Conrad LTE: Vermont and HydroQuebec at a racist crossroads

VT Digger

This commentary is by Ross Conrad of Middlebury, who serves on the town’s energy committee and the energy committee of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.

The VTDigger article Feb. 17  Is Vermont’s use of HydroQuebec power “greenwashing”? stimulated some interesting comments among folks I know.

To summarize, there appeared to be general agreement that the destabilization of the climate creates an urgent need to quickly build out our renewable energy portfolio while at the same time eliminating fossil fuel use and decommissioning fossil fuel infrastructure. As such, sacrifices such as those endured by some Canadians are a necessary evil. 

While I understand the thinking behind this position and agreed with it at one time, I now realize this line of thinking ignores a big part of the equation.

The environmental devastation caused by the flooding 308 million acres of forest land in Northern Canada by HydroQuebec results in significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and poisons the flora and fauna with the resulting methylmercury. While this seriously detracts from the benefits of “clean” hydro energy, the impacts on the Indigenous people is unconscionable. The Pikogan, Lac Simon, Kitcisakik and Winneway (Anishinabe), Pessamit (Innu) and Wemotaci (Atikamekw) tribal people have been removed from their homelands and traditional hunting grounds without their consent. Nor have they been compensated in any way for the land that has been taken from them. 

The people themselves are dying not only from starvation resulting from the destruction of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but also from mythlmercury poisoning caused by the flooding of the land (their source of food and sustenance). Many of the native people don’t even have electricity so they can’t take advantage of the “benefits” of the hydro development. 

To say that this collateral damage should be accepted as the cost of effectively dealing with global warming is so appalling and distasteful to me that I struggle to find the words to express myself. 

It is the insidious nature of systemic racism that it becomes normalized and commonplace and permeates all levels of our culture and society. This is responsible for allowing otherwise intelligent, good, kind, loving and caring people to hold and promote such explicitly racist views and ideas even when they are staring them right in the face. 

By using HydroQuebec power, we provide our tacit approval and consent for the continued theft of land and genocidal approach to the Indigenous populations of North America. This situation is all the more egregious given that we Americans consume about 25 percent of the world’s energy while comprising only about 5 percent of the world’s population and huge amounts of this energy is simply wasted through laziness, carelessness and inefficiency. 

We cannot in good conscious trade fossil fuel injustices for renewable energy injustices.

Rather than rely on HydroQuebec, we Vermonters should be more willing to endure the sacrifices necessary to rapidly convert our energy systems away from fossil fuels to renewable sources ourselves. Among other things, that means being willing to put up with the “eyesore” of solar panels and wind turbines, and being willing to pay more for our electricity instead of exporting the costs onto other people in other places through renewable energy credit trading schemes, willful ignorance, rationalizations, or other means. 

One part of the problem is that when energy is produced anyplace on such a huge industrial scale, the sheer size of the operation magnifies the environmental and social problems associated with it to such an extent that it becomes an undue burden. While the financial cost of HydroQuebec power is lower than many renewable sources for Vermonters, the cost to the native people is so high as to be oppressive, intolerable and unacceptable. 

No one I know would be happy getting forcibly removed from their home and having their land flooded, all without their consent or compensation, and yet too many of us appear content to profit from it happening to others. By relying on electricity from HydroQuebec, we are actively perpetuating the original sin of the first European settlers. 

We should rely less on large industrial-scale solutions and more on smaller, human-scale efforts. By distributing and decentralizing our energy production away from massive projects like HydroQuebec, we increase the overall reliability of our energy system, while reducing the environmental and social costs. The ends do not always justify the means and since it is possible to convert to renewable energy without sacrificing large parts of the planet, or entire races of people, then we should do so. At the very least, Vermont should put a moratorium on the purchase of any more power from HydroQuebec and pressure the province to compensate the native people for their land. 

I don’t believe my friends’ views and opinions are purposely and consciously intended to be racist. Nor do I believe that our government bureaucrats and state legislators who enabled and maintain our purchasing of HydroQuebec power have racist intentions. This represents a blind spot in our collective consciousness that conveniently allows us to avoid having to make the tough decisions necessary to deal with the uncomfortable consequences of our collective actions. 

Now that this racist blind spot has been made visible in our relationship with HydroQuebec, how will we respond?

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  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-03-02 09:55:19 -0500