Rhode Island enjoys the unique advantage of having accessible natural resources. After work, I have the option of driving 30 minutes to stroll along the sea cliffs of Fort Wetherill or hiking one of the Big River trails. As a kid, my church’s outings took advantage of that accessibility, and my favorite summer activities included afternoons fishing for crabs at the beach.
However, we are at risk of losing these advantages because of our susceptibility to climate change, and our state’s economic and social conditions could leave us precariously teetering in the event of another economic downturn. Rhode Island is usually the first to fall into a recession and the last to recover. A Category 3 hurricane hitting us square in the nose at the wrong time could result in a perfect storm of problems for Little Rhody. These threats demand an urgent response, and a Rhode Island Green New Deal can be the answer.
Our state has a legacy of introducing creative solutions. Rhode Island has the notoriety of being at the forefront of fundamental shifts in the ways our country thinks and does business. It was Roger Williams who set out to establish a new colony under the principle of tolerance.
Rhode Island’s 1663 Charter, granted by King Charles II of England, was extraordinary for establishing into law certain things that were unheard of in its day. In addition to codifying religious freedom for the first time, the document bestowed upon Rhode Islanders the power to elect their own government and make their own laws. It granted everyone equal rights to fish off New England’s coastline.
Moses Brown, after bearing witness to the human tragedy of slavery, eventually led efforts against the practice. His ingenious approach to industrialization was illustrated through his financing of Slater Mill which, through its success, served as an example that American society can be built without slave labor.
Each of these precedents was driven by one common standard: ethics. Instead of allowing greed to drive society, these kinds of responsible, people-powered, people-first ethics became engines behind our economy and communities.
We have forgotten what it means to pursue prosperity in line with our values. Too frequently, the sole concern informing decisions has been their impact on the financial bottom line. They are made with no regard to how they affect you, me, our neighbors or our future. They run counter to our values.
In order to adequately address today’s challenges, a Green New Deal should return us to the people-first ethics that once guided the most influential economic innovations. Three objectives must be met.
The first is to make sure solutions do not leave anyone behind. For too long, decision-makers have left people in zones of abandonment. Policies have led to disinvestment, whether intentional or not.
The second is to ensure that we are good stewards of the environment by eliminating pollution. Climate change will devastate the state’s coastline and most vulnerable communities if we do not address it. Rhode Island’s economy has depended on the stewardship of its natural resources. It’s what has driven others to visit and is the backbone of many Rhode Islanders’ livelihoods.
The third is to support local economies with good wages. Opportunity is best fostered by empowering and investing locally. In turn, communities earn ownership and interest in mutual success.
In the 18th century, a seafarer by the name of John Newton was leading a shameful life. He was a brute and a slave trader. In 1742, his ship was caught in a prolonged storm. The vessel’s rigging was falling apart, and it was a matter of time before the sea would claim him. That time never came. Following those tumultuous hours, he pursued the priesthood and became an abolitionist. He immortalized his story through the song, Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
Right now, we are experiencing our own storm. Climate change presents an existential threat to our status quo. Income inequality is swelling, and automation is forcing questions about the future of work. People are hurting. We have chosen to remain blinded to this.
There is a lot to fix and it feels overwhelming. Because it is daunting, we can decide to forget it and try to move on. Or we can work together to bring creative solutions to fix it. Rhode Island House Resolution 5665 will enable us to begin defining these solutions through a Rhode Island Green New Deal. The approach requires all of us at the table. Disagreements will happen, but agreement is not a requirement heading in. It is only a requirement coming out. Only then can we realize a people-first, resilient future for Rhode Island.
Michael Roles is the project manager for the Rhode Island Green New Deal Research Council, a new organization assessing the components of a Rhode Island Green New Deal through research and community engagement. He recently returned to Rhode Island from Philly, where he worked on consumer protection and environmental policy.