Intro to future scenarios & the post-carbon wilderness

I’ve been reading lots of books in the emerging genre of future environmental/societal/economic scenarios. These books are both calls for action and roadmaps into the uncharted wilderness of tomorrow. It’s much to early to predict which path our society will follow, but I can safely make the case that there won’t be just one scenario in play, but that hyper-locality will create a mosaic of best to worst cases (in fact we already live in such a world). So here is an introduction to the best and the worst of what the future may hold for humanity.

Scenario planning isn’t that new, governments and business have been using this process for decades. The UN seems to excel at generating scenarios, with the IPCC and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment laying out the foundations for most of the compelling environmental, population, economic, and energy futures.

millennium ecosystem assessment

What is new from these books, is the emergence of both citizen led and government led local action plans under the rubric of ‘transition towns’ and ‘climate action plans’

There seems to be a general consensus that human civilization and the planet face some combination of the following four scenarios:

business as usual

we don’t act (or act way too little, too late), and environmental problems generate more and more catastrophic impacts, and things get rather rough.

technological utopia

advanced alternative energy systems and policies save the day and our lives don’t have to change.


the soft landing where we create a new low energy civilization and live happily (sort of) ever after eating local foods and not traveling very far.


the crash where we don’t act and civilization end (except for a few small places) once oil becomes scarce.

A few other variations of the middle paths are:


I’ll be dedicating several posts about resilience and regeneration soon. So moving on:

ruralized cities

Detroit is the poster child for the future of food production in cities that have lost population. Many cities around the world, like havana, are increasing their food production to accommodate other economic hardships.

gated cities/districts

these already exist in many places as the wealthy exclude the have-nots (except those hired as servants). peak-oil will exacerbate this phenomina and the increasingly isolated top 2% will be shielded from most impacts.

Synthesis of peak-oil and climate change predictions

there doesn’t seem to be many folks that merge these scenarios. To take a quick stab at it, it looks like peak oil might limit atmospheric CO2 to 385 – 400 ppm depending on how quick oil prices spike. The good news is that this eliminates the worst case scenario in the short term. Perhaps this even means that the global destruction of biodiversity will stop too as resource extraction comes will likely halt when oil prices spike. But there is likely going to be localized destruction as cities empty out into adjacent hinterlands and previously open space is turned agricultural to feel local populations (where ever possible).


Some of the books I’ve been reading on this topic are:

Other scenario resources:

Its also worth sharing a little methodology – so here’s how the Federal Highway Administration‘s bureaucratic process for transportation scenarios:

On closing, a few thoughts on the possible ends of the world from open the On the chart below, the worst caseĀ  that I can imagine occurring is perhaps a 1 and most of the scenarios listed in this post are closer to a zero ..

2 thoughts on “Intro to future scenarios & the post-carbon wilderness

  1. Great post, Professor.

    I’ve been reading through this same “emergent genre”. Glad to hear someone else is thinking about this within a design context. I’m finding these converging realities are strangely separated in my courses at the UMn.

    Are you willing to come out and state your own personal leaning as to what way it may go? Not looking for a Kunstler-esque prophesy but an educated leaning.

    Also curious to hear what you might be thinking, within a contraction context, what role, and how to, insert a ‘designed’ reaction to contraction.

    This was a great and timely post. I’m sending it off to everyone I can think of.


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