Van Jones: How We Can Lead Our Country Out of Crisis

When Green For All founder and green jobs advocate Van Jones started writing The Green Collar Economy, it was a book about how to get green solutions to poor people. But by the time he was done and the book was released this fall, its scope had grown: Global warming had become common parlance, and the economy was on everyone's mind, regardless of class.

His new book looks at how we can fix our environmental and economic crisis with a program that will create jobs, lower pollution and return some dignity to working Americans.

It sounds great, but what's in the fine print? AlterNet's staff writer Joshua Holland and managing editor Tara Lohan sat down with Jones and talked about whether green jobs are actually legal under our international free trade agreements, what happens if we get an Obama White House, and how the progressive movement must go from "opposition to proposition, from protest to governance" in order to lead our country out of crisis.

TL: Tell me about your vision for a green economy.

VJ: We've got an opportunity as soon as the election is over to move in that direction with a green recovery program to make sure the stimulus package (Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson is talking about includes green stimulus. The best thing we can do now to get the economy going is to invest in repowering and retrofitting America.

We have millions and millions of homes that are going to be facing extremely high energy bills this winter. I think we should immediately support cities and utilities that want to begin to weatherize and retrofit those buildings -- so if costs jump up 20 percent, but the home is 30 percent more efficient, then people are actually held harmless.

The benefits of that are that jobs go up. Right now our construction sector is idle. Why have all these people sitting around doing nothing? Let them rebuild America. Energy bills will come down for regular homeowners, but if we weatherize a couple billion homes, that will cut demand for energy, which will bring all prices down. So everybody benefits.

It also means the air will be cleaner, which means asthma will come down. These kinds of programs will bring down carbon and pollution and will bring up jobs and home values.

This is the kind of eco-populist, social uplifting environmentalism that we need to put forward so people will increasingly associate green politics with saving them money, with helping them to earn money, and it will not be the kind of politics that is going to cost them a lot of money.

TL: So who gets to participate in this?

VJ: A lot of the home weatherization stuff can be done by regular contractors, including people of color and women-owned enterprises. They can be pulled into this. A lot of the initial energy auditing can be done by high school students that can be trained in a month to walk around with a clipboard and to begin to help bring some income into struggling homes.

So, the wingspan on the green economy goes from the people with the green lab coats on to the people with the green hard hats on, the skilled laborers who frankly built this country and can help rebuild this country. I think a part of talking about green jobs and a green economy is to restore the dignity of labor to the national conversation.

We got sold a bill of goods for 30 years by both parties to go down this reckless road of globalizing, not just to get more products, but globalizing risk, recklessness and building up our country based on credit cards. You cannot build a sustainable economy on credit cards, but you can on solar panels, on retrofitting, on a wind sector that comes back on building a national green energy grid.

That is what the book is about, that is what Green for All is about.

TL: So do you initially see the funding for this coming from the federal government?

VJ: Sure, the big trick here is to get private capital unleashed -- that's going to be the answer. Right now it is frozen. Before that it was on the side of the problem makers in the U.S. economy -- the warmongers, the polluters, the prisons -- that's where you had the federal government steering dollars and private capital following.

We want to see the federal government on the side of the problem solvers -- in the wind industry, solar, geothermal, community-based organization -- all the people who are actually trying to fix stuff.

The federal government can't fix this. But the federal government can create the situation where communities and private capital can fix it. That is the main role for the federal government. It is an enabling role, it is a smart role, it is a limited role. But it is a powerful role.

JH: To what degree though are these structures that you're talking about in the global economy baked into the cake? A lot of these green economy proposals appear to be things that would run afoul of our trade agreements. Has there been enough attention paid to those issues and how those conflicts might unfold and to what degree we would have to modify those agreements?

VJ: I think those agreements should not be modified. I think they should be erased. We are seeing the outcome of what we predicted in Seattle. I was one of those people running around in Seattle 10 years ago saying, "Look, we go down this path and we'll reap the whirlwind in terms of economic instability, in terms of exporting poverty, in terms of environmental destruction." And here we are.

What I also know is that key elites in the U.S. who were pro-globalization when it was favoring the U.S. are not going to be so enthusiastic now that globalization is favoring Asia. So there is a bigger consensus, for good reasons and bad reasons, to revisit all that stuff.

I think that progressives need to be very bold in putting forth an agenda. The neoliberal paradigm is on trial every day in every barber shop, in every nail salon, in every bus line, in every 410(k) kitchen-table conversation in America right now. This is not our agenda. This is the neoliberal program we were protesting against in Seattle. Ten years later, everything we said came true.

We are going to have to go through this correction. It is going to be tough, but there is a much better world on the other side of this. We get to start building stuff here again, grow our labor sector -- hopefully we can grow labor both greener and browner, more inclusive and more equal opportunity.

My fundamental view is that this is the end of the neoliberal system -- it should be, if we are smart. It is the end of the carbon age, it is the end of the Reagan revolution. It should be the beginning of our program in terms of green growth; it should be the beginning of the solar age.

But this centrality of the green solutions has to be grasped. Because up until now, what we've seen is green as this niche thing, as this elite thing, green is for either the eco-freaks or the eco-chic, either you were culturally different or economically different enough to buy into it.

It used to be a place for wealthy people to spend money. Now green has to become a place for ordinary people to earn money and for poor people to save money. Once that becomes the definition of green, it becomes a mass movement. It becomes a governing electoral movement, and you get to fix the country.

JH: Based on what you've said, don't you think we'd need to have a discussion about fixing or getting rid of our international trade agreements before we can take on a green jobs agenda?

VJ: You're going to think I'm crazy, but no. I want the WTO tell us we can't do this.

JH: So, you want them to challenge us?

VJ: Right, because then we won't have a WTO.

You have to understand that the WTO is a creation of our nation's conservative party. The best thing we can do to get rid of this crap is to do the right thing and make them tell us no. And I want the free-traders to stand up in front of the world and explain to Americans why some people are going to tell you that you can't have clean energy and you can't have your home retrofitted because it is more efficient for it to be made in Asia or Germany, that you can't bring Detroit back to build wind turbines. I want the free traders to defend having an overseas body to declare this agenda illegal.

It would be the best thing to ever happen in this country because we wouldn't have a WTO. I want that fight.

JH: That's an interesting answer. But this seems like something that should be spoken of frequently -- the fact that there will be this conflict and we should be using it to organize already. If I look at the Apollo Alliance site for instance, about green jobs, it doesn't say anything about how manufacturing subsidies would be a no-go, that we can't subsidize new clean technology, or that we opted into putting energy distribution into the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

VJ: They are not talking about this for two reasons. The minor reason is there is a sense that these issues are better raised later. The main issue is that people don't understand these issues. I mean, I do, but I'm a weirdo. What you've got with the Apollo Alliance is an incredibly important coalition that is, at this point, inspiring the lowest common denominator -- that's putting America to work and doing it clean and green.

I expect that over time you'll see the Apollo Alliance and other alliances become more sophisticated.

People go through a process of learning. Part of that is getting educated through the Internet, your work, the people's struggle. Let's not forget, up until now it has been mostly upside. Most Americans are fine with free trade. There has been enough upside on the consumer side: Wal-Mart, flat-screen TVs ... That just came to an end in 2008. Good luck getting a line of credit, all that stuff is gone. Now everybody gets to look in the face of globalization, unadorned, and I don't think you're going to find a lot of Americans very excited about it. Especially when your solution is going to be declared WTO illegal by somebody you don't know.

This is the end of this. I got teargassed in Seattle, run over by a police car in D.C. protesting the World Bank. Ten years later, I don't have to call a protest -- nobody does. The system indicted itself. Now we have to provide an answer, a solution, not just a critique, an alternative. It is in the green economy that one can find an alternative to all this nonsense.

TL: So, you've talked with some folks over at the Obama campaign. How on board with all this stuff are they?

VJ: There is a mass pro-democracy movement in this country that has its origins back in Seattle that stood up to George Bush around the Iraqi invasion and put millions of people on the streets around the world. Not because of the party, but because people all across this country stood up and said they weren't going to take it anymore. The ones that suffered through the shame of Katrina, that propelled Al Gore to global fame and that Barack Obama saw and decided that its existence created a possibility for him.

Barack Obama didn't create this movement. This movement created the opportunity for Obama. And we should never forget that.

The problem now is that everyone is fixated on this one guy. This guy, without the movement that we've been building, is nowhere. The opportunity to go around the Clintons came off of us. It came off of the blogosphere, the anti-war movement, which had its origins prior to the anti-globalization movement, it came off of civil rights struggles and anti-immigration struggles and the struggles in this country that predated his speech at the (2004) convention and his opportunity to rise.

Not to insult Barack Obama, I say that to point out that his coalition has lots of contradictory elements inside of it. Some folks get this very deeply, some don't get it at all, some understand that when you talk about a green growth agenda for America, you are talking about unwinding trade agreements -- and some would be appalled to know that's in the fine print.

But none of that matters; what matters is that this movement not be confused about what it is. It is a movement of democratic mass sentiment in this country. This is a very rare thing, and we are going to have an engagement dividend as a result of turbulence of this political season. You have more people watching VP debates than watched "American Idol" -- that's not going to go away overnight.

The turbulence of the economic situation that we are in creates an interest on the part of ordinary people. The number one podcast in the world is now NPR's thing on money. And it's not about how to get rich; it is about how to understand global finance. That is an unbelievable development in U.S. and therefore, world politics. You are going to have an engagement dividend, no matter who wins this election.

All these people are not going to go back to watching "American Idol," and what has to happen is that the movement needs to be big enough -- the leadership, AlterNet, Huffington Post, all these have to be big enough on the media side, the organizing side -- groups like mine and the Apollo Alliance, MoveOn and whoever else, have to challenge the potential for a permanent engagement on the part of the American people.

Real democracy. I don't care if it is President Obama, President McCain or President Fill-in-the-blank. We can't take anyone on their word anymore because we just got taken to the bank by both parties.

People keep asking me questions about Senator Obama. I don't think we need a president to fix everything -- in fact, I don't think the president can fix everything. We just need a president to stop breaking everything. That is what you get with a President Obama. You hopefully get someone who will stop breaking everything and give us a chance to fix it.

TL: So how do we get more people involved? I know your book talks a lot about solutions for urban poor and rural poor. But it seems like there is a huge chunk in the middle that are really comfortable.

VJ: I think less so in these last few weeks. I started this book three years ago, and it was a book about trying to get the greenest solution to the poorest people. When I first conceived of it, people weren't thinking about climate change a lot, the economy was basically OK, and the main issue was the war. So, by the time I finished it, all this stuff is ground zero. The economic travails of the poor have become the economic travails of the whole country. It is sad the government jumps in to rescue the rich folks first.

But we have people now drowning on dry land all across this country -- every color, every class. People are really hurting. It is only going to get worse.

Now the question is not how are we going to get people to move -- it is how are we doing to get the people who are going to move, to move the right way?

And that is a very different challenge. You are no longer the guy screaming "Fire, fire, fire" -- you are the guy in charge of the fire department. That is different. That is a challenge for this movement. To go from opposition to proposition. From protest to governance. We now have the audience listening. You don't have to scream about what's wrong, we have developed the capacity to critique and deconstruct, but we need the capacity to reconstruct. So anyone that's got an idea, the first thing they gotta worry about is the Left trying to kill 'em -- you don't have to worry about the CIA or the Klan -- you gotta survive the meeting or the coalition with other progressives.

That has to change.

TL: So what do you see that is working? You've been doing this for a while with real people in real communities. What is actually working?

VJ: Well, the book is full of really great examples in Chicago, Newark, the Bronx and Southern California. It is small. But seeds are small, and you can get orchards out of them if you treat 'em right.

But everybody has got to share in the benefits and the burdens of this transition. Everyone has to share in the risks and rewards. The green wave has to lift all boats. It can't be for the eco-elite and eco-entrepreneurs to get support from government and go out and make a bunch of money for themselves while they are basically running solar sweatshops with no labor standards and they are practicing eco-apartheid where only white folks and white communities get the benefits and African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are still struggling in last century's pollution-based economy.

We are appealing for eco-equity where we all share, and you get it with an eco-populace agenda, social uplift environmentalism. Showing how green solutions are not just good for the Earth but for everyday people too. Not just good for our sister and brother species, but good for our sisters and brothers. Those are important distinctions to make for people.

TL: Americans are very changed by economics. The environment is suddenly important when gas prices are higher or there are a bunch of hurricanes. But what you're talking about is actually changing peoples' consciousness around the issue of race and class, and that is a lot harder, and that won't just be solved with the economy going down the drain. So how do we accomplish that?

VJ: Well in an economic crisis, we can turn to each other or turn on each other. That is up for grabs, which way we go as a country. But in my view there is one factor that creates an instability in that answer. It is the "Millennials," this new generation that is coming on the scene -- bigger than the baby boomers, more diverse -- believes in not just hybrid cars but hybrid thinking.

Where they come down on this question will determine the answer to what we do. They were appalled by Katrina, they often have friends and lovers and parents that are every color in the rainbow -- especially on the cosmopolitan coasts.

I think that we have a shot at eco-equity. I also know that if we land any place short of that we will not have a stable, sustainable solution to this crisis. That is the thing. People talk about ecological sustainability. You also have to talk about socio-political sustainability, and if you leave whole sections of people out of the green deal, they are going to fight. You are going to have a backlash alliance with polluters and poor people, and they'll say, "These are just eco-elitists proposing taxes and your fuel prices are going to go up, your gas prices are going to go up, your food prices are going to go up. They are going to have their hybrid revolution, and you're going to be stuck with the bill."

TL: Like Prop. 87 in California?

VJ: Right. And we just saw that with the climate bill too, in the U.S Senate.

I think that at least at leadership levels the case for inclusion can be made and won. At popular levels, I think Millennials give us the best constituency that we've ever had to make the case. I think we are going to shock ourselves.

There is an unfolding logic here that either leads you to resolving this economic, ecological crisis on terms that favor the most people or that doesn't solve it at all. This is what we're laying out in the book and what our organization is trying to do. We think we can get there. It won't be easy, but the alternative is not tenable.

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