Van Jones was tapped to be Obama's green jobs czar in March. Since then, he has been followed by controversy over past comments and affiliations, culminating with his resignation on Sunday. This original article is a profile of Jones.
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Go green? "Everything it would take to beat global warming is exactly what it will take to beat the recession," says Van Jones, author of the new book, The Green Collar Economy. "Basically, clean energy and green economics are essential," he says.
While Jones is not alone — last year, the New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman published Hot, Flat, and Crowded — Jones has emerged as an energetic voice calling for the creation of new "green" jobs that would stimulate both the economy and the green movement.
A Yale Law School graduate, Jones staked the early part of his career on police reform before turning to the green movement, where he has become a rising star. Several years ago, Jones attended a conference in a well-heeled neighborhood of Marin County, Calif., where he was blown away by the plethora of salads and tofu, organic agriculture, hybrid cars and solar panels.
"I really felt uplifted by all that stuff, but also like, 'Geez, why do I have to come over here to get it?'" he recalls thinking, as he returned to his home base Oakland. He says that experience resulted in a stark realization that is the basis for his current work: "I had this epiphany that we need green jobs, not jails," he says. "It's kind of four syllables that came into my mind and changed my whole life."
Put simply, Jones believes that a "green economy" will simultaneously create jobs, boost the economy and save the planet. "Solar panels don't install themselves; that's a job. Winter vines don't manufacture themselves; that's a job. Buildings don't weatherize themselves. Trees and urban gardens don't plant themselves," he says.
"Everything that's good for the environment is either a job or a contract or a business opportunity, and when you look at it from that point of view, given what's going on in our economy right now, it's even more important to have a green economic renaissance in the United States and include everyone in it."
To date, Jones says, green ways of life have been attributes of the "eco-elite." People had to be willing to pay a "green premium" to consume green products, he says, leaving out those in lower socioeconomic brackets.
To expand the movement, Jones argues for a more robust governmental role. For instance, "You should be able to check a box on your energy bill, 'Please install solar panels,'" he says. (While the cost would be added to property tax bills or utility bills, the investment would pay off over 10 to 20 years, he says.) "That's not something an individual can do, but the utility companies and local government and maybe even state legislators," he says.
"It's bottom-up and top-down," he says, adding, "Here's the thing: Just because it started out in Berkeley, doesn't mean that Milwaukee or Philadelphia" can't do it, too.
When it comes to involving more people in the green movement, Jones says the country should "green the ghetto" first.
"If you're going to green our cities, you should green first those communities where the buildings are the leakiest, where the poor people live in drafty old buildings. You should put solar panels up there first. You should put the community gardens where people can least afford food," he says.
Those urban communities are also consuming low-nutrition food that's highly processed and trucked all over the place, he adds. "If you substitute a low-nutrition, high-carbon diet for a high-nutrition, low-carbon diet, you can punch a big hole in your greenhouse gas problem," he says. "You can also be improving public health. This is how you've got to be thinking."
But with the economy in shambles, where do green initiatives stand? Jones argues precisely because of the current crisis, the country is primed to see clean energy as a cornerstone of the next American economy. He envisions more local production, thrift and smart saving, and environmental restoration.
But he says our country's pattern of consumption also must change. "We need more than just a change in our energy system. If we only rely on that, we can end up with solar-powered bulldozers," he says. "Then all we're doing is putting a hybrid engine in a car that's headed toward a cliff anyway."