How to Read This Blog
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, August 12, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.