In a recent New York Times opinion piece, National Wildlife Federation C.E.O. Collin O’Mara argued that America would benefit from the establishment of a new, modernized Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). We couldn't agree more! And Colin isn’t the first to make this assertion — since its defunding in 1942, several lawmakers have tried to apply its principles to the needs of their times.
So what was it? Created by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC was a voluntary public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men.
Although imperfect, the CCC stimulated the economy during the Great Depression and successfully met the needs of a lost generation of young people. 3.4 million young men were put to work to work planting over 3 billion trees, building and repairing vital infrastructure like roads and bridges, stringing telephone wire, fighting fires, blazing trails, establishing parks, and protecting the environment.
Poster by Albert M. Bender, Illinois WPA Art Project Chicago (1935)
A Tale of Two Crises
Today, we once again live in a moment of great need — and great opportunity. Due to the coronavirus and its accompanying economic damage, over 7.7 million Americans under the age of 30 are unemployed. That means that nearly 1 in 3 young workers are out of a job — the highest rate since 1948, when we began tracking unemployment by age.
Running parallel to this undeniable social need is our aging infrastructure, outdated energy systems, degraded lands, and a massive maintenance backlog in our national parks, wildlife refuges, and public spaces. We also have 80 million acres in need of rehabilitation in national forests, 500,000 empty coal and hard-rock mines, thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells, and over 12,000 species of at-risk wildlife, fish, and plants that need attention.
And as the impacts of climate change intensify, the need to adopt, fortify, and repair our infrastructure becomes starkly clear. That's where sustainable jobs are an obvious solution.
Infrastructure and the Environment are Intricately Connected
Right now, extreme weather events are starting to exceed what our infrastructure was designed to withstand. Under current climate projections, this discrepancy will only intensify.
We’re also falling behind while the rest of the world rides the renewable energy wave, with production giants like China dominating the solar market and innovators like Germany and Sweden leading the way on adoption and integration. Increasingly, the global consensus is that we need to revamp and evolve the structures upon which civilization depends. And as history has shown us, those that don’t adapt quickly enough will simply be left behind.
By establishing a modernized CCC we could put millions of young people to work, teaching them how to re-design and re-build critical infrastructure like levees and smart grids, retrofit obsolete equipment to meet new needs, protect and maintain our natural areas, dramatically improve our resilience to climate change while reducing our contribution to it, and improve our competitiveness in the growing renewable energy market. And of course, plant more trees!
Recreating the CCC isn’t just a good idea for people and the environment — it would also be great for the economy. Instead of shelling out billions in unemployment benefits as the markets slowly shudder back to life, we could give millions of Americans the training and dignified work they need to support their families and get firmly back on their feet. In return for these sustainable jobs, we would reap economic benefits with long-term returns — from a stimulated economy to increased resilience to natural disasters and a qualified workforce that’s ready to meet the markets of the future.
But the economic benefits won’t stop there. Other potential benefits include:
And take, for example, the simple act of planting native, ecologically appropriate trees. According to research by the USFS, one healthy, 20 year old public tree provides an annual net benefit of $60, while 100 40-year-old trees will offer $232,000 in net benefits. They arrived at these numbers by analyzing energy savings, air pollution reduction, runoff reduction, and increased property values. The numbers also account for maintenance costs and a 60% survival rate over 40 years.
The Value of Renewables
From constructing wind turbines to installing solar panels, renewable energy is much more labor-intensive than fossil fuel technologies — and that’s good news for jobs! The industry has already created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. — and with more widespread adoption could give our economy the kickstart it needs to get back on its feet. In addition to providing immediate benefits for workers and suppliers, growth in the green energy sector could create a positive economic ripple effect spanning across entire supply chains and working their way to Main Street, where local governments and businesses benefit from increased household incomes.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the solar photovoltaic installer occupation will grow by 105% between 2016 and 2026 and that the demand for wind turbine service technicians will grow by 96% during the same period. That makes them the 1st and 2nd fastest growing jobs in the U.S. — and that’s great news because wind and solar are more resilient in the face of the extreme weather events we will likely see more and more of. Unlike our current power grids, they operate on distributed and modular systems, which means that even if some of the equipment in a system is damaged, the rest can typically continue to operate.
According to a recent report released by the Universal Ecological Fund, Climate Change has cost the U.S. economy around $240 billion per year over the last 10 years. Another report, this one by the Fourth National Climate Assessment, found that the U.S. economy will contract by up to 10% by the end of the century if climate change continues at its current pace. This is thanks to extreme weather events, worsened air quality, rising sea levels, and other effects. But switching from fossil fuels to renewables could help us slow climate change and avoid some of these losses. Let's not forget that economic losses also have a very real human toll on society, with poverty, hunger, and poor health as just some of the consequences.
Learning from History as We Look to the Future
Just as FDR faced a nation in crisis — and famously met the moment — we too can, by facing our current crisis with a clear head and an eye towards both the past and the future, rise to several challenges at once. Because now more than ever, it’s vital to recognize what isn’t working — and to shift the ways that we live and do business towards something better.
But this time, we don’t have to start from scratch. Programs at the federal, state, local, and tribal level are vetted and ready to go, but await funding from bipartisan legislation like the Great America Outdoors Act and the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. We even have the infrastructure in place, via the AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps and other programs, that can be scaled up and adjusted to address the nation’s current needs.
What remains is buckling down and getting to work so that 7.7 million young Americans can, too.
So What Could a Modern CCC Look Like?
The original CCC had its issues — it was segregated and predominantly benefited young white men, had a militaristic structure that caused many to desert, sometimes did more harm than good for the environment, and was viewed predominantly as an employment relief program, all of which contributed to its decline and eventual defunding.
Today, we can build on the successes and learn from the failures of the original program, working in partnership with federal, state, local, and tribal leaders to create a strong, multi-faceted initiative that can stand on its own. Emphasis should be put on making sure that all communities benefit, not just white ones — especially in light of the disproportionate impact this pandemic is having on people of color.
To this end, vocational training should be placed at the forefront, and participants prepared for quality union jobs that they can support a family with. To make this happen, projects would require the talents of vocational educators and consult conservation biologists, wildlife managers, foresters, landscape architects, and more. This would ensure that quality work is done, and that the program has a lasting impact on the lives of its participants — and by extension, the economy.
And the Million Dollar Question…
How do we pay for it? Getting the program up and running would almost certainly require federal funding, preferably from current revenues rather than deficit borrowing. After all, it seems paradoxical and unsustainable to fund a program aimed at helping young people by increasing the national debt they will have to contend with. It may be a hard sell, but we owe it to them to try. Another possibility is via the passage of a carbon tax — say, $20 per metric ton of carbon released. Many other countries already have carbon taxes in place, and in addition to helping fund programs like this one, they encourage the transition to more renewable energy sources. A win-win, indeed!
If these unprecedented times have anything to teach us, it’s that the status quo simply won’t cut it anymore. If we want to rise to the moment and prevail as FDR did nearly a century ago, we need first to rebuild America, sewing together the tattered seams of a nation that’s carrying a lot on its shoulders. With thoughtful consideration and measured leadership, we can emerge from this better, stronger, more sustainable, and more equitable for all citizens.
Want to get involved in our current efforts, in partnership with the United States Forest Service, to restore America's National Forests? Plant a tree with us today!
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by Meaghan Weeden