Before I retire from teaching, I wonder if I’ll be able to teach a course called “Lost Environments,” where I tell students about what were once coastal ecosystems that are now under water because of our headlong rush into climate change? I can show lots of pictures of the Everglades and Bangladesh and Louisiana and Pacific Islands. I can talk about all the extinctions that are taking place. Everyone can share stories of how their parents and grandparents homes are now underwater and how their drinking water is now saline. We can tour the multi-trillion dollar seawalls keeping New York dry, seawalls that will inevitably collapse and inundate America’s greatest city. Because this is the future.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
Americans’ have shaped narratives to make the Founding Fathers fit any number of political ideologies since at least the 1830s. It is a national passion to build connections between one’s own political beliefs and what some guys thought 200 years ago. So when I read a piece like Lauren Simenauer claiming that Benjamin Franklin is America’s first environmentalist, I am more interested in the national psychic need for such assertions more than its actual veracity. That said, while Franklin might have use his rational mind to create technologies that use energy more efficiently and improve public health, calling Franklin an environmentalism is a major stretch. I can understand the claim for Jefferson a bit more because he was consciously interested in the American landscape, but I don’t think Franklin ever showed such interests. It’s far more realistic to call Henry David Thoreau the first American environmentalist, with some antecedents like Jefferson, William and John Bartram, John James Audubon, and others. Maybe Franklin. But you have to think consciously about the natural world as such to be an environmentalist and I don’t see any evidence Franklin did so. Moreover, statements like this just don’t make any sense:
Given his commitment to environmental issues and sustainable business practices, it may be prudent to say that Franklin would have opposed some of the House cuts that stand to strip the public of food safety and farming innovation grants. He certainly would have taken no pleasure in the “Drill, Baby, Drill” chants, and not just because he would have found them lacking in wit.
Who knows what Franklin would have thought? We cannot possibly know this and I don’t see much value in trying to figure it out. Because, not surprisingly, the answer is always going to be the exact political opinion of the researcher!
Americans’ obsession with tying everything to the founders is second only to doing the same thing with Christianity for tortured logic in this country.
Natalia Antonova (who in full disclosure is a former editor of mine) on making the decision to default on her student loan debt, even though it will screw her over for life. Essentially, it became a choice between the health of her child and paying Sallie Mae. Great system we have here.
In a beautifully produced book from University of North Carolina Press, Stanley Riggs and his associates review what they call “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” By this, they mean the constant struggle to maintain the Outer Banks against threats including climate change, rising sea levels, powerful storms, and the development that imperils the regional ecology. A marine geologist, Riggs spends most of the book explaining the geological forces shaping the North Carolina coast to the general reader this book is intended for, only getting to the “battle” at the book’s end.
Americans’ knowledge of science is pretty dismal. This ignorance, which has many antecedents we can discuss in another post, means that before we can even begin talking about coastal ecosystems, we need to be educated about them. This ignorance also gets in the way of meaningful conversations about climate change and any other scientific issue that is affecting our lives. I am a pretty smart guy I think and an environmental historian at that. I have some knowledge of biology and geology, though at the level of a interested amateur. And despite Riggs laying this out as simply as possible, without the copious full-color maps, drawings, and photographs in the book, I would have gotten lost pretty quickly. Kudos to UNC Press for investing in this. Riggs explores how the North Carolina coastal system formed, how ice ages have shaped it, and how the plentiful and powerful storms that hit the Outer Banks affect the land. He breaks down different types of barrier islands and regional differences in the ecosystem. This is the first 2/3 of the book. Only after reading 65 pages of this can we have an intelligent discussion about how to save this ecosystem.
And save is a proper word, for there is much at risk. Riggs and his coauthors repeatedly point out that ecosystems change. Climate change will destroy much of the current barrier islands but new islands and beaches will form over time. But like we think about the rest of the environment, we treat it as static, not incorporating change into our economic development plans. In this context, it means we build huge resorts on the beach and then are shocked when they get washed away. To stop this, we pour millions of dollars into technologies to keep the ocean out, just to see them continually fail.
At the same time, if Americans demand anything, it’s beach vacations. The Outer Banks have seen enormous economic and population growth over the past few decades. This is a poor region and the tourism dollars have replaced some of the lost income from textile mills and agriculture. It’s centered in only a few places and the interior counties of eastern North Carolina are pretty poor, but it helps. To maintain this economy, we look for sand to dredge for beach replenishment and keep building new homes and resorts. While overdeveloped beaches are not my favorite places to vacation, that’s just personal preference. Especially in the east, where public land is at a premium, enjoying the natural world is a premium, even if it is just sitting on the beach.
But we have to ask hard questions about how much money we are going to pour down the toilet of maintaining the Outer Banks exactly as they are today. Riggs uses the example of the Oregon Inlet Bridge to bring this home. This 2.44 mile bridge was constructed in the 1960s in order to connect Highway 12 to what were then small villages. The problem is that it was built to an inlet that natural processes dictate will constantly move. To stop this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers engages in huge dredging operations to rebuild the inlet and keep the bridge stable. Between 1983 and 2009, the government spent $93 million to maintain the bridge. Is this a good use of taxpayer money? I don’t think so. But overwhelming pressure from developers, the tourist industry, and the Army Corps itself makes a change in policy very difficult.
Riggs tries to present some realistic economic options for North Carolina that will maintain the tourist economy on a more sustainable level while making intelligent decisions based upon scientific understandings of what barrier islands do. He suggests giving up on maintaining Highway 12 and the Oregon Inlet Bridge, noting that allowing nature to take its course would not only save us billions in coming decades but also improve fishing and help build an ecotourism economy. Ecotourism is central to his economic plans. Eastern North Carolina is a pretty amazing place with great diversity of landscapes and fantastic wildlife opportunities. More developed areas would see development limitations and houses raised onto stilts to allow for more natural ecological processes to nourish the islands and protect the structures from the ocean. He notes private islands that already have boat service from the mainland to allow people to enjoy the beaches without building a road system, suggesting an expansion of this system for areas currently connected to land by the state highway.
I doubt very much any of this is going to happen soon. There are too many economic forces combining with too much scientific illiteracy to see it through. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need smart environmental and economic planners seeking to create a more sustainable region and economy. Riggs and his co-authors deserve a lot of credit for their ideas. Hopefully somebody will take them seriously.
James Forman, Jr. has a piece up in the forthcoming N.Y.U. Law Review attacking the analogies made between high rates of incarceration and Jim Crow. From the abstract:
But despite its contributions, the Jim Crow analogy ultimately leads to a distorted view of mass incarceration. First, the Jim Crow analogy oversimplifies the origins of mass incarceration by highlighting the role of politicians seeking to exploit racial fears while minimizing other historical factors. Second, the analogy has too little to say about black attitudes towards crime and punishment, masking the nature and extent of black support for punitive crime policy. Third, the analogy’s exclusive focus on the War on Drugs diverts our attention from violent crime — a troubling oversight given the toll that violence takes on low-income black communities and the fact that violent offenders make up a plurality of the prison population. Fourth, the Jim Crow analogy obscures the fact that mass incarceration’s impact has been almost exclusively concentrated among the most disadvantaged African-Americans. Fifth, the analogy draws our attention away from the harms that mass incarceration inflicts on other racial groups, including whites and Hispanics. Finally, the analogy diminishes our understanding of the particular harms associated with the old Jim Crow.
These are all fair points. The analogy is way overblown, makes the issue seem black-white when 21st race relations are a lot more complicated, ignores class and divisions within the African-American community. It also seriously obscures the horror of Jim Crow and exactly what that was like. At the same time, there’s no questioning that the criminal justice system reflects and exacerbates racial inequality. The problem with the analogy is that it is bad history, but it’s also not without some accuracy.
Newt Gingrich is an embrassment to the historical profession. Not only is he corrupt, but his dissertation defended Belgian rule of the Congo, which really sums up the man. He throws historical references around with abandon, but it’s entirely unclear whether the gasbag knows what he’s talking about. Revolution here, Civil War there, ancient Rome, Churchill, whatever half-baked comparison helps him make his point. What bothers me though is that actual historians find this charming. Here’s Sean Wilentz:
Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, said in an interview, “I have a weakness for any public figure who talks about history in any way that is at all serious.”
“I find the Speaker is serious,” said Professor Wilentz, who has written books about Andrew Jackson and the age of Ronald Reagan. “I don’t find him profound in any way.”
This is not a forgivable weakness. I do not share it at all. There is nothing inherently great about history. I study history as a way to understand why the nation is as it is today. I love history, but that love is not enough. To me, a study of history provides a necessary component to crafting good public policy. You simply cannot create good policy without an in-depth understanding of the past. I think Wilentz more or less believes this too. But I also think Wilentz has bought into the “game” side of politics and of history a bit too much. His utter hackishness in attacking Obama because it got in the way of him being the Clintons’ Arthur Schlesinger was icky. And I don’t think that you want public figures talking about history if they are talking about it wrongly. Gingrich is utterly unserious in everything he does, except for hawking his wares. That includes his history. There’s nothing noble about it.
Last night, I watched the Lee Atwater documentary, Boogie Man. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it very highly. I always knew Atwater was an awful human being, but I didn’t realize quite the level of his scumbaggery until I watched the movie. He was just an irredeemably horrid individual. Disgusting. Revolting. Almost equally infuriating was listening to Sam Donaldson talk about getting played by Atwater, knowing he’s being lied to, and just not really caring. Give it to Dan Rather, at least he did care about these things, even if it meant he was eventually railroaded out of the profession for it. Atwater’s attack on Rather was disgusting. But the fact that the media thinks it’s a big funny game made me feel real hate for all involved.
On the other hand, before watching Boogie Man, I decided that it was time to fill a hole in my film knowledge and watch a Jerry Lewis movie. I chose The Errand Boy, supposedly one of his best. And I have to say, Lewis makes Atwater seem a lot more sympathetic. I knew I was watching a monster in Atwater, but at least he wasn’t quite a soul-destroying as Jerry Lewis. Holy hell that was awful. I started yelling at the TV, which is not out of character for me, but I was really angry. I have a Francophile side, but if it is true that the French actually like Lewis, I am going to have to rethink my fundamental positions on the world.
Today we celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Oakland General Strike.
The Oakland general strike came out of the massive changes to the Bay Area during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Americans moved to San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and other cities to work in wartime industries. During World War II, the AFL and CIO turned their energies toward defeating the fascist menace of Germany and Japan. The administration of Franklin Roosevelt, wanting to avoid strikes that would undermine wartime production, brought both the AFL and CIO into wartime planning. But while consumer prices rose during the war, wages did not. The motivated and radicalized workers wanted to strike, but their leaders and the federal government urged them to work through it.
When the war ended however, the country was overtaken by a wave of strikes. In 1946, 4.5 million workers went on strike throughout the United States, the greatest number of strikers in one year in American history. Wages did not keep up with rapidly rising prices and higher wages were the core demand of almost all the strikers.
The situation in Oakland was especially volatile because of the city’s Retail Merchants Association, a powerful and deeply anti-union business organization. These department stores owners employed mostly women, who they believed would accept low wages. The Department and Specialty Store Employees Union Local 1265 organized workers at these downtown stores. Early in 1946, they won victories at smaller stores and decided to take on the biggest retailers, Kahn’s and Hastings. A month-long strike ensued in the late fall of 1946. This turned into one of the biggest challenges to corporate America in the postwar years. In October, 400 workers at Kahn’s and Hastings went on strike. In early December, the strike escalated when the store owners conspired with the police and Oakland’s conservative leadership to use police force to clear away the strikers and allow for truck deliveries.
Although the CIO had the more radical agenda, it was actually the AFL who decided to call for a general strike on December 2, 1946 in support of the striking department store workers. AFL workers from 142 unions around Oakland walked off their jobs—bus drivers, teamsters, sailors, machinists, cannery workers, railroad porters, waiters, waitresses, cooks. For over two days, Oakland shut down. Over 100,000 workers participated in the strike.
The strikers controlled Oakland. All businesses except for pharmacies and food markets shut down. Bars could stay open but could only serve beer and had to put their juke boxes outside and allow for their free use. Couples literally danced in the streets. Recently returned war veterans created squadrons to prepare for battle. Union leadership took a back seat to rank and file actions.
Although it is often spun in Oakland legend that the general strike was a successful action, it really wasn’t. A majority of workers wanted to continue striking and CIO unions considered joining in support, but the strike fell apart because of a single corrupt labor leader. Dave Beck, the head of the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa’s mentor, forced a compromise when he pulled his powerful union off the lines and endorsed a moderate settlement that accomplished almost nothing and quite literally did not address the department store workers concerns at all. Beck said the strike threatened revolution and redbaited it out of existence. While the still agitated workers managed to elect several labor representatives to the city council, the entire apparatus of the city used the general strike to attack all labor. The police, the city government, and the Oakland Tribune combined to resist not only the unionization of the department stores, but all labor in Oakland.
This story overturns some of the standard narrative of mid-20th century American labor. That narrative suggest a conservative AFL, radical CIO, solidarity of the left, throwing out of the radicals in the 50s, etc. But in Oakland it was complicated. First, the CIO stayed out of the strike. Somewhat embarrassingly, Harry Bridges, the great leftist head of the Longshoremen, kept his distance. Bridges, the leader of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike and head of the California CIO had committed to a nine-year extension of the World War II no-strike pledge. Many looked to Bridges for leadership but he completely dropped the ball. The AFL international was not so comfortable with this strike, but like many AFL actions, there was a big difference between the international and the locals. We think of the AFL as conservative and in its leadership it was, but the rank and file were often quite radical. When thinking about labor, it’s important to avoid these generalizations when thinking about how labor actually operated. At the same time, the corrupt leadership of the AFL with Beck, part of the standard narrative of this period, was in full effect and the powerful Teamsters undermined the action.
While Oakland remained a strong union city after this, the strikes of 1946 around the nation and especially the Oakland General Strike led to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which undermined the nation’s labor movement and continues to do so today.
Newt clarifies his comments from last week that poor students should replace janitors in schools. They shouldn’t do all the work. Just jobs like cleaning the bathrooms.
And doesn’t this make sense? In the new Gilded Age, the poor need to learn to serve their masters, including cleaning up their feces.
If it wasn’t evil, I’d say it was refreshing that at least they aren’t lying anymore.
Scott Walker using prison labor to decorate the Christmas tree (and in this administration, it ain’t no holiday tree like here in Rhode Island) in the Wisconsin state capitol building. The use of prison labor means he didn’t have to use and pay unionized state workers to put up the tree.
This story has received very little coverage, but today was nearly the day the National Labor Relations Board, for all intents and purposes, died. The NLRB is supposed to have 5 members, but presently has 3 because of Republican obstructionism. There are 2 Democrats and 1 Republican, Brian Hayes. Angry about new rules designed to limit endless employer appeals of scheduled workplace unionization votes in order to buy more time to defeat unions, Hayes threatened to resign from the board. Had he done so, the NLRB could not have reached a quorum and would have been paralyzed. Had this happened, there’s little reason to believe it ever it would have revived in a meaningful way. Maybe Republicans would have filled the positions when they took over, maybe they would have just let it die, but any chance it could have served as an fair arbiter for American labor would have ended.
Luckily, Hayes decided not to resign, citing his desire to not be an obstructionist (are we sure he’s actually a Republican?) and his respect for the institution. Crisis averted for now. But the long-term future of the NLRB remains up in the air because Hayes could bail at any time.