Van Jones: Green jobs can save the Earth and stamp out poverty

Van Jones
Chancellor Blumenthal presents Luis Alejo with the Tony Hill Award. In the background is Tara Kemp, Tony Hill's daughter, who served on the award selection committee with her mother, Melanie Stern-Hill, and others. (Photos by Terry Way)

To conquer global warming, the United States must also conquer poverty, as well as fundamentally change Americans' behavior.

That was the message delivered by guest speaker Van Jones at the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation Thursday night.

The convocation, held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, drew an energetic and amped-up crowd of at least 2,000 people eager to hear Jones, a popular environmental activist who advocates for so-called "green-collar" jobs and opportunities for the disadvantaged.

This year's convocation came on a particularly auspicious day, said Chancellor George Blumenthal in his address before the keynote speech.

"It was 200 years ago today in a one-room Kentucky cabin that Abraham Lincoln was born," said Blumenthal. "It was 100 years ago today that a multiracial group of activists founded the NAACP in New York City."

And just weeks ago "another former Illinois state senator became president of the United States of America," said Blumenthal to applause.

Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, is founding president of Green For All, an organization seeking to build a green economy that will simultaneously resolve the ecological crisis and lift millions out of poverty.

To do this, Jones told the convocation audience that we must:

  • Renew our politics;

  • Reinvent our economy; and

  • Re-create human civilization.

"How do we do that? Well, it would be impossible to even think about that if we didn't have the renewal of our politics well under way," Jones said, referring to the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

"That line we just crossed, that you thought was the finish line? That was the starting line," said Jones. "Now we get to have a movement. Now we get to show the world something. We're just getting started."

The model that led to the current economic meltdown contains three fallacies, according to Jones:

  • That we could have consumption as the most important part of our economy rather than production;

  • That we could run the economy forever based on credit, rather than "smart savings and thrift, like our grandparents";

  • That we could run our economy based on ecological destruction rather than ecological restoration.

But the green movement can save us, he said, and be the cornerstone for the next American economy, because we need to go back to producing something here.

"One of the things we can produce here is clean energy," he said. "And it's got to be something that respects the Earth."

The United States has "a Saudi Arabia" of wind and solar power, but we haven't connected our clean-energy power centers to our population centers.

"This is the most important work, the work that most needs to be done," said Jones. "If we can take the most important work, the work that most needs to be done, and connect it to the people who most need work--people coming home from prison, coming home from wars, coming out of high school with no pension ... That's how we can reinvent the economy."

Beating global warming will require greening our cities, said Jones, which means giving the people who live there the tools, training, and technology to weatherize and energy-retrofit millions of buildings.

"That's thousands of contracts and millions of jobs, which will radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions because our coal-fired power plants won't have to work so hard," Jones said.

But the green economy is more than just installing solar panels and the like. It's a fundamental change of American behavior, Jones said.

"If all we do is change how we power the economy but we don't change how we deal with water and waste and food and toxins and each other, here's what you'll have: Solar-powered bulldozers, solar-powered buzz saws that chop down the forest ... biofueled bombers so we can fight wars for lithium for batteries rather than oil for engines," Jones said.

Inside the pro-democracy movement that's trying to become a green economy movement is a deeper seed, said Jones: "A desire to return to the true, right relationship with our mother, the Earth."

Before the keynote speech, convocation organizers presented the inaugural Tony Hill Award to Luis Alejo, a public-interest attorney and Watsonville City Councilman.

Hill, a prominent community activist who died in 2007, had served on the convocation planning committee for many years. The award selection committee received 14 nominations for someone in the community who demonstrated the hallmarks of Hill's life: mentor, inspirational leader, gifted mediator, and bridge-builder.

"Tony Hill reached out to his Latino brothers in Watsonville," said Alejo in his remarks to the audience. "When he passed away, we vowed to continue his work and his spirit."

Related links:

MLK Jr. Memorial Convocation site

Green entrepreneur, urban advocate, author to address King Convocation Feb. 12

Watsonville City Councilman to receive inaugural Tony Hill Award at MLK Convocation on Feb. 12

MLK Jr. Convocation draws a young crowd

"Greening the Ghetto" (profile of Van Jones in New Yorker magazine)

Related Black History Month link:

African American Theater Arts Troupe presents 'The Piano Lesson'