By Katherine Phelps
My grandfather meant a lot to me. He was funny, attentive and had many great stories to tell. I also grew to be very proud of the work he did during his lifetime. When I first heard of the Green New Deal, I immediately became excited. My grandfather was an agronomist, employed through one of the many programs that were established in the United States by the New Deal during the 1930s.
Before the Great Depression, European migrants settled the plains region of the US. They did not understand its ecology and therefore used deep plowing to preserve moisture in the soil. However, in this case it removed the native grasses which were the area's natural means of conserving moisture, even during drought and high winds. Under these industrialised farming methods, the topsoil turned to dust and farming failed. This resulted in immense dust storms called 'black blizzards'. In 1935, the Black Sunday blizzard displaced 300 million tonnes of topsoil from the plains.1 The impacts of some of these blizzards were felt as far as New York and Washington DC.
My grandfather was one of the people tasked to help fix this problem. He was sent to rehabilitate the area then known as the 'Dust Bowl'. He and his compatriots encouraged people to replant the native grasses and learn to better manage the land. Then US President Franklin Roosevelt sent the newly-formed Civilian Conservation Corps to plant over 220 million trees between the Canadian border and Texas.2 The trees were planted to form a windbreak, retain water in the soil, and hold topsoil in place. I remember how pleased my grandfather was that they had reclaimed an area on the verge of becoming a desert. His work was so well respected that he was later sent as a federal goodwill ambassador to help people grow crops in other countries, including Morocco and Egypt.
I tell this story because it shows how effective the New Deal could be in solving problems to do with both employment and the environment.
The Great Depression
The New Deal was a response to the Great Depression; the tremendous economic downturn that began right after the US stock market crash of 1929. The circumstances of the time sound eerily similar to our current situation.
PBS American Experience describes the era: "The imbalance between the rich and the poor, with 0.1 percent of society earning the same total income as 42 percent, combined with production of more and more goods and rising personal debt, could not be sustained. On Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world. It spread from the United States to the rest of the world, lasting from the end of 1929 until the early 1940s. With banks failing and businesses closing, more than 15 million Americans (one-quarter of the workforce) became unemployed."3
Australia was also badly hit, with unemployment rising to 32% in 1933.4 Our economy relied on export demand for our farm goods such as wool, which was shrinking as many of our trade partners were tightening their belts.
President Herbert Hoover was the first US leader tasked with addressing this crisis, which occurred during his term. He strongly believed in diplomatically working with corporations in order to encourage voluntary policies, which he assumed would correct US economic woes. In his December 1929 State of the Union Address, Hoover explained, "I have ... instituted systematic, voluntary measures of cooperation with the business institutions and with State and municipal authorities to make certain that fundamental businesses of the country shall continue as usual, that wages and therefore consuming power shall not be reduced."
He adamantly believed that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. To not be able to do so was a personal weakness. Between 1930-31, Congress tried to pass a US$60 million bill to provide relief to victims of the Dust Bowl. The plan was to give them access to food, fertiliser, and animal feed. However, Hoover refused to provide food and resisted direct relief. The final bill of US$47 million provided for everything except food and did not adequately address the crisis.5
Many victims of the Dust Bowl ended up moving to cities, hoping to feed their families. This proved a hopeless pursuit, as the whole country was experiencing a 25% unemployment rate. The rate was considerably higher in industrial towns; sometimes up to 80%.6 'Hoovervilles' ‒ tent cities full of people who had become homeless ‒ sprung up across the US.
After nearly four years of suffering, the people of the US voted in Franklin Delano Roosevelt as their president. People were ready to give him a free hand to experiment with broad ranging policies in order to end the depression.
History of the New Deal
Within the first hundred days of his presidency, Roosevelt began reforming the government, reforming economic policies, and setting up public relief programs. The sort of control that this democratically elected federal government was able to wield over banks and businesses is unheard of today. In 1935 Congress passed, and the president signed into law, the Wealth Tax Act to redistribute wealth. This meant a 79% income tax on incomes over $5 million.
Around two dozen programs were established under the New Deal. Some failed. Some were rejected by the Supreme Court. Some were successful. Three in particular stood out: the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Public Works Administration (PWA) managed large federal projects such as the full electrification of the US, as well as the building of canals, tunnels, bridges, highways, streets and sewage systems. One of its projects was the building of public housing within various cities. These were carried out via contracts with private companies and cooperatives. A certain amount of military funding was redirected to this administration, because it was recognised that a strong national infrastructure would result in a stronger and more defensible nation.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a smaller agency, though it still employed millions of people directly through the federal government. Because of its cultural impact, it is probably the best remembered of the agencies that are no longer with us.
The WPA also built infrastructure such as bridges, schools, libraries, post offices, hospitals, and theatres, but at a more local level. The WPA created employment for artists, writers, theatre directors and musicians, producing memorable works. One particularly apt product of this project was a play by Nobel Literary Prize winner Sinclair Lewis called 'It Can't Happen Here'. The story charts the rise of a president who becomes a populist dictator by promising to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press.
People employed by the WPA were paid at local rates for similar work. This was unlike Australia's cheap, less than minimum wage, workfare. In fact, unions were encouraged to protect people' s right to earn a living wage under the New Deal.
The administrative gem of this era was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This was a public work relief program for young unemployed, unmarried men. Jobs were created in the areas of forestry culture and protection, erosion control, flood control, wildlife preservation and eventually disaster relief and more. The CCC planted more than 3.5 billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide during its nine years of existence.7 The public were overwhelmingly supportive of what the CCC was doing for their young men and the nation, both Republican and Democrat.
History of the Green New Deal
Much of what was achieved by the New Deal was subsequently dismantled piece by piece: first by the need to divert people from these programs into the WW2 war effort. Later the Congressional Conservative Coalition removed much of Roosevelt's legislation. President Ronald Reagan then put the last nails into the coffin of the New Deal with policies that gave the wealthy the largest tax cuts in US history and eliminating social programs. Nevertheless, the New Deal's presence continues to surround the citizens of the US through public buildings, history lessons and people who remember.
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not conceive the Green New Deal out of thin air. People, like myself, who know something about the original New Deal, have been pointing to it as a success story for how to care for both our people and the environment. The world has plenty of work that needs doing: cleaning oceans, restoring environments, building housing for the homeless. What we don't have is paid employment to do these things. That is what the New Deal provided, as well as security for all those without jobs.
During the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, people who knew about the New Deal in Britain pulled together to form the Green New Deal Group. Their first core principle was that it would be "A massive environmental transformation of the economy to tackle the triple crunch of the financial crisis, climate change and insecure energy supplies."8 One of the founding members of this group is Tony Juniper, who was Executive Director of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 2003-2008 and Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International from 2001 to 2008. They published a report on 21 July 2008 which the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) began to promote. Former presidential candidate Jill Stein of the Green Party of the United States then proposed a 'Green New Deal' in 2012.
This idea was clearly bubbling away just below general public awareness for some time before US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released a fourteen-page resolution for a Green New Deal 7 February 2019. Ocasio-Cortez's high visibility made the resolution a subject for media commentary.
What the Green New Deal currently is
At this point, it looks like we have three major proposed Green New Deals: the Green New Deal Group, the Green Party of the United States, and the Ocasio-Cortez/Markey resolution. All are relying on history to give the public a sense of security in making such significant changes. They all propose guaranteed employment for at least one member of all households (this was achieved for white families alone in the US under the original New Deal). They also propose higher environmental standards, and banking regulations.
However, they are missing a few key points from Roosevelt's efforts. Where is the talk of relief to those who are homeless? Where is the discussion of indigenous rights? What about people who can't take up regular employment, such as the sick, disabled, elderly, and new mothers? Will they be left to a demeaning system where they must regularly demonstrate their need, or be cut off? These are not sideline issues. They are, in fact, part of the core problems we must engage with in order to avoid planet-wide disaster.
US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, in his inaugural speech, that he would act swiftly to face the "dark realities of the moment" and assured Americans that he would "wage a war against the emergency" just as though "we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg expressed a similar sentiment: "We can't solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself."
A Green New Deal could be an important step in this direction. I would not be here today if it weren't for the original New Deal, so I am all for it! We need to start making tracks now!
Dr Katherine Phelps has been a peace and environmental activist since the late 1970s. She is the author of Surf's Up: Internet Australia Style. She has also written and produced musicals about social justice and the environment. Recently, she organised the event Remake the Future, where people could speak directly with one of the lead authors of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Published in Chain Reaction #136, August 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction