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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New column posted on Scitizen

My latest column for Scitizen entitled Should Scientists Embrace Economic Growth? has now been posted. For some information on this column and the Paris-based science news website on which it appears, read my previous post on Scitizen and my new column there.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Willits meets the S-curve

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

Brian Weller arrived in Willits, California 12 years ago. A transplant from England, he brought with him corporate training experience which has come in handy in his work with Willits Economic Localization (WELL). The project is an attempt to implement one of the key strategies for meeting the challenges of world peak oil production, relocalization.

The critical question, Weller says, is, "How do we enroll whole communities to take charge of their civic life in such a way as to prepare the groundwork for a more balanced life?" The answer is more nuanced than most activist groups realize.

Weller explained that it has been a hard lesson for many involved in the WELL project that rational explanations of such threats as peak oil and climate change can only get one so far. People in any group or community adopt ideas at different paces based on their orientation toward change. Using terminology from the famous compendium of diffusion studies, Diffusion of Innovations, he explained the various layers which can be found in any community.

The earliest adherents to any kind of innovation including a social one are appropriately called "innovators." They rush headlong into anything new trying to discover what threats or opportunities it offers. The next adherents, the so-called "early adopters," take the alarm out of the innovation and figure out how to turn it into an opportunity. The adopters in the great middle are ones who have to see things to believe them. This middle group (which is often broken up into "early majority" and "late majority") will join in once the early adopters show that an innovation can work. The very latest adopters, often called "laggards," are suspicious of change. The key for these people is simplicity. The innovation must be easy to understand and use. The pattern of adoption of a successful innovation when plotted cumulatively on a graph very often looks like an S-shaped curve. It rises slowly at first, then reaches a sharp takeoff point as the early and late majorities adopt the innovation, and finally levels off as the innovation reaches saturation among the population.

Though it might be tempting to think of the late adopters, especially the laggards, in negative terms, Weller warns against this. Each group has something to offer in cementing the innovation into society. Once the laggards, who are society's traditionalists, decide that a change is okay, they will go about institutionalizing it in ways that will make it stick. If those in the peak oil and relocalization movements understand this, they can actually engage the late adopters in their communities with a more positive attitude that recognizes their critical role in institutionalizing change.

Weller points out that traditionalists actually share many values friendly to relocalization including self-reliance. These traditionalists are also very concerned about security. By framing relocalization in terms of food and energy security, the traditionalists can over time be persuaded.

One of the ways WELL enlists these traditionalists is through a program called Elder Talk. The elders of the Willits community share their knowledge about subjects such as how food was grown, preserved, stored and prepared in the past and what kind of transportation people used before the widespread introduction of the automobile. The talks are videotaped to make them available to a wider audience.

In a way, Weller explains, Willits is an exceptionally good place for relocalization to take root. It has one the highest concentrations of patent holders in the United States. Naturally, these people fall into the innovator category. In addition, Willits was a destination during the "back to the land" movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and thus attracted a large number of people looking for new, more self-sufficient lifestyles. "We have a lot of people already off the grid," he remarked.

But even Willits has those who don't take readily to change. For them certainty is very important. Will relocalization actually work? Does it really have advantages over the globalized economy we now live in? Is the change consistent with values I already hold?

If such questions can be answered patiently and convincingly in the affirmative--not only with words, but also with deeds--the S-curve of adoption can reach the takeoff point which almost always assures swift and widespread acceptance. Relocalization advocates wake up each morning hoping that that day will come sooner rather than later.

Monday, October 15, 2007

See you at the ASPO and Community Solutions conferences

I will be attending the Houston World Oil Conference this week (October 17-20) and then the U. S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions (October 26-28) the following week. I always like to meet readers. If you are attending either conference, please look for me. During this time I will post the last two installments of my four-part series on Willits. (See first two parts below.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What's the definition of local?

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

Peak oil activists in Willits, California have convinced city officials, the chamber of commerce, and even the Rotary Club that focusing on locally owned and operated businesses is an important step in preparing for the onset of world peak oil production. At first this seemed simple. The community would be encouraged to patronize businesses owned and operated by people who live in and around Willits or, more specifically, the Willits zip code.

But what exactly is a local business? The local paper, The Willits News, has been highly supportive of the peak oil activists, often providing front-page coverage of their events and publishing letters to the editor and guest editorials on their activities and concerns. But the newspaper is owned by a large media chain that also owns 56 other newspapers across the country. So where exactly does the newspaper fit?

Hardware stores are usually locally owned, but often affiliated with national organizations. Ace Hardware Corp. and Do It Best Corp. are both cooperatives owned by their retailer members. Are these local retailers truly local? If so, what about other chain stores? While some chain stores are owned by large corporations, many others are franchises, often owned and run by people in the community. A franchise such as Subway or McDonald's would fall into this category.

Then, of course, there is the issue of sourcing one's products locally. True localization would mean getting whatever one is selling from producers nearby. Clearly, Willits would grind to a halt if it had to source all of its needs locally. But some restaurants, a local health food store and a supermarket have all made strides by sourcing some of their food locally. Craft items are sometimes also available nearby. But the vast majority of items sold in Willits are not made in or around Willits and won't be anytime soon.

The manager of the supermarket mentioned above began to stock local produce at the urging of area activists. His store, however, is part of a small chain which owns about 70 stores in California and Oregon. Should this supermarket be awarded "local" status?

It is a symptom of our globalized world that the term "local business" should become so confused. Organizers of what has come to be known as the "Local First" campaign in Willits certainly didn't want to exclude anyone who supports the idea of sourcing goods and services locally. But allowing everyone into the program who wanted in would have defeated the whole purpose of the campaign.

In the end the organizers decided that a hardware store owner who is a long-time resident and contributor to the community should be included as a local business and thus eligible for the "I Shop Local" stickers, associated window decal and other promotional materials. While they were very pleased with the efforts of the supermarket, it clearly wasn't a locally owned business. The local newspaper was a big supporter too, but also clearly not locally owned. So a new designation was created called "Community Business Partner." Any business that declared it was in support of local sourcing of goods and services could be part of the "Local First" program under this designation. But such businesses wouldn't be eligible for the stickers or window decals of the "Local First" campaign.

Franchises could become community business partners, too, if they wished. But the message from the city increasingly is, "No more, please." According to Willits' city planner, the city is working on an ordinance which essentially would prohibit big box stores through retail size restrictions. The ordinance would also prohibit most new franchises by requiring that a new business be at least 50 percent owned by someone in Willits and not have more than perhaps four other substantially similar locations. (The exact details are still being worked out.) Both types of restrictions have been upheld in California courts.

The irony of this is that a significant portion of the city government's revenue comes from sales taxes generated by franchises and service station chains located in Willits. Since the city is on the major north-south route in northern California, Highway 101, a constant stream of cars, trucks and RVs passes through each day. Many of them stop to refuel, of course. And, the drivers and occupants also refuel by eating fast food from the many chains that dot the highway on the city's southern end.

But the people of Willits are trying to think ahead. Someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, the heavy traffic which now clogs the highway bisecting their town may dwindle to a trickle as rising fuel prices make long-distance trucking and automobile travel less and less practical. At that point the residents of Willits believe that they will need to rely much more on what they can produce and sell locally and much less on what will remain of the global economy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Willits and the problem of slow knowledge

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

All eyes in the peak oil movement are on Willits, a small town of about 5,000 in northern California's Mendocino County. Willits became an experiment station of sorts for peak oil preparedness when Ph.D. botanist Jason Bradford left the University of California-Davis in 2004, moved his family to Willits, and began preparations for an imminent, irreversible decline in world oil production.

As Bradford relates, he started by showing the film, The End of Suburbia, to his new fellow residents. The documentary traces the history of suburban development in North America and suggests that the collapse of the suburban way of life is inevitable during the coming permanent oil shortage. The local newspaper covered the events, often with front-page stories, documenting the standing room only crowds. Bradford said he had great hopes that the growing enthusiasm for peak oil preparedness generated by the events would lead to quick, decisive action by the community and its officials.

He and others formed a group called Willits Economic Localization (WELL) to pursue relocalization, a key strategy for adapting to a lower energy world. The strategy calls for sourcing as many of life's necessities as possible locally. This reduces the enormous energy costs of transporting goods and helps to provide the security that goes with self-sufficiency, especially in food.

But after three years, Willits, while still a clear leader in peak oil preparedness, has not achieved nearly the progress envisioned by Bradford and other organizers. While their sense of urgency still remains, they have begun to realize that municipal governments move at what seems like a glacial pace and that public awareness is not the same as public understanding.

Willits is dealing with what environmental educator David Orr might call the problem of slow knowledge. In our culture we are used to the rapid dissemination of the latest technological breakthrough or device. And, we are accustomed to a mass media that turbocharges the transfer of information. But there is a difference between the kind of knowledge which fosters change in our technological society and the kind that the shows humans their actual relationship to the natural world and the limits it imposes.

Teaching people how to use a chainsaw can take only a few minutes. That's fast knowledge. Teaching people the importance of trees in creating and protecting the soil, encouraging biodiversity, preventing runoff, storing carbon and influencing climate is a task that requires time, concentration and reflection. It assumes a body of knowledge about the natural world that most people simply don't have and therefore must acquire. And, it assumes an eye trained to look for subtleties in the natural landscape. Moreover, such learning does not yield the immediate and visible economic benefits of the chainsaw.

Even more challenging is teaching people to value the natural world right where they live. American culture, in particular, separates nature and civilization so completely that nature always seems far away. It is something one travels to get to. And, though most Americans appreciate the beauty of pristine wilderness, few care to plumb the secrets of their own yard or a nearby stream. So, the challenge is two-fold: 1) To lay the groundwork for understanding natural processes and 2) to make the case that understanding the local environment and how it can sustain us is going to become far more important in the future.

But there is another aspect to slow knowledge, and that is the social one. Just as knowledge of the local environment and its subtle interrelationships are difficult to gain and impart, so too is the social understanding about local relationships among people. Who are the influential people in my town? How can they be brought into the sustainability process? How can we rebuild the local commercial relationships between shop owner, farmer, and artisan that provide the living infrastructure for local economies?

We are accustomed to ordering from catalogs and the Internet or visiting chain stores for our needs. But we will be obliged to rediscover much of the knowledge we need to operate things locally. And, that too is slow knowledge since it involves building skills and trust.

Despite the arduous process of imparting slow knowledge, the activists in Willits have actually made considerable progress.

  • Jason Bradford spearheaded the formation of a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm on the grounds of a local elementary with the encouragement of the school district and with volunteer and financial help from the community.
  • The City of Willits, the local chamber of commerce and many nonprofit groups including the local Rotary Club have signed a joint statement with WELL explicitly acknowledging fossil fuel depletion and climate change as threats to the community and embracing relocalization as a key strategy for addressing these problems.
  • The chamber has a "Local First" program complete with bookmarks, bumper stickers, and tote bags that encourages residents to shop in locally owned and operated businesses. A community festival organized by "Local First" was a huge success.
  • The city has an aggressive program for providing grants to homeowners for energy efficiency improvements and solar energy installation.
  • The County of Mendocino created an energy task force to advise it on energy policy for an update of its general plan. The written report explicitly cited fossil fuel depletion and climate change as major issues in county planning.
  • The elected sheriff of Mendocino County has 1) initiated additional emergency planning measures in part due to the work of Willits' activists, 2) implemented measures to reduce driving and thus fuel consumption for his officers including video conferencing, steps that are especially meaningful in a county the size of Delaware, and 3) purchased a hybrid replacement for his current official vehicle to promote the idea that hybrids are viable for law enforcement.

There are other projects and activities which I did not include here. But even this abbreviated list is impressive given that the community began from a standing start in late 2004.

If the community of Willits has shown anything, it is that the problem of slow knowledge can be overcome with persistence, intelligence and good-heartedness. Even as the challenges of energy depletion and climate change bear down upon us, the knowledge we need to address these problems can be garnered and propagated by small groups of committed activists working in local communities. The only question is whether such groups will spread quickly enough around the globe to begin the needed work of creating sustainable communities before the worst is upon us.