Nothing is perhaps more pathetic than the exertions of economic developers and politicians grasping at straws, particularly during hard times. Over the past decade, we have turned from one panacea to another, from the onset of the information age to the creative class to the boom in biotech, nanotech and now the "green economy."
This latest economic fad is supported by an enormous industry comprising nonprofits, investment banks, venture capitalists and their cheerleaders in the media. Their song: that "green" jobs will rescue our still weak economy while saving the planet. Ironically, what they all fail to recognize is that the thing that would spur green jobs most is economic growth.
All told, green jobs constitute barely 700,000 positions across the country – less than 0.5% of total employment. That's about how many jobs the economy lost in January this year. Indeed a recent study by Sam Sherraden at the center-left New America Foundation finds that, for the most part, green jobs constitute a negligible factor in employment – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Policymakers, he warns, should avoid "overpromising about the jobs and investment we can expect from government spending to support the green economy."
This is true even in California, where green-job hype has become something of a fetish among self-styled "progressives." One recent study found that the state was creating some 10,000 green jobs annually before recession. To put this into context, the total state economy has lost over 700,000 jobs over the past year (more than 200,000 in Los Angeles County alone). Any net growth in green jobs has barely made a dent in any economic category; only education and health services have shown job gains over this period.
More worrisome, in terms of national competitiveness, the green sector seems to be going in the wrong direction. The U.S.'s overall "green" trade balance has moved from a $14.4 billion surplus in 1997 to a nearly $9 billion deficit last year. As the country has pushed green energy, ostensibly to free itself from foreign energy, it has become ever more dependent on countries such as China, Japan and Germany for critical technology. Some of this is directly attributable to the often massive subsidies these countries offer to green-tech companies. But as New America's Sherraden puts it, this "does not augur well for the future of the green trade balance."
Nor are we making it any easier for American workers to gain from green-related manufacturing. Some of America's "greenest" regions are inhospitable for placing environmentally oriented manufacturing facilities. For example, high taxes and regulatory climate have succeeded in intimidating solar cell makers from coming to green-friendly California; a manufacturer from China told the Milken Institute's Ross DeVol that the state's "green" laws precluded making green products there.
Attempts to put windmills in Nantucket, Mass., the Catskills and Jones Beach in New York and other scenic areas have also been blocked by environmentalist groups. Transmission lines, necessary to take "renewable" energy from distant locales to energy-hungry cities, often face similar hurdles. Solar farms in the Mojave desert might help meet renewable energy quotas but, as wildlife groups have noted, may not be so good for local fauna.
And then there is the impact of green policies on the overall economy. Green power is expensive and depends on massive subsidization, with government support levels at roughly 20 times or more per megawatt hour than relatively clean and abundant natural gas. Lavishing breaks for Wall Street investors and favored green companies also may be harmful to the rest of the economy. A recent study on renewable energy subsidies on the Spanish economy found that for every "green" job created more than two were lost in the non-subsidized economy.
So how do we build a green economy that is sustainable without massive subsidies? First, governments need to learn how to say no to some environmentalists. Green jobs and renewable energy can not be fully developed without affecting somebody's backyard. Windmills will have to be built in some scenic places; transmission lines may mar somebody's "view-shed."
Arguably, the thing that would spur green jobs and domestic industries most would be economic growth. Environmentalists long have been cool to growth, since they link it to carbon production and other noxious human infestations. As an official at the Natural Resources Defense Council put it, the recession has "a moment of breathing room." Disaster may be still looming, but bad times add a few more moments to our carbon clock.
Long term, though, I would argue hard times may prove harmful for the environmental cause. Even with subsidies, many renewable energy projects are now on hold or being canceled across the country. Slackening energy demand, brought on by a weak economy, has undermined the case for new sources of energy generation; what looked attractive with oil prices at $140 a barrel and headed higher looks at $70 less so.
Similarly, hard-pressed homeowners and businesses don't constitute the best market for new, often expensive "green" products. A growing economy, which would drive up energy prices, could spur a more sustainable interest in alternative energy from firms that now only do so for public relations concerns. At the same time, cash-rich consumers could more afford to install energy-saving home insulation or rooftop solar panels. A strong economy would also spur sales of new energy-efficient appliances and cars.
This process would go more quickly if government relied less on mandates, which tend to scare serious investors, and turned toward incentives. With the right tax advantages, energy efficiency could become a positive imperative for companies.
There's also an unappreciated political calculus at work. A persistently weak economy undermines support for the green agenda. For the first time in 25 years, according to a Gallup poll, more people place higher priority on economic growth than on the environment.
Furthermore, more people now feel claims about global warming are "exaggerated." Early this year, Pew reported that global warming ranked last among the top 20 priorities of Americans.
Ultimately, environmentalists need to realize that the road to a green economy does not lie in promoting hysteria, guilt and self-abnegation while ignoring prohibitive costs and grim economic realities. Green enthusiasts should focus on promoting a growing economy capable of generating both the demand and the ability to pay for more planet-friendly products. After all, the economy needs green jobs less than green jobs need a thriving economy.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.