Ninety years ago, millions of young Americans embarked on a journey to revitalize a polluted and environmentally degraded nation. They were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program created by former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 to repair America’s natural beauty while also creating millions of jobs. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted over 3.5 billion trees nationwide, including nearly 500 million in Michigan alone. Despite the tremendous success of the Civilian Conservation Corps, funding for the program ran out in 1942, shortly after the start of World War II.
As we walk through our campus today, the accomplishments of the Civilian Conservation Corps seem distant and nearly forgotten. The lack of an organized effort to maintain and protect our environment is abundantly clear. There is garbage in our streets, sidewalks and even the Diag — nearly everywhere. It’s something that we blind ourselves to at this point. Beyond its ugliness, we know that litter negatively impacts our environment and our health. Plastic waste can break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, which then permeate our soil and infiltrate our drinking water. From there, microplastics inevitably enter the bodies of all animals — including you and me! That means that you have plastic in you at this very moment. In fact, in several recent studies, Americans were found to have microplastics embedded in every major organ, and according to National Geographic, humans are consuming about 1,000 pieces of microplastic every week (the equivalent of eating an entire credit card) — and that’s not even counting the plastics we inhale. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As you walk through campus, try counting how many pieces of plastic you come into contact with in a single day. Our food is wrapped in plastic, our clothes are made of plastic and there’s plastic in the air we breathe. Something must be done to clean up our campus.
In response to the looming threat of ecological disaster, LSA Student Government has created the Campus Conservation Corps, reviving the mission of the original Civilian Conservation Corps. Our initiative aims to organize students to finally clean up the litter flooding our city. However, the scope of the Student Government’s CCC extends far beyond our campus cleanup project. The CCC plans to protect our local environment by removing invasive species from nature preserves and planting native Michigan plants like carrots, blueberries and black-eyed Susans in community gardens. The CCC will also be partnering with the Ann Arbor City Council to take on many important conservation tasks in our city that often go neglected due to a lack of volunteers. We’re joined in these efforts by representatives from Central Student Government and Engineering Student Government as we bring together voices and minds from across the University of Michigan to save and beautify our environment.
But we can’t accomplish this work alone, and that’s why we are asking for your help. Anyone is welcome at our meetings, and if you are interested in working with us to restore our environment, please sign up here to receive more information.
There is a certain obligation for us as students to take a leading role in improving our environment. In a society where activism is often boiled down to Instagram posts and Twitter retweets, there is ample room for each of us to take responsibility for direct change in our communities. Climate activist groups like the Climate Action Movement, the Sunrise Movement and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have made enormous strides when it comes to affecting policy change within the University’s administration. However, we must combine this policy-oriented activism with a strong hands-on conservation movement.
Despite the fact that a report on campus culture and communication brought forward the suggestion of a Corps to the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality to help address many of these issues, this suggestion did not make it to the final PCCN report or to University President Mark Schlissel’s administration. The University administration has enormous resources that can be used to promote a strong conservation movement on campus, but thus far, it has largely failed to meet its responsibility to do so. Until the University takes on its role as a true steward of our environment, it will be up to us — the students — to accept that responsibility.
The CCC also provides an open and collaborative space that will readily support the efforts of many other groups in our community that are already active in increasing awareness of the intersection of racial and climate justice. As a campus community, we must consistently consider our impact on communities of color. We know that our waste often ends up in landfills located in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods and that the litter that we carelessly allow to enter the Huron River inevitably flows downstream into lower-income communities. The effect of environmental racism on neighboring communities cannot be ignored, which is why the CCC seeks not only to discuss these inequities but to act to rectify them.
In the coming summer months, the CCC will begin its first projects and will lay the foundations for the conservation work that must continue into the fall and winter semesters and beyond. We are done waiting for others to protect our environment, and we extend the immediate call to action to every student at our university. Just as the thousands of young Michiganders set out to restore and preserve their environment under FDR’s CCC, we are determined to do the same for our generation and all of those to come.
Tyler Watt is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and President of LSA Student Government, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zackariah Farah is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and Vice President of LSA Student Government, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Erik Williams is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and Chairman of LSA Student Government’s Campus Conservation Corps, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Riley List is a junior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and Vice Chair of LSA Student Government’s Campus Conservation Corps, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality had called on University President Mark Schlissel to create a Corps to address conservation issues on campus. A Corps was suggested in a report on campus culture and communication developed for the PCCN, but was not included in the final PCCN report or recommended by the PCCN to Schlissel’s administration.