Past the Peak
How the small town of Willits plans to beat the coming energy crisis
By R. V. Scheide
A few miles north of Ukiah, Highway 101 shoots upward into Northern California's coastal mountain range, climbing and weaving up the Ridgewood Grade, leaving the vineyards of Mendocino County behind on the valley floor. The four-lane section of superslab peaks at Ridgewood Summit, the highest point on a road that stretches from Mexico to Canada. It then gently slides down into Little Lake Valley, where, at the first stop light on the highway north of the Golden Gate Bridge, it reaches the city center of Willits.
An enormous iron arch spans main street downtown; it once welcomed visitors to "the biggest little city in the world," Reno, Nev. It has since been repainted the green and red colors of Christmas and beckons visitors back to a simpler time.
Willits is a timber town. Weathered men in flannel shirts rumble by in four-wheel-drive pickups and logging trucks. The town boasts the longest continually operating rodeo in the United States. One of the local museums proudly displays steam-powered logging equipment. The Ridgewood Summit serves as a cultural as well as a geographic divide. This is where rural truly begins in Northern California.
But not all is as it seems in this rustic little town. Since at least the 1970s, the promise of a simpler life has lured a large number of Bay Area hippies, alternative types and other societal dropouts to the woods of Mendocino and Humboldt counties in what came to be known as the "back to the land" movement. These so-called ecotopians, many of whom are still around today, sought to escape what they saw as the pollution, corruption and dehumanization of modern urban life. Here in Willits, they battened down the hatches and waited for the end of the world.
It took a little while, but it appears that the end of the world has finally caught up to them.
A boyish 37-year-old with a Ph.D. in biology, Dr. Jason Bradford only relocated to Willits from Davis with his wife, Kristin, a medical doctor, and their two children last August. Initially interested in energy issues while studying climate change in the Andes several years ago, Bradford didn't really know what he was getting into when he decided to sponsor several screenings of The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream just two months after arriving in town. Hosting a film that proclaims human civilization is going to run out of oil and is therefore doomed doesn't usually guarantee a visit from the welcome wagon. But then again, Willits isn't most towns. Bradford's initial invitation to view the film has blossomed into a popular movement that aims to, in the words of one member, "reinvent the town."
"Thirty people showed up the first time," he says. A number of people stayed to chat after the movie, and sensing local interest in the topic, he hosted another showing. Sixty people turned up that time. Ninety came to a third presentation. Bradford, who'd never really led anything larger than a small research team, could feel the momentum building. "Oh, shit!" he thought. "What do I do now?"
As it turned out, Bradford didn't have to do too much to keep the ball rolling, other than volunteering all of his spare time. That's because there's a current running through Willits that harmonizes exactly with what needs to be done to prepare for what petroleum experts call "peak oil." That current is supplied in part by the very same ecotopians who flocked to the region in the '70s. Under Bradford's leadership, they've teamed up with concerned professionals, local government officials and ordinary citizens to form the Willits Economics Localization (WELL) project. It appears to be one of the first civic groups in the United States dedicated to preparing for the coming energy crisis. But if other communities are to have any hope of retaining some semblance to the lifestyles they've grown accustomed to during the age of cheap oil, it definitely won't be the last.
Put simply, peak oil theory states that we've already burned through half the oil that ever existed. Competition for what remains will turn increasingly vicious as the supply dwindles, as we are already witnessing with higher prices at the gas pump and the increasing number of casualties in the Middle East, where the world's largest remaining oil reserves are located. At the current rate of consumption, some experts estimate that the remaining supply will be exhausted by 2042. When that happens, the world as we know it will certainly change and perhaps perish. Many experts are convinced that if we don't start conserving now, the end of oil may come even sooner.
That's where the back-to-the-landers come in. They may have dropped out, but they still needed to turn on. Problem was, PG&E didn't go out to the woods, and portable gas generators weren't quite as light and powerful in the '70s as they are today. So they turned to such alternative energy sources as wind and solar power. That legacy can be found in Willits today in such successful renewable energy businesses as the Applied Power Corporation and nonprofit research firms like the Renewable Energy Development Institute (REDI), which counts the city of Sacramento among its clients.
On a sizzling July afternoon, Bradford and the core members of WELL met at the REDI Haus--a 1950s home in downtown Willits refurbished with natural-fiber rugs and hemp window shades, and powered entirely by photovoltaic cells--where they prepared for that evening's community meeting. Most of WELL's core members are older than Bradford and have lived in Willits much longer. Brothers Richard and Phil Jergenson, inventors who've dreamed up products that include a life-sized erector set for adults, moved here in 1978. Phil is president of REDI; Richard has gained local fame with inventions such as the Sol Train, a solar-powered rail vehicle.
"We were fortunate to grow up when this was the book to have on your coffee table," says Richard, 54, slapping a dog-eared copy of the Whole Earth Catalog. He serves as one of the group's archivists, and his collection of Willits memorabilia includes a copy of the second issue of the locally published Mendocino Grapevine, featuring original tree-hugger cover art by R. Crumb, as well as fliers from the first Solar Expo and Rally in 1978, an event that eventually morphed into the Solar Living Center and Real Goods, the popular environmentally correct merchandise store in Hopland. He refers to WELL as "the usual gang of disgruntled individuals trying to change the world."
Lanny Cotler, 64, who describes himself as an "entrepreneur, revolutionary and successful Hollywood scriptwriter," fits right in with the gang and serves as its video archivist. You may have seen some of Cotler's work: The Earthling (1980), Backtrack (1990) and Heartwood (1998), the latter starring the late Jason Robards and set in a small town strangely similar to Willits. Ten years ago, Cotler began shopping around an idea for a sitcom, Off the Grid, based on "the kookiness of a town as it goes off the grid." He's still shopping it around today, but with the advent of peak oil, Cotler feels that "it would be more of a reality-based show now." At this evening's meeting, he's giving a presentation on the necessity for media outreach.
Thin, hawk-faced Brian Weller, 59, is the group's self-described "resident alien," a British native who's served as an organizational consultant for such major corporations as British Petroleum. Weller is extremely proficient at managing small- and large-group dynamics, a skill that has proven invaluable during WELL's first months of existence. When it comes to a topic as large and frightening as peak oil, he explains, "there are different scales of what people are able to think about. I'm helping WELL understand the process as an emerging social organization. This process will be achieved through people, and people have different perceptual filters and different agendas, both open and hidden."
Put another way, Weller means that the stakes are incredibly high. The consensus among peak oil experts is that the reduction in oil will translate into an enormous fall in global population, perhaps as much as an 80 percent decrease. (Keep in mind that cheap petroleum permeates the global economy, from transportation to manufacturing to agriculture to medicine.) Just prior to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, President George H. W. Bush famously said, "The American way of life is not negotiable." Peak oil says everyone must give up something, a fact that can be difficult for individuals and groups to accept.