Crash and Burn or Green Descent: Creating Nodes of Permanence.

By Andrew Leslie Phillips
Founder Hancock Permaculture Center,
Lead consultant, Permaculture Design Solutions.
August 29, 2007

The United States and most of the rest of the industrial world, run on oil and electricity.

Fifty percent of electricity comes from burning coal.

Coal contributes about thirty percent of green house gases causing global warming.

We are already over the threshold and still building more coal fired plants, particularly in China, to keep up with the demand for electricity.

Therefore the situation can only worsen - unless we change the way we generate and use electricity. This implies a paradigm shift of such magnitude impossible to imagine. But it is possible and will become necessary as the energy descent curve deepens.

Permaculture provides a framework to observe, interact, adapt and change and understands that waste is really unused energy and that we can move beyond sustainability to abundant systems capable of softening energy descent.

Let me repeat the thesis. About fifty percent of electricity used to drive industrial nations is produced by burning coal - which contributes about one-third of all green house gasses.

The U.S. is the major contributor of green house gasses but soon, as China develops its coal-based solution (currently opening about one new coal-fired plant every week)- soon China will be the biggest.

The greenhouse effect is now in a cascading feedback loop as poles melt reducing reflectivity of sunlight which already has difficulty escaping our atmosphere and is bounced back to Earth where less and less ice is available to reflect the sun's heat and is absorbed by the darkening sea.

As glaciers melt they yield ancient fresh (fossil) water into the oceans which desalinates the sea and changes the world's ocean currents affecting weather patterns.

Severe storm surges will come before categorical sea level rise. Today, with a day of sustained rain, our cities and towns and surrounding suburbs are brought to a standstill. The cost is high and resettlement difficult and expensive.

Many communities settled on ancient flood-plains, fertile ground for agriculture but a bad place to live in the future. Roughly seventy percent of the world's major cities are in this situation.

The climate is shifting, whole climate zones are changing. Precipitation patterns are in flux and adaptation is necessary.
Devastating floods across whole continents in Africa and India have destroyed habit and millions are homeless. Droughts are more sustained, water is depleting at an alarming rate and now a commodity to be traded.

BBC on African flooding:

For the first time in recorded history, the North West passage between Canada and Russia is ice free and falling ice shelves cause level 4 earthquakes as ice crashes into the ocean.

BBC on North-west passage:

Temperatures are rising, the permafrost is melting, the planet is changing as a result of industrialization.

The increasing number or erratic weather events all over the world at the same time, are the beginning tremors of climate change.
There is no indication that mainstream government and most media are prepared to acknowledge what appears to be incontrovertible climate change and the coming storm.

But climate change is only part of the story. Peaking oil, soil and water depletion, rising energy prices create a confluence of challenges.

We know we have a problem. How might we adapt to these changes? Changing light bulbs and recycling plastic bags won't help much. Even changing our driving habits, though necessary, is not the real problem.

We need a paradigm shift away from burning coal immediately - and by extension - the way we use electricity. Our growth model - industrial civilization - is choking us on our own waste. In fact this "waste" is unused energy.

Energy decent will force us to live in closer collaboration within our bio regions. Issues of food and water security will be primary. Rising energy prices will force us to change. If we prepare, the decent will be softer. And what we call waste today can be energy tomorrow.

I believe it is possible to establish "nodes of permanence" within our bio regions, communities of people who understand where we live by tracing the outlines of our community, a survey of opportunities - food and water supply, problems and potentials, legal structures, zoning for appropriate change. By understanding these things we can create redundant, resiliant and sustainable systems that will lead away from the destructive economic growth and resource depletion model, to a place where we create and enrich the basis of all our lives - the soil, water, nutritions food. That's where start.

We may not be able to change the world but we can start at the back door and work from there. It is time for us to act - to learn - to adapt and to change - and at least try to learn, teach and share our knowledge in our attempt to set up "nodes of permanence" that may be very important sooner than we think.

Here is Bill Mollison lecturing on what he called "The Terrible Time" in 1981 when he made his first trip to the U.S.

"I don't think anybody has summarized what is happening on the face of the Earth. In order to change our ways, we seem to need to terrify ourselves anticipating tidal waves and catastrophes. Now those things may come and the San Andreas fault may shift. But we can't do much about that. What is really happening is something for which we, as human beings, are personally responsible. It is very general. Almost everything we say applies everywhere.

The real systems that are beginning to fail are soils, forests, the atmosphere and nutrient cycles. It is we who are responsible for that. We haven't evolved anywhere in the west (and I doubt very much elsewhere except in tribal areas) any sustainable system in agriculture or forestry. We don't have a system."

(Pamphlet 1 in the Permaculture Design Course Series,
published by Yankee Permaculture, Barking Frogs Permaculture Center)

It seems to me that education is at the center of change, information sharing and support as we venture toward another path - more humane and based on some simple ethics - Care of Earth, care of people and return of surplus to both. If we start there, everything else will follow, and we may even enjoy the ride. What else is there to do?