Future Scenarios: Mapping the Cultural Implications of Peak Oil and Climate Change

Press Release from Eat The Suburbs: The Australian co-founder of the permaculture concept David Holmgren has today launched a new global scenario planning website, Future Scenarios: www.FutureScenarios.org.

future scenarios title

Holmgren says his future scenarios will help both policy makers and activists come to terms with the end of the era of growth.

peak oil and climate change logo

While the end of growth is so unthinkable to many policy makers and economists that they use the term ‘negative-growth’, Holmgren says we are already entering a generations-long era of ‘energy descent.’ We now face less and less available energy each year, coupled with a destabilised climate.

“The simultaneous onset of climate change and the peaking of global oil supply represent unprecedented challenges for human civilisation. Each limits the effective options for responses to the other,” writes Holmgren on www.futurescenarios.org.

Holmgren uses a scenario planning framework to bring to life the likely cultural, political, agricultural and economic implications of peak oil and climate change.

“Scenario planning allows us to use stories about the future as a reference point for imagining how particular strategies and structures might thrive, fail or be transformed,” says Holmgren

Future Scenarios depicts four very different futures. Each is a permutation of mild or destructive climate change, combined with either slow or severe energy declines. Scenarios range from the relatively benign Green Tech to the near catastrophic Lifeboats scenario.

Brown Tech

“Many futurists are looking at Facebook, robot pets and other i-fads, whereas David has been studying a much bigger picture. He works from the fundamental resource and environmental constraints, and I’m convinced that he’s got his assumptions right where others have them very wrong. He has followed through with unusual insight, drawing on 30 years of permaculture thinking, which I would say makes him the most important futurist in the world right now,” said Adam Grubb founder of Energy Bulletin (www.energybulletin.net.)

Green Tech

“These aren’t two dimensional nightmarish scenarios designed simply to scare people into environmental action. They are compellingly fleshed out visions of quite plausible alternative futures which delve into energy, politics, agriculture, cultural and even spiritual trends. They help us reconcile our own competing fears and hopes for the future, and to consider the best strategies for adapting to a changing world,” says Grubb.

Earth Stewardship

Holmgren says “we will need resilience and adaptability in the face of radical change.”

‘Energy Descent’

Holmgren coined the term ‘energy descent’ in 2005 as a less negatively loaded way than ‘decline’ or ‘collapse’ for describing a future defined by constantly diminishing energy production.

“I chose the word ‘descent’ because it implies a long and sustained process through which it is possible to survive and even thrive. While energy descent does suggest the demise of globalised industrial civilisation, that process will play out over many decades, if not centuries. For individuals, households, organisations and communities focused on socially and ecologically adaptive design, energy descent is as much an opportunity as an obstacle. Realistic assessment of the larger forces at work in the world helps empower us to better refine our strategies.”

About Permaculture

Permaculture is an environmental design framework modelled on the patterns and relationships found in nature, yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.

About David Holmgren


Holmgren co-wrote the first permaculture text Permaculture One in 1976 with Bill Mollison (published in 1978). With his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability David re-emerged from the relative shadows as the leading intellectual force of the permaculture movement. Rob Hopkins, founder of the popular Transition Towns initiatives in the UK, described Principles and Pathways as “the most important book of the last 15 years.”

David, his partner Su Dennett, and their son Oliver live at ‘Melliodora’ a small permaculture demonstration property in central Victoria, Australia where they are self sufficient in fruit, vegetables and animal products and provide most of their own energy needs.

Futher info:

David Holmgren
+61 3 5348 3636

I've spent the last few hours reading through almost everything on the site and it has one of the best explanations of energy descent issues and possible responses I've seen, bringing together information from many sources plus some of his own recent analysis that I've not seen elsewhere.

I'd recommend having a strong drink to hand before reading section 3.4 on Net Energy Return. Snip: "… net energy return from fossil fuels including coal will decline so that the above calculation of humanity having about 40% of current net energy by 2050 may still be optimistic. A new evaluation of the net energy return of gas production in North America using a methodology developed by Cleverland and Costanza suggests net energy return is in the process of a collapse so severe that gas production in Canada will effectively fall to almost nothing by 2014 and that similar results apply to US production. The implications of some of this information is so shocking that the naïve and simplistic idea that we are running out of oil and gas (rather than just peaking in production) may be closer to the truth than even the most pessimistic assessments of peak oil proponents a decade ago." I had not thought of him as a doomer and he probably doesn't think of himself as one now, but it's a pretty bleak assessment.

Watch the percentage drop to zilch when it comes time to decide where to put the thing :D

Haha exactly!

Did work experience once as a urban planner through uni it has to be the most frustrating job at times. So many people I met theoretically support all kinds of developments that may be useful for a post peak economy, such as in-fill development, rezoning, nuclear energy and even things as simple as later services on public transport. But as soon as they get wind of something that may effect them the very same people are vehemently against and prepared to start a rally.

The record hypocrite holder was the Town of Daylesford, there was a council meeting and the community was outraged that the council had never provided anything for the kids to do and they voted it top priority. So under instruction from council we proposed a skate park and play area, then the very same people kept fighting and fighting, pushing the location further and further to the outskirts of town, with lamo excuses like "oh it wont fit the area", "i'm scared of the increased crime it will bring" (pop 2,000 country town, not suburban Detroit). They suceeded in getting it so far from the Town center that it never got used at ALL, partly as there wasnt even so much as a paved footpath/road going out that far yet, and the kids wanted to stay in the town center anyway.

Grrr...!!!! so hard to make community based decisions, when so many people are blatant hypocrites! Especially when many of these decisions will be VERY VERY important for a post peak city (density, mass transit etc). This is what planners are up against, (in my country anyway). Main Issue is Density, if i could just get NIMBY's to admit they are pro sprawl thats one thing but to have them say "oh im all for density, just not this development its innapropriate" over and over even when its the most appropriate development since someone gaffa taped Paris Hilton's mouth shut. I think Bernie Ecclestone said once that Democracy doesnt work, i never thought i would say this but very very occasionally I have to agree.

(apologies for the anecdote (rant) day im having today)

Sure - 36% will consider nuclear power and then say no once they've understood the drawbacks.

I imagine if you asked the population "have you ever considered killing yourself ?" you'd get an affirmative answer from quite a large number of people too..

Meanwhile, another small, green country is also looking to go 100% renewables and avoid nuclear power entirely as well:


Here's another beauty, describing the massive cleanup cost for one reactor in the UK.


Apparently waste from some of the used fuel rods was accidentally pumped into the sea during the 1980s - how careless of them !

I'm sure nothing like that could ever happen again if we went and built thousands of nuclear reactors - unlike UK sites full of plutonium back in the 1980s, we have tight security everywhere nowadays...

On the plus side, the locals are now getting into tidal power - an industry of the future.

Which site are you talking about?
TOD or the Permaculture site?
Have you got a link to the reference you give - it would make things a lot easier.

If the analysis by Cleverland and Constanza that Holmgren mentions is correct, presumably it implies that within a few years gas importing countries will be engaged in the same sort of furious bidding war for LNG imports that we are now seeing for oil imports. Likely the impact on prices will be similar - a several-fold increase in a very few years.

Now wait just a gosh-durned minute!

"A new evaluation of the net energy return of gas production in North America using a methodology developed by Cleverland and Costanza suggests net energy return is in the process of a collapse so severe that gas production in Canada will effectively fall to almost nothing by 2014..."

I've been counting on that Canadian nat gas to ramp up tar sands output to make up for Mexico's decline in net exports!

Does this mean I'll have to "make other arrangements", and soon?

Errol in Miami

A new evaluation of the net energy return of gas production in North America using a methodology developed by Cleverland and Costanza suggests net energy return is in the process of a collapse so severe that gas production in Canada will effectively fall to almost nothing by 2014 and that similar results apply to US production.

GailTheActuary ran a piece on the TheOilDrum not long ago showing flat or growing NatGas production in North America over the next 15 years via unconventional production, particularly "Tight Gas".

The reference Holmgren gives for this view of declining North american gas ERoEI is http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3673, a guest article by Jon Friese, posted by Nate Hagens on 27 Feb this year. Friese's conclusion: "The natural gas industry has clearly been mounting a heroic effort to keep natural gas production on plateau in North America. This effort has raised costs dramatically. The EROI of Canadian production shows a rapid decline. Drilling statistics suggest a similar EROI decline is happening in the US. The falling EROI makes it impossible for natural gas production to maintain both low costs and current levels of production. It is clear that most of the reserves in the official forecast will never be developed."

Yeah production can grow or stay the same with declining eroi.. net energy return isn't production

Coincidentally I just finished posting a 'scenario' blog at Question Everything. Mine tends to be a little on the doom side simply because it seems to me that the rate of events regarding peak oil (energy), lack of scalable replacements, and foreboding climate calamities, esp. droughts and runaway CO2 and methane emissions are accelerating faster than I would have guessed, even a year ago. Maybe it's just me but I tend to pay attention to rates of change, especially acceleration.

In any case, this kind of site is exactly what we need to get people thinking. Now if only we could get the presidential candidates to read these things and start speaking truth. What an idea!



I think your scenario is quite likely actually -its the Law of receeding Horizons / Eroi decline.

Have a look at my revised PO Timeline:
(I based the timeline around PO: ~2012 and US/UK Gas Crisis: ~2013...)

...and a read of my "Peak Oil Joining The Dots":

Regards, Nick.

George - Thanks for the post on your site. Very Plausible.

I think the ultimate future is what the site called "Techno- Stability".

The question in my mind is whether or not we can get to techno-stability in the next couple of decades, or will it take a century or two of a post-industrial dark age before we finally get our act together.


or use the ShareThis link at the bottom of the story for Reddit, Digg and StumbleUpon.

a few little clicks makes a big difference :-)

Although there is no doubt a lot of valuable practical information among what Holmgren has to say, I think a considerable number of people will be strongly put off by his use of loaded language that strongly reflects a world view in which nature is "good" and we are "evil". Maybe it's just my own reaction against his somewhat mythical terminology (I think "Earth Stewards" belong in the Lord of the Rings rather than in documents intended to persuade current governments and planning authorities) but as a consequence the tone at times seems quite condescending and therefore alienating. I bought a copy of his main permaculture reference text a little while ago with the intention of gaining at least a rudimentary understanding of the underlying principles. However, even when I remind myself to try to ignore the biased terminology, I can only stomach small portions at a time. Hopefully later chapters will get better in this regard as they seem to be more concerned with specific applications... If the objective of his work is to inform and convince as many as possible, and offer working solutions, it might be helpful to use a more matter of fact style, if need be via another writer to allow a greater degree of objectivity.


I find your observations quite counter to my own. Permaculture is sometimes criticised within the environmental movement as being human-centric. Certainly David doesn't think in simplistic terms that 'nature is "good" and we are "evil"' or seem particularly moralistic in general. At least I've never got impression. He thinks nature is wonderous, and that humans have a lot to learn from it. The aim of permaculture is in many ways to break down the nature/us divide by emulating the patterns of nature and integrating ourselves into new functional ecosystems that work for us. (Which may involve things like fences, buildings, pv cells, hammocks, ducks, cows, earth movers or whatever is appropriate to your situation.) The core permaculture ethics are 'care for earth, care for people, distribute the surplus'.

On trying to avoid 'loaded' terms, we are trying to save our arses here. We need to feel sometimes. David I would characterise as quite thoughtful with his terminology, to the point of not being very emotive sometimes. So I get a fairly different impression from you. I guess we must have quite different standards or sensitivities here.

I assume you are talking about this: Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

I struggled through this book and ended up reading it three times to try to absorb what Holmgren was saying. I have to say that it was one of the most enlightening books I have ever read (Stephen Coveys 7 Habits being the other) and inspired me to view much of my daily activities in a new light. I had the preconcieved idea that permaculture was all about gardeing and growing food but after reading the book, I realised that it was about so much more.

Holmgrens writing style can be somewhat boring becasue of the way that each idea is presented in such an academic and systematic way, that it feels like one big monologue. You do have to take it in small chunks and that is one of the principles of the book, Take small slow steps. After I understaood this principle and slowed down my reading of the book, it actually helped.

I also have to say that I found much hope and persoanl happiness in reading this book, as opposed to the doom laden manifestos that i seem to be addicted to reading here on TOD.

Interestingly, Rob Hopkins of the Transition Towns movement once told me he sees his role as making the ideas and writings of the likes of Holmgren, Fleming and Heinberg more accessible, and actually trying to apply them.

I myself am still struggling to finish Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, a couple of years after first meeting Rob and being told what essential reading it is! You've given me a new burst of motivation.

Incidentally, I haven't much examined it yet, but I believe David Holmgren was also behind the recently launched http://www.permacultureprinciples.com/, which aims to be clearer

The sparse interest in this thread about Permaculture and intelligent big picture thinking reveals the problem starkly - most folks on the oil drum are looking for magic bullets and techno fixes. But the obvious answer is permaculture, which when measured by sane (sustainable) criteria, is far more "productive" than industrialized agriculture! I'm sick of mainstream monoculture, the ironically named "green revolution" being considered more productive than natural methods just because all the destroyed topsoil, fertilizer runoff caused Dead Zones in the ocean, ocean acidification, etc., etc., are not taken into the equation! Natural polyculture is much more resilient and productive than chemical monoculture when you consider how the latter destroys the planet while the former rebuilds it. "Earth Stewardship" - just not technological enough for all the techno-worshippers, yet permaculture is real progress, not the fake unsustainable kind "the green revolution" has given us: a population explosion that concomitantly destroys the sustainability of the world's ecosystems!

Are permaculture and "techno-fixes" really mutually exclusive ?

Do you think solar panels and wind turbines are a step backwards ? Is it possible that permaculture could become widespread while at the same time people switch to clean energy sources ?

They're not mutually exclusive at all.

Taking away the jargon, permaculture is a system of design which aims to have us adapt ourselves to the local environment, rather than adapting the local environment to us.

So that putting a solar panel on a house in the Shetland islands would be poor design from a permaculture point of view, while putting up a wind turbine, good design, and the reverse true for Kalgoorlie. Trying to grow rice in tabletop NSW and wheat in far north Queensland poor design, and the reverse would be good. Putting in airconditioning is generally a bad idea, and having a wide porch to keep the sun out, vents for cycling air through just by convection through a good idea.

The system aims to have things complement each-other, work together. So if you have a tall plant which needs lots of sun and a short plant which needs shade, you put the little one under the big one. Much the same gets done with home design.

It's not all that complicated. It's just a system which instead of designing for being cheap in money but expensive in energy and resources, aims at cheap in energy and resources - it may be cheap or expensive in money.

It's common sense stuff, really, not just for drugged-out hippie communists.

The sparse interest in this thread about Permaculture and intelligent big picture thinking reveals the problem starkly - most folks on the oil drum are looking for magic bullets and techno fixes.

BZZZZT! Thank you for playing.

For one to have an interest in permaculture - one must have land to grow things on. And that land should be able to grow things other than say, jackpine.

"MY" land is in a city 50 feet by 100 feet, with a house on top of that. Clay soil. Adding close to 10 tons of organic matter over a 3 foot depth has helped. It has went from brown to black.

The parents land is in ag-zone 3 - all sand. Clay some 30 feet down. Lots of deer - 40 at a time at the 'deer feeder' in winter. So tell me - what food trees will survive the cold and not be tasty to deer?

(Not posting or showing interest in a thread does not mean it is not important. It may very well mean that permaculture is just not a good option for what one has.)


Permaculture is a broad design system, not a prescriptive 'put gardens everywhere' approach. That said, your backyard with all that organic matter sounds like a good growing environment. I live on a smaller block than you and we've just planted out enough garden beds to provide for all of our fresh vegetable needs. Resources are concentrated in cities, so you use them to build organic matter on your difficult soils.

Also there are strategies for keeping wildlife from establishing trees. Eg. tree guards. And/or guns if you want to harvest meat.

None of the problems you mention are worse than those permaculturists are often dealing with. In fact early permaculture strategies were initially developed specifically to help back-to-the-landers who had purchased marginal land, as that was all they could afford.

I would say this video might overstate the case that we can 'green the desert' on the large scale, but very much worth a watch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sohI6vnWZmk

I don't really understand what permaculture is? I lived with people who professed to practicing it and I still didn't get it?

Energy descent and mitigation/adaption strikes me as a rather difficult multi-threaded problem and solution to grasp, especially a all encompassing understanding from the personnel through to society level.

The feeling I got was Permaculture in uninformed hands was treated psychological exactly like a magic bullet. Maybe I git that wrong

I think growing stuff in your back garden is ok but I did find it odd that they didn't grasp we still needed to buy food as our urban garden even if completely turned over for food production wasn't going to support 5 adults and a child.

not that the produce wasn't welcome or tasty delicious you understand. the tomatoes were very good indeed and the volume was quite impressive.

perhaps there was more to it than I experienced as they both flew off on a sabbatical trip to India and Australia via some permaculture settlement after a year.


Permaculture is a design philosphy. That philosphy is: Design in harmony with nature (whether that's Nature like the carrying capacity of Earth or nature like human nature).

Mollison and Holmgren first applied permaculture to agriculture, but it can (and should) be applied to just about everything: urban design, farmsteads, office space, whatever. I got my permaculture design certification in 2004 and it's been a powerful tool for organizing and designing lots of things.

The three core concepts of permaculture are: Care of people, care of planet, reinvest the surplus. Permaculture's toolkit includes many, many things: zoning, polycultures, stacking functions, planning for sectors, thoughtful and protracted observation, etc.

Brock Dolman, one of my permaculture teachers, says, "Do what you can with what you have." To me, that is the core of the philosphy. If you have two square feet of garden, grow herbs. If you have 200 acres, grow forest (if the climate is right). Do what works in the long run.

Yes I have heard this sort of description before but was slightly confused.

When we look at the spread of land available to people what estimates are thee for its potential productivity?

do we have any guesstimates on the over all impact permaculture could have at varying degrees of uptake?


I think many people are interested in Permaculture. I'm currently setting up an organic micro-farm and so have a natural interest. However, every time I see something about Permaculture it seems to be about courses, holidays, certification, reaching policy makers, philosophy, saving suburbia, books, techno-fixes, etc. Where's the freaking organic low-tech techniques that I can apply? Its beginning to look increasingly like some kind of cult or political lobbyist organisation.

Trying to produce food organically on a commercial scale (that is feed your family and sell enough surplus to cover modest living costs) is very difficult and the fact is there are very few actually doing it. The majority of people involved seem to be mainly promoting it and/or doing it part time while relying on conventional incomes.

It's not going to feed the World and I don't care what quantity of analysis is produced to say the opposite. The human race is in deep deep trouble and getting policy makers on the Permaculture or Organic bandwagon will not help. Even those people on TOD, with all the knowledge they have on the situation, cannot for the most part change how they live in any meaningful way.

It's not going to feed the World and I don't care what quantity of analysis is produced to say the opposite.

If your mind's closed to all inputs of new information, I suggest you log off information sites like this one and stick to surfing for pr0n.

Oh! My mind is open for new inputs, its constantly busy sifting through an ever growing heap of new inputs for something useful.

I've been reading TOD for many years and started preparing for our troubled future even before then. My conclusion is that we're in deep trouble with little in the way of solutions. We're on our own and if you haven't started your own preparations yet, do so, don't rely on anyone else to get you through it.

What are your preparations BTW?

Well, first you say, "It's not going to feed the World and I don't care what quantity of analysis is produced to say the opposite", then you say, "my mind is open for new inputs", so decide: are you willing to listen to what people have to say, or not?

Unlike many TODers (judging from the responses to this article) I don't believe there'll be an overnight collapse with hordes of cannibalistic surburbanites charging forth from the cities to rape and pillage, and therefore haven't prepared for it. On the other hand I've prepared for more difficult times of reduced reliability of supply of necessities in various ways which you'll find on my blog.

I don't believe Permaculture or Organic Farming can feed the World (even though I'm deeply committed to organic methods), but, my real interest is in feeding my family, plus say another 100 or so people. In a self sustaining way, including some degree of income. I'm always prepared to listen to ways in which this can be achieved.

I don't subscribe to the "mad max" view of collapse nor to the "business as usual" but by other means view either. Maybe the "failure" of civilisation rather than collapse would be a better term. Anyway, rapid change with little or no mitigation leading to massive disruption is what's likely over many years/decades. The main drivers being financial collapse, Climate Change and energy descent.

Your blog is?

Kiashu's blog is :


I think you can feed everyone using organic methods, if you feel like it :


When you click on the person's name here, you'll often find they've put a link in their profile to some webpage, as I did.

But there's isn't just Climate Change and energy descent, there's also economic collapse which for the main part is independent of the other two. Also, economic collapse is likely to hit first, effectively paralysing any response to the twin effects of climate and energy crises.

Anyway, not to prejudge, I'll go and have a more extensive read :)

Yes, I've just reached Holgrem's chapter on collapse, in which he says:

I don’t want to underplay the possibility of a total and relatively fast global collapse of complex societies that we recognise as civilisation.....A more realistic assessment of the possibilities and adaptive responses to the Collapse long term scenario is only possible after a deep and nuanced understanding of the diverse possibilities and likelihoods of the Energy Descent long term scenario.

On the one hand, he is correct: when people jump straight to collapse, they will tend to miss the things that can be done to mitigate it and some people will become defeated. On the other hand, my impression thus far is that Holgrem is committed to creating a future that doesn't include the worst elements of collapse, perhaps at the expense of what I would call a "more realistic" point of view.
I've come across many, many people who are "locked out" of the concept of collapse. They raise all sorts of rationalizations and justifications because, I believe, collapse is too confronting for them to contemplate. I will hear anything except, "Yes, collapse is a definite possibility."
Admittedly, it's a difficult cloth Holgrem is weaving: acknowledge enough of the "bad bits" so that people are thinking clearly as he works in the "good bits."
Nevertheless, as you point out Burgundy, this far into his thesis he has not yet mentioned economic collapse. With the U.S. (and the world) in a massive credit bubble resulting in $48 trillion in U.S. private debt alone (credit card, mortgage, business debt — more than 3 times the GDP of the whole U.S. economy), and oil being removed from the system that would allow that debt to be paid back, it's difficult for me to see this ending in any way other than extremely, extremely poorly. From my perspective, by not working economic collapse into his worldview, Holgrem is missing a critical element in the thinking necessary for individuals and societies to prepare.
I too will read more and post again.

Financial Instability

The accelerating growth and concentration of debt and financial assets especially in the housing and derivatives markets is destabilising the global economy. The virtual impossibility that future growth in the real economy could ever be large enough to justify those debts and assets suggests a major and enduring economic contraction in the near future. Alternatively we may see the financial crisis in the USA trigger a collapse similar to that which happened in the Soviet Union resulting in completely new global power and economic systems.


While I like GreenTech, I'm afraid that EarthSteward is probably about the best that we can realistically hope for. Lifeboats are almost our worst nightmare (it actually could get quite a bit worse even than that); I'm hoping that we can dodge that bullet, but it is going to be a close-run thing. BrownTech is what TPTB would like, I suppose, but I suspect that their plans will be rendered futile due to events beyond their control. They might very well make it more likely that we end up with Lifeboats than EarthSteward, though.