Green Economy and The Problem of Class

In California, Climate Change, Economic Planning, Economics, Environment, Full Employment, Inequality, Political Ideology, Political Parties, Politics, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Progressivism, Public Policy, Regulation, Social Democracy, Social Policy on July 12, 2010 at 1:27 am


It is in the very nature of a political alliance that there are tensions between the various constitutive elements. If political interests, experience and tradition, ways of thinking were completely identical, one would expect allied groups to have already merged – an alliance grows out of a shared need to cooperate in cases in which different groups have overlapping but distinct agendas.

The same is true of the “Blue/Green” alliance between environmental and labor groups. On the surface, both groups are united around their support for a “green economy,” one in which non-renewable, greenhouse-gas-emitting industries and processes are replaced by renewable, emissions-free alternate forms of energy and production – an economy which labor groups hope involves the creation of many new manufacturing jobs in new “green industries.” However, there are conflicts that emerge when the idea of a green economy runs into the reality of class and political economy in the era of globalization, conflicts that illustrate the different interests and goals of the two movements.

For example, Texas is in the process of constructing a 600-megawatt windfarm in the hills of West Texas, which is enough to power about 450,000 homes. On the face of it, this is a significant improvement of alternate energy production in a major oil state, and something of a coup for the environmental movement. The problem is that the windmills are made in China – and 75% of the world’s windmills are made outside the U.S. American unions are unhappy that alternative energy projects massively subsidized by the U.S government are being used the create green jobs.

However, it is always possible to solve tensions that exist if we think through what it actually means to give life to our common goals.

What is a Green Economy:

In thinking these things through, it’s important to think in concrete terms, and avoid the fuzziness or ambiguity that often grows up around ideas that are the result of political compromise. While this ambiguity is sometimes useful, in that it allows both sides to see what they want in the compromise during the delicate, initial stages, it can also be the source of tension down the road when conflicting interpretations clash or when a term becomes so stretched that it begins to be all-encompassing, and a barrier to clarity.

One of the most important examples of this for today’s topic is the idea of a “green economy.” This term is immensely useful and important to both labor and environmental groups, and also to Democratic Party figures who view both movements as important constituencies to keep in harness. For labor groups, the appeal of the green economy is the promise of renewal after forty years of erosion of traditional manufacturing, the potential for new “green-collar” jobs in new manufacturing, energy, construction, maintenance, electrical, and other industries that might provide a new source for economic security, and hopefully ones in which unions would stand a better chance than the fiercely anti-union retail sector or the diffuse and difficult service sectors. For environmental groups, the green economy provides a way past past internal debates about zero growth that had for many decades marginalized the environmental movement when it came to economic policy. And for Democratic Party politicians, the phrase is important for getting labor and environmental groups to cooperate – both sides can approve of anti-recessionary job  creation if environmentalists can be placated by emphasizing that said jobs involve weatherizing homes and “greening” buildings; likewise, there can be compromise on climate change legislation if labor groups can be convinced that pricing carbon will create rather than destroy jobs.

The problem with the term is that it leads to confusing production and employment. The creation of new, green industries, or even the more ambitious full-scale transformation of the economy towards renewable fuels or sustainable growth does not in itself ensure that a green economy will a socially just one, especially if reforms in energy use, production methods, and patterns of development are undertaken without consideration of social justice needs. A green economy that emphasizes high-tech, research and development, and automation and other forms of productivity can still be an economy with high levels of unemployment and rampant inequality – in other words, an economy that satisfies the goals of the environmental movement without satisfying any of the needs of the labor movement. Likewise, it is possible to have an economy that has full employment or something close to it and much lower levels of inequality that is environmentally unsustainable – in many ways, the “Golden Age” of the American economy from the 1940s through 1960s was the very image of a high employment, high-wage, high-consumption, and high-pollution economic model.

If “green economy” is to be a term that is both concrete and serves as a bridge between environmentalists and labor, we have to be very clear about what both sides want and how to balance and combine objectives.

Thinking About the Economy of Greenness:

What the union movement hopes to achieve from a green economy is rather ambitious –full (or at least closer to full) employment, a living (or at least rising rather than stagnant) wage, and lower inequality. Because of their worker-oriented viewpoint and pre-existing commitment to labor standards, labor groups tend to be less likely to confuse production for employment. Given how unions operate, they are aware that even industries that present an appearance of modernity, cosmopolitanism, and enlightened values still need to be held accountable for how they treat their workers as much as they need to be for their carbon footprint.

However, unions are still prone to making substitution errors when it comes to things like manufacturing. Creating new jobs in manufacturing is a chief goal of the union movement, especially among those industrial unions who got their start in manufacturing. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, except that it can lead to thinking that manufacturing is somehow intrinsically better than other industries. This is a problem for two reasons:

  1. Employment, Not Production – U.S manufacturing began shedding jobs in the 1950s, well before the recent surge in globalized finance, production, and distribution, and before our current focus on offshoring, there was an equally strong concern about the ongoing impact of automation. If U.S manufacturing were to expand as a percent of the nation’s GDP, there is no guarantee that this would mean steady growth in manufacturing as a percent of the workforce – especially given pre-existing tendencies within the American economy away from labor “costs” and towards the greater exploitation of capital goods and productivity. The ultimate goal for a new kind of economy should be one with higher employment – whether or not that involves higher manufacturing production.
  2. Organizing Trumps Economic Laws – part of the argument that’s made as to why manufacturing is intrinsically better than other forms of employment is that high value-added industries are higher wage industries. The mistake here is to conclude that this is somehow due to a natural economic law. The reality is that, prior to unionization, most manufacturing jobs were terrible – hours were long, conditions were dehumanizing and unsafe, and wages were inadequate. Skilled craft workers looked down on factory work in much the same way that service sector work is disparaged today. Even Walter Reuther in his first job as an auto-worker earned only the equivalent of what a McDonald’s worker does today. Unions are what made low-quality jobs into living wage jobs, and there’s no reason why the same process couldn’t be repeated in the service sector.

This isn’t an argument that we shouldn’t protect the manufacturing j0bs we’ve got and create more besides, but rather that our strategic assessments should be based on boosting employment rather than production. To that end, the question of whether or not we “buy American” at every step of the process in constructing a green economy should be subordinated to the question of whether we’re creating good jobs at the rate and quantity we need.

Thinking About Green:

On the other side of things, it’s important for the environmental movement to think very concretely about the relationship between jobs and production, because it raises the issue of the environmental movement’s attitude to questions of class. There is a way to do green politics in a way that incorporates real concern about inequality and social justice into one’s politics, which can be seen in the European Green parties, which uniformly ally with center-left parties and whose platforms incorporate jobs, living wages, health care, pensions, financial regulation, and affordable housing as well as alternative energy and climate change.

But there’s also a kind of upper-middle class green politics that emphasizes a “zero impact” lifestyle, boutique hybrid cars, and no-growth attitudes when it comes to development and the economy. This kind of politics emphasizes ethical consumption as a moral display – buying organic produce as a status symbol – and emphasizes climate change either through abstract controls or through individual behavioral adjustments.

The reason this matters is that there is more than one way to achieve sustainability, and the approach that the environmental movement takes is shaped by the kind of politics it chooses to embrace. A sustainable economy could be one that either does not grow at all, or one that achieves growth through shifting from non-renewable to renewable resources, or one that emphasizes economic redistribution. These approaches might be equal from an environmental viewpoint, but they are not equal from a class perspective. The hard fact is that economic growth must at least equal population growth if living standards are to be maintained, and a major component of social justice is that living standards – especially the living standards of the poor and working class – should improve. The link between resource use and living standards has been a major problem for the environmental movement, because zero growth is essentially a call for economic austerity that will have an extremely unequal impact on different socioeconomic classes. By contrast, economic growth based on renewable resources is essentially class-neutral – it doesn’t particularly target poorer communities, but it won’t help them either without a strong commitment to social justice. Using redistribution to accommodate rising living standards for poor and working class people while lowering overall use of resources is a positive step towards social justice, but it’s not one that’s discussed much by major environmental organizations.

The larger point is that if environmental groups want buy-in from unions, working class and poor voters, and other groups outside of the traditional environmental constituency of white upper-middle class folks, two things need to happen:

  1. Commitment to Sustainability as High-Employment Economy: despite the work that the environmental movement has done to build up the image of new green industries, major environmental legislation is still easily attacked in a time of economic uncertainty as a threat to jobs. The environmental movement needs to work with the labor movement and other groups to settle on a definition of sustainability that is compatible with high levels of employment. One example of this, as I have noted, is working to streamline the permitting/environmental-impact process for public works, infrastructure, and development that emphasizes in-fill development, green construction/energy, and higher density as opposed to sprawl through measures like categorical permits. Whether it’s affordable housing in built-up cities or wind farms, the approval process should be as simple and efficient as possible – which creates further incentives for developers, governments, and the like to choose green (whereas NIMBY anti-development tends to push said groups in anti-environmental directions). In this fashion, the environmental movement can build strong defenses against corporate groups and conservatives who attack environmental regulations of any kind as bad for the economy, as well as attracting the support of more marginal voters who would be willing to support environmental sustainability if they were less worried about potential costs.
  2. Commitment to Social Justice as Sustainability: another area where the environmental movement can increase buy-in is to take issues of social justice, inequality, the distribution of wealth, and political economy more seriously. To give one example, many of the products that environmentalists would prefer people use (hybrid or electric cars rather than gas-guzzlers, organic produce over industrial farm produce, etc.) are more expensive than the alternative. This raises two problems: firstly, it defines environmentally-friendly as a lifestyle for the middle class only, but secondly, it shows how self-defeating it is ultimately is for environmentalists to try to reverse climate change without tackling issues of economic inequality. If the majority of the population can’t afford to live in a sustainable fashion, then sustainability is impossible; if, on the other hand, prosperity is broadly shared, then people can actually make the choice to live sustainably. Similarly, a population that is more economically secure is more likely to be willing to enact sweeping climate change regulation than one in which economic insecurity makes any reform seem a potential danger.


It’s not an accident that the Kyoto Accords were signed at a time of economic growth and that the failure of the Copenhagen conference took place during a major global recession. Environmental regulation’s perception as economically disruptive makes it in the world of policy something of a luxury good – something that can be afforded in good times but not in bad.

At the same time, we know that we can’t afford to wait either on economic recovery or climate change – and that means making sure that our alliances are as strong as they can be – which means thinking through our disagreements and finding ways to work together.

  1. […] CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) are safe from Prop 23, we need to do more to show the real possibilities of a green economy. This means making it fast and seamless to develop sustainability, through the creation of […]

  2. […] I’ve written already about the need for the green movement to wrestle with questions about class, which has its own set of moral questions that don’t necessarily align with environmental concerns, but today I want to drill down into some close examples in which “greenness” hides a larger ideological complexity. Note that I’m not talking about “green-washing,” the practice by which corporations present an image that’s more environmentally-friendly than really is the case, but rather cases in which “greenness” is used by different groups to present a more progressive image overall when the “greenness” is sincerely felt. […]

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