For the fifth issue of the htmltimes, we are honored to present an interview with social and environmental justice activist and Yale Law graduate Van Jones.
As founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green For All, Jones is a leading advocate for Green Collar Jobs — employment opportunities in sustainable energy, agriculture, and development designed to lift poor, disadvantaged American youths out of poverty and into jobs that provide them with life skills, while helping to launch a new green economy.
In this exclusive htmltimes interview, Jones speaks about the promise of the ongoing negotiations and talks with Obama's team, the need for a "green" New Deal, and his new book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Problem Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.
Jacob Perkins: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us tonight…
Van Jones: Happy to talk with you.
Jacob Perkins: Alright great… and congratulations on the book by the way… just got through reading it and got a lot out of it… so thank you
Van Jones: Well I'm glad you were able to give it some time!
Jacob Perkins: So the book is called the Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. What are those problems as you seem them, and what is the solution?
Van Jones: Well the problems are that our economy is melting down and our ice-caps are melting down. So we've got an economic and financial crisis on the one hand, and we also have an ecological crisis… The single solution to (these problems) is a green economy that is inclusive, that's strong enough to lift millions of people out of poverty. Everything is good in the fight against global warming… everything that's good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don't put themselves up, wind turbines don't manufacture themselves, homes don't energy retrofit themselves… So everything that's good in the fight against global warming is a job. It's a contract, it's an entrepreneurial opportunity, it's a career. And so what we're saying is that by building a green economy that's strong enough to lift millions of people out of poverty, we can also address global warming, we can power our way through the recession by re-powering America with clean energy, and beat this economic down turn and global warming at the same time.
Jacob Perkins: So in the last couple of years, "green collar" as obviously vaulted to the top of the political lexicon… What does the new administration have to do to hit the ground running on green issues?
Van Jones: Well, I think it's three things: Retrofit America, re-power America and in some ways, reconnect America. Retrofitting America would require the weatherization of millions and millions of buildings across the country -- blowing in clean, non toxic insulation, replacing old boilers and furnaces that are 20 yrs, 30 yrs out of date and inefficient with the new, modern, super efficient boilers… or even geothermal units. It's double-paneing glass so that buildings don't leak so much energy, replacing ill fitting doors using calk guns… Everything that we can do to make buildings more efficient with regard to energy -- so that they waste less energy -- will involve jobs, careers… It's a lot of work! But it's also very good for bringing down carbon emissions because if you have buildings that are 30 percent inefficient, that means that our power plants have to work 30 percent more and put out 30 percent more carbon. So retrofitting America would be one very smart thing for (Obama) to do. We have a proposal called the Clean Energy Corps that would put 33 billion dollars on the table in the form of a revolving loan fund to help cities, universities, hospitals retrofit their buildings using these green grants from the government. (Recipients) then can pay those grants back out of the cost of savings from their energy bill. That way, we can keep that fund replenished and do those kinds of things… So that's retrofitting America…
Also — re-powering America -- having a real commitment to clean energy like wind and solar… tapping that Saudi Arabia of wind energy that we have in the middle of our country, and tapping the Saudi Arabia of solar energy that we have in our sun belt.
Then lastly, like I say, reconnecting America: Making sure that we invest in mass-transit and smart growth so that we can put people to work building lite-rail and repairing our transit system so that people don't have to rely on gas-guzzling cars, or cars at all. Those are the things that we hope the president-elect will move on very aggressively next year.
Jacob Perkins: Just last week (Obama) announced that he'll be supporting a massive investment in America's infrastructure, and I was struck in the book by all your talk about a "smart grid… " Do you think there's adequate preasure in place for him to (move forward aggressively)… are the voices loud enough for him to notice, do you think?
Van Jones: I think so. I mean this is a very pragmatic, open, transparent transition. The transition team has been meeting with lots of people… We've been honored to meet with them a couple of times: once in person and then once as part of a big conference call. They're soliciting broad ideas through the old Obama website and I think that good ideas, smart ideas are going to bubble up to the top in a way that's probably unheard of in American politics. And I do think that these green solutions actually make sense -- they make economic sense, they make ecologic sense…
One of the big dangers is that, you know, the president-elect has said that he wants projects that are so-called "shovel-ready." And there is a challenge there in that a lot of things that are quote unquote "shovel-ready" are things that may not have been thought up in the most ecologically friendly way. So there are a lot of road projects and sprawl-inducing projects --
Jacob Perkins: I was going ask you about "clean coal," for instance --
Van Jones: Yeah sure. Some (local) governments may have some pet sprawl projects that may actually make global warming worse because people will continue driving long distances as opposed to smarter growth: building homes closer to cities, and so… We may be feeding some of the things that we're fighting in the stimulus… kind of a contradictory stimulus. But that's probably unavoidable at some level… Certainly any of the "clean coal" stuff has to be looked at very seriously because I'm very skeptical that there can be "clean coal."
Jacob Perkins: I was just thinking about the very celebrated organization that Obama put together in terms of volunteers and organizers, and again I was struck in the book… you talk in the book about a so called "green" New Deal… You know it seems like there's a massive body of motivated people out there. What can we do to keep them a part of the discussion and hopefully move them into some green jobs?
Van Jones: Well, you know this is the big question mark, the big challenge, I think, for everybody. The electoral politics tends to be about everything, so you can put together larger mobilizations, especially during national elections then after you win and your candidate is sworn in, things go back to normal in some ways, in that separate bills, separate proposals, separate pieces of legislation that go, each through their own committees, etc. So sometimes it can be very hard to figure out how people can then stay involved. Green For All, the organization that I lead is working very hard to come up with pathways for engagement: People who were a part of the Obama phenomenon, but frankly, we're not part of an organization, so people who are a part of American society and do care, we want them to be able to go to our website -- greenforall.org -- and sign up to be involved, to get involved. We're definitely going to be working hard to get our clean energy corps put forward which we think is a very good solution that touches a little bit on everything -- from work to young people's opportunities -- the green job corps includes this ideas of community service as a job readiness strategy. We have conservation corps and organizations like YouthBuild that are teaching disadvantaged young people how to work in teams, how to have good life skills, as well as some actual work skills -- we want to make sure those programs are funded and greened up so that they're building green buildings and leaning that sort of thing, and people in the conservation corps have more support to be doing more of the nature and wilderness work… But then those young people who go through those programs should also have the opportunity to then go right from those programs when they successfully complete them -- and go right into community college, or a vocational training program -- and then go right into a job retrofitting and re-powering America. And that's the whole point of our Clean Energy Corps -- to get enough money on the table so that people can do community service, and then get training, and then get real green jobs and green careers in the green economy.
Jacob Perkins: And how does the Clean Energy Corps differ from the Green Growth Alliance that you describe in the book?
Van Jones: The Green Growth Alliance which we call for in the book -- and we definitely encourage people to look at the book -- is about a political alliance, just as FDR had the New Deal coalition. The New Deal was a policy. The New Deal coalition was a very broad cross-section of voters and political interests, from progressive bankers, to farmers, to labor unions, to minorities, to students that all supported FDR's policies. With FDR you had the New Deal and the New Deal coalition. Well where we are in American politics -- we need something like a Clean Energy Corps as one concentration of policies, but we also need a Green Growth Alliance to support that proposal and many other proposals that will be about making the US economy more green, more earth-honoring, but also more inclusive! And providing better pathways out of poverty for more people because it's going to be very important that as we build a green economy (that allows us to) connect the people that most need work to the work that most needs to be done. And that, I think, is a moral imperative; that we fight pollution and poverty at the same time and that we build a green economy that Dr. King would be proud of in terms of including everybody… All classes and all colors having equal opportunity to be part of the next stage in the development of the American economy.
Jacob Perkins: I just read something interesting, and sort of peculiar, to be honest, that was suggesting that the green collar movement needs to be careful not to be too -- condescending was the word that was used -- toward what you would call the gray economy… (which we're still, unfortunately, currently a part of)… I'm wondering how you respond too -- it wasn't quite criticism, but it was close -- how do you respond to something like that?
Van Jones: Well, you know, I haven't read that piece… I think it's important that we be respectful of all the contributions that have been made by all workers. Even our coal workers are heros in a way… in that they've been asked to sacrifice their lungs, their health, their communities. We're now asking our coal miners to blow up their grandmother's mountains! Awful… Mountain top removal and strip-mining… Those coal miners don't set the energy policy in this country but they have to make the sacrifices to carry it out. I think that sometimes we aren't respectful enough, that we're not as encouraging and honoring of the people who have gotten America to this point -- good and bad. To the extent that we are guilty of that, I think we have to be careful. At the same time I think it's important that we do lay out that we have a higher vision for people who are in the workforce right now than to continue to work in old outdated industries that maybe subtracting from their own health, and frankly not adding that much to their own wealth. And so I do think it's important to point out the new opportunities and get the government on the side of the problem solvers in the US economy -- the new industries -- like wind, like solar, like advanced geo-thermal, like the smarter bio-fuels, etc. and green construction. Get the government on the side of the problem solvers and not the problem makers and be clear that while we respect all workers in all categories of work, we do think that we want to increase the proportion or percentage of people who get up everyday and engage in economic activity that heals the planet rather than hurting it.
Jacob Perkins: I was wondering if you could next go into the fourth quadrant magic that you share in the book… I feel like that's a particularly powerful tool in describing where we are now and where we need to get to.
Van Jones: Ok well this will be my last question because I'm going to have to run… But I'm super honored to be a part of this program…
Jacob Perkins: No, I appreciate it very much, thanks…
Van Jones: Yeah, and I'm also happy that you pointed that out. You're the first interviewer that's actually given me the opportunity to talk about the fourth quadrant so… I am pretty impressed with it (the fourth quadrant idea)… even though I thunk it up myself… It's essentially just a simple little grid and it has two lines -- one that moves from problem to solution. That's the horizontal axis. And then there's a vertical axis -- at the top it's rich and at the bottom it's poor… so when you cross those two lines you have four quadrants. The first quadrant is where -- in the upper left corner -- affluent people worry about ecological problems. They tend to worry about things like polar bears or rain forests -- you know, very large ecological systems being broken down… charismatic mega-fauna, as I sometimes say… like polar bears. And it's very important that they do that. You know, Native Americans actually also worry about that as well -- they're more culturally rich than economically rich -- and it's very important that they do that, because they're sticking up for species that can't vote. They can't defend themselves.
As you move to that second quadrant, which is that lower left quadrant where the poor folks are worrying about environmental and ecological issues, they tend to be more concerned about asthma, pollution -- that smokestack right across the street from their school -- lead paint, you know things that are much more individually impactful to them.
And so that distinction is the distinction often between mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice.
Then if you begin to move from problem to solution, in that upper third quadrant… again as rich people think about solutions, as affluent, wealthy people begin to think about solutions, that third quadrant becomes very important because that's where you have your hybrid cars and your solar panels. Basically, good business opportunities for wealthy people and good consumer choices for affluent people who can afford to pay a green premium to have more ecologically responsible products. It's also very good because they tend to be the early adopters and the people who help to get some of these new enterprises going. But at the same time they're not -- those products that they're talking about often are just out of economic reach for people who are in that fourth quadrant.
And that fourth quadrant -- which is the lower, right-hand quadrant -- that's where poor people, low-income people, disadvantaged people, are thinking about ecological solutions. There they tend to think less about products to purchase and more about the opportunities for work, for increased wealth and improved health, for green jobs and green careers…
Some of the slogans, like "green that ghetto first," or "green jobs not jails," or "green jobs for all" -- some of the more eco populist slogans begin to make sense (in the fourth quadrant) because that's where people are going to be looking for ecological solutions that are also economic solutions… and seeing the green economy less as a place for affluent people to spend money -- as important as that is -- but also as a place for ordinary people to earn money and even for low-income people to save money… if we can find ways through farmers markets and home weatherization to actually bring clean and green solutions to people at a lower cost and actually help them to save money. So that's the next step in the evolution of the green economy -- thinking less as the green economy as being primarily referencing polar bears or primarily referencing hybrid cars, thinking about it more as referencing young people in urban environments or disadvantaged people in rural environments getting up in the morning and putting on a green hard hat and rolling up their sleeves and going off to fix America. And having careers and being able to go from workers, to managers, to owners, to inventors, to investors, and being able to live full, healthy lives in peaceful communities that are a part of the solution, both for our society, but also for our planet.
Jacob Perkins: Van, thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Van Jones: Well thank you so much, I appreciate the opportunity, and please give me another opportunity to speak to your listenership.
Jacob Perkins: Absolutely. We'd be honored. Thanks for all you do!
Van Jones: All the best, bye-bye.
Jacob Perkins: Bye.
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