Van Jones' Green Vision

Van Jones' Green Vision

Author Van Jones Photo Courtesy of; Photo by Richard Hume, Courtesy of Experience Life magazine

Activist and political advisor Van Jones is the author of the highly acclaimed book, "The Green Collar Economy." The book, a New York Times best-seller, and his work helped bring social justice issues to the forefront of the green movement. Honored by Time magazine as one of the Heroes of the Environment, he talks to GreenBiz about his vision for a new, green economy.

Leslie Guevarra: Van Jones, thank you for joining us today.

Van Jones: I'm happy to be here.

LG: What was your inspiration for this book? Was it a single thing, a collection of things, did you have a eureka moment?

VJ: Well, I did have a eureka moment. I've been working in urban communities for a long time, working with kids in trouble trying to reform, police departments and juvenile justice systems, and I just burned out and started going from Oakland to Marin County, where there's a lot of meditation centers, and just discovered a whole new world.,You know, a lot of stuff over there they don't have in Oakland, like salads and, you know, stuff like that. Tofu and hybrid cars, and I said, "Jeez, all this beautiful green stuff, services, products, new industries that are rising, the solar industry. You know, we should have that, some of that stuff in urban America — people who are disadvantaged, poor people in rural America, Appalachia. How do we get this green economy to be expanded to include more people, get it strong enough so it can lift people out of poverty and create jobs for people?" And it was in that inquiry that I wound up writing this book.

LG: Tell us about the urgency factors involved with this. Are there a top three or four key areas that for right now are really critical game changing opportunities?  

Click here to read an excerpt.

VJ: Well, I think so. I think first of all we have to recognize that for a long time we thought about the green economy as you know kind of a niche economy where people who have a little bit of extra money might pay a green premium to have a more eco-friendly product — mainly thinking about it as a place for affluent people to spend money, which is very, very important. I think now we have to expand the concept and also think about how ordinary people can earn money and even how low income people can save money, and that's gonna turn it from a niche economy into the main economy in the United States.

And so in terms of game changing opportunities, the first thing is when people hear the term "green job," they often think about Buck Rogers or George Jetson, you know, some sci-fi job. But the real, probably the most important, tool for greening the economy — the high-tech tool — is a caulk gun and a clipboard to begin to weatherize buildings and retrofit them so that we leak less energy. Well, that's your big carbon reduction opportunity right there. You don't have to come up with any new technologies for that, but you could put a lot of people to work, so here's an opportunity.

This winter's coming up; we know that energy prices might be very, very high, we have all these homes that are leaking energy, people are gonna get hit with $1,000 and $2,000 monthly energy bills that are just gonna be too high for many people. They're gonna have to choose between warm beds and warm meals for their kids. Why don't we create green collar jobs this winter by getting the stimulus package that Nancy Pelosi said she's gonna push through to include a few hundred million dollars to retrofit and weatherize buildings and homes across the country?

That would bring carbon down because drafty buildings create cold people, but they create a hot planet because those  power stations have to work that much harder, burn that much more coal to heat these leaky homes. So you could bring carbon down, you could bring energy bills down, you could bring jobs up, you could bring home values up, and more importantly, if you weatherize enough buildings, you bring down the aggregate demand for energy throughout the economy. That brings down all energy prices. So you could help the poorest people, but you could also help everybody else.

Those are the kinds of practical solutions we could get done starting this winter, where you could put people to work, and while you're weatherizing those homes, put some solar panels up, and you could have a dramatic move in the direction of a green economy.

LG: Would you amplify on your thoughts about social equity and the green collar economy?  

VJ: Well, I think that's the next big step. I mean the good thing is that we have had people who had both the material means and the moral commitment to jumpstart a lot of these green products and services and technologies. So the early adopters, I think, we have to be very thankful to. But now the big question is, how do we include more people?

We don't want to wind up with a situation where we have just the green economy essentially locked into this kind of eco-niche or, you know, in the worst-case scenario wind up with something like eco-Apartheid, which I talked about in the book, where you can have a whole society with ecological haves and ecological have nots. You know, some people with healthy organic food and clean air and clean water and hybrid cars and everything you can imagine.  Then other people still struggling and gasping and coughing in the fumes of the last century's pollution-based economy, with bad food, no jobs and a toxic environment.

We want to make sure as we build this green economy, and as we green the existing economy, we use it as an opportunity to declare some new values, which would say in our green economy that we're building, we don't have any throw-away resources, we don't have any throw-away species, but we also don't have any throw-away people.  We don't have any throw-away neighborhoods or nations.  Those communities that were locked out of the benefits of the last century's pollution-based economy should be locked into the new clean and green economy.  We should build a green wave, but we ought to make sure that green wave lifts all boats, and that means making sure that the work and the wealth and the health benefits of this transition get to as many people as possible.

We want young guys who are standing on street corners to be able to get jobs installing solar panels or weatherizing homes or helping to manufacture wind turbines.  We want our rural workers in communities that are struggling and suffering to be able to be put back to work with wind farms and smart biofuels, and we want to make sure that old Rosie the Riveter comes back -  not to make tanks, but maybe to make these new technologies that can - you know, fabricating solar panels, etc., things that will actually make us more energy secure, make resource wars less likely.

So there's an opportunity for us I think to put America back to work, to bring people into the labor market and into jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that have not been there before, to tell young people, "Hey, we want you to become not just the workers, but also the owners, the inventors, the investors."  We're talking about green careers into a growing part of the economy.  I think that's very, very important for us to do as a country.

LG: Van, are there some certain action points that we need to take care of right now to move us from here to there?

VJ: Well, you know I think that there are. The main thing is to go from having a movement that primarily focuses on changing light bulbs, as important as that is, to changing laws. And you know literally, in our communities there are opportunities for our utility companies, our mayors, our community colleges to begin getting together to figure out smart ways to finance mass projects for weatherization - again, weatherizing buildings by blowing in insulation - you know, green insulation, not the old toxic stuff we used to use - replacing the glass that is rattling around in there and letting energy out, replacing those old, inefficient boilers - that's what we call weatherization retrofit - and then also renewable solar panels and those kinds of things. There's opportunity for, even at the local level before Congress acts, to begin to get local utilities and community colleges and mayors and city councils working to get this agenda jump started. It's great for the earth because you're cutting carbon immediately. You aren't waiting for technological breakthroughs in burning coal or whatever.

VJ: (con't.) But the other thing I think is important is to recognize that there's a lot of information out there about what people can do individually.  A lot of books are out there. "Here's how you can cut your carbon footprint," and it's very important that we keep that going - the individual actions, but we also have to recognize that this is a very large problem, and we have to also act in community. Not just individual consumers, but collective citizen action is now required to get the laws on the side of the change. Right now, the government  unfortunately is still on the side of the problem makers in the U.S. economy. The old polluters still get the big subsidies, then the Pentagon gets money to protect the oil lines all around the world - that's even another subsidy - and they get to pollute for free.  Carbon has no charge, there's no taxes, no cap in trade system - that's an other subsidy. So the polluters get all the support; meanwhile, the solar industry and the wind industry had to beg and cry just to get a little extension on tax credits, and the organic food industries struggle sometimes with them trying to pull the rug out from under the standards.

What we've got to do is get the government not to be on the side of the problem makers, but on the side of the problem solvers, so that the right market signals can be sent with a price on carbon, with support for things that are healthy and good, and that is not an individual consumer action. That is a collective, community citizenship action, and we need to be able to now expand into that kind of activity as well, and the book is really about that. It points out policies that we can pass at the local level, the national level, ideas for the next president, as well as local success stories that show how unlikely faces in unlikely places are already - in places like Chicago, Newark and others - beginning to green this country from the bottom up, bringing some of the greenest solutions to the poorest people. I think that's the way forward.

LG: What's your advice to readers and prospective readers of your book?  What thoughts do you want to keep top-of-mind in order to more toward the green collar economy you foresee?

VJ: Well, I think the think that people should keep top-of-mind moving forward to a green collar economy is that the green collar economy is really an answer to a lot of the trouble we're seeing right now in our financial system and our in our economy.  This book is really kind of a green cure or a green fix for a lot of what's gone wrong.  The challenge that we have in the economy right now is that we have been sold in some ways a bill of goods over the past 20, even 30 years.  Both parties really believed that we could have a U.S. economy that could go on forever based on consumption rather than production, based on borrowing rather than building, and based on environmental destruction rather than environmental restoration.

And so now we're seeing the result, which is that - you know, not just ecologically, but economically unsustainable - to have the entire world economy powered not by U.S. production but by U.S. consumption and credit.  We built the U.S. economy individually and collectively on a credit card, and now those credit cards are tumbling down.  

VJ: (con't.) We're gonna now have to return to a world where we build, respect the earth, and rather than relying on debt, relying on savings and thrift like our grandparents did.  Well, that's actually a very good thing for the earth.  It's a very good thing for, frankly, Asia, which right now is having to drag people away from their homes and pull them out of villages and stuff them into mega-cities to make, frankly, crap to send over here at great ecological cost and great social cost to them.  We think there should be a green economy in Asia where the incredible industry of the Asian people are thank God coming out of - you know, pulling these people out of poverty can be used to develop Asia, develop China, develop India and have strong internal markets there that are more appropriate for the earth, and we should also be able to pull millions of people out of poverty in the United States with a similar strategy.

So a green collar economy is not just good for the polar bears, it's not just good for poor people who might want to get new points of access to the job market; it's good for the whole economy.  It's a sounder footing that this book suggests, a sounder footing going forward, a way to turn this breakdown into a breakthrough, and I hope people will read the book with that in mind.

LG: Thank you. Is there a passage that you'd like to share from your book?

VJ: Yeah.  You know, I will read just a little piece from a chapter we call "Eco-Equity," and it talks about the principle of equal opportunity in the green economy, and I talk about Dr. King, and I say -

"Dr. King is a global hero because he marched and died to racially integrate the last century's economy, even though that economy was based on the old pollution and poison-based technologies.  He made the supreme sacrifice.  He laid down his life to ensure that the old economy, flawed though it was, had a place for everyone.  He was not alone.  Those buses that the Freedom Riders risked death to integrate were not using biodiesel fuel or hybrid engines back then.  Those lunch counters that the Civil Rights activists risks beatings and arrests to open up to everyone, they were not serving organic tofu.  Those schoolhouses, which little black children risked pain and humiliation to integrate, they were not green buildings with solar panels on them.

"The Civil Rights champions all risked their lives to win equal access to an economy that, in retrospect, was undermining the health of the planet, and yet their callings and achievements were undeniably among the noblest in human history.  If the crusade to racially integrate the dirty, gray economy represented the height of nobility in the last century, then how morally compelling is the call to build and inclusive green economy in this one?  If Dr. King and other activists were willing to face attack dogs and fire hoses and murderous mobs to get everyone included in the pollution-based economy, then what should you and I be willing to do today to ensure that the new clean and green economy has a place in it for everyone?"

LG: Van, thank you so much for joining us on GreenBiz Radio today.

VJ: I'm happy to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.