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The New Deal’s lessons can guide us into a post-pandemic economy

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In a column published last month, we introduced the concept of a “Citizens Energy and Environmental Corps” (CEEC) to put Americans back to work building a sustainable and resilient advanced-energy future. The principles underpinning this proposed program are rooted in our nation’s values and history: the right to work, the responsibility to husband our natural resources, and the role of good governance.

It was nearly a century ago when another shock to our system inspired a generation of Americans to forge one of the most audacious and robust efforts ever undertaken to rescue an economy in a free fall. The lessons learned then are instructive for how to kill two birds with one stone in today’s crisis: rebuild the economy while launching a broad, innovative effort for the good of all Americans. 

In response to an economy shattered by the October 1929 stock market crash and undermined by overleveraged businesses and an insufficient social safety net, President Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, a fiscal and legislative tour de force that put millions of Americans back to work improving critical infrastructure by creating programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This ultimately set the conditions for America’s economic recovery in time to mobilize the country for World War II. 

The purpose of the CCC was to help the nation’s human resources while simultaneously improving the nation’s natural resources. Often referred to as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC was the first and best known of his New Deal programs, putting 3 million men ages 18 to 25 to work for $30 a month — $25 was sent home to their families. With their time fully committed to education, training and conservation projects, and the government providing room and board, these men considered a $5 monthly salary generous. Most of them were uneducated and unemployed before they joined the CCC. 

Born of the Emergency Conservation Act, the CCC camps were run by the U.S. Army. Up for a 5 a.m. reveille, the “CCC boys” were busy until lights out at 10 p.m. During the workday, they were turned over to states for projects that included reforestation (planting 3 billion new trees) and revitalization of overworked agricultural land. They built 3,000 fire towers, many of which are still in use today, and conducted firefighting, constructed dams and dug ditches to irrigate 4 million acres of agricultural land.

So what lessons can we learn from the CCC experience to inform the creation of a CEEC?

First, it’s about jobs, not simply a relief effort. The CCC’s greatest accomplishment was putting young men to work — of course today we would include women as well. But, the CCC often was thought of at the time as a temporary relief effort. The CEEC is about putting our transition to an advanced-energy economy on a faster track, knowing that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Second, it’s about training and educating workers so they can be on the front lines of the energy industry of tomorrow. As we learned from the CCC, and from our own defense experience, training and education must fit the mission. Today, we need more efforts like the Veterans Advanced Energy Project (VAEP), which educates skilled men and women who have served their nation and enables them to successfully transition from military careers to well-paying jobs developing and deploying the latest energy technologies. In just three years, the VAEP has informed hundreds of veterans and helped connect them with the advanced-energy industry.

Finally, go big or go home. Already, jobs in the clean energy economy, from grid modernization to energy storage to wind and solar energy development, are growing rapidly. Today, we have a unique opportunity with so many Americans in need of work to get a triple bang for our buck: new jobs, clean energy and an improved climate. This is not about the Green New Deal. Rather, it is about what former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz calls a “Green Real Deal,” counterbalancing the Green New Deal with support for advanced-energy technologies and fuel sources, including natural gas and nuclear power.

History has given us a roadmap for how to be ambitious in the face of an economic crisis. But transforming the idea of a CEEC into action will take more than historical perspective; it will take clarity of vision, practical lines of operation, and lots of resources. We urge Congress to take the first steps toward making this new CEEC “army” a reality by enacting legislation in the next phase of COVID-19 economic stimulus.

Sherri Goodman served as the first deputy undersecretary of Defense (environmental security), and is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center. She serves on the boards of the Atlantic Council and the Council on Strategic Risks and its Center for Climate & Security.

Greg Douquet is a former Marine Corps colonel, co-founder and managing partner of Red Duke Strategies LLC, and co-director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center’s Veterans Advanced Energy Project.

Tags Civilian Conservation Corps COVID-19 pandemic Energy economics Ernest Moniz New Deal Sustainable energy

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