An Interview with Van Jones
Van Jones is an award-winning activist, bestselling author, speaker, and political advisor. I first became a die-hard fan in 2007 when I attended my first (and far from my last) Awakening the Dreamer Symposium - a program of the Pachamama Alliance and presented by its founder, Lynne Twist. I sat in awe, quite literally glued to the screen, listening to the profound wisdom Mr. Jones shared about many ideas, but especially about how he views collaboration to be a significant solution to our planets problems. He said,
“For too long we’ve had this division between ecology and social justice, and so you’re either concerned about nature and the environment, or you’re concerned about people. Now you’re starting to see a much more wisdom-based approach to the fact that there are no single issues. If you pull enough on any single issue, you find it’s connected to every other issue. When you talk about cosmology, and I talk about racial justice, we realize we’re speaking the same language, When you talk about environment, and I talk about community health we’re speaking the same language. And so now it’s the age for the translator. It’s the age for the bridge builder. It’s the age for Velcro. It’s the age for Lego. It’s the age for combining what we already have into what we need.”
It is no surprise that The Green Collar Economy, How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, was written by Mr. Jones, and it could not be more current. The book launched at #12 on the New York Times bestseller list with a timely message - that green jobs can save both our economy and our environment. Through Jones’ steady stewardship, his organization Green For All helped create the Green Jobs Act (2007). Once passed, the act authorized $125 million in “green-collar” job training. This training is folded into emerging green sectors such as solar and wind industries, energy retrofitting and green building construction. The monies approved by Congress don’t find their way only to existing businesses with a need to improve their bottom line. Twenty percent of the funds also support “Pathways Out of Poverty,” a program providing targeted resources and support to low-income individuals.
I had the great pleasure to meet Mr. Jones at the Big Tent, blogger headquarters during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spoke on several riveting subjects from environmental justice to green jobs not jails. I found myself analyzing the content of his presentations, using his topics as a springboard to further inquiry. After reading the book I was able to formulate the following questions…
In your book The Green Collar Economy you clearly describe how, “some of the barriers to a real breakthrough are not technological, economic or political.” Describe your vision of what the barriers are and what we need to do to fix them?
Well, there are political challenges to moving to renewable energy and energy efficiency. There are economic and technological challenges, too. But one of the biggest things standing in our way is the lack of workers trained and ready to do the work of building the green economy.
Bringing America’s economy into the 21st century is going to take a lot of work. We have to retrofit and upgrade millions of buildings. We have to install millions of solar panels, and plant and care for millions of trees. We have to build millions of plug-in hybrid vehicles. We need thousands of solar farms, wind farms, and wave farms; we’ll have to build those, too. And we have to manufacture the solar panels, wind turbines and wave power turbines for those energy farms.
Who’s going to do all this work? Right now, America does not have a workforce trained to do the hard and noble work of building the green economy. But we have more than enough people who want those jobs, who want to be trained and equipped to do work that not only feeds their families but saves the country and the planet.
So the biggest barrier is not having enough workers to do the work. How do we overcome this barrier? We invest in workers. We invest in the everyday person, ready to work and looking to serve. We invest in training programs, service and learning programs, job placement programs.
Right now, Green For All is preparing to roll out our campaign for a Clean Energy Corps for America. It’s our plan to do all these things so that we can match the people who most need work, with the work that most needs to be done.
At ICOSA we believe that collaboration could save the world. Describe how collaboration creates a Green Collar Economy, and could in fact be the answer to our economic problems?
From floods to fires, from foreclosures to financial collapse, it should be obvious to everyone at this point that the old, pollution-based economy is hurting the planet and hurting the people. We need a new, green economy - one that helps the planet and helps the people.
That’s a big shift. To get there, we need a massive and deliberate reorganization of the country’s resources and priorities. The work ahead of us - from retrofitting buildings, to constructing energy farms, to upgrading our power grid, and so on - is going to create tremendous opportunities for work, wealth and health. But it will also create a million and one headaches, missteps and failures if we aren’t moving forward together as a country, united.
That means collaboration. That means building a strong, durable, and broad-based coalition with the political muscle to move such a comprehensive agenda. It will not be easy. The current economy, based on pollution and exclusion, still has many powerful supporters entrenched in Washington and on Wall Street.
No, it will not be easy. But it is necessary, and possible.
We all have something to gain from a green economy. But none of us can build it alone. Which means we have to build it together. All of us — workers, environmentalists, activists, students, people of color, people of faith, small farmers, progressive business and finance leaders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, scientists, and more.
I call it a “Green Growth Alliance,” and it boils down to exactly what you said: collaboration can save the world.
You describe ethanol, nuclear power and “clean coal” as false solutions. You even suggest, “in a world full of hungry people burning food should be criminally punished.” Why do you think the U.S. continues to be attached to these solutions?
I call it a “Green Growth Alliance,” and it boils down to exactly what you said: collaboration can save the world. Well, the American people aren’t attached to these false solutions. But there are those who have made enormous profits exploiting the planet that want to keep doing that.
When I travel the country and talk to regular people, they all want a country where their children don’t get asthma, where their workplaces don’t put them at risk for cancer, where climate change isn’t jeopardizing the farms that feed them, where energy sources are renewable and local and don’t lead to wars and other political conflict. Everyone wants that.
The challenge is giving people a way to understand and participate in the solutions. When we do that well, everything becomes a lot easier.
What are some examples of green technology that can spur greater economic growth (akin to the Silicon Valley explosion in the 90’s)?
The low-hanging fruit in the green economy is energy efficiency. By investing in energy efficiency, we can create hundreds of thousands of green-collar jobs and dramatically reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming. Most people don’t know this, but buildings are responsible for more of our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions — about 40 percent — than anything else.
That includes transportation and industry. At the same time, our buildings are incredibly wasteful. They leak energy constantly because of loose windows and doors, poor insulation, and other easy-to-fix problems. And older appliances use more energy than necessary to do simple things like heat water or refrigerate our food.
Those problems may be easy to fix, but they won’t fix themselves. We need people to do the work, and that means jobs. Retrofitting and upgrading our nation’s buildings would be a major job engine and a catalyst for the green economy.
Since your second son, Mattai, and I share a birthday, how has fatherhood changed your views and your work?
I am much more committed to real impact and creating a real difference. When I was younger, I was happy just giving speeches and going to coalition meetings and protests. Whether we won - or whether our victories truly changed anything - was of lesser importance than whether we were “right.” But now I have two boys, and they will be asking me about what we did, or didn’t do, to heal their planet. And I don’t want to have silly answers for them, when they are bigger. And I don’t want them to grow old on a hot, strip-mined, dying planet.
What kind of impact has the recession had on the green collar economy, and what are your projections for the green job market based on those trends?
When I was younger, I worked harder and harder - but saw few results. Now I want to work smarter. This recession has been hard on everybody. Green-collar workers are no exception; neither are green entrepreneurs. But there is a silver lining.
The severity of this recession has made it obvious that the old way of doing things does not work.
It has left even the most skeptical more open to the ideas and arguments of the green-collar movement.
You can see it in the stimulus package, which contains significant investment in green industry and green-collar workers. The federal government is not just trying to stimulate the economy, it is also paying special attention to nurturing the seeds of the new, green economy.
Basically, the recession has taught us a lesson we should have learned long ago, and it has taught us the hard way. That lesson will, I hope, be the springboard to a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.
Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the President and Founder of a Foot in the Door Productions an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, non-profits and education. Contact Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org.