Based on the Future Scenarios book by permaculturalist David Holmgren, the Lifeboats scenario envisions a world in which energy has peaked and extreme climate change has significantly knocked out political and economic systems. With the collapse of civilization, people are left to fend for themselves in a dystopian survivalist future.
This scenario presents a cautionary tale for a complete failure to act and adapt. Students in the Natural History of the Black River class at Oberlin College presented a dramatization of this scenario, captured in a mock film trailer. The story revolves around two students wandering the wild fringes of Oberlin, arguing about how to survive. One suggests going back to the land and growing food communally while the other rejects this plan and forges out on her own as a marauder. There is an element of surprise and panic in this scenario, as though the rapid collapse of current support systems took everybody by surprise. This speaks to the large-scale denial of climate-based science and stubborn resistance in responding proactively to ecological feedbacks.
This scenario can be seen today in countries with failed states and even to a lesser extent in some sections of post-industrial cities such as Cleveland or Youngstown. This is really the default scenario for collective inaction on critical energy and climate issues today.
Based on the Future Scenarios book by permaculturalist David Holmgren, the Earth Steward scenario assumes a peaking and subsequent collapse of carbon-based energy and a resulting reduction in carbon-emissions.
In this scenario, communities return to significantly more localized economies, collaborative networks, and simpler living, including local food systems, local energy, and human-powered transit. This scenario most closely resembles the vision of permaculture and advocates a more creative “energy descent” rather than a rapid collapse.
Students in the Natural History of the Black River course at Oberlin College created this mosaic of images of a day in the life of an Earth Steward future. With camera angles focused mostly on hands and legs, the film emphasizes a return to human-powered systems, including bikes, organic gardens, compost, and homemade meals savored around the table. The scenario also features alternative economic systems, represented two people bartering yarn for garden vegetables that get turned into the meal featured later in the film. There is still some energy use, as represented by the gas stove that could be powered off of methane captured from aerobically composting organic wastes.
This scenario embodies several initiatives already at play in Oberlin around campus-based food production and local food systems.
Based on the Future Scenarios book by permaculturalist David Holmgren, the Green Tech scenario assumes that the costs of carbon-based energy become prohibitive, motivating a large-scale shift to more green technologies, such as wind, solar, efficient cars, smart cities, and localized food systems.
Students in the Natural History of the Black River course at Oberlin College created this speculative radio broadcast of the year 2025 when Lorain County has experienced a boom in green-based industries and an economic renaissance around small businesses (including a solar manufacturer in Lorain and a bike manufacturer in Wellington) and local food systems. In this scenario, we have reduced carbon-based energy consumption and reduced carbon emissions. But the end of the radio broadcast reminds us that the impacts of climate change will still linger, even if we make a large-scale shift. This scenario is not too far off, as a number of former factories in northern Ohio have been converted to the manufacture of solar and wind energy components, including a solar company in Oberlin’s industrial park.
The question remains, can we muster the political and economic will to make this transition or will the entrenched forces of the carbon economy keep us down the Brown Tech route with accelerated long-term climate change.
Based on the Future Scenarios book by permaculturalist David Holmgren, the Brown Tech scenario presents a “business as usual” approach to energy use and climate.
This scenario assumes a future in which carbon-based energy extraction continues, leading to increased climate change. Expansion of deep-water oil drilling or exploitation of tar sands and the Keystone pipeline embody this scenario. Students in the Natural History of the Black River course at Oberlin College created a speculative public relations video for Oberlin College in 2025, after geology students at the college discovered rich oil and gas resources beneath the campus. The college exploits this energy to build its endowment and provides students with opportunities for hands-on learning through energy extraction. The college has been combined with the Oberlin Energy Corporation, where students have to work 40 hours a week extracting carbon-based energy to pay for their educations. The college spins it as “hands-on learning for the extractive economy” and even has formed an Extractive Studies Program to support it.
Far fetched? The scenario is a cautionary tale not just for carbon-based energy dependency, but the risks of increasing privatization of education. Just recently, one contender for the 2012 U.S. Presidency recently suggested that low-income children could pay for their educations by working as janitors for their own schools.