Brown Tech

Brown Tech: Top Down Constriction

The Brown Tech world is one in which the production of oil declines after a peak 2005-2010 at about 2% per annum and the subsequent peak and decline of natural gas is also relatively gentle, but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions.

In this scenario strong, even aggressive, national policies and actions prevail to address both the threats and the opportunities from energy peak and climatic change. The political system could be described as Corporatist or Fascist (which Mussolini described as a merger of state and corporate power).

Sea walls on the waterfront Havana Cuba destroyed by hurricans and concrete cancer. 2007 In the Brown Tech scenario aging urban coastal infrastructure combined with reducing government budgets lead to more natural disasters driven by increased storm frequency and intensity plus sea level rises of more than a metre per decade. In some areas huge investment is spent on new infrastructure to protect urban areas that have no long term prospects.

The tendency in existing systems for massive centralised investment by corporations and governments, give priority to getting more energy out of lower grade non-renewable resources (eg. tar sands, coal and uranium) and biofuels from industrial agriculture and forestry. “Breakthrough” technologies provide the constant promise of a better future but much of the investment in energy harvesting accelerates global warming, at least in the short term.

At the same time the cost of defending or replacing urban infrastructure threatened by storms and future sea level rise consumes more resources, while droughts and chaotic seasonal changes reduce food production from broadacre and small scale agriculture.

Petrochemical plant Altona Victoria 2003 In the Brown Tech scenario the petrochemical industry expands its use of low quality feedstocks such as heavy oil and coal with high prices and government incentives to maintain supplies of fuel, plastics and chemicals for essential industries and new infrastructure.

Flows of energy from more expensive sources such as tar sands, deep ocean oil, gas to liquids and coal to liquids slow the decline in fuels from crude oil. This transition requires a huge mobilisation of the technical and managerial capacity held mostly by global corporations, along with the financial, legal and military security that only sovereign governments can provide. This resource nationalism by government  break down free trade and the faith in international markets that underpins the global economy.42The failure of global trade negotiations at Cancun Mexico in 2003 to lock in global trade agreements can now be seen as the last desperate effort to maintain the fruits of globalisation for the corporations before the onset of resource nationalism.

Cultivation for large scale vegetable production Ventura California 2005 In the Brown Tech scenario increased aridity and unreliable water supplies reduces production of grains and other staples causing governments to give priority of fuel, fertiliser and technology for agribusiness to ensure food security for large urban populations. Demand for fruit and vegetables from centralised market systems declines due to increasing poverty and more self reliance from home and community gardens Some land previously growing high value horticultural crops for national and global markets is converted to production of grains and other staples.

By 2007, we had already seen the shift from a buyers to a sellers market for energy cascading through all commodities markets and reshaping geopolitical relations.43For example, Russia has being using the tight supply of gas and oil to enforce world prices on eastern European countries and in the process giving warning to western European countries about their vulnerabilities and dependence. Turning off the gas for even short periods has acted as a powerful enforcer. Similar actions by Argentina in cutting flows through new pipelines to Chile in response to shortages at home may force Chile to negotiate supplies from its old enemy Bolivia. The profits from both non-renewable resources and large scale industrial agriculture rise on the back of high commodity prices, reversing many of the economic patterns and trends of recent decades. The wealth of farmers and miners as well as corporations and nations in control of these resources increases even as depletion reduces the flows of resources and climate change causes chaos in farming and land management.

The demand for biofuels in affluent countries reduces world food stocks and raises prices to levels that result in famine and chaos in many poor countries unable to sustain subsidies for staple food.44An increasing amount of evidence suggests the explosion in biofuel production is a major factor driving grain prices higher and reducing world grain stocks. See for example work of Lester Brown at the World Watch Institute Washington USA. Also modelling by Stewart Staniford (Fermenting The Food Supply on The Oil Drum website, suggests that steeply rising oil prices can accelerate demand for biofuels to consume unlimited proportions of world grain production within 7 years leading to global famine on a massive scale. Without regulation by government, free and global markets will see motorists in rich countries outbid the global poor for food. In other countries, food riots by the poor force government to pay for escalating subsidies. The wealth left over for education, health etc. collapses. Wars to secure fuel and food increase and refocus public attention on external threats. In richer countries, consumer led economic growth falters or is actively shut down by government policies to focus limited resources on food, fuel and climate security. Some type of global economic depression unfolds from the combined effects of high energy and food prices, superpower contest, resource nationalism and the fragility of the financial system.

Rapid onset of climate change tends to support centralised nationalist systems for several reasons…

Rapid onset of climate change also tends to support centralised nationalist systems for several reasons. First the consequences of chaotic weather, food supply problems, radical land use change and abandonment of marginal land, leads to demands for strong government action to protect people from high food and fuel costs, natural disasters, the consequences of strong action by other nations, and mass migration by displaced people. Rates of urbanisation increase as climate change impacts and withdrawal of government supported services in more remote rural regions accelerates.

Banner in anti globalisation demonstration Melbourne 2000. “Permaculture: Local Solutions to Global Problems” In the Brown Tech scenario, Permaculture and other grass roots approaches to sustainable resource use remain relatively marginal to the dominant economic and political decision making.

A decline of the middle class already evident in many western countries accelerates leading to discontent and suppression by government including internment camps either for migrants or homeless people.45The very large but unused detention facilities built for the US government by the Halliburton corporation in several states of the USA raises questions about their likely use. Strong approaches to population control, even forced sterilization are introduced in some countries.

A series of short but intense international conflicts confirm major shifts in global power balances while accelerating resource depletion. Control of non-renewable fossil fuel and mineral resources remains critical, while the (relative) importance of distributed renewable wealth from agriculture and forestry continues to decline as the climate deteriorates especially in my home country of Australia where greater severity of droughts hit hard. With food supply under threat, fossil fuels and other resources are redirected from personal mobility and consumption to intensive factory farming in greenhouses and other controlled environments, mostly clustered around urban centres and managed by agribusiness corporations.

Desalination and other high energy ways to maintain water supply systems are built at huge cost and further increase demand for energy. The threat of sea level rises leads to large scale urban redevelopment driven by strong government policies. Some very bold initiatives for energy efficient medium density urban development and public transport infrastructure are funded. A key characteristic of this scenario is the sense of divide between the reducing numbers of “haves” dependent on a job in the “system” and the relatively lawless, loose but perhaps communitarian “have nots” with their highly flexible and nomadic subcultures living from the wastes of the “system” and the wilds of nature. Security of the “haves” is a constant issue with gated communities, and apartheid style townships and barrios for the “have nots”. While economic depression and reduction in consumption slow greenhouse gas emissions, the rapid expansion of strategic investment by government in new energy and urban infrastructure more than replaces the reduced private consumption, leading to a positive feedback loop that accelerates global warming.

Hillside barrio shanty town settlement) housing poor people in Caracas Venezuela 2007 In the Brown Tech scenario barrios around large cities continue to grow, absorbing rural migrants escaping worsening conditions for rural self reliance due to climate change and increased corporate takeover of land for food and biofuel production

While the elites continue to be driven by a commitment to super rationalist beliefs46Super rationalism in this context recognises the energetic/ecological basis of human systems without any recognition of higher values or consciousness typified by spiritual and ethical frameworks that constrain the exercise of power., a sense of hollowness and lack of purpose characterises the shrinking middle class, while fundamentalist religions and cults plays a stronger role in the lives of the working and unemployed classes partly through genuine reactions to the failures of modern humanism and partly manipulated by the elites to deflect anger and disenchantment. The Brown Tech scenario could be dominant and even more or less socially stable for many decades until ongoing climatic breakdown and reduced net energy return drive a shift to the Lifeboats scenario.

Top down constriction” summaries the essence of this scenario in that national power constricts consumption and focuses resources to maintain the nation state, in the face of deteriorating climate and reduced energy and food supply.

Image Gallery