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Permaculture and Peak Oil

by James Lea, 15 March 2005

This talk was presented by James Lea at a GreenSpeak meeting entitled "The Oil Crisis" held at The Sanctuary, Hove, East Sussex, UK on 15 March 2005. James spoke during Steve Watson's presentation on Peak Oil.

Introduction

This talk follows on from a recent presentation Fiona and I gave two months ago, entitled 'Greening the Home'. There's some overlap here, but I plan to emphasise the permaculture aspects of our thinking. In particular, I'd like to explore how the application of permaculture can help us to:

  1. minimise fossil fuel consumption to delay peak oil, and
  2. modify our lifestyles so energy price and supply shocks will have less impact on us, enabling us to continue living 'normal' lives in a carbon-poor economy

As I only have fifteen minutes I will give a quick summary of what permaculture is, and then use it to examine a typical lifestyle (ours) to see how it can help tackle the problem of peak oil.

In the process we will see how mitigating the impact of peak oil can also help us tackle climate change, as the two are closely related. Indeed some argue the onset of peak oil is a good thing, on the basis that the sooner oil supplies run out, the fewer greenhouse gases we'll emit!

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is an ecological design system that is inherently sustainable. It was started in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia and is a rapidly growing discipline worldwide.

It emphasises the importance of design, observation of nature and application of natural solutions - 'prior art' and can be applied to many areas of your life, not just growing food. It is highly applicable in an urban context where most of the world's population live.

Permaculture is based on a set of core ethics (fairshare, earthcare, peoplecare) and principles. It places a strong emphasis on careful observation and design as the key to minimising work. The ethics stress the importance of 'stewardship' - looking after the earth and its inhabitants - making permaculture suited to addressing and minimising the impacts of peak oil.

Principles of Permaculture

Permaculture principles as set out by Bryn Thomas of the Brighton Permaculture Trust (www.brightonpermaculture.co.uk/) are:

Working with Nature

  • Use Natural Patterns
  • Minimum intervention/Least change for greatest effect/work with not against nature
  • Perennial and No-dig systems (everything gardens)

Diversity

  • Diversity
  • Relative Location/Maximise beneficial relationships/Integration
  • Niche/optimum location

Function and Scale

  • All elements should have at least 3 functions
  • Important functions should be supported by many elements
  • Small scale intensive systems/optimum sizing

Use of Space & Time

  • Stacking - optimum use of three dimensional space
  • Use edge effect (ecotone)
  • Use or mimic natural succession

Resources

  • Use biological resources
  • Use appropriate technology
  • Self-regulation

Energy

  • Maximise the use of energy from source to sink
  • A system should produce more energy than it consumes
  • Establish low maintenance systems/80:20 principle

Attitude

  • Design to minimise the effects of limiting factors
  • Problems contain their solutions
  • Imagination is the only limit to yield

In the next section I'll show you how my partner and I have applied some of these principles to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel resources and to minimise our dependency on them.

Resources and Lifestyles - Linear and Cyclic Flows

In our modern lives we rarely think about how we use resources, and the impact their consumption has on the environment. Permaculture practitioners would characterise modern lifestyles as having highly linear flows of resources, energy and money passing straight through the home with little re-use within or near to the home.

From a permaculture perspective, the most striking aspect of our lives are the vast quantities of energy which they're driven by. We all have a heavy dependency on a web of energy supplies, many of which are anchored in the oil fields of the Middle East.

Take our home as an example. Five years ago we were living a fairly conventional lifestyle. Our impacts weren't as bad as some homes, but looked like this:

  1. Gas - 12 MWHr/year
  2. Electricity - 2 MWHr/year - non-renewable (gas, oil, nuclear)
  3. Water - 120 tonnes/year - supplying water is energy intensive, but we were making no efforts to conserve it
  4. Sewage - no attempt to reduce water volumes into sewer via toilet. Treating sewage requires energy-intensive chemical treatment facilities
  5. Transport - one car covering an average of 10000 miles per year will consume 285 gallons of petrol. That's just one car. In the UK there were over 31 million cars in 2003. (www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_transstats/documents/page/dft_transstats_031690.pdf)
  6. Flights - two flights a year - aviation consumes vast amounts of oil (which is one reason why it is untaxed) and contributes significantly to climate change
  7. Food - purchasing without regard to food miles
  8. Waste - some recycling, but food scraps, cardboard etc. going into 'rubbish' - conventional waste processing is energy intensive for transporting and processing waste
  9. Purchase of goods - little regard to distance travelled
  10. Economy - services purchased regardless of their proximity to home, often permitting our money to flow out of the local economy and into multinational corporations overseas

Energy Descent - minimising consumption, maximising independence

Permaculture can help us carry out 'energy descent', a concept discussed in David Holmgren's book "Permaculture : Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability". We live in a society in which we are encouraged to consume more and more - "growth without limits" as politicians like to put it. By contrast Permaculture is rooted in practical reality and fully acknowledges natural limits on human activities. Good design means recognising and thriving within those constraints.

Peak Oil will force up the price of basic goods and commodities. Transport will become more expensive, making local goods cheaper than those shipped half way round the planet. People will be forced to become more self-reliant: in a sense, to rediscover what our parents and grandparents did during the war years. That's the near future, but what can we do now?

By applying permaculture principles, we tackled each of the areas of our life, seeking to turn linear flows into cyclic flows. Many of these techniques were discussed in our 'green living' talk - no coincidence, since tackling peak oil also means going greener at home!

Here's are some changes we've made to our lives which have been inspired by permaculture concepts:

Electricity

  1. Cyclic flows - switched suppliers to renewable from non-renewable at no extra cost: our bills are the same
  2. Diversity - if the grid goes down, so does our supply. We've purchased and fitted a small solar panel, battery and inverter so we can continue using essential equipment while the grid is down

Gas (heating, cooking)

  1. No waste - insulated home, fit gas condensing boiler (up to 98% efficient), cook with lid on.

Water and sewage

  1. Cyclic flows - we've installed a rainwater harvesting system that supplies water to our rainwater flushing toilet, as well as to the garden during dry spells; we re-use bath water for flushing toilet.
  2. Reduce waste - we compost food scraps, cardboard, scraps of paper etc. A compost heap can digest a surprising range of materials. We only flush the toilet when necessary, helping to cut down the one-third of all household water consumption that flows through the toilet.

Transport

  1. Locality - reduce travel, cut down on flying, sold car, see local friends more; arrange to see distant friends for longer - no more travelling 40 miles to see someone for just a few hours - see them for the weekend instead
  2. Appropriate scale - purchased a good bike and waterproofs so I can now cycle in all weathers. I now cycle to work every day regardless of the weather - it's easy!

Food

  1. Appropriate scale - purchasing our food locally, minimising food miles
  2. Niche - grow our own food (a large part of permaculture) with an emphasis on perennial vegetables and herbs to minimise work and maximise yield

Financial

  1. Maximising beneficial relationships / appropriate scale - rather than buy furniture from a nameless chain, we've commissioned furniture from a local artist/carpenter. At little extra cost we now have some excellent furniture and have kept money in the local economy, supporting local businesses
  2. Self-regulation - we've minimised our debts, so we're now a little less exposed to interest rate changes and the vagaries of the financial markets - fluctuations which will become more pronounced with Peak Oil

Energy Descent - What we've achieved

Following these changes we've:

  • reduced our gas consumption by 20% - less gas, less fossil fuel dependency
  • massively reduced our use of petroleum by selling our car (saving over 2 tonnes of CO2 per year) and switching to a renewable electricity supply (saving 800 kg of CO2 emissions each year)
  • cut down oil used in transporting our food (embodied energy in food is very large)
  • reduced the volume of waste sent to landfill
  • supported the local economy and scaled back our debts

Our exposure to electricity and gas price hikes is reduced. We have greater skills and self-sufficiency, and a much better understanding of global resource flows.

These improvements are significant - if everyone did this, then we would probably not be fighting wars in the Middle East to help secure future oil supplies. Certainly we'd be leaving more oil in the ground where it belongs and a better world for future generations.

Conclusion

I've given you a flavour of what permaculture is, and how we've applied some of its principles to minimise our oil dependency. When the peak oil shock comes, we'll be in a better position to weather it, through a combination of practical measures and knowledge.

I urge you to do the same - find out more about permaculture, think about your lifestyle and its fossil fuel dependencies, and take action! The problem of Peak Oil and what to do about it is not going to go away. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, adopt a positive attitude that says each and every individual can make a difference, so find out more about permaculture concepts and apply them to your daily life.

I've also touched on some political issues - many of which the Green Party (www.brightonandhovegreenparty.org.uk) is campaigning on - which I believe Steve will now talk about. I'm happy to answer any questions when Steve has concluded his talk.

Thank you, and over to Steve.

End of talk

Further Reading

There's lots of material on the internet - here are some starters:

 

Any comments on this article?

If you have any comments you'd like to make, please send me your feedback.

 

-- (c) James Lea, www.GreenLiving.co.uk, 2005 - 2007 --