How to Read This Blog


To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.

Friday, December 30, 2016

LPS 1: Introduction to the Local Planning Series

Having completed our series on events and alternatives at the planetary level, it is now time to explore alternatives at the local scale.

The Importance of "Localism"

One of the recurring themes in the World Planning Series is the incredible inertia inherent in global industrial civilization and the extreme unlikelihood of directly altering its course.  At smaller scales, however, there remains a much greater possibility of pursuing dramatically different courses of action and potentially arriving at different results.  While the economic, environmental, political and social conditions dictated by global industrial civilization will have tremendous impact on local conditions, there still remains the option for local communities to prepare and react to those conditions in different ways.

As we have seen, the collapse of industrial civilization powered by fossil fuels will inevitably result in the breakdown of large, complex organizations of humans into smaller social groups like those we initially evolved to participate in.  This holds true whether we follow the Most Likely Alternative path and accelerate consumption of resources and growth of complexity, or whether we elect a "Transition" approach and attempt to intentionally deconstruct civilization as it collapses.  At the tail end of collapse, all remaining humans will be functioning at very localized levels, where power and control only extend as far as one can travel.

It stands to reason that a prudent populace would be best served by making preparations at the local level, regardless of what is happening at the national and global scale.  We would expect that those who have the good fortune of living in areas that have made better preparation for a collapse environment will fare better and live more comfortably than those areas that are poorly prepared.  Naturally, these efforts could be greatly assisted if the world followed the Transition approach and aggressively allocated resources to building local resilience, but we cannot expect that this will be the case.

A New Vision

Here we encounter a similar precondition to success that we encountered in the Epilogue to the World Planning Series:  to arrive at different outcomes at the local level, we will need to assume a different vision and different objectives from the BAU path.  We can no longer focus on just today, we have to approach our activity as if we were time travelers. DeLorean Time

What I mean is that we have to project ourselves into the future and imagine ourselves living in a post-collapse environment.  Then, we must work backwards and think, "What can we do today that will provide those future people with what they need to survive?"  In a way, this becomes the new vision: maximizing the survivability and quality of life of people living in our location in the future.

To achieve our vision we will develop an action plan not based on our current needs and desires but rather the projected needs and desires of our future selves.  As wise and benevolent benefactors of these future people, we have the opportunity to use our cheap and abundant energy today to leave treasures of immense value tucked away for their use.

At the end of the day what this means is that we have to actually plan, instead of just drawing a trend line of our past success and growth into the future and calling that "the plan."  This way is much more difficult, but is clearly the only model that makes sense when the future no longer reflects past trends.  This series will attempt to explore this perspective and provide a blueprint for local communities that elect to truly position themselves to weather the dangerous times approaching us.

Defining the Study Area

One of the challenges we will face in this series is that local planning processes are highly dependent on the unique geographic, economic, demographic, and climatic conditions that define the study area.  For our purposes, we want to keep this exercise abstract and general enough to be translatable to many different circumstances, but not so abstract that it loses bearing on the real physical world around us.

To help address this challenge, we will define a study area that is an abstraction based on real places with characteristics that are common to many population centers in different regions.

Panels show the evolution of American suburbs.

Our study area will be a mid-sized American town (perhaps 100,000-250,000 people).  This town serves as a regional center of sorts, but there is a much larger major city (million+ population) 50-100 miles away.  The town is located near sources of fresh water (rivers, streams, or lakes).  The local economy is diversified, with a mix of blue and white collar jobs.  Perhaps there is a university in town, or at least a substantial community college.  A few major employers are in the area, with factories and offices where they produce mostly high tech products, with little real heavy industry.  The town has a mix of neighborhoods, from extremely wealthy gated subdivisions to run-down areas of historically oppressed minority populations.

Various natural resources are available within a fairly short distance (forests, some oil and natural gas wells, maybe an abandoned coal mine): but nothing of state or national significance like major mining operations.  Aside from the city population itself, there is a fair amount of suburban/exurban development on the fringes of the community.  Beyond these suburbs, there is farmland, both in smaller plots as well as large commercial operations.  Some infrastructure is in place for getting around by foot, bicycle, or bus, but the vast majority of the town is automobile dependent.  Large swaths of land are taken up by wide roads and parking lots.  The climate is generally agreeable under current conditions, with a few very hot months in summer and a few months of bitter cold in winter.  There is some possibility of natural disaster which we might expect to be exacerbated by climate change in the future.

These are some of the general characteristics that define many hundreds of unique places in the US (or in many other countries in fact).  While we may take some artistic license with the particulars, this is how we will define the study area for this exercise.  Obviously, our recommendations and observations will be different than if we were studying New York City, or Podunk, Alabama, but those highly urban or highly rural locations are really the exceptions and not the rule.  Our mid-sized city model ensures wide transfer-ability.

Organization of this Series

Roughly, I anticipate this series to include the following topic areas.  As this is an evolving process, we may discover the need to add or remove subject areas as we proceed.  By now, these general steps in the planning process should be familiar to the reader:

Inventory of Existing Conditions: specifically with an eye towards what may be useful in the future.

Projection of Future Conditions: what will things look like in our little community in 10, 20, or 30 years?

Development of Alternatives: what approaches are available to us to prepare for that future?

Alternatives Evaluation: weighing out the pros and cons of our various alternatives.

Selection of Preferred Alternative:  choosing our ultimate course of action.


The next post in this series will proceed with an inventory of existing conditions to further define the local conditions as they exist today.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Epilogue to the World Planning Series: What Would I Do?

As promised during the development of the World Planning Series, the purpose of this post is to propose another possible set of actions in opposition to the Most Likely Alternative.

While the focus of the WPS is on applying realistic assumptions about outcomes, we can certainly speculate about what "should" be done in a hypothetical situation where "we" have the power to overcome the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate the unfolding of future events.  We should be very clear that the proposals in this post are not likely, or even realistic.  They defy the dynamics that have driven civilization to its current predicament; the dynamics that virtually guarantee us the future described in the Most Likely Alternative.  However, as human beings we have an incredible capacity to imagine things that cannot be, to work through alternative scenarios even though the underlying premise is faulty.

I don't know if there is any real utility in pursuing this exercise.  Perhaps, somewhere in the development of events, something will happen that might allow certain actions described here to be implemented concurrent or in opposition to the Most Likely Alternative.  But more likely these words are just "art", in and of itself:  "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination... to be appreciated primarily for their beauty and emotional power."

The Premise

The underlying premise of this alternative is that an individual or small group somehow has the ability to usurp complete and essentially unopposed authority over all people and things on the planet.  In this example, I will use the person of Froggman to represent this individual or entity.  Emperor Froggman.

In this post, Emperor Froggman chooses a different path for global civilization and uses his omnipotent control over human subjects to direct them toward these new objectives.  They obey, even against their own self-interest, because that is what would be required.

Choosing an Objective

Where to begin, if we want to address the massive destruction and suffering that is rapidly heading our way?  In my mind, the first step is to make a fundamental decision between two possible objectives.

Is our objective to continue a high quality of life for the people currently living on the planet for as long as possible; OR, is our objective to take what actions are necessary to improve the possibility of the long-term survivability of humans and other living things on the planet?

At first blush these objectives may seem similar, but in reality they are dramatically different.  Our guiding vision for the Most Likely Alternative (more and better) assumes the first of these two objectives.  Continuation of BAU is all about maintaining or improving on the quality of life we have today, with very little consideration of long-term consequences.

If we accept the second objective, however, we must also accept the correlary consequences.  If our primary aim is to attempt to preserve humans, animals, and habitat in the long term, this may have a major impact on how we as a species can afford to live in the near term.  At its most extreme, it might also imply a need for depopulation.  Removing moral considerations from the equation, for example, we might arrive at the conclusion that the most efficient way to remove constraints on resources that endanger the planet is to exterminate a large part of the human population.  Keeping 7+ billion people alive is certainly a more difficult endeavor than refocusing our energy on say 100 or 200 million.  There is little doubt that we have the means to quickly and efficiently bring about these ends; and with biological agents, it wouldn't even be necessary to damage critical infrastructure in the process.

For this exercise, Emporer Froggman will select the second objective, with an important caveat.  The caveat is that the treatment of existing human populations must be humane, and cannot include extermination as a solution.  This will allow a more interesting exploration of ideas, and steer us clear of that very dark place where the Emporer implements a "final solution" and orders the death of billions of souls.  Not to say that there aren't powerful and influential psychopaths out there who may choose this route:  just that Emporor Froggman will avoid it.

It does make the task exponentially more difficult, as we try to keep people alive and treat them humanely on the steep downside of the Seneca Cliff.

Getting Started

Now that we've established our objectives, how should we approach the impossible task?  To begin with, we should establish a set of strategies that we believe will guide us towards our desired objective.  In my mind, the set of strategies that will help us to achieve this new objective most closely adhere to the scenario we defined as "Transition to Local Economies" in our Alternatives Development and Evaluation process.  This is also supported by the outcome of our informed subjective evaluation, which assigned the highest ratings in resilience to this alternative.  Therefore, charting a path forward begins by fleshing out a more detailed set of conditions to implement our Transition alternative.

In order to improve the chances of human, animal, and habitat survival, we will need to do the following things, not listed chronologically or in order of importance:

1.  Immediately cease activities that are accelerating progress towards our demise, UNLESS those activities are essential to implementation of other strategies.  In this case, they should be minimized and then phased out as conditions allow.

This is where we encounter the need for absolute power and absolute compliance, because the current system is geared to continually grow destructive activities, or collapse.  Examples of activities that must be stopped immediately include things like the construction of new infrastructure for exploiting fossil fuels, as well as infrastructure for fossil fuel dependent activities (such as roads for driving cars).  There is simply no point in continuing to pour scarce resources into building things that will only operate under BAU conditions.  Unfortunately, taking this course will turn the clock forward on collapsing globalized civilization, because we refuse to compromise continued environmental destruction for the flow of cheap and abundant energy that keeps things going.  No new energy exploration means that we have only a limited supply of fossil fuels, basically what is already coming out of the ground, before we simply cannot operate a society on a large scale.

On the one hand, the act of stopping this type of development will be hugely destructive to economic conditions.  Many people are employed by industries that build, maintain, operate, or otherwise depend on fossil fuel infrastructure, and all of these jobs and companies would no longer be viable.  However, on the other hand, we will have freed up a tremendous number of potential workers for more productive tasks, as well as sparing scarce resources that might be repurposed into activities more useful for the future of humanity.  For example, all of the construction workers involved in building BAU infrastructure (streets, new houses, commercial buildings, etc) can transfer their skills to projects that build local resiliency.  In the end, we can say that this strategy is both destructive and also potentially creative.

Certain activities might need to be phased out more gradually than just being stopped.  For example, existing coal mines that are already being exploited would likely need to continue operations, as well as the power plants that burn that coal.  The key is that the electricity being generated must now be directed toward the purpose of decommissioning civilization and building local resiliency, with the understanding that the mining and burning will end in the near term.

2.  Develop detailed sector plans for the dismantling of industrial civilization into local and regional affiliations of small population units that humans are well adapted to (approximately 150 individuals per unit).

Obviously this exercise is operating at a 50,000 foot level; in one blog post we are attempting to chart an entirely new direction for humanity and design the deconstruction of global civilization.  There is no way that one single effort can identify all of the best (or least bad) possible methods of achieving this deconstruction in various sectors.

Fortunately, we have a huge global community of people who develop complex plans for a living.  The various planning associations around the world should be redirected at this new purpose: how to plan and organize the end of civilization by sector and geographic area, to arrive at some marginally more sustainable arrangement of small-scale communities that no longer rely on fossil fuels or global civilization.

The need for planning in the deconstruction of civilization is no less than the need for planning in the development of civilization.  Engineers specializing in the electrical grid will need to develop plans for how to decentralize and manage small pieces of the current system.  Transportation planners and engineers will need to figure out how to best provide mobility in the absence of cars, trucks, and new infrastructure.  Each of these sector plans will need to be developed rapidly in order to guide deconstruction efforts in a coordinated manner, before the dynamics of collapse make it too difficult to implement.

3.  Reeducation and repurposing of the human population to face the new conditions that will define our existence.

Repurposing would include preparation of the population for an environment that will demand hard physical labor and will produce significantly fewer calories than most westerners are used to.  We have discussed the 35% obesity rate in the United States (with 69% of the population overweight).  Immediate caloric restriction and daily manual labor to build strength, endurance, and work capacity would be mandatory for these populations.

This physical training is not only for the good of the people being trained, it is to prevent the drain on precious resources they will represent if they do not become physically capable of contributing to small group labor.  During collapse, able-bodied and physically fit people will need all of their strength and energy to support themselves and their families, and cannot be required to work harder or longer to compensate for fat or frail people's inability to carry their own weight (figuratively and literally).

Survival Skills Class

Universities must be repurposed to become institutions for the learning of skilled trades, from basic survival skills to more technical or specialized skill sets that will assist their community in a post-civilization environment.  Doctors and other medical personnel will need to learn how to do their jobs in conditions we would consider third-world by today's standards.  More people will need to be equipped with construction skills and trades completed by hand, from carpentry to blacksmithing to gardening.  Many of the academic and intellectual pursuits we currently value will have no utility in the near future, so there will be no need to produce more young people trained in these areas.  For example, the world probably has an adequate supply of computer programmers, political scientists, historians, and anthropologists to get us through the end of civilization.  Unless the skill set associated with a particular training has real and direct implications in a post-collapse environment, there is no use in continuing to train people with those skills.

4.  Decentralization of all economic activity and political authority, except for the global directives guiding deconstruction.

As the end of globalization rapidly approaches, accelerated by our decision to dramatically cut parts of the economy contributing to environmental collapse, it will become increasingly difficult to support the complex networks of power that define our current system.  Corporations, international organizations, trade agreements, even national and state governments are a drain on resources and will have no place in a post-fossil fuel world.

This decentralization will need to be planned out carefully, taking full inventory of existing authorities and responsibilities assigned to larger organizations and developing a delegation plan that reassigns critical responsibilities to smaller units of government or business.  For example, large centralized military forces should first be broken down into state/regional level units along the lines of a national guard model.  These forces could then be used for public works, relocations, survival and skills training, or policing activities at the state level.  As deconstruction proceeds, these units will become even more localized, to the vicinity of bases of operations.  To the extent organized units still remain after motorized travel ceases to be feasible, they can still perform vital public service functions within the communities that host them.

Likewise, private business activities that provide critical services (like food production and delivery) may first be broken into state/regional level operations.  Supply chains will need to be renegotiated, mergers with other companies may be required, or new lines of business created in order to be able to provide the services at a more localized level.  As transport, mobility, and communication at state and regional distances become more difficult, the individual functions will need to be further broken down and distributed.  For example, farmers and equipment that previously served as part of the supply chain for a national grocer would now diversify food production and distribute locally.  Transition away from petroleum based fertilizers would require massive effort to either restore soils, or construct new farming operations in communities around the world that have never been subjected to the stresses of industrial farming.

5.  Final allocation of retrievable energy sources to regional control, including some level of "renewable" energy deployment in cases that it can help ease the transition to post-industrialism.

As economies and political authority are divested from large national and international entities and handed over to smaller local groups, there will be certain communities that will benefit from locally present energy resources.  Starting today, with BAU energy infrastructure running at full capacity, we should begin the process of establishing distributed access to some type of energy resources for use by small groups of humans in the future.

Lest the reader believe I'm falling victim to techno-Utopian dreams here, I'll reassert that these measures are not being taken to ensure continued BAU-like conditions, or even something we might equate to BAU-light.  Rather, I see these energy investments as helping ease the transition into an energy future that looks like the distant past (no electricity, no combustion engines, etc).  Eventually solar panels and wind turbines will fail, and there will be no replacement parts without industrial civilization. Likewise, local and regional supplies of fossil fuels will prove a poor substitute for our current system of national distribution.  Still, in the interim, they may provide the last generation of people who remember industrial civilization with an improved quality of life while they adapt to the conditions of pre/post-history.

The point is that we currently do have energy resources and we can do one of two things.  We can continue to use them the way we always have, or we can strategically invest them into things that might make life a little easier for people 20 years from now.  An example of this type of measured redistribution of resources might include taking the energy/carbon hit now to manufacture PV systems, and placing them on critical facilities like hospitals, fire stations, or food distribution centers.  The purpose would not be to guarantee a functional grid under post collapse conditions, but rather to potentially provide some of the luxuries of modern life to people over the next 20, 30, 40 years who are trying to survive desperate conditions.  Perhaps those solar panels allow a hospital to provide people with some services in a particular town in a particular region long after any semblance of organized global civilization has crumbled. Small scale mining of coal or oil may provide energy and fuel for nearby residents for some time, even if this is not part of a larger energy system.  The question we should be asking is:  "What can we do now with our relatively cheap, relatively abundant energy, that might help small groups in the future as they shift from civilized life to post-civilized life."

6.  Governmental assumption of responsibility for the distribution of essential services and goods (ie, food) in the absence of the current business-driven model until such time as complete transition to local economic control is in place.

Really, this strategy serves as a backdrop to the implementation of all of the other strategies aimed at deconstruction.  We are after all talking about elimination of the very system that breathes life into the bulk of humanity.  Our previous strategy directs us to decentralize the sprawling system of production and distribution into small local units; clearly this will not be "economically feasible" in any traditional sense of the phrase.

This is where government must vigilantly monitor the progress of deconstruction and make swift interventions to keep critical systems in operation at least long enough to deliver on sector and geographic deconstruction plans.  There are large elements of the economy in the western world that are "service based" and don't produce the type of critical goods and services that will be needed during deconstruction.  For example, the restaurant industry, or the tourism industry, is all that supports certain areas or groups of people.  During collapse and deconstruction, a point will soon arrive where these industries can no longer support the large number of employees they now do.  It will be the role of government to keep track of these people, and employ them in deconstruction efforts or otherwise ensure they are in a position to receive critical goods and services.

It may be that at some point, any semblance of market economics dissolves and government provides all employment, goods, and services.  If this is necessary to keep people fed and the deconstruction process moving, it must be done.

7.  Focused decommissioning of all facilities posing a threat to the survival of humanity (all nuclear weapons, reactors, encapsulation of spent fuel ponds, elimination of biological warfare programs, etc).

This is perhaps one of the last large scale industrial efforts worth continuing as long as possible, and would be a set of activities that would justify some continuation of BAU exploitation.  Organizing the safe decommissioning of facilities that endanger life on the planet would require energy and resources, and we should continue dedicating what is necessary to see these tasks completed.

Members of the media receive briefing from Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees at tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture

Like the deconstruction of other sectors of civilization, decommissioning these facilities will require detailed planning.  In the early stages, it may be relatively simple and straightforward to follow standard procedures for making these facilities safe.  As resources run thin and collapse proceeds, we may need to settle for the least catastrophic solution.  One can imagine a scenario where targeted oil mining and refining operations are kept going specifically for the purpose of producing fuels to power the transport of dangerous radioactive materials to an isolated site in a last ditch effort to at least get the remaining materials away from populated areas.  Perhaps dropping spent fuel into volcanoes or sinking it to the bottom of the ocean.  I am not a specialist in this area (obviously) and don't have the actual solutions that we need- but we must as a species commit to resourcing this effort to the bitter end.

Possible Outcomes

Of course the most obvious balancing act in this whole scenario is attempting to hold together enough of the current BAU distribution network to keep people alive and functioning, while simultaneously deconstructing the very systems that make that network possible.  The administrators in charge of sector decommissioning would have very difficult tasks, taking feedback and adjusting plans in response to the disaster of the day.

Assuming "success", the best possible outcome I think we might hope for in this scenario is a relatively orderly transition from a highly complex society to a much less complex one, with a minimum of human suffering in the process.  As an end result, we would hope that humans currently alive could live out a mostly natural lifespan with no more suffering than would be expected in pre-civilization conditions.  Of course, this is a very different standard from what we might expect as members of industrial civilization.  Even success, when compared to the standards we are accustomed to, might seem appalling to our modern sensibilities.

For example, if this process of transition results in a rapid drop in life expectancy from 80 years give or take, down to 35 years, we would likely perceive this as very dire.  In reality, even the successful implementation of this alternative could not result in any different outcome.  This is, after all, a return to the historical conditions of human life as described in our inventory of existing conditions.  Likewise, many of the people currently kept alive by medical technology derived from fossil fuel industry would perish at a young age.

Likewise, we would have to expect that childhood mortality would return to the historical norm for humans.  Instead of 99% of children surviving to breeding age, we might hope for roughly a 50% survival rate.  Keep in mind, I am a parent.  I understand what this means.  But the alternative is to keep driving towards a wall and pushing down on the accelerator, virtually ensuring an even more horrible outcome (ie, extinction).

Photograph by Carolyn Drake

Success as defined by this alternative would look like millions of small tribes of humans wandering the post-industrial landscape.  Population numbers would be dropping radically, from our current 7+ billion down to a number in the millions.  To the degree possible, this reduction comes from a general attrition- that is, very few children are being born compared to the much more rapid death of the current population simply due to decreased life expectancy.  While undesirable and contrary to the conditions we have sought to achieve, it is also likely that survival will vary greatly by geography.  In some regions famine, and drought, disease, or other disasters may result in much more rapid depopulation than others.

In this alternative future, major ongoing and controllable threats to life, primarily nuclear reactors, weapons, and waste, would be decommissioned and disposed of, or otherwise encapsulated so as to limit the impact to the global environment.  It may be that there are still large areas of "badlands," that will for all intents and purposes be uninhabitable where these products have been disposed of.  The major uncontrollable large-scale threat to life, climate change, is a different story.  The effects are widespread and disastrous no matter what we do during our period of deconstruction.  The best we might hope for is that rapidly ending carbon emissions allows for some ability of the natural ecosystem to begin a recovery process that moves towards equilibrium.  Perhaps changes move just slowly enough that plant and animal species can adapt to their changing environment, eventually moving toward and environment that looks more like the warmer periods in Earth's history.

Each band of humans would be adapted to the particular circumstances of their local environment. During deconstruction, these people were equipped with the skills and simple tools they need to eke out a living however they can.  Many will be nomadic, because it will become necessary to follow food and resources to where they are available.  In those circumstances where local resources are available to benefit nearby populations, higher quality of life as well as a more stationary lifestyle may be possible.  Access to small scale fossil fuel resources (ie, old coal mines) or to local renewable energy centers established during deconstruction might allow some small-scale village life in some places, possibly even with limited electricity and technology (while these things still remain viable).  Even these vestiges of civilization would likely deteriorate within a few generations.

Of course, this geographical inequality- people near natural and man-made resources- sets up a dangerous situation for localized conflict.  It is hard to imagine how one group might be able to hold on to a better set of living arrangements than another, without the use of force.  But this tendency towards local and regional violence over resources may be unavoidable in the end, and at least will be small-scale enough as to not threaten all of life on the planet as our current conflicts do.

The world will look very different than it does today, but with tremendous luck and perfect implementation, perhaps enough ecosystem would survive to allow some semblance of the world we know and love to survive on and eventually recover from our reckless and maniacal experiment with civilization.

Concluding Remarks

As I disclaimed at the beginning of this post, I understand that the premise presented here is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.  I've also taken care to acknowledge the fact that this exercise is so speculative that I could not possible have answers for all of the contingencies involved in executing something like this.  However, my hope has been to show what an alternative road map might need to look like in order to for humanity and the other living things that support us to survive impending ecosystem collapse.

As I have previously alluded to, I find it highly likely that the main determining factors that will contribute to the long-term survival or non-survival of any particular group or individual will be local in nature.  The motion of history is already set at the macro level, and fretting about changing things at that level is pointless.  I do believe that implementing some sort of an alternative of planned decommissioning like what is described in this post would go a long way to help facilitate the success of small-scale local efforts.

This would be an ideal situation- use of the last bit of civilized resources to empower local and individual actions that might help us survive.  However, we as individuals and small groups cannot count on this kind of an idealized and unlikely global effort.  We will have to chart our own course and make our own preparations for whatever may come.

This is the final, great adventure that we will explore in future posts.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gracias, Fidel

He tried to save us all.

Friday, October 28, 2016

WPS 9: Selection of Most Likely Alternative

At the conclusion of our planning process, we ultimately have to decide what the final plan for our study area will be.  In this exercise, we are attempting to identify a sequence of events, decisions, and actions at the global level that will constitute our Most Likely Alternative (MLA).

We have identified a unifying vision that seems to explain the actions of people in positions of power.  We have thoroughly inventoried the existing conditions of the planet's ecosystems, natural resources, and human populations.  We have looked to experts in mathematics, finance, natural resources, environmental science, and system dynamics to help us understand the trajectory of future conditions.  We have developed possible alternative courses of actions and evaluated the likelihood that any of these alternatives will be implemented in total.

An "old school" style of planning would select directly from the identified alternatives based on the outcome of the alternative evaluation.  A more progressive interpretation of the process takes a final pass across the alternatives and recognizes that history rarely follows one single path and that the best plan will select the most successful elements from each alternative and implement them sequentially.  In essence, the alternatives evaluation can serve as a guide for determining the phasing of specific elements from across alternatives.  Like a jigsaw puzzle of probable outcomes.

Atomic explosion Puzzle

Lessons from Alternatives Evaluation

The outcome of our evaluation process provides a general scale of probability of certain bundles of actions being pursued because of their attractiveness to the public and policymakers, as well as apparent ease and feasibility.  The most dominant choice was continuation of Business as Usual (BAU) for as long as possible.  This establishes the baseline from which all other choices will be made.

Establishing the starting point and the desirability of continuing on the BAU path is an important factor in determining what options are actually available in the future.  The longer the human population of the world continues down a particular path, the more the ability to divert onto other paths will be impacted.  For an example we can refer back to the original Limits to Growth study in 1972.  At that time the best available model indicated that there were a variety of options that could have resulted in long-term sustainability.  The world chose the BAU path, so that by the 2002 update virtually none of those options were viable anymore.

By establishing the primary and initiating decision of our Most Likely Alternative as continuation of BAU as long as possible, we narrow down the availability of other alternatives functioning in a future phase.  The lowest scoring alternative in our evaluation was Transition to Local Economies, primarily because it runs directly counter to existing power structures and expectations.  It is questionable whether this voluntary global transition is feasible even today, if all political/economic/social obstacles to implementation were removed.  It is difficult to imagine that any element of this alternative becomes more likely as the world continues down the BAU path for 5 or 10 years more.  Likewise, the alternatives aimed at establishing a light version of BAU are really only on the table while large amounts of resources and robust economic activity is available to shepherd such a voluntary contraction.  Once things begin to collapse, the likelihood of controlling that contraction becomes increasingly slim.

The first element we should pull from another alternative that appears to be highly compatible with the existing BAU path is the Winner Take All option.  In many ways we can imagine a general overlap in these approaches- our current conception of BAU gradually transitioning into a second phase defined by larger, more violent conflict.  In fact, the high score of this alternative is largely due to the fact that there are already elements of this aggressive approach present in existing BAU conditions, and perhaps true implementation of the war-centered option is more a matter of scale than a fully distinct alternative.

Pakistan Clarifies Conditions for Tactical Nuclear Weapon Use Against India

It could be that continuation of BAU actually helps set the stage for large scale military conflict.  Continuing to run fossil fuel economies at full steam, further depleting resources like oil, clean water, and agricultural land will ratchet up tensions and make war a more acceptable and more profitable venture.  The major variable, which may remain largely unknown, is what the outcome of all-out world war might be.  If the strategic and tactical positioning of one side or another is truly superior, it might be that half of the world is annihilated in nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare.  If the two sides are equally matched and are able to circumvent one another's defensive and first-strike capabilities, then perhaps humans destroy all life on Earth with our warfare, at which point there is no need to plan any further.  From our review of existing conditions, it certainly appears that at this point the United States and it's western allies have positioned themselves well to dominate in global war; however, Russia remains a formidable adversary and it is possible that we underestimate their capacity.  For our purposes, we will assume that cooler heads largely prevail and that warfare remains mostly conventional, with only limited use of nuclear weapons.  An excellent analysis of the Russia/US dynamic and potential outcomes in the coming war is posted on Dmitry Orlov's site, here: .  Orlov argues that Russia really holds the strategic upper-hand, and that escalation will result in targeted tactical strikes that will completely disable US warmaking capacity, as well as accelerating economic, political, and social collapse.

But how about renewable energy?  While our analysis indicates that renewable energy is not a feasible means of extending BAU-like conditions indefinitely, alternatives involving expanded deployment of renewable energy resources scored highly in our evaluation.  For one thing, they provide at least the illusion that industrial civilization can continue to grow in the face of limits to growth, which is highly attractive to the public.  In addition, there is the potential for massive transformational infrastructure projects to drive economic activity as a fiscal stimulus lever.  Even if solar panels and wind turbines produce expensive energy that requires major retrofits to the existing grid, and even if the major upfront (fossil fuel) energy investment required to manufacture and install this infrastructure is more destructive than it is helpful, there is the potential for job generation and generally keeping people busy.  This is also attractive.  So, to the extent that continuation of BAU and the war-making of Winner Take All BAU do not exclude the possibility of expanded renewable energy deployment, we would expect to see increasingly urgent efforts at utility-scale conversion.  There will likely come a time where collapse will become so extreme that these efforts must be abandoned in favor of providing basic services.

Politically and economically our evaluation shows that maintenance of some market mechanisms and the semblance of the current conception of western democracy is highly attractive.  However, it is also clear that as collapse progresses there will likely be a continuing and gradual shift to larger government control of crucial sectors, individual financial freedom, and ultimately the functioning of the remaining economy.

Most Likely Sequence of Events

With the information gleaned from our speculative exercise in the last several posts, we can now flesh-out the remainder of our timeline of likely events with not only what will probably happen, but how people will likely react and what the consequences will be.  This allows us to paint a much more nuanced picture of the future unfolding before us.

2016-2020:  During this time, countries of the world try their hardest to maintain BAU conditions.  There is massive application of propaganda via the media in an attempt to convince the masses that good times will continue forever, even as economic crisis accelerates.  Central banks and governments continue ZIRP/NIRP policies as well as QE and direct intervention in markets to keep businesses solvent.  Financial institutions begin to fail and it is possible that full scale financial collapse will be underway; however, this may also drag on for longer than 4 years.

In response to debt defaults, bankruptcies, and other clear signs that the financial system is deteriorating, massive fiscal stimulus efforts will be launched.  These will likely push in opposite and contradictory directions.  For example, massive public works projects will likely include capital expansion of transportation infrastructure because these are large projects that require many workers and lots of fossil fuel energy.  At the same time, in the name of creating a green energy revolution, government projects to establish utility-scale wind and solar systems will be launched along with expanded subsidies for distributed renewable energy.  This will likewise result in a short-term demand for fossil fuel energy and workers to manufacture and install new equipment.

Unfortunately, these programs will be unable to build a parallel energy distribution system that replaces our current fossil fuel network, and they will only be able to function for a short time under current models of finance.  As the monetary system collapses under the weight of debt, governments will assume a more prominent role in the economy and in managing the daily lives and behaviors of citizens.  Desperate times will justify continued expansion of police powers and surveillance of society; security apparatuses put in place by the CIA, NSA, DHS, and other federal agencies will effectively become turnkey authoritarianism where the existing "internet of things" manages behavior, especially financial transactions and political and activist activity.

Amidst the turmoil caused by this "second great recession" or whatever the media brands it, hostilities and war will become more frequent and intense at the periphery of the developed world.  Acts of violence in developed countries will continue to be linked to outside conflicts and a war of civilizations, justifying further attempts to control internal movement, financial, and political activity.  The current immigration crisis from Middle Eastern countries will accelerate, and social conflict in receiving European nations will escalate and become violent.  Across the globe, nationalist sentiment will grow and become politically dominant as borders close and forcible expulsion of non-nationals begins.  Tension between the major powers (US, Russia, China) will grow and proxy wars will expand in the war-torn equatorial regions.

Problems of migration and refugees will be exacerbated by increasingly long and hot summers, greater drought, famine (especially in the Middle East and Africa), lack of rain, and extreme weather events.

2021-2030:  By this time frame, it will be largely apparent that the catastrophe underway is not another recession or depression but a complete collapse of the financial system.  More and bigger stimulus programs will be proposed, with varying degrees of effectiveness.  Some of them may result in employment or the production of useful goods and services, but others will only further distort economic relationships.  Those in positions of power will reap huge profits from government programs and contracts, tax incentives, and central bank stimulus measures while the common person's quality of life continues to erode.  Eventually, "green energy" projects are abandoned as environmental concerns become secondary to more important tasks such as keeping the electricity on and the mines producing.  Economic indicators like GDP are negative year after year, and markets for stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments enter free-fall and cease to function.

Eventually, the banking system will no longer be able to function in a meaningful way and the movement of money will cease.  This could manifest itself in bouts of hyperinflation, or severe deflation, or combinations of the two among different asset classes and in different geographic areas.  Without a functioning financial system, commercial collapse will accelerate quickly as the remaining businesses are no longer able to operate, even in the developed western countries.  Companies kept afloat by government contracts and direct subsidy will be the last remaining actors in the economy as we currently know it.  At this point the role of government will be greatly expanded as the sole provider of many goods and services currently provided by private industry.  Governmental leaders will also live in fear of losing their authority and ability to exercise control, resulting in a ratcheting up of social controls to the point of outright martial law.

Immigration will reach a fever pitch as citizens of the countries most ravaged by years of war and economic collapse flee across borders into perceived safer areas.  Militaries will be deployed to control migration, and when control is no longer possible, military force will be applied against civilians in order to stem the flow of immigrants.

Somewhere in this timeframe, the progress of collapse transitions from mere commercial collapse into outright political collapse.  Most less-developed countries will cease to be governed in any meaningful way.  Military leaders will conduct coups and form factions that fight among one another for resources in an attempt to gain control over territory and population.  The major world powers will lead outright invasions of adjacent countries in order to assert security in their arenas.

This is probably the most dangerous time period for the potential of large-scale warfare to eliminate all of humanity.  While economic conditions have deteriorated to a point of desperation, large militarized political organizations are still driving events on the global stage.  It seems likely that this must culminate in direct warfare between the major powers, and that inevitably this would result in some exchange of nuclear weapons.  If this occurs at a late stage in the process of collapse, it is possible that attacks will lack coordination and the window of opportunity for complete nuclear Armageddon will pass.  Orlov's proposed scenario, where targeted strikes from both sides destroy military and industrial capabilities, also seems highly plausible.  In any case, if humanity survives the confrontation of world powers, the outcome will likely be a dramatic acceleration of all forms of collapse as remaining infrastructure is destroyed or becomes inoperable, and military forces are fragmented or incapacitated.

On the ground conditions during this period will vary greatly.  Outside of the developed countries in Eurasia and North America, the stages of collapse will be much more advanced as complete lack of organized governance takes hold.  Within the developed countries, riots and fighting for resources within population centers will be common.  Wide spread hunger and homelessness will take hold of the populations, who are primarily occupied with attempting to feed their families, or in the service of military, police, or paramilitary/revolutionary fighting organizations.  Large cities in particular will begin to empty as the population density and lack of services leads to exponentially greater violence and declining health and sanitation conditions.  Some social structures may continue to operate either independently or at the direction of military government, but clan/gang conflict, looting, and stealing will become widespread.  Some areas will retain public services like electricity, natural gas, and potable water for longer, while some areas may see these quickly disappear.  In the lack of these basics, conditions will deteriorate more rapidly and become increasingly violent.  Total population will fall as deaths far exceed births, with urban centers leading the trend.


Finally, under the weight of constant war and lack of a secure and stable economy, the remaining nation-states will become ungovernable and will split into factions of military leaders attempting to secure geographic areas of various sizes.  Large swaths of territory in formerly developed countries will completely lack any form of central authority and citizens will be left to their own devices.  As the final political institutions of the first world devolve into warlord states and anarchy, social collapse sets in.

For many, the story ends here.  Basic resources such as food and clean water are scarce and precious, and there is no room for the support system that currently keeps large parts of the population alive.  It sounds terrible, but there will be no support for the disabled and ill.  People who rely on mobility devices or life-saving medication will not live past this time period.  Diabetics will go without insulin, there will be no antibiotics to stave off infections.  People who lack supplies, or the capacity to forcibly take them from others, will waste away and starve.  Violence defines the daily routine, where the strongest and most ferocious survive while the weak and/or principled suffer severe lack leading to death.  Cities become virtual graveyards, while the countryside is dotted with survivors attempting to eke out a living from the land.  Unfortunately, even those with the skills and experience to work the earth and provide for their families will be largely unsuccessful, as they are forced to fend off more powerful and aggressive groups looking to exploit their hard work.

Ultimately, even the most powerful warlords will begin to run out of resources to exert control over remaining populations and outright cultural collapse will arrive.  With all mines long since shuttered, and all factories long since closed, lack of fuel, electricity, equipment, and even firepower will become too severe to exert force beyond the immediate vicinity.  Population will be reduced to a small fraction of the global peak.  With small groups of humans now spread thinly across the globe, conflicts are smaller scale, generally individual or group combat in an attempt to take or defend caches of resources.  No large scale organization, record keeping, or communication remains.

The impacts of climate change further complicate life for survivors and large parts of the world near the equators become basically uninhabitable.  Tropical diseases spread far into the northern latitudes, and the option for groups of survivors to stay in one place is no longer viable.  Humanity becomes nomadic, wandering generally northward or southward towards the poles, seeking shelter from extreme weather and enough ecosystem stability to provide sustenance.  Along the way, they encounter vast areas of contamination, including the remains of melting nuclear reactors and burning spent fuel ponds.

If humanity and enough ecosystem to support it somehow survive past mid-century, these humans will not resemble the humanity of today.  Wild, fierce, and violent- like dominant predators in the wild- they will not have time to keep accurate records of what has happened.  Reading, writing, philosophy, mathematics, and all things not directly related to staying alive will be forgotten.  They may wonder at the strange ruins, and invent stories about gods and devils and being cast out of paradise.  If they survive, within a few generations only myths will remain of our current great experiment in civilization.

Concluding Statement

The purpose of this nine part series has been to lay out the facts about industrial civilization and the limits to growth and determine a most likely sequence of events in the future.  The outcome is very bleak.  It is the opposite of what politicians, the media, most professionals, and our own friends and family lead us to expect.

As individuals and as groups, it is unlikely that we have the power to divert humanity from its current trajectory.  While timelines and specific outcomes are estimates and are subject to some variability, the basic premise of the story is inevitable at this point.  Massive collapse is coming, very soon, and along with it the deaths of many living things including most if not all humans.

While this revelation gives us plenty of reason to despair, it doesn't mean that we must spend our remaining time in desperation and depression.  While it is beyond our capability to "save the world" or impact events on a global scale, we have fairly significant power to influence activity at a local level.  As individuals, we have tremendous capacity to shape how we will face these terrible times.  Future posts will explore these more intimate scales, where we still exercise freedom- even if it is only in our own attitudes.

After all:  death is inevitable.  Everything that lives must die.  Whether we have 5 more years or 50, its how we choose to live that really matters.  This has always been true, and will continue to be so, regardless of how the future unfolds.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Artistic Interlude- Natural History

I could spend thousands of additional words explaining where we've been and where we're going.  Or, you could just look at this mural.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

WPS 8: Alternatives Evaluation

Normally a planning process is aimed at selecting a "preferred alternative" that will result in the outcomes most conducive to achieving the vision.

The reader will recall that is this exercise, we imagine that our vision is defined by those with the most power to influence outcomes on a global scale.  This is a nuanced but important distinction: the vision and thus the approach we take to evaluation is not necessarily what you or I would choose.

Instead, we will attempt to view the situation through the eyes of those who are steering the ship, with the goal of defining a most likely course of action.  In order to reflect this intention, we will coin a new term that isn't normally a part of planning processes.  Rather than identifying this effort with a preferred alternative, we will identify a "Most Likely Alternative" (MLA).  This is a slight deviation from the typical format, but the change will hopefully bring some clarity to our process.  It also reflects the uncertainty that is inherent in any exercise that aims to define the state of the future: we are dealing with probabilities rather than certainties.


In a future post I will explore what I think should be done at the global level (if Froggman was appointed Emperor of the Planet)- but for now we are out to determine what our leaders probably will do, using approaches that are "state of the practice" for the planning profession.

Evaluation Criteria

To evaluate our alternatives, we need to establish the criteria we will use.  The alternatives will be graded on a high-medium-low scale for each of the criteria, and placed into an easy to interpret matrix format.

The evaluation criteria are:

Consistency with the Vision

At the beginning of this series, we established that the current global system operates according to a desire for "More, and Better" when it comes to everything.  This criterion rates the degree to which leaders are likely to perceive consistency with this vision.  Note that this does not necessarily mean the degree to which the alternative guarantees the vision will be achieved- but rather a perception of consistency at the outset.

Technical Feasibility

This criterion rates the degree to which the goals of the proposed alternative can be achieved using known or partially known technologies within real physical limits.  This rating does not consider economic or political limitations- purely the degree to which the alternative is technologically and physically feasible.  For example, we have the technical know-how to manufacture and deploy solar panels, so at some scale this deployment is highly technically feasible.  It is also likely that the technical feasibility of solar panel deployment begins to suffer at larger scales when considering physical limitations such as the required fossil fuel investment in mass deployment, intermittency, and application of electric power to mobile applications.  All of these factors are real and physical, and thus are considered a part of technical feasibility.

Economic Feasibility

Economic feasibility is the extent to which the current economic system and it's constituent parts can support the proposed alternative.  The criterion primarily views economic feasibility from a first world/western perspective, although global interconnections with differing economic considerations are assumed.  This perspective of economic feasibility takes into account costs and returns on investment.  It assesses the ability for profit-making entities to be able to successfully operate in the environment of the alternative.  For alternatives proposing a fundamental shift in economic models (ie, a switch to a global command economy directed by central planners) some additional latitude in this criterion is allowed to recognize government's ability to force otherwise infeasible economic activity to continue.

Political Feasibility

The criterion for political feasibility rates the degree to which political leaders are likely to support full implementation of the initiative.  This takes into consideration things that are currently very politically popular (such as "growth", "jobs", and "wealth creation"), things that are generally politically supported ("sustainability" and "green economy"), and things that are very politically unpopular ("downsizing", "communism").  Again, this criterion has a western bent to it, but does consider global interconnections.

Social/Cultural Feasibility

This is basically the degree to which an alternative would be popularly supported by "the masses."  Social feasibility is related to political feasibility because ultimately politicians must at least appear to be responsive to popular opinion- but they are not identical.  Decisions that might be more appealing to the political class (such as the switch to a command economy if it represents an ability to extend a reign of power) could also be highly unappealing to society at large.


This final criterion is a measure of how well the alternative holds up over time.  Unrelated to perception, this is the likelihood of the real, physical ability of the system to continue on for longer under the alternative.  Note that a high rating in resiliency does not necessarily mean that humanity would avoid the consequences of baked-in decisions and actions; if many of the experts cited in this series are correct, there is nothing that can be done to avoid the collapse of civilization and even near-term human extinction.  For our purposes, resiliency is more a subjective measure of how well the alternative compares to the other available options, assuming some type of survivability is in the cards for humans or other creatures.

The Evaluation Matrix

Here it is!  The big competition between the alternatives, which will reveal their overall ranking against one another.

Gold medalist Jemima Jelagat Sumgong, of Kenya, center,

Applying the criteria described above, I have arrived at the following matrix rating each of the possible alternatives.  Scores in the evaluation criteria are totaled to provide an overall score for reference in the final column.  Following the matrix is a short narrative explaining the rationale for key ratings and providing links to documentation where appropriate.

Ratings are a simple high-medium-low, translated into a numerical value (3,2,1 respectively).  The nature of the planning process must accept the inherent subjectivity of the ratings produced by this approach; however, these determinations are based on a thorough understanding of the material covered in the previous 7 posts in this series and apply a methodical rationale that treats each alternative equally.  As such, we should consider these to be educated or informed subjective ratings.

It's important to keep in mind that the matrix is not the final decision!  We still have a final step of synthesizing this analysis into our Most Likely Alternative, which will occur in the next post.  So let's not jump to any conclusions based on the evaluation matrix alone.

Evaluation Matrix
 High=3, Medium=2, Low=1
Vision Technical Economic Political Social Resiliency Overall
BAU 3 3 2 3 3 1 15

Market BAU Light
2 3 1 1 2 2 11

Market Renewables
3 2 1 3 2 2 13

Command BAU Light
2 3 2 1 1 2 11

Command Renewables
3 2 2 2 1 2 12

Winner Take All BAU
3 3 2 2 2 1 13

Trans to Local Econ
1 3 1 1 1 3 10


There is little doubt that the BAU approach is in perfect alignment with the vision of providing more and better "stuff", since that's what humanity has been doing all along.  All of the infrastructure is in place to continue on as long as possible just as we have been, resulting in a high technical score.  Although the economy is clearly meeting resistance as it reaches the limits to growth, pure momentum and investment in the current regime rates this alternative medium in economic feasibility.  Politically, BAU is a total winner- it delivers what the politicians promise.  Like the political appeal of BAU, the social appeal is undeniable: it's why people keep electing politicians promising more.  Unfortunately, as we have seen, there is little hope that this approach will result in any degree of resiliency, producing a lone low rating.

Rio 2016 gold medal

BAU ends up scoring the highest of any of the alternatives by a high margin.  This is largely attributable to it's alignment with the vision and expectations of a large part of humanity.  Unfortunately, as we have seen, this approach also appears to rapidly be driving civilization and the planet to collapse.

Market BAU Light

The promise of the Market BAU Light alternative is not completely consistent with the vision because it fails to deliver better quality of life.  It does, however, promise to maintain the basics at a fairly high level compared to human history, so it rates a medium in vision.  Like BAU, any light version of BAU is highly technically feasible because all of the necessary infrastructure is in place and nothing truly new or different needs to be developed.  Unfortunately, this alternatives rates a low score in economic feasibility because it is based on concepts fundamentally at odds with its free market approach.  Shrinking, de-growth, lower technology solutions are simply not viable in a market economy.  Please note that this means a permanently contracting environment like the one our projection of future conditions envisions; this is not an isolated case of recession that reverses itself, or a geographically unique phenomenon.  This is full-on global depression.

For many of these same reasons, the political feasibility of this alternative is low.  Politicians, bureaucrats, and community leaders are highly unlikely to accept an approach that will result in dramatic reductions in quality of life and will not be conducive to an environment for business expansion.  Society-at-large may look more favorably upon this approach given the other alternatives, rating a medium in social feasibility.  In terms of resiliency, this alternative at least attempts to slow the depletion of resources and destruction of the environment, justifying a medium rating.

Overall, this alternative scores lowly mostly due to lackluster appeal in all areas and general political unacceptability.  It ties for the second lowest total score.

Market Renewables

The rapid expansion into market renewables has the potential for a high rating in the vision category because it proposes the continued growth and expansion of the BAU lifestyle, only powered by non-fossil-fuel energy.  Technically, the initial ramp-up in renewable energy technologies appears to be fairly feasible because we already have processes and industries in place to do this work.  However, looking to the longer term ability to actually make a full transition to renewable energy, technical feasibility begins to appear more difficult.  Environmental scientist and Professor Emeritus Vaclav Smil, PhD, gives a thorough and excellent presentation that dismantles the case for making a full transition to renewables, viewble here: .  Because of the divided opinion among experts, this alternative rates a medium for technical feasibility.

Economic feasibility is a different story, where this alternative scores a low rating.  Currently, renewable energy technologies enjoy heavy government subsidies and the returns on investment are spread over many years.  Executing this kind of major overhaul of the entire energy production and distribution system to accommodate renewables (including mobile energy like freight movement and agricultural operations) within the confines of a market economy appears highly unlikely.  That said, the attempt has a high level of political viability because these technologies are largely accepted and it is politically popular to support them.  There would likely be some social resistance to the transition, particularly because such large parts of the economy are caught up in the fossil fuel industry- resulting in a medium rating.  For resiliency, this approach gets a medium because it works on the opposite side of efficiency, attempting to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use.

This alternative is extremely popular in the planning community, so it is worthwhile to take some extra time to point out the extreme unlikelihood that it could be successful in reversing any of the trends in economic or environmental collapse currently underway in a meaningful time frame.

For more details explaining why this alternative is highly unlikely to succeed (ie, halting or reversing the collapse of civilization outlined in our projection of future conditions), here is a reference to an article by two Google engineers (both PhDs) who conclude that current renewable technology cannot solve the problem: .  Also, please reference two other academic journal articles that reach similar conclusions: , and .  Finally, even though he remains an optimist in terms of technological solutions, Ugo Bardi's own calculations show just how extreme an undertaking a complete energy transition would be: .

Despite these shortcomings and mixed opinions, this alternative still ties for the silver medal.  Just keep in mind- there is a very high level of certainty that even if executed perfectly, this alternative still fails to save civilization as we know it.

The Rio 2016 Olympic silver medal is presented

Command BAU Light

This alternative aims to achieve the same vision as its companion "market" version, so it rates a medium in this area as well.  Likewise, this is a technically feasible option because no new technology deployment is necessary- rather a contraction is considered.  Attempting to achieve a light version of BAU in a command economy is more economically feasible than attempting to achieve the same via market mechanisms, because of the previously cited ability of the governing authority to force otherwise impractical activity to continue.  Politically and socially, it receives the lowest rating because it involves two things equally hated by politicians and the public: "communism" and the need to cut back.  Like its market counterpart, this option scores medium in resiliency for working towards reduction of the demand side of the resource equation.

This alternative ties with Market BAU Light for the second to lowest score.

Command Renewables

As the command economy version of our other renewables alternative, this option also scores highly in the vision category.  The technical merits are likewise no different than the market version of this option, scoring a medium.  Consistent with our other command economy alternatives, this option rates somewhat higher in economic feasibility because of its ability to overcome the limitations of market economics and push renewables further than otherwise possible.  The government-directed nature of this approach loses points in both its political and social acceptance, rating a medium and low respectively.  Like the market renewables alternative, it does attempt to address the generation side of the energy equation, earning a medium in resiliency.

As the third place scoring alternative (behind a tie for second place), this alternative earns our bronze medal.

The Rio 2016 Olympic bronze medal is presented

Winner Take All BAU

Brutal as it may seem, the winner take all approach to achieving BAU is highly consistent with the proposed vision.  The technical and economic aspects of warmaking-for-profit are clearly highly feasible; vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons, fleets of ships and planes, and large standing armies not only exist but are often pointed to as major engines of economic development.  Political leaders seldom have reservations about entering into armed conflict, and although anti-war minorities may loudly protest, support for these efforts is widespread among the populous, earning a medium in both political and social feasibility.  Of course, like all BAU courses, there is no real attempt at resiliency in this alternative.

Tying for second place in overall score, this alternative is our other silver medal.

A close-up of the Olympic silver medal during

Transition to Local Economies

Disassembling the global economy and shrinking to the local level is definitely not consistent with our proposed vision, warranting a low rating.  As with the larger scale BAU Light alternatives, this alternative is very technically feasible because nothing new is really needed.  However, the economic feasibility of producing such a system is very low- in our current system, switching to completely local production and consumption essentially amounts to crashing the global economy.  Political forces and social society are thoroughly invested in this global economic system, and the measures that would be essential to implementation (elimination of national and super-national entities, monetary systems, trade partnerships, corporations, etc) earn the alternative a low rating in political and social feasibility.  Where this alternative shines is in resiliency, by addressing the full spectrum of natural resource use from production to consumption.  This earns it a high rating in the resiliency category.

In keeping with the Olympics theme of this post, this alternative is like Meb wiping out just inches from the finish line after running 26.2 miles.  Great effort- so close- but not quite.  While a beautiful idea, it finishes as the least likely approach to be taken up at the global level.

Meb slip and press-up


Now that we've conducted an evaluation of the various alternatives, the next step is to choose our Most Likely Alternative.  In the next post, we will define in detail what this scenario will look like.

Friday, August 12, 2016

WPS 7: Development of Alternatives

So far we've developed a vision, collected information about existing conditions, and made projections about what the future holds based on the best available information.  The next step in our planning process is the populate the universe of alternatives that are available to us in a stage called Alternatives Development.

In Alternatives Development, we try to use a methodical approach to describe the major "bundles" of actions that we might take- a set of scenarios or different directions we can head.  At this point we don't make value judgments about the feasibility or desirability of any particular alternative; there is a separate phase for that called Evaluation of Alternatives.  Right now we are just defining the pathways, even if a given alternative has fatal flaws that make it impractical.

This is also a good time to recall that this series is focused only on scenarios that are global in scale.  The format of this blog begins with the most macro level analysis, which sets the framework for more micro levels, before exploring what the best course of action might be at the local and individual levels.  So we should keep in mind that even within a given pathway for global action, there might be considerable variation at the local level.  We will explore these possibilities in detail in future series.

As always, it's easiest to begin with the "no action" alternative.  In this case, Business as Usual is the no action alternative at the global scale.

Business As Usual (BAU)

In this approach, civilization basically does its level best to maintain the current set of arrangements for as long as possible.  The hope of the participants is that past performance is a guarantee of future results.  Adherents would reflect back upon the exponential growth in all things "good" over the past 200 years and would work towards continuing this trend.  Reasons for pursuing this approach might include a refusal by many people to believe in the finitude of resources, unwillingness of vested interests to relinquish their investment in the status quo, or simply failure to effectively coordinate actions to divert onto an alternative pathway.  In this alternative, no major efforts are made to transition from fossil fuel use at an accelerated rate.  To the extent possible, current methods of resource extraction, energy production, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption is maintained.


In the BAU scenario everything is not necessarily static; we should assume that trends that are currently underway would continue to progress at their current rate to the extent possible- but without any radical changes that depart from the current state of affairs.  In other words, this scenario seeks similar degrees of growth and development as the past and does not attempt to radically reduce consumption or transition to new or different methods of production.

Market Mechanisms:  BAU Light

This alternative defines a concerted attempt by civilization to "rightsize" the economy to maintain aspects of BAU using market mechanisms.  In this scenario, world leaders are able to acknowledge and face the fact of declining resources and increasing entropy, and attempt to enact a plan to shrink consumption and shift production to conserve remaining resources.  In this case, this attempt is made while still adhering to the general principles of a market economy.  Although there may be elements of the economy that require nationalization, the transition to a command economy backed by the force of the state is not part of this alternative.  Governments would rely on the market to force increased simplicity, intervening via regulation and incentives.  The emphasis of energy production still remains fossil fuel oriented, although some greater shift to renewable energy, especially small scale local sources, would be attempted.

Steel is first to make things last    National Steel (1953)

The desired outcome of this approach would be a "return to simpler times" while riding the downward side of the natural resource curve.  Many of the luxuries that the developed world has grown to expect would no longer be available, but adherents would hope to maintain a similar quality of life to their grandparents generation (for example, the nostalgic wholesomeness of the 1950's in the United States).  Production of cars, homes, appliances, and other technologies would continue (to the extent possible) but in a reduced or simplified form.

Market Mechanisms:  All in to Renewables

Still keeping with the general approach of retaining market mechanisms as the driver of productive activity, in this alternative the nations of the world acknowledge the impending problem and take action to push all available resources into a transition to renewable energy technologies.  In this scenario, governments would be involved through regulation and incentives but not through outright nationalization of energy resources.  The goal of this approach is to maintain conditions as close as possible to those under BAU, except powered by non-fossil fuel energy sources.  These might include expanded hydro, solar, wind, or other experimental new technologies.  It is not assumed that radical, undeveloped, or untested technologies would be deployed en mass.

Solar panels and wind turbines

Visions of this alternative are common in the media and in planning documents such as Climate Action Plans.  Generally the expectation would be a high technology future with continued development and deployment of "greener" products.  Something important to keep in mind is that most local climate plans only look at local energy production and use and do not account for embodied energy; since this is a "world plan," this alternative assumes an attempt at global conversion to renewable energy not only in consumer economies but also in productive economies (factories, transport, processing, etc).

Command Economy: BAU Light

In this alternative, governments recognize the problem of resource depletion and resolve to maintain as many BAU advantages as possible through direct intervention and control in the energy sector and the economy at large.  This would likely be motivated by a determination that market mechanisms would not be adequate for continued production in key industries and only a command economy driven by central planners will keep these elements functional.  For example, if extraction of oil is no longer a profitable venture and energy companies go bankrupt or otherwise stop production, governments would nationalize the industry and continue to pump oil regardless of the cost.  In this scenario, focus would remain on fossil fuel production and use for as long as possible.  Central decisions would drive reductions and efficiency, as resources would be rationed according to the directives of national governments.

Implementation of this alternative might take a range of forms, from nationalization of only key or failing industries, to complete government control over all aspects of the economy.  The desire would be to allow continuation of activities that would otherwise not be feasible- particularly in the area of fossil fuel extraction and processing.  For example, North Korea is an impoverished country that has difficulty just providing nutrition for its people, but its command economy allows otherwise infeasible activities like nuclear weapons development or pastry production to take place.  Adherents to this scenario would expect measures such as martial law and forced labor in order to extend BAU-like conditions (at least for a portion of the population) for as long as possible.

Command Economy: All in to Renewables

This alternative begins with a similar acceptance of resource depletion by world governments, as well as a determination that market mechanisms will not be adequate to address the challenge.  However, in this scenario the powers of the state are leveraged to drive radical transition away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy.  In an attempt to deploy renewable energy technologies in a timeframe that might offset the worst impacts of resource depletion and climate change, governments would nationalize energy production and manufacturing infrastructure.

environmental fascism

The desire of adherents would be to accelerate development and implementation of renewable energy systems beyond the rate that could be achieved by market mechanisms alone, for the purpose of extending BAU-like conditions without dependence on fossil fuels.  Although the focus of this scenario is transition away from fossil fuels, it is also likely that fossil fuel extraction and production would have to be nationalized in order to manage the transition to renewables.  Additional measures might include mandatory efficiency improvements or nationalization of the production of energy consuming systems and equipment.

Winner Take All BAU

This alternative takes a Machiavellian approach to the impending crises of civilization.  As resource constraints become tighter, world leaders accept the inevitability of future scarcity.  Rather than attempting to reform current BAU practices, the solutions enacted are to forcibly take control of remaining resources.  To the extent that other populations present a threat to a nation-state's access to resources, they may be displaced or eliminated.  Current tensions are elevated until world war breaks out, a final battle for remaining fossil fuel resources so that the victors might maintain as many BAU advantages for as long as possible.

In this scenario it seems unavoidable that conflicts would include the use of nuclear weapons.  This introduces a huge amount of uncertainty as the value of strategic positioning, first strike capability, and the willingness to exercise that capability all come into play.  Additional possibilities include the use of biological warfare.  Elements of market and command economy systems might be present in this alternative; however, the focus is on war-making as a strategy for securing access.

Transition to Small Local Economies

This alternative represents significant differences from the other alternatives.  In the other approaches, centralized power in the form of nation-states and international organizations prevails as the primary unit of organization and control (at least until it can't).  In this scenario, nation-states elect to weather the coming storm of resource depletion by disassembling themselves and transitioning to smaller local and regional economic and political units.  Recognizing the difficulties of maintaining large, complex organizations in an environment of rapidly declining access to cheap energy, adherents choose to abandon many elements of the current BAU economy in favor of dramatically simpler and smaller systems.


In this scenario, large-scale infrastructure would be used to produce tools and products that would be useful to local economies in a post-fossil fuel world for as long as possible.  When these facilities are no longer able to function, they are repurposed or otherwise recycled for use by people nearby.  There would likely be some efforts at producing small scale renewable energy generation capabilities to be handed off to regional governing entities.  It is likely that nationalization and then redistribution of energy industry infrastructure would be needed, as it is unlikely that for-profit corporations would willingly abandon their profit-making enterprises in order to assist the development of these small local economies.


These alternatives may not represent every possible set of actions, and it is possible that elements of one alternative may be combined with others to produce new alternatives.  However, this selection should represent the primary pathways that are likely to be considered in the coming years and should be adequate to evaluate for a Most Likely Alternative.

In the next post, we will conduct Alternatives Evaluation in order to select the MLA.