Energy Descent Conundrums Part One

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Energy descent is not an easy concept for most people to grasp. As we have all grown up in an era of unprecedented energy ascent, the idea of a future with less available energy is an uncomfortable one, even for those of us within the Transition movement.

I was thinking about what the best ways of getting energy descent across to people who haven’t come across the concept before. Then I thought about an idea raised a while ago by a friend in TTW about the role of an agony aunt in a post-peak-oil world. What sort of issues and problems would they be dealing with? Secret addiction to the smell of unleaded? Nipping out into the garden at midnight with a pick axe hoping to find a new reserve?

So what are the small things in life that energy descent will mean to people? Not just the obvious ones like getting to work or heating the house, but the more mundane things that don’t even register when discussing big scary stuff like peak oil. These are more random, trivial questions for an energy descent future . . .

New Tricks?

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Last month I made a decision. In many ways, it was a tough one, although actually it was a ‘no-brainer’. I decided to quit the Transition Town Worthing steering group.

It was a tough decision because I was a co-founder of TTW in early 2009. Ever since the set up, I’d been deeply involved with most TTW things: writing the constitution, setting up the website, giving talks, showing films, supporting projects, running the monthly newsletter. Since 2010, my main focus was creating an Energy Descent Action Plan for Worthing, and the TTW steering group seemed like the natural route to make this happen. How could I let that go? TTW had been in my soul for three years, head, heart and hands.

It was a ‘no-brainer’ because in August 2011, I became a parent for the first time and all the time I’d previously dedicated to TTW vanished overnight. I suddenly had a whole new set of priorities to contend with and even if I’d had the time, I just didn’t have the ‘headspace’ to be part of the steering group.

Being a good dad to my little girl became my new direction. Sitting in meetings just didn’t work for me anymore.

I had various conversations with others in the steering group and had a vague idea of getting back into it after a ‘few months’ or maybe in the spring when the evenings would be lighter, but it didn’t happen. I set up an EDAP group within TTW back in the Autumn and made a little progress developing a second draft of the EDAP. What was clear to me were two things: one, I just didn’t have much available time to work on the EDAP; two, there was little interest within the steering group to make the EDAP happen. There was a real struggle to try and put the EDAP centre-stage rather than allowing it to become ‘just another TTW project’ in amongst the knitting workshops and social events.

The first point was an unavoidable result of becoming a new parent. The second point was unfortunate as we had agreed previously on several occasions that the EDAP was to be the priority for the steering group during 2011/12. What became increasingly clear was that creating an EDAP is a big task and one that needs input from a number of sources and co-writers. I had already had some excellent input from the local food group of TTW, some good ideas from our EDAP World Cafe event from June 2011, a few quality original cartoons, some great oral histories, and some degree of continuity with an introduction and resilience indicators.

With an EDAP (either working towards one or using one as a blueprint) a transition group has a coherence and direction about it; without an EDAP, there seems to be a real possibility of drifting towards being another vague ‘green’ organisation, well-meaning but ultimately without teeth or a USP. Transition’s USP for me is energy descent.

So, at present, the EDAP for Worthing is shelved until further notice. I’d still like to see it published, but only when we can find some real enthusiasm amongst TTW’s 300+ members. My feeling is that for a Transition initiative to produce an EDAP, several key factors need to be in place:

  1. A fully committed steering group, willing to devote their limited and precious time to it
  2. Three or four co-writers, alongside other contributors
  3. A programme of co-ordinated EDAP-related events to bring energy descent into focus for those beyond the steering group
  4. Good networking that allows EDAP to be presented and discussed with a wide range of key players in the the local community, as well as a willingness to incorporate EDAP into other local plans, and vice versa!

Now that I am a father, my interest in planning and/or addressing energy descent on a local community level has become heightened. I have a personal interest in a livable future beyond oil.  As a result, I will think differently about the future direction of this blog. We are still all beginners at this energy descent stuff and there is a lot to be thought about. Maybe some places and people are not quite ready for something as radical as energy descent (after all it is a concept totally at odds with ‘conventional’ thinking about the future), and as warm-hearted, inspirational, and positive as an EDAP.

I think this story is only just beginning . . .

This is Worthing, 2012. What Next?

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Spending an hour or so in central Worthing  last weekend taking photos of the urban landscape for the EDAP resulted in a document of grey, cold concrete, a car-dominated space.

There’s a few here, and what we’re going to do is ‘doctor’ them using Photoshop to create some images of a ‘transitioned’ Worthing circa 2030. What’s changed? Oil is too expensive to use other than for exceptional circumstances. The climate has warmed. We’re doing more for ourselves as a local community. People travel less. We’re growing more food ourselves and learned new (old) skills.

The big question here is: what does Worthing look like after all this has happened? What does the urban fabric of the town look like in a post-peak oil world?

What will be our street furniture, or what logos will we see?

Will we want to retain some great examples of car culture’s great monuments and architecture?

Can we creatively re-think how we use space in a world where the parameters have been totally changed?

How will we make use of all the urban land that is no longer needed for cars?

Can we maintain it all? Does this landscape lose its meaning in 2030? Will people inhabit central town locations or is it still dominated by commerce? What sort of commerce will prosper and function in a post-oil future?

So many questions; so few answers.

What do you think?

Mustn’t Grumble

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someecards.com - Don't complain. Create!

Thinking about how best to present our Energy Descent Action Plan, and start building some solid connections with other groups and organisations in Worthing, the EDAP team is considering three threads.

These would be a printed version of the EDAP, setting out the vision of a transitioned Worthing along with an outline of the action plans for the key themes. The central focus of the printed EDAP is likely to be a map of the town showing numerous projects as they could be in 2030 (or thereabouts). The second version would be a short film. The reason for this is because we are trying to work out who the audience is for the EDAP, and ideally we want this to be as wide as possible rather than just a few hardcore transitioners. A short video (maybe around 20 minutes long – or less) might just engage those people who are never going to pick up a printed document. The final version is web-based and would contain much greater detail. This is to enable the action plan part of the EDAP to contain detailed backcasting and allow for a little reviewing and updating in the future.

I have recently been taking a tour through a few web-based tools to explain what an EDAP is (or might be). E-cards seem to be a possible for creating a jokey image with a message (I thought this one might appeal to a few in Worthing . . . ) especially since we no longer have a resident cartoonist to help us do this. Like Twitter, there’s a beauty in saying what you need to say in a soundbite.

We now have a committed team writing for the EDAP, but a real lack of creative/artistic types to create good visual images. But, I’m trying not to complain. Creating is actually more fun. Even with a e-card.

Measuring Local Resilience

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After setting up our first meeting of TTW’s newly created EDAP group, I have made a list of all the obvious bits and pieces that we need to complete and add to the growing document that will eventually become Worthing’s Energy Descent Action Plan (I’m sure the non-obvious bits and pieces will come to light in the coming months too!)

One item that we have only scratched the surface of so far is ‘resilience indicators’. What?

Well, you know, ‘resilience indicators’ sounds much worse than they really are. It’s how we could/can measure how resilient our town is/could be.  As soon as we mention the word resilience, I’m just hoping that people’s eyes don’t glaze over. I mean, I think it’s a great word, and I tend to use it all the time, hoping that the more I do, the more people will absorb it through some kind of verbal osmosis and be tuned in . . . Back in the real world, we all know that it doesn’t tend to work like that.

The way that I have most recently heard resilience defined within the Transition movement by Rob Hopkins is by quoting Iain Dowie, manager of Crystal Palace FC: ‘bouncebackability’ (!) The Urban Dictionary.com defines ‘bouncebackability’ as ‘the ability to bounce back usually implying a fighting spirit’. Now, not being a footballing fan, I can still appreciate the sentiments involved in the word. Being a geographer, I am quite excited by made-up words (studentification being a great example of this – meaning an area of a university town which has become populated by large numbers of student residences). My own preference would be to refer to Alan Partridge and his first autobiographical attempt to regain his position in the world of light entertainment, ‘Bouncing Back’

In terms of a town, resilience becomes the ability of that place to cope, deal with, and respond to a shock or impact, such as economic meltdown or sky-rocketing petrol prices (both of which a re entirely plausible in the short to medium term). If Worthing was hit by one or both types of shock, how would it cope? At present, the answer is probably ‘very badly’ as Worthing has little in terms of a thriving local economy or food production.

‘Bouncing back’ is probably quite apt for Worthing, because in 2011, it is a long way off being resilient. Just a quick peek at the shops in the centre of town show three key areas of growth: chain-stores; mobile phone shops; and closed-down shop premises. I’m sure this is a similar picture for many towns in the UK. In recent months, even a few of the national chains have been closing high street branches down as they relocate to out-of-town sites (e.g. Currys, November 2011).

Worthing has the feel of a town that has nowhere else to go, but ‘bouncing back’ as transition-related projects take root seems appropriate. This is especially the case when you consider the Worthing of living memory. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Worthing had huge areas of market gardens growing tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers. Local shopping areas were filled with family-run small businesses, and local dairies supplied the population with milk and cheese. We had a degree of resilience 60 years ago. Since then, it has gradually been eroded as we have come to rely on road transport, imported mass-produced goods and food from anywhere but the local area.

So, how could we begin to measure how much resilience Worthing has? How can we assess whether or not the town has ‘bounced back’? Some ideas have been coming in following our EDAP World Cafe back in June:

  • Percentage of locally owned businesses in main shopping streets.
  • Number of people working locally and at home.
  • Number of people commuting in and out of Worthing.
  • Percentage of food grown within a 30 miles radius of Worthing
  • Number of schools teaching basic gardening and food growing skills
  • Number of school/college leavers who have practical skills (e.g. construction, carpentry, plumbing)
  • Number of productive domestic food gardens
  • Amount of energy produced by community-owned renewable energy generation
  • Percentage of domestic and public buildings with solar PV generating capacity

The Transition Handbook (2008) sets out resilience indicators like this:

Carbon footprinting and the cutting of carbon emissions are clearly a crucial part of preparing for an energy-lean future, but they are not the only way of measuring a community’s progress towards becoming more resilient. In the Transition approach, we see cutting carbon as one of many ‘Resilience Indicators’ that are able to show the increasing degree of resilience in the settlement in question. Others might include:

    • – the percentage of local trade carried out in local currency
    • – percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius
    • – ratio of car parking space to productive land use
    • – degree of engagement in practical Transition work by local community
    • – amount of traffic on local roads
    • – number of business owned by local people
    • – proportion of the community employed locally
    • – percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius
    • – percentage of local building materials used in new housing developments
    • – percentage of energy consumed in the town that has been generated by local ESCO
    • – amount of 16 year olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetable to a given degree of basic competency
    • – percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius

Clearly some of these indicators are easier to measure than others, but we can start to build a image of what a resilient, ‘bouncing back’ community might look like. Worthing’s EDAP group are continuing to develop a range of measurements that have relevance to Worthing. The starting point is to determine where we are now, taking the measurements as a 2011 benchmark. Progress on these would then show whether Worthing is becoming more or less resilient over time.

I quite like to use different images to explain how transition can work. The image I’ve used previously for ‘resilience’ is that of a tree blown down in the Great Storm in 1987 in southern England. Despite have being uprooted with only a third of its roots left in the ground, the tree has just got on with sending out new shoots and getting on with the business of being a tree. Other images included an oil drum (obvious), a book (hmmm), a chisel (cheeky), and Johnny Rotten (challenging). Answers on a postcard to the usual address!

Woodland for Energy Descent

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‘Trees have the capacity to rise to the heavens and connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and keep us warm through the winter . . . When W.H. Auden wrote “A culture is no better than its woods”, he knew that having carelessly lost more of their woods than any other country in Europe, the British correspondingly take a greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left’

Roger Deakin, Wildwood (2008)


A Google search for woodland in Worthing brings up street names, guest houses, even a stables. What is missing is real, living woodland. Places are often named for the natural world they have ‘displaced’ (destroyed). The fact is, Worthing has little in the way of woodlands.

The Woodland Trust recently started an initiative (‘More Trees, More Good’) which suggested that no-one should live more than 500m from an area of accessible woodland less than 2 hectares in size. For Worthing, only 0.1% of people live within 500m of such an area. This compares with an average of 14.5% in West Sussex and 15.6% nationally.
Woodlands are an essential element in the transition to a low carbon, post-oil future. In fact, a community with healthy, sustainably managed woodlands could be regarded as one which is more resilient and able to respond to external shocks such as resource depletion and climate change. Not only does woodland provide a crucial green lung for urban communities, it also offers a source of renewable energy, building materials, food in the form of nuts and fruit, as well as opportunities for countless crafts, skills and opportunities to reconnect with nature. Beyond this, we could add that woodlands play an important part in the carbon cycle . . .

Other Transition communities in the UK are involved in woodlands: Lewes is running a Woodland Skills youth training programme and a Living Willow project, Totnes are planting 4000 native trees by the end of March 2011 creating a coppice, they are also attempting to become the ‘nut tree capital of Britain’ with sweet chestnut, walnut, almond and hazel trees being planted, Ladock-Grampound Transition in Cornwall is creating an’edible woodland’ area. (There are many more: check the internet!)
For TTW, we already have well-established groups looking at Local Food, Energy, Re-skilling, and Heart & Soul, whose members may find in very worthwhile to consider woodland as part of Worthing’s future and think about how we can enable this to happen. We are making the first moves towards developing an Energy Descent Action Plan, investigating what is possible and needed in Worthing to break our addiction to oil, adapt to climate change, and create a thriving local economy over the next few decades. How might woodlands be part of Worthing in 2030 and beyond?

A local site is being considered as a possibility for woodland regeneration. It was formerly used as a landfill for many years, but could be brought back into use as a productive woodland, subject to various checks and agreements. We clearly need to identify more potential sites for this purpose.

Part of Worthing’s EDAP vision for 2030 desperately needs to include new areas of woodland, and this will go beyond purely recreational space. Seeing woodland as a living natural, renewable resource and relearning all those skills such as coppicing and pollarding that enables managed woodland to be one of the most productive relationships between people and nature. In addition, we will need to make fuller use of existing spaces where new trees can be planted. Roadside verges and roundabouts for a start. How about the Offington Roundabout planted with a copse of sweet chestnut? Or the huge car parks at Lyon’s Farm dug up and native tree species planted on the edge of the Downs? All that land we’ve previously used for the car will be looked at with fresh eyes when cars are just too expensive to run.

So, Worthing in 2030 will contain more woodland than it does in 2011, but trees don’t grow overnight! If we want a ‘wooded Worthing’ for the future we will need to work out how this can happen. What are the steps necessary? There is a long list for ‘backcasting’ for woodland as part of an EDAP: land availability; partnerships with existing organisations; council support; volunteers; and so on . . .

There is a Chinese proverb which says ‘the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the next best time is now’ Well, I guess we’ll have to go with ‘now’ then!

Visioning and Backcasting for an Energy Descent Action Plan

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Back in June, 2011, Transition Town Worthing ran its first World Cafe event.

The purpose was to work on the detail already collected in Worthing’s Transition Timeline, and with input from the local community, start building content and firming up ideas. The Transition Handbook refers to this process as ‘backcasting’. In other words, you start off with a vision of what you’d like things to be like, then take several steps back and work out what actually needs to happen to make that vision a reality.

This all sounded great at the planning stage. Book a venue, organise a lovely cafe atmosphere conducive to enabling discussion, set up tables/people to ‘host’ discussion based on a variety of topics for the EDAP (e.g. energy, transport, food, local economy, wellbeing, re-skilling, waste, and so on), and work out a structure for the 3 hours of the event.

Well. it all sort of worked. We had the cafe with loads of homemade cakes and fairtrade beverages. We even got TTW members turning up to the event, eager to take part. I even took along my 1979 edition of the Usborne Book of the Future for an introduction to thinking about the future, and how it’s often a hit and miss affair . . .

Where we diverged from the ‘vision’ for the event was the backcasting, because getting people to focus on what was already on the timeline and work with that rather than come up with a swathe of new ideas was what happened. So we need to rethink how we approach this sort of EDAP event in the future . . . World Cafe principles worked well. We had separate tables on food, energy, local economy, reskilling, green spaces, housing, transport and waste. Each was chaired by a TTW person with some background in that theme.

It also made me think that backcasting is crucial because it brings work on the EDAP back to the present, and things that are happening now. For TTW this means the Angmering CSA, food mapping, community gardens and woodland, as well as our reskilling and heart & soul activities. Without that anchor to the present, transition towns are at risk of being seen as ‘all about the future’ or ‘dreamers’.

Getting people into the right frame of mind to develop their vision of the future is an art in itself. The work of TTW’s Steering Group over the coming months is going to be focused on the EDAP, with backcasting as a priority. We will clearly need to get external input on most of the themes, but need to have a blueprint in place first.

Hmmm. I’m going to vision my lunch now, and backcast to work out how to make it happen!