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Parks and Reconciliation

To attract minorities, the national parks need some better ideas

confederate soldiers
Larry Darling

Last week, I wrote about the problems the National Park Service is having with hiring people of color. Despite having a major presence in predominantly black and brown cities like Washington, D.C., the Service’s workforce is around 80 percent white across the nation, even in places like New York City. This is obviously not a good look for a taxpayer-funded federal agency that is headed into its 100-year anniversary.

When I spoke with David Vela, the Park Service's associate director for workforce, relevancy, and inclusion, about why that is, he said of the problem, “We know that. We own that and we are developing strategies to deal with it.”

We talked quite a bit about those strategies in our discussion, which ran nearly 60 minutes. I asked about how they addressed legacy racism and current barriers that keep people of color away not only from the parks, but also from park jobs. It was the kind of conversation that helps you understand perfectly well why the Park Service has failed to connect with people who aren’t white.

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics


Rich countries: Sure, climate change will screw poor countries, but what about us?

Citizens rescue a dog from the flood of November 2, 2011 in Bangkok, Thailand.

The new report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that we are already feeling the pain of global warming across the planet. Heat waves and drought are increasingly in rhythm in every major continent, including our own, while severe flooding is more frequently becoming the business in Africa. If you don’t want to read the IPCC’s 2,500-plus page report, here’s the shorter version: Climate fuckery is not futuristic; we have been fucking up the atmosphere; it is fucking us back.

But, as I wrote recently, there are certain people -- particularly those with large concentrations of melanin in their skin, and smaller concentrations of money in the bank -- who are suffering more of that fuckery than their less-melanated, more-resourced counterparts.

The IPCC’s latest makes note of this. Disturbingly, the report’s authors wanted to keep this critical information out of the much-shorter IPCC executive summary -- the part that’s supposed to be the most accessible to the public and lawmakers.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Science alone can’t save us, says famous climate scientist (gulp)


Last week, I sounded off in response to a new climate change report released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The New York Times called the report a “sharper, clearer, and more accessible” explanation of climate change “than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date.” To me, and many others, it read like a rehash of the dynasty of reports we’ve already read about the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real. I found few traces of urgency, but rather an appeal that lets most people and fossil fuel companies off the hook by assuming that the problem is that scientists simply haven’t articulated their case clearly enough.

In other words, it’s the kind of document the artist Basquiat would’ve slapped a fat "SAMO©" on.

Those scientists deserve the chance to respond. I reached out to one of the authors of the report, Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, the wife of an evangelical Christian minister and one scientist who’s been particularly effective in communicating climate change fuckery (that would be my word, not hers) beyond the science-geekspeak.

In our conversation, I learned, among other things, why the AAAS committee chose that particular focus for the report (hint: it used science!). Here are some snippets:


Want to attract a new generation to the national parks? Find a few new rangers.

National Park Service

Come 2016, the National Park Service will turn 100 years old. In anticipation of the centennial milestone, the agency announced this week a new public engagement campaign to “reintroduce the national parks … to a new generation of Americans.”

This is the federal agency responsible for not just Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but also the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Governor’s Island in New York City, which holds the Statue of Liberty. Still, it is having a hell of a time attracting young people to the parks, particularly people of color.

Shelton Johnson, an African American ranger at Yosemite National Park in California, talked about the challenge of getting black youth into the great outdoors in Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. “How do I get them here?” Johnson asked. “How do I let them know about the buffalo soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here? How do I make that bridge, and make it shorter and stronger? Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them."

Part of the problem is that, despite the mosaic of nationalities of people who’ve frequented the parks, there’s not a lot of people like Johnson putting that uniform on. The staffing at the Park Service has remained perpetually and overbearingly white throughout its century-long history.


Koch blocked

Dirty Kochs will dish out millions for polluting this Texas town

Alan Cordova

The U.S. Department of Justice just slapped another polluter around. Yesterday, Justice officials ordered the Koch brothers-owned Flint Hills Resources company to pay $350,000 in Clean Air Act fines for spewing thousands of tons of hazardous air pollutants from one of its chemical plants in Port Arthur, Texas. The company must also spend upwards of $30 million on equipment upgrades to reduce its emissions for particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide -- agents of asthma, lung disease, and death, respectively.

This is no small matter for the Gulf Coast city, about 90 minutes east of Houston. This is the dirtiest of the dirtiest areas in America. It’s where where the Keystone XL pipeline is scheduled to dump tar-sands oil from Canada. The Koch bros’ plant is just one of a gaggle of petrochemical processing facilities, oil refineries, waste incinerators, and gas pipelines strangling Port Arthur, a city also beset by ghastly levels of lung disease and cancer. Then there’s the social asphyxiation of poverty and racism on the predominantly black and Latino city.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Please, scientists: Tell us how you really feel about climate change


The apocalypse is always usefully cast into the future -- unless you happen to live in Mauritius, or Jamaica, or the many other perilous spots. - Zadie Smith

On Monday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science hit us with a report that is supposed to change the conversation around climate change. This report, called “What We Know,” is a “sharper, clearer, and more accessible” explanation of climate change “than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date,” according to Justin Gillis at the New York Times.

James McCarthy, one of the report’s authors, said in a statement that we need this report because, “Even among members of the broader public who already know about the evidence for climate change and what is causing it, some do not know the degree to which many climate scientists are concerned about the risks of possibly rapid and abrupt climate change.”

Reading it, though, I have to admit that I didn’t find much different than any other report on climate destabilization from at least the last five years. I’m sorry. That’s not meant to dis the scientists who I’m sure worked hard to create this document. They are experts on this crisis and they should be taken seriously. That said, I’m lost on how this will win them new followers.

Many Americans believe, no doubt, that climate change is a thing, and that it’s happening in one way or another. But what is that thing? And is it fucking with us yet? Because believing that climate change exists doesn’t do anything to motivate change unless we’re experiencing its fuckery ourselves.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Coal companies get hit where it counts for polluting Appalachian water supplies

Newtown Graffiti

Alpha Natural Resources, Inc.’s coal mining operations have been ruining the rivers and water supplies of Appalachian communities since 2006, and probably a lot longer than that. That could soon come to an end, however: The federal government just slapped the company with one of the largest fines ever levied under the Clean Water Act, and handed it strict orders to clean up its business.

According to a consent decree handed down by the Department of Justice this week, Alpha has illegally dumped coal waste into waterways over 6,200 times. The problem was systemic, to say the least: These violations occurred at close to 80 different facilities across five states along the Appalachian Mountains, all under the direction of Alpha Natural Resources, which is the second largest coal producer in the nation.

The fines, levied by the Environmental Protection Agency, will collectively cost Alpha roughly $27 million. The consent decree requires the company to spend an additional $200 million for cleanup and equipment upgrades. And that’s gonna hurt. Alpha hasn’t turned a profit for its coal work since July of last year, and has been running a steep deficit ever since.


Attn. babies: Don’t be born poor and black in North Carolina

Julio Martínez

In North Carolina, scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency have found a "stable and negative association" between poor birth outcomes among women and their exposure to air pollution. That's pretty much common knowledge, if not common sense, no matter what state or country you look at. But the EPA scientists also noted that "more socially disadvantaged populations are at a greater risk," even when subjected to the same levels of air pollutants.

Translation: If you have the misfortune of being born poor and black in North Carolina, you’re more likely to arrive in this world underweight and undernourished, on top of being underprivileged. Polluted air only makes your situation worse.

Read more: Cities


Dyin’ to live: Biggie Smalls and the silent killers in urban America

Matt Handy

My Momma got cancer in her breast,
Don't ask me why I'm motherfucking stressed, things done changed

-- The Notorious B.I.G., in “Things Done Changed” from the album Ready to Die

Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary of the death of “Brooklyn’s finest” hip hop artist, The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, who was gunned down in Los Angeles when he was just 24 years old.

Album cover: Ready to DieBiggie’s murder seemed part of some self-fulfilling prophecy that God perhaps took too seriously. His inaugural 1994 album, Ready to Die, is a series of tone poems illustrating the kind of drug war gunplay that would eventually claim him as a homicide statistic. The Brooklyn rapper imagines multiple scenarios under which his death might occur: In a shootout with cops while pursuing pathways out of poverty that President Obama would not approve of (“Gimme The Loot”); killed by jealous acquaintances who want to rob him for his riches (“Warning”); or, by his own finger on the trigger (“Suicidal Thoughts”).

Most of my friends (and Biggie fans in general, I’m sure) took the album as pure artistic liberty, no different than Martin Scorsese’s cinematic canon on mafia life. We no sooner thought that Biggie would actually die in a shootout than we did Robert De Niro would get shot like his character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. When Big, whose birth name was Christopher Wallace, was actually killed by gunfire, it stunk too much of life imitating art.

But of all the ways Big imagined himself dying on that album, none of them reflected the real climate of death that existed in Brooklyn at the time, or even today. Deaths for African Americans in Brooklyn usually look less like Wallace's murder and more like his mother's life. When he rapped about his Momma having breast cancer, that was true. Voletta Wallace survived two bouts with the deadly disease, in both cases proving that she was not yet ready to die.

Read more: Cities, Living


Henry David Thoreau would have given “12 Years a Slave” the Oscar for best picture, too

12 yrs a slave 2
Fox Searchlight

I’m glad to see that 12 Years a Slave won a few well-deserved Oscars Sunday night, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Those who’ve been following me know that I used this film as one of the starting points for my blog, and as a lens for examining the intersection between environmentalism and social justice. I’ve been curious if there were others who saw in the movie the same crimes against nature I saw, along with the crimes against black people.

The film includes scenes of enslaved Africans hacking away at dense fields of sugarcane stalks, and chopping away trees in the plush forests of Louisiana, all at whip- and gunpoint, and all in efforts to expand the plantation state. This, to me, made it clear that director Steve McQueen was trying to show not only how slavery exploited and devastated African Americans, but also how it did the same to the American environment. He said as much when describing his cinematic vision: “The story is about the environment, and how individuals have to make sense of it, how we locate the self in events.”

McQueen drew his inspiration from the book on which the film was based: The memoir of Solomon Northup, an African American born free but sold into slavery. And as it turns out, there were many people during Northup’s time who were making the same observations about how slavery was wrecking the nation racially, physically, and biologically. Among them was Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century naturalist and political philosopher.

Read more: Food, Living