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?”