Not about the money

A few thoughts for Brattleboro on the roles, responsibilities, and promise of its new sustainability coordinator position, from a former resident who now works as energy and facilities manager for Lebanon, N.H.

I watched live online on Aug. 20 as Brattleboro crystalized its decision to invest in sustainability. The Selectboard's vote to create a sustainability coordinator brought a smile to my face as I thought of all the people who have worked for decades to bring the town to this point. Whether it is too little, or too late, or perhaps even too much, only time will tell.

A quick look at the position's description shows that the person who steps into the role will have an extraordinary amount hoisted onto their shoulders, from carbon neutrality to social justice, homelessness, the opioid crisis, economic equity, and preparing the town for unimaginable changes in our climate.

On top of all this, there will be residents and staff who expect this person to justify the position through savings to the town.

I have been asked by a number of people to chime in on this decision. I do so reluctantly, as a non-resident, but as someone who knows and loves Brattleboro and works in this field.

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In 2018, I was hired by Lebanon, N.H. as energy and facilities manager to do similar work: accelerate the city's transition toward a fossil-fuel-free economy. I report directly to the city manager and work closely with the assistant mayor.

Below are a few thoughts for Brattleboro, in no particular order.

This is not about saving the town money, though the position will certainly do so in the right hands.

This is about Brattleboro doing its part to stop climate change. Both I in Lebanon, and my counterpart across the river in Hartford, have more than paid for our respective positions through the work we have done, and we will continue to do so indefinitely.

If we limit our efforts to initiatives that save money, however, we may doom the planet.

Imagine if in 1941 the U.S. government had refused to get involved in World War II unless it saved the country money. The task before us is bigger than fighting that war.

“Sustainability” is a fickle term, like “green,” and “natural,” and “ecosystem.” It has lost much of its meaning through co-optation and misuse. People use “sustainable” now to describe everything from corporate profits to apparel.

If by sustainable we mean “steady-state,” where losses are offset by gains, we will still lose much. The Bedouins of the Sahara could be considered a sustainable culture; do we really want our descendants living in deserts? That is the direction we are headed if the climate scientists are correct.

We need a higher standard to aspire to and measure our actions by, such as regenerativity, resilience, or something better. Sure, we might recycle and use a canvas shopping bag, but how does that compare to the gas we put in our car, or to the companies in our investment portfolios for those privileged enough to have one? Who among us can say that the Earth will be better as a result of our life?

The committee and town staff working on this position have expanded its focus beyond energy and climate change to include social equity and economic equality. This is both inspiring and scary to me. Organizing around social justice and procuring renewable energy are vastly different skill sets. I would warn that the person's focus not become so diffuse as to be ineffective.

The inspiration is because this combination shows an awareness that all of the issues the town is grappling with are interconnected. The field of climate adaptation points out that vulnerable and marginalized people are usually the hardest hit when climate change comes to town.

Regarding economic equality, our economy is arguably at the center of our whole mess. How will we ever address climate change or create a sustainable society with an economy that depends on exploitation and continual growth?

To this end, it could be argued that the sustainability coordinator should possess an understanding of finance and economics, and, more importantly, a working knowledge of regenerative or steady-state economics. Brattleboro Time Trade is a fledgling local example of regenerative economics, and there are others.

The town should be encouraged to pick someone with an abiding interest in ecology. Even in an environment as beautiful and verdant as the Connecticut River Valley, few people have a working understanding of how our policies and actions affect the natural world.

It is important that the candidate have a strong and binding connection to the living, non-human world, whether as a gardener, fisherman, permaculturist, microbiologist, a progressive hunter, or a farmer. That experience will help to prevent meaningless gestures that look nice on paper but do more harm than good to the wider bio-region and planet.

This might go without saying, but it will also be exceedingly helpful if the sustainability coordinator starts with a knowledge of municipal operations, renewable energy, and the legislative process. An engineering background would also be helpful.

This background would allow them to hit the ground running and make big gains for the town quickly. At the same time, such skills can be taught or gleaned from others in the community if different abilities and aptitudes outweigh this experience.

Hiring a candidate who has lived sustainably, however the town comes to define that term, is more important than specific experience or knowledge. Do they walk the talk? What is their carbon footprint over the last 10, 20, or 30 years? What is their view on carbon offsets? What have they done of a regenerative nature in the communities where they have lived?

How many trees have they planted, children taught to garden, or cars taken off the road? How are they at inspiring people, coordinating volunteers, persevering when discouraged, and speaking truth to those in power? What is their level of emotional intelligence, and how would the selection team even measure this?

Regenerativity is a term that many of us prefer to sustainability. It connotes an intention to leave the world a better place, not just to reduce one's damage to it.

“Regenerative” can be applied to social interactions as well as environmental ones. Listening compassionately to a person is an act of regeneration. Making art is another. Brattleboro has an amazing depth of art and culture; how might the sustainability coordinator tap into this strength to foster sustainability?

The job description for this position, and whom the employee reports to, will have an inordinate impact on the role's success.

In Lebanon, my office is in the Department of Public Works. At first I was unhappy with this arrangement, as the Planning Office here has done the majority of the work in sustainability.

I have come to highly appreciate my daily contact with the DPW, though, because these are the staff who get things done. They know how to envision projects, budget for them, put out bids, oversee the work, and then ensure that the project functions as planned. The DPW here also appreciates my efforts to make their operations more efficient and resilient.

The danger of housing this sustainability coordinator in the Planning Office is that the focus could start and end with planning, and they could get sidetracked into other planning tasks.

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Lastly, I would encourage the town and its new sustainability coordinator to think big. In Lebanon, we have sponsored legislation that will redesign the electric grid to promote resilience and the deployment of renewable energy.

There are deep thinkers and seasoned activists in Brattleboro who could coalesce around this position to make some profound changes.

What would that look like?

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