In March, I wrote here on The Notion in celebration of the appointment of Van Jones . I am both politically committed to and academically interested in issues of environmental justice. Jones’ appointment was a clear victory for the EJ movement.
The modern environmental justice movement emerged more than three decades ago. Its fight has been centered on two important issues: the disproportionate impact of local decisions that site polluting industries and undesirable land uses in poor and minority communities, and the damaging health effects of urban pollution on black and brown citizens.
Distinct from the earlier conservation movement, EJ linked environmental injustice to racial injustice. It opened a new era of civil rights activism in many localities and created new Latino, African American, and Native American leaders who became important, if largely unknown, actors in green activism. EJ organizing was often done by ordinary men and women in Southern rural and Northern urban areas. These were not middle-class "race leaders" dictating a particular political agenda, instead these were truly grassroots organizing efforts focused around immediate concerns and readily identifiable problems.
Still, these decentralized movements have not been understood as central to green politics. Conservation and climate-change environmentalism has dominated both federal policy and the national imagination. The local movements were often effective in blocking specific land use decisions, but largely ineffective in creating coherent national policy agendas.
The early months of the Obama administration seemed likely to change that reality. Van Jones embodied a new civil rights agenda combining concerns of racial equality with labor fairness and environmental sustainability. Along with the appointment of Lisa Jackson to head the EPA, it appeared the Obama administration was prepared to elevate environmental justice concerns to equal billing along with climate change environmentalism. It seemed one outcome of this presidency was that black politics was turning green.
There are likely to be real political consequences for the Obama administration as a result of Jones’ exit. John Nichols calls it "an unnecessary and unwise surrender." Baratunde Thurston likens it to "negotiating with terrorists." They identify Jones’ resignation was hasty, unnecessary, and ultimately more distracting than useful.
But it is not the politics of this episode that trouble me most. I am most concerned with the substantive consequences. The EJ movement was just beginning to gain a foothold in national politics, just beginning to develop a more cohesive and identifiable national platform, and Jones’ position within the White House was important to those efforts.
With all due respect to Arianna Huffington who thanks Glenn Beck and welcomes Jones back to the "outside" where his voice will somehow be more effective, I believe this resignation is a kick in the gut to the EJ movement.
Huffington seems to believe Jones will be more effective lobbying for progressive environmental interests from some place other than the West Wing. While I appreciate that Jones is now unfettered from the overly conciliatory Obama administration, this perspective strikes me as hopelessly naïve and stunningly uninformed about the history of environmental justice.
Activism, community organizing, expression of local interests, and development of indigenous leadership has always been where EJ is at its best. In fact, Jones is a latecomer to that activism, not the leader of it. The limitation of the environmental justice movement has been its decentralization, limited policy agenda, and lack of access of government power. EJ critic Christopher Foreman even asserts that grassroots advocacy is the movement’s only real accomplishment, claiming it has made no significant policy contributions.
Jones was an important ambassador of EJ to the White House. Not only did his position bring a particular kind of beltway legitimacy to EJ claims, but his presence might have helped close the "green gap" between black American concerns with pollution, land use, and health issues and the broader green movement concerns with global climate change. Linking those initiatives is critical to truly fair and comprehensive policies of sustainability.
Environmental justice advocates have already perfected outsider strategies, we needed Jones on the inside.