I'm not sure if there's anything left to say about Van Jones, the Obama administration's special adviser on green jobs. An article by Elizabeth Kolbert details his efforts to address urban poverty and global warming by putting people to work on green infrastructure projects. Jones explains his plans in a recent NPR interview. His work has captured the imagination of many, but does it represent a promising new form of urban environmentalism?
Jones is a political star. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1993, he moved to the Bay Area and began advocating for human rights in urban communities. He fought effectively to keep people out of jail, in gainful employment, and safe from police brutality. Jones traces his environmental interest to a talk by Julia Butterfly Hill, explaining that he admired and identified with her efforts to save a redwood tree. The two found common ground in helping people and things considered disposable.
At a meeting with Nancy Pelosi in 2007, Jones brought up the need for a Clean Energy Jobs Bill. The idea caught on and was included in the Energy Independence and Security Act less than a year later. He has since published a book called The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. In today's political climate of economic crisis and recovery, this concept makes environmental concern more politically viable. It has rallied unions, corporations, politicians, and local activists behind alternative energy as an agent for job creation.
Still, there is skepticism about the merits of combined solutions to global warming and poverty. Some see a lack of environmental concern among less affluent communities as a major impediment. Others point out that environmental conservation places disproportionate strain on people living in poverty. Some policy experts see the two problems as too distinct to be addressed with a joint solution. Jones responds by explaining the benefits of a holistic approach that encourages combined efforts. He considers poverty alleviation without environmental consideration a short-term fix, resulting in greater problems down the road. He adds that people living in poverty will support environmental causes that address their most pressing needs.
Jones looks for points of agreement and makes the most of them. He peppers his speech with clear and memorable phrases that express shared interests, often playing with different meanings of the word green. At the same time, he's not shy about applying pressure against powerful opponents (skills sharpened fighting police brutality in the 1990s). Of course, it will take more than consensus and coercion for his current efforts to succeed. The jobs will have to be efficient and provide better sources of energy. A certain amount of financial loss is acceptable in return for long-term gains, but the gains have to materialize. Given the widespread support for these ideas, the timing is right to make them work.
So, is Jones at the forefront of a new urban environmentalism? His work is different from environmental justice movements that have fought to improve ecological conditions in marginalized communities. Jones adopts the discourse of sustainable development, with a focus on poverty alleviation. He aims for consensus around human needs, rather than proposing a radical alternative to current forms of environmental management. As far as labels go, his ideas integrate three potentially conflicting -isms: social, capital, and environmental. His emphasis is clearly on the social, but only in the sense of prioritizing human concerns. If this renders him a socialist, then even Milton Friedman would be socialist. In reference to the urban, now that Jones is advising on green jobs for the entire country, his focus will have to expand to include suburban and rural communities. He has successfully articulated a vision that links inclusive economic prosperity with long-term environmental care. While this isn't new urban environmentalism, it is something more comprehensive and very worth pursuing.
(Credits: Photo of Van Jones from Green for All; Photo of Julia Butterfly Hill from Earthfirst; Photo of smoke stacks from the Hunter College Department of Geography; Photo of Milton Friedman from In Defense of Liberty)