This year, two Vermont-based environmental organizations, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Lake Champlain Committee, are having their 50th anniversary. The modern-day environmental movement began in the ’60s and ’70s, and many other Vermont environmental organizations will be celebrating their 50th or 40th anniversaries in the coming years.
When they celebrate their anniversaries, they will tell of their many accomplishments but often will not tell the full story of Vermont’s present-day environment. As just one example, in celebrating their 50th a representative of the VNRC claimed, “It is commendable that we’ve found a way to grow our economy while maintaining the health of our environment.”
“… Maintaining the health of our environment” — that is not what the scientific environmental trend data show. Depending on what criteria are used, one can claim that some aspects of the environment have been protected, but for the most critical issues in Vermont, ranging from unmitigated sprawl and rural land development to our greenhouse gas emissions, this is certainly not true. In addition to the scientific data, simple observation shows that the Vermont environment has changed for the worse since the population and land-development surge began in the ’60s. And the concept that we can grow forever with finite resources makes no sense. As Richard Heinberg recently said in an interview: “Growth is the problem.”
I was very surprised when I read the VNRC statement and wondered how someone from Vermont’s oldest and largest environmental organization could make such a general and inaccurate claim. I then had the aha! moment. It all depends on the person or organization’s frame of reference.
Is the frame of reference from a person who has lived his or her adult life for 50 years or more in Vermont or is it from a person who has lived here for a shorter period of time? If fewer years, the person can’t possibly appreciate what Vermont was like before our cities were surrounded by sprawl and rural development. For instance, 50 years ago there was only one home and no outbuildings in the short distance between our house and the village. Now there are seven homes and some 20 buildings, with each home emitting some kind of greenhouse gas emissions and most having SUVs and pickups, camper trailers, tractors, and riding lawn mowers also belching carbon dioxide. There are also three large clear-cuts with one on very steep slopes, and unknown tons of sediment have flowed down from some of the long and steep driveways. This is “protecting the environment”? Not in my judgment.
Is the frame of reference a person who has lived and worked in and close to the natural environment, or is it as a city or suburban dweller who lives on a small parcel of land surrounded by other homes who only goes into the woods occasionally for a hike or ski? If it is a city or suburban dweller, the individual can’t possibly appreciate what it is like now to have quieter woods and no longer experience the joy of hearing a woodcock before its rapid descent, or a ruffed grouse as it beats on a hollow log. Nor can the person appreciate what it was like to be able to walk and hunt on hundreds of acres of the neighbor’s land where there are now homes and camps and much of the land is parcelized and posted.
Is the frame of reference a volunteer who has researched and studied the environment for decades, realizes that our ecosystems are in a crisis situation and speaks and writes the truth no matter the personal consequences, or is it as a paid professional who is very careful about what he or she says because he or she wouldn’t want to offend any donors? The number one goal of an environmental organization with a large budget is to keep the income flowing in, and the paid professional has a vested interest in not telling the full story.
Is the frame of reference a person who looks at the situation with whole-systems thinking that deals with the causes of the problems, which is unsustainable population and consumption growth, or is it as a person who deals only with the symptoms of the problem such as water pollution? If it is a piecemeal ecologist then it is questionable if the person can truly see the forest through the trees.
Is the frame of reference looking from a distance or is it from up close? If it is from a distance then, yes, one can say that Vermont’s mountains still look green and beautiful. But if one drives closely around those mountains, one can see that on some sides there are small cities with hundreds of housing units and hotels built on steep hillsides and hundreds of acres of land cleared of trees to make room for amenities such as parking lots, golf courses and now even a water park. Similar damage is also true of our rivers, lakes, ponds, and ridgelines.
Is the frame of reference for the words “protecting the environment” just a general term, or is it a reference to a specific piece of land? As a general term it doesn’t mean much. If it refers to a specific piece of land, then it is hard to say we are protecting the environment. To me every square foot of land should be the reference because just a few square feet can determine the existence of vernal pools that are essential to salamanders or steep banks that are critical to cliff swallows.
As Vermont professional environmentalists write and speak about their accomplishments in the coming years, I hope they will speak the truth and not just praise their own organization. Not speaking the truth does not truly advance the cause of protecting the environment, although it may promote the organization. Likewise, we can’t just assume that because a person is a representative of an environmental organization they are accurate in their statements. Readers need to ask, “Gee, is that really true, is it telling the full story, and what is the writer’s point of reference?”
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