The New Face of Environmentalism 

Van Jones renounced his rowdy black nationalism on the way toward becoming an influential leader of the new progressive politics.

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Jones started his first environmental program, Reclaim the Future, only six months ago. Notably, it wastes little time critiquing the negative aspects of society, but rather accentuates the positive. As such, it exemplifies the new concept of environmentalism's so-called third wave -- a movement refocused on neither conservation nor regulation, but investment. Jones envisions West Oakland and other depressed neighborhoods as healthy, thriving hubs of clean commerce. He hopes to "build a pipeline from the prison economy to the green economy" by training prisoners reentering society to help build a solar-powered, energy-efficient future. He believes the flourishing of "green-collar jobs" can give gainful employment to those who most need it, and give struggling cities an economic boost into the 21st century.

But since the Ella Baker Center itself will neither start green businesses nor run job training programs, what precisely does Jones do?

As the staff runs the day-to-day operations of the center's three programs, Jones' job is to raise money, manage personnel, and propagate the group's ideas beyond the office walls. "Van's role and [the center's] role is really to evangelize, to spread the word of this vision," said Juliet Ellis, a member of the Ella Baker Center's board and the executive director of the nonprofit Urban Habitat.

Jones spreads his gospel at every conference, speech, and awards ceremony that finds its way onto his busy schedule, and he has found receptive ears from coast to coast. His rise to prominence has a lot to do with timing. As environmentalists and progressives grope to rebuild their respective movements after years of disarray, Jones is often pointed to as an avatar of Environmentalism 3.0. Lefties have come to one conclusion since the debilitating defeats of 2000 and 2004: that they need to present a positive vision Americans can latch onto and vote for.

"The country is waiting for a movement that inspires people, that doesn't just critique," Jones said. "That's my gut instinct. And when it's resonant, when it's right, people feel how they fit into it. We want a green economy that's strong enough to lift people out of poverty."

It took a personal crisis for Jones to conclude that complaint-based politics can get you only so far. Since 2000, when he watched a budding political movement destroyed by infighting, he has tried to be a voice for solidarity while showing other activists that "there's a path out of this self-marginalizing place without compromising your constituency." But while his vision brings many submovements together under one tent, some of the people who helped Jones devise that vision aren't invited to the revival.

It's been a little more than a year since two of Jones' fellow travelers dropped a bomb on the environmental movement in the form of a paper provocatively titled "The Death of Environmentalism." The paper played an important role in the debate that followed the re-election of President Bush. Shaken progressives had to admit that their best electoral efforts had failed, and began to cast about for the reason. There was "The Death of Environmentalism" with its bold declarations: Environmentalism had defined itself as a special interest, its message was too negative, and it presented narrow technical solutions instead of an inspiring vision tied to values voters hold dear.

Commentators quickly pointed out that all these criticisms could just as easily be leveled at other segments of the left. What was the movement besides a collection of special-interest campaigns? Just like that, the paper became a mirror reflecting back the fears of a disenfranchised movement.

Predictably, there was an angry backlash, which the authors chalk up to the movement's reluctance to admit its failures. "There's a lot of fear," said Michael Shellenberger, one of the paper's authors, in an interview. "We have to come to grips with the fact that our current strategies not only aren't helping, but might even be counterproductive." While Shellenberger said he and coauthor Ted Nordhaus didn't set out to write a generational statement, they may have done so inadvertently. "The responses have been disproportionately positive from young people," he said, "and disproportionately negative from the older generation that's more invested in older ways of doing things."

Although the paper was primarily an assault upon the strategies of the left, Shellenberger and Nordhaus praised a few people and projects. One was Van Jones, whom the authors called an "up-and-coming civil-rights leader," extolling his vision of a broad alliance between environmentalists, labor unions, civil-rights groups, and businesses. His focus on investment, they said, pointed the way to the environmental movement's future.

The glowing words were no coincidence. Jones and the authors met in 2005 and became close allies who brainstormed ideas for the new shape of the environmental movement. Although Jones says the Ella Baker Center's environmental program isn't based on the ideas in "The Death of Environmentalism," it benefited from conversations he had with Shellenberger. The two worked together on the Apollo Alliance, a national environmental organization that promotes many of the ideas associated with environmentalism's third wave. It was Shellenberger who convinced alliance leaders to include Jones on the national board.

Yet last spring, Jones spoke out against "The Death of Environmentalism" at a panel discussion about the progressive movement's future, where he shared the stage with luminaries of the activist left. "I love the authors, I love the analysis," he said. "It breaks my heart the way that it was brought forward." He thereafter repeated his criticisms in stronger terms, and now calls the paper an "immoral attack."


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