“Future Scenarios” by David Holmgren

ISBN 978 1 900322 50 8. “Future Scenarios – How communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change” by David Holmgren was published by Green Books in 2009. Although only three or four years old this book already looks dated somehow. It is a contemporary of Rob Hopkins’ original “Transition Handbook” and Shaun Chamberlin’s “Transition Timeline“. There was a brief flurry if such publications a few years back – but, no more. Their apparent visions of imminent energy collapse proved empty. What we got instead was financial collapse. Still, there is nothing obsolete in this publishing genre. It took as a while to catch up with this publication. So, let’s take a brief walk down memory lane to remember how it all began…

Of course that sounds very cynical. It is as much a reflection of us as it is of these permaculture pioneers. We have moved on but many are still trapped in 2008. There is a certain time-warp in play here. We are no longer seeking simplistic answers in the pages of permaculture books or the classic works on peak oil. The Transition lives on as an ideal and a methodology but its original motivations no longer seem quite so urgent. Instead we have moved focus towards questions of economic growth, well being and quality of life. If we have a bed-rock of resilience then we can react to the changes that WILL eventually occur. Maybe we shouldn’t have been in such a hurry.

So what is “Future Scenarios” all about? It is a very brief book. No longer than an essay padded out to just over 100 pages with pretty pictures galore. The author is well known as one of the original instigators of the “permaculture” design concept. Of course it was Rob Hopkins – Permaculture Teacher – who then founded the Transition Movement. This work is Holmgren’s nod to the Transition Movement. He is repaying the compliment with numerous mentions of both Rob and Transition within these pages.

Holmgren paints a picture of four possible futures: ‘techno-explosion’, ‘techno-stability’, ‘energy descent’ and ‘collapse’. He then narrows the options down to just ‘energy descent’ before breaking it up into four more likely (as he sees it) ‘Energy Descent’ scenarios: Green Tech, Brown Tech, Earth Steward and Lifeboats:

“My own tracking of these issues over the last thirty years leads me to the conclusion that the next energy transition is to sources with lower energy-production rates and lower net energy yield, which in turn will drive changes in human economy and society that are without precedent since the decline and/or collapse of previous civilisations such as the Mayan and the Roman”

No doubt many would find this preposterous and self-marginalising. It is not something the Holmgren himself is unaware of. But he says it like he sees it and we do largely agree with his position – if only in the grand sweep of history. This book was written through 2007 hence largely predates the financial crisis that occurred in 2008. In this sense it does seem dated. The prediction Holmgren makes is interesting:

“There is substantial chance that the desperate attempts by central banks to re-inflate the US and European economies will fail, making a depression of greater magnitude than the so-called Great Depression a likely outcome.”

We wonder what he would say today? Regardless – he moves on to describe his scenario analysis. “Lifeboats” is a scenario with rapid oil and climate decline. “Earth Steward” is a scenario with fast oil decline but slower, more benign, climate deterioration. “Brown Tech” represents destructive global warming with slow oil decline. Finally the “Green Tech” scenario gives us slow oil decline with slow climate change.

He touches briefly on a point that agrees with Jeremy Rifkin’s “Third Industrial Revolution” (always a good yardstick):

“The inherently distributed nature of these [renewable] resources will lead to more distributed economic and political power at the level of cities, with their hinterlands and organisations focused at this scale”

Holmgren introduces the idea that it isn’t only oil & atmosphere that is depleting:

“We can interpret the short-sighted nature of information and decision-making in our largest organisational structures as one of the many signs of cultural decay, reflecting the fact that our stocks of human capital may be declining just as out stock of natural capital is.”

The scenarios he paints could play out over a long time period:

“Ecological modelling suggest an energy-descent path that could play out over a similar time frame to the industrial ascent era of 250 years.”

Is so why did the Transition Movement paint a Timeline that ended in 2030? Was this a confusion between the urgency of action on climate change rather than big-picture energy descent? Or did we think that, if we placed it inside our present day lifetimes, that this would make it feel more urgent?

For those who long for bygone days of bucolic rural idyll Holmgren has these words:

“Sometimes permaculture is understood as simply returning to traditional patterns from the past and is consequently criticised as impractical. While it is true that older, more traditional patterns of resource use and living provide some of the elements and inspiration for permaculture , it is certainly more than this. One way to understand permaculture is as a post-modern integration of elements from different traditions and modernity that involves  continuous change and evolution

Holmgren does not see our civilisation returning to the middle ages. We have progressed too far for everything to be undone. His analysis also doesn’t preclude the idea that his four scenarios are somehow mutually exclusive. They could also be phases through which our civilisation passed in temporal space or they could even co-exist in a “nested” fashion. Hence there could be a “Brown Tech” future at National level, a “Green Tech” future at City level, a “Earth Stewards” future at local community level and a “Lifeboats” scenario at household level. It is important that we recognise these different flavours and try not to play too many guessing games.

There is no one-size-fits-all future as so many imagine in the Transition Movement. So many different phases of the Energy Descent dynamic will co-exist which is an important reason why we should embrace the poly-culture of resilience. Your city can have big box stores as long as there are local supply chains to independent retailers who offer the public the choice they crave and the resilience they need.

To this point Holmgren wisely adds this observation:

“Transparent and collaborative leadership that draws from the whole community, accepts slow evolutionary change and avoids the imposition of ideology is likely to be most effective in conserving resources and continuing to build a nature-based culture.”

Honestly – we couldn’t agree more but it seems so many in the Transition Movement have forgotten these wise words from back in 2009. How many have lost their drive to engage the whole community? How many have abandoned slow evolutionary change? How many have been panicked into imposing their ideology? Where has the transparency gone?

In conclusion Holmgren offers us this:

“…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.”

Maybe that happy few who threw in their lot with the “NoToCostas” brigade down in Totnes, Devon in 2012 may wish to reflect upon this point again. This Transition is an experiment:

“…where we have to choose what is worthwhile at this great turning point in history. We are faced with the mixed pieces of myriad broken traditional cultures of the world and the novel and shining bits of unravelling industrial modernity. All of this will end in the dustbin of history. Our task is to choose which piece of these jigsaw puzzles will be useful in creating an energy-descent culture”

So this search goes on. It isn’t a race, not a sprint, just a stroll in a certain direction. Who knows what we will find along the way. We have no idea what the answer is – only that we will need to seek answers.

I expected to be disappointed by Holmgren’s book but actually I felt revitalised. It may be old-skool peak oil and climate change circa 2007-2009 but there remains great wisdom in the permacultural principles. The energy descent may be driven by unrealistic assumptions about peak oil and climate but the process by which we seek answers is its own reward. We get so wrapped up in the ‘here and now’ we fail to step back and take the long view. We don’t know the answers so we should stop pre-judging this world. It has a lot of surprises in store for us yet. Let us build our resilient communities based upon the quality of life issues that people yearn for naturally. Let it all be about what we stand for, not against. Recommended.


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