Rethinking the Future

Fossil fuels can’t last forever. A new book plans for a world without them.

Mike Lynn

The inevitable decline of the world's fossil fuel supplies will push gas prices up.

The human mind almost seems hard-wired to expect the future to resem­ble the past. While this may be an arti­fact of our evo­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry that served our ances­tors well, in the com­plex and rapid­ly chang­ing world we have cre­at­ed, it could prove a fatal blind spot.

One needn't accept the direst of Holmgren's scenarios to see the wisdom in rethinking our assumptions about the future.

David Holm­gren has been con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of our civ­i­liza­tion falling vic­tim to our own growth for the bet­ter part of four decades. With fel­low Aus­tralian Bill Mol­li­son, he orig­i­nat­ed the per­ma­cul­ture move­ment in the 1970s, aimed at bring­ing the design of human soci­eties in line with nat­ur­al sys­tems. In his new book, Future Sce­nar­ios: How Com­mu­ni­ties Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Cli­mate Change (Chelsea Green Pub­lish­ing, March), he sug­gests that the fast con­verg­ing crises of peak oil and cli­mate change may lead to a future far dif­fer­ent from our past – a future of less ener­gy, less com­plex­i­ty and more local­ly focused lives.

It would be unfair to clas­si­fy Holm­gren as a doom­say­er. He sur­veys cur­rent ener­gy and cli­mate sci­ence and uses quan­ti­ta­tive meth­ods to out­line pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios of the future. While total­ly dis­miss­ing none (includ­ing total soci­etal col­lapse and con­tin­ued growth through tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs), he sees our most prob­a­ble future as one char­ac­ter­ized by what he terms ener­gy descent.”

While he offers a nod to cli­mate change, peak oil – or more pre­cise­ly, peak ener­gy – is at the heart of his argu­ment. Holm­gren sum­ma­rizes the grow­ing case that the world has reached or will soon reach max­i­mum oil out­put. More con­tro­ver­sial­ly, he argues that pro­duc­tion of nat­ur­al gas will peak with­in the next cou­ple years, with coal’s peak like­ly to fol­low around 2015

Holm­gren right­ly views offi­cial gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate esti­mates of reserves of these three fos­sil fuels with skep­ti­cism. His sophis­ti­cat­ed argu­ment revolves around a clear and con­cise expli­ca­tion of net ener­gy yield, a con­cept that escapes many ener­gy experts. The basic idea is a sort of ener­gy account­ing, a bal­ance sheet of ener­gy return on ener­gy invest­ed (EROEI).

Holm­gren calls this ratio ener­gy qual­i­ty.” The EROEI of oil is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly large, so its ener­gy qual­i­ty is very high. The EREOI and ener­gy qual­i­ty of America’s prin­ci­pal bio­fu­el – corn ethanol – is con­sid­er­ably low­er, however. 

A soci­ety based on an ener­gy source of [corn ethanol’s] qual­i­ty would be con­stant­ly invest­ing 62 per­cent of its ener­gy back into the ener­gy indus­try,” Holm­gren explains, leav­ing only the remain­ing 38 per­cent of the total ener­gy in soci­ety for every­thing else – health, edu­ca­tion, cul­ture, food pro­duc­tion, law, leisure, and so on.” Good news for Exxon Mobil per­haps, but not so good for the rest of us. 

But it’s not just corn ethanol that makes it hard to be opti­mistic about our ener­gy future: All alter­na­tive fuels cur­rent­ly under devel­op­ment offer sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er ener­gy yields than oil, coal and nat­ur­al gas. And the remain­ing reserves of those fos­sil fuels will yield less ener­gy as time goes on, as the high­er-qual­i­ty reserves dis­cov­ered decades ago in eas­i­ly acces­si­ble loca­tions are exhausted. 

This analy­sis forms the crux of Holmgren’s con­tention that we face a future of ener­gy descent. When we moved from wood to coal and then to oil, the increase in pow­er avail­able to human­i­ty was not just from the increas­ing quan­ti­ty of ener­gy, but also from the increas­ing qual­i­ty,” he notes. An econ­o­mist might right­ly object that large invest­ments in renew­ables will boost their qual­i­ty. Even so, par­i­ty with fos­sil fuels appears a long way off.

If ener­gy descent is our future, how will soci­eties adapt? Holm­gren offers four sce­nar­ios, which vary depend­ing on the rapid­i­ty of ener­gy descent and the sever­i­ty of cli­mate disruptions. 

He writes that the best-case sce­nario of slow ener­gy descent and mild cli­mate change would allow adap­ta­tion through green tech­nol­o­gy, per­ma­cul­ture design and more local­ized economies. The apoc­a­lyp­tic worst-case sce­nario is defined by rapid ener­gy descent and severe cli­mate change. In between are com­bi­na­tions of the two, in which soci­eties adapt to ener­gy decreas­es and cli­mate changes sep­a­rate­ly if one occurs more rapid­ly than the oth­er. (Holm­gren also sug­gests an alter­na­tive, nest­ed mod­el in which all four sce­nar­ios emerge simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at the nation­al, city/​state, com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly levels.) 

Holmgren’s sce­nar­ios are more like out­lines than detailed por­traits, and he acknowl­edges that real world devel­op­ments would nec­es­sar­i­ly be more com­pli­cat­ed. Still, he spec­u­lates that as ener­gy descent and cli­mate change inten­si­fy, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced soci­eties – with pop­u­la­tions accus­tomed to high-ener­gy lifestyles – will tend to cling to aggres­sive, author­i­tar­i­an polit­i­cal sys­tems to main­tain stan­dards of liv­ing. On the oth­er hand, Holm­gren argues, less devel­oped soci­eties used to a less tech­no­log­i­cal­ly inten­sive life might have an eas­i­er time adapt­ing to a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, green path.

Thank­ful­ly, this abstract dis­cus­sion is some­what fleshed out with a brief look at nations that have under­gone marked pros­per­i­ty declines in recent years, such as Rus­sia, Zim­bab­we, Argenti­na and Cuba, after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. 

Holm­gren sees nest­ed ele­ments of all his sce­nar­ios in Cuba’s Spe­cial Peri­od after 1991, dur­ing which the island nation lost its sub­si­dized hydro­car­bon sup­plies from the Sovi­et Union. While retain­ing its com­mand econ­o­my and high­ly cen­tral­ized state at the nation­al lev­el, prin­ci­ples of per­ma­cul­ture, sus­tain­abil­i­ty and reduced reliance on auto­mo­biles helped the pop­u­la­tion cope at local and com­mu­ni­ty levels. 

But his­to­ry, Holm­gren writes, shows that nations expe­ri­enc­ing rapid decreas­es in com­plex­i­ty gen­er­al­ly become deeply unsta­ble and expe­ri­ence food inse­cu­ri­ty, mass migra­tion and a break­down of law and order. 

Despite its title, Future Sce­nar­ios is more of a the­o­ret­i­cal work than prac­ti­cal guide. Actu­al adap­ta­tion strate­gies com­mu­ni­ties might employ are sug­gest­ed, but not well-fleshed out. Its dis­cus­sion of per­ma­cul­ture as a form of adap­ta­tion was so brief that I found myself con­sult­ing Holmgren’s web­site to learn more.

In the end, the impor­tance of this book is not so much in its descrip­tions of or pre­scrip­tions for ener­gy descent. Rather, its impor­tance lies in the insis­tence that we set aside our con­vic­tion that the future will look like the past. The emerg­ing evi­dence of cli­mate and ener­gy sci­ence sug­gests that it won’t.

Since Future Sce­nar­ios went to press late last year, the glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis has deep­ened and des­per­ate mea­sures have been imple­ment­ed to revive an eco­nom­ic régime pred­i­cat­ed upon cheap, abun­dant ener­gy and infi­nite growth. That we might need to fun­da­men­tal­ly change course in an era con­strained by the effects of cli­mate change and decreas­ing ener­gy abun­dance finds no place in pol­i­cy discussions. 

Yet it’s become increas­ing­ly clear that our present course is unsus­tain­able. One needn’t accept the direst of Holmgren’s sce­nar­ios to see the wis­dom in rethink­ing our assump­tions and plan­ning for a dif­fer­ent, and more dif­fi­cult, future.

Mike Lynn is an activist and writer liv­ing in Chica­go. He works with sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions in that city, includ­ing the 1213 Group, which he found­ed. The group works on the con­verg­ing crises of cli­mate change, resource deple­tion, and water and food shortages.
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