Orion Blog

Orion in San Francisco: Join Us for Conversation About Reimagining Infrastructure

One thing we’ve learned from our two-year Reimagining Infrastructure series is that society’s future infrastructure will probably not look like that of the past or even the present. Probably, it will need to serve multiple purposes—like roadways that harvest and clean rainwater, or storm buffers that double as wildlife habitats.

But the process of implementing new solutions also won’t look the same, as the Obama Administration’s Harriet Tregoning likes to say. She and three others will be part of a unique program hosted by Orion at the Commonwealth Club of California, on April 28, 2015, in San Francisco.

Tregoning is the new Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Community Planning and Development (a project of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), and has also served as director of the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning, where she worked to make Washington, DC, a walkable, bikeable, livable, and more sustainable city.

The panel also includes author Ginger Strand, who has written extensively on infrastructure issues (she’s the author of Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies, and a contributing editor of Orion); joining Ginger and Harriet is Benjamin Grant, who authored San Francisco’s first sea-level-rise plan. Orion’s editor-in-chief, H. Emerson Blake, will moderate the panel.

If you’re in or near the Bay Area, please join us! We’d love to meet you and hear your thoughts and questions during the Q/A period. The program will be held at The Commonwealth Club, located at 555 Post Street in San Francisco, beginning at 6 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit the event’s registration page. (For those who can’t attend or are far away, not to worry: TV channel C-SPAN will cover the event live.)

Introducing the May/June 2015 Issue

MayJun15_225On the very first Earth Day, forty-five years ago, the work of protecting plants, animals, and landscapes from harm was the work of restraint—a challenge we humans issued to ourselves to refrain from contaminating air and water, and to stop the production of harmful chemicals like DDT. But the modern conservationist is faced with a very different task: today, protecting threatened species often means abandoning restraint for outright intervention. In the new issue of Orion, Emma Marris makes the case for why the best way to honor nature might be to help it along.

The issue also features a report from Burlington, Vermont, a city that’s building its own renewable energy revolution; an essay on the startlingly deep emotional lives of elephants; and a conversation between two philosophers about how the story of the universe has the power to change history.

Other highlights from the issue: Robert MacFarlane on the connection between language and landscape, an essay on how nature can ease an anxious mind, a visit with a rare (and enormous) flowering plant, new poems and visual art, and much more.

Also: don’t miss what’s new on the Orion website:

An audio conversation with Emma Marris about what it really means to protect threatened species

A narrated slide show (and a conversation) about Burlington’s bold energy innovations

Enjoy! And let us know what you think of the new issue by sharing a comment or sending a letter to letters@orionmagazine.org.

Life on the Gulf Coast, Five Years After Deepwater Horizon

“The oil is not gone,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams in the November/December 2010 issue of Orion. “This story is not over.” Williams visited Louisiana’s Gulf coast in July 2010, where, roughly three months after the Deep Water Horizon blowout, Gulf residents described BP’s recovery efforts—including the spraying of Corexit, a chemical dispersant meant to break up oil at the ocean surface—with concern and unease. Williams spent time with many Gulf residents during her visit, including Becky Duet and her husband, Earl, of Galliano, Louisiana, who put the situation this way: “They’re spraying us and the bayous at night. They’re spraying the marshes—everything. People are going to get sick.”

In 2012, we checked in with Becky Duet to hear what changed, and what hadn’t, since the summer of 2010; the original interview is below. Today, five years after the largest oil spill in U.S. history, Duet reports that she has spotted dead dolphins on shore, has received no financial support from BP, and that the spill’s anniversary offers more questions than answers.

If a person were to rely on mainstream media to understand what’s happened in the Gulf since 2010, he or she might assume the story’s over. What’s being missed?

What I can tell you is what I’ve seen in the last year or so: shrimp with no eyes, no tails; crabs that are not a normal color—they’re three colors. I’ve seen crabs that have white claws and green bodies. Or they have sores. Or they’re deformed. It’s the same thing with oysters: they have a black sheen on them, and the spats aren’t growing in right. They were smothered.

I’ll give you a quick story: Last August, a guy I normally buy fish from came into the deli and said, “Miss Becky, I got about twenty pounds of shrimp”—he had them in a plastic grocery bag, and he put the bag down in the back of my store. I kept doing my orders at the deli—didn’t think nothing of it—until I started smelling something strange, like there was something bad in the garbage. When I went to fix dinner with those shrimp, I realized the smell—an ammonia smell—was coming out of the bag. It smelled up the whole place. And those shrimp were caught six or seven hours earlier! I ended up throwing it all in the bayou.

Following the spill, there was a lot of concern about BP’s spraying of Corexit, the chemical meant to disperse oil sitting at the ocean’s surface. Where has all that oil and dispersant gone?

It’s on the ocean bottom. For the longest time, fishermen would drag for shrimp and pick up black, gunky stuff in their nets. It looked like a kind of heavy syrup. They’d have to clean them out afterward.

The thing is, that’s our crop down here. When all that stuff sinks to the bottom, when the shrimp and eggs and larvae are under a layer of oil and dispersant—the ocean is smothered.

How are you and your neighbors dealing with all this? How is Galliano faring?

The shrimp and crab seasons, none of them are happening. Fishermen are going out and hardly getting any money for their catch: a guy with the Louisiana Shrimp Commission recently said that some of the catches are down by 50 percent. Crabbers aren’t catching crabs, and guys who used to run four hundred, five hundred traps are now running two hundred. It doesn’t pay to run many traps when you can hardly pay for your fuel.

Our seafood here is like no other. It has a distinction, it’s different. Like the crab factories here: they’ll get these big crabs, these Number 1 Select crabs, and they’ll fly them out of New Orleans to different states in the United States everyday except Sundays. In some places, they’ll pay three dollars for a crab that comes out of Louisiana, compared to fifty cents for the same crab they’ll catch in their area. But that’s not the way it is anymore. We’re not doing well. We’re not doing well at all.

I talked to a guy who went out today whose expenses—his ice, groceries, fuel—came to nine-hundred-and-some dollars. He came back with, maybe, ten pounds of shrimp. And you don’t go out by yourself; you normally have a deck hand with you, and you can’t even pay them because there was no catch.

Like I told Terry in the article, we’ve always lived off our land. Fishing is in our blood. We do it all the time. Doctors down here, you know, you’ve been living too stressful, they tell you to go out every day, five, ten, thirty minutes—go out and fish. Whether you catch something or not, it’s that feel of having a fish on your line; it makes your adrenaline move. I guess that’s what our doctors consider therapy.

The Gulf Coast has a history of dealing with natural and un-natural disasters. Have responses to the two major recent catastrophes in the area—Hurricane Katrina and the Deep Water Horizon spill—been different in any way?

I’m fifty-four years old, and I’ve been through many hurricanes. Katrina was, I guess, a different animal. You came home and the roof was torn off your house. But wherever you live, there’s some catastrophe that’s a part of your life: people who live in Kansas and Oklahoma, they have tornadoes that come in and tear them apart. And you just keep going. Those things are a part of nature. They’re just part of human life, and we accept them.

But that oil spill was not a part of nature. It was created by humans. Years before the spill, the federal government knew there was a problem, knew risks were being taken, but nobody was interested.

Have you or your neighbors received any help from BP since April 2010?

I never received anything from BP because my restaurant was only open for ten months. They said there wasn’t enough time to prove a loss. But I think they should have tried to help us out just a little bit. They could have helped pay our light bill or something—just enough to get us through a rough time. But a lot of people never received any help. Here we are, two years down the road, and my business has dropped 50 percent. And still I’m not getting any help. I had to let go of a few employees.

It’s hard, you know, our area is really dead. There are people who have no jobs, people who’ll take anything. They’ll come in and say, look, I’ll scrub your building—anything—if you’ll just give me a hamburger, or a gallon of milk and bread, or cold cuts. Those are scenarios that a scientist will never see.

Terry Tempest Williams’s report from Louisiana, “The Gulf Between Us,” appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Orion. Photograph by J Henry Fair.

James Krupa on Responses to His Essay “Defending Darwin”

James Krupa
The March/April issue’s story about teaching evolutionary theory at the University of Kentucky has generated a significant reader response; the essay has also been reprinted in Slate, passed around the web, and resulted in several radio interviews. Here, Krupa tells of the e-mail he’s received from readers, both positive and negative.

In the days that followed the publication of my essay, I received 239 e-mails from 213 individuals. Ninety-six percent thanked me for the essay, 4 percent hated it. I received e-mails from many ministers and pastors, all of whom thanked me. I received e-mails from 8 individuals who consider themselves evangelical Christians, all of whom thanked me for clarifying that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. Several shared stories of being treated like outcasts for accepting evolution theory. One e-mail was most touching and sad: A young college student told me that she has always been fascinated by evolution, and has been studying it since she was a child. But, as a result, a strain exists between her and her family, all of whom reject evolution. Most sad, she told me that after posting my essay on Facebook, 40 percent of her friends “unfriended” her.

I received 82 e-mails from teachers, from K-12 to the college level. Ninety-nine percent thanked me for the essay, and most agreed that evolution should be taught early in a course and continue as the theme throughout the semester. I received e-mails from teachers from 8 different states, including California, telling me that their teaching experiences are very similar to mine. In an odd way, I took comfort knowing that there are many of us out there trying to advance evolution education and facing the same problems. I received e-mails thanking me for telling the story of how Kentucky heroes Frank McVey, William Funkhouser, Arthur Miller, and Glanville Terrell defended academic freedom and stopped an anti-evolution bill from becoming law. Several were delighted and surprised to learn that Kentucky-born John Scopes graduated from the University of Kentucky.

I fully anticipated negative reactions, and I was not let down. I was told I am arrogant, condescending, combative, confrontational, and a lousy teacher. I was told I don’t understand evolution. I was told I should be embarrassed that I do not know the difference between a monkey and a chimp (I most assuredly do). I was told I am wrong to say monkeys and humans share a common ancestor (they do, but not in the recent past; all primates share a common ancestor). Several criticized me for not explaining to my students all the nuances of science and evolution. (Belabored explanations that go into too great a depth are one of the best ways to bore and lost students; the art of teaching freshman non-majors’ classes, as well as the art of teaching, is to avoid doing this. As either Socrates or Plutarch explained, and I paraphrase, the purpose of education is not the filling of the vessel, but the lighting of the flame.) Several told me evolution is not a theory but a law, and that I should know better. One individual told me evolution is not a theory but a “grand principle.” Several told me I clearly do not know the correct definitions of theory or fact.

Although I tried my best not to respond to negative e-mails, I did a few times. These were mostly to explain that my definitions of theory and fact are those provided by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Several e-mails informed me that there is no evidence for evolution, and that “intelligent design” is science that I have to teach as well.

What I take from the reactions I received is that many folks are passionately concerned that we provide to students the best science education—including evolution education—we possibly can. I was heartened by how many told me that they are able to maintain their religious beliefs and accept evolution with no feeling of conflict. Even though the message was clear that there are those whose minds are forever closed to the reality of evolution, many more are open-minded and anxious to know more.

When all is said and done, if my essay convinced just one person that they can accept evolution without it being at odds with their religious beliefs, I will consider this project a success. And if just one person realized the importance of science education (and evolution education in particular), I will also consider this project a success. Based on the reactions I received, I feel reason for hope that more will accept evolution in the future.

James J. Krupa has won several national and state teaching awards, as well as every major teaching award at the University of Kentucky, where he is a tenured professor.

Five Questions for Gar Alperovitz

This month, the author and activist Gar Alperovitz, along with a group of more than 350 academics, writers, business people, and policy-makers announced the launch of an initiative called The Next System Project. A conversation with Alperovitz appeared in the May/June – July/August 2014 issue of Orion (“The Cooperative Economy”).

The Next System Project is an effort to “think boldly about what is required to deal with the systemic difficulties facing the United States.” Can you tell us more about it?

It is increasingly obvious to many people that the United States is in a period of social, political, economic, and environmental crisis. On issues of equality, poverty, racial justice, democracy, liberty, and the environment—just to name a few—progress appears to be stalled, or even reversed. Indeed, in many, if not most, important areas, trends have been getting worse for the past three decades or more. It’s also clear that this is no ordinary crisis, at least not one that can be addressed through traditional strategies. The problems run much deeper, and are best understood as part of a deeply rooted, systemic crisis.

A systemic crisis requires systemic answers, and the Next System Project seeks to begin a serious nationwide conversation about what a genuine alternative system—one capable of sustaining democracy, liberty, and equality within ecological limits—might actually look like.

The Next System Project draws an important distinction between systemic challenges and political, economic, or cultural challenges. Climate change, for instance, is a systemic challenge—not simply a political one. Do humans have any previous experience in dealing with problems like this?

There was a time in American history when significant-scale problems could be addressed within the existing system. The New Deal, the Great Society, and early environmental legislation were major accomplishments that were emblematic of this. Not only has that time clearly passed, there is mounting evidence that the conditions that enabled such advances were highly exceptional and not likely to be repeated.

Climate change is perhaps the best example: It’s a crisis that threatens the very existence of our species, and yet for decades we’ve been unable to adequately confront the threat. We are now approaching the point of no return, whereby some dangerous degree of climate change appears inevitable.

There are obviously no guarantees that systemic change can be achieved, even over an extended period of time. But history is full of examples of people coming together to confront seemingly insurmountable problems and, over time, achieving far-reaching change. Just in recent decades, who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet-style communism? Or the end of white supremacy and the Apartheid system in South Africa? Or the crumble of dictatorships across Latin America?

It’s impossible to know how far we can go toward halting climate change and achieving other important goals if we get truly serious about the sources of the problems.

As you said earlier, “systemic crisis require systemic answers.” Are there any examples of these kinds of solutions in play in the world right now?

Change almost always begins at the bottom. Precisely because of the failings of the existing system, around the country (and throughout the world) we are seeing the steady build-up of new experiments and new proposals, new ideas and new activism, and above all a new basis for hope.

Worker-owned firms, for instance, are taking root in several American cities and regions, many of which are inspired by the Mondragón cooperative network (Mondragón offers an alternative to large, for-profit multinational corporations; read more about it in the May/June – July/August 2014 issue). Likewise, in Boulder, Colorado, a powerful movement to put private utilities in the hands of citizens offers the promise of dealing with local sources of global warming.

Urban farming, regional foodsheds, and food hubs—some with important alternative ownership and operational models—are also proliferating around the country. Socially responsible small businesses are forming and gaining legal recognition, and they’re coming together in political and economic alliances.

The list goes on. All of these experiments and models point to different ways of organizing our economic life, ways that begin to suggest some of the elements of a very different system.

How will The Next System Project weave individual initiatives like these into a comprehensive whole?

The first goal of our project is to help legitimate and encourage public discussion of these critical issues. Many on-the-ground practitioners and activists doing this work on a daily basis have important ideas about systemic change—and especially about how, step by step, we might get to an alternative system from the existing one.

There are also many writers and academics who have developed, or are developing, alternative systemic models. One of the goals of the Next System Project is to bring all of these people together in a discussion about how systemic thinking can influence local practice. At this stage, what we need are many, many alternative views—and a far-ranging and open debate, from which, one day, a truly democratic and ecologically sustainable future can emerge.

How can individuals get involved with The Next System Project, and what should we expect in the coming months?

Going forward, the project aims to broaden the discussion around the question: “What comes next?” We will be hosting a national webinar on May 20th; register here.

Through targeted research and on-the-ground engagement, we are also hoping develop plans to explore how a city, a state, a region, and ultimately the nation might incorporate “next-system” thinking. The goal is informed discussion of concrete alternatives, so that we can radically expand the boundaries of political debate in the United States.

People from all walks of life have added their names to the call for a wide-ranging discussion of the systemic crisis, and for the need to begin to define systemic alternatives. To read our statement on the crisis, and to add your name, visit the Next System Project website at www.thenextsystem.org.