Bernie, don’t betray us
Following is a letter to Sen. Bernard Sanders written by Garret Keizer, essayist and author:
This is a letter of frustration; I want to be sure it is also a letter of respect. You have represented the people of Vermont and the working people of the United States tirelessly and well. It has been my privilege to support you in the voting booth, in my published writings, and in conversations with my neighbors and friends. I am proud to call you my senator. I hope you will not be too proud to consider my thoughts.
It’s possible you will be too busy, in which case I’m able to suggest a less time-consuming alternative. Consult a chart that ranks Vermont communities on the basis of per-capita income, and compare it to a list of those communities slated to receive so-called wind farms.
I will save you further time by directing you to the bottom of the list, where virtually all of those communities can be found. Finally, I will direct you to the bottom of your heart, a domain I continue to trust.
Obviously, the source of my frustration is your recent pronouncement against efforts in the Vermont Legislature to slow the juggernaut of industrial wind development in our rural communities. In order to clarify where this frustration is coming from, I need to be clear about where it is not coming from.
First of all, I am not one of those who feel that Vermont’s much-touted image as a place of natural beauty and virtuous composting ought to exempt us from responsibility to address global climate change. I will only point out that the notion of Vermont “leading the nation toward a sustainable energy future” is merely the flip side of the same self-congratulatory cant.
Second of all, I am not opposed to projects for sustainable energy development. I am against the exploitive use of those projects to generate excessive profits and political capital for the likes of First Wind and Peter Shumlin — to say nothing of unearned rectitude for “the majority of Vermonters who support wind energy” in the full knowledge that they’re likelier to see a UFO over Lake Champlain than a wind tower on Shelburne Point. I am also against a permitting process that ignores, not only the town plans of small communities but also the setback standards recommended by the wind industry itself. If these objections make me “anti-wind,” then by the same logic your laudable opposition to the military adventurism of the Bush administration makes you a friend of terrorists the world over.
Finally, I am not among those who feel that a United States senator has no business weighing in on state politics. This voter would be happy to have your input on any state or local matter you deemed worthy of comment. That said, I do marvel at your holding a press conference to oppose a temporary moratorium on industrial wind development but no such conference of which I am aware to oppose the Shumlin administration’s attacks on social programs and local school budgets, or to support the unionization of child-care workers or the right of a journalist like Chris Braithwaite to exercise his First Amendment function without being harassed at the behest of a power company. Why the comment on the one and the silence on the others?
Someone who loves you less than I do would say that the explanation is to be found in the simple fact that you can more easily afford to alienate people who live in places like Newark and Island Pond than the people whose enormous carbon footprints are matched only by the fat checks they write to Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy and to those politicians who offer them the same cheap righteousness as the checks do.
A better answer, the answer I think you would give, is that global climate change is a crisis we cannot afford to ignore any longer. I believe this too. But it is a curious “crisis,” is it not? The word ought to be written in neon like the flashing sign for a bar and grill. When a corporation stands to turn a tidy profit from a wind project, the “crisis” light goes on. When the L.L. Bean crowd is preparing to take their annual flight to Tuscany, off it goes. When you drive the murderous stretch of Route 89 from Montpelier to Burlington, when you search for a parking space at Burlington International Airport, when you walk down the Great White Way of the Church Street Mall, do you have any sense whatsoever of a crisis, of a population resolved to save the planet no matter the cost? But when wind towers are about to go up in Newark, where it’s too dark at night to see your hand in front of your face, then there’s an apocalyptic crisis that brooks no delay!
The ironies of this equivocal crisis are almost as staggering as the amount of carbon generated by a single air passenger. (British climate expert George Monbiot has recently gone so far as to equate air travel with murder.) For one thing, we are passing the costs of sustainable energy development to the people who often have the smallest carbon footprints. They are vilified as “not-in-my-backyard types” by people who are never in their backyards, though they may own several and light them up like Fenway Park.
For another thing, we are addressing global climate change with the same grandiosity that gave us the problem to begin with. Our agenda is so important, you see, so pressing, that we can’t stop to consider the welfare of small communities, small ecosystems, small people, small pleasures — the same arguments we’ve used for the Red Scare, the War on Terror, the rape of West Virginia, and the Spanish Inquisition. We have big problems to solve (and big bucks to make) and no luxury to deal with petty scruples.
In the Netherlands, where people actually seem to believe there is a climate crisis — and with good reason, since rising sea levels will effectively eliminate the Netherlands — communities are given a mandate to reduce their carbon footprints. They can choose the method, but they cannot choose whether to accept the mandate. In effect the government is saying, “You are all stakeholders in this. Come up with a plan that meets our criteria, or we will impose one.”
This is not to suggest that there are no difficulties with the Dutch approach, including some bitter controversies over wind power, only that the responsibilities, the disadvantages, and the profits are shared with something approximating the principle of environmental justice. It is not unusual, for instance, for a farmer to install a tower on his land and sell energy as a way to supplement his income. He must live with his tower and among the neighbors who must live with it also. Compare that to the carpetbagger approach now current in Vermont.
Yet even in the Netherlands, we see the folly of generating clean energy while failing to restrict energy consumption. One researcher (a supporter of wind energy, by the way) found that the electricity generated by wind power for an entire year accounted for no more than the growth in Dutch energy consumption over a two-month period. “Alternative energy” without energy conservation is like storing water in a sieve.
My last point is a question: Is it even possible to address global climate change within the present form of our capitalist economy? Surely you must ask yourself this question, too. Surely the socialist democracy you once dreamed of, and perhaps still dream of, is not the same thing as a society that gives government subsidies to energy entrepreneurs and then “socializes” the deleterious effects of their projects by distributing them among those too weak to resist. (The town of Newark, for example, is being sued by a consortium of anonymous landowners who allege that the town’s resistance to wind development is an unfair abridgement of their property rights. Apparently, these rights do not extend to resident homeowners, whose hard-earned capital is largely tied up in the modest houses they will be unable to sell at fair value once the towers are in place.)
It would be unrealistic to ask one U.S. senator, however forthright and progressive, to rectify the problem of addressing climate change within a plutocracy. It would not be unrealistic, I think, to expect him to testify to the problem. But to have him exemplify the problem — that would be nothing short of heartbreaking. Yes, we need to act on global climate change, and yes, we need wind power. We also need an inclusive and equitable process for energy development, a carbon tax that funds this development while acting as a mechanism of distributive justice, and a rigorous program of energy conservation. And we need Bernie Sanders, not as a de facto spokesperson for the opportunists of “green capitalism,” but as that voice for the voiceless which, at his best, he has always been.
Garret Keizer is a resident of Sutton.