Sunday, July 16, 2006

Green Collar Jobs

There has been an idea floating around in my head for a while that I haven’t been quite able to articulate, but I’m going to try. It has to do with the power of sustainable development to spark innovation. Strategic sustainable development has a major focus on the idea of “free creativity within basic constraints.” That is, with the shared-mental model of what constitutes success – i.e. sustainability (a society in which the 4 sustainability principles are not violated) – people are free and encouraged to be creative and innovative about how to achieve that success. How to discover new and better ways for us to go about meeting our needs and living fulfilling, abundant lives without violating those four basic principles.

When this clicks, it’s very powerful. It makes you want to run out and become a product designer, an economist, a farmer, an electrical engineer, a school teacher and a politician all at once. But it can also be very overwhelming. You quickly realize you can’t do it all on your own. You study the power of networks, cooperation, chaordic organization, and you look to engage others.

I got thinking about all of this again yesterday when I watched Majora Carter’s presentation from TED. (Check it out, less than 20 minutes). One of the concepts she mentioned was urban revitalization and employment through “Green Collar Jobs” – I thought this was a great name for at least part of this concept I’m getting at.

Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In the movie Cocktail Tom Cruise points out that whoever invented the paper cocktail umbrella is a millionaire, and it’s a desire I’ve often heard expressed – to invent some cheap little piece of crap that billions of people will buy, enabling early retirement. At its core, that concept represents fruitless endeavors, at best you end up rich and empty, trying to convince yourself that the cocktail umbrella makes the world a better place. But if there’s a great “WHY” attached to such an idea, it can become powerful and meaningful, and be an exciting driver of innovation, industry, and development (i.e. the growth of value, as opposed to just the growth of physical stuff for its own sake).

Now apply that to a city, and imagine the great “why” is to become a fully sustainable city – to create ways to go our business in ways that don’t violate the 4 sustainability principles. This “why” is inherently compelling, for (at least) two major reasons. First, unsustainable activities are creating compelling motivations to change already – mass extinctions, climate change, all sorts of human illnesses (cancer, depression, asthma, heart disease) and catastrophes (starvation, flooding, terrorism) etc. Second, we all seem to have an innate desire to at least give our children and future generations a chance at survival. The implications of the funnel make it clear why we must change.

The phenomenal and exciting thing is that in pursuing this great why, this meaningful purpose of creating a sustainable city, there is immediately huge opportunity. Now this is more than, say, trying to spark an ailing municipal economy by creating incentives for a recycling plant to setup shop. That is simply addressing one issue in an isolated sort of way. What’s compelling is addressing the whole system, the flows of materials and energy, and creating supportive, inter-related sustainable systems. All of the sudden there is a need for those product designers, economists, farmers, electrical engineers, school teachers and politicians to create a common understanding of what the end goal is (sustainability), and to then get busy getting there.

The demand for green collar jobs is huge, and synergies between businesses, industries and other activities accelerate this positive development. Waste management becomes the source of raw materials for new production as well as the source of nutrients and fertilizers for farmers and foresters. An upstream, preventative mentality gets children and elders involved in positive ways, keeping them healthy and fit, freeing up health care dollars and drug R&D expertise to focus on things we want, things that make our lives better. The scenarios go on and on – and thankfully, so I don’t have to sound like I have my head in the clouds, there are more and more examples all the time of these sorts of things actually happening – Majora Carter’s South Bronx projects being one example.

Apologies for a bit of a ramble, but hopefully some interesting things to chew on. Stay going.