Plumb wrong

It is odd how you can entirely agree with someone on the one hand, and entirely disagree with them on the other.

George Plumb of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population has penned another op ed that seems to be accusing the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Lake Champlain Committee and the entire “modern day environmental movement” of somehow having abdicated their mission because they do not make “better” the victim of “perfect.”

As an example, he once again cites the VNRC’s 50th anniversary comment which he finds objectionable:

“It is commendable that we’ve found a way to grow our economy while maintaining the health of our environment.”

Plumb quite rightly observes

“…the concept that we can grow forever with finite resources makes no sense.”

I doubt that you will find anyone who has dedicated his or her work to sustainability, who would disagree with that statement; including the environmental organizations he is challenging.

However, there are two components to the discussion which Mr. Plumb seems to ignore.

One is a simple matter of semantics.  

“Growth” has come to mean different things to different actors.  There is, of course, the macro on which Wall Street and the consumer economy is built; a fundamentally flawed model that ultimately is unsustainable.  But “growth” has another significance in the environmental community.

Recognizing how ingrained is society’s acceptance of “growth” as a positive,  Vermont environmentalists have co-opted the term and the aspirations behind it, reshaping them to refer to expansion of sustainable practices and the economic benefit available through their responsible exercise.

And that brings us to another important component of the environmental message, that seems to have escaped Mr. Plumb: the necessity to recruit support in order to effect change.

If groups like the VNRC had taken the perspective that their mission was to arrest development altogether; not only would they have been doomed to complete failure, and remained largely irrelevant in a world overwhelmingly dominated by growth initiatives; they would have seen few recruits to such a radical position and been unable to do much of anything to affect even incremental improvements over the status quo.

Mr. Plumb looks back at the Vermont he remembers from his arrival in the state in the early 1960’s and is understandably dismayed by the losses it has suffered in terms of open space, clean air and water, and the natural world.

It is a tragedy; that can’t be denied.

But to say that environmental groups have failed, and that their message should be all about acknowledging a failure, demonstrates a true disconnect with reality.

Mr. Plumb’s cup may be half-empty, and he may be preparing to leave the table; but Vermont environmentalists must necessarily view the cup as half-full, and their job: to work positively toward a better future.

We have a whole lot of work to do and face tremendous odds.  No one recognizes that more intensely than do I, as I watch my surroundings disappear into the concrete gullet of Walmart.

But forgive me if I am not yet prepared to say we failed.  We make ours a mission to mitigate, to educate and to advocate for meaningful reforms…a slow, thankless job that someone has to do.  

We celebrate whatever and whenever we can because that is how the human spirit goes on.

I do not see any lack of acknowledgement for the overwhelming gravity of our environmental situation from either the VNRC or its sister organizations in Vermont.

And there truly are things to celebrate; like how much better Vermont has done in resisting the scale of development that is practiced throughout the rest of the country.

Sack cloth and ashes may make the wearer feel more worthy, but they do little to cultivate improvement in others.

Perhaps the zero growth model favored by Vermonters for a Sustainable Population works in some alternative universe where there is no opposing force.  I, for one, could probably inhabit that universe in complete contentment.  

Here in latter-day Vermont we must accept the hand we’ve been dealt and do what we can to play it well.

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

2 thoughts on “Plumb wrong

  1. I flew out of Burlington today and wound up reading the Free  Press.  I was stunned at the combination of poor writing and poor thinking.  It took me several times through one of the paragraphs to understand that he was against growth! (The Valley News has much more cogent Op/Eds).

    The Environmental movement has had its major success in the complete reversal of opinion of most of the population on the “right to pollute”.  Nowhere in any state is it any longer a person or corporation’s right to pollute air, water or land without approval from some kind of regulatory body. (I know some of them are in the pockets of developers, but some people can’t run a government very well). That’s very different from 50 years ago; I’d venture that there were poisons in the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain that would appall us today, with no guilt attached.  The burden of proof is on the polluter now, which is where it should be.

    As to “growth”, I concur that some growth is distasteful and some is downright harmful.  If we acknowledge that we need jobs in a money economy, it’s incumbent upon us to support green jobs as an alternative to sprawling concrete monstrosities. Vermont can be a leader in this pursuit as it has been to protect our environment.  I’d invite George to go visit some other states if he thinks we’ve failed.  His intransigence is the same problem we call out in our ultra-conservative friends who will have the whole pie or nothing.

  2. Mr. Plumb looks at the past through rose-colored glasses if he thinks everything was environmentally better 50 years ago. Before the billboard ban? Before the bottle bill? Before current zoning ordinances? Before the Clean Water Act? Before Act 250? Before there was much of an organized environmental movement at all?

    When Plumb arrived in Vermont, our stewardship of the environment was primitive by today’s standards.

    Also, there is growth and there is growth. While I agree that permanent expansion is unsustainable, some measure of growth is necessary to create an economically livable space for all Vermonters (including those not yet here, unless you’re going to close the borders). Growth in areas like renewable power and energy efficiency and the online/digital world can actually reduce our environmental footprint. That’s the kind of growth favored by the likes of VNRC, and I don’t see any problem with it at all.  

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