Clean Air, Water, Never Really Costs Jobs

On October 6, 2014 · 0 Comments

cawnrcWhen Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1990, the lobbying group the Business Roundtable predicted catastrophe in the workplace, with 200,000 to 2 million workers laid off. In the Pacific Northwest, 20,000 loggers lost their jobs between 1990 and 1992, and the forestry industry forecasts that 100,000 jobs in all will be slashed due to logging restrictions. Four years ago, Amoco closed down its oil refinery in Casper, Wyoming, citing a $150 million investment needed for environmental projects as a major contributor to its financial woes. The shutdown left more than 200 workers unemployed.

Stories like these, of workers losing their livelihoods to protect a small brown-and-white owl or to fulfill some faceless bureaucrat’s alleged regulatory whimsy, pit jobs versus the environment in a trade-off with enormous stakes. In fact, a third of those responding to a 1990 Wall Street Journal poll thought it likely or somewhat likely that their own jobs were threatened by environmental regulation. The loss of over 3 million blue-collar jobs during the last 15 years has been blamed on environmental regulation, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.

But the real story lurks beneath the headlines that scapegoat the environment in the changing landscape of the workplace. Not only does environmental or safety regulation lead to less than one-tenth of one percent of all large-scale layoffs, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures, but environmental protection is creating far more jobs than it destroys.

Substituting software for humans, downsizing for increased profits and competitiveness, and export of jobs to countries where no minimum wage exists are the continuing culprits in U.S. unemployment woes. In town after town, thousands of people can lose their jobs virtually overnight. If they are able to find new work, their wages are typically a fraction of what they once earned. Areas that have managed to hang on to their jobs are insecure and fearful that environmental regulations will cause their local plants or resource-dependent industries to close down or move.

“It’s often the environmental elements of job elimination that grab attention. You see these inflated figures again and again. But the underlying shift in the way we work has gotten far less scrutiny,” says Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Skidmore College and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. “For example, IBM laid off 18,000 workers in 1990. That was more than six times the total of all environmentally related layoffs across the nation over a four-year period.”

Indeed, if the Clean Air Act has decimated the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers, few have come to the federal government to complain. Only 2,300 workers over the last four years have applied for aid from a $50 million annual fund set up to help those displaced by the legislation. Amoco not only ended up spending $75 million to clean up its abandoned Wyoming site after the shutdown, but went on to eliminate at least 2,800 other jobs across the country by closing businesses deemed “non-strategic.” And despite losing 15,000 forest products jobs in the last five years, Oregon has gained 20,000 jobs in high-tech fields and recently posted its lowest unemployment rate in a generation, just 5 percent.

Revenues and sales of products from the environmental industry directly supported about 1.1 million jobs in 1993 and will grow to 1.3 million jobs by 1998, according to Environmental Business International. A study by Management Information Services, Inc. estimates that environmental protection expenditures supported a total of 4 million jobs in 1992, about 3.4 percent of the total employment in that year.

In the short-term, environmental technologies have the potential to offset some of the job losses. A report released in April by the Labor Department’s National Commission on Employment Policy outlines the promise of job creation. A combination of investment in waste reduction technologies and lower production costs could lead to a net gain of 1.1 million jobs per year from 1996 to 2010. And energy efficiency improvements could create another 1.1 million jobs.

Skip Laitner, a co-author of the environmental technology report and a principal of the Economic Research Association, says high-tech jobs will provide employment for ten to 12 years, but cautioned that continued automation will overshadow employment gains after that.

“If we’re smart, we’ll use this bubble of time when we’re bringing in more high-tech jobs for creating a new way to look at work for the future,” Laitner says. “We talk about automation replacing human labor. It’s time that we look at jobs that help replace the resources lost by this rush to automation, jobs that sustain the environment. ” Some are looking ahead to that time as an opportunity to reshape the values that underlie work.

“The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process,” writes Jeremy Rifkin in his book The End of Work. “Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.”

Though not all prognosticators agree with Rifkin’s assessment of the end of the workplace as we know it, suggestions abound for retooling labor–both in the United States and abroad. Germany is moving toward a reduced work week of 30 hours that will open up hundreds of thousands of jobs for the unemployed. Sweden recently faced its first brush with mass unemployment. But rather than invest in welfare, they gave money to small businesses with the directive to create jobs. Street people have been hired to help salvage junked electronics equipment, and recycling businesses are booming.

Communities across the United States are now exploring ways in which the shift from blue-collar manufacturing jobs to high-tech automation can be cushioned by creating sustainable enterprises that nurture both the economy and the environment. The solutions vary considerably, from finding and processing wild herbs to manufacturing pavement material from asphalt roofing debris to making movable cabinets for people with disabilities.

While the end products may differ, several common strategies emerge. For one, small is once again beautiful. Many communities have given up on attracting a big plant that will employ hundreds of local people. Instead, very small enterprises are working together either to create products that are too complex for any single business to manufacture alone or to market products jointly. Cooperation is the overriding ethic. The new economy fosters collaboration and the sharing of mistakes and successes. From Virginia to California, people are reaching out to a broad mix of allies to work for the common good. Environmentalists, trade unionists, welfare recipients, banks, small businesses, and community development corporations are all being invited to share their ideas and energy to strengthen local economies.

Although these small-scale enterprises aren’t the panacea for massive unemployment, they provide a toehold for mapping out a future in which harvesting and using natural resources can be designed with the idea that employment can be healthy for workers, the community and the ecosystem.


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