New Wave Coming

Environmentalism isn’t dead, says Van Jones, executive director of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; rather, a broader-based movement that incorporates environmental justice will lead us into the future. Jones’ accolades include the Reebok International Human Rights Award, the equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize for twentysomethings and the Global Leader for Tomorrow Award, given by the World Economic Forum once a year to 100 people under the age of 35.

Katie Renz: You say we’re entering the third wave of environmentalism. What’s it about?

Van Jones: It’s new entrepreneurs bringing ideas to market that can honor the earth and at the same time meet human needs. It’s lots of new jobs for people who might otherwise not get jobs in the old, dying, polluting economy, industries clustered together so that wastes from one can be the inputs for another, green job training centers and eco-industrial parks in neighborhoods that right now are blighted with closed factories. It’s solar panels on the rooftops of low-income homeowners so that the ghetto can get off the grid and be selling energy back to energy companies.

So the third wave will be concentrated in cities?

Urban America has three problems: joblessness and lack of community health and safety. Is there a magic bullet that can deal with all three with our limited public and private dollars? There is—what we call “green jobs, not jails,” investing in community economic development to replace the underground economy with a legitimate economy. You can move brothers from jail cells to solar cells. In India the “Barefoot College” takes illiterate folks from the villages and turns them into solar engineers who go back to the villages and power up without polluting. If that can be done in India, why can’t it be done in Detroit?

Sounds great, but how will it be funded?

The only way to pull off this U-turn is with private and public dollars. All this money going into the incarceration industry is mis-serving the community. People who’ve been convicted can do environmentally helpful work and community restoration. We’re going to need a lot of people in the urban environment that can manage clean energy systems and do permaculture and rainwater reclamation and rooftop gardening.

How do you envision this shift towards investment happening?

Right now the incarcerators and the greedy developers pretty much run politics in any city, profiting off of the weakness of people’s desperation for jobs. But they’re not all-powerful, they’re just unopposed. We think that you can knit together a pretty beautiful opposition. That opposition would include environmentalists, labor unions, ethical entrepreneurs, the young people who are naturally idealistic if somebody gives them half a chance but will slide into nihilism if they’re not supported. We know it can be done if enough of us insist that it be done and are willing to give up the victim story. There’s a tension on the left between “flush America” or “fix America,” and that’s why we’ve had 30 years of “F-America.”

This “third wave” comes in the midst of this Death of Environmentalism hoopla. Do you think the single-issue environmentalism the authors describe has to “die” out to usher in this third wave?

No, there are probably a thousand ways to start that conversation, 999 of them better than the way that essay started it. We can get all enthusiastic about this third wave and I guarantee you in 20 years people who right now are in kindergarten will say we got it wrong because they’ll know more than we do. It’s a maturation point for our movement, that’s all that’s going on. This whole death metaphor is so unfortunate. When you go from being a teenager to being an adult, do you die? No, you go through some changes but you don’t die. You grow.

What kinds of challenges will environmentalists face in this third wave?

One of the problems right now is you’ve got a bunch of white folks who get it and have moved on to being vegan and trying to have solar-powered hair dryers or whatever. But what about the person living 20 minutes away who’s happy that Wal-Mart might give them access to commodities they don’t have to take four buses to get to and would be happy to get a job working anywhere, even if it was smokin’ up the sky a little bit? There’s a big gulf that’s opened up because all of us have made the mistake of trying to narrow our expertise. But that wasn’t balanced out by a common vision and investment in communication and common strategy.

The pessimistic side is, it’s over: the economic, ecological, and social collapse that’s coming will be more than we can survive. On the optimistic side, we survive, but there are dangers, and they have to do with this eco-apartheid versus eco-equity question: How much of what is beautiful will be shared? Right now, you’d say, it ain’t going to be shared that well because people are socially segregated.

California has a majority of people of color. Unless a massive number of people of color get this green wave virus, all the work of these white folks will simply be undone. We have a situation in which we either figure out how to get everybody involved in this ecological U-turn or we’re not going to be able to execute it. A lot of people who are concerned about throwaway resources and throwaway species and throwaway energy don’t know anything about the throwaway children and the throwaway neighborhoods that are all around them.

So how can white people better contribute to a common vision? It can’t just be a condescending attempt at “outreach.”

Anybody who says “We need to do more outreach” is already in the wrong conversation. It’s about getting yourself educated about the issues affecting the whole community, including low-income people, people of color, single moms, etc. If the first thing somebody does is come up to you and say, “Hey, do me a favor,” what would you think? You’d think that person was selfish and rude, but that’s the way most white activism works: “Hey, come sit on my panel so we don’t feel racist.” A relationship takes time to build, and it takes patience.

If you’re not willing to get outside of your own comfort zone instead of inviting people into your comfort zone, you’re going to fail at building a strong movement. If your fear keeps you from venturing outside of your own little rabbit hole, well, don’t be surprised if no one wants to venture into yours. People have to be willing to do their homework, to make an individual investment: when something’s going on in the Tenderloin or in the Bayview or in West Oakland, it doesn’t occur to them that they should be there. It’s like, “I’m not going to learn one thing except that Dr. King said, ‘I have a dream,’ but I’m going to do one diversity training and that’s going to fix something.” That kind of approach is absolutely epidemic, and it’s failing not just people of color—we have our own problems to worry about—but it’s failing this whole movement everyone’s supposedly so committed to.

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