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Green-Collar Jobs: the Northwest's New Market Initiatives
by Alan Thein Durning

President Clinton is out touring areas of the country - many of them rural - that have been bypassed by the roaring nineties economy. He's not planning to visit any timber towns in the rural Northwest, despite the prophecies of yesteryear that the painful transition away from old-growth logging would turn the rural Northwest into another Appalachia. If he did visit these towns, as I have in the past year, he'd see that their economies, while not always booming, have - with rare exceptions - not capsized.

But he would also see that the transition from the old economy of hauling wood to the new economy of crafting bytes has spawned new problems: the Northwest workplace is greener than anytime in decades because the typical job in the Pacific Northwest is gentler to nature. But the workplace is also meaner to unskilled workers. And the winners in the new economy are undoing the region's environmental gains through rampaging consumerism.

More than any other part of North America, the Pacific Northwest has been ground zero in the perceived battle between jobs and the environment. Along this rain-forest coast from southeast Alaska to northern California, the question has resonated through conservation battles for a generation: If we do what's right for the environment, what is everyone going to do for a living?

Over the past year, the research team at Northwest Environment Watch has studied the trends in resource extraction and the emerging economy of information and services. We've learned that doing right by the environment causes no shortage of jobs. In fact, the whole thrust of economic trends has been away from nature-gobbling, high-impact work, to low-impact, high-value work. And because people in these "green-collar" fields care about living in strong communities close to unspoiled nature, environmental quality is as important to our economy as silicon chips or ocean ports.

The old economy is in a decline that not even banishing environmentalists and revoking conservation laws could reverse. Since the early seventies, more than 500 lumber, pulp, and paper mills have closed in the Pacific Northwest (defined as Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia); the fleet of fishing boats has shrunk by 8,000; and more than 15,000 farms and ranches have gone out of business.

The Northwest's natural resource industries - counting fishing, mining, and the whole timber industry from forestry to paper milling - have shed 71,000 jobs from their peak 20 years ago, and their contribution to the income of Northwest households, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 31 percent. Meanwhile, services and other non-resource jobs have surged. The region's economy has added almost 3 million jobs - a 56 percent increase - since 1979.

Our research, detailed in the book Green-Collar Jobs: Working in the New Northwest, reveals that most new jobs in the Northwest create wealth not by moving more timber or minerals, but by moving electrons, or stimulating neurons, in more profitable ways. They pollute less, consume fewer resources, and disrupt less habitat per job than do the declining industries. For example, compared with computer chip plants and other electronic equipment manufacturers, the pulp and paper industry uses 29 times more energy per dollar of sales, releases 49 times more toxic waste, and emits 765 times more air pollution.

Here are a few other findings:

  • The Northwest had more than 400,000 high-tech jobs in 1997; the resource industries had 308,000. There are more computer programmers in high-tech jobs in Washington state alone than loggers in the entire Northwest.
  • The Northwest timber economy is moving from commodities to more labor-intensive pursuits. Furniture makers and other value-added wood-products businesses now employ 54,000 workers. Another 15,000 people gather mushrooms, floral greens, and herbs in Northwest forests.
  • Long-distance workers bring at least 500 high-wage jobs into the rural Northwest a year. New telecommuters and "lone eagles," who sell their wares into national markets from home offices, cite the environment and outdoor recreation as main reasons for moving.
  • Fast-growing, labor-intensive service sectors - such as education, finance, and health care - provide six in ten Northwest jobs, and jobs in amusement, recreation, and business services have tripled since 1979. In the interior Columbia River Basin, there are more than twice as many jobs associated with recreation than in farming, mining, ranching and timber combined.


The transition from felling trees to writing code, however, does not mean we have succeeded at creating a "green" economy, or achieved one that benefits the people of our region equally. While jobs are greener, this new economy has a dark side: the gap between the rich and poor has widened, leaving many northwesterners in the wake of the high-tech boom, and rising consumption due in large part to people in the upper income brackets, is eroding the region's environmental gains.

Income disparities have widened in the new Northwest economy. Six individual Northwesterners own 10 percent of all private wealth in the region - more than the bottom two-thirds of households in the region put together - while 10 percent of Northwesterners live in trailers. The top fifth of families with children increased their real average annual earnings from $90,000 in the late seventies to $107,000 in the mid-eighties, while average incomes for the poorest fifth of families with children decreased from $12,000 to $10,000.

At the same time, second-home development has outpaced even first-home development in the Northwest states, with trophy homes and other new developments consuming an acre of rural land every nine minutes. Sports utility vehicles and trucks make up more than half of new motor vehicles sold in the Northwest, and are likely to outnumber cars by 2005. The fuel appetite of these vehicles has wiped out much of the region's progress in energy conservation.

If President Clinton visited the rural Northwest, he'd see a region at a crossroads. We live in a region that runs the risk of becoming bifurcated between haves and have-nots: a recreational paradise for the new economy's winners, and a landscape of trailer parks and prisons for the poor. If the Northwest chooses wisely, it can employ its high-tech tools and become a global model for a sustainable economy.

Alan Thein Durning directs the Seattle-based research center Northwest Environment Watch and is author of Green-Collar Jobs: Working in the New Northwest. Alan Durning can be reached at tel. 206- 447-1880 x102 or email: