How Individuals can Assist, Plan, Commence Transition

Section
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
Page
8.7

As mentioned in 8.6, Jason Bradford believes that we will have to transition to a very different, more rural, society with far more localised and less energy-dependent food production. To commence this process he thinks we need to familiarise ourselves with the important concepts and ideas of the following1:

  • (Nickelsberg, R/Getty Images. 2017. Organic farm, Vermont, USA. Bradford and Heinberg believe learning to grow food and deploy practices such as organic farming, will assist transition to a lower-energy, less-polluting future).

    Agroecology: “The idea is to apply ecological concepts to agricultural design and practice”;

  • Organic Farming: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony”;
  • Biodynamic Farming: “Biodynamic farming is very similar to organic farming. However, biodynamic practitioners are much more likely than others to employ diverse crop and livestock rotations”;
  • Perennial Polycultures and Natural Systems Agriculture: “Many of the problems of agriculture stem from the need to till the soil. The annual grains that dominate the calories in our food supply require that the ground be free of competition, which is usually achieved through tillage. No-till systems have been devised, but they usually depend on herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, which are energy-intensive to manufacture and can cause long-term declines in soil health. There are many potential advantages from getting grains from perennial plants. Soil can remain undisturbed most years, avoiding excessive use of energy for tillage and dramatically reducing erosion, pollution, and use of fertilizer”;
  • Grow Biointensive Method: “Grow Biointensive aims to use land and resources efficiently, with tools that are simple, elegant, and mostly human-powered”;
  • Permaculture: “Permaculture design principles provide guidance on how to modify farm landscapes. When a farm transitions through permaculture implementation, the results are strikingly different from what is practised on most farms today, but correspond to how agrarian people without access to fossil fuels have lived in the landscape. Permaculture co-creator, David Holmgren, gives the following twelve design principles: 1. Observe and interact; 2. Catch and store energy; 3. Obtain and yield; 4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback; 5. Use and value renewable resources and services; 6. Produce no waste; 7. Design from pattern to details; 8. Integrate, rather than segregate; 9. Use small and slow solutions; 10. Use and value diversity; 11. Use edges and value the marginal; and 12. Creatively use and respond to change”.

Once we have arrived at our own understanding, principles, and guidelines in reference to these, he then suggests we apply the following ‘Effective Management Tactics’:

  • Be ready for a spike in fertilizer prices
  • Align local government policy
  • Incubate new farmers
  • Promote the local pivot (local area/markets)
  • Rebuild local food processing and storage
  • Improve food security for the most vulnerable
  • Protect and enhance on-farm habitats
  • Close the nutrient loop
  • Create a local food culture
  • Learn more about renewable energy and food systems.

Looking wider than a largely food focus, Heinberg2, in Section 1.1.8, neatly summarises four major responses to the looming crash and finishes by suggesting that the way forward is a combination of all four, wrapped within a resilience framework (I urge you to read 1.1.8 again). His four strategies (plus a fifth, ‘Brace for impact’) are:

  • Redesign
  • Preserve
  • Build alternatives
  • Subvert; and
  • Brace for impact

Focussing more specifically on energy and power, Heinberg devotes all his final chapter (Chapter 7) of ‘Power’3 – discussed throughout Section 8 and introduced in 8.2 – to what the future might look like with less power. His advice on how best to prepare for ‘young people in the 21st century’ is presented in Sidebar 28 of ‘Power’ and is reproduced here:

  • “Learn to grow food. Study permaculture.
  • Learn to read people. You are going to need to know whether people in your vicinity are trustworthy.
  • Be trustworthy. Otherwise smart and trustworthy people won’t associate with you.
  • Learn to express yourself clearly and persuasively.
  • It is OK not to reproduce. There are already plenty of people in the world.
  • Learn to make decisions by consensus and to work collaboratively. Be a person with whom others enjoy working.
  • Learn to repair and use relatively simple technologies. Studying to be a computer programmer or hacker might pay off in the short run, but over the longer term you’ll benefit more from learning to fix farming and construction tools and small engines. Learn to make spare parts from junk.
  • Learn how energy works. Be able to identify the sources of energy in your environment and find ways to harness that energy to do useful work.
  • Learn to defend yourself. Sadly, for the remainder of this century, the world is likely to be a more violent place.
  • Learn to heal the human body via nutrition, herbs and basic emergency care.
  • Learn to recognise the subjective effects of sex hormones, dopamine, and other brain chemicals, and find ways to override these effects when they threaten to push you off course. Instead, channel their effects to help achieve goals.
  • Learn about nature. Memorize the names of local plants, birds, and insects, and observe their habits. Learn to be comfortable in the wild.
  • Learn how to produce beauty via art, music, or movement, and how to engage others in creative, celebratory activities.
  • Learn to emotionally process trauma and grief, and to help others do so. Learn when and how, to use humor to release tension.”

As you can see with his ninth point about self-defence, he is under no illusion as to how painful a transition to a low-energy future may be, and quotes the ever-sharp Margaret Atwood as saying in the event of a collapse, rather than a transition4: “You might think that (when civilisation collapses) those of  us who are left would go back one step – from fossil-fuel values to agricultural ones – but in conditions of widespread societal breakdown, we’d more likely switch to early foraging values almost immediately, with the accompanying interpersonal violence. Short form: when the lights go off and the police network fails, the looters will be out looting within 24 hours. Agriculturists have land to defend and therefore borders to protect, but urban dwellers minus their usual occupations are nomads, dependent not on what they can grow – that’s a long seed-to-harvest cycle anyway – but on what they can scrounge, filch, or kill.”

There is a raft of books, films and TV shows on the future – dystopian or not – and while it is beyond T10 to explore this area in detail, some of these works provide insight into what ‘a transition’ might be like and what the final state for society and Nature may be. Again, Margaret Atwood presents a range of clever and often frightening scenarios, but perhaps the most relevant here is her ‘MaddAddam Trilogy’4 which contains ‘God’s Gardeners’, a horticultural group or cult that deploys a range of techniques not dissimilar from Bradford’s list of farming philosophies and principles presented previously, in order to survive in a largely fossil-fuel-free and violent world.

We have mentioned Barbara Kingsolver previously (see Section 2.5) and another one of her books, the novel ‘Unsheltered’5 provides a nice summary and debate on our current lifestyle choices and how we respond to change. The book sets the daughter up against the brother and father: the daughter has commenced a low-energy/low-material path, while the brother and father are very much BAU/capitalist optimists. This sounds as if it could be tedious, but it is skilfully done against a backdrop of decline and the complexities and ramifications for relationships of this decline.

‘Station 11’, by Emily St. John Mandel6, portrays also a collapsing world and what is left of it 20 years later. The characters must navigate this divided, localised, low-technology world and the loss of power, and attempts to marshal and use whatever energy and materials are available, form a constant and believable backdrop to the story.

There is asymmetry in Section 8 between the broadscale, big-picture outlook of the section – the national and international scale of energy issues – and the bias of T10 towards presenting, at least at first, the ways in which the individual may respond. This is overcome, at least in part, by Section 2, ‘Consumption’, which explicitly deals with individual and household responses to achieve reduced energy use, and less-polluting energy use. The relevant webpages are:

  • 2.5 Food
  • 2.6 Housing
  • 2.7 Transport
  • 2.8 Goods

Of course, all of T10 is aimed at reducing our environmental impact, much of it via reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Specific pages and sections of relevance are:

  • 3.5 The Slow City Movement
  • 3.6 The Slow Food Movement
  • 3.7 The Slow Fashion Movement
  • 3.8 Arts and Crafts and Artisan Movements; and

Section 5, ‘Population’, especially 5.10 ‘Solutions’. From it I reproduce again the graph of Wynes and Nicholas7 showing that by far the greatest impact an individual can have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – 24 x any other measure! – is to decide to have one less child.

 

(Wynes and Nicholas. 2017. Personal Choices to Reduce Your Contribution to Climate Change).

 

  • Section 4, ‘Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment’, particularly webpages 4.6 and 4.7. Here, ways to engage with the larger political system and power structures are discussed. It is interesting to note, as an example, that my country, Australia, recently held its three-yearly election (May 2022) and a newly-formed, loose coalition of independents called the ‘teal independents’, running on a climate change and anti-corruption platform, gained at least 3.97%8 of the vote and 6 new seats, including unseating the Federal Treasurer. It goes to show what organisation, political acumen and financial backing can do, and in a very short time.
(Armao, J/Financial Review. 2022. Supporters of teal independent Monique Ryan (who unseated the Federal Treasurer). Organisation, political acumen, and resources, led to a quick rise for this ‘climate-change’ group at the Australian election in 2022).

 

We are fortunate to have an exceptional organisation and websites that deal directly with the energy problems of today and attempt to chart a way forward. The Post Carbon Institute – Post Carbon Institute – founded in the USA in 2003, aims to lead “the transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world.” Their vision is “a world of resilient communities and re-localized economies that thrive within ecological bounds.” It is an energetic organisation offering numerous products and services, including:

  • Daily ‘news’ articles
  • Blogs
  • Videos
  • Publications
  • Education (an extensive online course called ‘Think Resilience’ comprising 22 video lectures)
  • Events, speakers, actions.

A part of the Post Carbon Institute is their Resilience program and website – which describes itself as: Resilience.org aims to support building community resilience in a world of multiple emerging challenges: the decline of cheap energy, the depletion of critical resources like water, complex environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss, and the social and economic issues which are linked to these. We like to think of the site as a community library with space to read and think, but also as a vibrant café in which to meet people, discuss ideas and projects, and pick up and share tips on how to build the resilience of your community, your household, or yourself.” It is for the more ‘newsy’ and immediate items and responses than the Post Carbon site.

I strongly urge readers interested in energy matters, as well as those with a broader engagement in societal change, to link with the Post Carbon site and to support them if you can. To do so, go to: Support a More Resilient Future – Post Carbon Institute .

Dynamic people of good will – like those at the Post Carbon Institute – give us hope in this difficult section. This said, it would be dishonest to say that things are anything but dire. Everywhere throughout the section, as soon as there seems to be a way forward, it is contradicted, or too late, or undermined. We need more renewables, quickly, but not so as to cause an unrecoverable CO2 pulse; we need more renewables, but not those that will damage the environment more than ‘save’ it; we must reduce overall energy consumption, but no so fast as to cause collapse and the suffering of millions; we must keep temperature rise below + 1.5 degrees, but have to ‘hasten slowly’, so as to not bring whole nations to their knees; we need ongoing technological innovation and energy efficiencies, but must not over rely on these; and on it goes…

Probably the window for dealing with such complexity, and often, contradictory complexity at that, was always small. With great skill and co-operation we, perhaps, could have squeezed through it 20-15 years ago with the help of the buying of time through improved distribution and equality, and efficiencies, but that time has passed, with little real movement to address the situation, so perhaps the window for some sort of managed, reasonable transition is now closed. This, tragically, may just leave forms of collapse and damage for all. Is our role now, therefore, more aligned to a ‘salvage operation’, to Heinberg’s five strategies?

  • Redesign
  • Preserve
  • Build alternatives
  • Subvert; and
  • Brace for impact…?

For all our sakes, and for Nature’s, I sincerely hope not, but it is hard to see a pause in modern society from the mad onrush of growth, let alone a re-direction. Significant environment and climate damage is already locked in and there is almost no more ‘give’ in the system to absorb and survive further attack. I fear we are past ‘transition’ and onto ‘disruption’, at best, and ‘collapse’, at worst. Note 1

 

(CASA. 2020. United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP 26 – Glasgow, UK. Unfortunately, international agreement, targets, and action, though vital, is painfully slow and forever constrained by national self-interest).

 

1 Bradford, J. 2019. The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification. Post Carbon Institute, Corvallis, USA.

2 Heinberg, R. 2021. Capitalism, the Doomsday Machine. Resilience.org. February 25th.

3 Heinberg, R. 2021. Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada.

4 Atwood, M. 2014. The MaddAddam Trilogy. Anchor, New York, USA.

5 Kingsolver, B. 2018. Unsheltered. HarperCollins, New York, USA.

6 St. John Mandel, E. 2014. Station 11. Knopf, New York, USA.

7 Nicholas, K., Wynes, S. 2017. The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions. Environmental Research Letters, July 12th, Vol. 12, IOP Publ., Bristol, UK.

8 https://www.tallyroom.com.au/47865

Note 1. Sadly, latest forecasts in the updated ‘Limits to Growth’ indicate increasing likelihood of collapse (Update on Limits to Growth: Comparing the state of our world with the World3 model. (harvard.edu) .

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