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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Vermont: The Green(Washing) Mountain State

Vermont isn’t what we think it is. At least, Vermont isn’t the place I thought it was or the place many of my peers think it to be. Coming to Vermont as a student from the Midwest, I was eager to become immersed in the land of politicians like Bernie Sanders, activist companies like Ben and Jerry’s and values of environmentalism and justice. These, along with maple syrup, mountains and cows, are the basic traits of the Vermont stereotype and likely are some of the things that drew many students to Middlebury. In fact, a key pillar of the admissions info session I attended back in the summer of 2019 was that a prospective student could not understand the college without understanding the context of the wonderful state in which it exists. 

Yet, as I make my way through my fourth and final year at this school, armed with perspectives and facts gained from a host of experiences inside the classroom and outside working with community organizations, I feel it is time to challenge this prevalent Vermont narrative and call attention to a set of realities that exist here. In doing so I seek not to bash the wonderful people of this state or outright vilify its systems - I do really love it here - but I hope to present a side of Vermont that, though troubling, is ripe for the type of change being advocated for by many grassroots organizations locally. I also write as a call to action for Middlebury students, who, though often unaware of these truths, hold great power in advocating for change in local and national politics. A rally on January 27th in Montpellier, organized in collaboration between climate action organization 350Vermont and seventeen other local organizations, presents an opportunity for students to educate themselves on such injustices and take a stand to advocate for a better future in Vermont. 

Perhaps the most common misconception about Vermont relates to its status as an environmental and climate leader. The Green Mountain State is in fact the third highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the Northeast, and much of its climate policy is far behind its New England neighbors. This is a result in part of policy like the Renewable Energy Standard, a piece of legislation passed in 2017 that sought to incentivize a shift toward renewable energy in the electricity sector but resulted in the greenwashing of electricity generation and hampered wind and solar development. 

The law requires that 75% of utilities’ electricity must come from renewable sources by the year 2032, which at first glance seems impactful and supports the Vermont environmentalism narrative. However, the specifications regarding what sources are allowed to count toward this 75% are where the legislation breaks down. Electricity from large hydroelectric generation, an emitter of large amounts of methane gas and a historic justification for the unjust flooding of large swaths of forest (often disproportionately affecting indigenous people) is allowed to count toward this total. Vermont is the only New England state that allows large hydro to be counted in this way. The Renewable Energy Standard also allows for the procurement of unbundled renewable energy credits, which permits utilities to purchase the renewable trait from generation projects that might take place far outside of the state. The legislation has in fact led to a decrease in solar development in Vermont since its passage in 2017. Of the 65% of the Vermont energy mix that is classified as renewable today, 90% comes from Renewable Energy Credits and large hydro. This is the truth behind the guise of impactful policy. 

Policies like the Renewable Energy Standard are indicative of a broader issue in which the Vermont of today exists in contrast to the Vermont many people think it to be. This policy paradigm exists as well in a broader context of the affordable housing crisis, overwhelmed food shelves in the state and low-income families spending over 5 times more of their monthly income on energy bills than higher-income families. At a time when disastrous weather events continue to rock Vermont and increasing temperatures are consistently shattering monthly heat records, it feels like we have sharply departed from that idealized Vermont narrative.

Today, I see a balance of power in Vermont that puts politicians on the side of utilities and corporations and in opposition to the interests of the people who individually are powerless against the machine of money and politics. Now in Vermont, as is the case across the country, distraught citizens are becoming aware of this lopsided system at the same time as they are becoming aware of their power in numbers. Where previously divided, movements built on issues like climate, racial justice and economic reform are now rallying around their intersections and collectively demanding solutions to the shared root causes of injustice. In Vermont, climate justice organizations like 350Vermont are collaborating with groups like Migrant Justice, the Poor People’s Campaign, the VT Anti-War Coalition, Voices for Vermont’s Children and many others to demand government action to address the root causes of injustice and ensure a brighter future for all. 

On Jan. 27 this broader movement will show itself at the Vermont statehouse at the Vermonters Together: Building a Better Future March and Rally. The rally in Montpelier, Vt., a collaboration of eighteen local organizations including Middlebury’s Sunday Night Environmental Group, aims to call attention to the intersections of the respective movements represented and unite Vermonters to demand that legislators address the root causes of injustice in the state. Demands range from specific legislation like a stronger Renewable Energy Standard to broader asks like ensured investment in communities and support for farmers. A diverse lineup of speakers will offer an overview of the issues at hand and lay out a vision for how Vermont can be the state its people deserve.

So, what about Middlebury students? Middlebury students, most of whom come from out of state, are afforded the opportunity to live on a campus that itself perpetuates the idealized Vermont narrative: Local chocolate milk in the dining hall, carbon-neutral branding across campus and a shuttle to our own ski hill all curate the “authentic” Vermont experience. At the same time, Middlebury students are immersed in conversations of systemic injustice, broken policies and rampant inequality across the globe. Many students feel called to use their education to dedicate some piece of their future career to making a positive impact. But in doing so, we fail to look at the present, at the local community in which we are so lucky to live and at the injustices that exist right here. 

The voices of students matter. Students are seen as the future and historically, when students rally around a collective message in the face of injustice, positive change happens. And this era will be no different. Every politician, CEO, or person in power has a young person in their life, be they a child, grandchild, family member or friend, and therefore has some stake in the future they will leave behind for them. The rally represents an opportunity to look beyond the Vermont narrative, educate ourselves on the very real injustices in Vermont, and utilize our platform as students to advocate for a better future for all. In doing so, maybe we can push Vermont a little closer to that land of justice, clean air, mountains, and maple syrup. See the rally flyers around campus for more details and carpool info. I hope to see you there.