Just Green Jobs
Transitioning towards an environmental economy

by Greg Macdougall
Oct 8, 2009 – published in The Dominion

OTTAWA— Organizers of the Power Shift Canada 2009 conference are looking to bring hundreds of young activists from across the country to Ottawa, from October 23-26, to discuss climate change in the run-up to the United Nations Climage Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. But along with climate change, the Ottawa conference will also be looking to empower attendees to participate in the transition to green jobs.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Powless, a Power Shift organizer and member of such groups as the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and the Indigenous Environmental Network. He had just returned from the Green For All Academy in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, where 50 attendees, 49 from the United States and one—Powless himself—from Canada, were coming up with ways to bring green jobs to the forefront of both the environmental and social/economic justice movements.

“We [the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition] started setting up our own working groups [on green jobs], and really not seeing a lot of movement on the ground around green jobs: I mean you can find a few policy documents by some environmental groups, you can find some stuff on their website, but nobody’s out there in the streets talking about it.

“The focus around green jobs is to try and imagine a society and an economy—a way of life—that is environmentally sustainable: to try and imagine the actual jobs and the transition that we would have to go through,” said Powless.

“[Green jobs] are positions from all aspects of the economy, from typically what’s called ‘blue collar’ work right up to ‘white collar’ work, from research to actual design, to manufacturing,” said Powless. “As well as things like simply going into houses and fixing them up: construction, manufacturing. So it really focuses on…fundamental aspects of our society, from our energy sources, our food sources, to the way we build things and the way we consume things, and eventually [the way we] have to recycle [those things].”

To transition to a more sustainable way of organizing our society, understanding that we need to reorient our entire workforce toward sustainability—making green work work—will be vital in addressing the global environmental challenges we face.

Granted, the effort is more than understanding what “green work” entails. It is also about coordinating a just transition in implementing these programs, to ensure that we are working toward social, economic, and environmental justice together.

“[The concept of green jobs] tries to address at the same time the fundamental social inequalities in our societies, especially tackling issues of poverty…[and] marginalized communities frequently not having access to most aspects of the environmental movement and not having access to a clean, healthy, safe environment.”

Green jobs are not just about making the world a cleaner place. According to Powless, there is “a human rights basis to it: that people of colour, people from poor communities, have just as much a right—in many cases even more of a right where their communities have been marginalized in the past—to participate in this new economy.

“If we don’t actually make sure that it’s led by communities, it’s not going to be the poorer communities who get access to their own sources of energy, who get access to energy audits.

“And it’s going to be especially immigrant and poorer communities who don’t have access to education and training [and] who are not going to be able to get those jobs, and are not going to be able to be involved in setting up any of those programs.”

To break the cycle of marginalization of poor and immigrant communities as the green jobs movement expands, Powless says it’s crucial for the green jobs movement “to make sure that…these communities are able to be there at the table as some of the main initiators of this discussion. And I think that’s why…we have to really start getting these people involved now.”

Another key aspect of the transition is keeping a local focus. “Remodelling a house, doing energy audits, installing renewable energy systems…local community agriculture, community gardens—these are all fundamentally local processes, and it can be replicated on a wide scale in most urban and even semi-urban centres across North America, and in a lot of other places.

“And these are the kind of things that can’t be outsourced, and [they] provide secure employment for people.”

** Read full Q&A interview at ZCommunications

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