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Sierra magazine
Create | The Politics of Tomorrow

The Ecology of Success
Serendipity is nice, but real progress takes planning

By Carl Pope

Last December, citing the loss of its line of credit, Republic Windows and Doors shut down its Chicago factory with only three days' notice and opened a new, nonunion plant in Red Oak, Iowa. The Chicago workers, denied vacation and severance pay and protesting the lack of the federally required 60 days' notice for a mass layoff, staged a sit-in at the plant. With the help of their union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, they eventually got their back pay, but were still out of work.

Around that time, my friend Robin Roy came to see me, excited about his new job with a company called Serious Materials, which makes superinsulated windows. He explained how his company's new technology makes it cost-effective for people in extreme climates to replace inefficient windows. "You're a small company," I said. "How will you get to scale?" He gave me a very un-Silicon Valley answer: "We're buying up window manufacturers that are going out of business." So I told him about Republic Windows and its union. Shortly after President Barack Obama signed his economic recovery package into law, I picked up the newspaper and was delighted to discover that my matchmaking had paid off. Serious Materials had reached out to the workers at Republic Windows, their union, and the bankruptcy court and had bought the factory. It expects to eventually rehire all the laid-off workers at full pay. (Meanwhile, the nonunion plant in Iowa was shut down.)

I checked in with Robin, who credited the outcome to the energy-efficiency measures in Obama's stimulus package. "It will allow us to expand our planned operations and hire more rapidly," he said. "This will bring jobs not just at the factory but also in installation and upstream supplies." The Serious Materials saga is a textbook lesson in sustainable development: Innovative technology combined with effective government action generates clean-energy jobs—while also shrinking utility bills and cooling the climate.

The deal was, however, mostly a matter of serendipity. A similar story from Minneapolis--St. Paul shows that to really get the clean-energy economy going, we need to plan. Three years ago, members of the Blue Green Alliance — partnership between the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers — sat down with the Twin Cities' mayors to create a task force to identify clean-manufacturing job opportunities. The task force conducted a study to determine the most promising possibilities, identify funding sources and markets, and anticipate potential pitfalls.

The result was that this winter, when Obama's economic recovery program was launched, the Twin Cities had more "shovel ready" projects than the program could fund. Among the intriguing proposals were installing energy-efficient lighting in public parking garages, retrofitting multifamily housing with efficient appliances, investing in factories to manufacture advanced batteries, and saving nearly 500 union jobs at the RockTenn paper-recycling mill by converting the plant to biogas power.

While both the Serious Materials expansion and the Twin Cities plans make wonderful economic sense, neither automatically happened because of markets. One key ingredient was an activist government, here in the form of the Obama stimulus plan. (Large amounts of federal money are by no means a sufficient condition, and in fact in other locations the stimulus funds are being misspent. The Sierra Club has sued, for instance, to stop Texas from wasting millions of stimulus dollars on the sprawl-inducing Grand Parkway.) But it also took the cooperation of people who wanted to build a clean-energy economy.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes an "ecology of success" — conditions that allow talented people to prosper. This notion applies to social movements as well. In 2006, the Sierra Club committed itself to figuring out how a grassroots organization could do more to deal with carbon pollution. We provided the committed activists, who went out and built relationships with community leaders, unions, businesses, and a new administration. That shifted the social ecology, and now we are beginning to reap our success.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. E-mail

Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.



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