Book review: Banking on green-collar jobs

Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America

By Thomas Friedman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Welcome to Hamilton, the green-collar job capital of Canada.

If this sounds like a stretch for Steeltown, or not worth the effort, you should meet Van Jones and check out Erie, Pa.

Jones heads up Green for All, a U.S. non-profit dedicated to building an inclusive, green economy that's strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

"How do you use the green economy to deliver work, wealth and health for communities who have had too little of all three?" asks the 39-year-old Yale Law School grad.

"How do you connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done and, if you do it right, beat pollution and poverty at the same time?"

Jones has a solution. Train at-risk youth how to install solar panels, insulate and weatherize buildings and put them to work improving the energy efficiency of inner-city neighbourhoods.

"The beauty of a green-jobs program is that there is no question whatsoever, as building codes change and green technologies make retrofitting your home a no-brainer, that green-collar jobs will be there waiting for anyone who gets trained to do them," says Jones.

Low-income homeowners get a break on their energy bills, teens get jobs and neighbourhoods turn around.

What's more, these green-collar jobs can't be outsourced. You can't ship a neighbourhood, office tower or apartment building to China for retrofitting. It's work that must be done locally.

Jones believes this is an industry that's ready to take off and the first rung is well within reach for at-risk youth. Today's installers of solar panels will be tomorrow's managers, business owners, entrepreneurs and innovators. "The entry level rung is low enough, but the ladder reaches to the sun," says Jones.

And then there's Erie, Pa., in the heart of the Rust Belt. While other blue-collar cities are reeling and scrambling to save fast-disappearing manufacturing jobs, Erie has a trade surplus with China, Mexico and Brazil.

That surplus is due entirely to GE Transportation. It's the most profitable maker in the world of the world's most fuel efficient diesel locomotives.

And what made GE Transportation a global leader? "A combination of great engineering by a traditional American company in a traditional American town, a global market looking for cleaner locomotives, and a U.S. government that demanded higher and higher standards," says Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Thomas Friedman.

"And it is that interaction between government regulators and corporate managers and engineers — that dull, grey, boring interaction about standards — that is essential on a grand scale if we are going to spur the innovation we need to have a real green revolution."

Friedman argues we don't have a green revolution yet. It's more of a green party. We take our green and blue boxes out to the curb. Use fluorescent light bulbs and buy special edition magazines with 101 easy ways to go green.

The party needs to end real soon before Mother Nature kicks us out.

We're living in a world that's hot, flat and crowded, says Friedman.

And that's causing us five big problems:

* There's growing demand and competition for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources.

* The transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars a year to undemocratic petro-dictators who don't share our democratic values.

* Disruptive climate change that could make it impossible for us to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.

* Energy poverty that's widening the gap between electricity haves and have-nots and creating political instability.

* And if that's not enough, there's rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss.

"Because they are no ordinary problems, any one of them, if not managed properly, could cause sweeping, nonlinear, irreversible disruptions that might affect multiple generations," Friedman warns.

But don't give up. These problems create huge opportunities in the Energy-Climate Era for companies, communities and countries that are quick off the mark.

"I am convinced that the ability to develop clean power and energy-efficient technologies is going to become the defining measure of a country's economic standing, environmental health, energy security and national security over the next 50 years," says Friedman.

Our No. 1 priority is to drive innovation, says Friedman. Tax incentives, regulatory incentives and renewable energy mandates are among the ways to ramp up better, cheaper, smaller, smarter, abundant and reliable alternative energy technologies.

"This would remove a big source of uncertainty from the shoulders of energy investors," says Friedman. "If inventors and venture capitalists believe that the price of their new clean energy invention can always be undercut by the dirty old alternative, we are not going to get new innovation at the scale we need."

We'll also need a lot more researchers, inventors and innovators relentlessly searching for eureka breakthroughs and collaborating with industry partners who can quickly scale the best ideas.

To paraphrase Friedman, what sort of Hamilton would you like to see? A Hamilton that is steadily losing more and more blue-collar, labour-intensive manufacturing jobs and scrambling to fill the void? Or a green Hamilton that is building more and more knowledge- intensive and high-paying green-collar technology jobs — for making green buildings, vehicles and power sources — which are more difficult to outsource and will be the industry of the future?

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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