The Green Collar Economy
by Shai Sachs, Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 02:32:08 PM EST
Reading Liberally Cambridge will be discussing this book at our next meeting, on Monday, Jan. 26 at 7 pm. If you're in the area, drop by and join us!
When Van Jones published his landmark work last summer, the future of our economy and government was still uncertain. Now, with an economic and environmental climate rated anywhere from desolate to terrifying, Jones's work is all the more important.
The central insight of The Green Collar Economy is that we can revive our economy, especially the most critically downtrodden and depressed parts of our economy, while saving the environment. The trick is to emphasize economic growth that is oriented around environmentally sound initiatives - using clean energy, sustainable food practices, and so on. Moreover, it is critically important for this growth to focus on those individuals who have historically not been a part of the environmental movement, especially low-income families and minorities - not just as a matter of economic inclusiveness, but also because no other approach will be effective in saving the planet.
Jones criticizes the first two waves of environmentalism (the first wave, in the early 1900's, being focused on conservation and preservation; and the second wave, in the 1960's and 70's, being focused on regulation) for their failures to include people of color and of low income. He also suggests that these efforts at environmental improvement were weakened because of that failure. (Although I found this section a bit of a stretch; I was surprised that Jones did not point out the pattern of urban mass transit systems made inaccessible to predominantly minority neighborhoods; that seems to me to be the clearest case of environmentalism hurt by exclusionism.)
In contrast, Jones insists that the third wave of environmentalism should be explicitly inclusive of minorities and low-income people. This inclusiveness takes the form of green-collar job programs that are explicitly designed for impoverished areas, especially inner-city urban areas. Jones suggests a dizzying array of possible green-collar jobs, ranging from solar panel installation to building deconstruction (as opposed to demolition) and mass transit operators. He also points to municipal programs designed to create green-collar jobs and to make them available to the people most in need of work - in particular, he praises the comprehensive set of green job programs in Chicago. These programs vary considerably, but they are alike in that they anticipate the need for creative financing to sustain demand for green services and products, as well as job training, good wages, and a promising career path for prospective employees.
While Jones is eager to praise cities that are already leading the transition to a green economy, he criticizes the federal government for failing to lead - and, what's more, standing on the side of the old pollution-based economy. Unfortunately, he doesn't elaborate much on the federal policies that support pollution; he makes vague reference to tax breaks, and there is some elliptical discussion of the federal policies that favor unsustainable agriculture, but very few other specifics. I think his book would have been stronger with an additional chapter dedicated to this single topic, because it is so vast and because it requires us to rethink the environmental impact of federal policies in an instructive way. My guess is that when most people think about the federal government's environmental impact, they think of the EPA, the National Park Service and tax credits for solar panels, and assume that the government tries to protect the environment, even if it doesn't try hard enough. Very few will think of the damaging environmental impact of the highway budget, too-low CAFE standards, and the sheer size of the military.
Van Jones is not naive about the size of the problem, and more than a few times he suggests that the creation of a green economy will require a massive, broad-based, populist movement. He outlines, briefly, the shape of such a movement - labor unions, religious groups, students, environmental organizations, and social justice activists. And he recommends a new frame of mind for green economy activists, which stresses cooperation and alliances over pitched battle with adversaries.
I'll have more to say about this in the future, but I think Jones's book only begins to hint at the kind of work needed to really green the economy. Jones likes to point out that we don't really need all that much technological progress to get started with greening - his favorite example of "green collar technology" is the caulk gun, a valuable tool in home weatherization. But - even ignoring the budgetary and political obstacles to implementation of commonsense programs like home weatherization - there are serious challenges for these kinds of initiatives. Given the short time frame we are talking about, how do we retrofit such a massive and diverse and complex economy? How do we design programs that are clever enough to anticipate and overcome local challenges, while scaling regionally or even nationally? What do we do when one green economy initiative (the smart grid) flies in the face of another (wilderness preservation)?
On the whole, The Green Collar Economy is well worth the read. It is informative, bridge-building, and optimistic. If we are lucky, it will also be a good primer for the next few years of federal policymaking as well.