The presidential campaigns and their armies of consultants are well aware that a jittery American public yearns for jobs. Yet there is a dearth of new thinking on how to create solid jobs in the manufacturing sector, here and now. What’s being overlooked is the potential for new job creation through environmental protection. We need an active, large-scale job-creation effort akin to a Green WPA.
Job creation and environmental protection are far from irreconcilable, as many assume; in fact, this idea is feasible and practical. Who would have thought “sheet-metal worker” was a green job, dependent on environmental regulation? But in 2002, pollution-abatement and -control programs created, directly and indirectly, roughly 12,000 jobs for sheet-metal workers, according to Management Information Services, a research firm specializing in data on the environmental industry.
Likewise, who would have thought that Indiana, king of the Rust Belt, had a thriving environmental industry? By 2000 it was generating $4.9 billion in sales, $382 million in profits and supporting roughly 110,000 jobs of all kinds, including manufacturing jobs producing high-efficiency heating, ventilation and cooling equipment; cleaner fiber processing; and equipment for pollution-control scrubbers. Therma-Tru, which manufactures in Butler, is one of the largest US manufacturers of insulated, energy-efficient residential doors.
But do we consider Indiana a “green economy” state? Hardly. While the general public understands the classic environmentalism of saving whales and wildlife habitat, it remains largely unaware of how dependent on environmental management our economy has quietly become. Few would believe that, depending on what definitions are used, the environmental industry has begun to rival the military industry in economic importance, for both blue- and white-collar jobs, before the Reagan-era spike in defense spending and the recent post-9/11 buildup.
Few also realize the jobs potential inherent in ongoing environmental investment, which creates blue- and white-collar jobs, directly and indirectly. Such jobs are created by pollution-control efforts, energy and water conservation and myriad other environmental improvements that villages, cities, states and nations would do well to undertake. It makes more sense to embrace a Green WPA–an Environmental Jobs Infrastructure Investment Act–than to wring our hands about the migration of jobs outside the country.
John Kerry has articulated the jobs and environment link, but even his laudable “new energy economy” project speaks of energy independence by 2020, leaving the impression of a future jobs gain the public should accept on faith. A Green WPA would be more tangible, and improving energy efficiency would be a core component. Across the nation, precious energy is wafting through inefficient windows and doors in buildings that could be retrofitted, generating direct and indirect work. Water infrastructure is also woefully inefficient. According to the World Watch Institute’s State of the World: 2004 report, 10-30 percent of all water supplied in the country is lost to leakage. Correcting this environmental indifference would stimulate major job creation and, far from “make work,” a national effort to improve water treatment and conservation would represent vital and farsighted civic investment.
Moreover, environmental jobs create twenty-first-century skills. For example, in Chicago, the first city in the world to operate zero-emissions hydrogen-fuel-cell buses in actual service, drivers and others gained vital experience in handling hydrogen fuel, a demanding talent that will serve these workers well as we move toward a hydrogen-based economy, a likely, and complex, long-term scenario.
In fact, just as pollution and resource degradation came out of the Industrial Revolution, redressing environmental degradation and investing in environmental innovation could underpin a new, green “Re-industrial Revolution” that could truly redraw the jobs horizon and emerge as both driver and support of the economy. For example, each state should create a special Jobs and Environment Task Force to identify needs and projects that would maximize the jobs-environment link, and local Chambers of Commerce, down to the county level, should evaluate their environmental industries and do everything possible to support and attract such businesses.
Coupled with a national Green WPA, these local efforts would transform the environment and employment landscape. Not only is the presumed trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth false, but the future of job creation in America, including in manufacturing, could well lie in environmental management.