Prioritizing Green Thumbs Over Collars

In the not-so-distant past, the phrase “green collar jobs” didn’t conjure up images of workers measuring the sun’s angle for the best year-round solar array placement. Green jobs were decidedly more low-tech and related to land management. In his 1999 book Green Collar Jobs: Working in the New Northwest, Alan T. Durning focused on sustainable forestry and ecosystem restoration jobs in the Pacific Northwest. As big logging companies were bought and sold by corporate wheeler-dealers, firing workers and decimating towns, citizens and counties sought sustainable economic opportunities to replace the timber industry.

Only ten years later, this definition of green jobs seems unimaginably outdated. Now the term usually refers to jobs connected to renewable energy-related industries such as solar, wind, and wave energy. As Van Jones, who recently stepped down from his position as the White House’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, noted in his 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy, this definition encompasses electricians and plumbers who can install energy-saving devices like solar panels and water heaters, builders who can construct energy-efficient dwellings, as well as organic farmers and bio-fuel crop producers.

These kinds of jobs are being funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act championed by President Barack Obama. But several Bay Area ecologists feel that today’s definition of green collar jobs needs to be amended to re-embrace—and prioritize—the kind of land management jobs it signaled in the ‘90s. For example, says plant biologist Mark Heath, who works with Berkeley-based open land management and restoration company Shelterbelt Builders, “I would like to open the idea of green jobs to include invasive plant management.”

Heath, together with members of the California Invasive Plant Council, recently met with lawmakers in Sacramento to raise awareness about the impacts of non-native plant species such as yellow starthistle on California’s agricultural and wild lands. Invasive plants are a direct threat to the environment and the economy, displacing native plants and wildlife, increasing wildfire and flood danger, consuming valuable water, and destroying productive range and timberlands.

Heath says he was surprised to find that legislators seemed to think green jobs equaled solar panels and not much else. He would like the government to fund a program like the Conservation Corps in which young people would be paid to learn natural land management techniques and to become stewards of the natural world. He says that since biodiversity is continually under attack by human development, conservation necessitates more than just leaving the natural world alone. “Habitat restoration requires both the academic understanding of how natural systems function and a trade culture to work the land with tools, time, and labor,” Heath says. “To accomplish anything, we will have to foster a class of scientist-laborers who not only understand the land but can also respond to it. Engineers and scientists cannot do it alone.”

Heath’s colleague Daniel Gluesenkamp is a past president of the California Invasive Plant Council; he now works at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen as the director of habitat protection and restoration. Glusenkamp says the ranch provides green collar jobs with its habitat restoration projects, offering entry-level experience to volunteers. He is pleased that some stimulus money is going to map invasive plants in California, “so we can figure out which species and infestations are highest priority, then develop clear plans for where we start and where we go from there” to eliminate the invaders.

“We need folks trained to do restoration if we’re to save the biodiversity we’ve inherited,” Glusenkamp says. “Habitat restoration is a new field; we are still refining the technology. A typical restoration worker has a college or grad school degree, [but] we need to involve people without biology degrees. We need people with backgrounds in forestry, landscaping, and customer service.” He says that the field of natural areas land management needs an “efficacy revolution” equivalent to the leaps and bounds made in human medicine in the 1960s. He compares natural areas management to human obstetrics: “Until recently, and in spite of an array of advanced tools available in hospitals, mortality of mothers and babies was lower when birth occurred at home. Obstetrics was improved by an efficacy revolution in which practitioners began measuring outcome, adopting best practices, and improving training. Now we need a restoration revolution. This would produce ‘land doctors’ well versed in what practices have good or bad outcomes for local ecosystems.”

In developing such a specialty, Gluesenkamp says, “We need to look to Native American land management, which tended to combine good understanding of the natural systems with long-term stable management regimes.” He stresses that to preserve biodiversity, “We need to quit introducing and spreading invasive plants and animals, and we need to quit pumping carbon into the atmosphere.”

Gluesenkamp points to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as an organization that has done a good job of pulling together people of varying backgrounds to work on restoring native plants at San Francisco’s Lands End. In addition to the heavy equipment operators essential for habitat restoration, that job site required project information coordinators who helped explain the scope of work to concerned residents on the periphery. Gluesenkamp says these types of jobs are a good fit for people with customer service experience.

Several years after writing Green Collar Jobs, Durning founded the Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank based in Seattle. Durning’s colleague, Sightline research associate Roger Valdez, worked with him to write a report issued this October called “Green Collar Jobs: Realizing the Promise.” Valdez says that while the report focuses on energy efficiency and renewable energy, the need for habitat restoration and invasive species management has not gone away. “It’s not an either/or situation,” he says. “The latest manifestation of the work includes what Alan wrote about initially, but the focus has expanded. At its root is a different way of thinking about the economy: Instead of turning natural resources into capital, we want to turn savings from renewable energy and conservation into capital.”

“Eventually renewable power, alternative fuels, sustainable farming and forestry, clean transportation and ecosystem transportation can all play important roles in the green jobs transformation,” the report states. “Yet buildings, which account for nearly forty percent of US energy consumption, are where the green jobs potential is most accessible.” The authors note that retrofitting buildings will save homeowners billions of dollars while offering employment to out-of-work craftsmen in the building trades.

The authors see great promise in green jobs overall. They cite research from economist Robert Polin of the University of Massachusetts that show the increased “bang for buck” of investing in green jobs. Among Polin’s findings: Spending $1 million yields only 1.5 “high-credentialed” fossil fuel-related jobs (such as for architects and managers) as opposed to 3.9 similar clean energy jobs; 1.6 “mid-credentialed” fossil fuel-related jobs (such as for crew chiefs and technicians) vs. 4.8 equivalent clean energy jobs; 2.2 “low-credentialed” fossil fuel-related jobs (such as laborer or clerk) vs. 8 clean energy jobs; and .7 “low-credentialed jobs in fields with good potential for earnings growth” such as construction, manufacturing, utilities in oil vs. 4.8 such jobs in clean energy.

Add ‘em up and you’ve got 6 “conventional” jobs versus 21.5 green jobs for the same million bucks. With doubledigit unemployment, not to mention a grateful planet, the choice seems obvious.

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