Van Jones speaks as part of ‘Confronting Climate Change’

Van Jones spoke to students at the College about the connection between carbon dioxide emission and prison incarceration. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor
Van Jones spoke to students at the College about the connection between carbon dioxide emission and prison incarceration. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor

Last Wednesday, political commentator, author and environmental activist Van Jones presented a talk titled “Green Jobs Not Jails.”

The Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum on Inequality sponsored the talk, which took place as part of the College’s year-long initiative, “Confronting Climate Change.” Jones focused the troubling connection between the U.S.’s outsized prison population and carbon emissions.

“It’s not a coincidence this country is throwing away people as it overheats the environment,” Jones said.

He contended that the U.S. subscribes to a myth of ‘disposability,’ or the idea that not all people, or parts of our planet, are sacred. Therefore, people can be left in jail for decades, and ecosystems can be left reeling, poisoned by chemicals and greenhouse gases.

In his talk, Jones described how his career blossomed during his advocacy for the Green Jobs Act, legislation aimed at increasing national investment in green energy and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

This massive bill grew out of Jones’ earlier grassroots, city-hall-funded efforts in Oakland, Cal., where he argued for a new approach to spreading clean energy in which residents of poverty-stricken communities would learn the skills needed to expand the green energy sector. Jones explained his thinking, asking the audience, “Why don’t we get the people who most need work, and train them to do the work that most needs to be done?”

Jones expanded on these thoughts by noting that solar panel installation is currently held up nationwide by a shortage of manpower, while communities with high unemployment rates still don’t have a ladder with which they can climb out of poverty.

Jones’ advocacy efforts began in his days studying law at Yale. He noticed that while New Haven police ignored Yale students and their prolific drug abuse, just a few blocks away, the war on drugs was putting poor kids in jail for the same crimes. In other words, those kids were treated as disposable, while the students at Yale had access to mental health resources, instead of prison cells, to combat their drug abuse.

Other poignant, emotionally charged moments came during the audience question and answer session that followed Jones’ remarks. Jones painted Americans today as falling into two camps: the “give a damn party” or the “don’t give a damn party.”

Jones explained these camps aren’t proxies for Democrats and Republicans, but rather for Americans invested in the political process, on either side of the political spectrum, versus those who are apathetic.

Jones went on to commend the ardent Trump supporters with whom he so vehemently disagrees — as a commentator on CNN — for caring enough to participate in the political process. He stressed the importance of empathy, above all, asking audience members to step into the shoes of jobless, middle-aged Midwesterners who feel forgotten before casting judgment on their presidential candidate preference.

Jones became visibly emotional when describing an experience he shared with coal miners who traveled to West Virginia to protest the company aiming to cut their pensions.

He also expressed disdain for environmentalist friends who would’ve shown up to support en-dangered birds or polar bears, but found excuses to avoid attending an event when human lives were on the line.

The problems Jones identified generally had to do with the existence of bubbles, like the purple one we live in at the College. The Yale students Jones studied with lived in a bubble where the police didn’t venture — and, because they lived in that bubble, they could climb ladders to fulfilling, professional careers, while their counterparts five blocks away had to climb ladders riddled with rotten rungs.

If Jones despaired about anything, it was that many of us allow ourselves to live in bubbles full of opportunity and access, while hundreds of thousands of Americans spend too many of their days in prison for acting like Yale law students.