Cleantech is all about top scientists making breakthroughs, high-up execs greening business strategies, and venture capitalist funding the next
greatest greenest thing. But a huge amount of economic growth lies at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum as well. With the creation of a clean energy economy, huge numbers of “green-collar jobs” will be required to deploy clean technologies all over the existing infrastructure. And social activist and environmentalist Van Jones sees a tremendous opportunity.
From stealing the show on stage with Barack Obama last month to having Thomas Friedman sing his praises last week, Jones’s “social uplift environmentalism” has been getting a lot of attention lately. His programs connect disadvantaged communities with the opportunities offered by the growing green-collar job market, such as PVC installation, wind farm construction, building insulation and weather-proofing — all of which will require large amounts of manual labor.
Jones told The New York Times:
“The green economy has the power to deliver new sources of work, wealth and health to low-income people — while honoring the Earth. If you can do that, you just wiped out a whole bunch of problems. We can make what is good for poor black kids good for the polar bears and good for the country.”
I had the opportunity to see Jones speak in person at the Bioneers conference that took place in San Rafael, Calif., this past weekend. Speaking to an auditorium of nearly 3,000, Jones gave what he called “the Power Point presentation Al Gore would do if he were black.” A highly charismatic and powerful speaker, Jones had firm control of the room. He laid out his plan to achieve success in “the fourth quadrant” where green technologies coupled with applications for poor communities will yield serious environmental, economic, and social gains.
But he was not without his criticisms of the environmental movement so far. Looking back, Jones called the decades of the racially segregated environmental movement “a moral disgrace.” Speaking to a mostly white middle-aged audience, he spoke frankly and colloquially of the “green divide.” While a Prius might soothe the yuppie’s conscience, what options are available for ghettos to move upward along a green path?
Working closely with unionized labor groups, Jones has used partnerships between his own Ella Baker Center and the electrical union in Oakland to raise $250,000 from the city for green-collar job training. This is a warmup for his work with his “Green For All” campaign, which recently launched the Clinton Global Initiative and is aiming to have Congress allocate $125 million to train 30,000 youth for a green future. Jones made the argument that investing $10,000 to train an at-risk youth would yield huge returns as that youth moved up in the growing green sector, not to mention the money saved on welfare, prisons, drug programs, and police.
While the VCs are so busy funding the top end of the the clean tech boom, what about the lower rungs? How about a domestic microcredit system for clean-tech vocational training? Investing in people and technology could yield lots of green.