Is Willits a post-peak oil paradise?
This is the fourth of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one of the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.
In Willits, California it's hardly worth it to tune in to the weather report from May through October because the report is nearly always the same: "It's going to be another great day in northern California!" The mellow California sun ascends into a clear, azure sky over the low mountain ridges that surround the Little Lake Valley. Cool, dry nights turn into warm, dry days. The air is some of the cleanest in the United States.
The people of Willits are a mix of offbeat urban refugees and stalwart long-time residents who share at least one thing in common: They are uniformly friendly. They also share in a remarkable small-town culture that includes a free-standing environmental center; on-going music, art and lecture events; bookstores; several cafés; a few commendable restaurants including one fine dining establishment; and a restless inquisitiveness and knack for experiment in lifestyles and ideas. Willits is now home to a well-organized relocalization movement that seeks to prepare the city for the challenges of climate change and a lower energy future. All of this comes packaged in a town of 5,000 people.
Is it paradise? By some standards it might be considered one by many Americans who live in harsher climates, traffic-snarled suburbs or dying rural areas. But more particularly, is it a post-peak oil paradise?
Willits has become a focal point for the peak oil movement because it is now on the leading edge of relocalization efforts. Its activists are determined, organized and increasingly well-funded. They have nurtured a fledgling movement that now seems self-sustaining. Some readers who are thinking about where they should live in the coming energy decline may be looking at Willits (and perhaps other places that are taking peak oil preparations seriously). What should they consider?
First, they should consider the ecological facts. In the case of Willits, the Little Lake Valley probably already has all the people it could support using the available arable land and water. As Willits moves toward greater self-sufficiency, part of that self-sufficiency will be based on keeping population low as it is now.
Second, while Willits can currently count on more than enough rainfall, it lacks adequate storage since that rainfall comes mainly in the winter and spring. Right now there is a moratorium on new construction because of inadequate water supplies, effectively a ban on new development. Also, climate change makes the reliability of future water supplies a question mark as it does in many parts of the world.
Third, housing values in Willits, as in all of California, are exceedingly high. Most people moving there from outside the state are going to be trading a larger house for a smaller one that costs much more.
Fourth, while much of Willits is walkable, anything one might need to acquire outside of Willits requires at least 30 minutes or more one way in a car.
Fifth, work in Willits is not easy to come by. Several of the people I talked to work two and three jobs just to make a minimal income.
Sixth, Willits is in an active earthquake zone. An earthquake as bad as the one which struck San Francisco in 1906 could occur at any time. It could cut off the area from the outside world by severing the main north-south highway, Highway 101. And, it could bring down electrical lines leaving the area without power for up to two weeks, officials with whom I talked estimated.
Seventh, when people think of Mendocino County where Willits is located, they usually think of wineries, redwoods and the Pacific coast. But, what they really should be thinking of is marijuana which is believed to be the county's biggest business bringing in an estimated $10.6 billion annually, many times the revenue of the winery and timber industries combined.
The sad truth is that Mendocino's economy is addicted to pot, and while few who live there have objections to the use of marijuana, the growing and distribution of it have become the dominant economic fact. Perhaps it will one day be fully legalized; California already allows the growing of medical marijuana. But until then the struggle between local and federal law enforcement officials will continue; local law enforcement is mildly schizophrenic about marijuana because the federal government does not recognize California's medical marijuana statute. In addition, occasional incursions by Mexican crime organizations who commandeer remote national forest lands inside the county in order to grow marijuana add a sinister and sometimes violent aspect to the business.
I could go on; but my point is that wherever you choose to live in the coming decades, you will find drawbacks. No place will be ideal for facing the twin crises of energy depletion and climate change. And, it won't be easy to predict what will happen in any one locale because the effects of climate change are so uncertain.
Perhaps the best advice is to determine first if you live in a place that is clearly hopeless in the face of these twin challenges--Phoenix comes to mind. If you live in such a place, you should probably leave as soon as you are able. But if you live in a place with reasonable prospects, say, the upper Midwest, New England, the Pacific Northwest or someplace suitable elsewhere in the world, possibly the best course would be to begin preparing your community for the shocks ahead. You probably won't be able to create a post-peak oil paradise. But paradise isn't what we'll be aiming for in the years ahead. Creating places that are sustainable and reasonably peaceful will pose all the challenges we need.