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Preparing for a Hard Landing: Mendocino gets ready for the end of oil

A stir runs through the crowded, darkened room; at least 80 people from the small northern Mendocino town of Laytonville have turned out to watch a sobering documentary, The End of Suburbia. On-screen, Matthew Simmons, energy adviser to the Bush Administration, warns that we're already at or past the peak in global oil production and that the long haul down the other side is likely to be grim. Simmons is joined by geologists, writers, and policymakers, including author Richard Heinberg and British oil expert Colin Campbell.

Their thesis—that the age of the automobile, and thus the 50- or 60-year-long blip of suburban living will soon join the dinosaurs—is convincing. And don't, they warn, expect to be saved by flying cars or light rail: even if nuclear reactors, wind power, and solar are combined, the energy produced comes nowhere near the abundance we've enjoyed from petroleum products and natural gas—which is also running out.

As the projector goes dark, the audience, made up of people of all ages, shifts forward on butt-chilling metal chairs. "This is nothing less than the collapse of the American Dream," posits moderator Alison Pernell. Smart and savvy, with long blond hair and an athletic build, Pernell would be recognizably American anywhere. "We're going to be impacted really hard in a rural area," she continues, and several people chime in, predicting runaway inflation—nearly everything in town is brought in by truck.

Meetings such as these—called economic localization gatherings—began last October in the larger town of Willits, 25 miles south of Laytonville. Biologist-turned-activist Jason Bradford showed The End of Suburbia at the Willits City Hall, to an audience of 20. A few weeks later, he screened it again, and 60 people came. The next showing drew 90, all wanting to talk and plan. Bradford realized he had a movement on his hands.

A steering committee formed, and soon smaller committees, divided into topics such as food, shelter, water, and health, began to research and plan how Willits citizens could survive in the absence of oil and its cheaply transported goods. Acreage-per-person needed to provide food was estimated, and those figures generated the amount of farmland that needs to be put into production annually—starting now. Warns Bradford, "You have to create a sense of urgency without also creating panic or paralysis."

Other towns have similar programs, such as Santa Barbara, Toronto, and Astoria, Oregon with its Titanic Lifeboat Academy. The Willits group has created a valuable online resource that includes a history of the group and a plan for a 1,000-square-foot biointensive garden, among other things. Willits is taking notice: the city council uses the town's group for information-gathering, and the town's new hospital will be powered by alternative energy, a change brought about by the surge of future-thinking.

Several people from Laytonville brought the movement north this April. Two more meetings have been held since, and the ideas are coming fast and furious: start a community stable, join together to buy arable land, take up the pavement for community gardens. Questions can be challenging: should high school kids concentrate on computer literacy or farming? If we convert to solar, how can we maintain batteries past their ten-year lifespan?

At a June meeting, participants placed Post-Its—yellow for what you'd like to learn, green for what you can teach to others—under broad categories like Food, Transportation, Health, and Organization. Energy garnered the most yellow and fewest green stickers, signaling that outside education probably will be needed in this area.

But most agree the town of 1,500 has advantages. It is Ÿber-community-based, and a large percentage of the populace make their living in agricultural pursuits—never mind what kind; the skill sets transfer. Besides, quips Pernell, "Some of you have been waiting for this since the '70s."

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