Green Economics

Green Economics Collage

Green Visions

The "green economy" is now exploding into a billion-dollar sector—with more growth predicted. Before we find ourselves left behind and left out, those of us working to uplift urban America see now as a good time to ask: who is going to benefit from this massive economic growth?
Van Jones

The fact is, grassroots movements are emerging in this country and all over the world. The only way we can restore the earth and green the economy is from the bottom-up. It’s the way the body organizes. It’s the way nature organizes, it’s the only way we can organize something that will sustain and endure. The only way we can do it is through connectivity of small groups that are on the ground, that care. That is the source of renaissance.
Paul Hawken

The bioeconomic model of development is a strategic response to the dependent and unsustainable model that imperialism would otherwise impose on the population….
Clifton Ross

My experience and my knowledge of history have taught me that social change comes when people from all walks of life unite and fight.  What we are trying to achieve here in Los Angeles is not just the creation of professional jobs, but a working-class solution to poverty. There are no shortcuts or mysteries to achieving this vision. A progressive political alternative is possible by involving communities most impacted by poverty… unions that represent working families in Los Angeles, organizations advocating for a healthier environment, and socially responsible business leaders.
Oreatha  Ensley

Because Berkeley’s solid waste operation is locally based, the jobs generated by the city’s waste stream remain local. The city has its own fleet and unionized crew, as does the Ecology Center and the Community Conservation Centers (CCC). A model “green-blue” partnership, ours is an environmental endeavor that provides local, well-paying, green-collar jobs.
Martin Bourque and Amy Kiser

What is Green Economics?

Windmills © PhotoDisc

Green economics is the economics of the real world—the world of work, human needs, the Earth’s materials, and how they mesh together most harmoniously. It is primarily about “use value,” not “exchange value” or money. It is about quality, not quantity, for the sake of it. It is about regeneration—of individuals, communities, and ecosystems—not about accumulation, of either money or material.

The industrial or capitalist definition of wealth has always been about the accumulation of money and matter. Any use values generated (i.e. social needs met) have been secondary—a side-effect, by-product, spin-off, or trickle-down—to the primary goal of monetary accumulation. For two centuries, the quest to accumulate money or capital drove a powerful industrialization process that actually did spin off many human benefits, however unfairly distributed. But blind material and monetary growth has reached a threshold where it is generating more destruction than real wealth. A post-industrial world requires an economics of quality, where both money and matter are returned to a status of means to an end. Green economics means a direct focus on meeting human and environmental needs.

Tinkering with money, interest rates, or even state regulation is insufficient in creating sensible economies. One can scarcely imagine a more inefficient, irrational and wasteful way to organize any sector of the economy than what we actually have right now. Both the form and the content of sustainable agriculture, of green manufacturing, of soft energy, etc., are diametrically opposed to their current industrial counterparts, which are intrinsically wasteful. There is no justifiable rationale to be producing vast quantities of toxic materials, or generating more deskilled than skilled labor, or displacing labor rather than resources from production, or extending giant wasteful loops of production and consumption through globalization. These are economic inefficiencies, economic irrationalities that can only be righted by starting from scratch—to look at the most elegant and efficient ways of doing everything. As green economist Paul Hawken writes, our social and environmental crises are not problems of management, but of design. We need a system overhaul.

Green economics is not just about the environment. Certainly we must move to harmonize with natural systems, to make our economies flow benignly like sailboats in the wind of ecosystem processes. But doing this requires great human creativity, tremendous knowledge, and the widespread participation of everyone. Human beings and human workers can no longer serve as cogs in the machine of accumulation, be it capitalistic or socialistic. Ecological development requires an unleashing of human development and an extension of democracy. Social and ecological transformation go hand in hand.

Green economics and green politics both emphasize the creation of positive alternatives in all areas of life and every sector of the economy. Green economics does not prioritize support for either the “public” or the “private” sector. It argues that both sectors must be transformed so that markets express social and ecological values, and the state becomes merged with grassroots networks of community innovation. For this to happen, new economic processes must be designed, and new rules of the game written, so that incentives for ecological conduct are built into everyday economic life. The state can then function less as a policeman and more as a coordinator.

This is a very different kind of “self-regulation” than current profit- and power-driven market forces. The basis for self-regulation in a green economy would be community and intelligent design, which provides incentives for the right things.

Ten Principles of a Green Economy:
1. The Primacy of Use Value, Intrinsic Value, and Quality: This is the fundamental principle of the green economy as a service economy, focused on end-use, or human and environmental needs. Matter is a means to the end of satisfying real need, and can be radically conserved. Money similarly must be returned to a status as a means to facilitate regenerative exchanges, rather than an end in itself. When this is done in even a significant portion of the economy, it can undercut the totalitarian power of money in the entire economy.

2. Following Natural Flows: The economy moves like a proverbial sailboat in the wind of natural processes by flowing not only with solar, renewable, and “negawatt” energy, but also with natural hydrological cycles, with regional vegetation and food webs, and with local materials. As society becomes more ecological, political and economic boundaries tend to coincide with ecosystem boundaries. That is, it becomes bioregional.

3. Waste Equals Food: In nature there is no waste, as every process output is an input for some other process. This principle implies not only a high degree of organizational complementarity, but also that outputs and by-products are nutritious and non-toxic enough to be food for something.

4. Elegance and Multifunctionality: Complex food webs are implied by the previous principle—integrated relationships which are antithetical to industrial society’s segmentation and fragmentation. What Roberts and Brandum (1995) call “economics with peripheral vision,” this elegance features “problem-solving strategies that develop multiple wins and positive side-effects from any one set of actions.” [1]

5. Appropriate Scale/Linked Scale: This does not simply mean “small is beautiful,” but that every regenerative activity has its most appropriate scale of operation. Even the smallest activities have larger impacts, however, and truly ecological activity “integrates design across multiple scales,” reflecting influence of larger on smaller and smaller on larger (Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996).2

6. Diversity: In a world of constant flux, health and stability seem to depend on diversity. This applies to all levels (diversity of species, of ecosystems, of regions), and to social, as well as ecological organization.

7. Self-Reliance, Self-Organization, Self-Design: Complex systems necessarily rely on “nested hierarchies” of intelligence, which coordinate among themselves in a kind of resonant dance. These hierarchies are built from the bottom up, and—in contrast to civilization’s social hierarchies—the base levels are the most important. In an economy which moves with ecosystem processes, tremendous scope for local response, design, and adaptation must be provided, although these local and regional domains must be attuned to larger processes. Self-reliance is not self-sufficiency, but facilitates a more flexible and holistic interdependence.

8. Participation and Direct Democracy: To enable flexibility and resilience, ecological economic design features a high “eyes to acres” ratio (Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996): lots of local observation and participation.[2] Conversely, ecological organization and new information/communications technologies can pro-vide the means for deeper levels of participation in the decisions that count in society.

9. Human Creativity and Development: Displacing resources from production and tuning into the spontaneous productivity of nature requires tremendous creativity. It requires all-round human development that entails great qualities of nurture. These are qualities of giving and real service that have been suppressed (especially in men) by the social and psychological conditioning of the industrial order. In green change, the personal and political, the social and ecological, go hand in hand. Social, aesthetic, and spiritual capacities become central to attaining economic efficiency, and become important goals in themselves.

10. The Strategic Role of the Built Environment, the Landscape, and Spatial Design: As Permaculturalist Bill Mollison has emphasized, the greatest efficiency gains can often be achieved by a simple spatial rearrangement of system components. Elegant, mixed-use, integrated design that moves with nature is place-based. In addition, our buildings, in one way or another, absorb around 40 percent of materials and energy throughput in North America. Thus, conservation and efficiency improvements in this sector impact tremendously on the entire economy. Green economic conversion must be radical, but it must also be incremental and organic. How is this possible? Rodale cites the need for a kind of economic succession which mimics ecological landscape change. We need “pioneer enterprises” that can thrive in today’s hostile economic landscape, but also prepare the ground for more ecological and egalitarian enterprises to come. A vision of what each sector of the economy would look like in an ecological economy—based on the specifics of each place—is a starting point. This vision must be coupled with practical action in each of these sectors, gradually moving toward this vision. Enough practical activity can eventually generate the impetus for state action to level the playing field for ecological alternatives. 


1 Roberts, Wayne & Susan Brandum, GET A LIFE! How To Make a Good Buck, Dance around the Dinosaurs, and Save the World While You’re at It, Get A Life Publishing, 1995.
2 Van der Ryn, Sim & Stuart Cowan, Ecological Design, Island Press, 1996.

Brian Milani is the author of Designing the Green Economy, a member of the Coalition for a Green Economy, and an instructor at York University in Toronto, Canada. This article first appeared in Synthesis/Regeneration 37, Spring 2005.


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 Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

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Economic Watersheds

A Parking Lot in Chattanooga, Tennessee Photo Courtesy: Guillermo Prado

My grandmother told me that when she was a girl in Santa Clara Valley, she would walk nine miles to the convent to go to school and between her house and the convent there was only one other house. So the Bay Area, like the entire continent, has gone through an amazing amount of change in a very short period of time.

Take a look back.  Within one hundred and thirty years of Columbus’ arrival in 1492, ninety-five million people who were the indigenous inhabitants, who had learned to make this an incredible North American, South American and Meso-American landscape, were gone. They died due to violence, slavery, and disease.

And because they killed off the first set of people, the European settlers went to Africa to bring another indigenous people in to do their work. We forget all that. People say, “Ah well, it was back then.”
It is not back then. It is now, because the same mindset that informed that conquest is present today. It’s subtler, now. Majora Carter from Sustainable South Bronx calls it the top-down mentality.  

When we look at communities like the South Bronx, or when we look at cities like Oakland, we are seeing a long historical trail. The social dislocation and injustice didn’t just happen after the Second World War and it didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t neighborhoods that were redlined. Whole communities were redlined.

And we are doing it right now in Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Amazon.  Texaco, Chevron, Occidental have gone there and destroyed people’s homes and uprooted them. It is the same pattern that has occurred for five hundred years. With oil prices at $70 a barrel, with copper at a thirty-year high, gold at a thirty-year high, corporations are going to the last untouched places of the earth. Indigenous people control 19 percent of the landmass of the earth. And that’s where the companies are going.

Two Different Watersheds
What we see, both in urban North America and South America, is a consistent pattern of capitalization and decapitalization. A small group of people goes into a place, a land, a region and extracts the capital out of it, leaving a larger group of people who are decapitalized. That is to say, their water, their homes, their land, their resources are polluted, or they are poisoned. This happens consistently, again and again.

When you look at an American city, you see the world. You have one group of individuals and businesses that are concentrating financial capital: they have good lives, nice homes, nice neighborhoods, and good cars. They tend to elect the politicians, they tend to have control of the PACs, they tend to influence legislation, they tend to write the laws, they tend to get the earmarks in Congress that are passed in the budget. And then you have another group of people who experience being redlined in every sense of the word. They lead lives where money is taken out of their

community, and sometimes the best and brightest people are removed from the community.

What you are seeing in America is two different watersheds. And what you see in the poor sections of American cities is what I call unhealthy economic watersheds. A healthy watershed—what does it do? It absorbs water quickly and releases it slowly into the environment. The retention of moisture, streams, and lakes in an environment maintains and creates the conditions for life. And what is a sick watershed? It’s a clear cut.  It absorbs water very slowly, and it runs off very rapidly. You see exactly the same economic phenomenon in cities.  Cities have become unhealthy economic watersheds. The money comes in, it’s gone. If you go shop at a big box retailer, 95percent of the money is in London the same night. The rest of it goes to staff and employees. And it is not just Wal-Mart. It is every big box retailer, every small national retailer too. In/out. Bye. See you later.

Green Cities
When we are talking about re-imagining a green city we are actually talking of making it a healthy economic watershed. What is it that we can do so the money that comes in stays for a while? A healthy city plugs the leaks and closes the loops. It has to map what’s coming in and what’s going out. What’s coming in isn’t just goods and services. Molecular garbage is coming in. Disease is coming in. Pollution is coming in. All sorts of things are coming in. And where is it going? When does it leave?  

Each city has its unique character and challenges, but there is one fact that remains consistent. What you’ll find are huge sections of each town being decapitalized. What green cities offer is a way to start to change that.

Chattanooga Parking Lots
The city of Chattanooga faced a situation where they were polluting the Tennessee River and violating clean water standards.  The solution on the table was an $80 million dollar federally mandated secondary wastewater treatment plant.  The city turned to a group of people knowledgeable about green issues and asked them what they could do.

A little background: Chattanooga is like a lot of cities. The planners went in the 1960s and tore down old historic buildings and put in parking lots in the hope that more people would come. To the contrary, it destroyed the downtown and people moved to the suburbs because the city became unsafe at night with virtually nobody there.  

About this time there was going to be a re-development project where the city was going to take a brownfield site and turn it into a botanical garden in an industrial part of the city. To pay for the plant, the city was going to charge companies a tax based on the square footage of their roofs and parking lots. It was a difficult situation because the city wanted to attract business, not push it away with higher taxes. The group of consultants came up with a different solution, suggesting that businesses be taxed by the gallon of runoff. That kind of tax would provide an incentive for companies to control their runoff.

They suggested that the city should take all the parking lots and turn them into Park-ing lots. Instead of having the water run off into the street, put in permeable paving so that the water goes where it is supposed to go—into the ground. Then, take the most botanically diverse place in the United States—Tennessee, and plant and make the parking lots the botanical gardens of the city.

In the medians, put in trees to cover the cars so that you don’t have the sun soaking into the hoods and pavement and the macadam acting as heat islands. Instead of spending $80 million on secondary wastewater treatment plants, digging up all these streets and putting in PVC pipes, float a $12 million dollar bond issue. Take income from that, and pay disadvantaged youth to maintain the parking lots and in the process learn to care for their native flora.

It was calculated that making the parking lots into parks for cars would lower the downtown temperature in Chattanooga during the summer. Downtown building owners would save $4-5 million a year in utility costs. Meanwhile, the second wastewater treatment plant that would have cost $5 million a year in energy to process the water wouldn’t have to be  built at all. That’s a net saving of close to $10 million a year in energy costs.

Even though this didn’t get implemented in Chattanooga, (although something similar was done in Canada) it demonstrates the kind of thinking we need to do.   Do you create a secondary water treatment plant, or make more parks?  Who benefits? Do you send money to Fluor or Bechtel, in which case, you employ 12 people, you spend a lot of money on energy, and the city is no better off?  Or do you go green and create hundreds of jobs, new parks, pleasant cityscapes, less energy use, and clean water?

Plugging the Leaks
You’ve got to start thinking of all these flows as resources, even the ones you don’t want. Basically Oakland is leaking, the Bronx is leaking. It’s leaking energy, leaking money and resources. Those resources belong to Oakland. They don’t belong to transnational corporations. They don’t belong in the Bay. They don’t belong to the rich. I remember a friend of mine who ran a school for so-called “children at risk” and I asked him how they did.  He replied that they do well, but that his biggest problem was that many of the students didn’t want to be there. I assumed he meant they didn’t want to be at school, but he said no, they don’t want to be here. Here... on earth. They want to leave. Essentially we have an economic system that is telling a lot of young people in this country and all over the world that their only value is as a consumer. Otherwise they don’t have any value. And we wonder why they act that out.

What a green economy does is give families dignified, respectful jobs. And that’s going to do more than anything you can possibly give in terms of social welfare programs. This earth needs to be restored, and the people who have caused the harm—it’s time for them to step aside.  I’m glad when a corporation becomes responsible, but it’s too late. Big institutions have had their time; they have had their stage. They have failed us.

I don’t believe that much in capitalism, but I do believe in people doing business. Commerce is ancient. And as Gorbachev said once, commerce is an invention of civilization. Corporations were an invention of an oligarchy. Big difference.

The fact is grassroots movements are emerging in this country and all over the world. The only way we can restore the earth and green the economy is from the bottom-up. It’s the way the body organizes, it’s the way nature organizes, it’s the only way we can organize something that will sustain and endure. The only way we can do it is through connectivity of small groups that are on the ground that care. That is the source of renaissance.  ?

Paul Hawken is the author of numerous books, including  Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce. 


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 Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

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Green is the New Black

Four Views of the South Bronx © 2006 James Burling Chase

In 1999, our small part of New York city handled 40 percent of the entire city’s commercial waste, a sewage treatment plant, a sewage sludge pelletizing plant, four power plants, the world’s largest food distribution center, and other industries which bring in more than 55,000 diesel trucks to the area each week. Four power plants and another 5,000 diesel truck trips were on the way. 

Not surprisingly, the area also has one of the lowest ratios of parks to people in the city. So, when I was contacted by the parks department about a $10,000 seed grant to develop waterfront projects, I thought they were well meaning but a bit naïve. I had lived in this area all my life and knew that you could not get to the river because of all the facilities there.

Then, while jogging with my dog one morning, she pulled me into what I thought was just another illegal garbage dump. There were weeds, piles of garbage, tires, and all kinds of waste, but she kept dragging me. And lo and behold, at the end of this lot, was the river. I knew that this forgotten little street end, abandoned like the dog that brought me there, was worth saving. This was the humble beginning of the community-led revitalization of the new South Bronx.  The Hunts Point Riverside Park became the first waterfront park we’ve had in the South Bronx in sixty years, and the $10,000 seed grant has leveraged more than 300 times into a $3 million project.

Linking Environmental and Racial Justice
Environmental Justice, for those who may be unfamiliar with the term, goes something like this:  no community should be saddled with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits than any other.  Unfortunately, race and class are reliable indicators as to where one might find the good stuff, like parks and trees, and the bad stuff, like power plants and waste facilities.

As a black person in America, I am twice as likely as a white person to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health; I am five times more likely to live within walking distance from a power plant or chemical facility, which I do.
These land-use decisions create the hostile conditions that lead to problems like obesity, diabetes, and asthma. Why would someone leave their home to go for a brisk walk in a toxic neighborhood? Our 27 percent obesity rate is high even for this country, and diabetes comes with it. One out of four south Bronx children is diagnosed with asthma symptoms, seven times higher than the national average. These impacts come in everyone’s way, and we all pay for solid waste costs, health problems associated with pollution, including high rates of incarceration of Black people and Latinos.

Fifty percent of South Bronx residents live at or below the poverty line; 25 percent are unemployed.  Low-income citizens often use emergency room visits as primary health care.  This comes at a high cost and produces no proportional benefits: poor people are not only still poor, they remain less healthy.

Growing up in the Bronx
To understand how things got the way they did for the South Bronx, it is important to know its history. I can use my family as an example. In the late 1940s, my father, a Pullman porter, son of a slave, bought a house in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, and married my mom. At the time, the community was a mostly white, working class neighborhood.  My dad was not alone and even as others like him pursued this American Dream, “White Flight” became common in the South Bronx and in many cities across the country.

Banks “redlined,” certain sections of the city, including ours, deeming them off limits to any sort of investment.  Many landlords believed that it was more profitable to torch their buildings and collect insurance, than to sell under these conditions. Hunts Point was formerly a walk-to-work community; but now many residents had neither work nor home to walk to.

A national highway construction boom added to our problems. In New York state, Robert Moses, one of the key builders of New York City, spearheaded an aggressive highway expansion campaign. One of its primary goals was to make it easier for residents of wealthy communities to travel by car between Westchester County and Manhattan. The South Bronx, which lies between the two, didn’t stand a chance. Residents were often given less than a month’s notice before their buildings were razed— about 600,000 people were displaced by this project.

Antiquated zoning and land use regulations are still used to justify putting polluting facilities in my politically vulnerable community. Are these factors taken into consideration when land use policy is decided?  What costs are associated with these decisions, and who pays?  Who profits? Does anything justify what the local community goes through?  This was “planning” that did not have our best interests in mind. Once we realized that, we decided to do our own planning.Why is this story important? Because from a planning perspective, economic degradation begets environmental degradation and then social degradation. The disinvestment that began in the 60s set the stage for the environmental injustices to come.

Sustainable Solutions from the South Bronx
In order to address the economic and environmental degradation that has historically affected the South Bronx, we initiated the Bronx Ecological Stewardship Training (BEST), which provides job training in the fields of ecological restoration and brownfield remediation, so that folks from our community have the skills to compete for well-paying jobs. Little by little, we are seeding the area with a skilled “green collar” workforce that has both a financial, and personal stake in their environment.

Another project we are working on is the Bronx Recycling Industrial Park. a proposal for an industrial park, where one industry’s waste becomes the raw material for another. The proposed site is a 20-plus acre brownfield and the project could provide between 300-500 jobs. The city currently has plans to build a prison on the site.

We also built New York City’s first green and cool roof demonstration project on the tops of our offices. Cool roofs are highly reflective surfaces that don’t absorb solar heat and pass it on to the building or the atmosphere.  Green roof materials are soil and living plants. Both can be used instead of petroleum-based roofing that absorbs and radiates considerable heat, and degrades under the sun, adding to urban air pollution.

Green roofs also retain up to 75 percent of rainfall, so they reduce a city’s need to fund costly “end of pipe” solutions, which usually consist of expanded and/or new sewage treatment facilities, the majority of which are then located in communities like the South Bronx. This demonstration project is a springboard for our own green roof installation business, bringing jobs and sustainable economic activity to the South Bronx. Green is the new black!

Neither the destruction of New Orleans’ ninth ward nor the Bronx was inevitable.  But we have emerged with valuable lessons about how to lift ourselves up. We are not national symbols of urban blight or problems to be solved by empty presidential campaign promises.

Prior to Katrina, the South Bronx and New Orleans’s ninth ward had a lot in common. Both were largely populated by poor people of color.  They are both hotbeds of cultural innovation. In the post Katrina era, we have still more in common: our communities were at best ignored—and maligned and abused, by negligent regulatory agencies, pernicious zoning, and lax governmental accountability.  

Bronx Group Photo © 2006 James Burling Chase
The Bronx Now
Sustainable development can produce projects which have the potential to create positive returns for all concerned: the developers, the government, and the community. At present, that is not happening and New York City is operating with a comprehensive urban planning deficit. For example: A parade of government subsidies is going to proposed big-box and stadium developments in the South Bronx, but there is scant coordination between city agencies on how to handle the cumulative effects of the increased traffic, pollution, solid waste, and the impacts on open space.  Never mind local economic and job development that these projects could adversely affect.

What is missing from the larger debate is a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis between not fixing an unhealthy, environmentally challenged community, versus incorporating sustainable structural changes.  I am not “anti-development.” We do live in a city, not a wilderness preserve. Sustainable, community-friendly development can still be profitable for developers. I do have a problem with developments that hyper-exploit politically vulnerable communities for profit.

What We Can Do
We are all blessed with the gift of influence, if we choose to use it to collectively influence decision-makers and not fight amongst ourselves.  Use your influence in support of comprehensive sustainable change everywhere. Don’t just talk about it amongst yourselves.  We are trying to build a nationwide policy agenda. As you all know, politics are personal.
Help me fight for environmental and economic justice: support investments/developments with a triple bottom line return. Help democratize sustainability by bringing everyone to the table, and insisting that comprehensive planning be addressed everywhere.

Peace. ?

Majora Carter is a MacArthur Award recipient and director of Sustainable South Bronx


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 Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

The Greening Economy

In municipalities across the country, an unusual phenomenon is gaining momentum. It is the merger of two ideas traditionally believed to be opposites of each other—economic development and environmental protection—to create  strategies for “green economic development,” or “sustainable development.” The creation of a “sustainable economy” is an attempt to find effective solutions to our country’s dependency on fossil fuels, while simultaneously boosting local economies through job creation. Now investors and policy-makers everywhere are pleasantly surprised to discover that green economic development promotes both, environmental protection and production performance.

  Minneapolis: 20 “Clean” Megawatts, 220 Possible Jobs

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Green Institute, a non-profit organization, is leading the city towards developing community-based clean energy, thus addressing both, the supply and demand sides of the energy equation. Specifically, the Community Energy Program generates solar and biomass heat and power (supply) while concurrently promoting conservation and energy-efficiency (demand).  
The Green Institute’s Phillips Biomass Community Energy Project is employing biomass technology to achieve sustainable energy production for Minneapolis residents. The Project will use urban tree trimmings and agricultural residues to generate 20 megawatts of energy and heat—approximately one percent of the energy demand in Minneapolis. (One megawatt would supply enough energy for 1,000 homes.) The electricity will be sold to the electric grid, and the heat will be used for a Phillips-area community heating system. 

Most importantly, it is estimated that the Phillips Biomass Project will create 20 long-term, full-time jobs, half of which are likely to be filled by personnel trained at an existing apprenticeship program with a partnering community college. Additionally, nearly 200 construction jobs and other indirect jobs for wood waste generators, farmers, and those in the transport sector are forecasted. As evidence to its commitment to local economic development, the Green Institute also pledges to hire locally and pay its employees a living wage—a minimum of over $15/hour. 

Critical to the Green Institute’s success has been its ongoing partnership with city and county governments. Recognizing early the ways in which the Green Institute’s work supports their goals of reducing waste and diverting storm water into productive uses, Hennepin County provided financial support to the organization, while the city of Minneapolis granted a variance to an existing building code.

Green Economic Development 

There is no universally agreed upon definition of green economic development, but the concept usually encompases the three tenets of sustainability—environment, economy, and equity—viewed within a continuum, whereby meeting the needs of the present does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[1]  In other words, green economic development integrates economic development—tax base expansion, wealth creation, and job creation—with the values of sustainability.

The City of Toronto, Canada, states that, “green economic activity promotes healthy environments, vital economies, and social equity.” [2]  A healthy environment is brought about by lowering greenhouse gas emissions through a reduction in resource input and waste output;  a vital economy increases a city’s global competitive advantage; and social equity provides a healthy working environment, preserves and creates gainful jobs, and plans for a community’s future quality of life.

Implicit here is the idea that financial profitability and social and ecological responsibility are mutually reinforcing goals. [3]  An idea whose credibility is borne out by research that shows greater cost efficiencies and better performance in green economies.

Green economic development, as practiced across the U.S., may include: green building (the use of energy efficient technologies and recycled materials in construction); green procurement (purchasing supplies and equipment made from recycled or renewable resources); and waste reduction (devising means to recycle output streams). The Green Guide to Healthcare, for example, purports to be a toolkit for “integrating enhanced environmental and health principles and practices into the planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance of [medical] facilities.” [4]

Policy-makers have also been looking at clean technology to develop a greener, “high performance” economy.  In a 2004 report by Clean Edge produced in partnership with San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, clean technology is described as “an emerging sector that comprises a diverse range of products, services, and processes that harnesses renewable materials and energy sources, dramatically reduces the use of natural resources, and cuts or eliminates pollution and toxic wastes.” [5] It includes, but is not limited to, solar photo voltaics (PV), wind power, hybrid electric vehicles, fuel cells, bio-based materials, and advanced water filtration. The report outlines a 10-step plan for attracting new jobs and businesses into San Francisco while concurrently reducing its resource dependency. 

The Economic and Policy Outlook
In recent years, investment in clean technology industries has increased dramatically at the national and global levels, proving that environmental reasons apart, “going green” is also a sound economic strategy. 

Last year, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, announced his commitment to California’s environmental future with his Green Waves Initiative, a robust pension-backed investment program, which would channel approximately $500 million dollars into the green technology sector. A 2004 study co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), shows 29 percent ($339 million) of the North American venture capital investment in new “clean” technologies occurring in California, and projects the creation of up to 114,000 jobs in “cleantech” start-ups in the next five years. 

Recent research by the Renewable Energy Policy Project also forecasts that the state is especially poised to benefit from the expected growth in renewable energy industries. In the PV industry alone, California could gain approximately 6,800 jobs in manufacturing and 3,500 jobs in construction and installation of PV components.[6]  Similarly in the wind turbine industry, California could add nearly 13,000 new manufacturing jobs, totaling over $4.2 billion in investments.[7] Furthermore, even firms that do not currently work within these industries could incorporate PV and wind turbine development in future production, thus benefiting from these renewable, clean tech industries.

Last January, the California Public Utilities Commission, passed a $2.9 billion California Solar Initiative to create incentives for commercial and residential customers to install 3,000 megawatts of solar energy before 2017. As state and local policies like these begin to prioritize clean technologies, the demand for them will go farther and deeper and encourage greater participation in green economic development.
Evaluating the Current Definition
As green economic development gains legitimacy and momentum in the public and private sectors, it is important to assess its criteria for success and identify the true beneficiaries of green policies and practices, before the current mode of operation becomes the norm.  Specifically, to what extent are low-income, and communities of color benefiting from green economic development?  Do the policies explicitly include marginalized populations?

As currently defined, green development aims for the three goals of traditional economic development—generate revenue, create wealth, create jobs—with the additional goals of social equity and a healthy environment.  However, even the City of Toronto’s definition of social equity falls short of talking about it in individual, human terms.

Some Recommendations with a Clean Edge
The 2004 Clean Edge report for San Francisco prioritizes the creation of a vision for a clean tech future, communicated and implemented by a clean-tech manager. It emphasizes the importance of marketing San Francisco as a “ready and willing” place for clean tech industries and of creating partnerships with and providing financial incentives to business. All steps clearly useful in establishing a warm climate for launching a greener economy but obviously biased towards business rather than the community. The plan provides no assurance that job creation for residents with varied backgrounds is a key aspect of green economic development.

In recent years, attracting biotechnology firms has been a popular economic development strategy. Small and large cities alike have developed incentives for biotechnology firms to locate in their jurisdictions. Biotech jobs, however, tend to be in research and development, requiring levels of education that are bound to exclude the lower income segments of the population. Such mismatches between job opportunities and the skills of the local workforce will force residents to either travel out of the city for appropriate jobs or stay and work at low-paying jobs with no career prospects.

What sets green industries apart from biotechnology and software industries, is that they present an unique opportunity to develop a range of well-paying skilled jobs locally. In addition to manufacturing wind turbines, for example, there are installation, maintenance, and operation jobs to be had.

However, cities have to proactively encourage the development of jobs across all skill sets, in order to achieve equitable outcomes for residents.Embedded within the concept of equitable outcomes in green economic development, is the process by which such outcomes are achieved and decisions made. Full and fair participation by affected communities should be incorporated into the crafting of workfore development programs that meet the needs of all stakeholders. This is especially important as green economic development matures, otherwise the success of the strategy will be compromised. In summary, any definition of green economic development should include a commitment to social equity and make explicit its beneficiaries. To achieve the goals of equitable green economic development, policies should create incentives that not only attract new business but also create new jobs that are accessible to and evenly distributed among city residents with different skill sets.  In short, green economic development should ensure that “individuals and families in all communities can participate in and benefit from economic growth and activity” [8] and have access to quality jobs.   ?

1    World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our common future.
2    City of Toronto, Canada. The Green Economy Plan. 
3    Pamela Lippe  and Nixon, James. “Building the Sustainable Economy I” quoted in:
4    Green Guide for Health Care.
5    Ron Pernick, Joel Makower, and Arthur de Cordova.  “Harnessing San Francisco’s Clean-tech Future, A Plan for Attracting Businesses and Creating Jobs.”
6     These figures are based on the PV Industry Roadmap, which balances likely trends with industry objectives.  California is projected to have installed 9,600 MW of PV energy by 2015 from its current capacity of 340 MW.
7    Job and investment figures assumes development of 50,000 MW of wind energy.
8    Policy Link. Equitable Development.

Jackie Tsou was an HUD Community Development Fellow at Urban Habitat. She now works at Seifel Consulting Inc., analyzing economic developments for local governments and other client. 


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Richmond Turns Green with Economic Possibilities


In the early 1940s, Richmond, California, was one of the most productive ship building centers of the nation. More recently, a lack of employment opportunities, diminishing affordable housing stock, and a high crime rate experienced by segments of the city’s population have seriously impacted the entire city. Realizing that innovative approaches are needed to address these problems, the city looked to green economic development for a way to concurrently revitalize itseconomy and clean up its environment.  
In November 2003, a collaborative made up of Urban Habitat, Contra Costa Faith Works, and the Richmond Improvement Association, among others, began to look at economic development issues as one component of a larger equitable development initiative. Two years later, the city was presented with a unique opportunity to take advantage of the Green Waves Initiative, an investment program offered by the California State Treasurer’s Office, for industries in the emerging green technology sector.
Today, as Richmond approaches a new wave of development, it is faced with a truly unique opportunity to employ equitable green policies that can address the deep-rooted social ills that have impeded the city’s economic growth. And some recent government-led actions seem to signal that Richmond is on its way to becoming a greener city.'

In October 2005, Mayor Irma Anderson joined 187 mayors, representing nearly 40 million Americans, to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which seeks to meet or surpass the Kyoto Protocol in local municipalities through various strategies.  More recently, city council members have initiated efforts to adopt a green building ordinance that the Richmond Planning Department is charged with spearheading.

In February 2006, Richmond crafted a resolution (No.11-06) in collaboration with Urban Habitat, formally establishing the position that “economic opportunity, environmental integrity and societal equity are the foundation upon which sustainable cities can build a better quality of life for their residents.” The resolution detailed the elements of a sustainable community as:

Ecological Integrity: including satisfying basic human needs, such as clean air and water; protecting ecosystems and biodiversity; pollution prevention strategies%alt.

Economic Security: including local reinvestment; meaningful employment opportunities; local business ownership; job training and education.

Empowerment and Responsibility: including respect and tolerance for diverse views and values; a viable non-government sector; equal opportunity to participate in decision-making; access to government.

Social Well-Being: including a reliable local food supply; quality health housing, and educational services; creative expression through the arts; safety from crime and aggression; respect for public spaces and historic resources

Currently, Richmond is home to a number of businesses and services, which promote green practices. MBA Polymers, Inc., a plastics recycling company, won the World Economic Forum’s 2006 Technology Pioneers Award for its innovative recycling process, which can produce plastics with 95% less energy than required when using petrochemicals. CytoCulture International, Inc., an environmental biotechnology firm, specializes in bioremediation services, as well as bio-fuels manufacturing. The West Contra Costa Landfill is also employing a methane conversion process to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, these businesses have realized the benefits of locating in Richmond—abundant industrial land, a strong Bay Area market, and access to transportation infrastructure. A coordinated effort to market Richmond as a green business-friendly city would undoubtedly encourage many other businesses.




 Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

Organizing for Green Industries in Los Angeles

Oreatha Ensley1 Photo Courtesy SCOPE

"Will you sign our petition calling on the Mayor to “re-energize our communities with Green?” asks Oreatha Ensley, as she walks door to door in the South Los Angeles neighborhood where she has lived for over 38 years.

Ensley and a cadre of predominately African-American and Latino community leaders are initiating a community-led effort for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), a Los Angeles-based grassroots organization. They are collecting signatures from black, Latino, Asian, and white working class families throughout Los Angeles’ inner city neighborhoods for a petition to create a sustainable, equitable, and clean energy economy that will bring quality jobs to their communities, create a healthier and safer environment, and promote community-based land use planning and economic development. They apparently have struck a chord with the community.

The Long and Bumpy Road to Apollo
When she came to Los Angeles in pursuit of a better quality of life, Ensley already had a history of fighting for rights in the workplace and in the community. Growing up, she had participated in the Civil Rights Movement in her hometown of Moultier, Georgia; and her participation in a statewide teachers’ strike for higher wages and more teaching materials cost her first teaching job in Tampa, Florida. In 1968, Ensley migrated to Los Angeles, where she taught Biology and Physical Education and became active on educational issues. Today, Ensley represents her South Los Angeles community on the Los Angeles Apollo Alliance Steering Committee along with representatives from 20 other progressive community, environmental and labor organizations.

The Apollo Alliance is a national initiative of diverse sectors united behind a vision of shifting the nation’s energy dependency from fossil fuels to renewable and sustainable energy sources and practices. The Alliance brings together non-traditional allies—community organizations, environmental advocates, construction and electrical workers, and progressive businesses—around a shared agenda of shaping the development of a green industry to address the needs and interests of each sector.

“In South Los Angeles, disinvestment of resources and jobs has crippled the community,” says Ensley, a mother and grandmother. “I wasn’t sure what my community’s response would be to an initiative that puts jobs, training, and improving the environment together as top priority solutions to the poverty that our families experience everyday. I expected some folks to tell me that jobs are number one and cleaning our environment is just a nice wish. Instead, they told me that it’s about time we reinvest in our community, because we are slipping away further into poverty and getting sicker because of it.”

The sentiment is echoed by most inner city, working class families of South Los Angeles who have experienced over 30 years of declining manufacturing and union jobs, disinvestments, and environmental decay in their communities. As a matter of fact, it’s an economic and environmental trend that is quite familiar to poor communities of color in many American cities.

Global Thinking at Local Cost
With a redeveloped downtown designed to attract the affluent to the inner city, and an upgraded infrastructure to facilitate the movement of goods through the region Los Angeles is positioning itself in the global economy.  Meanwhile its low-income communities of color remain firmly on the sidelines. As rents and property values skyrocket, about one-third of the households in the Los Angeles area are struggling to make ends meet. One in four Latinos and African-Americans live in poverty [1], and a single parent with two children needs to earn over $45,000 to be self-sufficient.[2]

Furthermore, Latinos (66 percent) and African Americans (50 percent) are more likely to live near hazardous waste sites than whites.3 Pollution and degrading environmental conditions are contributing to high rates of asthma, cancer, diabetes, and other health problems among communities of color.In fact, globalization appears to have made some trends systemic to both, the established African-American communities like Ensley’s, and the more recent immigrant communities:

  • High-wage, long-term, union jobs being replaced by tens of thousands of new jobs offering low-wages, temporary or part-time status, and few, if any, benefits;
  • Cutbacks and roll backs of almost every major social policy or public benefit established in the last 50 years;  
  • Increasing divisions along geographic, racial, and income lines, leading to mounting conflicts among urban communities of color, and intensified battles between these communities and the predominantly white suburbs over shrinking public resources. 


Oreatha Ensley2 Photo Courtesy SCOPE

All Signals Synchronized to Green
After 13 years of grassroots organizing and policy campaigns in Los Angeles, the ground is ripe for seeding a new green regional economy. SCOPE initiated and convened the Los Angeles Apollo Alliance in February 2006, in recognition of the strategic opportunity to win larger-scale, long-lasting systemic policies that can significantly impact regional trends and conditions.

“My experience and my knowledge of history have taught me that social change comes when people from all walks of life unite and fight,” says Ensley. “No one person, organization, or constituency can do it alone. We have to build multiracial and dynamic alliances. In Los Angeles, we have been working overtime and reaching out to non-traditional partners… we believe that we can find common ground, strategize, and shape a progressive ‘green economic development’ agenda. We can share our expertise, build our collective capacity and vision, and develop the necessary political trust with one another to achieve systemic change.”

In the current political landscape, under the leadership of Mayor Villaraigosa, a liberal-leaning City Council and forward-thinking Commissioners have articulated a bold vision to make Los Angeles a national leader in the transition to a sustainable, equitable, clean energy economy. The L.A. Apollo Alliance hopes to make a substantial contribution towards this vision by organizing a new progressive majority.

“What we are trying to achieve here in Los Angeles is not just the creation of professional jobs, but a working-class solution to poverty. There are no shortcuts or mysteries to achieving this vision. A progressive political alternative is possible by involving communities most impacted by poverty… unions that represent working families in Los Angeles, organizations advocating for a healthier environment, and socially responsible business leaders,” asserts Ensley.

A Seven-tiered Approach to Greening
The LA Apollo Alliance plan is to develop and implement a Green Industry Campaign, based on the following achievements over the next three- to five-year period:

  • Citywide policies to stimulate regional demand for new and incumbent workers in the green building industry, and for the local manufacture of green building materials and services.
  • A commitment to job creation, job training, and environmental standards from the Mayor and City Council of Los Angeles.
  • Implementation of a pilot program to retrofit 100 city-owned buildings with energy and water conservation technologies.
  • Establishment of a Green Building Careers Program as a pipeline to move 2,000 residents from low-income neighborhoods to jobs in the public and private sectors.
  • Partnerships with progressive regional academic and research institutions to develop short- and long-term public policy proposals for leveraging public and private investment in job creation for low-income residents.
  • A viable investment strategy to fund building retrofits and to support the development of a skilled workforce.
  • Establishment of a Green Jobs Taskforce to develop policy recommendations for shaping a new equitable green economy.

In addition, the Los Angeles Apollo Alliance hopes to count among its members, at least 25 community-based organizations, unions, environmental advocates, and progressive businesses with a shared trust and a collective capacity to develop and win initiatives that move towards systemic change.  Also, SCOPE’s contribution hopes to build a network of 100 Neighborhood Education Teams responsible for educating and mobilizing 10,000 neighbors as part of a strategy to increase participation of low-income communities of color in the public policy-making process.

Building Strength with Numbers
In recent years, the progressive movement in Los Angeles has largely been on the defensive, constantly fighting new battles just to meet the basic needs of poor and working class communities of color. The recent legislation that undermines immigrant rights and the on-going cuts in wages and benefits by corporations are just two examples. Apollo hopes to make the progressive voice louder and harder to ignore by building strategic alliances.

Says Ensley, “When we are united in our efforts, we are stronger, and not in danger of being played off against one another.”

Also, the fact that Apollo’s anchor organization, SCOPE, has led other multi-sector alliances and successfully influenced policymaking with a grassroots agenda in the past, gives hope to this new strategic initiative. 

1    US Census Bureau, PCT15A, Census 2000 Summary File 3.
2    Pearce, Diana and Rachel Cassidy, “Overlooked & Undercounted” prepared for Wider Opportunities for Women and Californians for Family Economic Self-Sufficiency, 2003.
3    Communities for a Better Environment, “Building a Regional Voice for Environmental Justice,” September 2004.


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Greening Affordable Housing

Photo: Convenient Location, key to success; Courtesy: Victoria Transit Policy Institute

In the past, the environmental community has sometimes been criticized for not paying enough attention to the problems of the underprivileged,” says Kaid Benfield, senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Smart Growth Initiative. At the same time, “the housing community has been criticized for ignoring the environmental impacts of its projects.” But now, Benfield and others see an opportunity to address both concerns at once—with green affordable housing.

Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston University Medical Center who studies the connections between housing and health, believes the goals are inseparable. “We have to work harder at not viewing housing as a one-dimensional issue… as only green, or healthy, or affordable. We must look at green affordable housing as something possible and necessary.”  

After all, the goals of green building and affordable housing overlap to a large degree, making the latter well suited to green strategies

The Green Communities Initiative

In September 2004, the Enterprise Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, and several other corporate, financial, and nonprofit partners, launched the Green Communities Initiative, a $550 million fund to build more than 8,500 environmentally friendly affordable housing units over the next five years. The aim of the program, however, extends beyond this, explains Greg Kats of Capital E, who has been involved in the program’s development. “The intent is really to transform low-income housing so that [energy] efficient and healthy housing becomes the norm.”
Through this Initiative, the Enterprise Foundation and NRDC will work with community development corporations and homebuilders to provide grants, loans, equity, training, and technical assistance to encourage housing developers to incorporate green design into their work. The Initiative will also target federal, state, and local government agencies, and encourage states to dedicate some of their federal housing tax credits to green projects.

Current projects include:


Azotea Senior Apartments is a new construction of 60 units in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The development features 14 one- and two- story buildings containing 24 one bedroom and 36 two-bedroom apartments.  Azotea Senior Apartments will incorporate various green elements into the design and construction of the development including: passive solar gain to maximize energy efficiency; "green" non-toxic building materials such as locally produced recycled finger-jointed framing studs, recycled carpet and  tile, water-based natural paints, non-formaldehyde wheat-based plywood, and recycled cotton insulation. The site's landscape design will utilize native or drought resistant plants, shrubs, ground cover and trees.  The buildings are designed in conjunction with the landscape design to harvest rainwater from the roofs and provide irrigation to the native plantings.


New Shiloh Village is the new construction of 80 units of quality aff%altordable rental housing for very-low, low and moderate-income seniors. The location of the project, formerly a church parking lot, is in West Baltimore. The four story building will consist of 65 one-bedroom and 15 two bedroom units. The project is part of a much larger redevelopment undertaken by New Shiloh Baptist Church and will include a child care facility and the renovation of a warehouse into multi-purpose retail and office space. New Shiloh Village is designed with: energy efficient windows, water conserving plumbing fixtures, energy-saving appliances, recycling of drywall scraps, highly efficient split-system heating and air conditioning system, energy saving light fixtures, re-use of perimeter fencing, and water permeable walkways and parking areas. For more information, visit

Green Affordable Housing: The Main Considerations

Although the unique conditions of each situation determine which strategies are most appropriate, the broad considerations outlined here apply to all affordable housing: a convenient location, low initial costs, affordable operations and maintenance costs, a healthy and safe environment, and, last but not the least, the comfort and pride of the occupants.

Convenient location: If a house is not located within walking distance of amenities, including public transportation, it’s neither green nor affordable, says Jim Hackler, of the U.S. Green Building Council. “The goal is to have a home in a place that allows the family to move forward. You want it to have easy access to jobs, daycare, and continuing education—to have easy access to opportunity.”  

Finding housing and work near one another is often a challenge, and, for too many Americans, simply impossible. Commuting by automobile is expensive, what with the cost of gas, insurance, and auto maintenance. Daycare costs also go up when parents spend more time away from home. Plus, time away from home means less time with family, less time to prepare healthy meals, and less time for rest and relaxation. Long commutes also mean less time for exercise and more stress, both of which can have serious health implications.

Some mortgages are now enabling and encouraging low- and middle-income Americans to move to more convenient neighborhoods. Two such examples are Fannie Mae’s Smart Commute Initiative and the Institute for Location Efficiency. Fannie Mae—a federally funded mortgage company—reports that reducing transportation costs by half saves the average family $2,200 each year. Treating these savings as additional income enables more people to become homeowners while qualifying others for larger mortgages. The benefits of these mortgages extend beyond their recipients and encourage mixed-income neighborhoods, support local businesses, and reduce automobile use, thereby reducing energy consumption and improving air quality.

Certain communities now require new housing developments to include some affordable housing, subsidized by the developer. But such policies remain exceptions to the rule, and working class Americans are frequently priced out of the very communities they serve.

Low initial costs: Keeping construction and renovation costs low should be an imperative for any affordable housing project. In cases where government entities or nonprofit organizations subsidize construction, the occupants may not be directly affected by the initial construction cost, but higher first costs reduce the number of affordable housing units completed.

Affordable maintenance costs:
For most residents of affordable housing, purchasing a home is just the beginning. After the rent or mortgage, utility bills represent the largest housing-related expense. The inability to pay utility bills is often the reason why low-income people lose their homes and why renters are evicted.

All for Green, and Green for All
According to the Enterprise Foundation, a quarter of the people in this country face housing problems ranging from unaffordable utility bills to overcrowding to homelessness. As we try to devise solutions to this crisis, we have a great opportunity to set the standard for affordable housing in the future. By making smart green choices now, we can not only reduce costs but also achieve significant environmental benefits within typical budget constraints.

Energy efficiency: The most efficient way to lower operating costs is to reduce energy costs, which is done in part by insulating well and installing energy-efficient lighting and appliances. “We believe that one should push [for] the lowering of operating costs,” says Betsy Pettit, president of Building Science Corporation (BSC) in Westford, Massachusetts. She supports any improvement that will pay for itself through lower operating costs over five to 10 years.

Recognizing the importance of energy efficiency in affordable housing, Fannie Mae offers Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs), which allow homeowners to finance 100 percent of approved, cost-effective energy efficiency strategies—up to five percent of the total value of the home for new construction and 15 percent for renovations or upgrades. With EEMs, the projected monthly energy savings are treated as additional income, allowing borrowers to qualify for larger mortgages.

Water efficiency: Water bills can also be expensive, especially in the drier parts of the country. But for a small upfront cost, in fact sometimes for no additional cost, installing water-saving faucet aerators, showerheads, and toilets can save a tremendous volume of water. Fixing leaks also can save a lot of money. In addition, landscaping with native, drought-tolerant species and irrigating with rainwater can often eliminate the use of expensive potable water. Finally, reducing the amount of hot water used saves both water and energy.

Looking at the history of green building so far, there appears to be a tendency for it to become a rich person’s game.

But in principle, focusing on the affordability of green building can give us our best chance of creating truly sustainable living spaces for all. In fact, green design promises a spectrum of benefits to affordable housing that may prove the critical testing ground for its applicability everywhere.  ?

Jessica Boehland is the managing editor of Environmental Building News at
This article is adapted from an article first published in Environmental Building News, Volume 14, Number 3, March 2005.  Reprinted with permission.


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A Blueprint for Greener Buildings

"Green building" movement to construct offices and homes that use less energy, less water, and more environmentally-friendly materials

 Ask a group of friends to name top sources of energy waste and pollution, and odds are good that no one would answer "my house" or "the place where I work." Yet the fact is that the nation's 5 million commercial facilities and 76 million residential buildings consume more than two-fifths of all our energy. They also account for just over one-third of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions (a chief culprit in climate change), about one-half of sulfur dioxide emissions, one-quarter of nitrous oxide emissions, and one-tenth of particulate emissions (all major contributors to smog and acid rain). The current construction boom is expected to add 38 million new buildings by the end of the decade, compounding the nation's air, waste, and water quality problems. Construction and demolition already generates 136 million tons of waste annually.

Clearly, architects, builders, and their customers can play a huge role in overcoming some of our biggest environmental challenges. In the past, many have shunned environmentally conscious design and construction on the assumption that "green" buildings cost a lot more greenbacks. But in a positive development, a growing number of Americans are discovering that green buildings can yield significant cost savings over the long haul even as they help protect the environment.

As the name implies, green buildings use power and other natural resources far more efficiently and generate less pollution than buildings simply constructed to code. They also create a safer indoor environment by harnessing more natural lighting and using materials that make indoor air healthier to breathe.

"If all commercial buildings in the U.S. were as efficient as our Southern California office, the country would achieve 70 percent of its Kyoto Protocol obligation."

-- NRDC senior scientist Rob Watson

A cutting-edge example of environmentally friendly industrial design is now taking shape just west of Detroit in Dearborn, Mich., the world headquarters of Ford Motor Co. Under the leadership of its chairman, Bill Ford, the company has hired world renowned environmental architect William A. McDonough to redesign Ford's historic 600-acre Rouge complex.

The 84-year-old collection of foundries, factories, and mills was considered the epitome of world industry in the early 20th century (and inspired Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's 1932 masterpiece, "Detroit Industry"). But the Rouge's then-innovative industrial model of unloading raw materials at one end of the site, processing them in the middle, and driving new cars out the other wreaked major environmental harm over the years. The adjacent Rouge River that gave the complex its name essentially died. The soil became contaminated and the air grew fetid.

The centerpiece of the $2 billion redesign project is a new, 750,000-square-foot assembly plant -- constructed not on a sylvan "greenfield" but on one of the bleakest urban "brownfields" imaginable. In June 2003, workers completed the installation of a 10.4-acre "living roof" on the $1 billion building. Composed of drought-resistant sedum, it is the largest such roof in the world. Virtually maintenance-free, it can absorb up to 4 million gallons of rainwater annually and is part of a broader storm-water runoff management system. In addition to absorbing water and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the sedum roof produces oxygen and provides natural overhead insulation for the building, thereby reducing its energy costs. It is also expected to last twice as long as a traditional roof.

In addition to the living roof, the broader redesign effort features sunflowers and other plants throughout the grounds to rid soil of contaminants, vines to shade buildings, porous paving that filters water through underground beds of crushed stone, plant-lined "swales" to further improve stormwater management, and the planting of more than 1,000 trees. A new paint shop on the Rouge site that opened in September 2000 generates one-third less emissions from paint than the one it replaced. In the future, renewable energy sources such as fuel cells and solar arrays will augment the complex's power grid.

A $222 million package of tax breaks and incentives from local, county, and state government is helping fund the transformation. "Ford has taken a progressive stance on environmental issues and with our redevelopment of the Rouge Center we are putting our words into action," says company vice president Tim O'Brien, who is leading the project. "The roof and other environmental initiatives we're implementing are cost effective. Year after year they will save us money as well as conserve resources."

"As you look into the future, the trend will be to ask industrial sites to be cleaner and cleaner," lead architect McDonough noted in a November 2000 interview with The Detroit News. "If we meet or exceed the standards, there's less need for regulatory oversight. What we're essentially doing is converting buildings built for machines and now designing them to produce oxygen and offer a habitat for hummingbirds."

Elsewhere, environmental organizations including the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and World Resources Institute have commissioned many such green structures. For instance, in January 2004 actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Hollywood environmental activist Laurie David unveiled NRDC's new regional headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., a facility called the Redford Building, which they helped finance.

Located in a building that once housed an acupuncture school, the Redford Building uses 60 percent to 75 percent less electricity by maximizing natural light and using photo sensors to dim lamps when sunlight is bright enough to read by. It also uses 60 percent less water by filtering and disinfecting water reclaimed from rain gutters, sinks, and showers to flush toilets. Based on these and other attributes, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) awarded the building its highest possible "platinum" rating, making it the "greenest building" in America.

Meanwhile, the newly-constructed Audubon Center near downtown Los Angeles (also platinum-rated by USGBC) is the first in the city to be entirely powered by on-site solar systems -- functioning completely "off the grid." According to the Los Angeles Times, the facility also is "off the sewer system" -- using live cultures in sophisticated membranes to sanitize bathroom waste to a point of such purity that filtered water is able to percolate back into the ground.

As the Ford example shows, the green building movement is also gaining momentum beyond the nonprofit sector. Companies including Toyota, Steelcase, Herman Miller, and IBM have recently broken ground or completed construction on green buildings. For instance, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. recently completed a 624,000-square foot headquarters expansion that costs less than the average rental space Toyota previously paid to house its 2,500 sales-division employees.

The USGBC recently gave the new facility its second-highest "gold" rating for features, such as one of the largest commercial solar rooftop electric systems in North America, which is expected to provide up to 20 percent of the building's energy requirements. The building uses wood harvested from sustainable forests for construction and interior finishes as well as steel recycled from automobiles to form the building's structural beams and columns. More than 90 percent of the waste from construction and demolition is being recycled, some of it onsite as pavers in the facility's state-of-the art Xeriscape garden (see the "PPI Xeriscape Play"). Toyota's South Campus facility is furnished with recycled and recyclable carpets and work stations. Even the products used by janitors to clean the facility are non-toxic -- a benefit to the environment and for people who use them.

In addition to the private sector, states including Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, New York, and Maryland have adopted green building policies. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program provides resources on best building practices.

To promote a common set of green building standards and spur their construction, USGBC created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Established in 1993, the USGBC is comprised of 3000 organizations, including architectural and engineering firms, product developers, financial institutions, and representatives from state and local government.

The nonprofit organization established the LEED rating system in 1994 and updated its standard in 2000 and 2002 to reflect refinements in green building construction and materials. The rating system may be applied to new and existing commercial, institutional, and high-rise residential buildings based on their environmental attributes. The system is comprised of 34 criteria, or "credits," as well as seven prerequisites across six broad categories: site selection, water efficiency, energy use, materials selection, indoor air quality, and design. Building scores determine LEED's four rating levels: platinum, gold, silver, and certified.

As of 2003, approximately 100 million square feet of buildings were undergoing LEED certification, according to a recent study commissioned by California's Sustainable Building Task Force. The Golden State leads the country in the number of LEED certified buildings (140). On a project per-capita basis and project per-state domestic product basis, however, California is rivaled by states including Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington, each of which have well-established programs to encourage green construction.

Although the green building movement clearly is gaining momentum, the perception that such structures are too costly and unproven persists, according to the California task force study. To help dispel such notions, the group set out to quantify the costs and benefits of green buildings. Estimation is complicated by the fact that most green buildings are too new to deliver cost-savings data, which typically are realized over a building's 20-year average life. Another problem is that green buildings lack "controls" or non-green counterparts simply built to code, which would permit accurate cost comparison.

Such measurement challenges notwithstanding, the task force studied 33 LEED-registered projects to develop data on the costs and benefits of green construction. It concluded that while upfront green building construction costs are about 2 percent higher than buildings simply constructed to code, green buildings generate about 20 percent in savings of initial construction costs over their lifetimes. In other words, an upfront investment of $100,000 in green-building features into a $5 million dollar project would result in about $1 million worth of savings in today's dollars over the average 20-year life of the building. Most of the higher upfront cost is for the additional time architects and engineers need to design cleaner, greener building features.

Much of the savings come in the form of lower energy and water bills. But features such as improved natural lighting and cleaner indoor air also improve productivity and result in fewer lost workdays and worker's compensation claims. More important, environmentalists say, green buildings have the potential to improve the nation's energy independence.

"Operating commercial and residential buildings consumes over 40 percent of the country's energy -- twice as much as passenger cars and trucks," says NRDC senior scientist Rob Watson, a driving force behind NRDC's new Santa Monica facility.

Even more promising, perhaps, is the fact that such savings are possible today without passing a single new law or resorting to existing mandates. Although states such as New York have passed tax incentive programs to encourage green building development, the movement for the most part is voluntary -- illustrating the tremendous potential of the building sector to pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Resources For Action

Progressive Policy Institute's State Environment Exchange

U.S. Green Building Council

California Sustainable Building Task Force

"The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings: A Report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force," October 2003

California Governor's Executive Order D-16-00 establishing state sustainable building goal

Pennsylvania Governor's Green Government Council's

Ford Rouge Center Landscape Master Plan, William McDonough & Partners

"Toyota campus expansion is a showcase of green building practices," Toyota Environmental Update, March 2003

"Greener By Design: NRDC's Santa Monica Office," Natural Resources Defense Council

"Audubon Nature Center is Certified as Nation's Most Environmentally Friendly Building," National Audubon Society

Smart Communities Network, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network (EREN), A Project of the U.S. Department of Energy

Additional Reading

Miguel Bustillo, "Building on Green Principles: Los Angeles Boasts Two of the Most Ecologically Advanced Structures in the Country," Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2004


Pegi Shriver
Vice President for Marketing and Fund Development
U.S. Green Building Council
1015 18th Street, NW, Suite 805
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 82-USGBC or 828-7422, Ext: 145
(202) 828-5110 (fax) for general USGBC inquiries for LEED inquiries for membership inquiries

Uchenna Bright
Program Assistant
Natural Resources Defense Council
40 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 727-4532
(212) 727-1773 Fax

Mark Yamauchi
Facilities Operations Manager
Real Estate and Facilities
Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc.
19001 S. Western Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 468-6263

Jan Mazurek
Center for Innovation & the Environment
Progressive Policy Institute
600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE Suite 400
Washington, D.C. 20003
(202) 544-5014 (fax)

PPI Green Building Play

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Debunking False Solutions

Graphic: Detail from an ADM Brochure on Ethanol

Earlier this year, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman visited agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland’s Decatur, Illinois, headquarters to tout its part in President Bush’s Biofuels Initiative. The secretary posed for photos with then Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Chair G. Allen Andreas and announced that the Department of Energy would offer up to $160 million for the construction of three bio-refineries to expand U.S. ethanol production.

"Partnerships with industries like these will lead to new innovation and discovery that will usher in an era of reduced dependence on foreign sources of oil, while strengthening our economy at home,” Secretary Bodman said from ADM’s trade floor. Given the absence of conditions imposed by the Department of Energy, the three bio-refineries could well be partially coal-powered. ADM already operates coal-fired plants at its company base in Decatur, Illinois, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is currently adding another coal-powered facility at its Clinton, Iowa ethanol plant and planning another coal fired plant in the town of Columbus, Nebraska.


Archer Daniels Midland is the largest U.S. producer of ethanol, which it makes by distilling corn. Ironically, it turns out that ADM’s clean and green biofuels program is heavily reliant on coal-fired energy plants, one of the dirtiest forms of energy. When burned, coal emits carcinogenic pollutants and high levels of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming.  

That’s not all. “[Ethanol] plants themselves—not even the part producing the energy—produce a lot of air pollution,” says Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network. “The EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has cracked down in recent years on a lot of Midwestern ethanol plants for excessive levels of carbon monoxide, methanol, toluene, and volatile organic compounds, some of which are known to cause cancer.”

Given all the energy inputs needed to make it, latest estimates show that corn-based ethanol reduces green house gas emissions by only 13 percent compared to conventional gasoline.

A single ADM corn processing plant in Clinton, Iowa, generated nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds in 2004, according to federal records. The EPA considers an ethanol plant as a “major source” of pollution if it produces more than 100 tons of any one pollutant per year, although it has recently proposed increasing that cap to 250 tons.

Sulfur dioxide is classified by the EPA as a contributor to respiratory and heart disease and the generation of acid rain. Nitrogen oxides produce ozone and a wide variety of toxic chemicals as well as contributing to global warming, according to the EPA, while many volatile organic compounds are cancer-causing. Last year, Environmental Defense, a national environmental group, ranked the Clinton plant as the 26th largest emitter of carcinogenic compounds in the U.S.

For years, ADM promoted itself as the “supermarket to the world” on major U.S. radio and television networks like NPR, CBS, NBC, and PBS, where it underwrites influential programs such as the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Now, as it actively promotes its ethanol business forays, ADM has rolled out its new eco-friendly slogan, “Resourceful by Nature,” which “reinforces our role as an essential link between farmers and consumers.”

Despite the company’s attempts at green packaging, ADM is ranked as the tenth worst corporate air polluter, on the “Toxic 100” list of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts. The Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency have charged the company with violations of the Clean Air Act in hundreds of processing units, covering 52 plants in 16 states. In 2003, the two agencies reached a $351 million settlement with the company. Three years earlier, ADM was fined $1.5 million by the Department of Justice and $1.1 million by the State of Illinois for pollution related to ethanol production and distribution. Currently, the corporation is involved in approximately 25 federal and state administrative and judicial proceedings regarding the environmental clean-up of sites contaminated by ADM operations.

Friends in High Places
Environmentalists have cried foul, but they are up against the 56th largest company in the United States, as ranked by revenue in Fortune Magazine. ADM has more than 25,000 employees, netted sales last year of $35.9 billion, with $1 billion in profits, as well as a recent 29 percent profit increase in the last quarter.

ADM has another resource at its disposal: the considerable clout it has built up over decades of courting and lobbying Washington’s power brokers. Despite a history of price fixing scandals and monopolistic misdeeds, the Andreas family, which has headed up the publicly-traded company for decades, has cultivated bipartisan support through generous donations to both Republicans and Democrats. Since the 2000 election cycle, ADM has given more than $3 million in political contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics: $1.2 million to Democrats and $1.85 million to Republicans. These donations may have helped sustain a multitude of government subsidies to ADM, including ethanol tax credits, tariffs against foreign ethanol competitors, and federally mandated ethanol additive standards.

Recent legislation has further greased the tracks of the ethanol gravy train. The Energy Policy Act of 2005’s Renewable Fuel Standard stipulates that gasoline sold in the US must include a certain percentage of ethanol or biodiesel, starting at four billion gallons this year and rising to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. ADM got another boost when the federal government mandated that oil companies replace MTBE, a cancer-causing gasoline additive, with ethanol. Forty-five states have adopted policies to encourage the production and use of the fuel. ADM has responded with plans to increase its output of ethanol by 42 percent over the next three years.

When Corn is King
Subsidies and tax incentives might make public policy sense even when they flow into the coffers of a Fortune 500 company with mega-profits but only if corn ethanol delivers on the promise that its boosters claim: to significantly cut greenhouse emissions, protect the environment, and slow global warming.

Debate has raged for years over whether ethanol made from corn generates more energy than the amount of fossil fuel that is used to produce it. UC Berkeley’s Alexander Farrell recently co-authored a comprehensive study, published in Science, on the energy and greenhouse gas output of various sources of ethanol. His group found that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gases by only 13 percent, which compares unfavorably with ethanol made from vegetable cellulose, such as switch grass.

Yet the enormous amounts of corn that ADM and other ethanol processors buy from Midwestern farmers wreak damage on the environment in numerous ways. Modern corn hybrids require more nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides than any other crop, while causing the most extensive erosion of top soil. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from the vast expanses of corn in the U.S. prairies bleed into groundwater and rivers as far as the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen runoff flowing into the Mississippi River has fostered a vast bloom of dead algae in the Gulf that starves fish and other aquatic life of oxygen.

The hidden costs of corn-based ethanol thus include “the huge, monstrous costs of cleaning up polluted water in the Mississippi River drainage basin and also trying to remedy the negative effects of poisoning the Gulf of Mexico,” says Tad Patzek of the University of California’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department.

“These are not abstract environmental effects,” Patzek asserts, “these are effects that impact the drinking water all over the Corn Belt, that impact also the poison that people ingest when they eat their food, from the various pesticides and herbicides.” Corn farming substantially tops all crops in total application of pesticides according to the US Department of Agriculture, and is the crop most likely to leach pesticides into drinking water.

Atrazine, a carcinogenic herbicide used primarily in cornfields has been banned by the European Union but the US Geological Survey has found midwestern streams to contain atrazine upto 224 parts per billion and about 2,300 parts per billion in Corn Belt irrigation reservoirs—well over the EPA’s three parts-per-billion as the maximum safe level for this carcinogen.

Then there is the question of how practical it is to replace petroleum with corn-based ethanol. “There are conflicting figures on how much land would be needed to meet all of our petroleum demand from ethanol,” says Energy Justice Network’s Ewall, “and those range from some portion of what we currently have as available crop land to as much as five times as the amount of crop land in the US.”

“No one who’s looked at this issue [from an environmental perspective] talks about using corn kernels as the only, or even major component, of the long term solution,” counters Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Everyone assumes we’ll evolve the industry from its current technology to the advanced technologies.”

If they do move away from corn, it will be a marked reversal of many decades of government policy, in support of Archer Daniels Midland and the company may well wonder what it’s getting for its unceasingly ample gifts to both political parties. But with the “full-throated support of the Bush Administration,” in the words of the Renewable Fuels Association, a corn ethanol-dominated, ADM-led trade group, that day doesn’t seem to be approaching any time soon.  ?

Sasha Lilley is a writer for CorpWatch and producer of the program, Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.
This story was first published on


 Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

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The hidden costs of corn-based ethanol thus include cleaning up polluted water in the Mississippi River drainage basin and the poisoning the Gulf of Mexico.