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Workshop Explores Opportunities in the Green Economy

By Eddy Ball
November 2008

Wilson praised the attendees for thinking "outside the box," and closed by telling the audience, "I applaud you for stepping up to the plate." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

During his talk, Foster laid out the challenges of worker education in a green economy - to increase the number of safe, living-wage, career-track jobs that contribute directly to preserving or enhancing environmental quality. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

J. Phillip Thompson
J. Phillip Thompson, MIT associate professor of urban politics and community development, and other speakers pointed to urban degradation, gentrification, environmental injustice and other failed energy policies as some of the problems the green economy can help address. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Warner gestured as he made a point about the current science education model. "Education in the sciences is broken," he said, "and we need to fix it." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Donald Elisburg
NIEHS National Clearinghouse Specialist Donald Elisburg, standing, took his conversation with Donele Wilkins of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice offline, following her plenary session talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Pinderhughes discussed her Green Collar Job Training and Placement Model, which emphasizes the "soft" skills involved in getting and keeping jobs as well as the "hard" skills essential for the actual work performed. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

From the manufacture of rain barrels to the retrofitting of older homes, the emerging green economy promises to have a fundamental impact on the way people will work and live in the future. That's the message attendees heard in one form or another throughout the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) Fall Awardee Meeting and Technical Workshop held October 15-17 at the Chapel Hill Sheraton Hotel.

Chaired by WETP Director Chip Hughes, the meeting was organized around the theme "Implications for Safety and Health Training in a Green Economy." The event featured two keynote talks, four plenary sessions and concurrent breakout sessions exploring the environmental, economic, social and philosophical dimensions of what many in the audience clearly envision as a revolution poised to happen. Background papers and other materials are available online at the WETP events page.

The meeting opened with a welcome from Hughes and an overview presented by NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D. Wilson, who described himself as a "big fan" of worker education and training, pointed to the prominent role of WETP in the NIEHS "rainbow" that spans its mission from basic research to the translation of findings onto the streets and into the workplaces of America.

Delivering the keynote talk on October 16 was Dave Foster, retired director of the United Steel Workers District 11 and currently executive director of the Blue-Green Alliance, a cooperative effort by environmentalists and labor to promote investment in the green economy. The Alliance, Foster explained, calls for spending $100 billion to create two million new jobs.

That investment could reduce unemployment to 4.4 percent, Foster continued, while also putting in place effective, energy efficient global warming solutions. "We have to construct a new economy," Foster urged, one that will redefine social values, promote environmental justice and strengthen the domestic economy.

Along with its obvious implications for education and training, vocation and lifestyle, several speakers in the plenary sessions observed, the green economy will also lead to a change in the mindset chemists, engineers and other scientists will bring to their work in the future.

John Warner, Ph.D., former chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry ( Exit NIEHS, was the first of several speakers who called for fundamental changes in science education and the invention/design process. Everyone, from the bench scientist to the worker on the job, needs to approach life and work with "new eyes and new ideas," he argued, and a clearer understanding of the implications in terms of environmental impact and social justice.

Warner, who co-authored the twelve principles of green chemistry ( Exit NIEHS, was followed by Terrence Collins, Ph.D., director for the Institute for Green Science ( Exit NIEHS at Carnegie Mellon University, and Collins' former student, Evan Beach, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. Beach described examples of green engineering, such as new adhesive tape that mimics the biology of the gecko, and gave an overview of the twelve principles of green engineering ( Exit NIEHS that are taking his field well beyond traditional concerns with form, function and profitability at any environmental cost.

The other 14 plenary and breakout session speakers took the green economy back to shop floors, urban neighborhoods and classrooms where structural changes are already well underway. The keynote speaker on October 17, San Francisco State University Professor of Urban Studies Raquel Pinderhughes ( Exit NIEHS, explored the potential impact the green economy can have on addressing social and racial inequality, as outlined in her recent study.

Because green-collar jobs have relatively low barriers to entry and typically offer on-the-job training, Pinderhughes explained, they provide an excellent opportunity for creating dignified and meaningful work for the people who are the hardest to employ. "We're really building a social movement," she concluded, one that can lead to pervasive socioeconomic changes to reverse generations of disenfranchisement and injustice.

Sharon Beard
WETP Administrator and Industrial Hygienist Sharon Beard, left, shown talking with workshop attendee Alexander Prentzas of OAI, Inc., moderated the plenary session on "Environmental Justice and Good/Green Jobs for All." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In his closing remarks, Hughes observed, "We've latched onto something that I think can carry us into the next decade," with the challenge of integrating the needs of the green economy into the WETP. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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