Energy Descent from Peak Oil: Collapse or Evolution?

2009•11•13 Brendan F.D. Barrett Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

There is an unhealthy tendency to categorise environmentalists and members of the peak oil community as ‘doom and gloomers’ predicting the end of the world.

Most recently, Alex Steffen at World Changing jumped into the debate, claiming that the leaders of the Transition movement talk “cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly” or about expecting to see “a big population die-off”.

While there are comments to such effect sprinkled amongst peak oil literature and found in some of the recent documentaries on the topic (End of Suburbia, Blind Spot, etc.), it is unfair and incorrect to associate such ideas primarily with the Transition movement. Indeed, this kind of doom and gloom seems to dominate popular culture via Hollywood today, with a series of end-of-the-world or post-apocalyptic movies about to fill our screens — The Road, 2012 and the Book of Eli.

Rather than criticising the Transition movement, Alex Steffen should perhaps have reviewed the new documentary, featuring Michael Ruppert and entitled Collapse, and used it as the focus of his critique. This documentary is certainly a no-holds-barred, alarm-sounding look at peak oil and other topics, portraying “an apocalyptic future”.

If anything, the movement’s focus is the exact opposite of the world envisioned by Ruppert. Transitioners talk about human ingenuity and creativity, and argue that they will not disappear in the face of adversity and resource scarcity. Rather, ingenuity and creativity will remain the core human qualities guiding and shaping our transition to a better, post-fossil fuel world.

Four future scenarios

I think you really have to look at the work of one of the originators of permaculture, David Holmgren, to get a clear idea of why this “collapse scenario” can at times get associated with the Transition movement. In his recent book, Future Scenarios, Holmgren outlines four potential ways in which our global society could respond and adapt to peak oil and climate change.


He begins by presenting the idea of a technological explosion, where we find some fantastic new energy source, continue on our current trajectory and go forth to colonise space. This is also described as the Star Trek scenario.

Next, he describes the techno-stability scenario where we shift over to green, renewable technologies and somehow manage to retain pretty much the same quality of life that we enjoy today in the industrialized world. This is by far the predominant scenario in the minds of most of our greener leaders and environmentalist friends.

The third scenario is really at the heart of the Transition movement and is called the energy descent scenario. It involves the reduction of economic activity, complexity and population in some way as fossil fuels are depleted. That “some way” is not a mass die-off in a short period of time. Rather, the timescale of the energy descent could be over decades or indeed centuries, so it could include naturally decreasing birth rates (much like we find in Japan, Russia, Italy and many other countries today).

The fourth scenario is the headline grabber and the one, it appears, that gets the attention of Alex Steffen. It is the collapse scenario (also known as the Mad Max scenario) and it implies that our existing societal and industrial systems breakdown. The collapse is rapid and continuous, there is no time for society to stabilize, an inevitable major die-off of human population occurs, as does the loss of our modern knowledge. No one in the Transition movement, or anywhere else, wants this scenario to visit our future. It should remain in our imaginations, not our reality.

The question here is why Steffen does not give a more measured discussion of the Transition movement and does not discuss the merits of energy descent, the preferred scenario of many in the movement? The answer may be because this scenario is largely ignored. To use Holgrem’s own words, it is a scenario that is seen as “unrealistic, defeatist and politically counter-productive.”

What the Transition movement has done, or is trying to do, is to turn this perception around and view energy descent as a positive process whereby people are freed from the “strictures and dysfunctions of growth economics and consumer culture.” Following this path, what awaits us all is a better world.

The long goodbye to growth economics

The use of emotive language like “collapse” or James Howard Knustler’s “Long Emergency” is designed to try to awaken people to the new reality of a world altered by peak oil and climate change. Most of us are in denial and actively seeking to be further disconnected from this reality.

But as Steffen rightly points out, “collapse is not a social change”. In response, I would say that a global energy transition — a global energy descent — is exactly that and it starts wherever people are aware and active.

Of course, it would be ideal if global energy transition starts with binding international agreements, national energy and climate plans and local action, but why wait for the snail-paced global climate negotiations to deliver? Now is the time to act. Today’s actions could have the benefit of extending the time period over which the descent needs to take place, thereby giving us more to time to adapt and as a result lessening the pain of changing and increasing our opportunities to be creative.

In many respects Jeff Rubin, former chief economist and chief strategist at CIBC World Markets, seems to have captured the spirit of the transition we are all involved in. In his book Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, he suggests that the market will make a lot of decisions about how the transition will occur. As oil prices rise again to triple digits, it will be the market driving social changes, not the environmentalists.

For as long as possible, we will continue to exploit the available and expensive-to-extract remaining oil. We will employ as much alternative, renewable energy as we can, as quickly as we can. Then our priorities will shift to using what energy we have in the most cost effective and efficient ways. This will be followed by greater efforts to do more with less energy and so on.

The longer term could see a kind of reverse globalisation as everything is grown and manufactured closer to home, which in turn would help reduce our carbon emissions. This might not be a smooth transition and could be characterised by recessions like the current one, followed by recoveries, and if we still have not figured out the mess we are in, followed by new recessions mainly triggered by rising energy costs.

The earlier we wake up to this new reality and the quicker we start pulling in the same direction, the sooner and easier we may be able to ensure a soft-landing in a low carbon, post-fossil fuel world. Hopefully, it will still be a world where we have oil, but treat it carefully and do not use it in the wasteful, mindless way we do today.

This is a matter of evolutionary change that we are talking about. Isn’t evolution something to strive for?

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Energy Descent from Peak Oil: Collapse or Evolution? by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Brendan F.D. Barrett

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a senior lecturer in Sustainability and Urban Planning at RMIT University. His professional career includes work in the private sector, academia and with international organizations. He uses the web and information technologies as a means to communicate, teach and undertake research on issues of environment and human security. Prior to joining RMIT he worked in the United Nations for close to 20 years with UNEP and the UN University (UNU). He is a visiting researcher at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo, Japan, and a visiting associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    Yes! Evolution is indeed worth striving for, and your article does a compelling job laying out an inspiring scenario. I thank you for that, Brendan. Some months back I joined the Transition US group but never really followed through with participating. Having read your post, I will re-engage. Keep up the great work!

  • Education_Crusader

    I still see collapse as the most likely scenario in most of the world – especially the US. Too many people think that God will provide and will refuse to act.

    Too many people refuse to see the changes coming, too many gun-loving tinfoil wearing faux-survivalists think they can live in the post-apocalyptic world because they’ve never had to fight off roving hoards of starving people, and too many people think that asking them to be a generalist rather than a specialist is asking way too much of them – they don’t want to grow their own food – that’s what the grocery store is for dammit!

    Factor in the profiteering and greed that drives the growth economy and those haves will not easily relinquish their possessions or their place of power and influence over the rest of us let alone their feelings of superiority – they despise the unwashed masses and the thought of asking them to be on an equal level to us is enough to make them try to reinstate feudalism and serfdom. 
    I’m a strong believer in permaculture and I preach the truths of ecological problem solving far and wide but I’m still not sold on mankind getting out of the way of itself. David has also described collapse as the Atlantis scenario – the idea is that pockets of people will survive, all knowledge will be lost or discarded and in thousands of years we’ll be spoken of as a imaginary society. 

  • BrendanBarrett

    Education Crusader,

    Thanks so much for your comment. Greatly appreciated. You are the second person in two days that has raised with me the high possibility of systemic collapse. Certainly the post 2008 economic difficulties, financial problems in the Eurozone and the recent renewed increase in oil prices tends to suggest that things are not getting better and we are in a long emergency. At the same time, the political situation in the US at the moment is very divisive, with little hope of the main parties ever working constructively on something together. 

    While few people still subscribe to the technology explosion (but there are some like Peter Diamandis –, there are many who consider that the techno-stability option is very possible, especially if the upcoming Rio+20 summit can provide renewed commitment towards sustainable development. 

    I am more inclined towards the energy descent as the most realistic option. Reducing our overall energy demand takes pressure off our resource use and the climate, as well as providing the opportunity to switch between energy sources and increase efficiency of use. This would be similar to the thinking of Amory Lovins and his Reinventing Fire idea, but is echoed in recent proposals from Greenpeace, WWF, and scientists/engineers like Mark Jacobson and Saul Griffith. 

    Powering down follows from the realization that oil supplies have reach a plateau, for instance. We are still, mostly, in denial of this fact. But if this gains widespread recognition soon then we will have no choice but to seek ways to do what we can with less energy.

    Well that’s not completely true. We have the choice to blindly continue with business as usual or to scramble for the remaining energy reserves. However, this choice only leads to a bad ending and you have to think that we are cleverer than that. Aren’t we?