Saturday 14 March 2009

Transcript of Transition Town speech 3 - Four Futures

Barring any miraculous inventions, we know that the amount of energy we currently use to make products and wrap them in plastic, and to grow food and ship it around the world, will decline. More food will have to be grown nearby, using traditional methods and without our modern petrochemical turbochargers. We also know that we will see freakish weather ahead, that the Arctic may disappear, and that deserts will spread – but we don’t know how much or how fast.

I’m going to use a model proposed by Australian ecologist David Holmgren, one of the inventors of permaculture, that divides our future into four outcomes.

The best future would emerge from a slow climate change and a late oil crunch, giving people time for a comparatively smooth transition. We could help this along by turning to simpler living, clean energy and mass transit, and not only prepare for the Crisis, but reduce its impact. That’s an advantage we have that no one has pointed out – evacuating New Orleans might have saved some lives, but it would not have reduced the power of the hurricane at the same time.

The resulting “Green Tech” could retain business, courts, trains, buses, libraries, factories, the Internet. Economies would be city-states supported by surrounding farms, small enough to use only local resources but large enough to have electrical grids and public transport.

Holmgren’s second future would see fossil fuels continue to power us for a while but climate chaos hitting us hard. Corporations, governments and armies would remain armed and mobile, but the people would suffer from crop failures and a flood of Third-World refugees. There might be a danger of a revival of police states.

Anyone who dislikes this idea would do well to look for early signs of such a future. For example, a small article in “Market Watch” last January noted that the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security was planning massive detention facilities in the event of “an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S.” I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think people should keep an eye on little news items like that and try to find out more.

Just as with Green Tech, small steps toward a Brown Tech future would build on themselves. The real danger might be a turn to coal, oil shale or tar sands, which can be made into liquid fuel at a high cost – stretching our driving a little longer at the cost of catastrophic climate change.

A slower change in world climate coupled with an imminent oil peak would allow local ecologies to continue with limited damage, but would pull the rug out from the Wal-Mart economy that so many Westerners have come to rely on, forcing a return to small farms and small towns.

This “Earth Steward” future could signal a return to the kind of community and village life most humans knew until a century or two ago. I have spent some time with the Amish in my native Missouri, and they live generally long and happy lives with almost no fossil fuels or electricity.

Of course, there is a fourth future, in which the oil peak comes quickly, the climate changes swiftly and severely, and we get smacked down hard. This world Holmgren calls “Lifeboats.”

Holmgren cautions, however, against thinking of these as simply four futures; the Crunch will affect Sweden differently than Sudan, and the coming decades will see all of these scenarios happen somewhere, at different places and on different timetables.

In fact, Holmgren said, all four outcomes could exist in a single nation, since their differences are mainly of scale. National governments, with military bases and pipelines, would lean towards a Brown Tech state, but could also contain Green Tech city-states, Earth Steward villages and Lifeboat refugees.

Even a Green Tech future would require us to use much less energy than we do now, but that doesn’t have to be a hardship. I personally like to use the metaphor of America in the 1950s – if my countrymen’s income and ability to drive dropped by two-thirds and their flying by 98 percent, people would see that as the Apocalypse. But that is how people lived in the 1950s, and that was not a horrifying wasteland –happiness, family togetherness, neighborhood community – as defined by survey responses – peaked then and have declined even as wealth increased. The Fifties parallel is not perfect, of course – nor were the Fifties -- but I use it because it is instantly recognizable by most people, widely desirable, and rather easily attainable.

To be continued ....

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