When Roosevelt promised Americans a New Deal upon accepting the Democratic nomination for president in July 1932, he pledged a series of programs to defeat the Depression and prevent its recurrence. Prominent among them was a proposal for sustainability in the use of natural resources. At the convention, he exclaimed, “Why, every European Nation has a definite land policy, and has had one for generations. We have none. Having none, we face a future of soil erosion and timber famine.” The Dust Bowl disaster vindicated his dire prophecy: Plowing and planting unsuitable soil with little regard for its natural properties led to the destruction of the prairies and the impoverishment of farm regions.
Roosevelt inherited a conservationist consciousness from generations of American leaders including his distant cousin Theodore, who had encouraged policymakers to think in what later Americans would call ecological terms about federal control of waterways. But it fell to Franklin Roosevelt to transform the nation's history of occasional damming into a cohesive case for regional development, including flood control, resettlement and, as he said when launching the New Deal in 1932, “the kind of public work that is self-sustaining.”
One of the first and most popular programs of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a project that lasted from shortly after Roosevelt took office in 1933 until early in World War II, when the federal employment of young men shifted from conservation of nature to destruction of Nazis. CCC members planted more than 2 billion trees, controlled erosion with scientific management on more than 40 million farm acres and undertook hundreds of forestry and other projects for environmental preservation while providing jobs to about 3 million American men.
Land for CCC work camps was easy to come by in the West, as the federal government had been the largest land proprietor since the territorial days. To ensure the project would be national in scope, Congress authorized Roosevelt to buy some 20 million acres for CCC camps in the East. The program thus increased federal land holdings by 15 percent and brought the federal government’s mission of conservation into the neighborhood and consciousness of all Americans — West and East, rural and urban, rich and poor. It taught its workers and everyone who hiked through its projects or picked up its pamphlets about Americans’ shared natural inheritance of timber, soil and water and the effort required to ensure its preservation.
To modern minds, CCC’s mission of conservation might seem to live in tension with New Deal programs for public works, especially the massive concrete dams that straitjacketed rivers and destroyed habitats for people and beasts alike. But to the New Dealers, the dams represented part of a program designed to adapt to an environment despoiled by decades of unconsidered exploitation.
For example, Congress tasked the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) with charting the “agricultural and industrial development” of the whole watershed of the great river. TVA dams would prevent flooding, allow reliable shipping and generate electricity for people who had never had access to it. This then led to billions of dollars of private investment and associated jobs in the region. TVA power helped to make nitrates for fertilizer, and its outreach programs taught farmers the sustainable use of their land. Like CCC, TVA planted trees and reforested acres. It stocked fish. Over the first three decades of its operation, the waterfowl population on the Tennessee River multiplied by 25 times. TVA became a model for global green development practices, including those sometimes employed in later decades by the World Bank.
All of this aimed to fulfill Roosevelt’s goal of compelling Americans to readjust their attitude to the land that sustained them. He insisted his programs have as their basis an “understanding of social justice” and said “relief measures must not cause a ‘freezing’ of national progress along lines of social equality and justice.” The New Dealer-in-chief pledged his programs would not only rescue the nation from the crises of the 1930s but also provide greater equity.
The reality differed from Roosevelt’s vision. TVA in particular operated in the segregated South and largely preserved the region’s racist hierarchy, compromising Roosevelt’s principle of equity to get the support of segregationist politicians. Its workers built parks that mandated separate places for black Americans to boat and fish and swim. When TVA relocated residents, it bought out farm owners, but made no provision to pay for poorer tenants to move. One of its dams flooded an area inhabited by Cherokee and their ancestors for thousands of years.
Moreover, the process of industrial development often led to more, and unanticipated, environmental despoliation. In later years a TVA largely insulated from political checks became a major coal producer, strip miner and violator of the Clean Air Act, eventually reaching an environmental settlement with the federal government that owned it.
Like the Green New Dealers of our time, the New Dealers of the 1930s sought to meet a major environmental crisis while also reorienting the American economy toward what they called, just as we do, greater social justice. They dreamed of re-engineering great interdependent systems, of whole regions encompassing people and flora and fauna. If they envisioned river watersheds while we contemplate coastal habitats, the need to think in terms of economics and politics together with nature and culture are the same. To realize those dreams, Franklin Roosevelt pandered expertly and compromised ruthlessly, accomplishing an immense amount in a short time at considerable cost — including his own stated ambitions of a socially just transition to the new era he imagined.
Asked if nature-saving and modernizing changes might have come to the Tennessee Valley without the massive intervention of the TVA, a local newspaper editor pondered the question and then answered, “Well, they didn’t.” We have had decades to transform our society to meet the emergency of climate change and have not, either. It appears as though it will require an intensive effort of the scale and scope of a New Deal to do it. With luck and leadership we might replicate Rooseveltian successes without this time sacrificing so much social justice.