Monday, June 02, 2008

Future Scenarios

Two points for discussion tonight: David Holmgren's new Future Scenarios site and the recent Economist coverage of Peak Oil.

First, Adam Grubb of tipped me off to the launch of David Holmgren's new site, Holmgren, co-founder of the permaculture concept and still a critical proponent working to advance that field, has done an excellent job of placing the permaculture analytical framework and toolkit into the world of peak oil scenario planning. The site is still in its infancy, but is well laid out and does an excellent job of framing both peak oil and climate change in a "how can permaculture affect these problems" sense.

I think that the notion of scenario planning is a truly critical area of inquiry. This stems from the fundamental proposition that we don't know what the future will hold. I think that, with careful inquiry and investigation, we can gain a good feeling for future probabilities, but anyone who tells you that "the future WILL contain X" is most likely acting largely on faith, not reason. The closest that we can come to a "truth" is that we don't know what the future holds, but that we may be able to discern probabilities for different scenarios. In light of this probability, we must plan our course of action in light of 1) our goals and 2) the solution space of possible future scenarios.

I don't want to get bogged down in a discussion of goals, beyond the notion that it seems that we tend to get stuck on derivative goals (like increasing GDP or decreasing poverty) when these are in fact just means to achieving our actual goals--call them happiness, stability, fulfillment, etc. It's my opinion that we'd be best served by building our goals around our genetically determined requirements--in other words, to reach for fulfilled ontogeny. Once we've carefully identified our actual goals--not mere intermediary means to achieve those goals--then we can begin to approach how to achieve these goals in an unknown but probably probabilistically determinable future environment.

So what is that future solution space? Let's frame it, for the purpose of this analysis, along only one axis--future energy availability. Let's call one end of the axis "catastrophic energy cliff due to peak oil and other primary energy sources with no substantial mitigation" and the other end of the axis "unrestrained and continuing growth in energy consumption due to new reserve discoveries or the development of adequate substitutes." Or, if those labels are too lengthy, "doomer" and "cornucopian." I contend that anyone who says we "know" which way the future will go is taking an irrational, faith-based approach. Therefore, I argue that the only rational approach is to say that both scenarios (and all points in between) are possible. We can still, of course, argue about the probabilities of the various scenarios coming to pass. I think that both extreme scenarios are sufficiently possible that we must seriously plan for them, but I think that something in the general direction of the "doomer" scenario is significantly more likely over the medium to long term. This is an area that fundamentally demands individual determination, but assuming that you accept my evaluation, what is to be done about it? This is where scenario planning comes in, and it's a topic that I've discussed in the past in future planning: hedging the solution space. The basic notion--especially where it differs from conventional wisdom on planning for the future--is to evaluate options based on their composite ability to succeed in any possible future. That is, don't just pick what you think the most likely future scenario is and plan for that alone, but rather plan a solution that addresses all possible future scenarios simultaneously, prioritizing in order of probability. In particular, I think that today's conventional wisdom focuses entirely too much on how to hedge within what conventional wisdom considers to be very probable future scenarios (though I dispute their assumptions) without placing any concern on the ability of these plans to deal with outlying scenarios (such as Peak Oil, which I actually see as "probable," but which hasn't yet been fully accepted by the mainstream--more on this below).

I think that scenario planning, such as the more limited solution space proposed by Holmgren in, is a very important start in this direction. One point that Holmgren does an excellent job of addressing is the need to address this solution space on different levels. IF we could count on our national and global means of governance addressing our problems, then that could potentially be the best way to deal with the problems facing humanity. However, because human organization at that level seems unlikely to actually address our problems in any serious way due to temporary political demands and our inability to deal effectively with inherent uncertainty, it is important that Holmgren points out how it is also possible for communities and individuals to address our path into the future solution space. I take this even further--it is my opinion that we must begin to address the future solution space at the individual level, and that only once we have established a foundation of individual, resilient self-sufficiency in light of future uncertainty can we begin to build a community and then a global solution to our problems. This is because any attempt to solve problems without first addressing security at the individual level seems to leave humanity open to the lure of populist but illusory programs. Much more about this notion in The Problem of Growth.


I'd also like to briefly address the coverage of Peak Oil in the latest edition of The Economist. The Economist asks whether current high oil prices are caused by speculators or peak oil, and concludes that the answer is "neither." Addressing speculators, The Economist concludes rightly that the theory is "plain wrong." They provide an excellent and concise explanation of why, as I've explained here previously (essentially, that oil is a deliverable commodity and prices must ultimately be set by the consumer's willingness to pay a given amount). Next, they claim that "[t]here is little evidence to support the doctrine of "peak oil" in its extreme form." This, in itself, is an important qualification from previous statements by The Economist (and most others in the mainstream) that "peak oil" is flatly wrong. Instead, they only discount the "extreme form" of the theory (conveniently, without ever defining what differentiates "extreme" peak oil from "conventional" peak oil). Of course, they then proceed to offer up two completely unfounded arguments in support of their already unclear position. First, they claim that supply should rise in the near future due to current high prices (which is much different than showing significant extant increases), and second, they discount the "above ground" factors of increasing cost of production and resource nationalism as somehow divorced from peak oil, something that I've repeatedly (and I think convincingly) linked as a direct result of peak oil. I would like to see a more rigorous analysis from The Economist, but I guess this is what I should expect from a paper with such an ideological ax to grind. That said, I still enjoy reading The Economist because at least their ideological spin is so transparent that it is always easy to adjust for.


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Anonymous said...

The most likely scenario is:

Why else the Yamantau Mountain complex?

I personally see no way to avoid it.

The people having power over these weapons do not think like you or I. Even the most sane of them are psychopathic and suicidal upon failure.

Nothing but failure ahead.

Heretic said...

Jeff, I believe you linked to the wrong peak oil story in the Economist. It think this is the one you were referring to:

Thanks for the great posts!

Heretic said...

er... URL was too long. Let's try this...

Theo_musher said...

I think "green tech" is the most likely scenario.

I'll say right now I think a lot of global warming fear mongering is a sham. Maybe a lot of people in the know think its a good lie to perpetuate. "noble lie" but anyway, global warming has past its peak. So its a bit ironic to create scenarios giving global warming and peak oil equal weight.

Also we aren't passive observers. We will all contribute actions that will shape the future. There are Green tech start ups in the works all the time. Financing for 100 million plus Green international developments are available.

New University programs in sustainable are being created. Public attitudes are changing.

Seems like all the other scenarios are what will happen if no one does anything, or in the case of brown tech, only elites.

I do think though that in the future having a pronounced lack of faith in human progress i.e. "faithlessness" will be seen as a character flaw.

It leads to bad self fulfilling propecies and also systems of domination. . Objectivism is dead. There is no "detached observer" the future is what you yourself make it.

And there is actually enough for everybody.

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