Working Together for a Green New Deal

This article is adapted from The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones with Ariane Conrad.

My background is in the struggles for racial justice and criminal
justice reform. As such, I've always felt an affinity for Cinque, the
hero of the slave-revolt movie Amistad. In that film, based on a
true story, the righteous, enslaved Africans fight back and take over
the slave ship.

The people at the bottom rise up--taking their destiny into their own
hands. It's really a metaphor for the last century's version of racial
politics. The slave ship is earth, the white slavers are the world's
oppressors and the African captives are the world's oppressed. The point
is for the oppressed to confront and defeat their oppressors. I took
that as my mission and spent years fighting against superjails, rogue
cops, the prison lobby--against the forces that, to my mind and the
minds of many, are the slavers of today.

Yet at a certain point it occurred to me that what we need is less
investment in the fight against and more energy in the fight
for: for positive alternatives to violence and incarceration. It
was around that time that I got involved in the environmental movement.
And I came to understand that the answer to our social, economic and
ecological crises can be one and the same: a green economy strong enough
to lift people out of poverty.

Society faces some huge challenges. The individuals, entrepreneurs and
community leaders who will step up to make the repairs and changes are
going to need help. They require and deserve a world-class partner in
our government. The time has come for a public-private community
partnership to fix this country and put it back to work. In the
framework of a Green New Deal, the government would become a powerful
partner to the problem solvers of the world--and not the problem makers.

Now, we cannot achieve the goal of a Green New Deal just by wishing for
it. The first step in getting the government to support an inclusive,
green economy is to build a durable political coalition.

On the one hand, there are large and powerful constituencies of white,
affluent, college-educated progressives active in the United States.
They are passionate about the environment, fair trade, economic justice
and global peace. Unfortunately, many do not yet work in concert with
people of color in their own country to pursue this agenda; they
champion "alternative economic development strategies" across the globe,
but not across town. These people could be great allies in uplifting our
inner cities if they are given encouragement and a clear opportunity to
do so.

On the other hand, many groups of people of color do not want to work in
coalition with majority white organizations and white leaders. Many fear
betrayal; others resent chronic white arrogance. Cultural differences
and power imbalances create tensions; some organizations are actually
committed to a racially exclusive ideology. Even though such
organizations could benefit from additional allies and outside
assistance, the very folks who could most benefit from a green
opportunity agenda are loath to get involved.

Taken together, this means that the various US social change movements
today are still nearly as racially segregated as the rest of society.
This is a moral tragedy. And it is a tremendous barrier to building
sufficient power to advance a positive social change agenda for anyone
and everyone. Breaking through this standoff is a critical first step
toward building a New Deal coalition for the new century--which would be
the only thing dynamic, diverse and powerful enough to overcome the
obstacles to progress.

In the New Deal period, it was a broad electoral coalition that moved
the government onto the side of ordinary people, not FDR alone. Farmers,
workers, ethnic minorities, students, intellectuals, progressive bankers
and forward-thinking business leaders all joined forces at the ballot
box to support FDR and his Congressional backers as they worked to
revive the economy.

To accomplish our tasks today, we need a similar force: an electoral New
Deal coalition for our time. Let's call it the Green Growth Alliance.
Such an alliance would be a broad effort fusing wise, compassionate
forces in civil society with the enlightened self-interest of the rising
green business community.

On the civil society side, five main partners should make up the Green
Growth Alliance:

SS Labor. Organized labor has been in steep decline over
the past few decades, but it remains the best and most stalwart defender
of working people's interests--in the workplace and beyond. Policies
that lead to the retrofitting and green rebuilding of the nation will
give unions a tremendous opportunity to expand and diversify their
ranks. If the unions and green business leaders can identify win-win
compromises on wages and other issues, they can work together to pass
legislation that will help both sides.

SS Social justice activists. Legions of people have
committed themselves to the ideal of opportunity for all. Advocates for
economic justice, civil rights, immigrants' rights, women's rights,
disability rights, gay rights, veterans' rights and other causes should
seize the opportunity to ensure that the new, green economy has the
principles of diversity and inclusion baked in from the beginning.

SS Environmentalists. With their large organizations,
broad networks, Beltway savvy and large budgets, the mainstream
environmental organizations have tremendous assets to bring to bear in
the effort to green the country. Now they have a chance to turn the page
on decades of perceived elitism by working as better collaborators with
other sectors of society. An exchange of knowledge, experience and even
personnel between the mainstream environmentalists and social justice
groups would be healthy and invigorating for everyone.

SS Students. Students' energy and enthusiasm have
already turned up the heat in the movement to prevent catastrophic
climate change. Just a few years ago, it was considered outlandish for
anyone to call for an aggressive target like an 80 percent reduction in
carbon emissions by the year 2050. But youth-centered efforts like Step
It Up, Focus the Nation and the Energy Action Coalition have already
made "80 by '50" a mainstream demand--accepted by presidential
candidates and even energy-company CEOs. As more racially diverse groups
like the League of Young Voters, the Hip Hop Caucus, the Environmental
Justice and Climate Change Initiative and Young People For (YP4) join
the movement, the sky is the limit for the next generation's leadership

SS Faith organizations. The moral framework suggested by
the three principles of social-uplift environmentalism (equal
protection, equal opportunity and reverence for all creation) should
attract faith leaders and congregants. Many are looking for alternatives
to the divisive fundamentalism that has taken up a great deal of airtime
lately. The idea of "creation care" is a positive alternative frame that
can help faith communities move into action as part of the Green Growth

These five forces, in alliance with green business, can change the face
of politics in this country. Their goal would be straightforward: to win
government policy that promotes the interests of green capital and green
technology over the interests of gray capital (extractive industries,
fossil-fuel companies) in a way that spreads the benefits as widely as
possible. The idea would be to resolve the economic, ecological and
social crises on terms that maximally favor green capital and ordinary

Fortunately, the Green Growth Alliance is not just a theoretical
necessity. It is already becoming a practical reality. National
organizations like the Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance have
come on the scene, promoting good jobs in the clean-energy sector. The
Apollo Alliance incudes labor unions, environmental organizations,
community-based groups and businesses; the Blue Green Alliance is a
partnership of the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers, recently
joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Communications

Former Vice President Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection is also
reaching out broadly to engage new sectors in the battle to avert
catastrophic climate change. And the new kids on the block--1Sky and
Green for All--are engaging important constituencies like PTA moms and
African-American ministers.

Despite these developments, the notion that a politics centered on green
solutions could build a muscular governing majority in the United States
still seems doubtful. That is because the "green movement" seems to be
the cushy home of such a thin and unrepresentative slice of the public.

The fact is, when many ordinary people hear the term "green," they still
automatically think the message is probably for a fancy, elite set--not
for themselves. And as long as that remains true, the green movement
will remain too anemic politically and too alien culturally to rescue
the country.

Enlightened, affluent people who embrace green values do a great deal of
good for the country and the earth--and they are making an important
difference every day. But nobody should make the mistake of believing
that a small circle of highly educated, upper-income enviros can unite
America and lead it all by themselves. Eco-elite politics can't even
unite California.

If you doubt me, let's examine a recent statewide election in California
to see how eco-elitism can actually set back environmental
initiatives--even very thoughtful and well-financed ones, even in places
where the overall support for environmentalism is relatively high.
Everyone loves to praise GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for signing
global-warming legislation in 2006. Yet few discuss the fact that just a
few months later, the majority of California voters rejected a
clean-energy ballot measure called Proposition 87.

This defeat holds many lessons for us going forward. The idea for Prop
87 was brilliant in its simplicity: California would start taxing the
oil and gas that oil companies extract from our soil and shores. This
state-level oil tax would generate immense revenues that would go into a
huge "clean-energy" research and technology fund--totaling $4 billion
over ten years.

At first, the measure was polling off the charts. Victory seemed
certain. But in the end, Californians rejected the measure, 55 percent
to 45 percent. Why? Mainly because Big Oil convinced ordinary
Californians that the price tag would be too high for them to bear. The
oil and gas industry spent $95 million warning that the tax would be
passed along to consumers. It suggested that the tax would push gas and
home-energy costs through the roof and hurt the poorest Californians.
And in the end, the biggest clean-energy ballot measure in the country
went down.

The defeat of Prop 87 should sound a clear warning for all of us as we
work to birth a green, postcarbon economy. We must recognize and
celebrate the fact that well-off champions of the environment will be
indispensable to any coalition effort. In fact, it is their business
smarts, monetary resources, social standing and political savvy that
have propelled the green wave to this point. But at the same time, the
eco-elite cannot win major change alone. After all, if a Prop 87-style
collapse is possible in the Golden State, what do you think will happen
in the other forty-nine?

To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and
include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent
people. The time has come to move beyond eco-elitism to eco-populism.
Eco-populism would always foreground those green solutions that can
improve ordinary people's standard of living--and decrease their cost of

But bringing people of different races and classes and backgrounds
together under a single banner is tougher than it sounds. I have been
trying to bridge this divide for nearly a decade. And I learned a few
things along the way.

What I found is that leaders from impoverished areas like Oakland,
California, tended to focus on three areas: social justice, political
solutions and social change. They cared primarily about "the people."
They focused their efforts on fixing schools, improving healthcare,
defending civil rights and reducing the prison population. Their "social
change" work involved lobbying, campaigning and protesting. They were
wary of businesses; instead, they turned to the political system and
government to help solve the problems of the community.

The leaders I met from affluent places like Marin County (just north of
San Francisco), San Francisco and Silicon Valley had what seemed to be
the opposite approach. Their three focus areas were ecology, business
solutions and "inner change." They were champions of "the
planet"--rainforests and important species like whales and polar bears.
Many were dedicated to inner-change work, including meditation and yoga.
And they put a great deal of stress on making wise, earth-honoring
consumer choices. In fact, many were either green entrepreneurs or
investors in eco-friendly businesses.

Every effort I made to get the two groups together initially was a
disaster--sometimes ending in tears, anger and slammed doors. Trying to
make sense of the differences, I wrote out three binaries on a napkin:

1. Ecology vs. Social Justice
2. Business Solutions (Entrepreneurship) vs. Political Solutions

3. Spiritual/Inner Change vs. Social/Outer Change

People on both sides of the equation tended to think that their
preferences precluded any serious consideration of the options presented
on the opposite side.

Increasingly, I saw the value and importance of both approaches. I
thought, What would we have if we replaced those "versus" symbols with
"plus" signs? What if we built a movement at the intersection of the
ecology and social justice movements, of entrepreneurship and activism,
of inner change and social change? What if we didn't just have hybrid
cars--what if we had a hybrid movement?

To return to the metaphor of the slave ship Amistad, the question in my
mind has become, What if those rebel Africans, while still in chains,
had looked out and noticed the name of their ship was not the Amistad
but the Titanic? How would that fact have affected their mission? What
would change if they knew the entire ship was imperiled, that everyone
on it--the slavers and enslaved--could all die if the ship continued on
its course, unchanged?

The rebels suddenly would have had a very different set of leadership
challenges. They would have had the obligation not just to liberate the
captives but also to save the entire ship. In fact, the hero would be
the one who found a way to save everyone on board--including the
slavers. And the urgency of freeing the captives would have been that
much greater--because the smarts and the effort of everyone would have
been needed to save everyone.

For the sake of the ship--our planet--and all aboard it, the effort to
go green must be all hands on deck.

We can take the unfinished business of America on questions of inclusion
and equal opportunity and combine it with the new business of building a
green economy, thereby healing the country on two fronts and redeeming
the soul of the nation. We must.

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