Van Jones looks to sustainability for pathways out of poverty
Will the burgeoning “green” economy have a place in it for everyone? To a packed auditorium in Seattle last Wednesday, Van Jones said: It can. And to be successful, it has to.
In the chorus of voices against climate change, his message rings true and clear: “We have a chance to connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done.”
Van Jones is a civil-rights lawyer and founder and executive director of an innovative nonprofit working to ensure that low-income, working poor, and minority youth have access to the coming wave of “green-collar” jobs. Jones — brought to Seattle by Climate Solutions, King County, El Centro de la Raza, Puget Sound Sage, and Earth Ministry — made a compelling case that social justice is the moral anchor required to fuse the climate movement into a powerful and cohesive force. He sees that the solutions to global warming are the solutions to the biggest social and economic problems in urban and rural America.
His point is this: You can pass all the climate legislation you want, but you have to provide the local workforce to make it happen on the ground. “We have to retrofit a nation,” he says. “No magical green fairies are going to come down and put up all those solar panels.” This is going to take skilled labor. “We can make a green pathway out of poverty.”
And it gets better, he says. These jobs can’t be outsourced. “You can’t put a building on a barge to Asia and weatherize it on the cheap.” This is about kitchen table issues: jobs, industry, manufacturing, health, education.
This seems to be Jones’ moment. He has the ear of every 2008 Democratic presidential contender as well as top policy-makers like Nancy Pelosi. He’s all over the national climate scene — he just launched an initiative called Green for All that’s getting lots of attention. His words gain extra gravity from the fact that he is 39, the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was killed, and that he was born the same year MLK and Bobby Kennedy were shot. He doesn’t try to pass himself off as some sort of resurrection, but he builds on the emotional strength and moral certitude of the civil rights movement to make his case. Americans — environmentalists, social justice activists, and many others — are hungry for this message, hungry for an articulation of the climate issue’s moral core.
On the need to unify, Jones reminds us that when the Vietnam War broke out, Dr. King told advisers who counseled him not to meddle in President Johnson’s foreign policy: “I have worked too long against segregation in society to segregate my moral conscience.”
So, Jones says we have to ask ourselves a question: Who are we going to be? Before we even ask what we’re going to do. Who are we going to be? “Are we going to be people who segregate our moral conscience and find some way to narrow down the issue and make it fit? Or are we going to be people who stand on principle?” He suggests that the principles that drove the Civil Rights movement are just as valid today as they were then: equal protection, equal opportunity, and equal partnership.
In a post-Katrina world, the principles that guided civil rights leaders can guide our thinking about how to build fairness and responsibility into climate policy. “I think the time has come to say in this country that in the age of floods, in the age of ecological peril, we reject any ideology, any philosophy that says let our neighbors sink or swim,” Jones said on Wednesday. “We stand on the idea that we are all in this together. We are all in this together.”
As far as opportunity and partnership goes, Jones points to the galloping green economy, but asks: “Are we going to have eco-apartheid? Are we going to settle for that? Are we going to have a society divided between ecological-haves and ecological-have nots?” The green economy is growing, but it’s the most segregated part of the US economy. Jones asks: “We’ve worked for 200 years to integrate a poison and pollution based economy; what can we do to ensure the green economy has a place in it for everybody?”
Jones himself is somewhat of an anomaly in a world defined by identity politics and “issue boxes.” “Black and green,” he’s often called, an African American who’s deeply concerned about the environment (read an interview with Grist and his blog on Huffington Post). He jokes that people ask him what a nice black man like himself is doing with a bunch of environmentalists. But he challenges everybody to defy the false choice between caring about people and caring about the environment:
It’s time for us to say that we represent a new sentiment in this country that says ‘no, we don’t have any throw away resources. We don’t have a throw away species. We don’t have any throw away children. No. It’s all sacred. It’s all sacred.’
Jones believes that bread-and-butter issues and core values shared by all Americans lie at the center of the shift to green thinking. And he’ll make you believe that that if we work together toward a clean, green economy that insists on a place for everyone, “we not only get the coalition we’ve always wanted, we get the country we’ve always wanted.”
Get Grist in your inbox