One of the issues I alluded to in the previous post was our tenancy to bifurcate the future into positive and negative stereotypes – utopia or dystopia. This topic has come up a couple of times in the past week, so I thought a follow up post might be appropriate. The model I want to use to start this discussion was developed by Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson and you can find in the Journal of Futures Studies which places all of its material on the web free of charge.

The format of their model that I use in my work is below. The standpoint is today, and you can see from the chart that I start five years or so into the past, the first horizon is the world we know today, overtime it recedes and the seeds of the second and third horizons can be seen if you look. In the work we do, the third horizon is the future we are trying to create, the emerging signals of which exist today. It won’t be a straight line extrapolation from one to the other, instead there is what is known by the technical term of ‘the messy bit’ between us in the present and the future we are wanting to create. It is the messiness of the second horizon that derails many in their thinking about the future. We want the clean break from the past and to step into a future that is desired. Our ability to make straight line linkages between events in hindsight fools us into thinking this is possible when looking out to the future. My contention is that we currently need to develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures and that it is the role of the leader to navigate the messy bit from today to tomorrow.

The Three Horizons

The reason I am offering this model is that I have come across a couple of pieces of information over the past few days which illustrate the seeds of an emerging future and the dynamic I have just described. The first is a symposium in the Journal of Futures Studies in December 2011 where the discussion was around some work done on the possible futures of the global megacrisis. An initial piece of work was undertaken and then put out to comment to a number of futurists around the world. One piece in particular caught my eye by Michael Marien, an American futurist who had co-authored the initial piece of work, titled ‘The Megacrisis and the New Master Paradigm: Toward Shared Understanding‘ as he took issue with some of the comments made by contributors in the symposium. Through the lens of the three horizons, my reading of Marien’s piece was that a view of horizon three was offered up for comment and those who engaged with it either disagreed with the preferred future, wanting something else, or focussed on the messy bit and the possible problems that could derail the horizon three future. They were identifying signals of emerging futures they felt Marien and his co-author should take into account. Now Michael seemed to be upset that there was so much disagreement in the world of futurists, when the three horizon model is applied I see it as to be expected. Without being part of the creation of a preferred future, there is no reason to expect that people will agree with it, and even if agreement is evident, the signals of the emerging future which are prominent for people will be different, suggesting that there are a multiplicity of routes through the messy bit, hence the role for leadership.

The second piece of information that appears to be relevant to this is the confluence of climate change, peak oil and energy transformation that hit the blogosphere. The Archdruid had a lovely piece on denial. It included the work by David Korowicz on the sudden collapse of the financial system and what this would mean for the global economic system. This piece of work is well argued and makes some good points which support the plausibility of its scenario. Bloggers such as Dimity Orlov responded with commentary such as:

first and foremost, no matter who you are or where you are or how many wooden shekels you’ve squirreled away under your floorboards, don’t expect a soft landing. After reading this treatise, I am now more than ever convinced that sovereign debt default is not some sort of spring shower that passes and then the sun comes out again. If Korowicz is right—and he appears to have done his homework—then at some point what is now still a gradual process will lead to a sudden, irreversible, catastrophic disruption of daily life. (And looking at the reports coming out of Greece and Spain, imagining such a scenario no longer requires much of an imagination.) Korowicz does not have a lot to offer when it comes to practical adaptations to survive such a systemic breakdown, beyond stating the obvious, which I will repeat: “Initially the most exposed would be those with little cash at hand, low home inventories, mobility restrictions and weak family and community ties.” In other words, be prepared, and do your best to give yourself a chance.

The Archdruid argues that nation states have a history of stepping in at the stage of systemic collapse and references the nationalisation of banks in the US during the depression, the intervention of the German state in hyperinflation and I would add a quick look at Wikipedia lists many more examples. The desire to move from a limping, broken economy to a shiny, new one is strong and there is a tendency to want to see a quick shift from horizon one to three, but as the model and past human experience testifies, it is much more likely that we will limp along through the messy bit. Things will change but much more gradually than the proponents of systemic collapse suggest.

The third example is a confluence of ideas on the end of peak oil and climate change that I have written about previously, and a very good article on climate change by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone. McKibben highlights three numbers that we  should have in the backs of our minds at all times:

  1. 2 degrees Celsius which is the agreed bottom-line for global warming – it will include many climate related events and hardship for many countries, but it is the most we can afford the planet to warm.
  2. 565 gigatons which is the amount of carbon humanity can emit into the atmosphere and still have some hope of staying under the two degree level.
  3. 2,795 gigatons which is the potential carbon that would be emitted if the proven reserves of fossil fuels were to be utilised.

These three numbers outline the possible third horizon, if we burn all the fossil fuel that is open to us, we will have released five times as much carbon into the atmosphere as scientists think would be safe to stay under the warming target. Now all these numbers are rubbery as the climate system, fossil fuel reserves and emission/absorption rates of various systems are complex BUT they do give a good short hand for the scope of the issue. They are the parameters of the messy bit – just because energy companies can access 2,795 gigatons of carbon, knowing the possible outcome in the climatic system, should we demand that they do so? The usual response is to say we will move our energy infrastructure to renewable or hydrogen to keep economies going and leave the fossil fuels in the ground. I turn to my colleague, Josh Floyd and some work he has just had published on the worldviews of energy. One of the issues with moving to renewables is that they are not as energy dense as fossil fuels and our system assumes the continuation of this density.

we treat our demand patterns as given or inherent, rather than as a matter of contingent social (and techno-economic) construction. Industrial civilisation’s evolution in the context of cheap, convenient and energy-dense fossil fuels means that our established expectations have their own historical path dependence…growth in energy demand presupposes general growth in economic activity—and growth in economic activity is dependent on appropriate resource availability, especially energy resources. So questions related to meeting growing energy demand are inextricably interconnected with questions of resource availability. A global energy system founded primarily on non-renewable primary energy sources that are subject to depletion has critical implications here.

The signals of an emerging future in which the demand exceeds supply and the costs of improving infrastructure are prohibitive are already evident in places such as India which has recently experienced a massive blackout, with more than 600 million people in the northern and eastern parts of India losing power, putting roughly half of India’s population in the dark. The signs of what can happen in the face of extreme climate events is outlined in the New York Times, which documents the impact of this summer’s weather on infrastructure across the US:

Some utilities are re-examining long-held views on the economics of protecting against the weather. Pepco, the utility serving the area around Washington, has repeatedly studied the idea of burying more power lines, and the company and its regulators have always decided that the cost outweighed the benefit. But the company has had five storms in the last two and a half years for which recovery took at least five days, and after the derecho last month, the consensus has changed. Both the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md., have held hearings to discuss the option — though in the District alone, the cost would be $1.1 billion to $5.8 billion, depending on how many of the power lines were put underground.

The costs of moving our energy infrastructure to run off renewables will be immense, as outlined by Josh Floyd, at a time when we will be dealing with more and more impacts of climatic events:

The enormous infrastructural legacy supporting our transport expectations could not be shifted to a different fuel without commensurately large reinvestment in new physical capital. This has major energy demand implications. Consider, for instance, what would be required to fuel a significant proportion of this transport task with natural gas: either a) the prime movers (along with their fuel distribution infrastructure) would need to be modified or replaced in order to run directly on compressed or liquefied natural gas; or b) massive new gas-to-liquids processing capacity would be required, in concert with changes to prime movers to allow operation with such fuel. Either way, net fuel energy at point of use would be significantly less than gross primary energy associated with actual gas production, and it seems reasonable to expect that the proportional difference would be substantially greater than for present transport fuels.

This scenario can be played out in a similar way if we moved to hydrogen, or tried to retrofit huge amounts of solar/wind/wave into the existing grid. Josh suggests we need to calculate at the power return on energy invested or PROI for any sources of energy we might be looking at.

So we seem to be moving very quickly into the messy bit. The present as we understood it – abundant energy, growth and a climate that behaved itself is moving to a future in which none of these can be taken for granted. The question for all of us is what is the third horizon we are aiming for? There is no technology/cognitive development/ spiritual uplift that will save us. The myth of progress that we are all attached to was linked to our access to never before seen energy.

Within this myth, our present high energy civilisation is seen as an inevitable consequence of the forward march of human ingenuity. An entailment of this way of understanding the pathways by which we arrived in our current situation is that further progress is primarily a matter of further growth in ingenuity. If we’re faced with the limits of our current energy sources, the default assumption becomes one in which those limits will inevitably be transcended by innovations in energy conversion systems. Living within this myth, it is essentially unthinkable that our present era of energy abundance might be an historical anomaly and that the energy available to us—along with the industrial civilisation that it makes possible—might be headed towards decline.

We have what is to hand here and now – our ability to utilise foresight and adapt to change. As Lewis Carroll once said ” if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” and for many of us some of these roads will lead to a great deal of pain.  If we can develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures which take into account the signals of emerging change which appear to be amongst us, we might be halfway there because if we know where we are aiming for, and we can start to make some conscious decisions about how we might navigate the messy bit.