This commentary is by Dan Jones. Dan, a Montpelier resident is a Managing Partner of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.
My friend Ed is in his 70s and he’s rebuilding his house near Spruce Mountain. To make his life easier in old age, he is laying a new slab and will live on one level. An engineer, Ed claims he can live off the grid using solar panels to charge his impending electric vehicle.
While proclaiming the best of efficiency intentions, Ed admits that his new situation is “not massively reducing his carbon consumption. The new structure is built with a lot of local materials, but the foam, concrete, and roofing have very large carbon and resource footprints. It will surely save some fuel over the next few years, and will be much nicer to live in”, but in the last analysis, he admits that “the planet can probably not afford me.”
Ed is demonstrating the dueling perceptions that are shared by many of our “green” neighbors spread across the Vermont hillsides. While loving his life upon the land, he beginning to recognize that his lifestyle exerts a cost upon the earth that will not be sustainable. Until recently, few of us were able to recognize these costs, but now many of us are starting to soberly include them in our personal and collective future planning. We recognize these costs will fall heavily on our children. The emerging debt will be paid in climate disruptions and financial dislocations that, at the moment, are not discussed in polite company. Truth be told, however, these disruptions are about to upset the entire economic system underlying the suburban and rural sprawl which defines a middle class lifestyle.
To explain how this disruption is coming about, I fear I am going to have to take a short dive into economic history. Basically, our entire system of profligate energy use, and our belief in the need for constant economic growth, developed hand in hand. For most of human history, our only energy to do work involved human and animal muscle power (some of it was supplemented by wind in the sails and watermills, but not a lot). Then, a bit over the 200 years ago, we began to create a technological infrastructure powered by steam fires using cheap coal and oil. Rapidly the factories of the Industrial Revolution began to produce trains then autos, home furnaces and soon a cornucopia of consumer products running on cheap energy. Such exploding new wealth generated a new science — economics — based on an assumption of an endless supply of future productive earnings driven by eternal access to cheap fuel. This, in turn, fed public faith in the promise of increasing collective wealth provided by constant economic “growth.”
In this new world of constant growth we could all participate in the feast of ever increasing consumption purchased with ever increasing debt. We believed that debt was guaranteed to be paid back through ever increasing oil-fueled productivity. As people became more prosperous in the years following World War II, this debt driven consumer economy allowed them to move out of the industrial cities onto the beautiful countryside. Suburban and rural sprawl soon defined our middle-class lives.
By the mid 70s this “rural sprawl” had transformed once rural Vermont farm towns such as Calais, East Montpelier and Plainfield into suburban bedroom communities. Folks from Montpelier and Barre, along with immigrating flat-landers, spread across the hillsides in order to live “close to the land”. The idyllic setting of their homes compensated for the hassles of driving long distances and finding parking in the small cities..
But about 15 years ago, social and environmental critics like Bill McKibben noted that there really was a huge, long term, cost to this prosperity. They predicted that the world would soon suffer the pervasive costs of climate change and resource depletion (what they called “peak oil”). The economic shocks following 9/11, the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, and catastrophic hurricanes left us feeling kind of rocky. Human beings tend to live in denial that we’re approaching an economic and climatic tipping point. Even in the face of the evidence, we usually default to a belief set that assumes tomorrow will look pretty much like yesterday.
Naomi Klein’s recent book: This Changes Everything starkly calls out our consumerist denial over the climate catastrophe. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is calling out the takeover of our government by the oligarchs. Their arguments are connected: the “economic growth” demanded by our “free market” debt economy requires constant increased use of fossil fuels. More fossil fuel use means more global warming. More money spent on producing energy means less money to pay back our debts. It’s a vicious cycle. The longer we practice our business-as- usual approach to the future, the harder it’s going to be to escape this cycle as conditions worsen.
The future isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Vermont is privileged to be small enough, and its people educated enough, to make rational choices more quickly than bigger places with deeply entrenched infrastructure and economic ties. Now is the time to imagine how we can shelter ourselves from the overhang or coming energy and economic challenges.
I believe we can build a new Vermont economy based on shared resources of transportation and energy that will ultimately save the $2 billion we now currently send out of state for oil products. I believe we can fashion a more co-operative economy that could keep our wealth working here in our state, rather than disappearing down the Wall Street sewer. We can do a lot with our local resources — but we first need to re-imagine our rural-sprawl lifestyle, and focus building a more resilient world that will feed and nurture our children, and theirs.