Navigating Energy Descent
Peak Oil implores us to consider the tremendous opportunity to rediscover and remake sustainable culture. Looking decades into the future I imagine a truly bioregional relationship between society and the landscape. A world where one doesn’t chose to try and live more sustainable, rather it is the cultural norm and guided by natural resource limits. Both urban and rural communities diversify away from the Wal-Martization that homogenized culture prior to energy descent. A thorough assessment and revaluation of liabilities uncovers many potential assets that were unclear in a society awash in excess. I envision creative utilization of resources considered problems in an energy surplus economy. For instance in the fire prone arid West, ecological fuels reduction thinning could yield small diameter poles and brush for engineered pole trusses, insulative wattle for walls and charcoal feedstock for steam power generation. Previous to developing these cottage industries of quasi –migratory woodland gatherers and crafts people, the large centralized landscape managers hustled for grant monies to slash and burn hazardous fuels, often the byproduct of industrial forestry.
Regional specialization is an outgrowth of pattern embellishment wherein a culture looks its environment for resources and models. Without global economics and interstate trucking, a deeper level of stewardship becomes necessary to avoid exhausting the ecosystem benefits which this forest culture depends upon, like water, air, erosion control, wildlife habitat. Manufacturing becomes more localized, producing the tools and materials necessary for life regionally, drawing upon vast sort yards where the excess of the 20th century is recycled. Any surplus for trade with neighboring regions would reflect regional specialization, a direct outgrowth of the assets of a given bioregion. Every region possesses a diversity of resources, such that in time the clothing, housing, diet, means of transport and customs would come to reflect the bioregion, with each valley becoming more and more distinct from one another as time passes. The image of the interstate connected city strip with its predictable assortment of multination chain stores, gas stations, strip malls and the like will vanish as theses buildings are co-opted for more practical purposes in the post-carbon reality.
Other key features of a post collapse society might include:
• Local currency and barter systems
• A reliance upon animal power
• Food production at every level of settlement density
• Wood for heat, steam power and manufacturing
• Biological filters for gray and black water
• Redistribution of human settlement near areas capable of supplying clean water and land for food; and away from areas of severe drought, cold and frequent natural disasters
• Vernacular architecture – no more stick frame houses in unforested regions, more cob, sod, log and stone construction
• Village social structures for social services
• Frequent farmers’/crafters’ markets for trade within a region
• City and county level governance predominating
I believe that the future holds many hopeful outcomes and it is well worth beginning the visioning process for what our lives and our children’s lives will look like in the future. Ursula LeGuinn discusses the concept of the history of the future in her classic, Always Coming Home, asserting that we often only hold pieces of clues to life in the distant past, from which we formulate a story. Likewise, we hold pieces of clues of what life will be like in the future and in many ways, permaculture design spiraled out four dimensionally in space time can assess the future design environment. Albeit that we may have to exercise more creativity to deal with an abundance of unknowns. The scenario I outlined above is a fairly optimistic portrayal of life many years from now which assumes a reasonably stable climate which can facilitates agriculture. The intervening period will likely be tumultuous, challenging our societal systems and rendering some obsolete. Collapse of the current industrial civilization is already underway. Peak Oil is only one symptom of a system in its final throes. Although they are all interrelated in a multitude of ways Peak Oil shares the billing of the “death knell of industrial civilization” with climate change, economic collapse, infectious diseases, food scarcity, war and a host of other formidable challenges. I believe that Peak Oil rings particularly loud for North Americans because of our unparalleled dependence upon petroleum.
The transition to a post-petroleum society will take decades and will be anything but smooth. However, planning for a managed decent rather than simply taking a wait and see attitude would be prudent. There are a number of focal points to a managed energy descent, including food, medicine, transportation, localization, economics, water, shelter, transport, population transfer, security and governance, I feel that food and water are where the rubber meets the road, so I will deal with these two concerns in detail.