Upon taking office in January 2009, President Obama began tackling a host of economic problems plaguing the nation, foremost among them the loss of nearly 2 million jobs in 2008 and a stubborn unemployment rate that continued to hover at just under 10 percent far into the summer of 2010. To combat this unemployment emergency, Obama’s economic team formulated a recovery plan to create jobs for out-of-work Americans over the next four years, and on March 18, 2010, the President signed into law a bipartisan bill that, among other things, exempts employers from payroll taxes for new workers until the end of 2010. “While this jobs bill is absolutely necessary, it is by no means enough,” explained the President in a Rose Garden signing ceremony. “I hope it is a prelude to further cooperation in the days and months to come, as we continue the work of digging out of this recession and rebuilding our economy in a way that works for all Americans.”1

In the ensuing months, however, President Obama found it increasingly difficult to dig out of this unemployment crisis because another national emergency demanded his attention. The explosion and sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, and the subsequent leaking of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, threatened the fragile marine and coastal ecosystems of the region as well as the Obama administration’s efforts to curb unemployment. Over Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kick-off of summer, the President raced to the Gulf Coast yet again for an inspection of what he called “the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history.”2 While visiting Louisiana, Obama seemed well aware that the oil spill was not only hindering his administration’s efforts to halt rising unemployment, but was actually making that problem worse. The spill is “an assault on our shores, on our people, on the regional economy,” the President explained. “People are watching their livelihoods wash up on the beach.”3

While this two-headed crisis—one economic, the other ecological—may at first glance seem like an unprecedented presidential perfect storm, a similar convergence occurred more than 75 years ago during Franklin Roosevelt’s first months in office. In one of his earliest messages to Congress, FDR also lamented rising unemployment, which in 1933 had reached an astounding 25 percent. “It is essential to our recovery program that measures be immediately enacted aimed at unemployment relief,” he urged, warning that the economic idleness of millions of Americans threatened not only the financial vitality of the nation but also its spiritual and moral stability. “The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans,” Roosevelt concluded, “would infinitely prefer to work.”4

As in the spring of 2010, however, the unemployment crisis was not the only emergency on the President’s mind during the spring of 1933, and FDR expressed this to Congress in his March 21 correspondence. After warning of the dangers posed by joblessness, Roosevelt directed the politicians’ attention to “the news we are receiving today of vast damage caused by floods on the Ohio and other rivers,” due in large part to deforestation along their banks. The President dismissed the notion that these disasters were natural and instead blamed human negligence, arguing that the floods had occurred because “national and state domains have been largely forgotten in the past few years of industrial development.” To make up for such neglect, the federal government had to take action to “conserve our precious natural resources” located on these important public lands.4

President Roosevelt’s solution for both of these crises—one economic, the other ecological—was quite simple: he asked Congress to give people jobs that conserved natural resources. “I propose to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects,” he explained to lawmakers. “I estimate that 250,000 men can be given temporary employment by early summer if you give me authority to proceed within the next two weeks.”4 Congress immediately granted this authority and FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the most popular of all the New Deal programs.

During the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s CCC proved enormously successful at solving the nation’s environmental crisis. The more than 3 million young men between the ages of 18 and 25 who joined the Corps from 1933 until 1942, when Congress halted funding for the program, planted more than 2 billion trees in private, state, and national forests across the country, especially in the Great Lakes region and throughout the Pacific Northwest. 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, terrace their crop rows, and plant soil-conserving crops on 40 million acres of farmland. The CCC also developed more than 800 new state parks and built amenities including hiking trails, campsites, and picnic grounds in nearly every national park in the country, all in an effort to provide Americans with cheap, healthful, outdoor recreation. All told, CCC work projects during the program’s nine-year existence conserved natural resources on more than 118 million acres throughout the United States, an area larger than the entire state of California.5

history.brazilian woman (1 of 1).jpg

Adriano Gambarini
Claudia Picone plants a tree in Minas Gerais in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.

Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC was equally successful in helping to alleviate the nation’s economic crisis. During the Great Depression, the Corps provided jobs for more than 3 million unemployed young men, placing them in 200-man camps that also gave them food, clothing, and shelter. These “CCC Boys,” as they were called, received $30 per month for their labor, $25 of which the federal government sent home to 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, from vegetables to milk to meat, as well as services such as laundry cleaning, uniform tailoring, and boot repair.6,7 As Business Week magazine reported in May 1935, “Hundreds of communities have discovered since the CCC was organized two years ago that the neighboring camp is the bright spot on their business map.”8 The more than 3 million young men who joined the Corps also benefited economically in the long run; during their time in the CCC, the great majority took after-work classes in camp at night, which taught them a wide variety of valuable skills necessary for finding full-time employment after leaving the Corps.9,10

While Barack Obama seems extremely wary of publicly linking his job-creation efforts directly to the New Deal for fear of being labeled “liberal,” or worse, other countries are less shy about using the lessons of the Great Depression. Brazil has recently begun looking back to Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC to help solve its economic and environmental woes. Plagued by high unemployment rates—which in 2009 approached 10 percent—local, state, and federal governments, in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations and corporations, have begun putting jobless Brazilians to work planting trees. The goal of Brazil’s CCC-like program, which The Nature Conservancy helped initiate, is to plant 1 billion native trees over the next 10 years across the country’s Atlantic Forest. Rather than funding the program solely by increasing taxes and federal spending, Brazil’s Plant a Billion Trees Campaign 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.11

The ultimate goal of Brazil’s tree-planting campaign is to combine market mechanisms and environmental stewardship to help solve, simultaneously, the region’s economic and environmental problems. While Brazil’s Atlantic Forest once covered an area approximately twice the size of Texas, today only 7 percent of that original forest remains, mostly in highly fragmented parcels. Brazil’s tree-planting efforts, which are supported in part by Dow Chemical and Panasonic, will restore 30 million acres of this forest by 2015 and help preserve wildlife by establishing reforested corridors between previously isolated forest fragments. The program will also create new job opportunities for local residents, who will find work as seed collectors and producers, tree planters, and forest monitors. “Healthy, diverse forests help protect a broad range of plants and animal life,” explained The Nature Conservancy’s Bill Krunze, but they “also promote strong local economies.” As important, Krunze concludes, such reforestation efforts “slow the pace of climate change.”12

Other countries are following Brazil’s lead and implementing their own versions of FDR’s CCC. In China, for instance, Toyota has created a Green Earth Center that has worked with local governments in the upper Yangtze River region to establish a 1200-acre model reforestation, soil conservation, and flood prevention zone, while the BMW corporation initiated its own Green Tree Program to encourage tree planting across the entire country.13 In Kenya, Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has aided local communities in establishing tree nurseries and planting more than 45 million trees in five key watersheds, which provide water to 90 percent of the country’s population, so local women and their families can better avoid water shortages that lead to crop failures and economic dislocation.14 Even war-torn Afghanistan has created its own Afghan Conservation Corps (ACC). Much like the original CCC, the ACC provides jobs to unemployed Afghans, pays them $2 a day, and puts them to work on conservation projects including the rehabilitation of 108 fruit and forestry nurseries, the planting of 3.5 million fruit and forestry trees, and the restoration of 3,200 acres of natural pistachio forest, all in an effort to heal environmental and economic wounds caused by decades of war.15

The United States needs to follow suit. Similar to FDR, President Obama should ask Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps, but with a twist. Along with planting trees, this new and improved CCC 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. The United States could also provide jobs in cleaner, more efficient, environmentally friendly waste-to-energy plants similar to those sprouting up across northern Europe.16 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: the collection of carbon vouchers and water-use fees from the new program’s reforestation efforts and the sale of clean, green energy generated from new windmills, solar panels, biofuels, and garbage incineration. Such a newfangled CCC would cost less than Roosevelt’s program and do more to reduce greenhouse gases that lead to global warming.

An updated Corps could also help jumpstart our economy. Today’s high school graduates without a college degree, who during the 1930s would have been flocking into the CCC, currently face an unemployment rate of approximately 25 percent, the same rate for the population as a whole during the Great Depression. College graduates have better job prospects, but can still expect an 8 percent unemployment rate during their first few years after leaving campus.17 Giving these young people green jobs, even those involving manual labor, combined with training for future careers in the green energy economy, would, like the Corps’ original education program, help these youths weather our current economic slump and prepare themselves for a better financial future. Local communities situated near the new program’s alternative energy worksites could also benefit economically, as did towns and villages located near CCC camps in the 1930s—but today it would be through cheaper local energy costs.

There are many who will claim that the current political climate is not ripe for a new and improved CCC, that the American public has spent the last half century embracing the notion of a smaller federal government and voting into office politicians who have, in effect, rolled back much of FDR’s New Deal.18,19 Others might argue that establishing a new federal program responsible for creating thousands of new jobs, while also training unemployed citizens in the highly technical skills necessary for work in a green energy economy, would never gain political support or Congressional funding today. Yet the original CCC entailed no new federal bureaucracy; the program was administered cooperatively by the already-existing departments of Labor, Interior, Agriculture, and War (now Defense). Moreover, many of the most popular and successful classes offered at night by the Corps back in the 1930s trained enrollees in highly sophisticated sciences, such as hydrology and agronomy, as well as in cutting edge technologies including automotive mechanics, telegraph construction, and radio operation.20 Surely an updated CCC could rely on existing federal agencies while successfully training a new generation of green energy experts.

So this fall, as President Obama approaches the middle of his first term in office, he has the opportunity to take a page out of the New Deal playbook and update it with twenty-first-century practices. Back in 1933, FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps to help the U.S. combat both the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression, and since that time this New Deal program has become a model for other nations around the world. President Obama should act similarly by initiating a green, market-driven new New Deal, with an improved CCC at its core. Such a program would alleviate the country’s continuing unemployment problem by giving work to thousands of jobless Americans. In addition, by training these workers in the emerging green energy economy, the President would be taking steps to avoid environmental disasters—such as this summer’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in the Gulf—by decreasing the country’s dependence on non-renewable energy. By looking to the past, in other words, President Obama can shorten our very own Great Recession while taking an important step toward slowing global warming.


Neil Maher

Neil Maher is an associate professor in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark. In January 2008, Oxford University Press published his...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *