Anyone who looks at the style, food, real estate, or travel sections has long known this, but still.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
Book Review, Christopher Morris, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina
Now that one book is in the can and the other is under review, I have time to read again. So I will review the recent books I get through here on the blog, as I used to do.
Christopher Morris’ environmental history of the lower Mississippi Valley takes readers from the sixteenth century to the present. His central point is that Europeans entered a landscape where wet and dry coexisted, with an ecological balance that supported Native American civilizations, and strove to separate the wet from dry with ever greater technological inputs. In doing so, the French and then the Americans not only rapidly changed the lower Mississippi ecosystem, but also ended up severely degrading one of the most fertile and rich parts of the world.
For both the French and Americans, living in a wet land seemed uncivilized. The constant, if usually low-level, flooding, was akin to savagery and in order to maintain Frenchness or Americanness, separation from nature was required. This led, very quickly, to the building of levees and concerted attempts to dry out the land behind them. For the French, rice culture worked to tame this land and while the Americans continued growing rice, cotton became the economic basis for the ever more vigilance protection of the fields from the river.
But what Europeans found was that water cannot be fully controlled. Damming it, diverting it, channeling it–all of this provided short-term solutions to the water problem, but a force with the power of the Mississippi River strikes back. And when it does, if the pressure is built up because its natural release is taken away by the levees, the damage can be amazing. The most famous flood was in 1927, but the Mississippi has shown Europeans’ efforts to control it futile time and time again. But from the 17th century forward, Europeans sought to engineer the river so that its people could live on dry land without even thinking about the water. This normalized Louisiana and the Mississippi delta as dry land, making floods seem unnatural.
Morris spends most of the book describing these processes. The Mississippi is a young river, having only flowed in its present path for several hundred years. In that time, the river was the home of a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. He details how Native Americans survived in this marshy world, building enormous mounds that remind us of their presence today and thriving off the region’s rich natural resources. They shaped the landscape as well, but lacked the technological ability or capitalist culture to see the river as something that needed taming. After early Spanish and French failures to establish themselves on the lower Mississippi, the French finally succeeded when New Orleans was established in 1718 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville landed at Biloxi and walked east rather than get lost in the Mississippi delta as his predecessors had done. The French slowly began changing the valley, a process continued by the Spanish during their brief occupation of the area after 1763.
The real changes came with the Americans. The expansion of cotton meant turning as much of the South as possible to its production. This came at a widespread environmental cost throughout the region, with erosion, gullying, and exhausted soils clear problems by the time of the Civil War. On the Mississippi River, floods could replenish that soil, but the ever-more intensive growth of the levee system determined to keep that land dry meant that replenishing rarely occurred, only when flood events broke through the technologies built up to protect the cotton.
This landscape was of course highly racialized, both before and after the Civil War. Morris discusses how slaves lived on the margins of this wet and dry world. For slaves, the marshes provided some level of relative freedom and independence; the ability to hunt for food gave some slaves a bit of control over their own lives. Some slaves hunted full time for their masters, others killed raccoons, opossums, and birds for their own dinners. But those declining marshes meant disappearing wildlife too. Morris closes one chapter by discussing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt in southern Louisiana, which led to the capture of a single scraggly bear attacked by dogs that did little more than disgust Roosevelt. That story, the basis for Faulkner’s “The Bear,” says much about the degraded nature of the lower Mississippi by the early twentieth century.
For general readers, Morris’ last three chapters will be of the greatest interest. Here, he rapidly moves into the twentieth century and what he calls a “pathological landscape.” Three centuries of trying to separate wet and dry had created a landscape where tremendous inputs of pesticides and fertilizers were necessary in one of the most fertile spaces on the planet. Mosquito-borne illnesses became worse through this regime, not better, as standing water made malaria and yellow fever plagues common in Louisiana through the 19th century. Chemicals like DDT and 2,4D became crutches for policy makers to avoid the environmental consequences of centuries of river policy. Coastal erosion became a problem before 1900 as the Mississippi River was channeled to the sea, and as the people of New Orleans discovered during Katrina, this can have devastating consequences.
Yet unlike many environmental histories, there is a bit of hope here. Morris steadfastly believes that humans can live along the Mississippi in a relatively sustainable way. Looking at crawfish farming as an ecologically sustainable way forward, Morris shows how it mimics the river’s natural processes, which means more marshes and more wildlife, as opposed to catfish farming or cotton that have caused great problems within the ecosystem. The crawfish farmers also grow rice in this wet landscape, which builds connections between land and water. Rice fields and catfish farms can become water storage areas that help the region manage the floods in a more ecologically sound and sustainable way than higher levees.
Morris also compares New Orleans to Venice, St. Petersburg, and Rotterdam to note that cities and water can coexist if people see the water as natural and plan for it, rather than view it as an enemy to tame. But New Orleans has not moved significantly in this direction since Hurricane Katrina, nor has the federal government. In a state as devoted to capitalism as the U.S., the short-term economic and political gains of levees means that remains the answer to the threat of water. Yet even in New Orleans, new homes on stilts are coming up, a recognition that this landscape can and flood. Even recognizing that is a positive step toward a more sustainable relationship with the river.
But outside of New Orleans, a somewhat different equation exists because declining populations along the delta has reduced the region’s political power and led to real victories for a more ecologically healthy management regime that has included some natural flooding and rejection of some water technology projects. People are beginning to realize the water is necessary and positive steps have begun to happen. Again, the region’s depopulation has played a role; even in post-Katrina New Orleans, nature is taking back parts of the city, with snakes and alligators in brush replacing people and parking lots.
I suppose some readers might want more on the modern Mississippi, focusing on the oil industry and canals that have received a great deal attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But this history provides a deep background on one of the nation’s most important land management and urban planning problems today. Overall, this is an excellent environmental history with important things to say about modern policy choices.
Thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea are toiling for years on construction sites in Qatar for virtually no pay – including on the vast new metropolis that is the centrepiece of the World Cup – in what may amount to “state-sponsored slavery”.
According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.
They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”
Shouldn’t there be some sort of international boycott of the event if it relies on slave labor. Obviously, FIFA doesn’t care, nor Qatar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise a stink.
This little piece on the United Students Against Sweatshops chapter at the University of Washington reminded of the importance of these student groups in fostering young activists against the systems of exploitation that dominate our world today. There are fewer groups like this on college campuses than you’d think–I’ve seen not one iota of left activism at URI in my 3+ years there and while something could be happening that I don’t know about, I’ve not seen a flyer, chalking, or any other evidence. Yet these groups really can spawn lifelong commitment to positive change. The group I was involved at the University of Tennessee back in the 90s today consists of union organizers, community organizers, and whatever it is that I do. These groups are really important and deserve our attention and support when we can give it.
They say that Orange County is home to the Happiest Place on Earth. For most people, that’s Disneyland. For a cynical left-wing historian, it is the Nixon Library. When I visited Orange County last month, it was my top priority to visit, way more than the beach (which was nice too). I was not disappointed.
Presidential libraries occupy a weird space. They are operated in association with the National Archives, but the museum section is usually put together by some sort of private group. That means that there is a real tendency for hagiography, especially with recent presidents. The downside and the upside is exactly the same–eyerollingly ridiculous interpretation of controversial events. Although opened in 1990, the Nixon Library is still mostly in the hagiographic phase, with Nixon’s partisans talking about how great he was. There is one exception here. The historians have taken over the Watergate section so that whereas I understand that section actually stuck to the claim that the 18 1/2 deleted minutes of tape was totally an accident, today, it says that Nixon was really wrong. It is however so detailed and confusing that there’s almost no way any regular visitor is coming out of it with a good understanding of just what happened.
For the sake of learning about history, let’s hope the rest of the Nixon Library follows into more professional interpretation. But I am glad to visit before it did. Because it is amazing. Now it’s time for a photo tour. Here’s the first thing I saw when I went into the bookstore.
The blue ones read “Silent Majority: Tanned, Rested, and Ready”. I was sorely tempted to buy one, but you just can’t wear that ironically. I did however get a “What Would Nixon Do?” bumper sticker for my office. My friend bought some Nixon Library hand sanitizer as well. It was very exciting.
The books available for sale? Only the finest in politics and history:
Prominently displayed is also the book by the next president of the United States, Dr. Ben Carson. Rick Perlstein? What are you a commie? Of course that’s not for sale. I’m also curious about that secret plot to make Ted Kennedy president. Was that the 1980 Democratic primary?
The museum’s presentation of policy is uniformly horrible, combining cheap and ancient yellowing displays, way too much text that no one is going to read, and right-wing talking points. Nixon was the true environmental president because he signed legislation that passed the House 372-15. He was the true civil rights president because Jackie Robinson voted for him or something. I won’t even bother with most of it, except to say that the My Lai section was “under renovation.” Yeah, I’ll bet. If I have to sum up the policy displays in 1 image, this discussion of Miranda rights will suffice:
I’m not sure the museum staff, who were obvious Nixon partisans, appreciated my friends and I openly mocking this stuff.
One thing presidential libraries often feature is the gifts presidents receive from other heads of state. So it was just natural to display the maté set given to Nixon by Augusto Pinochet.
Gifts from other really nice leaders like the Shah, Suharto, and Ferdinand Marcos are also there for you to see. As are weird things that people gave Nixon. Like this, possibly the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen displayed in a museum.
I was hiking around my ranch and I saw this rock that looks like your head. I thought you would enjoy it.
Finally, there is the greatest thing ever. Out back is the helicopter Nixon took from the White House to Camp David when he resigned. And you can go inside! Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, but if you could you would see the amazing shag carpet that is preserved in the cockpit. However, you can imitate Nixon’s wave goodbye to the nation when he got on the helicopter. I don’t know that anyone had ever done that before; certainly the tour guide was taken aback by my sheer joy at this opportunity. This was really one of the greatest moments of my life.
My wave was so vigorous that my shirt got out of whack. I guess that’s my version of Nixon sweating during the 1960 debate. That’s OK, I can own it. Because I got to imitate Nixon’s wave. If I ever get kicked off this blog, my last line is “You won’t have Loomis to kick around anymore!” I’ve always wanted to use that.
After seeing this, as well as the bed where Nixon was birthed (look at this cute little baby!) we were on the way out when we realized that a wedding was about to begin. Yes, someone had rented out the Nixon Library for their wedding. Where the couple was going to take their vows was about 20 feet from Nixon’s grave. Now, I think we’ve all wanted to play a little Dick and Pat on our wedding night, but this was a bit ridiculous. This was the least romantic spot for a wedding ever. Although I hope I am invited to an irony-themed wedding there in the future.
Obviously, if you are ever near Yorba Linda, you need to experience this joy for yourself.
If we are returning to the Gilded Age, we might as well be drinking their cocktails too, which have become all the rage. That’s mostly a good thing as the austerity cocktails of the post-Prohibition Era have their place (I love a good martini of course) but do not explore the real possibilities of mixology (or cocktology as my brother thinks it should be called). Here’s a few interesting and simple ones. Note, this is the kind of thing you get when you have a Google Alert for “Gilded Age.”
As you have may have heard, in September, the municipal police of a town in Guerrero, Mexico where the mayor and his wife had close ties with the cartels kidnapped 43 protesting students from a poor teachers’ college. The fate of the missing 43 is basically known in that everyone knows they are dead, but not only the families but the entire nation is demanding that the bodies be found and perpetrators brought to justice. One body was found and the way of killing the kid is too graphic to be repeated here. Searches have not discovered the missing students–but have uncovered 40 other unknown bodies, reinforcing the terrible situation in Guerrero especially.
As Alma Guillermoprieto reports, the response has the feeling of the moment where Mexicans stand up and say enough to the violence of the cartels and the indifference of the government. Whether they can do anything about it is a whole other thing, but it has forced Peña Nieto to respond publicly, a pretty rare thing for a Mexican president. Terrible, horrifying story but maybe it will lead to something better in the long run.
Ben Railton has an intriguing post about the influence of the 1994 elections on today. Outside of the obvious Gingrich and Contract with America stuff, he comes up with three:
1) Oliver North: True, former Reagan aide and Iran Contra figure North lost his Virginia Senate bid (to incumbent Charles Robb). But it’s far from a coincidence that North has gone on to become a Fox News star—every aspect of his campaign, from his emphasis on his born-again Christianity to his unrelenting attack ads on Robb, has become integral to the 21st century right-wing media world of which he’s now a part.
2) Bill Frist: One of the most surprising 1994 victors was Frist, a heart surgeon with no prior political experience who defeated three-term incumbent Tennessee Senator Jim Sasser. One of 1994’s most lasting influences has been the value placed on “outsiders,” not just to Washington but to the political realm itself; and no candidate fit that mold better than Frist, who would go on to become the ultimate insider as Senate Majority Leader.
3) Rick Santorum: Among the many GOP triumphs in 1994, relatively little attention was paid to Pennsylvania Congressman Rick Santorum’s victory over incumbent Senator Harris Wofford (in part because Wofford had been appointed after John Heinz’s tragic 1991 death, so was far from an established incumbent). Yet Santorum’s victory was hugely significant, and not only because he has gone on to be a perennial presidential candidate. It marked the growing presence and power of Christian Conservatives, a trend that would culminate in the election and presidency of George W. Bush six years later.
I have one to add, which is Tom Foley. His defeat marked the end of liberal Democrats being viable candidates in the rural West and the culmination of aggressively right-wing politicians in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and other areas that once had progressive representation (Mike Mansfield, Frank Church, etc). I guess Foley’s loss is more the end of that process than the beginning but was a pretty significant moment since he was Speaker of the House.
What else do you all have?
I know my trust in the quality of the chicken I eat (not that I eat very much) is really reinforced by the United States now accepting Chinese imports of cooked chicken products that come from chickens grown in “approved nations.” If there’s one thing, we can count on, it’s the safety and sanitation of imported Chinese goods.
China has been the given green light to start shipping chicken to America.
On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department told stakeholders it had certified four poultry processing plants in the Shandong province of China to export fully cooked, frozen and refrigerated chicken to the United States.
Though raw chicken must still come from countries approved by the USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) — the U.S., Canada and Chile — consumer rights activists are calling the certifications for cooked chicken from China dangerous.
“China’s food safety system is a wreck,” D.C.-based Food & Water Watch said in a statement Thursday. The group has been fighting the USDA on the issue since November 2005.
“There have been scores of food safety scandals in China and the most recent ones have involved expired poultry products sold to U.S. fast food restaurants based in China,” the statement said. “Now, we have FSIS moving forward to implement this ill-conceived decision, and it has not even audited the Chinese food safety system in over 20 months.”
Taking raw American or Canadian chickens, sending them to China for processing, and then returning them to the United States also says a lot about the absurdity of the global food system.
Technological advances are going to take away basically all of our jobs. This workless future should frighten all of us. It certainly worries Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla. To say the least, Khosla’s solutions section is really murky because he can’t get past basically being a technofuturist libertarian, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot on. In part:
While the future is promising and this technology revolution may result in dramatically increasing productivity and abundance, the process of getting there raises all sorts of questions about the changing nature of work and the likely increase in income disparity. With less need for human labor and judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology. In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.
Let’s look at the scale of change that the new machine learning and data revolution may bring and why it potentially could be different than prior technology revolutions like mobile phones, accessible computing and automobiles. Just in the Khosla Ventures portfolio alone, entrepreneurs already are trying to use machine learning technologies to replace human judgment in many areas including farm workers, warehouse workers, hamburger flippers, legal researchers, financial investment intermediaries, some areas of a cardiologist’s functions, ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialists, psychiatrists and many others. Efficiency in the business world generally means reducing costs, which results in using fewer well-paid but highly skilled minds and the technology they develop or capital to replace lower paid and less skilled workers.
In past economic history, each technology revolution—while replacing some jobs—has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different. Economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality, but if basic drivers of job creation change then outcomes may be different. Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor. Education was one method for humans to leverage technology as it evolved and improved. However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge relevant to a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.
Machines with unlimited and rapidly expanding human-like capabilities may mean there will no longer be as much need to leverage human capabilities. In fact, there may be little for humans to augment or amplify even as productivity per human hour of labor increases dramatically all while far fewer people are needed for most tasks. This is not to say all human functions will be replaced but rather that many, and maybe even a majority, may not be needed.
What if machines, which may soon exceed the capability of human judgment, do most jobs better than humans even if people receive additional training? The magnitude of the problem of displaced workers and increasing income disparity especially in the face of abundance (increasing GDP) may become substantially larger. It is possible that this particular technology revolution does not allow for human augmentation and amplification by technology to a large enough degree and that education and retraining are not solutions at all, except for a very small percentage of the workforce. As Karl Marx said, “when the train of history hits a curve, the intellectuals fall off”. Extrapolation of our past experiences, a favorite technique of economists, may not be a valid predictor of the future—the historical correlation may be broken by a new causality. Efforts at estimating the number of jobs that are susceptible to computerization underestimate how technology may evolve and make assumptions that seem very likely to be false, similar to past “truths” (like the waning correlation between productivity and income growth for labor). Even with this underestimate, researchers concluded that of the 702 job functions studied, 47-percent are at risk of being automated.
If climate change is the greatest challenge faced by the human race, I would say that the elimination of work is the second greatest challenge. I know the usual critique, including among many commenters here, is to call any criticism of technology Luddism and continue in our blind faith in technology. But this is very real problem. There is no future for work in this machine-driven society. If machines can replace not only blue-collar but also white-collar work, what do we do to eat, to house ourselves, to live a decent life? We have already seen the impacts of mechanization on the American working class and the result is not pretty. We are able to ignore the endemic poverty and societal instability the loss of jobs has created because the white-collar, professional class has largely been unaffected. But that is changing very rapidly. Outsourcing jobs only adds to this. Is there any reason to pay Americans to do accounting work? Why shouldn’t that all be sent to India? Assuming we need any humans at all?
Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.
I know this post sounds apocalyptic. But it’s not just me saying this is coming. It’s the business leaders ensuring it is happening.
A New York pastor has warned that Starbucks coffees are flavoured with the “semen of sodomites”.
Coffee chain Starbucks recently launched a new ad campaign featuring two well-known drag artists – American Idol star Adore Delano and RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio.
Pastor James David Manning, of the ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem, claimed last week that Starbucks was “ground zero” for Ebola, which is being spread by “upscale sodomites”.
It’s pretty difficult to argue that racists are not a huge part of the Republican coalition. Every since the moment Obama won the presidency, white racial resentment has been flowing out of American conservatives and that is a hate well that remains uncapped.
Although birtherism is a complex phenomenon in its own right, Landrieu — like Bush before her — was referencing a much broader problem facing Obama, as well as herself, and the Democratic Party as a whole. You’re not supposed to call it “racism,” because racism means KKK mobs in hoods, and police siccing snarling dogs on young children, and we’re not like that anymore — see, we’ve got armored vehicles and sound cannons now!
But 40 years of data from the General Social Survey — the gold standard of American public opinion research — say otherwise. They tell us that Southern whites overwhelmingly blame blacks for their lower economic status, ignoring or denying the role played by discrimination, past and present, in all its various forms, and that the balance of Southern white attitudes has barely changed at all in 40 years. At the same time, attitudes outside the white South have shifted somewhat — but still tend to blame blacks more than white society, steadfastly ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary — such as 60 years of unemployment data, over which time “the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites,” as noted by Pew Research. It is only Democrats outside the white South who have dramatically shifted away from blaming blacks over this period of time, and the tension this has created within the Democratic Party goes to the very heart of the political challenge both Obama and Landrieu face — a challenge that is not going to simply go away any time soon.
Not only is the Democratic Party split between two dominant views — one in the white South blaming blacks more, the other outside it blaming discriminatory practices in white society more — the minority group within the party, white Southerners, is far more unified in its views.
In the white South, 42.4 percent blame blacks exclusively, compared to just 18.8 percent who blame discrimination, and 38.8 who blame both. That’s a lopsided 69/31 split between the two exclusive positions. Outside the white South, 27.7 percent blame blacks exclusively, 34.4 percent blame discrimination, and 37.9 percent blame both, a much narrower 45/55 split between the exclusive positions.
What all the above boils down to is that blaming blacks for being poor remains broadly popular in America today, and that taking note of continued discrimination is not. A modest majority of Democrats outside the white South disagree, and this creates a political fault line that Republicans have repeatedly exploited across the decades, with no end in sight. When conservatives get too crude — as was the case with Cliven Bundy, for example — this threatens to upset the apple cart, and appearances must quickly get restored. But it’s the crudity, not the underlying attitude of blaming blacks, that has fallen out of favor. This would hardly surprise a Southern gentleman of this or any other century. It’s just the way things are supposed to be. Always have been. Why ever change?
Of course, this racism has manifested itself into policy to restrict African-Americans voting. Five members of the Supreme Court are fine with this racism–the extent to which each of those justices personally share in the racism probably varies. Did that racist decision matter on Tuesday? To some extent, almost for sure, with several states such as North Carolina having close elections that disfranchised voters could have impacted. These laws may well have won that North Carolina seat for the Republicans. There’s little reason to believe new measures to stop brown and black people from voting are coming from the states, especially knowing they have a sympathetic Supreme Court.
This all reinforces Chait’s apocalyptic piece noting that Democrats will either face continued gridlock or “annihilation” if Republicans win the presidency in 2016. While I’m a bit hesitant to go quite that far, his final point is scary.
Only that sort of freakish event would suffice. And Democrats might notice that, since winning back Congress requires a backlash against the president, their “positive” scenario requires first surrendering to Republicans’ total control of government. As long as Democrats hold the White House, Republican control of Congress is probably safe — at least for several election cycles to come.
The second conclusion is simpler, and more bracing: Hillary Clinton is the only thing standing between a Republican Party even more radical than George W. Bush’s version and unfettered control of American government
Things do change. But any Republican president winning in 2016 is almost sure to be significantly to the right of George W. Bush. And that is truly frightening.