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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 David MacLeod on May 7, 2011 at 10:21pm



Thanks for the brief summary of Holmgren's Future Scenarios. 


For the EDAP group to focus on the Energy Descent scenario is a good route, I think...after all, even if you decide to use a title different than "Energy Descent Action Plan," energy descent IS what Transition should be all about, in my opinion....and Rob Hopkins got the phrase from Holmgren.  In Transition Training, they show Holmgren's chart, and refer to the Energy Descent scenario as the path of Permaculture and the path of Transition.


I'd like to clarify a couple of points, where my interpretation of Holmgren differs a little from your summary account.


You wrote "First of all, he discusses several  future possibilities by focusing only on energy." And "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."


Actually, the first four scenarios Holmgren presents (Techno-fantasy, Green Tech Stability, Energy Descent, and Collapse), are not to be considered in contrast to the second set of scenarios.  Rather, these first 4 scenarios are looking at the "larger temporal scale."  He writes, "I think it is essential  to see these changes first on a larger temporal scale of centuries if not millenia. I have set the scene by characterizing the debate about the future as primarily one about whether energy available to human systems will rise or fall." 


So he presents these 4 broad energy scenarios to "provide a framework for considering the wide spectrum of culturally imagined, and ecologically likely futures over the next century or more."



The next set of scenarios are set in a shorter time frame of the next ten to thirty years.  All of these particular scenarios are rooted in the larger meta-scenario of Energy Descent, and are possible ways the Energy Descent scenario might play out, "emerging from a combination of either fast or slow oil decline  and either mild or severe climate change."



I find Holmgren's presentation to get really interesting in the last part, when he starts talking about the reality might end up being different scenarios playing out in different geographical regions, or become nested scenarios emerging simultaneously in different levels of political structure (brown tech on national scale, green tech on state or regional level, Earth Steward on community scale, and Lifeboats on individual/home scale).  


The reason I have become such a devout follower of Holmgren's writings is because I agree with the premise that permeates all of his writing: "the concept that energy and resources are what fundamentally drive economic, social, and political systems." 


In this, he was heavily influenced by, and often publicly acknowledges, a huge debt to the work of systems ecologist Howard T. Odum.  (Example is Odum's classic 1974 article "Energy, Ecology, and Economics").

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