Lahaina burns during the night of Aug. 8.
Wikimedia Commons
Lahaina burns during the night of Aug. 8.

Misplaced public spending, from outer space to Putney Road

We spend 500 times more money to explore cold, dead space than to understand our wildly beautiful oceans. And we’re paying for unnecessary repaving while we suffer from heat waves, droughts, and floods around the world — including, of course, here in Vermont.

BRATTLEBORO — I don't know about you, but I'm feeling overwhelmed by the cascade of bleak news this year from around the world.

Incomprehensibly huge forest wildfires in Canada (like the ones in California, or Australia a few years back, remember?). Heat waves, droughts, and floods around the world - including, of course, here in Vermont. The relentlessly destructive war in Ukraine, week after terrible week, that shows no signs of ending.

Add to that President Joe Biden's stubbornly low approval ratings despite his principled defense of democracy, inflation coming down, low unemployment, and now... the possibility of a third-party candidate who, pundits agree, will take votes away from Biden (the way Ralph Nader did with Al Gore in 2000) and thereby increase the chances of, for most of us here, the unthinkable: a second Trump victory.

My brother-in-law, a retired lawyer and high school history teacher, emailed me recently that he's cut back on reading about and watching the news and events he "can do nothing about."

That reminded me of an adage I once read: "What's the only thing worse than knowing you have cancer? Not knowing."

I'll grant my brother-in-law this, however: Without a doubt, the more you know, particularly about what's happening to the world's natural systems, the worse you'll feel.

* * *

Lately, I confess, the image of Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream has several times come unbidden to my mind. And what's so terrifying about that image is the profound isolation of the screamer, on that bridge under a lurid, orange sky, while two other figures beyond him walk, unconcerned, about their business.

Yet, unlike that screamer, I know that many people I run into around town or at the farmers' market probably feel something similar to what I do. But the trouble is that outside of a program at the library or at 118 Elliott, the people I exchange pleasantries with rarely talk about what's going on.

By way of contrast, in 2002–2003, shortly after I moved here, President George W. Bush began giving clear signals that he was going to direct the U.S. to invade Iraq.

A large group of people in the Brattleboro area spontaneously formed and starting meeting at the River Garden. There were no leaders, but there sure was a lot of energy as we tried to figure out how we might participate in some larger, nationwide effort to prevent that ghastly prospect from becoming reality.

We obviously failed - utterly - but for a few months there we met and brainstormed.

In short, we really tried.

As far as I can see, from reading the papers and listening to Vermont Public, that's not happening here with climate change - and certainly not among the young, whose energy and idealism are needed most.

* * *

In these perilous times, Vermont's environmental priorities might be exemplified locally by the two hugely expensive but unnecessary repaving projects of Route 30 and, soon, Putney Road.

I've traveled Putney Road at all times of the day (except morning rush hour) for years and have never experienced a delay unless there was an accident. Imagine (as John Lennon might have asked) if just a tiny fraction of those construction costs were used to buy a fleet of electric buses and other vehicles.

Meanwhile, there's no available community solar project anywhere in the state that one can buy into. I've tried, and was told they don't exist.

The recently passed Affordable Heat Act - which won't go into effect for two years - is noteworthy, but the expected amount of fossil fuel reduction and biofuels increase (the reason 350 Vermont did not support it) is questionable, along with whether the workforce is availabile to install thousands of electric heat pumps.

Windmills? Forget it. Local communities veto them whenever they're proposed.

In 2022, electricity generated from solar and wind in Vermont amounted to a whopping 2% to 3%. Weatherization is definitely the biggest bang for the buck? Not on any game-changing scale.

On the national level, there's obviously so much that needs to be done and done fast, but I want here to bring to readers' attention one obscure statistic that has nagged at me constantly and exacerbated my pessimism. It comes from an op-ed in the July 1 New York Times by Fabien Cousteau.

The grandson of the famed oceanographer, Cousteau talks about the vital (to put it mildly) importance of healthy oceans to both human and, of course, non-human survival.

To take just one of many examples, 50% or more of Earth's oxygen comes from ocean phytoplankton. And yet - get this - Cousteau writes, "in 2022, NASA received more than 500 times as much funding as NOAA [National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration] did for ocean exploration and research."

Five hundred times more money to explore cold, dead space than to understand our wildly beautiful oceans from whence all life evolved, and where most still lives. That just blows my already troubled mind!

And it's a glaring example - to me, at least - of the frightening insanity of the United States of America's non-response to the crisis at hand.

* * *

One of the great environmental books of the 20th century (along with Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Bill McKibben's The End of Nature) is The Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry, a Jesuit theologian who outgrew Catholicism, in the conventional sense.

In talks I have of his, he sometimes quips that what the world needs nowadays are not more theologians but more geologians.

One of Berry's most original and important ideas was that we as humans - the vast majority of us, at least, in this time of ecological peril and mass species extinction - are autistic vis-à-vis any meaningful relationship to Earth. That is, we're walled off into ourselves, and therefore profoundly cut off from and bereft of a deep connection to the natural world.

Case in point, to return to Cousteau: We're spiritually incapable of love for the oceans and all the abundant life therein. And it inexorably follows that one will sacrifice little or nothing to protect that which one doesn't or can't love.

For me, the supremely gross disparity between funding for space adventures (Aw, but what about all the pretty, computer-enhanced pictures?) versus vitally needed exploration and study of our vast but imperiled oceans - a disparity enabled by an apparently bipartisan consensus - shines a very harsh light on the fact that we're nowhere near being able to meaningfully connect to that which so desperately needs our love, protection, and preservation.

Would it help change consciousness to just admit the truth - that we're all numbed and addicted to fossil and biofuels?

Damned if I know.

* * *

Postscript: As a very small step in a different direction, if you're looking for a summer read (or even if you're not), I can't recommend highly enough Rachel Carson's first book, Under the Sea Wind, a supremely imaginative (but grounded in science) hymn to the ocean and all its avian and marine life, published in 1941. It's so beautiful! The greatest work of nature writing I've ever read.

Richard Evers participates in environmental and peace activism.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates