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Green Collar Evangelist: Van Jones

April 20th, 2008 by admin · 6 Comments

From Fast Company: Oakland activist Van Jones is on a mission to bring green-collar jobs to the urban poor. His mightiest weapon: his mouth.

This story has many inspiring elements: community building, youth empowerment, market-driven solutions, and solutions to poverty, employment and global warming. Most of us don’t worry about the next meal or paying rent or getting a job that can pay for these things. Which is why we have the luxury of worrying about climate change and our carbon footprint. Mobilizing the urban and rural poor to care about these issues through employment opportunities in this new green economy can have the type of transformational, tipping point effect we’re all looking for. All it takes is some political will and the right leadership. Al Gore, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama: if you’ve not already met Van Jones, we suggest you give him a call.

As he looked into this emerging economy, Jones realized how quickly its demands would outstrip the supply of skilled labor. In 2007, investment in clean-technology companies in North America reached $4 billion, up 38% from 2006. Twenty-five states now have renewable-energy standards for utilities, requiring them to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable sources. In California, there already aren’t enough solar installers to keep up with demand. Wind-energy producers are having a hard time finding trained turbine technicians, says Bruce Hamilton, director of operations at PPM Energy, a subsidiary of ScottishPower with more than a dozen wind farms in operation or under construction around the country: “There’s going to be a fight for labor.”

The fossil-fuel industry has taken advantage of the green lobby’s weaknesses, Jones says, derailing clean-energy incentives by spinning them as essentially “green taxes” on the poor. He points to the 2006 defeat of California’s Proposition 87 as an example. “It was a wonderful clean-energy ballot initiative to tax oil companies to fund clean energy,” he explains. “Yet despite Hollywood and Silicon Valley spending $40 million to pass it, despite Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigning all over the state, the thing failed. The polluters were able to destroy working-class support because the law wasn’t positioned as something that would benefit lower-income people. They said the cost would be passed on — you wouldn’t be able to afford gas or heat your house.” The only way out of that bind, he says, is to make green policy not a burden to working families but a boon. And the way to do that is with jobs.

We worked on Proposition 87, the most costly ballot initiative ever, so we saw first-hand how oil interests like Chevron manipulated voters and spent upwards of $100 million to defeat it…to defeat a tax on the extraction of oil that every other oil-producing state has in place, including Texas. As Jones points out, though, the defeat was inevitable without working-class support. The approach was seriously flawed because we thought that money, celebrity, and upper-middle-class support was all it needed to pass.

This should serve as a lesson for the challenges we face with global warming. It’s not going to be solved by wealthy concert-goers or the Academy Awards viewing audience alone. Climate change needs to be addressed in the context of much broader social and economic solutions. Take the We Can Solve It campaign as an example. It draws a comparison to civil rights and overcoming segregation. While it’s true that white, middle-class involvement drew key media attention to the cause, the success of the movement was driven by poor blacks under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. And it wasn’t just about racism and segregation for MLK but also economic oppression. Economics was a huge factor in mobilizing support for the civil rights movement. The powerful combination of these classes working together ultimately lead to gaining the political support, despite plenty of opposition, to pass the Civil Rights Act.

This is precisely the type of integrated, multi-class, multi-dimensional support we need to address and reverse climate change. Someone please give Van Jones a call.

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Tags: Alternative Energy · Global Warming · Social Action