The New Frontier
As an unusually long and sweltering heat wave enveloped the traditionally mild San Francisco Bay Area, power outages knocked out air conditioning, and gas prices under $3.00 a gallon seemed like leisure suits or vinyl LPs, relics of a long forgotten era, those who have been warning of the consequences of global warming and the eventual decline of a fossil fuel-based life felt an awkward sense of vindication.
Though some progressive icons like Greg Palast still try to write the peak oil movement off using incomplete research and fallacious arguments, increasingly people are awakening to the limits of a system that is utterly dependent upon a finite substance; a substance that is becoming uneconomical and is destroying the earth’s life-support network.
The subject of peak oil broke ground last year when a bipartisan caucus devoted to it was formed in the House of Representatives (Roscoe Bartlett, R-MD and Tom Udall, D-NM). So far, the House Caucus has done little except give a few interesting speeches, but, as Gregory Greene, director of the mobilizing classic, End of Suburbia, observed, it may be too late for such “top-down remedies” to work anyhow: The U.S. dollar and economy are dependent on a reliable source of energy and there is not enough time to build nuclear power plants or implement other fuel alternatives on a large scale. Even if we could quickly build nuclear power plants, the recent heat wave and subsequent demand for electricity in France showed the ecological weaknesses of relying too much on nuclear power.So what are the alternatives? (1)
Greene is currently finishing a follow-up film called Escape from Suburbia. This new film looks at communities that have taken the initiative and are “re-localizing” -- preparing for a future with little fossil fuel by scaling down and redirecting focus and resources toward local self-sufficiency.Communities from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Cuba and the Middle East appear in the film, but it is the town of Willits, California that provides the most intriguing and advanced study of the effort to re-localize and form a sustainable and vitally democratic town in the U.S.“It was evident about five or six months ago that Willits was really serious [about localizing the economy] and a lot of people look to Willits for leadership.” (2)
The Willits Model
Jason Bradford, an academic with a Ph.D. in botany founded the Willits Economic Localization project, otherwise known as WELL.Brian Weller, who showed up at the first screening that Bradford hosted of The End of Suburbia, eventually became an instrumental participant in WELL. In the two years since then, Bradford and Weller have learned some interesting lessons about mobilizing a community to prepare for the inevitable changes ahead.
As more people showed up at successive screenings and called for action, the vulnerabilities that Willits would face in a time of decreasing access to inexpensive fossil fuel and the long-distance economic dependencies it has created, led to the realization that making the community more self-reliant was imperative. Subsequently, committees were formed to explore areas that were crucial to the survival and harmony of the community.
Assessments were undertaken to determine what resources were available locally in terms of food, energy, and keeping essential services operating.
During a workshop in Oakland this past April, Bradford and Weller discussed how, by strategically pressing something other than the peak oil issue, they were able to get important community allies committed to their localization project. Local emergency personnel took notice when WELL’s resource assessments, designed to expose the problems Willits would face as a result of peak oil, showed that these same vulnerabilities would be present in a more traditional disaster, like a forest fire or earthquake.The local police and fire chiefs recognized that the community would be in big trouble if a major disaster disrupted supply routes for any length of time. They understood that local self-reliance was essential to maintaining water and food supplies and keeping hospitals and other public safety institutions functioning.
Participants from other locales made similar observations based on their own unique community experiences. One attendee from the coastal town of Pacifica, south of San Francisco, spoke of the months-long closure of Highway 1 due to Devil’s Slide and the adverse impact it was having on local residents and small businesses.These experiences provide a window into the kinds of challenges that could arise when a lack of cheap oil renders regular shipments of essential goods into communities an anachronism.
In addition to recruiting important community allies, WELL also got the Bank of Willits to agree to the creation of an Economic Localization Fund (ELF). The bank will finance projects that increase energy efficiency, build infrastructure for resource self-reliance and also keep money flowing within the local economy. WELL is also working with EcoCity Builders and the City of Willits to map and plan more sustainable development.
This kind of success, however, does not mean that WELL has not faced its share of difficulties. Though local self-sufficiency and sustainability are issues that refreshingly overcome the cultural rift between liberal and conservative, other challenges have emerged. For example, some people go into the project with high expectations and become impatient or disillusioned with the slow pace of change. Personality differences also require a delicate balancing act.
“In the beginning, we had a collection of innovators and activists whose nature is to think outside of the box and they are wary of too much control or structure.But once you want to start getting practical, it requires more discipline and organization.So it comes down to, how do you keep the innovators on board and also recruit organizers?” Weller said. He believes re-establishing trust is the key, and the way to do that is by knowing how to talk to different people in language they will listen to and having the goal be to build a workable alternative rather than merely being reactive.
For all their success, one stumbling block that Bradford concedes his group has encountered is in getting young people on board.“Most [youth] who grow up here really want to get out and see the world.Tey apparently have little commitment to place right after high school.”
Back in Metropolis
While youth flight may be a problem in a rural town like Willits, groups in more urban areas that are working on localization and sustainability issues are experiencing a more optimistic trend in getting youth into the movement. Aaron Lehmer, 34, of Bay Area Relocalize (BAR), an organization assisting communities with mapping local resources, noted that young people are heavily involved in dozens of local groups in the San Francisco Bay Area focusing on food security, renewable energy and peak oil issues. “Most of the people involved with BAR are between 25 and 35. Several say they’re involved in the peak oil-localization movement because they’re worried about their future and whether there will be a viable society for them to live in over the coming decades.”
One community in the East Bay that is making impressive strides toward greater sustainability and self-reliance, much of it due to the participation and creativity of youth, is West Oakland. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an NGO that has focused on issues affecting the poor and minority population of the Oakland area, has teamed up with the West Oakland Apollo Alliance to pilot three new projects aimed at creating a symbiosis between social justice needs and sustainable economic development under the banner of Reclaim the Future. The projects will include efforts to improve air quality by utilizing biodiesel fuel blends, building a green residential complex on the site of a formerly toxic yeast factory, and development of a program to train formerly incarcerated and low-income people with skills useful in the emerging green economy sectors. Their first Solutions Salon this past April was designed to educate the public and encourage dialogue on Reclaim the Future and drew crowds so large the event had to be moved at the last minute to a larger venue.
Another grassroots effort that is providing training and employment opportunities for youth in the context of a local green economy is People’s Grocery, which was founded in 2002 by three West Oakland residents who were concerned by the lack of access to healthy food and its negative effect on their community.
Contrary to many people’s preconceived notions, the Alameda County Public Health Department of Vital Statistics found that, between 1996 and 1998, “the number one cause of death in West Oakland was not violence, but heart disease.” The fact that there are 40 liquor stores in West Oakland and only one grocery store underscores the deeper problems of economic underdevelopment, neglect and exploitation that fuel food insecurity, poor health, and a lack of opportunities, especially for young people.
Several programs have been developed by People’s Grocery to comprehensively address these issues.The most visible is the Mobile Market, an organic grocery store on wheels that delivers produce grown by local farmers at affordable prices and offers nutrition education, all to the beat of a solar-powered sound system. Three urban gardens are being cultivated throughout Oakland using compost from scraps collected from local neighborhoods.Youth work in the gardens and participate in programs like Collards n Commerce which teach entrepreneurial skills in sustainable agriculture and food preparation.The organization even has plans to eventually open up a full-service grocery store.
According to Brahm Ahamadi, one of its founders, People’s Grocery has had considerable success in improving people’s diets and eating habits. They have also provided stable jobs to a small group of people and though the scale is not yet large, the ripple effects have been significant in that workers have received meaningful skills that have often paved the way toward better jobs. But it’s the sense of proactive participation in one’s own community that has been priceless.
“Young people are compelled to our organization because of our community-based nature. We are in and for and about West Oakland.This is very inspiring to many young people as their experience has been that few people care about West Oakland.Also, the vibrant and engaging nature of our youth staff is attractive to other youth who subsequently join.”
The tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed the public to what many poor and minority communities like those in West Oakland already learned from hard experience long ago:that, regardless of one’s ideological opinions about whether it should, the government oftentimes cannot be relied upon to effectively help people in trouble.When the community comes together and uses its ingenuity to create solutions, things happen that could never be gotten from an impersonal and cumbersome bureaucracy.
The increased visibility of lower income and minority activists in the sustainability movement also offers a much needed challenge to the perception that environmentalism is a status symbol for affluent liberals who can afford to pay the boutique prices at Whole Foods and drive around in space-age hybrids.
Waking Up in the Burbs
The main theme running through The End of Suburbia is that residents of what we call the suburbs owe their very existence to cheap oil and, hence, have the most to lose in the future. So what is the attitude and level of awareness of peak oil in the suburbs where folks still have their creature comforts and $3.50 a gallon gas isn’t really hurting too much?
Time is one of the biggest issues that came up when talking to peak oil activists who live in the burbs. As Verdette Wilkins of Tracy, an attendee at the localization workshop in Oakland, observed with some irony, “So many people are busy commuting to and from [suburbia] that they are unable to attend local government hearings and their concerns go largely unaddressed.”Dennis Brumm, an organizer with San Francisco Oil Awareness (SFOA), which played a pivotal role in getting the SF Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution on peak oil in April (3), acknowledged that having the time to do the follow-up and attend meetings, especially during the day when the bureaucracy was doing business, was crucial to his group’s progress in working with local government.
Sally Sweetser, a member of Diablo Post Carbon Study Group in Walnut Creek, stated that she is seeing a gradual increase in interest in her area as more people attend local film screenings and show some inclination toward doing something.Several people who are involved in environmental and social justice issues in Contra Costa County have memories of people attempting to broach this topic as far back as the 1970s and no one wanted to listen. Now, with our nation bogged down in at least two protracted wars in the Middle East, high gas prices, and hotter temperatures, people are starting to understand that something is amiss and are more open to hearing about oil, in terms of oil peaking and its relationship to global warming and geopolitics.
Richard Abbott, who helped organize this year’s Earth Day celebration in Lafayette with a “Powering Down” theme, was taken aback by the number of people in this cozy, well-to-do town who were well informed about peak oil. Many were taking individual actions in their personal lives, typically in the form of more eco-friendly consumer choices or driving less. Some are even involved in various groups relating to the environment, but an intellectual grasp on abstract dangers is perhaps not enough to inspire people to get their hands dirty with a community garden or green roofs on buildings just yet.
Framing the Problem and the Solutions
Though re-localization advocates are attempting to translate their understanding of peak oil and its overwhelming implications into constructive action, this is no band of wide-eyed idealists.Nor do most of them see re-localization as a panacea but as one important aspect of the multi-faceted response that will be needed to address the complex problems ahead.
As Sally Sweetser admitted, “I am actually very pessimistic. I do not believe groups of people have the ability to change before the crisis changes them. But I do believe in local action and the ability of local communities to weather the storm.”Similar sentiments of cold, hard realism were echoed by several activists within the movement.
Brumm recounted one of his colleagues suggesting that the peak oil problem and how to address it should be approached as a “risk management” issue since it is not a problem that can be solved per se but only one in which the effects can be mitigated.
This is what makes peak oil a topic that politicians are reluctant to talk about.On May 19th, localization and sustainability advocates convened a meeting with local elected officials in Sonoma County in the North Bay Area to discuss peak oil and its potential ramifications. At the Energy Vulnerability Summit, peak oilers learned some interesting insights into navigating the issue with public officials.The first point was to be careful about nomenclature. The term “peak oil” should not be used but instead euphemisms such as “energy vulnerability” or “energy security.”In the same vein, the term “local” was to be avoided.As mystifying as this initially sounds, it was speculated that since the ideology of corporate globalization is so deeply entrenched it is nearly impossible to challenge it head-on by emphasizing the local.
With the terrain so inhospitable, it was considered that if a local elected official shows some sympathy for the issue and makes some kind of effort, however insufficient it may seem, it is important that advocates not be condescending, angry, or patronizing (at least not publicly) since even a small gesture of support often means that an elected official may be sticking their neck out. “Don’t ever embarrass a public official,” Post Carbon Institute founder, Julian Darley, admonished localization activists at a San Francisco conference on May 20th.
Jason Bradford recalled a comparable experience while attending a conference on sustainability several years ago.During a Q and A session, Bradford asked one of the speakers about the oxymoron of “sustainable growth.”The speaker replied that his question was “ideological” and that if one was going to attempt to talk to public officials or business leaders about sustainability, and be taken seriously, the term “growth” had to be there.
“I can’t see how the physics of growth on a finite planet has anything to do with ideology, but I certainly learned a lot about what constraints are placed on people about what they are supposedly allowed to talk about,” Bradford stated in an email exchange this past May. Instead of trying to work within what he saw as a dangerously outdated framework dictated by politicians and the corporate world, Bradford resolved that he would not compromise the truth about what he sees as an ecological and social emergency.
It was this realization that sparked his movement to Willits with its abundance of natural resources and pockets of nonconformity. The evolution of WELL, which was born out of the simple idea of screening the film The End of Suburbia, has inspired people throughout California and beyond to get their own communities to embark on the path of re-localizing as a step toward a sane and sustainable future.Bradford has no regrets about his conclusion for the need to speak plainly about the problem.
“I went into this with the commitment to tell the truth as best I could. This occasionally risks alienating people but I have never felt that my relationships with people have broken down.I think the success with WELL means that people need not be afraid to tell it like it is.” But he cautions that how you convey the truth is essential to getting people to accept it, “Speak with clarity and compassion, less with anger, and the message will be easier to transmit.”
Natylie Baldwin is a writer and activist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes on issues relating to the Middle East, human rights, peak oil, and sustainability.She can be reached at: [email protected].
Other Articles by Natylie Baldwin
Copyright Peace Journalism 2006
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