Transition Culture

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

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24 Mar 2006

An Energy Descent Research Project for Someone…

depletionOne of the things that strikes me as an essential part of researching energy descent plans is the question of when different things become viable as energy availability decreases (and thereby price rises). For example, at the moment it is not viable to start a market garden in the middle of Totnes, as it could never produce food at a price competitive with the supermarkets. However, at some point, the price of oil will be such that it will become viable. Likewise, at some point it will actually become cheaper to grow fabric locally, to start making affordable furniture locally again, to start building houses from local materials, and so on. If we can take the most likely depletion profiles as our starting point, it should be possible to estimate roughly at which point the various things become viable. This would provide an essential backbone to our Energy Descent Action Plans.

If, say, food becomes economically viable in 3 years, building materials in 7 and fabrics in 10, then that gives us a very useful basis on which to start preparing for these various things. Unfortunately, I have almost no mathematical ability, even though, ironically, I am nearing the end of an MSc in Social Research, which has a large component of statistical analysis. Luckily in the main it is about learning to interpret results, rather than understand them, so I have scraped though thus far. The obsession with statistics in Social Research without any ethical foundation of actually using them to do anything useful always brings to mind the line from Gary Snyder’s poem ‘For the Children’, “The rising hills of statistics, going up, up, as we all go down”.

Clearly I am not the man to do this research, but someone ought to, it would be a really important project. Please do let me know if you know of any research already looking at similar subjects, or if you feel able to undertake such a thing. Feels to me like an essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

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Graham Strouts
24 Mar 11:51am

Interesting point, but there is a potential downside as well: just listening to David Fleming’s recent interview on Global Public Media, he mentions the danger of oil prices getting high enough to make bio-fuels more realistic- which will likely compete with space for food production as the financial incentives to give over farmland for energy crops become stronger. This is especially an issue for the developing world as they come under increasding pressure to produce energy crops for the West.
Fleming does say that wind is becoming more competitve and seems to put great store in the potential for many more huge windfarms.
In Kinsale, there are moves afoot to develop a community garden, but I cant see it becoming a commercial operation immediately. More likely, it will be first developed for its social and community benefits. With the infrastructure in place an a big emphases on tree crops which may take a few years to mature, it will be all the easier to produce food once the time comes. It should be remembered, however that rising oil prices will mean people going out of work -that as much as anything is what will make spending your time growing food “competitive”.

24 Mar 2:10pm

Making such predictions would seem prone to significant errors unless you have a reliable sources for future prices (if you do, please share:^) It might be easier and more effective to simply monitor and track the profitability of various enterprises, hypothetical and actual. Using your example of the market garden in the middle of Totnes for instance, how much would such an operation cost to run and how much revenue might it generate today? What are the comparable figures for the local supermarket? If we record those values and then periodically resample we’ll be able to see the trends. Knowing when alternative businesses will become economically competitive would be useful, but perhaps not doable. Knowing when they have become economically competitive would also be useful as it would allow us to begin implementing them as soon as possible.

24 Mar 2:44pm

Steve at deconsumption has spent time writing about the coming energy crisis and its affect on our culture.

He has considered a possible timeline for decent and disruption as global oil peaks and energy availability declines. There is an obvious difficulty in predicting the future. It helps though to start somewhere. For additional information you might want to check out Steve’s contribution to the First Post-Oil Bulletin at LATOC.

Jim Zack
24 Mar 3:35pm

The URL for Steve’s article at Deconsumption is:

If this URL wraps, it can be accessed by pasting these parts together in your browser’s Address

Good stuff!

Jim Zack

Jim Zack
24 Mar 3:37pm

Ugh. The automatic URL parser is stripping off characters for the link above

Jim Zack

Steve Hinton
24 Mar 6:43pm

Most renewable-resource based solutions are already economically viable. They just don’t look it in the smoke and mirrors we are surrounded by. Energy prices are rising at a rate of 4 to 25 percent per year. It’s not hurting yet because the average person spends 7% of their income on energy, and another 14% on transport. The other part of the smoke and mirror is tax system. There is no way a supermarket can offer fresh food at the same prices a food cooperative can offer them at. To its members at least, especially if they go and pick them up from where they are growing. If you project the costs over five years, with the cooperative’s costs remaining fairly still and energy prices skyrocketing at twice the increase in inflation, you’ll see it’s a damn good deal.
See my piece about food cooperatives on

Chris Vernon
24 Mar 10:25pm

Regarding manking predictions about the effect of peak oil, it’s tricky.

Any kind of model of the future will be a function of the assumptions that it’s built on. What assumptions should we use for oil prices over the next twenty years? And more importantly what assumptions shall we make for things like the price of food in a supermarket or a flat-pack coffee table from Ikea as a function of oil prices? Whilst it is commonly assumed that peak oil = high oil prices which in turn = high prices of food etc there’s very little evidence on which to base any model.

From 1999 to 2006 the oil price increased 6-fold yet over that same period many foods in the supermarkets and furniture from Ikea (I suspect) has got cheaper in real terms.

Here’s some data of food price changes in America:

Just to highlight a few which I would suspect are pretty high energy products Jan99->Jan06:

Beef: +42%
Chicken: -1%
Orange Juice, Frozen: +6%
Coffee: -5%

Bearing in mind 7 years of US inflation would have added some 15-20% onto those prices anyway.

Maybe the full impact of the recent oil price rise isn’t fully reflected yet? The $10 price in ’99 was a low, the long term average was more like $20 but that still a 3-fold increase. Are we going to see yet another 3-fold increase in the price of oil to $180? What would it be wise to assume its effect on food and furniture prices would be?

My suspicion is that oil prices will reduce quite significantly over the next decade – this is based on assuming that peak oil will occur over the next few years if it hasn’t already (May 05 still holds the record as most productive month) but global demand will reduce by a greater magnitude than supply due to economic slowdown.

The other interesting point is the crude oil isn’t a direct input to many products – in the same period that crude oil prices rose 6-fold US gasoline price only rose 2.4-fold and US electricity only rose 27% (hardly above inflation). Maybe these are the input energy prices we should be looking at instead of crude oil? In the UK the petrol price increase was only 13% from ’99 to ’06 (less that inflation) so one could argue that a 6-fold increase in oil has actually reduced the price of transport in the UK!

Sorry for this rather long and rambling comment! My point is that it’s all based on assumptions and absolutely no one has any real idea about what happens after the discontinuity of peak oil.

In conclusion I think it’s very hard to know what oil price is going to do and also very hard to know what impact any given oil price rise would have on retail prices.

25 Mar 1:10am

Thanks for the perspective on the restoration of local production –
Having spent one winter at Dartington decades ago the thought of digging up central Totnes to make a garden seems rather appealing.

The Brazilian land movement’s slogan of
“Occupy – Produce – Resist!” might be used to good effect.

The large variable in any projected scheduling is perhaps just how soon the public recognizes the climate impacts, let alone local economic impacts, of buying mass produced corporate tat.

I wonder if you could clarify the meaning & origins of the data shown in the graph ?



25 Mar 12:16pm

Hi Lewis..
The graph is nothing particularly relevant to anything, it is just a chart showing a peaking curve really, courtesy of a google image search for ‘peak’ and ‘curve’ or something. I just wanted something to illustrate the article! Sorry I’m not sure where it’s from!

Peter Lipman
25 Mar 4:25pm

Not sure if this helps with the detailed point you’ve raised Rob, but looking at where we’ve come from can be instructive. At

there’s a very detailed look at how Japan might feed itself post peak, taking into account past levels of population, energy use, soil fertility, food intake and calorific value, crop yields etc.