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Previously, I observed that not knowing what level of consumption to expect in the post-transition era is risky business.  It would be very comforting to know that we can sustain ourselves without huge doses of fossil fuel energy. 

Unfortunately, predicting the future is risky business too.  Some have argued that our past has often been shaped by events that were never anticipated.  I agree and see no reason why the future should be any different.  The best we can do is to explore various possible scenarios.  If we explore wisely and with sufficient rigor, we’ll be better prepared for whichever scenario actually materializes. 

What I’m proposing is more of a “what if” analysis than a prediction.  Specifically, what if the future brings the most challenging conditions imaginable?  Could we still sustain ourselves?  And, most importantly, what assumptions are necessary to arrive at the reassuring conclusion that we could? 

There are two reasons to start considering the future by examining the worst case scenario.  First, the worst case is also the simplest.  We don’t need  complex, unreliable forecasts for the global economy.  In fact, we don’t  need forecasts for the regional or local economies either.  That’s because none of those economies are viable in the worst case – they’ve disappeared! 

The second reason for starting with the worst case is that it immediately gets to the heart of the matter.  If we can’t sustain ourselves under the most challenging conditions, then right away we know that we must work to avoid those conditions.  However, if we can actually handle the worst case, then we can be reasonably confident of sustaining ourselves whatever happens.  If future conditions are better than the worst case, that only makes things easier.     

Following a total collapse of the existing economy,  the crucial question will be whether a single individual with adequate knowledge, experience, land, and equipment could  sustain himself (or herself) for a year on the fruit of their own labor. For our worst case scenario, a person would have to do that while consuming only locally available renewable energy and resources.  

To sustain themselves, a person must obtain at least the bare necessities:  water, food, shelter, clothing, and energy for cooking and heating.  And agriculture, plus the related arts of self sufficiency,  are the traditional way of obtaining these basics.  This is also the starting point for developing any more complex economy. 

The agriculture I refer to would not be the  energy intensive, cash crop enterprise that is common here today.  I’m talking about something more like subsistence agriculture, but I prefer to call it “self-sufficient agriculture”.  I mean agriculture as it was once practiced, and still is practiced, in places without much of an economy.  This would be the ultimate do-it-yourself experience, and it would probably resemble a pioneer lifestyle. 

Some might argue that the pioneers managed to survive here, and since we know a lot more than they did, we’ll be just fine.   That’s true, except that there are now a lot more people, a lot fewer trees, fewer fish in local waters, and fewer animals to hunt in the woods.  I would be quite pleased to know that we can beat pioneers at their own game.  But I need to see a few details about how that would work.  Illuminating those details is part of what I propose. 

There are a number of benefits to finding out whether or not a person could survive under updated pioneer conditions.  First, we would have assembled lots of useful data.  Second, we would have a much clearer understanding of the issues.  And third, we would have a process that could easily be replicated to examine different assumptions.  For example, we could reasonably consider what happens at larger scales.  We could consider the sustainability of subsistence agriculture for a family, a community, and finally the entire population of the County. 

There is also the possibility that, at some scale, we could foresee productivity that exceeds the minimum for subsistence.  Individual productivity could be elevated by techniques carefully tailored to low energy agriculture.  We might also expect increases in productivity from local trade and specialization.  

If we could exceed the subsistence minimum significantly,  we would have the seeds of a new local economy founded on sustainable practices.  All together, we would have a real opportunity for a brighter future – an opportunity that we could actually believe in. 

Next time I’ll discuss the how we arrive at a better understanding of the future using this strategy.

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Comment by Tris Shirley on April 17, 2011 at 11:45am

Thanks for the comment, David.  I'll check out the Holmgren website and the scenarios on the ERSPO Wiki.


Your comment stimulated me to realize that one could start with an evaluation of any scenario and then move toward rosier or more bleak depending on what was revealed.  If there were a great groundswell of support for doing that, I suppose I'd go along.  However, my suspicion is that the more reassuring and psychologically appealing scenarios might be a lot more complex, require many more assumptions, and be harder to investigate.  In short: more work, less reliable conclusions. Perhaps I'll change my mind after reviewing the ones you mentioned.


On third thought, the need to have a group of people agree on what constitutes "realistic" strikes me as daunting.  How would we do that?  Would you vote?  Seek consensus? There is probably a narrower range of opinion about what is realistic among Transition supporters than within the general community. But I suspect we are still far from agreement.  One reason for starting with the most challenging scenario is that it will (I think) be a lot easier to agree on the underlying assumptions.  If your assumption "A" is more challenging than my assumption "A", we'll use yours.


The other thing essential for teamwork is some agreement on underlying principles.  For example, I'll argue that individual productivity is the key to our future economy (or lack thereof).  The gross community product is the sum of the individuals' production. Average productivity is the gross divided by the population. If the average productivity of the community is too low, it wouldn't matter whether "everyone pulled together" or not.  What people want to happen is important, but it isn't the controlling factor.  I think that considering the very simple economics of a worst case scenario will allow us to illuminate and agree on some essential principles.


However, I suppose it is more important for an idea to be popular than useful, so my reasoning may be pointless...

Comment by David MacLeod on April 16, 2011 at 6:34pm

Good post, Tris.  Many people have trouble starting with considering the worst case scenario, and find a better starting place to consider a realistic scenario that could occur IF everyone pulled together and worked toward its realization.


On the other hand, I always remember the Thomas Hardy quote used at the beginning of the movie "The End of Suburbia": "If a path to the better there be, it must begin with a full look at the worst."


Regarding scenarios, I really like how David Holmgren has laid them out.


Future Scenarios
David Holmgren (co-founder of the concept of Permaculture) has an extremely interesting global scenario planning website, Future Scenarios. Holmgren says his future scenarios will help both policy makers and activists come to terms with the simultaneous onset of climate change and the peaking of global oil supply. “The simultaneous onset of climate change and the peaking of global oil supply represent unprecedented challenges for human civilisation. Each limits the effective options for responses to the other,” writes Holmgren. His scenarios are labeled "Brown Tech," "Green Tech," "Earth Steward," and "Lifeboats." Holmgren discusses the possibilities of either a continuous, steady "energy descent" or a longer term stair step descent with numerous variations. He also examines the possibility of these scenarios "as all emerging simultaneously one nested within the other."


To examine other 'peak oil' scenarios, I compiled a list of scenarios to examine for the Energy Resource Scarcity/Peak Oil Task Force here:

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