In the forested Northeast, where I live, you occasionally come across big stands of red pine. They're wonderful trees--jigsaw puzzle bark, a gorgeous hue against snow or blue sky--but if you know the history, they have another meaning, too, just as sweet. Red pine are a fairly rare native species in this area, but they were one of the trees of choice for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. They grow straight; they make good phone poles. For whatever set of silvicultural reasons, there are a lot of these groves of 70-year-old trees. Every time I wander through one, I think of Franklin Roosevelt and try to imagine the crews that came out to plant them.
We usually talk about New Deal programs in terms of their effect on the mood of Americans--they restored hope, they gave people back their dignity and so on. Sometimes we talk about how they helped get the economy afloat again. But there was another result: the hundreds of thousands of actual projects that were built in those years. Hiking trails, city halls, bridges, park gazebos, public plazas, dams, and on and on. For my money, that's the kind of work that needs doing now, as we face a crisis even greater than the Depression: the quick unraveling of the planet's climate system in the face of our endless emissions of carbon dioxide.
Many people have used the Apollo Project (or the Manhattan Project) as the template for how we can quickly wean ourselves off fossil fuels and replace them with renewable sources of energy. That's good as far as it goes--we do need new technologies. But in a sense our task is almost the reverse of the Apollo Project. Instead of focusing our resources to land a few people on the moon, we need to spread them out to affect everyone. It's as if we've got to get the whole nation into orbit, and fast. And for that, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the CCC (and the industrial thrust to gear up for World War II) may provide a better analogy.
The people hired by these agencies went out and did things, and did them in large numbers--the CCC planted 3 billion trees (which would be no small help with global warming). Imagine an army of similar size trained to insulate American homes and stick solar photovoltaic panels on their roofs. They could achieve, within a year or two, easily noticeable effects on our energy consumption; our output of carbon dioxide might actually begin to level off. And imagine them laying trolley lines back down in our main cities or helping erect windmills across the plains. All this work would have real payoff--and none of it can be outsourced. You're not sending your house to China so they can stuff it with cellulose.
There are people starting to think along these lines: the Green for All campaign has been pushing for a billion-dollar commitment for a quarter-million green jobs of just this kind, designed to pull people out of poverty. And as the depth of our environmental trouble and the probable recession become clearer, others are more ambitious yet: on the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, activists will gather in Memphis for the Dream Reborn, a conference whose organizers argue that were King still alive he'd be fighting to take on the twin scourges of global warming and global inequity with a massive new public works campaign.
The Depression and the war that followed were the last great civilization-challenging events; global warming is the next threat on that scale. It stands to reason we'd turn for instruction to how the challenge was met last time.