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Review: Future Scenarios by David Holmgren

Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change
By David Holmgren
126 pp. Chelsea Green Publishing – Apr. 2009. $12.00.

In this short, crisp, well-reasoned book, writer and activist David Holmgren contemplates the possible futures that may lie ahead of us as the threats of climate change and oil depletion grow ever more acute.

The book doesn’t contain much in the way of new information for people who already know about climate change and peak oil. (For those unfamiliar with peak oil, it’s the inevitable, and almost certainly past-tense, point at which world oil production can’t grow any longer and must begin its remorseless, terminal decline.) Serious followers of these issues have long been reading almost daily about so-called oil reserve growth, collapsing exports, the role of energy in shaping human history and accelerated Arctic melting, among other issues on which Future Scenarios’ opening chapters dwell at length. Further, the conclusions that Holmgren draws from this background material in later chapters are mostly obvious ones to those who are informed about the issues.

The book does, however, represent a solid attempt to demystify these concepts for the general reader. It also performs the vital, but seldom undertaken, task of illustrating the synergism that exists between peak oil and climate change, and thus the importance of addressing both of them together.

The method of Future Scenarios is to build on this initial setup in delineating some possible “energy futures” that could potentially await us. These hypothetical futures range from the utopian “techno-explosion,” in which technology miraculously saves the day; to the slightly more credible “techno-stability” scenario, in which renewable energy sources seamlessly carry us from our current continual-growth economy to one built around “steady state” ideals; to the utterly terrifying collapse scenario, which is the least rosy of all.

Holmgren rejects all three of the above in favor of a fourth scenario, which he calls “energy descent.” In this scenario, renewable energy sources prove incapable of sustaining our growth economy in the absence of abundant fossil fuels. Over a period of generations, our civilization undergoes progressive declines in complexity, population and economic activity. Localized rural communities, rather than metroplexes, once again become the focal point of our society. In short, we return to a simpler way of life that honors the ways of our sage preindustrial ancestors.

Since Holmgren believes energy descent to be the most likely scenario, he spends the rest of the book elaborating on it. And he further divides it into four sub-scenarios. This focus on multiple scenarios, as opposed to an explicit espousal of any particular one, is appropriate, since at this point we can’t know exactly how peak oil and climate change will unfold—or how they will play against each other.

In the first of these energy descent sub-scenarios, energy decline is gentle but climate change is severe, leading to vicious climate feedbacks and a host of political ills including fascism and corporatism. In the second sub-scenario (the happiest of the four), both energy depletion and climate change unfold mildly, allowing us to make a graceful transition to sustainable, relocalized communities. The third sub-scenario assumes a drastic drop-off in fossil fuel availability but mild climate change symptoms. It requires us to rebuild our civilization from the bottom up, but without the added horrors of runaway climate change. All that need be said about the final scenario is that it marries the peak oiler’s worst nightmares with those of the climate change prophet—a truly terrifying prospect indeed.

Holmgren, who has a sharp analytical mind and a knack for using charts and statistical analysis, thoroughly probes every dimension of these scenarios. He delves deeply into the social, ecological, agricultural and economic implications of each one, and then draws everything together nicely with a concluding chapter of synthesis and discussion.

It is also to Holmgren’s credit that he makes a compelling case for permaculture—the environmental design concept that he and colleague Bill Mollison pioneered in the midst of the 1970s oil crises—as an effective response to our ecological crisis. Permaculture emphasizes economic relocalization, community building and low-energy design, all of which constitute commonsense mitigation strategies for ever-dwindling energy availability and worsening climate change.

In sum, Future Scenarios serves as a good introduction to the concept of future energy descent/climate change scenarios. Again, it offers nothing too earth-shatteringly novel for the sincere peak oil or climate change follower (who could easily finish it in a couple of hours, with distractions in the background), but it has much to offer someone who’s still working through the learning curve on these issues (who would undoubtedly find it supremely enlightening).

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

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