The maxim “elections have consequences” has never meant more to me than in the past six months. After a steady barrage of lies, complicity and violence that underscored how fragile our democracy is, a friend told me that New Year’s Day seemed to wait until Jan. 20 this year, when President Biden and Vice President Harris were, finally, sworn into office.
I have written often in the past four years about the Trump administration’s assault on the basic protections for our water and air, public lands and wildlife, and human health. Since taking office, President Biden has taken several important steps to reverse many of Trump’s most egregious actions.
These include rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, appointing qualified – and often groundbreaking – people to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior and other important positions of power, and vowing to conserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030 (an initiative called 30x30). Biden has pledged, through words and actions, that his administration will be guided by science, as well as a deep commitment to equity, when addressing the environmental and public health challenges we face.
Obviously, this is a great relief to many Vermonters. But beyond the policy decisions, I’m hopeful that it reflects something deeper and more profound in how we view the role of government in our lives.
For the past 40+ years, Americans have been inundated with messaging about how government is the problem, not the solution. How taxes, especially on the highest income-earners, are unaffordable and a drag on the economy. How regulations – which ensure the air we breathe and water we drink don’t make us sick – inhibit business. How the best stewards of our public lands are extractive industries. How the private sector knows best and, left unimpeded (though often subsidized with public dollars), will work in the public interest and protect the common-wealth.
The results of leaving our air, water, land, wildlife and health in the hands of private, profit-driven corporations was entirely predictable. They include out-of-control global warming; a rate of species extinction unprecedented in human history; the proliferation of poisonous chemicals in consumer products, industry and agriculture; deteriorating infrastructure; and deep levels of systemic racial and income inequality.
These problems have gotten worse because we have kicked too many cans down the road. We’ve failed to make the investments and enact the policies that can address threats before they turn into crises.
But in a crisis, there is opportunity. The Biden administration and Congress enacted the American Recovery Act to address the immediate challenges of the day, COVID-19 and the associated economic downturn. Early indications are this popular legislation will succeed. In a speech this week, Biden indicated he is not done with ensuring, in his words, we “build back better” by investing in the nation’s infrastructure and the necessary transition to a climate friendly economy. The president’s plan includes money for traditional infrastructure projects like rebuilding roads, bridges and wastewater systems. Here in Vermont, we will have a critical opportunity to upgrade aging sewer systems and, possibly, provide additional wastewater treatment facilities in our smaller and mid-size village centers.
Most exciting about the new administration’s plans is the commitment to strategic investments that will jump-start the transition to a clean energy economy. By committing to reshaping and electrifying our transportation system, significantly expanding renewable energy production and storage, and conserving our land and water through the 30x30 initiative, the president has responded to growing demands that government take an active role in improving lives and protecting the environment.
Equally important, Biden has committed to ensuring his spending plan is centered on equity and environmental justice, with a goal of reducing the income gap that has grown steadily over the past several decades.
Like the rest of the nation, Vermont has been stuck in an austerity narrative for decades. By focusing on what government can do to build a stronger, more just, economy, Biden is providing an important model for Vermont and other states regarding how businesses, communities, government and individuals can work together to not only solve today’s problems, but more importantly, to prevent future problems from growing out of control – and instead, build a more sustainable, equitable and healthy future.
Brian Shupe is Vermont Natural Resources Council’s executive director.