A Review of ‘Green Collar Economy:
How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems’
‘The best answer to our ecological crisis also responds to our socio-economic crisis. The surest path to safe streets and peaceful communities are not more police and prisons, but ecologically sound economic development. And that same path can lead us to a new green economy’ — Van Jones
By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / March 17, 2009
[Rag Blog contributor Carl Davidson reviews ‘Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems’ by Van Jones (Harper-Collins, 2008). The book’s author, environmental activist Van Jones, was recently named an advisor to President Obama on green jobs.]
It’s time to link the newly insurgent U.S. Green Jobs movement with the worldwide efforts for the solidarity economy. Both are answering the call to fight the deepening global recession, and both face common adversaries in the failed “race to the bottom,” environment-be-damned policies of global neoliberalism.
That’s the imperative facing left-progressive organizers with connections to these two important grassroots movements. It’s even more important in the wake of the appointment of a key leader of one of these movements, Van Jones of “Green For All,” to a top environmental and urban policy post in the Obama administration.
Jones is a founder of an urban-based campaign focused on low-income young people, multinational and multicultural, that first developed as a progressive response to police repression, gang killings and all-round “criminalization of youth.” He saw the exclusion of this sector of the population from living-wage work and other opportunities as a key cause of the violence and destruction. Putting young people to work at low-to-medium skill levels retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency seemed like a no-brainer, so the demand for “Green Jobs, Not Jails” was raised.
The slogan found deep resonance as it spread across the country. Its all-round implications were spelled out in Jones’ widely acclaimed book, “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.” It spells out a string of ingenious, interconnected programs aimed at resolving the savage inequalities of structural unemployment and the global dangers of climate change rooted in carbon-based energies systems.
“Let’s be clear,” says Jones in the opening pages of his book, “The main piece of technology in the green economy is a caulk gun. Hundreds of thousands of green collar jobs will be weatherizing and energy-retrofitting every building in the United States.”
He doesn’t leave the matter there, but makes use of this picture to point out what’s “shovel ready,” to use the lingo of debate around stimulus spending. Green jobs span the entire range of occupations, with a special focus on high-tech manufacturing in emerging alternative energy industries.
“Green Collar Economy” was instantly a powerful voice in policy circles. It gained a wider and deeper significance in light of the financial crises that hit the fan soon after it reached the bookstores. Just as the voter revolt against Wall Street helped lift Obama to the Oval Office, so too was Van Jones’s urban policy monograph raised into a “What Is To Be Done” manifesto for deep structural reforms capable of busting the onset of a major depression.
“The best answer to our ecological crisis also responds to our socio-economic crisis,” Jones explains. “The surest path to safe streets and peaceful communities are not more police and prisons, but ecologically sound economic development. And that same path can lead us to a new green economy.”
How does it connect with the solidarity economy? This parallel movement with even earlier roots is widely known throughout the Global South, especially Latin America, as well as Europe and Quebec. It has been comprised of a range of projects where social capital is partnered with worker, community, consumer and peasant cooperative ownership structures. These were designed to fight back against the economic devastation wrought by neoliberal IMF-imposed “solutions” that left people without a safety net or means of survival. People turned to each other at the grassroots in common efforts, hence the term “solidarity economy.”
Both the solidarity economy and the green economy are “value centered” schools of economic thought. They are in the classical tradition of political economy, which in turn is rooted in moral philosophy. They are not simply descriptive of supposedly objective economic processes, but are prescriptive. At full throttle, they are organizing principles for shaping the future, locally and globally, via local organization and mass mobilization. For its part, the solidarity economy stresses the values of cooperation and mutual aid, especially in governance structures of productive, consumer or financial units. The green economy emphasizes ongoing sustainability and harmony between people and the eco-system of which they are a part.
The solidarity economy is about how people relate to each other, while the green economy is about how people relate to their wider environment. Naturally, there is considerable overlap between the two. Both see the current order as destructive of people and planet, and are working to turn things around.
“Equal protection of all people, equal opportunity for all people, and reverence for all creation.” These are what Jones terms the “three pillars” of the new green global economy.
Neither economic vision is monolithic. Both schools of thought span a range of views, some of which are in contention. In the Green Jobs movement for instance there are debates on nuclear power and “clean coal,” and what role, if any, these might have in a low-carbon future. In the solidarity economy movement there are discussions on the place of markets and government, and whether cooperative structures can use either or both to their advantage. There is also debate over the importance of “high road” allies within the business community, “high road” meaning traditional business structures that bring wider community and environmental responsibility into their business plans, rather than simply short-term shareholder profit.
Where Van Jones’ approach to both the green and solidarity economies most compels our attention is that he starts where the need is greatest, the millions of unemployed and underemployed inner city youth. The structural crises of neoliberal capitalism has long ravaged this sector of our society through deindustrialization, environmental racism and a wrecking ball approach to schools in favor of more prisons. To borrow from Marx, these young people are bound with radical chains, and when they break them with the tools suggested in Green Collar Economy, they free not only themselves, but the rest of us are set in a positive direction as well.
“The green economy,” Jones explains, reflecting on Hurricane Katrina, “should not be just about reclaiming thrown-away stuff. It should be about reclaiming thrown-away communities. It should not be just about recycling materials to give things a second life. We should also be gathering up people and giving them a second chance. Formerly incarcerated people deserve a second shot at life-and all obstacles to their being able to find that second chance in the green sector should be removed. Also, our urban youth deserve the opportunity to be part of something promising.”
Jones is a strategic thinker who gives definite answers to the question, “Who are our friends, who are our adversaries?” He narrows the target to speculative capital with roots in carbon-based energy industries and the militarism needed to secure their supplies. He seeks close allies in the wider working class of all nationalities, especially in the Blue-Green Alliance formed on the core partnership of the United Steelworkers with the Sierra Club. He also looks for allies among faith communities, environmentalists in the suburbs and rural populations suffering at the hands of anti-ecological agribusiness, offering a vision of wind farms and solar arrays for sustainable rural development. He sees the importance of cutting back defense spending and opposing unjust wars abroad.
Finally, he holds out a hand to green businesses in alternative energies, the current and future manufacturers of clean power:
“Our success and survival as a species are largely and directly tied to the new eco-entrepreneurs-and the success and survival of their enterprises. Since almost all of the needed eco-technologies are likely to come from the private sector, civic leaders and voters should do all that can be done to help green business leaders succeed.”
Jones is not talking just about mom and pop operations here, but an important and growing sector of productive capital. These will range from small upstarts to T. Boone Pickens-type investors wanting to create giant wind farms and large coastal arrays of wave generators, along with the manufacturing firms that build their equipment. Some on the left who want to see a clean renewable energy future will have to make adjustments in their “anti-corporate” strategies if they want to pursue this goal effectively with these high-road allies. Dan Swinney of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council explains his current project, the Chicago Green Manufacturing Network, as a case in point:
“CMRC is working with the Cleveland-based Great Lakes Wind Network/WireNET and the City of Chicago in building the capacity of local manufacturing companies to become the supply chain for the explosive wind turbine industry. Illinois and other states currently have ambitious Renewable Energy Portfolios that create a huge market for wind turbine companies and others in the renewable energy field. Currently the components for these companies are principally made by European and Asian suppliers. We will rise to the challenge of building the capacity of local companies to supply the high quality components for wind turbines and other renewable energy companies. This will be a means to diversify the markets for some of the 12,000 manufacturing companies in our region and an opportunity to create hundreds if not thousands of new permanent, full-time jobs in manufacturing.”
But Green Collar Economy’s core mass base remains a united Black and Latino community in close alliance with organized labor, the same engine of change that put Obama in the White House. And by asserting the interests and needs of that base, the green jobs and infrastructure proposals in Obama’s stimulus package serve to drive the entire recovery effort in a progressive direction.
“We want to build a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty,” says Jones, “We want this green wave to lift all boats… In the wake of Katrina, we reject the idea of ‘free market’ evacuation plans. Families should not be left behind to drown because they lack a functioning car or credit card…In an age of floods, we reject the ideology that says we must let our neighbors ‘sink or swim’.”
The nature of the Green New Deal’s adversaries — the carbon-based energy speculators and the military industries defending them — is the key reason Jones’ strategy requires a massive mobilized base. The structural reforms needed to dislodge and displace them are going to require a great deal of popular power from below. The petroleum-coal industrial nexus alone is subsidized to the tune of $1 trillion annually, according to Congressman Robert Kennedy Jr. in his foreword to Jones’ book. Some are outright opposed to any “New Deal,” green or otherwise, as the GOP in Congress reveal with their votes against the Recovery Act. The Green Jobs components were often cited by the right as “pork” or “the road to socialism.” Others want to destroy the Green New Deal from within, via “greenwashing.” These are politicians who take their lead from some corporations that have become skilled at changing their ads to “green” but continue producing toxics and other waste from the polluter’s agenda.
Jones singles out Newt Gingrich, the GOP’s neoliberal-in-chief, as particularly devious: “He has skillfully used rising fuel prices to stoke public support for climate-destroying measures…Their new tactic is to spread confusion about the real solutions by deliberately blurring distinctions between themselves and the champions of genuine answers.” Jones has to take the battle into the government and electoral arenas. The resources of state power are required to bring the green economy to scale, even if it requires a gut-wrenching struggle with polluters who have a good number of politicians on their payrolls and with revenue streams long fused to the public trough.
The solidarity economy faces these battles as well. For the most part, it overlaps with the green economy at the grassroots. Its mission can be summarized as generating new wealth in a green way, but with a worker-community ownership or control component built into a project’s agenda from the start. As a major finance capitalist and former oilman who wants to invest in wind farms in a major way, T Boone Pickens is clearly part of the green economy, but not part of the solidarity economy. A wind farm on an Indian reservation cooperatively owned by the tribe and employing its members and selling power both locally and regionally would be very much part of the solidarity economy.
But the picture is more complex. “Stakeholder” solutions are not quite as clear-cut. For instance, GAMESA, a Spanish high-tech firm and a leading European manufacturer of wind turbines, recently opened a plant in Bucks County, PA. To do so, it formed stakeholder partnerships with the county and state governments, getting tax allowances and land-use easements to refit and old closed steel mill. The United Steel Workers union was brought in as a partner: 1000 new union jobs were created, hiring many of the unemployed steelworkers. The “solidarity” here is between high-road capital, the USW, local government and the unemployed of the area, but it’s a stretch for some who might want to reserve ‘solidarity’ strictly to cooperative ownership structures.
The stakeholder solidarity offers practical flexibility in the wider struggle to bring both movements to scale. Cooperative structures that evolve out of deeper structural reforms have the quality of altering the relations of power in production and local governance. Even if on a small scale, they can point to a future of wider economic democracy, acting as a bridge to new socialist relations.
In any case, a powerful high-road alliance opens the door to those on its left wing who want to take it farther. Van Jones himself has no problem with either form; his book celebrates the stakeholder green jobs alliances implemented by the Green Party mayor of Richmond, CA, as well as the Green Worker Cooperatives in building salvaging businesses in the South Bronx, NY.
At one point in his book, Jones uses a metaphor of two ships to sum up the current crossroads facing the American people, the Amistad and the Titanic. The latter carried the wealthy elite indulging in idle pleasures, and a proletarian crew labored below in an unsound structure. The former had been taken over by insurgent slaves, taken to safe harbor, but still lacked wider resources for the crew’s future. The folly of reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic has long been a metaphor for doomed tinkering at reforms in a closed system. The Amistad, however, offers a more open future. Those familiar with the story know it involves further complex struggles, with new allies, high born and low, against a dying system. But it offers hope and change, both of which are in high regard these days.
[Carl Davidson is a member of the coordinating committee of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, and a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and currently is webmaster for ‘Progressives for Obama.’ He is co-author of ‘CyberRadicalism: A New Left for a Global Age,’ and co-editor of ‘Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet,’ both available at lulu.com. This article was also posted at SolidarityEconomy.net.]
Thanks, Carl — now, what can you tell us about what kind of influence Jones will have in the Obama administration, and what his actual duties will be? “Environmental and urban policy post”? What department is that in, please?
What Van Jones is writing about is of course exactly what we need: an all-hands-on-deck, shotgun approach to changing our economy from one based on exploitation of people and resources to one based on broad mutual self-interests and conservation of both people and resourdces. But depending on exactly what he’s been appointed to do, and on what terms, such an appointment could just be a nice way of wrapping him up in red tape and smarm.
He’s to be “special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation”, but exactly what the title for that is, and in what Dept, I’m not sure. One report made him under Solis in Labor. Most reports said he focus would be ‘distressed areas.’
I’d give him and Obama the benefit of the doubt here. Their message has been fairly clear on this matter.
We know there’s a few billion allocated to this in the Recovery Act, so there’s some real money behind it.
I’m of the option, though, that a lot depends on what the base is organized to demand. If we don’t organize it, too many of the ‘usual suspects’ will get the loot.
It’s like when we install computer networks. You can have terrific routers and switches, but if the last piece of cable connecting your machine to the net is crappy, you’ll get crappy performance no matter how good the rest is.
This is still government in capitalist America. We have a foothold to do something decent, and move to something better. So let’s get it on, and if it turns out crappy, let’s make sure it’s not because we didn’t rise to the occasion at the base. Like the man says, change comes from below.
Carl — exactly so, and I have a sense that is happening on kind of an ad hoc community-by-community basis — didn’t mean to sound critical in my prev post, this is potentially an excellent appointment, and hopefully we will all know soon exactly what Jones’ portfolio can be made to cover. I hope he will be under Solis, certainly, as she seems so far the most progressive person at the Cabinet level. Really, I believe that it is in these programs and efforts that Obama’s success rests; the economy isn’t going to turn around by doing the same old same old this time, imho. What is perhaps most encouraging about Jones is that he uses the word “socioeconomic”; too many economic analysts today and recently have divorced the two concepts, reflecting the fact that women, children, and the elderly, and minority youth in particular, are mere disposable commodities to the market.
It was extremely interesting for me to read the post. Thank you for it. I like such topics and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.