Passive Progress

Doomsayers and optimists alike use history as a muse to weave narratives and chart movement in the arc of civilization. It’s something of a truism that – at least from a Western frame of reference – the Roman Empire has served as an explanatory catch-all for this project, with countless competing attributions for its fall birthing countless cautionary exempla.

There is a risk, then, that we read into history only the sort of lessons that we want to learn. But I was reminded this week of locally-born ecologist Thomas Homer-Dixon’s accounting of the collapse of Ancient Rome as being fundamentally the product of energy crisis. The empire, vast and overextended, was in his view unable to adequately make the shift “from high energy-return-on-investment (EROI) sources of energy to low-EROI sources”.

(L-R: White fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum), a native perennial herb common to dry meadows in coastal British Columbia; Nikki peeking in a greenhouse at Haliburton Community Organic Farm, one of 14 community farms in Canada and the home of Saanich Native Plants; coastal willow (Salix hookeriana), a willow native to Vancouver Island.

Why do I offer this story, and this caveat? We had our first classes in permaculture Energy Systems this week, and I found myself awash in familiar questions about privilege and empire, confirmation bias, hidden costs, and systems complexity.

But let’s set some context. Permaculture has, at its core, an activist ethos that stems in good part from a skepticism about the sustainability of modern industrial society. And this is not a fringe view: terms like peak oil and global warming may produce a range of reactions and prescriptive ideas, but they are now firmly embedded in the contemporary lexicon.

Exploring the herbarium at the Royal BC Museum with Dr. Ken Marr, Curator of Botany.

Permaculture éminence grise David Holmgren has lately taken to couching design solutions in terms of an “energy descent future” – that is, the period of transition expected to occur after peak oil has been reached. I’ve talked before about how permaculture approaches the general concept of transition, and it seems especially instructive when thinking about energy systems. Holmgren argues that as we look ahead to a future with less conventional energy, a different sort of calculus will be needed – industrial capitalism has led to a homogenization of methods for energy provision, and in turning to the lessons of nature we might be provided more place-specific solutions.

Our instructor for the Energy Systems course is Bryce Gilroy-Scott, a sustainable energy consultant and lecturer at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), in Wales, and the University of East London. Over the course of our two days together so far, the class has surveyed both Ravenhill Herb Farm and Tiny Tree with Bryce, with an eye to moving the properties towards greater sustainability and energy sovereignty.

A bumper sticker seen at Haliburton Community Organic Farm, Saanich.

Both farms have a mix of outbuildings in addition to the main dwellings, and like much of the older housing stock in British Columbia the stately grace of the decades-old construction is tempered by issues of water and wind permeability, chilly rooms, and ageing windows. British Columbia, like my home province of Manitoba, is water-abundant and uniquely rich in hydroelectricity – a power source that, despite a legacy of social and environmental problems that includes human displacement and significant methane production, is widely considered among the “best of the worst” when it comes to conventional large-scale energy sources.

But this should hardly be reason for complacency. And anyway, a walk around the two sites provides ample ideas for alternative energy sources. Still, as Bryce points out, at the outset of projects like these money and attention is often best spent on gaining “nega-watts” – upgrading windows and insulation and examining consumption habits to lessen overall consumption before looking at more technical solutions. Bryce calls this a “fabric-first” approach, in which building materials are upgraded to reduce energy draw before one moves into harnessing renewables. The vast majority of power in the global North is used for the construction and heating of buildings, and so efforts to make efficiency gains on this front are an important starting point.

B.C. has indicated plans to overhaul its provincial building code by 2032 to mandate that new buildings be energy “net zero” – that is to say that the energy they draw annually from the local grid is offset by the energy they supply (through home renewable energy systems like solar panels and photovoltaics, for example). This has spurred interest in building standards like Passive House (Passivhaus), a program developed in Germany – but with early roots in Saskatchewan – that uses a combination of low-energy building techniques and conservation technology.

(L-R: Using a builder’s level to determine relative elevation around the pond at Ravenhill Herb Farm. We set the instrument to level on the tripod using footscrews, and worked in pairs: one looked through the eyepiece at our benchmark location while the other held a tape measure vertically at the area to be measured; setting up a table for design presentations, with a host of yellow daffodils in the foreground; my group’s base map submission for the pond design at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

Examples of this push towards building sustainability are in evidence in Victoria: the Dockside Green development was conceived with ambitions to be “off-grid” for heat and sewage, and although progress on the neighbourhood was stunted by the 2008 global financial crisis (meaning that its completed biomass gasification facility remains offline until there is sufficient heating demand in the area), all wastewater treatment is performed on-site and rainwater runoff is managed through a network of creeks and ponds.

Of course, the full impact of renewable energy technologies can be difficult to assess, and their implementation can leave complicated legacies. The much-touted “clean” hydroelectricity here in the Pacific Northwest disrupts salmon spawning grounds; the blades on wind farms in the gusty U.S Midwest serve as lethal scythes for migrating birds; vast solar fields displace endangered desert tortoises. David Holmgren’s admonition to look to nature for place-specific solutions is a prescient one.

At the entrance to the Garry oak meadow at Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site, Colwood. At the top of the entranceway, carved by Tom LaFortune of the Tsawout First Nation, is biscuitroot (Lomatium), camas flower (Camassia quamash), and blacktail deer: all three traditionally important to the Coast Salish people. The male figure on the left has an open mouth in greeting, while the female figure on the right is wrapped in a blanket, signifying the gathering of the harvest.

There are more layers of complexity: the “rebound effect” describes peoples’ behavioural tendency to offset the gains of renewable or energy-saving technology by using more of that technology in response, either because it has been made more accessible, or because they feel good about having access to “green” energy. High-efficiency photovoltaic panels and other renewable technologies still require mined resources like neodymium and copper. And for a renewable technology to “go big” requires some degree of engagement with industrial-scale production, global capitalist networks of distribution, and all the attendant problems that come with it.

This, I think, is where permaculture can be most useful: in teaching us to be conscious of local context, and to be observant; and also to value resources, which in this case means to voluntarily control our own consumption and to live simply. Ultimately, the shift to renewable energy sources may now be less of a technological challenge than it is a challenge posed by perverse incentives, policymaking and industry lobby power; the individual and collective action needed to surmount these may hinge on our willingness to practice a permaculture maxim and accept feedback from nature.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.