[Editor’s Note: Neil Maher, author of this particularly awesome book, joins us today. Neil’s the tallest historian I know. He’s also an excellent surfer and a very handsome lad. And on top of all that, he’s a really great guy. What a jerk.]

Seventy-five years ago today Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to create the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal’s most popular programs. In his address to Congress, Roosevelt was obviously concerned with the twenty-five percent unemployment rate then gripping the nation. Yet a second crisis also worried the President. Noting severe flooding occurring along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, due in large part to deforestation along their banks, Roosevelt warned Congress that the country faced an environmental emergency as well. To combat simultaneously both crises — one economic, the other environmental — FDR called for the creation of the CCC.

During its nine-year existence the Corps helped battle both of these national problems. 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. The Corps was as successful environmentally. Enrollees in the New Deal program planted more than two billion trees, slowed soil erosion on forty million acres of Dust Bowl farmland, and developed more than 800 new state parks that provided outdoor recreation to millions of Americans. All told, CCC work projects altered more than 118 million acres across the United States, an area approximately three times the size of Connecticut.

Today we face a similar pair of predicaments. News of Bear Stearns’ possible collapse last week was all too reminiscent of the wave of bank runs that cascaded across America during the early 1930s, and suggested to many economists that the looming recession may intensify into a full-blown depression. Meanwhile, record rainfall across much of the Midwest during the past few weeks not only caused river flooding, similar to that which alarmed Franklin Roosevelt back in the spring of 1933, but also highlighted once again the serious environmental consequences of global warming. While in the United States these two contemporary crises — one economic, the other environmental — are not often linked in the minds of most citizens, they are very much connected in other parts of the world.

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 ten percent, local, state, and federal governments in cooperation with non-governmental 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 one billion trees over the next ten years across the country’s Atlantic Forest. Rather than funding the program by increasing taxes, 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 Franklin Roosevelt’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 the upcoming election is a good place to start. Hillary Clinton openly calls for the creation of a “green economy” centered on a cap and trade system for carbon emissions that will help create five million new jobs. Barack Obama wants to develop a program that rewards those who plant trees, restore grassland, or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even John McCain, who claims fellow Republican and early conservationist Teddy Roosevelt as his hero, proposes to limit carbon emissions as president. A new and improved Civilian Conservation Corps, one which enrolls women as well as men and focuses its efforts on fighting global warming, would allow all of these candidates to turn campaign rhetoric into post-election reality.

Seventy-five years ago today Franklin Roosevelt began putting millions of unemployed Americans to work conserving natural resource. Since that time, the CCC has become a model for other nations around the world in an age of economic and environmental uncertainty. The United States should join this movement, and use its past to help safeguard the planet’s future.

Advertisements