A piece of the green pie

By Michelle Chen Jun 13, 2009

Green jobs are seen as a vehicle for the climate justice agenda, bringing together economic and environmental advancement. But will the green industries deliver on the lofty promises activists have envisioned? According to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, "The Clean Energy Economy," emerging green job sectors, from solar installation to waste treatment, are leaving old-school industries in the dust. From 1998 to 2007, green jobs grew at more than twice the rate of traditional jobs, reaching about 770,000 jobs nationwide. Still, that’s a tiny fraction of the total workforce, and the numbers vary widely by state (California had 125,000 green jobs, others had just a few thousand). Growth depends heavily on targeted public and private investment. Along with policy instruments, such as renewable portfolio and energy efficiency standards, the report highlights the role of venture capital technology investments and large firms like clean-tech mogul Honeywell, which leverage economies of scale. Organizations in the vein of Green for All have cultivated grassroots support and helped community-based groups develop training capacity. But small grassroots ventures could easily be eclipsed by corporate behemoths. How will community-based small businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions and government agencies factor into the green wave? Pew urges the Obama administration to devise a “comprehensive, economy-wide energy plan" to foster green growth. Ultimately, though, the market will decide who sinks and who swims: “there will be winners and losers going forward. Policy makers who act quickly and effectively could see their states flourish, while others may lose opportunities for new jobs, businesses and investments.” There’s no reason to think that in a capitalist structure (even a flagging one), green employers wouldn’t be driven by the status-quo market logic. An increasingly competitive climate not only shapes regional growth patterns but also raises the question of what kind of green economy to build: who gets hired, how will their workplaces be governed, who will protect their rights, and how many jobs will go to groups double-impacted by environmental and economic crises? According to a White House report, Black and Latino workers tend to be underrepresented in many key green occupations. Small-scale experiments, like Sustainable South Bronx’s green roofs or Greencorps Chicago’s workforce program, offer models for solid “green collar” opportunities. But these projects still have a ways to go to prove themselves on long-term scalability and sustainability. As green industries rise–with scrappy Bronx contenders up against heavyweights of the T-Boone Pickens variety–sheer survival is as important as the moral imperative of green economic equity. It’s a new playing field with old rules, and the task before communities on the sidelines is to learn how to play the game in order to change it. Image: JOIN