Going Green

There is a battle raging for the definition of “green.” For years the stereotype meant tree-hugging polar-bear lovers and coffee-sipping Prius drivers. But public relations campaigns launched across the country have redefined “green” as anyone who has changed their light bulbs. We should all hope that the very different vision of California-based activist Van Jones, put forward in The Green Collar Economy, wins this war.

As Jones sees it, the two greatest challenges of the 21st century are the destruction of the environment and the increasing economic disparity in our country. Jones, founder of Green For All, an organization that promotes green-collar jobs and opportunities for the disadvantaged, believes we can look for solutions to both these crises in the green-collar economy.

The book begins with a stark view of these two impending dangers and what they mean for our country and world. Jones seems to take joy in slaughtering the sa­cred cows of the “eco-elite” and of economic activists. While he agrees that we should care about melting ice caps, dwindling numbers of polar bears, and disappearing rainforests, he acknowledges that these are concerns we can have only if our basic needs are met. If rent is due and you lose your job at the local factory because of pricey new environmental regulations, your concern for the polar bears, justifiably, isn’t high.

Jones documents the conservation and regulation efforts of the past century, and brings the reader to what he hopes will be a third wave of environmentalism. Pulling from the lessons of the past, Jones builds a definition of “eco equity”: “Equal protection and equal opportunity in an economy that respects the earth.” In this vision, hope doesn’t rest in the “eco-elite,” the small percentage of the population that buys expensive vegetables and drives electric cars. The foundation of Jones’ movement is a broad coalition of labor and justice activists, environmentalists, students, and faith groups. He argues that the interests of these groups will provide the basis for a political and social movement large enough to tackle these dual crises. Indeed, he writes, “If the green economy remains a niche market, even a large one, then the excluded 80 percent will inevitably and perhaps unknowingly undo all the positive ecological impacts of the green 20 percent.”

JONES CALLS FOR a “Green New Deal” that considers the government vs. free-market debate to be a false dichotomy. This includes a call to “deep patriotism,” where progress is based on the ingenuity and hard work of everyday Americans in partnership with government support and investment. With the right government incentives, he writes, thousands could be put back to work in jobs that can’t be sent overseas. For example, across the country our buildings are responsible for nearly one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. These buildings cannot be put on a ship, sent to a country with low labor costs, and then shipped back energy-efficient. Neither can the installation and maintenance of solar panels or wind turbines. Imagine Detroit reopening factories to crank out windmill after windmill, solar panel after solar panel.

By including stories of cities across the country, Jones demonstrates that we are already in the midst of the future he is describing. In Chicago, ex-offenders released from prison are trained in computer repair so that old computers can be recycled and used in low-income schools. “Urban farmers” are cleaning up toxic soil, growing produce in vacant lots, and selling it at farmers markets. Houses, instead of being destroyed, are being disassembled and their parts resold. From the failures and successes of innovative practitioners and proactive public policies, the reader gains a sense of the practical pieces of this coming wave.

Jones also provides public policy recommendations for the incoming administration—from increased in­cen­tives for green buildings to the creation of various targets for reducing emissions and waste. Jones proposes that local municipalities establish carbon budgets within their planning. This means that cities must account for not just the immediate monetary cost of various projects and activities but the longer-term economic costs through the assessment of carbon emissions. He also pulls from policies reminiscent of the New Deal programs that successfully brought electricity to rural areas. Through the creation of “Green Assessment Districts,” home and building owners could pay for costly retrofits and weatherization by agreeing to small property tax increases over the long term. These loans would be paid off and improvements covered even if the property changed hands.

Jones shakes up entrenched dogmas and outdated mindsets; whether or not you agree with his final prescription, it is a worthy one. His chapter on policy proposals seems scattered, leaving what seems like a collection of creative ideas but no comprehensive policy agenda. But the crux of the book doesn’t lie in policy. It lies in the process of building the coalition and the simple idea that while demands are rarely shared by broad coalitions, goals can be. “In this age,” he writes, “our main job is to seek out friends wherever we can, not just to defeat enemies.” For the sake of us all, this coalition must win.

Tim King is special assistant to Sojourners’ CEO.

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