Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is Willits a post-peak oil paradise?

This is the fourth of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one of the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.

In Willits, California it's hardly worth it to tune in to the weather report from May through October because the report is nearly always the same: "It's going to be another great day in northern California!" The mellow California sun ascends into a clear, azure sky over the low mountain ridges that surround the Little Lake Valley. Cool, dry nights turn into warm, dry days. The air is some of the cleanest in the United States.

The people of Willits are a mix of offbeat urban refugees and stalwart long-time residents who share at least one thing in common: They are uniformly friendly. They also share in a remarkable small-town culture that includes a free-standing environmental center; on-going music, art and lecture events; bookstores; several caf├ęs; a few commendable restaurants including one fine dining establishment; and a restless inquisitiveness and knack for experiment in lifestyles and ideas. Willits is now home to a well-organized relocalization movement that seeks to prepare the city for the challenges of climate change and a lower energy future. All of this comes packaged in a town of 5,000 people.

Is it paradise? By some standards it might be considered one by many Americans who live in harsher climates, traffic-snarled suburbs or dying rural areas. But more particularly, is it a post-peak oil paradise?

Willits has become a focal point for the peak oil movement because it is now on the leading edge of relocalization efforts. Its activists are determined, organized and increasingly well-funded. They have nurtured a fledgling movement that now seems self-sustaining. Some readers who are thinking about where they should live in the coming energy decline may be looking at Willits (and perhaps other places that are taking peak oil preparations seriously). What should they consider?

First, they should consider the ecological facts. In the case of Willits, the Little Lake Valley probably already has all the people it could support using the available arable land and water. As Willits moves toward greater self-sufficiency, part of that self-sufficiency will be based on keeping population low as it is now.

Second, while Willits can currently count on more than enough rainfall, it lacks adequate storage since that rainfall comes mainly in the winter and spring. Right now there is a moratorium on new construction because of inadequate water supplies, effectively a ban on new development. Also, climate change makes the reliability of future water supplies a question mark as it does in many parts of the world.

Third, housing values in Willits, as in all of California, are exceedingly high. Most people moving there from outside the state are going to be trading a larger house for a smaller one that costs much more.

Fourth, while much of Willits is walkable, anything one might need to acquire outside of Willits requires at least 30 minutes or more one way in a car.

Fifth, work in Willits is not easy to come by. Several of the people I talked to work two and three jobs just to make a minimal income.

Sixth, Willits is in an active earthquake zone. An earthquake as bad as the one which struck San Francisco in 1906 could occur at any time. It could cut off the area from the outside world by severing the main north-south highway, Highway 101. And, it could bring down electrical lines leaving the area without power for up to two weeks, officials with whom I talked estimated.

Seventh, when people think of Mendocino County where Willits is located, they usually think of wineries, redwoods and the Pacific coast. But, what they really should be thinking of is marijuana which is believed to be the county's biggest business bringing in an estimated $10.6 billion annually, many times the revenue of the winery and timber industries combined.

The sad truth is that Mendocino's economy is addicted to pot, and while few who live there have objections to the use of marijuana, the growing and distribution of it have become the dominant economic fact. Perhaps it will one day be fully legalized; California already allows the growing of medical marijuana. But until then the struggle between local and federal law enforcement officials will continue; local law enforcement is mildly schizophrenic about marijuana because the federal government does not recognize California's medical marijuana statute. In addition, occasional incursions by Mexican crime organizations who commandeer remote national forest lands inside the county in order to grow marijuana add a sinister and sometimes violent aspect to the business.

I could go on; but my point is that wherever you choose to live in the coming decades, you will find drawbacks. No place will be ideal for facing the twin crises of energy depletion and climate change. And, it won't be easy to predict what will happen in any one locale because the effects of climate change are so uncertain.

Perhaps the best advice is to determine first if you live in a place that is clearly hopeless in the face of these twin challenges--Phoenix comes to mind. If you live in such a place, you should probably leave as soon as you are able. But if you live in a place with reasonable prospects, say, the upper Midwest, New England, the Pacific Northwest or someplace suitable elsewhere in the world, possibly the best course would be to begin preparing your community for the shocks ahead. You probably won't be able to create a post-peak oil paradise. But paradise isn't what we'll be aiming for in the years ahead. Creating places that are sustainable and reasonably peaceful will pose all the challenges we need.


Pangolin said...

Sadly, should a Peak Oil crisis disrupt the trucking of foodstuffs along highway 101, the good citizens of Willits will starve. Which will be real tough because they'll have the munchies the whole time.

Willits relies upon massive infusions of pot-grower's cash to support its unlikely economy. Deep inside a redwood forest local food production is constrained by terrain and lack of water. Redwood forests are remarkably hostile to a hungry human.

A rail line passes through Willits but it has been abandoned for some years now and doesn't connect with the outside world. Should it become the primary source of travel smuggling pot will be much more difficult than it currently is.

I would reccomend moving to a farm town. Look for grain silos.

Anonymous said...

Everyone else will be looking for those grain silos as well. They'll be hungry and likely just as well armed as you. And probably very pissed off. Learn how to hide. How to live off of land others would not recognize as livable, using only the things that land provides. How to catch SMALL game. No rifles. How to recognize edible plants. How to plant crops in such a way that they are difficult to identify from a distance. Forget about the artifacts of civilization and economy such as property ownership; they're pointless when civilization and economies collapse. Starving people won't give a goddamn that you own the land the food that will save their children is growing on. Realize that death has taken it's place right at your side like it has for almost the entire history of humanity. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Willits is not likely ever to be a "post-peak oil paradise." If the oil disappears, Willits is more likely to be an outlaw survival-of-the-fittest (or more likely, survival of the biggest arsenal)in this historically Wild West area. The people of Willits talk a good ecological game, but they don't really live it. The Willits valley is small, and broken up into mostly small properties, 40 acres, 160 acres, privately owned by small ranchers and well-to-do pot growers who have no interest (and no experience) in raising grains and other foodstuffs for the "relocaization" people. Most of the "activists" live on small parcels outside town in the valley or in the hills, and they drive big pickup trucks every day to get to the food store, the "grower" supply store, and the peak oil meetings in town. The Willits activists talk about self-sufficiency, they claim they are on the "leading edge of relocalization." I wish they were. NONE of these activists are farmers, very few grow their own food, cultivate their own orchards, milk their own cows, cut their own firewood, ride their horse to visit the neighbors. What's more, most of the activists are in their fifties and sixties, and getting a little old to start such a rugged existence. If the need for self-sufficienct ever really hits Willits, these activists are likey to either move away--or grab a gun and force you to move away. I have lived in Willits and the area for over 35 years. Willits is a good place to live, and the people are friendly. But just talk to them awhile, and you can see the self-righteous mob mentality brewing just below the surface. It's scary.

Anonymous said...

The Willits "Relocalization" movement is all bark and no bite. Virtually everyone in this part of the world is constantly behind the wheel, driving all over the place. There is no concerted effort to produce food. It's a sad joke.
Three decades ago it was wood stoves and kerosene lamps, today it's $50,000 PV arrays and satellite internet. A couple of years past the County Ag Comissioner put the pot crop at 2 billion. This last year Supervisor Pinches kept talking about 5 billion. Now we're at 10 billion? That's over a hundred grand a head for every man, woman and child in the county - I'm sure not getting my share! The easy money from pot cultivation has spoiled a lot of folks, but these estimated figures just keep getting sillier.

Anonymous said...

I've been wondering how you'd respond Kurt, to the "disrupt the trucking of foodstuffs," "how to live off of land," "outlaw survival-of-the-fittest" stuff.

Anonymous said...

It's too sad the by the time humanity will build the massive RENEWABLE ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE needed to prevent anarcy, the post oil crises will have prevented such REI because of exponentally higher fuel costs needed! We should be forced now to build 10 million 1 Mw wind turbines (no time for environmental planning) and the electric cars to store that energy. Since most people either do not agree or don't know, the world will fall into another dark age complete with all the death and decay... times a thousand. The only reason why I preach the teck fix is because there are billions of children who do not deserve the coming dark age! Also, ever since man has invented the wheel, we have continually learned how to deal with the brakes. Post oil and GW is just another cliff to watch out for. I say consume less (but i spend more energy as i write this) so instead, consume your energy for the promotion of the only thing that will offer a reasonable future past the crunch, the massive REI. It should cost every one about $5 per day. In this light, it is possible to save the future IF ALL THE PEOPLE are informed. Thanks for the gw debate, they are already somewhat aware. (yet TV doesn't say noth'n of post oil!) An effort by a whole country could save themselves and "prove" to other countries that it is possible.

Total U.S energy usage = 100 quads btu (about 100,000,000,000,000,000 matchsticks worth of energy). About 2/3 is wasted as heat by physical laws. If converted to electricity, 1/3 = about 10,000,000,000,000 kWh. (quads / 3414)
Now, figure with theoritical "wind only" just to prove a point. A one megawatt class turbine will produce between a quarter and 4/10ths of its rating, thus on average producing, say 30%. .3 * 1 mW (1,000,000 watts) = 300 kW * 8,760 (hours in a year) = about 2,600,000 kWh per machine per year. Total American electrical needs will probably soar to twice the efficient amount listed at the beging of this paragraph, or about 20 trillion kWh. This would power all mobility (if everyone had electric cars), industry and even disneyland. Thus a simple, non smart grid would need 20 trillion / 2.6 million = about 7,700,000 wind turbines. Much of that energy would be wasted unless people had battery packs (or if the utility did). Electric cars also would store electricity needed to light the house. Each turbine should cost about $1.5 million = close to 12 trillion dollars, Not really such a big deal, (about $4 per person per day for just over 30 years). This is why we can't afford stupid resource depleting wars and especially mind draining status quo "normallities" such as fashion, TV, and excess materialism that suck away the desire to know this very simple truth. Without the REI, all of humanity, its dreams, and accomplishments, will fall into death and decay ! ! !

BTW, a massive REI would do wonders with GW not to mention the American economy.
Fire of energy

Anonymous said...

I dare asl how in this world of the new medieval ages will the people of these "varied eco vllages" survive when they don't believe in wepaons, or atleast guns? Its not like a weekend camping trip, think Ruger, think Winchester, think Kalishnakov, because the marauders will. Remember, Zimbabwe was 20 yrs ago a 1st World state, now its in a similar situation, recall weapons are vital for protection. Not a gun not or nutty patriot type here, just a realist. Starving hordes of people will not care about tresspassing when their kids are starving.