Vermont is the perfect place to incubate ideas under the rubric of “slow living.” A summit on the topic showed as much last week.
In fact, Vermont’s rural landscape has provided a setting for slow living for generations, going back to the arrival of Helen and Scott Nearing in the 1930s, or maybe going back to the arrival of Ethan Allen and like-minded dissidents in the 1760s.
Now the talk is of sustainable agriculture and energy, as well as slow democracy, in which we learn to engage our neighbors in the kind of meaningful debate that creates community by recognizing differences and commonalities.
The Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro last week drew a lineup of noted figures who have held office or written books or otherwise worked in areas related to the question of how to live in healthful relation to the planet and each other.
One was Jonathan Lash, who was secretary of natural resources for Gov. Madeleine Kunin back in the 1980s. He subsequently went on to a career in which he held important posts in government and out. Now he is president of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
Lash said he had devoted his career to trying to enforce or reform rules concerning the environment, but that now on the issues that matter to him the most, he saw it was necessary first to change the culture.
It is a time when the culture of the United States, if such a thing can be thought of as a single entity, is in a state of ferment. There is a constellation of problems that have given rise to a jumbled mix of interpretations and proposed solutions.
At the root of much of the present cultural unease is a sense that opportunity is shrinking as middle class jobs disappear, leaving more and more people to try to support themselves on the meagerest of earnings. Long-term unemployment has mired millions in poverty. Whole regions have been hollowed out economically — rural towns and suburbs wrecked by the crash, abandoned inner cities.
Meanwhile, wealth is being transferred upwards to the tiny slice of rich Americans who benefit from the structural distortions of the economy. Thus, six heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune now possess wealth equal to the bottom 30 percent of the American population.
These are economic facts that suffuse the culture with a feeling of helplessness, frustration and anger. People have varying reactions, from the radical right to the radical left, but all across the spectrum there is fury at the corruption and predator practices of Wall Street and the complicity of the federal government. Big business, big agriculture, big energy, big government continue to make out like bandits because they behave like bandits.
Enter the slow living movement. More and more people are learning to take the lives of their communities in their own hands. From inner cities to rural valleys, people are learning to grow their own food. They are learning to cooperate to market it. They are learning that it is possible to harness community energy. Rutland will have its own solar energy farms soon. Other communities could follow suit.
Vermont is a small place where community-minded people bring unusual focus to community needs. We will not vanquish poverty, homelessness, crime, illiteracy and other forms of want, but in pledging to take care of ourselves, we vanquish the sense of hopelessness that saps the strength of the culture in other places.
The examples of homegrown community life are legion — from the proliferation of farmers’ markets, to the efforts to battle homelessness, to the lively local arts scene, to iconic institutions such as the Bread and Puppet Theater.
Little is surrendered through slow living, and much is gained. The impoverishment of America that continues apace in other regions is meeting its match in Vermont, not because we have grown wealthy, but because we are learning, gradually, what really matters.
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