The Green Collar Solution?

Catalyst / by Maywa Montenegro /

Will efforts to jumpstart the economy — even ostensibly green ones — collide with efforts to save the planet?

The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

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The “energy technology revolution” and “green collar jobs” — foreign phrases just a couple of years ago — have today become buzzwords at the intersection of environment, politics, science, and economics. Thomas Friedman arguably led the way with the publication last September of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, in which he argued that by embracing “ET,” the US could simultaneously combat climate change, reboot its economy, and free itself from reliance on foreign oil. In October the United Nations Environment Program launched a two-year “Green Economy Initiative”, and this March the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research issued a report arguing that “green” investment by the G20 would be critical in creating jobs and in addressing the economic and environmental threats of climate change. Later that month President Obama appointed environmental pioneer Van Jones as his “green jobs czar.”

It sounds so appealing: one solution that will fix both the economy and the climate in a flourish of windmills and retrofits and electric cars. But as David Owen pointed out in the New Yorker recently, the economic crisis has unintentionally but effectively given Americans a greener profile, and for a very simple reason: “Shuttered factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the unemployed drive fewer miles and turn down their furnaces, air-conditioners, and swimming-pool heaters; struggling corporations and families cut back on air travel; even affluent people buy less throwaway junk.” As oil prices spiked in 2008, gasoline consumption fell by almost 6 percent.

The Obama administration is now pulled in two directions, according to Owen. It needs to put people back to work and get them buying “non-necessities” again; it needs to build new roads and airports. But how, he writes, “do we persuade people to drive less — an environmental necessity — while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?”

The very popular answer is a new green economy replete with hybrid cars and LEED-certified buildings and green collar jobs for all. But as Owen points out, “efficiency” has fuzzy logic. Boosting automobile mpg for instance, is the mathematical equivalent of lowering gas prices and could easily just result in people driving more: “Electric cars are not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.”

Owen is not alone in his critique. Herman Daly, a leading figure in ecological economics, has long argued that our financial system is premised on a gross misunderstanding of entropic principles, and that the very foundations of the modern economy — endless growth — ought to be reconsidered.

Will green collar jobs and an energy-technology revolution be the answer to our twin eco-crises? Or are efforts to bolster the economy on a collision course with those to save the planet?

Muddy, Crooked, and Difficult

Roberta Balstad is a senior research scientist at Columbia University, Senior Fellow of the University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), and co-director Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED).

Yes on both counts. The transition to a greener economy will create new jobs and stimulate economic growth, especially in the initial stages of the transition when new technologies are retrofitted onto environmentally damaging infrastructures. And yes, the resumption of economic growth will depend upon the resumption of consumption practices that can be carbon intensive and harmful to the environment. What is important is to realize that there is no single approach that will both improve the economy and the environment. Instead, we must undertake multiple approaches that will eventually result in both a healthier economy and a healthier environment. The path forward will be muddy, crooked, and difficult. The goals, however, should be unambiguous: a cleaner environment, slowing the pace of climate change, and a more equitable and healthy economy.

Redefine Progress

Robert Costanza is the Gordon and Lulie Gund Professor of Ecological Economics and the director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont.

Owen has hit upon the fundamental disjunct: You cannot “persuade people to drive less — an environmental necessity — while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars.”

Even if those cars are hybrids or electrics, it’s the “revive our staggering economy by buying new cars” part that is misguided. We need a new approach to economic progress that takes into account the hidden costs of traditional growth, on jobs, on families, on society, on nature, and ultimately on our quality of life and its sustainability. Our GDP for instance, generally goes up with increase in crime, sickness, war, pollution, fires, storms, and pestilence. We should begin thinking about alternative measures of progress. Things like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) adjust for these problems with GDP to arrive at a better approximation of “national well-being”. Results show that while US GDP has steadily increased since 1950 (with the occasional recession), GPI peaked around 1975 and has been relatively flat or declining ever since. That’s consistent with life-satisfaction surveys, which also show flat or dropping scores over the last several decades. We can be happier and consume less. That flies in the face of the “growth at all costs” view of the economy.

So, without discounting the value — indeed necessity — of a wide-scale conversion to sustainable, renewable energy with massive investment in wind and solar, smart power grids, effective mass transit, and high efficiency buildings and cars, I think the overhaul must be more comprehensive. The objectives of such a “sustainable well-being stimulus package” would also include:

  • Utilizing our nation’s human capital by focusing on fulfilling work, full employment, universal access to quality education through college and beyond, and universal access to high quality preventive health care.
  • Rebuilding our nation’s social capital by rewarding community involvement and participation, reducing the gap in income and wealth, and providing fewer work hours and more leisure time to allow connection to friends, family, the rest of the human community, and the rest of nature.
  • Restoring national and global natural capital by focusing on protecting and enhancing the ecosystem services on which the quality of all human life depends. Aspects of this include limiting carbon emissions to keep the atmospheric concentration below 350 ppm, greatly expanding marine protected areas, charging fees for the depletion of and investing in the restoration of natural capital.

Some of these elements are already included in Obama’s stimulus package, but it needs to go further and the focus needs to broaden. What we need now is to stimulate genuine progress and sustainable improvement in quality of life — not just green tech and certainly not just GDP, which is merely one means to that end, not an end in itself.

A False Choice

Dale Bryk is a senior attorney and climate policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Pitting the economy versus the environment, as Owen has done, peddles an antiquated — and false — notion that prosperity and pollution go hand in hand. This isn’t your father’s energy crisis; a clean energy future doesn’t demand suffering and sacrifice from a population that is already hurting. It means weatherizing homes, upgrading heating and air-conditioning systems, building new light rail systems — all of which reduce pollution while creating new jobs that are impossible to outsource. And yes, they create more jobs not just different jobs, because these activities are much more labor intensive than burning coal in a giant 19th century furnace.

Plus, just as importantly, these investments lower energy bills for residential, commercial and industrial consumers, freeing up much needed capital for more spending in clean energy technologies that will put us on the fast track toward energy independence and solving the climate crisis.

And all of these investments generate enormous collateral benefits in the form of improved public health and a cleaner environment. If hybrid cars, front-loaded washing machines and radiant floor heating are pushing us “back toward the abyss,” as Owens suggests, let’s hope the Obama administration can nudge us there with speed.

Capitalism and Its Discontents

Steven Stoll is an associate professor of history at Fordham University, author of The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth and editor of the blog The Material World.

Societies have rarely shown gracefulness in making wrenching transitions. Faced with crisis, governments repeatedly fall back on the same thinking that brought them to the brink. I support any policy likely to result in lower carbon emissions and more jobs in ecologically benign industries, but any “new” economy that holds on to growth as its organizing principle — whether sustainable, smart, or planned — is carrying its water in a sieve.

The problem is built into capitalism, an economic system so successful at eliminating all competitors that American political leaders not only lack thoughtful alternatives to a consumption-driven economy, they lack the political support to seek alternatives. Can the source of a problem fix that problem? Looking to commodities markets to solve the global crisis is like offering no-money-down loans as the solution to home foreclosure.

Manufacturers embrace efficiency because it allows them to say one thing while doing the opposite. The beauty of efficiency for makers of “Eco-Shape” bottled water (as an example) is that lightweight plastic lowers the cost of production and the price of the end product. The predicted result: increased sales and the throughput of more — not less — plastic. The apparent harmony of interests between consumer and manufacturer turns efficiency on its head.

Capitalism thrives on expansion, a word that people hear as full employment, good times. But expansion has a way of producing scarcity as the mirror image of the value it creates. Efficiency can slow down the erosion of natural capital, but we’re fools if we fail to recognize that the erosion continues.

Why Not Both?

Jerome Ringo is the president of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, environmental, and community leaders working to catalyze a clean energy revolution.

Do we raise our arms in despair and claim that we can either save the planet or the economy — but not both? Or do we seize the opportunity to forge a new path by building a new clean energy economy that creates good jobs and broadly shared prosperity for our future?

A robust economy need not come at the expense of our environment or our climate. Just as there is no single cause of the crises America is facing, neither is there a single, “magic bullet” solution. We must make broad, long-term investments in efficiency, conservation, clean fuels, a green electric grid, rapid transit, next generation vehicles, and smart growth in America’s cities. Such a multi-tiered approach is the only thing capable of breaking our costly addiction to fossil fuels and creating the new jobs that will lift us out of our economic malaise.

With the right roadmap — one that emphasizes public and private investments in domestic clean energy manufacturing — we can rebuild America’s long-shrinking middle class by creating well-paying, green jobs, and establish a sustainable economy based on clean-energy technology and energy efficiency rather than over-consumption and fossil fuels.

Originally published April 23, 2009

Tags carbon climate development economics policy politics

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