No matter who the next President of the United States is, he will be unable to provide any quick fix to the economic and environmental crises threatening our society. And no matter which political party controls the White House or Congress, we will still be tasked with creating and deepening new political coalitions to meet these challenges head on.
In his new book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, Van Jones, co-Founder of Green For All and a former community organizer with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., offers a simple but radical new program. He calls for a new, multi-class, multi-racial, and multi-generational coalition of people to organize around the creation of a "green New Deal."
Real Change interviewed Jones in anticipation of his visit to Seattle on Nov. 12 and 13.
The Green Collar Economy seems to be reviving a call for full employment that we haven't seen in the American political landscape for some time.
The dominant economic model of the past 30 years has utterly failed not only the world's poor but now, apparently, the world's rich. And we've created a world economy that is driven by U.S. consumption, not U.S. production. By U.S. debt, not by the smart savings and thrift of our grandparents' era. And finally, based on environmental destruction, not environmental restoration. So that is the big fundamental fact. We rolled the dice for not only the U.S. economy but the world economy on that strategy -- which by definition is unsustainable.
We're going to have to make a big U-turn, and everything should be on the table. We can't have a situation where rich elites privatize all the gains and then socialize all the pain and then ask us to go around the loop with them again. And that's what happened with this big bailout. If all that stuff had paid off and made a lot of money they wouldn't have been trying to offer it to us. They only offered us the toxic waste but not the cream.
So we're not having this conversation, in other words, with the normal backdrop. Before, if you were going to talk about full employment, putting the country back to work, meeting tough challenges, it was going to be laughed out of the public square. Crises to tend to raise a really fundamental issue. That's the preamble.
Then, one reason to call for full employment is that there's more than enough work to do. We're going to have to retrofit, reboot, re-power the whole U.S. economy so that we don't cook the planet. Now, that can be led by the private sector. That's as close to a full employment program as you're ever going to hear about. You're talking about millions of jobs.
What kind of jobs? You've got a wingspan like you can't imagine on these jobs. Everything from what I call the Ph.D's in their green lab coats to the "Ph.Dudes" with the green hardhats on creating breakthroughs in solar technology and installing the solar panels, creating breakthroughs in wind technology and manufacturing the wind turbines. So, it's not like there's not a lot of work to do. The work of weatherizing millions of buildings: that's not Buck Rodgers stuff, that's caulk guns and hand drills. There's plenty of work to do, and this is the most important work in the history of human civilization. Because if we don't do this work, we won't be here.
And we have all these people who need work, and frankly who needed work before the severe recession that we're in now. I say, let's connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done, cut pollution and poverty at the same time, beat global warming and a global recession at the same time, and put America back to work. I'm just a simple guy here. That's my prescription.
How have people responded to your making the case for linking these two issues as you've traveled around the country so far?
The book is endorsed by everyone from [former Vice President] Al Gore to [Speaker of the U.S. House] Nancy Pelosi to [journalist] Tavis Smiley. So these ideas are not wild and crazy things. We're in extraordinary times, so we need to think hard and rethink, frankly, a lot of our assumptions about what is on and off the table.
Can you explain the connection between poverty and race and the environmental crisis we're facing?
We have built into the economic system this idea of disposability. So we act as if we have a disposable planet and a disposable people. The U.S. is 4 percent of the world's population. We produce 25 percent of the greenhouse gases, probably more. We also have 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Mostly poor people, mostly Black and brown, mostly locked up for the same non-violent drug offenses that people do in the country clubs everyday. So there's a deep connection between the ecological crisis and the socioeconomic crisis.
Now, as a practical matter, low-income people and people of color get hit first and worst with everything negative in the environmental crisis and in the economic crisis. In fact, Majora Carter, who got the McArthur genius award for her greening of the South Bronx, says "If it were as easy to put sources of pollution and poison in rich white neighborhoods as it was to put them in poor Black neighborhoods, we would have had a green economy a long time ago."
The only reason we've been able to get to this point where we've built up so many toxins and so much pollution is because the race and class divisions in our society let U.S. society dump the worst downside elements of the industrial society on poor neighborhoods and poor nations. And so you wouldn't have this level of environmental crisis if the polluters were not able to exploit the race and class divisions.
And so for that we say we want equal protection for all people from the worst of global warming. We want equal protection from all environmental poisons and toxic pollutants. We also want equal protection from the economic downside of trying to make a transition to a clean energy future. We don't want to be stuck with higher energy and food prices without any help. So it's an equal protection argument being made there.
But there's also a third thing, which is the upside. If we're going to survive, if we're going to have a clean and green economy -- which I hope that we're going to -- that's millions of jobs, thousands of contracts, billions of dollars of investments. That's enough money to lift people out of poverty. That's enough money to restore and repair a lot of communities. That's a lot of money to give people pathways from poverty to prosperity. It's a big transition.
And that's what you mean by "a green New Deal"?
That's what I mean by a green New Deal: an inclusive, green economy strong enough to lift millions of people out of poverty and put this country back to work.
One of the things that struck me about your book is when you talk about economic justice, you're not just talking about urban poverty. You are also talking about rural poverty and the poverty that veterans face. Could you talk about how that fits into your vision of a green New Deal?
Most poor people in America are white people. We don't like to point that out, but it's true. And there's a huge need in rural America and in the so-called exurbs for new hope, new opportunity, and new investments. And they're not going to get it from "Drill, Baby, Drill." There aren't enough jobs on the oil rigs or in the coal mines to make a dent in white poverty.
But there are going to be enough jobs manufacturing wind turbines, fabricating solar panels, retrofitting millions of buildings, installing those solar panels, building those wind farms, revolutionizing agriculture so we can bring food closer to the plate, moving in the direction of smart biofuels, not good crop biofuels. There are a lot of jobs on the green and clean side. Not a lot of jobs on the dirty polluting side.
In the Pacific Northwest, where we are, the same goes for logging as well.
Well, there are always ways for people to fight each other and misunderstand each other. The only problem is that now we're on the Titanic. And the only way to save the ship is for everybody to work on it. Our diversity is either going to be our saving grace or it's going to be our Achilles' heel, and that's in the hands of each and every American to make that call. I think that the state of working and poor white folks is intricately bound up now with the state of all working folks in the United States. And in the future there will either be more work, more wealth, more health because we've made a turn to green industry, or this year will look like the good old days.
In your book, which is mainly positive, you also invoked the specter of "eco-apartheid" if we don't pursue a green New Deal. What did you mean by that?
Eco-apartheid is a situation where we have ecological haves and ecological have-nots. It's pretty straightforward. The affluent lifestyle greens jumpstart a lot of these main industries and products, which is very important. The fundamentals of the green economy require people to be able to buy in by paying a green premium, a niche in the economy which is going to be 5 percent or 15 percent [of the economy]. But whatever good it does will always be overtaken and erased by the other 85 percent of the economy. So the key is to make sure the green economy is not just a place for affluent people to spend money, but a place for ordinary people to earn money, and hopefully for poor people to make some money. And that's got to be the fundamental goal.
What are the kinds of coalition politics you imagine taking place and needing to take place in order to push this from the grassroots level?
That is a fundamental question about U.S. politics and 400 years of class and race division, so there's no short answer to that. I think that the proponents of green economic solutions need to recognize that everybody they don't include is going to be organized by the defenders of the status quo. So the idea that they can just ignore whole constituencies and colors and classes and be sufficient unto themselves because they've got some small circle around the table -- they're going to get completely devastated.
It happened on the climate bill this year in Congress. It happened with Proposition 87 in California, where a too-small section of people tried to move a major climate ballot measure and it was crushed, despite spending $40 million to get it passed. Everybody that was left out -- basically working folks -- was convinced that it was going to cost them more than it was going to benefit them in terms of increased energy prices or increased taxes.
So there's no way to move this agenda without having a much bigger tent than most people who are advocates of the green economy understand.
You're going to have to include coal miners, make sure that they have a just transition. They're heroes, they've sacrificed their lungs, they've sacrificed their communities to power this country to this point, they've got to be brought into the deal and not made enemies, they've got to be able to retire with dignity and honor and not go work at Wal-Mart.
You're going to have to include African-Americans and Latinos and indigenous folks. Native Americans, frankly, have a disproportionate share of wind and solar resources on their land because we've pushed them into rocky, windy, hot places. They have to be brought into this deal in a respectful way, unless we want to do another round of broken treaties.
So this is an everybody agenda. Everybody's got to get on board, everybody's got to play fair, or we're going to go down with the ship. And I can't say it any more simple than that.