Finding the energy to redesign our lives

Permaculture columnist Nicole Vopser explains controversial energy extraction methods and considers the energy rewards that permaculture can offer

People learning about permaculture will always bring their diverse experiences and worldviews to the mix, and it’s this cauldron of creativity that contributes to the unique solutions that permaculture offers for creating sustainable human habitats around the world.

Many of us come to permaculture through horticulture, through a love of gardening and the care of the soil. Studying permaculture, however, widens this scope and supports graduates in becoming ‘expert generalists’, with system design covering everything from natural building to farming.

For myself, plants are my comfort zone, but recently I’ve been on something of a learning curve about energy. As I mentioned in my autumn 2012 column, things in Somerset are heating up in response to threats of unconventional gas developments and fracking.

This headline-grabbing method of fossil fuel extraction, which is linked to water, air and chemical pollution and a host of health impacts, is taking place on a massive scale in the United States and Australia. And it’s now licensed for Somerset, the county where I live. The experience of campaigning against it has given me the opportunity to take a closer look at energy on multiple levels.

On a personal level, I had a sharp reminder of my own energy limitations. This winter I managed to literally ‘bust a gut’ through overworking and neglecting my self-care. By the winter solstice I had landed in hospital with an inflamed mass on my appendix. My usual high-energy busy self had to surrender to the hospital bed for a week followed by a fortnight of sleep before feeling even remotely back to normal. My body’s feedback reminding me of my own limits was a shock to the system.

“The woodpile for me represents true resilience – energy from biomass grown on our land, serving multiple functions in a way that could regenerate forever”

At my family’s smallholding, Brook End, we’ve undertaken a large amount of tree work this winter. Taking down Leyllandii, pollarding willows and coppicing our lime trees has given us a generous woodpile. This pile for me represents true resilience – energy from biomass grown on our land, serving multiple functions in a way that could regenerate forever.

Cara Naden, a local energy consultant from Eco-Logical Solutions, came to Brook End to help us identify and weigh up our options for investing in different systems that could meet our needs. It would have taken me years to gain the knowledge she has and so it felt in itself like an energy-saving way to learn about energy! She talked us through various options, from solar power to microhydro, and now we have to go through a permaculture design process to decide which are most appropriate.

In permaculture we talk about ‘appropriate technology’, a term for evaluating the ecological impacts of energy production and technology. Many take this term and look at it from a householder perspective, or more often now a local community context, and looking through this lens we can really observe our society’s energy consumption patterns.

We are often told that we are experiencing an ‘energy crisis’, as we are using more energy than ever before. The real crisis is in our desperation to access energy and the more extreme lengths we are going to. This process, where energy extraction methods grow increasingly more intense over time, is called ‘extreme energy’. Driven by unsustainable energy consumption, the increased extraction effort is resulting in growing destruction of both communities and the environment, as technologies such as fracking, coal bed methane extraction, underground coal gasification, tar sands, open cast coal mining, biofuels, new nuclear, and deep water drilling (among others) take centre stage.

However, these developments are not without resistance. This April in Manchester the first national Extreme Energy Gathering is taking place, which will bring together people who are resisting these technologies in their communities. There are similar stories across the world of inspiring community energy projects that are literally taking the power back.

It may be known that permaculture is first and foremost about investing in living systems, for example pollarding willows and managing coppice woodlands for firewood. However, less explicit is that through intelligent design we can, for example, create shelters that are warm and low energy from the start.

Applied to all aspects of our lives, through permaculture principles we could redesign for a socially just, low energy society, where no-one is in fuel poverty, no company has the ability to put profit before community and ecosystem health, and where energy is not constantly wasted through society’s primary function of economic growth at all costs.

I know that the impact of permaculture spreads well beyond smallholding living – let’s get out there and redesign our lives.