Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Living Lighter, with Less Room for Error

A friend in California was recently telling me about his two big homes and his BMW, and it reminded me that the distance between Vermont and most of the rest of America is far more than geographic.

My friend is worrying about whether he should trade in his Beamer on a new one. And here in Vermont we’re worrying how close we are to environmental apocalypse.

In Vermont, we have begun to think seriously about how we can grow our own food and live well with fewer cars and smaller houses. In California and elsewhere, the future is always brighter and richer and has bigger things. The trucks will always arrive at Wal-Mart with their cheap goods from China, the supermarkets will overflow with organic produce from Chile, and Starbucks will always offer 20 kinds of coffee drinks.

Most Americans seem to believe that a life disconnected from nature is indefinitely sustainable -- at least judging by the number of SUVs still on our highways, or for that matter, the SUVs filling the student parking lot at Middlebury College. Most Americans have built their routines around cheap energy and what songwriter Nanci Griffith calls “unnecessary plastic objects,” and many have blithely added two, three or even four children to the planetary burden. Most of these kids are learning to be happy little consumers themselves.

At least in northern New England, we recognize what a shifting climate could do to farmers’ bottom lines. We recall when the oil supply was so uncertain in the mid-1970s that you could only buy gas every other day.

We’ve watched the winter temperatures inch upward 5 degrees on average. That turns a lot of snowy 30-degree days into the rainy drizzle of a very long November. And we’ve begun to see that disappearing ice caps and warmer winters portend a deeply uncertain future, climatologically and economically.

Writers Bill McKibben and James Howard Kunstler have given some serious thought to what this future might look like. They find an audience among Vermonters because we already have the advantage of living closer to natural reality -- but also because we are not as materially wealthy and therefore have less margin for error.

Kunstler, the author of scary book called The Long Emergency on the coming depletion of oil reserves, is particularly alarming:

“Get this. No combination of alternative fuels or systems for running them will allow us to have Walt Disney World, Wal-Mart and the interstate highway system. We’re not going to run those things on any combination of solar, wind, nuclear, biofuel, used French fried potato oil, dark matter, or all the other things that we’re wishing for … One of the implications of the ‘long emergency’ is that we’re going to have to downscale everything we do.”

If Kunstler is right, well-off Vermonters don’t have much longer to enjoy that unique combination of a rural lifestyle supplemented by car trips to the Ikea in Montreal and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Less wealthy Vermonters will be hit much harder, of course, as the jobs dry up in the warehouse stores and service industries, and as farming becomes all that much more challenging.

Many of us share McKibben’s belief, in his book Deep Economy, that a partial solution lies in “a shift to economies that are more local in scale. Local economies would demand fewer resources and cause less ecological disruption; would allow us to find a better balance between the individual and the community, and hence find extra satisfaction.” Instead of globalism fed by “free” trade, says Kunstler, we’re going to have to reconstruct local networks of economic interdependency” or “we will starve.”

* * *

Can we make this shift to a more satisfying but less materially abundant life – and do it before ecological catastrophes force a far more meager existence upon us? Can a planet careening toward 7 billion humans come to a sustainable balance -- or are we just a several hurricanes and a few more years of polar melting away from the brink?

These are among the great questions of the age, well beyond what happens in Iraq or how to resolve the inequalities of race or class or North vs. South.

Looking at how my own behavior stacks up next to my beliefs, I find cause for both tentative hope and deep pessimism.

As for the latter, I finally tired this fall of cramming my tall body into a Subaru Outback. Instead of doing the responsible thing and buying what my friend Jay West calls a “Toyota Pious,” I put the Subaru up for sale and bought a used Audi A4. I traded a partial-zero-emission car for one that gets about the same mileage and has the same carbon footprint.

What can I say? I have always lusted after an A4.

On the other side of the ledger, we heated the house last winter with three cords of wood and oil that was 20% biofuel. We’ve been talking to Paul Kenyon about siting a wind turbine on our land. Billy Romp will be out here next month to add another layer of insulation in the attic. We work at home and seldom drive more than 5 miles a day to town and back. A lot of meals came out of the garden this summer. We are lurching toward a lighter life.

Individual steps like these are very important. But it’s also imperative that we demand more of our leaders.

That’s why the local and nationwide Step It Up activities on Saturday, Nov. 3 will herald leaders of the past -- and will demand that today’s leaders take the steps only they can take to pull us back from the brink.

We shake our heads at the benighted ignorance of Iran’s President Ahmadenijad because he denies the Holocaust ever occurred. Yet our own president and a majority of our Congress have spent the last six years denying the reality of global warming.

I don’t mean to diminish the suffering of 6 million Holocaust victims. But if the world’s scientists are right, we may well be facing our own environmental holocaust. We can’t afford to play dice with the planet. Wherever we live, it’s time for every one of us to step it up.

- 30 -

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