By now, Van Jones is a familiar face on Grist (heck, he’s even got his own tag). David noted previously that Jones has a new book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, and Jones wrote about the book here earlier this month.

This week, Jones’ new book made the New York Times bestsellers list, where it currently sits at No. 12. Also topping the list right now is Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded (No. 2), which, as the economy continues to meltdown, makes it appear that readers are looking for some good, green ideas on how to fix it. Jones’ book is the first bestseller on green issues by a black author, ever.

Grist caught up with Jones last week to talk about his bestseller, the meltdown, and the fight ahead for a green economy.

Grist: What was the idea on the timing of the book, getting it out now before the election?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Jones: We expected the U.S. to be in a recession. We didn’t expect it to be in a financial free-fall. So we thought that the book would be well-received and have some concrete ideas on powering us through the downturn, and we wanted to get it out before the election. We thought we might be able to have some impact on the debates and the discussion. But we also wanted to put ourselves in the position where after the election, when people are beginning to talk about what’s next, we would have already had an opportunity to introduce some ideas.

Going into the winter months, in between the election and the inauguration, we know there’s going to be tremendous need for an economic stimulus package, for winter jobs and retrofitting America — green collar jobs, to weatherize homes. The ones who survive the mortgage crisis might not survive the home heating crisis. If you think people were screaming about the gas prices this summer, wait until you hear what’s going to happen to people with home heating prices this winter. You can park your car. You can’t park your house. So you’re going to have people choosing between warm beds and warm meals for their children, conceivably. We feel like it’s important, especially with our construction workers essentially idle, for government to step in, and for utilities to step in, and pay for massive, nation-wide retrofitting of millions and millions of homes, especially low-income people’s homes, so that we can save them money, cut carbon emissions, and put people to work.

Grist: So the book went to the publisher before the country went into an economic crisis. Is there anything different that you would want to say in this book, since that happened?

Jones: I think fundamentally, I would probably strengthen or underline the basic assumption of the book, which is that we’re at the end of a particular economic era, during which the American people were sold the bollix. Based on a lot of neoliberal, ultra-freemarket, earth-disregarding, labor-disregarding nonsense, we built up the U.S. economy on consumption, not production; debt, not smart savings and thrift; and environmental destruction as opposed to environmental restoration. We’re at the end of that long detour from sanity, and we’re going to go through a very painful readjustment where we realize we cannot build a national economy on credit cards. We’re going to have to fuel the American economy with creativity here in the United States, not credit from overseas, and get back to building rather than borrowing, and doing so in a way that honors the earth and honors people. This is the turning point. Right now it feels like a huge breakdown, which it is, but my view is that it sets the stage for a tremendous breakthrough, back to economic and social sanity.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Grist: In the first presidential debate, the moderator asked the candidates what, from their respective plans, might not be possible to do, because of the economic downturn. Obama noted that there may be some things on the energy front that we can’t achieve, though he later said that energy spending will remain a top priority. Is there a concern that the economic situation might preclude some of the actions the candidates have promised, or does this actually increase the impetus to work on these issues?

Jones: It’s too early to tell, but I don’t think that the new president will be able to ignore these issues. The sequencing might be a little bit different, but for instance, the president might say “let’s invest in weatherization and retrofits as a green stimulus that shows people how being smarter on energy can bring costs down, before we do anything that would be essentially a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that would bring some prices up.” Or they may do may be some major initiative on energy security, that would be primarily jump-starting public works projects like the construction of a clean-energy grid, or a huge prize for a breakthrough in solar or battery technology, or hyper-conductive wires.

The new president might background the discussion on a comprehensive climate deal. We’d scream and yell about that, because I don’t think we have time to waste on the climate side either, but a new president might feel more constrained to do things that might impose a cost. Of course, that definitely makes the idea of what I call a cap-and-cash-back, or cap-and-dividend, a lot more attractive. The idea that you cap carbon, make the polluters pay, and the money goes back to ordinary Americans in the form of cash relief. It’s going to be tricky, bottom line. It’s going to be challenging. But what my hope and expectation is around all this stuff is that we’ll recognize you can’t fix the U.S. economy, and you certainly can’t grow the U.S. economy, even green growth, if energy prices are on a vertical. Right now, the only reason energy prices are coming down is because of the George Bush solution to energy prices, which is wreck the entire global economy, and then energy prices will certainly come down. Of course, you’ll also be in a depression.

My fundamental view is that 2009 will be the year that we see dramatic, positive change in the direction of the beginning of a solar age. This is the beginning of the end of the carbon age. Next year will be the beginning of the beginning of the solar age. We may not get everything that we want in the first 100 days, but we will definitely get a lot of what we want by midterms.

Grist: Both the candidates have been using the phrase “green jobs” on the campaign trail, promising them to the public. But Obama’s promising jobs in “clean coal” and McCain’s promising jobs in nuclear power. How do you prevent this idea of a green job from being co-opted by old-energy interests?

Jones: That’s part of what the book is for. We wanted to make sure that the first book that was defining green jobs and a green-collar economy wasn’t written by the Heritage Foundation. In the introductory chapter, we go through very carefully what we think is a green job and what is not, and we take on all of these stupid ideas, from alleged “clean coal” to corn-based ethanol. Part of it is, it’s like a video game. Every time you win at one level, they throw you into a higher level where there’s even more monsters and bigger dangers. At first nobody knew what  a green job was. Then it was sort of ignored. And then it was a little niche concept. Now it’s a mass-concept, and they’ll try to take it over.

In the book, we talk about this whole lie, what we call the “dirty greens” — it’s a new phenomenon in American politics. John McCain is the best practitioner of it. You used to have green-washing corporations. Now you have green-washing politicians. They have the same polluter-based, status-quo agenda, but they’ll throw a wind turbine or a solar panel in their ads. They’ll say out of the one side of their mouth that they want renewables, but then, sometimes in the same sentence, they’ll say they want the dirtiest and most-dangerous energy technologies ever heard of. By declaring they want “all of the above,” they smuggle into proposals for alternatives and renewables oil shale, tar sands, liquefied coal, alleged “clean coal,” drilling the coasts, burning kittens. Any nasty, carbon-based solution … as long as it’s carbon-based, they’re for it. That’s the kind of thing we have to be very, very clear about. But it’s just about continuing to sharpen the argument.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.