Van Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy” and the only person to have served as green jobs adviser to a U.S. president, urged Georgia Southern University students to carry the messages of No Impact Week into a “big impact life.”
Keynote speaker for the university’s third annual No Impact Week, Jones spoke Wednesday evening in a nearly full 800-seat auditorium at the GSU Performing Arts Center. No Impact Week is meant to encourage Americans to reduce their impact on the environment. At Georgia Southern, highlights include pledges not to generate trash, a farmers market, a race demonstrating the advantages of non-car transportation on campus and, Saturday, volunteerism for the Great American Cleanup.
Asking questions of the audience, joking and calling on a few students by first name, Jones sometimes sounded like a graduation speaker. He asked for a show of hands from those soon to graduate.
“I will say – my condolences! You are going to be graduating off a cliff into the worst economy since the Great Depression,” he said. “Many of you will have twenty to thirty to forty thousand dollars in debt. Congratulations!”
Adding that they are “the lucky ones” because they will have a degree, he said graduates will still face some of the toughest headwinds of any American generation.
“You need to live a big impact life so the people coming behind you have a better shot,” Jones said. “Now, what does it have to do with No Impact Week – I’m going to get to that. But you’ve got to ask yourself a question. What happened to the economy?”
Jones, a Yale-educated attorney and Oakland, Calif.-based social justice activist, in 2007 launched Green for All, one of four nonprofit organizations he has founded or cofounded. Green for All pushed the Green Jobs Act, part of the Energy Bill signed by President George W. Bush in 2007.
President Barack Obama then named Jones his green jobs adviser in March 2009. But he resigned six months later, after conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck, then with Fox News, vilified Jones’ past associations with groups they labeled radical. More recently, Jones has appeared as a regular contributor on CNN.
“Some people will tell you that President Barack Obama’s crazy policies crashed the economy,” Jones said. “Other people will tell you that it was George W. Bush’s crazy policies that crashed the economy, and I get paid to be on TV arguing one side of that debate. I’m going to make a confession to you: we’re both lying to you!”
The truth, he asserted, is that both political parties destroyed the previous economy.
“Both political parties sold America on a bill of goods that has made your life a lot worse than it should be, and if anybody is going to do anything about it, it’s probably not going to be the people who benefit,” Jones told students. “It’s probably going to be you guys who are getting the short end of the stick.”
‘Three big fallacies’
He said both parties promoted three big fallacies.
First fallacy: that the United States could have the world’s strongest economy on the basis of consumption, not production. Free-trade treaties, Jones said, helped send America’s manufacturing jobs to other countries, especially China.
“Why should we have factories when we can have malls. … What could possibly go wrong with this formula?” he asked sarcastically.
Second fallacy: that we could have an economy based on easy credit.
Third fallacy: that an economy based on destroying the environment can go on forever. Here, Jones made the link to No Impact Week.
Agriculture based on the talents of farmers, he argued, has been replaced by industrial-scale farming and “pouring poison on the ground.” He asked two English majors whether the words ending in “cide,” such as “suicide,” “homicide” or “pesticide,” are usually good or bad.
He called coal miners American heroes for risking their lives to supply the nation with energy, but said the future is “not down those holes,” meaning coal mines and oil wells.
“If you want to see the future that’s a livable future, with more jobs, more work, more wealth and better health for you and your children, don’t look down those holes, look up at the living sun,” Jones said.
Solar and wind
Observing that “a Saudi Arabia of solar energy” falls on the earth every day, Jones said the United States invented the technology to turn this clean energy into electricity but has let the manufacture of solar panels go overseas.
“Your country is almost out of the business of producing them because in Washington, D.C., they’re stuck on stupid … fighting each other and letting China and Germany take our technology,” he said.
Hope remains for domestic manufacturing of wind turbines because their great weight and size makes shipping more expensive, Jones said. Each turbine includes 8,000 finely machined parts and as much steel as 26 cars, he noted, suggesting than manufacturing them would put former auto and steel workers back to work.
He also asserted that the Great Plains states could produce enough wind energy to power the entire country, and attributed this “nutty idea” to former President George W. Bush’s Department of Energy. A report at the department’s energy.gov website states that existing wind turbines now produce enough electricity for 14.7 million homes.
In an interview, Jones said his hope for the Green New Deal he suggested in his 2008 book, “The Green Collar Economy,” has faded for the near future. Besides solar and wind energy, Jones advocated a cap-and-trade law to put a price on carbon emissions.
“We had higher hopes for a Green New Deal in 2008 because both John McCain and Barack Obama were running as climate champions and advocates of clean energy and new jobs, and so it seemed like we might wind up with a more bipartisan approach to a new energy future,” he said. “Now I think the divisions in Washington, D.C., make it harder to achieve some of those goals.”
‘A contact sport’
The criticism that led to Jones’ September 2009 resignation as green jobs adviser focused on his earlier activism, including his 1990s involvement with STORM, a San Francisco-area organization Beck called Marxist. Obama has not appointed anyone else to the post.
“To get a chance to serve at that level of government is a huge honor, and politics is a contact sport,” Jones said in the interview. “I was on the left side of Pluto in my young years, and people can take advantage of those colorful bits of your bio.”
He now stakes out more mainstream territory. After heaping blame on both major political parties, Jones told students that both serve useful roles. Republicans ask how much things cost, who is going to pay and what is the proper role of government, while Democrats ask whether the nation should do some things corporations don’t want to make money from, such as educate children and clean up the water, he said.
“In balance, we can be a good country,” Jones said. “We can have liberty and justice for all, for everybody. That is the philosophy that your generation can win with.”
Lissa Leege, the director of the university’s Center for Sustainability, coordinated No Impact Week, April 14-21, with other GSU organizations. A complete list of the week’s activities is available under “Special Events” at http://recreation.georgiasouthern.edu/wellness.