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It’s heartening to see people across the globe and in Vermont gathering to highlight the connection between burning fossil fuels and a more rapidly changing climate in the Connect the Dots events of last weekend. The trauma to Vermont and its people inflicted during and since Tropical Storm Irene is saddening and will last for many years.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and fortunately the wake of this crisis provides us with a unique opportunity to make fundamental changes so that this kind of damage does not occur again. It would be a portentous mistake, however, if the damage from Tropical Storm Irene – around which the Connect the Dots events pivoted – was blamed solely on climate change.
The earth’s climate has always changed, that’s one of the few truly constant features of this world. Change in all aspects is guaranteed, whether climatologically or otherwise. Yes, human beings are likely a factor in the rate of climate change today. But whether human-caused or otherwise, adapting to such changes involves the same approach: anticipate such changes and act before they happen. Be adaptive, not just reactive.
For those living in river valleys, that means not constructing valuable infrastructure in floodplains. It means not relying with complete dependence upon an agricultural system in those floodplains or upon a highway running through it. It’s very simple actually; floodplains flood. And humans don’t win against natural forces; you can’t hold back the water.
Whenever we choose to fight it, water eventually wins every time. Nature always bats last. Waving banners for pictures may be helpful to raise awareness about climate events and one of their likely causes. But actually responding to climate events in a tangible, direct, durable and long-term way involves brick and mortar, redesign, relocation, structural changes to town plans and fundamental changes to infrastructure. It means moving out of the floodplains.
Fortunately, few Vermonters are truly forced to live in floodplains. This stands in contrast to large areas of the world where it is only refugee settlements that are located in floodplains, mudslide paths and other such danger zones. Only those who cannot choose to live elsewhere reside in such areas of acute risk. The vast majority of damage in Irene was preventable – not a “natural catastrophe” but an error in human decision-making.
The majority of destruction experienced from Irene stems from our tendency to forget how our landscape functions; rivers flood on occasion, sometimes mildly, sometimes severely. By constructing “permanent” human habitations in flood-prone areas we are responsible for the results of river flooding, not policy-makers in Washington, DC, not nature, not corporations. We did Irene to ourselves. Building in river floodplains has long left a legacy of destruction and eventual abandonment – witness the thousands of rusting millworks along our river ways.
Yet, we quickly forget fundamental and inherent patterns that define life in this place, including river-bottom flooding. Vermont still (barely) has the resources to choose a different path, a future with far less vulnerability to climate and other inevitable events – even as we rebuild in the floodplain, putting back what was just taken by the river, what will be taken by the river again. Floodplains flood. Indigenous people call such things Natural Law. Protest the policies of Washington, DC, or Montpelier if you’d like; that’s Man’s Law. Man’s Law believes that we can contain a river. Natural Law says build on higher ground. Natural Law says get out of the river’s way. Natural Law says adapt. We can debate policy questions related to climate change for the next century. But there’s one thing about which no questions exist. One thing is simply guaranteed: The river will rise again. Will you be in its way?
Ben Falk lives in Moretown.