By delaying the garage project, the Friends of Montpelier (I’m not a member) are giving the capital a chance to reclaim its better self.
But is it reclaimable? The Taylor Street Transit Center already casts its huge shadow on the little city. Already, population growth outside Montpelier and development inside, have spoiled the capital’s uncrowded tranquility and small-town charm.
How did this happen? Years ago, it seems, stagnation anxiety seized the city. Against this imaginary threat, Montpelier mobilized the Economic Development Strategic Plan, Montpelier Development Corporation, Downstreet Housing and Community Development, Montpelier Alive and Montpelier Housing Task force, plus the city council, city manager and last two mayors, perhaps thinking to crush stagnation with shock and awe.
Unaccountably, the town’s steadily rising daytime population, last estimated at 21,000, almost three times the town’s resident population, never loosened the vise-grip of dread. This strange fact calls for a strange hypothesis: Maybe Montpelier’s slowly sinking population (8 percent over 50 years) midst exploding world numbers made the capital feel unwanted, so its leaders resolved to prove, at any cost, that it wasn’t so.
Whether it suffers from this condition, which Philadelphia community strategist Paul Levy has called the “Nobody Wants To Be My Friend” syndrome, Montpelier sincerely believes growth creates jobs, raises business and local tax revenues, lowers tax rates and funds better city services. These blessings are interdependent: Growth supports more people; more people increase local economic activity; and increased economic activity, by raising revenues and lowering taxes, saves residents money and launches the community into an upward spiral of prosperity. On its face, the growth narrative is above reproach.
But it’s not above contradiction. Five months ago, UVM Professor Jim Andrews reported in VTDigger that he had tested, in Addison County, the ballyhooed link between higher population (growth) and lower tax rates. He found more populous towns actually have slightly higher tax rates than sparsely populated towns, owing to the proportionally greater costs higher populations inflict upon municipal services. Larger studies in Oregon and elsewhere have shown the same. So this link fails, and the whole narrative chain to which we have hooked our lives, falls apart.
These small-town arguments, in any case, melt into air, because United Nations scientists have condemned the entire human economy, the sacred pillar of the global community, as Public Enemy No. 1. Even after political editing, its June report said, according to Reuters: “Humankind’s relentless pursuit of economic growth ... is fraying the interconnected web of life.”
The UN was late to get the memo. In 1972, Vermont’s own Donella and Dennis Meadows called out humanity’s relentless grasping in “Limits to Growth.” Two decades later, Herman Daly’s “Valuing the Earth” showed why perpetual growth on a finite planet is bio-physically unsustainable. These books, like the overdue UN Report, are the science of collapse, not the gossip of stagnation. They show that the growth dogma — so reassuring, so hopeful, so easy on over-strained brains — is as unscientific, as obstinately held (bigoted) and as destructive as climate-change denial.
The dogma’s deadliness is clear to those who can bear to see: As human activity increases anywhere in the world, humans consume more of the world. Economic growth is dooming a million species to extinction, species — like bees and other pollinators — that keep us alive. Economic growth, any economic growth, whether in Bangkok, Bern, Boston, Burlington or Montpelier, nudges humanity into its grave.
But Montpelier’s conscience is flexible. It gives the municipal vote to undocumented migrants, shelters the homeless, and houses the poor while executing a bigoted ideology that helps ruin our habitat.
Montpelier will plead that it isn’t part of any “relentless pursuit,” doesn’t fray any “web of life,” doesn’t deplete water, food, fossil fuel, concrete and steel, and never, ever outgasses CO2 that’s not special and good.
Our special town won’t be so blinkered forever. Bitter experience will open the eyes of future Montpelierites. And who knows? Maybe today’s young municipal leaders will wake up to their wider responsibility to reverse growth. Maybe they’ll reverse course and honor their planetary duty to shrink, not grow, Montpelier, to turn its unoccupied buildings into community centers, not new housing. Then maybe, at the Main Street traffic circle, we’ll raise a statue to these new, true global citizens. I’ll gratefully front half the commission.
The Friends of Montpelier, whatever their motives, are helping the town correct an arguably honest error and to do its part, however small, to postpone posterity’s unimaginable misery.
Mark Adair, a Montpelier business and property owner, lives in Worcester.