Envisioning Vermont in 2065

Envisioning Vermont in 2065

Image by Bob McMillan/FEMA via Kelly Garbato via Flickr

I went to a group-think exercise the other day where participants were asked to envision what the landscape in Vermont would look like 40 years from now under various scenarios. It was my first experience with anything like this. In my group, the scenario was that in 2065 Vermont had a strong state government that was in favor of working lands, while at the same time the state was being inundated with climate change refugees from coastal areas that were underwater. So, the population of the state doubled or tripled.

The group envisioned a sort of western European styled utopia – the unofficial name for the scenario was Bernieland – where all the new people lived in high-rises or quarter-acre lots in concentrated areas. Forests wouldn’t be fragmented because of the smart planning. Forest industry and agriculture would flourish outside of the urban centers. The amount of land set aside in ecological reserves would increase.

I was an outlier in the group, as I had a decidedly dimmer vision. I just couldn’t imagine a family of climate refugees from Florida, or North Carolina, or New Jersey, who lost their slice of the American dream – be it 40 acres and a mule or a McMansion on 10-acres – moving to Vermont, leaving their politics and notions of representative democracy at the border, trading in their cars for bicycles, and living the good life in an Ikea condominium built in a state-designated refugee zone. Really, what I think would happen is that local planning boards would be coopted by people who wanted in on some version of the rural Vermont experience – and who could blame them – and the rate at which the countryside is being fragmented would accelerate. And a strong state government, even if it were in favor of working lands, would be overwhelmed catering to the needs of the masses. The need for infrastructure would rule the day, which is antithetical to open space.

It was an interesting exercise in light of the refugee crisis going on in Europe; also, the hot rhetoric around immigration in U.S. states along the Mexican border. How would a small state in the Northeast handle a million or so people who showed up in a relatively concentrated slug?

If you’ve got a second I’d love to hear your thoughts. Imagine it’s 2065, and assume that the worst case models for climate change come true. There’s coastal flooding and major drought in the west, and your state in the Northeast has become a magnet for climate refugees from other parts of the country. Tell us what state you live in, and tell us what you imagine you’d see. And don’t let my dim view sway you – if you’re an optimist, tell us how and why. I admire glass-is-half-full perspectives, even if my own often falls short.

 
Discussion
  1. Nicholas Boke → in Rhode Island
    Oct 02, 2015

    I cannot imagine how the kind of economic and social catastrophes that are likely to accompany the impact of severe climate change will be positive. I think the on-the-ground European response to the current refugee crisis is likely to take place in states that are spared the worst of the worst, where many people will be helpful and welcoming—to a point. And then I’m afraid that the worst in human nature will be brought out, as resources and space dwindle. The groundswell of support for Donald Trump and—once he got nasty—Ben Carson are I think harbingers of the kind of us-versus-them that this crisis will generate. Eventually? Can’t tell, but I don’t want to be around for the what I assume will be very long transition period.

  2. Carolyn → in East Wallingford, VT
    Oct 03, 2015

    I’m inclined to agree with your dimmer view, because it’s what’s already happening in Vermont (e.g., “local planning boards would be coopted by people who wanted in on some version of the rural Vermont experience”). I also would expect social/cultural/class distinctions to get sharper and more hostile. Part of what defines our state is its small population; once that expands, especially if in a big lump with people who come here under pressure instead of voluntarily, differences will get exacerbated rather than assimilated.

  3. Tim McKay → in Peacham, VT
    Oct 03, 2015

    Some sort of migration due to climate change will certainly happen, but it will be more gradual than the sudden influx of refugees we see in Europe. The biggest driver will be water, or the lack thereof, both in terms of human water desires and agricultural production. California is well on the way to major change. Hundreds of thousands of acres of formerly irrigated farmland have been fallowed in order to use the water for people in cities. In the dry plains, the Ogallala Aquifer will soon sink out of reach of deep wells. Agriculture will have to shift to wetter places. The people of southern California and the rest of the Southwest will hang on as long as they can, with less and less water available. Jerry Brown’s 25% cut in water use will likely become a 50% cut in the next few years. People will no longer be moving to those areas, and some residents will drift north and east.

    For Vermont, immigration will be facilitated by the milder climate. Many more people will choose Vermont because we will no longer have frigid winters. With our fragmented planning, we will not be able to steer these immigrants to live where it might make sense. They will continue to pursue the idealized Vermont dream of a few acres of land, and thus fragmentation will intensify.

    Our polarized agriculture, that is small local-vore farms and huge industrialized dairy farms, will both expand. Big dairy farms will continue to clear more land. In addition, large scale veggie production will come to our state as it is abandoned in California, and more land will be cleared for it. Abandonment of useable farmland will cease, and the clearing of forested land will be concentrated on the best soils. Agriculture will become the mainstay of our economy again.

    By 2065 Vermont’s forests will have shrunk, perhaps to as little as 60%, and our population will probably have doubled (which isn’t saying much in the grand scheme). It will still be a great place to live, but it will be much different from the idyllic back pasture we inhabit today.

  4. Jon Harris → in Newcastle, ME
    Oct 03, 2015

    Your vision is more likely, for Vermont or Maine. I don’t see it as dim. It just reflects the way people behave. Just the same, prediction is no science. Could the world of today have been predicted in 1965?

  5. Stephen Wilder → in Catskill Mts.
    Oct 03, 2015

    I am in agreement that there is going to be an overwhelming flow of refugees from the urban environments due to flooding and food shortages and general disruption of distribution systems. The influx of refugees in Vermont and upstate NY trying to escape from all this will result in violent confrontations and extreme stresses on social and cultural and environmental norms. It is going to be horrible and I hope to be dead and gone before it gets too bad….

  6. Steve B. → in Littleton, Maine, formerly eastern MA
    Oct 07, 2015

    I’m in agreement with most all of you. People and large-scale agriculture will be following the water. Right now, people are leaving Aroostook County, Maine because the agriculture there is now largely mechanized (mostly potato and grain farming) and the timber industry is also mechanizing too. I suspect, however, that that trend will reverse somewhat as there will be pressure on some large agriculture to find a new home away from the Southwest and West.

    Likewise, land and home prices in the Boston area are positively exploding upwards due to all the high tech, finance, and higher education economy money flowing into that area, but at a certain point the nearby water will rise.  Even if it rises just a little bit, huge parts of the Boston area will suffer, during noreasters especially and I suspect that people there will start being forced into the rest of New England as the climate and ocean trends become clearer to more and more people.

    In short, northern Maine is warming up a bit while still (for now) hanging on to its rainfall.  Land up in The County is cheap and looking around at much of the rest of the US and world, such a combination of cheap, abundant, well-watered land cannot be had by still increasing populations.  The County won’t be overlooked forever.

    Like Stephen Wilder, I too hope to exit before the worst of what is to come hits (which will help out the remaining folks just a bit too.)

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