Book cover: Green-Collar JobsIn 1999, Sightline (then Northwest Environment Watch) published a slim book called Green-Collar Jobs.

Researched and written by Alan Durning, the book chronicles the changing economic base of rural towns in the Pacific Northwest, from resource extraction industries such as timber to “green-collar” jobs such as sustainable forestry, ecosystem restoration, and tourism. The book was well-received as a landmark study of the post-logging Northwest economy.

 

Fast forward to 2007.

Sightline staff—like many of you, probably—noticed that the phrase “green-collar jobs” began turning up in the speeches and articles of some pretty big names in politics and business.

 

One of the first—and most compelling—examples we learned about was Oakland-based leader Van Jones. Jones has been speaking to packed crowds across the country (including Seattle) about the promise of manual-labor jobs in the rapidly growing green sector–jobs such as retrofitting, weatherization, and solar panel installation—to serve as a “pathway out of poverty.” He calls these “green-collar jobs,” and has helped initiate a green jobs program in Oakland.

Due at least partly to Jones’ influence, leading presidential candidates began using the term to describe what’s become a core piece of their platform:

By December 2007, media stories mentioning the phrase were turning up—according to my Google alert–at the rate of several stories a day.

We couldn’t help but wonder if there was any relation to our little book.

istock_constructionIt’s rare you get the answer to such questions, but we did. Coincidentally, in December, our executive director heard from a former collaborator, a San Francisco State University Urban Studies professor named Raquel Pinderhughes, who has done several groundbreaking studies on green-collar jobs.

She called to tell Alan that the national platform for the term indeed had roots in our 1999 book, with a jumpstart from her. She began using the term “green-collar jobs” in 2004 and then launched the term in a 2006 article published in “Race, Poverty, and the Environment.” In that article, Pinderhughes defined green-collar jobs as “manual-labor jobs in businesses (or other enterprises) whose products and services directly improve environmental quality” and identified 22 economic sectors in which green jobs are located.

“I adopted, revised, and expanded the term in my article because I knew that it would resonate deeply with the public and with policy makers,” she told Alan. “The term works beautifully to describe a much wider range of manual labor jobs that are associated with improvements in environmental quality.” She was right. The term, which married the concepts of “blue-collar” and “green,” began to spread, and eventually took off.

Her December 2007 report on green-collar jobs includes a reference to Sightline’s early use of the term (page 13 in the pdf).

 

So what does all this mean? First, it’s just kinda cool that we played a role in green-collar jobs’ new fame.

And second, it’s fascinating to see how it’s evolved. Our original use of the term “green-collar jobs” had very much to do with the rural Northwest economy of the late 1990s, struggling to redefine its economic base in the wake of timber job losses. The book documented early efforts of innovative northwesterners to make the rural economy greener, from community forestry to retraining workers in ecosystem restoration. (Read an excerpt here.)

 

The current use of the term—as articulated by Pinderhughes, Jones, Clinton, and others—describes a compelling solution for an urban, post-Katrina world, a world where it’s just becoming clear how closely linked environmental and equity issues are. “Green-collar jobs” is a powerful concept that has the potential to cement the connection between environmental issues and kitchen-table issues.

Sightline has long been a big fan of solutions that solve several problems at once, which we call “ripple-effect” solutions. Making progress on poverty and climate change together is the ultimate ripple-effect solution, and one that we hope to support in our own research on climate policy and fairness.

If their promise is realized, green-collar jobs can help solve our most pressing social and urban issues by—as Van Jones says–“connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done.”

And it’s urgent work. The alternative is that the green economy will not only continue to leave people behind, but create an even more divided society. We explored this dark side in our own “green-collar jobs” book. The Northwest has a choice, the book said:

The best-case scenario is a future that blends advanced technology with humane policies . . . making the Northwest a global model of prosperity, prosperity that is shared among all citizens and abides by nature’s limits. The worst-case scenario, equally possible, is a bipolar economy: high-payi
ng, long-hour, relatively green information-age work for those hooked into the global market and low-paying, temporary jobs for those who are not.

 

That dark side is still a distinct possibility. Here is Van Jones speaking in Seattle this fall:

 

Are we going to have eco-apartheid? Are we going to settle for that? Are we going to have a society divided between ecological-haves and ecological-have nots? We’ve worked for 200 years to integrate a poison- and pollution-based economy; what can we do to ensure the green economy has a place in it for everybody?

How do we ensure this? It won’t happen overnight, as some of the media hype would lead you to believe, but with funding, programs, and commitment we can begin to seize the opportunities. The federal Green Jobs Act of 2007 is a good start. So are the “green jobs” bill that Washington State legislature is considering, and the urban green-jobs programs sprouting up across the country.

Finally, to truly realize the promise of green-collar jobs, we need to craft fair climate policy that helps us pursue our people and climate goals at the same time.

See also:

Green-collar Jobs (Sightline’s 1999 book)
Van Jones on green-collar jobs
Washington State’s green jobs bill
Alan Durning on climate fairness
January 2008 NY Times article on the burgeoning solar industry
February 2008 AP story on the promise of green-collar jobs