By Claire Halbrook

On May 11, 2010, author, human rights activist, environmentalist and father of the green jobs movement Van Jones spoke at UC San Diego. His book, The Green Collar Economy, now a New York Times best-seller, presents a plan for developing environmentally sustainable practices to simultaneously pull Americans out of unemployment and stimulate the economy.

Speaking at the Price Center Ballroom as part of the Helen Edison Lecture Series, Van Jones outlined several major problems facing America and said he is envious of the new generation of college graduates who can develop the solutions to fix them. Addressing the students in the audience, Jones explained that they will graduate at a momentous time in our country’s history—one that demands innovation and cooperation.

The first major problem Jones identified was the need for a “new” American economy, which he said must abandon the outdated system of consumption and overproduction and replace credit and debt with smart savings.

Jones explained that this new economy must stop ecological destruction and focus on restoration and conservation. His critiques of the American system reflect a pride in America’s past and confidence in our ability to achieve a better future. Quoting former President Clinton, Jones said “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed with what is right about America.”

Jones’ solution, detailed in his best-selling 2008 book, “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” focuses on the need to reinvigorate our energy sector by replacing cheap coal with wind and solar energy.

According to Jones, American-made wind turbines and solar panels are a perfect example of how American-made products can be used to create jobs and solve the nation’s unemployment issue through sustainable development. It can put the thousands of highly skilled workers in Indiana and Michigan, who he says are excellent candidates for green jobs, to work. On a smaller scale, Jones said retrofitting buildings that leak energy and greenhouses gases into the environment is also an excellent way to employ people in low-income urban areas, explaining that, “before we do desperate things, we need to do common sense things.” Additionally, we need to prove to investors that the nation is moving in a “green” direction to encourage them to invest in the growing number of “green” entrepreneurs.

Jones said issues such as clean air and unemployment require cooperation from both of America’s typically divided parties and spoke of America as a “rainbow nation” that needs to serve as an example for a “rainbow planet”.

He spoke to PROSPECT about the economy in relation to the environment.

PROSPECT: UCSD has been striving to become a green campus and, it’s recently been working on a composting program. The problem with this is that it lost funding and the grant for this program that had already begun implementation was revoked. I think that this is something that’s happening a lot to these programs that are trying to get started. What do we do in these situations where the country is quite strapped for money and we have people coming up with these great ideas, but without the funding…

VJ: Well, there’s two kinds of capital: there’s financial capital and then there’s social capital. And the reality is that there is money in the country. It’s just that right now because of the uncertainty we haven’t passed the right laws yet—putting a price on carbon, that kind of stuff so finance capital is kind of holding back and then people don’t know how to access the government money. But, fundamentally, I do believe that good ideas attract good people and good people attract money. So there’s no magic answer for any of this stuff, but I think that we just have to stay determined.

PROSPECT: In terms of California, we are looking at the expansion of Assembly Bill 32, which is working to make California fit the Kyoto Protocol, but the complaint is that we should suspend the program temporarily until unemployment goes down. I know that a lot of your work is saying that these two actually go hand in hand—that decreasing unemployment and working to going green go together. What would you say to those people who oppose this bill?

VJ: Every time America has moved to raise its environmental standards a certain section of industry screams bloody murder and says, “We’re going to lose jobs; we’re going to become less economically competitive.” And then the amazing thing that happens is the minute that the laws change, American business does what American business does best and people start competing to bring the cost of compliance down. Every single time we’ve done this, with the Clean Air Act all the way down, it turns out that once the rules have changed, American business always outperforms itself. It’s actually a job killer not to have high environmental standards going forward as the price of energy is both shaky and with the propensity to go up. It’s a job killer not to have the kind of regulations in place that will let us compete well with Asia. It always turn out that every time our environmental standards go up, our economic performance also goes up. That will be the case in this as well.

PROSPECT: You pointed out that there are these three big problems. It seems like there are so many problems and so much that needs to be done. What would you say is and should be our number one priority? Our first step on the road?

VJ: Putting a price on carbon. That will send the clearest market signal that the days of polluting for free are over for big carbon and it will unleash innovation and entrepreneurship and invention and investment on a scale that we’ve never seen. The private sector will begin to solve this problem. It won’t just be about this year the price is low so we won’t worry about it. People are going to say we are now in a world where the price of carbon is going to keep going up and I need to get out of the dirty energy business. That’s the most important thing we can do. Everything else will be supportive of what comes out of that.

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