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Independence Fray

Does Vermont have what it takes to go it alone?


Published July 23, 2008 at 5:44 a.m.


Vermont is a wildly different place than it was a year ago. On the one hand, rising oil prices are driving us towards calamity — $5 a gallon home heating oil is completely imaginable this coming winter, and that would break the back of many budgets already laboring with $4 a gallon for gasoline. And in a world where the average bite travels a couple of thousand miles to reach your lips, food prices rise in tandem with petroleum.

Washington’s single bipartisan preoccupation of the past few decades, ever “freer” trade, is beginning to disintegrate. Earlier this month the Canadian investment bank CIBC issued a report detailing what the new reality of oil means: When it cost $20 a barrel, the price of shipping a container from China was $3000, the equivalent of a measly 3 percent tariff. If, as Goldman Sachs has predicted, oil reaches $200 a barrel, that container will cost 20 grand to ship — a whopping 15 percent tariff and a rate we haven’t seen since the early 1960s. “In a world of triple-digit oil prices, distance costs money,” CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin said.

That’s why it’s an ideal time for renewed talk about self-sufficiency in Vermont — about building the network of food and energy and culture that would make us far less vulnerable to the kind of shocks headed our way. But that is not what’s happening. The Douglas administration seems bent on trying to destroy the Intervale, our best example of gritty self-reliance. In fact, it seems to have expanded its anti-compost campaign — a global war on soil fertility? — to Montpelier’s Vermont Compost Company.

And in the face of all this, the movement for a more independent Vermont — a potentially useful presence in this discussion — is stuck in neutral, though with signs it might be about ready to kick into at least low gear.

Some readers still might not be aware of Vermont’s independence, or secessionist, movement — a vocal group of citizens that’s been calling for the state to leave the Union since 2003. Its leader, Charlotte-based Thomas Naylor, is an author and retired Duke economics professor who once owned a software firm that catered to Fortune 500 companies.

A brief disclosure: I’d written for Vermont Commons, the mostly likeable journal of the independence movement, since its very first issue, eager to support any effort to think about localness. I’d also taught what was likely the first college course on local food production, at Middlebury; spent a year eating only Addison County food; and fought against big-box stores that threaten local economies. I wasn’t a secessionist, really. I’ve spent much of my life in the Adirondacks, and the idea of a passport to cross the Crown Point Bridge unnerves me. Still, these guys interested me — they were thinking at a level higher than the muddling-through that typically dominates political life. In a world as powerfully out of control as ours — a world in which even the weather is coming unhinged — there was a certain bracing realism in the secessionists’ thinking. Vermont really might work better on its own.

But then, a little more than a year ago, a brouhaha developed about the Second Vermont Republic, the sister organization of Vermont Commons. Naylor, wrote some bloggers, was working with the League of the South and similar groups around the country, some of which had politics most Vermonters would abhor. Naylor reacted to the criticism by attacking the bloggers — implying that one in particular, John Odum of GreenMountain, should lose his day job for “Internetting” on company time.

It turns out Odum and others were essentially right about the League of the South. They’re retrograde in a particularly unpleasant way. As Michael Hill put it in the League’s “Grey Book,” a statement of their beliefs, “the evil genie of universal ‘human rights’ has been let out of its bottle and will never be put back in; ‘rights’ for women, racial and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, pedophiles, etc. are being manufactured in a never-ending, and never to-be-ended, series.”

As a result, everyone shifted their attention from the idea of independence to the bizarre coupling of Vermont organic farmers with neo-Confederate race baiting. After the last gathering of various secessionist groups in Chattanooga, the Second Vermont Republic reported on its website that an Associated Press story had concluded the gathering “represents the far left and far right of American politics coming together” — as if that was just the sort of thing you’d hope for. But the quote actually came from Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South and a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’d prefaced his remarks by saying how odd it was to see Vermonters conferring with “an organization associated with a cause that many of us associate with the preservation of slavery.”

People around America admire many things about Vermont. When I was in Charleston (think Fort Sumter) recently to give a talk, lots of folks were interested to hear about farmers’ markets and the Intervale and other stories I told about Vermont. Just for kicks, I mentioned our secession movement and its ties to the League of the South. They looked at me as if I’d said I enjoy a little crystal meth with my Cabot cheddar.

Now even Naylor has decided to cut the ties. He issued an open letter this month explaining that the SVR couldn’t hang out with the LOS anymore because of a “perception” problem. It wasn’t a particularly gracious apology, but it does open the door for Vermonters to at least resume thinking about what an independent Vermont might look like without first having to refight the war between the states.

As we go about that thinking, let me offer one small suggestion: This time, let’s focus less on opposing tyranny and more on counting calories; let’s spend less time dressing up like Ethan Allen and issuing manifestoes and more time on electrons. Political independence may or may not be a good idea, and in any event it’s a long ways off. Functional independence would be the proper first step, and useful in its own right. We need a state more able to stand on its own two feet, and to withstand the tide of troubles coming our way. To use the most obvious example, agriculture dependent on massive quantities of fossil fuel is agriculture primed for collapse on a post-oil planet. Agriculture that concentrates on two or three crops — and two or three varieties of those — is agriculture primed to deteriorate in a world where weather is becoming more erratic. These are just the kind of issues that Vermont Commons keeps writing about, and that come up daily on the early-afternoon radio hour hosted by Carl Etnier or Rob Williams on WDEV. It’s the real agenda for anyone serious about anything like independence.


Begin with food — that’s where most of us begin each day, anyhow. Vermont is deeply implicated in the global food system, which amounts to a way for us to buy bad food from vast distances at increasingly higher prices. But we’re also, as a relatively small population with several patches of decent soil, reasonably well equipped to provide more of our own dinner — fresher, tastier and better for our communities, and far less vulnerable to disruption from climate or peak oil.

This isn’t some preposterous vision: Vermont mostly fed itself at earlier moments in its history, when the population was comparable. I remember standing out in David Zuckerman’s field at Full Moon Farm and asking him how long it would take Vermont to grow enough food to feed itself if we were suddenly cut off at our borders. He scratched his chin and pointed out that, thanks to High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, we now had our own source of seeds. “If we had to, I think we could do it in a growing season,” Zuckerman said.

In fact, his fields make the point. They’re in the Intervale, where on 120 acres a dozen farmers provide 6 or 7 percent of the fresh food consumed by Burlingtonians (or will until the Douglas administration manages to drive them out of business).

But for all the great work being done, incubating new farms and farmers in the Intervale, everyone I know in that world remains frustrated. We could expand local agriculture much faster if we had more resources, more leadership from Montpelier. If we were really committed to ramping up Vermont agriculture, we’d turn not to political theorists but to practitioners, like the ones listed below. I have no idea if they even think about a more independent Vermont, but I know they think all the time about the changes that would in reality make us more self-sufficient:

• Food educator Megan Camp, working hard on farm-to-school programs

• Ben Gleason and his Bridport wheat field

• George Schenk and American Flatbread

• Alec Webb and Shelburne Farms

• Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow at Knoll Farm

• Jack and Anne Lazor producing enough yogurt for an entire state at Butterworks Farm

• NOFA director Enid Wonnacott and the large crew of farmers who were organic and local long before Martha Stewart decided it was cool

• Tod Murphy, the restaurateur who has helped pioneer the potent combination of cheap and local

• Food producers and distributors who actually know the techniques and business models we need on every scale: Lazy Lady, Misty Knoll, Golden Russet, Vermont Fresh, Black River Produce, Pete’s Greens

• The Middlebury College dining hall, pushing the envelope on how much good can be grown locally

• Brian Tokar and others who fought Bovine Growth Hormone and now battle other genetically modified mischief

• Food anthropologist Amy Trubek, helping figure out how to market the taste of Vermont

• Anthony Pollina, who, when not running for political offices, has worked tirelessly to bring together the debt-ridden remnant of the Vermont dairy industry

• Bill Suhr and his year-round cider press

• Local brewers such as Magic Hat, Otter Creek, Long Trail, Ray McNeill, Trout River and all the rest (now all we need is our own barley-malting plant to guarantee the supply)

• The co-ops and farmers’ markets across the state that provide the market and scale — and, just as important, businesses such as Chelsea Green publishers that provide the intellectual resources

These are the kinds of people (and there are hundreds more) who can tell us how to accelerate this work. For instance, how the state ag agency could stop enabling the few Vermont farmers trying to work on an industrial scale and instead start building the slaughterhouses, canneries and community kitchens that are the next frontier.


And then there’s energy.

If we’re going to free ourselves from reliance on the Persian Gulf, mountaintop removal and Vermont Yankee, we need to rethink power in myriad ways. Some of the ideas are large: Remember those dams on the Connecticut River that Gov. Douglas, in a major miscalculation, let slip away? Some are smaller, from Netaka White’s biodiesel campaign to the work emerging from the Biomass Energy Resource Center in Montpelier. Dozens of contractors are busy installing single-home solar units — and they’d be even busier if the state had subsidized that work instead of kowtowing to Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee.

Meanwhile, Community Hydro’s Lori Barg is scouting out small hydro sites around the state. Pioneers of rural mass transit like Addison County Transit Resources are finding ways to service out-of-the-way places such as Ripton, where I live. Vermont has the experts — Greg Pahl, who’s literally written the book on home power. Alex Wilson and Green Building News in Brattleboro. NRG Systems wind power in Hinesburg. Northern Power Systems in Waitsfield. Burlington-based Efficiency Vermont, which leads the nation in finding ways to cut electric demand. (Everywhere I went in China on a recent assignment for National Geographic, I kept crossing EV’s tracks — Chinese officials knew about California and Vermont, and seemed to think they were about the same size. So why did the governor veto a law that would have put EV to work reducing demand for heating fuel, too?)

Not least, consider local economics, from the organizations and individuals who have battled Wal-Mart to community-minded entrepreneurs whose businesses revitalize their towns. From Paul Bruhn at the Preservation Trust and his fight to revitalize our downtowns to Vermont First!, a statewide nonprofit that unites retailers’ efforts to encourage shopping locally.

Name a commodity, and Vermont has people who know how to think about it.

Wood? David Brynn at Vermont Family Forests has pioneered the kind of value-added forestry that makes for better woodlots and better jobs. Burlington’s McNeil Generating Station has learned an awful lot about woodchips.

Money? The finest environmental economics department on Planet Earth can be found at the University of Vermont, and it’s filled with people trying to think through ideas such as local currency.

Health care? We’re closer than most states are to understanding what a decent health-care system might look like — and how holistic medicine and healthy eating would help it work.

Land conservation? Look at a map: Led by folks such as Vermont Land Trust’s Darby Bradley, Vermonters have spent the last three decades preserving more working landscape than almost any state in the union.

Culture? You cannot throw a rock in this state without dinging a musician, a writer, an artist. We’ve got fine public and community radio, some nonprofit and some (Waterbury’s WDEV) busy selling cars. In print and online, Seven Days, the finest alternative paper in the country.

Sports? In the winter Olympics, we’d win more medals per capita than any nation. And we’ve got Thunder Road, which surely can be reconfigured to run on homegrown fuel. (But even if we someday did secede from the U.S., I refuse to leave Red Sox Nation!)

We need these pioneers to be joined by dozens more. We need more incubators such as the Intervale, and more creative help from Montpelier. We need to turn individual efforts into a working, statewide demonstration of what true sovereignty looks like.


It’s possible to think about these achievements in a coherent way because of the scale of Vermont. Being a small state is not a curse — it’s a blessing. As Kirkpatrick Sale argued many years ago in his wonderful book Human Scale, it’s almost impossible trying to do anything useful past the point where you can see the impact and know the players.

In Vermont, authors Frank Bryan and John McClaughry made the case in their 1989 book The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale, and political scientist Bryan continues to think fruitfully about how we might yet evolve. But there’s no use pretending it’s easy — even Vermont is on the verge of being too big. Few individuals on my list above come from the southern edge of the state. Not because they’re not doing great things down there; it’s just that I live far enough away that I don’t hear much about them.

For me, the natural leaders of an emerging Vermont are the people actually doing the kinds of work mentioned here. They’re the ones who help us imagine surviving — with some panache — the upheavals of the 21st century, such as global warming and peak oil. We need them to answer questions infinitely more interesting than whether Abe Lincoln was an imperialist (a topic the Second Vermont Republic website revisits with annoying regularity), such as:

• How do you run a landlocked country?

• What would it mean, in monetary terms, to build the institutions of a national government with such a small population base?

• How do you keep local currencies from fluctuating wildly?

• Is it rational to even talk about being able to defend our own turf?

• If you don’t have oil, how do you keep your roads paved? Who has the best dirt roads on the globe, and how are they maintained?

These practical questions and a thousand more require real investigation.

If you look around the world at places with roughly comparable populations and climates as Vermont, you quickly come across, say, Iceland. The country manages to be, by some measures, the most livable nation on Earth with half as many people as Vermont and a much tougher climate. How do 300,000 people manage both a modern economy and all the functions of the modern state? (My impression, from spending time there, is that they do it by working extremely hard, emphasizing education, and being very tightly knit.)

The Swiss manage self-defense with a home-based but tightly coordinated force that involves pretty much every male up to the age of 60. How does that work? How would we do it in a state that’s having trouble finding volunteer firemen?

Closer to home, the E.F. Schumacher Society in the Berkshires has set up an interesting experiment in local currency — I was there to speak at the party that marked the millionth Berk-Share put into circulation, and it filled me with curiosity about how to build such systems.

We need the modern-day equivalent of the early Colonists’ Committees of Correspondence, not to plot with others but to share information. Not vitriol, not fantasy, but information.

We have time to answer these questions. Any political independence movement is going nowhere for now, and not just because of the sourness that came with the League of the South nonsense. I believe the U.S. is about to elect Barack Obama, the most interesting politician of my lifetime, as its president. I have doubts about whether he’ll get us completely back on the right course — it’s quite likely, as Naylor and others insist, that the country has simply grown too large for effective governance. But he’s going to get a shot, and he talks a better game than anyone has in decades.

We should hope Obama succeeds, and not just because of all the difficulties involved in creating an independent Vermont. There are also other reasons that bigness still makes sense — a federal government, for instance, could probably negotiate a treaty with the rest of the world on global warming more easily than a collection of tiny principalities, without which the discussion of any future may be moot. On the other hand, so far our central government has stood in the way of such a treaty, and small states have provided the real models (though not, it must be said, Jim Douglas’ Vermont).


I understand the appeal of the romantic, bombastic approach to the independence idea — of pretending to be the Green Mountain Boys and sewing new flags and issuing proclamations. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and when I was 14 and 15, my summer job was giving tours of the Battle Green. I had to wear a tricorne hat. It was actually stirring work, telling the story over and over of those first secessionists who chafed under the rule of a distant empire.

But it was always useful to remind myself that those men were not themselves romantics. (For one thing, they weren’t re-enacting the Battle of Lexington. They were having the Battle of Lexington). These men were not especially eager for the fight — in fact, they were starting to drift away in the face of overwhelming force when a shot came from somewhere and began the battle.

Those early residents of Lexington were pragmatic people. They’d founded a town, built its churches and public buildings, and laid out its roads. They were most concerned with the British threat to the tenuous prosperity they’d eked out. Most of all, they’d built a solid community, where people trusted and relied on each other far more than most of us — even in Vermont — do in this day of hyper-individualism. They were united by joint grievance but also, one must assume, by affection.

The process of building a Vermont that can even consider independence will be a process of building that affection and trust. Trying to cobble together enough resentment about Washington might seem like the quickest route, but it is building on sand. Instead of flinging grand historical cannonades, we need to figure out, say, how to insulate the homes of needier Vermonters so fuel bills don’t do them in. We need to insure that people can afford a little land to live on or cut firewood from — work such as the Nature Conservancy’s Land Link for young farmers, or the new experiments in community-owned woodlots put forth by Vermont Family Forests.

Those kinds of experiments, by their nature, rely on a sense of generosity that can’t be browbeaten into existence. It doesn’t mean not fighting; anyone who wants to fight should join this fall in defense of the Intervale, a cornerstone of any self-reliant Vermont. But it means fighting with the best tools Vermont has, instead of trying to borrow them from soreheads in other, sadder regions. Naylor himself actually listed them, in a recent squib for his new book, Secession. Vermont, he said, stood for “political independence, human scale, sustainability, power-sharing, equal opportunity, tension reduction, and community.” And we can add: good cider, good bread, good beer and good compost.