Jim is a Justmeans staff writer for Energy, Climate Change, and Transportation. "From my years as a debater prior to undergraduate work in Massachusetts, I have written about science and technology, carrying this focus into graduate school, where I examined the history of Birmingham and the early twentieth century South from working class and progressive perspectives. In addition to work as ...
Transitioning to a Renewable Energy Posture
Certainty is for suckers; such a view seems especially true in regard to such complicated matters of society, politics, and economics as renewable energy. I am fairly confident that anyone who has read more than just one post of mine has had that point drummed home. The paradox that emerges from this essential uncertainty is that our lives depend on apt action, at any given moment, and arguably especially at this moment in the human journey from who knows where to who knows when.
Of course, "are you certain you want to do that?" is one of the first questions that we ask ourselves when a hard choice lies ahead. "Well, no, not really, I'd be an idiot to be certain." And yet act we must or the flood will, with nearly complete certainty, inundate us--hence the curse of such 'interesting times' as these.
I have also repeatedly emphasized the key import of finding appropriate models to shape policy, action, and engagement as to energy and environmental concerns. Ineluctably, I have also insisted that the only models with useful and tangible guidance would be those that stressed community empowerment and deep-seated and broadly-applied democratic process.
Thus, that today's posting integrates these thematic elements again should come as no surprise. Nor should one find shocking that its expression of these connections is an objective fact and not just an author's subjective choice, since another consistent part of this work has been to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all things.
Thus, in today's materials, we will view Vermont as a prime model for democratic engagement of issues surrounding energy and the environment, and see that every single story that has shown up here over the course of thirty articles bears directly on what is happening now in the Green Mountain state. Vermont, if we pay attention, exemplifies an infinite feedback loop for human progress.
Several other points seem reasonable to mention, before we introduce the exciting pathway that Vermonters are blazing for all humanity. The first has to do with the delicate matter of timing payments that come due. In the idiom, "You can pay me now or you can pay me later," for example, we often encounter such rueful circumstances as the overdue mortgage installment.
And any gambler can attest that paying later is often the best basic strategy: perhaps one might finesse the obligation altogether. "Delay, delay, we may never have to pay," is a mantra fit for high finance and big contracts, as anyone who has dealt in such spheres can affirm.
Eventually, however, a moment comes when further dilatory behavior threatens disastrous consequences. One could hardly, given the nature of the universe that shows up in these pages, expect to know precisely when that moment is at hand.
Nevertheless, most folks can follow the nature of the idea that I am advancing here. We can only put off for so long the conundrums of energy, science, and society before any further procrastination undermines our ability to act at all. This necessity of the now, or at least the choice to imagine the present as pregnant with necessitation, underlies much of what is transpiring today in Vermont.
The second pertinent idea manifests most easily as the significance of history, with the addition of the influence of geography, a view often associated with the historian and curmudgeon, Fernand Braudel. Lucien Febvre, Braudel's mentor and collaborator, according to Alan Baker, "bridg(ed) the divide" between history and geography and developed a new paradigm, "produc(ing) a powerful rejection of geographical determinism in history and set(ting) out instead a strong case for 'possibilism' . ...(although) 'men can never entirely rid themselves, whatever they do, of the hold their environment has on them. Taking this into consideration, they utilize their geographical circumstances, more or less, according to what they are, and take advantage more or less completely of their geographical possibilities. But here, as elsewhere, there is no action of necessity. ...Febvre...advocate(d) a concern with the reciprocal relations between environment and societies through time."
One way of viewing what is evolving, before our eyes, in Vermont these days is to see this 'reciprocal relation' between environment and society' in a place that not only permits, but to an extent also favors, rebelliousness. That a provision of havens to iconoclasts is a century's long tradition is fact; that this tradition burgeons anew is a fact; that this long standing fact has a connection to environment, of course, is speculation about 'possibilities' in the context of a certain sort of environment.
In our most networked of ages, thankfully, Vermont's steeping of potential revolutionary reforms can redound to the benefit of other cousins willing to pay attention. We live, most of us, in places where even a fleeting conceptual wrinkle of a haven from the intrusions of capital is laughable. Hence, the thought of rebellion is at best a cause of nervous hives and guilty giggles for the most part., for most of us, since we have no place to hide.
Alan Baker once again offers surcease: "'There are,' (Bloch) concluded, 'no necessities but everywhere possibilities; and man, as master of the possibilities, is the judge of their use. This, by the reversal which it involves, puts man in first place--man, and no longer the earth, or the influence of climate, nor the determinate conditions of localities.'"
The final notion that I elaborate, concerning the trek that Vermont has arguably been taking for the last half century or so, aligns Vermont's journey with leaders from the 1960's and 1970's, who called themselves Black Panthers. Even today, these very forthright rebels make many people nervous. Though I haven't the resources to demonstrate the veracity of the assertion, I would nevertheless state that Vermonters would be least likely, of all White Americans, to feel such an onset of the heebie jeebies.
This is not a crucial point, but I am not without evidence here. Tom Whitney, in A Vermont Born Citizen's History, tells of the powerful influence on his consciousness of Angela Davis, a notorious Panther organizer and intellectual, about whom his wife penned a play, "Angela Is Happening," which was being produced in a surreptitiously communist theater in Los Angeles.
"It was great theatre that played to packed houses of the most politically radical people in Los Angeles - old white Communists, young Black communists and activists, socialists and other assorted radicals... .Were we paranoid? You bet. We were certain we had had undercover agents from a few police agencies trying to get involved in the play. For example, we had put out the word for a folk singer. A white guy came by the house one day with his guitar and sang us a social action folk song that sounded like he had made it up special. We listened, nodded our heads, and then were shocked to hear him turn and ask me "Where are the guns?" Oh boy! "We don't have any guns," I told him. We quickly thanked him for coming, ushered him out and never heard from him again. Our weapon was our art."
Whitney's thriving even as the Feds repeatedly sought to infiltrate the production showed, over and over, the common sense about which the woodsy folks of Vermont pride themselves. That Angela Davis delivered a speech at the University of Vermont Libraries this last Summer, while utterly unconnected with Whitney's memoir, does allow me again to note that to assert an affinity between Vermont activism and Black Panther thinking is not prima facie idiocy.
Obviously though, the climate of oppression which Black people have suffered, and which the Panthers bravely resisted, dwarfs the suffering that all but the most benighted American communities have faced. No one would want to maintain that the present-day afflictions of Vermont's citizenry equate to the murderous outrages that the FBI and others inflicted on Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, and others.
Nonetheless, to trivialize the degradation of and depredations against community that are a part and parcel of current capitalism's SOP not only goes against the profoundly good sense of Wendell Berry and other folks whose wisdom compels adherence, but it also dismisses what a significant majority of Vermont's folks seem to be articulating pretty clearly. Thus, one might expect a correspondence between Vermont's programmatic efforts and those of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
And when we mine the ideas governing the Panthers' choices, as individuals, to put big bullseyes on their backs, what we hear, when the contextual elements dealing with the agonies of color in a lily-white world view tinged with the insanity of White Supremacy are filtered out, sounds a lot like Vermont. I've been listening to Vermont for a good many years; this is a demonstrable assertion.
Bobby Seale, who survived at least one assassination attempt on him by the police, could have been speaking at a Vermont Transition Towns rally in this interview. "They came down on us because we had a grass-roots, real people's revolution, complete with the programs, complete with the unity, complete with the working coalitions, we were crossing racial lines.
That synergetic statement of 'All power to all the people,'Down with the racist pig power structure -- we were not talking about the average white person: we were talking about the corporate money rich and the racist jive politicians and the lackeys, as we used to call them, for the government who perpetuates all this exploitation and racism. ... Righteous down home peoples power is what I advocated in the sixties, and what I say today. That is, '...toward a future world of cooperational humanism!'
Beyond the myopic notions and strict doctrinaire ideologies of past "politburo" state control (or) the present extremist practices of avaricious racist corporate monopoly globalizing capitalism ... of the one percent cooperate money-rich around this OUR earth. Democracy? HOW ABOUT Greater constitutional 'direct' democracy? i.e. greater peoples' decision making participatory Community Control democracy?"
In fact, though I proffer no postulate that Vermont's stalwart champions of the sort of Democracy that Seale and his comrades promulgated would accept my designation, I am subsequently going to think of Vermont's leadership in a new way. The model that Vermont provides, the cutting edge best-practices for doing 'business better' that Vermont so generously shares with the world, needs a name in keeping with the State's revolutionary stance.
From now on, for me, they will be the 'White Panthers,' partners in spirit with the Black Panthers of yesteryear and today.
Vermont, with its less than ten thousand square miles and one out of every five hundred people who resides in the USA, once led the nation; the Green Mountain Boys were legends in their own times in the war against the English, though prior to that many of them had been at odds with New York and Connecticut and New Hampshire.
While to make too much of such a facile historical comparison would be moronic, on the other hand, one may note that geography both suits Vermont to penetration, via the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, and to the isolation of splendid mountains and the rugged impenetrability that they promise. In any event, as noted above, Vermont has ever been friendly to rebels and rebellion.
Often considered a backwater, or a haven for hippies and runaways, or a prime vacation spot for well-heeled New Yorkers, Vermont today plays a leading role in enriching local democratic governance. We might recall that Helen and Scott Nearing, iconoclasts and self-imposed exiles whose 'blows' against the empire employed spirit and intellect instead of steel and powder, specifically selected Vermont in the early 1950's as their sinecure against the cynical and the jingoistic.
Nearing, now often associated with his predilection for vegetables and a robust "good life" that lasted a century, started out as a social democrat who numbered among the first Yanks to join the nascent Communist Party. He pulled no punches and got the boot from every university job that he ever landed, speaking his mind as follows. "During the whole period of written history, it is not the workers but the robbers who have been in control of the world."
This radical red not only found a home in Vermont, building a hands-on, group-owned sugar maple business, but he also became a legend there. So widespread was his renown, and so committed was he to working each day for the 'good life' that his wife and he exemplified, that they moved on to Maine for the last three decades of his long personal sojourn, though only after making a continuing impression on Vermont.
He wrote without false humility, aware of his status. "Every generation produces its . . . adventurers and activists: tireless, insistent, and sometimes pestiferous doers. Not satisfied with a soft life, they are ready to climb mountains, rebuild cities, or go to the moon. They revel in strenuous, sustained effort. They are up at dawn, spending their days in unending action, their nights in libraries or laboratories. They are not deterred by danger or obstacles."
I spoke with Johanna Miller, of Vermont's Natural Resources Council about her State, and she quietly affirmed my intuition. "Yes, I'd say that it's fair to state that Vermont is leading the way in lots of ways on energy and the environment," also agreeing that, as communities everywhere (in the dominion had) engaged this process of sustainability, "Vermont has become a model for people all over the world," with observers coming from China and around the planet "to learn from what we're learning."
I am well aware that Georgia badly needs lessons from the Yankees, a hundred and forty five years after Sherman put the torch to Atlanta and brought Wall Street ownership to Dixie. I offer an instructive exercise to my readers, which I would wager would reveal gigantic gaps in democratic process between every State in the Union and Vermont, with the possible exceptions of Oregon and Minnesota. Seriously: I urge everyone to examine this challenge.
All one need do is enter the following search into whatever search engine is suitable: vermont + energy + future + citizen + involvement + panel OR meeting OR committee . Then one simply follows that up with the same terms for one's own jurisdiction. The gulf in the case of Georgia was shameful.
Not only did tiny Vermont garner a much larger per capital 'hit' rate, but on the first ten pages of the nearly 90,000 results, I also found literally dozens of PDF files and plain-folk websites that spoke of citizen leadership, citizen initiation, a fierce commitment to citizen engagement and monitoring. On the first twenty pages that Georgia's search produced, meanwhile, not only did I find many links to the country of Georgia, which also had a smattering of evidence of citizen participation, but I also found not one single instance of local leadership or initiation of action, and I only discerned three cases of meager, top-down citizen involvement processes.
This kind of evidence is daunting. Perhaps Iowa is better off than Georgia: let's pray to all-that-is that this is the case. Maybe Pennsylvania, with Mike Ewall's staunch grassroots leadership at the Energy Justice Network handily beats out every jurisdiction in the South save, perhaps, North Carolina, with the magnificent network put together by the bootstrap sweat-equity of Lou Zellar and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
But I'd bet every penny I'll ever make, even were I to live to Scott Nearing's advanced age and then some, that the vast majority of environmental educators/activists/communicators, whatever their perspective on this work, including those, like me, who espouse justice as the key component of any kind of ecological program, would accede to a fundamental fact. Vermont instructs the world, including everywhere else in the United States of America.
One need only listen to Johanna Miller's tone--which is taut with fatigue and full of uncertainty, despite her passionate commitment and clear belief in the justice of her position for both the human communities that she serves and the planetary web of life that is the basis for her ability to serve--to know that she is not bragging. She knows of the sacrifices that likely lie ahead. She is aware of the fragility of 'progress.'
But she is absolutely clear about one thing. "We have a very strong and very active democracy in Vermont; we truly have a citizen-led legislature." I can prove that every measure of democracy is more potent in Vermont than in Georgia. Again, I assert that this would prove true for almost every other venue in our relatively backward portion of North America. I challenge any other comparably sized jurisdiction to demonstrate otherwise.
Ms. Miller continues, "We can see a different way forward on the basis of grassroots leadership. Over a 100 energy committees are out there, working and networking to partner on different programs and strategies," and I would add, on the basis of just my cursory examination, additional hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other community efforts are extant, to live together in a kinder and happier state of interaction, despite all of the grit and grime of politics.
Johanna sums up, "All hands on deck is a better way forward for Vermont." I would add that it is the only model for a human existence for my kids and grandkids. If I'm right, that's true for everybody else's kids and grandkids too.
Hiroshima broke Scott Nearing's heart--like a wayward, faithless lover, whom he hoped had some semblance of humanity left, in a final brutal act of betrayal. He recovered and lived nearly forty more years. But he wrote Harry Truman a letter, renouncing his citizenship. "Your government is no longer mine," he spat out simply.
Lo these many weeks ago, nearly 200,000 words ago, folks may recall that I too expressed shame and mortification at the criminal acts of the United States in conducting nuclear weapons strikes against civilian populations for imperial purposes. Who knows, as time heals all wounds as well as wounding all heels, if a gigantic karma debt looms in our future?
Clearly, the world faces mountainous obstacles in the decades to come. Vermont has a lot to offer the rest of us, a bit more of the specifics of which we can see below. Before we examine this upsurge of majority-rule in a redoubt of democracy, James Howard Kunstler has sobering advice, which he delivered in a speech to students at the University of Vermont.
|"I'm personally not an advocate of national breakup or secession. I grew up with United States and I have been, until recently, pretty comfortable with the idea that we would stick together no matter what. But in the Long Emergency all bets are off for politics, economics, and social cohesion. Turbulence will be the rule and we will have to do our best to make sure that the just prevail over the wicked, and that the weak are not trampled, and that the best that was in us as a people can somehow be rescued from the dumpster of memory."|
Nor would I recommend dissolution; 'breaking up is so very hard to do.' I believe with all my heart, deep in my gut, in the ideas of the United States, just as did the Black Panthers in quoting as their ultimate organizing principle the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. In spite of the material abrogation of those ideals, I still believe.
But Scott Nearing rejected a nation that would not absolve itself of empire. The organizer of "The Second Vermont Republic" notes this. "Nearing's biographer, John Saltmarsh, described him as 'a complete secessionist from capitalist cultural hegemony.'"
And today, as I write, and as my readers ponder this script, Vermont has an active movement to remove itself from the U.S.A. If we want the best parts of the country to remain, or even if we merely want basic functions to be operational when the sh** hits the fan, we better fire up some thoroughgoing reform, tout suite.
A PEOPLE'S ENERGY FORUM
One of the areas of life in which Vermont's leadership is clearest, and in which the State has so much to teach, is in the energy realm. Of the ongoing follow-up articles that I anticipate here, in the fullness of time, some of them will examine some of the especially hopeful growth, in democracy, that Vermont has brought to specific energy technologies, as well as investigating apparent tensions in the process, as that no community in the State has agreed to another large wind farm after controversies surrounding the first one.
Today, I have a much more modest aim, which is to hint at a powerful ombudsman movement that is prevalent in Vermont's State Government, about which I will also write more at a future date, and to detail a citizen led energy-policy initiative that is now better than halfway to ten years old.
Johanna mentioned the ongoing fruits of this sort of output, above, in the scores of community-based energy committees. Vermont, as a State, rigorously
supports such a process. "The ability for municipalities to plan for energy has been around for almost 30 years; but only recently have many towns really begun to work toward securing their energy future through local planning. In this (2008) workshop we will discuss how municipalities can proactively work with citizens to facilitate implementation of energy conservation polices and strategies in their communities."
A strong indication of the validity of such 'workshops' comes from the presence on the panel of certifiable community advocates. In the case of Vermont, two of the four leaders were of this ilk. Karen Horn has worked around consumer advocacy and community ombudsman issues for two decades. Even more impressive is the role that Bob Walker, founder, president and executive director of Sustainable Energy Resource Group played in the process. SERG openly backs a renewable future, with an emphasis on conservation and stewardship.
In the first case in Earth's 'leading democracy' of a citizen's energy policy process that actually yielded policy, Vermont has since 2007 engaged citizens in preparation for its 2012 update on the State's Comprehensive Energy Plan. Moreover, this is a process--not an experiment--and the State intends to strengthen and deepen its implementation moving forward.
Perhaps this does not sound revolutionary. But I ask my readers: how many of us have ever had an opportunity to appear at a "public hearing?" Wendell Berry describes the farce of such a mockery of democracy in his magnificent volume of essays, "Home Economics." I have been, and the dismissive disrespect, the lack of opportunity for debate, the impossibility of gaining access to the official record with data or comments, the entire game is a rigged con-artist's dream for shutting input down by letting people babble pointlessly.
Now, Lou Zellar has explained the art of public theater that can still have an impact in this faux expression of democratic dialog. But let's think for a second. We have two choices before us. We can participate in a 'dog and pony show' with no promise of impact, or we can have a place at the table, when it's our flipping table in the first place--it's supposed to be a democracy, meaning the people are the bosses, not the humble yassah servants of the experts.
I choose 'column B,' thanks very much. I invite JustMeans readers serious about doing 'business better' and creating a sustainable business and renewable energy methodology that works to join me, as I insist that I like my democracy richly layered and deeply textured, with a nice frothy topping of public leadership and expert listening. And this is what Vermont is on the road to doing. It carried out this effort in three ways.
It first held five regional meetings, at which in aggregate hundreds of people showed up to each one. Get this! These citizens got to modify the agenda. They got to make sure that, not only might they tip their hat to whatever the policy wonks thought to be important, but they also got to say, "Hey! Wait a second; we need to talk about more solar, more small-scale hydro, more incentives, feedback tariffs, greater chances for conservation; and you know what? We want to be able to reject the nuclear option."
And at this most democratic of face-to-face forums, almost two thirds of the participants did just that. They put the State, Entergy Nuclear (the owner of the' troubled' Vermont Yankee plant) on notice. "We're going to show you the door in 2012, folks, so get ready to exit."
The project also included a large random sample's making detailed responses to questions in various areas of energy policy. This is clearly the least democratic aspect of the process as articulated here, but this need not always be so, if we--and I'm assuming that other folks excited about democracy are excited by what they're hearing, and we don't have to just assume that only Vermonters can take care of themselves--make sure that half or more of the questions in the poll, and the overall construction of the survey, is under the auspices and with the purview of citizen representatives who constitute at least half of the designers.
Readers need to note the results of that polling process, which, by any measure reflected the State's Public Service Board's continuing commitment to nuclear power, in spite of the also unarguable fact that the State's Department of Public Service honored its commitment, not just to a face of democratic procedure, but to serve as a true public watchdog. Here are those data, 'straight from the horse's mouth,' as it were, of the citizen participants.
|"Eighty-six percent of them agreed (49% of them strongly) that Vermont should continue buying electricity from Hydro-Quebec, and 97% agreed (76% strongly) that it should continue buying electricity from the Vermont-based independent Power Producers, while a slender plurality (50% versus 48%, with 2% in the middle) agreed that it should continue buying electricity from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant."|
Among the overwhelming majorities in favor of 'full speed ahead' with renewable energy, "Ninety percent supported (74% strongly) a wind farm's being built if it were visible from where they live." Vermont is at the cutting edge of democracy in the otherwise largely anti-democratic United States, and the State is arguably on a par with the labors of Chiapas and Central American grassroots power initiatives and equal to the best that is coming from Canada as well.
The final leg of Vermont's community engagement tour-de-force was another unique expression of majoritarian possibility, in the form of an online dialog session. The bias in favor of nuclear appeared once more here, although compared to what inheres at the merest burp from Georgia's or Alabama's PSC's, the hearings of which I have had the excruciating experience of attending, Vermont's official language was admirably balanced, even restrained.
Although I intend to mine again and again the rich ore of popular empowerment that lies in veins right at the surface of life in Vermont, one more angle now will assist readers in seeing the populist evolution unfolding among the Yanks there. The point takes into account the key impact of social technology, so called civil society, has in such cases. The oft-cited works of Jurgen Habermas are useful to consult on such matters, concerning the nature of dialogic decision-making.
A central element of Vermont's success as a democracy in these cases of energy-in-intersection-with-community has been an organization called the Snelling Center for Government(SCG). Named after and in honor of a five term Governor of Vermont, it defines its central mission, in Engaging Citizens in Vermont's Energy Future, the publication that foreshadowed the State of Vermont's recent citizen-participation work concerning energy.
|"The Snelling Center for Government... has a 13-year commitment to developing processes that engage citizens in public policy decisions. The paper is based on a normative rationale for citizen participation - that engaging citizens in the issues that impact them is the right thing to do. In addition, the Center believes the primary outcome of citizen participation must be building an educated citizenry with the skills to fully participate in democratic activities. ... The Snelling Center (also) believes that engaging citizens in policy-making also leads to better decisions that can be implemented more efficiently."|
'The right thing to do': what a novel concept. SNG states, for those capable of paying attention, several 'Golden Rules' of participatory democracy.
"The following goals are at the core of our approach to the participatory activities and discussion outlined in this paper.
*Citizens should be engaged in the major policy issues that affect them.
*Engagement processes must incorporate public values into decision-making.
*Participation should be deliberative, allowing constructive and reasoned debate.
*A successful process will value the opinions of both citizens and experts and be fair and open to all who want to participate.
And the programmatic work that SNG did in 2005-6, again involving thousands of folks from Vermont, discovered that--even though Vermont is at the democratic pinnacle in a country that vainly, and falsely, fusses and preens about its respect for the 'popular will' --"Despite Vermont's reputation as a highly participatory state, much of what is labeled "public engagement" is one-time and one-way." This conclusion stems directly from, for whatever reasons, the elevation of expertise, in any selection of energy directions, to the level of a high priest's sayso about the 'will of God.'
|"The internal expert planning approach ... has been much criticized in recent years, although it remains the dominant approach to energy planning. For example, critics argue that it is impossible to predict the future, or to take every possible alternative into account, no matter how good the internal expert planning. Secondly, the planners and modelers developing these plans are relying on their own values and approaches. ... A third area of criticism about expert planning is that this approach produces plans that do not include the affected interests or acknowledge local issues and participants and therefore produces solutions that are 'incompetent, irrelevant or simply unworkable.'"|
SCG concluded with common sense and wise guidance that Vermont is heeding. The first step should be a broad, spirited and open public conversation. Public values should be incorporated into the beginning of the process, not at the required, largely ineffective and predictable "public hearing" at the end of the process, after the decisions are already determined. The longer we wait to engage in this discussion, the fewer choices we will have. Hugely difficult and controversial energy choices require action now. Action should be based on a shared vision of the future, not only on the best judgment of expert planners." The only debate about such a view, increasingly accepted as state of the art outside of the United States and China and a few dictatorial regimes either opposed to or in league with these big two holdouts, is whether Americans will get a clue.
In general, people everywhere around the U.S. need 'to go to school' in Vermont's "Democracy 101" classes. Here in Georgia, we are light years behind these estimable Yankee meddlers, these "pestiferous doers," as Scott Nearing summed up. The thing about light, though, is that it does travel fast; illumination is natural, if only people will open their eyes to see.
INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL CHOICE: TWO COUNTENANCES OF THE CURRENT CONDITION
Vision alone is not an adequate guarantor of transformation. At the very least, social shifts require that people act collectively in different ways from what they have been doing. Whether, as above, such changes are deliberative or enforced does not affect the outcome, which is a transmogrified social landscape. In any democratic metamorphosis, however, community must take a leading role in the sociopolitical drama that transpires.
A key component of actual community, as opposed to the faux expression that adheres to any collection of people to whom commodity pedaling marketers want to sell something--"the intellectual community" and "the back-packing community" and "the organic food community" all have in common their amenability to goods of certain sorts, after all--is that its members choose to live amongst each other. Some of us who ponder the coming quandaries of seven billion cousins believe that this capacity to live together by choice will define our collective ability both to thrive, and, under certain not altogether implausible circumstances, to survive.
Pete Seeger spoke about this capacity, with a tip of his hat to Vermont, at the death of Scott Nearing in 1983. "Nearing was a rugged individualist and lifelong socialist who profoundly influenced hundreds of thousands of people through his ideas and books . . . If there is a human race still here in a hundred years we'll have to learn two almost contradictory lessons: we'll have to make cities more livable places, and we'll have to show that independent-minded people can live outside cities without having to be rich suburbanites. We may yet be able to save the world before we destroy ourselves, and Scott and Helen Nearing showed us ways to do it."
My readers have already learned of my recent discovery of the Transition Towns movement, emanating from rough and tumble working class neighborhoods in the British Isles where young geniuses like Paul Chatterton and the Trapese 'Popular Education' collective help to give voice to a human willingness to cooperate and thrive instead of expiring in lonely terror as corporate leadership abandons them. Vermont leads this continent in this new area of social experimentation.
In thinking about what one encounters when one engages 'Vermont' virtually, this researcher cannot help but recall Margaret Mead's sage observation that we should "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." This helps to account for the fact that Vemont's .2% of the U.S. populace has managed, for the benefit of team USA, to create nearly ten per cent of this exciting new form of community empowerment.
While today's essay will make a brief foray into a further contextualization of this 'movement,' the primary purpose here is to convey a fascinating outgrowth of recent circumstances surrounding transition. All bourgeois promotion of faddishness aside, one would have to admit that if, from Korea to Capetown, and from Asheville to Delhi, a trend 'catches fire,' as the saying goes, a decided potential exists that such creative yarn-spinning results from some sort of contribution attendant to human survival or enrichment.
And in an age of globalized hegemony of corporate wealth, when interminable wars on ubiquitous terrors are the elite's primary answer to the conundrum that those without anything have nothing to spend, any but the most trollish onlooker would have to expect, as an emotional coping mechanism if nothing else, that, in the words of the song, "in their hearts they turned to each other's hearts for refuge, in the troubled years that came before the deluge."
In any event, at a minimum tens of millions of folks around the planet, with the volume growing daily, have 'turned to each other' by embracing a view of transitioning in communities where they stand. Chatterton's work, deeply practical and rooted in working class neighborhoods in England, and transferring to ghettoes and barrios at the far flung outposts of the human prospect, has provided guidance: not so much ideology as ideation, not so much orders as organizational practice.
To me, this is where the tale gets really interesting, almost bizarre, because an entirely different origin defines Vermont's 'Transition Towns' movement. Rob Hopkins, another genial and decidedly down-to-earth practitioner whom fate has designated to lead, is the originator, in Ireland, of this propensity.
Since the quandaries of capitalism just now, especially for working people of any stripe, whether of the most marginal or the most highly privileged variety, seem both intractable and identical all over the place, these two approaches to transformation share much more in common than they dispute critical measures of the path forward. However, the emergence of such a fissure may suggest an important piece of many social puzzles, dialectical development, about which I will speak more in upcoming posts.
However, a plausibly important juncture emerges in noticing this bifurcation. Chatterton's efforts much more definitely expect and seek to manage conflict and struggle; Hopkins' thinking much more so focuses on a joyous transcendence that will flow from transition.
I have no 'dog in this fight,' which, though both perspectives thus far evince respect and interest in the other's methods and thinking. On the other hand, I want to point out to my readers that, whatever our fondest hopes and dreams, severe and violent upheaval might easily erupt in even more widespread and vicious fashion than it already is. Kabul and Bagdad do not, after all, stand for urban tranquility, and they flow from the actions of Americans.
That said, I want peace, so long as we don't leave justice in second place. A real basis for disagreement emerges here, in that many relatively well-off sorts of folks can imagine a world in which they externalize themselves from the oppression and carnage that prevails and thereby seem to externalize responsibility or stake in removing the repression and violations of human rights that accompany it.
In my view, such a removal is not only impossible, but it is also irresponsible. I say this in regard to a lengthy critique of Chatterton's thinking that Hopkins posted on his blog not so long ago.
The Rocky Road to a Real Transition, which Alice Cutler from Trapese co-authored with Chatterton, came out in a second edition a bit later, with a preface that responded to Hopkins. These responses are well worth repeating and examining.
"We feel it is also appropriate to make a few brief responses to a few of the points that Rob Hopkins raised on his blog. From the outset we want to make it clear that we respect his work and his tremendous book. ... Where differences do emerge is, as he points out, how we see change occurring. ... Rob doesn't like using labels like 'us' or 'them,' (but) this unfortunately doesn't diminish the huge oppressive differences between those with power and resources and those with less ... We are seeing more and more bloody resource conflicts throughout the world ... . the socialization of risk, and the privatization of profit, as the saying goes.
One thing that Rob also perhaps misrepresents in his critique is that we do not feel that anyone chooses confrontational politics - it is a response to the often brutal forces people find themselves up against. And if it seems relatively peaceful in our part of the world, then we simply need to stand back to see that this relative peace actually rests on a fair amount of bloody chaos elsewhere in the world. We need to break out of the bubble we live in. Given what people in the developing world the global south are up against, environmental movements in the west should work in solidarity with groups there on issues of land, food, war, human rights and freedom of movement. They are front-line communities in terms of repression and violence."
The points Chatterton makes are irrefutable, unless one wishes to stand in the camp of empire. I know that Hopkins eschews such a pathway, but he may reply further as he sees fit. 'Us' and 'them' are entirely appropriate pronouns in most political exchanges, whether one wants to label them brawls or debates.
In the next essay in this series, a deeper delving of the Transition Towns movement in North America and Vermont will be forthcoming. Sufficing for now is the recognition that six cities in Vermont have actively engaged this process, more than is the case across the entire swath of Dixie, where I bear witness to a much more 'global-South' variety of oppression than most Yanks have to suffer.
The labor and consciousness of each of these efforts dazzles the senses and tastes like a garden breeze, yielding the hearth's glow of a welcoming Winter fire. In particular, the writing of Carl Etniercrackles with wit and sense as he talks about resilience and responsibility and choice and preparation. He, too, takes issue with critics, often members of capital's highest academies, and he does so with charm and grace.
Furthermore, he leads to such wit and wisdom of Rob Hopkins as this "cheerful disclaimer," an avowal of uncertainty as sweet as it is true. Had she thought of it, Johanna Miller might have deemed it worthy of mention.
"Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. We truly don't know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this:
* if we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late
* if we act as individuals, it'll be too little
* but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
Everything that you read on this site is the result of real work undertaken in the real world with community engagement at its heart. There's not an ivory tower in sight, no professors in musty oak-panelled studies churning out erudite papers, no slavish adherence to a model carved in stone." For my money, at the same time that citizen-engagement processes in Vermont need to become de rigeur throughout our still fair land, the Transition Town upsurge in Vermont can also offer insight and guidance to the folks of many places on the continent and around the world.
At the very least, a critical attention to these developments might pay handsome rewards in very short order.
VERMONT FORGES THE POPULAR WILL INTO A POTENT FORCE
Transition is one of those lovely English words. The prefix means across, or moving over. Transit as a collective noun means a way of moving, more concretely referring to trans(there it is again)portation. I like to tell my students that "transition is transportation between ideas."
In Vermont, Johanna Miller, her voice tired but triumphant, gives us a guided tour of another sort of transition, prefigured in the opening of Vermont's energy process to real citizen throughput. "Last year, because of public pushing and because of nuclear lies, a powerful grassroots movement showed real leadership on energy here." The opposition to Vermont Yankee's attempt to extend the operating license an additional twenty years failed. "The people of Vermont united to say, 'we're not gonna extend the license; it's not safe, and you're not a trustworthy partner."
This has never happened before, that the people have expressed their will successfully in such a manner. "It was historic in two ways," according to the knowledgeable and articulate Ms. Miller. "First, Vermont's is the only legislature that's been given such a say; secondly, the 26-4 vote against relicensing was so decisive."
She pauses while I parse the truth of this "This whole thing speaks to failures of Vermont Yankee, that's true. But more important is how important and instrumental people can be in public policy, if," and this is crucial, "if they have the democratic process that lets them act." SGC's point about capacitation a few paragraphs back, exactly congruent with mine, rings like a bell here. People can lead, given the space to operate and tools to work with.
I note, wryly and sympathetically I hope, that many critics are stating, or insinuating, that Vermont's populace wants to "return to the stone age." This is a spot where Ms. Miller sighs.
"There's so much power on the grid, and," because the State so forcefully pushed the popular intention to conserve and develop renewable energy, "Vermont Yankee (VY) was only going to give us 11% of our annual electric needs anyway;" at least a bit less than folks already get in the way of sustainable power, "We knew that we didn't want this business, of lies and lack of trust, to keep on."
She states unequivocally, "Vermonters have shown other capacities; community solar and wind is in the works. Not enough was going to come from VY to put people's lives at risk and to continue partnering with an obviously untrustworthy corporate partner. " I hear her smile. "I can assure you: the lights aren't gooing to go off."
Various virtual exchanges, such as one entitled "Nuclear Power Industry Uses Blunt Force: The People Fight Back," drew commentary from all over the world, mostly of a congratulatory tone, expressing solidarity, or proffering logistical and tactical advice among activists, showed up in page after page of commentary.
The prolific and punctilious pro-nuclear advocate, Rod Adams, was one consistent critical voice in this stream of dialog. In typical fashion, he held that "(t)he public fears about tritium are part of an incredibly well orchestrated program of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the only real competition that threatens the prosperity of the producers and distributors of coal, oil and natural gas."
Those readers who have followed carefully the materials that I have been posting will recall that 'fear' of tritium is not only rational but also essential for those with concerns about cancer and reproductive health. Moreover, at least in Vermont--and we can reasonably project, elsewhere where democracy flourishes in like degree to its burgeoning in the Green Mountain State, vanishingly small proportions of electric power will come from oil and coal, even as natural gas does remain a part of the electrical energy mix.
The upshot, however, is this. The people of Vermont grew tired of lies and distortion from VY. The record of intentional falsification by this 'unreliable corporate partner' is long and easily demonstrable in such documents as the recent Public Service Board Supplemental Report. In deliberate and considered dialog, democratically conducted, citizens have banded together and said, 'Basta!'
I, for one, can live with nukes so long as a similarly robust engagement of a skilled up and potentiated majority decide that the technology is the way to go. I would argue strenuously against it on half a dozen grounds, but I'll put my faith in democracy. When the likes of Rod Adams agrees, and thereby engages a best-practices, evidence-based approach to energy policy, no one will have anything to complain about.
One respondent to Adams, in the online thread, had this to add. "Correction: The link to the Beyond Nuclear report on tritium leaks is incorrect in your article. This report can be found at tinyurl.com/VYTtritium," going on to state,
|"(w)hat your article fails to mention is that there is a long history of the nuclear industry hiding problems from the public and from regulators, which is at the center of the public's lack of trust in reactors. In the recent case of Vermont Yankee the utility started by denying that there even were pipes under the plant which could potentially have tritium in them. (Again), for the wikipedia article on this see tinyurl.com/VYleak."|
As aged and frail as she is, Rosalie Bertell, the battling nun of public health justice, would have a thing or two to say to Rod Adams.
| "My Doctorate Degree is in Biometrics, and I have worked in Environmental Epidemiology for about 40 years, with a specialty in low dose ionizing radiation. I was one of the Founding Members of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health... .I have directly studied the health effects of ionizing radiation at low dose levels. Therefore I do not rely on extrapolations from high dose and fast dose rate. I disagree with many scientists and nuclear regulators who conduct such unreliable and outdated|
In sum, Bertell estimates that the absolute minimum of low-dose radiation fatalities since 1945 to be approaching ten million, likely many more. She brings scientific expertise to these estimates, which include admonishing anyone who would treat tritium lightly. Her voice simply fails to match the assertion of 'an incredibly well-orchestrated program of spreading fear,' unless one wants to tackle her evidence-based science as fear-mongering, at any rate.
In any case, the people have spoken. God knows, 'there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.' Still, this imbroglio surrounding VY may be an excellent example of a powerful transitional moment. We cannot be certain, but we should continue to monitor developments and use what is happening as a model for upstanding citizenship and civil engagement.
In the sense that the 'Transition Towns' movement uses the term, 'transition' means a shift from one form or method or model to another, often implying a degree of inevitability and sometimes suggesting planning. 'Transition' that happens to a population brings to mind the Trail of Tears. 'Transition' that occurs through intentional community agency, however, can be both wholesome and joyous, elegant and empowering.
Thus, Vermont merits a triple crown in democratic leadership. First, the State has created a magnificent and tangible process by which people can speak about the technical choices that we face. Second, a substantial portion of the citizenry has actively engaged a transformational process of immense potential power. And third, the grassroots has organized itself for a struggle and won its way to a popular victory about a toxic, dangerous, and expensive source of electricity.
Lord willing and the creek don't rise, this will be the first of an interminable series about this choice to thrive in a realistic way. I've not spent much time in Vermont, but I sure would like to get some "technical assistance consulting," in grant-speak parlance, going on here in Georgia with the input of a few non-nuclear 'Vermont Yankees.'
Scott Nearing, In his best-selling volume, The Good Life, co-written with Helen, his wife of three quarters of a century, can cap some of what we should learn from the teachings of Vermont. "The good life is never stable, never secure, never easy and never ended. It is a series of steps or stages, one leading into the other and all, in their outcome, adding, not subtracting; augmenting, not diminishing; building, not destroying; creating, not annihilating."
When I go to Vermont, and I make sure that the conversation includes the potential contribution of industrial scale wind to the creation of a reliable capacity to network electricity, I'll just have one question: "How do you get your heat, six months out of the year?" I know how attorneys work; like them, I'm pretty sure of the answer to this important question.
Since fuel oil, wood, and a smattering of coal is the response, then I'd have to ask folks to dig deep into their most soulful spirit and ask, "Does the great mother who nurtures us all loathe spinning blades atop the ridges more than she does spewing carbon into the air we share?" I'm not positive of the answer; I would not deign to speak for Gaia. But before I turned wind power away, I'd think long and hard about this inquisitive vector.
I point this out in the context of SCG's Dialog Sessions on Energy, which found 90% in favor of utility-level wind installations, even if the windmills were visible. Johanna Miller told me that Vermonters had become "very cautious" about wind of late. That's admirable, precaution being generally in such short supply. But that is my one, lonely caveat to Vermont's vaunted role as the instructor to us all.
Other than this minor issue that I'd love to have a chance to dig and dialog about, given my interest in wind power, I'd just have to say that Vermont needs to spread it around.
*Spread around the democracy and respect and the fervor for engagement.
*Spread around the willingness to learn and the keen interest in finding out the facts and being heard.
*Spread around the power to engage the powers-that-be in a way that says, 'we've had all we can stands and we can't stands no more,' with or without Popeye's spinach.
Even, as young and untested as the phenomenon is, spread far and wide the notion that transitional times are upon us, and that, collectively, we can not only manage the changes that will come whether we will or no, but also that we can live better than we have been living by shifting our perspective and growing a broader consciousness of our relationship with the planet that sustains us.
As with any ride through life, one can get a little 'carried away' about such manifestations of transformation as this, especially when an investigator has been predicting and looking out for such developments. One must be ever aware of the potential for co-optation, false fronting, and misleading implementation of 'change' in order to sustain a status quo set of power connections.
The fact that a link to an African Transition Town website seemed broken, with a collective photo full of White people, was a little troubling. As I've said incessantly, however, I am returning--likely many times--to this area that seems to promise such rich potential for doing 'business better,' for transforming energy and other consumption patterns, for front-loading community capacity and participation and power into social affairs, and a lot more besides.
For now, I just want to clarify that I make extremely preliminary and partial assessments here. What shows up appears magnificent. I don't see any evidence of the World Bank's or the larger foundation's flogging any of this. On the surface, we cannot help but acknowledge, many things--the 'friendly atom,' bio-engineering, and a host of other essentially technical 'fixes' for deep-seated social pathology--look dandy but work out to worsen the injustices they purport to resolve.
Just because that doesn't seem to be the case here doesn't mean that we're buying the whole idea, lock, stock, and barrel, as my mom used to put it. More critical to the coming period, in any event, is the role model that 305,500,000 citizens of the United States can find in the 600,000 souls or so who are doing a merry dance of democracy in Vermont. Let's keep them in mind and ask them for assistance as often as is socially acceptable.
The words of the song, "Wild Thing," for those of us older than dirt, have imprinted themselves on our minds. "I wanna know for sure!" Part of life's paradox is that we cannot 'know for sure,' except inasmuch as we choose to put our faith ahead of facts.
Nevertheless, I have a lot of hope at the end of this story. The White Panthers of Vermont, if they could join forces with the legacy of the Black Panthers, could jolt a confused and nonplussed American public into a semblance of programmatic action, some small measure of self-assertion and self-preservation.
I had a chance, in 2003, to hear Van Jones, the 'best-Presidential-appointment-that-didn't-quite-work-out ever,' speak at a Bioneers conference in the Bay Area. I was covering events there, with my 'critic's eye,' but what Jones proffered struck like a tsunami. He made my point about the 'White Panthers' joining forces with the Black Panthers, and we can recall those words now.
|"I want to bring to your attention something that is rarely discussed at environmental gatherings: We live in a gulag economy, and it will be impossible to achieve a truly "green" society unless we completely transform our current "prison-industrial complex" and incarceration-based economic system. The United States is the number one incarcerator in the world, jailing far more people per capita than China or Russia. |
A movement that is courageous and visionary on the environment but cowardly and ignorant about social issues will fail. A movement that is visionary and passionate on the social side, but is ignorant and indifferent on the ecological side will also fail.
There is a light at the crossroads. There is a light at the crossroads. At the crossroads is where the hope is. At the crossroads the eco-innovators, the poor whites, the inner city youth need each other. Why? Because the eco-innovators need the government on their side, the way the government was on the nuclear power industry side, but you need a constituency for that.
The inner city kids need jobs and so do the rural white kids. What if we all stood together and said, "We want green jobs, clean energy jobs, not jails as a solution ...?" How much power would we have? A movement that is willing to take that position, that is willing to bring together the eco-innovators with the working-class whites, and people of color. That movement could say to the prison guards and the prisoners - "Come out of the jailhouse. There is work for you to do. We need you."
I insert this reference here, again echoing the Snelling folks whose marvelous guidance so much of the United States is crying desperately to obtain, because 'it is the right thing to do.' Ethically, morally, socially, the world in which we live, to reformulate the sage Abraham Lincoln, cannot continue 'half slave and half free.' The spiritual rot will culminate in a slow death of humankind in the fullness of nature's judgment.
But I also quote the estimable Mr. Jones for operational reasons. Environmentalism, doing 'business better,' any non-trivial vision of sustainable business or semi-realistic notion of plentiful renewable energy requires a coalition like one that hasn't existed in this country for eighty years, perhaps since the beginning--all colors and creeds, all the grassroots tribes and types and kinds. Finally, I refer and defer to Mr. Jones because I remember well another short biting bark from the historical curmudgeon, Fernand Braudel. "Capitalism laughs at frontiers." If those of us who recognize and respect the wonder of Vermont's achievements, together with the hardy Green Mountain men and women themselves, fail to help that process's expansion, those in command of the command economy might well find the means to strangle the infant in its crib.
Another of Braudel's mentors at the Annales d'histoire, Marc Bloch, verbalized this contention in roundabout but easily understood language. As always, I only ask that we listen.
|"Recourse to history is meaningful to the extent that history serves to show how that which is has not always been; that is, the things which seem most evident to us are always formed in the confluence of encounters and chances, during the course of a precarious and fragile history. What reason perceives as its necessity, or rather what different forms of rationality offer as their necessary being, can perfectly well be shown to have a history; and the network of contingencies from which it emerges can be traced. Which is not to say that these forms of rationality were irrational, it means that they reside on a base of human practice and human history and that since these things have been made, they can be unmade, as long as we know how it was that they were made."|
Put more simply, the path forward must ever be obscure and lethally treacherous if we do not know the road that we have traveled to reach this juncture. We may all hope to 'head for the hills' in time, but the drones stand ready. Vermont's model calls us to a more courageous and communitarian expedition.
New England Vexillology
Montpelier, VT: Tony
Hearing: Andrew Bossi
Rocky Road to a Real Transition