What Will the Green Economy Look Like?


In Denver, Colo., Tom Plant, director of the Governor's Energy Office, is practically giddy. It's just days before the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Colorado's biggest city, and a long-sought goal in Gov. Bill Ritter's New Energy Economy program has just been met: Vestas, the Danish wind-turbine manufacturer, has announced its plan to open a new manufacturing plant just outside the city limits -- its second in the state.

Plant reels off some numbers: 1,350 new jobs at the new Vestas plant; 650 employees already employed at another the Vesta plant that opened last March, and the prospect of an additional 400 workers at a plant expected to open two years from now. Colorado now generates more than a gigawatt of energy through renewable energy sources -- three-quarters of that created in the 18 months since Plant's boss took office.

And how many people does he expect to arrive with the convention?

"About a gazillion, I think," Plant says, laughing. "Maybe two gazillion."

A cleaner, greener future has long occupied the dreams of progressives. With an historic "change" election upon us and a crisis in fuel pricing and climate change, the moment appears at hand for the public to accept profound changes in our way of life and the very structure of our economy.

Economists and philosophers, community organizers and labor negotiators, all see in the current crisis an opportunity to create change that reaches beyond the immediate boon of a cleaner environment. Some look through the green crystal ball and see new opportunities for industry or a revitalized labor movement. Others see a new role for government as a change-maker, and still others see a quantum leap in the evolution of the human soul. As goals, they're not necessarily mutually exclusive. But the paths imagined by green advocates don't always converge. Already the sound of dissonance is audible between those who envision a completely new economic model, and those who seek to work with and clean up the old one.

Democratic Party officials surely had the "change" theme of this year's presidential campaign in mind when they chose Colorado to host their convention. The Colorado legislature swung from its traditional red to blue when Ritter, the state's first Democratic governor in 50 years to enjoy a legislative majority, rode into office in 2006, promising a new and vibrant state economy that capitalized on the crisis of global climate change.

Ritter's New Energy Economy plan got a jump start before he was even elected, with the passage of a ballot measure in 2004 that called for the state's utilities to bring the level of renewable energy sources in their portfolios up to 10 percent by the year 2015. Executives at Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility, protested loudly, then went on to meet the standard eight years ahead of schedule. This year, Xcel's lobbyists urged a doubling of the standard.

While Colorado's mandate for renewable sources from its energy providers may have caught the attention of Vestas and other green technology companies, Plant sees something much bigger in their expansion. "When a company like Vestas locates 2,500 jobs in Colorado, it's not to feed an entirely Colorado demand; I mean, they're looking at the entire country," Plant says.

Plant isn't alone in seeing an opportunity to improve the economic fortunes of everyday Americans in the climate crisis.

Carla Din, Western field director of the Apollo Alliance, doesn't think she's asking for much: all she wants is a raft of green energy projects in California that build partnerships between organized labor, developers, environmentalists, social justice advocates and government. The Apollo Alliance seeks to build coalitions among interests that often conflict -- such as labor and business -- with a focus on meeting the needs of a green economy.

"We're talking about retooling existing structures, but also about utilizing the workforce that has been in these areas ... forever," Din says."For instance, the sheet metal workers, the plumbers and pipe-fitters... A lot of these workers are working in targeted industries that will need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions for compliance with climate change laws."

Legislatures in 25 states have passed laws like Colorado's that require utilities to meet new standards for a minimum percentage of renewable energy sources in their portfolios. (California has the most comprehensive law, designed to reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent over the next 12 years.) The Apollo Alliance also advocates legislation that sets efficiency standards for the energy used by state government facilities and weds those requirements to fair labor standards for the workers who will do the required construction.

Asked if the labor movement will need to reshape the industrial-era structure of its trades sector, characterized by individual unions for distinct specialties, Din bristles a bit. "I don't necessarily think things have to be restructured; I think things have to be done strategically and efficiently with a lot of cross-pollination."

But a revolution on the scale required to reshape the economy and save the planet just won't happen without a fundamental change in the way people regard their place in the world, says Oakleigh Thorne II of the Thorne Ecological Institute, an education center he founded more than 50 years ago in Boulder, Colo. Applying the old economic principle of unbridled growth to green industries just won't do, he says. Thorne argues that the same principles that govern ecological systems control economic systems, as well. "If you violate ecological principles you might be able to make a fast buck on the short term," he says, "but long-term, you'll have an economic disaster."

Van Jones, president of Green For All in Oakland, Calif., wants nothing less from a new green economy than the alleviation of poverty -- and a few other things. Voicing a more urgent imperative in the threat of global climate change, Jones, who will be featured as a panelist at The Media Consortium's Live From Main Street program in Denver on Sunday, sees a world of possibilities in an economy gone green.

The revitalization of urban America could reach into the city's core, says Jones, with green-collar jobs for those who today struggle to find good-paying work -- not to mention the health benefits for residents who today choke with asthma on fumes and city soot. While Green For All advocates legislative remedies, that's just where its efforts begin. If the kind of change he's talking about is to be made, Jones says, the current economy will need some radical adjustments.

Models used by today's economists, Jones explains, are based on notions developed in the 19th century. "Whether left or right," Jones says, "[these models] had one almost unspoken assumption, which is that you're going to have an awful lot of nature and very few people. So you find these weird terms, like 'inexhaustible resources'... Now you're living in a world where you have an awful lot of people and shockingly little nature left."

You can't tinker with the equation to fix the flaw in that model, he says. "If you ... have to break up with oil and coal, you may as well break up with poverty and a bunch of other stuff, anyway," insists Jones, whose book, The Green-Collar Economy, is due from HarperCollins in October.

Economist James Galbraith is frustrated by the lack of attention to the climate crisis by his colleagues. "Where is the economic school of thought that addresses the impact of climate change?" he asks. Except for the work of one or two economists, he says, "it doesn't exist." Galbraith, a professor at University of Texas (Austin), says solving the crisis will require a complete reordering of universities to foster collaboration across disciplines.

In his recently released book, The Predator State, Galbraith pleads a case for Democrats to abandon the so-called free market system, since Republicans have clearly done so over the last eight years, as demonstrated by a series of bailouts, manipulations and deficit spending. Galbraith suggests, the challenge of heading off the perils of global climate change offers a jumping-off point from which to launch a new, more beneficial economic system. "It's a sensible application," he says. That new system will feature of hybrid of government planning, regulated markets and institutions that foster innovation.

Like Jones, Galbraith sees in the current economic and ecological crises the potential to reinvent decaying societal structures and create entirely new ones. But when asked if it is time for a new New Deal, Galbraith offers a caution against "reaching back to a glorious moment and calling for the revival of an old solution." One thing the next president and Congress should do, Galbraith says, is to create national-level institutions on the order of our great national laboratories, like the National Institutes of Health or NASA, designed to address the climate crisis.

Nothing less than the sort of effort the U.S. mounted when mobilizing for World War II will create the enterprise needed to address climate change and energy independence in ways that will restructure the economy for the better, Galbraith adds. Folded into that enterprise, he says, should be a goal for universal broadband access ("It's carbon-neutral") and a national infrastructure project that does not simply repair decaying structures, but completely redesigns roads, bridges and transportation in ways that are energy-efficient and create sustainable communities.

For his part, Jones sees more creative energy for reinventing the economy coming from the human heart and mind -- what he calls "the revolution within" -- than from existing institutions. "Why be stuck with these little single-issue not-for-profits and broken-up academic departments trying to solve this thing from inside of it?" he asks. Thinking about this crisis needs to be simplified, not made more complex, he explains. "You know, the reason that Green For All has the name it has is 'cause it's what a child would say... You gotta get back to the complete innocence of childhood."

Where Jones calls for a return to innocence, Thorne calls for simplification of our lives, a goal Galbraith also seeks through his economist's lens, noting, for instance, the efficiency of shortening the food chain.

But Thorne's philosophy, the "deep ecology" first proposed by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, hangs on more than simplicity; it urges humility in human interaction with the rest of creation. "This integral consciousness is the next step... Out of the consciousness will come the cultural change. Consciousness is always ahead of culture."

Yet even within the green economy movement, consciousness has its limits. Where thinkers like Jones and Galbraith see a sort of creative destruction in allowing the structures of yesterday fall away to make room for the new, pragmatists like Din and Plant have high hopes for greening the industrial model. Conflicts inherent in these two visions could be the next big test of the progressive movement.

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