Four Energy Futures
Four broad energy scenarios provide a framework for considering the wide spectrum of culturally imagined, and ecologically likely, futures over the next century or more.
I’ve labeled these:
- Energy Descent and
Techno-explosion depends on new, large and concentrated energy sources that will allow the continual growth in material wealth and human power over environmental constraints, as well as population growth. This scenario is generally associated with space travel to colonise other planets.
Techno-stability depends on a seamless conversion from material growth based on depleting energy, to a steady state in consumption of resources and population (if not economic activity), all based on novel use of renewable energies and technologies that can maintain if not improve the quality of services available from current systems. While this clearly involves massive change in almost all aspects of society, the implication is that once sustainable systems are set in place, a steady state sustainable society with much less change will prevail. Photovoltaic technology directly capturing solar energy is a suitable icon or symbol of this scenario.
Energy Descent involves a reduction of economic activity, complexity and population in some way as fossil fuels are depleted. The increasing reliance on renewable resources of lower energy density will, over time, change the structure of society to reflect many of the basic design rules, if not details, of pre-industrial societies. This suggests a ruralisation of settlement and economy, with less consumption of energy and resources and a progressive decline in human populations. Biological resources and their sustainable management will become progressively more important as fossil fuels and technological power declines. In many regions, forests will regain their traditional status as symbols of wealth. Thus the tree is a suitable icon of this scenario. Energy Descent (like Techno-explosion) is a scenario dominated by change, but that change might not be continuous or gradual. Instead it could be characterised by a series of steady states punctuated by crises (or mini collapses) that destroy some aspects of Industrial culture.
Collapse6Some very influential authors such Joseph Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988) and Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005) use the term collapse to describe any ongoing reduction in complexity of the organization of civilisations. While their work is of great importance, I want to draw a distinction between what I mean by “Collapse” as the sudden failure and loss of most of the organisational complexity (such that succeeding generations retain little use or even memory of such systems) and “Descent” as a progressive if erratic process where the loss of complexity is gradual and succeeding generations have some awareness of, and knowledge from, that peak of complexity. suggests a failure of the whole range of interlocked systems that maintain and support industrial society, as high quality fossil fuels are depleted and/or climate change radically damages the ecological support systems. This collapse would be fast and more or less continuous without the restabilisations possible in Energy Descent. It would inevitably involve a major “die-off” of human population and a loss of the knowledge and infrastructure necessary for industrial civilization, if not more severe scenarios including human extinction along with much of the planet’s biodiversity.