We know that global warming is real, and there is no reasonable scientific perspective to the contrary. Scientists have amassed vast aggregates of data into a wide variety of charts and graphs, and they all demonstrate a characteristic exponential curve upward starting at the Industrial Revolution. Only a few old dinosaurs still disavow this evidence and voice a fervent disbelief in global warming. The debate is really over whether worrying about the environment is worth the cost, and most of us are still willing to gamble the various conveniences of dirty energy against the continued existence of ice shelves and coastal cities.

All of the dirty, industrialized elements of our society – most prominently energy, transportation and food – have definitely made many aspects of life much cheaper. While all of these things tend to be unhealthy for both us and the environment, the alternatives cost more. As a result, environmentalism currently casts a dark shadow of elitism. Or more correctly, the white shadow of elitism.

The most ardent proponents of non-sustainable energy and industrialized food point out that the alternatives simply aren’t feasible for the economically disadvantaged. As they would argue, who cares if cheap, synthetic foods cause cancer – starving would kill people much faster. And do they really need to worry about the increased speed of convection in the planet’s weather system?

Well, yes. That horribly, politically incorrect logic now has to argue against Hurricane Katrina and all of the new and confusing health problems faced by the first generations to have lived and grown old on Twinkies. These tremendous problems have had an unsurprisingly disproportionate effect on the economically disadvantaged, especially non-whites, which suggests that perhaps environmental awareness is not only for the philanthropic rich. It seems all of the current hot-button issues – race, environment, health and classism – are deeply interrelated.

It is logical then that the solutions for these social crises will also be intertwined. So suggests Van Jones, social activist and founder of Green for All. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times recently wrote an excellent column on the work of this man, who points out that people worried about drive-by shootings are unlikely to get too excited about saving polar bears. But to Jones, environmentalism does not have to be so removed from the lives of mid- to low-income Americans. Being green is not one size fits all.

And he has solutions to prove his point. For example, if the government was to enforce tougher energy efficiency standards, there would be a tremendous need for retrofitting buildings across America, creating manual labor jobs that couldn’t be outsourced. As Jones’s campaign’s website states, “a national effort to curb global warming and oil dependence can simultaneously create good jobs, safer streets and healthier communities.”

Jones is based in Oakland, Calif., but his ideas seem custom made for a certain Motor City. Where else are such economic disparities so present, so clearly outlined by race and so tenuously dependent upon a failing dirty-energy business? Detroit provides an oddly fertile soil for a green revolution.

The answers lie in a redefinition of “green.” For starters, green is not white. It is not elite, and these preconceptions need to be done away with. Instead, Jones suggests, green needs to be the new blue collar. The crux of his plan to change the world rests on the concept of “green-collar jobs” and education taking the place of the blue-collar economy that is gradually being driven into exile. His plan is about opportunities – the kind that pay off in the present and the future.

This is brilliant. You can criticize the idealism, but there is nothing not to like about this concept. I see a brand new Detroit in it, a revitalized Michigan. More important, I see a new conceptual framework for our generation, a framework that realizes and engages with the deep connections that exist between all of the social issues that we are still trying to tackle one at a time.

There is no place for short-sighted economic and social solutions anymore: Eventually even the short-sighted amongst us will be able to see the oncoming train wreck. The new solutions need to be a lot broader and more colorful than anything we have seen.

Bryan Kolk can be reached at beakerk@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.