Designing the Landscapes of Energy Descent

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Peter Bane

The choices we make today will ripple through the economies of the next half-century or longer, so it is important that they be informed by the realities of a world with less available energy and capital. Permaculture, a global movement for grassroots retrofitting of post-industrial societies, anticipated the devolution of energy-intensive systems from the 1970s onward, and has focused on training activists in design thinking, effective teaching, and community organizing skills.

In countries of the Two-Thirds World, the emphasis on creating resources by repairing landscapes and augmenting natural capital with small inputs of information, seed, plants, animals, and appropriate technology was readily grasped as a direct response to problems of poverty, land degradation, and cultural erosion. In rich countries, permaculture found an audience at the margins, in hilly country, among artists, students of the natural world, organic farmers, and other free-thinking types. Living in a nation polluted by wealth and still in thrall to mass production and mass marketing, mainstream US people saw little value in permaculture’s call to recognize limits, until recent years when the illusion of endless prosperity was shattered by war and financial crises. Now that a sense of need has been engendered among millions, it is important to demonstrate solutions on the broad scale. This requires skilled practitioners to step forward and engage in publically prominent actions.

Permaculture’s each-one-teach-one approach to extension has succeeded in the face of limited resources and official neglect, but despite the power of the two-week intensive introductory course, called the permaculture design course, or PDC, to change attitudes, or induce metanoia, many emerge from it without a full suite of skills for effective work. Professionals in the fields of design or landscape management who matriculate can often see how to adopt permaculture thinking to build more capable systems, but many coming to the PDC from apprehension about the environmental crisis — which is also an economic crisis — understand the need for a shift in career, employment, or location, sometimes all three. As the ground shifts beneath them, they can benefit from mentoring by professional designers and facilitators familiar with the terrain of cultural evolution and social change.

Over the past four decades, permaculture designers have implemented striking and impressive innovations, and do this on increasing scales with each passing year. Ecovillages, a worldwide university without walls, municipal scale composting and recycling programs, organic farms, multi-village reforestation projects, credit unions, local currencies, and more have emerged from the initiatives of one or a few individuals. Lately, the global network has contemplated aid projects to the Greek people in their crisis of neo-liberal austerity, directly confronting the depradations of state and multi-state actors. 

Closer to home, our Midwestern industrial regions have felt the impact of globalism’s dislocations longer than many parts of the US. More than three decades into the era of exported jobs and decaying cities, Northeast Ohio has had time to reach to the root and envision locally sourced economic solutions — a direct challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of globalization. A sophisticated urban agriculture is beginning to emerge and provide a new bottom-up basis for prosperity. 

Akron, once tire-maker to the American auto industry, is ready to pull up freeway lanes that have marred its central city for decades. Youngstown has begun to depave and remove utilities from outlying districts that emptied out in the 80s. These cities, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and many others are primed for a revolution in thinking, one that will lead the way for presently more prosperous places to follow. 

Our cities need design for lively districts, pedestrian-friendly streets, mixed use neighborhoods, and urban farms. They need to be surrounded by mixed agriculture, greenbelts of forest reserves (which will be the energy sources of the future), and thriving smaller market towns which can supply produce and other primary goods from the land, a subject on which I have written extensively in The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. Transportation networks based on bicycles, light rail, and bus rapid transit need to be integrated with residential redevelopment to rebalance exchange values with constrained mobility. Urban drainage systems need to be recreated to hold water back in the manner of wetlands, riparian parks, roof gardens, and porous pavement, rather than rush it away as now. The food, habitat, and biomass resources of the urban forest need to grow and be cultivated to provide livelihoods, room for wildlife, and fertility for urban foodsheds. These are urgent matters since infrastructure takes many years to transform, and the legacy of soil and water contamination is heavy.

With the help of colleagues Karryn Olson-Ramanujan of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, Ithaca, and Jono Neiger of Regenerative Design Group in western Massachusetts, I will lead an Advanced Design Course for graduates of the PDC in Akron November 8-13 (www.permacultureactivist/designcourse/). Students will undertake team design projects with significant civic renewal potential throughout the metro area. We will be guided by local professionals and residents with a hand on the region’s pulse, and we will build skills in pattern recognition and language development, system analysis, concept articulation and goal-setting, and presentation. Key sections of the course will emphasize plant palettes, water management and earthworks, community capacity building, entrepreneurship, and professional practice.

As a board member of Community Solutions, I am committed to the regeneration of small community through face-to-face encounter — the answer to our urban challenges is also relocalization — and as a permaculture designer and teacher, my work centers on the building of natural and social capital through small group initiatives. When we come together to deepen these capacities, we create the networks that are essential for new energy descent cultures to emerge from the chaotic conditions of the present epoch. Our world exists in a liminal state today, and all who are alive can feel the unrest. The appropriate response is not fear, however, but action to ground a heightened awareness, and the cultivation of vision from the expanded possibilities of sweeping change. It is possible to prepare for the unknown because the morphology of natural systems and the needs of human beings are universal, imperatives that will become more obvious as the trajectory of economic contraction brings about a levelling of wealth, greater sharing, and a nurturing of common resources. We have an obligation to help these processes to grow and spread.