Serving Green Time

by Nelson Harvey

Let me begin with an apparent oxymoron: I recently came across an interesting and inspiring article in last week’s issue of TIME magazine.  It was titled “The Case for National Service,” by Richard Stengel, and it laid out his argument for a voluntary program that would reward young people for national service in the fields of education, health care and environmental work, among others. Of course, what most appealed to me was the idea of a national “Green Corp” in the tradition of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corp, whose work we have to thank for much of America’s current park system. Now, perhaps even more than during the depression, a similar program would address several troubling trends in America’s environmental and social life.

The most practical reason to support a “Green Corp” is that environmentally, we need it. Attacking the problem on the scale that leading science suggests we should will require a massive and multi-faceted national effort. Viewed as a whole, the challenge can induce paralysis, but there are several key sectors in which some effort could translate into very meaningful change. For example, retrofitting buildings in America with energy efficient products like compact flourescent bulbs, new insulation, or new boilers could cut electricity in the U.S. by as much as one-third, according to one recent study. A Green Corp could tackle this challenge.

A Green Corp would also combat what I call the “de-skilling” of America’s youth. Even as recently as my parent’s generation, people knew how to fix things: how to replace a blown fuse, change a car’s oil, or complete thousands of other everyday tasks that I’d more likely call an expert for. I don’t have hard data on this, but it makes sense that as a larger percentage of our work becomes digital, and a larger percentage of our lives become computer-centered, our skills in other areas are starting to wane. Teaching young people the satisfaction of working with their hands would give them something that hours surfing YouTube never will.

It would also give them jobs. “Green” jobs, in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and related industries, are a large part of the future. Their presence will explode if Congress passes meaningful national emissions legislation. As Stengel points out, there are currently 1.5 million people in America between the ages of 18 and 24 who are neither employed nor in school. For them, a Green Corp would be a way out.

Lastly, a program like this could begin to rehabilitate an ailing public sphere. Some 27 percent of Americans volunteer privately, but for those of us not in the armed forces, the public largest sacrifice we’re asked to make is to shop ’till we drop. People are doing all sorts of interesting things to create the community they find lacking in their lives; uniting the nation around an environmental cause could tie us together even more.

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