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New hippies are fighting to replace oil

The generation of activists who fought for civil rights, against an unpopular war, and started the environmental movement is poised for one last hurrah, one more attempt to cure the ills of American society.

They're older now, and perhaps a little wiser. They're settled into their communities, some of them already retired. And they're scared as hell about the lives facing their children and grandchildren once the oil runs out.

The ponytails are gray now, and PowerPoint presentations and DVDs are taking the place of leaflets, but the basic goals and ideals are the same: a reconnection to the earth, a small-is-beautiful approach, and a belief that you can change society through grassroots action.

This time around it's less about fighting the Establishment than establishing an alternative, an alternative to an oil-based economy many feel is on the verge of collapse. Oil industry experts say gasoline prices will continue to soar as producers have to drill deeper for dwindling reserves in the face of surging worldwide demand. This could mean, in the very near future, the gradual unraveling of our nationwide system of distribution, the collapse of the big box retail sector and all the jobs that depend on it. Not to mention the demise of a suburban lifestyle dependent on cars and oil.

This time around, the naive idealism, the joyful exuberance of that earlier era -- the hippies, the yippies, the be-ins -- have been replaced by something grimmer, a sense that time is running out, both for an aging generation of activists and a society they believe is on a suicidal path.

Back in those earlier days a lot of folks moved to rural communes to get back in touch with the land and live simpler lives. In this new, post-oil movement, the idea of getting back to the land and E. F. Schumacher's notions of smaller, more human-centered societies have merged into something called "relocalization." The aim is to build self-sustaining communities minimally dependent on fossil fuels, where there are community and backyard gardens in abundance. The "eco-city" ideas of Oakland author Richard Register have taken on new life, with his notion that neighborhoods can provide all the amenities of an entire city. And there's a renewed interest in the crafts movement of the '70s in anticipation of the collapse of retail distribution networks. Some post-oil groups are already starting to survey their communities for soapmakers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, glassblowers and others with basic, time-honored skills.

"For the first time, I really feel like I'm creating something, building something for the future," says longtime political activist Annie Weller, 57, who's involved in post-oil planning in the Mendocino County town of Willits, one of the centers of that movement in Northern California. "In the '60s we wanted to tear down the existing political system to build a new one. Now we're bypassing all that and starting with simple efforts at the local level: installing solar panels, growing food, getting people to share vehicles."

"With this new movement, what we're seeing is a maturing of some of the ideas hatched back in the '60s and '70s," says Richard Heinberg, a leading post-oil lecturer and author.

Part of that maturing process, Heinberg notes, involves digging deeper, getting to root causes. Instead of directly opposing another ill-considered war and joining yet another anti-war movement, you tackle the oil dependence that fuels the current one. You go beyond criticizing the obvious excesses of a mass consumer society and lay the groundwork for one that consumes less and works within your region's natural resources.

Easier said than done, of course. But it helps that these '60s folks are no longer scraggly students shaking their collective fists at the Establishment. Many of them are part of the Establishment, at least on the local level -- members of school boards, planning commissions, city councils.

Larry Robinson, 59, is a former '60s-era anti-war and civil rights activist who, as mayor of Sebastopol, called a town meeting on the looming energy crisis last year. Two hundred citizens showed up, with the result that the City Council is drafting an ordinance requiring solar panel installation on all new construction, and has already approved the conversion of some city vehicles to run on biodiesel fuel. Earlier this year, the city council in Willits, at the urging of its own post-oil citizens group, voted to power much of that city's operations with solar energy.

It's not all that surprising that the impetus for this new surge of post-oil activism is coming from the '60s generation. The students who registered black voters in the South and burned their draft cards are now empty nesters and retirees who once again have time in their lives to take on political issues.

Robinson, a retired psychotherapist, calls his generation's post-oil activism part of a "developmental imperative."

"Up until recently, we've been focused on raising kids and making a living," he says. "The next developmental task for us involves giving back to our communities, strengthening them and at the same time providing a sustainable society for future generations."

Robinson is quick to point out that by no means all the post-oil activists in Sebastopol are from his generation, that there is indeed a "refreshingly large" contingent in their 20s and 30s. But these younger folks, he notes, are more likely to be out planting gardens or building "green" houses of straw bale, while the older activists hold their PowerPoint talks and draw up their 10-point programs for the post-oil future.

There is in all this a yearning for something that's been missing from American life since the '60s and '70s. I have an old LP from 1963 featuring Pete Seeger in a live concert at Carnegie Hall. I enjoy listening to it because it captures something powerful, something we seem to have lost in the intervening years. For the concert's finale, Seeger has the audience sing a rousing version of "We Shall Overcome." It is a moving performance: Seeger and his audience singing together in a joyous expression of support for the civil rights struggle then going on in the South.

That feeling of losing one's self in a larger cause is, I think, at the heart and soul of this new post-oil movement. It is, in a sense, the spirit of the '60s emerging in dramatic counterpoint to decades of fragmentation in American society -- as a generation of activists takes on one more cause, attempting to build something in their own communities from the ground up.

Tim Holt is a member of the '60s generation and the author of "Songs Of The Simple Life," a collection of essays. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

Editorial Notes: The SF Chronicle was one of the first newspapers to see the significance of the original hippie era in the 60s, for example in the columns of jazz critic Ralph Gleason. More recently the Chron had great coverage of environmental issues during a 2005 conference of mayors from all over the world marking World Environment Day. -BA

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