Greg Dennis: Optimism after the elections

“We’re living through an uncommonly durable and pronounced pessimism,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote this past Sunday, “when a majority of adults don’t think kids will have as many opportunities as they did; there’s waning faith in social mobility and a widening gap between rich and poor; when our standing in the world is diminished and our sense of insecurity has intensified accordingly; when the environment itself is turning on us and demanding the sorts of long-term adjustments we’ve seldom been good at.”
These days, it’s easy to find many analyses like that one. While I’m writing before the Election Day results are in, I suspect they will usher in a new round of pessimism for many.
But in some parts of our democracy, there is real reason for optimism.
On the pessimistic side, most eligible Americans don’t vote in midterm elections, even as groups like VPIRG warn them that “Not voting isn’t rebellion — it’s surrender.”
Even among engaged voters, on the national level our democracy is hamstrung by deeply entrenched, seemingly incompatible ideologies, by remnants of the patriarchy that in some ways still deny women equal access, and by a profound lack of common goals or vision.
The sources of power seem dominated by Wall Street money people who couldn’t care less about ordinary Americans.
The recent IPCC climate report from the U.N. paints a grim picture indeed about the “environment turning on us.” Unless humanity leaves 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, the scientists have shown, we will face massive disruptions around the globe that will result in greater poverty and food shortages, which are likely to cause chaos and bring some societies to their knees.
In our interconnected world, that means nobody will be safe from the global warming. Even those of up here in our little Vermont bubble.
It’s increasingly clear that we need to put a price on the carbon (and methane) emissions that are the root of this danger. But with many Republican members of Congress still voicing doubt that climate change is real and caused by humans, we probably won’t see action at the national level until we endure several more climate shocks — epic events that may make hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy look like minor rainstorms.
And yet.
If our national discourse is poisoned, a grassroots Democracy 2.0 is showing a way forward at the local and regional levels.
Democrats and Republicans in the Congress spend their days trying to tear the opposition a new one.
In Vermont, by contrast, even the debate in a state building occupied by protestors remains friendly.
Consider last week’s Montpelier sit-in. Scores of opponents to the fracked gas pipeline, which is tearing through the heart of Addison County, occupied Montpelier’s Pavilion Building and the reception area outside the governor’s office. During negotiations with those sitting in, the governor’s staff’s ordered pizza for the demonstrators.
Of course, cheese and toppings weren’t enough to turn the Rising Tide group away: More than 60 of them were cited for trespassing.
The Vermonters who descended on Montpelier for the rally understand that stopping the growth of fossil fuel infrastructure is an essential first step toward an energy system and economy that don’t depend on the increasingly dangerous extraction and burning of oil, gas and coal.
That protest, which drew 500 people to the Statehouse lawn, was yet another mark of how determined many citizens are to turn things around.
As Jade Walker, an organizer for 350vt.org, puts it, “Everywhere there is a pipeline proposal, there is resistance.”
And she means everywhere — from opposition in Portland, Maine, that has so far blocked a tar sands pipeline, to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where activists are fighting massive fracking, to the oil and gas fields of Alberta, Canada, where First Nations people are making a stand against yet another round of exploitation of their native lands.
These folks know that gas isn’t a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future, as Gov. Shumlin, Middlebury College and many others believe. Fracked gas is a dirty, dangerous bridge to nowhere.
You don’t have to look very far these days to see the future. Around the U.S., wind and especially solar energy are growing like mushrooms on fallen birch logs.
While solar installers and the jobs they create have a higher profile, there is a lot of good stuff happening in quieter places, too.
NOFA (the Northeast Organic Farmers Association) has long led the way to a more sustainable, local, self-sufficient food network in New England. Now groups like the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) are stepping up to fertilize the local economy, by promoting the infrastructure we need to grow more local food and process it here, too. Our many co-ops also fuel that growth.
Even legislatively, there is hope to be had in Vermont.
There is now serious discussion about divesting state pension funds out of fossil fuel companies. We are even having the beginnings of a discussion about putting a price on carbon at the state level.
Skeptics will assert that Vermont is a small and isolated state, whose actions are unlikely to have global or even national impacts. But we optimists recall that historically Vermont led the way on abolition and much more recently on marriage equality and labeling GMO foods.
It’s easy to regard all of these diverse groups that are reinvigorating economic democracy as just that — diverse.
But I’d suggest their commonalities are much greater than their differences.
Someone who cares enough about global warming to go the People’s Climate March, for example, is highly likely to shop at co-ops and farmers markets, oppose new polluting energy infrastructure, favor solar power, be open to divestment, and perhaps even grow a bigger garden.
Those energies all line up together, and they have little to do with the old dominant paradigm.
Wall Street holds little sway over a quart of local tomatoes that have been put up for winter eating in a recycled Mason jar.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected], Twitter: greengregdennis.

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