Book Review

Future Scenarios

How communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change

by David Holmgren,  Green Books, 2009

The author of this book is the co-originator, with Bill Mollison, of the concept of permaculture, and the book aims to point the relevance of this approach to sustainablility as the effects of ‘oil descent’ and climate-change impact on the longer-term future.

He starts by noting how past civilisations have repeatedly risen and then collapsed as they exhausted their resource-base; this suggests that a similar collapse is now imminent.

He then outlines his expectation of the changes likely to occur under the four possible futures, given slow or rapid oil decline combined with mild or severe climate-change.  He names these ‘Brown Tech’ – slow oil decline and destructive global warming; ‘Green Tech’ – slow oil decline and benign global warming; ‘Earth Steward’ – fast oil decline and benign global warming; and ‘Lifeboats’ -- fast oil decline and destructive global warming.

In the first of these, he predicts that corporatist/fascist political systems could dominate, but eventually could rapidly collapse under the stresses of resource-depletion, leading to the ‘Lifeboats’ scenario.

In the ‘Green Tech’ scenario, he envisages a diversity of changes as small-scale renewable energy is developed and rural and regional economies flourish as resources grow scarce, leading to higher prices.  Organic agriculture should become the norm.

Given fast oil decline and benign global warming, the ‘Earth Steward’ scenario predicts economic and social collapse, with loss of mobility, but a growth of home businesses based on repair and maintenance while farmers use crop waste to produce biofuels for their machinery.

Finally, under the ‘Lifeboats’ scenario, with progressive collapse of economic and social organization, and local wars in some areas (the failure of national systems of power should prevent a global war!), famine and disease halving the global population over a few decades, a return to hunter-gathering lifestyles would result in many areas, but in more favoured regions efforts would be made to preserve valuable knowledge, to enable a slow rebuilding of civilization.

He notes that any or all of these scenarios could happen alongside each other in different parts of the world, and could be ‘nested’, with the ‘Brown Tech’ at national level, but limited in outreach by fuel shortages, with the ‘Green Tech’ flourishing in the city or state, ‘Earth Stewards’ in the local community, and ‘Lifeboats’ at the household level.

His estimate of future sources of energy are based on a study which envisage s 43% coal, 8% nuclear, 12% wind, and 6% solar.  This seems pessimistic of the possibility of renewables to replace all or most fossil fuels, especially given the possibility of greatly reducing overall energy demand.

In all this the permaculture approach is promoted, as is the ‘Transition Towns’ movement, which originated from the ideas of permaculture.

Though the effects of debt and the money system on society are noted at several points, and he notes ‘the dependence of the financial systems on continuous economic growth’, he does not consider the possibility of changes to this in the near future, in reaction to the ‘credit crunch’, to reverse the policy of ‘planned obsolescence’ and to share wealth more equitably and decimate debt levels.  This would facilitate a rapid reversal of ‘economic growth’.

This possibility of rapid change is missing from his analysis, though hinted at nearly at the end of the book (page 104).

Overall, a thought-provoking book, and effective in promoting the permaculture approach to coping with the uncertainties of the future.

- Brian Leslie