Thursday, October 22, 2015

Vermont is a Place

I'm writing this after attending the Burlington City Arts panel conversation, "Of Land and Local: The New Working Landscape: Renewable Energy and the Aesthetics of Vermont" hosted at the Coach Barn in bucolic Shelburne Farms on October 13th. It wasn't quite what I expected, and I came away with altered ideas about renewable energy and place.

My family migrated to Vermont in the summer of 2014 from the Boston area for a number of reasons, many of them related to Vermont's wonderful landscape, from the NEK to the Green Mountains to Lake Champlain and everywhere in between. We want our kids to have easy access to the outdoors, something that's such a part of Vermont's culture. We also appreciate Vermont's progressive energy and environmental policies, something that helps preserve those things that both long-time Vermonters and recent arrivals value.

As a new arrival I'm noticing is that most Vermonters have a deep appreciation for the world around them, and their place in it.

There's a strong desire to protect and preserve while forging ahead with solutions that are right for Vermont. These are sometimes at odds, as the evening's panelists illustrated.

Ryan Walsh, a poet who grew up in West Virginia made the observation that struck me most deeply. As photographs of mountain-top removal mining "from his West Virginia backyard" flickered across the screen, he commented matter-of-factly that worrying about the aesthetics of renewable energy borders on lunacy in the face of ecological damage done elsewhere in the pursuit of fossil fuels. So, we're facing a luxury problem, right?

Nora Mitchell, Director Emerita of the Conservation Study Institute, noted that Vermont's stories are those of the past, and those stories change and whether the pace of change contributes to some folks' discomfort. So, I'm wondering if we're concerned with change as much as we're concerned with renewable energy.

Rick Smardon, studying the psychology and sociology of landscape change noted, what is it that drives acceptance of renewable energy? and that folks tend to think that an impending change will be worse than it is. Typically, when asked after a change is made, they say, "it's not so bad", but the perception is that the change is bad - this is not always so.

Pamela Fraser, artist and Assistant Professor of Studio Art at the University of Vermont commented on the aesthetic impact of power lines and our adjustment to them over time. There were most certainly people that objected to them at some point. She also commented on the use of the word "nostalgia", that it can be a crutch for resisting change. We've adjusted to grain silos, to ski trails hewn out of forested hillsides, highways, power lines, gas stations, etc. These were new technologies (good or bad is another topic) that were at one point resisted - how did we adjust?

Time for the disclosure.

I work in renewable energy with certified BCorp and Vermont Benefit Corporation SunCommon, where we focus our business lens on people, planet, and profit. What made our move to Vermont possible was the creation of renewable energy jobs here in Vermont, which top 16,000 at the moment.  Depending on what you read, we're the demographic needed here, a young family that will help fuel the economy and add to the tax base as we buy homes and our kids enter local schools. Renewable energy helped make that happen.

I'm confident that we can overcome the challenges associated with the current renewable energy debates. We have to. Climate change is happening.

We can do our part to preserve the Vermont environment that generations have appreciated. Maybe, just maybe, the seventh generation of my family will be real Vermonters, and find themselves in a world we helped make better by what we do right here and now.