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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

A western Maine climate activist on the importance of cleaning up the food and transportation systems

There’s a group in Norway, Maine that’s trying to get ahead of climate change. The Center for an Ecology-Based Economy works on the issues of transportation, renewable energy, shelter and food.

Scott Vlaun is the group's executive director. As part of our series, Climate Driven, he spoke to Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about what he considers the essential elements for Maine's future in a warming world.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Here a lightly edited transcript of their conversation:

Vlaun: We're starting to realize not only is climate related to all these other food, energy shelter issues, but it's also deeply related to social justice issues, racial justice issues. Those frontline communities are the ones that suffer the most from climate, and the ones that have done the least to cause it and the ones that can do the least about it, because they're not in a position to be able to. They don't have the luxury of being activists.

Scott Vlaun, executive director of the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy in Norway, Maine.
Center for an Ecology-Based Economy
Scott Vlaun, executive director of the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy in Norway, Maine.

Gratz: You've spent eight years doing a lot of practical things as a way of perhaps demonstrating a different way forward.

We work in transportation; it's probably been maybe our most like impactful area. We have a bike share program here. So we have free bikes for people to use, we're really hardcore promoters of cycling as an alternative to cars. We started a worker owned cooperative called Spoke Folks that hauls trash and recycling in the community using bicycles and trailers. We have this very large EV charging network that we've put up. Now we have 17 EV chargers all over the region that are free public, EV chargers. Many of them are on solar power. And because of that this area has become a real hotbed for electric vehicles.

The energy work has been a lot of coalition work, policy work, but we're working really hard now in a community solar cooperative. The shelter area we've done some work with. I'm helping people design tiny homes, and we've helped a youth build a greenhouse up at Roberts Farm Preserve, but right now we have a group of mostly young people working on a cooperative housing project, affordable cooperative housing that they could build equity in. Of course, they all overlap with food, for instance, the big community solar movement in Maine right now, like what's going to be the effect of that on agriculture? Are we going to, you know, cover some of our good ag land with, you know, out of state companies come in, and they're not really that concerned about our food security here as much as they are finding a good place to put a solar farm.

So let's talk a little bit about food. It's often, I don't think, something people often think about as being a major contributor to climate change: a car with a tailpipe is one thing but a farm field?

It's true. Agriculture system, the food system, depending on how the accounting is done, is responsible for anywhere from 20 to 40%. of greenhouse gas emissions. And a lot of that's due to land use practices. But it's also due to the heavy fossil fuel dependency of the agricultural system. If you look at all the machinery, the traction that's used, the combines, all of that stuff, if you look at all the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, all of that stuff, all derived from fossil fuels. So the fossil fuel footprint of the agriculture system is huge, the industrial agriculture system. We start looking at smaller scale farmers, and that changes dramatically.

Let's bring this back down to the local: you've talked about some of the initiatives that are already happening in the area around where you are. As you kind of look into the into the future in Oxford County, what does it look like?

I stand here facing out onto Main Street Norway, and it is a sea of cars and trucks going in both directions all day long, from towns that are 8, 10, 20 miles from here. It's a big issue: we need public transportation. Maine needs to step up. Vermont spends $12 per person a year on public transport, we spend about $1. We really need to make that.

[Note: the administration of Gov. Janet Mills has recently changed how Maine defines public transportation to include ferries and a rideshare program, and it now considers the per capita funding of public transit to be $11.55.]

And a lot of these things, again, become equity issues. You know, we know we need the stuff to be affordable. So a lot of people here can't afford transportation, or if they can, they're driving old, heavily polluting cars. We start to just look at the food system out here. It's been a primary focus of ours since the beginning. We have a local food council here: the story of the local food movement in Maine, Irwin, is a story of networks of networks of networks, really. So we tried to work together, we created a food charter, we had a community engagement process here to create a food charter to kind of guide the work that we do in the community and there are things in this food charter.

The top line thing is to provide access to healthy food for all, empower local producers and revitalize food culture and traditions. And the list goes on, and it talks about how we treat our land, etc. We've seen a lot of people come really fired up, young farmers and they find it a really tough row to hoe to be, you know, to make a reasonable living farming: land is very expensive, price of land is being driven up a lot right now by influx of COVID refugees, etc.

So let me wrap up by just asking you, because you've been so deeply involved in this for so long, I mean, does it leave you optimistic, pessimistic about where we're going?

Oh, I thought you would probably ask that. It leaves me fired up to continue to work, to do the work. And I do find it very inspiring, and hopeful, that a new generation is coming up with a new understanding of how, of really understanding how systems work, and an understanding it's their future. And they're demanding a different approach to how we feed ourselves, how we get ourselves around, how we house ourselves, clothe ourselves, etc.