Action Speaks!, AS220's always-engaging panel discussion series, is back. "So soon?" you ask. Why, yes.
CALLING FOR A NEW CORPS Maher.
The series, heretofore a fall affair, is now running twice a year — in the spring and, as usual, when the leaves start to turn.
The double-down owes much to a $60,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, which is also funding a beefed-up Web site and a national marketing campaign designed to get Action Speaks! programming on radio stations across the country.
The spring series will focus, in timely fashion, on the politics and psychology of economic failure. And panelists, like their predecessors, will build their discussions around underappreciated dates in history.
The first topic, to be pulled apart at a forum at AS220 on April 29 from 5:30 to 7 pm, is "1933: The Creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps," a New Deal program that sent thousands of unemployed men into the wild to plant trees and conserve soil.
One of the panelists is Neil Maher, a professor of environmental history at Rutgers-Newark and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who wrote Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (2007).
The Phoenix, a media sponsor for Action Speaks!, conducted a Q&A with the good professor via e-mail in advance of the discussion, which will air on WRNI on May 3 at 8 pm. Below, an edited and condensed version:
YOU ARGUE IN YOUR BOOK THAT THE WORK OF THE CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS (CCC) — PLANTING TREES, CONSERVING SOIL — HELPED TO BOLSTER AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM. BUT YOU ALSO ARGUE THAT OPPOSITION TO THE CORPS PUSHED THE MOVEMENT FORWARD. WHAT WAS THE MAJOR CRITIQUE OF THE CORPS AND HOW DID THAT CRITIQUE HELP TO RESHAPE THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT?
During the later New Deal years, an increasing vocal contingent of Americans began criticizing some Corps conservation work on a variety of grounds. Some, like wilderness advocate Bob Marshall (founder of the Wilderness Society in 1935), criticized CCC road-building projects for destroying the wilderness quality of many national parks and national forests. Others, such as ecologist Aldo Leopold [argued] work such as the draining of swamps for mosquito control and the planting of non-indigenous trees in straight rows was ecologically unsound. This criticism, in the later New Deal years, sparked a national debate over the very meaning of conservation. Was conservation the conservation of natural resources (timber, soil, water) like the Progressives had believed [in the 1910s]? Or did conservation also include the conservation of human resources through increased access to outdoor recreation, which is what CCC work in national and state parks suggested. Or was conservation really about wilderness and ecology, as Marshall and Leopold argued.
YOU ARGUE THAT THE CORPS WORKED AS A POLITICAL TOOL TO PROMOTE THE NEW DEAL AND GET FDR RE-ELECTED. WHAT WAS THE POLITICAL VALUE OF THE CORPS AND IS THERE ANY ELEMENT OF THE NEW STIMULUS PACKAGE THAT WILL PACK THE SAME PUNCH?
FDR was extremely savvy about using the CCC to his political advantage. The president realized, early on, that these Corps camps greatly helped the economies of local communities nearby.He would reward political allies of the New Deal by placing camps in their districts, and he would punish opponents of the New Deal by denying camps in their districts.
FDR relied on these camps to help generate public support for him and against his opponent for president, Kansas Governor Alf Landon. In the election of 1936, partly due to the overwhelming popularity of the CCC in places like the Great Plains, FDR crushed Landon, who even lost his home state of Kansas.
As to whether the current stimulus package will pack the same punch, I think it will. We've heard a lot about bankers benefiting from the stimulus package in that it allowed them to continue receiving their bonuses. If people on Main Street across the country were to realize benefits to their own communities from the stimulus package, I think they would undoubtedly support the Obama administration.
SOME HAVE SAID THAT THE STIMULUS PACKAGE, WHATEVER ITS SUPPORT FOR RAIL LINES AND OTHER ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY PROJECTS, SPENDS TOO MUCH MONEY ON ROADS, BRIDGES, AND OTHER PROJECTS THAT PROMOTE AUTOMOBILE USE. ARE WE MISSING AN OPPORTUNITY TO TRANSFORM HOW WE GET FROM POINT A TO POINT B IN THIS COUNTRY?
I think it's actually ironic that when Obama was first elected, and began calling for a massive works program to help us battle our economic crisis, he mentioned not FDR's New Deal but rather Eisenhower's federal highway project of the 1950s. Obama was understandably weary of using the New Deal as a model — our country has been rolling back the New Deal for the last 75 years because we as a culture thought it was too radical. So instead of looking to the New Deal for a usable past, Obama went to Eisenhower, who could never be painted as radical.
The problem with turning to Eisenhower and his highway program is that the program has caused many of the environmental problems that we face in this country today — from air pollution and global warming due to automobile pollution to urban and suburban sprawl. The car is really the culprit here.
WILL THE STIMULUS PACKAGE RESHAPE THE AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT AS THE CORPS DID SOME 75 YEARS AGO?
Like Roosevelt, Obama should ask Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps, but with a twist. Along with planting trees, this new and improved Corps should put young Americans, both men and women, to work planting windmills across the former Dust Bowl, solar energy panels throughout the Sun Belt, and energy-efficient biofuels on farms in every corner of the country, all in an effort to reduce both unemployment and the production of greenhouse gasses that lead to global warming.