Responding to the Millennium Project’s Energy Challenge

An article providing a broad overview of the territory being explored at Beyond this Brief Anomaly has just has just been published in the Journal of Futures Studies (JFS):

Floyd, J. 2012, ‘Responding to the Millennium Project’s Energy Challenge: a futurist’s perspective’, vol. 16, no. 4, pp.21-32.

The journal is open access—click on the link above to open the pdf version on the JFS website. The article is part of a special issue of JFS comprising contributions from the Australasian Node of the Millennium Project for the 2011 State of the Future Report. Other articles from colleagues in the Australian futures and foresight practitioner community are available here.

Publication of this issue of the journal was a little delayed; it turns out though that the timing is quite serendipitous—the article acts as both a reasonable summary of some of the territory we’ve covered recently, and an introduction to the areas into which the inquiry will be heading shortly.

Just to put the article into its original context, it is specifically intended as a response to the nature of the Millennium Project’s coverage of its Challenge 13: Energy. The 2010 summary report on this challenge to which the response is specifically directed has since been replaced by the 2011 summary. This is updated on an annual basis in line with the report, and so by the time you’re reading this, it may be different again. Suffice to say, though, that to date, the observations and recommendations that I make in the article are not reflected in any way in those changes, and so it’s pretty likely that my response would apply to whatever the current version is on the Millennium Project website. And yes, I appreciate the implications of this for the article’s fitness-for-purpose as a contribution to the Millennium Project! Still, I did have a bigger picture in mind than writing just for that forum—if you’re reading this now, then you’re part of the process of sketching out that picture in more detail. (I understand also that all submissions from the Australasian Node are included in full on the CD that accompanied the 2011 Report).

I’d welcome any comments or feedback.


The Millennium Project poses the question “How can growing energy demand be met safely and efficiently?” From a perspective grounded in critical and epistemological futures inquiry, this subsumes three further questions: 1) what is the nature of our changing energy demand; 2) what might it mean to meet this ‘safely’; and 3) what might it mean to meet our demand ‘efficiently’? These issues must be grappled with if we wish to address the framing question comprehensively. This leads beyond an instrumental approach to our energetic challenges focused on energy sources and conversion technologies, by sweeping these within a higher-order approach based on developing the institutions through which we mediate between human aspirations and energy use. From this institutional viewpoint, we may well serve our collective interests better by making the design principles of safety and efficiency subsidiary to those of resilience and sufficiency.

Key words:

Millennium project, state of the future, energy demand, energy use, epistemological futures study, contradictory certainties, participatory process, institutional development, World Energy Outlook, unconventional gas, peak oil, EROI, resilience, sufficiency, efficiency, rebound effect, environmental benignity.

3 thoughts on “Responding to the Millennium Project’s Energy Challenge

  1. Thanks Josh. Very much appreciate your insightful (and catchy) alternative refrain to ‘safety and efficiency’, in the form of ‘resilience and sufficiency’. And in turn your concluding suggestion that ‘searching for technical means that provide safety and efficiency will need to become subsidiary to developing institutional means that provide resilience and sufficiency.’ Couching all this within such a comprehensive research base, and a genuine concern for the ongoing relevance of the Millennium Project, makes for a typically appreciative and thorough analysis.

    As someone ‘outside’ the ‘futures’ field, and given i perceive my work certainly shares plenty of common ground, i enjoyed the insight you provided into the field. And your insights into some of the ‘contradictory certainties’ were fascinating. The conceptual ‘gap’ in the IEA’s analysis was quite staggering to read in some ways, particularly the absence of any mention of ‘net energy’ in last year’s World Energy Outlook. Of course, the extent of my surprise is relative to my background, where i had not come across or engaged in analysis of this kind of the IEA before.

    On another note, it has fascinated me for some time that we often speak of ‘oil production’ for example. Surely we can’t consider that we ‘produce’ the oil, or the energy associated with it?

    Thanks again Josh, a valuable piece for which i’m grateful.

    • Anthony, thanks for reading and glad to hear you found it worthwhile. The gap in IEA’s analysis is by no means restricted to that organisation alone–it’s a more general reflection of established conventions for thinking about energy; IEA is just (one of) the more prominent players involved in reproducing those conventions. But you’ll find the same observation applies to Australia’s energy accounts, as discussed in various other posts that draw on the Energy in Australia annual publications. With respect to oil production, have a look at the intro to the section on World Energy Production in this post, I think that will clarify things. ‘Oil production’ is exactly the right terminology, in the same way that it’s conventional to talk about production of any natural resource i.e. it’s the material in its recovered form that is produced. I agree though that there’s much confusion associated with using the term ‘energy’ as a proxy for ‘energy sources’, which is usually what’s going on when you see references to ‘energy production’ in an economic context. That’s an issue that I’ve looked at extensively over a number of recent posts, and the underlying issue–the extremely abstract nature of the energy concept, what this means for how we think and communicate about energy, and the practical implications of this–is a central theme of Beyond this Brief Anomaly.

  2. Pingback: The economic view of systemic efficiency: rebound and backfire—Jevons’ legacy | Beyond this Brief Anomaly

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