Today, the suburban topic is Localisation. So, the big, burning question on my mind is, “What will make the suburbs work as we face energy descent and the impacts of climate change?”
Before I answer the big question, lets ponder a little. What does energy descent mean in the context I am referring to? Well, the phrase ‘energy descent‘ was first used by Australian permaculture co-orginator David Holmgren. He wrote in 2003 that, “I use the term ‘descent’ as the least loaded word that honestly conveys the inevitable, radical reduction of material consumption and/or human numbers that will characterise the declining decades and centuries of fossil fuel abundance and availability.”
David’s view is very similar to that of Paul Gilding’s scenario in “The Great Disruption”, however Paul does not go into it in as much detail, but he does mention a reduction in consumerism and localisation. Just to be clear, I am going to propose realistic solutions, which will not be sugar coated which means our current business as usual ways, nor will they be apocalyptic, as I believe that neither ends of the scale will continue or eventuate. Realistic solutions for realistic people. A further point is that I am not a thought leader in this area, but I think I am very good at connecting dots, and painting a clear and simple picture so that people can understand it easily.
So now that you know the context, which will probably not be a very nice period in human history, we will have to change from Globalisation by re-localising in whatever environment we currently have available. In the case of my town, it is a vast suburban landscape. As transportation fuels become scarcer and funds for public transport dry up, we will be travelling shorter distances to look for some or indeed most of the services that we rely upon outside of our town. We will have to use less stuff, in fact, we will probably be forced by circumstances to behave in this way.
Besides all the other chaos that may and has happened in parts of western society, like further global financial collapse, job losses, mortgage defaults etc. we will be left to fend for ourselves. I would not bet my shirt on local, state, or federal governments coming to the rescue as they are just as insolvent as any other global company may become.
So where does that leave us? Well basically we have to make do with that we have. If all we have is a suburban home, in the middle of thousands of other suburban homes, then we just make do. We localise within the burb’s with materials and skills we have around us. There will be people that head for the hills, leaving homes behind, in the search for a better place. Well I say, if not in the burbs, then where else? If you set up camp in the bush, then how the heck are you going to get on without a community around you, especially without cheap transportation? Personal self sufficiency is a myth in my opinion, because as humans we have always need a strong community to survive. Now the clever ones have already started to learn new skills and build community, but in my humble opinion it is never too late to brush up on the things that will help you out.
Firstly, we need to localise our food supply. With prices expected to sky-rocket, and society being 9 meals from anarchy when the trucks stop rolling, we need to collectively do something about it. Learning to grow food in a sustainable manner with minimal outside inputs is probably going to be one of the best weapons in your armoury when the going gets tough. However, that is not to say that all we need to do is dig up our backyards and start growing food. We need people to teach these skills, and we need people to teach us how to preserve the crop for scarcer days. I would personally be making friends with all those people you see on Vasili’s garden each week! They have the skills of the old ways, which are slowly dying off. Take the time to make a new friend. They will teach you to grow, compost and care for the soil and the plants that grow in it.
So as long as we can grow enough food, we should be okay. If Cuba can do it and come out the other side of their Special Period, then we can as well with a little bit of hard work. However, it the water stops flowing in the pipes, how many backyards have water tanks or some form of water storage? Best to think that one through as well. Maybe pooling community resources may be the answer. After all, we will all be in this together, so why not reach out to neighbours now, and at least connect in a basic “cup of sugar” way. Shared water resources will need to supply the demand for greater backyard food resources, which also can be shared. If you have an elderly couple next door that are capital rich, but time or health poor, then do a deal. Ask to grow food on their land, supplying them with a sufficient share in return for supplying water storage. It is worth a try. Just like Community Supported Agriculture on a neighbourhood scale.
What other food skills will we need? Animal husbandry, in the form of backyard chickens, ducks and if there is pooled land available i.e. shared backyards, what about the odd goat or two? These skills don’t come overnight, but I can definitely see their place in the suburbs as part of a permaculture food forest. Our town is home to harness racing in Victoria, so there are abundant horses near the outer laying suburbs. I can see these complimenting our transportation needs as well. Luckily we have many people who know how to care for them, but what they will have to relearn is how to care without the aid of modern inputs like imported feed.
Speaking of food forests, median strips in ‘burbs will need to be planted out with fruit and nut trees. Most of these areas have storm water drains under them, so most trees thrive on this little strip of land. Or these strips could be used for growing wood for coppicing using fast growing native plants. As for lawns, which should have been banned years ago in my opinion, should be planted up with edible species or used for grazing the animals I mentioned above. Too much time and effort would be expended on maintaining a lawn. I can imagine the roars of protest now!
Have a think about all the other retrofits that may be required. Things are going to have to be built from scratch again, and built to last, so home workshops will be required. Metal work and wood work will be valuable skills, and if we have a limited supply of electricity, then all the better. If our main mode of transportation will be less energy intense, then who’s going to fix all the bikes? Things will need repairing when they break, so these workshops and the people that work in them will be essential components within the suburban fabric.
Now that I have mentioned bikes, I can imagine people on the streets again riding around this newly formed community of houses, now not so much like a suburb, but more like a village. Each suburb will need to have its own set of people with all the skills required for a simpler lifestyle, and getting around will either be by bike or by foot, or maybe even some form of community transport with pooled fuel resources like a bio fuel bus. We will all still have social lives, but more community centric. Think of Copenhagen, but in energy descent mode. I like bikes, and can see so many different practical uses for them. Cargo carrying big ones, children on them, just like the past, and going to visit local friends on them. Don’t worry about the danger of traffic, because I just don’t think many people will be able to afford a car. Safe travel once again. Once again horses in our area will need to do some of the heavy lifting. Now where did all those buggy whip makers go?
Anyway, these are just a few solutions regarding some potential localisation directions. In the next couple of days, I will be adding to this list. I will expand on things we will have to do to our homes to keep cool and warm without the inputs from the grid, and what our community living arrangements may look like.
Until then dear friends, sustainable thoughts to you all. I don’t think things will be as bleak in the ‘burbs as some people think.
That’s right Gavin. The suburbs are communities that will come into their own. The classes that I am teaching is the first step for these people to get to know each other and network together, not just sharing knowledge but also food. I dream of people coordinating their growing and filling each other’s gaps. No one person can hope to grow absolutely everything and be fully self sufficient. Even at the growers market, I sell my excess and then use the money to buy the foods that others have grown that fill the gaps in my supply.
Frugal Living UK says
What a treat to find your blog, especially when I am about to begin my own downshifting journey. Looking forward to reading back on your own journey and learning from it.
While energy descent is a frightening thought, there is something nice about people being forced to stop trashing the world with all their ‘stuff’! Part of me wants to see it happen so that nature is given a chance to do it’s best. Just don’t know if I am personally ready just yet.
Hi, I often click through to your blog from Simple Green Frugal. I think one change the suburbs will have to go through is increasing our population density to match the level of infrastructure we claim. My own family is heading toward a multi-generational arrangement with my parents moving together with us. Too few people on too many resources (land, plus all the hardware of roads and utilities) is one of suburbia’s biggest inequities.
I have said for years that instead of the stupid useless trees concils plant they should plant friut trees, even if they planted natives it wouldnt be so bad. But if the planted fruit trees children could play outside and grab something to eat. I love your ideas, but somehow I think people will have to get worse off before they will listen. I know no one around here is listening to me. they all think I should get rid of my gardens and build a nice bbq area instead. its just not nice and trendy enough for them. thank you for making me feel as though Im not alone.
Linda Woodrow says
In 1998 I spent most of a year living and working in Havana, Cuba. Lessons learned from that experience was one of my earliest posts on my blog. Cuba was not a third-world, peasant culture before the Special Period. Ordinary Cubans lived pretty much like working class Australians, very urban and with a largely export based economy, just like us. As we head into the kind of changes climate change will bring on, Cuba has some huge lessons, hard won from experience and now very relevant, for adapting city living when foreign exchange dollars and the fuel and food bought with them disappears.
Gavin – yep.
Ditto on the median strip planting (comment yesterday) but the Council will give 100 reasons why not. Which is silly, bc people who would throw oranges at cars currently throw bricks… so you may as well at least make it edible.
re the ‘community’ part of things, that’s my only concner. I can deal with all the rest, one way or the other. It’s the people I think will be the challenge. We live in a … not so desirable area. I think our chances of having people stealing what we grow, puncturing our water tank etc is far higher than the chance that they’ll work with us, unfortunately. not all, but some.
~That~ is my challenge to try and work around.
@ Linda’s post – and people think it won’t happen when it already has (Cuba).
A good post and timely because most australians reside in urban areas….you can’t all move to the country to change things.I kind of like the idea of carrying pumpkin seeds in my pocket when I am in a city and planting them. I don’t know if any ever grow as I am never in a city long enough to find out …but I like the image in my head of this council gardener standing there scratching his head wondering how it got there and then deciding not to pull it out and let it grow.
If you are interested in transition towns the purple pear blog does lots of work in this regard.
Interesting post Gavin. I’ve often wondered why council seems so down on people who try to live self-sufficient lives. It wasn’t that long ago that water tanks were illegal. I’m constantly worried that my neighbours will complain about my chickens (all hens but they do sing when they lay) whilst tolerating dogs that bark day and night. Council will not let me plant anything but grass on my nature strip. I often feel like I’m a guerilla self-sustaining outcast living in stealth…hopefully with more of us around we will become more of the norm than the exception.
I only hope we get the chance to put our energy descent plans into action before climate change wreaks havoc. I have been working towards a lifestyle that hopefully will see my family through any breakdown in society, much to the amusement of my family and friends. I feel optimistic we will be able to survive peak oil and financial crises but i am not so optimistic that we will be able to survive climate change. We may not be able to grow our own food if we can’t get the climate stabilised.In Lake Macquarie the council is encouraging Sustainable Neighbourhoods but most people don’t have the sense of urgency yet. Keep up the good work Gavin
Kathy P. says
I think the biggest potential of the ‘burbs is to reinvent themselves as small pocket neigborhoods. Zoning would have to be changed to allow small shops, library, drugstore, etc. in some of the McMansions. I also envision many McMansions being subdivided into two and three family condos, once it becomes apparent that a huge, rambling behemoth of a house with just 4 people living in it is a ridiculous concept and very expensive for one family to maintain. We may have to live smaller, but we’ll also be forced to live smarter. We are the 99%; relocalization is how we’ll all create a good life for ourselves as the megacorps crumble during energy decent. (I hope!)
Great ideas! I love seeing other suburbanites talking about adapting in place rather than the usual “RUN for the hills!” response when the talk turns toward energy depletion and future survival.
The suburbs can be amazingly self-sustaining and viable communities … at least that’s my personal hope and vision.