Times are tough all over right now, and unemployment is rising. North and south of the border, people are talking about stimulus, about the need to inject money into the economy. Roads. Bridges. “Shovel ready” projects that put people to work.
But people don’t build roads with shovels any more, they use big machines, made in Japan or Peoria. Dr. Jim McNiven, professor emeritus and former dean of management at Dalhousie University notes in the Globe and Mail that the way we build things has changed in seventy years:
"A lot of this ethos of infrastructure-equals-jobs comes from the 1930s when you put a lot of guys to work digging ditches and shovelling gravel. And we don't do that any more." "You can't just take unemployed people off the street and have them build roads and overpasses," he said. Much new funding may well wind up being spent on new machinery rather than hiring, he added. "You might as well just send a cheque to Caterpillar in Illinois."
Another problem of investing in bridges, overpasses, highways and new buildings is that they use a lot of concrete, which creates a lot of CO2, a ton for every ton of cement produced. A massive investment in infrastructure could mean a massive increase in the rate of climate change if we just add concrete infrastructure and cars to ride on it.
But there is another way to create jobs, reduce energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions: give the unemployed guns, caulking guns, and fix our existing buildings. As environmental activist Van Jones 2says, “I really like the idea that a caulk gun may be the main tool in a green revolution."
Donovan Rypkema tells us that new construction is about 50-50 labour and materials, whereas restoration and renovation can be as much as 75% labour- for every dollar spent you get twice as much local employment, and use about half the resources. That's because workers are using their hands instead of big machines.
"This labor intensity affects a local economy on two levels. First, we buy an HVAC system from Ohio and lumber from Idaho, but we buy the services of the plumber, the electrician, and the carpenter from across the street. Further, once we hang the drywall, the drywall doesn’t spend any more money. But the plumber gets a hair cut on the way home, buys groceries, and joins the YMCA – each recirculating that paycheck within the community."
Heritage buildings are naturally greener and more economical in their
use of energy than newer ones; they were designed that way. Electricity
and air conditioning was non-existent and heating was expensive. Steve
Mouzon describes the scene:
“Originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, or other really bad things would happen to them.”
So why not get more bang for the infrastructure investment buck. Fix the buildings we’ve got, the Lister Blocks in Hamilton, the main streets of our small towns, the apartment towers of Toronto.
- The investment trains local workers in useful and long-lasting skills;
- It puts most of the dollars into labour instead of imported and carbon-intensive materials;
- It reduces our energy consumption and reduces our emissions of greenhouse gases;
- Like Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and and Works Progress Administration, it puts people to work creating a legacy that lasts for generations.
Perhaps the caulking gun has the biggest bang.