News of the upcoming Obama speech on jobs and the economy got me reflecting on a hot-tub conversation I had back in 2000 with a group of organic industry leaders who were in Chicago for an Organic Center Board meeting. It was a few days after Gore “officially” lost the election, and it was decided right then and there that we had to get more involved in politics, if only for the sake of keeping sustainability a sustainable goal. To that end, many of us became early-on backers of the presidential aspirations of Tom Vilsack, who is now secretary of agriculture and the current president, who we had great hope would make a significant difference on environmental issues.
But the cause of sustainability has had a wild ride during Obama’s tenure in office. Vilsack, for instance, thought he was doing the right thing by supporting ethanol as an alternative energy, only to cause worldwide devastation to rain forests and pampas in order to grow corn for the highly subsidized ethanol. Now Obama goes back and forth on environmental issues, and the thought that he will make green jobs a big part of his plan really scares me. That’s because his administration has been focusing on the wrong types of green jobs – those associated with ill-advised efforts that in reality are neither needed nor sustainable in themselves, aren’t likely to be well received by the public and will actually end up hurting the sustainability movement (as exemplified by the ethanol fiasco).
Now, on the eve of this speech, I am reflecting on what I would tell Obama if I could talk with him beforehand.
First, I would advise him not to promote green jobs that require large subsidies,but to focus on the economically viable components of sustainability for new jobs. Because let’s face it; the availability of $80-a-barrel crude oil is not conducive to the creation of sustainable jobs in alternative energy. All it will do is continue to suck up a lot of money that we don’t have while marginalizing environmental concerns. Instead, I would recommend that we look way down the value chain for those opportunities that will help us to preserve our precious resources such as aquifers and watersheds, as well as our oceans and rivers, and to protect our beautiful landscapes.
What types of jobs am I talking about? Well, how about taking a look at existing waste streams for whatever reusable materials they contain, especially stressed and high-value resources. How about developing the technology to recover everything from stable and recyclable PET plastic and wonderful natural glass to copper and aluminum to phosphorous dust or rare earth minerals from electronic waste. Or how about creating a viable infrastructure to reuse water that’s being wasted? When last I checked about 70 percent of the effluent water that’s cleaned, scrubbed and turned potable in Los Angeles is lost through being dumped into the ocean. These opportunities are before us every day, and could be turned into sustainable businesses with a relatively small amount of seed money.
Were I talking to the president, I would cite the story that ran last week about Coke shutting down its recycling plant (it has since reopened at the end of August on a limited operating scale) because out of the 5 billion pounds of PET plastic used annually for bottles, we only manage to redeem 1.5 billion, I would then suggest, ”How about creating jobs by building infrastructure and hiring people to collect bottles and containers made from PET?” I would point out that it would certainly be a viable proposition from an economic perspective, given that major companies will be required to obtain it in recycled form than pay to manufacture pristine PET from petroleum (as reflected in their willingness to pay a 10 percent higher premium today). Or how about glass, of which there is currently a worldwide shortage? By phasing out cans containing toxic bisphenol-A (BPA), we have created a huge new demand for glass here in the U.S., and the big glass companies need to collect it. What if we were to launch an incentive campaign to involve the more than 7000 farmers markets out there in the redemption of glass containers or how about wine bottle re-use? Or start a program to mine all electronic waste for the precious metals it contains so we could reuse them in the production of new, updated products? Is it possible, I would ask Mr. Obama, that such measures might actually help us to rebuild our manufacturing base in the U.S. to meet some of our most basic needs?
What other advice would I give the president? That not all “green” initiatives are good ideas, or cost-effective ones worthy of being subsidized – and that it’s my belief that you hurt the sustainability industry more than help it when you waste taxpayers’ money on projects that may sound well-intentioned but are not in themselves sustainable.