Making the Rust Belt Green Through a Federal Great Lakes Authority
By Natasha J. Fernández-Silber
Detroit DSA has begun organizing in earnest around a bold initiative to “Make the Rust Belt Green.” In collaboration with local elected officials and its coalition partners, Detroit DSA is calling for the creation of a new federal agency, in the vein of the Tennessee Valley Authority, called the “Great Lakes Authority.” The GLA would be a regional planning agency enacted under the umbrella of the “Green New Deal.” Its mandate: to bring green union jobs and economic development to the Midwest.
The Great Lakes Authority represents a credible way to bring back quality manufacturing jobs to the Midwest. Massive amounts of green infrastructure must be built to avert climate catastrophe. It should be built here, in places like Detroit, where millions of people already have manufacturing expertise and experience.
The Great Lakes region includes all of Michigan, as well as portions of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It is home to vast natural resources, including, most obviously, the Great Lakes, which contain over one-fifth of the freshwater on the planet, and provide potable water to over 40 million people. The region is also an agricultural powerhouse, with more than 55 million acres of productive land, and a bastion of low-carbon recreational options.
The Great Lakes region overlaps substantially with what has come to be known as the “Rust Belt.” As the grim moniker suggests, the Rust Belt has been ravaged for decades by free trade deals, deindustrialization, and corporate pollution. The region’s economy was further decimated in 2008 by the Great Recession, from which it has yet to recover.
This long economic decline has produced a host of calamities for the region. The Rust Belt has some of the oldest and most degraded infrastructure in the nation. Millions of its residents live without clean air, water, or both. Its abundant lakes, rivers, and ecosystems are increasingly under-protected. As desperation mounts, states have begun privatizing their natural resources. Michigan, for example, now authorizes Nestle to pump virtually unlimited amounts of groundwater from an aquifer in the western part of state. It uses that water to make hundreds of million of dollars in profits from its Ice Mountain bottled water brand. Meanwhile, the water crises in Flint and Detroit go unresolved.
There can be little doubt that targeted federal resources are required to solve the Rust Belt’s interlocking economic and ecological crises. And we need only look to the first New Deal to understand what is possible. In 1933, Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s first regional planning agency. Its mandate was to bring jobs and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly devastated by the Great Depression.
The region faced continual flooding, deforestation, and land erosion, and its rural residents lacked basic modern infrastructure like electricity and running water. In what is perhaps the most soaring success of the entire New Deal era, between 1933 and 1934 the TVA built 16 hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley, which reduced flooding and soil erosion and provided electricity to millions of residents. By 1934, more than 9,000 people were employed through the TVA on these projects and others. Over time, the TVA evolved into the largest publicly-owned utility in the United States, and today services customers in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Like the TVA, the Great Lakes Authority (GLA) would be a regional planning agency designed to funnel federal resources (under local control) to the Rust Belt. Those funds would be devoted to large-scale green manufacturing (e.g., of electric buses, cars, and trains); retooling idled factories (like GM’s recently “unallocated” plants in Warren, Detroit, and Lordstown); green housing construction and weatherization; generating green, renewable energy (e.g., wind, solar, and hydro); repairing or replacing the water infrastructure in places like Flint and Detroit; building green infrastructure (green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavements, etc.); bridge and road repairs; environmental assessments and remediation; sustainable agriculture; protecting fresh water sources and ecosystems; and ecotourism.
Frontline communities such as Detroit, Flint, and Gary would be prioritized and given additional resources. All persons employed by the GLA would make a living wage of $25 an hour, have the option to unionize, receive single-payer federal health insurance, and benefit from educational grants for skills training.
Centering the Great Lakes region — and Michigan and Detroit in particular — is essential to any package of green federal legislation. In so many ways, the ecological and economic “apocalypse” now being discussed as a motivator of a Green New Deal has already happened in the Rust Belt, particularly in post-industrial cities, in abandoned rural locales, and in indigenous communities. No one in America needs a Green New Deal more than than we do, and no one is more willing to fight for it. That’s why for years activists in these communities have been calling for a racially just, green, regenerative, non-extractive, sustainable economy. Their vision should serve as the organizing principle of the Great Lakes Authority and the entire movement for a Green New Deal.
There is much public fascination with the idea that Detroit is now experiencing a “comeback.” But by many metrics (poverty rates, employment statistics, blight rates, etc.), there is no economic recovery happening at all. Most of the investment and “development” in the city has been cosmetic and to the benefit of developers and a handful of millionaire and billionaires. A regional Green New Deal proposal in the form of a Great Lakes Authority would encompass the kind of bold public policy solutions that would deliver a real comeback for Detroit.
Not only is the Great Lakes Authority smart environmentally and economically, it also makes political sense. A proposal to create green manufacturing jobs through the GLA would have broad appeal among displaced blue-collar voters, including those who sat out the 2016 election, or who may have voted for Trump (in part) because of his false promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. As the 2020 presidential cycle approaches, it would behoove all of the candidates vying for battleground states like Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to sign onto a bold, regionally-targeted jobs proposal such as the Great Lakes Authority.
It’s time to meet the dire crises of the moment with the boldness that is required. This is not rocket science, and we’ve done it before. Let’s harness our nation’s federal resources to restore this great region’s economy and ecology, and turn the Rust Belt Green through a Great Lakes Authority.