Kupfer: Last year voters in California turned down Proposition 87, which would have increased taxes on big oil companies and used those funds to invest in renewable-energy projects. Why didn’t it pass?
Jones: We saw an alliance form between poor people and polluters. The oil companies told the poor that Proposition 87 was going to make their energy bills go up and send gas prices through the roof, so the poor voted against it. If polluters can appeal to poor folks and people of color in California and get them to kill a clean-energy ballot measure that would have created jobs and cleaned up the air, then the same could happen in any state in the Union. Proposition 87 failed because the clean-energy proponents didn’t reach out to the people who feel the most vulnerable. For the eco-elites, the idea of energy independence is exciting just by itself. For the person who is dealing with bread-and-butter, grits-and-gravy concerns, that’s all just pie in the sky. Nobody is showing people of modest means how they will benefit from green energy. Green is the new gold for rich eco-entrepreneurs, but it can be just one more burden for low-income people if they get stuck paying higher rates.
Kupfer: You often speak about “eco-apartheid.” Could you define it?
Jones: “Eco-apartheid” is a situation in which you have ecological haves and have-nots. In other words, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you visit Marin County, you’ll find hybrid vehicles, solar panels, organic food, organic everything. If you then get in your car and drive twenty minutes, you’ll be in west Oakland, where people are literally choking on the fumes of the last century’s pollution-based technologies. That’s eco-apartheid, and it’s morally wrong, because we should deliver clean jobs and health benefits not just to the wealthy, but also to the people who need them most. Eco-apartheid doesn’t work on a practical level either, because you can’t have a sustainable economy when only 20 percent of the people can afford to pay for hybrids, solar panels, and organic cuisine, while the other 80 percent are still driving pollution-based vehicles to the same pollution-based jobs and struggling to make purchases at Wal-Mart.
For the sustainable economy to be successful, it has to be a full-participation economy. Right now it is a niche economy, a lifestyle economy. Though green products are a $230 billion industry and growing, that’s still a slice of a slice of a slice of the overall pie. It is easy for the eco-elites in Massachusetts or northern California to wrap themselves in the trappings of sustainability and think that the problem has been solved, but the people who clean their houses are going back to neighborhoods that may be fifty years in the past in terms of their ecological sustainability. As we move toward a sustainable economy, if we do not take care to minimize the pain and maximize the gain for the poor, they will join forces with the polluters to derail the green revolution.
It’s important from both a moral standpoint and a purely crass political point of view that we create a “new-deal” coalition among green businesspeople, labor, the poor, and people of color. You unite groups by offering immediate, as well as long-term, benefits for each constituency. For poor people, that could take the form of job opportunities, better mass transportation, and free bus passes. Obviously, you’ll want to split the business community: the problem makers should get nothing but grief; the problem solvers should get plenty of support. Right now the problem makers — the warmongers, the polluters, the clear-cutters, the incarcerators — get all the support they need from the government. The problem solvers — the solar engineers and the people who are growing local and organic produce — get very little support from any level of government. We want to lure the government away from the problem makers and put it back on the side of the problem solvers: give them the tax breaks, the subsidies, and the incentives, and starve those other guys.
Another part of the new-deal strategy is to give labor plenty of support. We have to find union-wage jobs for low-income people, and those are just the sort of jobs that building a sustainable infrastructure will create. But it will require government action, public-private partnerships, and, most of all, leadership.
Kupfer: What’s the status of the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which you have helped advance in Congress?
Jones: The bill has passed through both houses of Congress, and President Bush has signed it into law as a part of the energy bill. The act authorizes $125 million a year to train people for green-collar jobs. Twenty percent of that is dedicated to helping those who need the most support: the poor and unemployed, high-school dropouts, and formerly incarcerated people. I call it “green pathways out of poverty.”
The green economy will be strong enough to lift people out of poverty, but only if the people who need the jobs most receive training and support. Otherwise you’re just retraining the existing workforce and not making a dent in the larger social problem. We are standing on the verge of a new economy in the U.S., and we need to think about who this economy will include, and who it will exclude. It would be easy to say that once we have renewable this and organic that, everybody will benefit, but that’s not a progressive policy; it’s just trickle-down Reaganomics in “greenface.” Of course there will be jobs created, but will kids over in west Oakland be able to get those jobs? Will we be satisfied with a sustainable economy that, at the end of the day, is eco-apartheid? Is a green economy only about reclaiming throwaway stuff, or is it also about reclaiming throwaway communities, throwaway people, throwaway children? In the last century, people of color fought for equal opportunity in the gray, pollution-based economy. Certainly we should fare better in the green economy, because its leaders are supposed to be more passionate about inclusion and equal access.Filed in bay area gems, environment | Tagged with economics, oakland, poverty | Comment (0)