Vermont Thinkers Aim to Slow a Fast-Lane World

Unlike our other blog posts to date, here's one that's not by Slow Democracy coauthors. The following article by Kevin O'Connor appeared in Vermont's statewide Sunday Rutland Herald/Times Argus on June 8, 2013. The link is here. For photos of the event, see Slow Democracy's Facebook page.

State-turned-national environmental leader Jonathan Lash had seen himself lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as a “hero” for “fighting to stave off the planet-wide catastrophe” when it hit him.

“I have been working on issues of sustainability for 35 years,” the former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources recalls thinking, “and everything has gotten worse faster.”

And so Lash, having climbed the ladder of state government to chair the U.S. President’s Council on Sustainable Development and World Resources Institute, decided to return to New England and grassroots work — in his case, shaping future generations as head of the progressive Hampshire College in neighboring Massachusetts.

“I thought changing the rules was a rapid way to change society,” Lash says, “but at this point, on the issues that concern me most, we’ve got to change the culture first.”

That’s why Lash joined other Vermonters seeking healthier social, economic and energy policies at a Slow Living Summit this past week promoting, as Yankee Farm Credit president George Putnam summed it up, “Sustainable, Local, Organic and Wise” solutions to growing global problems.

“Slow living is not about pace — it’s about whether we are alive with our own nature and the laws of nature,” author Frances Moore Lappé told a crowd of 300 gathered in Brattleboro. “The good news is we can remake the streambeds of our minds with new ideas.”

Lappé had written the three-million-copy bestseller “Diet for a Small Planet” when she moved to Vermont almost 25 years ago. Now traveling the world as founder of the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, she’s still studying the best ways to feed the body — and the mind.

“The world is producing 40 percent more food than when I wrote ‘Small Planet’ and yet we have just as many people who are hungry,” she said. “How do we make sense of the fact we together are creating a world that we as individuals would never choose?”

Lappé points to a fear-based “scarcity-mind” that spurs hoarding and separateness. In her latest book “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want,” she advocates a shift from competing to connecting, cooperating and creating change.

“We can move from this scary message of lack, lack, lack, take a deep breath and align with the rules of nature,” the author said. “Think ‘I’m just a drop in the bucket’? Buckets can fill up really fast.”

Middlesex town moderator Susan Clark, co-author of the recent book “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home,” also called for more public participation.

“Slow democracy is not a call for longer meetings,” Clark said. “We really need to reconnect with our decision making and revitalize our role in it. We need to bring more democratic decisions to the local level.”

That begins, she believes, with people talking.

“Deliberation doesn’t mean A versus B — it means co-creating C.”

And that starts with finding ways to listen.

“How can we come up with creative solutions if we can’t even take in the information? So not to trigger ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we need to frame issues and engage people in less polarizing ways.”

Ask about “climate change,” Clark said, and you may spark a political debate. Seek opinions on “energy independence” and you’ll potentially reveal more common ground.

“What kinds of words can we use that resonate with a broader audience, get past this gridlock and move forward?” Clark said. “We can embrace the idea that all of us know more than any of us.”

Alex Wilson, the Dummerston founder of BuildingGreen Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute, confirmed such a shift in language could bring movement. He pointed to people who’ve witnessed natural disasters ranging from Tropical Storm Irene to recent tornadoes. Talk science and they don’t necessarily respond. Talk public safety and they do.

“Convincing people to do something simply because it’s the right thing environmentally isn’t working quickly enough,” Wilson said. “But safety is an idea even the Rush Limbaughs of the world could get behind.”

Several Green Mountain interests are working to widen talking-point measurements such as the gross domestic product with broader assessments such as the Genuine Progress Indicator being developed by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.

“If we keep using the same data, we’re going to keep telling the same story,” said Kate Jellema, project director of Benchmarks for a Better Vermont. “In order to have a new story, we need to start measuring new data.”

Tom Barefoot, co-coordinator of Gross National Happiness USA, noted his Washington County-based group is promoting an array of measurements of good governance, community, culture, education, environment, time balance and material, physical and mental health.

“If you ask people what they care most about, they mention all kinds of markers of happiness and well-being,” Barefoot said. “I think it’s important as a population to start a conversation about what really matters. We not only need measures to tell us if we’ve gotten there, we need them to help enable us to make the change.”

Lash said it all starts at home. The 1969 Putney School graduate served as state commissioner of environmental conservation in 1985, natural resources secretary in 1987 and director of the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center in 1990. After national and international service, the self-described “lapsed Vermonter” decided to take his current college job after facing growing government dysfunction.

“I suddenly thought if anybody is going to change things, it’s going to be people like today’s students.”

That said, Lash also has hope for his peers.

“How do we create a culture of sustainability? Living differently is necessary. I’m slowing down, living in my community and seeing what’s possible.”