Options for our Future

Today, we are in a race against time. Global temperatures are increasing rapidly, glaciers are melting, oceans acidifying and species vanishing at unprecedented rates. The global ecocide is threatening to trigger irreversible tipping points.

Figure 1: Arctic temperature change over recent decades (Source: Nature)

The NOAA chart above shows dramatic temperature increases in the Arctic, the region that is warming the fastest on the entire planet. The amount of CO2 and methane stored in permafrost and underneath the Arctic ocean dwarfs anthropogenic volumes that we are worried about. While 31 gigatons per annum is our current global emissions, the Arctic has thousands of gigatons of stored CO2 which can be rapidly released into the atmosphere once the temperature falls below the freezing point. From the figure above, we can see that we are rapidly approaching that tipping point.

Some, like Dr. Guy McPherson already believe we have lost that race. The entire scientific community is, however working as fast as it can to come up with solutions that will severe our fossil fuel dependency. The majority of scientists today have reached a consensus; humanity is faced with a unique set of challenges in the next few decades which, if not met, could result in a significantly degraded world for our grandchildren. The consensus is broadbased, spanning over all aspects of society and the environment.  The solution will depend on each and every one of us making change in every group we belong to at every level of society…from government institutions, to business, to nations, provinces & states, cities, towns, communities, neighbourhoods and the impact we have in our own homes.

There are many different viewpoints on what we need to do and many pathways that lay before us…Some people feel we can continue our course of economic growth, resource extraction and consumption and offer large scale technological solutions to continue this trend. On the other end of the spectrum is the school that says business-as-usual is completely out of the question. We have vastly overconsumed and it is no longer sustainable; we must realistically reduce our ecological footprint by up to 80%.

A growing amount of evidence suggests that business-as-usual will lead to a global collapse sometime in the near future. It has not been so much a scientific and technological challenge as it has been a social and political one. Whatever path we take, our future will be made of some combination of technology, human progress and value change:

Figure 2: Solution matrix options for our future – a combination of human progress and value change


In the figure  above shows that there is a wide spectrum of possible solution paths. Some, such as the Rocky Mountain Reinventing Fire, World Business Institute for Sustainable Development, initiative rely on massive technological firepower to solve all our problems and allow us to continue living in a high ecological footprint lifestyle…but without the high ecological footprint. Many researchers question this approach because it relies on getting right a number of difficult steps:

  1. government and market buyin
  2. large number of scientific breakthroughs
  3. rapid scaleup of these breakthroughs

Cradle-to-Cradle, Circular Economy and Blue Economy advocates are attempting to transform and reform existing manufacturing processes but still work within a centralized manufacturing paradigm.

Jorgen Randers of Limits to Growth notoriety and Club of Rome takes a different and more practical approach which assumes that Government and Business’s will not be able to reform it’s flawed working principle of  Short Termism in time to avoid societal collapse. It therefore takes the view that sustainable development is no longer possible in the short time frame we have to avoid collapse and instead invest resources in building resiliency into existing systems to prepare for an eventual collapse.

Transitional Networks, the New Economics Institute and Foundation and Permaculturists advocate the same position but also stress fundamental value change in addition to a significant reduction in our ecological footprint. Permaculture frowns upon hi-tech solutions because of their inherently high embodied energy cost, extensive use of exotic and difficult-to-get materials and the unresolved issues of e-waste.

Right wing conservative groups and fossil fuel interest represent the Business-as-usual perspective and believe that most of the scientific knowledge is incorrect and that we should proceed with unabated economic development…regardless of the pollution implications.

Using Kaya’s Identity to Examine Scenarios 

There is no doubt that to get off the path of this unsustainable lifestyle, the approach we adopt will necessarily involve a mixture of social factors and technological ones. While there are many ecological threats, carbon emission is the most dangerous so we take a special look at this.

Kaya’s Identity for Carbon Emissions is a useful equation that allows us to see the main variables important for lowering our carbon emissions. These variables demonstrate that we must consider multiple variables at the same time and that both social and technological factors must be considered in any viable solutions.

C = global CO2 emissions from human sources (measured  in Gigatons/year)

There are 3 main variables:

  • P  = global population
  • G  = world GDP in $
  • E  = global primary energy consumption in Watts
Kaya’s Identity is easily derived by starting off with the trivial emissions identity:
C = C
and then  including various socially meaningful ratios that all cancel out each other:

Kaya’s Identity                               C  = ( C/E) * (E/G) * (G/P) * P

  • C/E is the Carbon emission released per Unit of Energy or the carbon intensity of energy (CO2/unit of energy)where the ratios have specific meaning:
  • E/G is the Energy required to make a dollar (Watts/USD)
  • G/P is also called Production per person   (USD/person)

E/G and C/E are considered technical factors while G/P and P are socio-economic factors. The solution to climate change involves balancing both socio-economic and technological factors.  The big question is how do we achieve CO2 emission reduction below safe levels while maintaining non-disruptive levels of the other variables? An enlightening analysis of this is given here.

Spelled out in words, Kaya’s Identity becomes:

CO2 emission = (Carbon content of energy) * (Energy efficiency of economic activity) * (Production per person) * (Population)

Wired magazine has an online Kaya Identity calculator here

Future Scenarios: A Model of 4 Possible Future Scenarios


Figure 3: Future Energy Possibilities from a Permaculture Perspective (Source:  David Holmgren)

Humanity is facing a perfect storm of Environmental, Energy and Economic crisis. Any major shock from any of these areas can cause the entire socio-economic system to approach a system-wide collapse.

In his groundbreaking 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, one of the founding fathers of Permaculture states unequivocally that the illusion that we can continue with a business-as-usual scenario “appears only to have substance because generations of the world’s more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature”.

Holmgren’s book Future Scenarios has similiar elements to the Limits to Growth study – it looks at various possible future scenarios for human civilization based upon permutations of available energy sources and climate change.  In Holmgren’s case, there are 4 options that roughly align with the Limits to Growth models:

  1. Techno-Fantasy – a Utopian fantasy that “human progress” will continue to make more and more discoveries, including new energy sources to enable economic growth to continue. When human societies were still relatively small, this notion was still wrong but benign at worse. Now, with human population over 7 billion and approaching 9 billion by 2050, this is notion is not only absurd but dangerous. Today, our rapidly declining ecosystem health is living proof of what an attitude of limitless growth will do to a finite planet. History has repeatedly shown that inventions hailed as major technological marvels reveal their dark side only when they are scaled globally.  In this way, we create progress traps which inadvertently create challenging problems for the future.
  2. Green-tech Stability – the mainstream environmentalist model – we reach a plateau at our current rate of energy consumption but replace all our infrastructure with green, sustainable technology – fuel cell cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. This scenario attempts to merely substitute “green” tech for our conventional fossil fuel technology with the tacit assumption that we can perpetuate our current levels of consumption.
  3. Crash – survivalist model – This begins with the techno fantasy, then descends through into chaos, with very little salvaged out of global civilization
  4. “Earth Stewardship.” – the permaculture model – The future well-being of people will depend upon a renewable resource base (water, soil), with less and less energy required as we move into future generations. Permaculture would be the “technology” for this descent culture – a gentle decline “like a balloon.” The symbol of this solar age would be a tree (Permaculture) rather than a solar panel (green stability version)

Holmgren’s categories serve as a good foundation to examine the wide range of solutions available to us. From Figure 1, we see a range of possible future pathways that each include a component of value and behavioral change as well as technological complexity. As Kaya’s identity above shows, the solution for reducing carbon emissions depends on both technological and social factors.

Another useful division is supply side and demand side changes. Technological-focused solutions can fall on both sides while behavioral while value change tends to fall on the demand side.

There is a sense of urgency to act as irreversible climate tipping points appear to be on the horizon. More than ever, it is important to analyze all the possible solution pathways and try to reach a global consensus on the best way forward; human civilization’s future will depend on it.

As more and more people are becoming aware of the need for major transformation, the potential solutions appear to be polarizing into two opposing camps; one which seeks to maintain our high energy, high consuming lifestyle and another which doesn’t. While some organizations such as the Carbon War Room, the Ellen MacCarthur Foundation, Rocky Mountain Institute the Blue Economy and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)  are approaching the problem as a business opportunities which seeks to preserve a consumer driven world, albeit replacing non sustainable goods, services and practices with sustainable ones, others such as the Transition Network and Movement, Post Carbon Institute and the Permaculture movement actually see consumption as the main culprit so focuses rather on demand-side behavioral and living changes such as significantly reduced consumption and dependency on technology. It isn’t that technology is shunned, appropriate technology is still used but there is a tacit recognition of the unavoidably higher ecological footprint of products created from any modern industrial technological civilization. Amongst all these solutions jostling for our attention, somehow we need to find the right combination. If we don’t and we approach the future with a fractured and fragmented strategy, we may pay dearly for it.

Author Charles Eisenstein believes that we may not change in time to avoid a global collapse of civilization. He frames the fundamental problem as our blind march towards “human progress”, what author Ronald Wright calls the Progress Trap. While industrialists, engineers and scientists are busily involved in “fixing” problems (which were often created by technology in the first place) they are blind to the larger context of their work. The see the trees of solving one narrow problem but are blind to the forest of interconnected relationships connected to their change. What they do not realize is how their contribution towards “progress” turns into a trap – technology designed to solve a problem becomes the source of new, even larger problems. Cheap energy made life better in so many noticeable ways and countless engineers, scientists and industrialists devoted lifetimes to making ever more efficient machines to extract energy and operate off of it. Unfortunately, most of these creators missed seeing how they were simultaneously and inadvertently contributing to the construction of a global society dangerously dependent on cheap, polluting energy. The progress that has made our lives so convenient is suddenly seen as the exact cause towards the possible extinction of human civilization.What an unexpected result for our inventive and well-meaning ancestors!

In hindsight, the Ascent of Humanity is the modern day equivalent to the story of Icarus who, flying on the technology of wax wings was not aware of his own blind ambition and flew too close to the sun, whereupon his wax wings began to melt and he fell to his death on the planet below. The ascension of human civilization has been marked by further and further distance from the natural world. Our rectilineal buildings are at geometric odds with the naturally fractal landscape. Our act of further and further separation has so disconnected us from our environment that we have no more feedback to tell us of the harm we are doing to it. We are no longer producers as our ancestors were and have severed our natural feedback loop with the environment through creating this artificially separated world we inhabit. We entrust profit seeking industrialists with stewardship of the land, air and ocean. We are Icarus and our separation becomes the source of our melting wings. We are well on our descent to a hard landing below.

In considering our solution pathways, Holmgren argues that the first three are not viable and only the fourth, Creative Descent and Earth stewardship is realistic.  If unpredictable events such as climate-induced economic stress due to crop failure, catastrophic extreme weather, sea level rise or sudden methane release from melting permafrost precede the steep descent of the energy curve, human civilization may not be able to recover.

According to Holmgren, PV panels are a waste of time in any situation other than off the grid tropics, citing the amount of energy to produce them, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) makes them an unrealistic option for a reduced energy future.  Holmgren contends that we must look to other sources such as trees, which are the world’s most efficient solar collectors, having developed over millions of years to transform solar energy into usable energy, for fuel and so on, far more effectively than any solar panel we could ever make.

The technocrat will always believe that, given enough time, technology can solve any problem. The problem with scientific research is that it is unpredictable. We cannot make accurate forecasts on something as inherently unpredictable as a breakthrough. The nonlinear nature of scientific research, however, has already yielded surprising results as scientist continue to reduce the amount of energy required to produce PV’s and important progress is being made in artificial photosynthesis. Holmgren’s advice, however is to not rely on the unpredictable nature of scientific research but rather to begin on a pathway that is already assured to predictably wean us off non-renewable energy and the centralized system it has created. If breakthroughs come, great. If not, we should have the Permaculture plan B already ready to go….to help us navigate a plan of creative descent when nature will force us to drastically downsize our ecological footprint.

An enlightening analysis which explores the Kaya Identity with respect to potential future pathways is given here.

Option 1. Techno Fantasy and Option 2. Green-tech Stability

There is no question that human ingenuity has created the world we live in today. However, as the impacts of the anthropocene accelerate, it is a race against time as human ingenuity is pitted against the very unintended consequences and progress traps arising out of the same ingenuity.  Whislt there is now a global technological effort to reduce our impacts, ranging from specific efforts such as the Blue Economy , Carbon War Room, The World Business Council Vision 2050 program, Re-inventing Fire, Cradle-to-Cradle, Circular Economy, Biomimicry to China and the US both announcing major cuts in Coal plants emissions, there is still no sense of true urgency, not the kind of wartime mobilization that Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says is necessary.

Alternative Energy Scaleup

Among the biggest questions for  the Techno Fantasy / Green Stability approach to work is this: Can scientists and engineers develop and scale up alternative energy solutions fast enough while meeting the new, strict clean energy constraints such as low embodied energy and low or no waste? Since hydrocarbons are responsible for already dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, this approach cannot use massive amounts of hydrocarbons to build these new clean technologies since it can lead to a tipping point.

The traditional alternative energy sources we have at our disposal are these:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Biofuel
  • Geothermal
  • Nuclear
  • Hydrogen

If the strategy is to maintain our current high energy consumption rates and replace the existing energy usage with new renewable ones, can any combination of these alternatives actually achieve complete replacement? To examine the feasibility of doing this, we need to look at current and projected global energy use and then find combinations of alternative energy sources that can meet demand. Can our existing technologies economically scale to these levels in the next one or two decades?

The Case of the Remarkable Success of the German Solar Industry

Germany has surprised the rest of the world. US policy makers and corporations have felt that nobody would pay higher prices for renewable energy and this has hampered the necessary policy changes to make widespread adoption possible. The Germans have proven the US wrong. They have shown that, in fact people are willing to pay higher monetary costs if they perceive the environmental return is greater. The governments aggressive policy change to embrace Solar Energy has resulted in a remarkable world record 44% of the global solar capacity as of 2012.  “One of the main drivers of the growth of the German solar industry has been guaranteed electricity prices, which is a good example of how governments can support the industry,” said Dr. Marko Delimar, IEEE Director of EMEA and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computing at the University of Zagreb. He adds: “This has a reverse effect as well – the photovoltaic producers are not equal participants in the electricity market, therefore work needs to be done for them to be prepared to participate in the market when this favorable treatment ends. This may happen much faster than expected, as in some countries like Spain or Greece, the regulatory photovoltaic support is already being stopped or slowed down.”

The German Solar Energy Success Story

Feed-In Tariffs – The Key to the success of Germany’s Renewable Energy Program

The German parliament adopted the “Renewable Energy Sources Act” on the 29th March of 2000 . This law was spearheaded by the late Hermann Scheer , one of the globes leading proponents of clean energy who developed the underlying concepts during the late 1980s and early 1990s and was able to convert his ideas into tangible policy results.

The law that gave priority to renewable energy sources, guaranteed access to the grid for renewables and included a comprehensive feed-in-tarrif system became known as “Scheers-Law” around the world. Today it has been introduced to some extent by over 60 countries and states around the globe. Scheers-Law has had the most impact commercialization of photovoltaic technology. In the middle of the last decade many companies around the world started to significantly increase their production capacity, driven mostly by demand in Germany as a result of Scheers-Law.

Since 2009 the prices for PV-solar systems have fallen by up to 70% and continue to decline and industry experts claim that photovoltaic & multi-kWh energy storage will become the cheapest source of electricy even in OECD countries by 2020. If this happens, it will lead to a profound restructuring of the entire world economy. In particuliar, fossil energy markets will lose significant market shares. Perhaps the enormous right wing funding of anti-renewable energy policies, principally coming from big oil sources is a reaction to the writing on the wall.

With 24.5 GW of PV-Solar capacity installed on more than 1 million roofs in Germany, the Germans feel they are just getting started. During one particuliarly dark & windy winter month in January 2012, PV-solar produced up to 7 GW or 10% of peak-load demand in Germany. When a deadly cold wave brought the fossil & nuclear dominated energy system of France close to collapse, german PV-solar kept many gas & oil fired powerplants offline, which significantly lowered the spot-prices at the European Energy Exchange.

Speaking at the Intersolar Europe 2012 trade fair in Munich, Germany, an expert panels of IEEE members, representing the world’s largest technical professional association dedicated to advancing technology, yesterday said that collaboration is key to develop the global solar energy marketplace. Solar capacity has more than quadruple between 2007 and 2010, rising from 9.5 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts.  Dr. Karl Weber, IEEE Member and Principal Expert Smart Grid, TUV Sud stated “Countries like Germany, US and China already have very good technical standards in place that support the growth of the solar market. They are also among the countries with the biggest investments to foster a rapid adoption and market penetration both among the business and household sectors. We need to share their experience with the rest of the world, especially with countries whose climate conditions are best suited for solar. Cooperation among all key market players, supported by international standards can definitely push this market to success”

Dr. Juris Kalejs, IEEE Member and CTO, American Capital Energy, emphasized that collaboration as the main ingredient in this recipe for success. ” innovation is a critical component to driving success in any industry but we are already looking at state of the art technologies in the renewable energy markets. We now need to work on preparing all markets to cope with this sophisticated level of innovation through international collaboration and cooperation. The smart grid will be critical to helping solar utilities understand where they need to distribute energy; by sharing best practices and data obtained through modelling, we can drive an efficient solar industry that works for all nations,” stated Dr. Kalejs.

“IEEE members are industry leaders around the world and drive discussion and partnership through our publications, conferences and workshops while leading the way with universally adopted standards that deliver more cost-effective and efficient solar implementation worldwide,” said IEEE President and CEO Gordon Day.

Can Renewable Energy sustain our Consumer Society? 

Dr. Ted Trainer, Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales derived a very important conclusion  in his paper for Simplicity Institute entitled: Can renewable energy sustain consumer society? A Negative Case.

The Conclusion from this paper states:

The general conclusion supported by this discussion is that the capital costs for a totally renewable global energy supply would be far beyond affordable. This means that greenhouse and energy problems cannot be solved by action on the supply side, i.e., by technical developments which promise to provide quantities taken for granted in energy intensive societies. This general “limits to growth” perspective is that these and the other major global problems can only be solved by action on the demand side, i.e., by moving to ways, values, institutions and systems which greatly reduce the need for materials, energy and ecological resources.

This analysis is not an argument against transition to full reliance on renewable energy sources. It is only an argument against the possibility of sustaining high energy societies on them. Trainer [113] and [114] detail the case that the limits to growth predicament cannot be solved by technical reforms to or within consumer capitalist society and that there must be radical social transition to some kind of ‘Simpler Way.’ 

This vision includes developing mostly small and highly self sufficient local economies, abandoning the growth economy, severely controlling market forces, shifting from representative to participatory democracy, and accepting frugal and cooperative lifestyles. Chapter 4 of Trainer [115] presents numerical support for the claim that footprint and energy costs in the realm of 10% of those in present rich countries could be achieved, based on renewable energy sources. Although at this point in time the prospects for making such a transition would seem to be highly unlikely, the need to consider it will probably become more evident as greenhouse and energy problems intensify. It is not likely to be considered if the present dominant assumption that high energy societies can run on renewable energy remains relatively unchallenged.

Option 3: Creative Descent


David Holmgren on Permaculture as the Reverse of Globalization

A decentralized Permaculture economy is one that, by design has the lowest embodied energy costs and one that returns power to the community level. In this approach, rather than try to find technological solutions that maintain a high energy lifestyle, we acknowledge that most advanced technology solutions require the same if not more embodied energy to create and may also face the same waste disposal issues. Ultmately, the only technologies that make sense are ones with low embodied energy and are cradle-to-cradle. We therefore dispense with a high energy lifestyle and learn to transition gracefully to a low energy one. The Permaculture approach works in harmony with the planetary ecosystem, not against it. It studies how it creates resources and how it handles waste. Mother earth has been doing these natural processes for billions of years. Acting in harmony with nature, instead of against it may be the ultimate lesson of the age of cheap energy.

The most obvious obstacle to Creative Descent is the already developed industrial technological infrastructure which created a culture heavily reliant on cheap, high density energy. How many people will be willing to give up their high energy trappings, reducing their energy dependency by 80 to 90% for this energy-reduced lifestyle?

Option 4 CRASH; The Business-As-Usual Scenario 

This is the scenario we do NOT want to see…carrying on Business-As-Usual. Unfortunately, the 30 years of data in the revisited Limits to Growth study show that from 1970 to 2000, this is EXACTLY the path we are currently on. Mainstream business is beginning to wake up to the danger and trying to steer clear of this trajectory but now, we are in a race against time.  A crash scenario may look something like this.

World Future Council Global Action Plan