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Energy descent preparation - interview with Vermont peak oil educator Carl Etnier

Every day, year-round, Carl Etnier hops on his bicycle and rides three miles from East Montpelier, Vermont to downtown Montpelier, the state's capital, to work full-time on educating Vermonters and the nation regarding the realities of Peak Oil. I caught up with him at a Montpelier café owned and operated by the New England Culinary Institute which endeavors to use primarily local ingredients for its delectable luncheon menu.

At the top of my list of questions for Carl was: What would make a private consultant with a solid, secure income quit his day job to teach people about Peak Oil?

Carolyn Baker: So Carl, tell me about what motivated you to stop working as a private consultant and devote your time to educating the community about Peak Oil.

Carl Etnier: Sustainability is central to my focus and has been for a long time. I put together my own major in sustainable agriculture when I was in school at Cornell University before there were actually sustainable agriculture programs available. I also worked in an environmental studies project with David Orr of Oberlin College. I then moved to Scandinavia and began researching water and wastewater and how to recycle the nutrients from wastewater for using them in agriculture rather than flushing them into the sea. When I came back to the U.S., I started working for a private consulting firm doing research for the EPA and consulting with municipalities. I then got acquainted with the Peak Oil theory through the DVD "The End Of Suburbia." It reminded me of what I had learned about Hubbert's Peak and the limits to growth when I was at Cornell, but I hadn't had a lot of imagination around how things would play out for people as we started sliding down that energy descent curve. "End Of Suburbia" opened my eyes, and then I got a copy of Kunstler's Long Emergency. It happened that a number of my friends around East Montpelier had read the book, and we got together and decided that we needed to meet regularly and talk about it.

At one point in 2006 we brought in Alexander Sendzimir of Burlington who came in with a pretty advanced library and DVD's on Peak Oil-related topics. After our meeting with Alex, we decided it was time to stop talking and start taking action. So we planned a slide show presentation to people from the legislature, gubernatorial candidates, people from the League of Cities and Towns, and other folks who have an understanding of how to get things done in Vermont. We picked our audience carefully so that it would be open to the idea of Peak Oil, and we got a lot of ideas about how to proceed. We first called ourselves the Greater East Montpelier Peak Oil Group (GEMPOG), and shortly before that our group and a bunch of other groups around the state had had a meeting called the Vermont Peak Oil Network (VPON). (VPON is now the statewide network, and GEMPOG has since changed its name to the Post-Carbon Sustainability Network.)

Educating the community about Peak Oil began taking up more of my time, and also I realized that while I cared a great deal about clean drinking water, clean rivers and streams, Peak Oil was a much more daunting reality. So by July, 2006 I decided to leave my job with the consulting company and do work around Peak Oil full time.

CB: So what was your first step?

CE: I first tried to figure out what to do to raise consciousness in Vermont about Peak Oil. At that time there weren't a lot of people who knew about it. As recently as last year at Solarfest when I held a talk on Peak Oil, most people in the audience hadn't even heard of it. So I tried to get out and give talks to Rotary Clubs, historical societies, and I began calling in to talk radio shows, as well as pitching newspaper articles. Soon I started appearing regularly on WDGR, the radio station of Goddard College. I was invited by one of the programmers to begin talking for a 15 minute segment on her weekly show.

At that time, I wasn't quite finding the network of folks I needed to connect with around Peak Oil education, so I was dabbling in other issues such as impeachment and the firing of U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration.

In April, 2007 we had the fundraising drive for WGDR, and I came into the studio to work with the co-host. It was a lot of fun, and I asked the host if I could be in the studio with her regularly and co-host the show with her. She agreed, and gave me a ten-minute segment which expanded to a Peak Oil Check-In. By October, 2007 I had enough experience to get my own program which I called "Relocalizing Vermont" and continued to do the Peak Oil-Check-In. The show is still on and airs from 8:30AM to 10 AM on Thursday mornings, and people can stream it on WDGR. Many of the old shows are archived, and listeners can link to them at the WDGR website.

In late November, 2007 I started writing a regular column for the Times Argus/Rutland Herald, both locally-owned newspapers with a wide circulation around the state. My column, "Energy Matters", appears every Sunday and reaches about 30,000 households.

CB: Were you involved in bringing Richard Heinberg to Vermont earlier this year?

CE: Yes, that came out of the Community Solutions Conference to which I took the train last fall. I got a ride back to where I left my car in Albany, New York with some folks from Massachusetts, one of whom was instrumental in setting up Richard Heinberg's trip to New England which occurred in April of this year.

CB: Yes, that was just before I got here, and I was really sorry I missed it!

CE: So we brought him to the southern part of the state in the Brattleboro area and to the Vermont legislature here in Montpelier on April 24. He was introduced by the Speaker of The House and the President Pro-Tem of The Senate.

CB: This is really exciting, and I'm wondering what else you have done in the past year to educate the community about Peak Oil.

CE: Well, I started a show on WDEV, a locally owned and operated station out of Waterbury. In Bill McKibben's recent book Deep Economy, he has a chapter in it praising WDEV as promoting local culture. Gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Pollina, has a show on WDEV four days a week called "Equal Time" (with a number of podcasts from previous shows), and on Fridays, Senator Bernie Sanders' show airs in the "Equal Time" slot. Anthony wanted to give up the show to concentrate on running for governor, so he recruited me and some other people to be hosts. Agriculture was the traditional topic on his show on Wednesdays, so I took over that slot, focusing on food, agriculture, and the economy at the end of the age of oil. That reaches approximately 8,000-10,000 people.

I also have a blog spot at Vermont Commons.

CB: Yes, that's great. Both you and I have blogspots there.

CB: After all the issues we've been talking about and the many you've raised recently in your newspaper columns, it seems appropriate to talk about why maybe right now is not a good time to consider moving to Vermont. Would you say more about that?

CE: Yes. A lot of people aren't filling up their oil tanks for home heating right now because they can't afford to. 60% of the households here in Vermont are dependent on oil for heating. The price has doubled since last year. We have a lot of old, drafty farm houses here, and the average consumption of oil is around 800 gallons per year which at $5 a gallon and which might double in another 15 months-this is pretty daunting.

Vermont is a very rural state which means there's a lot of traveling involved to get to work or entertainment or shopping. In my own case, I live very close to Montpelier, but on my bicycle, it's a 700-foot climb before you go down the hill. I bicycle year-round, but there are a lot of people who aren't willing to do that. Even though I'm used to doing it, it's not the sort of thing that I can be thoughtless about. It requires some thinking if in the evening, for example, I want to go back into town to a movie or other activity.

In Vermont we have huge disparities in income. A lot of people here are self-sufficient economically, but they live alongside many people who are just scraping by. A lot of those folks have moved further out to the countryside because that's where they can afford to live. I think this winter we are going to see many cold people and hungry people.

CB: So do you think there's a strong possibility that many people will leave the Northeast?

CE: I really don't know what's going to happen with that. I can see it going either way. I can see an exodus from the Northeast. I can see an exodus from major cities in Canada and the U.S. happening in springtime by people wanting to flee those places and get established in rural areas by the next winter so they won't be cold. I have no idea what's going to happen.

There's also a pretty high second-home population in Vermont. Second homeowners come up for the summer, but are they going to move into their second home here full-time or not? If they choose not to, I hope they sell those homes so that some person around here can have them because the land is pressured by homes owned by people from out of state who don't live in them, and it drives up prices for everyone else in Vermont.

Also, what a lot of people don't understand about Vermont is the traditional sense of Vermont native vs. "flatlander" that is stronger than any other place I've lived except in Arkansas. If your family hasn't lived here for seven generations, then you aren't quite a Vermonter.

[Note from Carolyn Baker: I must underscore and explain Carl's remark about "flatlanders." Being a flatlander does not necessarily mean that one has come from level terrain but rather that one does not understand what it means to be a Vermonter. Flatlander is an attitude, for example, the assumption that in very cold weather, one is entitled to simply turn up the heat. Conversely, a Vermonter understands that we are entitled to nothing, and any creature comforts we have, we must work for or make happen on our own. It's an attitude of frugality, conservation, reverence for the land, cooperation, independent thinking, respect for privacy and tradition.]

CB: Is there anything else you'd like to comment on?

CE: I just want to share how fast things are happening. Now I find myself no longer as a voice crying out in the wilderness trying to keep peoples' attention. When I go into the legislature now, people listen to me very attentively, rather than scoffing. People are reaching out to me to prepare for this coming winter, and when I go into the Lt. Governor's office to interview him, he says he's been reading my column for awhile and that he thinks I'm one of the people who's been prescient and beating the drum, and he really appreciates that.

We have a Central Vermont Emergency Food, Fuel, and Planning Group which is trying to figure out resources we use to help people get through this coming emergency. I wrote about it in my column "Neighbors Help Neighbors Through Winter Of High Prices". Most of these folks are conscious that this is not just a temporary blip.

Conclusion

Even before moving to Vermont I wanted to interview Carl, and I'm thrilled that I've finally had the opportunity to do so. I am impressed not only with what he has accomplished in raising awareness around Peak Oil in only a short time, but the fact that one person feeling passionately about an issue is willing to leave a secure job to awaken others and thereby make an enormous difference in his community. Carl is indeed a role model for us all.

As noted in my article "Location, Location, Re-Location" written when I first arrived in Vermont, this state presents a number of formidable challenges such as its winters and even in prosperous economic times, fewer jobs than are available in most other states. At the same time, its sense of community, its low population, its environmental and progressive consciousness, and its spirit of independence make it an attractive option for individuals considering relocation. However, as I also noted in my article, it's not for everyone.

Carl Etnier can be contacted at EnergyMattersVermont AT yahoo DOT com

Editorial Notes: Both Carolyn Baker and Carl Etnier are long-time contributors to Energy Bulletin. -BA

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