This article is adapted from Future Scenarios, recently published by Chelsea Green.
There is still much debate about the basic nature of the current energy transition, driven most notably by climate change and peak oil. Most of that debate focuses on the immediate future of the next few decades, though I think it is essential to see these changes first on a larger temporal scale of centuries if not millennia. 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.
Four Energy Futures
Four broad energy scenarios provide a framework for considering the wide spectrum of culturally imagined, and ecologically likely, futures over the next century or more. I've labeled these: Techno-explosion, Techno-stability, Energy descent, and Collapse.
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 colonize 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. While this clearly involves massive change in almost all aspects of society, the implication is that once sustainable systems are set in place, a steady-state sustainable society with much less change will prevail. Photovoltaic technology directly capturing solar energy is a suitable icon or symbol of this scenario.
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 preindustrial societies. This suggests a ruralization of settlement and economy, with less consumption of energy and resources and a progressive decline in human populations. Biological resources and their sustainable management will become progressively more important as fossil fuels and technological power declines. In many regions, forests will regain their traditional status as symbols of wealth. Thus the tree is a suitable icon of this scenario. Energy descent (like technoexplosion) is a scenario dominated by change, but that change might not be continuous or gradual. Instead it could be characterized by a series of steady states punctuated by crises (or mini collapses) that destroy some aspects of industrial culture.
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 ecological support systems. This collapse would be fast and more or less continuous without the restabilizations possible in energy descent. It would inevitably involve a major "die-off " of human population and a loss of the knowledge and infrastructure necessary for industrial civilization, if not more severe scenarios including human extinction and the loss of much of the planet's biodiversity.
Views of the Future
The views of academics and commentators about the future are colored by their beliefs about the degree to which human systems are the product of our innate "brilliance" that is independent from nature's constraints, or alternatively, beholden to biophysical deterministic forces. Those with plans and actions to shape the future (especially current power elites) tend to focus on scenarios where they see options for effective influence.
Over the last sixty years we have seen substantial achievements as well as many dreams and promises toward the technoexplosion future that might free us from the constraints of energetic laws or at least those of a finite planet. This belief in perpetual growth has survived the scorn of mathematicians explaining how constant exponential growth even at low rates leads to explosion, literally.
The term negative growth used by economists to describe economic contraction shows that anything other than growth is unthinkable. The dream of infinite growth from free energy and colonizing space have not been realized despite the novel and substantial contributions of computers and information technology toward this goal.
The Unstated Assumptions of "Business as Usual"
On a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussion of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders, or politicians but are more society-wide assumptions that are generally left unstated. Among these assumptions are
--Global extraction rates of important nonrenewable commodities will continue to rise.
--There will be no peaks and declines other than through high-energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
--Economic activity, globalization, and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
--The geopolitical order that established the United States as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
--Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaptation will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
--Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.
All of these assumptions are based on projections of past trends extending back over a human lifetime and drawing more broadly on patterns that can be traced to the origins of industrial civilization and capitalism in Europe hundreds of years ago. Simply exposing these assumptions makes it clear how weak the foundations are for any planned response to the issue of energy transitions. Being more transparent about our assumptions becomes essential in times of turbulent change and historical transition if our aim is to empower personal and community action.
Since the environmental awareness and energy crises of the 1970s, we have had a parallel stream of thinking and modest achievements toward the techno-stability future that, in theory, is compatible with the limits of a finite planet. The principles and strategies of mainstream approaches to sustainability assume that the techno-stability long-term future is inevitable in some form, even if we go through some crises along the way. The focus is on how to make that transition from growth based on fossil energies to a steady state based on largely novel renewable sources.
The tricky issue of dependence of the financial systems on continuous economic growth has been largely ignored or sidestepped by the assumption that the economy may be able to keep growing without using more and more materials and energy. The explosion of economic activity based on financial services and information technology in the dominant economies during the early 1990s gave some credibility to this concept of the "weightless economy," although it is now clear that globalization simply shifted the consumption of resources to other countries to support this growth in the service economies.
David Holmgren is best known as the co-originator with Bill Mollison of the permaculture concept following the publication of "Permaculture One" in 1978. Since then he has written several more books, developed three properties using permaculture principles, conducted workshops and courses in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Japan. Visit his web site at www.holmgren.com.au.