Last week in Ann Arbor, Van Jones spoke at the Ecology Center‘s 40th anniversary. Held on the campus of the University of Michigan, the event was a fundraiser but also an opportunity for Van Jones to share his thoughts on Michigan’s role in the environmental movement, the success of places like the Ecology Center and why now is not the time for progressive liberals to give in to despair. In fact, NOW, he said, is the time when we’re most needed.
All photos by Anne C. Savage. Please do not use without permission.
The evening started out with a silent auction of art pieces from a wide variety of local artists, all made with reclaimed/recycled materials. These were then moved into the banquet room to be used as sustainable centerpieces. The program began with Ecology Center Director Mike Garfield giving an impressive review of the Ecology Center’s many contributions to consumer protection and environmental protection in Michigan and elsewhere over the past 40 years.
After dinner, Van Jones took the stage. If you ever have the chance to see Jones speak, take advantage of it. He is electrifying. He’s tall and handsome with a smile that lights up the room. And he’s truly one of the great thinkers of our time. Often accused of being a communist after his colorful youth, Van Jones is anything but a communist, a fact which became clearly evident during his talk.
He started out talking about the role Michigan has played in the environmental movement as well as progressives’ self esteem issues.
Michigan is the place that is both the wellspring for our industrial prowess as a nation but it’s also the wellspring for our environmental consciousness. Same special place. People talk about the rust belt aspect but they overlook the blue belt aspect. We’ve got more fresh water here and better-protected than any place else in the world. So there’s a reason that the work of the Ecology Center is so important and the work than many of do here as allies of the Ecology Center is so important. Because the future of our country, and really for our planet, hinges right here in Michigan. This is the “Flex Point” and part of the challenge I think we have as a movement is that we’ve got low self-esteem. And I say that because when the other side takes a hit, they get MAD. When WE take a hit, we get sad.
It’s your victories that give you your confidence but it’s your setbacks that give you your character. I have a son. He’s six years old. He is an EXTRAORDINARY soccer player. I know you think YOUR son is an extraordinary soccer player – I’m sure you do – but MY son is an AMAZING soccer player! And I’m expecting to retire early as soon as he finishes grade school and goes professional. But we never worry about him when he wins. We worry about him when he loses. That’s when the parenting matters the most. It’s when he misses a shot and wants to stomp off the field and go home. That’s when we’ve got to say, “Hold on a sec. You’re not going to win every game. You’re not going to make every shot. But you’ve got to have the character to take a loss, learn the lesson and then get back out there.”
And that’s what we’ve got to do as a movement, folks. We’ve got to be able to take these moments and use them to build ourselves up. That’s where we are. And you already have created here a politics that, if we are going to save the earth, the politics you’ve have created here will be a key, not just in this country but in countries around the world. And not just in this state but in states across America.
He went on to talk about one of these victories in particular:
What am I talking about? I’m talking about the incredible miracle you get no credit for. But you created a miracle for this country in 2009 when you were able to build enough of a consensus around John Dingell to help him move from being one of the biggest obstructionist forces for sane climate policy — because he was concerned about workers, not because he hated the environment, but because he was concerned about workers – that he’d sit there, he had the key in his hand to move things forward in the House or keep things where they were. And because of people in this room and because of your commitment and your understanding that this could be good for workers. And it could be good for kids with asthma inhalers in their pocket. That it could be good for public health. You were able to build a way of thinking and talking that let him do the right thing. As a result of your commitment and your understanding about balancing all of these issues, because your holistic, ecological approach, you were able to open the doorway to the US House of Representatives passing, for the first time ever, a comprehensive climate bill.
Now, just because things got stuck on stupid in the Senate, you don’t stomp off the court. That was an extraordinary victory. And it creates a blueprint – or “greenprint” – for every other state and city and elected leader to find their way to a good place. So just because we didn’t get it all done in the past 18 months doesn’t mean that you haven’t been successful. And that is, I think, an important thing for us to take away from this past two years.
He then talked about the importance of lifting folks out of poverty.
I was born in a militant Black Panther family…
Just joking! I was born in rural west Tennessee. My dad was a cop in the military. He grew up in abject poverty in a place called Orange Mound, Memphis which used to be the biggest black ghetto in the country. Harlem overtook it, I think, in the early 30s or 40s. But he grew up in abject poverty, joined the military in the middle of the war in order to put himself through college. Then he put his little brother through college. Then he put his cousin through college. Then he put me and my sister through college. We were able to get our family out of poverty.
My dad passed away a couple years ago, a great man. One of the things that I learned from him was that – he really understood – he would tell us “nobody can give you anything that will stop you from being poor.” They can give you stuff to stop you from being broke. But, if you’re still poor in your mind, you’ll be broke again by the end of the month. If you win the lottery, you’ll be broke six months because you have to climb the ladder of poverty out of poverty yourself. You’ve got to have the individual responsibility to do that. That’s true, he said, but, at the same time, society has to make sure there’s a ladder for you to climb. That’s when America works: when the individual’s willing to climb the ladder but when society also makes sure that ladder is there for people to climb. And one of the challenges we have is that we’re expecting this new generation of new workers and young people to climb a six story ladder out of poverty, but the ladder has only got two rungs on it! That’s not possible. So what we have to be able to do is to put some rungs back on that ladder of opportunity.
Because of the things and the work that you’ve done, we can put some green rungs on that ladder and we have an obligation to do that. I’ll tell you why: We are possibly facing a nightmare scenario not just ecologically, which we all know about, but also socio-politically. Here is your nightmare scenario; here is why your work here is so important, here’s why Michigan is so important. The nightmare scenario is this: we could conceivably be living very soon in a country that more and more ethnically diverse, more and more culturally diverse, more and more socially diverse and yet less and less economically prosperous. More and more ethnically diverse but less and less economically prosperous. And, if you know anything about history, that is not a recipe for a common ground, that is a recipe for a battleground.
He talked about our opponents in this battle:
You have opponents, though, that look at that same scenario — they look at more and more ethnic diversity and less and less economic prosperity – and their response? Attack diversity. Try to squeeze back the diversity. Attack immigrants. Attack Muslims. Worry about people trying to marry somebody that doesn’t look right from their point of view. Worry about diversity, try to squeeze that back. That’s their answer.
I say that’s 180 degrees the wrong answer.
From my point of view, we are actually blessed as a nation to have the genius of all peoples living in one land. We have every race, every culture, every faith, every gender expression, every sexuality expression, every conceivable kind of person living in one country. And we get along. Every day. It’s a miracle. But I travel the world, as do some of you. You go to some countries, the got TWO ethnic groups. And they fight ALL the time! Two groups. Can’t work it out! They’re killing each other. Two groups! Whattaya got? Two! Just TWO! My kids go to school in Oakland. 36 languages spoken just in my kids’ elementary school back in Oakland. And we make it work everyday.
The diversity is actually the source of the solution. It’s because of the diversity and the hybrid vigor that comes from diversity that we have the source for new entrepreneurs, new ideas, continuing to have the vibrant workforce. The diversity’s not the problem. The answer is not to push down on diversity. It’s to push up on the economy. It’s to grow the economy. It’s to grow the prosperity. And so we stand at a crossroads where a set of politics is being advanced that would have this country divided with people fighting for less and less. Fighting for scraps. Fighting for smaller and smaller scraps as they throw American workers and families into the global economy with no help from our government. That is a recipe for fighting more and more over scraps.
He went on to talk about how this diversity can be our strength.
Or we could be working together more prosperity to share with one another. It’s very, very smart. Now the trick, the challenge is you can’t grow the economy in the old way anymore. You can’t do the old “pave and pillage”, “drill and burn” process or you’ll bake the planet. So the challenge is how do you put America back to work, so you can pull America back together, and do it in a way that respects the earth. That is the leadership challenge that we face. Now that is a complex enough issue and challenge that we are not going to be successful in every single news cycle in explaining that to the people and we may not be successful in every election. But that is the leadership challenge that we have to face.
It’s in Michigan that the hardest work has already been done. It’s because of the work that you’ve done here and because of the work that the Ecology Center has played such a leading role in, that we have successes anyhow despite the nonsense going on in Washington, D.C. For instance, the Chevy Volt was just named Car of the Year. You know, we Don’t. Have. Enough. Self. Esteem! We should be hootin’ and hollerin’ about that!
He talked about his role in the Obama administration:
Everybody’s down on D.C., down on this president. I’m going to be very clear because sometimes people make the wrong assumptions about it with regard to my relationship with the president and my feelings about him. Wherever I go, I have this experience. At the mall. The Airport. Public restrooms. You know, the mean people they don’t say anything at all. It’s the NICE people that kill you, right?! I mean, there I am in the bathroom, minding my own business. I mean REALLY minding my very own business. And somebody is like “Ohh! Oh!” And I’m like, “Oh, boy. Here it comes.”
“Aren’t you… Aren’t you … the Green Guy?!”
This is post-racial America here, ya know?! “YES! Now that you mention it, I AM the Green Guy in some strange way.”
Then after a few seconds, they go, “OH! I’m SO sorry! I saw what they did to you. It was terrible! It was awful! I saw it!” And then I have to console them … “Oh, it’s okay, hold on. You’ll get there, it’s all right… Wait, why am I consoling YOU???!
But, actually, I look at it very, very differently. I got to spend six months in the White House, okay? Which is six months longer than YOU! And it was an incredible honor to be able to serve. What I would say to anybody, especially some of the younger people, if you ever have the opportunity to serve, and you are guaranteed, in the contract, to have exactly the same kind of rough exit that I had, do it.
Because you think you love your country now, and you do. But hold it in your arms for six months. Read the reports. Brief the people a step ahead of you. You see the kind of peril that we’re in. Economically, ecologically. All the stuff that people stand out on street corners and screech about and you say, “Oh, that person’s crazy.” Well the thing about it is that they are just as concerned as anybody in this room about that stuff. I mean, they can say whatever they want to about it on Fox News, but the Pentagon has scenarios that look scarier than yours.
Hold in your arms for six months. I got a chance to go behind the curtain. Very few people with my kind of colorful political background, running around in my 20s as a Bezerkley Bay Area radical, very few people of my colorful political background get a chance to grow up and take a job like that. And, what I know for sure is that the road ahead of us forks very sharply. If we want to be able to lead the world, not in pollution but in the solutions, we’ve gotta actually take ourselves a lot more seriously. We’ve gotta be louder about the things we’ve done but also that need help, that we want to lift up.
He then got to the central part of his talk, the part that resonated most with me.
You see, in YOUR agenda … Red States/Blue States doesn’t matter. I think that people in both parties ought to be able to agree that clean air is better than dirty air. Alright? That’s not a Democrat vs. Republican position. Conserving our beautiful resources that we’ve been blessed with in this country versus wasting and squandering them, that’s not left vs. right, that’s just smart vs. stupid. The idea that if we can’t fight poverty and pollution at the same time by putting people to work in industries that are cleaner and greener and therefore be able to beat global warming and a global recession at the same time and connecting people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done, that’s a moral responsibility that we can do it, that’s not a left vs. right. I think it’s important that you be able to remind people that this push for green jobs and green work and green chemistry is asking questions that progressives like but have answers that conservatives like.
Wherever I go, progressives love me. It’s like, “He’s talking about green stuff and he’s a black guy! I mean what’s not to like, ya know?! I mean I just check off the progressive box the minute I walk in. But what people sometimes fail to pay attention to and what they miss is, yeah, we’re asking the questions that progressives like: “What are we going to do about poverty?” “What are we going to do about jobs?” “What are we going to do about pollution?” “What are we going to do about toxics?” “What are we going to do about our sister and brother species that are being wiped out?” Those are the questions progressives like.
But listen to our answers. We’re not talking more welfare. There may be a need for it, for more support for people that can’t afford it. But, the thrust of our argument, we’re not talking more welfare, we’re talking more WORK!
We’re not talking for more entitlement programs. They should be important but they’re not the thrust of our argument. We’re talking about for more incomes.
We’re not talking about redistributing big chunks of wealth. In fact, what we’re saying is, let’s break up the monopolies of the industry sector and shake of our industry sector so we get some new competition in here, new technologies, new products and new entrepreneurs an create some new ones. So we’ve got some questions that progressive should like and we’ve got the answers that conservatives should like. We can not afford, given the challenges the country faces, to give in to despair or to assume the worst of anyone. We’ve have corporations around the world that are actually beginning to implement this agenda at the appropriate level. Now let’s see how these true movements work when these other branches that we talk with on every other issue begin to break up and move in your direction. You’ve got power!
Let me tell you one thing you’ve got to understand about how politics works in America and it’s something the president’s got to learn about the tough way. They do not attack movements because they are weak. They don’t attack you because you suck! They attack you because you’re great, because you’ve got power, because they can’t go to their house without their kid gettin’ in their ear about solar energy. So they have to attack you and discredit you because you are WINNING!
You can have tremendous advances out of that stimulus that everybody said wasn’t worth anything and show, right here in Michigan, how people can be put to work, how people’s lives can better, how the air can be cleaner. And I will say this, that stimulus was one-third tax cuts. One-third of it. First of all,some people said it should be 1.3, 1.4 trillion dollars. And our president, being a nice human being, wanted to be bipartisan, said, well that would be too big, it would outrage the Republicans. So we took it from 1.3 trillion down to 787 billion trying to be bipartisan and then one-third of it was tax cuts, again trying to be bipartisan. Now, I gotta wonder why these people didn’t run for office saying this president cut taxes for 95% of Americans. Because he did, the first thing he did in office and a lot of people didn’t even KNOW that. A lot of people say my taxes when up. Well maybe your state and city taxes went up but we actually CUT taxes for 95% of Americans. We didn’t beat the drum about that.
Another third was for jobs and investments. It was obviously too small to make the kind of difference that you want it to make. You can argue about “could it have been better, could it have been worse”, hard to run on “it sucks less than it could have”! I get that, I get that.
But the other third was rescuing states and cities. The other third kept school teachers and fire fighters and police officers on the job. In other words, when you’re talking to your friends that are watching that one TV station that we all love so much, ask them, just ask them. “I get it. You hate the government, you hate Obama, you hate all this big spending. I understand. Did you see any police officers this week? Did you see a police officer? Was she standing in a bread line? No? Well, thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mr. President.
“Did you see any firefighters anywhere in your neighborhood? Were they standing in bread lines? Oh, they weren’t? Well thank you, Mr. President.
“Did you take your kid to school? Any day of the week? Were the lights on? Were there teachers in there? Were they in bread lines? No? Well thank you, Mr. President.” Because it was the courage of this president to jump into the breach and to rescue states and cities that kept everyone of those people in 36 states from being unemployed. And the people you love so much say America would have been a better place if they were standing in bread lines. So you tell me how you can say that you’re a patriot and you love this country when you spend all your time talking about how much you hate the federal government. The last time I checked, the federal government was also known as AMERICA’S government. And America’s government should stand with the American people in a crisis and that’s what we did with the stimulus.
And I say that because, you know, anywhere in this country, you know you need to ask them, “Have you seen any car dealerships open selling American cars? Well thank you, Mr. President”. You know, we did good things but we’ve got such low self-esteem and we’re so easily ashamed and ready to get run off of the field that we don’t even stick up for saving the auto industry, for saving teachers and firefighters, and that is what we did literally the first week in office. We gotta be willing to stick up for that.
On the role of the clean energy sector in helping bolster the economy:
The other thing is when you start talking about the green job stuff – “Oh, that’s all that airy-fairy stuff…” You’ve hear that, right? That’s all George Jetson, pie in the sky, you know how they say, that’s never gonna happen. Well, hold on a second. You know, have some pride. Nobody would say that about coal miners. This morning 80,000 Americans got up and went to work in the coal mines. And they are America’s heroes, okay? They risk their lives, their lungs, their limbs every day to go down there and keep the lights on and power America the way we’ve always done it. 80,000 people. Nobody would disrespect them.
Well, guess what? 80,000 people got up and went to work in the wind industry in America today. 80,000. In this economy, this battered economy. The solar industry, this morning, supported 46,000 jobs. 46,000 Americans went to work in the solar industry TODAY. Now that doesn’t count Smart Batteries, Smart Grid, biofuels, energy sustainability and on and on. The energy sector, just energy, has already grown jobs at that clip.
Now here’s what you need to know. You will never double the number of people working coal mines. You’re not going to have 180,000 in ten years. You’re going to have 40,000. Those jobs have been going down, down and they’re not going to go up. Because what they’re doing now, they’re blowing up the tops of mountains. They’re asking those people that live in Appalachia to blow up their grandmother’s mountains and scrape the coal out. You don’t need a lot of workers for that. So this mountain top removal is not only destroying America’s beauty. It’s destroying American jobs.
So you’ll never have 180,000 coal miners. You’ll have 40,000. But you could QUADRUPLE the number of people that work in the wind industry with just a few small policy decisions in Congress. You could quadruple the number of people that work in every other green field. So we should not run and hide when it comes to having this conversation. Everything that is good for the environment, everything that is good for fighting global warming, is a job. It’s a job, it’s a contract. It’s on onshore opportunity. Solar panels don’t put themselves up. Wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves. So let’s be clear about that.
He finished with this:
So you can pave the way, as you always have, as you always have in Michigan, you can pave the way for the smartest industrial approaches and the smartest environmental approaches and stand up for a particular kind of America. This country is the greatest country in the world; it is the envy of the world, not just because we excel economically. Don’t you ever let them tell you anything different. We are not just great because we have high economic performance. If you want to go to a country where all they care about is economic performance, get the heck out of the United States and go to a country where they DON’T have good labor standards, where they don’t have good environmental protection, where they don’t have good consumer protection and your kids will drink poisoned water and you’ll breath horrible air and you’ll work for a penny a day. That’s not America. America is the greatest country in the world because we have high economic performance AND we have high environmental performance AND high labor standards and consumer protection. We have four legs under the table that’s called “America”. And those four legs allow us to print a balance sheet that’s the envy of the world. Anybody who wants to knock out three of those legs and give us a little barstool that’s only about free market fundamentalism does not understand what makes this country great. YOU understand what makes this country great and you are fighting for that everyday. And I am honored and proud to be here. Congratulations and happy birthday to the Ecology Center. Thanks for having me.
Please consider making a donation to the Ecology Center to help them continue their strong advocacy on behalf of environmental protection and consumer protection. It’s money very well spent. Make your donation HERE.
UPDATE: Thought I’d share this lovely hate mail from, I kid you not, “Dr. Dumb”:
Van Jones says, “don’t despair”? Wow..He’s a profound intellectual. Then again what kind of moron selects a commie to create “green jobs”? What kind of morons take any of these idiots seriously?
Aye, aye, aye…
I’m just sayin’…