“I don’t think there’s any question that with dependence on foreign oil, climate risk, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and now a meltdown of our financial system, we face enormous economic challenges,” says former California state treasurer Phil Angelides, who heads a labor-business-environmentalist partnership called the Apollo Alliance. “The question is: What’s the driving dream that’s going to propel the American economy in the 21st century? I look at the possibility of creating a green economy as America’s best hope.”
Last September the Apollo Alliance unveiled a $500 billion plan to shift the nation’s energy use toward wind and solar; improve the efficiency of existing power plants; modernize the power grid; build transit systems; develop high-efficiency vehicles; retrofit buildings to conserve fuel; and train workers for the five million jobs the Alliance claims will be created in the process. It’s a more ambitious scheme than Obama has outlined, and Angelides says federal support will be essential. “What’s striking about America,” he says, “is that at critical moments in our history, it’s been national policy that has driven us forward.”
Equally striking is the fact that, with little support from Washington, private-sector endeavors are already taking off. Ford is going to start building new car models at its Michigan Assembly Plant beginning next year. The company plans to make all-electric cars there by 2011.
While metropolitan Portland, Oregon, has lost manufacturing jobs, 65-year-old Oregon Iron Works in nearby Clackamas is building equipment to harness ocean-wave energy and fabricating the first modern-style domestic streetcars. With cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland equipped with streetcars from a Czech company, Oregon Iron Works could compete with them for business in the future. “We’ll be trading European suppliers with U.S. suppliers,” says company vice president Chandra Brown. Both projects are in the prototype stage, but Brown says they will generate union jobs for iron workers, electricians, and machinists that pay about $20 an hour.
In Pipestone, Minnesota, a town that saw its population drop by 10 percent between 1990 and 2007, to about 9,300, publicly owned Juhl Wind has helped local farmers develop their own commercial-scale wind farms. “It takes very little [land] out of ag production,” says CEO Dan Juhl, and “it creates a whole new cash crop called electricity that provides an income stream no matter what happens to the price of other commodities.” In 2006 the Indian company Suzlon built a turbine factory in Pipestone that currently employs 400. Jobs are so plentiful that the company buses in workers from Worthington, an hour away.
Green-collar training programs are cranking up all over. In New Jersey, Newark’s government teamed up with the Laborers International Union of North America to teach fledgling construction workers how to weatherize the city’s post–World War II housing stock. The first 14 trainees, many from a prison reentry program, earned $15 an hour insulating senior citizens’ homes. “We instill in them a sense of giving back to the community,” says Pastor Thomas Reddick, who runs a nonprofit construction company. “The jobs bring financial support, but it’s really about dignity.”
Few people in Newton were thinking green when Whirlpool bought Maytag in 2006. The central Iowa town was rooted in its traditions: butterscotch malts at the Snook Inn (“Since 1939”), nighttime card games at the Rialto Barber Shop, and factories churning out appliances for American homemakers. Maytag jobs were considered as reliable as its washers, and Plan A was to keep those jobs from leaving. “Even though I knew in my gut that the majority of it was going, I still thought there were opportunities to make a business case to stay here—at least some pieces of it,” says Kim Didier, former executive director of the Newton Development Corporation. “Even though you anticipate the call”—announcing a complete pullout—“it still takes your breath away.”
Didier, an athletic 43-year-old with a short haircut and an all-business demeanor, remembers the months after Maytag’s pullout as “gut-wrenching.” Some of her friends moved away to work at Whirlpool’s Michigan headquarters, leaving “the rest of us stuck here, trying to figure out how to make it through.” As the head of a one-person economic-development office, Didier was so overwhelmed by responsibility that at times she felt physically sick.
Still, Didier flew into action, joining with other local leaders to create the Newton Transformation Council. One of their first acts was to hire David Beurle, a rural economic-development specialist from Australia, to help Newtonians rethink their future.
Beurle is tall and mop-haired, with an easy smile and a kinetic presentation style. He arrived in Newton to find a company town in mourning. “You had this enormous culture of dependency,” he says. “There was always a clear pathway for people.” Now that pathway was gone. When 300 people showed up for a Town Hall meeting, Beurle tried to move them past their grief. “The world you’re going into is distinctly and profoundly different from the world you’re coming from,” he said. Yes, that seems “daunting,” he explained, but “it’s also an opportunity.” Beurle described life after Maytag as a maturing process, like a tadpole’s metamorphosis. “What kind of frog do you want to be?” he asked.