Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of Earth Day, and to mark the occasion President Obama was in Newton, Iowa, to speak about clean energy. Newton is one of those towns where most of the residents are employed by one major employer, and until October 2007, that employer was Maytag. So when Whirlpool bought Maytag and shut down the Newton plant, over 12% of Newton’s 16,000 residents lost their jobs. If you didn’t lose a job, your husband, sister, or neighbor surely did.
But now Newton’s a shining example of what’s possible. Instead of dishwashers and washing machines, the people of Newton are making wind turbines. That’s why President Obama chose Newton and Trinity Structural Towers to argue that “the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”
But towns like Newton aren’t just losing jobs, they are losing talent too. Young people have been hit hard by this recession. According to the Education and Labor Committee, of the 1.2 million jobs lost last year, 60 percent were held by workers under the age of 25. Mobile and in search of opportunity they are moving to bigger cities and mega regions that promise greater opportunity. Iowa, in particular, has been hurt by this “brain drain,” losing more college graduates than any other state in the country.
So while we replace dishwashers with wind turbines, and re-open empty auto manufacturing plants with solar manufacturing facilities, let’s also work to build truly whole communities. The communities that define themselves by one industry or one employer will be increasingly at risk. A healthy, 21st century economy demands that we become increasingly self-sufficient in the resources we use—the food we grow, the water and energy we consume, and the products we build. Revitalizing local living economies can create jobs, conserve energy, and keep young talent in the community.