Recently we had a conversation in Open Mike about the Powerdown. There seemed to be a bit of misunderstanding about what that is, so here is an introduction.
The Powerdown is a process where societies, in the face of climate change and resource depletion, choose to transition to a post-carbon world sustainably. Sustainably, because we cannot have perpetual growth in a physically finite world. Nor can we ecologically afford for the whole world to have Western middle class lifestyles, but instead we must live within the natural limits of the world in a way that allows that natural world to continually restore itself. Counting carbon and reducing it to zero is not enough.
The Powerdown is not based on high tech solutions (although we can continue to use various levels of tech as appropriate), because reliance on high tech as our major approach fails the resilience test and takes too many resources. Instead it looks at providing for human needs by using fewer resources and energy, and designing within whole systems frameworks in order to maintain the least disruption to human life while still giving us a chance at surviving. It isn’t a process where we all end up living in caves or reverting back to some imagined pre-industrial agrarian, nasty, brutish and short existence. Instead we take the best of our knowledge and design systems that enhance life rather than strip-mine it. In other words, we can powerdown and live good, meaningful lives. But yes, it means that we in the West will need to give some things up.
Resource depletion and population pressures are about to catch up with us, and no one is prepared. The political elites, especially in the US, are incapable of dealing with the situation and have in mind a punishing game of “Last One Standing.”
He offers a different strategy that seeks to
While civil society organizations push for a mild version of this, the vast majority of the world’s people are in the dark, not understanding the challenges ahead, nor the options realistically available.
Powerdown speaks frankly to these dilemmas. Avoiding cynicism and despair, it begins with an overview of the likely impacts of oil and natural gas depletion and then outlines four options for industrial societies during the next decades.
Heinberg’s four options,
and then how three important groups within global society are likely to respond to these four options:
Ten years ago, David Holmgren, co-founder of the sustainability design science Permaculture, also published a resource of Future Scenarios based on the confluence of Peak Oil and Climate Change. A lot has changed in that decade, including Holmgren’s updated perspective that Peak Oil would not arrive in time to prevent the worst of Climate Change. But his model of possible responses to the approaching crisis is still pertinent. He proposes four energy future scenarios:
Techno Explosion is Business As Usual, perpetual growth, with humans inventing/discovering new sources of energy and higher and higher tech. Eventually we would have to colonise other planets.
Techno Stability is the vision of renewable energy. It involves substantial change but if we build enough wind farms and solar panels we can maintain the standard of living we have now without too much disruption. Some ideas about steady state economies often sit here, the appeal being that we can change society but we don’t have to give things up.
Energy Descent is the downsizing of the economic activity, gradual reduction of population, and a transition to living within the natural limits of the world. It uses pre-industrial and modern sustainability design to meet human needs without destroying the world we are dependent upon.
Collapse is a fast, emergency transition off fossil fuels, brought about by runaway climate change and/or the disintegration of the global economy due to oil shortages.
Many people believe that the first two options are no longer possible. Techno Explosion is by definition destructive to the environment, hence the need to eventually move off planet, and we are fast approaching resource depletion, long before we are capable of space colonisation (assuming that that is even desirable). Techno Stability is what many mainstream green and sustainability thinkers want us to focus on. Peak oil theory suggests that this is no longer possible because of the relationship between declining cheap oil supplies, economics, EROEI, and time. If we had started the transition 40 years ago we might have had shot, now that’s behind us.
This isn’t to say that we can’t and aren’t transitioning many systems to renewables. We demonstrably are. But those systems are being transitioned using fossil fuel and I’ve yet to see a credible analysis that suggests we have the time and capacity to fully transition, let alone the political and social will. In theory we might, in practice we don’t.
Which leaves us with the Powderdown or Collapse. The concept of the Powerdown is challenging to many people, but it’s still preferable on almost every level to Collapse. Often the conversations about the Powerdown get stuck on either “we don’t like that idea” or, “it’s not possible”. The first premise is immaterial in the face of climate change, because it’s eventually going to happen whether we like it or not, but it’s helpful to envision societies that are sustainable and likeable. The second is at odds with the notion that humans are exceptionally creative. Time we started taking our situation seriously and applying that creativity to the crisis at hand. Let’s start by understanding what the Powerdown option is really about.