Remember when we thought that changing our light bulbs to compact fluorescents and, maybe if we could afford to be adventurous, buying a Prius would be our contribution to stopping global warming? That was yesterday. Today, things have escalated significantly: Wildfires are chewing up land; polar ice is melting at an astonishing rate; and millions are displaced by severe storms around the world.
Facing a frightening prospect of climate and economic emergencies, most of us feel paralyzed. We think that anything we try won’t make a difference. And no wonder. Much of the national press has spent years convincing us that we are powerless. Their financial and petrochemical corporate advertisers give credence to climate change deniers, who vocally insist there isn’t a problem. I have conspiracy-minded friends around here who are convinced that global warming is nothing more than a nefarious plot designed to create a one-world government. Arguing is no use because we are so far apart in our dueling belief systems.
It’s time to stop being in denial and start talking seriously about the real deep and dislocating work needed to address what is clearly the worst crisis to threaten our collective future. This means imagining a very different “American way of life” than the automobile-dominated suburban consumer culture we live in now.
I know the politicians declaim that this “American way of life is non-negotiable.” Sure, we all would like some easy reforms and revolutionary “technological fixes” that will then allow us to go on consuming, traveling and living as before. In fact all of the projections of our energy future are based on continuing our current demands. But that pattern of consumption isn’t a smart response to our climate and economically challenged future. We must either make some hard choices about our patterns of investment, production and consumption soon, in order to build a new, more desirable future, or we must accept that much less desirable choices will be forced upon us by climate and economic events.
When the Times Argus editorial of Aug. 21 suggested that global warming will be a much more destructive fact of our future than we realize, and that we can expect masses of climate refugees from the Southwest, I know there is a broader recognition that our world is rapidly changing. An unstated message in that editorial was that we will certainly all soon pay a lot more for electricity in order to ensure that our local generation capacity grows sufficiently to meet our needs. Not only in Vermont, but in the rest of the country, our investment in a sustainable energy future is going to cost much more. But solar and wind generation are only a couple of things we can do to help prevent our climate future from worsening. Next, we need to seriously ask ourselves what else we must do. We have to radically change our personal behaviors and assumptions. After suggesting such changes in recent columns, concerned friends, many of whom have deep expertise with energy and conservation issues, have sent me a bunch of their ideas on what we need to do. In fact, there are so many that I have a virtually endless supply of subjects to explore in the future. Here is a flavor of what good folks in our neighborhood think is needed:
Richard Czaplinsky, an activist from over in Warren, says: “Education! Even though knowing about what is going on can be depressing we must learn as much as we can. Otherwise we will not be able to respond effectively.”
Johanna Miller, of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, notes: “We have to get serious, and that means big investments in the kind of clean energy infrastructure, systems and solutions that are required; far more renewable generation, a diversified and robust transportation network with more buses, carpool, bike and pedestrian options; deeper and many more conservation and efficiency improvements.”
Erik Esselstyn, of the Donella Meadows Institute, writes: “Anything to underscore the immense impact of consistent buying local.”
George Plumb, of Washington, suggests: “Become an outspoken advocate for ecologically responsible childbearing, advancing the argument that ‘one or none’ represent the necessary reproductive response to an overpopulated world where humans have surpassed the planet’s ecological limits.”
Andrea Stander, of Rural Vermont, suggests: “One of the easiest (and tastiest) ways to shrink our personal carbon footprint is to eat a lot more food that is grown or produced locally.”
Chloe Budnick, who runs the Onion River Exchange, offers this: “Timebanks certainly are a low impact way to get your needs met. A community that embraces timebanking will find themselves better prepared to deal with the effects of climate change.”
And Steven Pappas, the editor of this newspaper, has also come out strongly for others to follow his example in making individual investments in solar power. We need to change our expectations and our personal investments. If we do, then our neighbors will.
Addressing the dangers of a warming climate really is no longer about changing the light bulbs. It is about recognizing that the future will not look like the past and we can’t make decisions looking in a rearview mirror. We have to look at everything we do and see what changes are needed to preserve a world that will be healthy for our children and theirs. This is a big challenge. I hope we are up to it.
Dan Jones is a local energy activist and chairman of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee, and serves on the boards of Gross National Happiness USA and Transition Town Montpelier.
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