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Van Jones: "This Is Not Your Grandma's Environmental Movement Anymore"

The tanking economy is also changing the environmental movement. Van Jones talks about what we should be doing next.

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At the end of 2009, or 2010 at the latest, we'll have a report card on this green jobs movement. We'll know how much of this was hopeful but unrealistic, how much was rhetorically convenient for elites but not something that was a practical investment play for them on either the public or the private side.

So 2009 and 2010 are big years, to go from inspiration to implementation. We'll see.

AC: What's the opposition saying/doing?

VJ: Well, the people who were global-warming deniers, once they came around to believing in global warming, then they said "we're still for Drill, Baby, Drill." And then, when that was no longer the conversation, they became the "we're for shovel-ready" voices -- as opposed to people ready or planet ready. So now they want the stimulus to go to "shovel-ready" projects. What are "shovel-ready" projects? They're sprawl-ready projects. Every governor's got a load of highways to nowhere that they can throw money, contractors and unions at and get a lot of political payoff in the short term. But then we're actually feeding what we're fighting, if our aim is an energy-independent, climate-smart country. "Shovel ready" gets pitted against green jobs because green jobs will have a little longer turnaround, in terms of training people, getting regulations in place, making sure companies are ready to go. But my view is we shouldn't be talking about a stimulus anyway, we should be talking about recovery. A stimulus is a response to a V-shaped problem in the economy. This is a U-shaped or a pan-shaped problem; we're going to be in an economic slowdown for a couple of years. So to take three months, four months, six months to spend this money the right way -- we're not going to get a chance to spend a trillion dollars again! Ever. So let's do it the right way.

It's going to be a long, twilight struggle between the forces that want a new economy and the forces that are fundamentally committed to the old.

AC: What about the tension between the free market and sustainability? Is now the time to conceive a post-capitalist future?

VJ: Well, there's the new economy, and then there's a really old economy, the ancient economy. In Bay Area politics, I find myself in an interesting position, because I'm fundamentally still trying to green up capitalism. And there are people who are a lot smarter and better-read than I am who say that's just a fool's errand and we need to be moving to some post-capitalist economy that would be zero growth, as well as zero waste and zero pollution. When I talk about green growth, it drives deep ecology people nuts, because they're very clear that green growth is just a speed bump on the way to the same eco-apocalypse that gray growth will bring.

Those folks are probably right in the long view, and maybe even in the immediate view. I don't think they know the country that they're trying to move very well, though. This is a big country. You can be in three different time zones and never see an ocean. We have a long way to go to get the basic education done. We have to hope for radical discontinuities in the pace at which people have been learning, so they're learning a lot faster. I don't think we can overestimate people.

And the ultimate answer doesn't change the immediate tasks. One of the immediate challenges is to get people in America to think they could live like Europeans, and it wouldn't be like living in a cave! Just the idea that we could use mass transit at the level of the Europeans, that we could be as energy efficient as the Europeans, that frankly, the rest of the country could be as energy efficient as California, is revolutionary thinking. I see my role as weaning people off their commitment to a pillage-and-pave mentality, which sets things up for later advances.

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