A permaculture vision of the future: dealing with energy descent

David Holmgren
Thursday, 1st December 2005

Green-minded people don't tend to be good at telling inspiring stories of a sustainable future. David Holmgren might just prove to be the exception to the rule in this inspiring vision of a post-peak-oil future...

Our uncertain energy future has been pictured in various scenarios that range from an absurdly optimistic 'techno-fantasy' (e.g., unlimited nuclear cold fusion with no unfore-seen negative impacts) to an 'Atlantis-like' fate in which our culture 'goes under'.

More realistic perhaps are the intermediate third and fourth scenarios. In 'green-tech stability' we essentially maintain our current level of energy usage by progressively moving to renewable sources such as wind, solar, tidal power, etc., as fossil fuel reserves are used up.

Permaculture defines a fourth scenario that I call 'Earth Stewardship', a 'creative descent' in which we progressively reduce our energy demands to return eventually to living within the natural energy and production budget of the land we occupy. Elements of all these scenarios can be found in the wide-ranging viewpoints and arguments of today's 'sustainability' debates.

In the 'creative descent' scenario, which I consider to represent the only truly sustainable future, human society creatively descends the energy demand slope essentially as a 'mirror image' of the creative energy ascent that occurred between the onset of the industrial revolution and the present day. The actual sustainable plateau is a long way down from current energy demands, but also a long way ahead in time. If we begin our journey now, there is time to use our familiarity with continuous change and creative innovation to avoid bringing on 'Atlantis'.

Permaculture and Peak Oil: Energy Descent

So, in an energy-descent future, what are the prospects close to home – here where we live in suburbia? Will it be the end of suburbia? What if we can no longer afford to commute to work by car? What if we are dependent on food and energy supplies that are transported long distances at increasing expense? What if the services and functionality of our communities decline further so that there is ever-diminishing support from local councils and police, for example?

There is a real and viable alternative to this seemingly alarming scenario – a retrofit of suburbia – a remodelling of local neighbourhoods and communities for an energy-descent future. The 'refit manual' will bring together and integrate features such as:

  • Home-based work, telecommuting, and cottage industries serving a local clientele;
  • Extended families, lodgers and shared households;
  • Recycling of storm water, waste water, and human waste;
  • Soils of improved fertility, and the water supply and infrastructure for urban agriculture;
  • City farms, co-operative gardening, Farmers' Markets, and Community Supported Agriculture schemes (CSAs).

Let's paint a specific picture of how this might work. If we return briefly to the golden age of the suburban dream in the late 1950's, a birds-eye view of our suburban neighbourhood might have looked something like the diagram below, which shows four standard suburban blocks with productive backyards, including one supporting a small service enterprise.

If we move on in time and look at the same small neighbourhood in the 1990's, we see the typical effects of affluence, aging and infill. The backyards are now all unproductive as aging original householders are no longer gardening or working at home. The cottage industry workshop has been renovated as an addition to the house space, and one property has been sold for speculative investment and the backyard filled with a second dwelling. How can this decline in productivity be turned around?

Let's leap a few years ahead now into the late 2000's and imagine what might have been done with the same four properties (see 'Late 2000's Permaculture Retrofit').

Permaculture Principles at Play

The catalyst has been the sale of the house second from left to an energetic young couple determined to 'future-proof' themselves for the energy descent expected in their lifetime. Using permaculture principles, they have restructured their entire block, including its front garden, as an inte-grated food production system. Seeing this exciting new development on the other side of the fence, the empty-nest baby boomers in the property third from left have aborted their migration to Queensland and restructured their home and lifestyles along lines compatible with the initiatives of their neighbours. They have extended their home with an eco-addition and increased its occupancy with an additional family member plus a young boarder. The 1970s games room has been returned to its original purpose to house their son's small metal-working business. The fence between the two properties has been removed to allow the land of both blocks to be farmed co-operatively for the benefit of all the occupants. Shared water management facilities, including rainwater collection and greywater treatment, have been implemented, and productive fruit trees have been planted on the nature strip in front of both houses.

Seeing all these successful communal activities going on next door, the property owners on the left- and right-hand ends of the row are now looking for ways to contribute. The elderly couple on the left need home help (an opportunity for one of the young mothers) in exchange for use of their extensive back yard to expand the co-operative CSA vegetable box garden.

While the development and neighbours on the right may be slower and more difficult to connect, they have offered their unused back and front gardens to extend the farming system in return for a share of the produce. One of the teenagers is training to help in the metal-working enterprise, and the stormwater detention tank will shortly be refitted as part of the communal water management system. And so it grows!

The bottom line here is that we do not need to wait for policies to change. We can choose today to do this – to create our own small neighbourhoods. 'Suburban sprawl' in fact give us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients, and we live in ideal areas with mild climates, access to the sea, the city and inland country.

The Need for Change

So what do we have to do to make it work? Basically, the answer is: "Just do it!" Use whatever space is available and get producing. Involve the kids – and their friends. Make contact with neighbours and start to barter. Review your material needs and reduce consumption. Share your home – by bringing a family member back or taking in a lodger, for example. Creatively and positively work around regulatory impediments, aiming to help change them in the longer term. Pay off your debts. Work from home.

And above all, retrofit your home for your own sustainable future, not for speculative monetary gain. In an energy-descent world, self-reliance represents real opportunities for early adopters of a permaculture lifestyle:

  • Rises in oil prices will flow through to all natural products (food, timber, etc.);
  • Higher commodity prices will be a stimulus for self-reliance and organic farming;
  • Local products will be more competitive than imports;
  • Repair, retrofitting, and recycling will all be more competitive than new replacement;
  • There will be rising demand for permaculture as life-skills education; and
  • There will be a resurgence of community life, ethics and values.

There are, however, some real hazards for the greater community in the energy-descent scenario. For example, perverse subsidies and 'head-in-the-sand' policies could distort necessary market adjustments (e.g., the end of fuel tax combined with production subsidies to agribusiness). Sudden economic and environmental shocks could conceivably lead to social collapse, removing even the security necessary for local food production. We need to understand the energy-descent pathway ahead, act to ensure our own longer-term resource security, and keep ourselves informed about the viewpoints and approaches of the greater national and global communities around us

A full length version of this article first appeared in the CSIRO Sustainability Network Update 49: www.bml.csiro.au/SNnewsletters.htm

David Holmgren is the eco-originator with Bill Mollison of the permaculture concept and the author of Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. He can be contacted at: [email protected] 

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