An Interview with Senator Eric Lesser
Paperbark was delighted to speak with Massachusetts State Senator Eric P. Lesser. Read on for our conversation about sustainability and local efforts to preserve the western part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
P: What does “sustainability” mean to you?
SL: Sustainability means leaving the world better than you found it for future generations. The generations that came before us have not observed that concept, but the world is waking up to the fact that we are all but out of time to reverse climate change. We need to adapt how we’re living and how we use this planet to leave it in at least the same shape, if not better, than what we inherited.
P: What kinds of initiatives do you see working in Western Massachusetts that address the issues of climate change and/or the environment and what kind of future do you envision for Massachusetts around these issues?
SL: Last session, we passed a major climate change bill focused on adaptation that included state bonding for a number of projects around the state that would help communities adapt and prepare for the effects of climate change. Projects like culverts and dam repairs and pond dredging all across Massachusetts were highlighted in this effort to adapt our state to changing realities.
There is a lot of interest in the Legislature now to pass another major bill on climate change, focused on financial mechanisms we can use to put the brakes on climate change in addition to adapting to its effects. One example is a bill I have that would put energy ratings on homes, so buyers can see how energy efficient a house is when they are looking at different options. This would really transform our housing stock, which is one of the biggest sources of emissions due to wasted heat and electricity, by adjusting the incentives toward sustainability, toward better use of energy. I am also a lead sponsor of a bill to enter Massachusetts into the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which is a regional carbon market that puts a price on companies’ carbon emissions. The funds from the sale of carbon credits would then be reinvested in our state transportation network to make it more sustainable. Think about what this would achieve for our state.
P: Speaking of transportation, you’ve been a leading advocate for the East-West high-speed rail initiative in Massachusetts. Could you tell Paperbark readers more about it? What advantages might it bring to the Five Colleges north of Springfield?
SL: The latest update is that, after four years of organizing and pushing for it, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation finally agreed to conduct a feasibility study of East-West Rail connecting Boston to Springfield to Pittsfield. We expect to see the results of the study in the first quarter of 2020. East-West transit is really one part of our larger transportation network, so we have to think about it holistically and consider what it would add to our region as a whole. One of the main benefits to East-West Rail is that it offers people in Eastern Mass the opportunity to live here in Western Mass and commute into Boston for work. That potentially means a lot more people living in the Greater Springfield area, coming up to Amherst and Northampton for the cultural attractions here on weekends, the performances or guest lectures at the different colleges or the UMass hockey games, for example.
It also means bigger capacity in our rail network to support North-South Rail, which is currently a pilot run by Amtrak to connect Greenfield all the way to New York City. More traffic on these rail lines means more opportunities for people to connect, for universities and businesses to form partnerships when it’s easier to meet for research meetings or presentations. All of this has a ripple effect for Western Mass as a whole.
P: If the line were to open, do you see it having an environmental impact? How so?
SL: East-West Rail would be the single biggest sustainability project Massachusetts has ever undertaken. It would take thousands of cars off the road daily, which would result in a huge drop in emissions statewide and reduce the kinds of air and salt pollution that comes with cars. It would also make it easier for people to live in the Western part of the state and commute to the Greater Boston area for work, so it would pull people out of Boston, decongesting that area, which has positive impacts on public health and reducing litter and preventing erosion on the Boston coastline. All of this makes a difference.
P: How does Western Mass compare statewide regarding its focus on sustainability and the environment?
SL: I think in many ways, Western Mass has been leading the way on sustainability and the environment. We are the ones pushing for East-West Rail. Western Mass has also led the state in pointing out the dangers of biomass, when a group of activists in Springfield resisted one company’s attempt to open a biomass plant here. The Pelham-based group Partnership for Policy Integrity is now organizing an effort to get Governor Baker to rethink the state grants he has allowed for biomass companies, which is counter to what we know about the dangers of biomass burning for public health and for the climate. And finally, Western Mass is home to some of the best natural beauty in the state, whether it’s hiking Mount Tom, or along the Quabbin Reservoir, or Mount Greylock, which is on the Appalachian Trail. In March, 765 acres in the Connecticut River Valley were protected in an ambitious preservation plan, the River to Range Project. Western Mass understands the importance of sustainability because we have so much natural beauty here that we need to take care of.
P: How do you see or understand Western Massachusetts in relation to the arts?
SL: There are few places in our entire country that have as rich a history and tradition in the arts as Western Mass. We have inspired countless artists and authors, from Norman Rockwell and Edith Wharton and Dr. Seuss through to today, including the talented young people who are sharing their work in Paperbark. This is a part of Western Mass that I love celebrating, and it should be celebrated, because this is a unique place to live, with fantastic museums like Mass MOCA and the Springfield Museums, educational institutions like the Five Colleges and others, and cultural mainstays like the summer home of the Boston Pops at Tanglewood. What’s not to love?
P: What are some ways to interact with our government around the subject of climate change and sustainability and what can young people and college students do to engage with their government locally and in Boston to make their voices heard?
SL: No matter your age, the best thing you can do is get educated on an issue, find a solution, and work with other allies to raise attention non-stop about it. If you’re bothered by a problem, do your homework on it, find out if there’s a bill addressing that problem. Support the solutions that are out there because if they exist and haven’t been passed, it’s because there’s not enough public pressure to get them across the finish line yet. If you think the solutions are not good enough, propose something else. Get specific with your advocacy.
And the most important thing you can do is share your personal story — why is this important to you and your friends and neighbors? Why does this matter? At the end of the day, it’s very easy for decision makers to read briefing papers and to study the topline facts and findings of an issue. But what truly breaks through is the personal element, learning how a policy made on Beacon Hill touches you, your family, your community in a personal way. So don’t be shy about really sharing who you are and grounding your advocacy in the everyday way you will experience, for example, a changing climate.
P: Paperbark’s second issue is framed around the theme of “Resilience”. What does resilience mean to you?
SL: We have a lot to be grateful for, and a lot to be proud of, in Massachusetts and here in Western Mass in particular. We also have a lot of challenges — in many ways, we were on the receiving end of a variety of economy forces: the exodus of industrial jobs and the hollowing out of the middle class, for example, that have made it harder and harder for our communities to compete, and for our families to make ends meet. But we are also a place of innovation and determination, which is why we’re leading the way on fighting for a 21st Century Transportation network, for example, and building new centers like Valley Venture Mentors to usher in new startups and small businesses. Our challenges do not define us, they challenge us to come together and rise above them. That is what it means to be resilient. We cannot give up on the work we have to do together, and we cannot stop working toward the future we all want for each other and for our children and grandchildren.
P: Any final thoughts?
SL: Best of luck with the latest issue of Paperbark!
Thanks so much to Senator Lesser and his staff for speaking with us. Paperbark is excited to see what changes like the East-West Rail in Massachusetts will mean for the infrastructure and environmental impact of Western Massachusetts. Thanks in particular to Ryan Migeed as well for facilitating this interview.