Monitor Board of Contributors: On Northern Pass, both sides are actually right
In this Feb. 8, 2011 file photo, Public Service Company of New Hampshire president Gary Long speaks in favor about the Northern Pass Project as opponents listen at a House committee hearing in Concord, N.H. The project would clear about 40 miles of new power lines in northern New Hampshire thorough forestland and include high-elevation towers. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)
One recent morning while having breakfast out with my son, he asked me what the Northern Pass was. Since he is 11, and since I teach environmental science at NHTI, this was not a short answer.
That would not have surprised anyone who knows me and who knows the issue. In my roles as both mother and educator I strive to teach the complexities of life, and that sometimes there are no easy answers. What would have surprised many of my friends and neighbors is that I am not categorically against the project.
When I told my son about the concepts behind it, that we would be bringing electricity we need from Canada and that it was made from rivers rather than coal or oil, he nodded in favor – much like we as a state did when the project was first announced by then-Gov. John Lynch at the beginning of his last term. The fact that the state erupted in protest when the details were announced may have had something to do with his decision not to run again. He would not be alone in this dilemma. None other than Arnold Schwarzenegger was put in the same position over wind power harvested from eastern California. The power is plentiful but the rights of way to get it to population centers are not. Hence, initial support, then protest, and the governor who brought the plan to the people? The enemy.
But who is really to blame here?
I believe ignorance of environmental issues is one of the most dangerous things about our society, and that most people would rather exist in their trance of consumptive patterns rather than acknowledge that they can’t push environmental issues off to the “green” people to do all the work.
Among the reasons I am not entirely against the Northern Pass are the ideas behind it. I don’t believe that all hydro power is bad or that we should never buy power from the Canadians. They have something we need and, no, the power is not all going to Massachusetts and Connecticut. I am not happy with the amount of land that would be disrupted, but if I want to keep using a computer, keep the lights on and let my children do the same as they grow up, new power needs to be found.
Now, if I gained all of my environmental knowledge about the topic from the news media, I would be hard-pressed to find any unbiased information. There are major coalitions against the project from the perspective of landowners and conservationists, while power companies and electrical unions focus on how many jobs it will create and how clean hydro power is. They are both right – and they are both missing some big issues.
Rather than tell you what I think these issues are, I’d like you to sit down with any group of three or four people and ask yourselves the following questions:
∎ What is global climate change and by what mechanism are we contributing to it?
∎ What is a carbon footprint? What are embedded costs?
∎ How many planets would we need if everybody on Earth lived the way you do?
∎ What are the downsides of hydro-electric power other than massive power lines?
After you have finished your coffee, lunch or whatever else you were consuming during the meeting (and I hope you were; we all talk better and more when our mouths are full), find the real answers. A standard high school or college environmental science text book would be ideal, but in a pinch Google or Wikipedia will do.
Now contemplate how many major decisions that you make in a year might be changed by this information. Buying a car, renovating a house, voting at town meeting, even choices you make about how you exercise and eat involve environmental issues. Also, question how committed you are to the quality of life you enjoy today. Would you cut your electricity usage in half if it would mean the Northern Pass would go away? Could you find 10,000 people to do the same? How do you propose we handle the additional 40,000 people moving to the region once the widening of Interstate 93 is complete?
The problem with environmental issues is that they necessarily affect everybody. They cannot be avoided by staying in a more affluent area or limiting your circle to only those who agree with you. If you breathe, drink water, eat food and go outside, you are at the mercy of what we are doing to our planet.
That said, we all need to know the science behind these issues so we can make informed decisions. As the state moves to incorporate the Core Curriculum into our schools, I propose that we add basic environmental literacy to be learned by the time every student graduates from high school. We cannot afford to let our decisions be led by inaccurate understanding of how the environment works as our lives depend on us moving out of our trance and into reasoned discussion.
(Ayn Whytemare of Concord teaches environmental science at NHTI and owns a certified organic plant business, Found Well Farm, in Pembroke.)