Serve the planet, says Obama


Last night, the presidential candidates called a truce - kinda, sorta - and headed to Columbia University for a forum on national service. That’s a subject that ought to be close to any green’s heart, both as a point of principle and as a matter of history: environmentalism and national service have been intertwined since at least the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt used the 250,000-strong Civilian Conservation Corps to build America’s national park system; in recent years those ties have been reaffirmed under Bill Clinton’s Americorps plan.

Speaking to that nexus should have been a slam-dunk for John McCain, who in his time in Washington has done more than most Republicans to promote the twin causes of environmentalism and national service. In the aftermath of 9/11, McCain wrote an influential Washington Monthly column calling for America to respond to its tragedy by embracing national service. “National service is a crucial means of making our patriotism real, to the benefit of both ourselves and our country,” he declared.

Stirring stuff - but since setting his sights upon the presidency, McCain has had remarkably little to say about public service. Last night, he seemed more eager to tout his own record as a POW than to discuss the potential of using service to promote national environmental priorities; it was left to his Democratic rival to join the dots.

Almost in his first breath, Barack Obama drew excited squeals from the audience by declaring that as president he would ask all Americans to join the fight for energy independence. “We are going to ask all citizens to participate in that process,” he said. “Not just government, but each and every one of us … are going to make commitments in terms of increasing fuel efficiency in our cars, in our homes.” Explicitly echoing FDR’s Conservation Corps, Obama went on to promise that he’d expand Clinton’s Americorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 people, while establishing a “clean energy corps” of volunteers to help weatherize buildings, promote energy efficiency, plant trees and clean up polluted land and waterways.

Those proposals stand a chance of coming to fruition whether or not Obama wins the White House: today, Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch are set to launch new voluntary-service legislation that borrows heavily from Obama’s service plan. Even John McCain has taken a leaf from Obama’s book: a hastily assembled page on his web-site now echoes Obama’s call for the creation of a clean energy corps. One way or another, it looks like Americans should soon have new ways to serve both their country and their planet.

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