Inevitably, with more than a decade’s hindsight, I recognise many of the forces and factors described in Future Scenarios have not developed as fast as expected, while many others that were in the background have come to the fore. Nevertheless, I still believe the evidence strongly suggests some form of energy descent future for humanity despite the much-heralded improvements and rollout of renewable energy. I also believe that the chance of more severe civilisation collapse scenarios has increased, even if the timeline for those is probably still outside the 40-year time frame I set back in 2007 for these energy descent scenarios to consolidate.
Further, I believe the depletion of conventional oil and other high net energy return energy resources, and climate chaos driven by fossil fuel burning, remain the two most fundamental drivers of these scenarios, even if many other factors – including finance, pandemics, and geopolitical conflict – might continue to be the more obvious expressions of the progressive breakdown of industrial civilisation. The remarkable and tragic shale oil boom in the US certainly deferred the peaking of “total liquids” if not conventional oil, leaving a legacy of accelerated greenhouse emissions, polluted landscapes and unpayable debt. That such massive and reckless waste of human and other resources, and financial capital, could occur is just one very clear symptom of the free money of the casino economy allowing the party of production and consumption to be pushed forward into global overshoot.
The follow-up essays mentioned in the Introduction represented a shift from a lifetime interest in the ecological and energetic basis of human societies, to a new focus on how money and politics – virtual cultural constructs – are shaping human destiny. This was partly in recognition that the virtual nature of finance and politics meant that they are faster acting than the slower but inexorable physical processes of resource depletion and climate change.
While pandemics only got a one-line mention in the text as part of the “Population” factor amongst others contributing to energy descent futures, the current circumstances show how unpredictable timing of predictable factors can trigger stepwise energy descent pathways. Simultaneously, systemic adaptations (such as the shale oil boom and, more generally, debt expansion) have allowed the powerful to maintain some version of business as usual. However these postponements reflect the original insights of the Limits To Growth modelling that recognised system response to bypass one specific limit simply amplifies another previously less critical limit. For example, extreme wealth accumulation by the few and ongoing collapse of the middle class in many countries may have reduced global consumption of oil and other critical resources, thus avoiding price spikes that would kill the economy. But discontent from the collapsing middle class leads to populist neofascist politics and conflict, currently unfolding most dramatically in the USA and Europe. Breakdown of social cohesion and trust in institutions consequently emerge as critical limits to growth.
Those interested in how my ideas and interests have developed since Future Scenarios, can further explore my writings at holmgren.org.au.