The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Four Scenarios for a Catastrophic Future (part one)

This post is contributed by a commenter of "The Seneca Effect" who signs it as "Rutilius Namatianus." It is the first of a series of three posts that re-examine the four scenarios proposed by David Holmgren in 2009. It is an interesting story and I am sure you'll find much food for thought in reviewing those old predictions which (unfortunately) seem to have been prophetic in several respects. We seem to live in a world of total madness but, in that madness, there is some method. (UB)

 By Rutilius Namatianus
This is the first section of Part 1 - written Nov 2019. In this first section I give a summary of Holmgren's famous "Future Scenarios". In the second half, I made a ten year reflection on them Finally, Part 2 will bring it up to today in 2021. (RT)
Ten years ago, David Holmgren brought out a thesis he titled 'future scenarios,'  wherein he laid out some reasoning for two main axes along which the next few decades could be characterized and developed four main scenarios which corresponded to the four general quadrants laid out by his axes of primary variables. 

His two major variables were the rate and severity of climate change,  and the rate of oil/energy/resource depletion. See his paper here,  where he laid down the following  scenarios: 

Slow/benign climate change, slow resource depletion 'green tech.' A scenario in which conditions remain stable enough and resources abundant enough to develop an organized and controlled descent to lower resource consumption and ultimately lower complexity, without falling into chaos. This is the solar power, wind farms, electric cars and tech future type of story that is being pushed hard by the propaganda machine of the 'establishment' during the past few years. 
Fast/harmful climate change, slow resource depletion: 'brown tech.' A scenario in which the situation gets more chaotic, more rapidly, where economic imbalances and breakdowns prevent a 'green' transition, and where instead the focus remains on extending the service life of existing energy sources in a top-down forced reduction in consumption. This scenario is characterized by pragmatic  totalitarianism, and gratuitous violence to control resources. If it is possible to consolidate power quickly, current societal structures can even hang on for some decades until they run out of the stores of high-quality energy embedded in leftover technology it can't reproduce. Then, society breaks down into a more decentralized post-tech picture.

Slow/benign climate change, fast resource depletion: 'earth stewards.'  A scenario where chaotic environmental conditions cause a rapid breakdown of large power structures, so that nobody can manage any sort of green tech build-out before things slip down the decline curve. The situation stabilizes at a salvage-tech society of highly localized cultures who, while they go through a huge decline in population and complexity and affluence, manage to catch a foothold in an eco-wholesome scenario characterized by permaculture, with most people working on farms in small polities - which might be more like the high middle ages than anything else.

fast/harsh climate change, fast resource depletion: 'lifeboat.'  A scenario where things are too rapidly evolving for any centralized power to hang on to a brown-tech regime very long or very effectively, and civilizations melts down in chaos until there are only scattered bits of structure left, living primitive farming, hunting/gathering, or scavenging cultures on whatever's left. Large regions are abandoned as unexploitable by anything by nomads and nomads make a big comeback. Population is probably lowest in this of all the 4 scenarios.

Holmgren also describes two general affinities among these scenarios, where 'green-tech' will overtime devolve towards 'earth steward' and where 'brown tech' will over time devolve towards 'lifeboat'. 

Now, that was in 2009. Ten years on, let's review his scenarios and how they have followed real events. In 2009, we suspected that oil had peaked recently. Without the redefinition of non-oil things as oil (the most extreme being corn ethanol and 'refinery gain' in US statistics!), it is clear now that conventional crude oil did peak in 2005. 

Oil plus not-really-oil peaked in 2008, and has held on a plateau in the decade since then. American production has risen dramatically while the rest of the world has seen stagnant or declining production, but all the American gain has been tight shale formations with extremely steep production/decline profiles. Such wells have a producing life of only five years or so, and the first wave of wells is already being shut down! 
More difficult to estimate, but certainly a real factor is the quality of this energy and the net energy available from it. In parallel to this development for oil, we have seen corresponding peaks in the gross quantity and net energy of coal production worldwide. That hit a peak around 2010 and has not broken though its plateau either- which means that net energy has been declining. So it seems pretty clear that the average supply of net energy peaked somewhere between 2005 and 2008.

Right on time, 2008 saw a huge crackup in the nervous system of the modern economy, as seen in the financial breakdown in that year. That was a major turning point that we can use to measure our progress in the Holmgren scenarios. 

Naturally a big question for all of us is "where are we along the curve of the Seneca cliff?". It looks simple enough when you plot a graph on paper, but when you're standing on the curve, it it a lot harder to figure out exactly where you are (until you've fallen off, at which point it might be too late to do anything about it!) 

In the next part we will look at my 2019 review of Holmgren's scenarios and propose a new angle of view of the situation.


  1. Very interesting piece - I look forward to subsequent parts!

    One of my favourite scenarios was the 1999 one by Robert Costanza - he was clever enough to give each scenario a catchy title which I hoped at the time would enter the public consciousness. Unfortunately it didn't.

    Right now, in the Covid era, it looks like a straight battle between Big Government and Mad Max.

    1. Clearer copy.

  2. Peak Oil Is Now Long Superseded and Put Behind - Long Live Emerging 21st Energy Physics...

    Up to the end of yesterday, the total Energy humans burned, since mass deforestation of Europe and America started, is colossally greater than the total Energy humans extracted and produced today*.

    Tomorrow, the total Energy in fossil fuels and others extracted and produced will be again less than all the Energy extracted, burned and produced before it...

    This is how the mindset of Peak Oil has been superseded since 2007, at the latest;

    Dr. David Rutledge of Caltech has iterated in no one occasion that this way of seeing fossil fuel reserves could be done in the 1940s, earlier or anytime later - given humans knew how Normalised Cumulative Curves can be calculated for hundreds of years.

    However, fossil fuels are so hypnotic, even Carnot, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Jevons, Keynes, Plank, Einstein, Hubert, governments, the UN, all international Energy agencies and thinktanks cannot escape fossil fuels supreme and dangerous influence on mind.

    Peak Oil [as the concept of describing the Energy problem in the world] is now long outdated...

    Long live 21st Century new Energy Physics - "Energy, like time, flows from past to future**,***".


    * This is true no matter when you land your calculation - when Newcomen's first steam engine implemented in 1712, Carnot seeded for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics in 1824, Jevons written his Coal Question in 1865, Hubert in 1956, ten years ago or tomorrow.

    ** The new relationship in Physics inspires that any human should confidently believe that the total Energy that has fallen in the hands of people in the past is invariably greater than the excess useful Energy they'll be able to utilise in the future - and this is well accordance with the essence of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

    ***This also inspires that most of fossil fuels were in fact extracted and burned simply to extract fossil fuels - an indication on how our Western Civilisation's social contract, efforts and history have always been mainly about controlling fossil fuels - exactly how we see Ant colonies march to gather food resources and little else competes with that central task.

  3. Ym... But... World energy consumption, according to International Energy Agency, increased from 100,914 TWh in 2010 to 113,009 TWh in 2017, of course that's mainly driven by great projects of China and India (recent universal electrification of villages, industrial growth, rapid urbanisation).

  4. Recently peer-reviewed and published research predicts population collapse from ecological collapse if we persist with business-as-usual. Fig 4 is the key diagram

  5. I recommend the previous poster's citation: