Sans petrol

Grassroots efforts quietly lay the groundwork for a post-oil world

  • The Grateful Gleaners of Willits pick boxfuls of wild plums to donate to local charities. From left to right: Thayer Craig, Marilynn Boosinger, Sara O’Brien, Jackie Elek, Jenny Burnstad and Candice Clayton


Last fall, Jason Bradford of Willits, Calif., slaughtered a lamb. It’s the first time the mild-mannered research scientist had ever bloodied his hands to put food on the table, but Bradford suspects he may be doing it regularly in the future. He believes that in the next few years gas prices will skyrocket, long-distance shipping will become less viable, and people will have to rely more on local food sources.

Bradford, who has a Ph.D. in biology, had done plenty of dissections before, but never with a hacksaw. After the lamb’s throat was cut, blood from its still-beating heart spurted 20 feet into the air.

“It was pretty gory, and I felt a little guilty about the poor lamb,” Bradford said later. “But it was a good lesson in how the world really works. One of the basic principles of biology is that for some to live, others have to die.”

Bradford, 37, is a full-time organizer for Willits Economic Localization (WELL), a post-oil planning group in this community of 14,000 nestled in the Little Lake Valley, 40 miles from the ocean. Similar groups are springing up across the Pacific Northwest. They’ve taken on the daunting task of trying to persuade people in an affluent society that they’ll soon have to make do with less and depend more on what can be produced in their own communities. It’s a message that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, dismissed as impractical — the ranting of doomsday crazies.

But it’s a message that’s been reinforced by other voices that are harder to ignore: “Without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political cost (of rising fuel costs) will be unprecedented,” the U.S. Department Of Energy warned in a report issued in 2005. “Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.”

“Oil peaking” refers to predictions by industry experts that world oil production is about to peak. U.S. production has already done so, back in 1971. As production declines, producers must drill deeper, extracting harder-to-refine oil to meet surging worldwide demand. Gas prices are about to go into a permanent upward spiral, these experts warn. Some say the spiral has already begun, others give us 20 years or more.

For more than two years now, activists like Bradford have been working at the grassroots level to lay the groundwork for a post-oil future. They’ve established community gardens and pushed grocery stores to use “locally grown” labels. “Locavores,” they call themselves, people committed to getting as much of their food as possible from local sources. Some have gone so far as to give up chocolate

To help spread the word, the folks behind this fledgling movement are forging links with some unlikely allies. Willits is home to an interesting mix of aging hippie back-to-the-landers and self-proclaimed rednecks, many of them descendants of refugees from the post-Civil War South. There’s been a good deal of mingling and marrying between the two groups, resulting in what the locals call “hipnecks” or “rippies.” The post-oilers have continued this trend by working closely with the local farming community, holding events and joint fund-raisers at the Little Lake Grange Hall. At a recent Harvest Festival there, members of the local Mormon Church showed up to demonstrate techniques for storing and preserving food. The chamber of commerce has climbed on board, passing out its own “I Shop Local” stickers.

“Our message really crosses over political boundaries,” comments Freddie Long, one of WELL’s outreach volunteers. “Keeping money in the community, supporting local businesses, that’s something that has universal appeal in a small town.” In presenting that message, Long keeps her big-box rants to a minimum, and carefully avoids progressive buzzwords like “anti-corporate.”

Some local governments are jumping on the peak-oil bandwagon. Last October, Oakland, Calif., became the first U.S. city to formally declare its intention to become “oil independent.” It’s not exactly clear what that means — a citizens’ task force will figure out the details — but Oakland is part of an international movement: A number of towns in Great Britain, as well as the country of Sweden, have made similar declarations.

Other municipalities are taking more tangible steps. Willits plans to run its water treatment plant with solar power. The city council in Sebastopol, a small town just north of San Francisco, has authorized the conversion of city vehicles to biodiesel. Beginning later this year, Portland will require all the city’s gas stations to include some ethanol or biodiesel with the gas they sell.

Portland has just come out with its own citizens’ task force report, calling for the city to reduce its oil consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years. It’s a laudable goal, but even believers acknowledge it may be hard to achieve, given the general lack of awareness that a problem even exists. Randy White, a member of Portland’s task force, admits with chagrin that even his wife doesn’t take his concerns about “peak oil” seriously.

In a nation that uses more than 20 million barrels of petroleum each day, post-oil activists have their work cut out. Jason Bradford talks with frustration about the “disconnected” behavior of his county government: Even as it joined an international organization that aims to combat global warming, it is planning two new major highway projects.

But Bradford and his cohorts, undaunted, have just launched a major new outreach effort that will include speaking before church groups, the Rotary, just about any group that will have them.

“We’re sowing our seeds wherever we can,” says Brian Weller, another of WELL’s volunteers. “We realize that what we have to say challenges a lot of the values of contemporary American society. We’re telling people that things in a post-oil world are still going to get better, but in a much different way, through people in our community working closely together, doing something very unusual in this modern era: consciously creating, at the grassroots level, the kind of future we want.”


Tim Holt is an environmental writer who lives in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California.

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