CNN news commentator Van Jones came to Downtown Berkeley on Tuesday to speak about how to use empathy to find solutions to the climate crisis.
Jones, who also founded the nonprofit “social justice accelerator” Dream Corps, walked into a packed room of almost 200 people at the David Brower Center to applause. The event was held by the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and School of Public Health.
Jones set his talk to a theme of interconnectedness, emphasizing the need for collaboration of ideas among liberals and conservatives.
To begin, Jones spoke about division in the U.S. political system. According to Jones, liberals are “culturally ascendant” — backing every major social justice movement — but “politically powerless.” Conservatives, he argued, know how to win elections but feel culturally attacked, unable to express their views.
“You have two sides — both have power, but different kinds,” Jones said in his speech. “(They are) both afraid of the other abusing their power, and both sides want their pain acknowledged first.”
On this division, however, Jones noted there is “common pain, no common purpose.” He cited the opioid epidemic, which affects both urban and rural areas. He worked on a project connecting people who work on the addiction crisis in Los Angeles with communities in Appalachia that have been hit hardest.
These rural communities, struggling with a national health crisis, overwhelmingly voted for now-President Donald Trump. Jones argued that liberals, to effectively create change, must extend their empathy to more groups — including Trump supporters.
In addition, the event was billed on UC Berkeley’s event website as a chance to “learn how we can seek environmental justice for the country’s most vulnerable communities.”
One public commenter, who identified herself as a scientist, wanted to know what could be done to better communicate and act on the science that she and others work on. She noted that, although the event was billed as an environmental justice talk, Jones “didn’t say much about the environment.”
According to Jones, he became an environmentalist “accidentally.” He took an economic perspective to the environmental crisis, focusing on creating green jobs — a goal that he recalled used to be bipartisan.
Jones also applied a social lens to environmentalism, tying together the ecological and social “revolutions.” For Jones, solving ecological issues can help create jobs, and liberals who are not environmentalists cannot be “woke” on a “dead planet.” He linked the health of our earth with the causes that people march for, calling them “sacred.”
“Things that are sacred are not being honored,” Jones said in his speech. “We don’t have any throwaway children or neighborhoods, or throwaway species or resources.”
Jones finished his speech with a call to action, saying that the room was full of people who had both the motivation and the power to effect change. Warning not to try to “out-hate” political opponents, he reiterated that many perspectives, both liberal and conservative, are needed for progress.
“I’ve never seen a bird fly with only a left wing,” Jones said. “Not even in Berkeley.”