Our cities: state programs are our national laboratories


My wife, Deb, wrote about the concept of “Big Little Ideas”. These are seemingly modest, simple, and practical steps that can have surprisingly far-reaching consequences.

I am drawn to the parallel concept of “new old ideas”. These are themes from the American past that have new relevance for the United States today and for years to come.

Each nation has its leitmotivs: its tendencies, its excesses and its achievements, which run through its history. Probably because I know more about the history of the United States – or at least I have read more – than elsewhere, I pay more attention to these recurring themes than for other countries. (Of the many books on this topic, two that come to mind are Think in time, by the late Professors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, and Special Providence, by Walter Russell Mead.)

As the United States of the early 2020s contemplate its possibilities in the wake of the public health, economic, and civic tragedies of recent years, I think the record of its most successful past renewal efforts deserves special attention.

Because Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs have lasted so long and have come in response to such a sustained and severe economic crisis, they are understandably and obviously a primary source of parallel guidance. And the parallels run deep: what the Rural Electrification Administration meant for Americans in the 1930s, by bringing millions of people to the possibilities of electric lighting for homes and electric refrigeration for their food, a national effort to improve food safety. rural broadband access could mean today. What the Federal Writers’ Project has done to shape Americans’ perspective on the contradictions and breadth of their country, a new writers’ project – like the one that Representative Ted Lieu from California has proposed – could help achieve it now. The architectural and infrastructural legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project is still an important part of the American urban landscape – in auditoriums and amphitheatres, libraries and post offices, arcades and murals – more than 80 years later. During our travels, Deb has written about the lasting imprint of New Deal programs, including the National Youth Administration, in a small town on the coast of Maine. The creations and constructions of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the most famous of the New Deal programs, are also still part of the visible public landscape and invisible public infrastructure.

As described in detail here and here and elsewhere, these New Deal agendas, and breakthroughs from other eras of reform and renewal in American history, have been distinguished by their rapid cycle of trial and error experimentation. These experimental projects at the national level were, in turn, often based on local or state innovations in previous years.

That’s why I think programs like California Volunteers deserve our attention. (As described at the start of the pandemic lockdown, and again last fall.) Due to California’s near-national scale – with an economy larger than that of the UK or India, and home to one-eighth of all U.S. residents – projects carry unusual weight there, whether they intend to or not. Those in charge of the Cal Volunteers project, and in particular of its new “Climate Action Corps” project, are in this case quite intentional about the example they hope to set for their programs.

“From the start, this [Climate Corps] the effort was really about being a real-time laboratory, for ideas that could be a model for the nation, ”Josh Fryday told me this spring. Fryday, a former mayor of the small town of Novato, Calif., Is the state’s Chief Service Officer, who has been appointed to a cabinet-level position under the leadership of Governor Gavin Newsom.

When I spoke with Fryday recently, he gave me many details about how the Climate Action Corps was launching sustainability and climate change mitigation efforts across the state. (For example, this business in my own hometown of Redlands, San Bernardino County, which is pictured in the main photo above.) You can get lots of updated details, as well as photos and information. registration, on their site. For now, my attention is on how Fryday described the rationale for the program and the longer-term, larger-scale effects he hoped it might have.

He said there were three big ways he thought the California experimentation could be a guide for the nation. To oversimplify, and add my own comment, they were:

  • The service, as well as the ““We are applying the idea of ​​service and civic engagement to fight climate change,” Fryday told me. “Most people have focused on policies to take advantage of climate change. We are talking about the power of the people – the power of the people on a grand scale. We’re trying to foster a culture of climate action here. This is a significant change in the way the climate is approached at the political level. “

    Obviously, policies matter. In the case of California, the most famous example is the state’s insistence, starting in the 1960s, on more stringent fuel consumption and car emissions standards than in the rest of the country. But Fryday argues that “muscle memory” and civic habits and incentives can be pointed in the same direction.

  • Local flexibility and innovation: “First and foremost, we support local goals,” said Fryday. Although he didn’t put it that way, the idea paralleled the famous maxim “Think globally, act locally”. In the case of California, that meant recognizing the ultimate goals – reducing emissions, improving resilience, increasing awareness – but tailoring tactics place by place and opportunity by opportunity.

    “Climate means different things in different communities,” he said. “We have built this program to adapt to rural communities, to suburban communities, to all communities that want to be part of it and will be part of it. We bring state resources, bringing together the resources of academia, business and civil society, to support and achieve locally defined goals and opportunities. All of this is fully in line with the “old new ideas” of combining national / global support with lessons in local adaptability.

  • Connection tools, no division: “It’s really important for us to create an opportunity where the power of service can unite people, bring them together rather than divide them,” Fryday told me. This is of course a deliberate invocation of the CCC model, plus subsequent iterations, of the idea that service projects can bring people from different backgrounds together in unexpected ways.

    This unifying aspect of a service in America has a very long pedigree. This was part of William James’ renowned assessment of the aftermath of the Civil War, the influence of extensive military service in World War II and thereafter, and the Peace Corps and Americorps and Habitat for Humanity and many other illustrations. “We have a real chance to use this as an opportunity to bring people from different backgrounds together,” said Fryday. “But if we’re going to do that, we can’t just focus the program on a few people.” To this end, the Climate Action Corps program has an elaborate structure of multi-level service opportunities, which I will not detail at this time, but which may prove to be useful guidelines for other communities.

    (Bottom line: at the most involved level, Californians would sign up for a period of dedicated service, modeled on the old CCC, and in return for educational and other benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, they could learn from a list of “Ten things you can do at home” to improve the climate, from planting a tree to reducing food waste. More details later as the results of these real-time local lab experiments will happen.) “We want to have a pyramid of services,” Fryday said. “Whether you have an hour to donate or a year, we would like to create an opportunity for you to get involved in the process. ‘climate action.’

Sign saying
Collecting “Treestock” trees this month at the University of Redlands (Carlos Puma)

The heart of the “new old idea” here is that local or statewide innovation can be a model for projects elsewhere. Are there signs of movement at the national level in similar directions? Here are just a few:

  • In March in The New Yorker, Jim Lardner had a story called “The Civilian Climate Corps is a great idea of ​​government that all Americans can adopt.”
  • For NPR in May, Scott Detrow and Nathan Rott had a report on the Biden administration’s climate body plans.
  • Also for MSNBC in May, Talia Levin wrote about the potential for relaunched versions of the Federal Writers’ Project and similar artistic endeavors.
  • A group of young state and local elected officials have informally organized themselves into a group called NewDEAL, whose goal (among other things) is to adapt past successful models to current challenges.

There will be others, who deserve attention and support.

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