The TH Interview: Van Jones - Founder of Green for All

Las Vegas Hosts The National Clean Energy Summit
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Eco-advocate, civil rights activist and social entrepreneur rolled into one, Van Jones was recently on tour promoting his latest book, The Green Collar Economy. As the founder of Green For All — the national initiative which aims to combat poverty, racial inequality and the environmental crisis through the building of a robust and all-inclusive green economy — we've covered Van Jones here on TreeHugger plenty of times before. But this time we have it straight from the source as he describes his perspective on how the "green economy" concept has gained significant cultural cachet recently, along with building a broader coalition at the intersection of race, class and environmentalism, and what his next steps are.1. Your organization and others have been promoting a "green collar economy" extensively in the last year. Can you describe in your experience how public and political perception of "green collar economy" has changed in the last year?

I think the idea really got a ton of visibility in 2007, when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton started using the term in the primaries. John Edwards also adopted the term. And Speaker Pelosi started using it, too.

But as for me: I actually first started saying publicly that urban youth need "green jobs, not jails" way back in the year 2000 and 2001. Then the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, where I was the executive director, had a series of retreats called Reinventing Revolution in 2002 and 2003, to help develop the concept. In 2005, the Ella Baker Center anchored the Social Equity Track for the UN World Environment Day's "Green Cities" summit.

That was where we publicly advanced the concept of "green-collar jobs." At the time of the June 2005 UN summit, I did a worldwide Google search for the term "green-collar job." I got only 17 hits. There had been one book and a few pamphlets that used the term, but that was it - in the whole world. I personally started evangelizing the concept at dozens and hundreds of interviews and speeches. It was crazy to see it just catch on. Now that term gets millions of Google hits.

2. What's the general response so far to bringing race and class into the climate change debate among mainstream environmentalists, politicians, and the public? Has it changed at all after disastrous events like Hurricane Katrina?

Katrina did give everyone a serious reality check. Since then, I think mainstream enviros have been perhaps more open to expanding the coalition fighting for climate solutions. But of course, nobody is going to just come out and say, "Oh, I don't care if Black people get included in anything" (laughs). So we have to see who actually comes through and delivers, over time.

But so far, so good. All of the big green groups have been very encouraging of Green For All: the Alliance for Climate Protection's Cathy Zoi ... the NRDC's (Natural Resources Defense Council) Francis Beinecke ...'s Laurie David ... the Sierra Club's Carl Pope ... the NWF (National Wildlife Federation). They have all gone out of their way to be helpful and supportive. And Fred Krupp from Environmental Defense has been an especially active and helpful mentor for me, personally. Of course, we have a special and close partnership with 1Sky, the new climate solutions organization. So I think that the mainstream environmental movement is open to partnerships and collaborating in new and powerful ways.

3. You have used the term "backlash alliances" as one of the possible outcomes if mainstream environmentalism disregards issues of race and class. Can you explain this term?

The polluters will organize everyone we leave out of the climate solutions coalition. If we don't include people of color and low-income people, then the polluters will reach out to them and say, "This whole green movement is just a bunch of eco-elitists who want to slap green taxes on everything to fund their little hybrid revolution. They will gain, and you will lose out." This is already beginning to happen. One polluter-supported, Black-led group was going around this summer calling the NRDC and Nancy Pelosi "punishers of the poor" for refusing to allow coastal drilling for oil. They held a rally where a Black woman was holding a sign that read, "Enviromental groups don't feed my kids." If we reinvent "green" to help low-income people earn and save money, those kinds of claims will be harder to make.

4. Why do you feel an "eco" version of capitalism — a greener version of the same socio-economic structures that can be seen as having already left behind or oppressed plenty of ordinary Americans and people abroad — will help solve climate change and poverty? Or, how is it different? In this "eco-capitalism," what measures are needed to ensure some kind of equal representation, and what form could they take?

Well, there is nothing inherently just or inclusive about eco-capitalism or green capitalism. In fact, we are already seeing the emergence of a very small, affluent and mostly white eco-elite. Members of this small group are benefiting from the organic food, hybrid cars, solar panels, what have you - because they can afford to pay a green premium and buy into a green lifestyle. That's fine. In fact, I would much rather they create these green niches than just be a part of the destructive, gray economy. But the problem is that the eco-elite cannot change the status quo, economically or politically, all by itself. It is just too tiny. It needs allies and partners to usher in the full transformation that it seeks.

That is where our opportunity for justice and inclusion comes in. To earn the support of people of color and working class people, the mainstream, affluent enviros must ensure that a broad swath of the American people can share more equitably in the benefits and burdens, risks and rewards, of a shift to clean energy. We need a green "new deal" - under which the green business community holds itself to higher standards of equal opportunity and labor friendliness, in exchange for support from a broader section of American society.

5. With the US election coming up, how would you assess the candidates' approaches for a more sustainable economy?

Neither candidate is perfect. But McCain represents a very dangerous development. I call it, "the rise of the Dirty Greens." We used to have green-washing corporations that created green marketing campaigns, but quietly kept their dirty and dangerous practices. Now we have green-washing politicians, who put wind farms and solar panels in their ads but keep their dirty and dangerous policies. You can't say you are for climate solutions and then be the foremost cheerleader for "drill, baby, drill" - at the same time. That is what McCain is doing. I call "drill here, drill now" a Happy Meal slogan. It feels good in your mouth today, but it won't meet your need for nutritional answers - and it may give you a heart attack tomorrow. You can either be for clean energy or dirty energy, but not both. An "all of the above approach" means that the dirty stuff cancels out the gains from the clean stuff, and we are back at zero. And we don't need a zero. We need a hero. We need forward progress, not a treadmill.

Obama has problems, too. He needs to quit promoting this Big Lie about "clean coal." He may as well call for unicorns to pull our cars and fairies to light our homes at night with the light from their wands. Those would be equally fictitious and ludicrous energy solutions. There is no such thing as clean coal, just like there is no such thing as a healthy cigarette.

6. Amongst many other things, after starting Green For All, helping to organize the Green Jobs Now Day of Action, and releasing your book The Green Collar Economy, what are your next action steps / plans?

We want to focus on a campaign for "winter jobs" in the green economy. These jobs would come from the federal government making funds available for workers to weatherize and retrofit millions of homes, across the country. People are going to be screaming about home heating bills this winter. Energy bills might leap by 20 percent. But guess what? If we start right now, we can make people's homes 30 percent more efficient by blowing in eco-friendly insulation, replacing ill-fitting windows with double-glazed glass and plugging holes with caulk guns. Then people can actually save money this winter. We need an emergency mobilization; the next hurricane is on the horizon, and it is a blizzard of high energy bills. We are calling for the economic stimulus package (which Speaker Pelosi wants Congress to pass after the election) to be a Green Recovery Act, focused on retrofitting American homes and businesses to conserve energy.

7. We've been hearing a lot about eco-communities all over the world nowadays, even in urban centers. What do you think of eco-communities and what role might they have in a green collar economy?

They will be the backbone of the bottom-up aspect of the solutions. They will restore local and neighborhood level viability and sustainability. More importantly, eco-communities begin to restore human community, at a time when commercial society has stripped a lot of that away from us. Eco-villages are the necessary, vital, irreplaceable corner stone of a green economic renaissance and transition to a sane society.