The New Environmentalists Wear Hard Hats

Interview with Van Jones on Earth Day 2.0

Van Jones talks about what the green movement looks like on Earth Day's 40th anniversary and what you can do to promote the clean energy economy.

A globe sits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of a 40th aniversary Earth Day celebration. (Flickr/NASA)
A globe sits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of a 40th aniversary Earth Day celebration. (Flickr/NASA)

Listen to the podcast with Van Jones (mp3)

Today, we celebrate the 40th anniversay of Earth Day—just a week before Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are expected to come forward with new energy legislation that will launch the United States into a new clean energy economy. A lot has changed in the past 40 years, and so we asked CAP Senior Fellow Van Jones what he thinks about Earth Day this year and what the modern day environmentalist looks like. His short answer?: “It’s [a] Earth Day 2.0 moment…it’s going to be a different kind of environmentalism. Sleeves rolled up, hard hat, lunch bucket, that’s going to become the image of the environmentalist rather than just our beloved tree huggers.”

Now that we’ve become a little more environmentally savvy, Earth Day means some people are going out and buying Priuses and taking eco-friendly vacations. But let’s put this Earth Day in the context of the Great Recession. There are families struggling across the country. What does Earth Day mean for them?

Well, first of all, Earth Day is changing. Earth Day at 40 is very different than Earth Day at 20. I remember Earth Day at 20. I was in college and it was really all about the birds and the bees and that kind of stuff. Now, it’s much more about economic opportunity. The next 40 years of environmental policy will be primarily economic policy as we begin to repower America with cleaner energy.

Solar panels don’t put themselves up. Somebody’s actually got to get a job to put those solar panels up. Wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves. Homes don’t retrofit and weatherize themselves. So everything that is good for the environment is a job. I think we need to be a lot clearer about that, a lot louder and prouder about the fact that what we need to do to repair the “earth” and beat the global recession is the same thing we need repair the environment and beat global warming. It’s actually literally the same type of activity.

So what are some of the smart policies that are out there right now either in play or being proposed that could actually go a long way to what you’re talking about?

I’m most excited about the proposal for HOME STAR, which is so-called Cash for Caulkers, which is about making people’s homes better. Right now people are paying 20, 30, 40 percent too much on their energy bills because we don’t have the right insulation, we don’t have the right windows, we don’t have the new boilers and furnace, but nobody’s got any money to go get all that stuff. And so HOME STAR would actually give some tax credits and some support for ordinary Americans to go and say, “I’m going to invest in my home. I’m going to save on energy.” But that’s also going to stimulate the economy and give somebody a job to come in here and install all that stuff.

What’s so important about energy efficiency—everybody talks about solar panels and that’s the kind of sexy stuff—but these hardworking energy efficiency dollars are the most fiscally conservative and possibly high-impact dollars we can spend in the short-term. So these are the kinds of proposals, I think, that it’s kind of like Earth Day 2.0 moment that we’re in where it’s going to be a different of environmentalism. Sleeves rolled up, hard hat, lunch bucket, that’s going to become the image of the environmentalist rather than just our beloved tree huggers.

You said there are a lot of important debates coming up very soon. How important is it to hear the voices of diverse constituencies and everyday people in these debates around energy policy and legislation?

Well, I think that coming up next week we’re going to see a renewal of this debate because Sen. Kerry and Sen. Graham and Sen. [Joe] Lieberman will be coming forward—allegedly—next week with a new proposal that will begin to get us off overseas oil and will begin to put people to work in giving us energy independence and cutting carbon. Ordinary folks need to be able to step up in that because there’s going to be a lot of people that want this bill to only help the energy companies and not to help ordinary people. And there’s going to be the opportunity for regular people to get real actual benefits—to get refunds. People are like, “oh, I’m scared of this energy bill because it’s going to make my energy bill go up,” but there’s a way you can actually get a refund on your energy bill and actually wind up with more money in your pocket if you make your home more energy efficient.

So we’re going to see a tug of war now between the interests that want to keep things in the old way and people that want to do things in a new way. You say, “why is it important for ordinary voices to be heard?” Well, because frankly, if we had a clean energy economy, we would have more work, more wealth, and better health for regular people. That’s what’s not getting through. There are way more jobs putting up solar panels, building smart batteries, making wind turbines, putting them up, than we will ever have again in America in the coal lines. Period.

If you want a jobs agenda, we need to be moving toward a technology-based job agenda rather than continuing to pull down on our natural resources that we are now beginning to see dwindle here in America. You’ll have more wealth. There are way more entrepreneurial opportunities for new businesses and new products and new services in the clean energy space. Not many people are going to go out and start an oil company tomorrow. But people can go start a solar company tomorrow.

So just straight-up common sense. There’s more wealth to be had for ordinary people in a new economy. And also from a health point of view, the green agenda is about cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier food. And so the stuff that ordinary people are dealing with—the questions around work, wealth, and health—we have much better answers, those of us who are champions for the green economy, than the people who are the champions of the dirty energy economy.

Listen to the podcast with Van Jones (mp3)

Van Jones is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on “green-collar jobs” and how cities are implementing job-creating climate solutions.

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