Why we need leadership to take us beyond the existential threat of climate change

Is our precious democracy effective at solving the greatest human crises? It took the United States 90 years to abolish slavery after the initial abolitionist movement began in Philadelphia in 1775. Material interests and greed prevented a young United States from facing up to the responsibility of living up to our founders’ words, according to which we aspired to build a new kind of society, one in which all people are born equal. And here we are in the face of our greatest existential threat after nuclear war: climate change. Industrialization and the fossil fuel industry have again led us down the path of material interests and greed to the point where we face the prospect of our own destruction. I do not believe, however, that this will mean a new civil war between those set on defending those interests and their supporters and others committed to preserving a planet capable of sustaining human life for generations to come. The level of rancor this is causing in South Burlington should not scare us. Debate is not to be feared. Debate is to be encouraged, the parameters of the debate to be set by accepted knowledge, and all who wish to participate allowed to do so.

At last night’s City Council meeting, I was heartened to hear seven residents speak up and ask our Council to do what the people have asked us to do: lead.

We five Councilors were elected to face these challenges and to act responsibly in the interests of our city, taking the utmost care to present factual and informed arguments and to represent the interests of future generations. In order to do so, we cannot act for the now. We will betray our mission if we choose to act on short-term returns. Let there be no mistake, we are acting for future generations of residents, for their quality of life and prosperity, which alone will ensure our city’s future. They will be facing much more dire living conditions if we do not proceed with this care and foresight, and so we must lead.

I reject the following fiction that some would have us believe: construction of market-rate homes will not bring about more affordable housing. Only the construction of homes funded by public monies and non-profits, combined with affordable housing covenants, will maintain affordability into perpetuity. Do not listen to these voices of material interests, some of them motivated by greed and others by misguided good intentions.

I reject the false notion that building homes and new neighborhoods far from public transit and places of employment is sustainable. We no longer have the luxury of living in the illusion of the 1950s. We know today that human society must alter its settlement and work patterns in order to sustain itself. This won’t be the first time we do so. We are up to the task. But we need leaders to point out which steps we must take, based on solid data.

Eighty percent of Vermonters surveyed in a Vermont Center for Research survey expressed the wish to telecommute. Not everyone can work remotely, but those who can should be allowed to do so. The remainder will most likely be our service sector employees, including our teachers, restaurant workers, grocery store workers, employees in our local services and stores. Now, experience tells us that most of these essential workers will not be able to afford a $350,000+ home (2021 figures). Rather than building into our sensitive natural areas, let us invest in the redevelopment and development of areas close to our transportation corridors and our employment centers, and provide these residents access to open green space, including personal garden plots and biking/walking paths in addition to our wonderful natural areas and parks. There is a lot we can do on Rte. 2, Rte. 7, Rte. 116 (Hinesburg Rd) from Kennedy Dr. to Meadowland Drive, and Kimball Ave in the way of infill and mixed-use development in order to provide needed affordable housing; and we have federal and state grants being offered in order to do so.

In a sustainable South Burlington, our ecosystems would remain intact, all the way from Shelburne Pond up through the Great Swamp — the spine of South Burlington — on up to Potash Brook, which runs down to Red Rocks Park and into the lake. Waterways, grasslands, forests, and scrub brush all bring us millions of dollars in benefits per year as the Earth Economics report commissioned by the Council indicates (and potentially well over $200 million over 20 years). Close to these sensitive areas, tracts of land could be set aside for farming. At a distance that is respectful of these critical natural resources, and conducive to walking and biking, new affordable housing of various types depending on the household would become available into perpetuity: apartments for students in our nearby colleges and universities, apartments and townhouses/duplexes for new recruits to our businesses in the service sector, apartments/townhouses/duplexes for new families getting a foothold in our city until they save enough to upsize or buy a home.

Let us act to honor the lives of our children and grandchildren. As an ancient proverb states, we are borrowing the land from them for our short time on this blessed earth. Let us have them lead us as we work toward new regulations and planning for their future.