No way of describing Van Jones—the environmental- and racial-justice activist tapped last week to be President Obama’s chief advisor on green jobs—is nearly as effective as letting his own words do the talking. A sampling of his recent offerings from interviews, profiles, and news stories:
There is a moral principle to green the ghetto first, to give young people the chance to put down that handgun and pick up a caulking gun.
The green economy is not just for the Ph.D., but also for the Ph.-do.
There’s a direct relationship between environmental racism and the lack of sustainability of society as a whole.
It’s not that we have a President who’s black; it’s that for the first time we have a President who’s green.
The change has got to be top down, bottom up, and inside out. The federal government has to get off the bench. Or frankly the federal government has to put down its pompoms for the polluters and put on the cleats and get on the side of our team trying to solve this problem.
Green dollars work overtime, they work double-time, they work triple-time.
We dream of rust-belt cities blossoming as Silicon Valleys of green capital. We imagine Solution Centers, training young urban workers in new technologies and ancient wisdom. . . . We imagine formerly incarcerated people moving from jail cells to solar cells—helping to harvest the sun, heal the land and repair their own souls.
If there’s a twenty-first-century heir to Jesse Jackson—who rose to prominence in the 1970s and eighties with an oratory of urban uplift that included slogans like “hope, not dope”—then Van Jones is it. The 40-year-old professional community activist has rocketed to fame by melding racial grievance and claims of economic injustice with the increasingly faddish orthodoxy of environmentalism. His glibness and comfort in front of a camera expose a sound-bite unseriousness, an inner-city hustle with a green patina. The Van Jones who spouts “from jail cells to solar cells” is merely Jackson version 2.0, eco-upgraded for the Great Warming.
Starting his new job today—Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality—Jones is probably the person most associated with the concept of green jobs. (That includes even his new boss, Barack Obama, who pledged during last year’s campaign to create 5 million of them somehow.) Jones has been tasked to coordinate green-jobs policy as part of Obama’s bid to transform America’s fossil-fuel-heavy energy economy, and his work is cut out for him. Not that it should be difficult to create scores of green jobs: Congress and the administration are working hand-in-glove to formulate policies that subsidize renewable-energy technologies and fuels, mandate their use in our energy mix, and punish fossil-fuel usage. Strip away the novel green veneer, and the promise of job creation differs little from New Deal–era make-work efforts. Just as government can pay people to dig ditches needlessly, it can pay them to install solar panels, even if the free market wouldn’t. That may be job creation, but it’s a lot closer to welfare than to free enterprise.
But will all this subsidized activity succeed in transforming our energy economy? For that matter, will it do anything meaningful to fix inner-city problems like poverty, crime, illegitimacy, and drugs, as Jones says it will? The evidence suggests that it won’t. Wind, solar, and other so-called renewable-energy sources play negligible roles in our energy economy because they fail in competition with oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Those sources account for the lion’s share of our energy needs, not because of government favoritism or conspiracy by avaricious corporate powers, but because they provide large amounts of energy reliably and at attractive prices. Renewables don’t come close to doing either of those things. Government-directed job-training efforts, similarly, have nearly always failed to impart useful skills to disadvantaged workers (though they have succeeded spectacularly in wasting taxpayers’ dollars).
Jones has long been able to sidestep the woeful economic realities of renewable energy by saying that because of the threat posed by global warming, we simply can’t afford not to go whole hog in the green direction. But now the onus will be on him to provide results. Green employment will almost certainly surge under his watch, but how the economy will fare when government forces costly energy technologies and a tax on carbon emissions on it is a much more doubtful proposition.
In a New Yorker profile last year, Jones revealed that while in college he changed his name from Anthony, which he considered dull. He picked “Van” for his new moniker, he said, because “it has a little touch of nobility. But at the same time it’s not overboard.” It’s a telling anecdote, revealing the mindset of someone seemingly concerned more with marketing and self-promotion than with substance. Today Jones begins work that involves, one would think, a lot more than branding and selling. But can he deliver anything more than sound bites?