Acton Institute Powerblog

Greening Jobs

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A great deal of focus in the midst of the economic downturn has been on “green” jobs, that sector of industry that focuses on renewable sources of energy and that, according to some pundits and politicians, heralds the future of American economic resurgence. Here in Michigan, the long-suffering canary in the country’s economic mineshaft, the state government has particularly focused on these “green” jobs as an alternative both to fossil fuels and to fossil fuel industries, including most notably the Big Three automakers.

Apart from the dangers, moral and otherwise, endemic to government officials picking winners, there’s a need to rethink this entire framework. Even if such predictions about the future of alternative and renewable energy sources are realistic, it’s highly doubtful that the businesses that produce these kinds of technologies will ever employ enough people to begin to replace the losses to the labor force following the various bankruptcies, selloffs, buyouts, and layoffs.

The lesson state officials ought to learn is one about fostering an economic environment that promotes diversification and sustainability through creative liberty, rather than being tied to any one (however hopeful) sector of the economy.

This lesson also has something to teach us about how to truly promote sustainable business. The jobs that are most usually called “green,” like the places that manufacture wind turbines or solar cells, are a tiny part of the economic picture. Instead of “green” jobs, we ought to focus on “greening” jobs, changing the way we do jobs that already exist.

Anyone who works in business will tell you that at a certain point of production it is far more lucrative to eliminate $1 of waste than to gain $1 in sales. The eliminated waste goes straight to the bottom line, while the increased sales brings along all kinds of overhead that cuts into profits. As part of a recent feature titled “Work Reinvented,” Forbes reporter David Whelan described how many employees are taking the challenge of the economic downturn as an opportunity to “reinvent” their jobs. As Whelan writes,

Technology–computers and teleconferencing equipment, that is–makes fixed employment in a fixed place less necessary. Economics makes it less available. With chronic instability comes a shift in loyalty from the company to one’s own calling, skills and personal life.

Technological advancement, economic conditions, and environmental concerns might combine to create the perfect storm for the reformation of many kinds of jobs. For some, including a few profiled in Whelan’s report, this might mean an increase in telecommuting (although then again, perhaps not). For others it might mean job sharing, opening up their own business, or negotiating different compensation packages. An added benefit of this kind of innovative flexibility might be curbing of the transitory nature of today’s employment scene. There’s no way real way to enjoy human community when young and middle-aged professionals are moving every 2 to 3 years.

But in terms of political economy, our policies ought to be focused on the broader picture of “greening” a diverse landscape of jobs rather than subsidizing a narrow strip of “green” jobs.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Ken

    In my little corner of the world which happens to be what could be termed a PUD, some folks are complaining about the noise and gas fumes and dust created by the yard care professionals — aka gardeners — who keep the common areas and individual properties picked up and trimmed. Truly these guys are doing “green” work but it’s bothersome to some to have the RHUM-RHUM of the leaf blowers. I’ve done my own comparison and the scraping sound of a metal rake on a sidewalk or driveway could be construed as equally annoying, especially inasmuch as it goes on for a longer time than the wind machine.

    Jordan’s cost saving suggestions are valid. Tough times do focus our attention but shouldn’t have us doing as some folks in my neighborhood are, suggesting that we make the place a “green zone” with all the inherent BS that the latest rage demands.

    I’m not a fan of leaf blowers but it’s because I’ve noticed they breed a perspective in the user that compromises responsibility for picking up your own trash. While my research here is minimal I’ve noticed that the leaf blower makes a conscious decision as to when he will redirect the machine back toward his employer’s property leaving a certain amount of plant residue in the grey area of the property line — not always fenced.

    For some Robert Frost’s poem may come to mind. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” certainly fits here somewhere.

    What is missing with so many including those who would impose green thinking on the markets is that we’d all do better by being a little more respectful of that trash we leave or redirect into the path of others; and stoop over with the broom and dustpan and sweep it up. That action does not require a professional, the counsel of Martha Stewart or a federal program or .gov suggestion box or go-to FAQ web site.

    It requires the application of the Golden Rule and a little common sense.

  • Ken, you make some great points. I ran across a story about the noise generated by wind mills in the paper the other day. It isn’t the case at all that green technologies eliminate all kinds of pollution. Sometimes it’s just a transfer, in this case “noise” pollution.

  • Wake up! The environmentalists/greens/sustainability nuts are, in fact, population controllers. Abortionists have the most sinister “green job” on earth.