Your teenager sets aside his phone, his iPad, his computer, his tricked-out sneakers, her makeup palette, her micro shorts, his ratty T-shirt, her addiction to Instagram, his obsession with TikTok, and they leave home for some weeks or months to trim trees, cut back brush, dig ditches, install solar panels, and otherwise work toward mitigating the devastating effects of climate change. They join a corps of similarly unprepared, ill-equipped teens and they get paid minimum wage to do their bit to keep the earth spinning.
Just days after becoming president, Joe Biden signed an executive order providing for establishment of such a group — a Civilian Climate Corps. This would be the first-ever government-led initiative to put large numbers of young people to work fighting climate change.
Democrats have expressed support for the idea, which is now incorporated in the $3.5 trillion spending bill bumping its way through Congress.
Specifically, the CCC would “aim to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate . . .
“. . . Projects could range from wetland restoration in Florida’s Everglades to building parks or installing solar panels in urban areas. Corps members would be paid minimum wage, receive health care benefits and possibly school credit for their service.
Would parents get behind this idea? It makes sense that hard work could be a great benefit to our children. This generation of teenagers has survived pandemic shutdowns and isolation; a public-works experience could help them become more independent and resilient and educated in basic life skills. The idea would be to merge large cross-sections of teenagers from rural areas, urban zones and suburban communities and offer an opportunity for a rich social and cultural experience along with the physical work.
The idea isn’t new. More than 80 years ago, my uncle joined the first CCC launched by FDR to put young men to work during the Great Depression. It was called the Civilian Conservation Corps, and my uncle left Brooklyn to work somewhere out West for a summer clearing brush. I wish I had more details, but all I know is that as an old man, he recalled the experience as one of the best times of his life. He got paid, he got fed, he had a nifty uniform and he met people he never would have met in Brooklyn in 1934.
The CCC operated from 1933 to 1942. The organization was semi-military, and some political leaders at the time urged increased military training as the drum beat of war in Europe was getting louder.
Many of the young men in the program, which employed millions, became the fighting force for America in World War II. My uncle joined the Navy at 17 and served on a minesweeper.
The new CCC has more modest goals, hoping to employ hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and it would be diverse in every respect, in contrast to FDR’s CCC, which was strictly segregated.
According to a story in The Washington Post, the Depression-era CCC was more popular than any of FDR’s other New Deal plans, earning the respect of the president’s foes as well as his supporters. It is thought that FDR, who conceived of the program, got the idea from Harvard philosopher and writer William James.
“If now there were instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature,” James once observed, “the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow. Our gilded youth [would be] drafted off according to their choice [of work assignments] to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”
Even as a state legislator, FDR boosted conservation efforts. His CCC was a perfect plan to address widespread national unemployment in the 1930s. In his first inaugural address, he said, “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.”
Eighty-eight years later, it is still a winning plan. But it requires a zeal for hard work and an idealism that fueled other do-good programs like the Peace Corps. I hope we, as a society, still have the right stuff.
Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.