Energy and Equality For All

By Bill Kohlhaase

Posted February 18, 2009 in Arts & Culture

When the Senate stripped away money from the economic stimulus bill designed to help the working class—$3.5 billion to make Federal buildings more energy efficient, billions in retrofitting of housing projects as well as cuts in energy loans, education and health care for the unemployed—the hopes for a new green economy went gray. How do energy efficiency projects help blue collar workers? Somebody, often an unemployed construction worker, has to lay that insulation and install those thermal windows. As Van Jones says in his new book The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, the main technology in the green revolution isn’t something out of science fiction. It’s a caulk gun.

Jones, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress with a law degree from Yale seems an unlikely candidate to champion a green revolution. But his experience as a social activist and his embrace of ecology—he’s often lectured with environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill—has provided him with a way to fit the pieces of the progressive puzzle together. His wise and sensible book states a simple solution for our economic problems: “deliberately cut demand for energy and intelligently increase its supply.” The key word here is “intelligently.” Sure, it’s important to reduce our use of fossil fuels, to fight global warming and, in doing so, create new vibrant economies. But how we do that—and who is included in the solutions—is equally important. And that’s how Jones suggests we get a three-fer from our energy problems; that we solve our social and economic dilemma even as we save the planet.

Jones isn’t the only one touting such solutions. Popular columnist Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat and, more recently Hot, Flat, and Crowded sees the potential in the green revolution. But Jones succinctly outlines how we get there. And no one has been as fair-minded in their solutions as Jones. Saving the planet is one thing. If we don’t include everyone in the benefits of those actions, then we’ve saved the planet to no good end.

Jones’ manifesto demands equality and justice as well as environmentally-sound policy decisions. “As we build this new green wave,” he writes, “the new environmentalists will need to work in partnership with people of all classes and colors—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s also the best way to ensure that we are doing things right.” He warns against “eco-apartheid,” in which the white, upper class appears elitist as they drive hybrid cars and install solar panels on their houses. What happens, he wonders, “if we didn’t just have hybrid cars—what if we had a hybrid movement?”

The people Jones sees benefiting most from a green revolution are in the working class. “When you think about the emerging green economy, don’t think of George Jetson with a jet pack,” he writes. “Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard hat and a lunch bucket . . . think of Rosie the Riveter, manufacturing parts for hybrid buses or wind turbines.” The book is full of such clever phrases (“Green the Ghetto” and “Green jobs, not jails”), but they serve Jones’ purpose. He wants a revolution in the way America does business and treats its workers. He sees the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina as the final outcome of our free enterprise form of government. His message to the “rabidly anti-government . . . ultraconservatives” is, “If you don’t love this government, then let it go and hand it over to people who do.”

Of course, instituting the changes Jones calls for won’t be easy. He bases those calls on principles of equal protection and opportunity for all, both solid American values. He sees a new “Green Growth Alliance” of labor, social activists, environmentalists, students and faith organizations establishing a “Green New Deal.” He suggests specific programs that government can undertake including incentives for business as well as ways the programs can be financed. “Most of us do not want government as a nanny. Nor do we want the government as a big RoboCop bully . . . we just want government to be smart, supportive, reliable partner to the forces that are working for good in this country.”

This is all well and good but there are powerful forces set against Jones’ desires. He cites the failure of California’s clean energy Proposition 87 as an example of what the forces of green are up against. Surprisingly, much of his criticism is thrown at the environmental movement, arguing that it must change if it’s to find success. Still, this is an overwhelmingly optimistic book that should inspire all of us who want a better world. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. declares in his introduction to the book, “let the revolution begin.”

The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems by Van Jones; Harper One, hardback  237 pages, $25.99


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