This post is adapted from a book review that was published in the Winter 2009 edition of Yes! Magazine.
Van Jones’ new book , The Green Collar Economy, is a prescription for a sustainable stimulus package that can fix the two big problems of our day: economic exclusion and economic recession, and a dangerous addiction to fossil fuels that’s choking the climate.
As a civil-rights lawyer and community activist, Jones has a voice that stands out in the chorus calling for climate change solutions as well as the chorus across the street crying out for social justice and equality. At the core of his message is the idea that the good jobs we need to cut climate-warming pollution can also keep marginalized youth out of jail and put them on solid career tracks. “We have a chance to connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done.” These are green collar jobs. And to make it work, Jones insists, those two choruses-and others as well-will need to walk across the street and start harmonizing for the first time.
Jones’ green collar economy is one where we don’t need to make the heart-wrenching choice between our children and their immediate need for a viable economy right away and our grandchildren and their long-term need for a viable planet. He believes it’s a false choice.
Basically, his point is this: Climate legislation is on the way; and it will transition our economy away from dangerous and expensive fossil fuels, requiring local workforces across the country to make it happen. “We have to retrofit a nation,” he writes. He told a Seattle audience earlier this year that “no magical green fairies are going to come down and put up all those solar panels or install insulation. This is going to take skilled labor. We can make a green pathway out of poverty.” In his vision, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created, weatherizing and building efficiency into every building in the country. Jones says we can finance this work with auctioned pollution permits under a cap-and-trade system. Capping emissions puts a firm limit on emissions while generating revenue for efficiency programs, technology investments, and consumer rebates.
And, writes Jones, we should start now, “at the pace of wartime mobilization.” For those who’ve already grown tired of green-collar hype, Jones points out that demand today already exceeds supply-employers can’t find enough trained, green-collar workers. The work is out there. A huge green economy is already developing despite inadequate and inconsistent support from a public sector that is “still easily cowed by the big polluters.” The numbers Jones gives don’t lie: In 2006, renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies generated 8.5 million new jobs, nearly $970 billion in revenue, and more than $100 billion in industry profits-and the numbers are growing fast. He also debunks the notion that a green work force is decades away-an army of computer technicians tinkering in futuristic laboratories on technologies we haven’t even invented yet. No. The main piece of technology in the green economy, Jones writes, is a caulking gun.
The book lays out a bold, comprehensive, New Deal-style program to build a clean energy economy that can do both – one that seems to echo President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for a green economic stimulus and energy independence. Jones shows the way from a “gray” economy to a bright, new, shiny green one. What occasionally borders on sloganeering in this book is redeemed by thorough analysis and thoughtful, detailed descriptions of how to overcome obstacles, build the necessary coalitions, and take steps to push the right policy through. And to be fair, Jones understands the power of a good slogan or two to move people and policy. He has a knack for translating what is wonky and abstract into prose that is visual and concrete – and into stories that are easy to relate to. And that’s exactly what most of us need because climate change isn’t easy to imagine and climate policy is complex.
To get there from here, Jones emphatically calls for more eco-populism and less eco-elitism. He doesn’t shy away from a blunt rebuke of the environmental establishment for consistently cutting low-income people and people of color out of the picture. Sure, we could build a green economy in which the economic patterns of the past are institutionalized yet again, one in which certain people prosper and others are shut out. But why would we repeat the inequalities of the very dirty, gray capitalism we’re trying to shed? We must instead make a choice to build an economy that takes us beyond what Jones calls eco-apartheid.
The climate movement needs Van Jones. It particularly needs the moral grounding that he articulates. He grew up in the black churches of the rural South, and is at ease making comparisons between the urgency and moral strength of the climate movement and that of the Civil Rights movement. He is an agile ambassador bridging relatively segregated worlds of faith, labor, environmental justice and “traditional” environmentalism. He understands -better than most of us working on climate policy-that people who already live in a constant state of personal crisis are not moved by gloom and doom messages about polar bears and melting glaciers. But when we speak of opportunity, jobs, and economic solutions, we all find common ground.