Creative Descent

 It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

- William Stanley Jevons

Truly green homes aren’t extraordinary at all. The most efficient homes and apartments sit in downtown neighborhoods that are close to shops, restaurants, neighbors, and public transit. They aren’t too large, which minimizes construction materials, decreases heating and cooling requirements, and prevents them from doubling as storage units for runaway material accumulation. They have windows with adjustable shades, plenty of roof and wall insulation, adequate weather stripping, energy-efficient appliances, and kitchens with linoleum floors.

- Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions

William Stanley Jevons was the English economist who first described the paradox now named in his honor. In his 1865 book The Coal Question, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal increased dramatically after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine. Watt’s invention greatly improved upon  the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Watt’s innovations eventually made coal a more cost-effective power source and lead to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This had the result of increasing the total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. Jevons rightly argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use. The conclusion we can draw from this is that technological solutions often end up making the consumption problem worse, not better.

With cheap oil and coal, we have managed to build an extremely complex and interdependent society. One aspect of such a complex society is that most individuals specialize in only one or two things; most people no longer have the mulitiple skills that are necessary to survive in the wild on our own.  If we are to prepare for creative descent from a society where cheap energy was plentiful to one in which it is scarce,  we will be forced to return to an aggrerian lifestyle in which it will be far more important to know many basic skills such as growing our own food or finding water, skills important to keeping us alive.

Progress Trap

While humanity prides itself on its achievements, the results of human progress have an accompanying dark side. Historian Ronald Wright coined the word Progress Trap to describe this.  a condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.

Wright begins arguing his case with archaeological evidence that strongly suggest that human hunter gatherers are thought to have caused the extinction of woolly mammoths due to hunting techniques that became too efficient – driving them off cliffs and killing them off by the hundreds at a time. Today, as technocrats come up with countless technological solutions to engineer our way out of our multiple ecological crisis, it will be folly to forget the major role that “human progress” has contributed to it in the first place. Indeed, the industrial revolution which created a global socio-economic system dependent on cheap energy is also the root of the runaway pollution that now threatens us all.  

Human beings of modern industrial societies now find themselves  in the unenviable position of having to pollute the planet as a corollary of their ordinary economic survival. Betrayal of our grandchildren’s future is the tragic consequence of living our modern lives today. It is not at all clear whether throwing more technology at the problem will solve it or fan the flame higher.
 If you’re watching over the last 5 or 6 thousand years and you’re speeding up you’re film, what you are seeing is civilization is breaking out like forest fires, in one pristine environment after another. And after a civilization has arisen and burned out the natural resources in that area, it dies down and another fire breaks out somewhere else. And now of course, we have one huge civilization all around the world and we have to confront the possibility that the entire experiment of civilization is in itself a progress trap.

- Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress

BBC’s Surviving Progress

A Low Energy Future for All

As Dr. Nathan Lewis concludes in his Powering the Planet analysis, it doesn’t matter if there is still a lot of carbon based energy left, we cannot use it due to the constraint of global warming. The Carbon Tracker has published the study Unburnable Carbon which comes to the same conclusion. Big oil and coal companies already know the threat of a low carbon future; they don’t appear in it. That leaves us with a very real problem today – all these carbon fuel companies are heavily capitalized based upon the expectation of exploiting future reserves. What happens when the low carbon society says that 80% of those reserves are not allowed out of the ground?

So whether one believes in Peak Oil or not, there seems to be no easy way out. If we cannot find a clean power source that can match fossil fuels ubiquity, energy density and cheap price, then we will be forced to a far lower energy lifestyle.

One by one, elements of a high energy consumption lifestyle will begin to contract. Developed countries, where citizens average anywhere from 5 to 10 times the sustainable ecological footprint will be hit hardest. Ironically, developing countries, who already experience low sustainable level ecologicial footprints won’t be hit so hard.

As the future energy supply constrains us, there will either be a controlled or uncontrolled shutdown of society. At first, the least essential services will be hit and as time goes on, more and more higher priority functions will be withdrawn as well. How do we prepare for a low energy consumption lifestyle? Richard Heinburg in The Party’s Over asks us to consider how we would successively manage with:

  1. 10% less
  2. 25% less
  3. 50% less
  4. 75% less

oil. If Peak Oil strikes, we can expect an annual decline of around 2% available energy per year. 

Creative descent is a way to gradually prepare for Peak Oil by adapting our lifestyle in a timely manner: recognizing energy intensive processes and eliminating them or replacing them with appropriate local and renewable energy technologies to create a sustainable lifestyle. For developing countries, this lifestyle could very well be a step up.

There are groups around the world preparing for Creative Descent by making their communities resilient to oil shock by weaning themselves off any functions that currently require fossil fuel. In particuliar, Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Networks has done extensive work with two towns: Kinsale in Ireland and Totnes in the UK.

Going Backwards: Reversing the trend from Global,Centralized Power to Local, Community Power

It’s easy to paint a rosy picture that globalization is good for people and the economy. After all, doesn’t it give producers access to global markets and allows the best products to reach the paying consumer everywhere? A global economy is one that allow goods and services to be shipped across vast distances. By doing so, global trade not only accounts for a lot of Greenhouse gases but also disempowers communities around the world by making them dependent on distant suppliers. Multi-national conglomerates usually have their base of operations located in developed countries. From there, like an octopus, they send their tentacles halfway around the world.  They use globalization and free-trade policies to help extend their vast reach efficiently. Such companies plunder developing countries for their resources and cheap labor then send premium cost manufacture products to high value markets for consumption. When the cycle is done, the waste is shipped back to developing countries. Theoretically, a global economy is good, in practice, it is inequitable.

In the past decades, the globalization movement has increased the disparity between rich and poor. Under the guise of fair trade and improving the life of the common man, it has proven to be nothing more than an acceleration in resource extraction from the developing countries to the developed world without impacting the average citizen in the developing world at all. The reliance on centralized multi-national conglomerates is dangerous because their top priority is profit with people and the environment a distant second.

It is highly questionable whether centralized, industrial power can survive as the dominant culture in a low energy world. There are few studies to show all the hidden and embodied energy costs involved in running such a large, centralized manufacturing system.

The  Transition NetworkPost Carbon InstituteNew Economics Institute New Economics Foundation and many others are advocating a return to local power, a movement called relocalization. Relocalization is an emerging trend which appears to solve many problems at once by returning power to the community level. Relocalization is a means break the dangerous dependence  and return knowledge, power and reliance back to the community level.

Villages, towns, cities, counties, and regions  return to autonomy and meet  their own core needs for durable goods, food and essential community services. To be sure, as Relocalization grows, it will become a threat to multi-national conglomerates as they lose the customer base for their products and services. It will also result in some potential compromises, especially for complex technologies like semiconductors and biotechnology which cannot be done easily at a community level.

Base of Pyramid communities in developing countries only consume a fraction of the goods manufactured by multi-national conglomerates. Relocalization will actually result in significant community improvements while in developed countries it mayresult in a significantly lower quality of life as citizens have to give up their extreme consumption habits.

Relocalizing will result in tradeoffs:

  • Gains in local knowledge at the potential expense of  loss of higher quality knowledge at the global level
  • Gains in lower quality local infrastructure at the potential expense of loss of higher quality infrastucture supplied by foreign suppliers
  • Gains in lower quality local toos at the potential expense of loss of higher quality globally supplied tools

Centralization has made us all minority shareholders of knowledge. Relocalization takes back that power and puts it back in the community.

The community must become self sufficient for all it’s needs including food production, health, education, manufacturing, waste and building. Download an informative transition guide from the New Economics Foundation here.

Explore how to transform your community to a Transition Town here.