Selling Americans on a 'Green-Collar' Economy
Van Jones may have one of the hottest assignments in the Obama
administration -- selling the notion of a new "green-collar" economy --
but in a country burdened with a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, it's
How do you tell an unemployed construction worker that it's time to
start thinking about installing solar panels instead of aluminum
siding? "I think some of these ideas are complicated for people when
they first hear them," said Jones, senior green jobs adviser to the
White House Council on Environmental Quality. Most people "don't know
what retrofitting a building means, or they haven't heard of . . . a
smart biofuel. And so a lot of times, people just sort of go yes, yes,
but they aren't really following you."
Jones, 40, has been a leader in a growing movement that aims to hit
two major social and policy challenges -- the struggling economy and
environmental quality -- with one boulder. It's a vision that has been
embraced by various industries and advocacy groups intrigued by the
promise of thousands of new green jobs as the country invests in energy
efficiency and confronts climate change.
But skeptics say the reality of creating a "green economy" is more
complex. As with any new business, start-up costs are high -- and money
is tight these days. And although the administration has allocated as
much as $80 billion through the stimulus package to create more than 6
million green jobs, it is impossible at this point to quantify success.
For one, there is no official federal definition of a green job --
though the president's budget includes money for the Bureau of Labor
Statistics to work with other agencies to define the green economy and
produce data on green-collar jobs by 2011.
Jones said anecdotal evidence is strong that the strategy is
working, and he dismissed as "myth" reports that the plan merely moves
jobs around the economy without creating new ones. "If you get people
in on the ground floor of a growing industry, they can grow that
industry," he said.
His career path was not unlike President Obama's. After graduating
from Yale Law School, Jones worked as a community activist in Oakland,
Calif., and founded the Ella Barker Center for Human Rights. A few
years ago, he saw an opportunity to combine his commitment to racial
and economic parity with work to solve the environmental crisis. He
soon became a hero of the green movement as he talked about "greening
the ghetto," appearing on hip shows such as "The Colbert Report" and
sending out his message on YouTube.
"I think sometimes when we think about ecological solutions, we
think about very high-end stuff -- you know, maybe space-age
technology, way off in the future," he said. "What we forget is most of
the things we need right now to reduce pollution, to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions, don't require fancy technology. You know what it
requires? A caulking gun."
He launched a Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, which led in 2007 to Green
for All, an organization he founded to help create and find jobs in the
green economy for the poor and disadvantaged. "People need to have the
opportunity to be a part of industries that are going someplace," he
said in an interview at his office across the street from the White
"When you're working in communities where people don't have a lot of
hope for opportunity, you say, geez, [do you] you want to fight, but
hard, to get people jobs that you know are going to be dead-end, or can
you find them a job in a part of the economy that's going someplace? .
. . And so then I saw that these firms were going places, that's when I
got totally jazzed."