July 2004: Let's Learn from F.D.R.

Our jobless youth could be doing needed environmental repair work
July 1, 2004

Here we are in the summer of 2004, fortunate to be living in one of the world’s most resource-endowed countries, and yet many of our students have been unable to find paid employment to fund their college or university education. Hundreds of thousands of older Canadians are in the same predicament.

It’s not as if there were no worthwhile and even urgently-needed work to be done, such as replanting our large deforested areas.

Much of the disastrous flooding that has devastated communities in various parts of the world (including Canada) in recent years can be blamed on deforestation. When hillsides are stripped of trees, the denuded soil can’t absorb heavy rainfalls. The excess water overflows rivers, causes landslides, sometimes buries whole neighbourhoods in mud.

When forests are levelled to create grazing land for cattle or sheep, the soil often becomes compacted from overgrazing, the vegetation dies, and the once fertile lands become deserts. Much of the desert tracts in Africa once had plant cover that supported large human and wildlife populations.

An acre of forest can absorb more than 100,000 gallons an hour, whereas an acre of bare soil can absorb only about 5,500 gallons an hour. Foliage also protects the soil. Without it, soil erosion by both water and wind can destroy the richest farmland.

Forests are also essential to absorb carbon dioxide and enrich the air with oxygen, which is why they’re sometimes called “Earth’s lungs.”

Our current unemployment problem, of course, is not nearly as socially devastating as the massive dearth of jobs that marked the Great Depression. But one of the job-creating measures taken in the United States in the 1930s could serve as an inspiring model for Canada’s governments today. It was in March of 1933 that newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned his secretaries of agriculture and the interior, his director of the bureau of the budget, and his judge advocate-general of the army to outline his plan to put young jobless Americans back to work.

He proposed the formation of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to be assigned to reforestation, the prevention of soil erosion and floods, and similar forest-related projects.

Roosevelt had set an example himself by restoring his eroded Hyde Park Estate and planting as many as 50,000 trees. He described the country’s forests as “the lungs of our land, purifying our air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

The CCC was an outstanding success. More than three million young Americans who would otherwise have been jobless and even homeless served in it over the course of its operations. The CCC’s most outstanding achievement was the reforestation of the denuded uplands of the Tennessee Valley Authority, where two billion trees were planted. No longer scarred by erosion, the TVA is now the resource conservation project most often cited and visited by government officials from other nations.

Roosevelt pumped close to $3 billion into the CCC’s various activities—an enormous sum at any time but especially in the midst of one of the world’s worst economic slumps. His political and media critics attacked him viciously for what they sneeringly derided as a “make-work” scheme, but Roosevelt had the last word when most of the funding flowed directly back into business and industrial services.

The CCC gave its young recruits valuable training in a wide range of occupations. A million or more of them emerged with skills as mechanics, surveyors, road and bridge builders, construction workers, bakers, and radio operators, to name a few.

By the time the CCC was phased out in the pre-war years, 40 million acres of farmland had benefited from erosion-control measures. All over the U.S., drainage ditches, small dams, wildlife habitat restorations, and other projects undertaken and completed by young Americans combined to improve the environment as well as the lives of millions of people.

Roosevelt had the wisdom to devise and fund such a massive domestic program. He realized that restoring and revitalizing the land, quite apart from its economic benefits, was also an excellent way to uplift and inspire his people. “More important than the material gains,” he said at the time, “will be the moral and spiritual value of such work.”

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The U.S. could use such a great leader today instead of the morally, spiritually and intellectually stunted excuse for a president now in the White House.

A Rooseveltian administration would do wonders for Canada, too. There’s lots of environmentally-restorative work to be done in this country by a CCC (Canadian Conservation Corps), and not just in our forest-razed areas. Our polluted rivers and lakes, our toxic waste dumps, our crumbling infrastructure all need to be cleansed and rehabilitated. This would mostly be non-profit work, of course, so it doesn’t appeal to our neoliberal corporate and political leaders. The CCC also wasn’t endorsed—in fact, it was strongly opposed—by the conservative CEOs and politicians in the U.S., too, 70 years ago. But the U.S. at that time was lucky to have a president who cared more about the plight of the unemployed than he did about the narrow self-interest of the business barons. So he invested his government’s tax revenue in socially, environmentally and economically progressive projects instead of in handouts and tax-cuts to the élites.

Canada could benefit enormously from such leadership today. Unfortunately for us, there’s no one in government (yet) with the vision or the courage to make a Canadian CCC a reality.


(I’m indebted to Bob Harrington, one of our regular correspondents [see his article on Page 26 of the Monitor] for the information used in this column. He made the same case for a Canadian CCC in an article he wrote back in 1978.)