Reading about the growing “transition towns” movement back to back with a read-through of Design Philosophy Papers’ latest issue on Bataille and “Inefficient Sustainability” has gotten me thinking about some of the unspoken premises that make their way into environmentalists’ prognostications of the future.
The transition towns movement began in Totnes, England, home of the Schumacher Society, and was spurred into motion in part from permaculturist Rob Hopkins’ work on transitioning to a sustainable economy, but it has now spread to hundreds of towns, villages, cities, and regions in the UK, US, Ireland, Canada, and elsewhere. Drawing from permaculture founder David Holmgren’s modeling of energy transitions and associated crises, Eco-Mag’s Future Scenarios issue offers a particularly useful and concise synopsis of four possible futures, intended to be taken up in transition town salons and community forums and to help guide in the development of local transition plans and sustainability policies. The four scenarios are distinguished by differential rates of fossil-fuel energy decline (slow or fast) and of climate change symptoms (mild or severe) and by people’s responses to these changes. The general idea is that human use of oil and other fossil fuels is “peaking” and we need to transition toward more sustainable power sources, but that these aren’t readily available; they require more systematic social, political, technological, and economic changes than most are prepared to work toward; and any transition will be marked by the effects of climate changes already, to some extent, set in motion.
The four scenarios are “Brown Tech: Top Down Constriction”, where slow energy decline rates accompanied by severe climate change symptoms allow for aggressive “resource nationalism” and centralized government and corporate investment to prevail, but with wars and chaos looming in the background; “Green Tech: Distributed Powerdown,” where slow energy decline rates and mild climate change symptoms allow for greater diversity of responses at multiple scales, including strengthened “cultures of place”, distributed energy economies, and the like (this is perhaps a best-case scenario); “Earth Steward: Bottom Up Rebuild,” in which rapid energy declines but mild climate change symptoms bring about financial and economic shock, reduction of mobility, increases in crime, malnutrition, and disease, and a hollowing out of cities, but also the rise of a kind of quasi-feudal, neo-monastic ecodecentralism rising up in the ruins (akin to what Theodore Roszak described back in his 1970s Person/Planet); and “Lifeboats: Civilization Triage,” a kind of worst-case scenario where rapid energy decline accompanied by severe climate change leads to global breakdown, significant population decline, and the abandonment of cities, but with “oasis agriculture” and regional survivalism helped out by new opportunities — such as by the creation of “highly productive shallow waters and estuaries” in and around the “complex reef structures” made possible by urban architectures newly flooded in coastal lowlands around the world. (I love it.)