Aaron Newton and I are starting out our first-ever Advanced Adapting-in-Place class, for people who have taken our previous course or who have been on the adaptation journey for a while. If you’d like to join us there are still spots available and world enough and time to join, so please email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, the first step in sorting out what you need to do to get ready for a shifting future is to have some sense of what that future looks like – or the range of possible ways the future could look.
There are a lot of possible ways to imagine the future. Unfortunately, most of the time we imagine only a few of them. Most Americans are caught up in the Klingons/Cylons distinction in ways that are destructive – the default assumption is a techno-utopianism that doesn’t take physical limits into account, and if they consider any other viewpoint, they assume that the alternative is an apocalyptic nightmare, a Mad-Max-style cartoon.
Neither of these is a likely outcome – we know that we are likely to experience unchecked climate change, energy depletion and economic instability related to both (and to a host of other factors) – there’s little doubt about all of those outcomes. But assuming that everyone will have a single utopian or dystopian experience stands against pretty much all historical evidence. That doesn’t mean no one’s life is ever ideal or disastrous – merely that that’s not generally where most experiences lie.
Because none of us has crystal balls, and none of us is perfect, it makes the most sense to plan for multiple possible scenarios, and thus to put our energies in the places that get us the most bang for our buck, the most resilience and best possible responses for the broadest *range* of possible scenarios. I’m going to list five scenarios that I think are possible, running from the most unlikely to the most likely, and then we can explore this question of what the future is going to look like, not from our single bet, but from the perspective of trying to maximize utility for multiple scenarios.
Now not only do I think we should be planning for multiple scenarios, but I think that different people at different times and places will EXPERIENCE different scenarios.
Some of this may be regional or national – different countries will certainly go different ways, and different bioregions almost certainly will as well. But it is perfectly possible for you and your neighbor to experience totally different realities in a time of collapse – think of the difference in the experience of ordinary Jews vs. ordinary Germans, or Hutu vs. Tutsi.
In the depths of the Depression there were still rich people. Right now there are hungry people in most of our neighborhoods – the experience of the crisis will vary dramatically. There will always be people who say “that wasn’t too bad” and those who are living unmitigated hell. My hope is that part of coming to understand what we’re facing means that none of my readers will allow their neighbors to live in that hell if they can help – that instead of waiting for the collapse of society to be universal, people will recognize that even if they are insulated, they are part of a moment.
But more practically, I hope people will recognize that there is very limited certainty about how each family or community will experience things. That is, it isn’t sufficient to look at the world scale or one previous history and say “this is how it will play out” – because it will play out differently for different people in different circumstances.
A single woman living alone with her kids in a neighborhood that experiences a lot of violence, or a member of an ethnic group that gets targetted may well find themselves cursing me for saying Mad Max wouldn’t happen. It probably won’t on a world scale, but that doesn’t mean no one will feel like they are living in a dystopia. At the same time, there will probably be people out there doing great who are cursing me for wasting their time on food storage and preparation . There will be no one universal experience, and it is a huge mistake to imagine that there will be.
Ok, here’s my list – yours may be different. I’ve named each scenario, a bit tongue in cheek, and discussed why I think them likely/not likely and what parts of them you really might want to think about.
1. “Fluffy bunnies, Utopia and the new Green Economy” Ok, there are two versions of this. The first one is the one where we find a magic new technology, implement it rapidly and head on down the street of the perfection of the human race, rolling our eyes at those stupid people who thought peak oil was a problem, and things just get better and better. This one is straight out impossible – it will not happen and we might as well get over it. Even if a major new energy source were found, the time to implementation for new technologies tends towards a 30 year time horizon, while even the more conservative resources, like the USGS suggests that crude oil peaks will happen in the next 10-15 years. Does that mean we’re facing an oil-less future? No, but the idea that price shocks and gaps in resources won’t be an issue is nigh-impossible. So too is the idea that we’ll brush through climate change without any trouble – we already aren’t.
The scenario that is *remotely* possible is that the some new energy or combination of resources comes along and it turns out that climate sensitivity isn’t quite as acute as it looks like, and we get to grind along, destroying the earth a little more (because even if we had more wind turbines, we’d still be an environmental disaster – we tend to forget this), and then get to defer the crisis for 10-20 years until the disastrous unintended consequences of *that* technology come home to roost, whatever they are. Historical evidence suggests that there will be some – we have never yet had a large scale techno-solution that didn’t create more problems than it generated, and while one is technically possible, I wouldn’t put my money on it in Vegas.
IMHO, the problem with this option is that it is a. unlikely and b. immoral – it puts the problem off on our kids. But it is technically possible, and I include it.
2. “Zombies with Uzis” – the next most unlikely possible scenario I can think of is the Mad Max, complete unravelling of society with massive die-off. I find this unlikely for a host of reasons, which I’ve discussed many times before. There is simply no historical evidence for the universal world crisis, in which billions die quite rapidly and everyone who survives retreats to their bunker to fight it out with the zombies. What is flat-out impossible, barring massive meteor strikes or something is the idea that everyone might have this experience uniformly. On the other hand, a government that authorizes the zombies (not literally of course) and gives them uzis is not so terribly improbable, I’m afraid.
There are plenty of non-zombie versions of this scenario out there – societies that have descended into violent chaos for a time – often an extended time. And there are plenty of examples of societies in which targetted groups have this experience for a very long and terrible time. I think it is foolish to deny the possibility that your world could descend for a time into chaos and violence, or to avoid commonsense preparations for such a scenario – including community organizing, basic self-defence and security measures and political organizing to resist pressures to target victim groups. What I think is most likely, however, is that these problems will be local, regional or national, but not world-scale.
3. “Wait a Minute, Weren’t Things a Lot Better Once?” – I actually consider this one fairly unlikely, simply because we already seem to have skipped over slow grind. Had you asked me a few years ago, this probably would have been my most likely scenario, but I think while present trends may not be the best possible predictor of the future, they are probably better than many other tools we use to predict the unpredictable. And many of those tools – for example Jeffrey Brown’s export-land model – suggest that the rapidity of our decline may be greater than we expected.
This scenario would involve us slowly and steadily getting poorer, having less energy, and getting warmer, and potentially losing political power as well. Instead of dramatic single events, there would never be one thing that we could point to as “the” moment it all went to hell. We just woke up one day and realized things were bad, and getting worse. In a way, this might describe our present – but it seems optimistic to me to imagine that the rate of decline will never increase.
I suspect that right now, things feel like a slow grind to many Americans who still don’t see the current situation as one whole problem – the confluence of our fossil fuel crises (too much (climate change) and not enough (depletion)) and our economic crises (in part driven by too much fossil fuels (our insane ideas of endless growth) and not enough (rising prices, housing collapse, etc…)). But in fact, things are unravelling quite quickly in a historic sense. It all depends on how you look at it, of course, but I think we’ve moved past slow, and there are solid indications that change is actually going faster than we perceive it.
4. “Certain Stars Shoot Madly from their Spheres” I still consider this scenario substantially less likely than #5, but I’ve had to move up “an event of some magnitude occurs and things change fairly rapidly” to 4. The scenario I’m most concerned about has to do with geopolitics – I can think of several things that could result in a very drastic reduction in energy availability – and I’m guessing after Middle Eastern Spring most of us could conceive a scenario or two ourselves. Of course, you can go nuts listing all the crappy things that can possibly happen – meteor strike tsunami, currency collapse, megavolcano, the sun goes dark, night of the comet ;-)…but the thing is, it isn’t just that lots of things, some more probable than others can happen – we’re creating scenarios in which these things are enabled. We are working hard at making them more likely with the political climate we live in, rapidly accelerating climate change, etc… etc…. Every statistical analysis suggests that disasters of every kind are striking more frequently – because we are enabling them. And while comparatively few of these disasters affect everywhere at once, I am constantly reminded of the World 3 scenarios run The Limits to Growth team which pointed out that what happens isn’t that X factor causes a problem -what happens is that we run out of the ability to cope with new pressures. I think it is possible that we are not very far from the ability of the system to cope.
It is worth noting that a major event will likely eventually subside into one of the other scenarios, quite possible #3, but it is also worth giving this its own arena simply because very rapid changes that then subside into another scenario often mean that broken things don’t get fixed at all – so we imagine “X scenario with Y region still underwater” or “Z scenario, but with a vastly greater rate of depletion.”
5. “Ordinary Human Poverty- The Great Depression, Plus Climate Change, Plus Peak Oil” – Kunstler has a better name for this of course, but my version doesn’t have asian pirates in it, and in my version, not all southerners are dumber than Jethro Clampett ;-). Seriously, this is my bet. And I don’t think I’m in the minority here – I think what we’re facing is a massive, probably worldwide economic depression, a very extended one from which the magic of fossil fuels will not lift us back into growth.
I think we are facing using a lot less energy without the money and resources to make that easy on anyone. We are likely to see large scale unemployment, lots of poverty, people unable to meet very basic needs, and a very mixed level of response – some places doing better than others at helping people, some places essentially on their own, some places becoming very violent or unsafe, some places doing better – rather like the world we live in now, where some places are violent and some aren’t, hunger is increasing, access to basic necessities going down….
This is the scenario I believe in – the one where the grid may or may not go down, but you won’t notice anyway because the power company turned out the lights months ago, when you couldn’t pay, the one where to pay the mortgage you have two other families in your house, and 11 people sharing the bathroom. That is, this is the reality for most of the world, and I think it will be our reality.
What about you? What do you view as the likely outcome of our collective ecological crisis?