Eat the Suburbs!
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Energy Descent
Action Plan

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Energy Descent Action Plan Primer
- taken with thanks from Adam in Australia, "Eat the Suburbs"


An Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) is a local plan for dealing with Peak Oil. It goes well beyond issues of energy supply, to look at across-the-board creative adaptations in the realms of health, education, economy and much more. An EDAP is a way to think ahead, to plan in an integrated, multidisciplinary way, to provide direction to local government, decision makers, groups and individuals with an interest in making the place they live into a vibrant and viable community in a post-carbon era.

This document is a primer on EDAPs, designed to help spur on the process of creating them. Since the concept of an EDAP is inspired by looming Peak Oil, as well as the permaculture design system, and the inevitability of economic relocalisation — I've also included a brief introduction to these three topics. This is followed by information on Kinsale, the small Irish town where the first EDAP was written, an inspiring plan which has now been taken on board as official policy by the town council.

Context for the EDAP:

  Peak Oil 
Oil has fuelled much of the massive population growth and the extraordinary achievements of the last 150 years. It is the single largest energy source of the world economy, the lifeblood of industrial society. But according to a growing number of experts, within the next handful of years the world will reach the ultimate peak in global oil production. After this point, production will begin its slow but terminal decline. 'Peak Oil', as this event has become widely known, represents an historical turning point, from an era of growth, to an era of contraction. Peak gas won't be far behind.

The most widely respected Peak Oil models are being developed by Colin Campbell and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO). They predict a peak of all oil and gas liquids around 2010. This 'early peak' projection has been supported by other researchers. Most analysts who have carefully studied the problem agree that Peak Oil cannot be solved with 'supply side' solutions. Alternative energy sources simply can't fill all of the gap that oil and gas will leave behind, at least not without decades of investment. Massive social changes look like a given. We have to learn to make do with less energy.

With less available fossil fuel, we'll be forced to begin moving back towards living within the annual energy budget provided by the Sun. While renewables may help, ultimately this means discovering lifestyles less based around consumerism, and better integrated with natural processes and cycles. Given that the health of the planet is in a far worse state than when humankind embarked on the fossil fuel adventure, this is indeed a challenging prospect. For more background on Peak Oil check out here.

Internalising the implications of all this can take a fair bit of reflection — and can sometimes result in a sense of despair.

However, a small but growing number of people are using Peak Oil as an opportunity to address broader social and ecological issues. Their best ideas are inspiring, creative and attractive visions of revitalised local economies, visions grounded by a connection to place and the people in it. Something sets these ideas apart from many earlier approaches to sustainability — it's knowing that we now have little time left, it's a palpable desperation to be realistic and viable, to involve everyone in the community, to capture the imagination, and to succeed.

Transition Towns   Transition Towns   Transition Towns

Peak oil and permaculture

The phrase 'energy descent' was first used by Australian permaculture co-orginator David Holmgren. He wrote in 2003 that “I use the term ‘descent’ as the least loaded word that honestly conveys the inevitable, radical reduction of material consumption and/or human numbers that will characterise the declining decades and centuries of fossil fuel abundance and availability.” Okay, you say, but permaculture — that's just a system of organic gardening, right? In a short answer: no, well not really.

Permaculture is a "design system for sustainable human habitats that supply human needs in an environmentally enhancing way". Permaculture is all about functional design — ways to maximise productivity and abundance, while minimising effort, by working with nature, rather than against it. Permaculture can be applied to everything from settlement design, large scale farming, factory design, business practices, kitchen layout, housing, pretty much anything really. Permaculture designs are inspired by natural systems, and built on ethical principles — two things which actually contribute to their effectiveness.

While in affluent countries permaculture is often practised because of environmental concerns, or as a mere hobby, it has been stress tested in difficult conditions all around the globe, where people's lives depend on successful use of scant resources. This includes in Cuba, when the country suffered a severe energy famine after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse more than halved Cuba's oil imports virtually overnight. The documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, explains how permaculturists were amongst those who helped transform Cuba through this difficult period into a functional, low energy society, where infant mortality and average lifespans are now as good as in the USA.

In a 2004 interview David explained the relationship between permaculture and Peak Oil:

"In a world of decreasing energy, permaculture provides, I believe, the best available framework for redesigning the whole way we think, the way we act, and the way we design new strategies. It doesn't mean to say that everyone's going to have a chook tractor, a vegetable garden or some other permaculture technique. But the thinking behind permaculture is really based on this idea of reduced energy availability, and how you work with that in a creative way. That requires a complete overturning of a lot of our inherited culture".

Famed environmentalist David Suzuki has said "What permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet."

Why relocalisation?

Relocalised economies aren't an option - they are an invevitability. Oil currently supplies 95% of the world's transport energy, and all the alternatives proposed have severe limitations. Biodiesel competes with crops for food, hydrogen depends on other primary energy sources, and so on. Global trade will diminish and we will be left to rely on local resources and skills. If we resist the transition, considering it a depressing step backwards, the process will be ugly and painful. Fueled by anger and confusion, we may look for someone or something to blame. A positive vision can go a long way to making the transition enjoyable and dignified. Many public interest groups are already pushing for relocalisation because of the many benefits it offers, with or without resource constraints.The benefits of relocalisation are as multifaceted as the problems presented by resource depletion and ecological crises:

* Healthier food
* More active lifestyles
* Greater self-reliance
* A sense of connection to place and products
* The re-emergence of local identity
* An emphasis on quality over quantity
* A means of overcoming addictive behaviours such as over-consumption
* A meaningful common goal and sense of purpose.

Imagine the feeling when that first tomato ripens in Summer. Imagine the pride you feel about the shed you and your friends built from mud and straw — to your eyes, it looks more stunning than any prefab. Imagine the excitement of using your ingenuity to solve real problems: surveying the tools and resources available and mobilising them to repair, refurbish, rearrange and invent. Imagine being able to go to bed — perhaps for the first time in our lives — with the sense of a job well done, knowing our livelihoods did not come at the expense of distant workers, polluted ecosystems, or our own children's future.

Transition Towns   Transition Towns   Transition Towns

Converging conclusions

We need to be urgently investing what remains of our cheap energy into long term infrastructure for an energy descent culture. So we need as much support as possible from policy makers.

When faced with Peak Oil, many people from vastly different backgrounds and political persuasions come to similar conclusions — that a 'technofix' is both unlikely and undesirable — that radical societal changes will have to take place, of which relocalisation is central. For example, see this recent quote from energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, former energy advisor to George Bush:

"So we really have to adopt a big conservation plan: liberating people to work wherever they want to, and when they want to, and pay by productivity, could be one of the really great sort of social revolution things that we do in the next 5 years and basically eliminate all the people in places like California and Texas, for instance, who are spending upwards of 4 hours a day crawling to work in traffic and crawling home so they're mad when they get to work, and they're mad when they get home, and they were mad when oil was free. Eliminating our kind of compulsive obsession with having exotic food from all around the world in our supermarkets every place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year - it's too energy intensive. Growing stuff at home and canning it. And what we really need to do is ultimately reverse this concept of globalization and go back to actually living in what are euphemistically called villages close to where we work, which can be downtown, but it's just not 3 hours commute."

You can also hear veteran conservative US Congressman Roscoe Bartlett explain the importance of humus (the organic part of topsoil), to the US congress in a speech about Peak Oil. When an issue relating to the global energy supply has everyone from permaculturists to republican politicians talking about the same type of solutions, we know that something is going on. Given both the tangible fear of Peak Oil, as well as the potentially non-partisan nature of solutions, there seems to be some emerging opportunities for otherwise 'unrealistic' or 'idealistic' approaches to be both heard and rapidly deployed.

Enter the EDAP

One of the most useful visioning and policy guiding tools we have available to capture and direct these positive potentials may be the local Energy Descent Action Plan. Essentially an EDAP is a local plan for dealing with the period leading up to and following Peak Oil. It is not a plan for how to live in a sustainable world. It is a plan for the transitional period of decreasing energy — how to get to that sustainable world. The first EDAP was written in 2005 by permaculture students at a further education college in the small Irish town of Kinsale.

The document broke down the issues which arose locally from peak oil into sections, such as health, education, transport, housing, youth and community, food and energy. Each chapter presented an attractive vision of the town in relation to that issue, followed by a timeline of steps on how the town might get there.

The plan 'Kinsale 2021: An Energy Descent Action Plan' is available for download at It includes ideas like turning the town supermarket carpark into an eco-centre, new ecologically sensitive housing development legislation, permaculture studies as part of school curriculum, community gardens, a youth council, a community currency and trading network, and lots more.

As testimony to the way the plan, while visionary, retains a feeling of practicality, late last year the Kinsale town council officially adopted the plan. Of course visioning and planning is just the begining, but it's useful to reflect on how the authors of the Kinsale plan developed it and won widespead support.

Kinsale: So how did they do it?

You can read about it in Rob Hopkins' 'Lesson from Kinsale' posts on his "Transition Culture" blog website. Rob's a great writer, so I highly recommend these:

Lesson One - Avoiding "Them and Us"

"...It is very easy to fall into blaming others for not doing anything, but often when we take the time to sit and listen to others, we find they share many of the same concerns but lack the skills, time, resources or motivation to do anything. To alientate people through criticism is ultimately self defeating. Beginning this process elsewhere, this always strikes me as one of the most important principles, creating a process which is inclusive.

The more I have been involved in things like this and have met people working in positions of authority, be they planners, engineers, councillors and even politicians, I have seen ordinary people, often with families, just as bewildered by turns of events and which way to go as everybody else. For us to scream “why aren’t they doing anything” does nothing to help, very often they have as little clue as to what to do as the rest of us. For me, coming from an activist background, this has been a very important lesson to learn (clearly it is not always the case, sometimes people are deliberately obstructive for whatever reason, but in most cases it is). Most of the actual techniques for avoiding sinking into ‘them and us’ comes from from the next principle “creating a sense that Something is Happening”..."

Lesson Two - Creating a sense that Something is Happening

[Go and visit this page. Webmistress at GWT thinks this sense that "Something is Happening" grows simply by staying in touch with your highest Visions and Aspirations, doing what you passionately care about, asking what makes your heart sing, tuning into God, the Great Spirit of the Universe, like Peter and Eileen Caddy did around a tiny, almost derelict fishing village called Findhorn.]

Lesson Three - Creating a Vision of an Abundant Future

"...One of essential things in developing community strategies to peak oil is that of facilitating the community to create a vision of how the future could be. We move from working with peak oil, which is about probabilities (how probable is it that it will be horrendous, how probable is peak in 2007 and so on…) to possibilities. The shift is subtle but illuminating. Through the Open Space event we ran in Kinsale, we gave the community (well those who came at least) permission to dream. It was very powerful to see it happening, people going home excited about how the future could be, and feeling they had met some kindred souls with whom they could do it.

Asking people to visualise a future with one quarter of the fossil fuels available is asking a great deal of them. Especially in Ireland, where the Famine still looms over modern history, and is only 7 generations ago..."

Lesson Four - Designing in Flexibility

"I once did a course with Australian permaculture teacher Dave Clark, who talked about his experiences working doing permaculture in refugee camps in Macedonia. You can read more about his work here, and especially here. He was dealing with large numbers of people moving to places with no infrastructure, all of which had to be created. He did amazing work, building strawbale buildings, food gardens, putting in miles of swales and hundreds of thousands of trees. One thing he said really stayed with me. He spoke of having to work with professional engineers who would design something such as a drainage system, which Dave could see wouldn’t work, but which, because the person was a ‘professional’ could not be questioned. He saw much money wasted through this unchallengable ‘rule’ that the professional is always right. He talked about how in his work he always worked from the premise that he was wrong. This designed into the process the openness to reassessing at any stage."

Lesson Five - What Could Have Been Done Better...


Also check out this article by Rob Hopkins:

"...On Saturday February 12th 2005 we held an event in Kinsale called “Kinsale in 2021 - Towards a Prosperous, Sustainable Future Together”, which took place at Kinsale Town Hall. The event was presented as a ‘community think-tank’ in order to hear the community’s ideas about how energy descent would affect the community and what might be done about it. Before the event we sent personal invitations to the people in Kinsale that we had identified as being the movers and shakers in the town... We also left the event open to the public and put posters up around the town. From the 60 people invited, about 35 turned up on the day. The event itself was opened by the Mayor of Kinsale, Mr Charles Henderson, who spoke of the importance of energy as an issue and how it affects all aspects of our lives and our economy. This was followed by a screening of ‘The End of Suburbia’.

After the film, Thomas Riedmuller, who teaches Community Leadership at Kinsale FEC, introduced the concept of Open Space Technology as a tool for facilitating such events. Open Space is based on the idea that the most productive discussion and idea sharing at any event happens during the tea breaks. Open Space is, in essence, a long tea break, where groups are formed to discuss certain issues, and everyone is free to move between discussion groups, based on the four principles of Open Space: whoever comes are the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have, whenever it starts is the right time, and when it’s over it’s over. Those assembled took to the Open Space model with great enthusiasm, and it was extremely productive. People were invited to identify the specific problems and issues that the film raised for them. These were then recorded on large sheets of paper and pinned up on the wall. These were then collated into subject areas, and each of these became the basis for a discussion group. The groups covered the following subjects, Food, Rebuilding Communities, Youth Group/Education, Business & Technology, Tourism and renewable energy..."

Transition Towns   Transition Towns   Transition Towns

Breaking down the process

If we were to embark on a similar process, here are some steps which might be involved.

1) Community education, consultation and networking
To write an effective plan and to bring the community on board we would need to embark on a dual education and consultation process. This might involve film screenings, or presentations on Peak Oil in the local context, followed by facilitated sessions of feedback and ideas. Groups to approach might include various ethnic and religious groups through neighborhood houses and churches, industry groups such as health professionals, food workers, community workers, teachers, police, etc, and any other interest groups we can think of, including of course, council. It should also include public events. This represents a large effort.

But what an amazing process - by the end we could be the most connected group in the region, with a remarkable sense of the character of the local communities, and probably a lot of new friends from each! We'll need their support, energy and ideas to make it really happen.

2) Research
Food mapping, researching wind flows, solar radiation, incomes, local skills, current energy mix and vulnerability, existing groups and their potential to aid organisation etc. etc. We need to audit the region as best we can, to figure out what skills and resources and opportunities are available and what are lacking. This step could happen simultaneously with step 1 and inform the consultation and education process. Creating a better sense of posibilities means inspiring as many projects as early as possible. So hopefully this is a dynamic process!

3) Community projects and having fun
Building on the ground projects, community exposure and trust. Finding fun ways of building skills and investing in the future. Like the permablitz concept, community gardens, community skills education, and where ever your interest or opportunities may lie. We should tie in with existing efforts and networks, and get inspired to start new ones. The EDAP might seem to be just a piece of paper, a plan. But the process of creating it must also a process for tying our efforts together, working on some publicly appreciated projects, testing our own abilities, and learning first hand what is possible. These are the practical projects which get people interested and inspired. They make this awkward acronym begin to filled with meaning. For the plan to have support there must be the base in reality and community support these projects lead to.

4) Producing the plan
Creating a visionary but grounded document condensing all the best of the feedback and our own, no doubt brilliant, ideas. Editing it into a cohesive whole.

5) Gaining council support
By this stage we should be unstoppable and any council which resists would be foolish indeed! But a strategic approach to gaining support would be well advised. In addition to Catherine Dunne's reflections on Kinsale mentioned above, check out the many reflections on a successful attempt in San Francisco to get the city to recognise and support mitigation efforts about peak oil at Global Public Media, and David Room's (also US focussed) practical guide, How to Pass a Peak Oil Resolution. Council support and advice will be necessary throughout the process, and council should have a sense of joint ownership over the project.

6) Implementation
An essential factor in whether or not we can have a relatively successful preparation and adaptation to Peak Oil, will be whether or not the community has a sense of excitement and agency in the process. How do we facilitate this exactly? Awards and prizes, continuing consultations, newsletters, inter-community activities such as permaculture backyard blitzes … really, I don't know, but a lot of potential for creativity. The plan really doesn't have to be followed step-by-step, its value is showing us that a prosperous post-peak community is possible. But it will be a reference point, and stimulous to a great many outcomes.

Structures, partners and funding?

How could such a project be organised and funded? Questions I'm not particularly good at answering! I imagine that a fairly close knit crew of 3-4 people with complimentary skills and styles and a good working relationship would be a good number to handle central organisational and editorial tasks. But the project would need to involve a great deal many more people than that at various levels, with similarly small crews formed for the purpose - or partner organisations - handling the various sections of the plan. Small goals must be set along the way. Plus we may need people acting as facilitators, researchers, translators, fundraisers and in other roles. Does a project like this need to be associated with an incorporated body? Can it work under the auspices of another incorporated group? What partner organisations can take on responsibilities? Eg. renewable energy and conservation organisations, sustainable transport advocates, green urban planners and architects, etc. It would help if whoever is approached has or gains a solid foundation in the problem of Peak Oil, and a can take an holistic approach to design. An understanding of permaculture design principles or natural ability to think in similar ways would be a plus. Writers of the plan do not need to be relevant professionals, indeed an amateur's fresh eyes and ideas may turn out to be a plus.

Many questions to answer!

But also an inexorable drive onward… onward… to suburban glory.

Now what?

Thanks for making it this far. I hope that these ideas excite you.


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