Environmentalist Van Jones

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Environmental advocate describes what the presidential candidates can do to advance the green collar movement.


Tavis: Tonight I’m pleased to welcome environmental advocate Van Jones back to this program. He’s the founder of Green for All, a national campaign to bring green-collar jobs to America’s urban areas.

His new book is called “The Green-Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.” And let me just say that what you see in front of you right now is history. Van has just become the first African American, first person of color ever to put a book on “The New York Times” best seller list about the environment. So there’ve been a lot of books about the environment on “The New York Times” best seller list, but one of the problems that we seem to have consistently where this conversation is concerned is that the level of engagement of people of color, certainly at the leadership level, is lacking. And so congrats on the book and making “The New York Times” best seller list.

Van Jones: Yeah, it’s a big honor, it’s exciting, and also, I appreciate your endorsement. That’ll probably help move some copies out the door for us, so I appreciate it.
Tavis: Full disclosure, there’s a blurb on the back of the book from me, which I was honored to do, because I appreciate the work that Van is doing.
Jones: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Let me start with that very issue that you and I have discussed so many times. Talk to me about that reality, about getting people of color into not just the movement, not just to the leadership, but to buying into what needs to be done.
Jones: Well, part of the problem has been that we’ve been talking about the environment as if the most important thing were polar bears and other species. I love our sister and brother species, but I love our sisters and brothers, and that’s the bottom line. (Laughter) And in order for us to really be able to expand this coalition to bring about some of these clean energy solutions, everybody needs to be able to have a stake in it.
And so what we’re saying is the green economy has to stop being a place where affluent people can spend money; it’s got to start being a place where ordinary people can earn some money. Green is about green – we’re talking about new products, new services, the solar industry, the wind industry, organic food. Money is being made, and we cannot have eco-apartheid in this country. We’ve got to have eco-equity – inclusion.
If we’re going to have a green economy where we’re going to leave oil behind, coal behind, and now we’re going to have all this clean, renewable stuff, well, let’s build a green economy Dr. King would be proud of and include us as owners, inventors, entrepreneurs, workers – the whole nine. That is the only green economy worth building: an inclusive one.
Tavis: When you use phrases like “eco-apartheid” and “eco-equity,” I’m thinking of those kinds of terms used in other conversations where we were trying to get fairness and justice where people of color are concerned. And those persons oftentimes didn’t want to hear that message.
I go back, literally, to the back of the book now. You’ve got endorsements not just from me but Thomas Friedman, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Daschle, Arianna Huffington.
Jones: Al Gore.
Tavis: Al Gore –
Jones: On the front.
Tavis: On the front, yeah.
Jones: (Laughs) On the front.
Tavis: Gore deserves to be on the front.
Jones: Exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: Nobel laureate, he ought to be on the front. That’s why I’m on the back and he’s on the front. That said, I raise those names only – not for a gratuitous shout-out, but I raise them to ask what happens when you’re in these rooms and you say eco-apartheid and you say eco-equity to these White folk, quite frankly?
Jones: Yeah, sure. Well, what we’re seeing is a willingness now to expand this coalition. One of the things that happened this summer was Senator Barbara Boxer heroically tried to move a climate bill. From my point of view, I was cheering. After Katrina? We see with these super-storms – Al Gore said we’re going to have more floods, more fires, more super-storms.
I’m looking at the news; we had a tornado walk down the street in the middle of downtown Atlanta. We had Iowa under water this year, Arkansas under water. Everything he’s saying is coming true, and we get hit first and worst – the poor people get hit first and worst.
So I was cheering Barbara Boxer, but guess what? When she tried to move that climate bill, the opposition jumped out and said, “Everything you’re saying is just going to raise prices for poor people,” and the bill went down to defeat.
Suddenly they realized – oh, wait a second. If we try to move these green agendas and it’s just us, there can be a backlash alliance between polluters and poor people that say, “Hold on a second. You can’t just put green taxes on us to fund your hybrid revolution. Where is our share? Can Pookie have a job in the solar industry? Can Shannay-nay have a job?”
And so now this conversation is starting, and I have to say I’ve been very impressed that both from a moral point of view and frankly from a political, hard-headed point of view, we got X-number umpty-ump chairs in the Congressional Black Caucus that have to be engaged. So we can insist on inclusion and equality now as we move forward together, and I believe there’s going to be receptivity.
Tavis: I hear the point you made a moment ago. Assess for me what they do understand, don’t understand, the level at which they are engaged or not engaged, because these are our leaders in Washington.
Jones: Exactly. Well, obviously the caucus is a broad body, but I think every single member recognizes that these energy prices have to come down. We cannot drill and burn our way out, we’re going to have to invent and invest our way out. I think the caucus will certainly be one of the champions saying invent, invest, and include.
I think there’s a learning process that the whole country is going through, but let me tell you one thing I think is going to get everybody’s attention. People were crying this summer about what – gas prices. Wait till this winter, when home heating prices hit. Now, you can park your car. You cannot park your house. We’re going to have people in the Northeast who are going to have to choose between warm beds and warm meals for their children because energy prices are going to be through the roof.
There is a solution for that, and the solution is for Congress to authorize funds for a massive weatherization campaign where we put people to work blowing in insulation to bring those energy prices down, double-paning that glass to bring those energy prices down, putting up solar panels to bring those energy prices down.
In other words, retrofits and renewable energy for the people who most need it can actually fight poverty, fight pollution, and bring energy prices down. I believe that you’re going to see a new kind of environmental politics that uses ecologically smart solutions to bring jobs and help to people.
Tavis: My sense is that there’s a growing mass of people of color who are getting more and more sensitive to these environmental concerns because of the things you mentioned earlier that Al Gore’s been telling us, that we’re seeing more and more. They see floods; they see tornadoes in downtown, so I think they’re starting to get it.
I think part of the problem that some of them have is not knowing exactly what to do, and believing that doing something – doing anything – is going to cost a bunch of money, and we don’t have disposable income. So you know what? If I thought I could change a light bulb and it wasn’t going to cost me anything but save me something, I’d change the light bulb even if I ain’t down with the environmental movement, because I want to save money in my house.
Jones: Thank you.
Tavis: So I guess the question is what can people do to make an impact that doesn’t cost them an arm and a leg?
Jones: That’s exactly right. Well, there’s two things. First of all, we’ve got to move from thinking about this as an individual consumer question – changing light bulbs – to a community question – changing laws. A big opportunity that we have right now coming up – the stimulus package. As soon as the election is over, Speaker Pelosi is going to reconvene Congress and say, “Let’s do an economic stimulus, let’s get the country back moving.
Well, last time they just gave everybody little checks; people went to Wal-Mart or whatever, and the next day the economy was still in the same place. That could be a part of it. But what if we did this: What if we said we’re going to weatherize five, six million homes for low income people? What would that do? That would put people to work.
We got our construction workers; they ain’t doing nothing for the next two years with the economy in the toilet. They can’t build. Let them rebuild. We also have our young people. They could be given clipboards and go around, do energy audits and teach their grandparents how to do some of these things that if you hear about it from somebody who doesn’t look like you, it might sound weird.
But if your cousin or your nephew comes and explains it to you, that’s work for our children, for our youth. It’s also work for our construction industry. Most important thing that we can do is recognize that there are cost savings we can give. If we can get the government to fund weatherizing our homes, blowing in that insulation, doing the right things to bring down our energy bills, that’s good for the environment, but it’s good for our pockets, and we need to have green solutions that leave green in our pocket, let us earn money and save money.
Our website, GreenforAll.org, lays out a lot of this, and so does the book.
Tavis: To the book, you’ve started to address some of this but the subtitle of the book is “How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.”
Jones: Yes.
Tavis: Unpack that for me.
Jones: Well, we got two big problems. One, the economy is in the toilet and starting to swirl, and when America gets an economic cold, we get pneumonia. So we’ve got to – we should be the number one people in charge are calling for an economic stimulus to begin to power ourselves through this recession. But the other thing is, these environmental issues hit our community first and worst. We’re the ones who live next to the dirty power plants, so our children have asthma way off the charts from other communities.
The one solution is a green economy, get away from the dirty stuff, start doing the clean and green stuff, but do it inclusively. Those communities that were locked out of the last century’s pollution-based economy in terms of the benefits, they should be locked into the clean and green economies.
We should – as Majora Carter says, green the ghetto first. Let’s make sure that we have those solar panels so our energy bills go down. Let’s make sure that people who need new solutions, new jobs, new investment, new hope, get this opportunity. This green wave should lift all boats.
Tavis: Finally, why is it that I haven’t gotten the sense that, with all due respect to McCain and Obama, nobody has just broken it down, explained it in a debate, said to me, “This is what needs to be done, here’s what I’m going to do,” in this very simply and easy for you to understand here’s what I’m going to do – I’m going to weatherize your house. I’m going to do this, I’m – did I miss that?
Jones: I haven’t seen it yet, and it’s a frightening situation to me because in a situation where we actually need jobs, we actually need to do something to get our energy bills down, and people are being lied to and told “Oh, we drill, baby, drill,” that’s going to be an answer. Well, that’s not – you’ll have some slick and slimy beaches, but you’re not going to have no lower gas price. (Laughter)
And we know that there are good solutions out there, and we’re not talking about George Jetson jobs or Buck Rogers fantasy stuff. We’re talking about a brother with a green hardhat on and some work books coming and doing some positive work in the community, and having a pathway to prosperity. You would think that there would be more enthusiasm for it in explaining it to you as green means green for your pocket, green means a job for your child, green means investment in your community. And my hope is that as we go forward through these last days, we’ll hear more of that.
Tavis: Would Obama, very quickly, get push-back if he said, “Green the ghetto first, and all of America comes up as a result of it?”
Jones: Well, I think he should try it because I’m going throw some economics at you. If you weatherize enough of these energy leaky homes where our folks live, you weatherize enough of them; you pull down the aggregate demand for energy across the economy. You’ll lower everybody’s energy bill. So by doing right by low income people, poor people, greening them first, you help everybody.
Bring jobs up; bring everybody’s energy bill down, and save the Earth. I think that’s a winning strategy. Somebody needs to articulate it, though.
Tavis: Yeah, but see, now you sound like – my grandmother would say, “Now you sound too much like right.” (Laughter) Or “Let me get this right – I help the poor people first and that’s going to help me? I don’t think so.” That may be the problem, and yet the book is still on “The New York Times” best seller list. I highly recommend it, particularly for those of you who are into understanding what’s happening to our environment.
It’s called “The Green-Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” by the first brother to write a book about the environment and what we can do to save it to hit “The New York Times” best seller list. So you’re not just getting a good book, but you are a part of history when you buy it as well.
Jones: Thank you.
Tavis: Nice to have you on, as always, Van.

Jones: Appreciate it.

Last modified: September 21, 2011 at 10:47 pm