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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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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