Serious and thoughtful responses to energy descent futures over the last 30 years (from both sociological and ecological perspectives)15For example, Australian sociologist Ted Trainer’s The Simpler Way: Working For Transition from a Consumer Society to A Simpler More Cooperative, Just and Ecologically Sustainable Society, and Swedish systems ecologist Folke Gunther. have received limited attention academically.  In affluent countries, movements advocating low energy lifestyles, such as permaculture, have contributed mostly to action and changes at the fringes of society. Permaculture has been stress tested in poor countries and in crisis situations, and as fossil fuel depletion hits levels of affluence globally, its relevance will likely increase radically.

Permaculture was one of the environmental design concepts to emerge from the 1970’s debate over energy and resource availability and was founded on the assumption that the next energy transition would involve the re-emergence of biological systems as central to economics and society. The vision that informed permaculture design, teaching and action saw relocalised food and renewable energy production, revitalised household and community economies and bioregional political structures establishing a permanent (ie. sustainable) human culture. The opportunistic use of fossil fuelled wealth and waste to fund the transition was an integral part of the permaculture strategy. I see permaculture design generating more appropriate biological and human capital in ways less demanding of physical resources and with low depreciation rates that are useful to a world of energy descent. In my book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, I explained the title in terms of the Energy Descent future undermining the steady state notions inherent to most thinking about sustainability and even permaculture.

Permaculture has spread around the world but has an extraordinary, perhaps unique role in Australia, as a concept, a collection of design strategies, and as an environmental movement. A definition is included in the Macquarie dictionary and it is almost a household word.16This apparent familiarity with permaculture can be misleading. For an in depth understanding see Holmgren, D. Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability 2002. For an overview see The Essence of Permaculture at (Writings Page). As a “brand” it carries a great deal of good will but also much baggage and is generally regarded in policy and planning circles as marginal to mainstream decision making. Some more thoughtful people recognise it as tuned to a world of declining resources that will require adaptive strategies quite different from those being pursued currently.

Melliodora central Victoria 2004. View over poultry deep litter yard, roof runoff garden, olive and fruit trees to house with solar clerestory showing above trees.

Permaculture is already contributing to changing Australian suburbs and lifestyle via bottom up and organic processes. Increasing community awareness of environmental issues combined with rises in the cost of energy, water and food are likely to lead to an explosion in permaculture inspired activity in Australian cities, towns and rural landscapes. It is now essential that academics, educators, activists, planners and policy makers understand permaculture as both a factor in the social and physical fabric of Australian society and a conceptual framework for the organic redesign of society and culture for the energy descent future in Australia as well as globally.

Not surprisingly, Permaculture solutions have been more effectively applied in community and agricultural development work in many majority world communities where energy descent has been a reality for many people. While these conditions can be understood in terms of inequitable distribution of resources rather than fundamental limits, they provide models for behaviour in response to energy descent. The most dramatic example is the role that permaculture strategies and techniques played in rapidly increasing urban food production as part of a multi pronged strategy to avert famine in Cuba in the early 1990’s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is particularly interesting about this model is that Cuba is a middle income country with a long history of industrialised agriculture and an urbanised and dependent population similar to many affluent countries. Today Cubans have life expectancy and other indices of development comparable with the USA while using one seventh the energy and resources.17The 2007 Living Planet Report recently released by the World Wildlife Fund claims that the only truly sustainable country in the world is Cuba–Sustainable development being defined as a commitment to “improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems”. The two key parameters employed by WWF for measuring sustainable development were the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) as the indicator of human wellbeing –calculated from life expectancy, literacy and education, and per capita GDP; and Ecological Footprint calculated at 1.8 global hectares per person to measure the demand on the biosphere.

Cuba was the ONLY country on earth to achieve both criteria for sustainable development.In terms of ecological footprint, Australia rates as the 6th highest nation on earth. If everyone lived like the average Australian we’d need almost 4 planets to support the earth’s current population.
Permaculture is, intuitively, most relevant to the Energy Descent scenarios in which there is a major decline in the power from non-renewable resources but many of the strategies are synergistic with those focused on appropriate responses to the Techno Stability scenario which demands a degree of relocalisation of food supply and other key economies and a shift from centralised to distributed energy sources.

One way to understand permaculture is as a post-modern integration of elements from different traditions and modernity that involves continuous change and evolution.

Sometimes permaculture is understood as simply returning to traditional patterns from the past and is consequently criticised as impractical. While it is true that older, more traditional patterns of resource use and living provide some of the elements and inspiration for permaculture, it is certainly more than this. One way to understand permaculture is as a post-modern integration of elements from different traditions and modernity that involves continuous change and evolution. This builds on the human experience of continuous change rather than static tradition as well as the more recent emergence of design as a new literacy that allows us to effectively and efficiently respond to and redesign our environment and ourselves.18This theme about permaculture as a change process is one that runs right through Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.