Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

6 Mar 2006

Updated Kinsale Article Posted by Popular Demand…

KOS*This article on Energy Descent Planning and the Kinsale experience has appeared in various places now, but Permaculture Activist recently, in its Peak Oil edition, published this expanded and updated version. Several people have emailed and asked where they can get a copy of it, so here it is, by popular demand (I always wanted to be able to say that…). It was edited by PC Activist editor Scott Horton into US-speak, with ‘gosh’ and ‘crikey’ removed and replaced with ‘gotten’ and ‘eggplant’. Go tell your friends…*

pcactivist**Designing Energy Descent Pathways
Unleashing Abundance as a Community Response to Peak Oil.**
By Rob Hopkins

*Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by travelling.*
Spanish proverb

**Reaching the Peak**

There is an emerging consensus now that we are either very close to or have
passed the peak in world oil production. As someone who has been involved
in environmental issues for 16 years, and permaculture for 13 years, I have
to ask myself how I didn’t see this one coming (although I know some you
did!). Its implications are profound. No longer is it in any way an
appropriate response to say ‘we need to recycle’, when the process of
recycling require transporting recyclable waste long distances. We have to
look much deeper at the whole waste question. An excellent recent report by
Tim Lang and Jules Pretty “Farm Costs and Food Miles: An Assessment of the
Full Cost of the UK Weekly Food Basket”, argued that food could only be
called sustainable when it is grown and consumed within a 20 mile radius.
We have to build a local food economy from an almost totally non-existent
base. There has been no time in history when anything less than 70% of the
population were involved in some way in the production of food. Nowadays it
is more like 6% (in Ireland anyway), and of those, a high proportion would
have lost much of that knowledge. ‘Green’ building that relies on imported
‘ecological’ materials from Germany or Denmark will no longer be viable,
leading to our needing to rethink how we will actually construct energy
efficient shelter in a lower energy near future. We are looking at the need
for a rapid process of re-localisation, of looking at what is essential to
our lives (food, warmth, shelter, water) and rebuilding the local economy in
such a way that it is actually able to supply these. The process of
dismantling our diverse and complex local economics over the last 50-60
years was a disastrous one – it was easy to do but incredibly hard to

The recent award winning film ‘The End of Suburbia’ is a very sobering look
at the whole peak oil issue. It makes it very clear that the problem is of
a scale that is almost unimaginable, and that the solutions are really not
in place at all, or indeed anywhere near being so. We are so dependent on
oil for every aspect of our lives, that its gradual (or rapid, depending on
who you listen to…) but steady disappearance from our lives will force us
to redesign our communities and our own lives. We need to relearn the
skills that sustained our ancestors; crafts, local medicines, the great art
of growing food. This is a big challenge. This is THE big challenge.

**Becoming Aware**

My introduction to all this came through meeting Dr Colin Campbell. He
lives in Ballydehob in West Cork, where I was living until recently, and
sets up and runs the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. He worked in
the oil industry for over 30 years, and since his retirement has devoted
himself to researching the real picture in terms of oil availability, how
much is left, where it is and so on through the vehicle of the Association
for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), which he founded. It is Colin who has
really brought the awareness of Peak Oil to the world’s attention,
untiringly travelling the world, lecturing governments, investment bankers,
energy experts, telling them all the same thing, we are about to peak, and
you need to re-evaluate what you are doing, because it is going to change
everything. His life story and his case for peak oil are set out in his
latest book “Oil Crisis”.

Last September Colin came into Kinsale FEC where, until last June, I taught
the Practical Sustainability course, the first 2 year full time permaculture
course in the world (as far as I know), which I set up in 2001. He came to
talk to my second year permaculture students, who had seen The End of
Suburbia the previous day. Colin gave them an introduction to petroleum
geology, how and where oil forms, and then went on to look how much is left
and where it is. His presentation was so thorough and well founded in his
deep knowledge of the oil industry that his findings were compelling. It
was a real eye opener, for me and for the students. I met a friend the
following week who said “what did you do to your students last week, they
all looked ill for the rest of the week!”.

**First Steps**

This led on to our planning of the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan
project. The term energy descent was originally used by ecologist Howard T
Odum in his book ‘A Prosperous Way Down ‘, and was picked up and used by
David Holmgren in his seminal ‘Permaculture, pathways and principles beyond
sustainability’. It refers to the time beyond the peak, the downward trend
in energy availability. Holmgren makes the point that we need to plan for
this descent, rather than simply allowing it to unfold in a series of random
and chaotic events. This point is also made by Richard Heinberg in his book
‘Powerdown – options and actions for a post-carbon future’, where he calls
for a planned descent, an international response to Peak Oil on the same
scale as a wartime mobilisation, to begin building a low energy future.

Another inspiration for me around this time was a talk I went to by a woman
from a very dynamic community development group for a small town in decline
in the north of Ireland. Farming was dying they felt, and they wanted a new
direction for the town with a sustainability focus. What they did was bring
in a sustainability ‘expert’ who told them that they needed to develop
‘eco-tourism’, and that that would be a sustainable replacement for farming.
I was horrified by this; it seemed to me to be taking all the community’s
eggs out of one basket and just putting them all into another, which was
somehow better because it had an ‘eco’ tag on it. Also, all the ideas had
come from the ‘expert’ rather than the community itself. I thought that
actually a lot more would have been achieved by running a permaculture
design course for the people in the village and letting the ideas come from

As the students and myself started looking around at the books available on
the subject was that what was lacking was examples of towns who had actually
started to look at this issue. Had anyone actually started to design
pathways down from the peak for a settlement anywhere in the world? Cuba is
an often cited example, but we have to remember that Cuba was forced to
localise by circumstance (the Russian oil that had underpinned the country
until that point being no longer available), and a friend who visited there
recently expressed a feeling that there was no great enthusiasm for it among
many people. There are also some very interesting comparisons with the
period immediately before and during the Second World War in the UK. This
was a national Powerdown on a huge scale, with 10% of the nation’s food
being grown on allotments and private gardens. Although much has changed
since then, there are some very important lessons that can be learnt from
it. What we wanted was to try and create an example (as we were unable to
find one in practice) of a town looking at what Peak Oil will actually mean
to them, and to vision how they want a low-energy future to be. As there
was no pathway for this in place, we had to make one up.

**Starting from Scratch**

The first thing we did was to visit a number of good permaculture/organic
projects in the West Cork area for ideas and inspiration, but also to talk
to their proprietors about what they saw as being practical responses to
energy descent that they felt that they felt were tried and tested. That
proved to be very interesting, and gave us some useful insights. We heard
about the practical realities of making a living growing organic vegetables
for local markets and how a changing economy would make that more viable.
We heard about the realities of living off the grid, and the financial
implications of doing so. We saw the practicalities of the people trying to
put the first building blocks in place, and their visions for how things
might change. We began to envisage a 3-4 year process of community
consultation, education and awareness-raising, combined with practical
implementation of projects on the ground and the formulation of a timetables
plan for making this transition. This plan became christened the Kinsale
Energy Descent Action Plan. The idea was that this year’s second year
students produce the first draft, which is then put out to the community for
consultation, and then the following year’s students revise the document and
update it. We felt that this would take about 3 years to produce something
nearing a definitive document, although there would always need to be space
allowed for the document to adapt to developments, to be ‘tweaked’.

We had brainstorms on each of the different areas we identified for the
Action Plan. These were Food, Youth & Community, Education, Housing,
Economy and Livelihoods, Health, Tourism, Transport, Waste, Energy and
Marine Resources. Future years may add new categories to this, but it
seemed a good starting list. We made Mind Maps of the issues raised and
possible solutions to them. We also invited speakers into the class who had
a lot of knowledge on some of these topics.

**Kinsale 2021**

On Saturday February 12th 2005 we held an event in Kinsale called “Kinsale
in 2021 – Towards a Prosperous, Sustainable Future Together”, which took
place at Kinsale Town Hall. The event was presented as a ‘community
think-tank’ in order to hear the community’s ideas about how energy descent
would affect the community and what might be done about it. Before the
event we sent personal invitations to the people in Kinsale that we had
identified as being the movers and shakers in the town, drawn from the
sectors identified above. We also left the event open to the public and put
posters up around the town. From the 60 people invited, about 35 turned up
on the day. The event itself was opened by the Mayor of Kinsale, Mr Charles
Henderson, who spoke of the importance of energy as an issue and how it
affects all aspects of our lives and our economy. This was followed by a
screening of ‘The End of Suburbia’.

After the film, Thomas Riedmuller, who teaches Community Leadership at
Kinsale FEC, introduced the concept of Open Space Technology as a tool for
facilitating such events. Open Space is based on the idea that the most
productive discussion and idea sharing at any event happens during the tea
breaks. Open Space is, in essence, a long tea break, where groups are
formed to discuss certain issues, and everyone is free to move between
discussion groups, based on the four principles of Open Space, whoever comes
are the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have,
whenever it starts is the right time, and when it’s over it’s over. Those
assembled took to the Open Space model with great enthusiasm, and it was
extremely productive. People were invited to identify the specific problems
and issues that the film raised for them. These were then recorded on large
sheets of paper and pinned up on the wall. These were then collated into
subject areas, and each of these became the basis for a discussion group.
The groups covered the following subjects, Food, Rebuilding Communities,
Youth Group/Education, Business & Technology, Tourism and renewable energy.

The groups came up with a wealth of ideas and possibilities that were then
fed back to the rest of the participants afterwards. The feedback after the
day was very good. We learnt a few lessons from the event that would be
helpful for people doing it again. Firstly, a lot of people sent apologies
that they would have liked to come, but they were just too busy to give up a
whole day. We found it difficult to come up with another model though,
because for us it worked very well showing the film and then having the
discussions straight away while the feeling of urgency that the film
engenders is still fresh in their minds. We were able, thanks to the
generosity of many cafes and restaurants in Kinsale who sponsored the event,
to put on a sumptuous spread for lunch, which people loved, and which kept
the energy of the event up. We wondered if it might have been good to have
had a few screenings of the film in the community first, so some people
could have seen it in advance one evening, and so wouldn’t have had to give
up so much of their time to attend the discussion. We found Open Space an
excellent tool for getting people talking in a relaxed and informal way.

**The Action Plan**

After the event we collated the information that had come in from the day
and pairs of students selected different subject areas. I supplied a wealth
of reading material for background research, and the students did a lot of
internet research of useful ideas and examples from around the world. The
final result is the ‘Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan – Version.1. 2005’
which is our first attempt at a year-by-year plan for the town. Each
section of the report begins with a section called ‘The Present’. This
attempts to succinctly summarise what is the problem now, in 2005, with
regards to the subject in question. This is followed by The Vision, which
is written in such a way as to give the reader an idea of how Kinsale could
be, if all the recommendations up to that point had been implemented. Part
of the challenge with permaculture I feel is how we convey to people the
concept that a lower energy future could be preferable, more fulfilling and
more abundant and more fulfilling than the present. This section aims to do
that, so that people can see in their minds eyes what it would look like.

This is then followed by a list of suggestions and recommendations, in
chronological order. These are meant to be ambitious but also achievable,
given a good deal of ambition and support. Each section is then rounded off
with a collection of resources and internet links. The last section of the
Action Plan is a proposal for a Kinsale Sustainability Centre. The idea is
that the Centre would be formed with the brief of implementing the Action
Plan. The Sustainability Centre would act as a focus for the work, running
courses and training, but also providing a service, providing initiatives
such as an urban market garden (a pdf of the final report can be downloaded

**Next Steps**

The plan is for this year’s second years to take the Plan as it is and
develop it further. The idea is to set up a series of Think Tank events,
like the Kinsale 2021 day, but which are more specific to different areas of
the Plan, for example one on health, where they invite all the people in
Kinsale working in the field, and another on education, inviting teachers,
parents and other people with an involvement. These events would be based
around what has already been proposed in the Plan, but getting feedback as
to how practical our suggestions are. These events will serve a dual
purpose, firstly they’ll act as an essential community sounding board for
the Plan’s ideas, and secondly they open doors into the community for the
project, all kinds of new practical projects are proposed and contacts made.
They also serve to bring this work to the community, rather than expecting
it to come to us, or sitting around thinking “why is no-one doing anything”.
The great thing with being based in a college doing this work is that you
can call on 30 pairs of hands if the feeing is to go and build a garden
somewhere. 30 pairs of hands get a lot done!

**Final Thoughts**

The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan has been very well received.
Reviewing it for Permaculture Magazine, Patrick Whitefield described it as a
“remarkable piece of work” and continued “I recommend their plan to people
everywhere who would like to see some positive action happen in their own
community”. Despite its not been conducted by professionals or by a
respected research organisation it has touched a chord and excited lots of
people with its possibilities. It had no external funding other than the
ability to use the college facilities. However, I think what was created in
the Plan is a very important and far-reaching piece of work. It does
something that I think is very bold and powerful. It invites people to look
beyond where we are now, and beyond simply allowing events to unravel, and
to look towards where they would like to be. It allows people to dream, but
not in a woolly ungrounded way. It is rooted in practicality, creating the
building blocks, we can’t put the second one in place before the first. In
the same way that in permaculture design we aim to make our mistakes on
paper first so as to avoid costly mistakes in the landscape, with Energy
Descent Action Plans we aim to clarify a step-by-step way down, so as to
best focus our energies.

I also think it is important to be realistic. For example, I don’t feel it
is realistic to imagine that anything approaching a majority of the
population will start growing food without a massive crisis to force them
into doing so. However, what we can do is start putting in place the
infrastructure that will be needed (seed saving clubs, excluding a certain
proportion of land in urban areas from development, preserving skills and
knowledge, teaching skills to younger people, creating community compost
schemes so we have a resource of compost for growers). When people say “but
where will our fruit come from?”, we can say “from the 5 acre orchard over
there that we planted 7 years ago”. We can begin to build systems around
people. At the same time we need to engage them as much as possible, and
see our work as being of service. I feel this is fascinating work and
should be begun in every settlement. It is big picture thinking, town-scale
permaculture, and needs to be rolled out across the country as a matter of
great urgency.

**New Pathways…**

The Action Plan was completed and printed in June 2005. Around that time we
held a conference at Kinsale FEC called ‘Fuelling the Future – the challenge
and opportunity of Peak Oil’. It was very successful, and brought together
speakers such as David Holmgren, Richard Heinberg, Colin Campbell, Richard
Douthwaite and myself. It looked at peak oil, but also at the solutions.
As well as the main speakers there were a number of smaller breakout
sessions on permaculture, food, energy, building, local economics and so on
(all of the main speakers can be heard at Many
people said they had never been to a conference on peak oil that they had
left feeling so positive before. Two of the students who graduated from the
permaculture course at Kinsale are looking to set up a consultancy called
Transition Design, working with communities and Councils to set up Energy
Descent Action Plans. Their idea is that towns are helped to work through
certain criteria to earn the accolade of being a ‘Transition Town’. Work
has also begun on Version 2 of the Action Plan.

And me? After 10 years living in Ireland I handed the permaculture course
over to permaculture colleague Graham Strouts and returned to Devon in the
UK to pursue a PhD on this whole topic. It feels to me like the most
essential work I can be doing at this point in history. Also I feel it is
important to counter some of the more lurid catastrophe scenarios being put
out by some in the peak oil movement. I see peak oil as the great
opportunity, the chance to finally create the world we have been talking of
for years. In my research now, I am putting together a book (as well as the
PhD) which will explore what I call the Head, the Heart and the Hands of
Energy Descent. The Head means the factual understanding of peak oil, what
it is and what it means, as well as the economics and politics of
localisation. The Heart refers to an area pretty much unexplored in the
peak oil literature, being how do we tell people and communities about this
stuff without them retreating further into fear and denial? How do we
present something so potentially catastrophic as a positive choice and
opportunity? Some of the answers to this question can be found in
eco-psychology, some in the works of Joanna Macey, Ken Jones, Tom Atlee and
others, people exploring the area of turning trauma into action, despair
into empowerment. I feel it is an essential part of this work, as giving
people bad news and expecting them to do something has clearly not worked
for the environmental movement in the past. We need a new approach.

The Hands refers to the practical work of grassroots led responses to peak
oil. Energy Descent Action Planning could be the model, but the Natural
Step and the Global Action Plan have something to contribute as proven
methods for inspiring communities to change their practices. Also, how much
food will the settlement need and where will it come from? What structures
are best for promoting energy independence? Once you start to think about
them, the practical implications and the list of questions are huge. What I
hope to do is produce a set of principles and a toolkit of techniques that
can be used anywhere. The focus of the work will be the designing and
undertaking of a transition process for the town of Totnes, in Devon where I
now live. As part of this work I have set up a website,, where I will post findings, links, ideas and
references as I proceed with this research. The site also has archives of
other useful information. I hope to have the book finished by next Autumn.
The Totnes process will begin around the same time, once the process has
been carefully designed.

For me, I feel that the advent of peak oil offers those people who have long
envisioned a more sustainable world the opportunity to step forward and
start building the world of their dreams. To retreat into an attitude of
“well it’s not worth it, we’re doomed”, is to deny our own potential. In the
speech that Nelson Mandela gave when released from prison, he said “our
deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are
powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most
frightens us”. Energy Descent Action Plans, or whatever approach to this
challenge we ultimately devise, offer us a vision for embarking on a great
journey and for unleashing both permaculture’s and our untapped potential.
It is time now that we roll up our sleeves.

*Rob Hopkins is a permaculture designer and teacher. Founding Director of
The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability (,
and creator of the Practical Sustainability course at Kinsale FEC, he has
long been at the forefront of practical approaches to sustainability in
Ireland. He has now returned to his native England, where he is pursuing a
PhD on Energy Descent Action Planning at Plymouth University. He runs, a resource for people interested in this work,
and also a place where The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan can be
downloaded. He can be contacted at Plans are afoot
for Fuelling the Future 2, which will most likey take place late June 2006.
For more information visit*


Atleee, T. (2003) The Tao of Democracy – using co-intelligence to create a
world that works for all. The Writers Collective
Campbell, C.J. (2005) Oil Crisis Multi Science Publishing
Heinberg, R.(2004) Powerdown – options and actions for a post carbon world
Holmgren, D. (2003) Permaculture – principles and pathways beyond
sustainability Holmgren Design Services
Macey, J & Brown, M.Y. (1998) Coming Back to Life – practices to reconnect
our lives, our world New Society

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


[…] Also check out this article from Permaculture Activist and an interview at Global Public Media of Catherine Dunne about Transition Design, an organisation set up to continuing the work started with the Kinsale EDAP. […]

arianna catania
13 Oct 10:22am

Hi, I’m the picture-editor of a italian monthly magazine “la nuova ecologia”.
For an article, we need photos of transition town and of robert hopkins.
Do you send me as soon as possible any photos in high resolution?

Arianna catania