Energy descent

These new value systems do not mean we will adapt to less, but rather we will return to core essentials, empowering individuals and local communities.

Carlos Cuellar Brown
11 April 2014

Windfarm in South Italy

The concept of energy descent usually refers to the progressive reduction of fossil fuel energy and material consumption as society retracts from oil and gas, particularly as supply approaches its limits or ‘peak oil’. Cheap oil and easy drilling have become a thing of the past; today the technical difficulties of offshore sea-drilling and the devastating ecocide produced by the fracking industry, do not give humanity much choice but to consider the reduction in dependence on fossil fuels as a necessary adaptation for the future.

If you added up all the other sources of energy available today including solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal and kinetic, plus other fringe technologies, they would not amount to 20% of the energy requirements to run the world. I am excluding atomic energy as an alternative solution to this energy conundrum altogether, because of its incredible toll on the environment and toxic track record. Concurrently our oil and gas prices will continue to rise because of high demand as less production pushes the entire global economy to gradual adjustment.

In the west we take forgranted that this dependence will continue to provide our local needs forever. Agribusiness for example depends on fossil fuels for all of its operations; consider that food distribution is dominated by giant transcontinental cartels that fuel commercial trading with petroleum. If oil stopped pumping tomorrow the paved highways, container routes, air couriers, freight trains and parking malls would stop distributing goods. 

On the other hand fossil fuel has motored industrialism; this resource has been responsible for the explosion of technology, population and all features of modern societies. The energy of fossil fuel put to work and raised the capacity of humanity past the industrial revolution into the information age, introducing us to the convenient carousel of gadgets and machines of modernity.

Petroleum products and derivatives invented the modern market values that have created unprecedented wealth in the general population but also disproportionate wealth for energy corporations that self-service their own markets.

These monopolies are the big bosses of business that rule the world. Most modern economies and nations depend on this oil-based geopolitical asset to keep on functioning. The spread of the fossil fuel grid has made us mono-dependent, clumsy and huge, unable to maneuver past ‘peak oil’ as we slam into ‘peak food’.

If we had the technology ready to provide the world with all its energetic needs - perhaps if we had cold fission all figured out and ready to go - we would still truncate our time available and need at least ten years to reconfigure our standing power grids and switch boards. 

With the development of agriculture, regional comparative advantages made some states and communities more dominant than others. These dominant states imposed economic grids on the rest of society, making way for the dominance of robber barons and trade agreements. With its parameters of growth at all costs, men of capital in dark suits commandeered the advantages of the topdown modern corporate state take over, relentlessly depleting planetary resources with mono-crop farming and GMO’s.

These forces destroy biodiversity, denature soil and erode land and sea. The systematic elimination of diversity and variety will sterilize and wipe out pest-resistant poly-cultures of perennial bio systems, regional crops and heirlooms, leaving us with irreparable collateral damage to survival value.

Unaware of this cost, the structural power grabs in Big Agro stand to lose great economic wealth in readjustment. Humanity’s energy consumption reality check is here and can’t be postponed.

Returning to the essentials

The assumption that fossil fuels will continue to provide the increasing demand for energy is falsely based on dwindling resources and declining availability of petroleum. The consumption of more and more of this same energy will inevitably collapse the monolithic oil-based energetic grid structure of western industrialism. 

This reality should be our calling card for radical change of consumer ways.

The ascending use of fossil-fuel-derived energy for everything will transition to oil-independence as we move towards much more diverse use of energy resources. This new economic model includes innovation and synergistic diversity centered around efficiently designed, independent and abundant systems.

These systems and innovations will reduce to having almost no imprint on the environment and in some cases retroactively give back wealth to its systems; improving on the value of available resources. Our future assets are pristine forest, clean water, healthy oceans, pure air, bio-dynamic rich soils, diverse flora and fauna.

To this new set of stock options and commodities, we can add community relationships, scientific know-how, information technology, family values, art and bio-rich cultural enterprises. The preservation of wild systems of nature in ecological flux will prevail over reckless human intervention.

These new value systems do not mean we will adapt to less, but rather we will return to core essentials, empowering individuals and local communities, designing new efficient resources that are dynamic, rebuilding perennial systems that are high yield low maintenance, profiting from our recycled waste products, and redefining consumerism; transforming the worlds’ output of fabricated obsolete clutter into a renaissance of sustainable communities with locally generated goods and services.

This new gamut of design services and products will have regional scales plugged into a world wide web of information solutions. The resulting growth will diversify and empower humanity bringing unsought abundance and co-creation with planet Earth.

The senseless consumption of useless, mindless and pointless stuff is the sociopathology that will be left behind in this energy descent.

Designing comparative advantage

The age of energy descent does not have to be a scary thing. Rather it’s our greatest opportunity to mature and resolve our primary issues.

 The new paradigm will empower the local scale of governance, with all the technological advantages readily available to every individual, in a very open system of human empowerment and voluntary exchange with an explosion of innovation, peer-to-peer transactions, local time shares, financial cooperatives, cryptic currencies and community swapping.

This empowerment will be the new fuel that will inspire diversity and abundance. This kind of empowerment will deploy multiple regional resources and centres; in this new paradigm, regional diversity is about designing comparative advantages for local consumption with shorter perimeters, that do not involve trans-continental shipping, where the food to the plate process is carried out within a small radius and relies on less fuel. Shipping food across the world’s oceans is inefficient, expensive, fuel dependent and comes with huge externalities. 

Specialization of single advantages can put a system under a lot of stress and frailty. Unlike global food distribution-dependence on hydrocarbon fuels, self-reliant systems are intrinsically robust to global disturbances. If the container ships and trucks of this world, loaded with food and comestibles, suddenly stopped their freights we could approach a peak population horizon that will not be pretty.

The owners of factories and assembly lines full of labour specialists trade among themselves; they parcel up the world and keep us in domination. These giant economic consortiums control single resources and impose economic models; they sold us the idea that the supply of oil would be multigenerational. The truth is we have not only become mono-dependent contaminating the environment, but we have also cheated and limited future generations of this non-renewable energetic resource and the planet’s ability to heal.

We have the opportunity to change this oil dependence and avoid peak food and peak population. Some nations have begun to do it, in the realm of regional needs, with the aid of the information age with new technologies and energy alternatives.

Community talent and skill swapping will supply the regional niches with peer-to-peer trading. These new economic shares will dominate the rare product panoply of alternative markets, measured from the point of view of an informed consumer who makes ethical decisions for the earth and their community. The exchange of goods and services will be dominated by honest needs that endure and are intrinsically essential, practical and good for the environment.

The kind of trade we will have in this energy descent will be characterized by unique, personalized, built to last, robust enduring products designed with care and sensibility.

Such systems of low maintenance/high yield are possible and are inherited from natural systems and perennials already in production. Permaculture and other natural design initiatives are carrying out these principles blossoming everywhere.

The west has been co-opted into believing in a world of scarcity, enclosed in a field of limitation, in a universe of diminishing resources with diminishing returns. This could not be further from the truth.

Just look at the unprecedented wealth of the information age. This giant resource and playground for ingenuity will continue to grow by leaps and bounds. This display of creativity and invention will ignite and motor society into a golden era of knowledge and plenty. Necessity will once again prompt society to action, with our needs as our key to understanding, only this time we have the magnificent tool of information left behind by our petroleum age. 
Unlike the petrodollars that ran the engine of over-industrialism, the new currencies of the energy descent will thrive within resource economies and permaculture design.

It is a revolution of inputs where we will increasingly leave to the earth the perennial role of providing us with its high yields.  These new currencies are already revolutionizing the flourishing goods and services of community exchange. 

In communities of surplus and self-reliance, the exchange value of goods and services becomes a secondary by product. In a market of abundance and surplus, wealth is not based on middle men and the accumulation of treasury notes and money but rather in the act of giving and sharing all goods in surplus. 

Because society monetizes everything today, it is hard to see a different relationship; because of this skewed value system we equate money with happiness, money with wealth. This distortion extends to having expensive cooling, warehouses and refrigeration, when we find value in hoarding perishable goods: when we give value to real estate and paved highways instead of nutrient rich top soil; pollute a pristine river in search of gold; give value to manufacturing sweat shops instead of pure clean air; to Big Pharma and allopathic medicine instead of nutrition and holistic living; our sprawling cities and senseless consumption habits over the undisturbed jungles and forests of this world - when we value celebrities and mass media instead of family and community values.

We have become blinded to the real wealth of our existence. 

In this new value system, the new petroleum will be the top soil as people and communities restore and find pride in their new black nutrient richness. The new gold will become the reservoirs and restoration of all the pristine waters and oceans; the new real estate will become organic perennial food systems and markets along with alternative energies.

In this new value system big bank accounts will disappear and instead we will bank on forest gardening, edible landscapes, urban permaculture and family businesses. 

The adolescent mass culture mentality of the twentieth and twenty-first century with its “only me counts generations” will have to evolve and be replaced by an empathic social model.

In this energy descent we must come together on voluntary grounds of cooperation. To solve this shift in energy consumption, I am not advocating the return of the rugged agrarian individualism that characterized much of the pre-industrial era, but rather a coming together of interdependent town and country, micro regions, provincial wisdom and self-reliant city states, all communicating with information technologies. And I don’t suggest a scenario of scarcity either where you don’t have access to essential needs, but on the contrary I would like to invite you to the age of abundance and surplus beyond anything we have seen in the modern era. 

As society matures and adapts its needs, we will come together in a common mission to build the perennial and permacultural elements of design needed for this transition.

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