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Is It Time for a Green New Deal?

Tuesday, January 20th, marks the beginning of Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. On that day the new President will begin tackling a host of economic problems currently plaguing the nation, including the loss of nearly 2 million jobs in 2008.


Obama’s economic team has already formulated a recovery plan to create jobs, over the next four years, for these unemployed Americans. A key component of this plan will involve putting the jobless to work making the nation’s public buildings more energy efficient. Such work, Obama explained in early December, would not only provide jobs to the unemployed but also lower the federal government’s energy bills while simultaneously slowing global warming. “We’ve faced difficult times before,” Obama concluded, “and at each moment we have risen to meet the challenge.”

One of those difficult times occurred 75 years ago, during Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office. In one of his earliest addresses to Congress, FDR also lamented rising unemployment, which had reached an astounding 25 percent in 1933. Yet Roosevelt, like Obama, was also aware of an ecological crisis that was then gripping the nation. Noting severe flooding occurring along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, due in large part to deforestation along their banks, FDR warned Congress that the country faced an environmental emergency as well. To combat simultaneously both crises — one economic, the other environmental — Roosevelt called for the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal’s first and most popular alphabet agencies. Barack Obama should do the same by asking Congress to create a new and improved CCC.

During its nine-year existence the Corps helped battle both economic and environmental emergencies. On the economic front, from 1933 to 1942, the CCC provided jobs for more than three million young men between the ages of 18 and 25. These young men received one dollar a day for their labor, most of which the federal government sent home to these enrollees’ families, to help them weather the Great Depression. Additionally, each of the 5,000 or so Corps camps scattered across the country spent approximately $60,000 annually in nearby communities through the purchase of goods and services. The more than 3 million young men who joined the Corps also benefited economically in the long run – the great majority took night classes, in their camps, that taught skills necessary for finding employment after leaving the Corps.

The CCC was successful environmentally as well. Young men in the New Deal program planted more than two billion trees in private, state, and national forests across the country. In the mid-1930s, when Dust Bowl winds blew across the Great Plains, Corps enrollees rushed to the rescue and helped farmers contour plow their fields and plant soil conserving crops on 40 million acres of farmland. The CCC also developed more than 800 new state parks and built amenities in nearly every national park in the country, all in an effort to provide Americans with cheap, healthful, outdoor recreation. All told, Corps work projects from 1933 until 1942, when Congress halted funding for the program, transformed more than 118 million acres throughout the United States, an area larger than California.

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While Barack Obama seems wary of linking his new employment program to the New Deal, and has instead harked back for historical support to President Eisenhower’s highway-building program of the 1950s, other countries are less shy of the Great Depression’s usable past. Brazil has recently begun looking back to Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC to help solve that country’s economic and environmental problems. Plagued by high unemployment rates approaching 10 percent, local, state, and federal governments in cooperation with non-governmental organizations and corporations have begun putting jobless Brazilians to work planting trees.

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The goal of Brazil’s CCC-like program, which the Nature Conservancy helped initiate, is to plant one billion trees over the next ten years across the country’s Atlantic Forest. Rather than funding the program solely by increasing taxes and federal spending, Brazil will rely on novel market mechanisms including the sale of sequestration vouchers on the international carbon market, obtained through the program’s reforestation efforts, as well as the collection of water use fees in the reforested regions. Similar tree-planting programs reminiscent of FDR’s CCC are also now operating in China along the Yangtze River and through Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement in Kenya. Even war-torn Afghanistan has created its own “Afghan Conservation Corps.”

The United States needs to follow suit, and Barrack Obama’s first 100 days in office is one place to start. Like Roosevelt, Obama should ask Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps, but with a twist. Along with planting trees, this new and improved Corps should put young Americans, both men and women, to work planting windmills across the former Dust Bowl, solar energy panels throughout the Sunbelt, and energy-efficient biofuels on farms in every corner of the country, all in an effort to reduce both unemployment and the production of greenhouse gasses that lead to global warming.

While Roosevelt funded the New Deal’s CCC with federal dollars, public spending for Obama’s new program could be greatly reduced through market mechanisms like those embraced by Brazil; by collecting carbon vouchers and water use fees from the new program’s reforestation efforts, and by selling clean, green energy generated from new windmills, solar panels, and biofuels. The young men and women enrolling in this market-driven Corps would also benefit. Not only would they gain valuable training, skills, and experience in the expanding green economy, but they could also be encouraged to put their enrollment stipend towards a college education.

This Tuesday, whether he wants to admit it or not, Barack Obama has the opportunity to take a page out of the New Deal playbook. Back in 1933, during his first 100 days in office, FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps to help the United States combat both the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression, and since that time the New Deal program has become a model for other nations around the world. President Obama should act similarly during his own first one hundred days in office by creating a 21st century CCC. By doing so, the United States could use its historic past to put Americans to work while simultaneously helping to better safeguard the planet’s future.

Neil M. Maher


Neil M. Maher, an associate professor of history in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark, is the author of Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Reprinted with permission from the History News Network, where it first appeared.