This commentary is by Michelle Dorwart, a family physician with the Community Health Centers of Burlington, written in coordination with Sebbi Wu of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

The strategically placed single-use juice bottles topped by plastic likenesses of Anna, Els, and Olaf at the grocery store checkout are endlessly appealing to my 4-year-old, who dependably requests one as a special treat. It prompts a discussion of trying to reduce our plastic consumption.

Why? Because plastic is bad for the environment.

Why? Because it is difficult to make and difficult to recycle.

After a lengthy cycle of “whys” on a particular day, we discussed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and she wonders: Whose fault is that? Pausing, I reply, “It’s no one’s fault, really … and everyone’s.”

As a parent my internal monologue oscillates between “Tell her everything! She needs to know! ” and “Tone it down – she’s only 4!”

Regardless of whether I disclose the full truth of the capitalistic destruction of our natural world driven by greed and a complete lack of consideration for anything beyond instant-gratification decision-making (the decision to buy a single-use plastic juice bottle in order to prevent a grocery store tantrum, the decision to inject high volumes of toxic chemicals deep below the earth’s surface to extract gas and oil in order to prolong our collective addiction to cheap fossil fuels), I know that I hold responsibility to try to effect change in this unsustainable system.

Our blunders become the burdens of future generations, our inaction their inheritance. A complex web of decisions, needs and desires makes issues like a mounting pile of plastic or a changing global climate seem impossible to address. Because when it’s no one’s fault and everyone’s fault, whose job is it to come up with a solution? No one’s? Or everyone’s?

Added to the challenge in determining who’s to blame is the fact that, despite our collective contributions, we know that those who contribute least to these environmental problems are those who suffer the greatest consequences.

A 2-year-old child of parents who immigrated to Burlington as refugees fleeing a civil war is not to blame for chipping lead paint in her family’s apartment. Yet that lead is now circulating through her bloodstream, potentially impeding her neurologic development.

A 9-year-old child of parents who spent decades living in a refugee camp due to violence and forced expulsion from their home country is not to blame for the food desert in which he now lives. Yet the highly processed food that makes up the bulk of his diet is now altering his metabolism and putting him at risk for early onset of diabetes and heart disease.

A 13-year-old needing to cool off in late summer by going for a swim at North Beach is not responsible for the agricultural runoff and soil erosion that cause algal blooms in Lake Champlain. But she may have to sweat out the August heat unless her parents have the means to take the family on a trip to cyanobacteria-free waters.

In such fraught environmental circumstances, with competing disasters vying for our attention, it can be easy to wait for someone else to take action – to sit back and hope for the best, perhaps imagining a relatively safe position for ourselves and our families living in Vermont as the global environment worsens.

No parent wants to imagine their children battling forest fires, sheltering from hurricanes, sitting on a littered beach because the water is too polluted for a swim. But parents (along with everyone else) are tired. Tired of crisis, exhausted by a 24-hour news cycle barraging us with bad news.

But children in Vermont and around the world are already experiencing environmental injustices, food insecurity and loss of natural spaces. We must continue to push ourselves to create a healthier environment for our own children and our neighbors’ children to grow and thrive. We must advocate for solutions that ensure that all are able to benefit equitably from our environmental action.

The Vermont Legislature is considering several bills related to the environment, including:

• S.148, which would be Vermont’s first Environmental Justice law, helping us to build a more livable future for all of Vermont’s children and ensure no one is left behind.

• H.715, the single most impactful pollution-reduction recommendation of Vermont’s Climate Action Plan, which would establish a statewide clean heat standard to gradually help reduce climate pollution from our buildings over time.

• S.284, which sets in state policy the goal of weatherizing 120,000 homes by 2031 while targeting investments to low and moderate income Vermonters. Weatherization has proven climate benefits while also providing fuel savings for Vermonters.

• H.175, a long-overdue update to Vermont’s popular bottle bill program that would include more beverage containers such as water bottles, sports drinks and wine, and prevent waste from ending up in our landfills and roadsides.

The foundation upon which our society is built is flawed. As parents and citizens who care about passing along a livable world to the next generation, we must overcome our fatigue and work to repair our shared foundation. Please contact your state legislators in support of the above bills. And try to stay strong in the grocery store checkout line.

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Tags: environmental problems, H.175, H.715, michelle dorwart, S.148, S.284, sebbi wu, unsustainable system


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