This blog is the eighth in a series of profiles written by 350VT intern Julie Elfin. Julie got the chance to speak with Doug Smith of Sharon, whose long history of involvement with energy innovation and activism provides perspective for the current situation. This is Doug’s story.
I’m an activist and an engineer. I grew up in the 1950s and went to college in the 1960s. I’ve been studying climate change and working on renewable energy since the 1960s. Now I’m 76 years old. I have grandkids now, and I’m not so far away from great-grandkids, but we haven’t made much progress.
I was Head Teaching Fellow at Harvard in 1969 on a course called “Human Populations and Natural Resources”. We covered greenhouse gases and our early understanding of climate change. Even back then, we knew there was a problem. We didn’t know the timelines or have a clear picture of the impacts, but we knew it was real.
When I left school, I made money selling my research to solar companies and planning energy development. I’ve always been against nuclear. It was clear to me that there was no separation between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The two technologies come from the same seed. I was involved in the battle against Vermont Yankee and arrested numerous times. I occupied Wall Street in 1979, protested the Vietnam War and worked for nuclear and Apartheid divestment.
Before the oil crisis in the ‘70s, there was no such thing as an energy expert. Bangladesh was the first country to really have an energy policy, and I was a part of that. It happened that I lived in East Pakistan in the early 1970s, when it declared independence and became Bangladesh. The policy we created was rural-focused, decentralized and included renewables.
There was tremendous potential for solar PV in Africa and South Asia in the 1970s. The Exxons and BPs of the world had solar departments. Japan was getting involved. Even the World Bank got excited about it. It seemed like solar was going to be the next big thing.
Obviously, that never happened. Fossil fuel companies and corporate interests squashed renewables. Big utilities and nuclear corporations combined powers to stop the development of solar and wind. They didn’t want a decentralized system threatening their profits.
We know more science about climate change now than we did in the 1960s, and interest in nuclear has declined since Fukushima, which confirmed that our fears were not just paranoia. But mostly it’s still business as usual. The urgency doesn’t quite get across to a lot of people. If we’d started 50 years ago, we’d be in a different place now, but I think we are moving forward.
I’m retired. I’d like to take a step back, but I can’t. I’ve been active in the Vermont Gas pipeline demonstrations. My wife and I were arrested with a group of grandparents, chained to the gate of the VGS pipe yard. Since her death in 2015, I have continued to be active in a direct action affinity group. I worry about my grandsons. The Vermont Gas pipeline is diametrically opposed to what we should be doing to build a future for their generation.
It’s outrageous that the state of Vermont supports a pipeline that people don’t want. The power of industry on corporate interests has overwhelmed science, climate justice and the common interest.
Vermont Gas is not a hometown company. They’re a subsidiary of Gaz Metro from Canada. They have a lot of power that politicians pay attention to. Politicians aren’t scientists. They’re not corrupted; they’ve simply got other things to do. Some science supports the industry’s side, and the government gets fed information that reinforces the story Vermont Gas and Gaz Metro want to present. It’s hard to counter that.
I love Vermont. I love where I live. I live simply. I have a little house. I don’t have a car. I have lots of friends and many of my neighbors agree with me, though more passively, on issues like energy, healthcare and immigration. I have access to nature, to the woods near my house. In my personal life, I’m not affected much by climate change, but climate change will affect that land.
I do step back at times. I have less energy now. It’s hard and probably dangerous not to take breaks over the course of a lifetime. I put a lot of effort into my family and my activism has looked different during the phases of my professional and family life.
I practice intensive meditation two to three months per year: no newspapers, no computers, no TV, no speaking. Some would say it’s a break, but I would say it’s not a break–it’s a change. Those times provide the strength I need to keep going.
I trust our kids and grandkids. I know things can change. Movements aren’t effective overnight, but activists throughout the history of this country and the world have contributed so much to society. Before the collapse of Apartheid, I could never see how that would happen. But people stood up and things changed little by little til one day it happened.
Julie Elfin is a senior at the University of Vermont studying the environment and communications. This profile series is her culminating project for her Online Organizing internship with 350VT.