Friday, January 13, 2012

A Low Impact Woodland Home

A Low Impact Woodland Home:

The Case for Urgent Preparation for Energy Descent

Human development has for the last two hundred years been powered by the use of fossil fuels. We have converted from locally self reliant agrarian focussed societies to a globalised society powered predominantly by fossil fuels. This global society is mediated by interdependent international financial markets. These markets and their various currencies have seen near continuous growth simultaneous with the growth in supplies of fossil fuels. This financial growth has also been raised by a number of powers due to the growth of speculation. Our financial transactions of trade are now dwarfed by the transactions of pure finances, the speculation on that trade and the speculation on that speculation. All of this financial activity is based on assumptions and predictions of continued growth. Of more trade tomorrow and the availability of more energy. On this our global society is dependent.
Climate change gives a clear imperative to curtail our fossil fuel use. In addition world supplies of fossil fuels are currently passing their peak of production. There is growing agreement that oil has passed its peak, gas will very shortly, and coal will peak in the next couple of decades. Uranium may not be a fossil fuel but that too will reach and pass its peak of production within the next few decades. Without these we either have to invent a new power source, make a transition to renewables, or reduce our power/fuel consumption.
Our society is operating under the assumption that economic liberalism and the free market will provide technological solutions for our future energy needs, the effects of climate change and any other problems that we might encounter. It is true that the free market and technological progress have extended our capabilities and even solved certain problems. However, all of this has been the product of increasing consumption of fossil fuels. The technological advance that would give us a replacement source of power to continue our growth is utterly unprecedented. Never before have we done what our society relies on us achieving now, by the essentially passive continuation of an unchanging method.
The belief that future technological fixes will enable continued growth is crucial for the functioning of our speculative economies. Without this belief our markets would collapse, and unlike the slow dwindling of fuel supplies, this can happen as investor confidence fails. At the moment we are staving off this occurrence with increasingly creative accounting and economic manipulation including inflated housing prices, and increased public borrowing. Already we are seeing how precarious this approach has been with the collapse of over extended banking giants and the beginning of the 'global economic downturn'.
There is a significant chance that replacement energy sources will not be realised before we loose the economic buoyancy that makes such technological progress possible. If this happens we will have no options but to make a radical transition to a non-growth paradigm and much lower energy ways of living. This will require major adaptions. The sooner we can begin to make these adaptions, the slower the transition will be and the more chance we have of positively managing the subsequent energy decent as an equitable and comfortable process. If wisely managed we still have a wealth of resources and powerful technology in our hands. With discerning use these assets could help us address our most fundamental needs for a long time to come.

Reducing our Energy Dependency

To reduce our energy dependency we will not only have to reduce our consumption but we will have to dramatically increase the productivity of our land and ecosystem. The most crucial parts of our society are our food production and distribution systems. Particularly in the developed world, our agricultural and food supply systems are heavily fossil fuel dependent. Most of our food is either imported, or has travelled many miles within the country. Also most of it is produced by industrial farming techniques which require both heavy machinery and fossil fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides. Calorifically, all of these inputs are many times greater than the outputs, meaning that we are constantly feeding energy into agriculture. Clearly without fossil fuels, agriculture needs to be a nett donor of energy to human society. Before the use of fossil fuels in agriculture, the vast majority of the population were involved in agriculture. If we are to move beyond fossil fuels this may well have to be the case again.
In addition to food producing agriculture, there is also a need for other important land based produce. Most notable is forestry and its derived products. As well as timber for building, tools and the making of other objects, wood is our primary renewable fuel source.
In contrast to the pre fossil fuel situation, we now have a much larger population to feed and provide for. We also have the benefits of a much more detailed understanding of the world as well as current access to modern technology and resources. We need to use these assets along with traditional practices to help us develop the infrastructure and skills required for energy decent. These developments must be started as soon as possible as they cannot be implemented overnight regardless of the resources available.

Sustainable and Resilient Communities

In order to be sustainable, a system or community must be self reliant in all the resources it requires. The greater the number of independent subsystems that can provide for the functions and required resources, the greater the resilience of the system. Whilst our global society still contains many different subsystems, they are not independent, being linked by shared fossil fuel dependency, trans-national ownership and the globalised economy. Where we can replace this with independent self sufficiency at the smallest scales, we will have sustainable and resilient local communities. This will give the most resilience and sustainability to our macroscopic society without precluding inter community interactions and co-operation.
Small scale land stewardship is also important to reduce energy inputs and allow greater intimacy between stewards and their ecosystems. It is though this intimacy that they will be able to go beyond being a simple steward to the required roles of nurse and then teacher.
Firstly we need to heal the infertility that is the legacy of ecological degradation and intensive farming. This starts with repairing the soil and crucial mycorrhizal fungi populations. Above ground we can replace monocultural deserts with interplanted systems using the principles and patterns of the natural world. In this way we can build a healthy and productive ecosystems where different species of plants and animals enjoy complex complimentary relationships. With this kind of intimate knowledge and management we will be able to actively manage our ecosystems to survive the unpredictable climatic changes that are to come.
Naturally the restoration of soil fertility will take time, as will the establishment of gardens, orchards and complex agroforestry systems. The same is even more true for forestry, Whilst highly productive firewood coppices can be established in a few years, the restoration of traditional coppice woodlands takes decades as does the establishment of productive new woodlands and regeneration of conifer plantations.
All of these forms of land based production require supporting infrastructure and processing facilities. These also need to be localised and provided in ways suitable for a post carbon future. Simple, low-impact homes can be built where they are needed, with natural materials and accessible methods. These buildings can easily provide high levels of comfort and efficiency at a tiny fraction of the cost of their conventional equivalents. Effective and reliable systems for water, sewage, heating, refrigeration and even modest electricity can be simply made in low-tech ways with reused and natural materials.
There will always be benefits and pleasures of community co-operation and facilities. There are a number of essential supporting facilities which also need relocalisation such as mills, forges, tanneries, lime-kilns and carpenters workshops. These communities should also have their own independent councils, markets, and local events. Local trading systems or currencies add to community resilience by strengthening the local economy and protecting against global financial instability.
Alongside the required infrastructure comes the need for many sets of skills. A lot of these are traditional skills to be revived, some will be derivative of the contemporary world, others will be a synthesis of the two. All take time to learn, develop and share.


Permaculture is a set of design principles for human scale, sustainable systems. It is based on the three ethics of 'people care, earth care and fair shares'. It provides an approach that is most frequently applied to small scale agriculture, but can equally be applied to buildings, domestic systems or community interactions to name a few. The permaculture vision is quite well described by the picture outlined above.
Permaculture has played a key role in Cuba's 'special period' after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Oil imports were cut in half, and food by eighty percent. The island "quickly transitioned from a highly mechanised, industrial agricultural system to one using organic methods of farming and local, urban gardens" . This kind of transition is what we can choose to meaningfully curtail our contributions to climate change and what we may well soon face without choice in the face of peaked oil and economic instability. The Cubans' response largely based on permaculture and community agriculture was highly successful. Vegetables were planted on rooftops and abandoned car parks. Havana now produces 60% of its food from urban land within the city itself.
Another inspirational example of permaculture is Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer. His farm is between 1000 and 1500 meters above sea level with average annual temperatures of 4.2°C. Outdoors here he grows kiwi, lemons, peaches, figs, wheat and more . His success is due to careful observation and intelligent design, following permaculture principles.

A Force for Change

There is significant and rapidly growing energy at the grass roots for permaculture type solutions and the intentional move towards relocalisation and energy decent. Organisations such as the Transition Towns Network and the Soil Association are part of the gathering momentum in this direction. Their message is clear, that the time has come to make the move now. The fact that such a move is essentially contrary to the growth paradigm means that the call to energy decent is never going to come from the corporate or political arenas. It is coming now from the grass roots, with rapidly increasing numbers of people unwilling to remain on the sinking ship of consumption and growth waiting blindly for the techno-fix lifeboat.
The enthusiasm for these kinds of changes come not only from intellectual concern about the issues involved but also from a much more powerful heartfelt attractive force. It is not without reason that this kind of life is often referred to as 'the good life' and 'a place in the country' is a perennial retirement goal. We have an evolutionary history and expectation of living close to nature.
The scale and power of this enthusiasm became clear to me after our family's experience of building a simple low-impact home in a Welsh woodland where we lived whilst helping with woodland management, small scale animal husbandry and setting up a forest garden. Part of our motivation was to show others that this kind of living was possible. I put a few photographs of our home on a simple web page to show half a dozen friends who had helped us with the construction. Within a few weeks, it had been passed on and started to appear on a few blogs. Since then this website has been receiving up to 50,000 unique visits a day and has been looked at by 2 million people. I have had thousands of emails from excited and inspired people. Some with tears, some with plans, some with their own stories and every single one with enthusiasm and encouragement. This has been a humbling but also eye opening experience. People are attracted to the house and the way of life. Very little explanation is needed and virtually all have an immediate and clear understanding of the philosophy and way of life. This experience amongst others has made it very clear to me that a significantly large number are keen to make the move to an energy decent and a simple land based life.
It is also clear to me from this experience that as people move in this direction they experience a positive feedback cycle of learning as illustrated below.
The combination of this feedback cycle with the enthusiasm and innate appeal of this route makes this a powerful movement, and one that is capable of making effective change at every small step. The major obstacles holding it back are availability of land and peoples time. These again are economic issues. The sort of work required to begin to make the transition to an energy decent is inherently uneconomic and shall remain so until the point at which there are no longer any other options. It is both crucial and appealing that before this time comes we do whatever we can to build local resilience. Whilst large numbers of people are pursuing this kind of work in their leisure time, it is impossible for most to follow it as a full time vocation at the same time as paying for housing and the land they are working.


There are growing numbers of community supported agriculture and similar projects which allow people access to land but cannot help them satisfy their housing costs. They also do not allow the proper permaculture approach which puts the home at the centre of a series of notional zones where the things requiring most attention are closest to your living to ensure maximum attention and efficiency.
The planning system does make allowances for farmers and seasonal forestry workers to live on their land, it is commonly subject to strict tests of their functional need to be there and proof that the enterprise is a viable business. This framework does not make allowance for production for self-sufficiency nor for the low cost lifestyles favoured by those living off the land in this way.
Small numbers of individuals and communities have been taking a direct action approach and simply moving on to agricultural land and getting on with their projects without advance planning permission. Many of these projects end up coming to the attention of the planners upon which they make retrospective applications, usually under the agricultural guidelines described above. Almost without exception, those who can afford the lost sleep and considerable paperwork of a planning appeal, get awarded permission although it is often short term temporary permission.

Understandably the majority of people are put off this route by the insecurity and the common impression that development without prior planning is illegal. If the planning system gives concessions to those wishing live on and work small pieces of agricultural land in this way the situation would be a very different one. Once the route is established it will be appealing to sufficient numbers of people to make significant preparations for the transition to energy decent.
Following unresolved retrospective planning cases and significant negotiation Pembrokeshire added such a planning policy to its JUDP in the summer of 2006 . There are a number of applications lodged with the county including the 'Lammas Project' this proposal for a low impact settlement of 9 smallholdings has taken approximately 5 man-years of paperwork and planning and was designed to fit the policy as tightly as possible. It was initially rejected on the ground of supplying insufficient information and has been resubmitted after more work. The Lammas team are still waiting to hear and hope to move on to their land within the next year. Other applicants under the same policy have similar stories.


Climate change and ecological crisis require an urgent and dramatic cut backs in fossil fuel use. If we do not move first, they may well be forced on us soon by dwindling supplies and an over-extended global economy. There is currently no other viable energy source to continue our escalating growth.
The transition to energy decent will be difficult. However, the sooner we can start preparing for it, the easier it will be. We need to make local communities self reliant and resilient. We also need to restore the fertility and productivity of the land. We need to develop and adapt supporting infrastructure as well as learning basic skills. permaculture is an effective approach which we can use to make these changes.
There is a strong grass-roots enthusiasm to make changes in this direction as well as accelerating positive feedbacks. If a workable route can be made within the planning system to grant access to land, and the right to live on it, to those wishing make these changes, we can allow a rising tide of people to make real progress towards a sustainable society. If a workable route is not found, we will be reliant upon the increasing numbers of people ready to take to the land without permission.

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