Ecological Intelligence and Economic Reinvention
by Hart Noecker
“In 1980, whale watching surpassed whaling as an industry. Now it’s worth about four times as much. Whale watching provides far, far more jobs to people than whaling ever did.”
~ Paul Watson
The argument goes something like this: ‘We recognize that the planet is dying, but jobs’. All of Australia is aflame due to climate change, but we must provide jobs. There’s so much smog in China that you can conceal a factory on fire inside of it, but the economy comes first, so we need job growth. The Columbia River Crossing will increase carbon emissions, additional lanes incentivize additional traffic, but cars make jobs happen. Coal exports through our region will poison the air and increase respiratory illness, but yeah, sorry…jobs.
Ad nauseam we’re told that ecological devastation is unfortunate, yet unavoidable. The situation can’t be helped because somebody somewhere needs a job, and by God, no tree-hugging, job-killing regulations are gonna stand in the way!
But isn’t this Oregon? – a state widely considered to be the most sustainable and progressive in the nation, teaming with trees and hippies and salmon? Not anymore, there’s a new sheriff in town. Oregon’s reputation as a Green stronghold is being seriously threatened by some otherwise fairly blue Democrats pulling the jobs card to endorse every bad policy that comes their way. Their argument is not only absurdly childish, but dangerously ignorant, and it’s time for it to end, for all our sake.
A false dichotomy exists when two opposing points of view are presented as the only choice while other options are in fact available. Think of George W. Bush proclaiming, “You’re either with us or against us!” The argument against responsible ecological policy is that “job growth” must come first – when the economy is perfect and nobody’s receiving unemployment benefits, then and only then can we take breathable air and drinkable water seriously, and maybe we’ll get around to that global warming thing you kids keep whining about.
It’s true that recovery has been slow since deregulated Wall Street banks crashed the economy four years ago. Oregon’s unemployment rate has lagged behind the national average. In his recent State of the State address, Dem. governor John Kitzhaber quipped, “We don’t need economic recovery, we need economic reinvention.” Nail on the head, John.
Certainly, the need to increase the number of available jobs here is quite real, but we don’t have to sacrifice a clean environment to put people to work. Quite the contrary, if we make the correct investments, protecting our ecology and invigorating our economy will go hand in loving hand.
Half a century ago, the Willamette valley was thought of as a pristine green region that maintained prosperous industry, and our political leaders rested comfortably on these laurels. At the time, America enjoyed a thriving post-war economy, home sales were exploding, and the idea of motorized outdoor recreation saw families enjoying scenic views amidst the vast open wild lands of the Pacific Northwest. But something was wrong. Hidden within the water and soil and air were toxic compounds that few citizens were aware of years before the term ‘environmentalism‘ was anywhere close to being a household name.
It wasn’t until a journalist with local news affiliate KGW produced the documentary exposé Pollution In Paradise that Oregon’s public began to seriously question the private industry practices of dumping poison into the land and sea. Elected leaders of the era had to scramble to explain their complacency with this environmentally destructive status quo. The results were new regulations that mandated factories implement new technology and infrastructure to curb levels of dumping and emissions, thus creating new jobs in the process. And the journalist that flipped the script on the pollution industrial complex? His name was Tom McCall, who later ascended to become the most memorable and respected governor our state has ever had, enacting the bottle bill, urban growth boundaries, and the first state-wide policy of publicly owned beaches in the nation. How’s that for leadership?
Today, backers of the proposed Columbia River Crossing claim the construction of a 12 lane mega-freeway expansion will create hundreds of construction jobs, despite ignoring the hundreds of retail jobs that will be destroyed on Hayden island and elsewhere as dozens of stores are bulldozed to make way for a 20 lane interchange.
Ironically, the aptly named ‘Common Sense Alternative‘ (CSA) plan would likely create a greater number of skilled labor jobs over a longer period of time, while requiring a mere fraction of the $4-10 billion price tag that the CRC will cost taxpayers. Traditionally, with polluting auto-centric freeway infrastructure such as the CRC, far less of the money goes to jobs, and much more cash goes to construction materials. The opposite is true of multi-modal projects like the Common Sense Alternative; more money goes to the laborers working on the project, while far less money is needed for construction materials.
Coal export proponents in Oregon are boasting a potential increase of 900 (possibly) in-state jobs, a number that while small on a statewide scale, could make a huge difference in rural counties. That might look like an appealing sell if you’re a Democrat attempting to deliver pro-labor promises to the people who got you elected.
However, contrast this modest 900 with the whopping 62,000 new clean energy jobs predicted to appear over the next ten years in Michigan. Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm inherited the single worst state economy in the nation from her Republican predecessor, and spent the next eight years in office sailing a sea of criticism over her progressive economic proposals. Despite tremendous pressure from the fossil fuel industry, labor unions, and right-wing Republicans, Granholm announced on February 3rd, 2009 that she would halt the construction of 7 new coal-fired power plants, while also proposing a plan to reduce Michigan’s fossil fuel consumption by 45% over just 12 years. In addition to this, governor Granholm spearheaded 16 new clean power projects, including a new advanced green battery tech sector predicted to bring employment to tens of thousands of Michigan workers. Leadership like a boss!
The labor and environmental movements in our region and abroad have been at odds with each other far too long, and this antagonistic relationship needs to end. We cannot afford jobs that poison our kids, and we cannot neglect the opportunities that a green economic “reinvention” will provide. Elected representatives might be able to pull off meager short-term employment gains with dirty coal exports and 1950′s freeway construction, but what kind of legacy will that leave them and our proud progressive state? When we have to explain to our children and grandchildren why people in positions of power refused to act on climate change, will they tolerate the “but jobs” excuse? I kinda’ doubt it.
We need bold action, we need logical solutions, we need leaders who will stand up for policies with long term public promise. We can have an ecologically intelligent economy, but first, the false dichotomy over the tired ‘Jobs vs. the Environment‘ argument needs to be put to rest. This is Oregon, after all. We can do this better.
See you in the streets.
“You all know I have terminal cancer, and I have a lot of it. But what you may not know is that stress induces its spread and induces its activity. Stress may even bring it on. Yet stress is the fuel of the activist. This activist loves Oregon more than he loves life. I know I can’t have both very long. The trade-offs are all right with me. But if the legacy we helped give Oregon and which made it twinkle from afar—if it goes, then I guess I wouldn’t want to live in Oregon anyhow.”
~ Tom McCall, 1982