Photo by Chrishna
Scott Beauchamp,  October 16, 2014

The Jobs vs. the Environment Myth Lives On

Photo by Chrishna
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Earlier this month, MSNBC host Chris Hayes participated in a bit of sparring with Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America. Placing himself firmly in the “anything but country music” camp of post-Carter American liberalism, Hayes brashly proclaimed, “in fifty years, no one should have a job mining coal in the world.”

Hayes might have meant that life would be better for everyone single one of the inhabitants of our devastated planet if we used renewables to fuel our tragically exploitative economic system. Instead, he came off as more smug than compassionate. Roberts had an equally hard-headed response: “You know and I know that’s not going to happen. Let’s talk about reality. Do you really believe that in your lifetime, you’re a young man, that you’re going to see the day that China stops using coal or even cuts back on using?”

The encounter, a showdown between the Park Slope ensconced journo-nerd Hayes, and Roberts, a spokesman for the miners whose labor extracts the raw materials that power the televisions and computers on which people watch MSNBC, exemplifies a rift on the Left that we thought had become passé to the point of cliché: having to choose between jobs and the environment. Apparently, there’s still work to be done.

As recently as April, The Nation was reporting on the death of the labor/green divide, making a compelling moral case for healing the “jobs vs. the environment” rift by using a few Biblically-tinged tropes of America’s quest for racial justice. Opposition to the Keystone-XL Pipeline was framed as our “Birmingham Moment.” A quote from Lincoln was cleverly transmuted to reflect how both labor and environmental justice movements both reflect basic and inseparable human needs. It’s true: people need both short term (jobs) and long-term (environmental) security. And people who are desperate, like many of the people who toil in America’s financially emaciated and constantly shrinking blue-collar industries, will always trade long-term for short-term security. When your back’s against the wall, it’s the rational thing to do.

The hopeful signs that The Nation’s Jeremy Brecher and others see are coming from new and intimate cooperation between labor and environmental groups. For instance, a study by the Labor Network for Sustainability called “Jobs Beyond Coal” found that if union members who work in coal-fired power plants are given reasonable plans for a “just transition” (plans that address quality of life issues, retraining, and reemployment), they tend to be willing to support the closing of high polluting factories. An example of a successful partnering of this sort is the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs. It’s a broad coalition of unions, religious and community organizations, and environmentalists who “seek to build a worker-oriented environmental movement that supports a fair and just transition program to protect not only the environment, but also the livelihoods of working people endangered by both climate change and the steps taken toward mitigation and adaptation.”

There actually is a pretty strong case that we can preserve economic growth through a transition to environmentally sustainability. Workers can have their cake and a planet that is capable of supporting life, too. Many studies have found that investment in renewables is more economically efficient (for workers, certainly, and for shareholders, who cares) than investment in fossil fuel-based industries. A University of California study showed that for every million dollars invested in coal industries, 3.96 jobs were created, while 5.65 jobs were created for the same amount invested in solar energy and 5.70 jobs from investment in wind.

Similarly, a Smart Growth America study of the 2009 stimulus showed that investment in public transportation created, dollar for dollar, 31 percent more jobs than investment in the construction of new highways and roads. And going back to the “Birmingham Moment” of environmentalism, the Keystone Pipeline, another study found that investments in projects related to fixing outdated water and sewer infrastructure would create over five times as many jobs as the pipeline would [PDF]. It’s just too bad we don’t have much of a “water and sewer infrastructure repair” lobby.

At least, not yet. Manufacturers across many types of industries are starting to admit that there might be financial opportunity in environmentally sound practices. The United Auto Workers, which has a storied history of progressive action, has said that the 2012 auto regulations would create jobs, not destroy them. After joining the BlueGreen Alliance in 2010, an alliance consisting of groups with such seemingly broad interest as the United Steel Workers, The Sierra Club, and The Union of Concerned Scientists, the UAW’s official stance on auto regulations was that they would create at least 50,000 jobs by the time they were fully implemented in 2030. As UAW President Bob King said when commenting on the “additional content” that environmental standards require of each vehicle: “That additional content must be engineered and built by additional employees.” Well said.

On Tuesday, October 7, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the organization that Cecil Roberts represents, congregated near the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency to protest proposed rules that would limit carbon pollution from power plants. “The EPA has paid absolutely no attention to the devastation that will occur in coalfield communities as a result of this plan,” Cecil Roberts said in a statement to the press. And he’s absolutely right. The way forward isn’t merely passing regulation from on high, regardless of what the changes will mean in the communities it affects. The only thing that has been proven to work is strong progressive coalition building between labor and environmental groups that emphasizes grassroots and community input.

There’s a scene in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a book that (regardless of its literary merits, or the author’s personality) insightfully illustrates the kind of frustration that people who consider themselves “progressive” often feel about the supposed environmentalism/labor divide. The protagonist, Walter Burgland, has a meltdown on live television, in which he accuses the local West Virginians he’s addressing of selling their “ancestral hills” for plasma TVs. He tells them that, now that they’ve sold out to the company that’s making body armor, maybe they can make enough money to keep their kids from “dying in the Army.” Putting environmentalist concerns and the working class in opposition to one another in this way is as counterproductive as it is offensive. Of course, the locals beat the shit out of Walter. And as much as you might sympathize with the guy, you can’t help but feel like he has it coming.

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The AtlanticRolling Stone, and the Village Voice, among other places.

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