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Van Jones, former White House aid, calls for “new kind of thinking” in addressing economy and environment

By Frank Brown
Assistant Director, Publications*

In a rousing, inspiring and sometimes humorous April 9 address at Yale Divinity School, national green jobs advocate Van Jones called for a heightened sense of urgency in confronting the environmental and economic crises, fueled by a “new kind of thinking” grounded strongly in ethics and faith traditions.

Van JonesJones, a former green jobs advisor to the current White House, urged about 150 people gathered in the School’s Old Refectory to look beyond sustainability issues, saying, “We’re not just in a crisis because we believe we have throw-away stuff, it’s because we believe we have throw-away people, children, cultures and nations.”

Distaining this modern-day emphasis on disposability, Jones summarized much of what he wanted to convey by quoting the popular T-shirt that says, “I know I’m somebody because God didn’t make no junk.”  Said Jones, “That is a profound theological statement...which means it’s all precious, it’s all sacred.”

He added, “I would argue that the idea that God didn’t make any junk, that we have an obligation to be good stewards of his or her creation, are arguments that need to be raised with much more force. “

And there is plenty of blame to go around, Jones observed:  “We can put ourselves in the indictment.  We can have a politics of confession, and not just accusation.”

A graduate of Yale Law School, Jones came to the Divinity School as the lunch speaker on the second day of the three-day Environmental (Dis)Locations conference that is exploring climate change and environmental justice issues.

Jones burst onto the national political stage in March 2009, when President Barack Obama named him as special advisor for green jobs, enterprise and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In July, television commentator Glenn Beck accused Jones of being an extremist, a theme picked up and doggedly repeated by other conservatives. In September, Jones resigned his White House position, saying the controversy, no matter how unfounded, was becoming too much of a distraction.

Jones spoke only briefly about his six-month White House tenure as he responded, seemingly reluctantly, to a question about the experience. “I can talk about that stuff, but it is boring, man,” he said. “The bureaucracy was not designed to do any of the stuff that we are talking about today.” Jones went on to recount his initial interactions with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, which, with its legacy of operating research laboratories and dealing with nuclear waste, had little experience working on poverty issues but had received billions aimed at creating green jobs.  “It was like two alien species blinking at each other,” Jones said to hearty chuckles from the audience.

Currently, Jones is a senior fellow at the Center For American Progress and a senior policy advisor at Green For All.  In addition, he holds a joint appointment at Princeton University, as a distinguished visiting fellow in both the Center for African American Studies and at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of The Green Collar Economy, published in 2008.

Jones called on listeners to take personal responsibility for environmental justice and sustainability issues.

“I would argue, at a conference like this, that it is worth asking the question in theological terms.  God made this species. What kind of species are we going to be? Are we going to be locusts or are we going to be honeybees? That is the question that humanity will answer for itself in this century,” he said.

Jones warned, “The line separating the locusts from the honeybees is a serious line. It is a battle line...and only one is going to win.

*Gustav Spohn, director  of communications and publications, also contributed to this story