June 17 2010 12:00 AM

Former White House “green jobs czar” Van Jones gives green economy talk in East Lansing


“It’s good to be in Michigan,” Van Jones says to a vivacious audience. “It’s good to be in Michigan!” he repeats, winning over a sizeable crowd at Saturday’s Michigan Summit: Blueprint for Change held Saturday in East Lansing. The Summit was a forum dedicated to accelerating the pace of change in Michigan, and Jones was there to talk about leading America from a “world leader in environmental pollution, to a world leader in environmental solutions.”

Jones, 41, is the former White House “green jobs” czar, bestselling author of “The Green Collar Economy,” about how America can save the planet and earn money doing it, and is the founder of the nonprofit, Green for All. Progress Michigan put on Blueprint for Change in partnership with Michigan Voice, Netroots Nation and the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network.

The key point of Jones’ talk was that the means used to reach non-renewable energy sources are unsafe: The coal is deeper underground; the oil is deeper under water. The process of obtaining these resources can come with a steep price tag, evident in the recent oil spill by BP in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jones believes that the time to explore alternatives to fossil fuels is right now. Who better to carry out this work than Michigan?

“We now live in a world that is free, because of what was done here in Michigan,” he said referring to Michigan’s manufacturing role during World War II. Jones sees global warming as the new threat and that it will be the Midwest that saves the country. Jones said we could go from Rust Belt to “green belt.”

“You have some of the best workers in the history of the world sitting idle in Michigan,” he said. The goal now is to put these people to work, building solar cells, wind turbines, and retrofitting homes to make them more efficient.

Jones, while always a fighter, was not always so passionate about the color green. After attending Yale Law School, Jones trained his focus on civil rights, founding the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco. Jones had a revelation one day when he was traveling from San Francisco into Oakland. He noticed that more affluent people had better access to a greener lifestyle — what he calls eco-apartheid. Jones envisioned a world where everyone has access to a greener and healthier lifestyle, something he calls eco-equity.

Jones has the unique ability to articulate the importance of environmental sustainability to diverse circles of people.

Jones is unabashed about his support for clean burning renewable energy sources, leading us to believe that we can subsist entirely on green sources. In his book, Jones decries oil and coal while also condemning bio-fuels, like ethanol, and nuclear power as “false solutions.”

But the truth can be somewhat sobering. Jones’ enthusiasm recalls Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, when he spoke of “electrical energy too cheap to meter,” in 1954. That corner was never rounded. The costs of building and maintaining the infrastructure proved too great.

Additionally, scientists feel renewable resources cannot meet the planet’s energy needs. Saul Griffith, an Australian inventor, determined that the world consumes 16 terawatts of energy. The number needs to be 13 terawatts in order to stem climate change. Griffith calculated that, assuming three of those 13 are generated by nuclear power, a total land area equaling North America would be required to make up the rest using wind turbines, solar cells, and bio-fuels. This calculation has led many environmentalists, including Stewart Brand and James Lovelock, to entertain the idea of nuclear power as a cleaner alternative to coal. The Obama administration recently approved $8 billion in loans to build more nuclear power plants. (Jones resigned from the White House last September, according to the Politico newspaper, after accusations that he called Republicans “assholes,” and was a supporter of an alleged cop killer, Mumia Abu Jamal, among other issues raised by right wingers like Glenn Beck.)

Jones responds by saying “rather than doing riskier and riskier things to increase the supply of dirty energy we should be doing smarter and smarter things to reduce the demand for energy overall.”

And maybe he’s right. Recently Mother Jones reported that the lifetime carbon footprint of one American mother and her two children is equal to 136 Bangladeshi mothers and 337 of their children. As the developing nations become affluent, they strive toward America’s brand of consumerism. This is simply not an option, Jones says. The world cannot support 8 billion people living the American lifestyle.

The conclusion of the speech covered many liberal bullet points, like criticism of the war in Iraq, criticism of the bailout (taxpayer money paid to the “banksters)” and an assault on military contractors. But when it comes to placing the blame for the BP crisis, he does not solely put the system on trial. Jones says that we are all responsible for demanding cheap oil.

 Correction: An earlier version of this story should have specified that Jones founded Green For All.