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The truisms of energy policy and people

10/30/2008

By Bob Ferris

There are several truisms of U.S. energy policy. The first is that there are normally spikes in the prices of gasoline and diesel whenever energy legislation is being considered. It's as predictable as the swallows coming back to Capistrano. The prices hold high for a while and then recede just as predictably.

The second truism is that the Congressional response will be inadequate to deal with the situation and just as likely to be wrongheaded. Witness our most recent deliberations where hundreds of millions of dollars were placed on the table to shift America's focus to renewable energy sources. Come on! Americans invested more over several weekends this past summer going to see the new Batman movie. Surely our investment in and commitment to an issue that impacts the welfare of every single American and the future of our economy deserves more than that. Do elected officials think that the American public cannot tell the difference between millions and billions?

And then there is the issue of offshore drilling. Here the image of long-legged oil platforms scattered about our coasts must be akin to what English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was envisioning when he came up with the phrase "nonsense on stilts." For one thing the likely fuel from these enterprises is natural gas, not oil, so how in the wide world spin is that going to lower gasoline prices? Why wouldn't we invest the same amount of money in wind or solar power, push electric cars and perhaps give our kids and their children a viable economy and breathable air in 20 years?

Which leads us to the third and most germane truism: Those that can afford it least will be impacted most because of truisms one and two. Older folks on a fixed incomes and children with asthma are probably tops on the list of the vulnerable. They will be least able to afford increased heating costs or breathe the air associated with the continuance of our outdated fossil-fuel regime. Minimum wage workers with long commutes would be on that list as well. These shadow citizens are economically marginal to begin with and who knows where this will push them? So what are we going to do? We can't simply sacrifice these folks because our leaders can't find the emergency exit for a disastrous and destructive energy pathway.

We can certainly raise money to help folks pay heating bills. Local churches and the Mad River Valley Community Fund stand ready to do some of that. We can also develop "wood banks" and get firewood to those who need it most. But all of these options seem very similar to "giving a person a fish" in the parable about feeding the hungry. Can't we do better than that? And the answer to that is: Yes.

How about pursuing a "teach them to fish option"? What if we all worked together to educate ourselves and others about energy conservation and localized energy production? The answer to that question is: We already are. Witness the recent Button Up workshops at Moretown and Yestermorrow Design/Build School. See also the work of the Energy folks connected with the Valley Futures Network (www.valleyfutures.net). And then there are the Carbon Shredders.

I am sure there are readers who see the Carbon Shredders as another Valley hippie-dippy tree-hugging love fest, but that impulse to condescend gets dampened with each ding at the gas pump and increasing digits on power bills. Each time the furnace rumbles in the middle of the night, I suspect that there are a few more converts to the Shredder's credo of saving money, having fun, and protecting the planet.  

So what is my point? My point is: Help is not going to come from above. We have to explore and co-create local solutions and then also have the compassion and good sense to help our neighbors. To learn more about how to beat the energy beast a good first step would be to attend the free Carbon Shredders workshop on November 10 at 6 p.m. at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield. Find out what other Valley folks are doing and get a free meal. See you there.

Ferris, Waitsfield, is a co-founder of the Carbon Shredders and vice president of the Mad River Valley Housing Coalition.
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