Unleashing Abundance as a Community Response to Peak Oil:
Designing Energy Descent Pathways
By Rob Hopkins
Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by travelling. (Spanish proverb)
There is an emerging consensus now that we are either very close to or have passed the peak in world oil production. As someone who has been involved in environmental issues for 16 years, and permaculture for 13 years, I have to ask myself how I didn't see this one coming (although I know some of you did!). The implications are profound. No longer is it in any way appropriate to say 'we need to recycle,' when the processes of recycling require transporting recyclable waste long distances. We have to look much deeper at the whole waste question. An excellent recent report by Tim Lang and Jules Pretty, 'Farm Costs and Food Miles: An Assessment of the Full Cost of the UK Weekly Food Basket,' argued that food could only be called sustainable when it is grown and consumed within a 20-mile radius. We have to build a local food economy from an almost totally non-existent base. There has been no time in history when anything less than 70% of the population were involved in some way in the production of food. Nowadays it is more like 6% (here in Ireland, for example), and of those, a high proportion would have lost much of that knowledge. "Green" building that relies on imported "ecological" materials from other countries will no longer be viable, leading to our needing to rethink how we will actually construct energy-efficient shelter in a lower energy near future. We are looking at the need for a rapid process of re-localisation, of looking at what is essential to our lives (food, warmth, shelter, water) and rebuilding the local economy in such a way that it is actually able to supply these. The process of dismantling our diverse and complex local economies over the last 50-60 years was a disastrous one. It was easy to take apart but it will be incredibly hard to rebuild.
The recent award winning film The End of Suburbia (reviewed in the Activist issue #58) takes a very sobering look at the whole peak oil issue. It makes very clear that the problem is of a scale that is almost unimaginable, and that the solutions are really not in place at all, or indeed anywhere near being so. We are so dependent on oil for every aspect of our lives, that its gradual (or rapid, depending on who you listen to) but steady disappearance from our lives will force us to redesign everything about our communities and our own lives. We need to relearn the skills that sustained our ancestors: crafts, local medicines, the great art of growing food. This is the biggest challenge.
My introduction to all this came through meeting Dr. Colin Campbell. He lives in Ballydehob in West Cork, where I was living until recently, and sets up and runs the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. He worked in the oil industry for more than 30 years, and since his retirement has devoted himself to researching the real picture in terms of oil availability (how much is left, where it is and so on) through the vehicle of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), which he founded. It is Colin who has really brought the awareness of Peak Oil to the world's atten-tion, tirelessly travelling the globe, lecturing governments, invest-ment bankers, energy experts, telling them all the same thing, "We are about to peak, and you need to re-evaluate what you are doing, because it is going to change everything." His life story and his case for peak oil are set out in his latest book, Oil Crisis.
Last September Colin came into Kinsale FEC where, until last June I taught the Practical Sustainability course, the first two-year, full-time permaculture course in the world (as far as I know), which I set up in 2001. He came to talk to my second-year permaculture students, who had seen The End of Suburbia the previous day. Colin gave them an introduction to petroleum geology, how and where oil forms, and then went on to look at how much is left and where it is. His presentation was so thorough and well founded in his deep knowledge of the oil industry that his findings were compelling. It was a real eye opener for me and for the students and a great topical and practical enhancement to the permaculture curriculum. I met a friend the following week who asked, "What did you do to your students? They all looked ill for the rest of the week!"
This led on to our planning of the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan project. The term 'Energy Descent' was originally used by ecologist Howard T. Odum in his book, A Prosperous Way Down, and was picked up and used by David Holmgren in his Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. It refers to the time beyond the peak, the downward trend in energy availability. Holmgren makes the point that we need to plan for this descent, rather than simply allowing it to unfold in a series of random and chaotic events. This point is also made by Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon Future, in which he calls for a planned descent, an international response to peak oil on the same scale as a wartime mobilisation, to begin building a low energy future.
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This book builds on the extraordinary success of the permaculture concept and global permaculture movement (over the last 25 years), to provide a more cerebral and controversial contribution to the sustainability debate. David Holmgren is an ecological pioneer destined to have a major influence on permaculture's evolution.
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A cross-section of community members invested a day planning energy descent for the next 16 years in Kinsale, Ireland.
Another inspiration for me around this time was a talk I went to by a woman from a very dynamic community development group for a small town in decline in the north of Ireland. They felt farming was dying, and they wanted a new direction for the town with a sustainability focus. What they did was bring in a sustainability "expert" who told them that they needed to develop 'eco-tourism', and that that would be a sustainable replacement for farming. I was horrified by this; it seemed to me to be taking all the community's eggs out of one basket and putting them into another, which was somehow better because it had an "eco-" tag on it. Also, all the ideas had come from the "expert" rather than the community itself. I thought that actually a lot more would have been achieved by running a permaculture design course for the people in the village and letting the ideas come from them.
As the students and myself started looking around at the books available on the subject we decided that what was lacking were examples of towns that had actually started to look at this issue. Had anyone actually started to design pathways down from the peak for a settlement anywhere in the world? Cuba is an often-cited example, but we have to remember that Cuba was forced to localise by circumstance (the Russian oil that had supported the country until that point being no longer available), and a friend who visited there recently expressed a feeling that there was no great enthusiasm for it among many people.
There are also some very interesting comparisons with the period immediately before and during the Second World War in the U.K. and elsewhere. This was a national powerdown on a huge scale, with 10% of the nation's food being grown on allotments and private gardens. Although much has changed since then, there are some very important lessons that can be learned from it. What we wanted was to create an example (as we were unable to find one in practice) of a town looking at what peak oil will actually mean to them, and to vision how they want a low-energy future to be. As there was no pathway for this in place, we had to make one up.
Starting from Scratch
The first thing we did was to visit a number of good permaculture/organic projects in the West Cork area for ideas and inspiration, but also to talk to their proprietors about what they saw as being practical responses to energy descent that they felt were tried and tested. That proved to be very interesting, and gave us some useful insights. We heard about the practical realities of making a living growing organic vegetables for local markets and how a changing economy would make that more viable. We heard about the realities of living off the grid, and the financial implications of doing so. We saw the practicalities of people trying to put the first building blocks in place, and their visions for how things might change. We began to envision a three- to four-year process of community consultation, education, and awareness-raising, combined with practical implementation of projects on the ground and the formulation of a timetable plan for making this transition. This plan was christened the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan. The idea was that this year's second year students would produce the first draft, which would then be put out to the community for consultation. Then the following year's students would revise the document and update it. We felt that it would take about three years to produce something nearing a definitive document, although there would always be a need for the plan to adapt to developments, to be "tweaked."
We had brainstorms on each of the different areas we identified for the Action Plan. These included food, youth & community, education, housing, economy and livelihoods, health, tourism, transport, waste, energy, and marine resources. Future years may add new categories to this, but it seemed a good starting list. We made mind maps of the issues raised and possible solutions to them. We also invited speakers into the class who had a lot of knowledge on some of these topics.
On Saturday, February 12, 2005 we held an event in Kinsale called 'Kinsale in 2021 - Towards a Prosperous, Sustainable Future Together', which took place at Kinsale Town Hall. The event was presented as a "community think-tank" in order to hear the community's ideas about how energy descent would affect it and what might be done in response. Before the event we sent personal invitations to the people in Kinsale whom we had identified as being the movers and shakers in the town, drawn from the sectors identified above. We also left the event open to the public and put posters up around the town. From the 60 people invited, about 35 turned up on the day. The event itself was opened by the Mayor of Kinsale, Mr. Charles Henderson, who spoke of the importance of energy as an issue and how it affects all aspects of our lives and our economy. This was followed by a screening of The End of Suburbia.
After the film, Thomas Riedmuller, who teaches community leadership at Kinsale FEC, introduced the concept of open space as a tool for facilitating such events. Open space is based on the idea that the most productive discussion and idea sharing at any event happens during the tea breaks. Open space is, in essence, a long tea break, where groups are formed to discuss certain issues, and everyone is free to move between discussion groups, based on the four principles of open space: Whoever comes are the right people; Whatever happens is the only thing that could have; Whenever it starts is the right time; and When it's over it's over. Those assembled took to the open-space model with great enthusiasm, and it was extremely productive. People were invited to identify the specific problems and issues that the film raised for them. These were then recorded on large sheets of paper and pinned up on the wall. These were then collated into subject areas, and each of these became the basis for a discussion group. The groups covered the following subjects: food, rebuilding communities, youth group/education, business and technology, tourism, and renewable energy.
The groups came up with a wealth of ideas and possibilities that were then fed back to the rest of the participants afterwards. The feedback after the day was very good. We learned a few lessons from the event that would be helpful for people doing it again. First, a lot of people sent apologies that they would have liked to have come, but they were just too busy to give up a whole day. We found it difficult to come up with another model though, because for us it worked very well to show the film and then have the discussions straightaway while the feeling of urgency that the film engenders was still fresh in our minds. We were able, thanks to the generosity of many cafes and restaurants in Kinsale who sponsored the event, to put on a sumptuous spread for lunch, which people loved, and which kept the energy of the event high. We wondered if it might have been better to have had a few screenings of the film in the community first, so some people could have seen it in advance one evening, and thus wouldn't have had to give up so much of their time to attend the discussion. We found open space an excellent tool for getting people talking in a relaxed and informal way.
The Action Plan
After the event, we collated the information that had come in from the day, and pairs of students selected from among the different subject areas. I supplied a wealth of reading material for background research, and the students did a lot of Internet research of useful ideas and examples from around the world. The final result is the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan - Version 1.2005, which is our first attempt at a year-by-year plan for the town. Each section of the report begins with a section called "The Present". This attempts to summarise the problem now, in 2005, with regards to the subject in question. This is followed by "The Vision", which is written in such a way as to give the reader an idea of how Kinsale could be, if all the recommendations up to that point had been implemented. Part of the challenge with permaculture is how we convey to people the concept that a lower energy future could be preferable, more fulfilling, and more abundant than the present. This section aims to do that, so that people can see in their minds' eye what it would look like.
This is then followed by a list of suggestions and recommendations in chronological order. These are meant to be ambitious but also achievable, given a good deal of motivation and support. Each section is then rounded off with a collection of resources and Internet links. The last section of the Action Plan is a proposal for a Kinsale Sustainability Centre. The idea is that the Centre would be formed with the brief of implementing the Action Plan. The Sustainability Centre would act as a focus for the work, running courses and training, but would also provide a service, offering initiatives such as an urban market garden. (A pdf of the final report can be downloaded from www.transitionculture.org).
Our intention is for this year's second-year students to take the Plan as it is and develop it further. We hope to set up a series of think-tank events, like the Kinsale 2021 day, but which are more specific to different areas of the Plan; for example one on health, where they would invite all the people in Kinsale working in the field, and another on education, inviting teachers, parents and other people with an involvement. These events would be based around what has already been proposed in the Plan, but getting feedback as to how practical our suggestions might be. These events would serve a dual purpose. First, they'd act as an essential community sounding board for the Plan's ideas, and second, they would open doors into the community for the project. All kinds of new practical projects would be proposed and contacts made. They would also serve to bring this work to the community, rather than expecting it to come to us, or sitting around thinking "Why is no one doing anything?" The great thing about being based in a college doing this work is that you can call on 30 pairs of hands if the feeling is to go and build a garden somewhere. Thirty pair of hands get a lot done!
The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan has been very well received. Reviewing it for Permaculture Magazine, Patrick Whitefield described it as a "remarkable piece of work" and continued to "recommend their plan to people everywhere who would like to see some positive action happen in their own community." Despite its not been conducted by professionals or by a respected research organisation, it has touched a chord and excited lots of people with its possibilities. It had no external funding other than the ability to use the college facilities. However, I think what was created in the Plan is a very important and far-reaching piece of work. It does something that I think is very bold and powerful. It invites people to look beyond where we are now, and beyond simply allowing events to unravel, and to look towards where they would like to be. It allows people to dream, but not in a woolly, ungrounded way. It is rooted in practicality; we are creating the building blocks, and we can't put the second one in place before the first. In the same way that in permaculture design we aim to make our mistakes on paper first so as to avoid costly mistakes in the landscape, with the Energy Descent Action Plan we aim to clarify a step-by-step way down, so as to best focus our energies.
I also think it is important to be realistic. For example, I don't imagine that anything approaching a majority of the population would embrace this approach yet. However, what we can do is start putting in place the infrastructure that will be needed (seed saving clubs, protecting a certain proportion of land in urban areas from development, preserving skills and knowledge, teaching skills to younger people, creating community compost schemes so we have a resource of compost for growers). When people say "but where will our fruit come from?", we can say "from the five-acre orchard over there that we planted seven years ago." We can begin to build systems around people. At the same time we need to engage them as much as possible, and see our work as being of service. This is fascinating work and should be started in every settlement. It is big-picture thinking, town-scale permaculture, and needs to be rolled out across the country as a matter of great urgency.
The Action Plan was completed and printed in June 2005. Around that time we held a conference at Kinsale FEC called Fuelling the FutureÑthe Challenge and Opportunity of Peak Oil. It was very successful, and brought together speakers such as David Holmgren, Richard Heinberg, Colin Campbell, Richard Douthwaite, and myself. It looked at peak oil, but also at the solutions. As well as the main speakers there were a number of smaller breakout sessions on permaculture, food, energy, building, local economics, and so on (all of the main speakers can be heard at www.fuellingthefuture.org). Many people said they had never been to a conference on peak oil that they had left feeling so positive. Two of the students who graduated from the permaculture course at Kinsale are looking to set up a consultancy called Transition Design, working with communities and councils to set up energy descent action plans. Their idea is that towns are helped to work through certain criteria to earn the accolade of being a "Transition Town." Work has also begun on Version 2 of the Action Plan.
And me? After ten years living in Ireland I handed the 2006 permaculture course over to colleague Graham Strouts and returned to Devon in the UK to pursue a Ph.D. on this whole topic. It feels to me like the most essential work I can be doing at this point in history. Also I feel it is important to counter some of the more lurid catastrophe scenarios being put out by some in the peak oil movement. I see peak oil as the great opportunity, the chance finally to create the world we have been talking of for years. In my research now, I am putting together a book (as well as the Ph.D.) which will explore what I call the head, the heart and the hands of energy descent. The head means the factual understanding of peak oil, what it is and what it means, as well as the economics and politics of localisation. The heart refers to an area pretty much unexplored in the peak oil literature: how do we tell people and communities about this stuff without them retreating further into fear and denial? How do we present something so potentially catastrophic as a positive choice and opportunity? Some of the answers to this question can be found in eco-psychology, some in the works of Joanna Macy, Ken Jones, Tom Atlee, and others, people exploring the area of turning trauma into action, despair into empowerment. I feel it is an essential part of this work, as giving people bad news and expecting them to do something has clearly not worked for the environmental movement in the past. We need a new approach.
The hands refers to the practical work of grassroots led responses to peak oil. Energy descent action planning could be the model, but the Natural Step and the Global Action Plan have something to contribute as proven methods for inspiring communities to change their practices. Also, how much food will the settlement need and where will it come from? What structures are best for promoting energy independence? Once you start to think about them, the practical implications and the list of questions are huge. What I hope to do is produce a set of principles and a toolkit of techniques that can be used anywhere. The focus of the work will be the designing and undertaking of a transition process for the town of Totnes, in Devon, where I now live. As part of this work I have set up a website, www.transitionculture.org, where I will post findings, links, ideas, and references as I proceed with this research. The site also has archives of other useful information. I hope to have the book finished by next Autumn. The Totnes process will begin around the same time, once the process has been carefully designed.
The advent of peak oil offers those people who have long envisioned a more sustainable world the opportunity to step forward and start building the world of their dreams. To retreat into an attitude of "Well it's not worth it, we're doomed," is to deny our own potential. In the speech that Nelson Mandela gave when released from prison, he said, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us." Energy descent action plans, or whatever approach to this challenge we ultimately devise, offer us a vision for embarking on a great journey and for unleashing both permaculture's and our own untapped potential. It is time now that we roll up our sleeves.
For more information visit www.fuellingthefuture.org.
Atleee, T. (2003) The Tao of Democracy.
Campbell, C.J. (2005) Oil Crisis. Multi Science Publishing.
Heinberg, R. (2004) Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. Clairview.
Holmgren, D. (2003) Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services.
Macy, J. & Brown, M.Y. (1998) Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. New Society Publishers.
Rob Hopkins is a permaculture designer and teacher. Founding Director of The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability (www.theholliesonline.com), and creator of the Practical Sustainability course at Kinsale FEC, he has long been at the forefront of practical approaches to sustainability in Ireland. He has now returned to his native England, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. on energy descent action planning at Plymouth University. He runs www.transitionculture.org, a resource for people interested in this work, and also a place where The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan can be downloaded. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Plans are afoot for Fuelling the Future 2 in late June 2006.