My interview with Northfield’s Paul Sebby: Transition Towns, time banks and energy efficiency

This week I got the chance to speak with Paul Sebby, a Transition Town activist and permaculture homesteader.

Paul got into permaculture through Transition Towns, a movement “comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis” (quoted from Transition U.S.)

After reading about peak oil and energy efficiency during his spare time, Paul became exposed to Rob Hopkins’s work, and jumped aboard the movement. An interest in permaculture followed as Paul found out about PRI and started attending events and workshops. He discovered the way permaculture systems tie into the Transition Town shift to a post peak oil world by mimicking natural systems that are more resilient and diverse than those dominating our current society.

When I asked what appeals to him most about permaculture, Paul referred to this resiliency and diversity, as well as the way permaculture systems, like natural ones, tend to move energy in a circular, sustainable way. Paul also personally values the community that PRI has created. By participating in workshops and going to other people’s land, he said, he’s learned lessons more valuable than he ever could have from reading or hearing about them. Permaculture for him is about the community of like-minded people, just as much as it is about polycultures and perennials.

An Energy-Efficient Home

The foundation of a wood-burning cob oven Paul is building

In keeping with the sustainable ideals of the Transition and permaculture movements, Paul, his wife and daughter bought a 5-acre piece of property about four years ago, located six miles outside of Northfield, with a goal to build an energy efficient house and practice permaculture. In 2007, they worked with an architect to design the house, which includes solar panels and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

This system runs liquid through tubes that are buried 8 feet in the ground. The earth, whose temperature remains fairly constantly at 50 degrees Farenheit, acts as a source for heat in the winter and as a sink in the summer. Electricity powers the heat pump to move heat from the earth into buildings (or out of buildings into the earth) with an efficiency up to 4 times higher than fuel-burning heating systems.

Paul has started doing permaculture on his land by planting the beginnings of an edible forest garden. Having seen Dave Jacke speak at a PRI event, Paul took to heart that “the most important thing is to start considering the highest canopy level first,” deciding which larger trees will be used and considering spacing as an important factor.

A Northern Pecan Paul planted as part of his edible forest garden's top canopy

He began by planting chestnut, butternut, pecan and pawpaw trees, and has since planted medium and lower level shrubs, including seaberries, hardy kiwis, elderberries, and juneberries. Someday his system will include plant guilds, but it’s something he hasn’t gotten to quite yet.

Trellissed hardy kiwis, part of the forest garden's lower level

Paul and his family don’t fully live off their land on an isolated homestead – rather, they value their community in Northfield and are quite involved in the sustainability movement there. They wanted land to develop the way they wanted, but were never after total self-sufficiency. Already familiar with Northfield through Carleton College, they picked a spot that was nearby in order to stay connected.

Transition Northfield

Paul’s connection to the community involves acting as an agent for change through the Transition movement. Paul was a founder of the movement in Northfield, which is now the only official Transition Town in Minnesota.

Upon their arrival, there was already a sustainability group in town called the Center for Sustainable Living. Paul joined it and introduced the Transition Town idea. In 2009 the group planned and hosted a Transition Town training workshop hosted by certified permaculture instructors Bill and Becky Wilson.

Since then the group has continued to host events in town – movies on peak oil and local food, a tomato canning workshop, a chicken coop building workshop in which they built a chicken coop in a community member’s backyard, and several earth day celebrations that brought together other sustainability groups in Northfield. Their biggest event, attended by over 200 people, took place last November, when they hosted a talk by Richard Heinberg who spoke about issues surrounding peak oil and climate change, and how it all ties in to the economy.

Transition Northfield's Earth Day celebration this spring

Now they are in the process of setting up a community exchange system that allows community members to exchange goods and services without using money. Paul, a professional computer programmer, has created a web-based software program that allows people to post what they have to offer, search through other offers and contact the poster directly. The program will keep track of account balances in a time bank, and purchasing power will be measured in “time dollars” rather than money.

The system will start this week among the group, and expand to the larger community within the next couple of months.

You can stay up to date on what the group is up to through their website,

Paul’s perspective and story is compelling to me, as someone who someday wants to live sustainably, and also values the power of the community. It shows how integrated those two things can really be, though sometimes they seem to be at odds. Self-sufficiency often requires living on land that’s far removed from any community, due to cost, taxes, and regulations. Meanwhile, living in the city can mean giving up the space one might want to grow vegetables, keep animals and build solar panels. Paul’s story shows me that community is a vital resource: it’s through the permaculture community that he’s been learning the best ways to grow food on his property, and through the Transition Town community that Northfield is empowering itself to thrive.


About PRI Cold Climate

PRI Cold Climate is an organization centered in Minneapolis that promotes permaculture throughout the region, fostering sustainable lifestyles and communities. We design and demonstrate permaculture systems specific to colder climates like ours, and provide leadership and resources for the permaculture community.
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