OK, I’ll Turn Green Already: Report from the Green Jobs, Good Jobs Conference

First you must know that the largest industry in Washington, DC, is the distribution of tote bags and printed reports. So, in that sense, the February 4-6, second annual Green Jobs, Good Jobs conference – held at the sprawling Marriott Wardman Park hotel near the zoo – was a wild success. A turn away crowd of 2500, plus assorted media, showed up to promote, absorb and generally cheer on the blue-green agenda, the long-sought alliance between labor and enviros.

Whether flying thousands of conferees in from around the country really promotes reduction of greenhouse gases is a question worth asking. Just not here. It was hard enough to get these groups together to have to face the biggest question of all: Can technology save us from technology-generated pollution?

[In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote part of a job quality report funded by unions and the Sierra Club that was distributed at the conference.]

On Thursday afternoon, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius – a serious contender for the newly re-opened top HHS slot – rocked the grand ballroom. Kansas, she said, had blocked the building of a coal-fired power plant in the state. Wild cheers. But definitely not from any mineworkers in the room. And, Greensburg, Kansas, leveled by a 1994 tornado, she said, was being rebuilt with state assistance as “the greenest town in rural America.” And so it went, speakers taking shots at the departed Bush administration, calling for a green army, demanding solar and wind power and generally behaving as green boosters.

If merely repeating the word green in every possible configuration could produce environmental improvement, we’d be farther along than we are. As it is, I began to get sort of green at the gills. There was little emphasis on reducing demand or promoting a significantly more modest standard of living. It was go-go, build-build.

The conference was a mixture of green entrepreneurs, green advocates, government officials and union people, dominated by members of USW. If this conference is any indication, labor and environmentalists seem to have grown to accept each other as necessary allies, even if the mesomorphic steelworkers and the spindly eco-geeks didn’t exactly pal around easily. OK, that’s stereotyping and many overcame it, but it was still there.

There were a lot of imaginative and probing workshops ranging from job creation to, seriously, Making Green Jobs Cool. But the variety of positions and opinions at the conference was truly on display at the Green Jobs Expo. There were the American Wind Energy Association and groSolar, as well as federal offices like the U.S. EPA Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization.

At the same time, one of the most serious operations belonged to the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a labor/management group whose aim seems to be promoting the domestic steel industry. AAM teamed up with the Political Economy Research Association to produce a well-researched report on infrastructure development.

At the other end of the spectrum was Live Green which, for a yearly membership fee of $13 offers minimal discounts at other green businesses. Like 10 percent off at eco-workshops at Green Living Consulting. I asked the staff at the booth whether the customers were actually green, or were they sort of flesh-colored. Polite smiles.

The juxtaposition between old heavy industry painted green and New Age green marketing was kind of startling, if you stopped to think about it. But fortunately for the conference, nobody seemed to find it strange. Where this is all going, especially in the midst of a serious economic collapse, is anyone’s guess. Anyone?

Alec Dubro is a veteran Washington DC-based writer specializing in labor and nonprofits. He also publishes The Washington Pox (www.dcpox.com).