What is Energy Descent?

Energy descent means that rather than expecting there to be an ever-increasing quantity of energy resources available in the future, we may be facing a future with less energy.

Many commentators believe we have reached peak oil (the point at which oil production reaches a maximum level before beginning a terminal decline). Other fossil fuel resources that we currently take for granted, such as gas and coal, may also be facing a peak during this century. That doesn’t mean they are going to run out in the near future, but once production starts to decline, all the things we depend on from these resources is thrown into a very different context. Modern humanity has never faced this prospect of a decline in energy availability.

Added to this unique 21st century challenge, we must add climate change. This is the flip-side to peak oil. Burning vast quantities of fossil fuels have created the greenhouse gases which have contributed to climate change. As the world faces an energy crisis based on a decline in crude oil and other fossil fuels, our predicament revolves around whether we continue to use whatever last dregs of fossil fuels we can find, whilst toasting the planet in the process, or whether we accept that we need to work towards a future which uses less energy than we do now.

Energy descent is a future scenario that has been outlined by permaculturist David Holmgren on his excellent website and the book, Future Scenarios (2009). Energy descent was given further attention by Rob Hopkins in the Transition Handbook (2008). The idea was further developed by JohnMicheal Greer in The Long Descent (2008) and Shaun Chamberlin in The Transition Timeline (2009). More recently, Richard Heinberg has written The End of Growth (2011), which links energy descent with the idea of a post-growth future.

As a future scenario, energy descent is widely ignored by the mainstream media as it deals with a very different future path to those generally regarded as acceptable (bigger, faster, better, more growth).

The positive approach taken by Transition initiatives in working towards developing Energy Descent Action Plans (EDAPs) accepts energy descent as inevitable, and attempts to set out steps needed to plan for a managed energy descent, specifically geared to a local community. A few examples:

Cartoon by Spencer Hill


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