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Willits meets the S-curve

This is 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.

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