Van Jones on the Future of Green Jobs

  • Author and TV news host Van Jones in October at the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk Centenary Symposium on Sustainability. Photo: Jennifer Szweda Jordan

December 26th, 2014

Van Jones said the idea of green jobs came to him as an “epiphany.” He realized that within the green energy sector was an opportunity for job creation.

“This ‘green movement’ is also about ‘green’—it’s about money, and these people are starting businesses. I wonder who they’re going to hire?” he said during his speech at the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk Centenary Symposium on Sustainability.

The idea was that green jobs “could fight pollution and poverty at the same time” by providing jobs in green energy to people from poor and minority communities.

“Maybe you could have these kids standing in front of my house getting on my nerves, on top of my house putting up solar panels, or weatherizing my neighbor’s house so she can save money on her energy bill, or out here in the industrial Midwest maybe building wind turbines,” he said.

He wanted to try out the idea on a small scale, so he founded the Oakland Green Job Corps in Oakland, California. The job corps trained at-risk youth in green construction and solar panel installation.

“Solar panels don’t put themselves up,” he said. “You’ve got to have workers. You’ve got to have people. I got people,” he said.

Jones’ work caught the attention of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House during the Bush Administration. “I started getting a note every other week from my much too young receptionist saying that someone named 'Nancy Pelo-sky' was trying to reach me,” he said.

Pelosi wanted to implement Jones’ ideas on a national scale and called Jones to Washington D.C. to testify on the matter in front of congressional committees. In 2007, she introduced the Green Jobs Act, and a half a billion dollars was put toward the initiative. “The only thing that George W. Bush and Pelosi agreed on the whole time they overlapped was my bill,” he said.

In 2008, at the start of President Obama’s administration, Jones was appointed the Special Advisor on Green Jobs under the Council on Environmental Quality. Even more funds were put toward the Green Jobs Act as a part of the stimulus package.

That same year, Jones published a book called The Green Collar Economy that detailed his plan to revitalize the American economy through green jobs.

Yet before Jones could really bring his ideas to fruition, controversy sprung up. His earlier political associations and time as a radical civil rights activist in the early 1990s were called into question. He felt the negative press was a distraction from his work and resigned from his position as Green Jobs Advisor in 2009.

He said after he left the White House, money from the stimulus plateaued, and the idea of green jobs came to a standstill.

Despite the setback, he still feels a “special kind of optimism” for green jobs creation on the local level.

He spoke of jobs weatherizing and insulating homes, which can save consumers money while also cutting down on emissions.

He also saw local opportunities for advancement in solar and wind energy. In a city like Los Angeles, he said consumers could generate enough electricity that they could even sell some of it back to energy companies.

“Shouldn’t you as an American have the freedom and the liberty to power your own house and sell the energy that you produce on your own property to anybody that wants to buy it on a public power grid?” he said.

Jones also said that wind turbines are more cost-effective when they are produced locally, providing opportunities for workers from other American industries. “Why am I excited about wind turbines? Because you can put your automakers back to work building them. You can put your steel workers back to work building them. We’re talking Boeing-level engineering in the sky.”

Jones brought up fracking, which he sees as a part of the American obsession with fossil fuels and as an impediment to investing in wind. He fears that by the time natural gas is tapped out, the wind industry will already be 20 years behind. “Wind was cost competitive with coal and natural gas and was getting cheaper before fracking artificially collapsed the price of natural gas and has now really hurt our wind industry.”

Jones ended his speech by making a call to action for young people to continue working toward a more sustainable future.

“To the young people who are here, you have a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “Your generation is bigger than the baby boomers, you’re more diverse, you have the wisdom of every kind of human ever born. And you’re more connected than anybody’s ever been.”