One of the biggest failures of capitalism, particularly the neoliberal version, is the simple fact that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in any society, but that doesn’t generate any profit by itself. Housework is the example with which everyone is at least somewhat familiar. It’s work that absolutely needs doing in every home, but with the exception of paid housekeepers, nobody expects to be compensated for it. Outside of the home, the world is filled with such work, some of which is done, and some of which is not. Infrastructure and its maintenance, pollution cleanup, and ecosystem management also don’t have much to offer in terms of built-in profit making.
People do make a profit off of these things, but it’s generally through government contracts, grants, and donations. Our system is so dedicated to the notion that private, for-profit corporations are the best way to do everything, that we take public resources, and give them to private corporations, so that they can do the work, cut as many corners as possible, and make a profit. The highway system, the power grid, sewage and water systems – all put together with public resources, because there wasn’t a direct profit to be made in setting that stuff up. Likewise the billions that private corporations have made from NASA’s innovations, and from publicly funded medical research.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get the funding it needs, and the environment is probably at the top of that list. That said, this is something that can be changed, at least in theory. All those public projects have been undertaken within this system, and while I think they were made worse by the fixation on putting everything into the hands of capitalists whenever possible, they still make everyone’s lives better. Public investment is a thing that can be done in the United States, and there’s now an effort to create a “civilian climate corps” to deal with the ever-increasing amount of work that has to be done in response to global warming:
Dozens of Democratic U.S. lawmakers joined more than 50 civil society groups who on Monday implored President Joe Biden to sign an executive order establishing a Civilian Climate Corps that would “put young Americans to work serving their communities” and tackling the planetary emergency.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety—and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) led at least 50 House and Senate Democrats plus independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a letter urging Biden to act in the face of the worsening climate crisis. They noted that the president’s January 2021 executive order on tackling the emergency mandated a strategy for creating a Civilian Climate Corps within 90 days.
“With deadly heat, dangerous floods, rising seas, and devastating wildfires—including those that ravaged Maui last month—the climate crisis demands a whole-of-government response at an unprecedented scale,” the lawmakers wrote. “Following up on your earlier commitments, existing legislation, and the demands from young people across the nation, we urge you to issue an executive order formally establishing a Civilian Climate Corps initiative to work on key conservation and climate priorities.”
“By leveraging the historic climate funding secured during your administration, using existing authorities, and coordinating across AmeriCorps and other relevant federal agencies, your administration can create a federal Civilian Climate Corps that unites its members in an effort to fight climate change, build community resilience, support environmental justice, and develop career pathways to good-paying union jobs focused on climate resilience and a clean economy,” the letter adds.
Inspired by the best aspects of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps—which despite the nostalgia it often evokes among progressives, was for men only, racially segregated, and paid just $1 a day—the Civilian Climate Corps has long enjoyed the support of many congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who wanted it included in previous legislation.
Climate, environmental, and social justice groups also support the proposal. On Monday, more than 50 of them sent their own letter to the White House urging Biden to “be as ambitious as possible in tackling the great crisis of our time,” in part by establishing a Civilian Climate Corps “through existing authorities, with existing climate funding, that can coordinate across relevant federal agencies.”
I keep saying that we’re in the age of endless recovery now. Disasters fueled by global warming are getting so big and so frequent that we can’t keep up. Recovery takes years, people get abandoned, and all of that reduces the resources available to actually tackle climate change directly. It’s a destructive spiral, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is, and we might even be able to pull out of it, if we actually make it a priority.
A civilian climate corps would be helpful in two big ways. First, it would be a jobs program, which would reduce poverty (a good thing in itself), and strengthen workers’ bargaining power. The second is that if used right, it could dramatically increase our ability to recover from disasters, and to directly address the causes of global warming. I’m sure a lot of the money from this would end up flowing through corporations, which is inefficient in some ways, but it’s also probably the most direct way to convert taxpayer money into new renewable and nuclear power. Beyond that, the corps could be put to work on sea walls, or even on things like getting people out of places, like Miami, that cannot practically be protected for sea level rise.
Obviously, this kind of ambitious project will have both ideological and self-interested opposition, from the right wing and from corporate interests that benefit from the status quo, and that don’t want people to see public spending as a real option. I think there are also a number of Democrats, even discounting Manchin and Sinema, who wouldn’t support this. Even so, the Democrats are currently our best bet for making progress here, because with Republicans in charge, there’s zero chance of this going anywhere. To me, that reads like the odds are still against the civilian climate corps going anywhere, but this is one of those situations where an organized working class could put pressure on the people in power.
Looking at responses to the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes and the UAW strike, I think that while we’re not at a point where we can get an actual general strike for climate action, we’re closer to that than we have been at any point in my lifetime. There’s much more support for unions and strikes than I’ve ever seen, and support for climate action keeps rising. A climate corps also has room for the patriotism that infects so much of American society, and I think it’s an easier, clearer goal for non-activists to latch onto, than “end fossil fuel use”. The notion of giving back society isn’t a new one, and it’s well past time that the US stopped treated the armed forces as the only way to “serve your country”.
We’ll see where this goes, but I like the idea, and I hope I hear more about it going forward.