Environment

The New Environmental Advocates

Victoria Cooper can rattle off the challenges that green job training programs face as quickly as she can the reasons for excitement. Cooper, who directs environmental technology programs at Chicago’s Wilbur Wright College, cautions that there’s “no such thing as recession-proof jobs.” Yet green workers will be required if the United States is to clean up the messes of global warming and pollution. “Everyone thinks this is a panacea and is going to change the world,” Cooper said. “The reality is there’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s complicated.”

Some places to start are the areas in which Wright College’s programs prepare students: energy auditing, managing hazardous materials, alternative energy, and environmentally friendly construction. Cooper estimates that 90 percent of the program’s graduates—22 so far since fall 2006, with 22 more students enrolled—are employed in jobs in which they use skills they learned at the school.

Buildings are a key area for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through cutting fossil-fuel use. Residential, commercial, and public buildings account for 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and consume 72 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the independent organization the U.S. Green Building Council. New buildings can be designed to be environmentally friendly. Older buildings can be made more energy efficient. Wright, a city college of Chicago, offers a building energy occupational technologies certificate to students who complete six courses on energy systems for commercial and residential buildings, the technical aspects of alternative and renewable energy sources, and building operation and maintenance.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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The Green Industrial Revolution

Throughout Pittsburgh are signs of a city that once pulsed with wealth and prosperity as the steel industry boomed in the early 1900s, only to suffer decline with the fall of American steel in the 1970s. Abandoned factories along the waterfront and boarded-up stone chapels stand like ruins, reminding residents of what once was. Today, the city has more than 14,000 vacant lots, scattered mostly in low-income neighborhoods such as Hazelwood and Larimer.

Amid the urban plight, however, a startup called GTECH—Growth Through Energy and Community Health—is giving Pittsburgh new hope. Founded by three graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University in partnership with Steel City Biofuels, GTECH hopes to revolutionize vacant-land management in an unconventional, earth-friendly way: by planting sunflowers in Pittsburgh’s empty lots.

“Sunflowers improve soil quality and produce seeds that can be turned into biofuel,” says Andrew Butcher, co-founder and CEO of GTECH. “This biofuel can be sold to help offset the cost of vacant land, which is often a prohibitive factor in managing vacant space.” After two years of existence, the organization has planted sunflowers in four Pitts­burgh neighborhoods and has started a job-training program to teach low-income locals how to tend and cultivate the fields.

But GTECH’s strategy is more than just a business model—it’s a vision for a green economy to replace the steel economy of the past. “This is an ideal mechanism to create a platform for green job opportunities,” says Butcher. “The heart of this project is the convergence between multiple sectors in the green economy: renewable energy, agriculture, and waste management environmental services.”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Making Places and People Bloom

In 1997, Majora Carter, a native of the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, moved back in with her parents to save money after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. That’s when she learned about plans by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration to build a waste transfer station in her community, which already suffered from severe pollution produced by nearby plants. Angry and determined, Carter organized local environmental justice groups to win the fight against the transfer station and install new public green spaces in Hunts Point.

In 2001, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a sustainable green economy in the South Bronx through education and green jobs training. Her work won her a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2005. She has been called the “Rosa Parks of the green jobs movement.” Carter spoke with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi about what it takes to eradicate environmental injustice and why the time for a green economy is now.

Jeannie Choi: How do you get people—from community members affected by environmental injustice to investors and politicians—interested in building the green economy?

Majora Carter: People have to see their self-interest in supporting whatever it is that we’re putting out there. When I found out that the city and state planned to build a huge waste facility on our waterfront, I was really alarmed; but many people in the neighborhood weren’t because they were so used to living this way. It wasn’t until I helped make the connection between the waste facilities that were located in the community and the neighborhood’s high childhood asthma rates that people became angry. They saw their self-interest tied up with the environmental injustice in their community, and that’s when they felt the rage that I was feeling.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Why a Green Economy

We find ourselves immersed in simultaneous economic crisis and environmental crisis, with crumbling financial institutions and melting polar ice both making higher ground look mighty good. While conservation and care for creation often have been treated by business and industry as luxuries or outright attacks on the bottom line, more and more people are coming to understand that an economy that requires the degradation of the environment and injury to people is untenable. There are other ways to generate prosperity without slowly killing the planet and the people on it.

In the framework of a green economy, things like creating renewable energy sources, making buildings and processes more energy-efficient, cleaning up the industrial messes we’ve made, and doing urban forestry projects are recognized as profitable on multiple levels.

Companies profit financially as they ride new waves of innovation and demand for environment-friendly goods and services and create business models that are sustainable in all senses of the word. People in poverty profit, as they receive training for jobs that both provide a living wage and a vocation with a future. In some cases, those same workers benefit as their new jobs help clean up environmental hazards that had been imposed on them and their families. We all win, as the cumulative changes in energy use and production generated by green businesses help to reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere.

Perhaps this sounds utopian and, despite the wages of climate sin weighing on all of us, too expensive for hard times. But as you listen to some of the green economy leaders we talk with, you’ll see that while they have their ideals, they are also quite pragmatic. They are social entrepreneurs who want to create long-term, self-sustaining change and new businesses—not new forms of charity. They don’t think this will be easy. They simply know it’s too important not to try.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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A Memory of Paradise

Rachel Carson—biologist, wri­ter, conservationist, Presby­ter­ian, and founder of the modern U.S. environmental movement—never lost her sense of wonder and awe in the natural world. She instinctively rooted for life and was ferocious in its defense. She sought out suppressed narratives in nature, such as the silencing of songbirds by industrial pesticides described in her 1962 classic Silent Spring. She cultivated an affectionate ethic for the natural world and the humans who worked most closely with it. Carson was driven by some “memory of paradise,” as playwright Eugene Ionesco put it.

Carson understood that human dignity was protected by social justice and had its own kind of natural beauty. Though Silent Spring focused on songbirds, Carson also flagged the danger pesticides posed to farm workers. Her research, along with immigration policy changes, gave Chicano leaders Dolores Huerta and César Chávez the climate they needed to mobilize for the rights and safety of farm workers, leading to the formation of the United Farm Workers union.

In a 1963 letter to Carson, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that Silent Spring contributed an “essential piece of evidence” for diagnosing the ills of our technological civilization. “The awful irresponsibility with which we scorn the smallest values,” wrote Merton, “is part of the same portentous irresponsibility with which we dare to use our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself.”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Green Reads

Whether you’re a die-hard “greenie” or someone just trying to keep up with the issues, there’s a blizzard of books out there that address the perils our planet is facing. In previous issues, we’ve highlighted The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones, which examines how a “Green New Deal” can address economic inequality and environmental devastation, and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, which urges us to create localized economies that are sustainable and community-oriented. Here are others to check out.

Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, by Vandana Shiva. Environmental, economic, and agricultural degradation are deeply connected—industrial agricultural practices not only destroy the environment, but actually cause hunger and poverty. Shiva says we must return to local economies and small-scale food production, and provides examples of how we can use agricultural principles to build a sustainable, just society. (South End Press)

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Are Books Obsolete?

Although you may have watched your house value decline and your rainy-day fund dry up, there is still the sweet experience of crawling into the pages of a really good book. Reading is one of the best—and cheapest—sources of comfort, entertainment, and escape around.

But the industry that produced that book carries a story of its own. As with every business in these recession-challenged times, economic, environmental, and technological forces are requiring publishers to come up with new ways of packaging ideas and launching them into the world.

Economically, the pain is evident in layoffs and reductions at publishers across the country, from behemoths such as Random House and Simon & Schuster to Christian publishers such as Thomas Nelson and Augsburg Fortress, the Minneapolis-based publishing arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Thomas Nelson, in Nashville, Tennessee, cut 10 percent of its staff last December. Augsburg Fortress laid off 55 people, reduced the number of book proposals it accepts, and closed its nine bookstores.

The financial challenges are compounded by other forces bearing down on the industry. Our increasing consciousness about climate change means that the practices and products of the publishing industry haven’t escaped environmental scrutiny; the ways books are created, manufactured, distributed, consumed, and even discarded all impact the environment. Add to that our changing reading habits, as more and more people gravitate to Web sites, Blackberrys, and electronic readers to consume their reading material, and you have an industry in deep transition.

“Up until very recently, we would ask, ‘What does a publishing company look like in 10 years?’” says Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher of HarperOne, which publishes titles on religion, self-help, and spirituality. “That’s still a good question, but it’s more like, ‘What does it look like next year?’”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Dying a Slow Death

By now everyone knows that in the face of global climate change, the United States must do at least two big things. We have to stop burning gasoline for our personal transportation, and we have to stop burning coal to make our electricity. A change in the way Americans move from place to place will affect almost all of us. But leaving coal behind may not, unless we live in Central Appalachia.

In the place where West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee converge, coal has been king since the late 1800s. And an entire way of life is built upon a love-hate relationship with the black, smoky stuff. Coal has brought Appalachian people the only meager glimpses of prosperity they’ve seen. But coal mining has also taken many lives—through accidents and through the slow death of black lung. Now the coal industry is taking away the landscape that formed the Appala­chian people and their culture. Increasing­ly, coal operators simply blow the tops off the mountains to scoop out the coal, leaving lifeless plateaus behind and burying more than 4,000 miles of streams under the rubble and waste.

Country singer Kathy Mattea, a West Virginian, expresses much of this story on her most recent album, Coal, a collection of classic mining songs. You can read about the rest in a new book, Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Moun­taintop Removal, from the University Press of Kentucky, edited by novelist Silas House and journalist Jason Howard.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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