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Two Crises, One Solution

Van Jones believes there is a better future for young people than prisons and there is a better future for the Earth than ecological collapse. The solutions for the two may be the same.

Two problems confront us: social inequality and environmental destruction. Both problems are reaching crisis points. We act as if they are separate. But they are linked—economically, politically, and morally. The solutions and strategies for each must, therefore, be one.

The United States is both the world's leading polluter and the world's leading incarcerator. We treat the natural world the same way we treat inner city youth. We act as if there are throw-away resources and throw-away species. And we act as if there are throw-away nations, throw-away neighborhoods, and throw-away children. We are clear-cutting rainforests on a continental scale. And we are clear-cutting a whole generation of black and brown children by stuffing them into prisons.

Often these are for-profit, privatized prisons; U.S. corporations use prisoners for labor and undermine union jobs. But when a prisoner is released, the same corporation that used his labor in prison won't even hire him—because now he is an “ex-felon.”

My home state, California, spends more money on prisons than on its four-year colleges. The U.S. spends tens of billions of dollars subsidizing mass incarceration. And it spends hundreds of billions subsidizing polluters, despoilers, and clear-cutters. At bottom, both the social and ecological crises are fueled by a lust for profit. Both are made worse by a bought-and-paid-for government, bribed to stand on the wrong side of the issues. And both problems reflect our failure as a society to value what's truly sacred—all life, with its infinite value.

To execute the urgently needed ecological and social U-turn, we need three things: We need a good story, to shine a light on the past and show a way forward. We need a good politics, to unite us strategically. And we need a good moral framework, to ground our efforts spiritually and ethically.

A possible story

Let me offer a possible story. Suppose there was a continent, North America, that for thousands of years was taken care of beautifully by its indigenous stewards. It was lush, beautiful, and balanced. But then invaders arrived, killed the stewards, and disrupted the ecological balance. Suddenly, an environmental movement was needed to save the land and restore the balance.

As of today, we have seen two waves of this movement and the beginnings of a third. The first wave was called “conservation,” created by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the last century. The second wave, which came in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, went beyond conserving nature. It looked at the human health effects of toxic pollution and promoted conservation plus regulation. The second wave accomplished a great deal, but it had one critical flaw: It did not have a racial justice perspective. So despite itself, it began to create disastrous outcomes for people of color. White polluters and white environmentalists together ended up steering poison into communities of color.

The shortcomings of the second wave required a corrective effort, led by people of color, called environmental justice. Environmental justice activists said that if there must be toxic burdens, let them be shared equitably. Don't turn nations and neighborhoods of color into dumping grounds, forcing us to bear the burdens of society's pollution. These activists made the second wave more just and fair, but they still did not quite provide the inspirational, unifying frame that we needed.

Today, a new and promising wave is rising. This third wave calls for something exciting and new: Conservation, plus regulating the bad, plus investing in the good.

Conserve, yes. Regulate, yes—and do that fairly and equitably. But also invest in those things that will affirmatively heal our bodies and restore our planet. Invest in solar, bio-diesel, permaculture, organic agriculture, and high-performance buildings. The third wave promises to solve old problems while creating new wealth and new jobs.

A solution-based, investment-driven environmentalism holds great promise. But it faces the same danger as the old second wave. This new environmentalism actually could lead to what I call “eco-apartheid.” Under “eco-apartheid,” you would have an affluent place like Marin County, California, with cooler, solar everything—bio this and organic that—while nearby Oakland would still be struggling to get the last century's toxic jobs and polluting industries. On that basis, the third wave would fail.

But suppose this third wave said: No! The people who were locked out of last century's pollution-based economy must be locked in to a new, clean and green economy.

That principle would transform the next wave into an inclusive, social-uplift environmentalism. It would advance urban-friendly slogans, like “Green Jobs, Not Jails.” It would embrace all these new, clean, green technologies. And it would see them not just as an alternative environmental strategy or a business strategy. It would see them as an alternative community investment strategy: A social-uplift strategy.

A new politics for a new century

What politics does this story suggest? Properly designed, the third wave could lay the groundwork for a New Deal coalition for the new century. This would be a new politics, rooted in a proud tradition. The last time the government got this screwed up, people took a stand. Farmers, workers, ethnic minorities, students, intellectuals, progressive bankers, and the best people in the business community came together. The New Deal Coalition, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's day, moved the government onto the side of ordinary people.

We must re-imagine, re-create, and re-found a New Deal Coalition. And we must do this at the crossroads, at the intersection of the social justice and ecology movements, of business and activism, of spirituality and social change, of local and global activism. Where all these counter-currents converge, we will have enough power to stand up to the military-petroleum complex.

Using this framework, we are no longer stuck defending a failed welfare state against a rising warfare state. People of conscience at last would have a way out of that stale debate. We don't want the U.S. government as a nanny, nor as a bully. We want it to act as a partner. A partner to community groups trying to solve problems. A partner to the eco-entrepreneurs trying to bring world-saving innovations to market. A partner to the problem-solvers of the world—and not the problem-makers.

From this position, we can stand up to those who seek to repeal a century of New Deal achievements to promote their budget-busting tax cuts and their wars. We can say, “We reject your truncated, sick, disgusting, limited view of what the U.S. government can be.” It is time to expose the radical right for its appalling lack of patriotism.

We can say, “Don't tell me you're against ‘government.' Don't say that ‘government' is the problem. You must say the whole sentence, sir. You mean you're against the U.S. government. You're saying the U.S. government is a problem. And that is not a patriotic statement, sir.”

We have an obligation to tell those who are anti-government, “If you don't love this government, then let it go. Anybody who wants to hijack the government and crash it with deficits is as big a threat as any terrorist in the world.”

And we can take that message anywhere in this country. We don't have to hide in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Greenwich Village. Anywhere in the country, we can tell people we want to see the United States government strong enough to lead the world. But not in war. Not in incarceration. Not in pollution. We want the U.S. to lead in green economic development, in world-saving technologies, in human rights, by showing a rainbow planet how our rainbow country can pull together to solve tough problems.

A moral framework

Now, on what moral framework can we rest this renewed political strategy? What moral vision can unite us, despite our class and race differences? Aqeela Sherrills, the great peace hero of Watts, California, has the answer. He's calling for a “Reverence Movement”—to honor the sacred in each other and our planet.

A reverence movement would anchor a different economics, a restorative economics. Working with nature, we can create wealth sustainably and spread it more equitably. Our economic activity can restore, rather than undermine, environmental health.

And a reverence movement would give us a new criminal justice system. Crime disrupts a balance. Our society attempts to restore that balance by using retribution—an eye for an eye. In this retributive justice system, justice is served when the wrongdoer has been appropriately hurt. Justice has been served when we have added more damage.

There is a more humane and cost-effective alternative. Under a restorative justice system, justice has been served when the person who has been trespassed against has been made whole.

If your car is broken into, you'll be angry. But if you find out that the culprit is a three-striker and is going to get 25 years-to-life if convicted of this crime, your heart may soften. You don't really want another person sent to prison for life. You just want to make sure this crime doesn't happen again. You want help paying for your window. You want to make sure that the person who did it learns his lesson.

Using a restorative justice system, you can have that for pennies. Sometimes you can fix what has been broken using coaches and counselors, rather than prison guards and police. And you will have a reduced likelihood of future violence and crime, because you helped break the cycle of harm. This works in New Zealand and in experiments across the United States. This is what we need.

I live in Oakland, California, which is sometimes the murder capital of the country. So nobody is going to give me any lectures about the need for public safety. But the safest communities are not the communities with the most police and the most prisons. In the safest communities, you never see police. In the safest communities, there are no prisons. Instead, these communities have jobs and schools that work. We insist on everyone's right to these things. This way, we can solve the problems of inequality and insecurity, at once.

This is what I propose: A social-uplift strategy that creates green jobs, not jails; a politics anchored in a New Deal Coalition for this century; and a moral framework based on reverence for each other and the planet. It can be done.

Finding a way forward

And it must be.

The birth of my first child gives me even greater urgency. He's a little black boy, growing up in Oakland, California.

I'm not going to be able to tell him some of the things that some other people can tell their children. I'm not going to be able to tell him he's welcome in this country. I'm not going to be able to say he can go anywhere and be safe and expect people to treat him right, even people who look just like him. I'm not going to be able to say those things to my child.

And I can't even tell him that his father is working to “take back America.” That's the big progressive slogan nowadays. But America wasn't ever ours in the first place. My people were stolen from Africa and brought here to be the country's footstools. We can't take back something that has never been truly ours.

But I can tell my son this: Lots of people in this country have been left out and locked out and laughed at. They're told: You can't marry who you want, can't love who you want, can't live where you want, can't go where you want. None of those people can take America back.

But we can do something better. We can reach out to each other. We can love ourselves and each other. We can revere all life and the generations to come. And we can make the government our partner in this great effort. And if we do that, we won't be taking America back. We'll be taking America forward. Let us begin.


Van Jones is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, www.ellabakercenter.org, where he works to replace the punishment industry with youth opportunities and community-based solutions. Van Jones delivered a version of this speech at the Praxis Peace “Alchemy of Democracy” conference, Pacific Grove, California, June 2004.

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