On the opening afternoon of last month’s Bioneers Conference — the massive gathering of environmental activists held annually in San Rafael — shiny hybrid cars parked in spaces “reserved for clean-air vehicles.” Conferencegoers polished off kale salads and raw cucumber soup while a three-piece band picked out bluegrass tunes in the sunshine. Several thousand righteous souls had trekked here to the Marin Center in search of ideas and enlightenment. But the 2:45 p.m. panel on “social entrepreneurs” was failing to inspire.
The first speaker, a ponytailed environmental philanthropist, subjected his audience to a dry academic talk about the people he calls social entrepreneurs: ambitious visionaries who take risks and seize opportunities. He portrayed such activists as special people, implying that the rest of society should basically get out of their way. Some audience members seemed more interested in getting out of his way, and quietly slipped out of the auditorium in search of more fiery oratory.
The second speaker, a community organizer who works in Mexican border towns and embodied many of the traits her predecessor had catalogued, repeatedly left the room in silence while she struggled to get her PowerPoint presentation working. “I had hoped to show you …” she said, her voice trailing off. “You’re not going to get a visual, I guess.”
By the time the final speaker addressed the crowd, people shuffled restlessly in their seats as a lone infant wailed. Van Jones, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing a “Kanye was right” T-shirt under his black blazer, seemed to have little in common with his audience of predominately white hippies. Feeling the energy in the room ebbing straight from the stage, he later said, Jones decided to throw out the talk he had planned to deliver about the work of his human-rights organization, the Ella Baker Center. Instead, he asked the name of the squalling baby. “Tavio,” the mother replied.
“Tavio is a social entrepreneur,” Jones said. “Tavio is changing the rules — see? Speak when you want to speak.”
The crowd laughed, and Tavio’s parents smiled beatifically.
Then Jones alluded to what he had heard from some of the other speakers that day. “They’re calling out for us to be brave again,” he said. “To break out of patterns, start breaking some rules, try some new stuff.” He explicitly challenged the ponytailed speaker’s notion that social entrepreneurs such as he are isolated heroes. Jones said he personally would be “babbling on a street corner” somewhere if not for the support of his colleagues. He instead insisted that each member of the audience had the potential to light a fire that could change the world.
Jones quickly involved others in his presentation by lobbing questions back at his audience; each raised hand signaled another person won over. “Is there anyone here who has a recurring dream that there’s something you’re supposed to be doing?” he asked. “You look at your journal and the same idea keeps coming back? Is there anyone here who ever swallowed hard and took a stand for something that you knew was unpopular? Has anybody in this room ever really, really screwed something up, and then tried again? Well, I would say if you answered yes to any of those questions, you are a social entrepreneur.”
The activists hung on Jones’ words, captivated by the potential that he described within each of them. He finished with an exhortation worthy of a revival: “Our species is struggling to live through you, through that dream, through that journal entry that keeps recurring,” he said, his voice quivering with passion. “I beg you, I beg you, embrace that rule-breaking, life-affirming, risk-taking you that the world needs so desperately right now.”
He bowed his head, and was greeted with whistles, hoots, and applause. Half the audience leapt to its feet. If it hadn’t been a crowd of sedate white liberals, someone might have shouted “Hallelujah.” A woman turned to her companion and asked, “Where did this guy come from again?”
Jones came from rural Tennessee, by way of Yale Law School. The self-described former “rowdy black nationalist” is best known as founder of the Ella Baker Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit group with roots firmly grounded in criminal-justice issues that affect low-income people of color. In 1995, he started Bay Area PoliceWatch, a program that assists victims of alleged police brutality. He made his mark as an activist by brashly saying things no other civil-rights leaders would say, such as “Willie Brown’s Police Commission is killing black people.” The center’s second program, Books Not Bars, runs a campaign to radically transform California’s youth prisons into rehabilitation centers. As the group gained visibility and a reputation for in-your-face tactics, its annual budget snowballed to $1.4 million, and its staff increased to 22.
But Jones’ personal life has been punctuated with a series of epiphanies, each of which has expanded the focus of his work. In college, he embraced the fight for racial justice. Then he moved to the Bay Area and embraced the struggle for class justice. When he gained interest in environmentalism, he started searching for a way to pull together all three quests in the service of a better future. Now that he believes he has found that unified field theory — one suffused with his rediscovered spirituality — he’s out to sell it to the progressive world.
“There is a green wave coming, with renewable energy, organic agriculture, cleaner production,” he said in an interview. “Our question is, will the green wave lift all boats? That’s the moral challenge to the people who are the architects of this new, ecologically sound economy. Will we have eco-equity, or will we have eco-apartheid? Right now we have eco-apartheid. Look at Marin; they’ve got solar this, and bio this, and organic the other, and fifteen minutes away by car, you’re in Oakland with cancer clusters, asthma, and pollution.”
Jones started his first environmental program, Reclaim the Future, only six months ago. Notably, it wastes little time critiquing the negative aspects of society, but rather accentuates the positive. As such, it exemplifies the new concept of environmentalism’s so-called third wave — a movement refocused on neither conservation nor regulation, but investment. Jones envisions West Oakland and other depressed neighborhoods as healthy, thriving hubs of clean commerce. He hopes to “build a pipeline from the prison economy to the green economy” by training prisoners reentering society to help build a solar-powered, energy-efficient future. He believes the flourishing of “green-collar jobs” can give gainful employment to those who most need it, and give struggling cities an economic boost into the 21st century.
But since the Ella Baker Center itself will neither start green businesses nor run job training programs, what precisely does Jones do?
As the staff runs the day-to-day operations of the center’s three programs, Jones’ job is to raise money, manage personnel, and propagate the group’s ideas beyond the office walls. “Van’s role and [the center’s] role is really to evangelize, to spread the word of this vision,” said Juliet Ellis, a member of the Ella Baker Center’s board and the executive director of the nonprofit Urban Habitat.
Jones spreads his gospel at every conference, speech, and awards ceremony that finds its way onto his busy schedule, and he has found receptive ears from coast to coast. His rise to prominence has a lot to do with timing. As environmentalists and progressives grope to rebuild their respective movements after years of disarray, Jones is often pointed to as an avatar of Environmentalism 3.0. Lefties have come to one conclusion since the debilitating defeats of 2000 and 2004: that they need to present a positive vision Americans can latch onto and vote for.
“The country is waiting for a movement that inspires people, that doesn’t just critique,” Jones said. “That’s my gut instinct. And when it’s resonant, when it’s right, people feel how they fit into it. We want a green economy that’s strong enough to lift people out of poverty.”
It took a personal crisis for Jones to conclude that complaint-based politics can get you only so far. Since 2000, when he watched a budding political movement destroyed by infighting, he has tried to be a voice for solidarity while showing other activists that “there’s a path out of this self-marginalizing place without compromising your constituency.” But while his vision brings many submovements together under one tent, some of the people who helped Jones devise that vision aren’t invited to the revival.
It’s been a little more than a year since two of Jones’ fellow travelers dropped a bomb on the environmental movement in the form of a paper provocatively titled “The Death of Environmentalism.” The paper played an important role in the debate that followed the re-election of President Bush. Shaken progressives had to admit that their best electoral efforts had failed, and began to cast about for the reason. There was “The Death of Environmentalism” with its bold declarations: Environmentalism had defined itself as a special interest, its message was too negative, and it presented narrow technical solutions instead of an inspiring vision tied to values voters hold dear.
Commentators quickly pointed out that all these criticisms could just as easily be leveled at other segments of the left. What was the movement besides a collection of special-interest campaigns? Just like that, the paper became a mirror reflecting back the fears of a disenfranchised movement.
Predictably, there was an angry backlash, which the authors chalk up to the movement’s reluctance to admit its failures. “There’s a lot of fear,” said Michael Shellenberger, one of the paper’s authors, in an interview. “We have to come to grips with the fact that our current strategies not only aren’t helping, but might even be counterproductive.” While Shellenberger said he and coauthor Ted Nordhaus didn’t set out to write a generational statement, they may have done so inadvertently. “The responses have been disproportionately positive from young people,” he said, “and disproportionately negative from the older generation that’s more invested in older ways of doing things.”
Although the paper was primarily an assault upon the strategies of the left, Shellenberger and Nordhaus praised a few people and projects. One was Van Jones, whom the authors called an “up-and-coming civil-rights leader,” extolling his vision of a broad alliance between environmentalists, labor unions, civil-rights groups, and businesses. His focus on investment, they said, pointed the way to the environmental movement’s future.
The glowing words were no coincidence. Jones and the authors met in 2005 and became close allies who brainstormed ideas for the new shape of the environmental movement. Although Jones says the Ella Baker Center’s environmental program isn’t based on the ideas in “The Death of Environmentalism,” it benefited from conversations he had with Shellenberger. The two worked together on the Apollo Alliance, a national environmental organization that promotes many of the ideas associated with environmentalism’s third wave. It was Shellenberger who convinced alliance leaders to include Jones on the national board.
Yet last spring, Jones spoke out against “The Death of Environmentalism” at a panel discussion about the progressive movement’s future, where he shared the stage with luminaries of the activist left. “I love the authors, I love the analysis,” he said. “It breaks my heart the way that it was brought forward.” He thereafter repeated his criticisms in stronger terms, and now calls the paper an “immoral attack.”
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.
A rap concert was coming to town, featuring provocative acts such as NWA. The sleepy city of Shreveport panicked. “They acted like there was going to be a black riot as a result of it,” Jones said with disgust. On the night of the concert, police helicopters hovered overhead and highway patrol cars lined the streets, but the audience was peaceful, he recalled. He felt vindicated, until the next morning when he saw the front page of his own newspaper. “There was a picture of a black kid on the ground with a cop on top of him with a gun out, looking over his shoulder,” Jones said. “And the headline was, ‘Rap concert peaceful, but …'” Underneath the photo was a map of the city, with every stolen car and noise violation from the day before marked with the icon of an explosion. Jones went in to the editor’s office yelling, and didn’t stop until the paper printed his response to its coverage.
But that wasn’t enough to assuage his anger. Convinced that American society needed a wake-up call on race, Jones abandoned his plan to become a journalist, concluding that he would rather make news than report it. “If I’d been in another country, I probably would have joined some underground guerrilla sect,” he said. “But as it was, I went on to an Ivy League law school.”
He arrived at Yale Law School wearing combat boots and carrying a Black Panther bookbag, an angry black separatist among a sea of clean-cut students dreaming of Supreme Court clerkships. “I wasn’t ready for Yale, and they weren’t ready for me,” Jones said. He never fell in love with the law, and at one point contemplated dropping out of school. But he realized that a law degree gave him the credibility to speak out about the criminal justice system, so he persevered.
Jones first moved to the Bay Area in the spring of 1992, when the San Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights hired a batch of law students to act as legal observers during the trial of Rodney King’s assailants. Eva Paterson, who was then the committee’s executive director, remembers getting a cover letter that stood out from the rest: “It was this piece of stationery that had little faces across the top, a stencil of little guys with dreads. We said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re hiring him.'”
Paterson got to know Jones over the coming months, and enjoyed having the young radical in her office. “He was a kid then, really,” she said. “He was brilliant, pretty feisty, pretty in your face, but that’s how you are when you’re young. Just a force of nature.”
When the verdicts came down — not guilty for three of the officers involved, and deadlocked on the fourth — Paterson’s office, like the city, reacted with disbelief. Paterson said she felt like picking up her office chair and hurling it out the window. The staff hit the streets to monitor the demonstrations that erupted in San Francisco. One week later, while Jones was observing the first large rally since the lifting of the city’s state of emergency, he got swept up in mass arrests. It was a turning point in his life.
Jones had planned to move to Washington, DC, and had already landed a job and an apartment there. But in jail, he said, “I met all these young radical people of color — I mean really radical, communists and anarchists. And it was, like, ‘This is what I need to be a part of.'” Although he already had a plane ticket, he decided to stay in San Francisco. “I spent the next ten years of my life working with a lot of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary.” In the months that followed, he let go of any lingering thoughts that he might fit in with the status quo. “I was a rowdy nationalist on April 28th, and then the verdicts came down on April 29th,” he said. “By August, I was a communist.”
In 1994, the young activists formed a socialist collective, Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, which held study groups on the theories of Marx and Lenin and dreamed of a multiracial socialist utopia. They protested police brutality and got arrested for crashing through police barricades. In 1996, Jones decided to launch his own operation, which he named the Ella Baker Center after an unsung hero of the civil-rights movement. Jones wedged a desk and a chair inside a large closet in the back of Paterson’s office. He brought in his home computer and ran cables through the rafters to get the operation humming.
“Eva was really my saving grace,” said Jones. “She understood that I was a little rowdy and difficult to deal with, but she tried to find a way for me to fit into her system. She finally figured out that wasn’t going to work, and then she went way beyond the call of duty helping me start my own thing.”
Paterson was surprised by the number of tattooed individuals suddenly passing through her office, but she didn’t interfere. “He didn’t need a lot of coaching; he just needed a place where he could have a desk and a phone, and a little infrastructure support,” she said. She did give him one piece of advice. “I think I counseled him to be diplomatic,” Paterson said. “I tried to convince him that you could be passionate, but you didn’t have to talk about your opponent’s mother. That you could be very, very committed and say what you had to say so that people listened.”
The lesson lay waiting in Jones’ brain for years, until he was ready to receive it.
Jones began transforming his politics and work in the aftermath of a crisis that coincided with the primary election in March 2000. He was campaigning hard against California Proposition 21, a ballot initiative that increased the penalties for a variety of violent crimes and required more juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. Several activist groups united to organize young people into sit-downs, rallies, and protests. But Jones said the coalition ultimately imploded “in the nastiest way you can ever imagine.”
The activists who worked on Prop. 21 had lofty ambitions — they hoped to create a youth movement as powerful as the antiwar coalition of the 1960s. With a hip-hop soundtrack, they aimed to enlist a generation clad in puffy jackets and baggy pants in the fight against the prison-industrial complex. Yet despite early successes such as rallies covered by MTV and support from rap icons like Mos Def and MC Hammer, the movement fell apart in the glare of the limelight. The groups fought over grant money and over who deserved credit for various successes. When the voters went ahead and approved the proposition anyway, Jones took a big step back.
“I saw our little movement destroyed over a lot of shit-talking and bullshit,” he said. “It just seemed like an ongoing train crash that was calling itself a political movement. It was much more destructive internally than anyone was talking about, and much less impactful externally than anyone was willing to admit.”
Jones’ fixation on solidarity dates from this experience. He took an objective look at the movement’s effectiveness and decided that the changes he was seeking were actually getting farther away. Not only did the left need to be more unified, he decided, it might also benefit from a fundamental shift in tactics. “I realized that there are a lot of people who are capitalists — shudder, shudder — who are really committed to fairly significant change in the economy, and were having bigger impacts than me and a lot of my friends with our protest signs,” he said.
First, he discarded the hostility and antagonism with which he had previously greeted the world, which he said was part of the ego-driven romance of being seen as a revolutionary. “Before, we would fight anybody, any time,” he said. “No concession was good enough; we never said ‘Thank you.’ Now, I put the issues and constituencies first. I’ll work with anybody, I’ll fight anybody if it will push our issues forward. … I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends.”
His new philosophy emphasizes effectiveness, which he believes is inextricably tied to unity. He still considers himself a revolutionary, just a more effective one, who has realized that the progressive left’s insistence on remaining a counterculture destroys its potential as a political movement. “One of my big heroes is Malcolm X, not because I agree with Malcolm, but because he wasn’t afraid to change in public,” he said.
Devising a new strategy for the left went hand-in-hand with finding a new approach in his personal life and relationships. Jones said he arrived at that by harking back to his roots. Although he had spent many childhood summers in “sweaty black churches,” and in college had discovered the black liberation theology that reinterprets the Christ story as an anticolonial struggle, he had pulled away from spirituality during his communist days. During his 2000 crisis, he looked for answers in Buddhism, the philosophy known as deep ecology, and at open-minded institutions such as the East Bay Church of Religious Science.
The last step was learning to ignore critics from within the movement who didn’t appreciate his new philosophy and allies. “I’m confused half the time about what I’m doing, but none of the things that leftists use to discipline each other into marginality have any power over me anymore,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re working with white people.’ Or ‘Who are you accountable to?’ A lot of the things that we say to each other to keep anybody from getting too uppity, too effective, I just don’t listen to anymore. I care about the progressive movements as they are, but I mainly care about all of our movements becoming a lot bigger and a lot stronger.”
Jones has since become known as a guy who actually can get things done, a guy whom the mayor will take meetings with. For instance, last June he worked with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on the UN World Environment Day conference about green cities. Some environmental groups boycotted the event, which was heavily underwritten by Pacific Gas & Electric, a perennial environmental nemesis. Jones sidestepped this controversy while pursuing his own goal, the inclusion of a series of events highlighting the environmental issues faced by the poor and people of color.
His efforts led to six days of conversations between environmentalists and crusaders for racial justice. Juliet Ellis, of the Ella Baker Center board, said it was a necessary step for groups that have shied away from collaborating in the past. “We’re still not at a place where social justice and mainstream environmental groups believe they’re fighting for the same things,” she said. “As far as bridging those divides, Van definitely has the skill sets and the experience and the personality to play a role in that.”
But Jones also attracted a number of critics. During the conference, many environmental-justice groups were irritated by what they saw as Jones’ attempt to appoint himself the leader of a movement in which he’d never before played a role. They also thought his silence on the sponsorship of PG&E compromised his integrity, given that the company’s Hunters Point Power Plant is a primary target of Bay Area environmental-justice advocates.
In the aftermath of the event, seven of these groups wrote a letter to Jones expressing their concerns about the perceived glory-hogging of the Ella Baker Center team. Henry Clark, the longtime executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, and one of the signers, complained that Jones excluded the true leaders of the Bay Area movement. “They jumped out front to put themselves in the lead, to make contact with these funders, in more of an opportunistic way,” he said.
“There was concern among many, many environmental-justice organizations who have been working on these issues for years,” added Bradley Angel, executive director of the group Greenaction. “But I know we all have the same goals. I’m looking forward to those goals being addressed, since we’re all working together.”
On the fourth day of the conference, some of the environmental-justice groups that Jones left out organized their own event, a rally across from City Hall protesting the conference’s involvement with PG&E. Angel said it was a coming together, “to confront the powers that be, and to show that we will not compromise with those who violate the principles of environmental justice.”
“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.
But in the short term, expect to see Jones more often on the national stage. And expect Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ book, now scheduled for publication in fall 2006, to be greeted with a new round of dismissal and outrage. The two authors have a knack for getting people to think, but only the least defensive activists seem ready to receive their message. Meanwhile, Jones’ warm-as-sunshine style is winning him far more friends. The progressive movement probably needs all three men: the two apostates nailing their criticisms to the door to the church, and the preacher inside the tent. Hallelujah.