A revolution is creeping in among the tomato plants and along the regimented rows of grapevines. Sadly, this revolution—one that would eliminate dependence on corporate megafarms and big oil—has a name only a banker would love. “Economic localization” evokes a picture of obsessive-compulsives armed with pencils and calculators, exhorting each other to stick to the budget. The image contains a grain of truth.
On a wildly snowy day in March, 50 invited guests—foodies, farmers, and managers of food banks and farmers markets—drove on icy roads to an all-day conference in Mendocino County’s Philo. They had gathered to answer a single question: how can we produce enough to feed all the people and livestock in Mendocino County? Sufficiently challenging, but the group added these requirements: the food must be sustainably produced, grown in-county alongside a system of storage and distribution—and the whole operation must be in place within ten years.
That’s the revolution in a nutshell, at least on the food end. Groups all over Northern California are investigating how to localize energy, transportation, housing, and the rest. Humans have done all these things for millennia. But most people didn’t think we’d ever need to do them again, at least not in our own backyards, and it’s fair to say that most still hope that techno fixes will solve our oil addiction.
The Philo crowd didn’t indulge in wishful thinking, other than praying that a decade remains before transportation costs render food prohibitively expensive. According to recent studies, people on Mendocino’s coastline import more than 85 percent of everything they eat, and it’s not much better on the inland 101 corridor.
Participants identified big-picture elements of a local food economy: a cultural shift that values work and resources, including human, animal, and wild; public policy changes to allow access to private lands; developing modes of transportation, trade, and distribution; enacting legislation to protect the water and resources necessary to grow foods and grains; and building structures to grow and store food year-round.
Changing consciousness proved the biggest sticking point. “How’re you going to get 80 percent of the population out working in the fields?” asked one man, for this is the figure estimated for non-machine-based agriculture.
“Hunger,” someone answered.
Others doubted whether people, hungry or not, would get off their butts: “We’ve forgotten how to work,” said one woman.
Casting a Wider Net
The Post-Carbon Institute, on the Left Coast in Eugene, Oregon, keeps a list of groups participating in the localization revolution. A full 84 organizations are listed at www.postcarbon.org/groups, and about a third of those listed—and others too shy to court publicity on Post-Carbon’s web site—came to a conference in Mendocino County, again in wild weather, on a snowy weekend in April. The conference was hosted by WELL—Willits Economic Localization—and it drew a couple hundred people from thirty active sustainable groups. Representatives came from Washington state, Ashland, Oregon, Monterey County, Mt. Shasta, Benicia, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Sebastapol, Nevada City, Sacramento, San Francisco, and others. It was the first time these grassroots groups had come together in a conference setting, and it marked an important shift: while the focus for each group remains local, participants could sense the revolution is gelling as a movement while it also picks up speed, progressing from a baby crawl to a fast, chaotic toddle.
In his keynote address, the Environmental Protection Agency’s David Schaller tried to impart something of a road map, though first he had to endure the moderator’s introductory jibe: “The government will not save us, and many blame the EPA for the mess we’re in.” But Denver-based Schaller was perfect for the occasion: his singular title at the agency is sustainable development and climate change coordinator.
Tall and gangly, Schaller proved optimistic about nature’s ability to teach and to heal. He reminded people that political borders can change and that local communities, not nation states, are the fundamental economic unit. He cautioned the groups not to be too insular or too local: “If we draw boundaries too short or too wrong, we may not have the resources we need.” He advocated staying flexible: “As we work towards sustainability, other forces come in. With climate change, we don’t know how that’s going to play out.”
The activities of sustainable groups can be plotted on a continuum of research/study at one end and action on the other (see pg. 27 for news about Nevada City’s group). WELL, on the study end of the scale, conducted a survey of arable land in the area and came to the stark conclusion that it cannot feed its present population of 4,000. This is grim news considering that Willits includes assets such as John Jeavons’ mini-farm, the seed company Bountiful Gardens, and the Church of the Golden Rule’s experimental grain fields. Just 35 minutes north, busy members of the Laytonville group started a community garden, received a grant to link a low-income CSA to the farmers market, hosted a film series with high school bands as opening acts, put on many workshops and field trips, and adopted a small herd of yaks. Laytonville members agree their group is action all the way: “I could move more toward the middle,” one exhausted member said wistfully.
Whether motivated toward research or action, the sustainable crowd values pragmatism. The Willits group is dealing with a new and gratifying problem: “We are beginning to be able to influence county and city decisions, so we need to have an endorsement process,” says Jason Bradford, one of WELL’s founders. Becoming a player in local politics and the larger community may demand other skills and people from those who first came together months ago. But the necessity to look inward while responding to a hard-charging crisis chafed at everyone in the room.
Grassroots groups determined to relocate the production of necessities to a reachable radius will play a vital role in a future few can imagine. Most of the groups that met in Willits came from the outer perimeter of large urban areas. Some observers predict that we’ll experience a wave of shifting populations: as supply lines dwindle and shrink, people will move closer to urban centers; then, as the ability to produce food lessens, people will fan out to the perimeters. What will await them depends on decisions made in the next few years. Like it or not, and no matter where you live, the revolution is on its way to your neighborhood.