We are now used to hearing about the greening of the economy. In principle, we would imagine green collar jobs would include local organic farmers, sustainable loggers, and others working closely with the land along with its cadre of workers in the green building and development, renewable energy, and transportation fields. But recently, these latter categories are dominating our sense of green collar jobs. They are the beneficiaries of venture investment and government subsidies. These are laudatory efforts, but we put ourselves and the planet in peril when we forget those who supply our basic needs in an ecological way.
This bifurcation in the green economy movement between technologists and land workers is both obvious and easily overlooked. Krupp and Horn’s “Earth: The Sequel” enumerates the millions of dollars Silicon Valley is pouring into its new favorite industry – renewable energy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill) provides billions of dollars for renewable energy investment, rail and mass transit projects, weatherizing homes, and other energy and infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, farmers are losing their land or forced to become as industrialized as possible. Not surprisingly, the tailspin of rural communities, beginning decades before our current economic troubles, has not ceased. Indeed, many local organic farmers must find a niche or produce value-added products in order to survive.
We urban and suburban folks hear very little about who is investing in and helping those who work closely with the land. The fact is renewable energy has more market potential than tomatoes. Venture capitalists will never throw money at small organic farmers. Fine, but if we have learned nothing else, it is that normal market principles are not so compatible with healthy, local, organic food. Even if we are on our way to recognizing this, our attention to the glamour of technologists and large investments reinforces our tendency to overlook the essential services and land-based knowledge of country folks.
Renewable energy technology is undoubtedly essential, but most would agree food is important too. And since growing food will always be around, making it as sustainable as possible is also important. This is not just because we need to eat, but also because farms and forests are an intersection of many of our environmental problems. It is in these locales that we can begin to restore ecosystems. This should matter to anyone who is concerned about environmental degradation, thriving rural areas, and human health. Industrial organic agriculture, for all its merits, still falls short of our vision for a healthy and sustainable food supply. But local organic farmers improve soil, water, and air quality. They promote wildlife and ecosystem integrity, which is responsible for invaluable ecosystem services that we depend on. They help create and maintain local economies and communities. They provide scenic and recreational opportunities.
With benefits such as these, those who work close to the land deserve more of our attention and resources. There are economic and non-economic ways of correcting the focus of the green economy movement. Economically, we can use our buying power. It sounds sentimental to patronize sustainable agriculture and forestry. But the point is that we can choose the economics of care, which is healthier for everyone and everything involved, over the economics of growth. This would give much needed clout to the forgotten farmers. Beyond economics, there are conservation and planning measures that we, as citizens, can take to preserve our rural lands and promote healthy farming. The American Farmland Trust is a national non-profit dedicated to this cause, and in the DCmetro area, we have the Piedmont Environmental Council. There are also state conservation programs and county planning boards which need citizen response. By getting involved in these ways we can avoid the risk, so often taken in the past, to overlook the humble and irreplaceable sectors of our economy.