The internet is abuzz these days with blogs and postings and comments about whether our downturn in the economy will push environmental issues off the table as a national priority. Seems like a no-brainer to me, more like a huge opportunity to finally create a critical synergy between social and environmental issues. And at the center of this opportunity is the promising if loose and bandied-about concept of green-collar jobs. So what’s the rub?
The first challenge, familiar to anyone well-versed in discussions about sustainability, is the baggy nature of the concept. Joel Makower, who has a new book out on the subject (Strategies For the Green Economy), has recently blogged about the fact he can’t precisely define a term that could lead to green jobs becoming the next greenwash (http://makower.typepad.com/joel_makower/).
The second challenge, one trenchantly pointed out by historian Donald Worster The Wealth of Nature), is that in the twinning of sustainability and development, development is at the center of decision-making and sustainability comes trotting along as an afterthought. The Congressional Budget Office’s recent recommendation that we waive environmental review to speed infrastructural spending is a prime example of this type of first-among-equals thinking.
The crux of the problem is brilliantly addressed by David Orr in an essay entitled “Speed” in the Nature of Design: “The same forces that have combined to give us a high-velocity economy and society reform themselves at glacial speed.” We need, argues Orr, “a more robust idea of time and scale that takes the health of people and communities seriously.”
Systemic, integrated thinking built for the long-term while addressing current triage issues: How to pull this off?
It’s a question well-worth considering as the nation pours over the 1100 page “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” which includes: $48 bn. for transportation, $16 bn. for energy, $6 bn. for the environment, $4.5 bn to convert GSA facilities to high-performance buildings, and $11.5 bn. for affordable housing. Some things worth bearing in mind as state governments and businesses and trade organizations line up at the trough:
· Low-hanging fruit of energy inefficiencies. Rocky Mountain Institute has recently issued a report enumerating a host of strategies to improve energy efficiencies by 30% using existing technologies and products (http://ert.rmi.org/files/documents/CGU.RMI.pdf). At the heart of RMI’s report is a telling series of charts indicating each state’s electricity productivity (dollars of GDP) versus Kilowatt hours used. Channeling stimulus dollars where productivity is low seems to be an appropriate strategy for picking low-hanging fruit.
· Localization. This past week on NPR’s Morning Edition, Christopher Joyce talked to a University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin, whose calculations show that the stimulus could infuse the US with about 2 million new jobs. But Pollin goes on to say that where people are put to work really matters. For example, he told Joyce that $1 million spent on making buildings more energy-efficient employs many more Americans than the same amount spent on oil and gas exploration, which requires fewer, but more highly skilled workers.
· Revising the Brundtland notion of sustainability to address the true notion of need. To put it starkly, we don’t need more roads and shopping centers, we need approaches to our culture that address the overall health of our communities and our environment. At the risk of sounding sappy and idealistic, our approach should be less of creating value and more of leveraging the embodied values immanent within us all.
My colleagues and I at my own company are admittedly scared by all that is happening around us. Scared at the uncertainty of it all. Scared that things need to change and that the changes won’t be quick enough and fast enough and scared that in the furious pace to do something for chrissake, the real opportunity for retooling the way we think and act and conduct ourselves with one another will be lost. The stimulus package is an invitation to stimulate our thinking of what matters most if only we will take the time to do so.