In Which I Go Incognito to Spy on the Other Side
LISTEN to the audio version — or keep reading . . .
Well, it’s Earth Day again. Why do I feel like we may not have that many more of ’em?
When we met here a few weeks ago, I was looking for hope in the latest climate report, sending the Silicon Valley tech bros to Mars, and trying to decide if I was going to an anti–solar farm town hall in my area . . . or to a movie.
I was a responsible citizen and went to the town hall.
I can’t help but find these things fascinating. A few months ago I went to one of the ceremonial swearings-in for the new Congressman in my district in the Hudson Valley. He kinda took the place (it’s complicated) vacated by Antonio Delgado, our rockstar progressive Congressman that Kathy Hochul stole away to be her Lieutenant Governor when she inherited Andy Cuomo’s job. I’m still not happy about her removing such an active progressive from the U.S. House of Representatives.
PART 1: A SWEARING-IN
The new guy (Marc Molinaro) is a Republican, but my friends and I knew someone who could get us into the event, and we were like, “Free drinks? Let’s do it.” I figured I could hide in the back and heckle him.
Truthfully, I was just planning to lay low when I got there, until a woman at my yoga class that morning reminded me that I am his constituent, and have a right to be there. So that afternoon, my friends and I stood in the back of a large, nice but bland carpeted room while an assortment of elderly men in uniforms “Forward, marched!” their way to the front, acting as backdrop for a handful of speeches by local politicians from both sides of the partisan aisle.
Left: Molinaro being sworn in by . . . the guy with the green tie. (These dudes all tend to look very similar to me.) Right: Waiting for the buffet to open. But that view, right??
After the ceremony was over — and my pals and I had partaken in a lovely spread of post-ceremony nibbles — my well-connected friend asked if I wanted to meet the new Congressman, who claims to be moderate, despite opposing abortion and gun control.
“Yaaaah,” I replied. We joined the small receiving line at the front of the room, and when my turn came, I shook Molinaro’s hand.
“Hi, I’m Deb, ” I said. “Just so ya know, I’m a progressive . . . ”
“I’m glad you’re here!” he said cheerfully.
Then I did the two-finger eye-pointing gesture for I’m watching you, and said to him, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
PART 2: AN ANTI-SOLAR TOWN HALL
A few weeks later of an evening, at my local pub (the living room of my village), another friend of mine asks if I’m going to the solar farm meeting the next day. I hadn’t heard about it.
“What kind of meeting is it?” I ask him.
“You know the group that wants to kill the solar farm project? It’s those people.” I did know that there was a big community solar project being planned in a small hamlet in our county for a while now, and apparently a chunk of the residents didn’t get the memo that if we don’t cut way down on greenhouse gas emissions like now, the game of climate roulette we’re playing is going to get a lot more dangerous. So they were presenting their case against it.
“Save me a seat,” I tell him.
When I get to the community college theater space the next day (a Sunday), I scan the room looking for my friend. I note that, ironically, the people objecting to the solar farm are sitting primarily on the left side of the crowded auditorium, and the pro-solar people objecting to the objectors are seated on the right. Almost all of them look a little . . . I don’t know, like they could use a hug? The lefties on the right in their “Save the Dwarf Wedge Mussel” t-shirts or what-have-you. The right-leaning folks on the left in their wide red suspenders and rough hands, representing part of the little town they live in.
I squeeze past a few people on the right side of the theater and take a seat.
The anti-solar discussion is a classic case of NIMBY (an acronym for “not in my backyard,” if you’ve never heard the term). But their concerns are also understandable. I’ll do a quick recap, throwing in some of the colorful moments while trying to avoid snark — which is so fun, but also enormously counterproductive to bridging our cultural gap.
I’ve arrived a bit late, and there seems to be a random older guy onstage, struggling with the low volume level of the sound system.
“A lot of people don’t like solar in their backyard,” he’s saying. “I recommend people install LED lightbulbs in their houses. It’ll save ya money, too. I’m also thinking of putting insulation in my house. I’ll be dead before the investment pays off, but what are you gonna do.”
Well, at least he’s clued in about the climate situation, if not totally grasping the sweeping changes we need post-haste. Then again, most people don’t.
Another solar farm objector who wants to stop the project has a turn. “Deadlines are created by government. Science does not set a date on these things.”
I glance around at my people, murmuring, “Yeah, it does.” They nod in agreement.
“Besides,” the man continues, quoting from who knows where, “Research shows that people as a whole will be wealthier in the future.”
Again I murmur, “Maybe the one-percenters and the wealthiest who survive.” I suspect he might have a case of #inFOXication, but who knows.
A woman gets on stage after him. “I have a request,” she says to the audience. “Hold up your phone. Now turn on the flashlight . . . “
People around me start booing, and yelling “Forget it!” The woman tries to persist over the objections, raising her voice.
“We don’t want to have to depend on this for light if we don’t have enough electricity!” (A common deniers’ fear about renewables.)
See the solar panels behind the bumble bee and the monarch butterfly caterpillar? Double-win in my book.
A few more citizens get their moment onstage, with statements like:
“What’s happening is a Green Gold Rush . . . at the expense of rural communities.”
“They’re turning Upstate New York into a sprawling industrial complex.”
“For these local developers, it’s about making money.”
And, “There are no benefits to this.”
Wellll . . . except the peaceful survival of human life on this planet?
But the lefties from the right side of the auditorium are just as misguided, and some are downright wacky. Somebody’s laminated a dozen or so 8 1/2 x 11″ cards that say “STOP GASLIGHTING!” for my fellow libs to hold up periodically — a terrible message if I’ve ever seen one. The signs should say, “We hear you.” Or at least “We’re here to work with you.” These objectors are not corporate attorneys, they’re neighbors. Our whole county only has 61,000 people in it, for gosh sakes.
The speakers then start taking questions from the crowd, who form a line down the aisle for their turn at a mic at the foot of the stage. The pro–solar project folks who get up to speak mostly say something either inflammatory or nonsensical. I think one guy is barefoot.
The next and final speaker to take the stage seems to be the headliner, because she’s an articulate woman who’s recently retired after 30 years of banking. She has a PowerPoint. It even has a clear title:
“Shepherd’s Run Solar Facility and why it’s wrong, by Sensible Solar for Rural New York”
The PowerPoint has a map of the area in question, with the “sprawling footprint” (their term) of prospective solar panels. The next slide says that the 200,000 motor-powered solar panels would remove prime farmland, clear 40 acres of forest, 21 wetlands, and 9 protected streams. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the “prime farmland” is currently being farmed. It also mentions “10 historic properties (4 National Register–eligible), a Revolutionary War cemetery; and a Mohican historic site.
The locals who are objecting are afraid for “our natural resources, our watershed.” Preserving the character of the area is also important to them. And they claim there’s no “end of life” plan for the solar development, that when the 20-year contract runs out, the panels will be left to fall apart and decay in their town. Right next to the high school football field.
They are skeptical that there will be jobs created for residents of the town, or an infusion of cash. One man says, “No one else is advocating for rural communities.”
I think I start to understand where the problem lies.
A local climate advocate of some sort who I’ve been introduced to is sitting in the row in front of me. I lean forward and ask him quietly, “Do we know why the panels are all scrunched into the town?”
“Proximity to the substation has a lot to do with it,” he answers.
“Ah,” I reply. Then I ask him, “Who owns all that property? Is it one person . . . ?”
He says, “I’ll have to look that up in the town tax records, but I think so?”
Another citizen gets to the mic at the foot of the stage. She’s upset. “And now they even want school buses to all be electric!” The people around me quietly ask each other, “What’s wrong with that . . . ?”
I can’t take much more of this lack of understanding, so I turn to my friend next to me and whisper to him, “I think I’m gonna say something.” He looks at me in surprise as I make my way to the short line of people in the aisle waiting to speak. Eventually I get to the foot of the stage myself, and I speak into the mic that’s held out for me.
“Hi. I’m Deb.” I tell them what village I live in. And then, “I just want to say that I hear you. I hear your concerns. I also know we need to do something like now, given what’s happening to the climate. I mean, if I had a big solar panel in my backyard, I’d be SO proud to be part of the solution, and helping to keep us all thriving on this planet.
“But I get it. Looking at the map in your presentation, I was surprised at the locations they’re placing the solar panels — not out on some land you drive by in the middle of nowhere, like some other solar farms I see around. It looks like it’s sort of in the middle of everything. I have questions about the landowner — is it all owned by one person? It looks to me like there’s a need for more discussion with the company about the placement of the project. I hope there’s a way you all can sit down together and come up with a solution where these panels can be put in places that work for all of you. I hope this can be worked out. Because we need all the solar panels we can get right now. Thanks.”
I walk back to my seat. I realize I’d forgotten to mention the proximity to the substation. Dammit. Then I catch that the speaker is actually addressing me. “Thank you,” she says. “It is one landowner. I don’t want to say the name, but we are in discussion with him,” she says.
She lets one more person say their piece, and then winds up the event. As I head for the exits, a woman comes up to me and says, “Thanks for your share. People usually just wanna argue.” I nod. “Yep.”
The problem here is simple: misinformation and a lack of communication. A lethal combo.
PART 3: A TRUMP-COUNTRY DINER
You might think I’d had enough cultural reconnaissance by then. I’m not saying I was done for good, but my final brush that week with the people on the other side of the ballot came just a few days later, by accident . . .
On a random weekday morning, I leave the house and drive north about 45 minutes for a Facebook Marketplace transaction; I’m meeting the seller in a Stewart’s parking lot in a town called Waterford; I’d soon find out why it’s so named. I give a guy in hospital scrubs a twenty, he in turn gives me a lovely midcentury-ish table lamp from the back of his Ford Focus, and I successfully avoid buying retail one more time (#reuse).
But when I head back to the highway, I see an irresistible sign with an arrow pointing the way to . . . “ERIE CANAL LOCK #2.”
The Erie Canal?! I grew up in Southern California, where the Erie Canal felt like some mythical 5th grade legend, given that it had absolutely zero connection to my childhood of beaches and freeways. What in the world would it actually look like?
I take a hard left, then drive half a mile or so until another sign leads me up what appears to be someone’s driveway but which actually leads to . . . the Erie Fucking Canal. I park. I walk to the lock. I read the signs. I take pictures, and am wowed by what this all meant when America was a new country, and trade and travel were all done by either ship or horseback. I note the former mills along the water, and imagine what it was like when they made paper, and knitting mills were “producing large quantities of cotton underwear” (a detail I’d glean from my visit to the local historical museum that afternoon). Whilst no fossil fuels were burned. I nerded out so hard.
I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so after my self-guided tour I walk to the main street of this early American town. The name Waterford now made sense.
Above left: The old lock, looking like modern industrial sculpture. Center: Not the same diner I went to, but same town. Right: A closed gate at the current Lock #2.
I choose a little place called Don & Pauls’ Coffee Shop and sit down on a rickety stool at the counter. As I settle in with the simple menu (e.g., Two eggs same style with toast, $3.00), I look up and see that Fox News is on the TV right in front of me.
“Oh, boy,” I think. “I’m in Trump country.”
But the waitress has that special kinda small-town friendliness, so I order the chicken & waffles (a splurge) and a Lipton tea (no honey available, and certainly no oat milk). Luckily I blend in well enough that day: jeans, hiking shoes, utilitarian jacket and a neon orange knit cap that says that you’re outdoorsy, even during hunting season.
I casually watch what’s happening on the television, and periodically type it into my phone as if I’m texting with a friend.
Here’s what Fox covers while I’m there (in order):
- Biden’s visit to tornado-torn Mississippi. They’ve pulled a clip of him stumbling over his words really badly. I mean AWFUL. Like, just, ouch. I try not to look at the other customers sitting at the counter. Nothing to see here!
- Trump’s then-recent indictment and future arrest is covered next — but it’s over so fast that if I’d poured any more syrup on my waffle, I would’ve missed it.
- The Nashville school shooting (which now seems like forever ago, because so many others have happened since then). They interview a Republican Congressman from Texas, who wants to “secure schools”; he keeps repeating “secure the schools,” as if he’s playing a game of Taboo, and “gun regulation” is on the forbidden words list.
- Approval ratings of current presidential candidates, I think?
- Followed by an interview with a Democrat Congressman from Texas named Al Green(!) who tries to tell viewers that, under Biden, inflation is actually slowing DOWN, and employment is UP. He’s energetically kind of a dud, though, especially considering his name, so I have plenty of time to read the “Fox Facts” that are scrolling below him, such as “Inflation under President Trump was only 1.9%.” They really know how to f*#! with “facts.”
- An interview with a Ukranian, but we only hear the voice of the translator, so who knows.
- And finally, a guy reporting a border story, telling viewers that the group of immigrants trying to cross that day included a “serial rapist.” A term he repeats a few times: “serial rapist.” “Serial rapist.” What the?
“Propaganda” does not begin to describe this 20-or-so minutes of broadcast.
Of course, this week they settled their defamation suit with Dominion Voting Systems for $787.5 million — an amount that will not hurt Fox or the Murdochs at all, and which protects them from any legal requirement to publicly admit they were lying. Of course they never mentioned it on the air when it was settled.
By the way, I Wiki’d Congressman Al Green out of curiosity, and found a very articulate and passionate 5-minute speech on the House floor from 2017 in favor of impeaching then–President Trump. The final moment is pretty poignant.
He says, “I want to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity, because but for this opportunity, you might not hear my voice . . .”
The video ends there, and my heart breaks for this unheard public servant. But because I love a good rabbit hole, I click on the “i” at the bottom right of the video, which leads me to a second Wikipedia page. This version of the video includes two more lines at the end of it:
“I am a voice in the wilderness, but I assure you that history will vindicate me. I assure you that righteousness will prevail. I assure you that no lie can live forever, and truth crushed to Earth will rise again.” I mean, go, Al!! Right? But sadly, dream on.
That’s it for my reconnaissance for now. Let’s wrap up the loose ends before Earth Day is over . . .
How’s Marc Molinaro (my “moderate” Congressman), doing? Well, a few weeks ago, a new GOP Energy Bill (named H.R.1, because Kevin McCarthy has no shame) was passed by the House. It won’t pass the Senate, thank goodness, but what it promotes, basically, is the end of the planet. More drilling on federal land; making it easier to export liquified natural gas; limiting the president’s authority to block pipelines like Keystone . . . it just ramps up fossil fuel development.
Molinaro voted in favor of it. Democrat Pat Ryan, my other Congressman, voted against it, for both local and global reasons.
There’s more evidence of climate change, so we’ve got the House Republicans promoting more drilling.— Judith Enck, Beyond Plastics
(FYI, a more pro-human bill, called the Fossil-Free Finance Act, was recently introduced by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. It would would require large banks to start phasing out financing of fossil fuel projects, cutting their investments 50% by 2030. The House won’t pass that, but it kinda lays the groundwork and educates people about how central banks are to financing fossil fuel projects. As environmental badass Judith Enck has said, “We can’t recycle our way out of this.” [But, um, do still recycle when you can.])
I’ll keep you posted about the solar farm situation! I did find a super simple list of Misconceptions v. Facts that the developer, Hecate Energy, put up on their website a few days after the Town Hall. For example:
Misconception: In the Town Hall, a printout was displayed that suggested Hecate will be placing solar panels across the entire 900-acres that are being studied.
Fact: Hecate always surveys and studies much more land than we will ultimately need for the final project design . . .
You get the picture.
I hope the concerned citizens saw it, but I’m doubtful. Maybe I’ll try to send it to the PowerPoint woman tomorrow — I think it would help.
Wow, that was a lot!! Wanna see the cute puppy again from my last post?! Here ya go!
I hope you got to do something Earthy today. Subscribe to this blog below, and leave a comment if you’d like!
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