Green Jobs and Growth: A Green Society Comes First

by Lorna Salzman

It is refreshing and encouraging to see black communities and leaders finally involved in the urgent environmental issues - global warming and energy - of our day. But, like the traditional left in this country, they still lack the broader ecological understanding and analysis, a deficiency that has brought the whole world to the brink of global disaster.

While the focus on "green jobs" and economic empowerment of the poor is necessary, it is not sufficient. Renewable energy and new technology will play important roles in partially mitigating the global warming and energy crises, but they will only be possible if there is sufficient dedication to accurately defining the source of the problems. Unless we vigorously work first to avoid the worst impacts of global warming - by drastically reducing our energy use - the tipping point will crash on us and social and economic justice will be shunted aside as we move into emergency mode to protect our coasts, transport and energy infrastructure, food and water supplies and settlements.

Unfortunately many are still reluctant to name the elephant in the room, the root causes of the crisis: overconsumption and a dedication to uncontrolled economic growth, all made possible by cheap energy and cheap goods. Unless these are curbed, those pushing for renewable energy, green buildings, solar and wind power, public rail transport systems and non-fossil fuel-based agriculture will be fighting an uphill battle. Renewable energy and green jobs cannot come on line in time to save us.

You can't build a new society unless and until you discard the values and manifestations of the old one. Yet those promoting the concept of "green growth" are loath to indict the extravagant American consumer lifestyle and patterns of development made possible by underpriced energy and the resources and cheap labor of foreign countries. All we hear now, even as the atmospheric carbon burden nears the tipping point, are complaints about the high price of fuel and the obscene profits of the oil companies. The implication is that Americans deserve anything they want, at the cheapest price possible, and damn the earth.

Yet many progressives resist addressing the unsustainable and inequitable life styles characteristic of all economic classes, whether it be reliance on giant private vehicles, cheap fast food, cheap energy, overpackaging, throwaway plastics, fossil-fuel-based agribusiness, huge homes that dwarf those of even the wealthy in western Europe, uncontrolled exurban development, and foreign imports built and grown on the backs of the poor abroad. Many on the left maintain that it is only corporations that are responsible for global warming, not individuals. This is delusionary.

It is a quaint but misguided notion to think that all we have to do is replace the fossil fuel economy with a renewable one, without curbing the waste and greed that are destroying the natural systems and earth services that support ALL societies on earth. The focus must be on terminating the policies, institutions and price structures that allow and encourage American overconsumption, which is mainly responsible for the destruction of the earth. But we knew this back in 1970.

Equally disturbing is the absence of an ecological world-view, demonstrated by the lip service paid to nature by social justice activists, many of whom still have no feeling for nature even as an aesthetic concept and consider battles for wilderness, forests, wetlands, threatened species and habitat protection luxuries that must take a back seat to jobs and the economy. This too is delusionary.

This is not surprising since, focused on issues of war and racism, they remained aloof from post-Earth Day activism and aloof from immersion in the natural world. Their politics was shaped in urban and industrial milieus, where there were clear victims -minorities and workers - and clear enemies - corporate greed, rampant pollution and economic inequality. Meanwhile, white middle class environmentalists, living in suburban and rural areas, were the first to recognize other environmental problems: destruction of old growth forests, endangered species, dams, stream channelization, overgrazing, mining and ranching, loss of wetlands, depletion of ocean fisheries.

Social justice activists never understood that all of these were linked and had common roots in the industrial system that depended on unlimited economic growth and corporate profits. They accused environmentalists of ignoring the problems of the poor and minorities. Of course this was an unfair accusation. All the battles for clean air, prevention of toxic pollution of the workplace and communities, against suburban sprawl, against dangerous nuclear power, against destructive dams and superhighways, all were battles in defense of the entire citizenry. Few social justice activists ever educated themselves on how rural overdevelopment and economic growth were benefitting the wealthy few at the expense of the poor and of nature. But instead of turning against corporations and industry, they turned against the very movement that was fighting for their interests.

Van Jones and others in the "green growth" movement still fail to recognize, as does the traditional left, that the integrity and preservation of the earth's natural systems - its green lungs, its oceans and fisheries, its vegetative climate regulators, its insect and animal pollinators, its wetlands and estuaries, its old growth forests - are the support systems for ALL our human-based commerce and settlements. They are not just amenities or useful resources for human enjoyment or convenience. A recognition of our connection to and reliance on the rest of nature is fundamental to creating a new society and paradigm. The absence of this recognition is a fatal flaw in the social justice movement. One cannot help but wonder at their reluctance to indict not just the industrial growth system but capitalism itself. They let their enemies off the hook and fault their friends.

To demean, as many minorities do, the motivations and efforts of those who are directly responsible for preserving what little remains of the natural world, by imputing racism and elitism, is not only unfair but completely false.

The reasons that the traditional environmental movements lacked faces of color are complex; minorities stayed away from the larger groups because they preferred to join movements organized and controlled by people of color. And they still do, as Robert Bullard says in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly by Kate Sheppard : "We need our own organizations, but..we want to make sure that these other groups are open so that people who want to work in those organizations have that opportunity". As for the lack of focus on urban communities of color, this was abetted by the community leaders themselves, who preferred to define their problems and issues as BLACK ones, not environmental ones. Once you do this, you have ghettoized the issue definitively.

No one ever stopped blacks from joining or becoming active in any environmental organization. No one ever stopped them from coming to Seattle in 1999 to oppose the WTO. No one ever stopped them from joining groups opposing coal mining, nuclear power, genetically modified foods, overfishing, agribusiness, cutting of old growth forests, habitat destruction, synthetic chemicals. Had they joined the white environmentalists in the 1970s, they might well be heading some of these organizations today.

Van Jones and Robert Bullard and the others mentioned in Sheppard's article are part of a large group of political thinkers and activists who resist indicting corporate capitalism and economic growth, even as the evidence for their culpability is abundantly clear. Today, nearly forty years after the first Earth Day, they do not understand that we are living on the deteriorating remnants of industrial society and that only a completely reconstructed, ecologically based society can support "green jobs".

To understand where the future lies we need to look to the bioregionalists, those promoting drastic relocalization of our economy down to the community and regional levels. Only a radical down-sizing of our communities and economic endeavors, to the "human scale" of which Kirkpatrick Sale wrote so eloquently, will save the planet. What a tragedy it is that the leaders of minority and impoverished communities still lack this crucial insight and the ecological wisdom that produced it.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.