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The Green Collar Economy

I just finished reading The Green Collar Economy, and I can’t ever recall reading a book that changed my way of thinking so dramatically. Now I believe it’s possible to reverse the current economic free-fall and at the same time make the world a better place for my six granddaughters to raise their children.

The book’s author, Van Jones, presents a well-written, substantive, and viable first-draft plan for solving what I believe are some of the biggest issues facing our country today. These include repairing the failing economy, eliminating our foreign oil dependency (a major threat to national security), and efficiently reducing our reliance on fossil fuels with clean and renewable energy.

I think the author may have tried to appeal to too many constituents because I felt the first 77 pages of the book dragged a bit and I was suspicious that this was just pie-in-the-sky stuff. When I finished reading the book in its entirety, however, I was a believer.

Am I getting soft in my old age? I don’t think so. I’m still a capitalist at heart, a business man who wants data, facts, and numbers, not wishful thinking.

Jones contends that our current economy is built on and powered almost exclusively by oil, natural gas, and coal—all fast-diminishing non-renewable resources. Our government subsidizes tens of billions of dollars a year to this pollution-based “gray economy” with little incentive for change.

Jones calls this potential new paradigm “The Green Collar Economy,” believing that it could create millions of new jobs for American workers. For this new economy to blossom and flourish, government policies must play a key role in setting standards, spurring innovation, realigning existing investments, and making new investments. It must include all segments of society. Jones also contends that only the business community has the requisite skills, experience, and capital to make it work. Success will be tied to new “eco-entrepreneurs”—and the success and survival of their enterprises.

We can no longer afford to engage in the old politics of naming, blaming, and shaming someone else, while concealing our own faults, flaws, and hypocrisies. It is most unlikely that the present high lords for oil, coal, and armaments will reverse course or give up their power without a bitter struggle. So a new force must emerge to realign American politics, transform the political landscape, and supplant the Texas/Pentagon axis.

If it is to succeed, the critical mass of businesses in this green collar economy must produce renewable energy and reduce energy waste. This can be done with the use of wind and wave farms, solar energy, bio fuels, solar-powered hydrogen farms, improved weatherizing of homes and office buildings, just to name a few. The author also lists over 50 companies that are currently making money in these market niches.

What I liked most about Van Jones’ vision was his macro view of today’s major problems and how everything is interconnected. More importantly, he spends the bulk of his time re-framing these problems into definitive opportunities that even I could understand, refusing to get mired in details or playing the blame game. And he does not advocate that government create a new bureaucracy to exploit this monstrous, once-in-a lifetime opportunity.  Instead, he reminds the reader that no major new set of modern industries—from the railroads, to nuclear power, to the Internet—has ever succeeded without government playing a powerful and supportive role.

Take the time to read this book, all 197 pages, and you’ll come away with a totally new way of looking at “green.” It’s not about narrow-minded Ralph Nader hoopla and scare tactics, and you don’t have to believe that Global Warming is what Al Gore makes it out to be. Frankly, I’m turned off by all the misinformation about how to save the planet. However, my business instincts, as a consequence of the 33 years I spent in manufacturing conveyor belt products, tell me that the Green Collar Economy is a real business opportunity.

In summation, The Green Collar Economy presents an excellent first draft vision of what America could and should do to revitalize its standing in the world community. And it matters not whether you believe that global warming is a serious threat to future generations or a cyclical phenomenon. If you are concerned about the current economic woes, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems

I thought it was ironic that 61 years ago a middle-aged woman came to my mother’s home, knocked on her door (the story is told in Growing Up In Mama’s Club), and gave her a book, purporting with certainty that a new world, a pollution-free paradise earth, was hers to have in her lifetime if she believed, followed its interpretation of the Bible, and proselytized its unique message. Unfortunately, Mama is still waiting for her new world that was supposed to arrive before I reached the age of 20.

At Christmas this year, a middle-aged woman came to my home and gave me a book, The Green Collar Economy. She didn’t set high and lofty expectations, but simply said, “Read it Dad. I think you’ll like it.” After twice doing as she instructed, making extensive notes, and confirming the author’s credibility, I was a believer. However, I realized that there is no certainty that any of this stuff can ever happen unless there is a groundswell of support – from the President, members of Congress, and the majority of all the citizens of this country, not just a majority made up of affluent people.

Now, like Mama, I intend to proselytize the potential for a “new world”—not the one she hoped for—but one with a green collar economy driving it, a truly sustainable new world for generations to come. – Richard E. Kelly

Business Opportunities for the Green Collar Economy

  • Wind Power Farms
  • Wave Energy Farms
  • Weatherizing & Retrofitting millions of Homes & Office Buildings
  • Solar-Powered Hydrogen Farms
  • Refining waste oil into Bio-Diesel
  • Manufacturing and Installing Solar Panels
  • Manufacturing ultra efficient vehicles, such as plug-in hybrids
  • Produce/Farm more local, organic food, decreasing transportation costs
  • Improving the Mass Transit System
  • Manufacturing & Servicing Electric Vehicles powered by a clean energy grid
  • Production of more Bio-Fuels
  • Production of renewable fuels from non food biomass (switch grass, etc.)

What We Must Stop Doing

  • Subsidizing fossil-based fuels
  • How we transport food to reduce energy costs
  • Using food biomass for fuel
  • Allowing Rainfall runoffs to become “storm water”
  • Using fossil fuels in our fertilizers and massive Robo-tractors
  • Building new coal plants that can’t safely capture & store emissions

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  1. Putting aside the arguments for global climate change for the moment, there are numerous reasons to switch to so-called “alternative” sources of energy.

    One such reason is the importance of carbon to our future. The not so humble carbon molecule is central to our survival. Besides being the stuff of which we are made, scientists are learning to do incredible things with carbon molecules that will lead to the wonder computers and super materials of the future. Think about the carbon fiber family of materials that will be used for the light, but strong and safe transportation vehicles of our future, or the blades for wind turbines, and a perhaps a more efficient replacement for silicon in computers. The applications for carbon appear endless, and we’re going to need lots of it.

    Oil burning heavy steel vehicles are a hundred years old, time to move on, and we’ll need lots of carbon to do it. The oil and coal people will say there is more than enough carbon for all this, with plenty left over to burn. I say to them, tell that to your progeny, twenty generations from now, if they’ve survived climate change and air pollution.

    To burn this wonder molecule a moment longer than absolutely necessary is bad business. It’s time to end subsidies for the carbon burning industries, and subsidize sensible sources of energy, the sooner the better.

  2. Bob, my post appears to have hit one of your hot buttons. I would encourage you to expand more on this subject in a future post of your own. Frankly, I want to see what kind of art work/picture our creative visual genious, John Hoyle, will use to promote the “humble carbon molecule.”

  3. After reading my book review on The Green Collar Economy, my 43-year-old son, who is the plant manager for a large chemical plant in Houston, Texas, wrote me the following email: “Dad, it looks like an interesting book. I’m sure it does not surprise you when I say that I’m cautiously skeptical of all big government programs. The economics are not there for the proposed alternatives, so the degree of subsidization would be enormous and I’m not convinced these are the solutions. Investment into energy research is a must and a proper function of government. Public works projects and wind and solar make me nervous. Your review has successfully sparked the desire to read the book. We’ll have to discuss our two reviews. Thanks for sharing your find of a good book.”

  4. Within minutes of receiving my son’s response, I sent him the following email: “Keith, thank you for your quick, initial observations. I generally am very cautious on new stuff like this, particularly since this is out of my bailiwick. But a quick check on the companies that Jones’ says are making money from this stuff appears to be legitimate. Intuitively, ‘renewable energy’ makes sense to me. I will say that Jones’s support of Gore’s goal to make the USA totally free of fossil fuels by 2018 is very unrealistic. You can lose credibility with those kind of claims. But, too much, not all of it, of what is talked about in The Green Collar Economy makes sense to me. Like I said in the review, ‘It is an excellent first-draft vision.’ Better minds than mine could turn this into a very doable plan.”

  5. Bente Skalstad says:

    I read your article and I very much agree with you. For some time now, I have tried to argue that Norway, having made so much money on the grey economy, now should invest in the future, and go into developing alternative energy sources. The oil will soon be gone, and then we must have found new ways to support ourselves. With a highly educated population, with high labour costs, knowledge based industry is what we should go for, and as you say, the green market is where the business opportunities are.

  6. Norine Kasten says:

    Thanks for the recommendation of The Green Collar Economy. We intend to read it. It’s exciting to think about the reasonable steps we can take to change our environment and economy. T. Boone Pickins is out ‘fighting’ for some wonderful changes too. Wind power being one of them. I also think eating local produce makes so much more sense than from Mexico, etc.

  7. Lynn Vona says:

    The review was great…makes me want to read the book. I’ll see if it’s in the local library. You made an interesting parallel of your mom’s reception versus your reception to someone handing you a book at the door. One’s “spiritual” experiences are all relative to personal need and openness at a particular moment in time…?
    And, I am sure you are writing hours every day…the quality of your website would indicate a lot of time and effort have gone into it.

  8. Jon Waalkes says:

    Dick – I am interested in responding to your review, but feel as though I should read the book before commenting, which I plan to do. However, having followed this “green” trend through work by participating in programs such as the West Michigan sustainable business forum, there is so much information to consider when looking at these issues.
    From your discussions of what the author presents, it reminds me of the Triple Bottom Line idea being used by many businesses. This idea has businesses working for the stakeholders (employees, shareholders, customers and vendors), the environment (sustainability) and the community (social equity). I first saw this way of corporate reporting by Cascade Engineering at a presentation by Fred Keller. Other companies such as Interface (and Harbor) have been using this style of reporting as well.

    I am intrigued by this book based on your excitement, but as you must know, this is not an easy switch due to the economic factors of continuing to operate in an oil based economy. To switch to a sustainable energy economy is difficult for so many reasons:
    – substituting a product that has a capitalized infrastructure in place, is produced in foreign countries (to a large extent) with low cost labor and subsidized by tax benefits and incentives from the producing national governments as well as the US.
    – what is truly sustainable? the manufacture of solar cells and turbines is harmful on different levels.
    – how do we convince a nation that moves on the average of every 5-7 years or rents their dwelling to make the capital investment to change over to sustainable energy sources, tankless water heaters, etc.
    – how do we reverse the trend of low prices and everything available at the box stores to higher prices and limited availability of seasonal product at a corner store?
    – how do we successfully in-fill our urban areas with multi generational demographics creating walkable communities that are not dependent on automotive transit?

    There are so many ideas out there, but can people afford to be first to market with these ideas? Today, a “personal” wind turbine costs $8500 (plus installation) and it can only supplement a household’s needs. How quickly will this be obsolete, and can you justify the expense over the cost savings of the traditional electrical sources before there are maintenance costs to ad to the equation?

    Overall, I’m very excited that you are interested in these issues and look forward to your thoughts on how to implement the needed changes as well as how to financially benefit as a result of them.

  9. Dick- Nice article. You have made people do some creative thinking about this important subject. For my part, after thirty years in the oil industry, I take a slightly different view on our divorce from hydrocarbons. Don’t get me wrong, I wholly support the need for alternative sources of energy, but much like Mr. Waalkes, I tend to think about the realities associated with the change. No matter how quickly we attempt to harness wind, water, and the sun for alternative energy, we will be married to fossil fueIs for years to come. The change to new sources of energy requires a huge social commitment and a huge commitment of resources. Not only are there hundreds of millions (if not, billions) of engines out there burning gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and oil, there are countless numbers of industries producing countless numbers of synthetic products that are hydrocarbon based, as Bob Rogers touched on. Change will come slowly, not because there aren’t a lot of people dedicated to change, but because of the tremendous effort and sacrifice that will be needed to make the change. We have a tremendous opportunity in Alaska that is not mentioned above in Mr. Jones’ list of opportunities, and that is tidal power. Cook Inlet tides near Anchorage are the second highest in the world. The tide moves in and out at thirty-two miles per hour…two times a day, 365 days per year. Imagine the power resource if it could be harvested. The reality is that there are a host of technical problems to be solved, let alone the commitment of billions of dollars to make it happen. It will be many years before that becomes a reality, and it shares the stage with most other sources of alternative energy. I believe there will be another spike in oil prices, for the simple reason that it is a finite resource, and the current reduction in the price of oil has come about to a large extent by a surprising reduction in demand that is the result of cost driven moderation. In other parts of the world, particularly China, their march into the mechanized world is in it’s early stages. A couple billion potential drivers in China can’t wait to get their hands on their first car, and they are not as environmentally driven as we are. Therefore, when demand bottoms, and it may be close, it will gradually begin to rise again ahead of the slow moving demand reductions that come from alternative sources of energy. Accordingly, I believe we will have to live with the vagaries of prices for oil and gas for sometime.

    Let me repeat, I’m a former oil and gas guy, but I am solidly behind finding alternative sources of energy. I am just enough of a pragmatist to believe that hydrocarbon use for energy will be with us for a while. Gradually replacing it as an energy source is valuable so it will be available for alternative uses, as Bob Rogers suggests.

  10. Jon and Craig are right. To revolutionize energy technology and facilitate its delivery is a huge challenge. It will take a very long time if we wait for market forces to do the job.

    How long would it have taken for rural electrification had it been left to the private sector? Who would have built the giant hydroelectric dams in the Northwest without the federal government? Would the states have envisioned the Interstate Highway system, and worked together to ensure its success? Would free market competition have put America on the Moon first?

    Despite the rhetoric, and experience, of the past eight years, government is not always the enemy.

  11. Ron LaMange says:

    Congrats on your new passion. I think it is a great idea. And a couple of thoughts on the Green Collar Economy:
    – I hope a way can be found to clean coal as we have 200-plus years of it. I believe it will take awhile for some of the new technology to be cost effective.
    – I like governmental help that is general – things like R&D credits to companies. When government gets too close and tries to pick new industries to favor (ethanol, etc.), we are in big trouble.
    I should probably read the book.

  12. John Meulenberg says:

    Thanks for the book review. Its philosophy is one that very much appeals to me, too. And it harmonizes with a key element of what Obama says he thinks is necessary to address problems with our economy and the environment. As you know, even my company is getting on the green band wagon, and I can see early on how doing so is not just good for the environment, but in the long run, good for business. (Although my company will have to figure out a way to compensate for the demise of coal, if “clean coal” is not feasible.)

    My daughter and sister have really heightened my awareness of the importance of green and they are always challenging me to be more conscious of my “carbon foot print”. I just bought a new sports car and the first question from my sister was “Is it electric?”. I must say, I did feel just a little guilty because it has over 500 horse power, but I’m trying to compensate in other ways;<).

    My daughter also clued me into a pretty cool website, It is filled with interesting talks on a wide variety of subjects. It could come in handy in continuing this “green collar economy” conversation. There is an excellent talk from Norman Foster about green architecture. And don’t miss William McDonough’s stirring video lecture.

  13. Emil Marx says:

    I just went through your posting on “The Green Collar Economy” and it sounds great. I hope I can get it on audio.
    For what it’s worth, I like your “new religion.” Most importantly, it doesn’t seem to demand that you have to kill someone who doesn’t agree with you. Keep up the good work.
    And by the way, your description of how you got the book in comparison with your mother getting religion was just great. That was really good writing.

  14. This dialogue seems especially relevant to President-Elect Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. A video about it is available at: Dick, it might be a good idea to comment at that website to let them know what a good exchange is going on here. We all need to make clear what our values are in this development.

  15. Ed Gutowski says:

    I read the The Green Collar Economy review. It’s good. My daughter is an environmental engineering grad and her husband has studied water rights law and other topics which impact our poor, rusty planet. They have reinforced my belief that we are in a physical global crisis and are only seeing the very beginning of problems we will face if we don’t stop burning our carbon resources.

  16. Jon Waalkes says:

    I have just finished reading The Green Collar Economy and over the past month the need for action of the level Van Jones described has certainly ratcheted up a few notches. As the Senate is debating the current stimulus package the opportunity to make the changes described in this book is so close at hand.

    Converting from a carbon/oil based economy to a green-collar economy and the subsequent use of renewable energy to power our lives will not happen if the governments of the world to not change (dramatically) the incentives and funding behind the change. This change must start with the United States. As the abusers of the world’s environment, we must change in order to have the world follow (and persuade others by our standards and purchasing power).

    The opportunity is now. The challenge is to make it financially viable for individuals to participate, businesses to start up and communities to change. This is where the federal government needs to step in. The government needs to spend on green initiatives, finance community spending and rebate individual consumers for energy improvements to their homes and transportation. The government can also accelerate the spending in research into alternative energies. The odds are on the fact that the efficiency model of 2020 that will finally cut our addition to oil has yet to be developed. This is where the stimulus bill should be headed – real jobs, right now.

    Tax breaks will not create stimulus. The old conservative model of the trickle down economy is obsolete. The tax breaks for the wealthy of old only result in investment in a portfolio. A portfolio investment does not equate to jobs for the poorest of our society. It only equates to a CEO, with a bloated salary and bonus structure, making layoff decisions based on a quarterly dividend for the portfolio holder. This is why we need to give incentives to spending in green technologies as our way out of the ecological and economic mess we are in.

    The other point of Van Jones’s argument is to develop a system that penalizes the violators. The government needs to make it painful for businesses to continue under their current practices. The tax breaks to oil companies needs to be reversed. And a carbon tax/cap and trade system needs to be developed. The government’s role is to accelerate penalization without creating economic difficulties for the poorest of Americans. To do this the economic price of alternatives needs to be subsidized short term.

    As I read this I kept looking for the financial opportunity that could be taken advantage of and create a new business model or present an investment opportunity. Unfortunately, it does not exist at this time except to cater to the Eco-conscious elite of society. This needs to change, and that change must initiate in Washington. Thankfully, I believe we have the right person in office for the job.

    It is unfortunate that many successful business models are not present (most companies mentioned in this book are non-profit organizations). As I was reading this book, I was also reading news stories of layoffs at many wind turbine manufacturing plants. It appears we need to ask our government to act with the power to move mountains (and stop the removal of mountain tops!).

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