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Energy Descent Scenarios: Integrating Climate Change & Peak Oil

The following brief article was part of a joint presentation on peak oil and permaculture by Richard Heinberg and myself as part of our 2006 Australian speaking tour. This particular presentation was to advisors, planners and policy makers directly and indirectly involved in the review of the South Australian government’s Strategic Plan, a document that looks ahead 50 years; longer than any other public planning process in South Australia. Based on the response to this and other presentations I have been refining the four scenarios as a generally useful framework for understanding and action at many different levels from the personal to the national. The table characterising Energy Descent Scenarios shows the outline of my current thinking about these scenarios. I am planning to further develop and explain these scenarios.

South Australia illustrates how multiple scenarios can be simultaneously emergent. For example Adelaide feels further down the Green Tech pathway than most Australian cities, while in the South Australian outback, the plans to massively expand the Roxby Downs mine, build a desalination plant on Spencer Gulf and (speculating?) a nuclear power plant to provide the huge increase in water power demand of the mine are classic signs that the Brown Tech scenario is emerging.

Relevance of Permaculture to South Australia’s Strategic Plan

By David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept August 2006

The Strategic Plan is typical of progressive approaches to state government planning by its inclusion of objectives covering economic, social and environmental indices and stating measurable targets against which the effectiveness of government, community and business actions can be assessed. However the Strategic Plan suffers from a problem common to public planning documents, in that is appears to be based on a set of unstated assumptions about the wider geopolitical, economic and environment forces. These apparent assumptions reflect trends and future forecasts about global economic conditions that come from national, intergovernmental and international institutions as well as global corporations. The weakness of the current version of the plan is not so much in the details but its limited provisions to adapting to futures that are outside of these assumptions about the future.

How relevant will the Strategic plan be if some of these assumptions prove to be wrong over the review cycle of the plan let alone its long range planning horizon?

The now clear and little disputed acceleration in onset of climate change symptoms is already showing weaknesses in the assumptions behind the plan. The imminent peak of global oil supply and the severe consequences that are likely to follow have the potential to totally discredit this state planning process.

Several well recognised planning and decision making tools could be used to help deal with inherent uncertainty and debate about future conditions. They include;

  • “Insurance policies”
  • Risk assessment and management
  • Scenario planning
  • Transparent and relevant accounting

It may be unrealistic to expect that updating of the plan will include radical reassessment of “likely global conditions” that form a context for the ongoing update of the Strategic Plan. However, incorporating of some of these assessment tools in the fabric of the Strategic Plan, could allow those organisations using the Plan as background for their own decisions, to make their own judgements in a context of a more open, transparent and resilient planning framework.

Inevitably this will make the plan a more controversial document, maybe controversial enough to initiate serious discussion in all sectors of the state economy and community about the future and how we can make meaningful plans in the context of uncertainty and risk.

Unstated Assumptions

I believe the following is a fair but not exclusive list of unstated assumptions behind the current plan. These do not represent some exclusive view of state officials but more society wide assumptions.

  • Global extraction rates of all important non renewable commodities will continue to rise.
  • That 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 growth, globalisation and increase in technological complexity will continue to grow
  • Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will be possible
  • Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink

Global oil peak has the potential to shake if not smash these unstated assumptions. Peak Oil and Climate Change are two closely coupled forces that will shape future realities more than any other factors.

The Four Energy/Climate Scenarios

A simple scenario planning model can be constructed based on slow to rapid climate change and slow to fast oil production declines. These alternative scenarios are not primarily the result of choice by human actors but emergent realities driven by geologic and climatic forces.

The four scenarios:

  • Green Tech: top down transform (slow oil decline, slow climate change)
  • Brown Tech: top down control (slow oil decline, fast climate change)
  • Earth Steward: bottom up powerdown (fast oil decline, slow climate change)
  • Lifeboats: civilization triage (fast oil decline , fast climate change)

While the characterisation of the four scenarios is difficult and inevitably speculative,1 they do provide a framework for considering how Peak Oil and Climate Change are likely to interact to reshape global and local energy resources, settlement patterns and economy as well provide some guidance on potentially effective policies. The scenarios also provide a framework for considering the likely relevance of current institutions attempting to shape public policy.

Permaculture

These scenarios also provide a framework for exploring the relevance of permaculture to the State strategic planning process. Permaculture has an extraordinary perhaps unique role in Australia as a concept, a collection of design strategies and as an environmental movement. In Australia it is defined in the dictionary and is almost a household world.2 As a “brand” it carries a great deal of good will but also much baggage and is generally regarded in policy and planning circles as marginal to mainstream decision making. Some more thoughtful people recognise it as tuned to a world of declining resources that will require adaptive strategies quite different from those being pursued currently. This awareness is supported by the fact that permaculture strategies have, in recent decades been more effectively applied in third world development projects than in affluent societies like Australia.

The relevance of permaculture to these energy descent and climate change scenarios can be considered at two levels. Firstly permaculture strategies and techniques that have been developed, promoted and applied by permaculture practioners and activists may grow and spread rapidly in the social and economic conditions described by some of these scenarios. Examples of permaculture strategies might included household food production, owner building and retrofitting of houses, water and nutrient harvesting, ecovillages and cohousing, community gardens or local currencies. Examples of more specific techniques promoted though permaculture could include worm farming, sheet mulching, straw bale building, compost toilets etc.

However it is the fundamental design principles that underpin the diversity of permaculture strategies and techniques that are more likely have relevance than any specific set of strategies and techniques.

Relevance of Permaculture to Energy Descent/Climate Change Scenarios

Scenario

Classic Strategies

Fundamental Principles

Green Tech
Brown Tech
Earth Steward
Lifeboats

In this context permaculture is a set of thinking tools that can be used to assess current and future strategic decision making well beyond the personal and household level.

Peak oil and climate change have the potential to generate a cascade of novel threats and opportunities for planners and policy makers. Permaculture offers a conceptual framework, design principles, practical strategies and a robust history of grass roots community activism able to contribute to the strategic planning process in a context of unfolding climate change and imminent global oil peak.

End notes


1 See accompanying Powerpoint presentation for the characterisation of each scenario


2 This apparent familiarity with permaculture can be misleading. For an indepth understanding see Holmgren, D. Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability 2002. For an overview see The Essence of Permaculture at www.holmgren.com.au
(Writings Page)

Editorial Notes: The relevance of permaculture extends well beyond novel organic forms of gardening. To quote Rob Hopkins:
Permaculture, as it has been reframed by David Holmgren in Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, is nothing less than the design system for a post-peak society. He writes that “permaculture is the wholehearted and positive acceptance of energy descent, as not only inevitable but as a desired reality”
See Rob's review of Principles and Pathways, which he describes as "the most important book published in the last 15 years."Dynamic Cities Project director Bryn Davidson has also been developing a risk assessment and scenario planning approach to peak oil and climate change, including a related 4 scenario framework. See:-AF

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