Editor’s note: This commentary is by David F. Kelley, who is an attorney and a member of the board of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition. He is the co-founder of Project Harmony (now PH International) and a former member of the Hazen Union School Board. The views expressed are his own.
In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy reminded us that our future depended more on our citizenship than his leadership. He challenged us each to ask what we could do for our country.
I got a crash course in the wisdom of JFK’s words by living in a country that placed little value on personal responsibility and that had almost no appreciation for how important our microscopic, individual actions and initiatives were to our collective well-being. That country, the Soviet Union, is still reeling from the consequences of its collapse.
Even in the United States, if we are going to address the problems of climate change, we would do well to cultivate a renewed appreciation for the importance of small measures and personal responsibility. Today we are doing just the opposite and our response to that crisis is full of ironies. For one thing, we have a Vermont Legislature that won’t take responsibility for any of the tough decisions (that, God forbid, might have dire consequences at the ballot box). Instead they have passed the buck to a new council created by the Global Warming Solutions Act.
There is a certain amount of insanity in trying to solve the problems of greenhouse gases and climate change with essentially the same technological and industrial means that have caused those problems in the first place. The voices at the table of this new council will likely be the voices of big utilities, industrial developers, hedge funds and investors that can afford to hire an army of number crunchers, statisticians, and experts whose opinions go to the highest bidder. There is no recourse to the voters, only to lawsuits and lawyers. They, and the lawyers now empowered to sue them, will all propose fighting climate change with essentially the same means we have used to create global warming in the first place: more industrial technology, ripping up our ridgelines for 500 foot wind turbines, ripping up our forests for new transmission lines, miles of concrete and miles of new impermeable surface, and, worst of all exploiting powerless regions like Inner Mongolia for “rare earth” minerals.
There will be no lobbyists or experts for changing lifestyles, personal responsibility, or individual imaginations. Hopefully Energize Vermont will have a place at the table. They have laid out an alternative blueprint for Vermont and for reducing greenhouse gases that deserves attention.
Among other things they recommend:
— We need to protect, not destroy, our intact forests, especially on our ridgelines. Vermont’s forests absorb an amount of carbon roughly equal to Vermont’s emissions of greenhouse gases. They also provide increasingly precious wildlife habitat.
— Instead of big, new all powerful, unelected councils, we need to empower local planning commissions, grassroots decision-making, and community based policies and problem-solving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve greater energy efficiency at the grassroots level.
— We should redirct subsidies and tax credits that feed industrial developments and their well-heeled investors and focus that money on home weatherization, greater energy efficiency for farms and businesses, and renewable energy at a local, residential and agricultural scale.
— New energy projects should be community based and designed collaboratively with neighboring communities and they should minimize the expansion of transmission lines.
In 1992, the playwright and president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, told the audience at the World Economic Forum, “Modern man, proud of having used impersonal reason to release a giant genie from its bottle, is now impersonally distressed to find he can’t drive it back into the bottle again. We cannot do it because we cannot step beyond our own shadow. We are trying to deal with what we have unleashed by employing the same means we used to unleash it in the first place.” That path leads to dystopia.
This year, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, symptomatic of a new and unhealthy ethos, made a lot of mileage mocking John Kennedy’s challenge by proclaiming: “It is time to start asking, ‘What can America do for you?’” If we are going to find genuine solutions to climate change, the national debt, racism and a wealth of other problems now confronting Vermont and the United States, that isn’t the answer. We would be much better off unleashing a renewed sense of personal responsibility. That would be the most powerful and important form of renewable energy we could find.