The "jobs versus the environment" question, while real for many individuals and communities, belies the complex truth behind both economic and environmental trends
by Nadia Stainzor
eturning home at dawn from fishing, Bob Brown was frustrated by his steadily declining catches. He didn't want to abandon a generations-old family business, but knew something had to change. So when the state passed laws to protect and restore degraded fish stocks, Bob took a job educating local residents in ocean ecology.
Nationwide, population growth, environmental degradation and economic fluctuations have lead to the decline of key resource-based industries, such as timber, mining and fishing. The communities that depend on these industries have been confronted with enormous upheaval and a loss of jobs. In turn, businesses, economists and policy makers have become engaged in a heated debate over the relationship between environmental protection and employment. Changes in markets and systems of production contribute to unemployment, and as population growth strains the Earth, the very resources required for economic expansion are degraded. Fortunately, both sides of the debate are coming together to develop strategies that can help make jobs and the environment possible to maintain, at a time when doing so has become imperative.
"For centuries, the world's economies have depended on the ability to deplete one non-renewable source after another," writes Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute. "But the day of reckoning has arrived, and major structural adjustments are needed."
More than 12 million jobs were lost during the economic recession of the 1970s. While many were recreated during the 1980s, it has become harder for even working families to make ends meet. Most job expansion has occurred in low-paying sectors, while salaries have not kept up with inflation and, until very recently, the minimum wage was at a standstill. In addition, the shift from an industrial to a service-oriented economy has left many Americans behind.
With the US population growing by nearly 3 million people every year, the labor market has become increasingly competitive. Disparities between the classes have also grown, with the top 1 percent of Americans controlling approximately 40 percent of the nation's wealth.
The past two decades have also seen the adoption of key environmental legislation, most notably the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. These laws have been effective in enhancing public health and environmental stability, but have collided with economic forces that view natural resources primarily as commodities.
During hard times, the protection of land and resources has been labeled as a hindrance to economic development and job creation. While plant and worksite closures have certainly occurred due to restrictions on resource use and the cost of adhering to environmental protection, other factors play a significant role.
The increased use of machines to extract natural resources boosts efficiency and productivity, but requires fewer workers to get the job done. Harvesting one million cubic feet of timber required nine workers in 1950, but only four in 1993. According to the General Accounting Office, increasing timber cutting by 55 percent over the next several decades would not be sufficient to offset the 27 percent decline in timber employment resulting from technological improvements.
Domestic unemployment is exacerbated by the global expansion of markets and heightened competition over increasingly limited supplies of natural resources. Several studies show that environmental protections do not affect businesses' decisions to relocate abroad as much as market size, wages and tax rates. In addition, the lion's share of US foreign investment is in other industrialized countries, such as Japan and Germany, which have stringent environmental regulations.
"The environment is an easy target for economic problems," says Carolyn Alkire of the Wilderness Society, "because the values associated with its quality, such as a diversity of wildlife and opportunities for recreation, are not directly reflected in the market. We're much less apt to blame market factors themselves."
While local impacts may occur, no direct correlation exists between unemployment and environmental protection when viewed in terms of the US economy as a whole. A recent study by Eban Goodstein of the Economic Policy Institute found that, based on statistics from the US Department of Labor, only 0.1 percent of layoffs between 1987-1990 could be attributed to environmental regulations, with failing product demand, changes in ownership and the prevalence of seasonal work accounting for a much larger share.
In 1992, a study by the National Federation of Independent Business found that environmental regulation ranked 18th in the problems afflicting small businesses, far below health care, federal taxation, liability insurance costs and workers' compensation. And in a 1992 nationwide review, Stephen Meyer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the states with the most developed environmental programs also had the highest levels of economic growth and job creation. These findings were confirmed in the "Gold and Green" report issued by the Institute for Southern Studies in 1994.
"Lax environmental standards do not increase jobs and profits," writes Roger Bezdek of Management Information Services, Inc., "but just temporarily insulate inefficient, wasteful, polluting firms from the need to innovate and invest in new equipment."
Many businesses have found that, in the wake of severe environmental problems and growing public concern with their effects, adhering to regulations is often in their best interest. As a result, entire new industries have emerged in areas such as pollution control, waste management, wind and solar power, electric vehicles and "clean" industrial technologies. The advantages of such up-and-coming sectors include the reduction of dependence on foreign energy sources, opportunities for US exports, demand for domestic labor, and the creation of new jobs.
Management Information Services, Inc. estimates that in 1992, environmental protection spending created 4 million jobs nationwide and generated $355 billion in industry sales. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that environmental jobs will grow at 2.4 percent annually, almost twice as fast as overall employment. Nonetheless, the United States lags behind other industrialized nations, such as Japan, Germany and Sweden, in its level of innovation and expenditure in the environmental sector.
A Congressional backlash against the environment has also hampered progress. For example, the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Bill contained numerous provisions that would open up protected lands to development, including oil and gas drilling in Alaska, real estate ventures along Florida's fragile coastline, and the building of a hydroelectric dam in Montana's Glacier Bay National Park.
Both federal and state governments have offered tax breaks, free land and wage subsidies to resource-extracting industries as an incentive to locate in a particular area and create jobs. The consequences of such investments can easily backfire, since economic decisions involve much more than monetary profit and efficiency. Public health, quality of life, environmental stability and the viability of local economies are at stake.
The overuse of forests, agricultural land and oceans has already severely depleted resource supplies, resulting in the loss of not only precious ecosystems, but millions of jobs worldwide. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is spending $88 million in response to the collapse of New England's fishing industry, including compensation to unemployed fishermen and the buying back of boats and permits.
The goal of such a policy is to prevent the continued devastation of ocean resources, and to ultimately restimulate employment through sustainable fishing. According to the Marine Fish Conservation Network, government estimates show that restoring the nation's degraded fisheries could create 300,000 jobs, as well as improve the social and economic health of coastal communities.
"The answer to job loss is not to step up the process of resource extraction," says Alkire. "As with any investment, it's important to retain natural capital for the future, rather than selling it for a quick profit. Local economies need to diversify and minimize the risks associated with dependency on a single resource."
Fortunately, communities nationwide have begun to focus on the creation of new sectors and the conversion of old ones. Recycling plants have been established on the site of paper mills, boat-building is expanding in coastal towns and a range of cottage industries employ local craftspeople.
Environmentally-friendly industries also tend to be more labor intensive than the mechanized, large-scale production methods that currently dominate the economy, a crucial factor as the population grows. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that recycling 150,000 tons of solid waste creates nine jobs, while incinerating it creates only two and landfilling only one. And while the petroleum and electric industries generate about five jobs per 81 million invested, the weatherization of buildings to enhance energy efficiency produces 50 jobs for the same amount of money.
Whether or not industrial conversion is successful depends in part on the retraining of workers to develop new abilities, as well as on their overall level of education. Three-quarters of the American work force lack any form of higher education, such as a college or technical degree, leaving them unprepared for employment that increasingly requires specialized skills. In addition, the United States currently spends only 0.08 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on job training and placement, less than many industrialized countries, including Sweden (0.99 percent), Canada (0.42 percent), and France (0.35 percent).
Some efforts have, however, proven successful. The US Department of the Interior helps retrain workers in declining resource-based industries. President Clinton's "Jobs in the Woods" program has expanded the job descriptions of loggers to include forest restoration and management. In 1993, the state of Washington launched a project to retrain laid-off loggers in watershed restoration and to help save the state's fishing industry, which had been slated for massive closures due to overharvesting and environmental degradation.
A natural fit exists between environmentally-focused economic development and the retraining of workers in resource-dependent industries. Because their livelihoods, families and communities are inextricably bound to natural resources, these people have a strong stake in the fate of the land.
"Our workers are fishermen and hunters who have watched their streams and forests become degraded," says Jim Wilcox of the Plumas Corporation in California, which retrains former timber industry employees in forest and watershed restoration. "They welcome the opportunity to learn new skills and come away from projects with an understanding that the environment is about more than cutting a tree to cut a paycheck."
The preservation of natural beauties and amenities, such as lakes, mountains, forests and beaches, can also reap economic benefits by encouraging individuals and businesses to stay in, relocate to, or visit a particular area. Consequently, much of the new income generated in some regions of the country is no longer based on resource extraction, but on a range of investments and services.
Recreational fishers contributed $467 million to Maryland's economy in 1991, providing an incentive to clean up lakes, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. While Oregon lost 15,000 jobs in forest products in five years, it gained nearly 20,000 in high technology due to the relocation of computer and communications companies. And the Chamber of Commerce in Dubois, Wyoming, recently rejected oil and gas development plans in favor of preserving a mountain range, which has made the town more attractive to tourists and small businesses.
Even as rural areas step up efforts to both enhance employment and protect their resources, they are greeted by a large influx of people leaving crowded cities in search of a better quality of life. This migration paradoxically stimulates local economies but threatens their most valuable assets. Consequently, growth management is becoming part of both economic development and environmental protection plans.
With the population of the United States projected to reach 335 million by 2025, many of the nation's natural areas are quickly being overrun and degraded. In addition, by then, 21 million more people will be in the labor force than in 1990. Creating more and better jobs in a rapidly growing world is an enormous challenge that will occupy communities, economists, environmentalists and policy makers for years to come.
Significant shifts in economic systems and employment patterns are part of human history, from the agricultural and industrial revolutions to the high-tech world of today. Over the course of time, a basic fact remains: human beings need natural resources to survive and develop, but resource supplies are finite. Jobs can either be created to accommodate immediate needs, or our economic base can be transformed to last for generations. In the final analysis, it is clear that jobs rely on what the Earth has to offer, and that the environment needs a lot of work.
"Too often, the government and industry jump in with disaster relief, after people have lost their jobs," says Suzanne Iudicello of the Center for Marine Conservation. "We need to start accepting that solutions to our problems may cost some money and cause some pain in the short-term, but will prevent a total shutdown of our economy in the future."
Reprinted from The ZPG Reporter, September/October 1996. Zero Population Growth is a national nonprofit membership organization working to slow population growth and achieve a sustainable balance between the Earth's people and its resources. 1400 Sixteenth St. NW Washington D.C. 20036, (202)332-2200, www.zpg.org/zpg