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Building on the work of David Holmgren

“One of the characteristics of a robust, enduring and mature civilization is the capacity to consider the longer term, aim for desirable but achievable futures, but have fall-back strategies and insurance policies to deal with surprise and uncertainty.”

So says Mr. David Holmgren in an essay on the web site  .

This statement sums up exactly what I’m trying to do: figure out what kind of fall-back strategies and insurance policies we need to deal with a future that isn’t all that predictable.  We need a plan “B” while we aim for some “desirable but achievable” future.

In this same document, Mr. Holmgren also advised against focusing on dismal scenarios. This is apparently because so many people seem to confuse discussion with prediction.  This was a news flash for me. However, reasonable comments on some of my postings convinced me that he is correct.  Oddly, after advising us to beware of dismal scenarios, he goes ahead and offers several that are as dismal as any I’ve ever seen. 

But , wanting to be a team player, this humble blogger has conceded to popular demand and agreed not to begin investigating our economic future by creating a worst case scenario.  Instead, I suggest we begin our research by considering one of Mr. Holmgren’s more moderate scenarios.

I do suggest you go off and read Holmgren’s entire discussion when you have the time.  In the meanwhile, I’ll plagiarize what I believe to be some of his key findings in order to advance our own discussion more expeditiously.  First of all, he discusses several  future possibilities by focusing only on energy.  In his own words, these are:

“Techno-explosion depends on new, large and concentrated energy sources that will allow the continual growth in material wealth and human power over environmental constraints, as well as population growth. This scenario is generally associated with space travel to colonise other planets.”

Techno-stability depends on a seamless conversion from material growth based on depleting energy, to a steady state in consumption of resources and population (if not economic activity), all based on novel use of renewable energies and technologies that can maintain if not improve the quality of services available from current systems.”

“Energy Descent  involves a reduction of economic activity, complexity and population in some way as fossil fuels are depleted. The increasing reliance on renewable resources of lower energy density will, over time, change the structure of society to reflect many of the basic design rules, if not details, of pre-industrial societies. This suggests a ruralisation of settlement and economy, with less consumption of energy and resources and a progressive decline in human populations.”

“Collapse suggests a failure of the whole range of interlocked systems that maintain and support industrial society, as high quality fossil fuels are depleted and/or climate change radically damages the ecological support systems. This collapse would be fast and more or less continuous without the restabilisations possible in Energy Descent. It would inevitably involve a major “die-off” of human population...”

My own assessment of these is that techno-explosion predictions are mainly wishful thinking.  Colonize other planets...?   Really?   

More reasonable to me is the Techno-stability future.  But this one sounds like the best thing that might actually happen.  It is toward the rosy end of the possibility spectrum.  It might well be our aim, but it isn’t plan “B” material. 

Energy Descent is also a realistic possibility.  It will require us to make some serious adaptations and is therefore the energy future we ought to be thinking about.  Collapse is too dismal to be a constructive starting point.

After considering energy in isolation, Mr. Holmgren then very cleverly selects both energy supply and climate change as the key determinants of future economic reality.  And to keep things simple, he asks us to consider only two alternative paths for each of these.  We can expect

  • Rapid and severe climate change OR slower and milder climate change
  • Rapid decline of energy use OR slower decline of energy use

And then, since we don’t know which of these will actually materialize near term, he builds scenarios that comprise all combinations of these factors.  Hence, the following four scenarios:

Green Tech Scenario:  Slow energy decline rates, mild climate change symptoms

The Green Tech  scenario is the most benign, in that adverse climate changes are at the low end of projections. Oil and gas production declines slowly as in the Brown Tech future, so the sense of chaos and crisis is more muted without major economic collapse or conflict.

Brown Tech Scenario: Slow energy decline rates, severe climate change symptoms 

The Brown Tech  world is one in which the production of oil declines after a peak 2005-2010 at about 2% per annum and the subsequent peak and decline of natural gas is also relatively gentle, but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions.

Earth Steward Scenario: Rapid energy decline rates, mild climate change symptoms

 ...Organic and small farmers, close to markets and able to make use of labour and animal power, thrive (to the extent security allows) in a context of relatively benign and slow climate change. An explosion of home businesses based on building and equipment retrofit, maintenance and salvage starts to build a diversified economy.... While the impacts on people and local environments of this scenario are severe, in previously affluent countries at least, there is also a cultural and spiritual revolution as people are released from the rat race of addictive behaviours and begin to experience the gift of resurgent community and the simple abundance of nature to provide for basic needs.

Lifeboat Scenario: Rapid energy decline rates, severe climate change symptoms.

In the Lifeboat  scenario the adverse symptoms of the Brown Tech and Earth Steward scenarios combine to force a progressive collapse in most forms of economy and social organisation. Local wars, including use of nuclear weapons accelerate collapse in some areas but the failure of national systems of power prevent global warfare. Successive waves of famine and disease breakdown social and economic capacity on a larger scale than the Black Death in medieval Europe leading to a halving of global population in a few decades.

For the Green Tech scenario, Holmgren describes change as significant over time, but gradual.  There is time to recognize the trends and take action. We can adjust to the energy and climate changes on the fly.

For example, he says (about Green Tech)  “Growth in large cities (especially in coastal lowlands) is reversed by public policies ahead of the worst effects of 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 neighbourhoods with more local work and radically less commuting”.

It seems to me the Transition Movement exists now because it is important to get people thinking and making changes now.  The point being that there won’t necessarily be time to adapt gradually once the effects of peak oil and climate change are in full force.  Therefore, the gradual change, Green Tech scenario isn’t the most useful for us to consider.  We wouldn’t be providing the “fall back” strategy or insurance policy against “surprise and uncertainty” that Mr. Holmgren recommends.

We have resolved to ignore worst case scenarios, so that eliminates the Lifeboat.  We are then left with Brown Tech and Earth Steward.

 In Brown Tech, the majority of the disruption comes from climate change.  I have no trouble accepting that significant climate change will be disruptive, but I seriously doubt anybody can predict the timing, the exact nature of the disruption, or its effects on a small area such as Whatcom County.   Therefore, I think it might be difficult to offer suggestions on how to deal with a future where climate change is the most significant challenge.

We do need to deal with the effects of climate change somehow, and I believe we can do that by adjusting several factors as a general concession to unpredictable weather. Future agricultural production, for example, might well be lower than it is now.   Water supply issues might be even more critical that at present.  Some of you may be more informed on the details of this and able to offer better suggestions.

Given all that, I believe something like the Earth Steward scenario would be the best place to start.  The principal challenge in this scenario is from energy decline.  And energy decline seems not only most immanent, but also the most manageable of the various unknowns we face.

Our challenge then becomes:  How do we translate Mr. Holmgren’s general statements describing his Earth Steward scenario into specific trends affecting our local economy?  A worthy challenge indeed.  Can we do it?  What do you think?

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Comment by Tris Shirley on May 11, 2011 at 9:14pm
Good questions David.  Please see my replies on the EDAP Work Group discussion ARC Process.  Peter can chime in there as well if he cares to.
Comment by David MacLeod on May 11, 2011 at 6:39pm


Do you envision the ARC as a 'How To' manual?



Why would speculation and discussion about theory be inappropriate for the ARC?

Comment by Tris Shirley on May 11, 2011 at 5:53pm

Thanks for the comments Peter.  In my opinion you are absolutely correct about the need for practical guidance on basic questions. The examples you mention are all excellent.  I hope we can get something like the ARC proposal going to capture the creativity and expertise of you and others as soon as possible.

But just to be clear – since others have also been mislead – this blog is addressing a separate information need that I think is important in our planning.  This information is far too theoretical and speculative for ARC material.  However, I believe we need some idea of the magnitude of the challenges and what kinds of mitigation are practical.

For example, right now there are people supporting themselves largely by dumpster diving.  If it works for them, it’s fine with me.  But is that a solution that could be scaled up to serve a substantial part of the community?  Probably not – at least not as it is now practiced.  Reusing. reworking, modifying old equipment for new conditions and applications is fine.  But getting meals from discards is not something we could all depend on. 

So what kinds of jobs will be available and in what numbers?  I think we need to create some scenarios and explore future possibilities to have advance notice of the economic conditions we should be preparing for.  As I said in an early post, I would prefer to be neither unduly alarmed nor unreasonably complacent about the future.  We need some rational estimates based on alternative predictions of energy and climate changes.

Comment by Peter Holcomb on May 11, 2011 at 5:09pm
No matter which of the scenarios you choose for your intellectual framework the EDAP or ARC has to result in concrete practical solutions to problems: How to make hay to feed draft animals, How to pull an absessed tooth, How to build a rocket stove from recycled materials, How to make alcohol from potatoes or fruit, How to save water or build a well before the pumps quit, How to shape scrap metal into useful items, How to be sanitary when the flush culture quits, How to etc. Tris's idea of "lessons" has my endorsement.
Comment by Tris Shirley on May 10, 2011 at 10:20am
Thanks Kyler.  (Good work on the ARC meeting minutes, by the way.)
Comment by Tris Shirley on May 10, 2011 at 10:18am

David – I’m encouraged that you agree with the ARC direction I mentioned.  We continue to make good progress on the ARC as will be reflected on the (soon to be renamed) EDAP Work Group page.

Thanks for the other Holmgren views.  I certainly hope that he is correct about how this will play out.  But before I would be willing to “recast energy descent as a positive process”, I’d like to look more carefully at how this might work in Whatcom County.  I’m concerned about the impact of expensive energy on worker productivity, and the consequences of reduced productivity on our local economy.

I can imagine that the speed of energy decent may be the critical factor.  Having it be very slow gives us an opportunity to adjust gradually – and we’re more likely to be able to do that nicely and have the proverbial smooth landing. 

Except that I don’t see much evidence that either our culture or economy has a good track record on contraction.  We either spiral up or spiral down, and most of our economy is geared for the upward spiral.  The downward spirals tend to get out of control if they aren’t countered aggressively.  And that only works if the underlying causes of the downward spiral are transitory. With a protracted negative influence, we are in uncharted territory – and that bears investigation.  A look at some local scenarios is the best way I know of to start that investigation.
Comment by Kyler Boyes on May 9, 2011 at 11:22pm

Thank you Mr.(s) Tris Shirley, David MacLeod, and Walter Haugen.


Myself having a serious desire for a realistic discussion of future scenarios, this is a welcome effort.

Comment by David MacLeod on May 9, 2011 at 7:07pm
>As for our EDAP, if the constructive response to energy descent (and climate change) is resilience, then the EDAP ought to be about creating resilience.  IMHO, we want our Actions for Resilient Communities - if that's what it ends up being called - to focus positively on solutions rather than negatively on problems.  




We should continue to provide compelling presentations of the problem and encourage people to pay attention, but that doesn't need to be the focus of the Whatcom ARC.  Indeed, I don't even think this investigation I'm proposing belongs in it either.  Others may have a differnent concept and that is what the EDAP Workgroup has been discussing.


Tris, thanks for this clarification. I thought originally you were wanting to do a worst case scenario as the foundation piece for the Plan.


More Holmgrenisms:

"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. This is now apparent to many people around the world and is far more fundamental than a public relations campaign to paint a black sky blue.  It is a necessary process to provide a sense of hope and connection to fundamental human values expressed by every traditional culture throughout human history, among them, that the pursuit of materialism is a false god."

- Future Scenarios, p. 30.


From the Mountain Peak:

"When we picture the energy climax as a spectacular but dangerous mountain peak that we (humanity) have succeeded in climbing, the idea of descent to safety is a sensible and attractive proposition. The climb involved heroic effort, great sacrifice, but also exhilaration and new views and possibilities at every step. There are several false peaks, but when we see the whole world laid out around us we know we are at the top. Some argue that there are higher peaks in the mists, but the weather is threatening.


"The view from the top reconnects us with the wonder and majesty of the world and how it all fits together, but we cannot dally for long. We must take advantage of the view to chart our way down while we have favourable weather and daylight. The descent will be more hazardous than the climb, and we may have to camp on a series of plateaus to rest and sit out storms. Having been on the mountain so long, we can barely remember the home in a far off valley that we fled as it was progressively destroyed by forces we did not understand. But we know that each step brings us closer to a sheltered valley where we can make a new home."

- Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, p. xxx

Comment by Tris Shirley on May 8, 2011 at 10:14am

Right you are, Walter.  I suspect your observation is at least partially reflected in Holmgren's statement from the Earth Steward scenario: "An explosion of home businesses based on building and equipment retrofit, maintenance and salvage starts to build a diversified economy." Although he is perhaps focusing on the employment rather than the resource angle. 

I read recently that the highest elevation on the East Coast of the U.S. is the top of a pile of garbage from New York City.  What a resource!

Comment by Tris Shirley on May 8, 2011 at 10:05am

Thanks for the clarification David.  I realized the second scenarios were short term but missed the contrasting "temporal scale[s]" for the first energy-only scenarios.  It now makes a lot more sense.

As for our EDAP, if the constructive response to energy descent (and climate change) is resilience, then the EDAP ought to be about creating resilience.  IMHO, we want our Actions for Resilient Communities - if that's what it ends up being called - to focus positively on solutions rather than negatively on problems.  

We should continue to provide compelling presentations of the problem and encourage people to pay attention, but that doesn't need to be the focus of the Whatcom ARC.  Indeed, I don't even think this investigation I'm proposing belongs in it either.  Others may have a differnent concept and that is what the EDAP Workgroup has been discussing.

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