The “Van”guard of the Coming Green Economy

The beauty of a book like The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones is that it explodes the persistent myth that policies are either good for the economy or good for the environment. Its basic premise is that to revitalize America, we must abandon our outmoded “gray” fossil fuel based economy in favor of green economy powered by renewable energy. Jones not only presents the reader with an impassioned justification for a renewable energy economy. He supplies the movement with a set of guiding principles and policy objectives. His book reads like a how-to manual for environmental justice activists. Not many progressives would argue with these three core principles that he articulates to undergird the new green economy: “equal protection for all,”equal opportunity for all,” and “reverence for all creation.” Jones has definitely won my respect and appreciation.

In addition, the book foregrounds the class dimension of environmental activism. He says a lot that needs to be said about the inequities of the environmental movement, arguing for what he calls “eco-equity.” As an activist in social justice movements, working primarily with the poor and the previously incarcerated, Jones is keenly aware that people of color and poor folks distrust the environmental movement. Many of them see environmentalism as an elitist enterprise that is too distant from the concerns of working people. As an antidote to this way of thinking Jones suggests that the environmental movement should focus on the economic opportunities that the new green economy will afford workers.

Jones identifies what he calls “the dual crisis”: “radical socioeconomic inequality” and “rampant environmental destruction.” Then he provides background on the previous waves of environmentalism: the conservation movement of the early twentieth-century and the what he calls the “regulation movement,” those campaigns that developed in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. All this history would be a tedious reminder without his comments about how each of them failed to be inclusive. Jones suggests that the third wave of environmentalism must focus on inclusion and investment. (He’s pretty pro-capitalist, though he did start out as a Marxist and a black nationalist.) Jones offers ways in which the various kinds of renewable energy and other sustainable practices like waste management and organic farming can provide jobs for workers with only a modest set of skills. He identifies the fields that can lead to quick job advancement (such as the solar power industry, which has a shortage of project managers).

Believe it or not, the green collar economy is already underway, and Jones points to many examples that support his overall argument. However, he notes that these few examples are but a drop in the bucket compared to what the country needs to wean itself off of deleterious fossil fuel. Jones claims that a massive public-private partnership is in order that will only be spurred by a grassroots movement. Among other things, he suggests that the president ought to make a public commitment to jobs and a carbon cap in the first 100 days of his presidency.

The 100-day mark has come and gone, and Obama has spent only a fraction of his political capital to move these two agendas forward; however, his smartest move was appoint Van Jones as the Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I just hope that Jones is given enough clout in the CEQ and enough money to implement his cutting-edge policies and programs.

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