Gorelick: Renegotiating the future

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Steven Gorelick, the U.S. program director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture and the co-director of the documentary film “The Economics of Happiness.” He lives in Walden, Vt. This piece was first published in the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus on Dec. 30, 2012.

Twenty years ago, delegates to the first Rio Earth Summit called on the U.S. to curb its gluttonous appetite for resources. The response of then-President George H.W. Bush was uncompromising: “The American way of life,” he said, “is not up for negotiation. Period.” The “way of life” Bush defended had nothing to do with civil liberties, democratic process, or the rule of law; it was about consumerism, and the economy that America has built upon it. To drive home the point, he boarded his personal cabin cruiser for a few aimless laps around Kennebunkport harbor.

In Vermont this winter, unseasonable rain storms have made it easy to see the impact of the way of life Bush defended. Abnormal weather has become the norm, and climate change denial has become, at best, wishful thinking. While something clearly needs to be done, the sad truth is that most Vermont political leaders and environmental groups – in particular those that support industrial wind – remain guided by the thinking of Mr. Bush.

Their argument is simple: since climate change is largely a result of burning fossil fuels, the solution is to replace fossil fuels with “clean energy” from renewables. Thus the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, released last year, sets a goal of obtaining 90 percent of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2050.

Drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption makes sense, but fossil fuel burning isn’t the root cause of our many crises – not just climate change but depleted topsoil and groundwater, nuclear waste, genetic pollution, ocean “dead zones,” the obscene gap between rich and poor, the epidemic of depression, and much more. Focusing single-mindedly on renewables as the solution implies that the American way of life can continue unabated, so long as we change the fuel that drives it.

A brief list would include an economy that demands constant growth, mostly achieved through increased consumption; the political and economic power of huge corporations and banks; trade policies that pull Third World populations into the consumer culture; and the belief that nature has no value beyond the marketable commodities we can extract from it.

If fossil fuels aren’t the root cause of our multiple crises, what is? A brief list would include an economy that demands constant growth, mostly achieved through increased consumption; the political and economic power of huge corporations and banks; trade policies that pull Third World populations into the consumer culture; and the belief that nature has no value beyond the marketable commodities we can extract from it.

These are all related to the structure of our economy, and won’t be changed by switching to cleaner energy sources. By embracing industrial wind, for example, Vermont is replacing corporate-controlled fossil fuels with corporate-controlled renewables. We’re allowing those corporations to exploit ­and profit from our ridgelines, while ignoring the loss of valuable non-monetized benefits that intact mountains provide. In the end, Vermont’s climate change response hasn’t really been about “saving the environment,” no matter how ardently that sentiment is expressed in press releases and annual reports: it’s about maintaining, as long as possible, the unsustainable way of life that created the problem in the first place.

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center provides a good example of this mindset. The center is proud of its “green” reputation, and several years ago installed solar panels to help meet its electricity demand. But confronted with less-than-adequate snow for its cross-country ski trails, it now makes artificial snow using equipment that last winter burned 2,600 gallons of diesel fuel, releasing 58,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Even worse is the Jay Peak resort. Facing the prospect of permanently shortened ski seasons, the resort decided to protect its bottom line by building a 40,000 square-foot heated water park, complete with wave-making equipment and a retractable roof. The resort’s already huge electricity demand jumped by 75 percent, with a similar increase in fossil fuel use for heating. The net effect will be to worsen global warming, but the resort can still call itself “green” because it will use some of the “clean energy” produced by the Lowell wind project.

At the very least, global warming should tell us that economic desire should no longer trump ecological need. However, none of the Vermont environmental groups that support industrial wind have criticized these local responses to climate change. With their blinders firmly in place, they instead wax rhapsodic about the graceful beauty of wind turbines on our mountains, and how our example can inspire the rest of the country.

Most Vermont politicians – notably Gov. Shumlin and the Democratic leadership in the Legislature – have been no better: while they trumpet the state’s responsibility to combat climate change, they fall silent when that duty collides with the economic status quo. Renewables are easy to support because they can be portrayed as a win-win for both the economy and the environment. But kept strictly off-limits are issues related to corporate control, consumerism, economic growth on a finite planet, and even the more superficial question of whether industrial wind is the best renewable option for Vermont.

If Vermonters are truly concerned about climate change, we need to stop pretending that wind turbines on our ridgelines are a meaningful response. If we really want to be an inspiration to the world, let’s look for ways to scale down economic activity while improving quality of life. Let’s tell the world that, in Vermont at least, the American way of life is finally up for negotiation.

CORRECTION: Steve Gorelick originally said that the Craftsbury Outdoors Center burned 260,000 gallons of fuel and released 2,800 tons of carbon dioxide last winter. The Center burned 2,600 gallons of fuel and 58,000 pounds of CO2.

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  • Bruce Post

    Thank you for your essay. Too few people are willing to say these hard truths; fewer still are willing to live them (me included).

  • George Plumb

    Excellent op-ed Steven. It just amazes me that much of the public, and particularly Vermonters, are aware of global warming and know that it is caused by us humans but very few individuals feel a personal moral responsibility to reduce their own carbon emissions. Instead they drive up to Jay Peak to enjoy the water park and ski on artificial snow, fly all over the world in jet planes and think nothing of it thanks to Vermont Public Radio saying it is a good thing to do, maintain second homes in distant places like our Governor does, and in many other ways live lives of carbon greed while millions of people and other species are suffering as a direct result of our behavior.

    Personally I have reduced my own direct carbon emissions to near zero by heating with wood, generating my own solar electricity, driving an electric vehicle, and refusing to fly. If I, of a very moderate income can do it, so can a great majority of other Vermonters.

    Yes, the growth forever culture has much to do with it but change begins with us as individuals. We just need to make the commitment. We can live a good life without all those carbon emissions. Our ancestors did it and we can too.