As Washington cuts off desperately needed aid to the unemployed, millions of families face the reality that many K-12 schools likely aren’t reopening, and young adults look ahead to a bleak future, reality is setting in that the Covid-19 crisis was not a blip. This week on Intercepted: Guest host Naomi Klein argues that it’s time for some big bold thinking about how we can safely live, work, and learn with the virus — and maybe even enjoy ourselves. She takes us to visit friends in Oakland, California, who have been living in a multi-family housing compound for years. Longtime environmental justice organizer and co-founder of Movement Generation Gopal Dayaneni explains that living in a democratic community with friends, rather than a single-family home, has meant far more capacity to deal with the labor of lockdown, and far less isolation for everyone. Klein is also joined by Rutgers University–Newark historian Neil Maher to discuss how a reboot of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps could provide opportunities for young adults to find work, battle climate disruption, and live in their own communities of peers.
Jonathan Swan: Mr. President, thank you for joining us.
Donald Trump: Thank you very much.
JS: When can you commit that every American will have access to the same-day testing that you get here in the White House?
DJT: Ah…ah… Let me explain. The testing. You know, it’s called science, and all of a sudden something’s better. I really don’t know.
JS: I… The figure I look at is death.
DJT: We’re going to look.
JS: Let’s look.
DJT: And if you look at death per…
JS: Yeah. It started to go up again.
DJT: Here’s one. We’re last. Meaning we’re first.
JS: Last? I don’t know what we’re first in.
DJT: The top one, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. The top… Jonathan. Don’t we get credit for that? They are dying. That’s true. And you ha… And it is what it is.
JS: You said you’ve done so much for African-Americans.
DJT: I have. I did more for the Black community than anybody with a possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.
JS: Who says that?
DJT: Oh, just read the manuals. Read the books.
JS: Manuals? What manuals?
DJT: Read the books.
JS: What books?
JS: You told Fox News recently that you couldn’t say whether you’d accept the results of the 2020 election.
DJT: Jonathan, have you been watching television? Jonathan, I have heard that ah… I don’t want to tell you that. Good luck.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Naomi Klein: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m your guest host, Naomi Klein. I’m senior correspondent here at The Intercept and this is episode 140 of Intercepted.
DJT: It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away. We want to protect our shipping industry, our cruise industry — cruise ships. We want to protect our airline industry. Very important. But everybody has to be vigilant and has to be careful. But be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen. The consumer is ready, the consumer…
NK: Way back in March, in the early days of the Covid era, I called up my old friend Jeremy Scahill, the actual host of this podcast, and we hatched a plan.
Both of our families would do strict quarantines for two weeks, we’d make sure nobody had the virus, and then we’d all get together and hang out. It’d be fun. It’d be fine. Just give it a couple of weeks.
I actually made similar plans with at least three other friends. We were all so confident back then. So in control of our lives. Or so we thought.
Five months later, I’ve seen only one of those friends. And that took two months, not two weeks.
We all now understand that we know… basically nothing. We don’t know if there will be a vaccine. We don’t know if we are headed for a second wave that will make the first one look tame. Thanks to shoddy antibody tests, we don’t even know if we already had the virus or, if we did, what that means.
I don’t know if my son’s elementary school will be open one month from now. Or if it will stay open. The students I teach at Rutgers University don’t know if they’ll be going to school in person — ever. They have no idea how they are going to pay off their student debts since the jobs they thought they were preparing for have vanished.
Families and loved ones, separated by continents and oceans, have no idea when they will see each other again. And as of this week, 25 million Americans are set to lose $600 a week in federal jobless aid — and millions have no idea how they’re going to survive that.
All that we know for certain is this: Contrary to those early optimistic plans we all made, the virus, and all of the other crises it has deepened, aren’t going anywhere soon.
Even if a vaccine is developed, we are many months and perhaps even years away from seeing it rolled out at scale.
So how do we live with a highly contagious, deadly virus — one that surges every time we go back to anything resembling normal?
Capitalism is already offering its answers and they’re bleak: a range of dehumanizing and isolating new adaptations. In Amazon warehouses, screens start flashing and machines start beeping when workers get too close to each other. In factories in China, workers are prevented from looking at each other while they eat, and they’re scanned and examined multiple times a day with the information fed into a central tracking system. Many schools are preparing to reopen by putting students inside plexiglass cubicles.
In short, systems that were already pretty dehumanizing before are being retrofitted to strip out the little bits of joy they once offered. A chat with a colleague in a break room. Recess with friends after hours spent in an overcrowded airless classroom.
Meanwhile, the body count from the virus keeps rising, because none of these measures are actual solutions. They’re performances of solutions designed to get the profits flowing again.
But it’s not enough to reject this dystopia. If we don’t like capitalism’s version of living with the virus — and we shouldn’t — then it’s on us to advance real alternatives for how we can live with it, how we can work and learn in genuinely safe, fulfilling, and maybe even joyful ways despite the virus. To have any chance of success, these ideas will need to be as radical as the times we are living through.
Everything needs to be on the table — reimagining our schools, our food systems, our health care systems, housing. It’s way too much for one podcast episode. So today, we’re going to zero in on just two areas that could use a radical Covid rethink.
Later on, in the show, we’ll look at what our society should be offering to the millions of young people who are just leaving high school or university, beyond brushing up on their Zoom skills while applying for non-existent jobs.
But first, we’ll rethink something even more fundamental — the private single-family home. Because look: If sheltering in place is the new norm, then shouldn’t our respective places feel less like containers for our bodies and more like communities?
Now I’ll be honest with you. I don’t live like this, at least not yet. Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve always either lived alone, in a couple, or in a nuclear family.
But early on in the pandemic, as my husband and I did our best to juggle our jobs, homeschooling our kid, caring for sick friends, making every meal, and being engaged politically, it really hit hard. In a pandemic that confines us to our homes for work, school, and leisure, the single-family home is a really bad technology.
Not only is it isolating — it’s an absurdly wasteful use of resources. Millions of us have noticed it: Without school or babysitters or grandparents to pick up the slack, just keeping everyone fed, sheltered, and possibly educated, while trying to do your job, takes pretty much every waking moment. If someone actually gets sick, with the virus or with something else serious, all bets are off.
And that’s not just bad for us as individuals, it’s bad for society because it means we have less time to show up for our neighbors or to fully participate in a democracy that is hanging on by a thread.
DJT: Somebody got a ballot for a dog. Somebody got a ballot for something else. You got millions of ballots going, nobody even knows where they’re going. You look at some of the corruption having to do with universal mail-in voting… Absentee voting is ok. You have to apply. You have to go through a process.
JS: You have to apply for mail-in.
DJT: Absentee voting…
NK: All of which is why I have been thinking a lot about the people I know who have chosen to house themselves differently – in various co-housing setups of multiple families and friends. Usually, this involves accepting a slightly smaller home for you or your individual family in exchange for more ample shared spaces, like gardens and common rooms.
What struck me when I checked in with these folks is that when the Covid shock came, they weren’t knocked back like the rest of us. To use a much-abused phrase: They were resilient.
They had enough kids and adults to run a halfway decent home school — without it being anyone’s full-time job. They had extra hands to share those daily tasks.
I want to introduce you to a few of the people I’m referring to — friends from the climate justice movement who live in Oakland, California. They are activists, educators, and artists who have already been living in a “pod” for years. It’s a community that includes four small family units, a big backyard, a communal space for common meals and meetings, a garden, and so many fruit trees they call it The Orchard. Here are some of their voices, recorded by Producer Laura Flynn.
Gopal Dayaneni: My name is Gopal Dayaneni and I live here at The Orchard, which is along the Temescal Creek Watershed in unceded Ohlone territories and the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, also known as Oakland. I am one of the founding members of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. I’m an organizer, activist, parent, and I live in an intentional community.
We are four families, nine adults and eight kids — I guess half those kids are adults now because it’s been a while — who live together, share housing, share common space, share meals. We’re all really close, close comrades and friends. We’re educators, organizers, activists.
Let’s take a tour. This building was here but it was three feet lower and six feet in a different location and we ripped off the back third of it, gutted the interior, lifted it, moved it, and then completely rebuilt it in order to have two families upstairs, a single individual unit for my housemate Mary, who is the elder in our community, and a common space that we could use as shared space. And then of course all of the yard is common space.
-We’ve been having so many garden salads.
-Did you eat some cucumbers, the lemon cucumbers?
-Yes, we did.
-The lemon cucumbers are delicious.
Deirdre Tansey-Chamberlin: So I’m Deirdre Tansey. We’re sitting in our beautiful yard and we’re sitting around our patio table enjoying happy hour, which we do, I don’t know, in the summertime, more than once a week…
GD: Literally surrounded by the fruits of our labor.
DTC: Yeah. And enjoying some appetizers and drinks. And we’re surrounded by our wonderful trees here, our apple and persimmon and apricot.
Mary Tansey: Mary Tansey. We often check-in — and I think we’ll probably do that more regularly again, every so often — to truthfully, in the morning, say, you know, “how are we?” And that’s… Not too many people have even anyone to say that. You can maybe say it on the phone but that’s not like here.
Kristi Laughlin: I’m Kristi. So I think we’ve all been committed to and invested in the model, but for me I feel like we’re reaping the benefits almost of all those years of investment to say, “Oh community is made for this moment.” And co-housing is made for moments like this when you realize that what you have built has really bearing fruit.
DTC: You know, we’ve been here on this property for 10 years. We completely remodeled, you know, built a house practically from the ground up and have been through deaths and births. And sometimes it felt like going to that meeting this Sunday it was going to be really hard to discuss this topic, but it always comes out, like, OK at the end, you know, because I think we all — I mean, I know I do — love everybody here. We’re a family and we’re going to get through anything together.
Robert (Bob) Chamberlin: Bob Chamberlin. You know, I have a number of single parents that are raising children that instead of asking me, “What’s it like to live in community?” asking me, “How can I find a community? Do you have resources so that I can change the way I’m living.” Because the kind of, you know, they’re realizing how powerful this is, as far as not just for raising families, but also for crises. You know, in a time of crisis, it’s something to have numbers. It’s safe to have numbers. It’s really nice.
KL: Ok, who was it that makes the wonderful sorrel hors d’oeuvres? Bob, is that you?
GD: Isn’t that the… wraps?
NK: It’s not a coincidence that this particular group of friends chose to pool their resources and live this way. As people who work at the intersection of ecology and social justice, they knew that we were headed for some kind of crash. On some level, we all knew it. But unlike most of us, they decided to prepare. And for them, preparing didn’t mean stocking up a private bunker with hundreds of cans of baked beans. It meant pooling space, labor, and skills with people who shared their values. That’s what I wanted to dig into further with my friend Gopal Dayaneni. That and what it would take to liberate land and housing from the speculators so that everyone can have the chance to live in their communities of choice. Welcome to Intercepted, Gopal, and thank you so much for opening your home to us.
Gopal Dayaneni: Thank you for having me.
Gopal Dayaneni on the Benefits of Intentional Community Living During Crises and Making Housing a Human Right
NK: I feel like, for so many of us who don’t live in [an] intentional community like yours, it’s just been such a lonely time. We’ve missed our friends. We’ve missed our extended family. Our kids have missed their friends. And, you know, I found myself thinking a lot about the way you’ve chosen to live.
GD: We are just so blessed and privileged to be navigating this pandemic not alone. You know, we are all a single “germ pod,” or however you want to think about that. And that’s been just enormous for our children, who have their peers to spend time with, for each other, for dealing with the rapidly changing information and just having regular check-ins every day or every other day to navigate, like, the constantly changing dynamics and to create the capacity to do that well. And then to also do that with an eye to the larger community.
DTC: When we first had to go to shelter in place and it was so unnerving and there was so much… I know I was experiencing so much anxiety about, like, what’s going to happen. All of sudden it was Friday and it was like, “Oh, you’re not going back to work on Monday,” and now nobody’s going back to work. And I really appreciated being a part of this community during that time, because it wasn’t just my husband and myself just sitting together having this anxiety and maybe not being able to figure, you know, having to figure it all out ourselves.
KL: I feel like you guys have been my anchor and my saving grace for how to process everything that keeps happening and I really felt unmoored, I think, a little untethered, I think, not having like, “Wait this is the second surge! It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse!” And what do we… You know, how do we integrate that, and now what does it mean for all of us?
NK: What is different about living in community and being prepared for something like this. Let’s start with just, like, supplies and shopping.
GD: I think many of us have been reflecting on, here at The Orchard, is just how quickly and easily we were able to pull ourselves together, sit down, make decisions about what we needed, how to get it, how to minimize the risk and minimize the number of people who were out and being exposed. How to consider at the same time that we were getting our food for ourselves and having it available in our basement and making sure that our very, very, very large earthquake shed was up-to-date and stocked and ready to go because it’s more than just an earthquake shed.
At the same time that we were, you know, that that was happening, I think we all were just very quickly realized like, oh yeah, the daily practice of self-governance over the last, you know, 15 years of living together and raising kids together and building buildings together and making hard decisions together has made us incredibly prepared for responding in a responsible, timely, just manner to the moment that we’re in.
NK: I just want to underline, Gopal, like, there’s so much pod drama going on right now because people don’t have these skills. Where it’s like, you know, you make a decision to be in a pod with another family so that your kids can play and then you find out that somebody in that pod has been doing reckless things and didn’t tell you because people just aren’t used to thinking about their decisions beyond just themselves, right?
GD: You know, I always say the idea that the individual is the smallest unit of society is a lie. And I don’t say that, like, from some ideological perspective. It’s just simply the case that the smallest unit of society is the relationship between two or more individuals. That it’s the complex of relationships that make up society and community, not the individuals because we can’t make meaning of ourselves without each other. And we’ve just been practicing that for a really long time.
In some ways, we take for granted the fact that we know how to make decisions and we, you know, regularly walk out of our homes to get together to just have a check-in and see how each other’s doing, and many times very formally — and a lot of times informally — grapple with big, hard questions about what we’re going to do about this or that thing.
In this moment, we realized that we have been preparing ourselves for being able to make hard decisions in these kinds of moments in ways that actually increase our capacity not just to care for ourselves but to care for others as well. The better we take care of ourselves, the more latitude we have to accommodate the needs of others.
And I think that’s been something really important to us. Like, being able to live in community in this way makes it easy for us to mobilize into the streets to support Black liberation and, you know, engage in the mobilizations that are happening. The more we’re able to have this space for ourselves, the more we’re able to open it up for others. We do really, really regular check-ins about how the conditions are changing and what that means.
DTC: We manage it through WhatsApp.
MT: We have a WhatsApp.
BC: Product placement.
MT: And I go, “Oh, ok, that’s what’s going on today. That’s what may happen today.”
GD: That’s what’s for dinner.
BC: That’s what’s for dinner.
MT: Inno gives us the report of the Covid situation every day.
DTC: He does.
MT: I think he does it at 6:30 in the morning because my phone goes “bing.” Oh, that’s what’s happening with Covid.
GD: The key is, if you want to make pasta for the community dinner, you got to get it in early in the day because every once in a while, you’ll have a community dinner where there’s like six meats and then there’s no vegetables if you don’t communicate.
Martha Hoppe: Or all pasta.
GD: Or all pasta.
GD: It’s amazing how interdependent we are from each other, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have needs outside of our community. So how do we address our relationship to our elders, to our parents? And how do we recognize that we are a large immune system and integrating others and addressing the needs of others is an important part of that?
And, if I sit by myself in my house and think about going to visit my parents, I can spin a story for myself that goes really far down a road of lack of accountability to others. But because we have regular check-ins, I get to share, “This is what I’m thinking about.” And I get the benefit of everybody else’s wisdom and consideration and how we can make it safest for everyone, including my parents, but also including my housemate Mary, who is the elder in our community, who is grandma Mary to my kids. I’m not putting her at risk.
MT: We set up a routine — checking in. We owe allegiance to each other, I think very much so. And of course, I’m very much very senior and they were, would express concern about me, that I, you know, be cautious.
NK: To make it really practical, can we just talk about childcare? Like, you have these kids. Childcare has just been huge and is so huge right now as people think about the fall and the fact that a lot of schools are going to stay closed.
GD: I’ll just start with the very simple thing, which is, you know, we don’t actually have a lot of privacy. You know, we can have some, but we don’t have a lot of privacy. And I actually think that’s good because I think privacy can enable secrecy and secrecy can enable deception or denial. And you know, when I’m having a hard time with my kids, my housemates can hear it upstairs. And I know that they’re going to come down and, you know, say, “Hey, you know, Kavi or Ila, want to go outside?” Or even come down and say, “Hey Gopal, you need to take a break.” It’s a lifesaver, you know, to have other people you know and trust and who care about you and care about your children being a part of your life. We need each other to be our best selves because it’s not as simple as an act of will.
And so having that extra support around parenting and even just coordinating. Like being able to just say, “OK, I need to go and do this thing,” and knowing that there’s always people around and that my kids feel comfortable and safe. That I’m here for my housemates and they’re here for me. That’s hugely important and it creates an enormous amount of resilience in our ability to navigate disturbances, whether they’re small or big. And just the practical reality of, like, you know, being able to say, “How are you managing the online time right now with school?” And us all getting together and seeing how we’re going to do that and seeing if there’s times where we want to have all the kids together working on stuff together or how we do outside activities… All of it… We’re just… I don’t know how else to say it. We’re not alone.
KL: You know my partner hasn’t been working as much and hasn’t been able to work because he’s now doing more childcare, but I don’t feel like we have the freefall that other people would have.
DTC: It’s been, especially for our, my youngest, who’s 13, to have his buddy, Silar and Kavi, to be able to go through this having somebody to be with and to play with and not be completely isolated from their friends. And even for the older ones, who might not, you know, be engaging with each other all the time, they know that they can, you know, come down to community dinner, be a part of a larger group.
BC: You know, you could run to the store if Deirdre was at work or if I was at work, she could run to the store and there was always somebody to take care of the kids. But that first few weeks of shelter in place, it was so comforting to be able to come outside and sit in this really beautiful yard with fruit trees and have this space and have somebody you can talk to like a sibling, and like a family member.
GD: My whole life I’ve been living with these people, basically. My entire adult life, I’ve been living with this same community. I’ve raised my children in this community. Like, I know how to navigate the hard questions because we’ve been doing it. And it’s not easy. It isn’t easy. Like, I don’t want people to think living in community is easy. It’s not easy. But hard and bad are not the same thing. Most things worth doing are hard.
NK: We cannot assume that this is a temporary state. We have to assume that we may not have a vaccine period. It may take a couple of years, which is far likelier than it taking a few months. And we’re still thinking in these sort of incremental time spans about how we’re going to manage this, right? Which is why I wanted to have this conversation that broadens it out to, like, “how are we going to live with this?” This is going to be a period. Very likely we are talking about a Covid era, right?
And so, you know, early on we heard this metaphor of the hammer and the dance, right? That there’s the hammer of social distancing and then there’s like and then it’s like, “Ok, open it up. Let people dance.” And then it spreads some more and then the hammer comes down. We have to have another conversation, which is like how are we going to dance? Like, what is that going to look like, right? Because we need to live as well as we can and we need to live as fairly as we can.
There was an epidemic of loneliness before social distancing started, right? I mean, I’m really haunted by something one of my students said at the beginning of the lockdown. She said, “What scares me most is how little I had to change how I was living in order to comply with the stay-at-home orders.”
We have some great audio of your housemates talking about the importance of community and maybe we can listen in a little bit there.
KL: Just the blessing of not having to socially distance in isolation has just been so good, I think, for my mental health. I feel like reduced anxiety, having to process everything alone, or even in one nuclear family, I think would have been really isolating, really overwhelming, and put so much more stress on my own family unit.
NK: What do you say to people who ask you for advice about how do we move beyond just being jealous of the fact that you guys figured this all out earlier than us? What models are there for people to figure out how to live in a way that the next time we lockdown we aren’t doing it all on our own?
GD: First of all, there’s an enormous number of resources out there. And there are so many ways that folks can create and live in intentional community and in cooperative housing of various forms. And you don’t have to be an “owner.” And there’s a lot of organizing and movement building around creating commons of housing and more cooperative housing, whether it’s through land trusts, permanent real estate cooperatives, tenant right to purchase their building so that they can become cooperatives. There’s [an] enormous number of resources out there and the first step to making this happen for you is to see yourself as part of something bigger. Always see yourself as part of something bigger. Not just bigger than your family because you’re going to get together with a couple [of] other families, but bigger as part of a larger social movement so that the actions that we take are building power and capacity to accelerate the transition towards housing as a human right, community-based living, commons of land and resources. Those are the values at the heart of what we’re trying to do.
You know, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Oakland, unceded Ohlone territories. We have the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which is an Ohlone land trust that’s rebuilding the land base for the Ohlone peoples and for indigenous peoples in the Bay Area. There’s resources like the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which is just an incredible resource for helping people think about how to live in intentional community. Everything from the mundane legal structure questions to what the daily practice of compassionate self-governance looks like.
NK: The Bay Area is also kind of a hotbed for radical housing justice movements like Moms for Housing.
Amy Goodman: The deputies then arrested two mothers who were living in the house as well as two of their supporters.
Laura Anthony: The same Moms for Housing are now in negotiations to buy the house from which they were evicted.
Dominique Walker: This movement does not end today with us, with that house on Magnolia Street. We will not stop organizing and fighting until all unhoused folks who want shelter have shelter.
NK: And a lot of this is happening in community, right? It’s multiple families together.
GD: Absolutely, yeah. And there’s, like, the Homefulness Project, which is houseless folks who have been organizing to decommodify land and build community for houseless folks. There’s The Village, which has been land occupation.
The reality is that all of these amazing things are happening in the Bay Area and we also have extremely high property values, high levels of gentrification, and speculation on soil that we’re battling.
For all of the stories that we hear from the Bay Area, there are hundreds and thousands of sort of actions being taken all over the country and of course all over the world, but particularly in the United States, there’s so much movement towards reimagining our relationship to land and housing. For me it’s like, housing is a human right. If housing is a human right, then all economic activity has to be subordinate to that right. And we don’t do that now. So that’s the intervention we need to make, whether it’s through our daily actions of organizing and how we live, and/or through the kinds of policy interventions that need to be made and that may have new openings in this moment.
NK: Let’s talk about land rights. Let’s talk about land reform, at the heart of this, right? Because I think if we’re just talking about it as, “How do we set up homes in ways that makes lockdown more bearable?” then that is a very middle-class discussion.
GD: The movement to decommodify land, to take soil out of the speculative market, is really powerful and growing, both in terms of what’s happening in rural communities around agrarian land reform and land trusts, some of the work, for example, in the Pacific Northwest, where farmworkers are creating cooperatives and acquiring land and holding it in trust and taking over the right to control the land they work. Going back to the squatters’ movements all the way to today where we’re developing new and innovative mechanisms for sharing land and housing as commons, like land trusts and permanent real estate cooperatives and others.
It’s not just about “securing land” or title. It’s also about transforming our relationship to land and each other. It is the nature of enclosure to fragment our ecosystems, our relationships, and living systems. And all of those enclosures are inherently enforced through violence. That’s how you maintain an enclosure, is the ability to execute violence to maintain them. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the border around the nation-state or the fence around my house that’s enforced by cops, whose primary purpose is to enforce property rights. And so we have to think about a different way of being in relationship to land because it changes our relationship to each other.
NK: What kind of housing politics would we need to make it feasible for more people to live in community and with extended family? If we’re thinking federally, obviously a lot of this is contingent on what happens in November, but there has been a lot of talk about the need for a Green New Deal for housing. AOC and Bernie advanced a bill a few months ago that had a lot of great ideas about how to have much, much better public housing that was also zero carbon-emitting. But I’m wondering if you have thoughts about public housing that designs for community, that designs for some of the things that we’ve talked about around the ability to have that kind of flow of multi-family childcare and multi-generational living. What would housing justice look like that recognized that we belong in community and that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon to put people in these little individual boxes?
GD: The best interventions for transforming our relationship to land and housing are going to happen at the local, state, and potentially regional levels. And that, hopefully will either create the conditions by which we can transform some things at the federal level and/or we can try and win some devolution, some drawing down of resources from the federal to support these kinds of local initiatives.
In San Francisco, PODER — People Organized to Demand Economic and Environmental Rights — have done an amazing job of doing a low-income housing on public land that’s going to be cooperatively governed that includes gardens and parks and permaculture and it’s all de-commoditized, meaning the land cannot be bought and sold. And I think that’s key. So long as we’re speculating on soil, we are subordinating the right to housing to capital. We should be building a municipal land trust in which cities can take underutilized public land and even use eminent domain to seize private land that banks are sitting on and seize those and turn them into housing for people to subordinate the financial interest to the right to housing.
The city of Richmond had considered some years ago the idea of declaring eminent domain over underwater mortgages, seizing them from the banks and then keeping people in their homes by refinancing them or, better yet, putting it in a municipal land trust. So, this idea of community-based land trusts, municipal land trusts, real estate cooperatives… Like, if we can win policies that give tenants the right to purchase buildings if an owner is going to sell, then we can use that as an organizing opportunity to organize tenants into cooperative housing. I think those are the kind of things that are really powerful opportunities to bridge policy, organizing, and direct action, which I think is what we need to confront the crisis of housing.
NK: The question that we have to grapple with is how we are going to share space. The answer cannot be the same answer that the system has offered in the past, which is just spread out more, sprawl more. We can’t give up on density. You know, if we think about how we ended up in this mess, it is the stresses that human development and economic activity is placing on the habitat of animals. And, you know, that sprawl manifests in many different ways. If the response to it is, everybody needs a bigger patch, right, then we are going to see more and more of these diseases. We’re going to up our carbon emissions and we’re going to have more and more of these shocks.
GD: What I think is really important is that we don’t separate out the conversation about density and where we live and how we live, from the question of ownership, title, and entitlement. The largest landlord on the planet is a financial institution. The idea that land and housing are super highly concentrated and controlled by a few is a huge part of the land reform conversation we need to have. You know, there’s three aspects of land reform. There’s how we use land. There’s who owns land, so going from the very few to the many. Like, so deconcentrating control of land. So there’s land use, there’s land ownership or tenure. And then there’s the very nature of land governance. And that’s the commons piece. And I think all three of those things have to come together.
NK: Thank you so much for joining us, Gopal, and let’s go one last time to The Orchard.
[Sounds of Silar jumping on a trampoline.]
Silar Chamberlin: Silar. I’m jumping on my trampoline. I can do a backflip, frontflip, just like casual stuff. Nothing too crazy. Well, right now we’re in the backyard of my cohousing complex. Sorry, I’m a bit tired. But, we have a pretty big yard, since we’re a big group. We have a lot of people. There’s a lot of fun stuff though for the kids. We have, like, a climbing wall, a trampoline. I think, I think I’m really lucky to be able to, like, put my… Live in a cohousing area. It makes everything a lot easier. I just like being able to live around other people and, like, get close to them. Just like, it’s just really nice. It’s, like, really fun.
Kavi Dayaneni: My name is Kavi Dayaneni and I live here at The Orchard. I’ll usually run upstairs, see what Silar’s doing. Sometimes we’ll play a video game together, go jump on the trampoline. But then I also do stay in my house sometimes and just relax. And it’s different during the summer and the school year. During the school year, we have all the online classes and stuff. It’s really nice because I can live with my best friend. It makes him feel more like a brother than a friend. You can find enjoyment in a lot of things that you probably couldn’t if you didn’t live in community.
NK: When we talk about being in the midst of a crisis on par with the Great Depression, it isn’t only GDP and employment rates that are depressed. It’s people, seeing their sense of the future and possibility evaporate, who are depressed as well. Many of us know this first-hand, but the figures are stunning.
According to a survey conducted last month by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau, 53 percent of people aged 18-29 years old reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Fifty-three percent.
That’s more than 13 points higher than the rest of the population, which itself was off the charts compared to this time last year.
And that still may be a dramatic undercount. Mental Health America, part of the National Health Council, released a report in June based on surveys of nearly 5 million Americans. It found that “Younger populations, including teens and young adults under 25, are being hit particularly hard” by the pandemic. Ninety percent of participants in this group experienced symptoms of depression. Ninety percent.
This is an epidemic and it is intersecting with other epidemics as well. Some parts of the country are reporting that drug overdoses are up by 50 percent since last year.
Live5News: The South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services is reporting a staggering rise in suspected opioid overdoses since the pandemic began.
CBS Chicago: Alarming numbers out of Cook County show a sharp spike in overdose deaths from opioids. Those on the frontlines of the crisis call it yet another indirect symptom of the coronavirus and the effects of quarantine.
NK: It’s little wonder that young adults — in their late teens and twenties — are feeling particularly anxious or hopeless.
Millions of the service jobs they depend on for rent and to pay off student debt have vanished. Many of the industries young people had hoped to enter are firing, not hiring. Internships and apprenticeships have been canceled via mass email and job offers have been revoked.
These job losses, as well as the decision of many colleges and universities to close residences and move online, have pushed many young people into homelessness, and others back into family homes that are not always safe or welcoming. LGBTQ youth are at heightened risk.
And there has been almost no government response, at least not in the U.S. A few cities and states have expanded their summer job programs, but these are minuscule gestures compared to the need. And Washington is offering little more than a temporary break on student loan repayments, set to expire this fall.
All of this is layered on top of the pain of the virus itself, which has spread grief and loss through millions of families. Add to that the trauma of tremendous police violence directed at crowds of mostly young Black Lives Matter demonstrators, not to mention the looming climate crisis.
Look, this pandemic is hard on everyone. It’s hard on people living alone. It’s hard on couples who fight. It’s hard on parents juggling too much. It’s hard on little kids who are cooped up with cranky parents. And it’s hard on elders who are isolated from their families.
But there is a lot of evidence that it is hardest of all on teens and twenty-somethings who find themselves suddenly severed from their communities of other young people.
This isn’t the first time a generation has looked into this kind of abyss.
In 1934, in the grips of the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady, confessed that “I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation.”
But in the 1930s, unlike today, the response was not to watch helplessly as this prophecy was fulfilled. Instead, the Roosevelt administration launched several sweeping New Deal programs designed specifically, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel they are necessary.”
One of these programs was the National Youth Administration.
Eleanor Roosevelt: The entire emphasis of the NYA training program is on practical work experience using modern production methods under the direction of men who know the requirements of industry.
NK: Four and half million young people went through the NYA, a vast network of projects that paired youth from poor families with publicly-minded work that needed doing.
The jobs were part-time, so they were able to keep up with their studies, make some money, and gain practical skills for the workforce. All while working and sometimes living with other young people.
NYA workers built public parks and playgrounds, repaired thousands of dilapidated schools, stocked classrooms with maps they had hand-painted and libraries with books they had repaired. They helped their communities battle tuberculosis outbreaks, trained to be nursing aids, and even built entire youth centers from scratch.
Like all New Deal programs, the NYA was marred by racial segregation and discrimination, particularly in the South, and the gender roles were, let’s just say that … the girls discovered they could sew, and the boys discovered they could build.
Newsreel announcer: Many girls on NYA projects will go out to make homes of their own, to rear children of their own. NYA teaches them how to care for a household and its furnishings, how to observe cleanliness…
NK: Yet we sure could use some of the good parts of the NYA — all that work done to train more nurses and all of those jobs created repairing broken down schools.
And there’s strong evidence that the U.S. public is ready for New Deal-scale responses to both the economic crisis and the pandemic. A new NPR/Ipsos poll found two-thirds of respondents support strong federal measures to control the virus accompanied by direct economic relief for all Americans. National debt, be damned.
Biran Mann: Mallory Newall is a pollster with Ipsos. This is the firm that worked with NPR on this.
Mallory Newall: And Americans, as they grapple with the reality and just how grave the situation is, I think they’re looking for sweeping, really broad, powerful action here.
NK: But what should that mean — and what should it mean for young workers in particular?
By far the best known of the New Deal Era youth programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, sometimes referred to as FDR’s “tree army.”
Newsreel: The saving of natural resources was conservation pure and simple. One important phase of the development of these resources was more than that. It was the making of a nationwide system of recreational areas — smaller, more numerous state parks closer to the people, more easily accessible for their use, supplementing the magnificent national parks.
NK: Every few years, we hear calls for a reboot of the CCC to address the many ecological crises we face. This election cycle has been no different, with many calling for a Climate Conservation Corps or a Civilian Climate Corps.
Could a rebooted CCC help battle the many crises young people are facing — mental health, unemployment, isolation — while staying Covid-safe?
I ran this idea past a cross-section of students at the universities where I teach and was surprised by how many of them said, “Sign me up.” They talked about wanting to learn to work with their hands, to plant things, and help take on climate change. Many of them said they needed a break from their screens, and from their childhood bedrooms.
Several of them also said they would be especially excited if they could do it with their friends.
An I.T. student put it to me like this: “I mean, right now I’m sitting at home doing nothing, playing Animal Crossing all day.”
To discuss this and more, I am joined by one the leading historians of the CCC, Neil Maher. Maher is a professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author of a fantastic book on this subject, Nature’s New Deal.
Neil Maher, welcome to Intercepted.
Neil Maher: Good to be talking with you again, Naomi.
Neil Maher on Rebooting a New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps to Respond to Covid-19 and Climate Crisis
NK: So I’d like to start by asking you to give us an overview of the Civilian Conservation Corps — what it was, and what problems it was attempting to address.
NM: You really get an idea of what sparked Roosevelt in creating the Corps in his fireside chat of May 7, 1933, when he first sort of introduces the idea of the Corps to the American people.
FDR: First, we are giving an opportunity of employment to a quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, let them go into forestry and flood prevention work. That is a big task because it means feeding and clothing and caring for nearly twice as many men as we have in the regular army itself. And in creating this Civilian Conservation Corps we are killing two birds with one stone.
NM: And he argued that the Corps could solve both the economic problem by putting young men to work, but to also solve this environmental problem by, you know, having them do conservation work.
FDR: We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and at the same time, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.
NM: And then he argued that through the CCC we’re conserving not only natural resources, but also our human resources. So he saw it as a much more expansive program than I think people really give it credit for.
FDR: This great group of men, young men, have entered upon their work on a purely voluntary basis, no military training is involved and we are conserving not only our natural resources but also our human resources.
NK: What was the layout of this thing? What was the scale of it? What did it look like?
NM: Ultimately it put over 3 million young men to work. At any given moment, there were about 1,400 camps spread throughout the country. These camps held 200 men each and they were in state forests, national forests, state parks.
Newsreel: Enrollees are taken from the states on a population percentage basis. Their personal care is in the hands of the United States Army, the country’s most experienced organization for a task of such magnitude. The base pay of each enrollee is $30 per month, $25 of which is mailed directly to his declared dependents. Everything the enrollee requires is supplied to him. Clothing, comfortable barracks, good food. Doctors are in regular attendance.
NM: When these young men would travel from their homes, they would go to the state unemployment bureau where they would be enrolled. They would then first go to the military and be examined, physically examined, and then trained for two weeks. And then they would usually be shipped pretty far away from their homes to these camps located in these forests and parks to start doing conservation work.
CCC participant: Everything is going to be swell here now, and I ask nothing better than this chance to cut away from the past and breathe some fresh air.
CCC participant: Camp is a wonderful physical developer. I wouldn’t take $500 for the experience I’m going through here. It beats “Brother, can you spare a dime?”.
NK: So I just want to let listeners know that that sound is a bird, and I think maybe that’s fitting that we have birdsong as we talk about the Civilian Conservation Corps because this period in the 1930s, when we think about the crisis, we think about the economic crisis, but the U.S. was hitting the ecological wall as well as the economic wall. And that was true when it came to deforestation, but it was also true about species extinction. And one of the things that these young men did in the CCC was rehabilitate habitats. Can you talk about that a little bit?
NM: Yeah, it sort of cut both ways, like, the CCC’s work, when it came to, sort of, ecological restoration and ecological problems. We have to remember that the field of ecology, the science of ecology at that point was in its infancy at that point, in the 1930s. So you did have the CCC doing some ecological restoration work. But I have to say that more of the work was really geared towards changing ecological systems to benefit humans, and there were still problems with that. For instance, the CCC drained a lot of swamps to try to control mosquitoes throughout the eastern seaboard and that, as we know, creates problems for migratory birds, and also changing the ecosystem and destroying biodiversity. So what happened is the CCC got pushback on some of these ecological problems that it was causing from ecologists and also from wildlife promoters and the CCC began to change some of its work later on. And that’s when it began to embrace ecological restoration rather than, for instance, draining swamps.
NK: One of the things that always strikes me when I look back on this era, and when I read your book as well, is that the Depression was understood to be an economic depression, obviously. All the economic indicators were pointing down, as they are now. But it was also understood to be a mental state, that there was a mental health crisis, even if that language wasn’t being used at the time. Talk a bit about FDR’s theories about nature as a curative for this mental state of depression.
NM: There’s really a long history of the notion that nature can, you know, rejuvenate people, both physically and mentally, in the U.S.. It goes back to Thomas Jefferson and his idea of the yeoman farmer — you know, Henry David Thoreau’s idea of transcendentalism. During the Progressive Era it got transformed a bit. The Progressives, they believed in an environmentalism of a different sort. It wasn’t the notion of environmentalism that we adhere to today or think about today. But they really believed that one’s environment shaped one’s social behavior. So in that sense, they believed that if you could get people out of the city and into nature, far out from the urban areas, it could help to restore them. And then you had Teddy Roosevelt and his “strenuous life,” of course. And then Franklin Roosevelt really believed in these as well. I mean, his cousin’s ideas were very influential on Franklin Roosevelt, and he had a very similar belief that if we could get these young people from urban areas out into the countryside, we could rejuvenate them.
Newsreel: Inspiring his forest army by a personal visit, President Roosevelt makes his first tour of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Shenandoah Valley. After inspecting Skyland, the commander in chief takes a seat at the head of the table to eat with the boys and he enjoys every bite of the plain, wholesome food furnished at the camp.
FDR: It’s very good to be here at these Virginia CCC camps. I wish I could see them all over the country. And I hope that all over the country they’re in as fine condition as the camps that I’ve seen today. I wish that I could take a couple of months off from the White House and come down here and live with them, because I know I’d get full of health the way they have. The only difference is that they’ve put out an average of about 12 pounds a piece since they got here and I’m trying to take off 12 pounds.
NM: So from the very beginning there was a mental health benefit to the CCC as well that he saw and valued very much.
NK: And a physical health. It’s worth remembering that many of these young people were malnourished. They were not — they were very ill going into it, weren’t they?
NM: Absolutely. The majority of them were, when they were examined by the military — they kept numerous statistics on these young men — they weighed less than the public at large. They were less healthy than the public at large. And the CCC promoted these statistics of the young men coming in and then promoted alternative, much more positive statistics when these young men left the CCC. And the young men enrolled actually combined their feelings about both their physical and their mental rejuvenation.
Newsreel: The first chow call of the day in most Conservation Corps camps are at the early hour of six in the morning. But no one is ever late for breakfast, his appetite won’t let him. Looks like ham and eggs. Luncheon is sometimes served in the field, for the boys frequently work many miles from camp and the camp administrators insist that the workers have hot food three times a day.
NK: So let’s talk about the present. This isn’t just a stroll back to the 1930s. There are these fascinating parallels and there’s a reason the CCC keeps coming up as a model to create jobs today and also deal with the climate crisis. We know we need to plant many, many more trees to sequester carbon. How many trees did the CCC plant, just to give us the scale of it?
NM: They planted over 2 billion trees, which at the time was half the trees planted in U.S. history — twelve trees for every American at the time.
NK: One of the things that made me think about this, to be honest with you Neil, was I was reading an article in the New York Times a few months back about whether it would be possible to reopen sleepaway camps. You know, it was discussing camps that were really for elites, for wealthy kids. But it was making the argument that sleepaway camps should be relatively easy to secure because unlike more porous environments where people are coming in and out every day — like a school, like a day camp, like a workplace — sleepaway camps are places people go and stay. And that made me think about the CCC because, you know, it shouldn’t just be rich kids who are able to get out of their homes and be with their peers and get into nature. The CCC was a working-class program, a program for the poor. So what do you think about this in the context of Covid and what we understand about this virus and how it spreads and where it doesn’t spread as much?
NM: All the young men enrolling in the CCC, their families had to be on relief. So they were definitely working-class people. And when I spoke to some of the men later in life, they said that they thought of it in a way as either a summer camp experience, or even more, they said, as their form of college, right? Where they got away from their families for the first time — their first sort of stab at independence — and it really transformed them. And I think that it does serve as a model, whether it’s summer camp or even, you know, colleges and universities or schools to reopen because, in one sense, these camps were very, very isolated. On purpose, they were many, many miles from the nearest railroad because they didn’t want these men to get homesick and go over the hill, as they called it. You know, basically go back home. But within that isolation, there were nearby communities that the CCC was very involved in. And if we did this today, you’d have to control that much more. Also, each of these camps had an infirmary with medical staff there 24 hours a day. I read a statistic recently where rates of tuberculosis were lower in the CCC than they were in the population at large because they were able to quarantine people much more easily and deal with these issues much more quickly.
So I think the CCC can serve as a real model, especially in the Covid moment, to figure out ways to get young people in large groups that can help them get over that isolation, yet still be safe both for themselves, but also for the wider community that’s worried about the spread of the disease.
NK: What cautions can you offer here? Because we don’t want to be sending young people to, you know, reeducation camps here against their will. That’s not what we’re talking about.
NM: Well I think that it would have to be a new and improved and much more inclusive CCC. So, first of all, you can’t have the military running it. Even when Franklin Roosevelt created it, there was pushback on the military’s role in the CCC. There was fear that it could militarize youth, which was happening at the time in Germany.
Secondly, it needs to be more inclusive. There were no women allowed in the CCC. The idea back then was that only men’s role as breadwinners was protected by federal policy and that women’s roles as homemakers were less — were outside the realm of public policy.
NK: Didn’t we get one camp where we could learn how to do canning?
NM: We did, we got one camp. It was called the She-She-She-Camp, incredibly, and it was only because of Eleanor Roosevelt, who lobbied her husband throughout the 1930s for a female camp and it was in Bear Mountain State Park in New York, right near Hyde Park. And they didn’t let them do conservation work, you’re right, they did home economics work.
And then also again you’d have to have no segregation. The camps were segregated. African Americans had their own camps. Native Americans had a CCC as well, but again it was different. It was separate. They didn’t live in camps, they lived at home and worked on their reservations. I just think the whole thing would need to be reformed and readjusted with environmental justice issues at the forefront. And I mean that both by where the work is being done and also who is being included in the work as well.
NK: So what sorts of projects could you imagine a rebooted CCC taking on?
NM: The CCC enrollees were not just planting trees and rejiggering agricultural crop rows. They were also building infrastructure.
Newsreel: Conservation work in all its many phases is being done in these state park areas from one end of the country to the other. Better facilities for forest fire fighting are being provided through the building of truck trails, fire lanes, and observation towers and the stringing of communication lines.
NM: They were already building infrastructure, so I think if we just rethought that and we reconfigured it towards building infrastructure that would allow us to adapt to climate change better, to increase resiliency in local communities, that could be a really easy shift for the CCC to make.
But I also think it could be proactive in the sense that you could have these young people, they could work on solar panel systems in the Sunbelt. They could help create smart energy grids. All the while perhaps getting credit for school for doing this sort of work. So some of it could be physical labor, some of it could be research-oriented work. But I think that the key here would be to focus this on climate change, in the sense that you could create energy-efficient energy systems that could reduce the amount of carbon that’s being used, but also build an adaptive infrastructure to help us be more resilient in the face of the climate changes that are going to happen.
Newsreel: They’re paying their way with manual service and making an important contribution to the health and happiness of millions now living and still more millions of the future.
NK: FDR believed that these young people had a right to access nature themselves, that they would benefit from being in nature. But a huge part of the CCC’s work was building out the infrastructure that would allow everybody to access nature. I think maybe listeners have encountered CCC infrastructure and not known it, so can you give sort of a picture of some of what they were building in terms of recreation?
NM: Basically, if you’ve been to a state park in the United States you have walked upon CCC infrastructure.
Newsreel: In the Conservation Corps development of state parks is found a perfect blending of conservation and recreation. Besides protecting and saving land and timber and wildlife, this phase of the program develops recreation areas for people who have not had them before. Hiking and bridle trails wind through the parks. Each of these trails being constructed by the Conservation Corps in state parks in 42 states is carefully placed by expert park planners.
NM: Franklin Roosevelt began to shift what conservation meant. So, through recreation he began to make the argument that getting people outdoors and getting them into more healthful environments was actually conserving the human resources of the country. And with the young men in the CCC, that was accomplished through their work in the natural environment and nature. But that recreational infrastructure that they built allowed other Americans not enrolled in the CCC to leave cities and get into nature and in a sense restore themselves through play in nature.
NK: A lot of the infrastructure that was laid out that allowed people to have access to nature in the 1930s and 40s and 50s has fallen into a state of disrepair. So how could a rebooted CCC or Climate Conservation Corps make sure that everybody has access to nature, that it isn’t… that it doesn’t go back to being just something that rich people have access to?
NM: I mean, I think that one thing we need to do is to focus not just on the national parks. I mean, those are the gems of the system, the gems of our outdoor heritage. But I think that, for instance, nature in parks in municipal areas — and I’m not just talking about Central Park, but small towns and cities throughout America — those are the places that the majority of people go to to get outdoors and to get away from, for instance, the hassles of life, but also to be safe in this Covid moment, right? So, rather than focusing only on the national parks, or even the state parks, I think that, you know, reemphasizing — we could call it “backyard nature,” the nature in our backyard. I think that might be a really good way of updating a program like the CCC to make it more equitable, more locally driven. And I think that would have a much larger impact on people both in the Covid era but also in general just for physical and mental health overall.
NK: One of the things that’s happening now in the context of Covid is a lot of outdoor education programs are facing a financial crisis. And as we think about reopening schools and how to make schools safe, there’s a lot of evidence that outdoor education is really key.
NM: I think education is key here, and the CCC promoted education two ways. It had after work education programs, some of which were geared towards conservation — so, classes in forestry, classes in agronomy.
Newsreel: Not enough is known of the civilian conservation or conservation of civilians part of this unique nationwide recovery plan. More than a million young men and war veterans have been participants. Few of them have failed to absorb benefits of even greater value to them than the mere employment and money they have been given. These boys here are being taught many things about tree and plant life, insect pest control and so on, which they can apply in later life.
NM: But it also claimed that these young men learned on the job, while they were performing conservation work. And many of them, after their time in the corps, went into conservation-related jobs and into conservation-related fields. So I think if we could begin to break down the separation between the classroom and the outside environment and we began to see a more fluid movement between the two, it might, first of all, be safer in this current pandemic moment, but it also might influence these students to think more clearly or differently about how they’re going to forge a profession or a job in the climate era.
NK: Do you think young people today would be interested in something like this? What’s your sense of it?
NM: I do. I very much do. My students — I teach in Newark, New Jersey — and my students are on the frontlines during this Covid pandemic. Last semester I had students get ill. I had students’ family members get very, very ill. They’re very much aware of the inequities that are going on right now. They’re living those inequities and I think that they’re also very fearful of the economy and having no job prospects. And they’re also very interested in becoming more socially active. So I think that this would be a perfect moment to create something, a new and improved CCC that could provide them with both a sense of social justice but also perhaps some training, an avenue towards employment later on. The current generation is very much ready for this.
NK: If this really were an environmental justice project, as the Green New Deal is supposed to be, what would that mean for a new CCC?
NM: We should look back not to the history of the conservation movement as a guide, which as we’ve said was white, male, and wealthy. But instead, perhaps look to the history of the environmental justice movement as a guide and starting from the grassroots and trying to get local people to make decisions about what this new CCC might look like. What work might it do? Who is going to control that work? Who is going to be involved in performing that work? That’s one way to start. It’d be a very different approach than what took place in the 1930s.
NK: Yeah, rather than this approach of let’s take young people as far away as possible from their homes, an approach that was about giving young people, particularly from the communities that are most polluted, that have had the worst environmental impacts dumped upon them, the opportunity to help their own communities, right? The funds to help their own communities. And there’s a particular pride that comes from being able to do that work in your own home community. I think it could probably be designed in a way that had these same Covid safeguards.
NM: I mean, in the 30s the idea was to take these young men as far away from their homes as possible because the idea was that those homes and those local communities were in some way deficient — economically, morally. Put them in nature where they could be restored. I think a new and improved CCC would have to not take that approach. It has to rethink the locality of the people involved. It has to reconceptualize these local communities, not as places of hardship and moral problems, but as places of knowledge, as places of resiliency, as places that have assets that we have to acknowledge and learn about to try to figure out ways to improve those local conditions.
NK: So let’s talk about Joe Biden. Could you imagine a Biden administration ruling out something like we’ve been talking about?
NM: I see Biden’s plan as being, in a sense, a combination of a WPA infrastructure plan and a Civilian Conservation Corps environmental or, in this case, climate plan. I’m not sure if Joe Biden has the political will to really see this through, but in his plan it does seem like he’s leveraging this belief in workers, working-class people, and unions, to try to help push both sides of this plan, both with the infrastructure development work that he’s proposing but also the clean energy work that he’s proposing. He’s talking about building a modern infrastructure. He wants to revamp the auto industry to make it more dependent on electric and clean energy, reformulating the power grid to make it pollution-free by 2035. He wants to create a new CCC, actually, that will work on agriculture and conservation issues. And then his last talking point, actually, is to secure environmental justice and an equitable economy. And I was a little bit concerned to see that listed as number seven out of his seven key elements. So that was my read on it.
NK: In reading your book and hearing these testimonials from people who went through the CCC, looking back on it, this theme comes up again and again: that people were so happy to be part of something bigger than themselves, right? That the process of healing the country in this time of need was also healing to them. Can you talk a bit about this sort of shared purpose in a moment like this?
NM: One of the things that disturbed me most when I was doing the research on the CCC back in the 1930s was that the shared ideology that these young men came away with was very much orchestrated from the top down and it had to do with being an American. The CCC called itself a “civic melting pot.” Much of the iconography of the CCC had these young men working under waving flags, American flags in the breeze, or patriotic symbolism behind them. And I think that today it’s just a different moment. I don’t think that young people today want to be a part of that civic culture. I don’t think they want to be a part of that. They want to feel a belonging to something else. That something else needs to be defined, not from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. And I think that these young people are working right now to try to figure out what they want to belong to. It’s a much more atomized moment and there’s both promise in that, but there’s also, you know, it’s problematic. And I think this is the major problem facing the United States today. How do we come together as a civic culture but allow room for these personal identities that have become so important to these young people? The old CCC wasn’t good at that.
Newsreel: So it is all these factors join forces in this unique phase of the recovery program. A federal aid project to save and enjoy a country. To keep nature unsullied and unspoiled wherever possible as a healing retreat from the increasing difficulties of modern life. A project directed by that government agency which has given the world the American national parks, the National Parks Service of the United States Department of the Interior.
NK: It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you, Neil. Thank you so much for coming on Intercepted.
NM: Thanks so much for having me, Naomi.
NK: Neil Maher is the author of Nature’s New Deal and a professor of history of Rutgers University-Newark.
NK: One last thing before we go. These conversations have been about how we live – what kind of housing configurations make sense, whether young people are able to get the hell away from their parents for a time and become adults.
But underneath these practical questions is a much deeper one about what we value most. Ask most people that question and they’ll usually tell you things like: “My family.” “My friendships.” Some say: “Time hanging out with my friends.” I know I say: “Time in nature.”
The thing is, as a culture and an economy, we do not actually design to maximize any of these things. In fact we design for the opposite. Our system designs for isolation, from each other and from the natural world. In fact, isolation is the prize. And if Covid has taught us anything, it should be that it is no prize at all.
That was the message of one of my favorite commencement addresses of all time, by the great novelist Barbara Kingsolver. She delivered it at Duke University more than a decade ago but somehow it speaks perfectly to our present moment.
Barbara Kingsolver: Now, the rule of “success” has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would be the customary thing. Ideally, it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, then the two kids have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio must remain at all times greater than one.
I see our dream houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So of course, you’ll need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office.
If you’re successful, it will be a large, empty-ish kind of office that you don’t have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you’ll never have to come face-to-face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.
And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle “Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Have Come Around to Bite Us in the Backside.” Because that’s how it looks to me. We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another. Even the architecture of our planet is collapsing under the weight of our efficient productivity.
It’s an emergency on a scale we’ve never known. So we’ve responded by following the rules we know: efficiency, isolation. We can’t slow down our productivity and consumption, that’s unthinkable.
Can’t we just go home and put a really big lock on the door? No. Not this time. Our paradigm has met its match.
As we track the unfolding disruption of natural and global stabilities, you will be told to buy into business as usual: You need a job. Trade away your future for an entry-level position. Do what we did, preserve a profitable climate for manufacture and consumption, at any cost — even the cost of that other climate, the one that was hospitable to life as we knew it. Is anybody thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, “Your money or your life,” that’s not supposed to be a hard question.
A lot of people are rethinking the money answer.
Looking behind the cash price of everything, to see what it cost us elsewhere: to mine and manufacture, to transport, to burn, to bury. What did it harm on its way here? Previous generations rarely asked about the hidden costs. We put them on layaway. The bill has come due.
As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. I mean the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient social construct that was once common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bhubaneswar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches and on front porches. We danced. We participated even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state.
In the last 30 years, our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined.
You don’t need so much stuff to fill up your life when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get your food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of success that includes children’s poetry, and butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time: the big houses, the empires of glass, the new green things that sprout up through the wreck — those will be yours.
NK: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. A note to our listeners: Intercepted is taking a break this summer but we’ll be back with Jeremy in the chair in just a few weeks.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Nicole Weber and Cameron Foster helped with research. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. I’m Naomi Klein.