Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Charles W. Johnson, the retired Vermont State Naturalist and author of “The Nature of Vermont” and other books on natural history.
Huge wind turbines vs. the mountains. Environmentalists vs. environmentalists. An unfamiliar, uncomfortable fight is on.
I have been involved in conservation in Vermont for over 40 years, and this is the first time in my memory that two great environmental issues have collided head-on: growing concern about nonrenewable resources and climate change against growing concern about losing what we’ve worked so hard to save in Vermont’s landscape.
Why is this happening? I think because we have run into a serious ethical issue we have not taken time to consider adequately: How far should our little state’s finite and irreplaceable environment go – indeed, how far can it go – to deal with so huge an issue as worldwide climate change? What are we willing to sacrifice?
This fight is not just about that which can be weighed and solved by science, capacity studies, and permitting processes. It is also about how we relate to the land, physically, emotionally, spiritually. At its heart, it is about something we don’t talk about, especially in a political arena: love of the land.
Land is often treated as a collection of commodities, “natural resources,” for our use. Ownership of land is as a “bundle of rights” (e.g., development rights, rights-of-way, water rights, etc.) that can be bought or sold, singly or all together. Even Act 250 and other land-use laws work on this principle, with criteria to be considered before certain large developments can occur. So now with our ridgelines.
But how do we calculate what mountains mean to us in our long association, over lifetimes, over generations and generations of collective inherited memory? The very symbol of Vermont, the Green Mountains, is on our license plates, in songs, with names of businesses, even with our National Guard. They are part of our identity and self-image. They surround us. We look up to them and they inspire us. Are they just great heaps of “natural resources”?
Love of the land is real, even if it can’t be quantified. It is one of the most basic, universal human feelings, whether for a place we knew as children, our community, or our country. We wage wars over it. People give up their lives for it. Most people grieve deeply over the loss of a beloved place – too many times in my life have I heard, “I don’t want to go back there; I couldn’t stand to see what’s happened to it.”
I have witnessed in Vermont and elsewhere that we lose our wild lands and rural culture not in big chunks, but in little bits, incrementally. Death by a thousand cuts. More than 10 years ago, we were told not to worry, that very few mountains would be suitable for big wind. When we asked how many, where, we were shown maps and studies of generalities, but no one could tell us for sure. Ten years later we still don’t know, but we already have more than a “very few” and more are on the way.
So what to do?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but there are things to do even before we go after answers. We should keep in mind the Vermont we cherish: self-reliant, independent, protective of our special environment, small of size but big of heart. Along with “eating locally, buying locally,” we should try harder to get “energy locally” through conservation and efficiency, solar, wood and co-generation, small hydro, small-scale wind. We should stop and re-evaluate, community by community, based on what we’ve seen and felt so far.
Global climate change won’t go away in the next few years or decades, if it ever does. But our ridgelines certainly might, if we continue as we have. The Green Mountains have been here for more than 350 million years. Surely we owe it to them to slow down, take time to collect ourselves, and think about what they really mean to us.