Pocketbook Environmentalism

Activist Van Jones shows that being green can appeal to your pocketbook as well as your conscience.

The dustjacket and front pages of Oakland environmentalist Van Jones' new book are littered, as it were, with gushing blurbs by the likes of Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Daschle, and Gavin Newsom. Jones “demonstrates conclusively that the best solutions for the survivability of our planet are also the best solutions for everyday Americans,” Gore insists. “The country seriously needs his take on the environment and the economy,” Newsom adds.

It probably isn't accidental that Jones' most vocal appreciators tend to be politicians. Rolling out his chapters like a series of related lectures, each restating the essential ideas of the others so variously and pithily that it's fair to wonder how many essential ideas we're actually dealing with, Jones has a way of making The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems seem like one big stump speech.

“We in America are about to break up with oil,” he writes. “Why not break up with poverty and discrimination too?” Or: “Rather than fight the green wave, the proponents of eco-apocalypse have chosen to join it. They cannot succeed by flying their pirate flag of death. They refuse to show the white flag of surrender. So they have chosen simply to grab a green banner and hoist it alongside their true colors.”

Sure, this is mostly just rhetorical filler. But it's rousing rhetorical filler. For anyone conversant with contemporary environmentalism, Jones' book, like Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, seems both an obvious and an essential frame of reference. What sets the book apart is that, in the same way Jones insists the environment and the economy are not mutually exclusive priorities, he frequently achieves an improbable synthesis of tone: the grimly catastrophic with the brightly optimistic.

“When you think about the emerging green economy,” he cheerily advises at one point, “don't think of George Jetson with a jet pack. Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard hat and a lunch bucket.”

Of course, it's all still within the movement-approved parameters of earnestness. Jones' underlying narrative on the elucidation and realization of potential remains vigorously if sometimes abstractly hopeful, and thus conspicuously Obamalike. When Jones credits Theodore Roosevelt's great strides for natural-resource conservation to those important historical figures who had the president's ear at the time, like Sierra Club founder John Muir, it is hard not to wonder:

Muir: Roosevelt :: Jones: Obama?

Not that Jones is necessarily bucking for a gig in the Obama administration. He's busy enough running his Oakland-based Green for All organization, and generally being so dynamic and positively energetic that someone should convene a focus group to cost out the possibility of just plugging him directly into the power grid. “If we stand for change, we can spark a popular movement with power, influence, magic, and genius,” Jones writes in his final chapter, “Buoyancy and Hope,” which borrows its title from Winston Churchill. “We won't just have the movement we have always wanted. We will have the country we have always wanted — and the world for which we have always longed.”

Besides having the clear-eyed vision to recognize and pity the bourgeois leanings of green chic (think Ed Begley Jr.), Jones also has the perhaps more valuable misty-eyed vision to transmute alarmism into political motivation. “The green economy is not just a place where affluent people can spend money,” he writes. “It is fast becoming a place where ordinary people can earn money.” The way is through new jobs — for energy auditors, weatherizers, retrofitters, insulation blowers, old-appliance haulers, solar panel installers, wind turbine parts manufacturers, recycling plant managers, and so on.

It's a very good idea. But is it worth reiterating at book length? Well, that might be a stretch. No one would dispute that there's a lot still to do. The first two waves of environmentalism, Jones writes, were the conservation movement of the early 1900s and the “regulation wave” of the 1960s and '70s, each of which fell short in large part because of segregation by race and class — or, as he calls it, “eco-apartheid.”

The third movement, the “investment wave,” is happening now, and is arguably the most critical, since it could determine the fate of the planet. As The Green Collar Economy shows, it's a movement in which Jones is a zealous and rightly influential steward.

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