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The Green Machine
Promoting the Future, Van Jones Has No Shortage of Energy

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

OAKLAND, Calif. The evening's topic was worthy of a think tank -- energy, jobs and public policy. But the rollicking scene at the First Congregational Church, where Van Jones was promoting his book "The Green Collar Economy," was as far from Washington wonkdom as you could get.

Jones received an enviable introduction. Poet, performer and hip-hop theater artist Aya de León read one of her works, actor Danny Glover praised Jones and recited the Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again," and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) spoke about "our green dream" and how that was "going to be a reality, too."

Finally, with more than 500 people packed into the pews and staircases, Jones took the stage, a walking example of another dream become reality. The son of Tennessee schoolteachers, a 1993 graduate of Yale Law School and an Oakland community activist, Jones founded an organization called Green For All in 2007.

His new book -- which details how an ambitious public spending program on energy efficiency and renewable energy can stimulate the economy and create good jobs for the poor and unemployed -- couldn't have landed at a better time. President-elect Barack Obama, who is trying to figure out how to deal with climate change and energy security in a sagging economy, said Saturday that his stimulus plan would have "green" elements.

"You can cut pollution and put people to work at the same time," Jones said to murmurs of assent. "And guess what? It pays for itself," he added, noting the cost savings of more efficient homes and utilities.

As for whether the government has enough money for what he calls "a green New Deal," Jones said, "We weren't broke when bankers needed bailing out." Citing the financial crisis, he said "out of that breakdown, came a breakthrough."

Jones is just one of many people urging the incoming Obama administration to use the economic crisis to push forward a spending program that would kick-start wider renewable energy use and build the infrastructure needed for a more energy-efficient, and more energy-independent, nation. He also wants the next president to ban new coal plants, create a "Clean Energy Corps" for jobs and job training, install new electricity transmission lines, provide incentives to trade in gas guzzlers for hybrid cars, and establish a federal revolving loan fund for energy efficiency measures.

Instead of treating "green" measures as a luxury, Jones wants them to fight poverty. "We can help our Rust Belt cities blossom as Silicon Valleys of green capital," he writes.

The Center for American Progress, at which Jones is a senior fellow, has been advocating a $54.8 billion "green" stimulus package, with money for energy efficiency, mass transit, solar panels, green school construction and renovation, job training, low-income home weatherization assistance, and a carbon capture and storage project.

Obama has said he favors $15 billion a year in spending on renewable energy, weatherization and carbon capture and storage projects. As support for a big stimulus package grows it becomes more likely that much of it will include energy and efficiency projects. Obama's new national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones (no relation to Van) also supports measures that promote energy independence.

Some experts are skeptical of potential job creation numbers -- from two million to five million -- often cited by supporters of a "green stimulus" package. Economists note that money spent on such programs could create a similar number of jobs elsewhere. Moreover, some incentives for renewable energy could benefit foreign producers of anything from batteries to solar chips to wind turbines.

"If one is designing climate and energy policy, one would not do it through the lens of the economic recovery package," said Robert Stavins, head of the environmental economics program at Harvard University. "If you're [addressing] economic recovery, figure out what the optimal economic recovery package is." Stavins supports a cap and trade bill to steer people toward "green" energy projects.

But in his book, Jones makes the case for using an energy program to achieve economic ends as well as those of national security or climate. "A smart climate bill . . . would not wreck the economy, but save it," he writes. "It would be an economic stimulus package on steroids."

Unlike manufacturing jobs that can be moved to developing countries, many of the "green-collar" jobs, such as installation and maintenance, can only be done in the United States, Jones argues. While some manufacturing jobs can be done overseas, others -- such as the construction of giant, heavy wind turbines -- are more convenient and economically viable in the United States.

"The main piece of technology in the green economy is a caulk gun," he writes. "When you think about the emerging green economy, don't think of George Jetson with a jet pack. Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard hat and lunch bucket, sleeves rolled up, going off to fix America. Think of Rosie the Riveter, manufacturing parts for hybrid buses or wind turbines."

For many Americans, these will be familiar jobs. "Like traditional blue-collar jobs, green-collar jobs range from low-skill, entry-level positions to high-skill, higher-paid jobs and include opportunities for advancement," he writes.

When Jones wrote the book, he was worried about how a new president might sell the program. He talks abut the need to mobilize "people of all classes and colors." But with the weakening economy, a "green New Deal" could be an easier sell, although its impact on bringing blacks out of poverty might be smaller.

"Now the situation is bleaker for all Americans," Jones said in an interview. "I was really trying to show how we could fight poverty and pollution at the same time. Now the import of the book is bigger. Those same ideas can be used to fight global warming and recession at the same time."

"If the economy were strong," he added, "it would be about how you could get more people connected to a strong economy. Now those ideas might be used to restructure the economy. It may make it tougher to pull people out of poverty when so many people are falling into poverty for the first time."

The book is a call to action, and with an ailing economy, legislative action is likely. With Obama in the White House, Jones has more hope, yet also fear of disappointment. The church meeting gave a hint of that tension, shared by Obama supporters wondering about foreign as well as domestic policy.

The financial crisis under President Bush "tore the floor out from under people," Jones said at the church. And he said the election of Obama "tore the ceiling off."

Standing before the church's big pipe organ, cross, and stained glass windows, Jones urged his listeners to hold the president-elect accountable. "Are we going to sit down and get out the popcorn and watch that big flat-screen TV we can't afford and wonder 'what's he gonna do?' " he said to laughter. "The worst thing you can do to Barack Obama is to give him your power. He didn't get there on his power."

Jones is, as Obama once was, a community organizer with political instincts. Obama relied in part on support from people such as Jones, and now they expect results.

"Essentially I think President-elect Obama has already done the most important thing: Oxygenate the grassroots and get people dreaming and believing again," Jones said in an interview. "And it is up to us to get the best out of him . . . I don't think that Obama is going to be any braver or more audacious than the American people. The good thing about him is that he's not going to be any less so."

His book -- with blurbs from former vice president Al Gore, Google's Larry Brilliant, columnist Thomas Friedman, blogger Arianna Huffington and an introduction written by environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. -- has become a brisk seller, defying the predictions of many publishers who turned down his project, Jones said.

Those publishers, he told the audience, said to his agent that "black people don't buy green books. And white people don't buy black books. So nobody's going to buy his book."

Afterward, listeners, black and white, lined up to buy copies.

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