Energy descent

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Permaculture is a vital tool in strategies for progressive reduction of the energy inputs necessary for economic activity while simultaneously increasing prosperity.[1] It challenges established macroeconomic theory and associated policy measures that assume provision of wealth and wellbeing to rely on continued economic growth, which has never genuinely been decoupled from increases in carbon emissions and other forms of environmental damage.[2] By freeing policy from assumptions incompatible with effective action towards mitigation, it also broadens the range of policy approaches available to support adaptation. By finding solutions based on the convergence of needs, ethics and available resources rather than theoretical dogma, permaculture can support diverse, intersecting forms of low-carbon, zero-carbon and carbon-negative economic activity.[3]

The Transition approach to economic localisation is one example of this. It emerged when permaculture students at Kinsale College in Ireland completed an end-of-course project on designing a community-based strategy for coping with peak oil.[4] The movement that developed on the basis of their insights quickly adopted climate change as a second key driver.[5] Transition groups apply permaculture to designing out the causes of climate change at the same time as designing in desirable outcomes. This allows identification of low-energy pathways to support well-being at the scale of the local community.[6]

When self-organised community action is the main strategy for energy descent it increases social capital, providing a powerful basis for long-term adaptation to climate change. The Transition Streets project in Totnes, South West England, encouraged small groups of immediate neighbours to meet and share ideas and concerns about climate change. This achieved highly cost-effective reductions in household carbon emissions through behaviour change, energy efficiency measures, and renewable energy installation.[7] Independent evaluation by the UK Government suggested that intangible social benefits were equally important: by coming together in this way, neighbours got to know each other far better than they had done before.[8] Social capital of this type is an important resource for climate change adaptation, supporting people's ability to cooperate in the face of any crisis.

When Canterbury, New Zealand suffered severe earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, relief and reconstruction efforts benefited greatly from prior work by Project Lyttleton, a local initiative dedicated to building community resilience.[9] The group ran a time bank, a classic example of a social technology through which residents exchange labour and skills on a peer-to-peer basis. After the earthquake, the time-bank became a vital part of the relief effort, rapidly mobilising people to check on elderly residents, providing childcare, undertaking minor household repairs, and delivering meals to vulnerable people. Project Lyttleton's work both complemented that of the authorities, and challenged many of their ideas and perceptions. This type of contribution to changing worldviews becomes increasingly important as established understandings and practices become less and less relevant in the face of climate change.[10]

Transition has been successful in improving conditions in very poor areas, where it provides a model for responses to economic hardship that may arise from climate change. Brasilândia, a very low income suburb in São Paulo, Brasil, has hosted a Transition Initiative since 2010.[11] It ranks low in all conventional development measures, with the second-lowest Human Development Index in the city and a zero score in the official São Paulo City Observatory report on culture. However, Ir BEM São Paulo, a city-wide survey of neighbourhoods conducted since 2009, shows steady improvements in all areas of Transicion Brasilândia's work, including frequency of cultural events, standards of health care, and quality of community relations and civic responsibility. Indices of participation in voluntary activity, awareness of environmental impacts of consumer goods, level of community ownership, and peaceful co-existence of different religious groups, have all risen to the highest in the city.[12]

  1. Odum, H.T. & E.C. Odum, 2001. A Prosperous Way Down. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
  2. Jackson, T., 2009. Prosperity without Growth. London: Earthscan.
  3. Roland, E. & G. Landau, 2013. Regenerative Enterprise: Optimizing for Multi-Capital Abundance. E-book v1.0.
  4. Hopkins, R. (ed.), 2005. Kinsale 2001: An Energy Descent Action Plan. Available online at: http://transitionculture.org/wp-content/uploads/KinsaleEnergyDescentActionPlan.pdf. Accessed May 26th 2015.
  5. Hopkins, R., 2008. The Transition Handbook. Totnes: Green Books.
  6. Holmgren, D., 2009. Future Scenarios. Totnes: Green Books.
  7. Ward, F., A. Porter & M. Popham, 2011. Transition Streets Final Report. Totnes: Transition Town Totnes.
  8. Beetham, H., 2011. Social Impacts of Transition Together. Report prepared on behalf of Transition Town Totnes.
  9. Cretney, R., & S. Bond, 2014. ‘Bouncing back’ to capitalism? Grass-roots autonomous activism in shaping discourses of resilience and transformation following disaster. Resilience 2(1): 18-31.
  10. Henfrey, T., G. Maschowski & G. Penha-Lopes (eds.), 2017. Resilience, Community Action and Social Transformation. East Meon: Permanent Publications.
  11. Hopkins, R., 2013. The Power of Just Doing Stuff. Cambridge: UIT/Green Books. Pp. 113-4.
  12. http://www.nossasaopaulo.org.br/portal/irbem