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.

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.


  1. BAU will likely progress into Winner takes all BAU with the last left standing eventually acknowledging that cooperating is the best strategy once the majority of the population has died off.

    1. Can't say I disagree, Mike. It does seem to me though that renewables will play a role, but not in the way many think they will. I see them as a massive fiscal stimulus effort, a "cash for clunkers" approach. What better way to put lots of people to work and artificially boost demand for fossil fuels that nobody can afford anymore than to force massive resources into building solar and wind infrastructure? It doesn't matter that it won't work, or could even make the problems worse- it'll temporarily keep the wheels of industry moving.

      But I'm getting ahead of myself, and spoiling my next post. . .

  2. Some useful commentary I recently posted in the comments of Doomstead Diner, here:

    These problems (transportation) are actually what I spend most of my real-life day job working on. Bicycles really *could* have been a major part of a solution in an alternate reality where we stuck with them and never invented cars. One of my favorite quotes:

    "When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man's convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man's brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle."

    ~Elizabeth West, Hovel in the Hills

    Unfortunately there is so much momentum and investment in single occupancy vehicle (SOV) infrastructure that even in the best places in the US for bicycling, they are an afterthought. It's the basic structure of the system. I've mentioned elsewhere that the big money for infrastructure projects is funneled through a rigid hierarchy that trickles cash down from the Feds, to States and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), then finally to local governments.

    Just as an example, one of the best sources of funding that could be used for bicylce, pedestrian, or transit projects is called Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grants from the Feds. They give out BILLIONS of dollars per year for local projects. The way the system is set up, projects are rated largely from formulas that show how much emissions reduction will be produced by a given project.

    Now, a lot more has to go into a non-motorized project to really demonstrate an emissions reduction. You can spend millions building a bike path, but when its not supported by a larger network and people have limited motivation to give up their cars, you'll only see so many people use it in place of their SOV. Small usage = small emission reduction.

    On the other hand, take an equal amount of money and spend it adding turn lanes at an existing street intersection. Traffic engineers can very easily model the emission reduction that is an immediate result of that change because of reducing congestion and idle time. Never mind that the project never contributes to actually changing the paradigm or that the intersection fills up again in 5 years and the benefit goes away. In this scenario, the intersection project wins because the formula shows a better cost/benefit ratio for emissions.

    It goes like this year after year, all over the country. Billions of dollars funneled into continued expansion of the SOV infrastructure, while bikes/peds get the scraps. This system is so ingrained and institutionalized, it will continue to go on this way until it can't- until it all collapses under the weight of our idiocy.

  3. A comment I posted on Our Finite World:

    October 10, 2016 at 7:27 am

    But what if its not actually about delivering on the climate deal, but rather the work involved in looking like we’re delivering on the deal? Remember cash for clunkers, and the push for shovel ready transportation projects (FASTER/TIGER grants)? Were any of them “about” getting old cars off the road or building nicer smoother streets? Of course not, they were fiscal stimulus schemes aimed at generating some kind of activity, any kind, to keep factories running, fuel burning, and people working. They might as well have been digging and then refilling holes.

    For more than a decade now the stage has been set to prepare people for the biggest public works project ever undertaken. It doesn’t matter that the outcome doesn’t deliver the intended results. The opportunity here is to keep the fires burning a little longer, as demand for FF falls, artificially create new demand by ordering millions of solar panels and wind turbines, ship them all over the world, install them. It doesn’t matter that it actually ramps up GHG emissions in the short term to manufacture all of this stuff- that’s the idea. More GHG emissions means more manufacturing and commercial activity, when the people can no longer afford it. Governments can pay for it, directly monetized by central banks… for as long as it lasts.

    That’s the best sense I can make of it anways. I just can’t believe all the posturing will be for nothing. TPTB will try, somehow, to use the push for RE as a tool to extend BAU and ultimately thier grip on power.

  4. Great series - looking forward to the next installment!

  5. Comments I posted at Our Finite World:

    “Boxed into a dark corner” exactly! Working in the field of urban planning and transportation in the US, I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to push development patterns in the direction of something more sensible than what we have.

    The optimists among us grossly underestimate the inertia in BAU. In theory it all seems ridiculously simple. Stop building roads, instead build paths and transit systems. Make car use expensive and inconvenient when compared to biking/walking/transit/ebikes. Don’t let developers build car-dependent neighborhoods on the urban fringes.

    Optimists (generally without experience trying to actually make these things happen) don’t understand how easy it is to SAY these things- compared to actually doing them.

    There’s a reason BAU is BAU. Because it’s what people want- and they’re willing to do anything to keep it. Actually implementing these types of changes is an impossibility, because the checks and balances of society prevent it. If you had a City Council that pushed this agenda, they’d be undone by the masses. If you had an environmentalist majority in the community that pushed for this, the business community would kill it. Even if you somehow managed to overcome local political, economic, and social obstacles, the state and federal funding system is heavily slanted towards money for car infrastructure. The Utopian community would be stuck with it’s own tax base trying to re-create itself, as they’d be getting little or no help with big dollars from the institutionalized federal funding sources.

    I’m lucky to live and work in one of the most progressive areas in the whole country, backed by considerable local wealth and capital. And what have we accomplished? Nationally, 75% of commute trips are by single occupancy vehicle. Locally, it’s 70%. And that’s the BEST we can do. My life’s work, and the life’s work of many others- and this is what we’ve been able to get.

    Maybe if we had 100 years to throw at this problem we could slowly and incrementally build our way out of it. But who here believes we have 100 years?

    Ultimately this is how I arrived at my realization that we’re doomed. I hoped to change the system from within, but after decades inside the system, I see that this could never happen. Self-destruct has been engaged, and there’s no “off” button.