Thursday, November 5, 2009

Think Green, Go Green

America is in the midst of massive change as sweeping as the transformation in daily life from horse-drawn wagons to horseless carriages, candle light to electric lights, and farm work to factory work that swirled through the nation a century ago.

A cutting edge of 21st century change is the spiraling use of computers and cell phones, which have morphed from curiosities for techies to hugely popular gadgets for instant communication among people in far flung places. Amid the flurries of texting and emailing, a sea change is also taking place in what Americans do for a living. This is a transformation—slowed down, but also highlighted by the worst economic downturn since World War II—from fast fading industrial jobs and stagnant service jobs to a rising wave of green jobs.

Wary of the boom and bust cycles of previous eras, advocates of the sustainability movement are trying to direct the energy of the trendy green wave to safer shores.

“Something that’s unsustainable undermines the very system on which it depends,” notes Jaimie Cloud, head of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability in New York City. She cites the example of overhavesting popular seafood—such as the long gone oysters that once thrived in New York waters—to the point of extinction. She often challenges school groups and other audiences to come up with a long-range plan for sustainable fishing. “If we want different results,” Cloud argues, “it begins with a change in thinking.”

Cloud was keynote speaker at a “Think Green…Teach Green Conference” this week in the epicenter of New Jersey’s most populous county. More than a million people live in Bergen County amid remnants of farmland that during the past 50 years was turned into wall-to-wall housing subdivisions, sprawling but now abandoned or struggling factories, and infamous traffic jams amid gleaming signs advertising luxurious pleasures at hard-sell, high-turnover shopping malls.

For Kathleen Sawryt, the key to doing things in a sustainable way is “adding green skills sets in all jobs.” Sawryt heads the Green Career Pathways program at Bergen Community College. The conference was sponsored by the college, The Record of Bergen County and several large industries including Konica Minolta and Verizon. The college, Sawryt said, is developing a training center for students, workers, homeowners and business owners to learn the latest techniques in construction and renovation with recycled materials and energy-efficient elements that incorporate solar, wind or geothermal heating and energy devices.

A nearby example is the state of the art Center for Scientific and Environmental Education at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission headquarters, constructed on the side of a massive trash landfill that looms beside a sparkling expanse of tidal marshes. When it opened in 2008 to host environmental education programs run by Ramapo College of New Jersey, the $5.8-million center was the first public building in the state to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum standards. It offers a working model for school groups and businesses in the region to study. Visitors “get to see and feel what a green building is like,” Meadowlands Commission Executive Director Robert Ceberio said at the conference at Bergen Community College.

So what’s the wave of the future look like out beyond the buzz on campus? According to a recent issue of Time magazine, a “report by the RAND Corporation and University of Tennessee found that if 25% of all American energy were produced from renewable sources by 2025, we would generate at least 5 million new green jobs.”

For example, Time continued, “hundreds of employees … now work for the Spanish wind company Gamesa at its new plant in Fairless Hills, Pa. — a plant built on the site of an old U.S. Steel manufacturing facility. If you make wind turbines or solar panels, your job is reliably green.” Looked at more broadly, “a green-collar job can be anything that helps put America on the path to a cleaner, more energy efficient future. That means jobs in the public transit sector, jobs in green building, jobs in energy efficiency — even traditional, blue-collar manufacturing jobs, provided what you're making is more or less green. (Building an SUV? Blue-collar. Building a hybrid? Green-collar.)”

I’d add another green collar category—farming. There are good models of turning abandoned city lots into community gardens in New York, Detroit and other cities. The pay’s not great, but sustained gardening can help cut grocery bills. And as older farmers retire, there’s a chance to turn gardening skills into a farming career, furnishing food to city farmers’ markets. Or perhaps launch a career as a designer of rooftop gardens. At the conference at Bergen Community College, student Nirva Singh described how the Environmental Club and the Green Team turned cafeteria leftovers into compost used on a community garden on campus. Another project they want to tackle next, he said, is to create a rain garden on the roof of the student center.

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