UPDATE: Thousands more people are now being employed in the “restoration economy” to clean up the oil spill. Jobs are just one more reason why we need a national effort to restore the Gulf ecosystem.

There’s a new economy springing up around the country — but it’s operating almost entirely in secret. It’s called “the restoration economy” and it’s remaking America’s landscape while putting millions of people to work.

This economy is devoted to restoring what’s been lost: degraded forests, watersheds, oceans, cities, communities, buildings, transit — and it’s the product of a major turning point in our history that’s been almost entirely missed by the press and politicians.

I recently had the opportunity to learn about this stealth green economy when I participated in a panel at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference about land and water-based jobs. In a telling sign, this panel (organized by The Wilderness Society’s relentless JP Leous, one of the brightest rising stars in the environmental movement) was apparently the first in the history of the conference to focus on forest, land, and water based jobs (or as I like to think of them, the ultimate green jobs).

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One of my co-panelists was Storm Cunningham, who in his seminal book, The Restoration Economy, revealed this major shift for the first time:

…But then, in the late 90’s, I began noticing a miraculous new trend: a number of places — both ecosystems and communities — were actually getting better, some spectacularly so. Rivers that had been devoid of fish were teeming with them. Blighted industrial waterfronts were becoming gorgeous, lively, economically thriving public areas. Devastated, clear-cut hills were becoming forests again — real forests, not just the typical tree farms that are devoid of wildlife. …

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, we failed to notice a turning point of immense significance. New development — the development mode that has dominated the past three centuries — lost significant “market share” to another mode: restorative development.

Despite the fact that restorative development will dominate the twenty-first century, its phenomenal rate of growth has gone largely undocumented. This is hardly an unimportant transition: economic growth based primarily on the exploitation of new resources and territories is giving way to economic growth based on expanding our resources and improving our existing assets..

Why is it happening? Primarily, it’s because we’ve now developed most of the world that can be developed without destroying some other inherent value or vital function of that property. The major driver of economic growth in the the twenty-first century will thus be redeveloping our nations, revitalizing our cities, and rehabilitating and expanding our ecosystems. We’ll be adding health and wealth in a way that doesn’t cause a corresponding loss of wealth elsewhere.

To put it in other words, today’s economic potential isn’t in the exploitation of untapped resources, but rather in the restoration of wealth (natural, infrastructural, community and otherwise).

For that reason and others, the restoration economy is dollar-for-dollar by far the best job creator of any economic activity. As I discussed in this post at Grist, investments in forest, wetland, and other land and water restoration creates 74 percent more jobs than ANY other economic activity — more even that energy wind or solar, and more than five and a half times as much as investments in dirty energy sources like oil, coal, and nuclear. These are the ultimate shovel-ready jobs: for many of them, you really don’t need much more than a shovel to get to work. Mother Nature provides all the capital you need.

You can see this restoration economy at work across America and around the world: in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State, people are finding work tearing down dams and restoring streams, in the Chesapeake Bay, out-of-work watermen are restoring oyster beds to clean the water, and in Indonesia, people are returning destroyed rainforest to orangutan habitat.

At the panel, we delved into the politics of the restoration economy — you can watch highlights from the discussion in this excellent brief video:

In summary, politicians are making a huge electoral blunder when they perpetuate low jobs creating activities like oil drilling and coal mining. One of the most important determinants of an incumbent politician’s success is the health of the economy and the availability of jobs (others include whether a politician is perceived as being a strong leader and having integrity). Weakening a cap on carbon or diverting funds away from wildland restoration may please a few lobbyists, but as incumbents like Bob Bennett, Arlen Specter, and Blanche Lincoln learned recently, even establishment campaign donations will be far outweighed by voter anger fueled by a poor economy and a lack of jobs. 

Of course the inverse is true too: because the restoration economy provides such a huge jobs bang for the buck, it’s a Godsend for politicians.  The more they invest in restoring forests, streams, and oceans, the better the economy will be and the more likely they are to get reelected.

In other words, green is the new electoral gold.