K.J.’s book club

The mayor and city employees read and discuss Van Jones’ eco opus

There are no quizzes at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s book club, which at least 30 city employees attend each week.

There are no quizzes at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s book club, which at least 30 city employees attend each week.

When Oprah Winfrey recommends a book, it turns into a best-seller. When Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson reads one, it becomes homework.

So it goes every Friday afternoon at City Hall, when “K.J.’s book club” convenes at 1 p.m. inside a small conference room on the fifth floor. For the past three weeks, a group consisting of mayoral and city-manager staff, city employees of all stripes, and even interns, have gathered to discuss Van Jones’ The Green Collar Economy.

“It was the mayor’s idea,” explains Lauren Altdoerffer, the mayor’s green-programs coordinator. “He usually has the staff read a book that he thought was powerful.”

Altdoerffer is at book club on Friday, informing the group of 30-plus that the mayor will be a tad late—just as Johnson slides through the door. Wearing a UCLA-blue tie and toting a hardback copy of Van Jones’ best-selling treatise, the mayor takes his seat and leads the discussion.

If you’re an environmentalist, the mere fact that Johnson, staff and city employees actually are reading Van Jones’ book, which came out in fall of 2008, is a reason for optimism. And surprise: Some of Jones’ ideas are quite radical.

Consider chapter four, “The Green New Deal,” which is the topic of discussion at today’s book club. In this chapter, Jones: 1) urges a new coalition to take down the “military-petroleum complex”; 2) proposes that business defer to not money, but a “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profits; and 3) suggests that economic development is a thing of the past, that “the very notion of economic growth itself … is something that human society will someday be forced to abandon.”

Not your everyday City Hall water cooler chitchat.

Mayor Johnson, who calls on people by first name and inspires frequent laughter, argues there’s still opportunity for both fiscal and green growth. “In terms of innovation, we’ve got to have more startups. And more entrepreneurs. And more people feeling like if they invest here, the creativity and new ideas are going to have an impact,” he says.

The afternoon’s meeting is short on specifics, but one book-club member in a bright orange vest, from the Department of Transportation, had a different, grassroots outlook. “I don’t think we need to depend on business, because business is interested in profits,” argued Andy Borovansky. “We shouldn’t set aside the founding fathers and the people who felt a moral obligation to start this [green] movement in the beginning.

“If you take it one street at a time, business will realize.”

Mayor Johnson’s response: “Awesome.”

The mayor does view green as “an equitable and moral issue.” In particular, he sees the green-economy revolution as an opportunity to engage disenfranchised Sacramentans.

Green-programs coordinator Altdoerffer agrees that a green job can be as simple as someone going into a home with a clipboard to document how residents can prevent wasting water and energy. In fact, training for these kinds of jobs is happening now in the Los Rios Community College District, whose “Green Forest” program offers a new curriculum of energy-efficiency auditing.

But it won’t be easy for Sacramento to “go green.” As Van Jones writes, there will be dire sacrifice; he likens climate change to the Titanic that will bring down all of society.

Fortunately, chapter seven of Green Collar Economy offers solutions and specifics. But that chapter and subsequent club discussion is still a few weeks away.

After a half-hour, the book club ends—and with a surprise: Mayor Johnson announces that Van Jones himself will speak to city staff and green stakeholders in a private July 20 meeting. Applause resounds.

As for the book club, the next meeting is Friday, July 9, at 1 p.m.