Remembering the Civilian Conservation Corps of nearly 80 years ago can we evolve the process of creating job and productivity stimulus through conservation and ecological restoration to meet today's challenges? Undeniably, environmental issues today involve the global commons and affect the world's communities at large, a new CCC would be global in scope and would have the capacity to bring environmental and socio-economic prosperity to the world.
In January 1933 the United States faced a dire emergency. They were in the depths of the depression during a catastrophic environmental disaster. The economy of the United States had collapsed and thousands of impoverished young men were without jobs or money and "riding the rails". A severe and prolonged drought had turned the Great Plains into a "dust bowl".
A newly elected President Roosevelt dealt with both emergencies by creating the "Civilian Conservation Corps". The mandate of the CCC was to reverse and repair the environmental damage caused by a hundred years of heedless exploitation by settlers, farmers, ranchers and miners, of the immense territories of the United States. The CCC consisted of up to 4500 camps all over the USA that housed the young men, not unlike Canada’s tree planting camps. They planted nearly 3 billion trees, restored eroded lands, repaired degraded streams and wetlands and built the infrastructure (roads, hiking trails and administration buildings) for the newly created system of National Parks. By the end of the program in 1942, the CCC had employed over three million young men (Merrill, 1981). This undoubtedly helped stave off the social turmoil that could have resulted from having millions of young impoverished men, with their lives on the rails, vent their frustration and anger.
Eighty years later we again face an unprecedented global emergency. Throughout these eighty years, we have witnessed the entire world sustain severe ecological damage and unprecedented population growth, which has set the stage for widespread social disruption along with unparalleled land-use change and resource extraction. All over the globe massive deforestation, toxic industrial practices and globalized capitalist markets have severely degraded the ecosystems that sustain all life on earth.
Now, there is a new urgency for action; a changing global climate threatens to massively accelerate these environmental and social problems. The industrial processes we have created are not only damaging and disrupting the environment but changing the very composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, as massive amounts of CO2 injected into our atmosphere trap refracted long wave solar radiation and warms the entire planet.There is an urgent need to respond to this global emergency.
In America, there are presently 158 service and conservation corps that engage over 250,000 community volunteers in work preserving natural resources; part of the modern conservation movement that has been emerging since the 1950s*. In November 2011, President Obama called for a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps in his America’s Great Outdoors Report (http://americasgreatoutdoors.gov/report/) that will build on the important work already being done in the country, and provide America’s youth with hands-on service and job trainings on natural public lands. This is undoubtedly a substantial and valuable commitment, however, today’s challenges are global in scope and a new CCC that encompasses the entire world in a global effort is necessary to address the immediate and long-term threats to our collective well-being. A global, CCC work force would include young women as well as young men and would be inclusive to all peoples; empowering communities through skilled work and conservation efforts that serve to protect the global commons. Planting trees and performing ecological restoration will not only restore clean water, build soil fertility and control floods, but will sequester much of the CO2 that now drives the warming climate. All intact and functional ecosystems also sequester carbon. Much of the CO2 that is now being added to the atmosphere would be taken up by these improved natural processes and diminish the insidious blanket warming our planet.
Ecological restoration directly benefits the local people in the region. Intact ecosystems deliver natural foods, medicines, habitat for wildlife and the income from this restorative work would improve the lives of millions of impoverished people the world over. In the end, it would make for a more equitable and stable world. A 21st century CCC could take young people from the world over who are unemployed, or looking for a sense of purpose, give them productive and meaningfulwork and the challenge would force them to learn new skills that they can apply for the rest of their lives. In the CCC camps of 80 years ago, young people from diverse backgrounds lived and worked together, had the opportunity to learn to read and write (over 40,000 youth became literate as a result) and above all, they discovered that young people, be they from Maine or from Oklahoma, were just like themselves; all equal and all American. The CCC was a unifying force that helped to build a nation and it could now be used to solidify a global community.
The human tradition of young people setting aside a period of their life during which they become adults is, in some places, done in the name of public service within charitable institutions, in churches or in some of the armies of the world. With a Global Conservation Corps young people would be given the opportunity to join an ecological army of restoration workers who help create a better future for all humanity. Because of collective benefits of ecosystem health, much of the financing for this initiative would come from ecosystem value trading. But to engage our youth, this initiative will have to be led by governments. The budget for a 21st century Global Conservation Corps’ march to secure the future well-being of the planet may only be a small percentage of global military expenditures, as measures would be taken to ensure the activities of these young people would not be in conflict with, but would support, local populations. Not only is a global CCC easily affordable, in actual fact we, as a global society, cannot afford the costs associated with not restoring local ecosystems on a global scale. The time has come for a Global Civilian Conservation Corp concept to be implemented.
John Huizinga is a historian, treeplanter and reforestation project supervisor who has worked in BC, Saskatchewan and Ontario including with First Nations. He has also traveled and worked extensively internationally, including as a Project Administrator with Medicine San Frontier in Ethiopia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and on aid projects in Nepal, Ladakh and Mongolia.
* According to The Corps Network website http://www.nascc.org
Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army, A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps (1981) p. 196.