• Is there some good environmental news for a change?
    May 18,2014

    I’ve been searching for some heartening news lately, hoping to keep a positive mindset in the face of the latest climate report from the White House. It cites findings that many of the changes predicted to happen decades from now are in fact upon us today and paints a dark picture of the unsustainable situation we are in.

    In my search for good news on the Vermont environmental front, I find some decidedly worthy candidates, such as a new shoreline protection bill, improvements to modernize Act 250 and a first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill.

    Good news, indeed — but we’re still treating the symptoms, not the root cause of our unsustainable lifestyle.

    Fortunately, the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont and the Vermont Legislature have laid a foundation to consider the bigger picture when reviewing our state’s economy and overall well-being. And Gov. Peter Shumlin has established the first goal, which calls for developing a statewide economic development strategic plan.

    In 2012, Vermont was the first state to pass legislation calling on the state government “to establish and test genuine progress indicators” in its decision-making. Now that we have managed to establish the indicators, it’s time to apply them as a measure of the state’s economic, environmental and social progress.

    Remember — the GDP, with its “growth at any cost” philosophy, spends down our natural resources and concentrates wealth to fewer people. In contrast, the GPI measure the money in circulation in the economy minus costs of degraded ecosystems and social inequities plus the value of volunteering time or using ecosystems services for functions as diverse as drying clothes to purifying water.

    By putting genuine progress first and orienting the economy in that direction, the state could change a lot for the better.

    For example, of the 25 factors included in the GPI, the two most significant are the depletion of nonrenewable energy sources and income inequality. The GPI score drops as more nonrenewables are depleted and as income inequality grows. Improving the GPI score requires concerted actions of informed leaders in the different sectors.

    In addition to the legislative actions this year that protect our environment, several initiatives in Senate Bill 220 will improve training for workers and give small businesses greater access to capital. Merging the environmental benefits of policies with social improvements will provide a better picture of the overall economic progress in the state.

    The Gund Institute at UVM just completed an analysis of GDP versus GPI for all 50 states. Vermont ranked 33rd in GDP per capita, but 22nd in GPI per capita. We know Vermont is not wealthy in financial terms. But our overall well-being as measured by GPI, including environmental and social indicators, is notably better than many other states. The GPI allows us to quantify the difference.

    GPI information also clarifies what matters most in terms of how to increase the well-being of Vermont residents. With the Vermont Legislature empowering the administration to explore how GPI can guide budget priories that fit our values, Vermont has another opportunity, as it did with GMO labeling, to lead all states — this time by adding GPI as a tool for creating a healthier economy.

    Applying the GPI to measure economic progress could foster the necessary discussion about our environmental and cultural reality for the next generation — specifically, how to tackle the big issues of income inequality and oil consumption per capita.

    In Vermont, we care about our neighbors and our land. We value durability on this finite planet. By using GPI to measure our progress, we will be building a new economic model that supports the well-being of our communities, contributes to the health and productivity of our natural resources, builds capital and demonstrates that local economies can thrive.

    We should see that Vermont is moving toward a future based on a diversified, broadly accountable, economic system — one that is deeply rooted in place.

    And that would be the best news I’ve heard in a while.

    Environmental advocate Elizabeth Courtney is co-author of “Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State.” Email her at elizabethcourtneyvt@gmail.com.

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