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Four Futures for the Earth

Jamais Cascio, WorldChanging
Never trust a futurist who only offers one vision of tomorrow.

We don’t know what the future will hold, but we can try to tease out what it might. Scenarios, which combine a variety of important and uncertain drivers into a mix of different — but plausible — futures, offer a useful methodology for coming up with a diverse set of plausible tomorrows. Scenarios are not predictions, but examples, giving us a wind-tunnel to test out different strategies for managing large, complex problems.

And there really isn’t a bigger or more complicated problem right now than the incipient climate disaster. Today, there seems to be two schools of thought regarding the best way to deal with global warming: the “act now” approach, demanding (in essence) that we change our behavior and the ways that our societies are structured, and do it as quickly as possible, or else we’re boned; and the “techno-fix” approach, which says (in essence) don’t worry, the nano/info/bio revolution that’s just around the corner will save us. Generally, the Worldchanging approach is to emphasize the first, with a sprinkle of the second for flavor (and as backup).

The thing is, these are not mutually-exclusive propositions, and success or failure in one doesn’t determine the chance of success or failure in the other. It’s entirely possible that we will change our behavior/society/world (ahem), and also come up with fantastic new technologies; it’s also possible that we’ll stumble on both paths, neither fixing things in time nor getting our hands on the tools we could use to repair the worst damage.

To a futurist, a pair of distinct, largely independent variables just begs to be turned into a scenario matrix. So let’s give in, and take a brief look a the four scenarios the combinations of these two paths create…

The two axes are:

  • Techno-fixes — No techno-fixes
  • Act in time to change how we live — Don’t act in time…

The four future scenarios are:

  • Dodging a Bullet
  • Teaching the World to Sing
  • Geoengineering 101: Pass/Fail
  • Say Goodnight

PIck your future.

Jamais Cascio co-founded Worldchanging, and wrote over 1,900 articles for the site during his tenure. He now works as a foresight and futures specialist, serving as the Global Futures Strategist for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and a Research Affiliate for the Institute for the Future. His current online home is Open the Future.
(22 April 2007)
David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture, developed a similar matrix of scenarios: “BrownTech”, “GreenTech”, “Earth Steward” and “Lifeboats.”

I find scenario approach used by Cascio and Holmgren to be much more fruitful than a fixation upon one inevitable future, whether that future be envisioned as Petro-ollapse or Cornucopian Business-as-Usual. -BA

We can’t go on living like this

Ted Trainer, ON LINE opinion (Australia)
We say we want to save the environment, and to have peace, and to eliminate poverty. And we do – but only until we see what this requires.

The fundamental cause of the big global problems threatening us now is simply over-consumption. The rate at which we in rich countries are using up resources is grossly unsustainable. It’s far beyond levels that can be kept up for long or that could be spread to all people. Yet most people totally fail to grasp the magnitude of the over-shoot.

The reductions required are so big that they cannot be achieved within a consumer-capitalist society. Huge and extremely radical change to very systems and culture are necessary.

…The greatest tragedy is that we could quickly and easily move to sustainable and just ways – if we wanted to. Essentially that would involve people in suburbs and towns getting together to organise simple but sufficient lifestyles within mostly small, local economies, with small farms and firms using local resources and labour to produce to meet local needs. The economy would not be driven by profit maximisation or market forces, and there would have to be no economic growth at all.

The Simpler Way could be a far more satisfying way of life. Consider being able to live well on two days work for money a week, without any threat of unemployment, or insecurity in old age, in a supportive community. To the conventional mind such claims are insanely impossible, but you might take a look at the detail on The Simpler Way website below before you decide.

These are the kinds of conditions that thousands of people enjoy in eco-villages around the world. Many of these communities are trying to demonstrate the alternative ways to which the mainstream can move. Our chances or persuading the mainstream to them in a society obsessed with growth and affluence would seem to be very poor.

I believe we are now entering a time of rapidly intensifying problems which will impact heavily on the comfort and complacency of consumer society. The coming peak of petroleum supply might concentrate minds wonderfully, but I think we are in for a catastrophic century. Some of the people at believe around three billion will perish.

For 50 years you have been told about all this, by many scientists and reports. You have taken not the slightest bit of notice. This indicates that you do not have the wit nor the will to save yourselves. Your chances in the next few decades will depend very much on whether your region manages to build local economies, and whether the people living there are willing to shift to frugal, cooperative and self-sufficient ways. Just ask yourself, when oil becomes very scarce, what shape will you wish your neighbourhood was in? Well you had better get out there and start remaking it.
Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW. Website: The Simpler Way
(19 April 2007)
Contributor Rod Campbell-Ross writes:
This about sums up the dilemma we all face. Trouble is, it’s easier to stay in my suburban, 2 car, 3 kids at school, electric everything comfort zone.

Carter had a powerful energy idea

Jay Hakes, SF Chronicle
Thirty years ago this month, a solemn Jimmy Carter sat behind the historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office to announce to a prime-time national television audience his new comprehensive energy plan. In the most memorable line of the evening, the president declared the challenge of energy “the moral equivalent of war.”

The Carter energy strategy was both praised for its ambition (the written version had 113 parts) and derided for its interventionism — critics tried to brand it with the acronym MEOW.

Contrary to common mythology, Carter was far from a lonely voice calling for strenuous action. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, both of his predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, called energy the nation’s top priority and set an ambitious goal for “energy independence” (eliminating reliance on foreign oil by 1980, no less).

…Calls for energy independence continue to reverberate through the energy debates of today. On the whole, however, the rhetoric of that earlier era creates considerable dissonance for the modern ear.

In his address of April 18, 1977, Carter used the word “sacrifice” (or “sacrifices”) eight times and argued: “Conservation is the quickest, cheapest, most practical source of energy.” He repeatedly decried the “waste” of scarce fuels. Moreover, energy plans in the 1970s set bold goals and put meat on the bones to achieve them. Nixon, Ford and Carter called for sharp drops in oil imports and Carter set a goal of obtaining a fifth of America’s needs from renewable energy by the turn of the century. Ford and Congress set strict standards for automobile fuel efficiency to offset high-priced foreign oil.

…Since oil imports have risen from 9 million barrels a day in 1977 to the current level of 12 million, there has been a tendency to view the efforts of Carter and others to cut reliance on oil from unstable sources as quixotic. But a closer look at the data shows otherwise.

By the time Carter left office, imports had dropped to 7 million barrels a day. Within a few years, they fell to 5 million. The plunge was the result of higher oil prices, a weak economy, the Alaska oil pipeline and new federal policies such as the auto efficiency standards. The slide in oil imports defanged the grip of oil-exporting countries on the world market and helped achieve considerable independence from foreign suppliers.

Since then, the trend of oil imports, rather than a straight line upward, has been a hockey stick. Foreign deliveries dropped sharply and then (after earlier supply and conservation efforts were largely abandoned) started a new upward trajectory, allowing OPEC to again seize control of the market early in 2000.

The largely unremembered “victory” in the war on imported oil was temporary. It is still worth noting, however, in an age when many think that making dramatic cuts in the security risks of dependence on Persian Gulf oil or in greenhouse gases resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels is just too difficult.

It remains to be seen whether America has the appetite for a new moral equivalent of war to deal with oil imports and climate change. But the lesson of the successes in the earlier war is that we shouldn’t operate under the delusion that efforts to deal with these great challenges — which are indeed daunting — have to prove fruitless.

Jay Hakes, head of the Energy Information Administration from 1993 to 2000, is director of the Carter Presidential Library.
(22 April 2007)

Consume Like There’s No Tomorrow (critique of “shallow green” Sierra Club, ASES proposals)

Don Fitzh, Znet
Would someone please tell the Sierra Club Exec Board that the idea of an “environmentally friendly car” makes as much sense as a “non-violent death penalty?” While the vast majority of those concerned with global warming consider reduction of unneeded production to be at the core of a sane policy, the Sierra Club has endorsed a plan that includes virtually no role for conservation.

In January 2007, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) released the 180 page document, Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. Typical of big enviro analyses, it assumes a corporate dominated growth economy. Its novelty is its highly technical studies which claim to compute how much CO2 emissions can be offset by energy efficiency (EE) and renewable energy.

Teaming up with ASES to present the study to Congress, the Sierra Club enthusiastically wrote that “energy efficiency and renewables alone can achieve a 60-80% reduction in global warming emissions by 2050.” Adding the key word “alone” in the first paragraph of its release indicated that the Sierra Club wanted to be sure that politicians and corporate donors understood that it has no intention of criticizing the large quantity of unnecessary junk created by corporate America.

What ain’t there

Solar power, wind power and energy efficiency (EE) play vital roles in reducing CO2. The rub is the role of conservation, or reduction of total production. For “deep greens,” the most basic goal is social change that would foster the reduction of energy. For “shallow greens,” conservation is, at best, something to give lip service to while tunnel visioning on eco-gadgets.

More blatant than the typical corporate enviromental analysis, the ASES/Sierra report trivializes conservation as “doing without” or “deprivation.” It presents a vast array of technological playthings, some of which are quite good and some of which are less than environmental. What is most revealing is what it does not include. It discusses transportation without using the word “bicycle” or “walking.”

…The first limitation on EE is the old maxim that the more parts there are to a system, the more parts there are to break. The ASES/Sierra report reads like an encyclopedia of techno-fix gadgets for buildings, cars and holes in the earth. Each item involves increased industrial interdependence. As resources come to be in short supply from exhaustion or wars or hoarding, the future is likely to see a decline in the ability to patch up interconnected systems. Becoming more dependent on them more begs for industrial breakdown.

Another factor that works against EE is the law of diminishing returns. Joseph Tainter explained that societies begin to collapse when resources are drained to meet the needs of increasing complexity. Similarly, the biggest impact of discoveries come when they are first introduced. That’s when there is the greatest energy returned on energy invested. Additional refinements tend to cost more and yield less.

…The most basic task for stopping global warming is having a moral, ethical and spiritual revolution based on the belief that excessive crap is bad. Reduction of unnecessary production is the antithesis of what corporations are all about. However destructive it is for the planet, corporations must seek to convince people to consume more and more.

Enter big enviro telling people that excessive consumption is not bad at all because it gives the consumer the ability to affect change with purchasing power. The erudite techno-magician waves his wand, uttering “Don’t look at the mounds of discarded junk that go into landfills. Look over here at the fabulous eco-gadgets of our corporate friends.”

Big enviro may be doing more to preserve the ethos of self-devouring consumerism than big corporations could ever do. What a surprise to learn that the Sierra Club has a history of obtaining funds from Chemical Bank, ARCO and British Petroleum. Big enviro just may deliver to big oil what it most needs – faith that a market economy can protect the planet.

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of The Greens/Green Party USA. He can be reached at [email protected]
(22 April 2007)