Energy Descent

Energy Descent: The Ignored Scenario

Public discussion of energy descent is generally seen as unrealistic, defeatist and politically counterproductive although many activists promoting sustainability strategies privately acknowledge that energy descent maybe inevitable. I want to expand the systems approach to future energy transitions by focusing on the most ignored of the long term scenarios for the following reasons.

  • We do not have to believe that a particular scenario is likely before making serious preparations. For example most people have fire insurance on their homes, not because they expect their primary asset to be destroyed by fire but because they recognise the severity of this unlikely event. Similarly, energy descent scenarios,  by their very nature, require more forethought and proactive planning than energy growth or steady state scenarios (to avert catastrophic consequences) .
  • The rapidly accumulating evidence on both climate change and peaking of world oil supply, to name the two most important factors, makes some sort of energy descent increasingly likely despite the deep structural and psychological denial of this evidence.

The likelihood that permaculture principles and strategies (not necessarily by that name) could inform societal-wide redesign and re-organisation in an energy descent future. Since this scenario is the one in which permaculture is naturally at the fore, it is logical for those committed to permaculture to think more deeply about energy descent.11Clearly by pinning the relevance of permaculture to an energy descent future, I may contribute to the current perception of its marginal relevance to a world of energy growth. But on balance I believe this transparency about our own assumptions and biases is a strength rather than a weakness. In this way we acknowledge ourselves as activists rather than simply observers.

Amish horse cart outside of SUV’s in auto sales lot, Railegh North Carolina. 2005. A model for energy descent in more ways than the obvious. The Amish driver is likely to be a farmer, a symbol of the greater number of people who will be involved in food production both domestically and commercially in a future of less energy; in ironic contrast to the Burger King take away food sign in the background

Ecological modeling suggests an energy descent path that could play out over a similar time frame to the industrial ascent era of 250 years. Historical evidence suggests a descent process that could involve a series of crises that provide stepwise transitions between consolidation and stabilisation phases that could be more or less stable for decades before another crisis triggers another fall and then another restabilisation.12See article by John Michael Greer at the Energy Bulletin website

There is a desperate need to recast energy descent as a positive process that can free people from the strictures and dysfunctions of growth economics and consumer culture.

There is a desperate need to recast energy descent as a positive process that can free people from the strictures and dysfunctions of growth economics and consumer culture. This is now apparent to many people around the world13See Downshifting in Australia (pdf), The Australia Institute 2003, suggesting that “down-shifters” moving to a lower consuming, more satisfying lifestyle, make up as much as 23% of the Australian population. and is far more fundamental than a public relations campaign to paint a black sky blue. It is a necessary process to provide a sense of hope and connection to fundamental human values expressed by every traditional culture throughout human history; that the pursuit of materialism is a false god.

One of the positive aspects of energy descent that is often overlooked is that it is a culture of continuous and novel change over many human generations. Ironically the growth culture of the previous several hundred years provides us with some conceptual and cultural experience at dealing with change that traditional peoples in more stable societies lacked. We are now familiar with continuous change, that we must do something different to our parent’s generation and that our children must do something different again. This may seem a small bright spot when considering the challenges of energy descent but it is a real asset that we must harness if we are to deal with energy descent in the most graceful way possible.14The Transition Towns process in Britain, initiated by permaculture activist Rob Hopkins, is an excellent example of this positive community response to the realities coming from Peak Oil and Climate Change. The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience by Rob Hopkins 2008 is an invaluable resources for this positive change process.

The next section explores the relevance of permaculture design systems to an era of energy descent.