Economics on a Human Scale
by David R. Brower

Charles Hurwitz is one of America's most notorious corporate raiders. He not only clearcuts California's ancient redwoods, but also locked out 2,900 steelworkers when he became the owner of Kaiser Aluminum--the largest lock-out in US labor history.

In March 1999, the locked-out steelworkers from Kaiser Aluminum came to the annual Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon to meet with the long haired members of the Maxxam Fan Club. We all came away from the meeting with a vision that went far beyond merely joining forces against the worst corporate villain in recent memory: Our mission is to tear down the corporate-driven myth that jobs and a healthy environment don't mix.

A Maxxam spokesman called our alliance "an extraordinary marriage of convenience" and asked how members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) could work with "radical eco-terrorists whose mission is to destroy jobs, not preserve them."

This is the wedge that large corporations have successfully driven between labor unions and environmentalists for too long. It has allowed corporations and their government bedpartners to divide and conquer by shipping jobs overseas and blaming the environmentalists.

Our new Alliance for Sustainable Jobs will put an end to this false division by placing workers and environmentalists on the same page, working toward common goals. The Alliance allows me to dream again of a world where we do more than merely slow the rate at which unions crumble and species vanish.

We've allowed ourselves to be divided because we lacked the vision that we can have it all: meaningful, well-paid jobs and a beautiful, healthy planet to live on. I`ve accepted the challenge from USWA Region 11 Director David Foster to "make sustainable jobs a product of environmental protection" and I have a few ideas for how to make this happen.

You can steal my ideas if you like because, at age 88, I can't count on being around long enough to make sure they get done. Remember the words of Johann von Goethe: "Whatever you can do or dream, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

It takes boldness to challenge the largest corporations in the world-- along with their law-making body, the World Trade Organization--to include democracy, human rights, and environmental protection in their trade negotiations.

This is exactly what the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs is up to. We can make sure the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle mark the last gasp of the old profit-at-any-cost mentality.

The first Industrial Revolution introduced the notion of labor productivity, which means getting more and more work out of fewer and fewer people. This led to the formation of labor unions to protect workers who were doing more and more work for less and less pay

Since then, we have seen a roughly 200-fold increase in labor productivity, bur the resulting prosperity has come at the expense of workers and the natural world. Isaiah may have had this kind of economic growth in mind when he declared, "Thou hast multiplied the nation, but not increased the joy."

A guidebook to the necessary new thinking on jobs and the environment, entitled Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, has been published by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins. Natural capitalism recognizes that, with six billion people and counting, we are no longer short of labor. Instead, what the second Industrial Revolution needs is improved resource productivity: We need to get more and more value out of fewer and fewer natural resources.

In other words, we must stop downsizing our workforce and start downsizing our impact on the planet--while still making a profit (if you like that sort of thing).

The book urges old-style corporations to change before they are left behind by the growing numbers of new, sustainable businesses that are now making profits while making environmental sense.

By strengthening the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs, we can help hasten this shift and create the sustainable jobs of the future. A specific area where the Alliance can make a difference is in ending our war against the atmosphere.

In the early part of this century the automobile industry--specifically General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tires--bought up municipal railroads and dismantled them to eliminate competition. (They were eventually found guilty of this and fined a collective $5,000.) Without these mass-transit alternatives, Americans began to use automobiles, gasoline, and tires as never before.

Giving people an opportunity to rediscover rail can spare us future sprawl and gridlock, and return us to the days that I am old enough to recall--when air was still worth breathing.

Modern train technology operates with speed and versatility in Europe and Japan. The essential train experience of being able to write, sleep, drink, and walk while traveling remains almost unknown in the US.

What will it take to rebuild rail? A lot of steel and a lot of steelworkers, for one thing. We must move in the direction of creating these jobs that will actually help make the world a more livable place for our children. If the corporate mindset does not allow for such thinking, then our first job will be to change some minds.

Paul Hawken has said that we need to "redesign everything" in light of what we are coming to know about the threats to the natural world and human health. This will take a lot of work--and it will create meaningful, sustainable jobs for many years to come. It will also be fun.

What are you ready to redesign? As the wise cartoon possum Pogo once said, "We are confronted by insurmountable opportunities." In my mountain climbing days, any peak declared "insurmountable" was climbed within the same year.

David R. Brower, the founder of Earth Island Institute, is au living icon of the environmental movement whose credits are too numerous to list. [David Brower passed over to the other side November 5, 2000.]

© Earth Island Journal, Winter 2000-2001