The Green Collar Economy - Part One

VanJonesHeadShot.jpgIt’s very difficult to get people to all march together and chant “be reasonable”
-- Jon Stewart

Van Jones’ new book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, is an elegant critique of the current divide in the environmental movement that still offers a hopeful look forward in difficult economic and ecological times.

Jones, growing out of a background of social justice work and community organizing in Oakland, has clearly studied the environmental movement and its history. He spends the early portion of the book pointing out the same problems that I’ve always had with environmentalism: that it is rooted in a language of crisis that offers very little in terms of solution, and quite a lot in terms of the-sky-is-falling-and-it's-your-fault guilt.

But this critique of environmentalism (which draws on the ideas expressed in books like Break Through) isn’t what makes the book so refreshing. The most interesting (and most important) point that Van Jones makes is about the significance of coming to terms with an “eco-apartheid” that has ingrained itself in the environmental movement. He sees a world divided into ecological "haves" (those with the money to invest in green goods and worry about the health of the planet) and the "have-nots" (those with more pressing concerns, like feeding their family and paying off credit card bills). With that distinction in mind, Jones sketches the reasons that average blue collar and working class Americans have felt passed over by the environmental movement. Jones also notes that minority groups, those who traditionally have not benefited from the old "dirty" economy, are still not drawn in by the promise of a cleaner solution. And the problem seems to be one of motivation; After all, how important is a Polar Bear when faced with the lack of access to basic services?

His argument is clear: if we can bring both sides of the activist world to the same table, our situation is not yet hopeless. It’s a monumental task, fighting both global warming and social injustice at the same time, but Jones draws a compelling case for why the two must fit together like interlocking gears.

I often found Van Jones’ rhetorical flourishes a little much, but I realize he isn’t writing for me. But I’m an eco-nerd, and firmly in the ranks of the converted. Drawing on his background as a leader of rallies and a coiner of slogans, Jones writes to convince people on either end of the Social Justice Vs. Environment debate, and his words try to draw everyone to the middle. Much like Jon Stewart quoted above, Van Jones sees a pretty simple path to salvation : let’s just be reasonable and take the edge off our rhetoric for a moment. It’s amazing to think of the common ground that everyone can gain when a Green Collar economy is providing good wages for Environmental work.

This is not to suggest that Jones can’t bring the fire when he wants. He is unequivocal with the central message of the book: everyone must be lifted by the raising green tide, and not only because it is the right thing to do. It will be impossible to solve the current ecological crisis without getting everyone on board for the solution, and that will never happen unless everyone is given equal access to the fruits of the green-collar economy.

Tomorrow -- Part Two: Let’s talk solutions. Van Jones himself gives us a preview, (updated for current events.)

Alan Smith

Posted at 1:17 AM, Nov 11, 2008 in Economic Development | Education | Environment | Peace and Justice | Philanthropic Strategy | Poverty | Technology | Permalink | Comment