March 16, 2015
Opinions, Vermont

The business of climate change

Suzanna Jones: The business of climate change | Mar. 13 2015 |

How should Vermont respond to climate change? Few Vermonters would say, “Make money from it.” However, this was the theme of a recent conference organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), unapologetically titled: “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change”.

The purpose of the gathering was to “connect key business, public policy and scientific leaders to evaluate how climate change will affect economic opportunities in Vermont.” The keynote speaker was Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital and the author of “Creating Climate Wealth.” He is also the former CEO of Sun Edison, which recently acquired First Wind, the company that built the Sheffield Wind Project. Setting the tone for the conference, Shah claimed that switching to renewables “represents the largest wealth creation opportunity of our generation.”

He addressed an audience composed of government leaders – including Gov. Shumlin – and businesses with a stake in the renewables gold rush, like SunCommon, AllEarth Renewables, Green Mountain Power, and the trade group Renewable Energy Vermont. Also present were asset management companies, venture capitalists, lawyers that represent businesses before the Public Service Board, and even a “brandthropologist” offering advice on “how to evolve Brand Vermont.”

If it sounds like the emphasis was on “opportunity” rather than “confronting climate change,” that’s because it is assumed that only business and industry can solve the climate problem – and they’ll do nothing if they can’t make money doing it. In other words, feeding the voracious economic system that caused climate change in the first place is now being sold to us as the solution.

But this time, we’re told, things will be different. According to Shah, businesses in the new “green” economy are “evolving ecosystems,” just like any other part of the natural world; they’ll be “locally-oriented” and responsive to the needs of communities. It’s a win-win situation ­– good for everyone, and the planet, too!

However, it should already be clear that not everyone will a winner in a business-friendly green economy. While GMP, AllEarth Renewables, and First Wind reaped healthy profits from their wind projects, the environment paid a price measured in miles of sensitive mountain ecosystems destroyed, ridgelines blasted and paved, forest cover eliminated, wildlife habitats degraded, and watersheds altered. (Meanwhile, there has never been an accurate accounting of the greenhouse gas reductions, if any, resulting from these wind projects.)

Other losers include those living in close proximity to the turbines, like the Therrien family, who were forced by infrasound-related health problems to abandon their Sheffield home. Because of his connection to First Wind, Shah was asked what might be done for them. His response: “They can sue the company. That’s what lawyers are for.”

So much for meeting the needs of the community.

But this was an upbeat conference focused on “opportunity,” “prosperity,” and “wealth,” not negative impacts. Instead, conference-goers heard that businesses should be encouraged to set up shop here where they can cash in on “Vermont’s green brand.” According to VCRD, “Vermont needs to tell its business story in a way that promotes a brand identity as the most welcoming state in the union for … green economic development.” If you find any of this troubling, rest assured that you, too, will be the target of “a public information campaign to celebrate … Vermont’s green business leadership: internally and externally marketing to build the Vermont brand” (emphasis added).

It should be obvious that this is just business-as-usual, disguised as concern for the planet. It emanates from the same exploitive mindset responsible for our many environmental crises, including climate change. The cynical search for “wealth opportunities” from these crises can only lead to further destruction of the natural world. And ironically, some are calling this environmentalism – dressing up the destruction in the language of altruism.

Vermonters do have a responsibility to deal with climate change. But the steps we need to take will involve more than re-branding our state, and more than simply replacing the fuel that runs an insatiable economic system. Doing something meaningful about climate change will require something far less marketable: it will require fundamental changes to the growth- and profit-driven system that is devouring our only world. And it will require us to abandon the hollow dream of ever-increasing material prosperity.

As Wendell Berry says, “If we want to stop the impoverishment of the land and biosphere, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer.” But “poorer” only in material terms – in our ability to consume the advertised and marketed excess of modern life. Living materially less well-off can actually enrich our lives, by enabling us to reconnect with community and nature in ways that don’t require the exchange of money. Doing so might undermine the plans of those who dream of “wealth creation” and “huge opportunities for profit.”

But that in itself would be a step in the right direction.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Suzanna Jones, an off-the-grid farmer who lives in Walden. She was among those arrested protesting the Lowell wind project in 2011.

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