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March/April 2009

Green Collar Economy

Author Van Jones and his book, The Green Collar Economy keep impressive company. A supportive quote from Al Gore tops the book cover while the bottom of the cover lists the foreward by Robert F. Kennedy. Silent Spring is referenced on the back book jacket with a statement that proposes a comparison between the two books: The Green Collar Economy being a timely and essential call to action for this century just as Silent Spring was in its time. When reading environmental books, its just a matter of time before Silent Spring will be referenced. It's a fun little aside to see exactly when and how it will be incorporated. That said, obviously Van Jones has established himself among prominent environmentalists of our time. But, as much as his work has earned him his accolades as a member of that group, it is because his work speaks from a unique perspective and with a firm foundation in the People part of the triple bottom line that he also stands apart.

Van states the triple bottom line as Profit, Planet and People. A little snappier as an illiteration than the usual Economic, Environmental and Social verbage. So I'll use his version as I continue my review. He weaves the effects of environmental degradation on People right into the initial Reality Check chapter. So, those of us with a firm knowledge base in environmental issues are given a bit more to think about while those readers new to sustainability are given an opportunity to understand the People impact right from the start.

My first new lesson about People was the impact the 1964 definition of "wilderness" had on indigenous peoples. In an effort to protect and preserve our wild places, we defined wilderness as absent of humans. That definition served to protect areas from industrialization and the ravages of the ways the popular culture were living. But, it also excluded indigenous peoples who lived on the land in more sustainable ways; people who could have lived in balance with ecosystems and taught us a thing or two. Instead, we "failed to make adequate provisions for their needs or the wisdom of America's indigenous people. In other words, one of the biggest conservationist victories overlooked the needs of the continent's original, indigenous conservationists."

Fast forward to 2005 and Van reminds us of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on People in New Orleans. Especially the negative effects on the poorest mostly black communities of people without the resources to evacuate or recover from the long term impacts of the devastation. Van makes the People part personal by describing one couple's journey in the early days of the aftermath. And he exposes the bigger picture part as he explains the link between global warming and the intensity of the storm. He continues and points out the failure of our government to address global warming as a real threat or to provide adequate levees. And perhaps, worse of all, the government's failure to provide adequate response to the crisis. He summarizes: "The Katrina story illustrates clearly the two crises we face in the United States: radical socioeconomic inequality and rampant enviromental destruction."

Together, the disregard for indigenous people and the disregard for the poor and black communities in New Orleans set a firm foundation for the People piece of the triple bottom line and the need for as Van puts it, a Green Growth Alliance that can create a Green New Deal that is truly inclusive and honestly solves our interrelated challenges of balancing Profits, Planet and People. Van proposes three guiding principles as a foundation for our journey: Equal Protection for All, Equal Opportunity for All and Reverance for All Creation. He clearly explains that we can't continue acting as if we have a disposable planet or any disposable people. We also need to include Government as partner and create a suite of programs that are intelligently coordinated. And, we need to support eco entreprenuers and quit supporting the pollution based economy.

Sounds Great. And sounds ambitious.

Fortunately, Van gives plenty of real world examples of exactly how we can reach our goals and ways that are already working. A cap and trade for carbon would let the market play a role in reducing the use of fossil fuels. He notes the transportation system in Curritiba, Brazil and innovative watershed management solutions in Los Angeles. Models for financing building energy efficency retrofitting are happening in Milwaukee and Berkeley; ideas that make it affordable for people to make energy efficient upgrades and pay for them over time out of the energy savings. Van notes the Appollo Aliance which is grounded in the same spirit as JFK's Apollo Project which took us to the moon. Executive Director Bracken Hendrick's is quoted as saying about the Apollo Project, it..."proved the importance of backing vision with policy and investment. Meeting the challenge meant making a commitment to expanding the capabiltities of the nation in both industrial might and intellectual prowess." Van uses this as an example of what vision backed with action can accomplish. The same type of initiative can work again.

With all the big picture ideas and visionary options, Van stays grounded in the needs of everyday people and emphasizes that for the Green movement to truly succeed it must include everyone. So, in terms of everyday people, it means jobs not jails. It means making sure Green Collar jobs are family supporting quality jobs just like blue collar jobs used to be. It means a low tech caulk gun is as important as new and improved solar panels. It means Green Collar jobs are about the shift in our use of energy but, are also about opportunities like computer recycling and building deconstruction. And it means eco-equity makes sure all of us feel we have and truly do have a role in moving us toward a more sustainable tomorrow.

True balance in the triple bottom line means that environmental stewardship isn't just for middle class vegetarians who can afford to buy a Prius. But, it's about creating funding sources for the working class to make their homes energy efficient and for public transportation to get its share of needed subsidies. When we truly embrace triple bottom line principles in action, "We can take the unfinished business of America on questions of inclusion and equal opportunity and combine it with the new business of building a green economy and thereby heal the country on two fronts and redeem the soul of the nation."

Reading The Green Collar Economy will help you understand how healing and redemption are possible.

by: Sue Norman