Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green For All, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans through a clean-energy economy.

On Monday morning, an icon of American industry announced its failure – and 21,000 more American workers woke up without jobs.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green For All

General Motors filed for bankruptcy and will shut down nine U.S. plants.

At a time when the United States economy is already short on jobs, the failure of an established industry giant leaves us to confront hard questions – What went wrong? And what is the future of American industry?

What went wrong?
GM doubly hurt the U.S. economy – losing jobs for American workers by taking manufacturing overseas and running the company into the ground by failing to remain competitive with foreign auto companies.

The company time and again rejected improving the environmental and safety standards of its vehicles and shipped thousands of American jobs overseas. Meanwhile, Japanese and German cars improved their gas mileage and safety – and foreign auto industries took off.

GM also misjudged the American people, believing that the size and speed of our gas guzzlers is what mattered most.

The truth is, the most significant contribution of the auto industry is not the cars it produces, but the way of life it once produced for the American worker.

At its best, before shipping jobs overseas in the 1980’s, GM and the auto industry provided jobs for American workers – good, union jobs that supported the growth of a strong middle class.

This legacy of the auto industry ─ and the United Auto Workers ─ is one we cannot let die with GM.

What is the future of American industry?
The promise of American economic growth and jobs still remains in manufacturing, though the products we make must change.

Our industrial manufacturing economy has relied on unregulated consumption of fossil fuel for too long– consumption which steadily destroys our air, our communities, and our planet.

We should not salvage the gas-guzzling U.S. auto industry.  But that does not  mean the factories in Flint, Michigan, should stay shuttered. Instead, the manufacturing industry in the United States must be revitalized to build the infrastructure for a clean energy economy.

Imagine America’s ‘Rust Belt’ transformed into a green belt of clean energy manufacturing. Imagine the factories of Detroit making wind turbines and solar panels to power America.

The rest of the world is already racing to implement clean energy solutions. The U.S. must catch up and blaze a new trail.

China spends 12 million dollars per hour to develop its own energy sources.  Germany has already created 250,000 jobs in the clean energy sector through government investment and incentives.

As a nation, it is time to make a choice.

Are we a country whose economy runs on batteries from China and oil from the Middle East?  Or will we manufacture our own clean energy in the United States, creating green-collar jobs for American workers?

The Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, has already made her choice: “despite today’s devastating news, Michigan is ready to lead,” she wrote on Monday.

“Today, the advanced batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles are made in Asia. Tomorrow, they will be made in Michigan. Today, the wind turbines used in much of America’s wind farms are made in Europe. Tomorrow, they will be made in Michigan and in states across America.”

Congress also has the opportunity to lead this transition of American industry.  The U.S. House of Representatives is crafting a comprehensive energy and climate bill – The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACESA),

ACESA could be our chance to revitalize American manufacturing through jobs in the clean energy economy. But the bill must be strengthened to create more investments in America’s workforce and communities.  A stronger ACESA must invest in job training through the Green Jobs Act and include targeted hiring provisions to ensure that clean energy jobs go to local workers and workers from low-income communities.

It’s time to invest in America’s workers and build an economy based on clean energy and green manufacturing. We can revitalize the best of America’s manufacturing legacy – and leave the rest behind.

Michigan is ready to lead again. What about the rest of the country?

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