Powerdown Scenarios

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Three scenarios for the Post Peak-Oil world.

From MuseLetter #186 / October 2007, by Richard Heinberg


Powerdown Revisited

In my book Powerdown: Options and actions for a Post Carbon World, I outlined four scenarios for the oil-constrained future: Last One Standing (a fascistic battle for the world’s remaining resources), Powerdown (government-led radical proactive conversion to energy frugality), Waiting for the Magic Elixir (denial of the problem until it’s too late for proactive responses), and Building Lifeboats (small communities coming together to build a survivable, sustainable future for themselves and, ultimately, for the rest of humanity). I closed the book by suggesting that, while the current trajectory is toward the first and third options, we should work on the second and fourth because these offer the greatest hope.

After a few years of further thought, it seems to me that my description of these options could stand some modification. I would now say that our future options consist of three broad scenarios.

Before outlining these, it seems important to review the circumstances that will shape them. Because of the impending peaks in the global extraction rates for oil, gas, and coal, the future almost certainly holds less available energy, in total and especially per capita. That in turn means that society will be less mobile. Coal and gas declines will produce widespread and enduring electrical grid outages. Energy constraints coupled with water scarcity and topsoil depletion also ensure higher food prices and likely widespread food shortages. Because powered machines will lack fuel, there will be substantially more need for human labor in agricultural production, as well as in the energy-efficient retrofitting of existing buildings and urban infrastructure. At the same time, there will be need for massive relocation of people away from areas where temporarily increased carrying capacity, established by cheap fuels, has vanished (think Los Angeles or Phoenix, or the massive squatter settlements on the outskirts of any number of huge cities in the global South): somehow, many of these people must move, or be moved, to where they can be near soil and water. As if all of that weren’t enough, we also face environmental catastrophe from climate chaos and loss of biodiversity. All of these necessities and trends will pose enormous challenges to every organized society. How to deal with them?

Here are the three scenarios that I see as most likely.

1. Feudal fascism.

This is basically similar to the Last One Standing option in Powerdown, though now I would frame it somewhat differently. A strong central government will organize work - though not in a way that many people will enjoy. Think agricultural work camps and slave-labor factories. The main selling point for the Fascist option (sorry for the word fascism, but while it’s loaded with historical baggage it’s also handy, familiar, and probably fairly accurate) would be the maintenance of order in a time of increasing social disintegration. If you were a member of an upper middle- class family clinging to its home, with a bit of gold or cash put aside and a few cans of food in the larder, wouldn’t you fear marauding gangs going door-to-door stealing food and money? Wouldn’t you welcome police patrols - even if they had a shoot-to-kill policy and about as much self-restraint as a Blackwater contractor in Baghdad? For the truly wealthy as well, protection of property would provide a powerful motive to support the repressive apparatus of state power - which, to be efficacious, would need to be both brutal and omnipresent: troops on street corners; total surveillance; torture and summary executions for dissidents. Forget freedoms of expression or assembly. Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine describes how the groundwork for feudal fascism is already being laid via disasters like Katrina, which open the way for massive privatization and the shredding of civil liberties. The disaster ahead will be on a far greater scale, offering the ultimate opportunity for that doctrine’s full scale implementation.

However, several decades down the line, energy shortages will grow so severe that it may become impossible to sustain centralized fascistic governmental authority over a continent-scale geographic area. At that point, fascistic national governments might break down into feudal regionalism featuring local warlords presiding over post-industrial serfdom.

I won’t bother to point out the drawbacks of pursuing this scenario; I trust these speak for themselves.

2. The Eco Deal.

Economist Susan George calls this option “Environmental Keynesianism” (http://www.globalnetwork4justice.org/story.php?c_id=313). For a snapshot image, think of the 1930s New Deal revisited in the context of global ecological crisis.

Like Feudal Fascism, this scenario assumes a strong central government. But in this case, government applies itself to the transformation of societal infrastructure using an inclusive strategy that entails economic re-distribution and the fostering of a culture of democracy. In the New Deal, government created work programs and rebuilt infrastructure; there were even some interesting experiments (on the part of Arthur Morgan, when he worked for Roosevelt as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority) in the creation of self-sufficient small communities. Similarly, governments implementing an Eco-Deal might create the financial capital with which to build electric streetcar systems in every city of 100,000 or more; super-insulate millions of homes and commercial buildings and provide them with geothermal heating; and reorganize agriculture on small-scale, organic model - creating millions of jobs along the way.

This dramatic change in national priorities will require the provision of public information. Currently, the commercial media promote consumerism; instead, a conserver message will be needed, motivating one and all to work together for the common good. There is a historic precedent here as well: in the New Deal and World War II, Hollywood and the advertisers pitched in (to some degree anyway) in the national effort, galvanizing the masses for collective effort.

In this case as well, when shortages deepen the maintenance of a central national authority will become more difficult; but here - if authorities have attempted to seed a culture of democracy (again as in the 1930s) - the nation organized around a centralized state might break down into some form of decentralized bioregionalism.

3. Bottoms Up.

There is a strong likelihood that, at least in some nations or regions, strong central government will not survive the end of cheap energy - especially if electrical grids fail. In that case, neither the Feudal Fascist nor the Eco-Deal strategy would play out; instead, localities would be on their own. Local governments and citizen groups would have the task of maintaining order and flows of basic necessities. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, locals had a foretaste of this: it was mostly up to ad-hoc citizen groups and what was left of city government to rescue stranded families and deal with thousands of emergencies throughout the area. Yet that disaster occurred in the world’s wealthiest nation, which maintained elaborately equipped disaster-relief agencies. Imagine a hundred Katrina-scale local disasters occurring intermittently in the context of an international economic crisis and protracted regional grid failures. What chance would there be, then, of a successful large-scale response effort?

There are those who will find the bottoms-up strategy appealing even in the absence of necessity - anarchists, libertarians, and other advocates of localism and opponents of state power. Here would be an opportunity to escape the oppressive, corrupt domination of the many by the few that has characterized every state, indeed every civilization, since the Pyramid Age. As societies come to have less energy available for transportation and communication, they are bound to decentralize anyway eventually; why not proceed directly to localism and bypass both of the big-government solutions outlined above, which are destined to fail eventually in any case?

The central challenge of the bottoms-up approach is that communities are ill equipped to provide even the most basic services (food, water, power, security) to their citizens absent a working nexus of complexly interconnected regional or national support systems. Even a century ago, communities were much more self-sufficient. Today, few cities in the industrialized world produce much in the way of food, clothing, or other necessities: hospitals depend on the constant delivery of medicines and a wide range of other supplies; grocery stores are continually restocked with food from hundreds or thousands of miles away; even water and electrical power may arrive by aqueducts and long-distance transmission lines. A temporary interruption of these services would certainly be survivable, but a town or city cut permanently adrift would quickly devolve into chaos. In that case, reorganization of society from the grassroots up would take time; meanwhile, an immense human tragedy would ensue.

Thus it would be unwise to give up prematurely on efforts at the national and international levels, even if the long-term goal is a society organized according to bioregional principles. Every nation has its own likely trajectory with regard to these scenario-options. Some countries may initially respond to scarcity with a law-and-order clampdown that seeks to preserve existing power relations at all costs; then, as it becomes clear that there isn’t enough social support or resource availability to maintain a massive machine of repression, the latter could give way to a Bottoms-up scenario or perhaps even a brief episode of Let’s Make an Eco-Deal. Other countries may start with all the best Keynesian intentions, only to see the unfolding of scarcity so dire that it leads to social unrest that can seemingly only be quelled by heavy-handed authoritarianism.

In the US, China, and Russia, authoritarian solutions appear to be the default responses for the moment. This makes international conflict more likely in the years immediately ahead.

So: Where shall we focus our efforts? As I suggested in Powerdown, there is important work to be done at all levels of social organization.

Individuals and families should take to heart the advice given prior to every commercial airline flight: “Secure your oxygen mask before helping others.” In other words, see to your own survival prospects first. This is not necessarily selfish behavior: communities and nations in which individual members are prepared and relatively self-sufficient will fare much better than those in which everyone is dependent and unequipped. If no one is prepared, who can teach others what to do? Learn the life-skills of the pre-fossil-fuel era; know how to use and repair hand tools; know where your water comes from and how to compost wastes; grow food.

Communities must begin now to redevelop their local support infrastructure - especially local food systems. City officers should be thinking about how to sustain emergency services, water delivery and wastewater treatment, and communications, given a prolonged scarcity or absence of fuel and electricity. Plans should be under way for the dramatic expansion of public transit services. Individuals can help jump-start all such efforts by speaking to elected and appointed officials, by volunteering for relevant community service work, and also simply by getting to know their neighbors.

National leaders must begin to take seriously the enormous challenges ahead, and to think through the options available. They must quickly come to realize that any effort to follow economic plans based on projecting into the future past rates of growth in energy consumption will lead to systemic failure. Only a dramatic, rapid, systematic reorganization of the economy to function with declining rates of energy flow can avert breakdown. Careful thought must be given to the dire implications of fascistic solutions to the emerging energy crisis, so that those solutions are not implemented as a knee-jerk response to societal stress. Nations must initiate efforts to forge cooperative strategies toward sustainable interdependence (such as the Oil Depletion Protocol) rather than geopolitical resource competition. Individuals can help foster these developments by educating elected officials and by actively opposing militaristic and fascistic measures.

Is there realistic hope for a broad-scale, peaceful Eco-Deal? While many current world trends bode ill, there is no justification for giving up and assuming the worst outcome. Even if some nations such as the US endure overtly fascistic regimes, the enormous societal pressures brought on by energy scarcity may fairly quickly undermine those regimes and open the way for more inclusive solution, which in the case of the US will draw on a deep historic resonance with the nation’s experience during the 1930s.

In any case, two things are absolutely clear: business as usual is not one of the options; and the more we do now to prepare at every level, the better off we all will be."


Richard Heinberg:

"The other side of the divide argues that catastrophic climate change cannot be averted without a steep reduction in global energy use, and such a reduction will in turn inevitably mean economic contraction. Technology can assist in our adaptation to a new energy regime and a smaller economy, but it cannot realistically propel further industrial expansion of the kind seen during the 20th century.

Many powerdown proponents see climate change as a symptom of the deeper problem described in the 1972 Limits to Growth scenario studies. As population and per capita consumption increase, a point will inevitably be reached when resource depletion and environmental pollution make further growth impossible. According to this view, climate change is an expression of the pollution dilemma inherent in the expansion of population and per capita resource consumption; low-carbon technologies might be able to slow the trend toward ecosystem collapse driven by unbridled economic growth, but they cannot by themselves prevent collapse; only efforts to reduce population and consumption undertaken sufficiently early in the trend could accomplish that. Ecological footprint and planetary boundaries analysis offer confirmation, showing that current human population and consumption levels are drawing down Earth’s biocapacity and interfering with its natural support systems.

It is important to note that many renewable energy advocates are powerdowners who regard solar and wind power as insufficient by themselves to halt catastrophic climate change, absent fundamental economic change that would see per capita use of energy and materials decline significantly in industrial nations.

Others with a powerdown perspective say that while CCS and geoengineering are unworkable, carbon sequestration could indeed be accomplished via basic changes to agriculture that would enable farmers to build soil rather than destroying it (which is the net effect of current practices). Humanity has removed 136 Gt of carbon from soils through agriculture and other land use during the industrial era. There is the potential to reverse the trend by minimizing tillage, planting cover crops, encouraging biodiversity, employing crop rotation, expanding management intensive pasturing, and introducing properly made biochar to soils. But that would mean rapidly revolutionizing the entire global agricultural system—in effect, partially (and intelligently) de-industrializing it. According to its advocates, although powerdown goes against the grain of near-universal preference for further industrial expansion, it is a strategy that has one significant advantage: it is a proven way to slow and reverse climate change, since historic economic recessions have correlated closely with slower growth in carbon emissions. If economic contraction were managed, its unwanted adverse human consequences could be minimized, while its environmental benefits could be maximized." (https://richardheinberg.com/museletter-283-can-we-have-our-climate-and-eat-it-too)

See Also