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Green tech in Green Mtns

01/23/07 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) The changing climate is affecting the way we look at the relationship between industry and ecology. And commentator Bill Shutkin says that if Vermont wants to become a national leader in green business development, some basic attitudes also need to change.

(SHUTKIN) It was great to hear Governor Douglas herald the dawn of Vermont's green technology age in his recent inaugural address. Alongside his promise of broadband access for all Vermonters, Douglas has made recruiting environmental businesses a priority.

This is welcome news. But it's also surprising, coming from a Governor who so far has opposed the development of commercial-scale wind facilities in Vermont. Douglas thinks such facilities would "industrialize" Vermont's landscape, out of keeping with the state's rural heritage.

But these kinds of comments only reinforce an old, and increasingly unhelpful, mental model, in which industrial development is pitted against environmental responsibility.

As advances in green technology have shown, industry has created some of today's most environmentally beneficial, and aesthetically beautiful, products and places. Think of Toyota's sleek hybrid vehicle, the Prius, or the simple elegance of a solar panel on a farmhouse rooftop, or UVM's new Davis Center, a model of green design. These are all symbols of an industrialized landscape.

What's more, these innovations are greener in spades than many of the activities and features we associate with Vermont's traditional landscape. Pesticide-dependent agriculture, houses and businesses that rely on oil and gas for heat, ski areas that drink up Vermont's water resources, to say nothing of the soot-belching timber mills that dotted Vermont's woodlands into the twentieth century, their feedstock the clear-cut hillsides that today, re-grown with trees, hide their dirty tracks. The counterpart to an industrialized landscape is not necessarily pristine by any stretch.

Meanwhile, without saying so, the Governor is proposing the most ambitious industrial project in Vermont's history in his push for broadband access for every nook and cranny of the state by 2010. This policy amounts to an unprecedented construction boom of satellite dishes, cell towers and fiber optic cable. It also means something else, something more subtle than a satellite dish. Within a few years, there will likely be no spot in Vermont unreachable by a cell phone. For wilderness advocates and true traditionalists, this is a deeply troubling notion.

For too long, people have believed that the environments most worth saving are remote, rural places, sparsely settled if at all, and devoid of industry and urbanization. This has resulted in a false choice between, on the one hand, the pristine, and on the other, the industrialized. But nature is more complicated than that.

If we are going to live responsibly in Vermont into the future, we must learn to create a new rhetoric and new landscape somewhere between the pristine and the fallen. Whether it's broadband access or wind energy, Vermont will need to change to accommodate the uses and technologies necessary to sustain our society. The result can still be beautiful and clean, but in a different, more human, way.

Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT.

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