Posted by: Mike Grenville | 5 November 2009

Meeting the Challenge of Energy Descent

Like it or not, we will be facing a future with ever less energy. But what does this “Energy Descent” mean, exactly? And how do we prepare? A key feature of a Transition Initiative is supposed to be an EDAP. But not surprisingly, it turns out that developing an EDAP in a community is a long and complicated process. Michael Brownlee looks at the state of play.

“I believe there is a course of action that is appropriate to what we face, and is actually inevitable, whether we go there voluntarily or have to be dragged kicking and screaming into that future: the comprehensive downscaling, rescaling, downsizing, and relocalizing of all our activities, a radical reorganization of the way we live in the most fundamental particulars.” –James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century

Our Predicament

It’s become axiomatic that, like it or not, we will be facing a future with ever less energy. But what does this “Energy Descent” mean, exactly? And how do we prepare?

Richard Heinberg has been fairly specific about the dimensions of the challenge. He estimates that due to fossil fuel depletion and decreasing exports we could easily see a 25-40% decline in available energy over the next two or three decades. He calculates that in but a very few nations probably no more than 25% of the energy currently being consumed could be replaced by alternative/renewable sources by 2030. So for fossil fuel importing nations like the U.S., says Heinberg, it would be prudent to anticipate and plan for at least a 25% decline in total energy by that time. That would certainly change the face of modern society!

CMOcomparisonBut with the energy revolution green-shooting all over the planet, won’t alternative sources of energy quickly replace the oil we’re using? No, suggest scientists at Stanford Research Institute, who noted that the 83 million or so barrels of oil we’re burning every day to run the world adds up to just about one cubic mile of oil (CMO) per year. An enormous amount of energy is embedded in all that black liquid!

So what would it take to replace the oil we currently use? The SRI researchers say that to finally achieve that much energy output, every year for fifty years in a row we’d need to build the equivalent of four Three Gorges Dams (still the largest construction project in human history). Or bring 52 nuclear power plants online every year for fifty years. Or launch 104 coal-fired power plants every year for fifty years. Or, if you’d prefer a “cleaner” approach, we’d need to install 91 million solar panels or 33,000 wind turbines a year for fifty years in a row.

From this perspective we can say that certainly there will be alternatives to oil, but they are not likely to come on stream quickly enough or at large enough scale to maintain our current way of life. Gulp!

The End of the Culture of Growth

OurEnergyFutureOne of the most important implications of Energy Descent is that economic growth—the primary culprit in climate change and environmental degradation—will slow down (already happening) and eventually reverse course. This is the economic equivalent of a pole-shift, and will shake the very foundations of human civilization as we have come to know it.

Where we are now is at the beginning of a transition from an industrial growth culture to a culture of descent. This transition will be characterized by much cultural chaos, and then we will be declining or descending to a far more sustainable low-energy culture. Regarding this, David Holmgren says, “We have trouble visualizing decline as positive, but this simply reflects the dominance of our prior culture of growth… The real issue of our age is how we make a graceful and ethical descent.” It is no coincidence that Holmgren sees permaculture playing a crucial role in designing this descent.

Holmgren has also charted the disturbing correlation between increasing energy consumption and human population growth. Now energy consumption and human population are peaking, he says, partly because cheap fossil fuels are peaking. On the other side of this peak is an inevitable decline: “I use the term ‘descent,’” says Holmgren, “as the least loaded word that honestly conveys the inevitable, radical reduction of material consumption and/or human numbers that will characterize the declining decades and centuries of fossil fuel abundance and availability.”

Rob Hopkins, the plucky founder of the burgeoning Transition movement, defines Energy Descent as “…the continual decline in net energy supporting humanity, a decline that mirrors the ascent in net energy that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution.” (Hopkins is obviously deeply influenced by Holmgren.)

Writers like Archdruid John Michael Greer have helped us understand that Energy Descent is not a problem that can be solved, but a predicament of our own creation to which we must now quickly adapt. In the face of such a predicament, the desperate and futile search for “solutions” is both misleading and distracting, and leaves us unprepared for the realities that are coming. (I recently had a revealing conversation with researchers at Amory Lovins’ famed Rocky Mountain Institute who told me that they are working to quickly develop alternative energy technologies that will allow America to continue life as usual without having to change or sacrifice anything.)

A predicament, as Heinberg once said, is like growing old. “You can’t solve that. However, you can choose to respond respectfully, wisely and imaginatively to it.” Like ageing, he says, even a fundamental predicament can become a source of unexpected riches.

Relocalization and Resilience

Hopkins summarizes our current predicament succinctly:

  • The challenge of global climate change makes a transition off fossil fuel dependence necessary for planetary survival.
  • The impending peak in oil and gas production means that the transition is inevitable.
  • Our only choice is whether to proactively undertake the transition now—or later.

But this is not about bad news, not doom and gloom. Cheerfully, Hopkins says, “I believe that a lower-energy, more localized future—in which we move from being consumers to being producer/consumers, where food, energy and other essentials are locally produced, local economies are strengthened and we have learned to live more within our means—is a step towards something extraordinary, not a step away from something inherently irreplaceable.”

In this more localized future, says Hopkins, we know we must make our communities more resilient, less vulnerable to the profound changes that are coming—for resilient communities, self-reliant for their essential needs, will be far better off than those who are still dependent on globalized systems for food, energy, transportation, health, and housing.

The Transition movement teaches that the essence of resilience is relocalization, which means moving towards local production of food, energy and goods; local development of currency, government and culture; and, importantly, reducing consumption while improving environmental and social conditions. Notably, for the Transition movement, relocalization also means developing exemplary communities that can provide working models and inspiration for other communities as the effects of energy decline become more intense.

But how does all this happen? How can communities actually make this Transition?

Transition’s Energy Descent Action Plan

By now, most of us are familiar with the inspiring story of how long-time permaculture teacher and activist Rob Hopkins conspired with his students to develop a visionary plan for applying the principles and ethics of permaculture to help transition the town of Kinsale, Ireland off fossil fuel dependence, and how their Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) was subsequently adopted by the town council. This was a shot-heard-round-the-world kind of moment that ignited the imaginations of would-be relocalizers in communities far and wide, all the more so as we have since witnessed Transition initiatives blossom in more than a thousand communities in some 15 countries (there are as of this writing 206 initiatives officially recognized by the Transition Network, including 38 in the U.S., plus an unknown number of “mullers”—likely in the low four-figures—along with scores of groups who are already utilizing the Transition process but have not yet sought official status).

Many of us watched in fascination as Hopkins moved to Totnes, England, where he began prototyping an ambitious process (somewhat coincidentally described in twelve loosely-defined “steps,” which are now understood as “ingredients” or pieces of the overall Transition puzzle; see below) for engaging an entire community in relocalizing, becoming resilient and largely self-reliant for their essential needs. The holy grail or pinnacle of the process became the development of an Energy Descent Action Plan for the community, one which is developed organically with the broad involvement of grassroots citizenry and local government alike.

Hundreds of communities have earnestly and enthusiastically begun the Transition process over the last couple of years, but where has the effort gotten to? Where do we see stellar examples of community-produced Energy Descent plans?


Totnes, England

Not surprisingly, it turns out that developing an EDAP in a community is a long and complicated process. Transition Totnes, England—the first official Transition Town—launched its much anticipated 12- to 24-month planning process on Sept. 24, 2008, nearly three years after Hopkins arrived and two years after their spectacular “Great Unleashing” event. (Significantly, the planning process was well-funded before they actually began formal work on the project.)

A 2030 vision of a resilient and self-reliant Totnes was cultivated from a lengthy series of meetings and community-engagement workshops, along with the output of a variety of working groups focused on specific areas of concern, and a preliminary draft of the plan was published in late July of this year for a month of open online consultation from the public.

Key themes and pathways in the draft plan include Working with Nature, Creative Energy Systems, Resourcing Localisation, Nurturing Transition, and Empowering People. These all incorporate timelines, ideas, suggestions and proposals by participants at public workshops designed to fashion a vision for Totnes in 2030. This fall, Transition Totnes will open their Energy Descent Plan to a lengthy process of wider consultation, discussion, and—finally—implementation.

Early output from the Totnes EDAP work has resulted in the publication of groundbreaking research in “Can Totnes and District Feed Itself? Exploring the Practicalities of Food Relocalization.” Hopkins calls this paper “the most comprehensive look at this question thus far, and is the first step in developing a national project and tool around the ‘Can Britain Feed Itself?’ question.”

Hopkins muses, “The paper looks at the degree of food self reliance that might be possible, based on the quality of the land available, and on how it is presently used. It reveals large gaps in our knowledge, the difficulty of establishing yields for the more complex, [bespeaks] food production systems such as agroforestry, the potential impacts of climate change, and also the difficulty of obtaining affordable access to the range of datasets that doing this work in more detail would require.” The authors view it as “the first stab at research that is vitally needed across the world.”

The conclusions of the paper, says Mike Grenville of Transition Network News, identify “the need for a rethink of how agriculture is practiced, as well as the urgent need for research into new models of food production. Also identified is the need for national version of this research, a larger project, but in the light of the fast moving issues of peak oil, climate change and the economic difficulties facing the UK, a profoundly urgent one.”

Transitioners around the world are closely following the Totnes planning process, as it promises to be the “gold standard” for EDAPs everywhere.

Transition Forest Row’s “Pre-EDAP”

ForestRowEDAPTransition Forest Row in England has taken a very different approach to their Energy Descent Plan. Forrest Row was one of the early Transition Initiatives in the UK, holding its Great Unleashing in March 2008. Fueled by a small grant and an accompanying aggressive deadline, the group found themselves plunging into the planning process much earlier than anticipated. They began with the usual community events and working groups, but as the deadline loomed, an editorial team took things in hand to produce a publishable product. What quickly emerged was a narrative, a story-from-the-future of a fictional family called “The Foresters,” and how they made the Transition as a family and how the community of Forrest Row changed around them.

The result is a creative combination of storytelling, cartoons and drawings, along with practical steps to a fossil-fuel-free community by 2030. It is packaged as a colorful, beautifully-produced, and rather whimsical sort of “pre-EDAP,” telling the story of a possible future for Forest Row for the man in the street. Transition Forest Row printed 1,800 copies, and delivered one to every home in the community (along with a copy of their Local Food Directory). The hope was that it would begin to embed a positive vision into the village that would later lead to the development of a full-blown plan.

Transition Forest Row endeavored to utilize language and ideas that would be accessible to all people in the community, whether they were familiar with Transition or not. They attempted to present necessary changes as positive steps, but did not shrink from projecting uncomfortable future trends, such as food riots in 2018.

In hindsight, the organizers of Transition Forest Row learned that their relationships with people in their community were of primary importance. They told 350 attendees at a recent international Transition Network conference in London, “It’s not what you do that’s important. It’s the way that you do it that gets results. It’s how you work with each other.” Their guidance will surely help shape the next phase of the Forrest Row EDAP process.

You can download the PDF of the Forest Row EDAP here:

Many other Energy Descent Plans are reported to be under way throughout the movement, but few have progressed as far as Transition Totnes or Transition Forest Row.

Engaging Entire Communities in the Process

TransitionCircleOne of the key distinctions of the Transition model is its attempt to engage entire communities in the process of carefully designing their own transition from oil dependence to resilience and self-reliance, guided by the principles and ethics of permaculture. This sets Transition Initiatives apart from myriad “activist groups” in a community by attempting to bring everyone—activists, citizens, local business and government—into the process. How can this be achieved? The answer lies in the stages or phases of the Transition model:

  1. Form an Initiating Group. The process always seems to begin when someone gets “struck by lightning” and realizes that their community is vulnerable and needs to make the Transition. They enlist others to form an all-volunteer “Initiating Group,” which takes responsibility for beginning the Transition process in their community and designs how they will hand off this responsibility when the appropriate moment arrives.
  2. Raise Awareness. The Initiating Group launches an extended awareness-raising campaign to heighten understanding of the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and economic chaos, as well as to convey the opportunities that Transition provides.
  3. Lay the Foundations. The Initiating Group begins developing relationships with existing groups and individuals in the community, laying the foundations for collaboration and partnership.
  4. Organize a Great Unleashing. When the process reaches sufficient momentum, the group decides to hold a large public launch event–full of insight, inspiration and entertainment—which the community will remember in hindsight as the moment when the process of Transition really began for them.
  5. Form Working Groups. With the unleashing of community enthusiasm and support, it’s now possible to begin forming working groups to focus on specific areas of concern (food, water, transport, energy, etc.). These groups will ultimately feed into the Energy Descent planning process, and their arrival signals the beginning of the long-awaited handoff of responsibility from the Initiating Group to a larger and more organic entity (usually a non-profit organization complete with board of directors) that will gradually evolve into the community’s “relocalization agency.”
  6. Use Open Space Technology. For harvesting ideas and creative input from large numbers of people, Open Space Technology is a key resource. Many working groups have been spawned as a result of Open Space events focused on a specific topic or challenge, such as “How will our community feed itself beyond the age of cheap oil?”
  7. TransitionaHandbookDevelop Visible, Practical Projects. People need to see that more than meetings are happening in the Transition process. Community gardens, local currencies, tree planting, and a local food directory are examples of projects that keep members of the community engaged and inspired.
  8. Facilitate the Great Reskilling. Drawing on local experts, the Transition Initiative begins to provide training in those fundamental life-skills once taken for granted by our grandparents and great-grandparents—gardening, canning and preserving, beekeeping, raising chickens, rainwater harvesting, sock darning—skills that, like our forebears, we will need in order to thrive in energy-scarce times.
  9. Build a Bridge to Local Government. From early in the larger Transition project, it is important to cultivate positive and productive relationships with local government, for they too must become part of the process. (Hopkins likes to say that you may find yourself “knocking on an open door”; and indeed, many local governments in the UK are already providing significant fiscal support for Transition Initiatives.)
  10. Honor and Engage the Elders. Along the way, the Transition Initiative will need to develop ways to involve the elders of the community, for they possess knowledge, skills, and experience that will be highly valuable for all.
  11. Create and Energy Descent Action Plan. Eventually, perhaps two or three years into the process, it will be possible to begin the formal Energy Descent planning process, starting with catalyzing an inspiring vision for the future and backcasting to determine necessary steps along the way.
  12. Let It Go Where It Wants to Go. Lastly, Hopkins admonishes Transitioners to remember that control is an illusion. The focus should be on unleashing the genius of the entire community.

The Transition process is a general guide, non-prescriptive, flexible, and arguably adaptable to communities of virtually any scale. The steps are not necessarily sequential, although the first five seem to represent a natural flow of events. Of course there are many other important aspects of the Transition process which are beyond the scope of this article, such as the Inner Transition (“Heart and Soul” work), collective visioning, the translation of permaculture principles and ethics to a community-wide level, and dealing with the psychology of change.

Energy Descent Planning in America?

A gleaning project for Community Food Share in Boulder County, Aug. 2009, creates equitable distribution and fun.

A gleaning project for Community Food Share in Boulder County, Aug. 2009, creates equitable distribution and fun.

The Transition movement landed in the U.S. in mid-2008, with Transition Boulder County (now Transition Colorado) becoming the first officially-recognized initiative in North America in May of that year. Since that time, nearly 900 people have gone through the two-day “Training for Transition,” which is focused on providing tools and processes that local initiatives will need in order to launch sustained Transition efforts in their communities. A community of 21 certified trainers is available to deliver this training (not really a “training” per se, but a powerful conceptual and experiential in-depth introduction to Transition). And nearly 40 initiatives have been officially recognized to date, the latest being Media, PA, ranging from small towns of a few thousand people to, surprisingly, the mammoth metropolis of Los Angeles (approximately 13 million).

The Transition movement is very young in this country, and very few initiatives have reached the level of maturity and sustainability to develop an EDAP. An exception may be Transition Sandpoint in Idaho, started by Gaia University Master’s graduate Richard Kuhnel, which after less than one year of intense awareness-raising activities held their Great Unleashing in November 2008 and immediately organized a series of robust working groups to begin tackling the research and planning (the subject of a long and smarmy story in the New York Times Magazine, April 19, titled “The End is Near! Yay!”). It’s still too early to evaluate how successful the project is, but Transition Sandpoint claims to be the first in the U.S. to reach the point of involving the broader community in the planning process.

In general, there appears to be some resistance in U.S. Transition Initiatives to taking on the Energy Descent planning process, which after all is supposed to be the crown jewel of the Transition movement. Perhaps this is because it’s easier for groups to get involved in a variety of enticing positive projects (such as constructing community gardens, or developing a local currency, or organizing a co-op market), and these projects tend to quickly overwhelm a group’s capacity, leaving little time or energy for long-term planning. Perhaps it’s because organizing and supporting successful working groups is very hard work, and besides, research and strategic planning are skills that those passionate about the issues often don’t possess (and those who do have the skills are often too busy to perform the needed work in such a group). And perhaps it’s because Americans are prone to disregard and abandon process models like Hopkins has developed, choosing instead to reinvent their own way.

In any case, it is likely to be a while before the U.S. Transition movement produces model Energy Descent plans that can serve as inspiration to other communities. Given the growing urgency of fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and economic chaos, some may wonder if the plans—which, once developed, will take years to implement anyway—will arrive too late to be of much use. This perhaps is the heart of the dilemma of the movement here, whether the actions Transition spawns are proportionate to the scale and urgency of the challenges we know we face as a society.

Significantly, the Transition movement as a whole has now apparently reached just about the same level of proliferation as Post Carbon Institute’s Relocalization Network did at its peak (reportedly about 200 groups in 15 countries). But the Relocalization Network rapidly declined after that point, despite estimates that the movement would grow exponentially and reach perhaps 10,000 groups by the end of 2008. That network proved to be unsustainable, partly because it lacked precisely the kind of replicable model/process for relocalization that Transition provides. It remains to be seen whether the Transition movement can learn from the missteps of the Relocalization Network.

The Cheerful Disclaimer

Waiting in line for the Community Cycles bike mechanic at a free bike clinic in Boulder.

Waiting in line for the Community Cycles bike mechanic at a free bike clinic in Boulder.

Refreshingly, Hopkins is careful to caution Transitioners not to overpromise or overstate what Transition offers. After all, “Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale,” he says. “We don’t know if this will work. But we do know that if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late. And if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might be just enough, just in time.”

It’s a poignant, if cheerful, disclaimer. No one has ever successfully relocalized a community before, and no one knows for certain if it can even be done. But as one initiative leader told Hopkins, “While it’s true that we have no assurance Transition will ultimately succeed in the U.S., we’re going to give it our all here anyway. I see no downside risk to wholeheartedly placing all our local bets on Transition and attempting to engage entire communities in the process.”

In reality, Transition is a bit more than a social experiment, for our communities are directly in the path of a global tsunami (James Howard Kunstler’s “Long Emergency”), and we must quickly rise to the occasion and get ourselves to higher ground—together.

As Hopkins freely acknowledges, the Transition movement might yet fail. And if it does, Transitioners will at least know that they have given ourselves to what they considered was both most important and most urgent. The learning that will come from their experience will likely be useful to others who will subsequently inherit these challenges and opportunities.


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