by Peter Franklin
Friday, 22
May 2020

Let’s put young Brits to work planting trees

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

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.

Join the discussion

  • June 23, 2020
    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 ????????? Read more

  • May 26, 2020
    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... Read more

  • May 24, 2020
    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... Read more

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