books climate change energy transition towns

Future Scenarios, by David Holmgren

The name David Holmgren will be familiar to some, as it was he, along with fellow Australian Bill Mollison, who developed permaculture. Thirty years after their theories were first introduced, they still seem to be gaining new relevance with every passing year.

Holmgren’s challenge in ‘Future Scenarios: How Communities can adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change’ is to think through what we really want: “My purpose was to empower those committed to ecological values and social justice to be effective in their quest to create the world we want, rather than just resist the world we don’t want.”

To help inform and clarify that vision of the world we want, Holmgren uses scenario planning – a technique pioneered, somewhat ironically, by the Shell oil company. Like the recent Transition Timeline, the book presents four possible scenarios, depending on how fast oil supplies decline, and how serious climate change turns out to be.

Those four are, roughly:

  1. Brown tech: oil decline is slow and tar-sands and oil shale are pressed into service to maintain the status quo. This triggers rapid climate change, and centrally planned, fascistic attempts to control it.
  2. Green tech: oil declines slowly, leaving time for investment in renewable technology and strategic localization. This is the scenario most politicians are hoping for.
  3. Earth stewards: oil production crashes, making globalization impossible and forcing a bottom-up rebuild of the economy. With fossil fuel use in freefall, serious climate change is averted.
  4. Lifeboats: This is the disaster scenario, where both climate change and resource decline are both severe. Society breaks down, and we all wish we’d paid more attention when Ray Mears was on.

These four scenarios are, for the most part, entirely feasible. By mapping them, we can work out what we might want to do as climate change and peak oil begin to unfold. The kinds of choices we face are exemplified in Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coal, and one of the places that will be hardest hit by climate change. There will be some very tough political decisions to make in the coming years, as growing the economy and stabilising the environment become mutually exclusive.

As Holmgren points out, “public discussion of energy descent is generally seen as unrealistic, defeatist, and politically counter-productive”. The job of activists is to change the story of peak oil and climate change, and unearth the positives. There is there for “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.”

‘Future Scenarios’ rambles a bit and feels at times like a website pressed into a linear book format, which it is in fact. It is nevertheless insightful. It will be particularly helpful to permaculturists wondering if their theories extend to global problems, and those working on powerdown projects such as Transition Towns.


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