Forget Greening the TPP – The Environment Needs Industrial Policy

Over the years, I’ve come to see two different and seemingly contradictory movements as both vitally important to America’s future: the environmental movement, and the movement to bring jobs back to America and prevent large swaths of the country from turning into Detroit, Camden, Gary, and Youngstown, through a kind of industrial policy revival. The complication is that this requires the return of manufacturing and heavy industry, and these are, of course, among the dirtiest, most polluting sectors of the economy.

In fact, one of the appeals of deindustrialization was that industry caused excessive pollution (though this was hardly the only or even the major appeal, at least to the corporate world). And there’s no question that countries with very large industrial sectors face higher levels of environmental degradation. Just look at China, where a clear blue sky is a major event in the big manufacturing cities.

However, there’s a way to reconcile these two movements: probing the enormous environmental, economic, and social costs of deindustrialization.

The costs and benefits usually considered in the decision to outsource our jobs and industries are only the most obvious and immediate ones: differences in labor costs, taxes, and regulation, mainly, as well as transportation and shipping costs. But for society as opposed to corporations, the calculation is much more complex, and for that reason, is rarely made at all. Are the demolition costs for 40,000 derelict houses in Detroit factored in? The strain on the welfare system and on local communities caused by chronic unemployment, drug abuse, and alcoholism? The cultural losses as entire neighborhoods, complete with their churches and civic institutions, sink into the ground? The costs of the crime which fills in the vacuum of postindustrial landscapes?

And what about the fact that the old industrial cities have already been built and have long since paid their “environmental debt”? Since the total population of the country is not decreasing, new housing must replace many of the old demolished homes. There is a triple cost here: the energy expended in the demolitions, the waste of the previously existing resources and infrastructure, and the resources used in the new construction. The economic, environmental, and social costs of deindustrialization are all tied together – and reversing the trend would reduce all three.
Of course, there is still the concern about the environmental cost of traditional heavy industry and manufacturing. But if anything, the pollution associated with this work will be less in the United States than in China or other developing nations, where environmental standards are much lower. That does mean more expensive consumer goods – but this is hardly a fatal critique, given the broader social and environmental gains, and, frankly, the fact that most of us should be consuming less anyway (the sting of lower consumption can be offset by the improvement in quality of life and in the ownership of fewer, but higher quality consumer goods made in the United States).

We will preserve the culture, infrastructure, and social fabric of countless communities, and the jobs, though dirtier than retail or tech jobs, will be done somewhere on the planet regardless, and cleaner here than almost anywhere else.

In short, there is a strong environmental case to be made for a renewal of pro-manufacturing industrial policy. Admittedly, there is little political support for this; the last time that the free trade paradigm was seriously questioned was during the WTO riots in Seattle, the current debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership notwithstanding. Since then, neither dominant party has given more than lip service to these concerns (and often not even that).

My suggestion is that the environmental movement, which has significant political influence and public support, should more closely ally itself with the movement to restore America’s industrial base and working class. Environmentalists are already important opponents of dangerous “free trade” deals which undermine national sovereignty and increase corporate power – like that very Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is a short distance from this current position to actively calling for a return of industry to America.

It would mean more decent blue-collar jobs, less global pollution, and fewer decaying homes and lost neighborhoods. Whatever the costs may be, I’m willing to bet they’re worth bearing, and that they will be outweighed by the benefits. I hope that America and its politicians will have the will and courage to find out.

Written by Addison Del Mastro, a media and communications intern at the WorldWatch Institute