Our Most 'Expensive' Citizens Can Become Our Climate Change Heroes

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

As part of the Roosevelt Institute's 10-part series on the Jobs Crisis, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog from Nov. 12-25, I was asked to reflect on what can be done to get Americans working again. Here's my take.

People with jobs are better off than people without jobs. But it turns out that people with jobs are even better off if other people are fully employed too -- and l am not referring to the alleged "benefits" of increased consumer activity.

One of the reasons our country is the world leader in per capita incarceration and recidivism rates is that jobs in the illegal economy are easier to find than legitimate entry-level jobs in some areas. By "some areas" I mean ghettos, and by "ghettos" I mean anywhere poor people are concentrated.

Often, these are people returning from prison, people who have lived in generational poverty, or returning combat veterans -- some fit all three of these demographics. Each group commonly suffers from, among other things, a deep sense of social isolation that inhibits their participation in the marketplace, increases their social services footprint, and negatively affects the health and educational outcomes of both themselves and the people around them. Typically, these places are the environmental sacrifice zones that make our dirty-energy economy possible.

They have been creating expensive and ever-widening cost vectors for decades -- if one looks at how many people are coming out of our prisons, going into poverty, and coming back from multiple deployments for wars with no end in sight. We need to turn those cost vectors around as soon as possible using the tools we can control on regional and community levels.

During my time at the non-profit, Sustainable South Bronx, we created green-job training and placement systems that successfully aligned environmental remediation jobs with the people who could benefit most from the work. We developed horticultural engineering projects like urban forestry, green roofing, brown-field remediation, and river/wetland restoration and stabilization.

These are the climate change adaption practices that are growing in demand as more people move to cities, and climate-related weather changes take hold over the next 30 years -- which is shorter than our most expensive citizens are currently maintained as "cost-burdens."

Horticultural infrastructure work is highly therapeutic for certain psychological barriers to full participation in society. It's more cost-effective than pharmaceutical methods too, so this can contribute to public heath savings.

Projects like these, on a massive scale throughout our cities, shorelines, and over-stressed water management systems, can turn some of our most expensive citizens into some of our most productive in three important ways:

1. Improve the public health in the immediate geographical area
2. Provide cost-effective environmental services and reduced infrastructure expense
3. Provide legitimate entry-level jobs with career potential

They would create ever-widening cost savings to individuals, government, and probably some increased consumer activity too.

I am working hard to get large-scale investment-grade projects up and running in the New Orleans/Mississippi Delta region with wetland restoration, in Detroit with intensive urban-agriculture production, and anywhere people can be trained and employed to leave long-lasting improvements to our nation.

If we work together, we can stop going into debt building tributes to our collective failures, and start creating living monuments to hope and possibility for everyone.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.