What's the Worst that Can Happen?

Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change
David Holmgren, 2009

David Holmgren isn’t a historian, he’s one of the two founders of the ecological farming movement known as Permaculture. Bill Mollison is the other, much more visible name behind permaculture. Holmgren has often been described as the quiet guy in the background, but he doesn't lack ideas.
Future Scenarios also has a home on the web, where Holmgren has added a new chapter to the book, written in 2012, called “Crash on Demand” that can be downloaded free. Although, like the possible futures outlined in The Collapse of Western Civilization, Holmgren’s sketches are settings waiting for plots and characters, they’re much more engaging than Oreskes's scenario, and they explore more alternatives than the single future presented in Collapse.

Holmgren explores four possible futures, based on the varying severity of two factors: Climate Change and Peak Oil. Holmgren doesn’t waste any time trying to prove either of these factors; if you don't believe in peak oil, there's still a pair of scenarios that will interest you. After a brief introduction to the two ideas, he gets right to business. Although he isn’t a historian, Holmgren borrows Daniel Yergin’s perspective when he says, “the history of the twentieth century makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies” (7).

The four possibly futures Holmgren explores are “Techno-explosion,” which assumes new energy sources or new technologies will allow us to avoid or fix our problems, “Techno-stability,” where technology like photovoltaics will enable a smooth transition to a “steady state” without much social change, “Energy Descent,” a return to more rural, more pre-industrial energy use and population density as fossil fuels run out, and “Collapse,” rapid, catastrophic failure of many interlocked systems, causing human die-off and loss of infrastructure and knowledge. Basically, a new dark age.

Although this is a small book with a lot of graphic elements, Holmgren makes some interesting technical points. For example:

The promotion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of research showing an anergy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 1.6 for ethanol as a ‘good result’ indicates how the understanding of these issues is very poor, even by the scientifically literate. A society based on an energy source of this quality would constantly be investing 62 percent of its energy back into the energy industry (the 1 in 1.6), leaving only the remaining 38 percent of the total energy in society for everything else—health, education, culture, food production, law, leisure, and so on. Our modern industrial society has been fueled by energy sources with EROEI rates as high as 100 and no lower than 6 (requiring between 1 percent and 17 percent of the wealth created being invested to get the yield) (44).

Of course, the "investing 62 percent" part is why the USDA is so interested in ethanol in the first place. It gives big corn farmers a reason to keep producing at bonanza levels. It's not really about producing efficient energy, at least not in the US. Holgren gives a succinct explanation of why the USDA's promotion of ethanol is really about enriching big corn farmers and the corporations that run refineries and not about producing a sustainable biofuel. And in contrast to the bland, “welfare loss will occur” language of other futurist books such as
Limits to Growth, Holmgren isn’t afraid to say “The low EROEI of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, suggests biofuels may be a way to deplete natural gas [one of the main ingredients used in manufacturing nitrate fertilizers] while degrading agricultural land and starving the world’s poor” (58).

Holmgren associates four social responses with the four possible futures he describes. The details of these scenarios are a bit arbitrary and there’s room for endless tweaking or argument over the details. But unlike
Limits to Growth, Holmgren’s scenarios are fascinating, if only because they’re so alarming. For example, “Brown Tech” (severe climate change, slow energy depletion) leads to fascism, food riots, and forced sterilization (61-5). “Earth Steward” (mild climate change, fast energy depletion) leads to the emptying of cities and starvation for former urban hipsters lacking useful skills (75-8). On the scarier side, “Lifeboats” (severe climate change and fast energy depletion) leads to chaos and “a halving of the global population in a few decades” (82).

These are all dystopias. People have become accustomed to seeing these worlds in science fiction movies and dismissing them. We have a lot of trouble admitting even the remote possibility that this may be the world we’re leaving to our kids. Holmgren’s scenarios may be extreme, but he presents plausible evidence that they’re within the range of possibility.
Future Scenarios is an answer to the flippant question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Looking Backward Again

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, 2014

Since I wrote fiction before I became an academic historian (and still do, from time to time), it always interests me when academics cross the big canyon separating these two genres and try their hands at fictions that illustrate important contemporary themes. Once upon a time, this happened a lot more than it does now. Edward Bellamy’s 1889 novel,
Looking Backward, was the second most popular American book in the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin). George Orwell and H. G. Wells also came to mind while I was reading this, but they lived in a time when the separation of disciplinary silos maybe wasn’t as severe as it is now.

Unlike a classic science fiction tale such as
1984 or The Time Machine, The Collapse of Western Civilization doesn’t have any characters (except the narrator who occasionally exhibits a bit of personality), and it doesn’t have a plot. It’s all setting. This is a very little book, whose point is simply to suggest that there is a crisis at hand. The future world the narrator speaks from could easily be the scene of any number of stories. But sometimes setting gets lost behind story. Like Environmental History, this book puts setting front-and-center.

The Collapse of Western Civilization
is basically a fictional retrospective on what went wrong in our present, and what happened as a result. The physical consequences are all the ones predicted by the scientific consensus on climate change. Their timing and future societies’ reactions are fictional, but plausible. In a nutshell, the authors blame runaway climate change on the inadequacies of Western scientific culture and the power of neoliberal politics. They are both historians of science, so their choice of emphasis is not surprising. And they make some important points.

Scientific institutions, the authors say, are rigidly locked in a disciplinary silo system “in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry” (14). Scientists also impose on themselves an “excessively stringent standard” of proof, they say, perhaps to distinguish their search for truth from common experience or authority-based religious belief. The authors compare the “disciplinary severity” of science to earlier, monastic asceticism (16). I think there’s a lot left unsaid here, about the ways scientific institutions have embraced religious organizational paradigms even while they argue for a standard of truth that is fundamentally different from the authority of sacred texts. But in any case, scientists in this scenario were undercut by their own refusal to abandon 95% statistical significance, by their ignorance of what was happening in adjacent disciplines, and by a huge PR campaign promoting climate change denial.

The most interesting criticism of science, to me, comes in an off-hand remark of the narrator’s, when she criticizes the “archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” (2). This is the same, in my mind, as the convention that allows economists (neoliberal or otherwise) to ignore “externalities” until (and sometimes even after) they become “market failures.” As the authors suggest, ignoring externalities was much easier when the environmental “sink” seemed infinite. But even in light of our current knowledge, the argument seems only to have shifted from “not a problem” to “not
our problem.”

And maybe that leads to the element of
The Collapse of Western Civilization’s approach that didn’t work so well for me. There are no people in it. Even though the authors blame the “carbon-combustion complex” for financing a campaign of denialism at the beginning of the 21st century (and it’s very important to note that climate change denialism was manufactured — up until very recently, Americans pretty much believed what the scientists were saying), the only time it gets remotely personal is when they mention that Exxon-Mobil did a deal with the Russian government to exploit the Arctic in 2012. This would have been a great opportunity to say a little more about extra-national corporations and power. Or even, perhaps, to examine why scientists were so respected while their efforts were enabling the military-industrial complex’s profits during the Cold War, but were jettisoned when their science turned against its patrons. Maybe science has never really, independently held the esteemed position the authors claim it lost in American culture. But in any case, the authors shy away from talking about the climate disaster as an abuse of power by people. So it becomes the story of two impersonal historical forces that ruined the world. Not about people who had choices to make, and made the wrong ones.

But then again, I’m the guy who wrote a revenge-tale based on the 2000 water wars in Cochabamba (too violent, so it remains unpublished). The story needs to be personal, for me. And these people are historians, not science fiction authors. And they’ve tried to do something important here. If
The Collapse of Western Civilization gets read and discussed, then it’s a huge success. Maybe it will help more academics cross that canyon, and start writing books (fiction or non) that can be read by the general public. And maybe it will inspire people to think more about the actual people making — or evading — the important decisions that will lead us into this disaster or help us bypass some of it.

Not Yesterday's Tomorrow


Watched the movie Tomorrowland twice this weekend. Kudos to Disney. Best film I've seen in a while. And best Disney movie since Tron Legacy. But that's another story. The story today is that this movie was pretty well hated by reviewers and the public. People complained about a muddled plot, and I agree there were holes (scroll to the end, but be warned: spoilers). But they were no bigger than the plot holes in any other movie you can name, that people missed because they were comfortable with the movie's theme. I think the real issue was that this movie made people squirm a bit. Especially in the climactic scene, when David Nix, the boss of Tomorrowland and the guy we had assumed was the villain says this:

Just imagine --
If you glimpsed the future, and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? Would you go to...who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck.
The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if...
What if there was a way of skipping the middleman and putting the critical news directly into everyone's head?
The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up, and the only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they had ever known or loved?
To save civilization, I would show its collapse.
And how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom?  
They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair. They didn't fear their demise. They repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, as books, movies -- the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.
Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one.
Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you, the coalmine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint.
In every moment, there is the possibility of a better future, yet you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So you dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it, for one reason.
Because that future doesn't ask anything of you today.
So, yes. We saw the iceberg, warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why?
Because you want to sink. You gave up. That's not the monitor's fault. That's yours.

The premise of the movie, established brilliantly in the first few seconds of dialog, is that the future isn't what it used to be. This idea is familiar to the science fiction crowd, who have been asking "where's my flying car?" for some time now. There are a lot of reasons the Tom Swift future gave way to the cyberpunk future. It wasn't a technically feasible future. It wasn't a particularly environment-friendly future -- if there was even an environment in it. But in my opinion, the main reasons were technocracy and inequality. The future was something that was going to be made for us by smart people. And, as William Gibson famously said, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed.
Both of those problems are present in some degree in the
Tomorrowland future. The creative people have actually found a place (unexplained, but apparently a pocket universe or a separate/parallel dimension) where they can be free to create without constraint. It's almost a Galt's Gulch, except that they had intended to bring the rest of the world along with them, or at least to share the fruits of their creativity. The Frank character is a bit complicated, and it's unclear why he was banished long before the story begins. He's clearly not in a sharing mood when we first meet him.
But those issues don't really detract from the point that Nix made. The signs are there, but the stories we're telling celebrate the post-apocalyptic struggle because that allows us to wait for the apocalypse. And let's face it, even if Tina Turner is singing "We Don't Need Another Hero" in the background, Mad Max is still doing all the work for us.
So the challenge, I guess, is to imagine a future that acknowledges the problems we face but retains some hope we'll figure them out. I thought
Tomorrowland made a decent start on that road. Gotta make sure I try and do the same, when I build Part Two of my Environmental History class and textbook.

The plot holes? I thought they were forgivable, and ironically probably due to the fact that Disney knew how unpopular their  theme was going to be. The biggest plot error is that after giving that intelligent and obviously caring speech, David Nix tries to shoot Frank and ends up killing Athena. This is ridiculous. Nix likes Frank, and he loves Athena. And he has just explained the situation with the monitor. He wasn't trying to destroy the world, he was trying to save it. He believes the monitor can't be turned off, not that it shouldn't be. So it's entirely out of character for him to act the villain at that point. It advances the action, but makes it a bit nonsensical.

The Water Knife

Just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, The Water Knife. It's a futuristic thriller, set in a dystopian Nevada and Arizona. How distant the future setting might be is not specified, and I suppose depends on your opinion of how quickly the water is going to run out in the Southwest. However, it's not the remote future. Texas refugees are the "Okies" of this story, called "Merry Perrys" due to their irrational belief that if they just pray hard enough, the rain will come.


Bacigalupi is the former Web Editor for High Country News and lives in Colorado, upstream from the action of the novel. Unlike some of the other sci-fi books I've been reading this summer (Seveneves, The Three Body Problem, Howey's Silo Series, and even Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), there's not a lot of really out-there speculative science to grab onto here. There are Arcologies, but that's not so undoable in today's world. The only tech we don't have might be the growth-hormone drip the protagonist uses to recover from being shot full of holes.

So this is a story about the present, disguised as a story about the future. An interesting solution to the problem another of the main characters has in the book, when a scary "executive" from a California water company suggests she "could write about anything I wanted, but maybe I should stop worrying about what California was doing here or there and spend more time worrying about other things." (p. 164) Later in the story, the reporter agonizes over the stories that don't get written. Made me wonder whether Bacigalupi or any of his journalist friends had ever had a conversation like that. Also reminded me of why my revenge novel about the 2000 Cochabamba Water War is still in a drawer. Needs to become a little more fictional.

The most interesting but also LOL aspect of the book, for me, was the constant reference to Marc Reisner's Environmental History classic,
Cadillac Desert. The evil water-queen of Vegas has a signed first edition. A mid-level Cali water exec also has a copy, in which he hides the document everybody is looking for. And close to the end, the protagonist says to the reporter:

Every water manager, every bureaucrat--even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending like you know shit…Acting like you saw this shit coming…That guy Reisner now, That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They're the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren't listening back then.

So. We can consider ourselves warned.