Our Work

VNRC COMMENTARY: The Great Transition?

April 12, 2009

By Elizabeth Courtney

For the ‘Weekly Planet’ in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald

Last month I read with interest a New York Times commentary by Thomas Friedman where he reflected on the economic crisis: “What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model that we’ve created over the past 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more’.”

Friedman quotes Joe Romm, a climate expert and physicist: “We created a way of raising our standard of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children. We’ve been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks – water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land – and not by generating renewable flows. You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior, but it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme.’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

Friedman suggests that we are not experiencing another “Great Depression” so much as what Paul Gilding, the Australian environmental business expert, refers to as a “Great Disruption.”

I prefer to call it a “Great Transition.” Why? Because transition implies a future, as opposed to the dead end of a depression or a disruption. And the future can be as hopeful as we can imagine it.

We like to think that in Vermont we are immune to what goes on in the rest of the world, but the transition is playing out here, too.  We all have experienced the critical, sometimes excruciating and delicate nature of transitions – whether it’s the birthing process, the turbulent years of puberty, the stress of uprooting a family for a move across the country, or transitioning from airborne to landing in a snowstorm. We know that safe passage through the transition is essential to the success of the mission.

And what is the mission?

The mission for Vermonters must be to build a clean, renewable energy future; a healthy, local, agricultural economy; an economic infrastructure that provides green jobs; a collective consciousness of conservation and efficiency; and a government that invests in its people.

If we know that’s the future we want, then we’ll make the critical decisions during the Great Transition to get there, rather than simply reacting blindly to our scary, changing circumstances.

We certainly won’t build a sustainable energy future by discouraging renewable energy development and extending Vermont Yankee’s life. We also can’t build a local agricultural infrastructure or a green economy if we squander our farmland and forests to development and continue to pollute our lakes, rivers and streams. Equally important, we must learn to simply use less and keep our work force working.

Let’s get behind:

•    Investing significantly more in efficiency – specifically, Vermont’s award-winning Efficiency Vermont – so we can reduce our demand for electrical and thermal energy (the payback is threefold).

•    Building community-based renewable energy sources, such as combined power and heat facilities.

•    Reducing the amount of valuable forest and farmland that is cleared for development and instead concentrate new growth in our town centers.

•    Rethinking how we transport the public and goods in our rural state and providing less energy-intensive alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle.

•    Solving the state deficit by cutting expenses, not just jobs.

•    Celebrating and cultivating leaders – from the grassroots to the highest positions of power – who understand that Vermont’s economy relies on a healthy environment.

With this strategy, we can realize a wealth that we can pass on for others to enjoy. Now that’s a Great Transition!

Photo courtesy of Wayne Fawbush