Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Green 2010 Conference and the Status of the Green Economy

I recently attended the “Green 2010” conference at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook NY. It was the latest in a series of regular conferences dealing with the status of the “Green Economy” in upstate New York. The conference as a whole shed some interesting light on the current status of green jobs, education, and attitudes that probably apply across much of the nation.

The first observation was that the conference was well attended – a sellout crowd of about 150 people by my estimate. The crowd consisted of a wide spectrum of ages, from high school students to senior citizens. Certainly there was a strong interest in the green economy, which should not come as a surprise given the current state of the rest of the economy in upstate NY. There were several non-profit organizations trying their best to bring green jobs, and solar technology in particular, into the area. Given that there are many groups trying to do the same thing all across the country, you have to wonder how much any given area can rely on this as a big driver of future growth in their local economy. While the dream of becoming a national center for green technology is not realistic in most cases, it can be argued that the transformation to a non-carbon economy will have such a pervasive impact on society in the next few decades that there will be plenty of work to go around. The goal is to not be left out entirely.

There was a good deal of progress in education and training for green technology jobs in the community colleges and local trade school institutions. Unfortunately, even the people running these programs had to admit that at this time there were very few jobs available for the graduates of such programs. The region already has more people trained to install solar panels than the job market can support.

Clearly the most discouraging comments had to do with environmental education in general. Everyone was used to hearing that students in America were falling well behind other advanced countries in terms of math and science education. I terms of knowledge about the environment though, we are falling behind many thirds world countries too. I’m talking about very basic knowledge here – such as explaining the steps necessary for water in the ocean to end up falling as rain on the land. The majority of American grade school students could not answer this properly. Worse yet, the racial gap within American society on this topic seemed to be even bigger than with other subjects. White and Asian groups did comparatively well, but black and Hispanic groups really struggled. This racial difference even showed up in graduate studies. Based on the lack of minorities getting PhDs in environmental studies, this seemed to be one of the most segregated of all major subjects in our universities. Indeed, I took a quick informal look around at the conference attendees and found two African Americans, no Hispanics, and no Asians. The excellent work of Van Jones notwithstanding, environmental issues often seem to remain a narrow and almost cliquish concern of the white middle and upper classes. There is much work to been done.

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