I can think of few better topics for scenario-based analysis than peak oil. The mechanism (decline of petroleum production levels) is straightforward, but the timeline is highly uncertain; plausible results range from disastrous to transformative, with little chance that just ignoring the problem is the best path; it's arguably quite sensitive to technological development; and its impact will be felt at both the micro level of individual households and the macro level of global politics.
It's unlikely that there will be a consistent international response to the clear onset of peak oil. Rather, each country, and potentially regions within countries, will respond in different ways. Some will adopt a laissez-faire, market-based approach; others will see it as an opportunity for relentless top-down intervention. Earlier this year, the Irish sustainability non-profit FEASTA (profiled here a year ago) and Irish scenario planning consultancy Vivid Logic joined forces to run a scenario planning project looking at the impact of peak oil on Ireland. The preliminary results are now available at Energy Scenarios Ireland (ESI).
As the graphic illustrates, ESI uses a four-box model, where two divergent "axes of uncertainty" determine the broad shape of the scenarios. The two axes chosen by the ESI workshop are simple but useful: does the oil peak happen in the near term (2007) or the long-term (2030); and is the primary response by the Irish government reactive or proactive? Those two variables give us four very different worlds.
FEASTA took the four worlds -- Business As Usual, Enlightened Transition, Fair Shares and Localisation -- and ran them through their "ECCO Model," which builds out economic and energy projections; these model results became the base for each scenario.
Energy Scenarios Ireland is compelling, detailed and -- like every scenario project -- wrong. As the ESI site notes, no government will be as aggressively interventionist as the Enlightened Transition scenario, nor as hands-off as the Localisation scenario. Moreover, these scenarios make some assumptions that many of us, myself included, would disagree with, including global warming having little impact other than stormier weather through 2050, and no radical leaps in technologies related to energy, manufacturing or agriculture. Of course, given the level of uncertainty in those issues, they'd have to have their own scenario workshops.
But the goal of scenario projects is not to predict the future, it's to give the present-day a way to analyze decisions. What strategies would be robust across more than one scenario? What would make the bad scenarios worse, and what could we do now to soften their blow? The truism of scenario planning is that none of the worlds will be completely accurate, but the real future will contain recognizable elements of them all. In the case of the Energy Scenarios for Ireland, the underlying purpose is even simpler: to catalyze public discussion of the issue of peak oil. FEASTA and Vivid Logic aren't declaring to the Irish public "this is what will happen," they're saying "here are some examples of what might happen, what can we do about it?"
I think this is a tremendously useful strategy for introducing the peak oil concept to a larger audience. As I've expressed before, the apocaphile tendency among some peak oilers tends to shut off discussion by declaring that we're doomed, and that's final. Instead, an approach that says "here is a range of outcomes, and they're heavily dependent upon our choices" is both more accurate and more attractive. I strongly encourage people involved in the peak oil debate undertake their own scenario workshops; information about how the process works can be found here.
The Energy Scenarios Ireland project is still a work-in-progress, and will be worth returning to in the weeks and months to come. This is a discussion that will become more heated as we get closer to the peak, and projects like ESI will help us focus on solutions. I applaud efforts to bring illumination and choice to a debate that is far too often a kind of dark eschatology.
I would venture that individual and community action in preparation for the end of cheap oil is roughly the same regardless of which scenario turns out to be closest to reality. Indeed, the presence of community action (seemingly in preparation for a worst-case scenario) may spur a proactive governmental and institutional response when there would otherwise only be a reactive response. Therefore, as helpful as illumination and choice are, it may also be important to emphasize action rather than debate. While communication and discussion are necessary to inform and organize action, there is a risk of these becoming ends unto themselves, and preventing possible diverse accomplishments--regardless of whether they are spurred by optimism or pessimism.