Less than half of one percent of Americans today serve their county in the military. While I’ve never had an urge to join the military, perhaps due to my Quaker roots, the idea of national service has always attracted me.
I believe that it builds character for young adults—people coming out of high school or college—to be part of a broader initiative that benefits the nation or society. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps have done this, to an extent, but the former is overseas and may not appeal to a lot of Americans, and the latter has been quite limited in scope.
America needs a national service corps, and I believe that framing it as a Resilient America Service Corps could attract Congressional support.
An evolving vision of national service
Eight years ago (July 2007), in an editorial in Environmental Building News, I proposed the creation of an Environmental Service Corps. The idea received some support, but even then, the term “environment” was polarizing. An Environmental Service Corps would be unlikely to garner support of Red State politicians, even if aspects of the idea were highly attractive. So I’m proposing the idea this time with an emphasis on resilience.
Resilience is about enhancing our safety and our capacity to bounce back from disturbances or interruptions, such as often occur with natural disasters, and to adapt to changing conditions as may occur, for example, with climate change. A resilience agenda can appeal broadly across the political spectrum—as I learned seven or eight years ago when I was speaking in St. Louis: I was giving a presentation on resilience and passive survivability at a monthly meeting of the St. Louis chapters of the U.S. Green Building Council and the American Institute of Architects, and most of the attendees were well-attired architects, engineers, and developers. But occupying a corner of the audience was a sizeable contingent wearing camouflage outfits and looking decidedly not architecty.
Political conservatives and Tea Party populists may have their doubts about climate change, but they admire self-sufficiency and self-reliance, key elements of resilience.
Why do we need a Resilient America Service Corps?
A Resilient America Service Corps would carry out work that is critical to our wellbeing and our future. But before getting into specific ideas for such a program, let me address the benefits that would accrue at a more personal, character-building and skill-building level.
There’s a reason why my father’s generation has been called The Greatest Generation. They reached adulthood as the United States was thrust into the Second World War, and they either volunteered or were drafted into military service to protect our freedom and the freedom of our allies in Europe. Eventually, over 16 million American men and women served in the military in WWII, and far more worked in support of the war effort on the home front—laboring to build Jeeps and munitions, growing food to support allied nations whose agricultural production had been destroyed, even collecting scrap iron for recycling.
These millions of young adults served together with a common purpose. They built bonds that lasted lifetimes. As they did their work, they no doubt reflected on the principles and values that form the foundation of our country. They grew up overnight and faced with significant challenges, hardships and inevitable loss, they matured quickly.
Their service built character, incredible character. As these individuals returned from war or left their employment serving the war economy, they carried with them that maturity, becoming great leaders and productive entrepreneurs. They built the post-war U.S. economy into the greatest economy on Earth.
Similar camaraderie emerged from the earlier Civilian Conservation Corps that was instituted during the Great Depression in 1933. This program was created to put unemployed young men to work, and it too built bonds that lasted decades.
A national service corps focused on resilience could provide many of those same benefits in terms of personal development.
Depending on the programs carried out under a Resilient America Service Corps—and there could be many—vitally important skills would be learned by the participants. These could include skills in construction trades, forestry, land management, and much more.
Too often, today, practical skills aren’t learned at home or in our educational institutions. Working for a year or two in a national service corps could fill this void.
What would a Resilient America Service Corps do?
Programs of the Resilient America Service Corps could be varied, offering opportunities for a wide range of interests, skills, and passions. Here, I outline a few potential programs, but this is just a sampling.
Weatherizing and insulating homes
A key tenant of resilient design is that tighter, more energy-efficient homes and apartments will keep their occupants safer in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel. Power outages nearly always accompany major storms and other disasters.
Energy-efficient buildings not only maintain liveable conditions during power outages, but they save energy for those residents during normal times. In other words, improving the ability of a house or apartment to keep its occupants safe during emergencies (making it more resilient) also benefits those residents through lower energy costs.
Benefits from greater resilience and lower energy use accrue to the local and regional economy as well. During emergencies, when some property owners or renters are able to remain safe without assistance, resources are freed up for emergency services to respond to other needs. And when less money is sent out of a region to pay for energy from far away, more of that money is cycled locally, as people spend more at the neighborhood grocery store, hardware store, and coffee shop.
A Resilient America Service Corps could provide the labor needed for weatherization, installing window treatments, and carrying out deep-energy retrofits. Such work not only satisfies these needs of property owner and renters across the country, it also builds skills that would be useful to the Service Corps participants later in life—whether directly through their careers or indirectly as they oversee work on their own homes.
Ecological restoration of coastal wetlands
Coastal estuaries and salt marshes, particularly along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, serve two critically important roles: they protect coastal communities from destructive storm surges; and they provide a vital breeding habitat for fish and shellfish that account for a major portion of American fisheries’ annual harvest.
These coastal ecosystems are vitally important to America, and many are in great need of help. Development, industrial pollution, and the channeling of rivers (especially the Mississippi, which carries sediment far out into the Gulf of Mexico instead of depositing those sediments in the river delta), have left our coastal communities vulnerable to storms and threaten the livelihood of hundreds of thousands who make their livings through fisheries.
The Resilient American Service Corps could put young adults to work rebuilding these protections and ensuring a productive future for the fisheries economy that depends on healthy coastal ecosystems.
Invasive species control
With the globalization of commerce has come a globalization of species transport. Thousands of species of plants and animals have inadvertently been introduced into ecosystems where they have no natural enemies. Plants like Kudzu, buckthorn, oriental bittersweet, and water chestnut have choked out native plants. Invasive animals, from zebra mussels to Asian carp and the Mediterranean fruit fly, are wrecking havoc across America.
Controlling invasive species is tremendously challenging, and strategies differ widely by species. Many of the control measures are highly labor-intensive. A Resilient America Service Corps could provide a ready source of workers able to spread across our woodlots and rivers, carrying out initiatives to help bring these species under control.
As the climate warms over the coming century, some tree species will disappear—either because insect pests are no longer kept at bay by cold winters or because those species depend on a longer dormancy period. When this happens very gradually, more southern species naturally extend their ranges northward. But if the climate conditions change too rapidly, natural forest migration may not be able to keep up. Maintaining healthy, diverse forest ecosystems may require our interventions (see my recent article, Adapting to Climate Change: Does Nature Need a Helping Hand), such as planting more southern species. Without such intervention, invasive species may get the upper hand, radically altering these forest ecosystems.
A Resilient America Service Corps could provide a labor force to plant our forests with trees and understory shrubs that will maintain the biodiversity needed to support wildlife habitat and the timber industry.
How would a Resilient America Service Corps work?
The mechanics of such a program would have to be figured out; designing such a program would be a huge undertaking. The time commitment would be significant: I assume either one or two years. Like AmeriCorps, there would be benefits that accrue to participants—such as providing room and board and paying for college education (or forgiving college loans). Perhaps some college credit could be earned for participation. Perhaps career guidance after working in the Service Corp could be part of the package.
Creating a Resilient America Service Corps
A year after I proposed the formation of an Environmental Service Corps, I was excited to watch a televised discussion at the Service Nation Summit about national service that featured both John McCain and Barack Obama, who were then running for president. What struck me was how similar McCain’s and Obama’s views were on the importance of a national service program. The two of them were almost in lockstep in describing the benefits of national service.
Such a program would be a huge undertaking. It would cost hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars. It would take strong leadership and the coordinated efforts of thousands. But it could be a defining program for an America seeking common ground in the widening chasm of political discourse that we struggle with today. It could bring young people together in efforts to make our country better and more resilient.
Let’s start this conversation.
I’d love to hear reactions to this idea. Feel free to forward a link to the article to others whom you think might be interested, and encourage them to join the discussion. -Alex
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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.