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ISC’s Story, Part 1: Fertile Ground

Vermont’s cutting-edge role in sustainable development and climate action

Note: A few years ago, we asked George Hamilton to reflect on the events that led up to the founding of the Institute for Sustainable Communities. As we celebrate our 25th Anniversary this year, we’re looking back at our history (as well as forward to our future) and we’ll be sharing reflections and stories from our first quarter-century.

Madeleine Kunin was elected Vermont’s first (and only!) woman Governor in November of 1984. She appointed Jonathan Lash (a former senior attorney at NRDC) as Commissioner of Environmental Conservation in January, 1985, and they immediately got to work advancing environmental initiatives. The 1985 Legislative Session was one of the most productive environmental policy sessions in Vermont history. As Executive Director of VPIRG (citizen advocacy organization), I was a key partner in advancing this legislative agenda. After the session, Gov. Kunin hired me to join her policy office, focusing on environment, telecommunications and energy.

In September 1987, Gov. Kunin created the Governor’s Commission on Vermont’s Future – a commission made up of key leaders from business, government (local and state), academic, and nonprofit sectors, chaired by Doug Costle, Dean of Vermont Law School. Since the economy was booming, the key issue was growth management. As staff lead, I worked with the commission to design a meaningful civic engagement process and deliver a report – all within three months. The report was very well received and Gov. Kunin devoted her entire State of the State speech to its conclusions. Act 200 passed in the 1988 session and significantly strengthened community planning in the state.

Note: This New York Times article from April, 1988, written by James Howard Kunstler, lays out some of the issues Vermont was facing at the time.

Also in 1987, the United Nations report Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) was published. After reading the report, I became a strong advocate within the Administration for this new concept of sustainable development. In 1988, Gov. Kunin became chair of the New England Governor’s Conference and approved a proposal from the Eastern Canadian premiers to host an international conference on sustainable development. We recruited the President of the newly-established World Resources Institute (Gus Speth) to be the keynote speaker at the NEG-ECP conference, launching a conversation on climate change.

In 1989, Gov. Kunin promoted me to State Planning Director (aka Director of the Office of Planning and Coordination). One of my responsibilities in this role was staffing the Governor in the National Governors Association while she was chair of the Environment Committee. Gov. Kunin established a NGA Climate Task Force, made up of several governors and chaired by Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. The “Thompson Report,” released in 1990, outlined the likely impacts of climate change. “We cannot wait for further information before we decide to act,” stated Governor Kunin.