“Spiritually fulfilling, ecologically sustainable, and socially just” is the title of a recent speech by Van Jones, who has been appearing in strategic places for a few years now. As cofounder of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, he has been attempting to fight environmental pollution that has been poisoning the residents of inner-city areas in Oakland and all over the country. As such, he is in a unique position to bridge a rather wide chasm: the African-American community and the environmental community.
In my previous post, I put forward a utopian realist agenda that, I hypothesized, would solve many of our global environmental problems — that was the realist part — but that was completely utopian politically. But another definition of utopian is envisioning a better place — and I want to pursue the possibility in this post that such an agenda would create a basis for a widespread coalition, of the sort that Van Jones has been pursuing.
For instance, he has been lobbying for green-collar jobs legislation that could be used to increase employment in poor areas while helping to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions. Jones shows up in another interesting place: in a critical section of Nordhaus and Shellenberger‘s essay, “The Death of Environmentalism” (p.26):
Van Jones, the up-and-coming civil rights leader and co-founder of the California Apollo Project, likens [labor unions, civil rights groups, businesses, and environmentalists] ] to the four wheels on the car needed to make “an ecological U-turn.” Van has extended the metaphor elegantly: “We need all four wheels to be turning at the same time and at the same speed. Otherwise the car won’t go anywhere.”
If you look at Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s Breakthrough Institute website, you will see that their projects are much wider than environmental, ranging from the Apollo Alliance to a Motherhood tax credit (my wife’s favorite). The (positive) message I took away from their essay was not that environmentalists were doing a bad job — especially if you define “environmentalism” narrowly as protecting particular ecosystems — but that environmental concerns must be embedded in a wider agenda for solving the world’s problems and proposing solutions.
When the environment “fits” into a wider whole — remember when “holistic” was an environmental term? — this greater sum of the parts radically increases the possibilities for coalition, and therefore, increases the base of support for environmental and other concerns. The trick is to find proposals, such as green-collar jobs legislation, that connect the dots.
And this is where Martin Luther King comes in. At the end of his life, King was attempting to weave together four important movements: the poor, labor, civil rights, and peace. The possibility of bringing these together terrified many in the establishment such as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, but such a coalition would have been a historic turning point in American history, had it actually happened.
But as Jones eloquently articulates, and I can attest, creating coalitions among African-American and European-American activists can be difficult, to say the least. The problem is not simply racism or lack of familiarity, although those are certainly problems: the problem goes much deeper, and one of the most articulate explanations of this problem was given by Gus Speth, Dean of Yale’s Forestry School and a major sustainability advocate, as he was interviewed on November 13, 2006 on Ecotalk, a sorely-missed daily radio show on Air America.
Speth mentioned a conversation with — here they come again — Nordhaus and Shellenberger, after the publication of their essay. They made the point to him that Martin Luther King did not say, as environmentalists are alleged to be saying, “I have a nightmare,” but, “I have a dream.” Speth’s response:
Martin Luther King’s followers did not need to be told they had a nightmare, they knew they had a nightmare, they were living a nightmare. They needed to be told of a vision. Our people, the people who should be dealing with these environmental issues, they are living in a dream. They should be more worried about a nightmare. It is our job to take to them a message that says, if you don’t come out of that dream and start acting now, we will be in a nightmarish situation, for ourselves and for our children.
So white suburbia needs to wake up and avoid an ecological nightmare, but also wake up and take notice of the collective nightmares of the country’s and world’s poor and oppressed. How can we do that without indulging in an orgy of white (and environmental) guilt-tripping?
An answer may be to educate everyone as to the current and potential nightmares, of both persons of color and the planet, and then to work together to build toward a dream, or if you prefer, a utopia, in which everyone has a secure job, is free from racism and other forms of oppression, and lives in unity with nature — or if you prefer Van Jones’ formulation, lives a life that is “spiritually fulfilling, ecologically sustainable, and socially just.” This could be a profoundly democratic process — people could express their pain while they also participate in a cooperative endeavor to correct wrongs while building a better society for all peoples — white, black, indigenous, Hispanic, gay, female, and poor, or various combinations.
The basic idea is this: if we had an economy in which virtually every person who wanted a good job — one that is high-paying, long-term, and high-skill — could get one, and that full-employment economy was environmentally sustainable, then many if not most of the other forms of oppression would melt away, just as the post-World War II boom helped bring African-Americans and others more power because their labor was needed.
Green-collar jobs and the sorts of proposals made by the Apollo Alliance are a start in this direction. But in a couple of posts from now I want to suggest the idea that the key to a full-employment economy is to rebuild the manufacturing sector of the country, and that by rebuilding our energy, transportation and other infrastructure systems, we can provide the market for just such a renaissance.
In my next post, I will look at another way to connect the dots, the attempt to link global warming and peace issues, as exemplified by the protests planned for next Monday for “No war, no warming.”