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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"City hall is listening!" a speaker shouted to the crowd. But, in fact, it was Saturday, and the halls of power were empty.


Jones has long displayed a knack for absorbing the ideas of others and then broadcasting them in a way that turns theorizing into movement-building. In the best scenarios, this leads to the harmonious amplification of the message.

In September, he cohosted the Brower Youth Awards for environmental activism with Julia Butterfly Hill, the protester who drew attention to vanishing old-growth forests by living in the canopy of a redwood for two years. Jones and Hill have been close friends since they met at a conference in 2002. Their alliance embodies the sense of unity desired by many environmental and racial-justice activists.

They met at a pivotal time in both of their lives. Hill said she was reaching out to the racial-justice community, trying to make the connection between "humanoid and planetary rights." Meanwhile, Jones was going through a similar process in the opposite direction. He calls Hill "the Mahatmama," in homage to her earth-mother vibe, and credits her with helping him connect to the environmental movement. "Before I met her, I already had the idea in my head, 'Green Jobs, Not Jails,'" he said. "But the whole idea for a green-collar solution for urban America was something that Julia was really helpful in developing."

Around that same time, the Apollo Alliance was launched in Washington, DC, with a catchy slogan: good jobs, clean energy. Modeled after President Kennedy's famous challenge to America to put a man on the Moon, the alliance is an effort to inspire the country into a frenzy of environmentally friendly inventiveness. But Jones approached the Apollo organizers because he believed that their original formulation of environmentalists plus labor unions wasn't ambitious enough. "I wanted to enrich their framework, which I thought started out with too little racial-justice understanding," he said. He was already working on the Ella Baker Center's own environmental program, but saw the Apollo Alliance as a useful partner, with a national platform. "I was met with absolutely open arms," he said.

The Ella Baker Center was one of the first groups to act upon the ideas espoused by the Apollo Alliance. Jones is talking to organizers about starting a branch of the alliance in West Oakland. He said he believes the down-and-out neighborhood could be a model of urban sustainability through investment, technology, and job creation. Concrete plans for Oakland include a job-training program at a biodiesel company that is starting up a production and wholesale facility this January, and the construction of the "green-designed" Red Star Housing project on the former site of a polluting yeast factory. Developers have promised to include a job-training component to teach environmentally friendly construction techniques to prisoners reentering society.

"We're really curious; we're all watching to see where it goes," said Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which is funding the center's environmental work. "It's moved from that giddy, imagining stage to trying to make something happen on the ground, which is a lot tougher. But I think Van is making a huge contribution in just showing us what's possible."

But while Jones continues to advance the ideas he developed along with the Apollo Alliance, the organization's cofounders Shellenberger and Nordhaus were both forced to remove themselves from the national board because of the controversy they stirred up. "When Ted and I put out 'Death of Environmentalism,' we had people coming up to us and saying, 'You're finished in this business,'" Shellenberger said. "Basically, 'You will never work in this town again.' I was telling my wife that we might have to move to Humboldt County and take up organic farming. We knew it was a risk, but we felt like we had a moral imperative to say it. We felt like we could see what was making the environmental movement ineffectual, and we had to speak out. ... If the movement were really strong and robust, people wouldn't have felt the need to go out and destroy us."

Nordhaus agrees that the progressive left is doing its best to avoid looking at the fault lines exposed by the paper. "It is really through debate that a political ideology gets built, not by trying to paper over conflicts," he said. "The irony is how little taste there has been on the left for continuing the discourse that 'Death of Environmentalism' started. The impulse is to say, 'Yeah, we read that, and there were a lot of things I disagreed with, but there were some good ideas, and we're all doing it! It was that easy!' It's indicative of everything that's still wrong with the left."

Jones, with his message of effectiveness through solidarity, has come to embody the reaction against the two heretics, even as he embodies the approach they recommended. "It's not that we've had a lack of debates and controversy, that hasn't been the problem," he said. "Do we really want to do this with this much divisiveness? Isn't there another way we could make the same points?"

He described the Shellenberger and Nordhaus method as "diesel," and said it's characterized by outrage, sharp critique, and the desire to come up with the best ideas. He said his own approach is more "solar-powered," and is distinguished by compassion. "People need to have their higher selves reflected back at them, the part of them that's already aspiring to greatness and deep service," he said.

Jones regrets having ever spoken up about Shellenberger and Nordhaus' work, particularly since his comments have embroiled him in exactly the kind of dispute that he thinks fractures the left. "I don't think people want to read an article where we say mean things about each other," he said. "I think it depresses people." Jones added that his own personal goal is to be "a voice calling for unity and respect," and said he hopes to work with the two authors again in the future.

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