To hear UNCA Distinguished University Professor John Stevens tell it, the green-economy surge headed our way will be no less than a “paradigm shift.”
“This is not unique language,” Stevens adds quickly, as if to justify the lofty phrase. “You hear it around the country. There’s going to be a whole new work force centered around the new technologies developed around the green economy.” Stevens—known locally for founding the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at UNCA—is now charged with fostering the growth of the Asheville Sustainability Initiative, a new spark fueled by the Hub Project, an alliance of education, business and local-government entities focused on regional economic development. Still in its nascent phase, the project is moving quickly toward what Stevens calls “action mode.”
The elaborate plan calls for establishing the Asheville Sustainability Institute, a research center that would focus on “air, water and the built environment,” according to an executive summary. Stevens is part of a five-member team chosen to head up the institute; the others are John Allen, former deputy chief in the Astrochemistry Branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; Barry Evans, a researcher affiliated with the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment; Tom Gallaher, chair of the HandMade in America Foundation and president of Heritage Directions LLC; and economic-development consultant Sandra Maxey. The institute has been offered a space in Asheville for 18 months, but Stevens says he’s not yet at liberty to say where it is.
Economic development is the core mission propelling both the Sustainability Initiative and its twin, the institute: in short, facilitating the creation of “green-collar jobs” that are good for both the regional economy and the environment. If this idea has a familiar ring to it, it may be because AdvantageWest, Western North Carolina’s regional economic-development commission, unveiled a plan to attract a green-business cluster to the region this past February; other groups have outlined similar propositions in recent years.
Far from being unaware of parallel efforts, however, Stevens says the Hub’s sustainability spoke will have “tremendous collaboration” with them. In fact, “synergy” seems to be a favorite word for anyone associated with Hub. This community, says Stevens, has a wealth of forward-looking initiatives. “This effort is trying to bring those pieces together to expand on the ideas, expand on the actions and expand on the funding to allow this to happen.”
Much of the scheme hinges on playing up Western North Carolina’s existing renewable-energy companies, green-building professionals and general environmental consciousness. The guiding philosophy is to bring it all under one umbrella to gain an economic advantage.
“The Hub is a catalyst for the new economy,” declares Executive Director David Brown. “Sustainability and greening are central to the new economy.” Asked about the Sustainability Initiative’s primary goals, Brown doesn’t hesitate: “To advance Asheville as one of the leading frontiers in the worldwide thrust for sustainability.”
The precise relationship between the Initiative and Hub is still nebulous, he notes, but it’s slated for discussion at the May 20 Hub Alliance meeting. Last fall, Hub got involved with a similar program, the Centers for Environmental and Climatic Interaction, which places climate data at the center of a regional push for job creation, a boost in tourism and public education about climate change. “We think we can perhaps introduce John [Stevens] and his colleagues to state and federal officials … and encourage their funding, much as we’re facilitating the funding for CECI, the climate-change initiative,” Brown explains.
Stevens sees CECI and the Sustainability Initiative as parts of the “intellectual core” that will drive the sweeping goal of sharpening Asheville’s green edge. Another important piece is the Asheville-based National Climatic Data Center.
The “green-collar” work force the Initiative envisions could enjoy higher wages than many current jobs offer, better prospects for advancement, and an ethical bonus to boot. But has the present economic downturn made the so-called “promise of a green economy” any less promising?
Stevens pauses before answering. “The bigger picture that we realize locally, regionally, nationally and internationally,” he says finally, “is that our fundamental old systems aren’t going to carry us into the future.” Taking this path, he argues, is “a response to the problems we’re trying to solve of sustaining ourselves. Asheville is very ripe as a mecca for that.”