In Review :: The Green New Deal

The Green Collar Economy:
How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems

by Van Jones

HarperOne, 2008,
256 pages, $25.95

Go to your local bookstore or
buy online

Van Jones has impeccable timing. Just a month ago, these words wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect: “To birth a just and green economy, our society needs the government to act as an effective midwife. … We just want government to be a smart, supportive, reliable partner to the forces that are working for good in this country.”

In the thick of economic calamity, words like these—the idea that government is our friend, not our enemy—are on just about everyone’s lips, even stalwart laissez-faire free-marketeers. A month ago, The Green Collar Economy might have been lost in the usual, happy talk of the power of the free market. Today, the book stands out as a rational, practical guide for national self-help.

Jones’ prescription is a sustainable stimulus package with the potential to fix two big problems: economic exclusion and the growing recession, and a dangerous addiction to fossil fuels that’s choking the climate. As a civil-rights lawyer and community activist, Jones has a voice that rings out in the chorus calling for climate change solutions as well as the chorus across the street crying out for social justice and equality: “We have a chance to connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done.” These are green collar jobs. At the core of his message is the idea that the good jobs we need to cut climate-warming pollution can also keep marginalized youth out of jail and put them on solid career tracks. (And to make it work, Jones insists, those two choruses—and others as well—will need to start harmonizing for the first time.)

Van Jones. Photo by Richard Hume
Van Jones. Photo by Richard Hume

Jones’ green collar economy is one where we don’t need to make the heart-wrenching choice between our children and their immediate need for a viable economy and our grandchildren and their long-term need for a viable planet. He believes it’s a false choice. 

Basically, his point is this: Climate legislation is on the way; we’ll have to provide the local workforce to make it happen. “We have to retrofit a nation,” he writes. He told a Seattle audience earlier this year that “no magical green fairies are going to come down and put up all those solar panels or install insulation. This is going to take skilled labor. We can make a green pathway out of poverty.” In his vision, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created, weatherizing and building efficiency into every building in the country. Jones says we can finance this work with auctioned pollution permits under a cap-and-trade system. Capping emissions puts a firm limit on emissions while generating revenue for efficiency programs, technology investments, and consumer rebates.

And, writes Jones, we should start now, “at the pace of wartime mobilization.” For those who’ve already grown tired of green-collar hype, Jones points out that demand today already exceeds supply—employers can’t find enough trained, green-collar workers. The work is out there.


So who will do the hard and noble work of actually building the green economy? The answer: millions of ordinary people, many of whom do not have good jobs right now. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, the major barriers to a more rapid adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency are not financial, legal, technical, or ideological. One big problem is simply that green employers can’t find enough trained, green-collar workers to do all the jobs.

That is good news for people who are being thrown out of work in the present recession. … And those opportunities for work and wealth creation can be available to all of them—starting right now. Not 20 years from now. Today.

A huge green economy is already developing despite inadequate and inconsistent support from a public sector that is “still easily cowed by the big polluters.” The numbers Jones gives don’t lie: In 2006, renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies generated 8.5 million new jobs, nearly $970 billion in revenue, and more than $100 billion in industry profits—and the numbers are growing fast. He also debunks the notion that a green work force is decades away—an army of computer technicians tinkering in futuristic laboratories on technologies we haven’t even invented yet. No. The main piece of technology in the green economy, Jones writes, is a caulking gun.

The book lays out a bold, comprehensive, New Deal-style program to build a clean energy economy that can do both. In moving but crisp prose, Jones shows the way from a “gray” economy to a bright, new, shiny green one. What occasionally borders on sloganeering in this book is redeemed by thorough analysis and thoughtful, detailed descriptions of how to overcome obstacles, build the necessary coalitions, and take steps to push the right policy through.

To get there from here, Jones emphatically calls for more eco-populism and less eco-elitism. He doesn’t shy away from a blunt rebuke of the environmental establishment for consistently cutting low-income people and people of color out of the picture. Sure, we could build a green economy in which the economic patterns of the past are institutionalized yet again, one in which certain people prosper and others are shut out. But why would we repeat the inequalities of the very dirty, gray capitalism we’re trying to shed? We must instead make a choice to build an economy that takes us beyond what Jones calls eco-apartheid.

The climate movement needs Van Jones. It particularly needs the moral grounding that he articulates. He grew up in the black churches of the rural South, and is at ease making comparisons between the urgency and moral strength of the climate movement and that of the Civil Rights movement. He is an agile ambassador bridging relatively segregated worlds of faith, labor, environmental justice and “traditional” environmentalism. He understands —better than most of us working on climate policy—that people who already live in a constant state of personal crisis are not moved by gloom and doom messages about polar bears and melting glaciers. But when we speak of opportunity, jobs, and economic solutions, we all find common ground.

Anna Fahey wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Anna is communications strategist at , a Seattle-based think tank currently focused on climate solutions that are efficient and fair.

Interested? Read another excerpt from The Green Collar Economy.

 Interview with Van Jones on the prospects for change with an Obama administration.

 See how the Green Collar Economy is already changing lives.

Photo of Anna Fahey
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