Gluten, Free: Dr. Jason Bradford
harvests wheat in front of his Willits home. Bradford belongs to the town's
post-peak oil group.
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
"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
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.
Weller helps facilitate communication when such hidden agendas block progress,
ruffling as few feathers as possible. He's fond of noting that the Chinese ideogram
for "crisis," weiji, is made up of two characters, one signifying
danger and the other opportunity. He finds both elements present in the crisis
presented by peak oil. "This is a trend that plays against the overall
trend of globalization," he notes. "We feel there's been an erosion
of well-integrated communities. We want to reinvent what it means to be a community."
With an abundance of such enlightened individuals in the Willits area, which
has a total population of 15,000, why hasn't the community already prepared
for the coming storm? The answer can be partially seen along the so-called miracle
mile strip of highway south of town with its ubiquitous fast-food restaurants
and strip malls defining the suburban American landscape. The same economic
forces that have shaped the rest of post-WW II America have been hard at work
"Only 5,287 people live in the city proper," Bradford elaborates.
"Almost two-thirds of the population live sprawled out in the suburbs.
We're a rural community with agricultural land, but none of that ag land feeds
us. The average person commutes to work 28 miles per day."
As the core members of WELL discovered, such basic elements of modern suburban
life are merely the tip of an enormous iceberg that shadows not just Willits,
but the entire American way of life. The sheer size of the problem is intimidating,
leaving only one logical solution: Chip the iceberg down to size.
From the first three showings of The End of Suburbia, Bradford attracted roughly
60 volunteers who were willing to turn up at meetings even when there wasn't
a film being shown, even when it was pouring down rain. In many ways, they're
a homogenous lot--mostly white, middle-class baby boomers--but they also represent
a wide diversity of skills and viewpoints.
Bradford and the core members, working as a steering committee they jokingly
refer to as an "ad-hocracy," originally identified 14 key areas of
interest pertaining to peak oil and the community's survival that seemed to
match up well with the interests of the overall membership. Eventually, these
14 areas were consolidated into six working groups: food, energy, shelter, water,
health and wellness, and social organization.
"We need to figure out what we can do now, and what we can do in the future,
when we don't have the resources coming in," says Brian Corzilius, 47,
a core WELL member whose training as an electrical engineer landed him in the
energy group. Working with energy-group members Richard and Phil Jergenson,
as well as Willits City Council member Ron Orenstein and others, Corzilius helped
conduct an "energy inventory" of Willits that provided the first snapshot
of where the town is now--and how far it has to go.
Compiling existing data from companies and government agencies ranging from
PG&E, the California Energy Commission, the Mendocino Air Quality Management
District and the U.S. Department of Transportation, the group was able to determine
that Willits uses more than 1,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of imported energy per
day. Energy sources from outside the Willits area include propane, firewood,
natural gas, electricity and--by far the largest slice of the imported energy
pie--diesel and gasoline used for transportation. It appears that the 28 miles
per day that the average Willits resident commutes costs the community a bundle
in terms of money not spent in the immediate area.
"Annually, we have $30 million that leaves the area; 56 percent of that
is for transportation," clarifies Corzilius. "Bring that money back,
and you've got money to grow new local businesses." In turn, creating new
local businesses reduces the number of commuting miles.
The 1,000 MWh per day figure serves as an important baseline for conservation,
since every megawatt saved, according to the energy group's report, results
in an annual savings of $1 million--money that doesn't have to be spent on developing
new power-generation facilities. The report also estimates that there's enough
unutilized space on the rooftops of city, residential and commercial structures
to easily produce 25 MWh per day with solar panels, further reducing energy
The long-term conservation goal, the report contends, should be a 50 percent
reduction in current usage, which could be facilitated by appointing a local
"energy czar." The short-term goal is much bolder: complete energy
independence by 2010. That's just five years from now.
The preliminary report by WELL's food group, an inventory of the food stocked
by Willits' two major supermarkets and several smaller grocery outlets, reveals
the fairly startling fact that none of the stores uses local vendors in their
food-supply chains. "What this essentially tells us is that we have a few
days supply of food at any one time," says food group member Cindy Logan.
"Safeway is dependent on daily deliveries for some items." Or, as
another Willits resident puts it, "What if there's a meltdown on 101 and
the truck can't get into Safeway?" Or: What if there's no diesel to fuel
the trucks in the first place?
To address topics as complex as localizing food supplies, WELL invites guest
speakers to talk to the group. Some, such as world-renowned bio-intensive gardening
innovator John Jeavons, author of the perennial bestseller How to Grow More
Vegetables, didn't have to travel far: Jeavons lives in Willits. Others, such
as Stephen and Gloria Decater, had to come over the hill from Yolo County, where
they operate the Live Power Community Farm near Covelo.
The Decaters practice community-supported agriculture. Their 40-acre farm provides
food for 160 member families, totaling some 300 people, over a 30-week growing
season. The families pay a subscription that provides operating fees for the
farm and a modest income for those who work it. And when the Decaters christened
their farm "Live Power," they meant it. Five full-time farmhands and
an array of draft horses do all the work on the farm with the exception of hay
baling, which is done by tractor because the farm has been unable to acquire
a horse-driven baler. Apparently, they don't make them anymore.
During their presentation to WELL in April, the Decaters used simple math to
solve Willits' potential future food shortage, at least on paper. Divide the
town's 13,300 immediate residents by the 300 people Live Power Community Farm
can feed, and it's easy to see that all that's required to feed the town is
44 similarly-sized farms. These plots would only take up a modest 1,733 acres
in total--roughly the same area as the 2.8 square miles within Willits' city
limits. Because the Decaters' numbers are based on a partial diet--an unintentional
vegan slate that doesn't factor in dairy or meat--the actual acreage might have
to be doubled or even tripled. Still, it's doable, and in fact, it's the way
things were done not too long ago, before the automobile came along. Since then,
Gloria Decater told the audience, "We have not thought of farms as permanent
places. As the next generation left farming and development encroached, the
farms have been cashed out. . . . With peak oil, we now have a new perspective.
This may not only be sad, but it's also a matter of future survival."
In WELL, caring for the survivors of a coming calamity falls upon the health
and wellness group, which includes members drawn from both the traditional and
alternative medical fields.
"I've been in this community for three decades, and I've always been interested
in doing alternative therapy," says Marilyn Boosinger, whose expertise
includes herbology and acupuncture. She hopes the group can develop an apothecary
for locally grown natural medicines. "We would grow herbs, harvest them,
make them into tinctures. We see natural medicine as something that is sustainable.
The prescription medications and a lot of the supplies used in modern medicines
may not be as available."
That's particularly important to Dr. Kristin Bradford--Jason Bradford's wife--a
medical doctor who understands that many of today's pharmaceutical products
depend upon petroleum for their manufacture. She's eager to learn as much as
possible about alternative therapies.
"It's something that I'm not trained in, so I'm very excited to be collaborating
with people who are, so I can have something to benefit my patients when the
other isn't available," she says.
The health and wellness group got an added boost when Margie Handley, president
of the Frank R. Howard Foundation (established by the son of Charles Howard,
owner of the famed Willits racehorse Seabiscuit), which funds the local hospital
of the same name, began attending WELL meetings. Handley has been the driving
force behind converting the Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital into California's
first green hospital--a goal near completion--and she's sought community input
in part through the members of WELL. The shelter group, for example, has drawn
up architectural plans for a hospital greenhouse that employs straw bale construction
and solar power for energy.
Willits city officials are also becoming increasingly involved with WELL. When
$10,000 was recently freed up in the city budget, the funds were directed toward
bringing in speakers to complement those who have spoken to the community so
far at WELL meetings, such as the dark prince of peak oil, Santa Rosa author
and New College professor Richard Heinberg, and Ann Hancock, coordinator of
the Sonoma County Climate Control Campaign and past coordinator of the Ecological
"We're trying to bring the city into a leadership role in this effort,"
says city planner Andy Falleri. Earlier this year, Falleri attended an E. F.
Schumacher Society conference in Massachusetts, where establishing land trusts
for small local farms like Live Power was discussed. He was surprised to discover
that more than a quarter of the people attending the conference were aware of
WELL, even though the group had only been up and running for six months. "A
number of people had heard about the stuff Jason Bradford was doing with peak
oil," he says. "I thought maybe Seabiscuit would be more widely known,
but [he] wasn't."
Falleri admitted that there's still not a sense of urgency among city officials
and the population at large about peak oil.
"We've got some real nice policies in Willits to reduce energy consumption,
but people haven't really understood what they've meant," he says. "We've
got to get to the next level and get some of these ideas implemented."
Going to the WELL
"I still think we should have called it SWELL," Richard Jergenson
grumbles over organic Mexican food at Burrito Exquisito in downtown Willits.
The S in his proposed acronym stood for "sustainable," but he was
overruled by the ad-hocracy, which felt the term has gained too much of a lefty
connotation. Even though many of the methods employed by the sustainability
movement apply to the coming energy crisis, Bradford continually emphasizes
that the seriousness of peak oil requires reaching out to as wide an audience
It's a hot, stuffy Monday night in July, but at the entrance to the Willits
Community Center, where people are already streaming in for the meeting, Bradford's
message appears to be getting across. Everybody's talking about peak oil in
Willits these days, including members of American Legion Post 164, such as Keith
"The post commander has instructed me to come to the meeting and see what
the Legion can do to help with the issue," Rosen says, adding that his
commander was following orders from the military veteran organization's national
command. "The idea is to use the good name of the Legion to get different
factions together." For Rosen, who describes himself as a "potter,
welder and maker of things" who dropped out of mainstream society to come
to Willits in 1970, there's no question that we must prepare for peak oil. Apparently,
the Legion is in agreement.
"We [the Legion] came to the conclusion that if half the community is
fed and the other half isn't, the half that isn't will feed off the other, and
that's unacceptable," he says.
Bradford opens the meeting, held in the large hall beneath the Community Center's
domed ceiling. About 40 people have turned out for the event, a far cry from
the 200 or so that turn up for speakers such as Heinberg. Still, getting 40
volunteers to show up on a muggy Monday night is no mean feat for any organization.
Bradford catches the group up with the latest news and sets them up for Lanny
Cotler, who's pitching WELL's proposed media-relations campaign to the audience
Perhaps it's the heat, but the pitch doesn't go over well, even though Cotler
volunteers to do all the work. The work--editing megabytes of digital footage,
putting together press kits, is necessary--he urges, because, "we have
a big responsibility for people who are coming behind us." The campaign
will serve as a blueprint of sorts, and a record is required in order to secure
government grants and other funding sources. Yet after Cotler finishes, several
people in the audience express their displeasure, mainly because they crave
action and perceive the media campaign as just more talk.
"It's going to bring more people into town," complains one man. "The
energy of the group is going to be diverted to making a commercial about how
cool we are." Several more people sound off before former BP facilitator
Brian Weller steps in to smooth the situation over. Acknowledging the group's
desire for action, he gently points out that the chance to act may never come
if WELL doesn't eventually secure major funding, which in turn is dependent
upon a public-relations campaign, and thank goodness we've got a Hollywood screenwriter
who's willing to do all the work for us. Everyone appears satisfied, and the
members break off into their assigned groups.
Just two members of the water group, Larry Desmond and Ree Slocum, are in attendance
tonight. They're scheduled to give a presentation at the next WELL meeting in
August, but both find it hard to get spare time to conduct the research into
local water supplies.
"Most of the water resources we have require energy," says Desmond,
noting the seriousness of the matter. "Being without power is one thing;
being without water is another"--meaning, without water, you die.
Perhaps the chance to belong to an organization in which such crucial matters
are at stake is what has made WELL such an easy sell.
"For me, it was the right thing to do," explains Slocum. "All
along, I wanted to be working in a community that was sustainable. Willits is
still livable and functional, but we've all gotten busy. We're small enough
that we could
eventually do something." However, the question of whether that something
will be enough remains. Peak oil experts such as Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler,
author of The Long Emergency, the latest doom-and-gloom tome on the topic, seem
convinced that the time for large-scale meaningful action has come and gone.
Perhaps Willits could become what Heinberg terms a "lifeboat," carrying
a few survivors to some unknown solution in the future. Or perhaps Willits will
become self-sustaining, only to be overrun by starving, rampaging hordes from
the cities. Shouldn't WELL establish a militia to defend against such possibilities?
"The questions of militias came up early on," says Brian Weller.
"What do we do under a Mad Max scenario?" referring to the postapocalyptic
science-fiction movies where rampaging hordes murder, rape and kill in a desperate
battle for the last drops of gasoline. In the end, the steering committee delegates
the issue to the social organization group, which in turn delegates defense
issues, at least for now, to the local police and sheriff's departments.
"Most of [law enforcement's] plans deal with acute problems, like fire
and disease," Bradford says doubtfully. "They haven't thought about
things like long-term food security, for example."
There is, of course, another solution if the hordes come from the city.
"We'll just blow up the bridge in Hopland," Cotler says, only half-jokingly.