Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Planning for Vermont's Future

[May 18, 2015]

Do you have a vision for a state which does not use fossil fuels? This may seem far in the future, but fossil fuels, no matter how abundant they may be now, will not last forever. And well before they run out, we will be baking from global warming. So let me suggest that there are two (mutually exclusive) ways to reduce our use of carbon based fuels: chaotically (read: no planning), or mindfully (read: with planning). 

There are plenty of folks who view the warming of the planet as a hoax intended to empower governments to oppress and control the citizenry, and give privilege to an educated elite. For them the idea of a chaotic reduction in carbon fuels is fine, because the problem isn’t carbon (a made-up problem) or changing climate regimes (another made-up problem), the problem is the planning, the use of the state power of eminent domain to coerce people. It isn’t obvious to me how to plan AND NOT plan, but maybe we can listen to such folks and do our best to address the needs they feel. But the wisdom of the community supersedes the wisdom of the individual in this case. 

The importance of planning for Global Climate Change is difficult to overstate. In the long run, as resources become scarce, we will be depending on the infrastructure we built when we had choices. Put another way, we could commit our resources to building infrastructure which will become obsolete, or we can build infrastructure which will serve us well beyond the age of oil. 

And we can build infrastructure which will, either, impede the change of culture, or advance the change of culture. Beyond using capital efficiently, we need to change how we live. As the global costs of using carbon based fuels become more acute, the pressure will build to reduce carbon outputs. If we plan now, if we build a low-carbon life-style, we will be ready when others are not. Being ahead of the curve, we will be exempt from some of the disruption, and be that place that others look to for solutions. By planning ahead and building the low-carbon culture of tomorrow, over time, we will make it easier for people to adjust to changing opportunities. By planning ahead, we get to develop the new low-carbon culture incrementally, iteratively (the new buzz word), with much less disruption than others will experience when, for them, it will be a crash program. 

How can we be sure? How can we plan for something over which there is so much disagreement? How can we be sure where the real costs will be? There are certain fundamentals in which science, scientists, and many others, have confidence. 

Global temperatures are rising. Climates are being disrupted. Human population densities are rising. Resource use continues to increase, and of these increasingly burdened resources, some are finite, meaning they will run out, and others, although renewable, can be overused. We are already using more resources and ecological services than the planet can sustainably provide. So we know generally in what direction to move. We know we need to use less and reduce our impacts on nature. From this general consensus we resort to more particular strategies. 

The goal of planning is to create conditions which favors some behaviors and discourages others. But individuals are still free to respond to those conditions out of their own creativity. So this is the strategy which flows from the wisdom of the crowd, from the actions of individuals. The community births creative responses, businesses, non-profits and even forms of recreation and volunteerism, which taken collectively form an ecology of activities. So people ARE able to live their lives and take care of themselves, while the ecosystem of human activity responds to the uncertainty of what the low carbon culture will require. Meanwhile planners also respond, making their own iterative adjustments. 

By planning ahead we reduce disruption, and increase opportunity. We learn what businesses we need to grow, what education to provide, and how to maintain and improve the quality of life. By planning ahead, the changes we induce in people’s lives are opportunities, not disruptions. The change we induce is the life we want to live. 

My vision holds that intact continuous forests, intact continuous farmlands, and healthy communities with healthy people, are precious community goods. People need culture and social activity, and the communities and communications infrastructure we build make these possible. Therefore we reward people who live in high density settlements, where the usual economic and social activities can be conducted without private fossil-fueled transport. Walking, biking, electric buses, even animal transport, are the primary means of transport. Community centers provide meeting rooms and internet based access to Skype-type services, so that transport to a meeting location is optional. For special needs, vehicle coops offer electric vehicles for private use. Meanwhile, the country side is delivered free of remote housing which demands private transportation and expensive power and communications infrastructure. Housing is built with set-back maxima, not minima, so that long driveways become obsolete, and taxes on private property increase as dwellings become more remote from other dwellings (with some finessing for the traditional camp). Over time, as people seek economies under this regime, forest stands and farm lands which are divided by private property boundaries will become reunited, permitting forests to become continuous again and farmlands can be used as farm lands again. 

Overcoming the love of vast properties which is so common in Vermont will take a very long time. Possibly generations. But this is the point of planning. We plan now and begin to put small but tolerable pressures on people so that over time people will adjust with minimal disruption. As the adjustments begin, the pressures adjust so that the changes continue. People will never be prohibited from living extravagant life-styles, but everyone will be rewarded with a high quality of life by choosing the low-impact life-style. Given time it will just seem natural. And I will bet that most people will agree it’s good, too. 

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