Fine print - September 2011

Green-hued monster
By G.D. Gearino

Because I’m a man prone to hopeless causes — that’s what growing up an Atlanta Falcons fan will do for you — I have oodles of sympathy for people who place their faith in the idea of a “green” economy. They’re tilting at windmills,bless their hearts, but I appreciate the instinct. Where would the world be without optimists?

The problem is there’s no such thing as a green economy, which is to say an economy “that produces goods and services with an environmental benefit,” as the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, recently defined it. Why do I think there’s no such thing? Because the Brookings gang says so. “Not only do ‘green’ or ‘clean’ activities and jobs related to environmental aims pervade all sectors of the U.S. economy; they also remain tricky to define and isolate — and count. The clean economy has remained elusive in part because, in the absence of standard definitions and data, strikingly little is known about its nature, size and growth at the critical regional level.” In short, parts of the economy have a greenish hue, but there’s no identifiable green economy.

The green economy isn’t elusive because there’s no definition and data. It’s elusive (or, more accurately, vaporous) because green isn’t a description so much as it is a value judgment. The auto industry, for instance, is a tangible, recognizable market sector. The green economy is ... well, whatever you want it to be. It’s a hope, a dream, a panacea or an ideal. Brookings calls it an “aspiration,” and when the think tank unveiled its state-by-state, city-by-city analysis of where green jobs can be found, North Carolina ranked right up there. We’re good, it seems, at peddling vapor.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound ill-tempered. But the stickler in me gets surly when a respectable policy center declares that the green economy can’t be defined, measured and quantified and then does all three.

A trio of North Carolina cities figured prominently in the Brookings’ ranking of the top 100 metro areas for green jobs: Raleigh came in at No. 30, Charlotte at No. 33 and Greensboro at No. 76. The response from each local newspaper was appropriate to its city’s place in the pecking order. The News & Observer in Raleigh, for instance, happily boasted that Brookings had declared the Triangle to be “the nation’s second-fastest growing region for green jobs.” But the Greensboro News & Record’s disappointment was unmistakable: “Greensboro may not be as green as its name suggests, at least when it comes to creating clean-economy jobs.”

Let me salve Greensboro’s municipal pride and deflate Raleigh’s. First, there’s a reason why the top five cities in the ranking include New York City and Los Angeles, while the bottom five include McAllen, Texas, and Ogden, Utah. The bigger the population the more green jobs. Consider that Miami is No. 19 on the list while Fort Myers, Fla., about 150 miles away, is No. 96. According to Brookings, 1.1% of the jobs in both cities are green. It’s just that Miami’s 1.1% is bigger than Fort Myers’ 1.1%. It’s similar to the relationship between Greensboro and Charlotte. The percentage of green jobs in both places is close — 1.9% for Charlotte, 1.7% for Greensboro. But Charlotte, of course, is way bigger.

Even Brookings’ sense of what constitutes a green job is puzzling. It singles out the nuclear-power operations of both Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp. and Raleigh-based Progress Energy Inc. as notably green. Sure, nuclear power is largely free of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. But it seems odd to label any job that results in the creation of highly radioactive and potentially deadly waste that takes centuries to break down as “green.”

Odder still is the category of green jobs that helps Raleigh rank high on the list and propelled Washington, D.C., to fourth place: “regulation and compliance.” That refers, of course, to bureaucrats (or, as Brookings calls them, “clean jobs in the public sector”). Thus, we have the perfect coupling of absurdities — the people who produce deadly radioactive waste and the people who give that process the regulatory seal of approval are considered to be awash with green-ness.

If this doesn’t make you understand that any conversation about the green economy is simply an extended exercise in value judgments, let’s ponder a theoretical situation. A few weeks ago, I attended a baseball game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where I noticed a charmingly old-fashioned thing. The outfield scoreboard is operated by somebody who sits in an enclosed space behind the wall and manually replaces the numbers at the conclusion of every half-inning. That’s the very essence of a green job. Not a single watt of electricity is expended to operate the scoreboard. Also in Durham is the headquarters of Cree Inc., which makes light-emitting diodes and is considered an example of the green businesses North Carolina should nurture. LEDs can be used in scoreboards, which raises an interesting question: If the Durham Bulls fired the guy behind the wall and replaced him with an electronic scoreboard made with Cree components, would the environment be well-served? I wonder how Brookings would umpire that call.