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Where Did We Go Wrong on "Green Jobs"?
Alex Steffen, 5 Feb 10

I was in a meeting today with some smart folks that got me thinking again about "green jobs," specifically Van Jones' message about the intersection of environmentalism and social justice. They're not polished thoughts, but I thought I'd share them and see what folks think.

Ever since Van Jones got essentially lynched by Glenn Beck's teabaggers, I've been wondering why it was so easy to target him, why the green jobs message (which seemed to me at the time uncontroversial) so clearly failed to connect, and why the green jobs conversation in Northern Europe seems to be going so much better.

Racism is a correct, but too easy, answer. There's plenty of racism in Europe, too, and not all the people who got riled up to take down Van Jones were racists. There's something more afoot here, I suspect. I think it has to do as well with the form of social justice green jobs came to connote.

Part of what appealed to me about Jones' pitch was explicitly the idea that one set of solutions I really care about -- clean energy and green technologies -- might be an answer as well to a different set of problems I also care about, economic injustice and racism in America. Save the planet, give justice to the poor: that's a slam dunk argument to someone like me. I suspect many other progressives felt exactly the same way.

But I don't think that's how it played to other people. To other people -- especially working class people in industries whose economic woes have been pinned (mostly dishonestly) on environmentalists -- "green jobs" may not have read "planet/justice" but rather "elitists/welfare." I suspect that for some, green jobs sound like programs for liberal elitists to take money from hardworking people and give it to lazy poor people. For racists, "lazy poor" is also code speak for black, of course, but you don't have to be racist to be a pissed off working person in the U.S.

What's different in Northern Europe? Well, in many countries the whole cultural context is different, since the welfare state is so well established that many regular people hear "us" not "them" when social programs are mentioned. But there's something else that's very different.

Most of the time when I've heard the environment and employment being discussed in Europe, it's in the context of economic development, industrial strategy, progress. I've heard leaders talking about country X moving forward to be a front-runner in wind power, or smart grid technology, or green building expertise and how that will drive prosperity, business growth and new jobs. The emphasis is put on how bright green industries will benefit the entire nation or region or even Europe as whole, rather than a specific social class.

Environmentalists in the U.S. use "green jobs" to mean that, too, but I don't think that meaning's stuck. In fact, that usage may have actually helped undermine some of the message of prosperity-through-sustainability that we've tried to put forward, attaching instead the idea of social redistribution. I suspect that for much of America, the idea "wind power will generate green jobs" now carries some negative connotations.

It may be that what we need is a completely different message. Jobs are no doubt a part of that message, but I suspect emphasizing skilled work, the trades, American productivity and putting it in a context of rapid technological shifts and international competition is probably more the way to go. Some people are already doing some good work there.

But we may need to go farther. We have a strong argument to make that dirty energy and out-dated industries aren't just planet-killers, they're millstones around the neck of the American economy, dragging it under. I think acknowledging the conflict between old gray industrial America, and new bright green post-industrial America and being clear which is better for more people is a winning strategy. If we move forward quickly into a bright green future, most people will benefit from the prosperity we'll create (and we'll save the planet). It's not jobs vs. the environment, it's dying jobs vs. thriving jobs. That's an argument we can win in middle America.

I'd really, really like to think that the call for social justice that made "green jobs" so attractive to a lot of us can still be a central part of the story we're trying to tell, but here's the thing: I'm not sure that's true, and I feel pretty strongly in my gut that if we are going to be successful at weaving social justice into the strategy, it'll unfortunately be by staying clear of the phrase "green jobs" altogether.

And that bums me out, to be honest. I want the things I fight for to address the wrongs in this country, and the world. I'd rather not be put in a position of having to advocate indirectly for righting those wrongs. But the only direct articulation of the connection we have may be doing more harm than good now.

I may be totally wrong, and I may not be explaining myself very well (though it's the very end of the day Friday, so this will have to do), but this is how it seems to me. We absolutely should lay claim to being the party of the future, but we may need to find new ways to put forward our social justice goals.

How do you see it? How would you explain the possibilities of sustainable prosperity? How do you see social justice fitting into those possibilities? Can "green jobs" be rehabilitated?

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it doesn't have to be racist, it could be one of those, "oh look, the city people are stealing more of our stuff or shipping more of our stuff to china." there's a justified sense of betrayal at economic development policies.

i don't think there's a pretty way out of it, either. job market will be ugly for many years because the big dogs kinda like it that way. this means any move to help long-screwed communities will be painted as 'redistributive' (away from recently-screwed communities). another moment of sick feeling at americans who might ask for full employment locally before giving up their reverse-racist claim.

double whammy: many redstaters really fell for that 'black borrowers and their liberal enablers caused the crash' crap. hey, it was on fox news.

big frikkin pickle. repubs don't want to go green, dems who do want to go green don't want to do a big jobs program. FAIL.

Posted by: hapa on 5 Feb 10


Thanks for bringing this back around. I would be reluctant to drop the name or concept of 'green jobs' even though the vagueness of the phrase played significantly in the collapse of momentum you chronicle.

In Santa Fe, we managed to create a few youth training programs while the concept was hot, and they've mostly survived. Green jobs are actually not all that glamorous when the dust settles -- most are old-fashioned skilled manual labor jobs like your grandfather had and they can't really support the kind of sustained publicity that was demanded of them in building a national movement.

'Green Jobs' carried a double meaning, and the idea broke down here on both counts: When "green" meant sustainability, the conversation bottomed out in debate locally as to what is or is not a green job -- would an accountant for a solar company be green? And the jobs themselves just simply slowed with the fate of the construction industry. When "green" meant, in a highly coded fashion, that under-privileged youth, or populations generally, i.e. minorities, would be the focus of the programs, the conversation broke down in more complex ways.

In our area, there is very little of the working class vs. welfare dynamic you describe. Our version is that the native, Hispanic, traditional, and largely Democratic political network assumes a 'taking care of our own' posture without adequate resources or high enough aspirations, while the supposedly more progressive, largely transplant Anglo network talks about better models, but fails to deliver the political commitment to really fund programs. And here there is an echo of the culture war you describe elsewhere in the country: that government shouldn't subsidize workers in certain industries if it can't quantify the economic gains.

As I read it, your post suggests that maybe the social justice agenda was too explicit in the Van Jones version of green jobs. I don't believe that social justice as a core value should be camouflaged, but rather that it should stay in the background while we work out the mechanics of programs to ensure that they are solidly funded and framed to be taken up by the intended participants. Green jobs programs consistently underestimate the degree of mentorship needed, the necessity of funding the mentorship outside the break-even business model of the program, and the importance of culturally appropriate mentors.


1. Swing the door wide open on what constitutes a "green" career. Anything with a triple bottom line, even a modest one, should qualify. I know this weakens the actual polar-bear-saving appeal of the program, but I don't think liberals are the ones in need of convincing.
2. Focus public spending on job-training (rather than appearing to subsidize specific industries, like solar) and make the connection to economic development entirely transparent.
3. Like Teach for America or other programs that forgive school loans, we should build in incentives or commitments to stay in the state after going through training. This helps local officials see where their dollars go, and it also ends up benefiting the local Hispanic students, who statistically are the ones likely to make a commitment to stay near their families.

I can't say how this plays out elsewhere, but I'm looking forward to some quick reports from other regions. Thanks for asking!

Posted by: Roy Wroth on 5 Feb 10

I agree that social justice shouldn't be concealed as a core value or background motivator, but that phrase, and possibly the concept itself, unfortunately do have negative connotations in some segments of American society. I think that part of the problem might be that for "social justice" to be an issue you care about, you have to first admit that at least in some ways, our society is unjust, and that the magnitude of the injustice is large enough that we need to do something about it. It's like an alcoholic who is unwilling to admit that they have a problem. It makes getting help very difficult. I think the idea that our republic is imperfect, that it has some serious flaws we need to work to address, offends a lot of people, especially conservative people.

Ideally in such a situation, you'd be able to tailor your message to match your audience. Thankfully it isn't as if there's a shortage of different cogent arguments to do the things you want us to do. Use something like Thomas Friedman's China/ET/Greentech angle, or the anti-OPEC renewable energy hawks spiel when you're talking to conservatives. Use social justice and other egalitarian/progressive arguments when you're talking to leftists.

Sustainability more broadly, as embodied by our relationship with the natural systems and resources we depend on (rather than the interactions between humans and states), really *really* should not be a partisan issue (atmospheric radiative transfer, it turns out, is completely apolitical and unwilling to negotiate...), but for now it's stuck on the left, with some glimmers of hope from the Green Evangelicals/Creation Care movement. Matt Nisbet at American University has done some work on finding good "frames" for presenting policy problems like this, that don't hit any partisan buttons. We need more of that work, and it needs to be more broadly applied.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 5 Feb 10


While I like you am behind the environment and social justice movements, mixing them on a NATIONAL level was (and still is) a strategic and tactical mistake

On a local level (Richmond for example) this would work as programs could be developed with spefcific groups (minority, unemployeed, convicts, etc) and goals in mind , but at the national level it does not carry the same message, and it is not just a question of race.

Had he pushed for green jobs as a national macroeconomic movement, and then as part of that umbrella worked to develop a training program that targeted the various disadvantaged groups that exist, then perhaps he would have gained more traction.... and in my opinion, this was why Van Jones ultimately lost traction, and his job.

As for the wider "movement", my personal belief is that there has yet to be an alignment of goals required for "green jobs" and that he cart is too often in front of the horses. Which is why were are regularly seeing politicians stymie investments that do not have a direct jobs effect on their districts.


Posted by: Greener China on 6 Feb 10

The VJ argument was absurd from the beginning. As was the OA White House decision to bring him and this pollyannish views on board.

A shift to a post-industrial economy has one central challenge - addressing cost shifting. Whether in the form of economic segregation or environmental downstreaming, negative externalities have been the way forward since the 1840s. This is a god-awful hard habit to break, and probably we can't break it in time to matter.

This is an altogether separate matter of how well or poorly a society acquits itself in terms of social equity, and the mechanism it uses to manage the spread between wealth and poverty. The spoils system we have in the US is dreadfully poor at closing this gap. At the same time, post-industrial systems (meaning, presumably, greener) still hinge on contributions from people and institutions, which will, by definition, ALWAYS BE UNEQUAL AND THUS ALWAYS BE REWARDED UNEQUALLY. A green job fixing a solar panel is still work performed by a basically marginally educated person for whom school was not her cup of tea, and whose labor will be - as it should - valued at a fraction of the contribution made by a cardiologist or a software engineer.

The right argument all along should not have been that green jobs are our salvation - curing social equity gaps and getting us out of the environmental hole we're in. Rather the argument should have been far simpler and more elegant: old factories and systems that made old things can be redesigned and rebuilt to make new things that are less damaging to the planet. The designing and making of these new things would also result in good old fashioned employment.

We should have applied a realpolitik approach to this from the beginning, instead of the dewy-eyed college sophomore view of the world that thought a vote for the messiah would somehow make all things blue and green tomorrow, and all people could then dance in the street.

Posted by: charles Buki on 6 Feb 10

Hey Alex,

Great post and good question. I like this post, because as a business strategist I always try to have my ears to the street and to look at the world through a microscope to understand what makes it go round.

On the issue with Van Jones. First off Van Jones is not and has never been a business man. He has a law degree from Yale and for the most part his work has been mostly in "social activism" which is great. But when you start talking about "jobs" you start to get in the world of business (i.e. finances,strategy, marketing, market research, revenue, recruitment, innovation, etc) and Van Jones had no experience in really understanding this world. So for the most part what he had was "ideas" with no concept of how to create sustainable business models for "green jobs".
This in part has been the "weak link" in the whole "green jobs" strategy. And as you discuss in your last few paragraphs Alex, you're hitting the nail on the head. The "Green" discussion has been about "saving the planet" and the environment. Which I am for, but green supporters have to be smarter and much more savvy about how to approach this sustainability movement. You have to connect the dots so people understand how it puts food on the table or gives them a competitive edge in the work place, or can make you/your company a market leader, etc. For better or worse this is the language that the resonates here in the states. The Green charge has been led for the most part by activists (with support by scientists), and not capitalists. Innovate by converging the two and now you have some real potential. When it comes to the whole conversation about Green if you haven't read the book Green to Gold then you're doing yourself a disservice. This is an awesome book looking at the dynamics and the challenges of business and the world of "green."

Posted by: Rasul Sha'ir on 6 Feb 10

whether demanding environmentalists hand-deliver a business model or governments enact a(n acceptably tame) cost model, the reaction of many business people to a multi-prong planetary crisis has been difficult to watch.

businesses need to step up and be of service. it's no good waiting for the celestial prices to align; they probably won't.

Posted by: hapa on 7 Feb 10

Great questions, Alex.

I'm a huge fan of Van Jones, and I love the way he connects environmentalism and social justice. But one reason people (including me) are skeptical about the "green jobs" message is that it may not be true. It's very, very hard to project what impact the Waxman-Markey bill or a carbon tax will have on the economy. The only way to do it is with models which are inherently flawed.

I think I understand the argument by made by reputable economists like Robert Pollin that renewable energy (particularly solar PV) and energy efficiency are labor intensive industries, unlike coal and nuclear, and so will create lots of jobs. But predicting how big economic transitions will unfold is like fortune telling. Who knew that GE would make "green" CFL lightbulbs in China and shut factories that make incandescents in the U.S.? And what shall we tell people whose brown jobs will go away? Wind turbine factories will open; coal mines will shut. (If only.) Some people will find jobs making electric cars while others will lose their jobs making SUVs. Nuclear power, a potential solution to the climate crisis, does not create many permanent jobs, as far as I know.

Many economists with integrity, including pro-environmental economists like Nicholas Stern, believe that putting a price on carbon will slow economic growth, by a small percentage. That's a price well worth paying. But slowing GDP will mean fewer jobs, not more.

My own view is that the best way to sell climate regulation is by being honest and clear. We all may have to pay a little more in taxes or energy prices to usher in a low-carbon economy, but that will be the best investment we will ever make for ourselves and our children.

Posted by: Marc Gunther on 7 Feb 10

While I think Alex's post is excellent and commenters' thoughts insightful, I also think it is important to recognize that the green jobs movement did not start or end with Van Jones.

Certainly Van was one the movement's strongest advocates, a fantastic orator and visionary thinker. Still, there were and still are many who continue to drive the green jobs movement by creating concrete, on the ground solutions. The work continues in many ways, from Majora Carter, who was as much a part of launching the green jobs movement as Van, to the countless local organizations energized by momentum and government support for weatherization and other green efforts.

Further, Van's position in the White House wasn't a particularly influential position. It remains to be seen how he will choose to re-engage in advocacy work but he may be more influential outside of the White House. (Obviously, Beck's attacks on him still remain disgusting and racist).

Also, I think that the economic downturn deflated a lot of the green jobs momentum. Just as myopic climate advocates can lose sight of the broader implications of some proposed solutions, I think many are hyper focused on strictly talking jobs. Sure, it makes total sense that rebuilding our relationship with energy could yield a massive amount of jobs. Unfortunately, for many this is not even a consideration. Instead, more traditional sources of employment are the only consideration.

Moving forward, I think that the social justice components of the green/climate movement got a boost from the dismal outcomes of COP15. In my opinion, the most positive outcome of the negotiations was the coalescence and emergence of strong climate justice movement. Many are also looking past international treaties to save the day and back to local, 'homegrown' solutions - basically green jobs.

Perhaps the climate justice movement has the momentum and the frame capable of reinvigorating the US green jobs movement to the position it occupied a year ago. I guess we'll see.

Posted by: Matt on 9 Feb 10

I believe the only way to rehabilitate Green jobs and all the other positive initiatives the Tea Party movement attacks is to expose it for what it is. According to Congressman Ron Paul the Tea Party movement has been hijacked by the conservative Republicans - who have turned it from the independent grassroots movement concerned about civil liberties and debt financed war in the Middle East - to a movement focused exclusively on attacking Obama and promosting Republican candidates. Great U-tube video clip of Ron Paul interview at

Posted by: Stuart Bramhall on 12 Feb 10

Restart coal mining, drilling for oil, any mining company. Now some states,
can do green jobs, and include mining, oil. LET'S GET AMERICA BACK ON HER
FEET. We can still clean the planet without taxes. Create jobs, they could
have Healthcare where everyone could buy healthcare Insurance. Instead
of rely on taxpayers money. This is the First ever I ever seen Government
not wanting oil drilled,mining here. CALIFORNIA, HAS NO MONEY, BUT
AND ACROSS THE COUNTRY. At the same, we can do green jobs.

Posted by: nancy on 26 Mar 10

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