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Cobb Area Council Committee meeting
Generally, the basic solutions to human needs do not (or should not) require resort to any of the resources of  an abstract State--but they should be managed locally, in one's own community, and in natural cooperation with other communities.  (In other words, first establish intimate, cooperative community and the planned solutions to fundamental needs--and, on that basis, see what kind of agreements are useful in cooperation with other communities and with large-scale cooperative agencies.) 
                                        -- the World-Friend Adi Da, Not-Two Is Peace 
The "People Part"  - Part 1
By New Year’s day 2016, the disaster-response "honeymoon period" was over. After the Valley Fire swept through our community earlier in September (the third most destructive wildfire in California to date), there had been a truly inspiring and impressive surge of immediate repair activity, particularly heartfelt in a county that has long ranked among the poorest in the state. Now we were settling into the long-game of recovery. County leadership was still holding regular task force meetings in public, and FEMA leadership was in the process of handing the long-term recovery effort over to a local "Long-Term Recovery Group" (LTRG).  Establishing the LRTG is part of FEMA's post-disaster process, but they are required to leave the group to organize itself as they wish.  

It was clear to us and others that the new LTRG was struggling to form and be effective. Long-standing turf issues among the various agencies and friction between strong individuals was creating a forceful counter-productive current. The situation combined with the equally long-standing absence of a county emergency plan or even the semblance of a disaster council at any local level, and made organizing the LRTG very challenging. The closest active VOAD ("Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster") affiliates were in Southern California, as those in Northern California were relatively inactive.  Consultation with the FEMA National and Regional Coordinators led nowhere as each worked as quickly as possible to get the situation off their hands and turn everything over to the FEMA Volunteer Agency Liaison (VAL) below them. No one was in charge, and no effective cooperative process was emerging. While individual nonprofit representatives spouted the ideals of democratic organization and transparency, they didn't seem to know how to talk to one another or hold one another accountable. The recovery chaos could not be blamed simply on lack of resources and, as disaster survivors ourselves relying on our savings, we couldn't afford the resources to sort things out at that level. 

Meanwhile .  .  . Eliot and I had established strong working relationships with leadership at Mountain Of Attention Retreat Sanctuary, located at the northern end of the fire area. They had served as an important staging area for CalFire and other first responders, and though 80% of that land had burned in the fire, the core temple complex was saved. This allowed us to bring together the local devotee population that lives near and serves the Mountain Of Attention (around 300 people), especially those most directly affected by the fire (140 people left homeless). By the end of 2015, we had held three town meetings, plus another dozen meetings with property owners and small groups addressing how we might rebuild as a community while also attending to group and individual emergency cases.

Having established our "intimate organization" (see quote above) and scoped out the larger county landscape (the LTRG and the Valley Fire Task Force meetings), and mindful of our training in Asset-Based Community Development,

"Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions, asset-based community development draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities”

we knew we needed to know more about the effective groups and individuals in the area and what their gifts and strengths were.

The village of Cobb was right at the fire's epicenter and is the nearest census designated place (CDP) or population center to the Mountain Of Attention. We began meeting with Friends of Cobb Mountain (FOCM) and its disaster-response offshoot, the Cobb Resilience Action Group (CRAG).  FOCM is  a local grass-roots organization active since the 1970's in preserving and protecting the natural environment of the area. PG&E had tangled with FOCM over illegal dumping of waste back then, and now, in a disaster of the Valley Fire's magnitude, hazard mitigation and the effects on the watershed of the fire of and associated recovery work were bound to be huge concerns--at least we certainly hoped so.  

Immediately following the fire, CRAG began hosting an impressive array of visiting and local experts to advise and guide local recovery efforts.

Turns out that these guys weren't fooling around over concerns about jurisdiction and territory.  Jessica Pyska, an FOCM board member presiding over the CRAG meetings, introduced speaker after speaker to the group. Each had been actively monitoring and otherwise also actively participating in the recovery efforts and were pleased to answer questions about hazardous waste and other abatement problems at the nearby Hoberg's Resort, water testing of streams in the area, the health of the trees and extent of damage in the surrounding Boggs Mountain State Demonstration Forest, and so on.  Mike Dunlap, a long-time activist and a Clearlake resident, served as Secretary for the Cobb Mountain Lions Club, which acted as the local community center and was providing a home for the distribution of relief goods, including food and water.  More often than not, another local activist and community organizer, Jessyca Lytle, was also present, skillfully taking minutes while also giving detailed and extensive updates on the same topics as well as on the water districts and the recovery work and assistance being undertaken by CalPine, a local power generation company which is the largest generator of electricity from geothermal resources in the United States. We began developing our friendship with Mike and the "two Jessicas" and they have become key allies and friends (the two women became original board members of the new Cobb Area Council).

As New Year's passed, the very worst signs of the fire's brutality were soothed as the first green shoots of spring began to restore our moods. One of the most interesting speakers featured by CRAG was James Ehrlich, a technology entrepreneur and President of ReGen Villages, a business offshoot of Stanford University.  On the subject of how to rebuild after the fire, he got everyone's attention (especially given Eliot's 25 years experience as a sustainable development policy wonk) when he announced that "sustainable development" was no longer possible nor desirable. 

 Pointing to alarming, if familiar, examples, such as the decimation of 90% of large ocean fish due to industrial fishing practices, Ehrlich went on to declare that human disregard for its own environment has surpassed the point of sustainability in too many regions of the world and that humans must now actively work on regenerating the environment. Hence the concept of "Regenerative Villages" is to engineer and facilitate the development of off-grid, integrated and resilient neighborhoods by integrating already existing technologies into community design and providing clean energy, water, and food[i] to the inhabitants. This was clearly a state of the art vision for a high-tech village system. As Ehrlich described the details of his model, (self-contained, digital-sensor-integrated, resource cycles such as household waste==>compost ==>soldier flies==>fish food==>fish waste/plant fertilizer==>human food==>household waste) my attention shifted simultaneously on several fronts and in instant everything came together in one question that I blurted aloud, "What about the people part?"

Especially here in tech-utopian California, cybernetic solutions that integrate power-positive homes, food production, renewable energy, water management and waste-to-resource systems are extremely attractive. Add a sophisticated marketing strategy, and it was not too surprising that Ehrlich had already attracted attention outside the United States and from the United Nations--and he was looking for projects.

So yes, technology in the service of humanity was a principle with which I agreed. I realized, especially given our hard earned experience on the ground with the cranky, labor intensive work required to keep our fellow humans in synch with each other, that I was also listening for anything in his presentation about people's interaction with the environment that might point to a similar revolutionary approach in how people would live and interact with one another. Developing a greater sense of neighborliness and community would be equally critical to re-orienting our relationship with the natural world. Upon hearing that Ehrlich's "ReGen Villages" corporation would retain management of the neighborhood facilities in order to keep them running, it seemed to me they were further bypassing any need for residents to reach out beyond their own houses.

Would this vision and its implementation affect the social order and help foster positive self-governance and a sense of community that comes from people's direct relationships with their immediate neighbors and their neighboring communities? What responsibilities and concerns would the residents have for each other in positive interdependence? In other words, had any thought been given to the role of humans and their relationships in this highly engineered ecosystem?   

Magdalena Valderrama

(End Part 1)

In Part 2 we will explore integrating sophisticated "Social Capital Development Systems" (aka folks learning to get along with each other and our environment) with the high-tech materials management systems approach of ReGen Village.



 


 


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