Last Saturday, Sept. 22, students rode north to Shelburne Farms to mingle with some of the state’s and the nation’s strongest environmental voices — including celebrated author and environmental activist Van Jones — all in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC).
The VNRC is primarily an environmental advocacy group that has organized coalitions and ecological experts to influence the vast majority of the environmental legislation coming out of Montpelier, Vt.
After an hour of enjoying local fare provided by an array of Vermont farmers and eateries, the lights flickered and everyone moved from the dining area to the large tent where VNRC leaders and Jones were set to speak.
Executive Director Brian Shupe started off the evening with an exhaustive list of thank you’s, a few words about VNRC and a vision of the next era of environmental work.
“As we move into our next 50 years,” said Shupe, “we’re looking at a political environment that is increasingly contentious. We’re looking at the role and influence of money in our political process, and [our] collective voice is going to be ever more important for Vermont.”
Governor Peter Shumlin followed Shupe at the podium, making clear his opinion on policy in Vermont relating to the environment.
“As a kid born and raised in the state, I understand … that those who try to divide the preservation of our extraordinary natural resources with jobs and job creation do so at our future’s peril,” said Shumlin.
This intersection between a strong economy and a strong environment underlined Shumlin’s entire speech and informed his continued advocacy for green jobs in the state.
“There is a reason,” he said, “why the United States Department of Labor statistics identified eight weeks ago that Vermont has more green, clean, high-tech jobs per capita than any other state in the nation.”
With 23 million Americans still out of work and generally uncertain economic times ahead, both Shumlin and Jones zeroed in on the economy, focusing on attitudes and practices, environmental and otherwise, that brought us to this present predicament.
“The last economy didn’t just fail the planet, it failed the people, too,” said Jones during his keynote address. “You in Vermont are building the next economy, not just for yourselves, but as an example to the whole world.
“We have to take [the] position that America’s future is not down those holes,” he continued, referring to fossil fuels like coal or crude oil being mined from the earth. “If you want to see the future, look up! Look at the sun! Look at the wind!”
Technologies like photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines are the cornerstones of the economically-strong and ecologically-sound future that Jones has envisioned and shared with the audience.
“How do we have an economy that works?” asked Jones. “You go back to production, you go back to making things, building rather than borrowing, you go back to thrift, you go back to ecological restoration; there’s a word for that: it’s called the Green Economy.”
The two student groups present for the talk were members and supporters of the Sunday Night Group (SNG) and students taking Professor of Economics Jonathan Isham’s first year seminar, which he describes as having a focus on “social entrepreneurship and social justice.”
“We’re essentially studying social change, social movements and those two other concepts,” said Isham. “When we heard Van was going to be coming to town, I assigned his first book to the class and they read it.”
Having worked through Jones’ The Green Collar Economy, the class had the honor of drafting questions for the questions and answers portion of the evening as a follow up to his speech.
An affiliate of the VNRC offered the first student question, which pressed Jones on the political side of his career, drawing on his brief experience as adviser to President Barack Obama on green jobs.
“The question was,” said Isham, “how do we put pressure on the Obama White House?”
To answer this question, Jones invited Schumann Distingushed Scholar Bill McKibben from his place in the audience to help answer the question.
“You don’t understand how hard it is to stand up in that town,” said Jones, by way of introduction. “Nobody had ever been willing to do a sit-in anywhere near the White House with Obama there because we love him so much; there was a fear that it would be hard for him, [but] this man said no. First, we have to do right by our children.”
McKibben took the stage to resounding applause, spurred by the memory of his work through 350.org in Washington, D.C. last fall when he organized a human chain surrounding the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.
“A big part of making any progress,” said McKibben, “is getting rid of the dead hand of the fossil fuel industry.”
For McKibben, the influence that money derived from fossil fuels has held in American politics is far too great and has halted any advances that policy makers, including Obama, might like to make in expanding environmental regulation.
Much of the financial backing for these giant corporations, however, comes from sources closer to home.
“We can’t have Middlebury College and UVM investing their endowments in fossil fuel companies,” said McKibben, directly referencing two schools that had sent students to the event.
“We need to invest in the future,” he added. “The night after the election, we kick off this road show, all over the country, 25 cities in 25 nights, trying to spark this full on assault on fossil fuels.”
Students in SNG and members of the Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) club are aware of this divestment campaign, as McKibben has titled it, and hope to align some of their efforts this fall with this push.
“I was really inspired,” said Cody Gohl ’13, a contributor to SNG for the last two years. “I think that at an age when activism is something everyone wants to be doing, we’re [also] facing roadblocks with money and time and getting people energized … It’s really great to hear people talk about how there is still hope.”
Jeannie Bartlett ’15, member of both SNG and SRI, spoke to her interest in encouraging the school to match its actions with its stated values.
“Especially in light of Middlebury’s pledge to be carbon neutral,” said Bartlett, “it’s a perfect fit to join McKibben’s divestment campaign to move off of fossil fuels.”