Catalyst Fall 2015


We Need to Share the Benefits of a Green Economy

But it won’t happen unless we ensure equal access to clean technologies, says prominent social justice advocate Van Jones.


Photo of Van Jones

Van Jones is a lawyer and environmental and social justice advocate. A cofounder of the Oakland, California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, he has served as special advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and founded organizations including #YesWeCode and Rebuild the Dream. Jones is a regular CNN commentator and contributor, and the author of Rebuild the Dream (2011) and the New York Times best seller The Green Collar Economy (2008).


The environmental movement has changed a lot since you published The Green Collar Economy. How would you characterize it today?

V.J.: We’re in the middle of another green boom. The first was a consciousness boom, an attempt to change policy. Now we’re in an economic green boom, and more focused on deploying new technologies with new companies within the existing policy framework. I’m optimistic that the momentum will continue—but I’m not optimistic that it will continue in a way that will help everybody.

In my first book, I laid out the dangers of what I call eco-apartheid, where you have ecological haves and have-nots—and that seems to be upon us now. Today, there are some people who have access to organic food, solar power, and hybrid cars while others are still choking in last century’s pollution- and poison-based economy.

If we’re going to have ecological equity—which is the only basis for a stable green growth agenda—we have to expand the number of people who can participate in the green boom.


How is the mainstream green boom failing underrepresented communities?

V.J.: What we’re seeing right now, especially in the solar industry, is what we feared they’d do: go to the easiest-to-serve markets, with affluent owners and premier housing stock. About 80 percent of the boom is getting these people’s homes solarized.

The clean energy industry is doing what every other industry does: try to make as much money for itself as possible without a lot of social consciousness. But clean energy is different. Because clean energy companies are the enemies of polluters, they need the public on their side.


What are the dangers of leaving poor and underserved communities out of the green economy?

V.J.: What’s wrong is that we know we have some communities that are going to get hit first and worst with everything bad about climate disruption. We’re not going to be shocked by which communities and countries get decimated. These same communities benefit last and least from everything good coming from the green economy. They’re the last ones to get solar panels and healthy, organic foods, and that’s morally wrong.

But it’s not just a moral problem. It’s ultimately a political problem. Big, polluting utility companies are now going to underserved African-American communities and telling them, “Affluent white folks are getting solar panels and jumping off the grid. That means you’re stuck with the cost of maintaining and repairing the whole grid.”

This creates the conditions for a backlash alliance between polluters and poor people. Polluters are making arguments that solar power and net metering are going to raise people’s energy bills and hurt poor people. It’s not like on the other side we can jump up and say, “Au contraire, you do in fact have an equal shot if you’re poor, or if you’re a person of color, to solar-power your house”—because it’s not true. Shame on the solar industry for leaving a hole big enough for our opponents to drive through. We are literally leaving the argument to them.

As a consequence, early in 2015, the entire African-American organization of state legislators voted against net metering and against solar. To put that in perspective, every African-American member of Congress voted for cap-and-trade in 2009. The greenest bloc in Congress during that fight was black. And in 2015, we lost every black state legislator.


What can the renewable energy industry do differently to serve underrepresented communities?

V.J.: Let’s talk about math. The greenest bloc of voters in the United States is African-Americans. This is a large voting bloc that is already on your side, and even willing to pay a little more for the government to move on an environmental agenda.

Beyond that, we have a growing voting population that is increasingly people of color: African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans. By 2040, they’ll be the majority in this country. You can leave all of those voters to have conversations with polluters about their energy bills . . . if you want. It just makes the math worse for you if you want to win anything. The math says you count the existing votes you have, and you keep them.

We can also talk about science. The research now is very clear: the more complex a problem you’re trying to solve, the more you want a heterogeneous group of problem solvers. And there is no bigger or more complex problem than global climate disruption. If you believe in science you want heterogeneity.

We need to create a green growth alliance where we can grow the green economy in a fair way—making sure everyone benefits from the work and the wealth and the better health that comes from it. This is how we win. This is how we save the world.