‘All we’re trying to do is plant some seeds’

Young cyclists pass though Windham County on a multistate mission: to promote alternative energy

BRATTLEBORO — There are all sorts of experiences one can have on a summer internship.

Not many of them involve riding a bicycle all over Vermont, sleeping on church floors, and living on a food budget of $5 a day.

A group of young people started a two-wheeled journey in South Royalton in June. They finished it last week in Brattleboro. In between, they've spent a week each in Bradford, Montpelier, Vergennes, Burlington, and Rutland.

They are in Vermont as part of Climate Summer, a program to promote the use of alternatives to fossil fuels, and to raise awareness about the threats to our planet from climate change.

The program is sponsored by the Better Future Project, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit that says it is dedicated to “building a better world free from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Community outreach is a big part of the Climate Summer program, which put teams of cyclists in every New England state this summer. In Brattleboro, for example, the interns worked at a community garden, helped with improvements to the West River Trail, appeared at a Selectboard meeting, and met with various people involved developing strategies for a post-fossil-fuel world.

“People think that someone else is going to do it,” said Monique Gallant, a Nova Scotia native who graduated with a B.A. in biology from Holy Cross last year. “All we're trying to do is plant some seeds.”

Gallant, who calls herself a “stereotypical Canadian” who loves playing, coaching, and watching hockey, is the program coordinator for the Vermont team. She said she believes passivity is not an option when it comes to climate change.

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That sentiment is shared by Shea Riester, the video coordinator of the team. He is from New York City and graduated from Brandeis this year with a degree in sociology and film. He helped in organizing the Occupy Wall Street movement at its inception last fall, and was part of the national mobilization to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Whether it is fighting the excesses of the banks on Wall Street, or trying to block the construction of a pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries, Riester said it's all part of the same fight.

“We're up against the biggest corporations on the planet,” he said. “All we have is the power we create by building relationships and making connections.”

“The five biggest oil companies get $11 billion a year in federal subsidies,” said Gallant. “We need to invest that money into renewables and alternative energy.”

The message that the Climate Summer teams have spreading around New England have found receptive ears, especially in Vermont.

“This state has a lot of power, and it is already leading the way for the rest of the nation,” said Gallant, adding that she was impressed with the level of knowledge and engagement by Vermonters on climate change issues.

This is the first year that Climate Summer has had a team in Vermont. Anna Kruseman, the media coordinator of the Vermont team, said applicants were assigned at random to various teams, but many were hoping to get Vermont as their assignment.

Kruseman is from the Netherlands and will soon begin post-graduate studies in climate-related physics at Utrect University. It's her first visit to the United States, and she likes to point out that she comes from a nation with more bicycles than people.

“Education is the key,” she said. “Global warming is already here, and we need to work to stop things from getting worse. That's why we want to learn from, support, highlight, and connect with local initiatives.”

As members of the generation that has lived its entire life under the specter of climate change, all the riders believe the experience of this summer on the road will shape their futures. Others who have previously participated in Climate Summer have gone on to become campus and community leaders on environmental issues.

“This is not radical,” said team outreach coordinator Emma John of Bar Harbor, Maine, who will be entering her third year at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she's studying social anthropology. “It is a necessity. We don't have a choice because we are the ones who will have to live with global warming.”

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