A New Urban Environmentalism?

Photo of Van JonesI'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. Photo of Julia Butterfly Hill in a redwood treeThe 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. Photo of smoke stacksOthers 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.

Photo of Milton FriedmanSo, 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)


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Sherief said...

I think this last paragraph, wherein the author notes the being-within-capital of both environment and equity in Jones' agenda, raises a difficult and interesting point. Regardless of the fact that Jones' work is laudable (and there is little doubt that his goals are), there is a presumtion that with the proper (rational?) arrangements, social and environmental justice are achievable from within a voluntaristic capitalist system.

Peter Sigrist said...

Hey Sherief, You hit upon the part I was most ambivalent about posting. You're right, it's not a given that this can be done within capitalism as it stands. It also kind of assumes that new technologies hold the answers to global warming and poverty, and all we have to do is put people to work implementing them.

The thing is, I think we would run into similar or completely new problems under a different economic system. So I decided to focus on the essence of Jones's idea, and believe that it's possible to move closer to economic and environmental prosperity while working within the system.

I'm glad you added that point though, because there's no reason capitalism should be taken as given.

Katia Savchuk said...

This isn't strictly relevant because I think your post is focused on the US or at least industrialized countries, but the link between environment (and specifically global warming) and poverty is being strongly underlined in the context of developing countries. Specifically, the need to focus on community-led adaptation strategies to global warming as opposed to just top-down mitigation strategies, which is where the funding and global focus is now. Check out the International Institute for Environment and Development and articles in their journal, Environment & Urbanization.

Lucas Gray said...

People arguing that the environmental agenda puts unneeded strain on the poor is a ridiculous argument. First off a lot of the strategies being implemented are basic low cost improvements to our homes in order to save energy. Energy costs money thus we are actually saving money which is good for people in financial difficult situations.

I also think his approach isn't meant to solve all environmental and social injustice. I do think it is a great way to attack two of our nation's pressing problems. I don't really understand how people can criticize this program.

-Lucas Gray