Greening the Old New Deal

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

New bills in Congress ‘‘Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act’’ (H.R. 6702 and S. 3624) invoke the 1930s recovery programs as precedents:

More than 80 years ago, the Nation rose to the challenge of the Great Depression with the creation of citizen service programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Millions of participants benefitted from paid employment and opportunities to develop their skills while constructing national parks and public lands infrastructure and producing cultural works still enjoyed today.

The current National Service Act is designed to promote recovery from the massive disruption and unemployment created by the coronavirus, but it seeks to do more than returning to the status quo. One aim is to supply personnel for testing the infected, but furthermore:

To recover, the Nation also needs meaningful employment opportunities, as well as a significant expansion of the human capital working to address community needs around public health, behavioral health, hunger, education, and conservation.

Can we learn from the history of the old New Deal and green it? Nancy Rose’s informative and concise book on the 1930s WPA, Put to Work: Relief Programs in the Great Depression, reports:

More than 650,000 miles of roads were constructed or repaired, along with bridges and viaducts, drainage ditches, culverts, sidewalks, curbs, gutters, traffic lighting and signs, and roadside landscaping. More than 125,000 buildings were built or repaired.

Projects included schools, libraries, auditoriums, hospitals, firehouses, public utility plants, water mains, swimming pools, parks, bleachers, rodeo grounds, ski runs and jumps, flood control, wharfs and much else. For “nonmanual” workers there were research and records projects; mapping; codifying municipal ordinances; museum, library, public health, and educational work, et al. By today’s standards, some of this output is very green, some greenish, and some not really green. Manufacturing industries were based on the principle of “production for use,” which was then not very popular with business. Today citizens may be more aware of the destructive force of limitless growth, which produces for profit (or jobs) regardless of the safety or utility of the products, the health of workers, or the impact on the environment.

The Federal Arts Project included music, art, writing, and theater. There was much public art (murals, posters), a WPA symphony orchestra, and traveling theater troupes. The New Deal government support for artists and writers permitted more substantial dissent than our current market and foundation- funded arts.

The CCC was limited to white men; to be green women and people of color would have to be included.

The current bills would not permit discrimination, and propose “to support opportunities for all individuals in the United States to engage in service.” This appears to embrace participation by immigrants, whatever their documents. Furthermore, they state that:

[T]o the maximum extent practicable, [priority should be given to] entities that are proposing programs that serve, or proposing to give priority for positions to applicants from, underserved populations, such as economically disadvantaged individuals, minority individuals, individuals who have had contact with the juvenile justice system, Indians, veterans, and individuals whose abilities are not typical, such as individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. . .

The CCC taught transferable skills, and thus self-development and education were fostered. Conservation is surely green. Marking trails and building lean-tos in those days were regarded as promoting “back-to-nature” wilderness recreation and hiking—very green. Today, while the mainstream of the tourist industry is resource intensive, polluting, labor exploitative, and culturally destructive, even the backpackers, whose ranks have increased greatly, have a questionable impact on the environment.

The current National Service bills do not invoke the New Deal employment program of massive hydroelectric and flood control projects, e.g., Tennessee Valley (TVA), Hoover, and Bonneville dams. These were celebrated as progressive at the time, and indeed provided economic development for impoverished regions and domestic relief for households (refrigerators, washing machines). Woody Guthrie produced a whole album of songs about Bonneville, commissioned by the US Government. Yet these monumental improvements now resemble mountaintop removal enterprises in relation to the environment. People of color were rarely beneficiaries; Native Americans were displaced. Furthermore, (along with additional fossil fuel generators) they have provided crucial support for the US military, serving the huge electricity demands of the Oak Ridge and Hanford nuclear facilities.

The Green New Deal resolution now before Congress, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey in 2019, has a major focus on greening the energy supply; that must be included in reconstruction. However, it goes further, proposing “[A] massive transformation of our society with clear goals and a timeline.” This will require generous provision for workers and communities to make the transition to a greener economy, which will enable not simply recovery from the current disruption, but movement toward a more just nation.

Since the 1930s, smaller national service programs have existed, such as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and Peace Corps, yet the concept has received little support from the libertarian left. Today national service could be part of a Green New Deal, and promote goals that could unite our dispirited nation in a constructive undertaking, such as reducing the fervor for military superpower status; increasing local production and control of essential industries, especially food; restoring declining communities; and providing health and education services close to where people live.

The National Service Act would provide an opportunity for young people in search of jobs, benefits, and education to choose constructive work rather than recruitment into the military, whose mission includes achieving greater lethality. In addition to the troops, the Pentagon runs a vast jobs program. There is a large contingent of DoD civilian employees, and outsourcing reaches into every nook and cranny, including foreign businesses and institutions. The Pentagon has contracts and grants for weapons, intelligence, communications, construction, housing, food, transportation, environmental remediation, medical research, and even historic preservation. Goodwill Industries, noted for employing disabled workers, has huge contracts for janitorial services, landscaping, clothing, et al. The Student Conservation Service is a perennial DoD grant recipient. The contractors and grantees, which also include most of our major universities, will not kill the goose. They won’t even look at the goose. A civilian national service could transfer job provision to an agency with a greener mission.

There would be another advantage of a service program. The United States has a “mixed economy” like all other nations, and for good reasons. The invisible hand fumbles again and again. Supply and demand does not produce the occupational distribution conducive to human health, well-being, and environmental sustainability. We have an abundant supply of artists, musicians and stand-up comics, while teachers, doctors, nurses, and caregivers are scarce. Advertising, insurance, law, and financial services are well populated, and hordes are engaged in inventing new gadgets and new apps, while workers who maintain, repair, and restore the public and private infrastructure are hard to find. (Did anyone have to wait a year for an appointment with a stockbroker?) Several years ago a frugal New England legislature finally appropriated funds for a road safety improvement, but it had to cancel the project because the contractor couldn’t find workers. Sturdy and attractive old houses (post and beam, some with slate roofs) in middle and working class neighborhoods crumble and are eventually demolished because neither owner occupiers nor landlords could afford maintenance, including the fees of those few workers who have the skills.

Some recourse for this imbalance has long been immigrants. Many are willing to work at the dangerous and dirty jobs, often so their children can become professionals, but this generational compensation is unseemly in a reputedly democratic nation. European social democracies do better in providing for all, but even there second-class citizenship has been emerging. All should have safe work, good pay, adequate housing, an unpolluted environment, education, health care, and legal rights. (The U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment states that all persons, implying not citizens only, should enjoy equal protection of the laws.)

Way back in the 20th century, FDR’s Second Bill of Rights included:

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education

These conditions are hard to obtain even by documented immigrants, and the undocumented are deprived of basic rights, while their justifiable fear prevents calling attention to miserable conditions. Contract workers, brought in for the season only, likewise contradict the ideal of equality. Woody Guthrie got it right with his song, Deportee.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

A National Service program could include immigrants; in the past many have obtained citizenship through military service. Their work would not be supervised by gang bosses, but by civil servants whose performance is not based on profits. Immigrants as well as others can help to relocalize our economy. The ghosting towns are replete with old-fashioned but usable infrastructure: houses, shops, town halls, fire stations, ball fields, rodeo grounds, etc. We should learn from the experience of the old New Deal Resettlement Administration, which created new towns. Today we can have a fortuitous mixture of high and low tech to provide the good life, amidst greenery, for all; there is room in this vast country.

There are certainly resources of all types, including mental, from scientists freed from working on (probably unusable) hypersonic weapons to Native American wisdom for living sustainably on the land.

Among the industries that belie our claim of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are agriculture and food. Harvest of Shame is still the name of the game. Estimates suggest that more than half of all farmworkers and almost all Vermont dairy workers are undocumented immigrants. Practically everything is wrong with the food and agriculture systems. Toxic pollution (of soil, air, groundwater, rivers, lakes and seas) with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers; enormous land use for grazing; Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS); energy consumption and carbon emissions; communities displaced by agribusiness farming; tremendous waste at all stages (including restaurants and households); poor diets; obesity; and hunger. Subsidies are a drain on national budgets, create incentives for overproduction, and make junk food cheap. Most fish and seafood for human consumption are now farmed, often with serious environmental consequences; wild fish, subject to pollution and overfishing, are disappearing. The same types of produce, meat, and fish are exported and imported in large quantities by the US. The food processing and restaurant industries also favor undocumented workers. Still there is a shortage of workers, crops have been left rotting, and prisoners have been used, as in chain gangs, for harvesting.

The globalization of the food supply has many untoward consequences. Land is cheap in developing nations so multinational corporations apply chemicals for high yield, use up the land, and move on, while displacing local farmers. Undocumented immigrants or contract workers are an essential part of the food and agricultural workforce not only in the US, but in Europe, Israel, even New Zealand, and elsewhere. Our organic and locavore farms also employ undocumented workers.

Farmers with small or medium size acreage, whether they own or lease, work very hard for meager income and rarely, benefits. They must take off-farm jobs, and/or be supported by spouses or rich uncles. Government subsidies are available only for standard “commodities.” The high price of local organic produce is rarely sufficient to allow farmers a decent income, while deterring even middle class shoppers. The Department of Agriculture reports that “of the roughly 2 million U.S. farm households, slightly more than half report negative income from their farming operations each year.”

Providing nutritious home cooked meals often taxes the time, energy, and information of fully employed parents, so even the wealthy often serve their children junk food—a convenience abetted by massive advertising on TV and sanctified in public school cafeterias. GM ingredients, corn syrup, salt, preservatives, and artificial coloring and flavoring are standard in these products. Even when consumers purchase fresh produce, meat, and fish, the vast distances and questionable standards in exporting countries make it difficult to know the whole story. Furthermore, Daniel Imhoff, author of Food Fight, claims that shopping, storing, and cooking of household meals use the largest share of energy in the food system—more than growing, processing, retailing, or transportation.

Land, resources, and labor for livestock and farmed fish feed, ethanol, plastics, drugs, and textiles also present many environmental and human problems. Marijuana is predicted to be the most lucrative drug in the world, displacing coffee. Cotton, long associated with slavery and sweatshops, requires the most pesticide of any crop.

It does not seem that these vast problems can be solved by free market mechanisms, even if supplemented with government assistance. Subsidies inspire overproduction. Farmers, including those in cooperatives, are still affected by weather, diseases, predators, changes in tastes, and cheap imports. Their incomes are not proportional to their skill and effort, but luck. The labor problem will only get worse if diets are improved and more fruits, vegetables, and nuts are consumed.

Food could be grown almost anywhere (e.g., with composting, raised beds, and hoop houses) if there is enough labor. Community cafeterias might provide wholesome and delicious meals for eat-in or take-out. There are hazards in farm work, but not like exposure to nuclear and laser weapons, the burning of toxic chemicals, et al, that are inflicted on the troops and civilians of all nations, whether at war or just preparing. Pay, benefits, and short shifts would make farm work not oppressive, and there would still be the adventure. Free college or vocational training can be offered afterwards; the National Service Act includes education support. Current “career” farmers could be part of the program as managers and trainers, and enjoy civil service status.

Greening of textiles and clothing is long overdue. Currently, even people of very modest means have a large collection of t-shirts, which are paradoxically marketed by environmental organizations and other reformers, despite the input of toxic chemicals and sweatshop working conditions. Silk and wool may present ethical issues, but hemp and flax can be grown in northern latitudes. Their processing is very labor intensive, so service rather than profit will provide an incentive, and adequate salaries will not be dependent on the market. With well made, good fitting, alterable clothing, people could get along with fewer garments, and curtail their disposable fashion tendencies to help save the planet.

While there are enthusiastic, mostly young, people who love agricultural work, and some who will “self-exploit” as John Kenneth Galbraith explained in Economics and the Public Purpose, there are not enough workers to provide a basic nutritious diet for all and other useful agricultural products, even if waste and processing were drastically reduced. The supposedly glamorous movie star job of “cowboy” has a hard time attracting workers; they earn more in rodeo games. Immigrants do not want their children to work in the fields, as Barbara Wells reports in Daughters and Granddaughters of Farmworkers: Emerging from the Long Shadow of Farm Labor.

If food, education, health care, housing, and protection of Mother Earth were rights of all in our nation, we would need a workforce to provide these, with work conditions appropriate for a democracy. Some of this “Green Force” would be recruits in national service, which need not be a lifetime commitment. In addition to material incentives it would appeal to the matriotic spirit.

There is plenty of renewable human energy available—those who sit at the computer all day, those who work out at the gym or burn their calories on ski jumps and tennis courts, professional athletes, children on teams who give each other concussions, children who just sit, old folks, and people in institutions and halfway houses. Instead of inflicting concussions, people will be distributing couscous. For the price of a drone, we can build many homes.

The military model of organization can get things done, without waiting for someone to decide that a profit can be made in the operation, and without the need to balance costs and benefits (to put it mildly).

The problem is with the things: superpower dominance, regime change, a multitude of military bases, bombing countries back to the stone age. . . If the Department of Defense were reduced to protecting against actual threats, there would be fewer threats, and plenty of resources for the necessary reconstruction. National service and a green new deal, with lessons from the old new deal, could be the first step in “civilianizing” our nation, and beyond recovery, enhancing the world’s prospects for health, justice, and sustainability.

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site:  Contact: