Thursday, June 6, 2013

Jobs and the environment in Maine: finding common ground and promoting alternatives to extraction

Last month, Lance Tapley of the Portland (ME) Phoenix wrote a feature entitled "Maine's environmental movement reinvents inself for a new era of challenges." This story slipped under our radar, but it's worth reading, since the challenges Tapley details are very much ongoing and tied to globalization and the multinational corporatist view that Maine, like other not-terribly-wealthy, not-terribly-developed locations, is just a hodgepodge of commodities waiting to be mined, cut, pumped, packaged, and sold, via privately-operated, publicly-funded infrastructure.

The whole article can be found here, but here's an excerpt, featuring Chris Buchanan, organizer for our Defending Water in Maine campaign. If your community or city has ever had to swallow an unwholesome economic project because "it will create jobs," you'll be glad to find out that more and more people are discussing just what kind of jobs they want to create, and whether big-budget, high-impact, environmentally-damaging, resource-extracting, and Wall Street-enriching development is going to provide them.

A big contribution of the new people in the environment movement is their talk about the need for economic alternatives to the big threats. In the history of Maine environmentalism, this is an uncommon conversation — as a rule, the fight has been reactive.

The discussion has arisen because almost all development plans rely on a single argument: jobs — a forceful one in a poor state.

To be sure, environmentalists have long spoken about how Maine's tourism industry will be protected by preservation of the environment — an argument freshly made by Thanks But No Tank. And they propose economic alternatives such as less-environmentally-damaging energy sources —decentralized solar, wind, tidal, and small hydro —as a counter to nuclear, coal, oil, and giant dams.

Those suggestions, however, are neither comprehensive responses to Maine's general lack of good jobs nor specific alternatives to many job-promising industrial proposals.

But now Chris Buchanan, the statewide coordinator of Stop the East-West Corridor, is promoting local cooperatives, putting "workers and the environment first rather than the bottom line." She cites historical models — Franklin D. Roosevelt's rural electrical cooperatives created in the Great Depression — as well as current ones — the ubiquitous credit unions; Fedco, the Maine garden-supply co-op; and, in Spain, the Mondragon corporation, a co-op federation that has been a mainstay, she says, of that country's economy throughout its current crisis.

Recently, at an anti-East-West-corridor meeting that saw 60 people attend in the tiny village of Parkman, in Piscataquis County, the cooperatives idea was a central topic and, she and others say, was well received. This type of business "does well because workers are happy and motivated," Buchanan says. Usually, workers own the cooperatives.

The economic-alternatives conversation is spreading. Charles Fitzgerald, a successful businessman, talks about local, "agrarian" economic development. He mentions small farmers and a cheese-maker in his area.

Still, there's no real economic plan articulated by the anti-highway folk — or by others in the grass roots. "Nothing concrete yet," Jim Freeman says. Buchanan admits the cooperative idea requires a lot of public education.

Especially, there's no alternative to corporate plans for Maine's vast forest, its largest resource, which figures in many environmental battles and is owned by large, distant corporations — increasingly, by Wall Street investment firms with a hunger for immediate profits.

The last time Maine environmentalists took a big step toward an economic alternative for the forest was the Ban Clearcutting citizen-initiated referendum campaign of the 1990s, which Jonathan Carter directed. If industrial clearcutting were banned, labor-intensive forestry would have to be practiced.
Although the ban was highly popular at the start of the battle, it was beaten down by millions of dollars of fear-inducing advertising by the forest industry (about, of course, jobs). Most Maine politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans — and even the NRCM and Maine Audubon — didn't support the ban (though the Sierra Club did). (Disclosure: the author was involved in the Ban Clearcutting campaign.)

The clearcutting battle demonstrated how, when public fears are raised about jobs — or when more jobs are promised — Democratic politicians are not certain votes for the environment.

There were some Democratic votes last year for relaxing the mining law and for the public funding, to the tune of $300,000, of a Maine Department of Transportation study of the East-West Highway's feasibility, even though Cianbro's Vigue had alleged the highway-corridor was to be created only with private funds.

Until there are well-thought-out and clearly articulated alternative economic plans for Maine's future, however — and perhaps some appealing politicians enunciating them—the environmental movement will always be, fundamentally, playing defense.

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