Blog: Richard Murphy

Richard "Murph" Murphy is a computer geek turned urban planner living and working in Ypsilanti.  He is also a seasoned blogger, having maintained his own site, Common Monkeyflower since 2001, and contributed to Arbor Update since 2004.  

Murph writes about the role of urban centers in a rapidly changing post-manufacturing economy. Join the conversation on our new interactive blog!

Post No. 4

"You don't have to  sacrifice environmental protection to get economic growth. The choice between jobs and environment is a false one: we can have both."

A 2005 survey by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy found that 76% of Americans surveyed agreed with that statement: environmentalism doesn't come at the exclusion of economic development.

I'm certainly one of those 76%, but I'd take it even further: since the economy exists within the environment, economic development REQUIRES environmental protection - after all, it's hard to do business when everything around you is underwater or on fire. (To Lake Tahoe: how's the tourism trade this season?) Less dramatically, much of our economy relies on a healthy stock of natural capital - an economy that can be maintained in the long run (dare I say, a sustainable economy?) will run on the "interest" generated by that stock, while protecting the capital.

But I don't want to fall into finger-shaking asceticism. The intersection of environmentalism and economic development isn't all about tip-toeing fearfully around, nor is that the kind of topic you come to Metromode to read about. Fortunately, there's plenty of opportunity to talk about environmentalism that actually creates jobs.

As I discussed yesterday, part of this is the innovation that's forced through environmental regulation or happenstance: as the price of energy rises, we have to come up with new ways to build our houses so that we can keep warm (or cool), and new ways to get where we're going.  And if the increase is through taxation (a user fee on energy?) rather than simply through sitting and watching the price of gas tick upwards, then we've additionally got a funding source that we can use to jumpstart that innovation - and train the people who will be applying it.

Van Jones, of the Oakland (as in California) Apollo Alliance sees a huge potential for these "green collar jobs". An environmentally responsible economy isn't just about the researchers at the big universities, after all - it's also about the working people installing solar panels, blowing insulation into your walls, giving tune-ups to the turbines on the wind farm, and deconstructing obsolete buildings rather than demolishing them.

Some of these jobs are in fields that already exist, but aren't yet being recognized and leveraged as much as they could. Consider the rehabilitation of historic buildings. (I have to consider this example daily, thanks to my job description; today, you can consider it too.)  Rehab of older buildings is certainly a green endeavor - rather than using new materials to build new buildings, we're reusing the buildings we already have. Additionally, older buildings tend to be located in city centers and traditional neighborhoods - denser, mixed-use areas that are more walkable, reducing transportation energy requirements.

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network estimates that 50% of the costs of new construction typically go to materials and 50% to labor. Since rehabilitation requires assessing and working with the unique conditions of individual buildings, as much as 70% of the costs of rehab work are labor, with only 30% materials. Rehabilitation creates more jobs than new construction, because the cost is moved away from consuming material resources and towards leveraging human labor. ("Repair, don't replace.")

Other green collar jobs are still theoretical - the Apollo Alliance-backed Green Jobs Act of 2007 would dedicate funding to train workers for jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors, while Sen. John Edwards just last week announced a Green Collar Jobs Initiative to train and employ 150,000 workers a year in the "new energy economy".

At a more grassroots level, organizations across the country are working to create a broad variety of green collar jobs, though most don't bother to use the label. The Boston organization Bikes Not Bombs teaches disadvantaged youth both mechanical and entrepreneurial skills through repairing and selling donated bicycles. Adult volunteers watch youth go from "snickering and inarticulate 14-year-olds to friendly yet intimidating professionals," as one stated it to me. Youth go on to get jobs as mechanics in bike shops - one program graduate even owns his own store.

Closer to home, Ypsilanti-based Growing Hope runs the Roots & Shoots Youth Entrepreneurial Program. Youth in this program grow high-value crops, such as organic herbs and cut flowers, for sale at local farmers markets. Again, program participants learn both technical and entrepreneurial skills, as well as assisting with cooking demonstrations.

Whether through encouraging the expansion of existing sectors, creating new job training programs, or supporting the efforts of scrappy non-profits, all of these involve reducing our consumption of natural resources by leveraging human skill: job creation through environmentalism. With the discussion of these jobs in full swing from Oakland to DC, I'm disappointed to see that I'm the first to mention in on Metromode - what are we as a region going to do to ensure that we lead (or at least keep pace with) this trend?