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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green-Collar Jobs

Air Date: Week of

Alan Durning, executive director of Northwest Environment Watch and author of the book Green-Collar Jobs: Working in the New Northwest, discusses the impact of this new economy with host Steve Curwood. The rise in green-color jobs has bolstered local economies which were threatened by the loss of traditional resource extraction jobs. But it has also brought new environmental threats.


CURWOOD: The Pacific Northwest is a region in transition. In the 1990s, a growing focus on environmental protection forced many communities to start depending less on industries like logging, mining, and fishing for their survival, and more on what writer Alan Durning calls "green-collar jobs." That's also the title of his new book. The director of Northwest Environment Watch studied five communities that are making the transition from resource extraction-related industries, but the changes come with their own set of environmental price tags. The reason is one of three trends that Alan Durning says are now underway in the Pacific Northwest.

DURNING: The first is what I call the greening of work. Our jobs are getting gentler to the environment as we move out of resource extraction and other high-impact industries like petroleum refining, and into service industries, tourism, recreation, software, healthcare. Secondly, we have seen, with the greening of our jobs, a browning of our lifestyles. An explosion of consumption by individuals, often by the very green-collar workers who at work are doing things that cause less harm to the environment. The third trend that is a concern is that the gaps between the winners and losers in the new economy are wider than were the gaps in the old economy.

CURWOOD: The decrease in resource extraction activities up in the Northwest - - I'm thinking of mining, logging, the fishing industry -- the decline of these industries was expected to bring economic disaster to local communities. But in your book you say this didn't happen. Why not?

DURNING: It sure hasn't happened. In fact, almost the opposite has happened. In the early 1990s, when the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species and old-growth logging was stopped in national forests in the Pacific Northwest, the predictions were that we would have Appalachia in the rural Northwest. We'd have extremely high poverty rates, mass unemployment. What has actually happened is that rural economies have performed virtually as well as urban economies. In fact, in Washington State, their economies have done better than urban economies. This isn't to say that every community has done well. Some have suffered and some have boomed. But what's happened is that the economy has diversified out of resources and into other things.

CURWOOD: So, how would you say most local communities are dealing with this switch away from resource extraction?

DURNING: I visited five towns and spent time there, and then studied the statistical trends for the entire Northwest including three states and the province of British Columbia in Canada. In Hayfork, California, a small town tucked away close to the Oregon border, a couple of hundred former timber workers have gone through training to become watershed stewards. They learned skills in stream restoration and wildlife monitoring and in global positioning systems and other technical skills that can be used for ecological monitoring and improvement. The workers are ready to go and they've found some amount of work, but what they're waiting for is Congress and the Forest Service to start putting their money where their mouth is and begin to repair the damage that has been done over a century of clear-cutting and road-building.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk about the new threats, then, to the environment in the Northwest and elsewhere that's nice to live. More people coming, driving bigger SUVs, having second homes, maybe even third homes.

DURNING: The new generation of environmental problems facing the Northwest, as in most parts of this continent, are problems of consumption, of high- income. So it's building big homes further and further from other homes. It's buying bigger and bigger vehicles and driving them more and more. And it's the global consequences of manufacturing all the goods that we consume in our big homes and big cars. Associated with that is building all the driveways and roads that take people to and from those places, which fragments ecosystems and introduces exotic species and generally degrades the quality of intact, pristine landscapes.

CURWOOD: So this is applicable to the whole United States, though, isn't it really?

DURNING: It absolutely is. We started out to do a regional study, but the trends we find, I think, apply all across North America. Usually the dialogue has been about jobs. It's been about, if we do what's right for the environment, then what are we all going to do for a living? This book, Green-Collar Jobs, says we don't have to worry so much about what we're all going to do for a living, because protecting the environment turns out to be good economic policy. There are some problems that turn out to be much more difficult than we expect. The jobs one turns out to be easier than we expect. But rising consumption turns out to be the devil who's waiting in the wings.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. Alan Durning's new book is called Green-Collar Jobs: Working in the New Northwest. Thanks so much.

DURNING: Thanks for having me.



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