It’s all about jobs. Never mind that those jobs produce minimal value, support obsolete technologies or produce deadly by-products. We cannot change because that change will cost jobs. In the days since Secretary of Defense Gates announced his department’s new budget
, I’ve heard a chorus officials decrying the fact that the canceled or scaled back weapons programs will mean losing jobs in [insert place name here].
Today I see a story about coal
, which is central to the economy, and that industry’s fears for its future as the nation becomes concerned with carbon emissions. The industry always falls back to the jobs it creates and the cheap energy it produces, arguing that coal is vital to a strong America.
The industry is correct about its central role in the economy. Still that central role only makes it more imperative that we begin to look at alternatives to coal. Yes, coal is abundant and cheap. But that value comes by passing many high costs—long term carbon accumulation, environmental degradation and impaired health—on to others. That’s why it makes sense to me to begin looking for alternatives to coal.
One alternative that is quick and relatively easy (for me, at least) is conservation. The impact is immediate and does not require significant investment. I’ve taught myself to live comfortably with less. But conservation is a only a start—it won’t make up the 52 percent of electric energy now produced by coal nor will it go far if it’s just individuals making personal choices. That’s where I want to see government at all levels taking the lead to identify, evaluate and support new technology that will provide future generations with the infrastructure to continue to live comfortably on this planet without relying on fossil fuel consumption.
As for those jobs that are at risk from change, the simple answer is to move them into areas where they will build the goods and provide the services that people need and want. Locally, Boeing has done well by supplying military aircraft but now that no other power on earth is even remotely close to matching our air forces in technology and lethality and now that most Boeing products are not particularly useful in fighting the wars we choose to pursue, perhaps the time has come for Boeing and other aero-space industries to look for other markets for their products. I recommend civilian products whose primary purpose does not involve killing.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see this as an easy transition. I do see it as a transition that we must make if our comfortable middle-class lifestyle is to continue (*). Americans waxed pretty fat and happy after the Great Depression and World War II, a time of great prosperity. But that prosperity came from the unique circumstances of the time, circumstances that ceased long ago. We need a vibrant public debate about the contours of our future and leaders with the vision to take us there. So far, all I see are public officials and industrialists who can only think about salvaging a past that no longer serves us well.
Oh yeah, those coal jobs that are so important. The riches they produce do not accumulate locally:
[T]he town of Ethel … shows that, although coal mines have long made this area work, they have never made it rich. Ethel is a string of mobile homes along a narrow valley floor, with the most prominent building a decades-dead Methodist church, with tablecloths still on the tables and a loaf of bread turning to dust in a dark hall.
(*) I would also cut the rest of the world in on that comfortable middle class lifestyle. It is neither right nor proper for a small minority (us) to enjoy wealth and comfort while most (them) do not.