Energy Scenarios

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Book: Future Scenarios: How Communities Can adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change David Holmgren. Chelsea Green 2009


By Graham Strouts:

"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 societies." (

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