

The rest of the book is devoted to Four Energy-Decent and Climate Change Scenario.  Using a scenario-planning model, Holmgren takes climate change on one axis and peak oil on another axis to created four different future energy descent scenarios.

  • 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)

"....the scenarios provide a framework for considering how peak oil and climate change could interact to reshape global and local energy resources, settlement patterns, economy, and governance." (pg 61 Future Scenarios)

I am not going to go through each energy-descent scenarios, however it is worth going through each scenarios which are well laid out in the book or at http://www.futurescenarios.org/

They are summarized the following table:

Obviously, the scenarios aren't all rosy cheeks, green smoothies and fluffy bunnies.  Most of the scenarios involve massive social, cultural, political, economic changes in the face a disasters from climate change or energy shortages.  Again, are these collapse or energy descent scenarios?  Where is the line?

Holmgren proposes, that some of these scenarios can shift from, for example,  a Brown Tech situation to a Lifeboat situation given a significant crisis.  He also says, that it is sometime helpful to see these scenarios as nested within each other, which "....explains why any planning for lifeboats is mostly a private activity of people who lack total faith in the stability of our economy and society." (pg 103 Future Scenarios). 

It is also useful to think of each scenario in relation to world political and economic events past and present.  Did any or all of these scenarios happen during embargoes in Cuba?  How about the collapse of the Soviet Union?  What is the relevance with terrorism/wars/political policy in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan?  For a relevant, witty, yet very funny take on this- check out Robert Newman's 'History of Oil'.

Updates and Critisims of Future Scenarios

In 2013, Holmgren wrote an article entitled Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future,  which updated his thoughts on Future Scenarios (which was published in 2009) given world politics, current events as well as how the global financial market may come into context with the future scenarios.  The article is bleak, extreme, and also opposed in some ways to the ethic of people care.  It seems to be written for a select audience of 'People Like Us'.  In addition, the article screams 'collapse', which is a situation in Future Scenarios, that Holmgren insists we should not automatically jump to when looking at the future. Rob Hopkins writes an insightful critique of the Crash on Demand article called  Holmgren's 'Crash on Demand': be careful what you wish for.  It is well worth the read.

Where does permaculture fit into all this?

"Each scenario presents quite different opportunities and challenges, including ethical dilemmas for permaculture and related environmental and social activists." (pg 110 Future Scenarios)

Permaculture is a a problem solving tool, a design process, a lens in which to see the problems as solutions....but nevertheless, permaculture can identify problems, and address them through an ethical filter of earth care, people care and returning the surplus. 

It seems to me, that one part of the solution to climate change and peak oil, has already been created by Rob Hopkins and is known as Transition.  At the core, Transition is a positive model of energy descent, that builds community resiliency to address the uncertainties peak oil and climate change, as well as just to make communities more fun and more livable.  I have written several blogs about Transition- check them out or go to https://www.transitionnetwork.org for more info.

We cannot always know or choose our futures.   There are many unknowns and complexities in each of the future scenarios.  However, what I do know, is that I can create a better life for myself, for my loved ones, for my community by employing permaculture principles and ethics.  I can make a change with my heart and with my hands.

Bunch Berry- (Cornus canadensis)

"Let us act as if we are part of nature's striving for the next evolutionary way to respond creatively to the recurring cycles of energy ascent and descent that characterize human history and the more ancient history of Gaia, the living planet.  Imaging that our descendants and our ancestors are watching us." (pg 115 Future Scenarios)


  1. Also take a look at the following articles for more responses on Holmgren's 'Crash on Demand'


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