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 said his quarrel lay not with the authors' ideas but their tactics. Their critique of the status quo was an assault on national environmental organizations, which leaders such as Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope greeted with anger. "It was a smart document, but it was not wise," Jones said. "You don't ambush allies. You don't shame elders."

Although he concedes the need for discussion and argument within any movement, Jones said the authors of "The Death of Environmentalism" conducted the debate with insufficient respect. "I'm interested in managing conflict with an eye toward maximizing unity," he said. "There's a tradition of very nasty polemics on the left. I've seen it split coalitions, movements, parties. This is my concern: it's easy to start a fight, it's hard to finish a fight."

But from the perspective of Shellenberger and Nordhaus, Jones has merely adopted the same tack as most of the progressive left. He has embraced their paper's feel-good ideas, but renounced the dialogue and arguments that helped get to that point. "There's this culture within the progressive community that everybody has to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' before you can introduce a new idea or piece of legislation," Shellenberger said. "People say, 'Oh, you can't criticize your friends.' It's strange that liberals who believe in being small-D democrats think ideas should be talked about behind closed doors and then get so angry about a paper that calls for open debate. It's a symptom of how uncomfortable people are with asking the hard questions about what kind of future they want. ... A whole series of fights need to happen on the left before we can become unified."

The authors complain that Jones didn't begin critiquing their paper until he was surrounded by its detractors at the Apollo Alliance, a group whose strong ties to the Sierra Club guaranteed that it would take a stance against the two upstarts. Shellenberger said he saw Jones twice in the immediate aftermath of the shakeup. The first time, shortly after the paper was distributed, he said, "Van congratulated us; he praised the essay. He was very positive to us, privately." The next time, at a meeting of the California Apollo Alliance, Shellenberger remembers Jones saying, "Wow, a lot of people are really angry about this," before repeating his praise of the paper. But in the months after Jones joined the board, Shellenberger said, he began to criticize the paper and its authors. "I think he was worried about politics," the author said.

The Ella Baker Center distanced itself from the rabble-rousers, both figuratively and literally. The controversy erupted just as the center was moving across the bay to bigger digs in Oakland. Shellenberger and Nordhaus were left behind. "There was just too much fire around those guys, and we didn't want to get burned," explained Joshua Abraham, director of the center's environmental program.

Jones' emphasis on solidarity only increased his cachet among environmental leaders. But Nordhaus believes Jones is taking the easy route by avoiding confrontations with the progressive movement's old guard. It may allow him to be a more popular leader in the short term, Nordhaus said, but ultimately prevent the movement from undergoing the self-scrutiny it needs to regain a place in the national debate.

"Van will have a very successful and prominent career as a spokesman of the left," Nordhaus said. "He's a handsome, charismatic, intelligent man who can speak with passion. But Van will have to decide at the end of the day whether he's willing to put all that at risk to take the leap to 21st-century politics that can really go somewhere. In that, he's a fascinating, transitional, and ambiguous figure. Is he going to be part of the vanguard or part of the reaction?"

Jones has taken a keen interest in the vanguard from almost the moment he and his twin sister were born in 1968. "We were in utero while King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, MLK was assassinated, the Democratic convention was bloody," he said. "And I was born nine months into that. For some reason I was always intensely aware that there had been all this hope right before I was born, and then all these problems."

As a tyke, he carefully cut out articles about John and Bobby Kennedy and pinned them to a corkboard in his room in the specially delineated "Kennedy Section." After that came the Star Wars action figures: Luke Skywalker was JFK, Han Solo was RFK, and Lando Calrissian was MLK.

Although his parents, both teachers, grappled with the desegregation of the school system, the civil-rights movement wasn't a dominant force in his young life. Racism troubled him little in the mixed neighborhood he grew up in. The white and black kids exchanged insults, but it felt no different than the other trash talk boys slung around.

Jones first began his long process of reinvention when he attended the University of Tennessee in Martin. Unhappy with his given name, Anthony, he made a list of possible replacements -- Jet, Rush, Van. "I was, like, 'The coolest people in the world have monosyllabic names,'" he said, citing Prince and Sting. He laughs about his reasoning now, as well as his motive for entering campus politics. He just wanted to impress his girlfriend, who was smart, beautiful, and planned to be a doctor. Her parents were both professors, and Jones worried that she was out of his league. "I really wanted her parents to like me, and think that I was worthy," he said. "So I said, 'Well, I'm just going to take over this goddamn campus.'"

He ran for dorm vice president, and then for student council. Meanwhile, inspired by the crusading editor of his hometown newspaper, he worked toward a career in journalism by starting an underground newspaper. He later followed his mentor to Shreveport, Louisiana, for a summer job as a cub reporter, where he got his first jolt of radical outrage.


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