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Let’s put young Brits to work planting trees

A CCC crew transplanting a tree. Credit: National Park Service

May 22, 2020 - 7:00am

The lockdown recession will have devastating effects on employment. And as Kathleen Henehan of the Resolution Foundation points out, the least advantaged young people will get the worst of it:

While recessions, such as the 2008 financial crisis, raised unemployment overall, and even more so for 18-29-year-olds… the worst effects were reserved for those who have only recently left full-time education. And among them, recent non-graduate leavers were hardest hit.
- Kathleen Henehan, The Resolution Foundation

Emergency measures like the furlough scheme will go some way to help existing workers, but they won’t do much for school leavers and graduates struggling to get their first jobs — or a replacement job after being made redundant.

An extended period of mass employment will have long-term scarring effects on those most directly impacted — setting them up for decades of economic disadvantage. To rescue a potentially lost generation, there’s a case for a state programme to provide the missing jobs directly.

But what sort of programme? What could an army of the unemployed usefully do that can be scaled-up as required, but also scaled-down as the regular economy returns to strength?

Writing for The New York Times, Collin O’Mara looks to an example from Depression-era America — the Civilian Conservation Corps:

[President Roosevelt’s] idea was to hire young unemployed men for projects in forestry, soil conservation and recreation. By 1942, the 3.4 million participants in ‘Roosevelt’s Tree Army’ had planted more than three billion trees, built hundreds of parks and wildlife refuges and completed thousands of miles of trails and roads.
- Collin O'Mara, The New York Times

O’Mara argues for a modern-day Conservation Corps (female recruits included) to occupy at least some of 7.7 million young Americans who are currently unemployed. The idea is just as applicable over here. After all, we need more trees. Landscape-wise, Britain is one of the most naked countries in Europe and it’s time we covered-up.

Admittedly, there’s more to conservation work than planting trees — and more to planting trees than the dark and lifeless conifer plantations that still haunt the countryside. We shouldn’t recruit a tree-planting army unless we have some clued-up generals to direct their efforts. But Britain has a lot of conservation expertise — it can’t be beyond our wit to devise a decent strategy.

As long as we choose the right species for the right places, planting trees is an ideal focus for a temporary employment scheme:

Firstly, once they’re established, trees get on with the job — growing away over the decades without the high manpower requirements of the start-up phase. Secondly, this isn’t just make-work. I don’t suppose that service in the tree-planting army will pay very well, but its soldiers will leave behind a visible legacy they can be proud of. Thirdly, such an employment scheme would bequeath future generations a valuable asset. In the process of becoming mighty oaks, little acorns not only create new habitats, they sequester vast amounts of CO2 (pandemic disease isn’t the only global crisis we’re wrestling with).

Economic recovery schemes don’t always make the world a better place. State-led efforts in the post-war era left behind a dystopian legacy of concrete eyesores that we’ve struggled with ever since. But if, in the year 2120, our descendants can walk through wildlife-rich woodlands that we planted, well, they might just remember us fondly.

Assuming, that is, they’re not still paying off our debts.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

Excellent suggestion from Peter. Besides President Roosevelt’s CCC, there was more recently in the US in 1977-80, the Youth Incentive Entitlement Pilot Projects (YIEPP), ably outlined by Judith Gueron in her 1984 paper “A Job Guarantee Program”. In her words, it was “a bold $240 million experiment in which 76,000youths were employed in a research study to determine whether this new idea [of a job guarantee] would correct what seemed an irreversible deterioration in the employment position of poor youths.” It served the dual purpose of reducing youth unemployment and encouraging young people to complete high school. The big push for a basic income program seems to smack a little of warehousing people as unemployables. Job guarantee programs, by contrast, are based on the assumption that the people who can’t find jobs can and should do useful work.

jasminebirtles
jasminebirtles
4 years ago

This is a great idea. Currently those working on the HS2 project are planting thousands of trees, following the pattern of ancient woodland (lots of oaks, yews, beech and a host of other types). If we could plant a mix of trees like that in key parts of the country it would do so much for air quality as well as create wonderful places to go for future generations.

James Kane
James Kane
4 years ago

The premise of this article is that the UK needs more trees. Why would this be? Britain might or might not have fewer trees than its European neighbours, but it already has more than it’s had since the Dark Ages. What on earth is the point of planting more?

mickannruss
mickannruss
4 years ago

Key phrase in this piece comes nearly at the end “I don’t suppose that service in the tree planting army will pay very well ,but it’s soldiers will leave behind a legacy that they can be proud of ” ,fairly typical expectation of the (no doubt) university educated middle class journos prescribing the panacea for our troubled times ,providing of course that there are enough underprivileged and relatively under educated drones to do the heavy lifting ,and anyone but them has to do the hard yards . How about something radical like paying anyone the true living wage to carry out society’s chores or jobs that, while essential,are not deemed as ” high skilled” We could even consider something really radical such as taxing perennial dodgers like Google , ,Starbucks , etc.etc.the true rate to ensure that those who FEEL that they want to contribute to EVERYONES well being get a fair deal for their labour and not have to rely on the rest of the working population to come out onto their doorsteps every Thursday to show their “support” ?

roberthlthomas
roberthlthomas
4 years ago

First; is there any shortage of professional tree planters ?

Robert Thomas.

V L
V L
4 years ago

always amusing to read of proposals to “Plant Trees” from people who obviously have no clue of:
– how much planting trees actually costs (not to mention, to whom)
– where would one plant these trees, by the way, 3 billions of them
– that comparing Britain and the USA equals to comparing apple and kiwi…but from Venus,
– how to run a forest, urban or peri-urban that is,
– have no idea of how demanding, physically, is to work outdoor 5 days a week, with any kind of weather.

This is another “harvard-soviet” idea we can be spared of.

And finally, FDR New Deal, as much as we all like the idea it worded, it did not.

There overwhelming evidence, studies, books etc. that the ND actually worsened the post-1929®s economic situation. Only WWII took the US out of the recession actually.

True, Franklin D Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps with the ND, but its mission was not only to put unemployed Americans to work. During a decade, they planted 3bn trees, across the Great Plains to reduce the risk of dust storms, and famine. They did it out of desperation, not a “gran plan”. The myth of FDR came way later, after the War.

I have nothing against trees. I love forests, but please stop deluding yourself with the idea that by planting trees alone we solve climate change and unemployment. You are way off the mark.

Adamsson
Adamsson
4 years ago

You do know that if you just leave a patch of ground trees grow anyway. No money in it though

James Lindsay
James Lindsay
4 years ago

The Forestry Commission has been there and done that.
In the !920’s and 30’s the Commission employed out of work men in Wales, England and Scotland. Whole villages were built to house the workers families, for example, in Kielder, Northumberland. The Commission even employed men who were evacuated from St Kilda in 1936.
The Commission no longer exists as a UK wide entity having been devolved, at great cost to the British taxpayer, to England, Wales and Scotland.

Derek M
Derek M
4 years ago

Utter nonsense, the policies of FDR did not help in ending the depression. If you really want to waste more taxpayers’ money by giving it to people on make-work projects you’d be better off using the 1970/80s Youth Opportunities Programme as a model. At least they could do things they wanted to and something useful might actually come out of some of it. Of course the better way to get us out of the recession caused by the lockdown lunacy is for the government to remove obstacles for business creation. And, while I think about it, why don’t you use another 1930s parallel rather than the CDC, ie the Reichsarbeitsdienst (after all it’s closer to home)

Richard Bell
Richard Bell
4 years ago

Yes to planting trees ….. BUT NO to cutting down forests in the USA and shipping them to the UK to be burnt in our power stations in the name of Climate Change !!! …….. Disgraceful and totally backward thinking, how about righting something about this ?????????