The smearing of Van Jones

The first time I heard about the conservative, red-baiting crusade against Van Jones, I thought, this is ridiculous, even funny. “Will a ‘red’ help blacks go green? White House appoints ‘radical communist’ who sees environment as racial issue,” was the headline on an influential far-right website known as World Net Daily. What is this, 1952?

I’m not laughing anymore.

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There’s a lot to say about the way Van Jones was hounded out of Washington by Fox News opionator Glenn Beck and his allies. Much of it has been said in the last couple of days. Because others have done a good job digging into the back-and-forth about Jones, I don’t want go there. Nor do I  want to defend everything that he has said or done. He clearly made mistakes, most notably and recently signing a so-called Truther petition in 2001, an act for which he has since apologized.

But I’ve covered Jones on a handful of occasions in the last few years, and I’ve really been impressed. So I want to add a few observations about him, about the controversy and about where this is leading:

1. The charge that Van Jones is a communist is laughable. Van was a political radical and a prison reform activist after he graduated from Yale Law School during the 1990s, but so what? Like many of us, he evolved. I first heard him speak about social justice to a conference of Business for Social Responsibility, a liberal business group, a few years ago and he wowed the audience.  He then  became a leading advocate for green jobs and environmental justice. He told me in a column in 2007 that the environmental movement has “to start talking the language of work, wealth and health, which is the language of everyday Americans.” “Work, wealth and health” could be a Republican slogan. He spoke last year at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, along with the likes of Bill Ford and Bill Clinton, and he wowed the crowd of well-to-do business people. He’s a progressive, like millions who voted for Obama. A communist? Give me a break. [click to continue...]

“I’m a slut for change”

That’s how author and sustainability guru Paul Hawken responded when I asked him during FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green why a small-is-beautiful guy agreed to work for huge companies like Wal-Mart and Ford. And I like to think that’s why nearly 300 business executives, NGO leaders, activists and government types came to our conference on business and the environment earlier this week. They were a diverse and occasionally disputatious group, which is exactly what we want: We had speakers from Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as Big Oil , the nuclear industry and American Electric Power, the nation’s No. 1 emitter of global warming pollution. But while there was disagreement over what path to take, there was broad consensus that business needs to find ways to become more sustainable.

Here are some of my takeaways from the event. One caveat—the quotes below were taken down on the run and may not be word-for-word perfect but they are close.

Bill Clinton doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Where do you find the former president these days? Occasionally, mucking around in the waste of cities like Lima, Mexico City and Lagos. “Whenever I think of an urban landfill, I see it not just as an eyesore and a contributor to global warming but a source of great wealth,” Clinton said, during the closing plenary. His Clinton Global Initiative on climate change, he explained, is training scavengers in Lima to be recycling workers, given them a salary and health care and encouraging them to become part of a “new industry in glass and metals.”

Clinton’s speech was a state-of-the-union style laundry list, long on details/solutions. He got all charged up about energy efficiency (hard to do) as he talked about retrofitting the Empire State Building, described extensive efforts to get cities to curb their carbon emissions and explained how he is helping to  make college campuses more efficient. “The most important thing you can do if you are not a member of the U.S. Congress,” he told the crowd, “is to show that the change we are all seeking is good economics.” He had a couple of odd ideas, suggesting that the states of Nevada and Arizona or maybe a Caribbean nation become “energy independent” to show the world that it’s possible. Clinton looked good, by the way—he wore a pair of Texas cowboy boots and hustled out of the hotel after his speech and a photo session to squeeze in a round of golf.

Some big problems, corporate America can’t solve. Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, Jeff Hollender of Seventh Generation, Bill Valentine of HOK (big architecture firm) and Carl Bass of Autodesk (design company) joined me for a panel called Re-Imagining Consumption. The question put before them was simple but important: How can companies grow their revenues and profits while shrinking their environmental footprint? I thought we’d get into a conversation about cradle-to-cradle products that companies sell, or new business models like ZipCar. But we veered into a discussion of overconsumption after someone mentioned he oft-cited fact that Americans make up roughly 5% of the world’s population and consume 25% of its resources. That’s obviously a problem, and since companies are invented to solve problems, I ask them if there is a business opportunity there. They couldn’t see one although Bill Valentine said HOK often asks its clients whether they really need a new building, Carl Bass said  Autodesk is incorporating sustainability questions into its software, and Fisk and Jeff both talking about “greening” their products and packaging.  The truth us, it’s hard to imagine even progressive companies (except for recycling firms) coming up with products, services or new business models around buying less stuff. This tough job is probably best left to parents or religious leaders.

Environmentalists should reconsider nuclear power. I’m told there was a long and animated dinner conversation one night during which two leading thinkers of the sustainability movement—Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame and Ray Anderson of Interface–peppered Alan Hanson, an executive from Areva, the big French nuclear power company, with probing questions about nuclear power. I was pleased to hear that because I’ve thought for some time that environmentalists need to rethink their almost-religious opposition to nuclear power. (I’m going to write about this in more detail next week.)

If the problem of climate change threatens the very existence of human life on this planet (and it does), shouldn’t we reconsider nukes? Of course we should. We’re going to need baseload power and while a combination of efficiency, renewables and battery storage might get us where we need to go under a best-case scenario, I don’t want to bet the planet’s future on a best-case scenario. It’s likely we’ll face a choice between nuclear and so-called cleaner coal. I’m not sure where I come down on that.

During a panel on nuclear power (read David Whitford’s account here) that focused on its costs, I learned that Steven Chu, the energy secretary, is an advocate for nuclear while Carol Browner, the climate czar, is an opponent. President Obama has punted on the issue—he hasn’t said much of anything, at least according to our panelists. While Browner’s the more powerful figure in D.C., Chu is a brilliant and impressive guy, not to mention the only cabinet member with a Nobel Prize. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they and Obama get together to talk about nukes.

I’m still not convinced about green jobs. Van Jones, the White House green jobs czar, spoke at Brainstorm Green and he managed to be both inspiring and utterly charming. But he couldn’t come up with a clear-cut definition of a green job. That’s not surprising. Consider the farmer who grows corn for popcorn. He’s a mere farmer. His buddy up the road who grows corn for ethanol? Green job, I presume.

Clinton, too, has hopped on the green jobs bandwagon: “I’ve always believed that work is the best social program,” he said. “Saving the planet from the threat of climate change will create more jobs, more ideas, more interdependence than anything else we can do.”

Hmm. Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund said the best economic studies about the impact of a cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases project that the long-term impact on GDP will be very, very slight. But if GHG regulation has even a slight negative effect on GDP, how can it create more jobs?

It’s time to stop feeling guilty about business travel. Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California—a spectacular place overlooking the Pacific. We had some fabulous meals—prepared by organic chefs—and I got up early to run (a little) each day. At night, I opened the door to my hotel room and fell asleep to the sounds of the waves and an ocean breeze.

As it happens, we were at ground zero for the crisis in business travel. Next door was a St. Regisl where AIG held a meeting last fall that made national news and led to the cancellations of hundreds of business meetings. Luxury hotels and their working-class employees are suffering. What’s good about that?

More important, there was value in getting 300 people together in a relaxing place for a couple of days to talk about things that matter. We learned. We met new people. We built relationships. We showcased leading thinkers and doers, perhaps inspiring others. Maybe a startup that needed money raised some. We may live in an always-connected, everything-linked world, but you can’t do those things very well on email or over the phone or in a video conference.
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They said it at Brainstorm Green

So much conversation has packed into so little time at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment that it’s difficulty  to absorb it all. Some great panels today on “clean coal,” Green Super Powers (GE, Wal-Mart, IBM) and green jobs. There’s video from the event here. Meanwhile, here are few quotes that caught my attention:

Michael Kowalski, the CEO  of Tiffany & Co., on why he had never before come to a “green” conference: “Fear of being accused of greenwashing. There is still so much work to be done”

Van Jones, the White House’s green jobs czar, on his first six weeks on the job: “Everyone who hears that you work in the White House thinks you see Barack Obama every day. I’ve seen the guy twice and I almost fainted the first time.”

Also from Van Jones: “It’s a long winding road from the time that someone signs a bill into law to the time when someone signs a paycheck.”

Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, a company that makes more sustainable building materials,  on the changes ahead: “This is a new industrial revolution. It doesn’t happen once in a lifetime. It happens once in 100 years.”

Again, Van Jones: “We have to rethink in a fundamental way, what is an economy for? How do we meet not only our own needs but the needs of our children and grandchildren going forward.”

Van Jones, again: “People need a paycheck. That’s for sure. But people also need a purpose. This is a movement about redefining what work is. Is our work going to be a curse on this planet or a blessing on all creation?”

Jones: “People talk about Barack Obama as the first black president – he’s the first green president also.”

Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric power, No. 1 emitter of CO2 in the U.S., on the transition to cleaner energy that is underway: “This is a very costly issue and America needs to know that. Let’s not pretend that this is free.”

Morris, when asked who opposes his company’s plan for a high voltage line to get renewable energy to major markets: “People who don’t want something in their backyard, which means most Americans.”

Michael Brune of Rainforest Action Network:  “The reality is that there is no such thing as clean coal. The physical requirements of doing that, the energy costs, the financial costs are so great. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. I’m saying that we shouldn’t even try. “

David Hawkins, climate analyst and activist,  Natural Resources Defense Council: “It’s not clean coal. It’s better coal.”

Hawkins, on why any climate legislations must appeal to coal-state Democrats: “Job one is dealing with the politics. Unfortunately, saying it will all be done with efficiency and renewables is not a compelling answer. We need a strategy that is going to get us legislation right away.”

Hawkins: “The coal industry has earned its bad reputation. The coal industry has been associated inextricably with environmental degradation. But we still need better coal.”

Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit food-service company: “Our chefs are implementing low-carbon diet without losing money or customers”

My friend Adam Lashinsky has a smart, quick look at the conference at the Fortune website, called Seven lessons about the green economy.

Finally, I want to enthusiastically recommend a FORTUNE article by Jeffrey O’Brien about IBM and its efforts to apply information technology to attack problems like gridlock, energy waste, and supply chain transparency. It’s a terrific read.

Brainstorm Green 2009

Not long ago, Big Business and environmental activists were sworn enemies. No more. Today, companies and NGOs come together to work creatively around a variety of issues—from climate change to recycling to protecting the Amazon, from cleaning up dirty businesses like gold mining and to “greening” professional sports. One place they literally come together is at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment, which will be back on Earth Day, 2009.

Helping to create Brainstorm Green was a highlight of my 12 years at FORTUNE, and I’m pleased that I’ll be back this year, co-chairing the event with my colleague Brian Dumaine, FORTUNE’s global editor. The program for this year’s Brainstorm Green is still a work in progress, but a group of us got a draft agenda down on paper last week and I’m confident that it will again be a lively, exciting, information-packed event. The theme, once again, will be: How can business help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

We’ll discuss and debate climate change regulation, “clean coal,” nuclear power, electric cars, the smart grid, investing in green, renewable energy, sustainable consumption (if there is such a thing), carbon finance and too many other topics to list here.

What makes Brainstorm Green special is the diversity of the crowd. This year, we’ll again hear from many of America’s most important environmental leaders, including Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense, Glenn Prickett of Conservation International, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (who was there last year on behalf of Goldman Sachs), David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mindy Lubber of Ceres and Mike Brune of Rainforest Action Network. At least two dozen CEOs of big and medium-sized companies have agreed to speak, including Shai Agassi of Better Place (the electric car company), Ray Anderson of Interface, Carl Bass of Autodesk, David Crane of NRG Energy, Jeff Hollender of Seventh Generation, Fisk Johnson of S.C. Johnson, Donald Knauss of Clorox, Mike Morris of American Electric Power, Ralph Peterson of CH2M Hill, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Tom Werner of SunPower.

Other companies sending speakers include Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Mars, Intel, Boeing, McKinsey, the private-equity firm KKR and architectural firm HOK. That list is sure to grow.

We’ll also be joined by speakers whose ideas are shaping the sustainability debate. I’m looking forward to spending time with Paul Hawken, whose books have shaped much of my own thinking about business and the environment. The dynamic Van Jones, who is profiled in the current issue of The New York by Betsy Kolbert,  will talk about green jobs. The always-inspiring Janine Benyus, who spoke last year, will be back to show us how biomimicry works in practice. My friend Joel Makower, the guru of green business and author of Strategies for the Green Economy, will return as well.

Venture capitalists from some of America’s top firms and entrepreneurs touting exciting startups will round out the group. We’re hoping to attract senior officials from the new Obama administration as well.

You can find a full list of speakers on the Brainstorm Green website. That’s also the best place to propose new speakers or to sign up for the event. (FORTUNE screens all participants.) We’ll meet in a beautiful setting—the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of you blogreaders there.