Notes from the Great Transition
The Truck Stop
“Here, Addy, take my hand,” I say to my son as we step out of a truck stop in western Vermont. “I want to show you something we don’t see much around here.” Together we cross the parking lot to where a red dump truck sits idling, its bed full of bulk coal.
“Do you know what this is?”
“Right, a coal delivery truck,” I say. “I want you to remember this. Someday you can tell your grandkids about the old days, when people still burned coal for heat.”
Addison nods, but I’m just getting started. As much as I agree with David Sobel that introducing young children to large-scale environmental problems can do more harm than good, I want Addy to understand how important it is that we’re finally beginning to outgrow such filthy energy. I cut the lecture short, though, when I hear “airborne particulates” leave my mouth. He’s only six.
“Anyway,” I say, “remember this.”
As we turn back toward our car, the truck driver is walking toward us. I wonder if he’ll ask what we were looking at. “History,” I consider replying, but we both simply nod and that’s just as well. I have no smile sufficient to keep that answer from sounding cocky.
The fact is, I am feeling pretty confident these days, ever since the October meetings in Paris when the world agreed to limit carbon emissions even more than expected. I could practically feel the weight of history shift.
I had always imagined the Petroleum Age ending badly, with energy corporations digging in their claws, but instead they’re elbowing each other aside to show their commitment to renewables. As it turns out their greatest fear is irrelevance. Meanwhile, those slow to get on board have begun to realize, in the words of one coal-industry representative, that they will eventually be treated “in the same way that slave traders were once hated and vilified.”
So what happened? At the same time that renewable energy is becoming more affordable and efficient each year, the leaders of states, NGOs, and even corporations are scrambling to handle the consequences of our long fossil-fuel addiction. It’s as easy as that.
Or is it? It may seem obvious in 2016 that the Great Transition is well underway, but I don’t trust my view of the big picture—and I’m not sure whether this is despite or because of the flood of news and social media posts I wade through each day, trying to keep my graduate students up to date. Some reports describe hopeful new technologies, others the alarming reasons we’d better hurry. But because we are preparing students to help create the next stage of society in the new Resilient and Sustainable Communities graduate program that I direct at Green Mountain College, I’d prefer a better idea of what that stage might look like.
About the only thing that is clear to me, though, is how little we understand great transitions while we’re going through them. At best, we catch an occasional glimpse of something that seems to suggest where we’re headed, but even then I have to ask myself, am I reading this right? And if I’m so unsure about what lies ahead, how can I presume to help my students find the way?
This boy at my side leaves me plainly biased toward the most hopeful visions of the future I can justify. Sure, I know that any number of disruptions could derail these efforts, but for now I enjoy feeling a little giddy each time I see another field of solar panels, a new regional food hub, or a sleek electric car come humming by.
I’d love for Addy to share my excitement about a world without exhaust fumes, but even as we pull out of the truck stop, puttering toward the new age in our rusty Subaru, he’s scouting sports cars from the backseat—hoping to spot a Porsche or Ferrari, having to settle on most days for a Mustang.
Then there are those glimpses of the future that leave us shaken, like the afternoon I spent at Dulles International Airport in early 2014. Making the best of a long delay, I found a window seat at a concourse restaurant and dug into a thick file of reports on climate change and peak oil—the sobering context for the graduate program we were then designing.
Those reports delivered a misery of descriptions, one after another, of the mess we’re making of this world. Severe weather, habitat loss, climate refugees. The spread of insect-borne diseases. Scarce water and withered crops. Record temperatures, storm surges, and supply lines scattered like Addy’s train tracks across the floor. As details accumulated about the prospects for his generation, it became too much. I set my reading aside.
Out beyond the window, dozens of vehicles crissed and crossed the tarmac: tank trucks and baggage carts, refuelers and shuttle buses, everybody busy. Airliners rose with a roar between the lights, while beyond the fence an endless line of cars and vans crawled toward the terminal. It was like watching a choreographed demonstration of our dependence on oil.
Did I really want to spend the next chapter of my career in such dismal reflection? Of course, none of us teaching environmental studies can ignore the consequences of industrialization, but through decades of writing and activism I’d always avoided the apocalyptic path. Now, with the effects of climate change evident even in the wildest places and my work leading me back to human communities, it seemed the Jeremiahs were right: the end is near—at least the end of the way we’ve been living.
It took an hour of pacing the concourse before I began to shake off the chill of those reports. Even if we must accept a diminished future, I decided, we’ll have to make the best of our lives in that world. What might our cities look like in fifty years? How can they ensure access to clean water, wholesome food? What technology will power our lights, our keyboards, our transportation? What yet unimagined jobs might be waiting for Addison?
To answer these questions I began to interview people who might hire our graduates—leaders in business, research, municipal agencies, and nonprofits. I asked them to imagine the work of creating more resilient and sustainable communities. What will our students need to know? What skills should they have? From their answers we built a curriculum.
Like all of the MS programs at Green Mountain College, this one is grounded in our trademark “bioregional approach to distance education.” As students apply the lessons of each course to the specific places they live, it’s obvious how much they learn from each other. When researching and explaining their local zoning regulations, for example, they also learn about regulations in all the places their classmates live—whether Toronto, L.A., or Lima, Peru—and begin to recognize new possibilities.
So what would our newest students need to know? Certainly how climate change is projected, and how it might impact their regions. Economic theory, yes, but also the practical matter of how inequality plays out in their communities. Systems thinking and land-use policies. How their food and energy are currently produced and distributed—and how they might be. Transportation systems and other layers of infrastructure.
Then they would need the skills to plan, measure, and assess local sustainability and resilience, to resolve conflicts, and to mobilize communities. And, for those times when the ride gets bumpy, training in emergency management and communication.
As we move beyond the late-industrial forms of society, most of our new ideas will come from the collaborative, playful minds of younger generations. It’s an honor preparing a space for them to learn and share and lay great plans. But because the challenges ahead will no doubt threaten to overwhelm them at times, we must also celebrate their dedication, help them build connections, and surround them with the most inspiring models we can find. It seems the least we can do.
In Vermont snow typically falls in six months of the year. Before settling here I grew up in a land where winter just means the rain turns cold, so I relish any day that allows me outside in something less than a parka. But here it is December and I’m wearing shorts as I head down the path from our house to the rocky beach of the Poultney River.
Before we had a beach here, we had a forested island dividing the channel. Then came August 2011, and Tropical Storm Irene. I watched uprooted trees careen over the red slate falls and pile up against our island on their way to Lake Champlain. The floodwaters leaned against that logjam till the island’s trees began to topple, several at a time, and once their roots were exposed the island was lost within a couple hours.
The river rose to the edge of our meadow that time, which makes it a hundred-year flood. Only now, it seems, our floods can’t wait that long. Was Irene a glimpse of the extreme weather we can expect as the climate changes? How about the bizarre wind that barreled through our village two summers ago, snapping off trees a century old? How about 71 degrees on Christmas Eve?
I know the difference between climate and weather, and I understand the effects of El Niño, so I’m not pointing to any one event as proof of climate change. I just treat days like this as exceptions—the warmest Christmas Eve in the warmest December of the warmest year on record, with the ten warmest years all coming since 1998.
So, as much as my body’s enjoying this sun, my mind keeps rehearsing the worst-case scenarios of a hotter planet. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, even if the world’s nations are able to meet the ambitious goals from Paris, the planet will continue to warm for decades. And now I’m even worried about my neighbors: will lower heating bills convince them that maybe a little warming isn’t so bad?
Is it even possible to enjoy an unseasonably warm day anymore?
“It’s tough being a human being, isn’t it?” my friend Tony chuckles, but he knows what I mean. Being present enough to enjoy this day, he points out, doesn’t mean denying that too many hot days this time of year will stress these systems, with lasting effects. How long before these ostrich ferns and sugar maples give way to something else, I wonder? What species will leave for colder waters when the river runs so low, as it did this summer, that even Addy could wade across?
“But you know,” Tony reminds me, “these are First-World problems.” He’s right. The guilt I feel at enjoying this day is nothing but luxury compared to how others are experiencing climate change—losing a home, a business. Even a life.
We’re not limited to our own experiences in trying to make sense of what’s ahead. Footage of refugees turned away from a border, children crying in their arms, prepares us for the millions of climate refugees to come. News of contaminated water in Michigan helps us imagine the problems ahead as clean water becomes increasingly scarce and expensive.
I mean no disrespect to what some call “the Greatest Generation,” but the challenges that we and our children will face are even more fundamental, impacting the entire planet. Maybe most of the climate refugees we see in North America will come with moving trucks, and maybe scarcity will hit us mostly in the wallets—but make no mistake: fear will lead some of us to behave very badly.
As carefully as we’ve designed the M.S. in Resilient and Sustainable Communities, some lessons we need to learn have less to do with academic preparation than with what I’ll call, for lack of something better, the resilience of the human spirit. What will it take for us to help each other through our fears so that we may adapt to a changing world with courage and compassion? How will we motivate our neighbors to see the disruptions ahead as opportunities to do things better this time, to arrange our lives in ways that are not only sustainable but even more meaningful? I’m guessing the answers to these questions have mostly to do with the kinds of stories we learn to tell about who and where and how we are.
Sure, it would be nice to know what lies beyond the Great Transition, but leave that to future historians. Let’s just assume that life will change in ways we can’t fully imagine. So we must build communities that are designed to accommodate change and able to continue functioning through the inevitable disruptions. And we will need to build them to meet the needs not only of Addy’s generation, but of generations beyond. We must ground our work in practical details, preparing for changes already in progress, even as we try our best—block by block, meeting by meeting—to live up to the most hopeful vision we can manage.
Featured image: Green Mountain College uses energy from solar power, a campus biomass plant, and converted methane from local dairy farms. Image by Eric Hudiberg.
Laird Christensen is Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College, an environmental liberal arts college in Poultney, Vermont. He currently directs the college’s online graduate program in Resilient and Sustainable Communities and was founding director of the Environmental Studies graduate program. His poems and essays have appeared in a variety of books and periodicals, including Utne Reader, Northwest Review, Wild Earth, and Whole Terrain. Contact.