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The Green Collar Economy

By Van Jones. HarperOne, 2008. 237 pages, $25.99.

Reviewed by Cody Adams

Many books in the new wave of green advocacy literature focus on the science and policy dimensions of environmentalism. In the process the economic benefits of sustainable solutions are usually relegated to profit margins and generalizations about revitalizing the United States Economy. Van Jones in his new book The Green Collar Economy, however, explores what he considers a dehabilitating blind spot in the environmental movement: social justice.

The Green Collar Economy
Image courtesy HarperOne
The Green Collar Economy
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Jones, who was recently named a special advisor to the White House on green jobs, cuts to the chase in his discussion, plainly assuming that the reader is versed in the dangers facing the climate. He instead chooses to focus on the human consequences, shouldered overwhelmingly by the poor and minorities. To Jones, Hurricane Katrina serves as a haunting reminder and example of “perfect storm” of “neglect of our national infrastructure combined with runaway global warming and a blatant disregard for the poor.”  It also provides a much-needed wake up call to the green movement, which still bears the stigma of elitism, characterized by latte-drinking, Prius-driving whites.

Without the inclusion of the people most adversely affected by climate change, Jones persuasively argues, the sustainability movement will never gain enough traction to avert catastrophe. Given the influence of entrenched power structures and corporate interests, even mild measures like a cap-and-trade carbon bill won’t make it onto the books. With the country losing wealth and its long-standing white majority status, Jones argues that it is crucial to build a wide-ranging coalition of beltway environmental groups, labor unions, social justice advocates, student organizations, and church groups to overwhelm opposition to a new green economy.

Jones’ book in some ways acts as a companion piece to the technology and politics heavy book by Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Both argue for a sort of green New Deal to drastically overhaul the economy and infrastructure of the United States, with the scale of domestic mobilization not seen since WWII. Jones focuses on the human backbone of such an operation, and the kinds of practical steps needed to actually stir a green coalition to action. Ideally, this will match the theoretical, technological, and political force required for a green revolution with the sheer unified manpower of impoverished urban, rural, and minority citizens.

As a lifelong advocate for social justice, one well aware that “people of color own a mere 18 cents for every dollar of white wealth,” Jones’ does not ignore the failures of the environmental movement to include minority groups. He refers to the sometimes detrimental side-effects of progressive environmental policy on minority neighborhoods, as the “eco-apartheid” phenomenon. To remedy this, Jones proposes a practical plan of action to activate untapped resources in at-risk minority communities, provide green job training aligned with real job openings, along with fair wages and career tracks. These steps will eventually create a permanent green economy that would provide real, sustainable opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged.

As Jones elaborates in his book, someone will have to install, build, and maintain the solar panels, wind farms, and smart energy grids of the future. If the environmental movement gets it right this time, we can solve the pervasive problems of social injustice, rising poverty, and global climate change with one unified and inclusive coalition.

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