We have heard more people are planting gardens this spring. And that classes about canning and preserving are at capacity already, and the harvest is still months away. People are talking about walking and cycling more, using their vehicles less. And there is a concerted push on to buy local produce, meats and other foods generated right here in Vermont.
As difficult as the pandemic has proven to be at many levels, it has forced three things: We have slowed down (in some cases to a standstill), putting aside the rush of a day; we have reset our priorities, with more of a focus on family and our closest friends; and we are learning new patterns of routine and behaviors, creating a new normal that many of us hope we can carry forward well beyond the pandemic’s cure.
How often do we, as a society, get a chance to hit the reset button. And yet, here we are — presented with one that can, in effect, change our lives, change our policies and change our narrative about how we talk about, politicize and obsess over certain issues.
In many ways, this pandemic has proven to be a blessing in disguise. As a popular YouTube video that is trending right now puts forth: “You have to get sick before you can start to heal.”
Lawmakers have had their focus on COVID-related initiatives. And rightly so. But now (when the session would typically be finished), they are taking up legislation with an eye toward recovery.
And some of that looks like the new normal we are talking about.
Across Vermont — and the nation — COVID has revealed our stark inequities, in income, privilege and so much more. It has refocused society to basics; it has forced our reliance on technology, sometimes revealing better routes toward streamlining and eliminating waste; it has forced unlikely partnerships.
But what lawmakers have before them right now is an opportunity for a brain trust of the Vermont community. For years, decades, actually, Vermont has struggled to reach consensus on its greatest challenges: the graying of the state (and conversely, its brain drain); wages have not kept up with inflation; workforce development has suffered; jobs have become harder to come by, putting strains on all sectors; the cost of living in the state has spiked (taxes, utilities, fees, you name it); and we’ve seen more pollution, and the effects those contaminants have on our water, air and climate.
Lawmakers need to seize this moment, while people have some time to think, to build partnerships and engage a cross-section of our population, with a range of expertise and skills, to solve (or resolve) some of these pressing issues. The mandate sounds easy and logical, and politics (especially in an election year) will always get in the way. But with the right pressure applied by the public to hit the reset button and get Vermont moving on a different course, even a modest one, the benefits will be tremendous.
We have seen great progress and collaboration from the administration and the governor’s task force on recovery. On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott announced a two-phase proposal, which includes $310 million to provide “immediate relief” to businesses struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.
But there are other ways relief can be proposed for the state.
Lawmakers in the Senate about about to take up the The Global Warming Solutions Act, which offers a strategic planning and implementation framework to ensure we make smart investments that prioritize Vermont’s most vulnerable; put people to work in the local, clean energy economy; and harness those unique assets that make our state more resilient, independent and strong — including our farms, forests and natural resources.
The bill — which passed out of the Vermont House of Representatives in February 2020 — ensures that Vermont take strategic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 and to build climate-resilient communities.
Coincidentally, the act calls for four strategic subcommittees focused on resilience and adaptation; mitigation; equity and justice; and the role of our farms and forests in this essential transition.
For better or worse, COVID brought us to the ideal moment for this discussion. The framework for moving forward in this recovery is sitting in a proposal, waiting for consideration.
The benefits outlined in the act talk of creating jobs and getting Vermonters back to work in the trades sectors and creating clean energy jobs. It also talks about reducing our dependence on vehicles, with a push toward remote workplaces and telecommuting; and, of course, it calls for shifts in environmental thinking but also for infrastructure dollars (and jobs) to prepare for extreme weather events, which have become more common.
We have so many options right now for how best to proceed in this recovery. A reset button would be the most satisfying — both in the short- and long-term. That’s how Vermont heals from a pandemic.