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On a rainy September 13, 1814, British warships sent a downpour of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, relentlessly pounding the American fort for 25 hours. The bombardment, known as the Battle of Baltimore, came only weeks after the British had attacked Washington, D.C., burning the Capitol, the Treasury and the President's house. It was another chapter in the ongoing War of 1812.
A week earlier, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had boarded the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay in hopes of persuading the British to release a friend who had recently been arrested. Key's tactics were successful, but because he and his companions had gained knowledge of the impending attack on Baltimore, the British did not let them go. They allowed the Americans to return to their own vessel but continued guarding them. Under their scrutiny, Key watched on September 13 as the barrage of Fort McHenry began eight miles away.
"It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone," Key wrote later. But when darkness arrived, Key saw only red erupting in the night sky. Given the scale of the attack, he was certain the British would win. The hours passed slowly, but in the clearing smoke of "the dawn's early light" on September 14, he saw the American flag—not the British Union Jack—flying over the fort, announcing an American victory.
Key put his thoughts on paper while still on board the ship, setting his words to the tune of a popular English song. His brother-in-law, commander of a militia at Fort McHenry, read Key's work and had it distributed under the name "Defence of Fort M'Henry." The Baltimore Patriot newspaper soon printed it, and within weeks, Key's poem, now called "The Star-Spangled Banner," appeared in print across the country, immortalizing his words—and forever naming the flag it celebrated.
Nearly two centuries later, the flag that inspired Key still survives, though fragile and worn by the years. To preserve this American icon, experts at the National Museum of American History recently completed an eight-year conservation treatment with funds from Polo Ralph Lauren, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Congress. And when the museum reopens in summer 2008, the Star-Spangled Banner will be its centerpiece, displayed in its own state-of-the-art gallery.
"The Star-Spangled Banner is a symbol of American history that ranks with the Statue of Liberty and the Charters of Freedom," says Brent D. Glass, the museum's director. "The fact that it has been entrusted to the National Museum of American History is an honor."
Started in 1996, the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project—which includes the flag's conservation and the creation of its new display in the renovated museum—was planned with the help of historians, conservators, curators, engineers and organic scientists. With the construction of the conservation lab completed in 1999, conservators began their work. Over the next several years, they clipped 1.7 million stitches from the flag to remove a linen backing that had been added in 1914, lifted debris from the flag using dry cosmetic sponges and brushed it with an acetone-water mixture to remove soils embedded in fibers. Finally, they added a sheer polyester backing to help support the flag.
"Our goal was to extend [the flag's] usable lifetime," says Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the conservator for the project. The intent was never to make the flag look as it did when it first flew over Fort McHenry, she says. "We didn't want to change any of the history written on the artifact by stains and soil. Those marks tell the flag's story."
While the conservators worked, the public looked on. Over the years, more than 12 million people peered into the museum's glass conservation lab, watching the progress.
"The Star-Spangled Banner resonates with people in different ways, for different reasons," says Kathleen Kendrick, curator for the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project. "It's exciting to realize that you're looking at the very same flag that Francis Scott Key saw on that September morning in 1814. But the Star-Spangled Banner is more than an artifact—it's also a national symbol. It evokes powerful emotions and ideas about what it means to be an American."
Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of American History. Smithsonian photographers created this composite image of the Star-Spangled Banner in 2004 from 73 separate photographs. The flag's large size (30-by-34 feet) prevented photographers from capturing it in one image while conservators worked on it in the specially-built conservation lab. (original image)
Image by Photo by Thomas Arledge, courtesy of the National Museum of American History. Experts at the National Museum of American History recently completed an eight-year conservation treatment of the Star-Spangled Banner, which included removing a linen backing and cleaning the flag. The photo above shows a detail of the flag as it looks today. (original image)
Image by Photo by Thomas Arledge, courtesy of the National Museum of American History. "Our goal was to extend [the flag's] useable lifetime,"says Suzanne Thomassen-Kruass, the conservator for the Star-Spangled Banner project. "We didn't want to change any of the history written on the artifact by stains and soil," she says. "Those marks tell the flag's story." The photo above shows a portion of the flag as it looks today. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of American History. When the National Museum of American History reopens in summer 2008, it will include a state-of-the-art gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner, as seen in this architectural rendering. Protected by a glass wall, the banner will lie on a table, displayed according to the U.S. flag code. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society. Knowing that Fort McHenry was a likely target for the British during the War of 1812, Maj. George Armistead wanted a flag large enough so the enemy would "have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum. Maj. George Armistead commissioned Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flagmaker, to make a 15-star, 15-stripe garrison flag in 1813 that would later be celebrated as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Pickersgill also made a smaller storm flag, likely in the same design, and received $574.44 for both pieces. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum. The Flag House in Baltimore, Maryland, is the 1793 home of Mary Pickersgill, the woman who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner. Eric Voboril, director of programs and collections at the Flag House, says, "Mary wasn't just a woman making a flag. She was a widowed woman running her own business, trying to make good in a very difficult time." (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of American History. This 1816 print by J.Bower depicts the bombardment of Fort McHenry, known as the Battle of Baltimore. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD. "It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone," said Francis Scott Key when describing the Battle of Baltimore. The poem he composed after witnessing the bombardment in 1814 became America's national anthem in 1931. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. This 1873 image is the first known photograph taken of the Star-Spangled Banner. It was made at the Boston Navy Yard on June 21, 1873. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of American History. The Star-Spangled Banner arrived at the Smithsonian on July 6, 1907, and was displayed and photographed at the Smithsonian Institution Building that same day. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum. On the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore, 6,500 children dressed in red, white and blue formed a living flag at Fort McHenry. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of American History. In 1914, the Smithsonian hired Amelia Fowler to replace the canvas backing that had been added to the flag in 1873. Having worked on historic flags for the United States Naval Academy, Fowler had patented a method of supporting fragile flags with a linen support that required a honeycomb pattern of stitches. With the help of ten needlewomen, Fowler spent eight weeks on the flag, receiving $1,243 for the materials and work. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum. The Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, features a glass window made in the exact dimensions of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry nearly 200 years ago. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the National Park Service. Dressed in replica clothing of the early 19th century, the Fort McHenry Guard demonstrates its skills. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the National Park Service. This aerial photo shows star-shaped Fort McHenry, the location of the Battle of Baltimore on September 13-14, 1814. (original image)
The Flag's Beginnings
The Star-Spangled Banner's history starts not with Francis Scott Key, but a year earlier with Maj. George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry. Knowing that his fort was a likely British target, Armistead told the commander of Baltimore defenses in July 1813 that he needed a flag—a big one. "We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy…except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."
Armistead soon hired a 29-year-old widow and professional flagmaker, Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore, Maryland, to make a garrison flag measuring 30 by 42 feet with 15 stars and 15 stripes (each star and stripe representing a state). A large flag, but one not unusual for the time. Over the next six weeks, Mary, her daughter, three of Mary's nieces, a 13-year-old indentured servant and possibly Mary's mother Rebecca Young worked 10-hour days sewing the flag, using 300 yards of English wool bunting. They made the stars, each measuring two feet in diameter, from cotton—a luxury item at the time. Initially they worked from Mary's home (now a private museum known as the Flag House), but as their work progressed they needed more room and had to move to Claggett's brewery across the street. On August 19, 1813, the flag was delivered to Fort McHenry.
For making the Star-Spangled Banner, Mary was paid $405.90. She received another $168.54 for sewing a smaller (17 by 25 feet) storm flag, likely using the same design. It was this storm flag—not the garrison flag now known as the Star-Spangled Banner—which actually flew during the battle. The garrison flag, according to eyewitness accounts, wasn't raised until the morning.
After the Battle of Baltimore
Armistead remained in command of Fort McHenry for the rest of his life. Historians are not sure how the Armistead family came into possession of the flag, but upon Armistead's death in 1818, his wife Louisa inherited it. It is she who is thought to have sewed the red upside-down "V" on the flag, beginning the stitches for the letter "A." She is also thought to have begun the tradition of giving pieces of the flag away to honor her husband's memory, as well as the memories of the soldiers who defended the fort under his command.
When Louisa died in 1861, she passed the flag down to their daughter Georgiana Armistead Appleton over the legal objections of their son. "Georgiana was the only child born at the fort, and she was named for her father," says Thomassen-Krauss. "Louisa wanted Georgiana to have it."
The Missing Pieces
In 1873, Georgiana loaned the flag to George Preble, a flag historian who until that time had thought the flag was lost. That same year, Preble had the first known photograph of it taken at the Boston Navy Yard and exhibited it at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, where he stored it until 1876.
While the Star-Spangled Banner was in Preble's care, Georgiana allowed him to give away pieces of the flag as he saw fit. Georgiana, herself, had given away cuttings of the flag to other Armistead descendants, as well as family friends. She once noted, "[H]ad we given all that we have been importuned for little would be left to show." This family tradition continued through 1880 with Armistead's grandson giving away the last documented piece, says Thomassen-Krauss.
Several of these cuttings from the Star-Spangled Banner have been located over the years, including about a dozen that are owned by the American History Museum. "We're aware of at least a dozen more that exist in other museums and private collections," says Kendrick.
But a missing 15th star has never been found. "There's a legend that the star was buried with one of the soldiers from Fort McHenry; another says that it was given to Abraham Lincoln," says Kendrick. "But no real evidence has surfaced to support these stories, and the true fate of the star remains one of the Smithsonian's great unsolved mysteries."
100 Years at the Smithsonian
After Georgiana's death, the flag passed to Eben Appleton, Armistead's grandson, who loaned it to the city of Baltimore for the 1880 sesquicentennial celebration. It then remained in a safe-deposit vault in New York City until Appleton loaned it to the Smithsonian in 1907. Five years later, he made the gift permanent, saying he wanted it to belong "to the Institution in the country where it could be conveniently seen by the public and where it would be well cared for."
When the flag arrived at the Smithsonian it was smaller (30 by 34 feet), damaged from years of use at the fort and from pieces being removed as souvenirs. Recognizing its need for repair, the Smithsonian hired Amelia Fowler, an embroidery teacher and well-known flag preserver, in 1914 to replace the canvas backing that had been added in 1873. Having worked on historic flags for the United States Naval Academy, Fowler had patented a method of supporting fragile flags with a linen backing that required a honeycomb pattern of stitches. With the help of ten needlewomen, Fowler spent eight weeks on the flag, receiving $1,243 for the materials and work.
For the next 50 years, with the exception of a brief move during World War II, the Star-Spangled Banner was displayed in what is now the Arts and Industries Building. Because of the flag's size and the dimensions of the glass case it was displayed in, the public never saw the entire flag while it was housed in this location.
That changed after architects designed the new National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, with space to allow the flag to hang. The Star-Spangled Banner remained in Flag Hall from 1964 until 1999, when it was moved to the conservation lab.
With the recent completion of the project, the Star-Spangled Banner will remain an icon of American history that can still be seen by the public. Says Glass, "The survival of this flag for nearly 200 years is a visible testimony to the strength and perseverance of this nation, and we hope that it will inspire many more generations to come."
Here's one reason I love my job: I get to read the museum's blog posts before you do.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing about 15 blog posts related to the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act for publication. In the process, I've been struck by the objects in our collection that help tell diverse stories of disability, as well as the ways in which each blogger has interpreted these pieces of material culture. For example, we have a tactile model of George Washington's Mt. Vernon used to teach students who were blind or had low vision about the first president, a turquoise blue iron lung used to help patients with polio breathe in the 1930s, and t-shirts and buttons worn by about 150 disability rights activists who occupied a federal office in San Francisco for 25 days until President Jimmy Carter's administration agreed to implement a law protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
Exposure to these objects and stories has made me think differently about American history and culture. As diverse as these objects and stories are, I know there are even more perspectives to consider, voices to include, and ways to commemorate the 25th anniversary of this landmark piece of legislation.
That's why I'm excited for #DisabilityStories, an international conversation on Twitter and other social networks that will take place on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Join this museum, the Kennedy Center's Office of VSA and Accessibility, the U.S. National Archives, and many more in sharing #DisabilityStories in the form of photos, facts, links, videos, and conversation on social media. The conversation will highlight that stories of people with disabilities are everywhere—including some unexpected places—and they're important. These stories invite reflection, questions, connections, and celebration.
Interested in participating, whether by following along or chiming in to share your own thoughts? First, add the event to your calendar. Our handy calendar system allows you to save the event to your Apple, Yahoo, Windows, or Google calendar. Second, read on to learn more about the day.
Who's invited? Everyone. The public, galleries, libraries, archives, museums, science centers, historic sites, cultural organizations, and communities—everyone—is invited share disability stories on July 15. These could be personal stories shared by individuals, links to favorite articles or books, resources for educators or parents, factoids, objects in museum collections, discussion questions, and more. It will be a bit of a jamboree.
Participants in #DisabilityStories are encouraged to follow the federal social media accessibility toolkit and other relevant guidelines to help insure that their contributions are accessible for people with disabilities. This is a great opportunity for me as a social media manager, as well as for members of the public who are social media users, to learn about best practices for accessibility on social media and the web.
Why July? July 26 is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Forty years ago this month, VSA embarked on a mission—to champion quality arts and arts education for and with people living with disabilities.
What stories should I share? Diverse ones. And you don't have to work at a museum, archive, or cultural center to participate. Here are a few things nearly anyone could add to the conversation.
- Give your favorite actor, author, artist, comedian, or musician a shout out. Mat Fraser of American Horror Story, for example, has produced the original piece "Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept in a Box."
- Share reflections on the depiction of people with disabilities in film, television (such as Star Trek or Doctor Who), and theater.
- Talk about a story that really moved you, made you ask questions, or helped you see the world differently.
- Tell your own story.
- Support and thank others whose stories you enjoy. Let your favorite museum, archive, or cultural center know you appreciate the #DisabilityStories they bring forward.
- Ask a question. Participating organizations will have curators, archivists, and experts on board to facilitate discussion and answer questions related to their missions.
When should I participate? The timing is flexible. With participants in all time zones, #DisabilityStories will take place all day. Drop in for a minute or stay for an hour. The schedule below provides an idea of just a few things to expect on Wednesday, but there will be plenty more.
Schedule for July 15:
All times are EDT.
- 10:30-11 a.m.: National Museum of American History Curator Katherine Ott (@amhistcurator) hosts a discussion about disability history and material culture. She'll also answer your questions about her work curating #DisabilityStories.
- 11 a.m. -12 p.m.: The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (@FDRLibrary) will share stories, facts, and photos from the presidential library dedicated to the nation's only physically disabled prsident.
- 12-1 p.m.: The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives (@Bush41Library) will discuss the process of expanding civil rights through the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- 1-2 p.m.: Part I: The Kennedy Center's Office of VSA and Accessibility (@VSAIntl) will share interviews with artists with disabilities who are featured in the 25/40 Celebration Championing the Arts exhibition at the Kennedy Center.
- 2-3 p.m.: Professor, blogger, and neuroqueer mom Ibby Grace (@tinygracenotes) leads a #DisabilityStories chat focusing on autism.
- 3-4 p.m.: Part II: Q&A with visual artists with disabilities from the 25/40 Celebration Focus Forward exhibition at the Kennedy Center (@VSAIntl) – Vito Bonnano (@VitoBonnanoArt), Emily Eifler (@EmilyEifler), Sarah Langsam (@SarahLangsam).
- 4-4:30 p.m.: Part III: The Kennedy Center's Office of VSA and Accessibility (@VSAIntl) features a Q&A with 25/40 Celebration performer Sean Forbes (@seanforbes).
- 4:30-5 p.m.: Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project (@DisVisibility) moderates a chat on the power of social media in telling #DisabilityStories. Watch this video to learn why Alice works with StoryCorps to collect and preserve disability stories.
Throughout the day:
- Culture Themes (@CultureThemes) will highlight the best content from across the museum, libraries, and archives field.
- At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (@amhistorymuseum), we'll share the stories of people, places, and objects connected to disability history. For example, we'll tweet about Mark O’Brien, who shared his story of living in an iron lung to inspire improvement in the rights and legal protection of the disabled community. We'll go even further back in American history to share the story of Patrick Henry's wife Mary, who had a mental illness.
- The National Archives (@USNatArchives) will share the stories of documents, such as the Braille letter carefully handwritten to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 by 13-year-old John Beaulieu.
- Disability.gov (@disabilitygov) will share stories and resources, focusing on the need for continued disability rights activism, people living with "No Boundaries," and more.
Never participated in a Twitter chat? Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it.
There are many articles providing tips on how to engage in a Twitter chat. The most important thing is to follow the conversation by looking at tweets with the hashtag #DisabilityStories using Twitter's search function. If there are a lot of people tweeting, the conversation may move quickly. But don't worry about reading every single tweet. Use the hashtag to identify tweeters you want to follow or interact with, follow links that look interesting, and explore the topic. To add your own voice to the conversation, make sure to use the hashtag #DisabilityStories in every tweet, including the pound sign. Learning to participate in Twitter chats can be a great way to connect with professional contacts (teachers, in particular, are well known for high quality Twitter chats) or people who share your hobbies and interests.
But it's more than just one day. Throughout the day, relationships will form and tighten, Twitter lists will grow, resources will be bookmarked, and perspectives will shift. Lasting results will include future blog posts delving into key topics and questions that resonated in conversation on July 15. Themes emerging from the online chat will continue to re-surface during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 40th anniversary of the VSA.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.
We zigzag slowly in our skiff around the shallow coral heads surrounding Pohnpei. The island, a little smaller than New York City, is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. It is nestled in a vast tapestry of coral reefs. Beyond the breakers, the Pacific stretches 5,578 miles to California. A stingray dashes in front of us, flying underwater like a butterfly alongside our bow.
Our destination is Nan Madol, near the southern side of the island, the only ancient city ever built atop of a coral reef. Its imposing yet graceful ruins are made of stones and columns so heavy that no one has figured out how it was built. Besides the elegance of the walls and platforms, there is no carving, no art – nothing except legend to remember the people, called the Saudeleur, who ruled the island for more than a millennium. They were deeply religious and sometimes cruel, and modern Pohnpeians view the ruins as a sacred and scary place where spirits own the night.
Abandoned centuries ago and now mostly covered with jungle, Nan Madol may soon be getting a makeover. Before I explore it, I stop to discuss its future with the man who holds sway over this part of Pohnpei.
We nuzzle up to land and jump onto the remnants of a sea wall. I follow Rufino Mauricio, Pohnpei’s only archaeologist, along a path and up a hill to what appears to be a warehouse, painted white with a corrugated metal roof. It’s known here as the Tin Palace. There is a small house tacked on the end, with flowering bushes here and there. A gaggle of dogs welcome us noisily. This is the residence of the Nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw, the primus inter pares among the five traditional paramount chiefs who preside over a delightfully complex social structure that underpins Pohnpei's vibrant native culture.
Aside from Easter Island, Nan Madol is the main archaeological site in Oceania that is made up of huge rocks. But while Easter Island gets 50,000 visitors a year, Nan Madol sees fewer than 1,000. Before I left on this trip, Jeff Morgan, director of the Global Heritage Fund of Palo Alto, California, had told me he wanted to fund a rehabilitation program. But before anything can be done, ownership issues that blocked previous rehabilitation efforts would have to be resolved—the state government and the Nahnmwarki both claim sovereignty over the ruins. A resolution would pave the way for Nan Madol to become a Unesco World Heritage site, increasing the flow of visitors and grants.
“Nan Madol is one of the most significant sites not yet on the World Heritage List,” says Richard Engelhart, an archaeologist and former Unesco adviser for Asia and the Pacific.
Mauricio and I are a bit nervous: an audience with the Nahnmwarki is best arranged through Pohnpei’s governor, John Ehsa. A day earlier, Ehsa had pledged to support the Global Heritage Fund’s idea and promised to arrange an audience with the Nahnmwarki so that I could interview him about the plan—but then Ehsa didn’t come through on his promise. Ehsa had noted that a previous attempt to clean up the ruins had foundered because the Japanese donors had not followed proper protocol with the Nahnmwarki.
Sadly, neither do I. It’s unthinkable to arrive without a tribute, but the bottle of Tasmanian wine I brought for the occasion slipped out of my hand and shattered on the rocks as I got off the boat. Mauricio, who holds a lesser traditional title, is mortified: he didn’t know we were stopping to see the chief on our way to the ruins, so he is empty-handed too.
Arriving empty-handed without an appointment is the height of rudeness, he grumbles.
Mauricio, who, as I am, is dripping with sweat in Ponhpei’s steamy equatorial heat, informs the chief’s wife of our arrival.
The Nahnmwarki agrees to see us and we walk back to the other end of the building so we can make our entry from the visitors’ side. Mauricio, who earned a PhD from the University of Oregon with a thesis on Nan Madol, kneels. He addresses the chief, a former teacher and school bus driver, who finishes buttoning up a russet aloha shirt and tan shorts and sits at the head of a small staircase. He has short, thick hair and, like most people in Pohnpei, his teeth are stained by betel nut, which he chews during out meeting, occasionally walking over to the door to spit.
Image by Christopher Pala. Aside from Easter Island, Nan Madol is the main archaeological site in Oceania that is made up of huge rocks. But while Easter Island gets 50,000 visitors a year, Nan Madol sees fewer than 1,000. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. From atop the outside walls of Nandowas, one can see the ruins ofbreakwaters and the vast reef flats beyond. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. The Nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw is among the five traditional paramount chiefs who preside over a delightfully complex social structure. The state government and the Nahnmwarki both claim sovereignty over the Nan Madol ruins. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. Rufino Mauricio is Pohnpei's only archaeologist. He is also the director of the national archives. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. The inner courtyards at Nandowas, the most visited place in the city,have been kept clear of intrusive vegetation. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. The mortuary at Nandowas is where kings were laid in state before beingburied on other islands. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. Beyond easily accessible Nandowas, kayak is the best way to discover therest of the city. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. The cornerstone Nandowas is believed to weigh up to 60 tons. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. It remains a mystery how the Nan Madol civilization was able to build Nandowas without pulleys, levers or metal. (original image)
Image by Christopher Pala. The walls at Nandowas remain in excellent condition. (original image)
Through Mauricio, who translates, I inquire: Would the Nahnmwarki be interested in setting aside old grievances and cooperating with the state and other stakeholders in order to take advantage of this opportunity?
“I would love to see Nan Madol rehabilitated, but it has to be under my supervision,” he replies, later adding, “All funding should go through the Madolenihmw municipal government, not the Pohnpei state government.” The municipal government is the heir to the Nahnmwarki’s rule.
On the way back, Mauricio, who is director of the national archives, says thoughtfully, “It’s a reasonable request. Certainly, the national government [of the Federated States of Micronesia] would have no objection.”
Back on the skiff, Augustine Kohler, the state historical preservation officer and himself the son of another of Pohnpei’s five Nahnmwarkis, says, “It could work.”
We head for the ruins in the boat to take a look at what kind of rehabilitation would be appropriate. On the way, Mauricio explains that Nan Madol is composed of 92 artificial islands spread over 200 acres abutting Pohnpei’s mangrove-covered shore. Most of it was built from the 13th to the 17th centuries by the Saudeleurs, descendants of two brothers of unknown provenance who founded a religious community in the sixth century focused on the adoration of the sea. On their third attempt to build their political, religious and residential center, they settled on this patch of coral flats. They and their successors brought from the other side of the island columns of black lava rock up to 20 feet long that are naturally pentagonal or hexagonal and straight. They used them in a log cabin formation to build outer walls as well as foundations filled in with lumps of coral to create elevated platforms where traditional thatched structures were used as lodgings. Even with all the sunshine in the world washing over the thick green jungle and aquamarine water beyond, the unadorned black architecture is intimidating.
The tyrannical last Saudeleur ruler was overthrown by an outsider named Isohkelekel who instituted the system of multiple chiefs that remains today. The Nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw is directly descended from him. Because of this bloodline, most Pohnpeians feel he is the legitimate supervisor of the ruins.
As we approach the first building, Mauricio observes, “We don’t know how they brought the columns here and we don’t know how they lifted them up to build the walls. Most Pohnpeians are content to believe they used magic to fly them.”
The easiest way to see Nan Madol is to take a cab from Kolonia, the little capital of Pohnpei, park on an unmarked spot and walk for nearly a mile through a primitive jungle path. When you arrive, only a channel separates you from the main building, the Nandawas. Representatives of the Nahnmwarki with a boat are on hand to collect $3 and take you across. The odds are good that you will have the place to yourself.
Having your own boat at high tide allows you to go much farther. We glide though the channel, the outboard purring. The islands are covered with almost impenetrable jungle. A large component of the rehabilitation effort, if it happens, will be to clear brush to make the buildings accessible. The other component would be dredging the main channels so the ruins are accessible to boats at all times.
Many of the outer walls, usually just a few feet high, are intact. Mauricio points out the little island of Idehd, where priests fed turtle innards to an eel, the sea deity, kept in a well, before sharing among themselves the rest of the turtle as a sacrament. To this day eels are considered holy and never eaten. Then we pass Peikapw, where Isohkelekel resided after he overthrew the last Saudeleur. He eventually committed suicide there after discovering how old he looked when he saw his reflection in a pool, according to the oral history. After he died, Nan Madol was largely abandoned, though religious ceremonies were occasionally held there until the late 19th century.
As we continue, the channel gets narrower and shallower. We turn back to explore the city’s outer walls, still strong, and continue to the islet of Pahnwi, whose wall of huge, flat-sided stone rises 58 feet and encloses a tomb.
Our final stop is Nandowas, by far the most elaborate building. It’s the royal mortuary, with two sets of 25-foot-high walls whose gracefully up-swept corners cover an area greater than a football field. One cornerstone is estimated to weigh 50 tons. I step down into the moss-encrusted tomb. Eight columns form the basis of a roof that lets in shards of sunlight. I’m glad I’m not alone. The bodies of kings were placed here and later buried elsewhere.
On the way back, Mauricio remarks that, given Pohnpei’s population at the time was less than 30,000, the building of Nan Madol represented a much larger effort than the pyramids were for the Egyptians. The total weight of the black rocks moved is estimated at 750,000 metric tons, an average of 1,850 tons a year over four centuries. “Not bad for people who had no pulleys, no levers and no metal,” said Mauricio. Waving at the brush, he adds, “We need to clear all this out in at least some of the islands so we can appreciate the extraordinary effort that was put into this construction.”
The lavish villa sat overlooking the Bay of Naples, offering bright ocean views to the well-heeled Romans who came from across the empire to study. The estate's library was stocked with texts by prominent thinkers of the day, in particular a wealth of volumes by the philosopher Philodemus, an instructor of the poet Virgil.
But the seaside library also sat in the shadow of a volcano that was about to make terrible history.
The 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius is most famous for burying Pompeii, spectacularly preserving many artifacts—and residents—in that once bustling town south of Naples. The tumbling clouds of ash also entombed the nearby resort of Herculaneum, which is filled with its own wonders. During excavations there in 1752, diggers found a villa containing bundles of rolled scrolls, carbonized by the intense heat of the pyroclastic flows and preserved under layers of cement-like rock. Further digs showed that the scrolls were part of an extensive library, earning the structure the name Villa of the Papyri.
Blackened and warped by the volcanic event, the roughly 1,800 scrolls found so far have been a challenge to read. Some could be mechanically unrolled, but hundreds remain too fragile to make the attempt, looking like nothing more than clubs of charcoal. Now, more than 200 years later, archaeologists examining two of the scrolls have found a way to peer inside them with x-rays and read text that has been lost since antiquity.
"Anybody who focuses on the ancient world is always going to be excited to get even one paragraph, one chapter, more," says Roger Macfarlane, a classicist at Brigham Young University in Utah. "The prospect of getting hundreds of books more is staggering."
Most of the scrolls that have been unwrapped so far are Epicurean philosophical texts written by Philodemus—prose and poetry that had been lost to modern scholars until the library was found. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who developed a school of thought in the third century B.C. that promoted pleasure as the main goal of life, but in the form of living modestly, foregoing fear of the afterlife and learning about the natural world. Born in the first century B.C. in what is now Jordan, Philodemus studied at the Epicurean school in Athens and became a prominent teacher and interpreter of the philosopher's ideas.
Modern scholars debate whether the scrolls were part of Philodemus' personal collection dating to his time period, or whether they were mostly copies made in the first century A.D. Figuring out their exact origins will be no small feat—in addition to the volcano, mechanical or chemical techniques for opening the scrolls did their share of damage, sometimes breaking the delicate objects into fragments or destroying them outright. And once a page was unveiled, readability suffered.
"Ironically, when someone opened up a scroll, they would write on a separate sheet what they could read, like a facsimile, and the original ink, once exposed to air, would start to fade," says Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky who specializes in digital imaging. What's more, the brute-force techniques usually left some pages stuck together, trapping hidden layers and their precious contents.
From 2007 to 2012, Seales collaborated with Daniel Delattre at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris on a project to scan scrolls in the collections of the Institut de France—former treasures of Napoleon Bonaparte, who received them as a gift from the King of Naples in 1802. Micro-CT scans of two rolled scrolls revealed their interior structure—a mass of delicate whorls akin to a fingerprint. From that data the team estimated that the scrolls would be between 36 and 49 feet long if they could be fully unwound. But those scans weren't sensitive enough to detect any lettering.
The trouble is that papyri at the time were written using a carbon-based ink, making it especially hard to digitally tease out the words on the carbonized scrolls. Traditional methods like CT scans blast a target with x-rays and look for patterns created as different materials absorb the radiation—this works very well when scanning for dense bone inside soft tissue (or for peering inside a famous violin), but the method fails at discerning carbon ink on blackened scrolls.A rolled scroll from Herculaneum, once a gift to Napoleon. (D. Delattre © Bibliothèque de l'Institut de France)
Now a team led by Vito Mocella of the Italian National Research Council has shown for the first time that it is possible to see letters in rolled scrolls using a twist on CT scanning called x-ray phase-contrast tomography, or XPCT. Mocella, Delattre and their colleagues obtained permission to take a fragment from an opened scroll and a whole rolled scroll from the Paris institute to the European Synchrotron in Grenoble. The particle collider was able to produce the high-energy beam of x-rays needed for the scans.
Rather than looking for absorption patterns, XPCT captures changes in the phase of the x-rays. The waves of x-rays move at different speeds as they pass through materials of various density. In medical imaging, rays moving through an air-filled organ like a lung travel faster then those penetrating thick muscle, creating contrast in the resulting images. Crucially, the carbon-based ink on the scrolls didn't soak into the papyrus—it sits on top of the fibers. The microscopic relief of a letter on the page proved to be just enough to create a noticeable phase contrast.
Reporting today in the journal Nature Communications, Mocella and his team show that they were able to make out two previously unreadable sequences of capital letters from a hidden layer of the unrolled scroll fragment. The team interprets them as Greek words: ΠΙΠΤΟΙΕ, meaning "would fall", and ΕΙΠΟΙ, meaning "would say". Even more exciting for scholars, the team was able to pick out writing on the still-rolled scroll, eventually finding all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet at various points on the tightly bundled document.The 24 letters of the Greek alphabet could be read inside the rolled scroll via the phase-contrast technique. (Mocella et al., Nature Communications)
Even though the current scans are mostly a proof of concept, the work suggests that there will soon be a way to read the full works on the rolled scrolls, the team says. "We plan to improve the technique," says Mocella. "Next spring we have an allowance to spend more time at the Grenoble synchrotron, where we can test a number of approaches and try to discern the exact chemical composition of the ink. That will help us improve the energy setting of the beam for our scan."
"With the text now accessible by virtue of specialized images, we have the prospect of going inside the rolled scrolls, and that's really exciting," says Macfarlane. Seales agrees: "Their work is absolutely crucial, and I am delighted to see a way forward using phase contrast."
Seales is currently working on ways to help make sense of future scans. With support from the National Science Foundation and Google, Seales is developing software that can sort through the jumbled letters and figure out where they belong on the scroll. The program should be able to lump letters into words and fit words into passages. "It turns out there are grains of sand sprinkled all the way through the scrolls," says Seales. "You can see them twinkling in the scans, and that constellation is fixed." Using the sand grains like guide stars, the finished software should be able to orient the letters on the whorled pages and line up multiple scans to verify the imagery.
The projects offer hope for further excavations of the Herculaneum library. "They stopped excavating at some point for various reasons, and one was, Why should we keep pulling things out if they are so hard to read?" says Seales. But many believe there is a lower "wing" of the villa's collection still buried, and it may contain more 1st-century Latin texts, perhaps even early Christian writings that would offer new clues to Biblical times.
"Statistically speaking, if you open up a new scroll of papyrus from Herculaneum, it's most likely going to be a text from Philodemus," says MacFarlane. "But I'm more interested in the Latin ones, so I would not be unhappy at all to get more Latin texts that are not all banged up."
For Mocella, being able to read even one more scroll is crucial for understanding the library and the workings of a classical school of philosophy. "Regardless of the individual text, the library is a unique cultural treasure, as it is the only ancient library to survive almost entire together with its books," he says. "It is the library as whole that confers the status of exceptionality."
The scanning method could also be useful for texts beyond the Roman world, says Seales. Medieval books often cannibalized older texts to use as binding, and scans could help uncover interesting tidbits without ruining the preserved works. Also, letters and documents from the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage in the 19th century have been recovered but are proving difficult to open without doing damage. "All that material could benefit from non-invasive treatment," says Seales.
Fifteen year-old Minnijean Brown thought her new high school would allow her to become the best person she could be. She envisioned making friends, going to dances and singing in the chorus.
But, her fantasy quickly evaporated. As one of the first nine African-American students to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957, she was taunted, ridiculed and physically battered. On her first day, she faced the horror of the Arkansas National Guard blocking her entrance to the building and the terror of an angry, white mob encircling the school.
Recently, the 74-year-old activist, teacher and social worker donated more than 20 personal items to the National Museum of American History to help tell the story of the Little Rock Nine—as she and her fellow African-American students at Central High came to be known.
Nearly 60 years ago, these teenagers, none of who were particularly political, and all of whom were looking for wider opportunities, were thrust into the crucible of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in one of the most dangerous and dramatic school desegregation efforts in the country.
“At a certain point, I didn’t know if I would be alive to graduate from high school, or be stark, raving insane, or deeply wounded, “ says Trickey.
Several of Trickey’s school items, including a notice of suspension and the dress she designed for her high school graduation, are now on display in the “American Stories” gallery at the museum. Her graduation gown, a simple, white, swing dress with a flared skirt, and a strapless bodice under a sheer, flower-embroidered overlay, is a testament to her determination to get her high school diploma. She attended three schools in as many years, was expelled from Central High and ultimately had to leave Little Rock and her family to finish high school.One of her greatest pleasures, says Trickey, came in 2014 when she was asked to speak at an award ceremony for Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girls education advocate who survived a Taliban assassination attempt. (Ricky Fitchett/ZUMA Press/Corbis)
Minnijean was the eldest of four children born to Willie Brown, a mason and landscaping contractor, and his wife, Imogene, a nurse’s aid, seamstress and homemaker. A native of Little Rock, she attended segregated schools and started senior high school as a 10th grader in 1956 at the newly opened Horace Mann School for African-Americans. It was across town from where she lived and offered no bus service.
In the wake of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that banned racial segregation in public schools, representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) searched for students who would enroll in previously all-white schools throughout the south. Minnijean heard an announcement on the school intercom about enrolling at Central and decided to sign up.
Although about 80 African-American students had been approved by the Little Rock School Board to transfer to Central the following year, the number dwindled to 10 after the students were told they couldn't participate in extracurricular activities, their parents were in danger of losing their jobs, and there was a looming threat of violence. The parents of a tenth student, Jane Hill, decided not to allow their daughter to return after the mob scene on the first day.
According to Trickey, her real motivation for attending Central was that it was nine blocks from her house and she and her two best friends, Melba Pattillo and Thelma Mothershed would be able to walk there.Along with her graduation dress, Trickey has also donated a program from her high school commencement ceremony. (NMAH)
“The nine of us were not especially political,” she says. “We thought, we can walk to Central, it’s a huge, beautiful school, this is gonna be great,” she remembers.
“I really thought that if we went to school together, the white kids are going to be like me, curious and thoughtful, and we can just cut all this segregation stuff out,” she recalls. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard to keep the African-American students from entering Central. When the nine students did get into the building a few weeks later, a full-scale riot broke out and they had to escape in speeding police cars. They weren’t able to enroll until two days later when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. With bayonets fixed, the soldiers escorted the students, single file, into the school and disbursed the jeering protestors.
Although troops remained at Central High School throughout the school year, the Little Rock Nine were subjected to verbal and physical assaults on a daily basis. The African-American students were isolated and never placed in classes with each other, so they couldn’t corroborate their torment. On three separate occasions, Minnijean had cafeteria food spilled on her, but none of her white abusers ever seemed to get punished.
In December 1957, she dropped her chili-laden lunch tray on the heads of two boys in the cafeteria who were taunting and knocking into her. She was suspended for six days. That school notice is now part of the Smithsonian collection along with a heartfelt note by her parents documenting all the abuse that their daughter had endured leading up to the incident. Then in February 1958, Trickey verbally responded to some jeering girls who had hit her in the head with a purse. That retaliation caused Trickey to be expelled from Central High.
“I had a sense of failure that lasted for decades over that,” says Trickey. After she left Central, white students held printed signs that said, “One down…eight to go.”
Following her mid-year dismissal, Trickey was invited to New York City to live in the home of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, African-American psychologists who had conducted pioneering research that exposed the negative effects of segregation on African-American children. Their now famous “doll tests,” were part of the documentation used by the NAACP to argue the Brown v. Board of Education case.
While living with the Clarks, Trickey attended the New Lincoln School, a progressive, experimental K-12 school that focused on the arts, to finish out her 11th- and 12th-grade years.
“I was very, very grateful for the gift that I’d been given,” she says. “My classmates at New Lincoln allowed me to be the girl that I should have been, and allowed me to do all the things I thought I might do at Central.”
At the end of her stay, the Clarks wanted to give her a gift and settled on a graduation dress. Trickey made some sketches and Mamie Clark took the design to her dressmaker.
“It was a perfect fit, and I felt perfectly beautiful in it,” Trickey remembers. “Many New York papers covered the graduation, and there was a photo of me with my shoulders up and I have this big smile, and I have this real feeling of relief,” she says. Along with her graduation dress, Trickey has also donated a program from this commencement ceremony.
Trickey went on to attend Southern Illinois University and majored in journalism. In 1967, she married Roy Trickey, a fisheries biologist, and they started a family, which eventually included six children. They moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War, and she earned both a bachelors and masters degree in social work. Later in her career, she returned to the United States and served in the Clinton administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of the Interior. Now, she works as an activist on behalf of peacemaking, youth leadership, the environment and many other social justice issues.
According to her daughter Spirit Trickey, it took nearly 30 years before Trickey revealed to her children the full extent of her role as a foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement.
“She felt like she didn’t have the context to put it in. The nation had not acknowledged it, so it was very difficult to explain,” says Spirit, a former Park Ranger and now a museum professional. Eventually, with the airing of documentaries like PBS’s “Eyes on the Prize” in 1987, and the 1994 publication of Warriors Don’t Cry, a book by Trickey’s friend Melba Pattillo Beals, Spirit and her siblings began to understand what their mother had gone through.
Also, the Little Rock Nine started to be recognized for their contribution to desegregation. In 1996, seven of them appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and reconciled with some of the white students who had tormented them. A year later and 40 years after the original crisis, then-President Bill Clinton symbolically held the door open at Central High for the Nine. Clinton also awarded each of them the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. Individual statutes of the Little Rock Nine were placed on the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol in 2005. They and their families were all invited to the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2008.
One of her greatest pleasures, says Trickey, came in 2014 when she was asked to speak at an award ceremony for Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girls education advocate who survived a Taliban assassination attempt. As Trickey was being introduced at the Philadelphia Liberty Medal ceremony, the speaker compared Malala’s experiences with that of the Little Rock Nine.
“When I met that wonderful young woman, I saw myself, and it was so great to be able to make the link between her treatment and ours,” said Trickey. “I now tell youth audiences, I was a Malala.”
Trickey believes that she will be trying to come to terms with the events of her high school years for the rest of her life. “My research, my understanding continues to unfold.”
One truth that she now understands is that many of her white classmates had been taught to hate. “We couldn’t expect the white kids at Central High to go against what they had learned their whole lives,” she says.
Through the 1999 book Bitters in the Honey by Beth Roy, Trickey was able to hear the perspective of white students who resisted segregation. Roy conducted oral histories with white alumni 40 years afterwards to explore the crisis at Central High. Trickey discovered that she in particular angered white classmates because they said, “She walked the halls of Central like she belonged there.”
Trickey also realizes now that she may have been singled out for harsher treatment. At an awards ceremony in 2009, she was speaking with Jefferson Thomas, one of the Nine, when he suddenly turned to her and said, “You know, you were the target.”
“We were all targets,” she laughed at him dismissively.
“No, you were the target, and when you left, I was the target,” he revealed.
Last Spring, Trickey delivered her Little Rock Nine objects to the Smithsonian in what her daughter termed a “sacred ceremony.” John Gray, the director of the National Museum of American History, welcomed her and had a warm, gracious conversation and interview that was videotaped. Curators and star-struck interns filled the room to hear Trickey’s oral history.
She described the afternoon as a day that she will never forget because the desegregation pioneer was assured that her story and that of the Little Rock Nine would be preserved for future generations not as African-American History but as American History.
Minnijean Brown Trickey’s graduation dress, suspension notice and other items are featured in a case in the exhibition “American Stories” at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. through May 8, 2016.
Photographer David Liittschwager slowly snorkeled his way across jagged coral in a shallow lagoon of the island of Mo'ore'a, ten miles from Tahiti. Colorful riots of tropical fish scattered as he approached. Sea anemones bobbed in the current. Liittschwager held a foot-wide cube made from green plastic pipes with open sides. It was a cube of his own invention.
Somewhere in this teeming lagoon he would find exactly the right spot to place his cube. The perfect place where as many species as possible would pass through that single cubic foot in a single day and night.
What if you sifted through every last little organism that lives or passes through a single cubic foot of space in a day? On a coral reef? In a forest? How many species would you find?
This was the question that Liittschwager wanted to answer—and photograph. He came up with the idea of a biocube; his proposed standard for sampling biodiversity. A 12-inch cube that he would set in one place and observe long enough to catalog everything within it. He started on Mo'ore'a, but has since brought his biocube method to many locations around the world.
When hundreds of scientists from around the world had descended on Mo'ore'a to try to document every species that the lush tropical paradise harbored. They spent five years and came up with about 3,500 species in total. But then Liittschwager showed up in 2009 with his first biocube and found 22 more that they had missed—in a single cubic foot of space.
Image by David Liittschwager. Periphylla sp., jellyfish, Davidson Seamount West, off the coast of California. (original image)
Image by David Liittschwager. Pantachagon Haeckeli, jellyfish, Davidson Seamount West, off the coast of California (original image)
Image by David Liittschwager. Cyerce nigricans, Sacaglossan sea slug, Lighthouse Reef, Moorea, French Polynesia (original image)
Image by David Liittschwager. Neocirrhites armatus, Flame Hawkfish, Tamae Reef, Mo'ore'a, French Polynesia (original image)
Image by David Liittschwager. Trapezia speciosa, guard crab, Tamae Reef, Moorea, French Polynesia (original image)
“Yeah, it's actually a lovely little story,” says Liittschwager. “It came out of a conversation between myself and my partner, Suzie Rashkis. Just trying to figure out, if you want to show how much life can occur in a small place, how do you do it? It's an exercise in defining limits.”
He photographed more than 350 unique species from that single cubic foot of space in the lagoon and only stopped because he had run out of time after extending a two-week expedition to a month. “We think it had about a thousand species in it,” he says.
Scientists use many different sampling methods to examine the distribution of life on Earth, but Liittschwager's approach is unique. By working with Christopher Meyer, a research zoologist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, he arrived at a method of exploration that serves both art and science while being both dramatically narrow and broad at the same time.
Instead of poking around a large area looking for all of the snails, all of the birds, etc., Liittschwager and Meyer restrict their observations to the cube, photographing, counting and cataloguing every visible life form of any branch of the animal kingdom but only within the limitations of what passes through the single cubic foot within the course of a 24-hour period.
And they still might be missing some of the smallest creatures because microscopes are rarely employed due to the sheer volume of work counting the animals already visible to the naked eye. They have employed their method in locations around the world ranging from South Africa, to Belize, to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Biocubes can be used on land, water or even in the air.A biocube placed upon the Tamae reef off the Pacific island of Mo'ore'a. (David Liittschwager)
Exact locations for the biocubes are chosen carefully. “If you were an alien looking for life on Earth and this was your one place where you could use it, where would you put it to detect a lot of life forms?” asks Meyer. “But if you were going to do it more statistically, would it be more random? It depends on your goals. David's goal is to capture the most on camera, so we spend time searching for a spot that is going to be astounding.”
The collaborators admit that the size is slightly arbitrary. “One cubic foot came up just because it is a familiar size to Americans,” says Liittschwager, adding that the metric system presented some size issues.
“One cubic meter would be an unmanageable sample size,” he says. The 7.48 gallons of water in a cubic foot is manageable compared to the 220 gallons in a cubic meter. “Seven gallons of water, you can deal with. You can pick it up. In a familiar, recognizable unit of measure.” Surveys of all of a particular category of life in a prescribed area are common. Scientists may index all of the plants or insects within, say, a four-foot circle. But the biocube approach offers the objective of identifying everything.
Liittschwager's photographs are often breathtaking. In many cases, he is probably the first photographer ever to attempt to take an artistic image of his subject species. “He manages to get personality out of these creatures—even a flat worm!” says Meyer. “He puts faces to the names and I put names to the faces. An exhibition, "Life in One Cubic Foot" of Liittschwager's work is on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. beginning March 4, 2016.
Visitors will see Liittschwager's photographs as well as models of equipment used to set up and analyze biocubes. Videos will demonstrate their processes.Students remove specimens collected from a biocube in California. (David Liittschwager)
While any wild place probably harbors hundreds of species in a cubic foot, there have been a few disappointments. “A guy had done one in a corn field in the Midwest and only found six species,” says Meyer. Intensive use of herbicides and pesticides deliberately turned the habitat into a wasteland for anything but corn (which may spell trouble for the health of the soil).
“For this exhibit we tried to look around the National Mall to show everyone you don't have to go to these remote tropical places to find biodiversity. . . . so we're on the Mall but everything is so managed here.” Biodiversity was too low to bother photographing.
On the other hand, results weren't so bad in Central Park in New York City. Upstate, they found even higher biodiversity in a river near Rochester. Tennessee's Duck River provided some of the highest biodiversity in North America. You don't need to go all the way to a coral reef or a rainforest to find diversity in one square foot.
Liittschwager and Meyer usually start by observing from a distance (or through a video camera) what easily visible creatures move in and out of a biocube set down on either land or in water—birds, fish, mammals, amphibians. “Vertebrates are very mobile,” says Meyer. Most of them will leave before a sample of soil, coral or bottom substrate from a river can be removed. Examples of those species will be obtained from specialists (like ornithologists who were already banding birds for their own research) to be photographed before their release. Even the diminutive species that remain to be sorted into cups on a table can present enormous challenges as Liittschwager tries to document them.
“I mean you calculate the acceleration, the athleticism of some small creatures, the speed that they can move across the frame [of the camera] far surpasses larger creatures,” says Liittschwager. “A little springtail can move across the frame ten times faster than a cheetah can move. Going one hundred times your body length in a tenth of a second? That's a speed that nothing larger can do.”
Once the collection phase begins, timing becomes essential. The ecosystem doesn't stop working just because it has been transported to a field laboratory. “Usually there's a bunch of cups because you want to get things away from each other so they don't fight,” Meyer says. Many subjects are still trying to eat one another. “On the day that we extract the cubic foot, we know it’s going to be a three- or four-day effort. We know what the different animals need. Are they durable? So you can prioritize which ones need kid gloves and quick attention.” Insects are given a moistened cloth to keep them hydrated. Some crabs, tiny octopuses and aquatic snails may need frequent water changes to keep them healthy.
The biocube methodology may become something more than a vehicle for art. Meyer and the Smithsonian Institution are working to develop an online system for entering, sharing and tracking the contents of biocubes from around the world.
“These are the biological equivalent of weather stations,” Meyer says. “Smithsonian was actually the organization that founded the National Weather Service.” In 1849, Smithsonian began providing weather instruments to telegraph companies to establish an observation network. Reports were sent back to Smithsonian by telegraph, where weather maps were created. “We now have the technology to do the same thing with biological data,” Meyer says. “These biocubes are little biological monitors. In the same way that the Weather Service made this available to the world, we can do the same thing.”
Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum has put together an online experience through Q?rius, an award-winning education program, to encourage teachers, students and curious people of all ages to explore their own biocubes in their own backyards.
“It's really exciting. You never get bored,” says Meyer. Whether your backyard happens to be in Rochester or South Africa. “You're going to see something different every time.”
Instead of future collections at the Museum being based on taxonomic grouping, Meyer envisions building a library of biocube data for future scientists to examine. “We need to re-think how we treat collections. How do we know what past ecosystems looked like? This way we are capturing whole communities. There are big changes on the horizon.”
“Life in One Cubic Foot” is on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., beginning March 4 and throughout the year. Educators and students can find more information of the Biocube Project at Q?rius.
“Doctor Who,” the classic British sci-fi television show, celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend. For those who’ve never seen the program, which in the United States has aired mostly on PBS stations and, more recently, BBCAmerica, here’s a short rundown: The main character is a man called the Doctor. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords. He travels through time and space in a blue police box that’s really a disguise for his bigger-on-the-inside ship called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). In each episode, the Doctor and a companion (or two or three) explore the universe while fighting monsters and other enemies along the way. And every so often, the doctor “regenerates,” taking on a new body and face, letting a new actor take over the lead role.
The formula has changed little since “Doctor Who” first premiered on BBC on November 23, 1963. The show has survived poor production values, the Doctor getting stranded on Earth for years, declining public interest in the show, cancellation in the late 1980s, as well as a failed attempt to reboot the series in 1996 only to come back in 2005, gaining new fans and new respect.
“Doctor Who” has been distinct from other members of the science fiction genre, such as “Star Trek,” which focused solely on the future, by taking advantage of the ability to travel through time and periodically visiting the past. This focus on history has waxed and waned over the years, reflecting the interests and wants of the show’s producers and viewers, but it produced some unique storylines centered on pivotal moments in human history. Nearly all of these episodes are available on DVD or Netflix, although two of the episodes from the Crusades are preserved only as audio.
Adventures in the first season of “Doctor Who” took viewers into historical events such as Marco Polo’s 1289 expedition to Central Asia and the Reign of Terror in late 18th-century France. Though the show’s most iconic monsters, the pepperpot-shaped Daleks, had already been introduced by this time, these history stories got their drama from human events. In “The Aztecs,” the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions become trapped in 15th-century Mexico. One of the companions, history teacher Barbara, is briefly hailed as a divine reincarnation of a high priest and tries to put an end to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Her efforts fail, and history moves on.
“Doctor Who” has frequently celebrated and explored iconic periods in British history while putting a bit of twist on them. In “The Crusade,” the Doctor (again played by William Hartnell) and his companions find themselves in 12th-century Palestine, caught in the middle of the conflict between the European crusaders, led by King Richard the Lionheart, who have conquered the land and the Saracens, led by Saladin, who are trying to kick them out. The story highlights the political machinations of the real-life leaders and the bloodthirsty nature of the Crusades themselves. The Doctor tries not to get caught up in court politics, as Richard attempts to broker a peace agreement by marrying off his sister to Saladin’s brother. But of course the Doctor fails, barely escaping a death sentence.
The Doctor may be known for traveling through time and space, but his third incarnation (played by Jon Pertwee) was banished by his fellow Time Lords to present-day Earth. Time travel stories returned, however, with the Fourth Doctor (portrayed by Tom Baker). In 1975, he and his frequent companion, journalist Sarah Jane Smith, found themselves in England in 1911 in the home of a professor who had gone missing while excavating a pyramid in Egypt. The professor had accidently released an alien named Sutekh—which fans of Egyptian history will recognize as another name for the chaos god Set—who had been locked in that pyramid by his brother Horus and their fellow Osirians. The Doctor and Sarah Jane must battle robotic mummies roaming the grounds before taking down Sutekh and saving the human race.
One of the Doctor’s greatest enemies was another Time Lord, the Master. In The King’s Demons, the Doctor (now played by Peter Davison) encounters his arch-nemesis at a medieval joust in the time of King John. In one of the Master’s smaller evil machinations—in later years, for example, the Master turns every human on Earth into a copy of himself—he tries to thwart the course of human history by provoking a rebellion that will depose King John and prevent the creation of the Magna Carta, the foundation of constitutional government in the English-speaking world. The Doctor intervenes, setting history back on course.
The Master is messing with earthlings again, this time paired with another renegade Time Lord, the Rani, in the English town of Killingworth. This is the time of the Luddites, a group of English textile workers who were protesting changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Key to the Doctor Who story is real-life engineer and inventor of the steam locomotive engine George Stephenson, who saves the Doctor (portrayed by Colin Baker) from a group of Luddites who pushed him down a mineshaft.
History episodes became more frequent with the 2005 reboot of the “Doctor Who” franchise. The show’s producers, in their efforts to reintroduce the Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston) to a new generation, set the entire first season on Earth. In a memorable pair of episodes, the Doctor and companion Rose find themselves in London during World War II, pursued by a creepy gas-mask-wearing child with a deadly touch. While later WWII-themed episodes feature notable historical figures from that era, including Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, these episodes instead center on the sad story of homeless, orphaned children who had been cast adrift amidst the chaos of the London Blitz.
The Girl in the Fireplace is a masterful marriage of futuristic science fiction with a real person from the past. The Doctor (portrayed by David Tennant) and his companions find themselves on an abandoned spaceship in the 51st century. The crew is missing, but throughout the ship are portals into 18th-century France, points in time along the life of a Frenchwoman named Reinette. The young girl grows up to become Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, pursued her whole life by the clockwork men of the spaceship who believe that only her brain can fix their ship.
A classic “Doctor Who” trope is to take an event in history and provide another explanation for what happened. In this case, it’s “volcano day” in the city of Pompeii. Shortly after his arrival, the Doctor (again, David Tennant) is temporarily stranded when a merchant sells his TARDIS to a local businessman, Lucius Caecilius, who thinks the blue box is a piece of avant-garde art. Caecilius was based on a real person, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a banker whose villa was found in excavations of the Italian town that was buried under volcanic ash in 79 A.D. In the Doctor Who version of Iucundus’ story, the explosion that likely killed him was caused not by a volcano but by the Doctor. He and his companion Donna initiate the explosion to save the world from a race of aliens, the Pyrovillians, who were living in Vesuvius and planning to take over the Earth.
The renewal of “Doctor Who” brought a new type of history episode based on literary figures. The first explained how Charles Dickens got inspired to write about ghosts at Christmas. A later story showed what happened to William Shakespeare’s missing play Love’s Labour’s Won. The third of this genre, The Unicorn and the Wasp, cleared up a mystery regarding the world’s greatest mystery writer, Agatha Christie—what happened to her during the 11 days in 1926 that she simply disappeared? In the Doctor Who story, set at a house party during the 1920s, Christie was helping the Doctor (David Tennant) solve a Christie-inspired murder mystery and then did a little traveling in the TARDIS.
While at a Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay in modern-day Paris, the Doctor (played by Matt Smith) notices a curious monster peeking out a window in Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers and decides to investigate, quickly jumping back in time to visit the great painter in 1890. Scenes directly reference paintings such as Café Terrace at Night and Bedroom in Arles, while the story revolves around Van Gogh’s periods of exhaustion and depression, as well as his eventual suicide. The Doctor’s companion Amy Pond tries to avert Van Gogh’s tragic end by taking him to the exhibition where the episode began, where he can hear his work praised. But Amy is saddened to discover that her efforts had no effect, and Van Gogh eventually killed himself, as history remembers. As with all Doctor Who’s history stories, this one reminds the viewer that although the Doctor can’t change the past’s biggest events, he can bring a bit of joy and happiness to some of our saddest moments.
Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s story is not so surprising if you consider that a man did not need a medical degree to practice medicine in early 19th-century Philadelphia. In fact, he didn’t even need a license—a practice that Philadelphia would not embrace into the final decade of the 19th century. Although the tide was changing, the clear truth was that anyone who wanted to put out a shingle and call himself a doctor could do just that.
Basics of modern medicine, such as the infectiousness of diseases, were still under heavy dispute. Causes of even common diseases were confusing to doctors. Appendicitis was called peritonitis, and its victims were simply left to die. Bleeding the ill was still a widespread practice. There was no anesthesia – neither general nor local. If you came to a doctor with a compound fracture, you had only a 50 percent chance of survival.
But Mütter was a different kind of doctor and a different kind of teacher. By the end of the 1830s, Mütter, young, smart, ambitious, and blessed with extraordinary talents was gaining a reputation as “one of the best of good fellows” in the Philadelphia medical world and not just in the lecture hall.
“He possessed spontaneously, as it were, the art both of making and holding friends,” a fellow doctor would write of him, “a natural amenity of manner and gentleness of character, a manliness of bearing so intermingled with feminine graces that even children were attracted by it, and a love of approbation that induced him to do what he could to please others.”
When Dr. Thomas Harris, Mütter’s mentor, grew too sick to make house calls, he asked Mütter to go on his behalf. Mütter’s skill, matched with his comforting and charming demeanor, endeared him to the patients. Soon, other doctors, including and especially the ever-encouraging Dr. Samuel Jackson, made a habit of sending Mütter to make house calls in their stead. As a result, within a few months, Mütter began to develop a healthy private practice. He was also garnering an impressive reputation as a surgeon. His access to the Jefferson Medical School’s surgical rooms allowed him to attempt the kinds of ambitious surgeries he had learned about in Paris, many of which defiantly occupied “the difficult domain of reparative and reconstructive surgery.”
His first surgical patients found their way to him through the school itself, who promised citizens free surgical treatment, provided they agreed to the surgery’s being performed in a public setting. But it didn’t take long for Mütter to also begin receiving surgical patients privately as word of his unusual skills began to spread. The first patients came from the Philadelphia area, but soon, “strangers from various parts of this wide domain . . . sought from his skill the relief which their various sufferings demanded.”
“He succeeded with patients for the same reason as with students,” it was written of him; “he was both respected and liked.” This seemed like a welcome change from the relentless acrimony and open hostility that now marred the reputations of the city’s two top teaching surgeons. Mütter might have sensed that he was being groomed for something greater when three distinguished Philadelphia doctors—all several years his senior—independently approached him and inquired if they might assist him in one of his next surgeries radicals. They each wanted to see firsthand how Mütter took cases so damaged and tragic, and fixed them so seamlessly.
Perhaps the most sensible response would have been to have each doctor come in separately and then select patients whose surgeries would be easiest to perform in front of such an esteemed audience. But that wasn’t Mütter’s way. He knew it was risky, but he couldn’t help it. He decided to do a very difficult surgery, and asked all of them to be his assistants on it. It took some finessing, but Mütter assured them that each individual would serve a necessary part in the surgery. Still, it was quite a sight to see: men at the prime of their careers, lining up to assist a 29-year-old surgeon who was perhaps best known to their wives as the doctor who liked to match the color of his expensive suit to the carriage in which he was riding. But the simple truth was that the doctors were happy to line up by Mütter’s side, to witness his surgical prowess, to be close to his quick, sure hands.
Image by By kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Evi Numen. Copyright 2014 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.. Plaster bust of Thomas Dent Mütter by Peter Charles Reniers, circa 1850s. The college of Physicians of Philadelphia (ST 514). (original image)
Image by From the Author's personal collection. "Woman with Ulcer of the Face" woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter. (original image)
Image by From the Author's personal collection. "Man with Tumor of the Jaw" woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter. (original image)
Image by From the Author's personal collection. "Surgery on Nathaniel Dickey" woodcuts from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1846). (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University Archives & Special Collections, Philadelphia. Surgeon's Amputation Kit. (original image)
Image by By kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Evi Numen. Copyright 2014 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.. Wet specimen of tumor extracted from the scalp. Original donation by Dr. Mütter. Mütter Museum Collection (6535.05). (original image)
Image by By kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Evi Numen. Copyright 2014 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.. Current Photograph of the Mütter Museum, taken from upper level. (original image)
Less happy, however, were Mütter’s students, who grumbled in their seats on surgery day, upset that their own views of the operation might be blocked. After a quick contented survey of the scene, Mütter began the process of tuning them all out so that the entirety of focus could be directed to the patient shaking and drooling in the surgical chair. Nathaniel Dickey was a local Philadelphian whom Mütter had liked from the first time they met: intelligent, funny, and in perfectly good health, aside from the obvious. The 25-year-old’s face was dramatically split down the middle. His lips and the top of his mouth were raw and open, and despite Nathaniel’s best efforts to prevent it, thick cords of spittle often poured from the opening.
It was Nathaniel who sought out Mütter, asking if anything could be done to help a person like him. With a thick slur but bright eyes, he confessed to Mütter how badly he wanted to have a wife and children, how much he dreamed of walking down the street with this beautiful family he so often envisioned having, and have not a single passing stranger gawk at his deformed face. Now, weeks later, Nathaniel sat in front of Mütter, his head firmly supported against the chest of a seated Dr. Norris, and his arms held down against his torso by a tight white sheet.
Mütter had already explained the surgery to Nathaniel in detail. In the days leading up to it, Mütter would thrice daily massage Nathaniel’s face, attempting to desensitize his vulnerable palate. Even the slightest amount of vomit rising from his throat would threaten the entire operation, ruining the delicate work he was attempting to do, and inviting dangerous infection to nest in his already beleaguered mouth. The risk of purging was one of the reasons the surgery had to be performed with the patient almost entirely sober. Mütter also needed him to stay still and stiff, to open his mouth wider and wider if need be, and to keep the contents of a nervous stomach in their place.
Nathaniel had to be more than a patient; he had to be a partner in seeing this difficult surgery to its end. Mütter knew this. And so they would meet multiple times a day for facial massages. And as Mütter’s hands gently explored Nathaniel’s handsome but broken face, he would walk the young man through each moment of the surgery, carefully explaining each danger and tenderly warning of each increasing level of pain. Nathaniel never once wavered in his determination to see it through. But now on the day of the surgery, Mütter saw Nathaniel’s eyes widen and his body become rigid as he moved toward him. Mütter paused for a moment, letting Nathaniel take several deep breaths. Nathaniel’s eyes unconsciously wandered to the table where Mütter had laid out his tools: a knife, a hook, a pair of long forceps, needles, waxed thread, scissors, sponges on handles, wine and water, cold water, towels, and—hidden under a handkerchief for emergency use only—leeches, opiates, and a sharp lancet.
After making his opening remarks, being sure to name and thank each of his impressive assistants, Mütter took care to position himself properly. He decided to stand a little to one side of Nathaniel, to obstruct the entrance of light into the mouth as little as possible. He then asked Nathaniel to throw his head back as far as he could and to open his mouth and keep it in this position as long as he was able. He placed a comforting hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder, squeezed just once, and then began.
Within moments of the surgery’s quick first step—the insertion of a sharp hook into the roof of Nathaniel’s mouth used to gently pull the deformed mass of muscle and skin back—the trio of doctors forgot who they were, or that anyone else was in the room. The students groaned and fussed, as the doctors blocked their view, closing their small circle in an attempt to get a closer look at Mütter’s whirlwind actions. The trick to surgeries of this kind, Mütter knew, was twofold: You had to be quick so as to lessen the stress and pain of the patient, but slow enough to make sure you were doing it right. Mütter’s hands were a confident blur of motion as he cut and pierced, excised and sutured, flayed and positioned.
He checked in with Nathaniel often, offering whatever words of comfort and support he could. And when possible, he tried to involve the doctors who had agreed to assist, but once he realized they were more than content to watch, he focused solely on the job at hand. If Mütter had chosen to look at them, he would have noticed their faces: mouths pursed, eyebrows gathered in concentration, eyes narrowed in half disbelief. Each one wanted to ask Mütter to stop, to slow down. Mütter’s ambidextrousness meant that he could do twice the work in half the time. The doctors grew dizzy and overwhelmed, unsure of which hand to follow, unsure how they would be able to replicate the surgery themselves when it seemed like quick, efficient chaos.
But Mütter paid them no heed. The only thing that could distract him from his work was the face of Nathaniel, which he monitored as a mother would—tracking each wince, each moan, each muffled cry. When Nathaniel’s body would quake uncontrollably under Mütter’s hand, he would remove all instruments and look into Nathaniel’s eyes. With Mütter’s hand gently placed in Nathaniel’s damp hair, he would feed him a small glass of cold water. Nathaniel gargled it, and spat. The pan turned red as it grew slick with blood. And when Nathaniel was ready, Mütter returned to his work, his face calm and focused, clear and bright, almost happy.
After just 25 minutes, it was done. Nathaniel’s face, which just a moment earlier had been an open wound—bleeding, raw, and split—now was tenderly united, the silk thread straining at the incision sites, but holding. Nathaniel, exhausted and drenched in sweat, relaxed into the chair as Mütter walked backward, wiping his hands on a fresh towel. The doctors were silent, still trying to process what they had just seen. The students sat back in their seats, their journals open and empty on their laps. What notes could they take that could capture what they had just witnessed?
It felt as if perhaps they had been given a glimpse of the future, a sign that things were about to change. But Mütter noticed none of it. Instead, he remained focused on Nathaniel. He stepped again toward the trembling young man, a small sponge in hand. He softly blotted the last remnants of blood from his newly reunited mouth, his hand firm and proud on Nathaniel’s shoulder. Where others once saw a monster, Mütter thought, he had revealed the man. And from under the handkerchief on the surgical table, he pulled one more hidden item: a small mirror, clean and shining. With one tender hand cupping the back of his exhausted patient’s head, he held the mirror in front of Nathaniel’s new and handsome face. Mütter smiled. And Nathaniel Dickey, disobeying doctor’s orders this one time, smiled back.
From DR. MÜTTER'S MARVELS: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.
This Orphanage Did More Than Find Homes for Children of the Holocaust. It Helped Them Reclaim Their Humanity
In the last days of World War II, as Allied forces pushed further and further into Nazi Germany, Erwin Farkas awoke alongside his brother inside a village barn —his first shelter in weeks—to a commotion. Outside, near the German border with Czechoslovakia, American tanks rumbled over a nearby hill. Nazi officers were nowhere in sight. Erwin ran toward the tanks with others, scrambling to catch chocolate that the American soldiers threw towards them. General George S. Patton’s troops had arrived.
For Erwin and his brother, Zoltan, freedom brought uncertainty. “What we wanted,” remembers Erwin, now 88 and a retired clinical psychologist living in Minnesota, “was to get out of Germany. It was a dark place for us.” Hungarian fascists had deported their father, a leader in their Transylvanian village, and the brothers became separated from their mother and younger sisters at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944. They assumed the Nazis had killed their family. Erwin and Zoltan – ages 15 and 17, respectively – moved as forced laborers to Buna, Oranienburg, then Flossenburg before the SS forced them and thousands of others on the Death March to Dachau. For weeks, the brothers marched at night in lines of five across as officers shot those too exhausted, ill, or hungry to carry on. During the day, they had to hide in the woods, or in their case, an abandoned barn.
But even with freedom, they still had no parents, no possessions, and no place to call home. Millions of displaced children, teenagers and adults shared their predicament, but Erwin and Zoltan were fortunate, finding hope at a place called Kloster Indersdorf, a unique orphanage that became a model for how to humanely treat those who had witnessed humanity at its worst.Exterior view of the Kloster Indersdorf children's home (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
In 1943, the United Nations estimated that 21 million people were displaced in Europe and established the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to assist the refugees driven from their homeland either by force or necessity. Coordinating with the Allies, UNRRA sent more than 300 teams of skilled workers and volunteers throughout European and Asian territories to seek, organize and care for those displaced populations.
As liberators and relief workers encountered refugees, they placed them temporarily in Displaced Persons camps, where survivors of all ages sought out family members, if they were still alive, and identified where they might live next. Between 1945 and 1948, UNRRA repatriated approximately 6 million displaced people from Central Europe, including about 50,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
In April 1945, the first UNRRA team entered the American zone of Germany, where agency representatives would eventually register between 6,000 and 7,000 displaced children, teenagers, and young adults considered “lost” amidst the ravages of war. Both Jews and non-Jews, the "unaccompanied" included survivors of concentration camps, forced child laborers, and children taken from or abandoned by forced adult laborers. Most of these young people lived among adults in Displaced Persons camps, but the Farkas brothers, were fortunate to find a much more suitable temporary home in Kloster Indersdorf.
In July, not far from the Dachau death camp, 11 United Nations workers established a pilot project: the first international displaced persons camp devoted to children in the American zone of Germany. In a former monastery (Kloster) in the village of Markt Indersdorf, the Sisters of Mercy of Saint Vincent de Paul had operated an orphanage until the Nazis commandeered and closed the facility. The UNRRA charged its own Team 182 with reopening Kloster Indersdorf with the expectation that they could help 75-100 youth.
Within two months of operation, however, the team had already hosted double that number. Between 1945 and 1948, the International Displaced Person Children’s Center at Kloster Indersdorf as it was officially named, would become home to more than 1,000 child and adolescent refugees. Team 182’s methodology and level of care was so successful that Kloster Indersdorf served as a model center for at least five others like it in Europe.
Anna Andlauer, a German Fulbright fellow and retired teacher, has spent nearly a decade tracing the orphans of Kloster Indersdorf. She has found over 50. In her book The Rage to Live, she tells the history of the children’s center, detailing the UNRRA team’s commitment “to give each child a feeling of security along with an understanding that he or she was desired and loved.” Andlauer’s research has brought particular attention to a post-war hero, a social welfare officer named Greta Fischer.
Under Fischer’s eye, Team 182 organized the orphans into surrogate families “by development stage and need and attention for care.” One adult, acting as a parental figure, led each group of 12-15 children with the help of assistants. “Fischer knew that intense devotion is required most urgently during the first years of life to ensure a healthy development of basic trust,” writes Andlauer. When more refugees arrived than anticipated, the UNRRA team recruited older refugees to help younger ones. They also invited the Sisters of Mercy of Saint Vincent de Paul to return to their former home.
Fischer was 35 years old when she arrived at the orphanage in 1945. The youngest of six children born to a Jewish Czech family, she escaped the Nazis by immigrating to London in May of 1939. Her parents, who wanted to stay in their native Czechoslovakia, were murdered in 1943.
While in London, Fischer’s job as a social worker put her in touch with Anna Freud, daughter of the famous Austrian psychologist, who was in London to work with child survivors of the German Blitzkrieg. Freud provided a then-progressive type of therapy: listening to children’s stories. When Greta Fischer left London for Kloster Indersdorf in 1945, she brought Freud’s ideas with her.
Children of all ages came to the doors of Kloster Indersdorf. They arrived accompanied by Allied forces, UNRRA team workers or nobody at all. They included malnourished infants, toddlers with scabies who screamed at the smell of food, Polish teenagers conditioned by pro-nationalist adults to hate Jews, and Jewish teenagers who hoped that a parent might be looking for them.
“The first thing was to give them food, plenty of food, to give them clothing, and listen to their stories,” Fischer said in 1985. (Much of what is known about life at Kloster Indersdorf comes from Fischer’s papers and interviews.) “We listened to their stories days and nights. It had to come out. And sometimes it took us hours to sit with them. You could not interrupt.”
The Farkas brothers were part of that flood of children with stories to tell.
After Patton’s troops had found them, the brothers walked until they came across a German POW camp, where liberated Serbian Jews gave them medical help. Over a month later, they found work—and substantial meals—with a nearby U.S. Army attachment. The American military put them in touch with UNRRA.
The Farkas brothers arrived with the first wave of refugees. Social workers and nurses greeted them with food, new white sweaters, hot baths, medical checkups and their own beds. During the day, they took classes in English, German, and, as staffing increased, their native Hungarian. They took gym class and art, played sports during their free time, and perhaps most importantly, trained in a particular trade like tailoring, a discipline that would give them self-sufficiency once they left the orphanage.
Tibor Sands (born Munkacsy), a 92-year-old retired cameraman who lives in New York City, vividly remembers UNRRA’s insistence on manners during mealtime. Sands, a Hungarian refugee, evaded the Nazis three times before they captured him and placed him on a cattle cart to Buchenwald on his 19th birthday. He hated having to watch starving children grab at food “like animals.”Tibor Sands stands in front of the photo taken of him at Kloster Indersdorf in 1946. (Robert Sands)
“[UNRRA workers] civilized eating by using knives and forks,” he recalls. During the family-style meals, Sands and other older refugees reassured younger ones that they would have plenty to eat. “Some of the kids, they were worried that there wouldn’t be any bread the next day,” he remembers, “so they would grab food and take it to their bunk beds.”
No problem, however, posed as challenging as resettling the children in new homes and families. At first, UNRRA tried to create a detailed dossier on each child, complete with accompanying photos that would help officers reunite orphans with family members and/or send them to safe locations in their home countries. That was more complicated than workers anticipated, especially when it came to young refugees whose ages and even names could not be verified.
Children who came from deplorably run Nazi orphanages (Kinderbaracken) had no surviving records of identity. Others were so traumatized that they forgot their birthdays, their names, and the location of their homes. Many older orphans had grown used to lying about their ages, at first to survive selection lines in concentration camps and then later when they learned their ages needed to align with immigration quotas.
“You must understand,” said Fischer in an interview, “those who survived, and especially the Jewish children, were really extraordinarily strong people. Their will to survive and their rage to live had blocked out absolutely everything else.”
Representing foreign governments in the repatriation process, national liaison officers refused to approve the re-entry of children who did not have enough identifying factors, like names, birthdays, and hometowns. Team 182 searched the clothing the children had arrived in, listened carefully to their accents and worked to gain the orphans’ trust so they could help resurface memories and details that would ensure success in finding a new home.
In October 1945, the U.N. commissioned American photographer Charles Haacker to take a picture of each orphan holding a nameplate. UNRRA hoped its Central Tracing Bureau could use these photos to match children with family members throughout the world.
Twenty-six of Haacker’s photos now hang from fabric banners in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, where an exhibit titled “My Name Is… The Lost Children of Kloster Indersdorf” runs through April 30. Accompanying narratives tell each child’s story of their lives before and after arriving at Kloster Indersdorf.
In their headshots, many of the children are smiling, their sad yet confident eyes staring into the camera. “The children projected the hopes onto these photos that, if they were still alive, their relatives would be alerted to their whereabouts by the picture and would rush to Indersdorf and pick them up there,” writes Andlauer. “In a few cases, this actually happened, but within most of the Jewish children dark suspicion grew gradually into horrible certainty, that from now on each was all alone in the world.”
Like many of the orphans, Erwin and Zoltan wanted to go to America. A fellow refugee had alerted their father’s siblings in the Bronx that the boys had survived, and the family sent care packages to Indersdorf, informing UNRRA that they wanted the brothers in New York. But the United States, like the U.K. and other Western nations, had quotas. Even orphans like the Farkas brothers, who had family and a place to live, had to wait a long time for the appropriate visas.The exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City showcases photos of the children who stayed at Kloster Indersdorf (Robert Sands)
“Nobody really wanted the children,” said Fischer in a 1985 interview. “Nobody really wanted the refugees. The world did not believe the stories.” The child survivors of the Holocaust faced a world with rapidly filling quotas and fears of irreparably damaged, dependent refugees. “The world was closed, the world was absolutely closed and in everybody’s mind the question always was ‘where can we go?’”
For some children, that question was never answered. In August 1946, the UNRRA team moved from Markt Indersdorf to a larger space about 80 miles away in Prien on Chiemsee, and the slow work of repatriation continued. Meanwhile, the “International D.P. Children’s Center” became the “Jewish Children’s Center Kloster Indersdorf,” a home for Jewish children from Poland, Romania and Hungary.
Within two years of UNRRA’s initial intervention into the refugee crisis, the estimated number of displaced persons in Europe had risen from 21 million to 40 million. Two years later, by 1947, UNRRA had employed over 14,000 workers and spent over $ 4 billion in relief efforts. In 1948, the International Refugee Organization, UNRRA’s successor, helped relocate the remaining child refugees at Kloster Indersdorf to the newly formed state of Israel.
In October 1947, Lillian Robbins, Kloster Indersdorf’s first director, asked the U.S. in an address to the American National Federation of Settlements to lift restrictions and bureaucracy in order to provide for orphans of war. “That child knows the result of exploitation, of national greed, of war,” she said. “He can grow up [to become] a bitter, disillusioned, selfish adult, interested only in what works to his own advantage. But such a child can also become the most important contributor to building a new world, where international cooperation is the cornerstone.”
Today, says Andlauer, the more than 50 orphans she has traced into adulthood have realized the potential that Fischer recognized in them over 70 years ago.
After arriving in America in December 1946, Erwin went to live with his uncle’s family in the East Bronx and Zoltan with his aunt’s family in West Bronx. Finding a new home in their close-knit Hungarian community, they worked in the Garment District for an uncle who was a furrier and took accelerated night courses. Both went to college after obtaining their high school diplomas – Erwin to Cornell, and Zoltan to City College of New York. Both brothers later served in the American military, graduated from college, and entered successful careers. A retired clinical psychologist, Erwin lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Zoltan resides in California, where he spent much of his professional life as a scientist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The brothers – neither of whom had children -- stay in touch.
Periodically, the refugees of Kloster Indersdorf gather at their old orphanage (now a school) to remember the short time they spent with a group of aid workers who validated their voices and reminded them of their humanity.
“My quest will not end,” Andlauer says today, “until I have found as many children from Kloster Indersdorf as I can, to let them all know that they are cherished, that they are remembered, that their names mean something to others.”
Reflecting back on his death march experience from 73 years ago, Erwin certainly doesn’t consider himself damaged by the Nazis.
“We were in a labor camp. We were on a starvation diet but we were not abused or tortured,” he reflects. “We recovered physically and psychologically.” The true devastation, he says, was “the destruction of life that we had before.”
The Origin of the Tale that Gavrilo Princip Was Eating a Sandwich When He Assassinated Franz Ferdinand
It was the great flash point of the 20th century, an act that set off a chain reaction of calamity: two World Wars, 80 million deaths, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the atomic bomb. Yet it might never have happened–we’re now told– had Gavrilo Princip not got hungry for a sandwich.
We’re talking the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of course—the murder that set the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire on a collision course with Serbia, and Europe down the slippery slope that led to the outbreak of the First World War a month after Princip pulled the trigger on June 28, 1914. More specifically, though, we’re talking the version of events that’s being taught in many schools today. It’s an account that, while respectful of the significance of Franz Ferdinand’s death, hooks pupils’ attention by stressing a tiny, awe-inspiring detail: that if Princip had not stopped to eat a sandwich where he did, he would never have been in the right place to spot his target. No sandwich, no shooting. No shooting, no war.
It’s a compelling story, and one that is told in serious books and on multiple websites. For the most part, it goes something like this:
It is the summer of 1914, and Bosnia has just become part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A handful of young Bosnian-born Serbs decide to strike a blow for the integration of their people into a Greater Serbia by assassinating the heir to the Austrian throne. Their opportunity comes when it is announced that Franz Ferdinand will be making a state visit to the provincial capital, Sarajevo.
Armed with bombs and pistols supplied by Serbian military intelligence, seven conspirators position themselves at intervals along the archduke’s route. The first to strike is Nedeljko Cabrinovic, who lobs a hand grenade toward Franz Ferdinand’s open touring car. But the grenade is an old one, with a 10-second fuse. It bounces off the limo and into the road, where it explodes under the next vehicle in the motorcade. Although several officers in that car are hurt, Franz Ferdinand remains uninjured. To avoid capture, Cabrinovic drains a vial of cyanide and throws himself into a nearby river—but his suicide bid fails. The cyanide is past its sell-by date, and the river is just four inches deep.
The bombing throws the rest of the day’s plans into disarray. The motorcade is abandoned. Franz Ferdinand is hurried off to the town hall, where he is due to meet with state officials. Disconsolate, the remaining assassins disperse, their chance apparently gone. One of them, Gavrilo Princip, heads for Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, on Franz Joseph Street. It’s one of Sarajevo’s smartest shopping destinations, just a few yards from the bustling through road known as Appel Quay.
As Princip queues to buy a sandwich, Franz Ferdinand is leaving the town hall. When the heir gets back into his limousine, though, he decides on a change of plan—he’ll call at the hospital to visit the men injured in the grenade blast.
There’s just one problem: the archduke’s chauffeur, a stranger to Sarajevo, gets lost. He swings off Appel Quay and into crowded Franz Joseph Street, then drifts to a stop right in front of Schiller’s.
Princip looks up from his lunch to find his target sitting just a few feet away. He pulls his gun. Two shots ring out, and the first kills Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie. The second hits the heir in the neck, severing his jugular vein.
The archduke slumps back, mortally wounded. His security men hustle Princip away. Inside Schiller’s deli, the most important sandwich in the history of the world lies half-eaten on a table.
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. Soldiers arrest Gavrilo Prinzip, assassin of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie one hour before they would be shot a killed by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip as they drove through the streets of Sarajevo. (original image)
Image by Leonard de Selva/Corbis. n illustration in Le Paris Journal depicts the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinard and his wife in Sarajevo, 1914. (original image)
Image by dpa/Corbis. The uniform of Franz Ferdinand drenched in blood. (original image)
Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand lies in an open coffin beside his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenburg, after their assassination. (original image)
Image by Gavrilo Princip around age 16. (original image)
As I say, the story of Gavrilo Princip’s sandwich seems to be everywhere today—run an internet search for the phrase and you’ll see what I mean. There’s the teacher who has asked his class, for extra credit, to find out what sort of sandwich the killer ordered. (Consensus answer: cheese.) There’s the linguist’s deconstruction. There’s the art project—famous assassins’ faces paired with their victims’ on opposite sides of a sculpted toastie. And I first heard the tale from my daughter, who came home from school one day bursting to tell me the incredible new fact she’d just been taught in history class.
I was astonished by the story, too, though not because of the strangeness of the coincidence. It bothered me, because the details are new (you’ll struggle to find a telling of the tale that dates to before 2003), and because it simply doesn’t ring true. That’s not because the modern version isn’t broadly faithful to the facts; it’s not even utterly implausible that Princip might have stopped off at Schiller’s for a bite to eat. No, the problem is that the story is suspiciously neat–and that the sandwich is a quintessentially Anglo-American convenience food. The dish was named in the 1760s for John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was in the habit of requesting his meat placed between two slices of toast so he could lunch at his desk. But it took time for the idea to cross the Channel, and I find it hard to believe the sandwich would have featured on a Bosnian menu as early as 1914.John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich: a hard-working naval administrator and inventor of the convenience food that bears his name. (Wikicommons)
Certainly there is nothing in the main books on the assassination to suggest that Princip was eating anything when Franz Ferdinand appeared. Joachim Remak, writing in 1959, says the assassin waited outside Schiller’s, where he spoke to a friend, but makes no mention of him lunching there. Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht, writing nine years later, makes the separate point that Schiller’s delicatessen stood on the original route planned for Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade; indeed, the chauffeur’s fatal uncertainty was caused by the local governor, Oskar Potiorek, shouting at him from the passenger seat that he had should have stayed on Appel Quay. In other words, Princip was standing in precisely the right place to assassinate the archduke if the Franz Ferdinand had stuck to his plans, and so could hardly be said to be the beneficiary of some outlandish coincidence. And David James Smith, author of One Morning in Sarajevo, June 28 1914 (2008), the most recent book-length study of the assassination, notes that the murder took place at around 10.55 a.m.—rather early for lunch. Not one of these authors mentions Princip eating; none even seems to be aware of the version of the story being taught today.
We can take the investigation further than those printed sources, too, because when I first took an interest in this problem, Gaius Trifkovic—a Bosnian First World War expert and member of the staff at the Axis History Forum—was kind enough to go back to the original transcripts of Princip’s trial for me. These were published in Serbo-Croat by Vojislav Bogicevic in 1954 as Sarajevski atentat: stenogram glavne rasprave protiv Gavrila Principa i drugova, odrzane u Sarajevu 1914. Trifkovic reports that:
Princip merely said he was present in the vicinity of the “Latin bridge” when the car came along (p.60). A certain Mihajlo Pusara who was talking to Princip just moments prior to the assassination also doesn’t mention Princip eating (p. 258); the same with Smail Spahovic, guard who threw himself at Princip before he could fire the third shot (pp.277-8). Especially interesting for us is the affidavit of a certain Milan Drnic, who was at the time standing at Schiller’s door (Schiller offered his wife a seat); he was standing “some 6 paces” from Princip and clearly saw him holding his Browning before emptying it at the archduke and duchess (p. 300). No sandwich here either.
It seems clear, then, that Princip didn’t mention eating a sandwich June 28, 1914, and neither did any witness. Indeed, eating sandwiches is not a local custom in Sarajevo; a Serbian reader of the Axis History Forum chipped in to inform me that “this ‘sandwich’ theory is not plausible—even today, with sandwiches available in every street bakery, few Serbs would go for such option. It’s either burek or pljeskavica.” So where on earth did the idea come from?
My daughter provided the next lead. She had picked up her information from a TV documentary on the assassination made by Lion TV, a British production company, for a series known as “Days that Shook the World.” I tracked down a copy of the program, and, sure enough, in following Princip and Cabrinovic from the hatching of their plot to their deaths in prison of tuberculosis, the script states (at 5:15): “Gavrilo Princip has just eaten a sandwich, and is now standing outside Schiller’s delicatessen … when suddenly the Archduke’s car happens to turn into Franz Joseph Street. Completely by chance, fate has brought the assassin and his target within 10 feet of each other.”
So is “Days That Shook the World” the source of the sandwich story? Probably. The documentary has circulated widely–it has been broadcast repeatedly ever since it was first shown in 2003, not only by the BBC in the U.K., but also by BBC America. It is also available for sale on DVD, which has helped to make it popular in schools. And every telling of the tale I could find in print or online appeared after the original broadcast date.
The writer and director of the “Days That Shook the World” documentary was Richard Bond, an experienced maker of quality historical programs. In an email, he recalled that while the research for the program was “incredibly meticulous” and involved consulting a variety of sources in several languages–”contemporaneous newspaper articles, original documents and out-of-print books containing eyewitness interviews”–he could no longer remember how he sourced the vital bit of information. “It’s possible that ‘sandwich’ was a colloquial translation that appeared in these sources,” he wrote.
As of last week, that’s where the story rested. Let’s note that Bond’s documentary places less stress on Princip’s sandwich than do later retellings, in which the element of coincidence has been stretched, then stretched again. And I can see that my own obsession with getting to the bottom of the story may seem like nitpicking to some. After all, who cares why Princip came to be standing outside Schiller’s deli, when all that matters is that he was in the right place at the right time to pull his gun?
Yet in one vital sense, the problem really is important. Amazing as it may seem, the sandwich story is in danger of becoming the accepted version of events in both the U.S. and the U.K. And by portraying the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as a piece of outrageous coincidence, the story of Gavrilo Princip’s sandwich makes it seem far less important to think deeply about the killer and his companions, and about their motives and determination. Certainly no one who depends solely on the “Days That Shook the World” documentary will come away from it with a deeply nuanced understanding of what Serbian nationalists believed in 1914, or exactly why they thought the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was desirable or justifiable. But that knowledge is precisely what students need to understand the origins of the First World War.
Ever since I started working on this story, I’ve been frustrated by my inability to trace it to a source that appeared before “Days That Shook The World” was first broadcast in 2003. Last week, however, I finally unearthed an earlier version. The source, if it is the source, is appropriately farcical, because it is not a work of history but a novel–indeed, not so much a novel as a burlesque. Titled Twelve Fingers, it was written by a Brazilian TV host named Jô Soares; its hero is born to “a Brazilian contortionist mother and a fanatically nationalist Serbian linotypist father” and blessed with an extra finger on each hand. These make him particularly dextrous, and so he trains as an assassin and finds himself sucked, Zelig-style, into many of the most important events of the last century. The book was such a success in the original Portuguese that it was translated into English and published in both the U.S. and the U.K. in 2001—predating the “Days That Shook the World” documentary by enough for the idea to have begun to leach into popular consciousness as the book was reviewed, read and discussed.
On page 31, Dimitri, the hapless hero of Twelve Fingers, encounters his friend Princip near the Appel Quay. Then, for the first time ever, we glimpse the Bosnian assassin in refueling mode:
When he arrives at the corner of the quay, across from Schiller’s market, he bumps into a youth coming out of the market eating a sandwich. He recognizes him immediately. It’s Gavrilo Princip. Feigning surprise, he says, “Gavrilo! It’s been such a long time! What’re you doing here?”
“I’m eating a sandwich.”
“I can tell that. Don’t treat me like a child.”…
They fall silent, while Gavrilo finishes his sandwich and takes a grimy kerchief from his pocket to wipe his hands. When he opens his coat to put away the kerchief, Dimitri sees a Browning pistol tucked into the waistband….
The two go their separate ways, walking in opposite directions. Dimitri Borja Korozec returns to his ambush spot in the alley, waiting for Franz Ferdinand to continue with the rest of his schedule, and Gavrilo Princip goes to meet his destiny.
‘Gavrilo Princip’s sandwich.’ On Axis History Forum, May 10-July 15, 2010, accessed September 9, 2011; ‘The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand‘, in “Days That Shook the World,” Series 1, Episode 5, 2003. Lion Television documentary series; Joachim Remak, Sarajevo: the Story of a Political Murder. New York: Criterion Books, 1959; N.A.M. Rodger. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792. London: HarperCollins, 1993; John Simpson. Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century was Reported. London: Macmillan, 2010; David James Smith. One Morning in Sarajevo, 28 June 1914. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008; Jô Soares. Twelve Fingers. Biography of an Anarchist. New York: Knopf, 2001; Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht, The Desperate Act: The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. New York: McGraw Hill, 1968; Stephen Weir. ‘Gavrilo Princip’s deli sandwich.’ In History’s Worst Decisions: An Encyclopedia Idiotica. London: New Holland Publishers, 2006.
The fifth of the five volumes that make up the diaries of Jervis McEntee. He writes about the New York City art community, with his friends Henry Blackburn (art writer and editor of London Society and Academy Notes), Edwin Booth (actor), William Bryant (poet and editor), Frederick E. Church (his teacher), Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, John F. Kensett, Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect), Bayard Taylor (writer for the New York Tribune and author), Launt Thompson, John Q.A. Ward, John F. Weir, and Worthington Whittredge. He includes visits to artists' studios and social engagements such as concerts, theater, dinner parties, and lectures in the company of his friends or with his wife, Gertrude. He describes numerous sketching trips in the Catskills and the Maine woods with fellow artists and their involvement with the Century Club and the National Academy's Council. McEntee also describes his work, family life, transactions of paintings, and continuous financial troubles.
The first of the five volumes that make up the diaries of Jervis McEntee. He writes about the New York City art community, with his friends Henry Blackburn (art writer and editor of London Society and Academy Notes), Edwin Booth (actor), William Bryant (poet and editor), Frederick E. Church (his teacher), Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, John F. Kensett, Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect), Bayard Taylor (writer for the New York Tribune and author), Launt Thompson, John Q.A. Ward, John F. Weir, and Worthington Whittredge. He includes visits to artists' studios and social engagements such as concerts, theater, dinner parties, and lectures in the company of his friends or with his wife, Gertrude. He describes numerous sketching trips in the Catskills and the Maine woods with fellow artists and their involvement with the Century Club and the National Academy's Council. McEntee also describes his work, family life, transactions of paintings, and continuous financial troubles.
A wheel of wings spins around Grímsey Island, Iceland’s northernmost outpost. This eyebrow of land 40 kilometers above the mainland crosses the Arctic Circle. It’s home to some 70 residents, with one street, a tiny grocery store, a slash of airstrip roughly a third the length of the island, and a signpost pointing to the 66°33’ N parallel, across which tourists drive golf balls into the Arctic. In the brief high North summer, the island belongs to seabirds.
Thousands and thousands of kittiwakes, puffins, Arctic terns and more transform Grímsey into a bird nursery bustling under the constant light of the midnight Sun. Birds nestle in sea cliffs, brood in wildflower-filled meadows, patrol rocky burrows and raft on the cold North Atlantic waters. And they cluster on the tarmac, erupting in clouds when planes ferrying day-trippers circle in.
It’s balmy for the Arctic on this July day, and Árni Hilmarsson relaxes outside in jeans and a wool sweater. Hilmarsson, a fisherman from the other end of the country, is on a seabird quest. He and a half-dozen other men have traveled to Iceland’s far north from the Westman Island of Heimæy (population around 4,500), about 10 kilometers off Iceland’s south coast. They’ve made two boat crossings and have driven more than 500 kilometers—a long day’s journey—in pursuit of black-and-white birds with enormous red-and-yellow-striped bills: Atlantic puffins. They’re here for the age-old Nordic tradition they call lundaveiðar [LOON-da-veyth-ar]: the summer puffin hunt.
“Since I was a little boy, I was always catching puffins,” says Hilmarsson, who’s in his 50s and grew up hunting seabirds in the Westman Islands. “Each year, I would catch 5,000, 6,000. I was raised up on bird meat.”
We’re sitting near the Arctic Circle signpost outside the two-story yellow house that serves as Grímsey Island’s hotel. Hilmarsson unwinds with a smoke after hours crouched on a wet, tick-loaded hillside, sweeping birds from the sky with a long-handled net. His party of fathers and sons, neighbors and friends, has come to catch puffins with a triangular net, or háfur [HOW-verr]; the older ones teaching the youngsters, like their elders taught them. And the group—all members of the same Westman Islands hunting club, a hub of island social life—has a mission: to fetch birds for the puffin-hungry folks at home.Árni Hilmarsson uses decoys to lure puffins close to waiting hunters. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/atlanticseabirds.info)
For centuries, seabirds have been crucial to the coastal peoples of the North Atlantic. Viking Age explorers followed ocean foragers such as guillemots and gannets to new shores. Vast colonies of kittiwakes and puffins sustained the settlements they established on the harsh seaboards of Iceland, eastern Greenland and the Faroe Islands. For the settlers, seabird hunting and egg gathering meant the difference between life and starvation. For their descendants, the tradition lives on as the heart of community identity.
The seabird harvest is a test of nerve: Men dangle on ropes dozens of meters above the sea, plucking eggs from cliff-side nests. It’s a test of skills: Gauging flight paths and timing the háfur swing just right to snag a bird mid-air. For some, it’s a small source of income. For most, it’s the essence of a cherished cuisine. And above all, it’s a tie between generations, a link to their maritime past, a bit of a taste of the sea.
But North Atlantic seabirds and the way of life surrounding them are now disappearing. Seabird populations have plunged up to 60 percent in parts of the region over the past decade due to climate change and other human activity. Breeding failures in the once-prolific nesting colonies are widespread. Five species native to Iceland, including the iconic Atlantic puffin, are now on the BirdLife International/International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as near-threatened or vulnerable.
Hilmarsson tells me his home in the Westmans used to be prime puffin territory. The volcanic archipelago hosts a mega colony that’s the largest Atlantic puffin breeding site in the world. But the ecosystem has gone awry. Warming coastal waters have decimated chick production for more than a decade. The picture is similar around most of Iceland and extends south to the Faroe Islands and throughout the northeast Atlantic.
“We cannot catch puffins on Westman Islands,” Hilmarsson says. His sharp, weathered features crease up. After the long run of breeding catastrophes, Westman authorities limited the local hunting season to three days in 2016, down from five the year before. Only a couple hundred puffins can now be taken there.
Outsiders may bristle at the thought of eating this endearing—and often anthropomorphized—bird with the clownish honker. But it’s almost a ritual for the 332,000-odd residents of Iceland. Puffin cuisine stars in family gatherings, community events, holidays, and feasts that fortify north folk as winter approaches.
“We have to eat puffin once or twice a year,” Hilmarsson says. He squints at the snow-capped peaks glinting on the mainland. “Especially on Thjóðhátíð.”
He’s talking about a huge festival held in the Westman Islands every summer. The event began in 1874, when bad weather prevented Westman Islanders from traveling to the mainland for the nation’s 1,000th anniversary celebration, so they decided to hold their own. The party is legendary—a multi-day bacchanalia drawing revelers from all over Iceland and beyond. The Thjóðhátíð [THYOTH-how-teeth] is only a few weeks away. And Hilmarsson’s club is supposed to provide the birds.With climate change and other ecological stressors, seabird numbers in the North Atlantic are declining and bringing the fate of the annual puffin hunt into question. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/atlanticseabirds.info)
Millennium-Old Culture on the Edge
“It’s difficult for Westerners to grasp the importance of harvesting seabirds to the Nordic people,” says Danish biologist Carsten Egevang. “There’s a strong sense of pride in doing things like your father. I’ve seen it in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, all the Nordics.”
Egevang, a researcher for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk, Greenland, is traveling around the North Atlantic studying Old Norse traditions that are now declining along with the seabirds. The project, planned to culminate in a book, combines science, anthropology, and art. A keen photographer, Egevang has gone out in boats with seabird hunters in Greenland, and hung from cliffs with Faroe Island egg harvesters to capture images of a fading culture. He’s now on Grímsey Island with Icelandic ornithologist Aevar Petersen to record what may be one of the last vestiges of lundaveiðar.
We’re walking on a rutted dirt road along Grímsey’s west coast, on our way to watch the Westman Island hunters in action. Egevang totes a gear-filled backpack nearly twice his girth. It’s early morning, but the midsummer Sun hovers near the same high piece of sky as at dinnertime last night. Birds soar and swoop around us. Plunging snipes whirr like badminton shuttlecocks. Arctic terns give a bandsaw screech as they dive for our heads. And rows upon rows of puffins line the clifftops, like tuxedo-clad sentries at their posts.
Egevang has spent the past two decades monitoring Greenland’s seabirds and watching their numbers drop. Over time, being around hunters and their communities, he became aware of the societal consequences as well.
“There are so many cultural traditions bound to harvesting seabirds,” Egevang says. “In the old days, it was a matter of survival. And of course it’s not like that anymore, but the tradition still carries on.”
The extensive use of seabirds has long been a distinctive feature of Nordic coastal culture. Seabirds are mentioned in Norse sagas as early as the 9th century, and their bones have been found in the middens of Viking settlements. Landowners’ hunting rights, along with regulations restricting hunting near colonies where eggs are collected, are laid out in a 13th-century Icelandic law book. A land register makes note of good puffin cliffs in the early 1700s. Hunting and egg gathering prowess bestowed personal fame, community pride. It’s a millennium-long thread between generations.
“People really care for these traditions,” Egevang says. “They will literally set their life at risk to get, say, fulmar eggs, when they could easily go to the store and buy chicken eggs. … They are doing this because they like it, because they feel that it’s part of their heritage.”
We reach the spot where the Westman Islanders are hunting. Streams of bird shit streak the hillside like vats of whitewash overturned. A brisk sea breeze broadcasts the acrid, fish-tinged funk. Clutching a rope, we ride the guano slip-and-slide down the long, steep slope to the hunters’ blinds. A galaxy of puffins swirls around us, circling between ocean and land.
Tucked behind rocks, the hunters wait for an off-course straggler or a burst of wind to push a bird within reach of the háfur hidden at their sides. Suddenly, a net arcs across the sky, then swoops back to ground with an angry puffin tangled in its web.
“It reminds me of back home when I was a kid,” says Ragnar Jónsson, an orthopedic surgeon who grew up in the Westman Islands and has come to Grímsey for a taste of the past. As a youngster, he tells me, he spent summers climbing all over the bird cliffs with a pole and net. He speaks of the nature and the bird life and the freedom. “There were no restrictions,” he says wistfully.
Like many Icelanders, Jónsson seems reticent about discussing his people’s seabird harvest traditions, aware that outsiders may find them controversial. “A lot of people think it’s disgusting that we eat seabirds,” he says, “but it’s part of our culture.”
But the environment is changing, Jónsson acknowledges. The rapacious Viking spirit must find a way to adapt. For him, seabird hunting has become a way to relax and enjoy the outdoors. And while his companions scoop up puffin after puffin, he sits with just one stashed in a hollow behind him.
“It’s beautiful here,” Jónsson says, gazing at the flocks drifting over sparkling water. “I like to sit and watch. It’s not just about catching as many as you can. Been there, done that.”Atlantic puffins stand guard on a Grímsey Island nesting cliff overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/atlanticseabirds.info)
In Our Blood
Culture. Heritage. Tradition. I hear those words a lot as I stroll around Grímsey Island, passing small clusters of hunters every kilometer or so.
“This is in our blood,” says Hilmar Valur Jensson, a Heimæy tour guide hunting with the Westman Islanders on the steep cliffs of Grímsey’s northwest coast.
“Today we [hunt] mainly for the heritage,” says Ingólfur Bjarni Svafarsson, a teenaged Grímsey native, whom I encounter on the road to the lighthouse at the island’s southern tip. Svafarsson has hunted seabirds on Grímsey as long as he can remember—going out with his father before he was big enough to hold the net. He hopes to teach his own kids someday.
What about women, I ask Guðrún Inga Hannesdóttir, who is having a picnic with her young son, Hannes, on the high path over the island’s grassy spine. Do Icelandic women see hunting and egging as just a macho thing? Even kind of old school?
“I think it is cool that they still do that. … It’s not old school at all,” says Hannesdóttir, a teacher at the island’s seven-student primary school. Even though the actual harvest is mainly a male activity, she says, everyone enjoys the outcome.
Life on Grímsey is intertwined with seabirds. The small rocky island has been inhabited since the first Norse settlers arrived in the early 900s. The abundance of birds was one of the main draws, and eggs were a key source of income before fishing became king. The island’s sole restaurant is named Krían—Icelandic for the Arctic tern, a striking white creature so abundant and aggressive that people wave poles over their heads to fend off its attacks when they walk outside. Murre and razorbill eggs from the island’s cliffs sit next to cookies in the cafe’s bakery case.
But it’s puffins that rule. In summer, háfurs are as ubiquitous here as surfboards in Hawai‘i—sticking out of car windows, leaning against bicycles, propped against practically every house. Young and old share this passion, from former sheriff Bjarni Magnusson, who, at 86, bagged around 40 puffins this hunting season, to 14-year-old twins Ásbjörn and Thórólfur Guðlaugsson, who together caught 86 puffins in one day. It was their first time.
“Our brother taught us,” says Ásbjörn, cleaning his catch in a shed by the harbor. “It’s fun, and we have money,” Thórólfur adds. They plan to sell part of their haul to people craving a taste of puffin in Reykjavik and the Westman Islands.
The háfur looks something like a car-length lacrosse stick and is a fairly recent adaptation. Imported from the Faroe Islands, it arrived in Iceland around 140 years ago, supplanting more strenuous—and more destructive—old methods, such as pulling chicks from burrows with hooked sticks. The long-handled nets catch mostly juvenile birds that are too young to breed—flying around like bored teenagers with no responsibilities and little else to do. By centering on the nonbreeders, hunters maintain they are not harming the overall population. As a further safeguard, they avoid capturing birds with food in their bills: a sign of parents rearing chicks.
These days, however, few young puffins are even around to catch outside of Grímsey Island and other colonies in the north. So far, these places continue to produce offspring, but the marine ecosystem is changing fast, especially in the Arctic.
While Egevang photographs the hunters, Petersen counts the birds. Treading carefully across slippery rock beaches, stepping gingerly over burrows potholing the hillsides, he scans the cliffs for kittiwake and fulmar nests.
Red-faced from the driving wind, Petersen is a real Icelander, outside in shirtsleeves despite the cold. But the graduate of universities in England and Scotland speaks English with a slight Scottish lilt. The former researcher for the Icelandic Institute of Natural History has been surveying Iceland’s seabird colonies for more than 40 years. Now retired, he continues to travel around the country keeping track of its avian populations.
“The kittiwakes are doing terribly,” Petersen says, as we encounter yet another dead white bird with wing tips that look like they were dipped in black ink. When he last surveyed this part of the island, in 1994, he counted more than 3,300 active kittiwake nests. This year, there are only about a quarter as many. He’s seen the same trend at his study sites in western Iceland, where he’s also found sharp drops in Arctic terns, puffins, and other seabirds. Similar trends are being noted in colonies from Scotland to Norway, and beyond.
The statistics are sobering. The North Atlantic basin is a crucial habitat for many of the world’s marine birds. More than two dozen species breed in the region’s cold, food-rich waters. Iceland alone hosts some 22 species, including a substantial portion of the northern hemisphere’s Atlantic puffins, common murres, northern fulmars, razorbills, black-legged kittiwakes, and Arctic terns. All of these species are now in trouble.
A host of factors is behind the North Atlantic’s seabird declines, including introduced predators, large-scale fisheries vacuuming up their prey, by-catch, excessive harvesting, and more, with differences depending on species and location. One force, however, is common throughout the region: profound ocean disturbances driven by climate change.
“Something seems to be happening to the food supply of seabirds over a large area of the northeast Atlantic,” says Morten Frederiksen, a seabird ecologist with Denmark’s Aarhus University, “and climate change is the most obvious explanation.”
The waters of the North Atlantic have been warming at an alarming rate, particularly in the coastal regions where breeding seabirds forage. Along south and west Iceland, ocean temperatures rose 1 to 2 °C since 1996.
Warmer waters are disrupting the ocean’s food web and driving away the fish that seabirds such as puffins need to feed their young. Puffins in the Westman Islands and many other colonies in the region rely on a pencil-shaped fish known as sand lance or sand eel. As these fish vanish, puffin parents have a hard time getting enough food for their young. According to biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen, of the relatively few chicks born in the Westman Islands last summer, nearly all starved to death. The same thing happened the three previous summers. In fact, this crucial colony has failed to produce a new generation of puffins for more than a decade.
Hansen, based at the South Iceland Nature Research Centre in the Westman Islands, is Iceland’s puffin specialist. Every summer, he circumnavigates the nation twice on a breakneck tour he calls the “puffin rally”—each time traveling more than 2,500 kilometers by car, boat, and airplane to visit 12 colonies in two weeks. On the first trip, early in the season, he surveys occupied burrows and snakes an infrared camera inside to look for eggs. On the second, he uses the burrow camera to count chicks.
His latest counts do reveal good news. North and west Iceland had their best seasons in several years, he tells me in an email. Even so, over the long term, Hansen’s studies show none of Iceland’s puffin colonies are really doing well. Populations in the south and west have plunged, and the eastern colonies are shrinking. Even here in the north, where puffins appear to be flourishing, they’re basically just treading water.
Should puffin hunting continue? Hansen is well aware of the cultural charge surrounding this question and the likely fallout from hunters riled by his response. I can almost hear a resigned sigh as he writes, “My professional advice is absolutely no hunting until after the population has recovered and produced chicks for several years.”An Atlantic puffin holds its catch of sand eel. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/atlanticseabirds.info)
Nowhere to Go
The wind has risen to a near gale when Petersen, Egevang, and I meet at the Krían for an afternoon beer. Raising glasses embossed with long-bearded brutes in horned helmets—headgear the real Vikings probably never actually wore—we dive into a discussion of the changing North Atlantic ecosystem.
“In the last 10 years or so, I’ve heard so many stories about species appearing where they didn’t used to,” says Egevang. In Greenland, “all of a sudden tuna have started to appear.”
“A lot of new species are now coming into our waters too,” says Petersen, speaking of Iceland. “Fish, invertebrates, whales. Local species are moving north.”
As the North Atlantic region heats up, some residents—most notably humans—have the means to adapt. Others, such as cod, whose breeding output rises as waters warm, could find new opportunities in the emergent conditions. But for stalwart native birds—such as the Arctic tern, which endures a grueling pole-to-pole migration twice a year, and the plucky puffin, which dives up to 60 meters deep in frigid waters in pursuit of prey—the potential gains are far outweighed by the losses.
“It’s not the temperature increase that’s harming the birds,” Petersen points out. “It’s all the things that could be coming along with that.” Things like disease, shrinking food supplies, invasive species, increased storms, and off-kilter seasons.
The birds can try to move farther north. But the lack of suitable nesting sites at higher latitudes and the extra kilometers that would be added to their annual migrations severely constrain their options. They’re already near their northern habitat limit.
Says Petersen: “There’s nowhere for them to go.”
Faced with declining seabird populations, a report by the Nordic Council of Ministers states, this coastal culture’s distinctive traditions are fast becoming history. Many North Atlantic nations, including Norway, Sweden, and Scotland, have already halted most seabird hunting. And though it’s been curtailed in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, the report concludes, current harvest levels may still be unsustainable.
A Very Native Dinner
The night before they leave Grímsey, the Westman Islanders cook a puffin dinner for Petersen, Egevang, and me. A huge pot bubbles on the stove at the yellow guest house for hours, filling the air with the cloying redolence of burning tires.
Finally a platter piled with what looks like chocolate-colored Cornish hens is served, along with a lecture on how to eat them. You must crack the chest, I’m told. Suck the flesh off the wings and neck. Make sure to eat the insides too. Nearly every bit of the puffin is eaten.Heimæy tour guide Hilmar Valur Jensson and Westman Island hunters prepare to enjoy a puffin dinner. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/atlanticseabirds.info)
This is a very native dinner, the men announce. They’ve worked hard to prepare this meal and they’re clearly proud of their effort. Tonight’s recipe is a time-honored dish called “puffin in his tuxedo,” a traditional Christmas dinner in the olden days.
I take a bite. The scorched-rubber bouquet carries through in the taste, with a lingering fish-oil finish. I try to eat it all, but I can’t. Despite their small appearance, these birds have an amazing amount of meat. And for me, a little taste is plenty.
I give up, and pass mine to Andri Fannar Valgeirsson, the young man sitting next to me. He eats it with gusto, recalling memories of holidays past. The taste of puffin, he says, “makes me feel like a little boy again.”
Valgeirsson is a Westman Islands fisherman like his father. They’ve both come here to hunt. It’s his first time, and he shows me the cuts on his hands where the puffins scratched and bit him as he removed them from the net. Still, he enjoyed it.
“I didn’t know it was so much fun,” he says, rubbing his sore hands. “I want to do it again.” The best part was getting to learn from his dad—something he can no longer do in his own part of the country.
“It’s kind of sad,” Valgeirsson says. “I really want to do what my father does. Hunting, it’s connected us.”
Tomorrow Valgeirsson, Hilmarsson, and the others will hunt again. They’ll catch their quota of around 120 birds per person, and start on the long trek home. The Thjóðhátíð celebration will once more be able to offer a taste of the sea.
But someday, perhaps soon, the storied Norse seabird legacy will likely come to an end, another casualty of the changing climate and changing times.
Or maybe a new generation of these hardy wayfarers will write a new chapter for the old Viking saga.
Young Hjalti Trostan Arnheidarson, the innkeeper’s 11-year-old son, has been listening to the conversation. He says he wants to carry on the traditions. Go down the cliffs, swing the háfur, learn the old ways. With one important change, he says:
“The only part that I don’t like is the killing. I don’t like seeing animals die.”
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David Skorton: Hello, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us for this first session of Second Opinion, an ongoing series where the Smithsonian is attempting to convene conversations among interesting people with interesting points of view and interesting experiences, on issues that we believe are of national importance. For our conversation today we're going to address an issue that is of concern to all of us and each of us, the state of our planet. Given the impact on the planet, of the rise of the human species, the dawn of agriculture, increasing land and water use, emerging infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, climate change, species extinction, and other challenges, is there a reason to be optimistic about the future of our planet, and our place on it?
Will our species have the ideas and means, and the will, to successfully adapt to this upcoming era of change, and to alter its course for the better? Here to discuss this question with me is a very esteemed group of interesting people. I'm David Skorton, I'm the secretary of the Smithsonian. And going to my left, I will introduce the different people around here. I'm going to tell you a little bit about how you can learn more about the wonderful work that they've done. I'll tell you that in just a moment. To my immediate left is Denise G. Fairchild, who's president of the Emerald Cities Collaborative. It's a national nonprofit organization working to ensure equity inclusion, while building resilient green and healthy economies.
To her left is Steve Monfort, who is the John and Adrienne Mars Director and chief scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. And Steve is also the deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park. To his left is Mary Evelyn Tucker. She's co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, where she teaches in the joint master's program between the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. Next to Mary Evelyn is Anson Hines, who goes by Tuck, and he's the director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
Next to Tuck is Catrina Rorke, who is the senior fellow for energy policy at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, advancing solutions to complex public policy problems. And between Catrina and me is Jedediah Purdy, who goes by Jed, professor of law at Duke University, and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Now, I welcome you to dig deeper into the individual works of these panels, which can be found on our Second Opinion website.
Well, thank you very much everyone for being a part of this. And I also want to point out that we have an audience of very interesting people as well all around us. And you will have a chance perhaps to hear some of their questions later on. So, let's start by a quote from Catrina. And this quote that Catrina has written, "The globe is indeed warming, and we are largely responsible."
Well, the Smithsonian Institution a few years ago issued a statement to that same effect, saying, "The global climate is warming as a result of human activities." Yet despite this general overall scientific consensus, there remains continuing need to understand more about the exact details of what the warming of the planet will mean for the world and human civilization, and over what time period.
Tuck, I'm going to throw the first one to you. Tell us a bit about what you see as the challenges ahead, for getting a better understanding of the impact of this undeniable climate change? Tuck?
Tuck Hines: Thanks. It's very clear, the science is very clear, that the planet is warming, and that this is a result of rising carbon dioxide, which has a fingerprint of coming from burning of fossil fuels. There's no doubt about that. The trend for that has been well established and is projected into the future. What's important to understand is the role of science and the uncertainty of the implications for that in our social and economic systems, and the interactions of the many factors that that enormous change to the planet is causing. Interactions with food production systems, with weather, with plant growth, with rising sea level, all of those things vary enormously across the planet, and interact with each other.
And there's a real need for research to understand those interactive factors as an important next step, not in denying the positive direction of the climate warming, but the consequences of that, and how that will play out.
David Skorton: Thanks a lot, Tuck. Speaking of research and studies in the human psyche, there are numerous psychological studies that suggest, and somewhat paradoxically, that the more evidence people see in certain situations that a particular belief they hold is incorrect, the more they may actually dig in and hold on to the idea that that belief is true. Denise, I want to challenge you with this one, if I could? What can you tell us, from your career, are the challenges you've seen getting large groups of individuals, entire societies even, to change their minds about a particular aspect of the world, such as climate change, and further change their behavior?
Denise Fairchild: Well, thank you for the question. Actually, I do believe we're seeing sort of a mind shift, an idea shift happening in America, if not the globe. I mean, to the extent that we have had the Paris Climate Accord, for example, that represents nations around the world, for the first time, recognizing that there is a problem. [Ed. Note: This conversation took place before President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Accord.] That's been 20, 25 years in the make to get to that point, that nation states are recognizing that there's a problem, something to do about it. The fact that we can actually see low-income communities of color ... now, often the environmental movement is seen as a middle-class, white movement. But to this day, all the research points to the fact that low-income communities of color care about, and want to do something about, climate change, even greater than middle-class, white communities.
It means that these are very fundamental issues that people care about. I think what needs to happen at this stage is sort of figuring out, what are the tools that people need to actually make a difference? So people are doing things, like making their homes more energy-efficient. People are moving towards solar energy. Folks are preserving and improving how they conserve water, and they don't turn on their washing machines in the middle of the day, or their dishwashers. So just gradually the knowledge is disseminating across the globe and particularly in the United States, where people are making individual behavioral changes. The thing that I think is a fundamental challenge, however, is looking at the structural causes of climate change, and how we get people to understand that we are part of the problem in terms of mass production and mass consumption.
You talked about greenhouse gas emissions and carbon and the burning of fossil fuels. Well, that's fueled by an economic model that supports an extractive economy in digging up the oils and all the fossil fuels. And the question becomes, how do we get out of the cultural mindset that we have to have more stuff? And we have to produce more stuff, and we have to consume more stuff, that just continues to drive the conditions that cause climate change. That's the fundamental issue, that's the behavioral changes that need to be made at the personal level.
Often the environmental movement is seen as a middle-class, white movement. But to this day, all the research points to the fact that low-income communities of color care about, and want to do something about, climate change, even greater than middle-class, white communities.
David Skorton: It’s a tall order; it sounds right to me, and I'm sure that we can solve this problem during our discussion.
Denise Fairchild: Absolutely. There's no question.
David Skorton: Following along on to what you mentioned about the role of individuals, some people continue to argue that the U.S. government ... the government itself, the federal government, can and should play a greater role in helping to direct large-scale initiatives for the greater good in a whole variety of areas. Among them building infrastructure, addressing social inequalities, undertaking scientific research. Catrina, you've worked a lot in that area, the interface between individuals and the government, what are the challenges in your observation, in getting governments to address the looming changes ahead? And while you're thinking about that, should any governmental initiative be at the federal level, or should it be at the local level, or state level, or both?
Catrina Rorke: That’s a complicated and maybe loaded question. I think that policies are best designed by people closest to problems. So, in this pending debate over infrastructure spending, we're seeing some contest between who's going to make decisions about how any future dollars get spent. Will it be at the federal level, or are we going to devolve decision-making to the cities? I think it's a nice way of looking at public policy problems generally, because in individual communities we can identify problems that we find to be more pressing much more immediately and with better data and narratives than a federal government could. I do think that finding the right stages of implementation for policy decisions is really important, even for subjects like global climate change, which affect us as a global population, and not individual populations.
But I also think it's important to note that the government is not the root of cures for every public policy problem. Often we find cures in innovations in individual communities, and the creativity of humans is what leads to solutions, not the ingenuity of a bureaucrat. And so one of the things that we work on at R Street is, how do we identify a way to make the footprint of government small enough to allow this intellectual curiosity to lead us to solutions at the same time that we don't ignore significant market failures, where there is a compelling need for government to intercede?
Without answering your question specifically, because I think that would take about six hours of conversation, I think what we're looking at in the subject of climate change, but in these global problems more broadly, is a way to mobilize individuals and communities, and then take that information and do great things with it. Rather than having decisions come from some centralized power.
Government is not the root of cures for every public policy problem. Often we find cures in innovations in individual communities, and the creativity of humans is what leads to solutions, not the ingenuity of a bureaucrat.
David Skorton: Very, very interesting. And as a lifelong bureaucrat I take that in a very positive sense. I love that title. Following along your line of thinking, it's been suggested over the years that sometimes individuals don't always make the right decision in their own interest, even if that decision is made close to the action. And in the ’60s ... I'm looking around the table here. Some of you may still remember the ’60s perhaps. Tuck, put your hand down. In the ’60s, the ecologist Garrett Hardin, you may remember this, published the essay on the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which has been used in many different areas of endeavor and thought. And he pointed out, for those who are just learning about this, that there are some situations where people, even acting apparently in their own self-interest, will engage in behaviors that in the end collectively affect their own self-interest in the wrong direction, negatively.
And he used as an example shepherds who were having their sheep graze and eventually perhaps overgraze and destroying an area, making it barren, and therefore hurting their own self-interest. You could argue, I suppose, that the current dilemma that we're in, in terms of the climate, is another example of a commons, where people and nations act in their own interest, apparently, but eventually you wind up creating a result that is much worse for them in the end. Jed, I'm wondering if you could tell us what you think are some of the challenges in overcoming this, if it really is under tragedy of the commons, what's your thought on that?
Jedediah Purdy: David, thank you. I think it is a commons tragedy. I think it is the largest and most general that we've ever faced. It threatens to be the commons tragedy that ate the world really. And precisely because it's so global, I think it confounds many of our ordinary expectations about how we ought to address even the most complex problems. Catrina, I think of what you just said about the need for solutions to come from those who are closest to the problem. One of the characteristics, I think, of global climate change is it can often be difficult to see who it is exactly, who is closest to the problem, right, in its various stages and its complex interrelations.
I'd also just say, and one further note of piling on pessimism, before I try to turn a little bit constructive, that it's not just a collective action problem across individuals or across nations in the present, which is clearly right. It's also a commons tragedy across generations. Because each generation can in a narrow, rational sense act in its own interest, while putting the cost of dealing with the consequences of what it's done on those who come after. So in that sense, the people making the decisions are always the ones who can least be counted on to do the right thing. I think of this as pointing in two directions. On one level I want to sort of echo and amplify and generalize what Denise said a little bit ago, about the need for change on the level of behavior and even consciousness. This has to invite an answer where we change our understanding of what problems are ours, you know, and what interests are ours?
One of the things I find hopeful in the history of environmental thought and action is that it's often involved people re-imagining their place in the world. Revisiting the question, who are you connected to? Which problems are yours? Is it in your interest to save something that you can't immediately use? And we think about these questions, we actually live these questions very differently than people once did. That seems hopeful. But I would also say, and I don't think anyone has said the contrary, but I just emphasize, changes of consciousness on the individual level have to be turned into legal and political structures that people can rely on, and live by. That was the conclusion of Garrett Hardin’s famous article that you began with, that we needed what he called mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon, to control access to the commons.
So I think a political expression and reinforcement of a changing consciousness will be equally important.
David Skorton: Thoughts about that? Yes, Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: If I could build on that? Thank you.
David Skorton: Please.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: And for these other comments as well. I think this is very critical, because the way I would see it is, we have a great value in the last 200-plus years of Enlightenment thinking, of individualism, liberty, equality and fraternity. But individualism and innovation is terrific, and Catrina, I agree with that. But I think we're also at a point of hyper-individualism, where we haven't really acknowledged what is a community-building way of being in the world? This is one of the great characteristics of humans, we can build communities. So I think we need from individualism to interdependence, independence to interdependence, from equality to equity, about [how] these issues have affected so many people, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos out of the picture.
And fraternity, we really need to claim a grounds that says: We are in this together, for children, for inter-generations and so on. And I think that is one of our greatest challenges. That we'll have consequences for structures and politics, but that the individual sphere is, I think, being almost suffocated by hyper-consumption and hyper-individualism. We yearn to be part of something larger, and call to something larger, which is why this conversation is so important.
We really need to claim a grounds that says: We are in this together, for children, for inter-generations. And I think that is one of our greatest challenges.
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Denise Fairchild: And I would also suggest that this notion of the commons is nothing new. I think this hyper-individualism is something that's only been within the makings of the Western economies, and then we can look to indigenous cultures where the commons was how people lived. We look at our Native American community, for example. They say you make decisions, Jed, to your point, based on seven generations. Two in the past, the current generation, and four generations going forward. Which gives you a sense of the inter-generational nature of this, that we are one, and part of an ecosystem, and we cannot just see ourselves as consuming or producing for me and myself and mine.
But that we are making decisions for the globe. For the part that we have in the entire ecosystem. So, I think there are places that there's a sense of optimism. Places where we can look, cultures that we can look to, that really give us the pathway towards a different kind of way to live in this climate challenge that we're facing.
David Skorton: Very interesting. And is it a practical thing, or do we have a moral obligation, would you say, looking at you, Mary Evenlyn, to think about future generations? Are we just being pragmatic, or is there a moral aspect to it?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, pragmatism has its role, for sure. But I think that the moral call, and I know Jed would share this, and many of us here, I think is very profound, and your point to other cultures. I study Confucianism, the oldest ongoing culture and civilization in the world, now in its hyper-development phase. But the idea of Confucianism is, even the character for the individuals is "an individual in relationship" to others. And the idea, even for public service, is you're doing this for the common good. It's a completely different way of being human in the world. And there's a revival of Confucianism for reasons of over-consumption, over-individualism, and a spiritual vacuum. So in short, I think there is a complex multi-faceted moral call at this moment in human history that needs to draw on other cultures, other religions, other peoples and races and so on, to build what I would call a multicultural, but planetary civilization, for the future. I think we can do that.
Jedediah Purdy: If I might just add one note to what Mary Evelyn says, the distinction between pragmatic and moral motivations is useful, but in some ways it's also an artifact of our rather individualistic conception of what it is to act as a person.
David Skorton: These are the points I was hoping you would bring out, and I'd appreciate my other colleagues bringing out points that I'd like you to bring out.
The last thing you just said, thinking about the planet broadly, I'd like to talk a little bit about species beyond the human species. It's been suggested that one of the biggest impacts of climate change, some of the things that Tuck said we have to pay attention to, is the growing extinction of other species around the globe. Steve, you have spent a very distinguished career working in this area, but for those of us who haven't thought about this, why worry about it? Why does a diverse population of animals or plants matter to us or to the Earth in general?
Steve Monfort: I think it's a great question. I often, since climate change came onto the horizon over the last decade or so, and was in front of everybody's mind, it sort of cast a pall, I think, over everyone feeling there's this sense of gloom-and-doom, and what can I do about the climate? What can I do about the atmosphere, and so forth?
But there's another effect, and the effect has been that all of the funding, a lot of the attention shifted away from biodiversity and functioning ecosystems to now a sense of "What do we do about the climate?" I guess I feel there's a very likely chance that ultimately, humans will figure out the climate situation. It will eventually be solved. It's an existential problem. And if, say it's solved and we do that, but then we turn around and say, "What happened to the biodiversity? Where's everything gone?" And the reason it matters is because everything we require as a species is derived in some way or another from biological diversity. And for that I mean things like the air, and water and food and fuel and fiber, and all of these things.
The conservation community has been trying very hard to make an economic case for "What are the benefits, nature's benefits," and this sort of thing. And there's certainly a good case to be made for that. The fact is, our society would collapse without biodiversity. We wouldn't continue to survive. But there are other elements of biodiversity that provide us with value, and that's everything from spiritual and cultural value to entertainment, to all of these sorts of things. Most of us, if I make the argument to a politician, I say, "You care about prosperity and security, and those sorts of issues, well then you should care about biodiversity." But if I ask most people, I think there's an innate connection people have with nature. I don't think you can separate, you shouldn't separate humans, from biodiversity. We're part of that.
So there's this part of being human that is tied to biodiversity, and to the Earth and to nature and the sense of wildness that we think or hope that exists in the world. And so I think there's an idea maybe we could manufacture our way through an absence of biodiversity. We could use all kinds of new engineering technologies and do something, but what would our life be like? What would the quality of the human experience be like without biodiversity?
So, I think there's different arguments you can make. Fundamentally, though, I think it's more than just the economic argument. There's an intrinsic value in nature that sometimes gets ignored. In the conservation community, people are arguing with one another. Should we save nature because of its economic value in a landscape of "in the Anthropocene" or is there a place for just nature as an intrinsic right? Do all other living things on Earth have the right to exist and to function without human interference or damage?
It matters from across the spectrum, but I worry that we forget biological diversity. This idea that we're going to bring back species from the dead that are extinct, and so on, it's mostly a fantasy. So, we need work at both fronts. Let's fix climate change, work on that, but at the same time let's not lose these functioning ecosystems that humans require for their survival.
I don't think you can separate—you shouldn't separate—humans from biodiversity. We're part of that.
David Skorton: I think some earlier point that you were making about indigenous cultures living that philosophy every day is very important.
Steve Monfort: There was something else that was being discussed before. When you talk about individuals trying to take action and do things, most people that I've been talking to, we are increasingly bludgeoning them with gloom-and-doom, and we're not giving them any solutions. They keep saying, "What can I possibly do?" Well what challenge, if you talk about the atmosphere, what more ephemeral thing are you asking people to do? They can make a choice. You can do all kinds of things personally, but at some level, I feel the right to a functioning atmosphere, clean air, somebody said recently, "To me, that's a basic human right. Clean air and clean water and food, those to me should be basic human rights."
What are we going to do about maintaining those rights? There needs to be some role for the regulatory state, for governments. I think of California. They just went through their drought, and so they had mandatory water restrictions, and everybody went along with that because they knew, you run out of water we're in big trouble. California is also an example of how they've regulated emissions. They've just said, "You're not going to have a car here in this state unless it meets these requirements."
So I do think there's both individual action, but also governments have to act for the benefit of everyone. So I think it's both. You have to have individual choice, and you have to have good governance and good decision-making.
Bill McDonough was at the Earth Optimism Summit and he said, "CO2 is the pollutant, and it's going into the atmosphere, and how would you think that people in Flint, Michigan, would feel if you said, 'You have lead in your water and it's at 100, let's say, units, and we're going to reduce it down to 40.' Would you feel good about drinking water that only has 40 parts of lead in it instead of 100? It's the same way with the atmosphere and carbon dioxide." Anyway, if people looked at CO2 as a pollutant that was affecting their health, they might think of it differently.
David Skorton: In the late '50s, the environment in Los Angeles was tough. As an asthmatic kid, there were many days where they said kids shouldn't go out to play, and so on. And a lot of changes were made predominantly through state-level regulations, although there was of course the Clean Air Act.
I stepped in front of you Jed, who wants to say something, but I can't resist asking Catrina where she comes on this issue, because threading that needle of how much to bring in regulation, how much to use a carrot and stick and so on, how much should be relegated to individuals, municipal, state, versus federal? It's one that we don't agree on as a country, and I'm curious, Catrina. Then I promise, Jed, I'll stop stepping on your minds and let you come in.
Catrina Rorke: I think that we've touched on two parts. This sort of individual call to action, "What can an individual do," and "What can the government do?" I think this individual conversation is a really important one to have about how you feel like you participate in your community, however broadly you might define it. But everybody on Earth taking shorter, colder showers is not going to solve climate change.
And then you can look at government policy, and government policy is maybe this opposite mechanism that dictates which actions are preferable or not allowable. Those instruments can be helpful. You can adapt them in a variety of ways, like market mechanisms to reduce acid rain were obviously quite helpful, and came in at a relatively low cost for all the achievements we made.
But between those two is the marketplace. And every day, trillions of decisions are made in the marketplace. And right now, the vast majority of them don't think about climate change as a problem. They don't think about global problems as a problem. When you buy a pack of gum, you're not thinking about the supply chain. When you take the bus, you're not thinking about "Was this bus manufactured according to the values that I hold?" So we're in a marketplace where we're making decisions without accounting for these problems, and that marketplace itself can be constrained, not necessarily by the individual side, but by the government side. And we're seeing that right now.
So, I do a lot of work with distributed generation, and that policy is largely set at the state level. And there are very many states that don't allow people to produce electric power on their roofs and then sell it to market, or won't allow a company, like let's say a big box store like a Walmart or a Target, to cover their roofs in solar panels and profit that way. That's a government policy problem.
So we know that companies want cheap power. We know that that technology exists, and yet public policy stands in the way. And so I think that we need to maybe step back and consider when we're thinking about public policy strategies to combat any number of problems, what's the natural limit of what public policy can do? And how do we sort of induce the marketplaces that we would prefer, by mobilizing individual action and collective action? I think that we leave this part out too often, and that we count on sort of individual compunction or the power of the state, when the reality is that the solutions always come from somewhere in the middle. How do we mobilize those solutions, I think, is a really interesting public policy to do.
David Skorton: I interrupted Jed then. And then we'll come to you next.
Jedediah Purdy: Generous of you, thanks. I just wanted to add to what Steve was saying, 'cause it was so engaging. The importance of other species, I think, goes to very deep questions about what could make life on Earth worthwhile, if we move away from ever accelerating accumulation and growth. There's this passage in Walden where Thoreau asks, "What greater miracle could there be than to look through each other's eyes, just for a moment?" Think of how true that is as between human beings and other species.
We're just beginning to understand what kinds of consciousness, what kinds of experience, what kinds of language and culture and memory we coexist with all over the world. And I think if we return ever to something that has more elements of certain kinds of traditional and indigenous practices, it will be through our increasing both scientific and cultural understanding of how many other kinds of consciousness we live here with, and how we can relate to them. We don't even understand what we're losing, in that sense. We're just beginning to understand it as it disappears. And it's not just a whole other world, it's dozens of hundreds of worlds that are coexisting here in our world.
We don't even understand what we're losing (in biodiversity). We're just beginning to understand it as it disappears. And it's not just a whole other world, it's dozens of hundreds of worlds that are coexisting here in our world.
David Skorton: Yeah, it's very very true. Denise, do you have something?
Denise Fairchild: This is a great conversation, and we could go on forever, but I do want to talk about the role of government, because I do believe the role of government is critical for mediating the climate change environment and helping individuals as well as markets perform and behave better. It's very clear that regulation is just one tool that government has to move markets, but the other, I think, is that it incentivizes markets to perform and to innovate, and to bring into the marketplace ways to think about bringing new technologies to the forum.
To the extent that today, because of investment and because of research and development, and new climate change technologies, we're seeing that renewable energy is cheaper than coal. I mean the business case now for renewable energy is clear, and the fossil fuel economy is struggling. I talk to our utility friends all the time. They said they were in an existential crisis. They know it. They have to figure out how to make the shift, because the bottom line is profit. The technologies are there and it's now profitable to go renewable.
So government has a role to incentivize the market to perform in different kinds of ways.
I'm also seeing, Catrina, the local communities like in Florida this last November election, where it's a very conservative environment that says "We want distributive energy." At the end of the day, they beat back state legislation advanced by utilities to prevent distributive energy. And the folks in that community says "No. We want state regulations." So even in a conservative setting, we're seeing the need for regulations and the desire for regulations in local communities.
And the last thing I'd say about that is "shareholders." I see, actually, the market performing very well and big business really clearly trying to improve their business services, their business products and practices to address sort of this new sense for having sort of a clean economy. And shareholders are looking at this from a risk analysis basis. "What's the risk if we don't fix climate change, and what profits are at risk in this sense?" So I do see that government has a role, and I do see the market is stepping into that role in a very proactive way, incentivized by government.
Tuck Hines: I agree with that. I think that there is a lot of opportunity for the broader standards to be arrived at by community, by government, but individuals will behave in their own best interests, and there's a diversity of interests out there, so the collective interface of that is important, of those differing opinions and values and wants and desires and solutions.
But there is a business approach. Business is not always the problem. It can also solve problems. It's a powerful force, and everybody needs to make a living. So the question is, can those be done in a way that's consistent with, and incentivized to, solving the problems. I think there are many examples of that. Certainly, renewable energy is a great example of that. But there are lots and lots of others.
David Skorton: Other thoughts you have, Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well this is a great discussion, and I appreciate the differing points of view. I want to come back, Jed thinks in this philosophical way, and I think with the world religions, a complement. And we've talked about ethics and so on, and you've said so beautifully, Steve, about how we value species not only in our own self-interest. Ecosystem services has developed a huge following, and partly because it's trying to speak to the market. You know it's very pragmatic. What's the value of the wetlands, and so on and so forth.
I love that you say we need intrinsic value. It's part of this conversation, and that means for species, clearly. It means for ecosystems, clearly. It means for what is a commons, and a common good. What I would suggest that we're in this exciting transition where we actually don't have a fully developed sense of ethics—the world's religions, by and large, apart from indigenous traditions as we've mentioned. My husband is a student of indigenous religions. But we don't have an ethics that is up to the task. So our cultures need to expand.
There's movements, of course, for environmental ethics, for eco-ethics, there's even a cosmological ethics, to say if we're part of the stars, that this whole universe and Earth system is something we've come out of and are responsible to. So I just wanted to put that into the conversation because I think it's a very exciting, creative, cultural opportunity to expand our thinking, expand our consciousness.
And certainly, there's parallels with environmental law. Thomas Barry, our teacher, was working on Earth jurisprudence. How do the rights of nature come into this? And I'll just end by saying it's quite astonishing that several rivers have been given rights of humans, including in New Zealand, thanks to the work of Maori and others, and two of the most sacred rivers in India. The Yamuna and the Ganges River now have rights as humans. So I think we're in this exciting moment of expansion of an ethical and moral sensibility that's grounded in the science that gives us that sense of the intricacy of ecosystems.
We're in this exciting transition where we actually don't have a fully developed sense of ethics ... So our cultures need to expand.
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Denise Fairchild: Could I, David, ask a question?
David Skorton: Please. Anything.
Denise Fairchild: To what extent is religion, Christianity, particularly a part of the problem, in terms of how the Bible has said it's the rights of man to basically dominate, extract, exploit the environment. Is that real…
Mary Evelyn Tucker: It's not!
Denise Fairchild: Or is it not, you know?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Such an important question. Part of this human-centered and "dominion" idea in Genesis. I would suggest, and this is what we've been trying to evoke, midwife, birth, a larger sensibility, if you will, among the world's religions, that says all of these traditions have changed over time.
They have expanded their understandings of their scriptures. So in the mid ’90s, we did conferences on all the world's religions, to begin to evoke this sense that "What are views of nature? What are environmental ethics?" And so on. Within Christianity specifically, while it has had this reputation of dominion vis-a-vis Genesis, there are astonishing theologians and ethicists who have moved this way beyond that particular idea. Stewardship, but even more than that, a sense of reverence for these ecosystems and species.
The books have exploded. On our website, the Forum on Religion and Ecology, there are statements of all the world's religions on this, but in particular, Christianity has opened the doors, I would say widely.
David Skorton: I want to think a little bit more about this communication. One thing that has been implied in the recent give-and-take we've had is interface between science and non-science areas. And Tuck will be surprised that we're going to quote from Sean McMahon, a scientist who works at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which Tuck so ably leads. This is a quote from Sean: He said "It is sometimes more effective to convey an idea to society with art rather than with science."
I think it's true that visual art, performing arts, arts of all kinds, can connect in sort of a visceral way that sometimes just the presentation of facts doesn't get across. And so I want to throw this out to anybody and everybody in the panel. What are the challenges in leveraging what I'll call "culture"? Arts and other kinds of cultural uses to help people better understand the changes that are underway. What are the obstacles in getting a cultural message out? Not any particular cultural message, but messages in general. Any thoughts about this?
Denise Fairchild: Well I would just say that part of what I hope we're building is a movement. It's an environmental movement, it's a climate change movement. It's going to radically change how we live and what we value. And if you look at other movements, as in civil rights movement of the ’60s, and yes, I was around. I was one of those around at that period that culture was very critical to building and sustaining and growing the movement. It was freedom songs. It was the Black Arts movement at that time, in terms of the poets, the artwork, it was what actually energized people and gave them a sense of hope, as opposed to being pessimistic in the face of challenges, that it is the art, the culture, the music, that breeds life into the possibilities for change. And so I think it's a very critical part of a climate change movement to bring our artists and our culture into communicating values and ideas that are hard to dissect through scientists.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I think there's no question, just building on that, that the arts are, I think, going to be one of the greatest change agents that we have. Music. I just wanted to bring back in … Paul Winter has done an earth mass at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The animals come in. He's been doing this for 30 years. Thousands of people come to this. He also does a celebration of winter and summer solstice. It's extraordinary. The arts, we've got Andy Goldsworthy and many people doing amazing things. Film. The Environmental Film Festival here in the nation's capital, and we have one at Yale. We did a film on Journey of the Universe to tell the story of science for a larger audience, that evokes wonder and awe. I think we've got tremendous potential here, with the arts.
Tuck Hines: Art is often talked about as something over there that's on the wall or performed on stage. But I look at it more as it's our interaction with the environment. Architecture is a form of art.
[The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center] just got done building this fabulous new LEED Platinum building, only LEED Platinum building that the institution has. But you walk in, and the first thing that strikes you is not that it's so energy-efficient, and it has all these water cycling systems. But it's a fabulous building, and we put as much thought into the psychology of how that building was designed to promote the science and the teamwork that we do, and how it links to the outdoors, and all the functioning systems that are supporting in that as a continuum.
So landscape architecture and architecture, and the environmental interactions that we have around us, to me that's as important as the art that's on the wall. We have those things. Even some of our scientists do art. But it's an interactive thing, with us and the environment, and that's what motivates people in their daily lives as well.
Jedediah Purdy: I think that's just exactly right. There's this arresting passage late in Otto Leopold's classic work Sand County Almanac where he says, "The purpose of conservation policy is to breed a consciousness and a way of seeing that can appreciate the world in a new fashion." That is to say, our land use policy, our agriculture policy, our energy policy, they all have aesthetic and even moral dimensions. They shape the landscape and they shape the terms of experience where people will learn to relate to and value the landscape.
Steve Monfort: Environmental folks or people working in science usually have some innate interest in nature, so I've always thought there was very little separate between art and science, at least in the environmental sciences. And we all go to a place that we have some spiritual reaction. When I was young, we went to Yosemite every year. That's, to me, it's like a cathedral. It was an experience that I had that was very impactful. But when I try to remember it, I'm never going to remember it better than Ansel Adams' photographs, or I'm never going to probably visualize birds better than Audubon painted them, or talk about nature better than Thoreau.
And so, to me, those are ways for me to remember and to heighten my remembrance and how I value that in my consciousness. And so, those are touch-points for me. So when I see art that's about nature, it reinforces for me this intense emotional feeling that I have arrived. So I think it's a very powerful thing.
Catrina Rorke: I think art also has the power to tell many different stories at once, right? So, the Environmental Film Festival is a great example. You know, half of the movies could be about a changing climate, but from completely different perspectives!
And I think it helps us weigh how complex what we're trying to impact might be. It helps us approach complicated problems in a way that's relatable. And helps us, I hope, make individual choices, and collective choices so that we can gain a better perspective on what happens outside our own backyards. Yeah.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I just wanted to mention ... Maybe you [Secretary Skorton] could comment, because you ... that environmental humanities within academia have really exploded on many campuses. We have over 100 classes on environmental humanities, across history and literature and the arts and film, and so on. And I think you've also worked on this with STEM and humanities.
David Skorton: Yeah, I mean Yale's been a great benchmark for the whole academic community in this regard. But if you look backwards in the world of higher education and learning in general, these disciplinary separations are relatively recent. And acquisition of knowledge and exploitation, and so on, whether for practical purposes or just to learn, used to be much less disciplinary and much less divided.
And it's true that there's a little reversal going on now. More and more educators around the country are seeing integration of the STEM disciplines and non-STEM disciplines; I feel it's important. But I want to keep the heat on you guys.
That was a nice try. That was a nice try.
I want to just go back a little tiny bit to the energy issue that was brought up about distributive energy and different technologies. Really on the way to asking a different question. Someone asked the question at the top of this little explanation, and asked it again at the end.
Many of us interact with technologies of various kinds. And these days, we live our lives, a lot of it connected to technology. And there's almost an intrinsic assumption that technology will save us, from whatever dilemma we're going to have.
And so, there's plenty of reason that people feel that way. One example, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a rising concern about whale oil becoming scarce. That was used then to light lamps to light your home. And eventually human ingenuity led us to petroleum products, and then now these newer forms of energy and so on.
And when you think about creating energy for the future, and adapting to potentially large shifts, and many of the problems that we're talking about today. Innovative new technologies is one of the first things that we always bring up.
And so the question is, now, I don’t mean this to sound negative, or cynical, but can we invent our way out of this dilemma? There's two points of view. One point of view is population will get to a certain size, Tuck and I talked about this before, and will reach some sort of limit to our ability to adapt.
And the other point of view is that technology will, and ingenuity, let's put a more general term, will allow us to make some changes. Where do the panelists fall on that issue? Can we invent our way out of this set of problems? Anybody? Everybody?
Catrina Rorke: I totally believe so.
David Skorton: You believe so.
Catrina Rorke: Yeah, so, the global 2000 report in the Carter administration talked about this super bleak future. About resource scarcity, and abundant poverty, and a polluted environment. And you'd think that heading into the year 2000 meant a total global collapse, and that's not what happened! So this Malthusian perspective, that people may be a burden to one another, that we could reach some sort of carrying capacity and the world will collapse around us, that idea has been presented many times.
And I think the data that we collect suggests that humans are not a burden, that we're not going to reach a carrying capacity. That our capacity for innovation actually allows humans to be ever more productive. Which is why population continues to increase, and not collapse. It's because every generation we can add more.
And so, when we think about the policy problems that we're looking at today, we can look at them as technology problems.
David Skorton: Mm-hmm
Catrina Rorke: And we have confidence. And we can see right now that we're innovating our way around them.
So whether it be the propagation of disease, well not only have we developed the medication to treat diseases tremendously, but we've developed aggressive supply chains that helped get medication out into communities that need it more quickly.
That's human innovation, that's not some gift of nature. And so we need to think about how humans have the capacity to innovate, and how we definitely have the impetus to innovate if we're looking at a collective problem like climate change.
Even if we don't want to solve climate change, the things that we're innovating right now are helping us find our way around that problem.
Because what we want is cheaper, more local forms of energy, and we're finding that. What we want is to feel like we're more sort of in a spiritual balance, and not consume aggressively, right? The minimalist movement is moving across the United States like wildfire. I think everybody has Marie Kondo's book now.
And so, this idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that. Humans are marvelous at treating problems, especially aggressive problems like this, quite well. That's why agricultural productivity is up. It's ... I don't know, that's why we're going to solve the climate challenge.
This idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that.
David Skorton: You know, I have to just jump in on this one. When you talk about infectious diseases, which is such a very interesting sort of cyclical problem, I remember when I was a med student, a long time ago in the ’70s, that we were talking a lot about non-communicable diseases. Heart disease, and cancer.
And one of our infectious disease professors at Northwestern said, "We'll invent a better mousetrap, and nature will invent a better mouse." And that was before, just at the very beginning of the recognition of HIV, before Ebola. So, I go back and forth.
Much of my life I lived thinking exactly what you said is right. But then I think eventually those cycles may unwind in a way that we can't come to. But it's a ... but I hope you're right.
Others have a point of view on this?
Denise Fairchild: I don't think ... I think technology is a tool, but I don't think it's going to get us out of our climate challenge.
David Skorton: Not even these 360-cameras like this?
Denise Fairchild: Great, great tools, toys. They're not tools, they're great toys.
You know, because, when you look at energy, for example. We use technology to invent, you know, steam engines. But we've used renewable wind and solar energy, we had those in the beginning. And we used and created fossil fuel technologies that got us into the place where we are today.
And we are now going back, and to your point, to the sort of renewable technologies that we had in the beginning. The only reason why fossil fuel technologies advanced, for cars and other things, is because there was a greater market opportunity to accumulate wealth and to make money off of this.
And so, I believe that it is an ethical challenge that we're facing. I do believe we're two-and-a-half times past carrying capacity in the earth. That we cannot continue to produce and consume at the level that we are now. We have not realized the full impact, we're starting to! In terms of the extreme weather conditions in California. [Secretary Skorton], you’re from California, the drought conditions and the loss of our water aquifers just totally destroying agricultural opportunities.
I've met farmers who're coming east looking for land to grow food because it's an issue. However, we do have aquaponics and hydroponics. We're finding some tools to help solve, to mediate, to mitigate some of the problems, but I don't think it's going to solve the climate change.
David Skorton: Other thoughts about this one?
Denise Fairchild: Unless we change our economy and change the ethics behind it.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Steve you had your hand up, I'll go after you.
Steve Monfort: Yeah, I mean, I'm actually more optimistic about, I'm not a climate change expert, but it does seem to me, we know what that problem is, where there are alternatives that people can be using. And frankly if there was more consensus or action around policy, we probably would be on our way to making the change that's needed.
But technology in itself is also a risk if people become disconnected with nature. And I think that's a huge issue with our generation, the up-and-coming generations. It's the ... you can't do conservation from a satellite. I mean, and a cellphone. And this idea that you can substitute that for going out in the field and discovering biodiversity and understanding how those systems function? Those can't be done by robots, or, human beings, working with their hands, in the field, need to be doing that.
And people are not going to protect—it sounds cliché—but what they don't love and don't understand. So young people who don't have perspective of what nature is, or don't have that opportunity. And in the West, we ought to have that opportunity, we're wealthy enough to do that.
I can understand how children in underdeveloped countries might not have the same privilege. But I see, or I think people are too reliant on quick fixes through technology and it makes them complacent. And not dealing with the immediate threats to biodiversity that we can solve right now. We definitely know what’s causing biodiversity loss, and it's also us.
And it's habitat fragmentation and pollution, invasive species and disease, and so forth. We know there's also known solutions for those. Technology's not going to fix our consumption patterns or behaviors about over-extraction of rare resources, for example.
So I think there's a role for technology, genomics is a great example, you know, it's a great tool. But in and of itself, it's not going to solve anything. It's just a tool that we need to use in a bigger way.
But technology in itself is also a risk, if people become disconnected with nature.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I agree. Just briefly, I think that technology is necessary, but not sufficient, which is what I think we're all saying. The power of human creativity, I think, is what Catrina is trying to put into the mix, here. The creativity has many expressions. And it needs to pay attention to equity issues. It needs to pay attention to inclusivity. This is human creativity, too. And I would just conclude, a very complex discussion here, but by saying -- part of, I think, our American technology, our know-how, our can-do attitude, which is very pragmatic, and so on, has no sense of limits. There is no precautionary principle in our thinking, or in our agencies here.
Why is it that the [European Union] has precautionary principles about a whole range of things, including what food goes in and out, and so on? So, I think technology as a solution alone is a misplaced notion, but especially without a precautionary principle. What are the implications for these technologies that we're releasing?
Technology as a solution alone is a misplaced notion, but especially without a precautionary principle. What are the implications for these technologies that we're releasing?
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Tuck Hines: Every other species and population responds to Malthusian principles of limitation on the earth. So, it's, the question then becomes, are humans totally different from every other species? Or are we subject to some limits of growth, at some point?
The question of whether technology, or innovation, can solve the problems that we're facing with is a somewhat different question. But at the grossest level, there's only so many square meters on the planet, and if everybody's standing on all those square meters, then you’ve got a problem that technology isn't going to solve.
So it may be that technology will get to the point where it's acknowledging and solving a way to live within those limits, but it isn't scientifically, I will say, possible for an infinite growth of the human population on the planet.
We can see that those limitations are starting to impact us, and there are new solutions coming along to some of those, absolutely. Renewable energies could very easily meet some of the challenges that we're seeing. And we see, I think, at Steve's Earth Optimism Summit that we participated in, there was a guy that said, you know, "Back in the Stone Age, we didn't run out of rocks before we left the Stone Age behind." We moved on, you know, to a new technology. And I thought that was pretty amusing.
But on the other hand, if you project the current rate of population growth on the planet. And every civilization, actually, that is in this, has actually started to level off, because of advanced technology. So the concept that Malthusian limitations and technology and economic, the concept that economic models require, always growth, to be successful, are not necessarily at odds with each other, if you look at a larger view in life.
David Skorton: Jed, last thought on this?
Jedediah Purdy: I would just add that when we ask whether we can expect to solve problems, prospectively, we run the incidental risk of forgetting that we're already an ongoing catastrophe, for the planet, in so many dimensions. It's not as if we've succeeded so far, and we can expect to continue to succeed.
We don't need whale oil anymore, but many of the whales are still substantially gone and depleted. Just to come back to your original example, and that's almost the least of it. So we don't just have preventative work to do, we have reparative work to do, as well.
When we ask whether we can expect to solve problems, prospectively, we run the incidental risk of forgetting that we're already an ongoing catastrophe for the planet.
David Skorton: Anybody, any thoughts on the one biggest challenge?
Jedediah Purdy: Yeah.
David Skorton: Jed?
Jedediah Purdy: I think we need to find a way of redefining what wealth is. And to put a new conception of wealth and well-being at the center of a revised understanding of what markets are and what relation they have to our other modes of organizing collective life.
Denise Fairchild: Yeah, I would agree with Jed, in sort of following the ideas of Naomi Klein, where she talks about, this says everything about the economy and how we define wealth and prosperity as being central to this. And understanding, I think, also, Steve's point, about the intrinsic value of nature, but more even advance that further, to understand the intersectionality of nature and how we are a part of nature. That we are a part of nature, not separate from it. And that the intersection of environment, economy, and even our social issues, are all intertwined, and that the solutions has to be holistic, integrated, comprehensive. That's a big challenge.
David Skorton: It's a good one. Steve?
Steve Monfort: Yeah, think it's a matter of providing people with win-win choices, there, that we need to, there need to be, it has to be an opportunity for someone to make a good choice as a consumer, let's say. For a product, whether it be a car, or something else they need to live or the food that they buy. We can't expect people to not need those things or want those things. But somehow the market has to be incentivized in some way so that those choices are available. And then people need to be able to make a choice that benefits their livelihoods, their families, and so forth. But that also has a minimal impact on others in terms of things like climate change.
And then people need to exercise their power in making those decisions through their pocket books, but also they need to also at the ballot box. People need to become more, better citizens, with respect to expressing what they want, and making that known to their ... those that we employ to govern us.
And I think it doesn't even have to be activism. It just has to be an increased awareness, and personal responsibility, and expressing that through the choices you make, whether it's in the marketplace or in the ballot box.
David Skorton: Thank you, Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, I love the point that Jed made about well-being. And I think that's certainly key to what we're all talking about. And I would just make two suggestions, if I might, picking up on what my colleagues have just said. That, if we understand, that human economy is a sub-system of nature's economy, that clearly there will be limits that are built into that, that's how an ecosystem works. But it's complex!
And the other part of that is, is again our colleagues have been saying, what is conservation? What is preservation? How do we go back to some of the great thinkers about this in our own history? And from other traditions and cultures.
But I love this point, that, I would say, it's conservation, preservation, management. But it's also restoration. It's restoration of these ecosystems. And along with restoration of the human spirit. What is it going to mean to redefine our place within these planetary systems? We're the first generation to know we're part of a very complex earth system, 4.6 billion years old! What does that mean for well-being? It's an exciting thing to...
David Skorton: Very good point. Tuck?
Tuck Hines: I'm very pragmatic, and I see the rate at which the climate is changing, and the consumption of fossil fuel as an enormous challenge. It's coming at us so fast that there's not a lot of change, not a lot of time to change everybody's ideas about their cultures and their global values, in my opinion.
We have 50 years, or something like that, the inertia of that change, and the climb at the rate of the oceans, for example, just one of the energy and warming, the expansion of those consequences, are impacting all the coastal cities of much of the population of the world.
And so I think the biggest challenge is to get using economic incentives, with scientific understanding, to shift our economies off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energies. And at as fast a possible pace as possible. Or the inertia of the system of this giant planet that we're on will overcome us.
David Skorton: Catrina?
Catrina Rorke: So, I'm gonna maybe throw a bone in the mix and say that maybe our biggest challenge is perspective. So we haven't yet done a lot of talking about the challenges between the developed and the developing world in addressing climate change. But we do know that climate change is not the only problem we're facing.
And we do know that some mechanisms of solving the climate challenge might actually be counterproductive to solving other challenges in the developing world.
And I think that's a conversation that is a subset of this broad conversation that we're having now, that we've failed to have in a constructive way at the global level. And I hope that it’s one that we can have, that it's not taboo to contextualize climate change against other problems that we're facing. And try to devise solutions that help us address more than one thing at the same time.
David Skorton: So I'm going to put my vote in for the biggest challenge. It's somewhat related to Catrina's comment and in part to Jed's comment. I think the biggest challenge is the attitude that we don't need to learn anymore. That we know everything we need to know, and we're just going to argue it through from our various points of view.
And I worry that we may fail to invest in research, of a broad variety of types. Not just scientific research, not just technological research. Research of the kind that would help answer the question that Catrina raised.
Now I'd like to give a chance to our audience members to ask any questions. You don't have to ask questions, you can ask questions, you don't need to, but you could. And you can see that this is a fairly friendly group. They've failed to go after each other, so.
Ahyende' Gray, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access: So, I have a question. It's mostly for basically all of you, because you all kind of touched on like y'all messages that's been given to. So let me be blunt with it: We all, as a human race, we have to like get past the third-dimensional thinking.
It's like everything is here for us with like, we got the tools to do it, we just have to look at it from a different perspective. Ants for example, they work together on a level we overlook and not really understand. There's certain things that they do. And it's like little stuff that escalates like the eyes we have, the cosmos stuff like that, offers a form of communication. And so I feel as though we have like Earth is just one small part of what God has created as far as like us, 'cause you know, it's all atoms, and mass, so, we all coming from like one direct source, and it's like, we got dimensions.
And right now we at a low dimension and the higher dimension will be sent from different perspectives. Certain higher levels, certain individuals, function like animals, we got the technology to watch these creatures, and stuff, and see how they like get, use the technology to get more insight on what they are doing, instead of worrying about the other stuff that's not going to help benefit earth and its evolution. 'Cause I feel as though celestial messages come down to other people when we give them our sole mission to do stuff and sort of, I don't want to get too deep on you but that's all I have to say.
David Skorton: Appreciate that, Ahyende’, and I think for those who couldn't hear that, Ahyende raises a point about the greater context in which we're living our lives and in which we're receiving challenges and messages. And appreciate your perspective on that. Anybody have any comments on that at all?
Denise Fairchild: Well I think I was also hearing a solution. You were defining a problem, but I think you were also telling us what the solution is to be resilient. Right?
Ahyende' Gray: Can I add on one thing, excuse me. Because I forgot, I didn't mention what I was supposed to say in the first part. But it's like, so we have religions and stuff. So we all come, so it's just like the animals, they come from different environments so they have different perspectives on how they see things and I feel as though religion is just a way of how we see things, and the experiences we're given. So music ties into that…
Denise Fairchild: Well, again, I'm challenged by religion and the perspectives that it provides us in this conversation. But I do see, looking at nature, I think as you were saying. How nature functions is the beginning of how we need to be resilient. And I'm not a natural resource person, so I almost look to Steve to answer the question about nature, understanding its interdependence. And how to be resilient. And seeing how it operates in an ecosystem where it survives and it understands its threats and it knows how to mitigate those threats. And how we need to, in terms of our solution, be more like the animals. And to be one in nature with the ecosystem. And find a way to be interdependent, to be more resilient.
David Skorton: Thank you, thank you, Ahyende', for the thought. Other thoughts or questions, from the audience?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Can I just make a response here quickly?
David Skorton: Yes, please.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I think maybe what I'm also hearing, but I want to hear more. It's my view, religions have their problems and their promise. But, if what I'm hearing from you, one of the ways we're trying to interpret religions, is these are systems that have embedded peoples in ecosystems for millennia. Rituals are done in relation to specific places, directions, water, the elements, et cetera. So we call them, actually religious ecologies. See, where humans have done this over centuries, Native Americans, indigenous peoples. But, all religions have had that sense. And their rituals are winter solstice, Christmas, Easter, connected to celestial movements and thought. So I think the question is to raise up ... OK, how have cultures actually tried to relate to ecosystems, and how can we do a better job, you see, that's the challenge.
David Skorton: Thank you, yes, you had a comment.
Sebastian Tayac, Fellow, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: Yes, it actually has a lot to do with what you just said. Again my name is Sebi Tayac representing the Piscataway Indian Nation, and the Beaver Clan, and I have to acknowledge that we're on the ancestral land of the Nacotchtank village, which is part of our Piscataway chiefdom. It actually goes a bit back to what you were saying. My uncle, who's the chief of our tribe, when we do ceremonies he tells us that every organism was given its original instructions. No one has to tell a blade of grass how to grow, like you mentioned ants know what to do. Every organism on this planet, and even the larger systems which represent sort of living, cyclical things, like the water cycle, the cycle of rocks, and the cycle of the stars, all follow original instructions. And we say it was given to us by our creator. However you interpret that is up to you, but that humans, we're the tricky ones, because we have strayed and forgotten a lot from our original instructions. We're taught that the closer we get to our culture, walking the red road we call it, the closer we return to the creator's original instructions for us.
So that's the mentality I grew up with. And specifically in this ecology of southern Maryland, what is now Washington D.C., having at least 30 generations of oral history back here. The question I wanted to ask as someone who has been to Standing Rock, as someone who has been fighting the Potomac Pipeline, which is going to be crossing the Potomac River, the Dominion gas compressor station which is located right on our sacred lands. And various other immediate environmental attacks on our people, and all peoples in this area, but particularly low-income, indigenous, and people of color.
I think Standing Rock brought consciousness of the struggle of native people and our Mother Earth, and waters, which we consider to be our livelihoods. We say we come from the river, we come out of it. We flow from it.
And in this round table, in this Smithsonian Castle, in this elite space with a 360-camera and people wearing collared shirts, I see people referencing and talking about indigenous knowledge as part of the solution. And I haven't been alive for very long, but my understanding and given what I've been taught by my mother, my grandparents, and the plight that they went through for our knowledge to be respected and invoked and presented as a possible solution, is something that's very new. It's something that's very radical. So I just wanted to ask before our break here, for the people who have been talking about indigenous ways of understanding the world, indigenous technologies which I think history proves are superior to sustainable living than what we would consider our modern Western technologies. Where did you hear about that? When did you start to take indigenous seriously as a person in your position? As a decision maker, as a person of influence? When did you start to take indigenous knowledge seriously and when you bring it up, what's the image in your mind? Because the image in my mind is my land and what I experienced at Standing Rock. Confronting the state directly. But I want to know for you what's the image in your head when you talk about indigenous ways of living?
David Skorton: I'll take a crack at that first and then open it up to the crew. I appreciate the question, appreciate you being a part of this today. You're bringing up indigenous knowledge and very important issues in a social and political context. Which is more than reasonable. But the direct question that you asked is where did we first begin to say appreciate or invoke, and for me it was during my years at the University of Iowa, and also at Cornell University, where I had the great pleasure of learning from the Native American community there. Cornell is on the Haudenosaunee lands. And I got to know a bit about it, and that's all I know is a bit. I freely admit that. Through people I met who are members of the nations in those areas. From religious things that I read and tried to understand. And then through just discussions like this, about specific problems that then shed some light on a different way of looking at problems. A different way of thinking. So that's where it came to me. Any others wish to?
Denise Fairchild: I've always been culturally rooted, and when I speak of indigenous cultures I look to even my African ancestry and know about from the fact that they, from mother Africa, look at trees as living beings where the elders reside, and how the water and rocks are seen as fully animated. But just a lot of that reading was important. But this movement, this climate change movement in a global context, there's a lot of conversation with respect to our peers in the global south, that are bringing the indigenous cultures and values to the table. And it's a contest, it's a challenge, but it is actually ... There's a huge international conversation taking place and there is a local community, national community here of indigenous folks that are working on climate environmental justice and bringing indigenous knowledge to the table across the different ethnic groups.
David Skorton: Thanks. I'm gonna call our break, because they keep putting a break sign over there. And before I go on break, I just want to remind those out there who may want to know what the URL is to follow us along, because I think what the world needs is more people paying attention to Second Opinion.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Could I answer his question? Would you mind?
David Skorton: Sure.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Only 'cause I think it's so important.
David Skorton: Please, Mary. Please.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: So in the early ’70s, Thomas Barry, our teacher, was teaching classes at Fordham and Columbia on Native Americans. And my husband for his PhD did his thesis on shamanism with the Haudenosaunee and other groups. And then in 1997 we had a large conference at Harvard on indigenous traditions and ecology, bringing people from every continent for this issue. And my husband teaches this at Yale as well. And we're friends with Oren Lyons and a number of other people. So the image that comes to mind, I wanted to just reaffirm the Standing Rock moment I think underscores this coming together of a profoundly spiritual grounding. Rituals, fire, and ceremony, that made that possible. And the younger peoples who started it I think had a resonance around the world that was astonishing. So I just wanted to say that's what comes to mind for me, right now, is Standing Rock and the other issues across the country that have been birthed out of it. And I really thank you for your question.
David Skorton: Thanks.
Denise Fairchild: And if you want to be connected to some of the movements in that space, we can help you with that as well.
David Skorton: Thanks very much everybody.
David Skorton: Well, Catrina, in one of your writings, which I've had a very good time learning about, you've written, "There is no morally correct level of atmospheric carbon dioxide."
And so my question to you, Mary Evelyn, is how does adapting to these coming changes and things we're already experiencing, how does this adapting require new forms of morality, new views of religion, philosophy and law?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: What a huge question. And I think there's a community of people who are struggling with this, people in law, people in philosophy, people in religion, religious studies, but also in the various communities. And I think there's this tremendous sense that our moral vision needs to rise to the occasion. That if E.O. Wilson says we're going through an hourglass, especially due to the sixth extinction. We are going through some historical moment that is unique, let's just say, and very pressing, and very confusing. And I think we need, probably, plural moral visions to come through this, for sure. We need that from scientists. We need it from entrepreneurs. We need it from people in urban communities, and so on. But I think that is happening, and that's what's very exciting.
We are going through some historical moment that is unique, let's just say, and very pressing, and very confusing. And I think we need, probably, plural moral visions to come through this.
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Let me just give you one example on an international level that I think is rather fascinating. In China, there's a movement called ecocivilization. Ecological civilization. It's part of the constitution that this is a right of people for healthy water and air and food, as you mentioned earlier. They are drawing on their traditions of Confucianism and Buddhism and Taoism to say, well, how did these traditions integrate humans into nature? What are their views that can be brought forward?
So that's a rather stunning, I think, example. To say how will this have traction over time with the tremendous problems China is facing is a very, very big question, but I put it before us because I think it's a very fascinating movement forward.
I would also say that the pope's encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, which really brings together what I think is coming together, and that is ecology and justice. That the ecological community has often been concerned with preserving or conserving ecosystems. Humans are over here. The religions have often been concerned about justice for humans, but not seeing it related to the environment. So, the huge movement of Laudato si’, “care for our common home,” is to say, people and planets are integrated and that clearly we have to have environmental justice at the core of this. Those who are suffering from climate change in coastal communities and elsewhere are the most vulnerable, people who haven't created the problem but are suffering from it.
So, that, I think, is very promising. People at our School of the Environment at Yale feel even that that broad, moral vision, helped to get the climate agreement in Paris, in fact, because of [the pope’s] speeches both here in Congress and at the U.N.
So, just to conclude, every religion now has a statement on the environment, whether it's from care for creation or the sense of intrinsic value, and that's a remarkable movement in 20 years. They also have statements on climate change. And now the call is how to actualize those statements, how to move them forward.
And I'll conclude that the climate march in 2014 with 400 people in New York began with indigenous peoples in the front. It was magnificent and powerful, but 10,000 religious leaders and laity joined that march, and it was a watershed for this religious environmentalism, if you will.
David Skorton: Thanks, Mary Evelyn. Other thoughts about this, Jed?
Jedediah Purdy: I think often in the tradition of law and philosophy, questions of justice among human beings and questions of environment have been thought of with separate vocabularies and separate silos. And I think in quite a deep way environmental questions can't be siloed going further. I think there are at least three ways in which this is true.
One is that climate change, along with other contemporary crises, reinforces and expresses human inequality, both in the global distribution of who contributes to it and in the global distribution of who is vulnerable to it. So, it is itself a question of environmental justice all the way down, and one that's not separable from other forms of global justice.
I think second, because we can't avoid making choices about what sort of world we're going to preserve and any world will foster certain forms of value in relationship to it and preclude others or make them more difficult, it's essential that plural moral voices and traditions participate in a genuine and empowered way in the question of what sort of world we're going to make. So, there's a question, if you will, of political justice, and a question of distributive justice.
And then the third thing, I think, is that questions have often been thought of as matters of domestic policy, welfare and social provisions, say, have environmental dimensions on many levels. Let me give one example. If we want to think of the question how we could understand ourselves as living well without demanding more, always demanding more, if we could decouple our sense of wealth from the fact of growth at some point, which I think has to be part of the said innovations that we're talking about. Well, at present the need for more is enforced politically. If a democratic government or even just a minimally popularly responsive government like China's presides over a collapse in growth and employment, it's going to fall.
And the individual experience that underlies that political enforcement, if you will, the microeconomics of the macroeconomics that says we always need more, is the individual experience of never being sure you have enough to be safe, because the world is so insecure and so precarious. And actually, in a highly unequal country, is becoming more so. Even as we're getting richer people's individual positions are becoming more precarious.
So, an economy that makes people more secure, that makes people safer, gives them more room to take risks, not just in the entrepreneurial sense, but in other senses, may be a precondition to or at least the help to transformative environmental politics.
David Skorton: Really very interesting. Other thoughts about this?
Denise Fairchild: Well, I'm in agreement, basically, with the idea that environmental climate justice, economic justice and social justice is intricately related.
I'm a part of a global, but clearly U.S., movement of frontline communities that have seen the intersections of environmental, economic and social justice. And we're developing formulas, strategies at the local level, looking at local initiatives about how to address these things. You know, Black Lives Matter and Dreamers are working together with [environmental justice] communities and really beginning to see that the causes of poverty and pollution are really the same.
It's the notion of an ethic where extraction at all costs is OK, that it is rooted in how we measure well-being. It's rooted in the gross domestic product, GDP, as opposed to looking at different ways of measuring well-being, as in the country of Bhutan, where the happiness index, people are beginning to understand that it's not just about how much we produce and how much money I make. It's the environment I breathe, the time I have to spend with my kids, the other dimensions that matter to people, and they really do matter. No one really wants to work 60-hour weeks. Nobody really wants to work 40-hour weeks. But that is how our economy is driven.
And to be able to begin to understand solutions that understand the intersections of these elements are very important. And it really starts with measurements of well-being and life-cycle accounting when it even looks at the market economies. Having them look at market economies so they see whatever we do is not just at the point of production, but it is the full life cycle of a material or a product that's produced, begins to get at a different way of measuring what we're doing to ourselves and to our environment.
David Skorton: Thank you. Catrina, please.
Catrina Rorke: So part of the motivation behind writing that phrase is that this is a really complex question about what the future of the globe looks like. So in [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] models, even if we do nothing about global climate change, economic development accelerates at such a rate that in the future we will be better off as a globe, in spite of even catastrophic climate change, which is a really incredible measure, because that can't be consistent with catastrophic climate change, but that's what the models bear because economic growth can solve so many problems.
We know that in the developed world we face fewer obstacles in treating communicable and noncommunicable diseases. We know that a rich country that exists largely below sea level can thrive, while a poor country that exists largely below sea level cannot. And economic development is a terrific indicator, not just for mortality and morbidity, but a terrific indicator for our ability to weather what the environment can throw at us. And so when we think about what these new models and paradigms are for considering global equity, is that part of it? Is a solution to just not deal with this and allow the globe to become richer? What is it that we would be sacrificing if we can solve this problem by ignoring it? I'm not sure that we've necessarily addressed that quite yet.
David Skorton: Very, very interesting. Other thoughts about that?
Steve Monfort: Well, that particular idea, I think, doesn't really match with my own worldview, because economic justice, or economic increase in everybody's standard of living, doesn't necessarily translate to a quality of life holistically, and we were just talking about what it means to live more completely and more holistically in the world, or my connection with nature, or how ecosystems function and biodiversity is sustained.
You can be wealthy and you can have more money and more justice in that sense, but I'm very worried that that is not a solution if you're not also solving how do these systems function? We can't just grow without taking account for the natural function of systems that need to be left alone, need to be intact.
Money alone is only one measure, I suppose, of justice, and well-being, for sure. In my view, that's pretty dangerous, I think. It's sort of a dangerous thought. I can't imagine that just making more money will get us to where we need to be in terms of a sustainable planet.
Money alone is only one measure, I suppose, of justice, and well-being, for sure. In my view, that's pretty dangerous.
David Skorton: Let me push this a little bit further. It depends, I think, in a way, on where you are in the spectrum of economic development. In the West and in the cultures that most of us come from, we tend to think about economic development as starting from a pretty good place and trying to get to a better place. And yet, I think echoed in some of Catrina's comments is a concern about societies that are way below that level of functioning and sufficiency, and whether movement of those societies into more predictable food supplies and so on is a good, no matter how you get there. You didn't say it that way, but I think the ultimate argument would be that the end justifies the means if one is at a barely subsistence level.
Steve Monfort: Well, there was an implication, though, in what was said, that, if I understood it correctly, that we could ignore the problem by just focusing on economic development. I think you have to have increased economic development, that's for sure, but I don't think you can ignore all of the side effects of economic development and that has to be managed in some way that is sensible and that will sustain justice in other ways. I'm not an expert in social environmental justice, but I would say it probably has many dimensions to how we define it. You were already talking about it. So economic justice is only one part of that, so that's all I was really trying to get at.
Denise Fairchild: And I would say the issue of equity, even in Western society, is an issue we have to attend to. That poor communities are very vulnerable to climate change. And I was just talking to Tuck earlier that if you're wealthy in America, you can move to higher ground when there's sea level rise. Not a problem. I can buy another house. I can get in my car. I can drive away. Katrina can hit. No problem. But if you're poor and you're vulnerable ...
So there’s the distribution of wealth is an issue with our economic development models. And even in the global south, the poor communities in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, are challenged. I'm working with Afro-Colombians that live in the Amazon that are looking to preserve their biodiversity. And they've been discovered in the last ten years by the fossil fuel industry that's coming in and extracting their resources, extracting their wealth and their ability to subsist and to live off the land and to live a quality of life in the interests of our economic development, goals and objectives. So I think the economically developed world are causing the pollution and the inability to subsist in other parts of the global south, in particular.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I just want to mention that I think this is absolutely crucial, what you both said. But the U.N. is attending to some of this, despite that people think it's removed and out there. The millennium development goals were very much oriented to what is genuine development? What is more equitable development? This whole redefining development, especially with your concerns, rightly so, for the poor and for the global south, and then the sustainability development goals that just came out right after the pope spoke at the U.N., adopted by all nations in the world. I think this is a point of optimism and hope that we can recalibrate what is genuine development.
In that mix, in the Rio conference in '92, which was about sustainability and development, ecology and economy, [former Soviet Union leader Mikhail] Gorbachev said we need an ethics that's going to help adjudicate or help weave these two clashing problems, and the Earth Charter came out of that. It took ten years to develop that. People from every continent were represented. Women's groups, minorities groups, business communities and so on. And I think the Earth Charter is a measure of the sense that we have a much richer sense of interdependence. That charter, just briefly, ecology, the integrity of ecosystems, justice and peace. That's the framework. And I think this is really essential for a broader picture in addressing some of these specific issues.
David Skorton: I think bringing up the Earth Charter is a really relevant thing for this conversation, because without such a, to use a cliché, holistic view, you could imagine a certain arrogance where countries that have attained a certain level say now we got to really put the brakes on X or Y, and then countries that are trying to get up to a subsistence level are not there, but the Earth Charter took a holistic view and followed very much the kind of words that you were espousing, Steve.
Steve Monfort: Economic development is, of course, at the heart of everything. Every other society wants to live the same way we do and so on, with the benefits that we have, but this whole idea of smarter development, smart green infrastructure development, there are ways to do that that are not incompatible with sustaining biodiversity and functioning systems that won't have add-on effects to climate change and so on.
To me, the reality is we’re going to have, trillions of dollars are going to be spent on development in one way or the other, so the idea is well, how are we going to deploy those funds to develop in a smart way that gets people what they need without also destroying the environment? That's the win-win that's out there for me. And it's all relative, like you said. In the Masai culture it's about how many cattle you have, let's say. If we just endlessly increase cattle herds, we're going to have no grazing pasture and we're going to have this commons tragedy going, so we have to create other avenues for these folks to have economic development.
And I believe, somehow, they can be done in smarter ways, in compatible ways that can allow you to do both things, which is to have environmental justice and sustainability and also economic development. I don't think they're necessarily incompatible things.
David Skorton: This is a very positive statement and moves us in the direction of optimism, and I want to explore that a little bit more, especially from the point of view of what an individual can do.
So obviously, at least I will tend to hang onto examples throughout history of where an individual who was courageous and visionary has been able to make a difference that caused a ripple effect that caused more differences and something very positive happened. So what can each of us do individually to make a difference? I want to begin to talk about solutions, not necessarily this panel, but just each of us in general. What can we be doing? What can we suggest to our friends and colleagues and neighbors in the United States and around the world, to make a difference about this set of problems. We all acknowledge there's problems. We all acknowledge that there's complexities in what caused the problems and what might sustain them. What can each of us begin to do?
Steve Monfort: Can I use one example? It's not my own personal action, but we just held this Earth Optimism Summit and so we invited these 250-plus people from around the world to come and tell us what works in conservation and why and how can you take those successes to scale. And one of the guys who was there, his steps stood out for me.
His name is Afro Shaw, he's from Mumbai, he's a lawyer, and he lives in an apartment building. He would look out the window and he saw that Verosa Beach, which is out where he could see, was just covered with plastic pollution, just horrific. And he gave his talk here, and he's been evangelizing what he does. But he and an 84-year-old neighbor looked at this and said, "We have to do something. The government's not doing anything, what can we do?"
And they went out and they decided they were going to start a social media campaign and they were going to start picking up plastic. And he was telling the story, so now they're 75 weeks into it, it's the largest beach cleanup that's ever been done with thousands of tons of plastic have been picked up. And this was about just two individuals taking action. And so he said to everyone, "I don't believe you have to wait for the government. You don't have to wait for anybody to tell you what to do." He says, "The problem was with me. The solution was with me." And he took action to do something.
And I think that was an example of personal commitment and action, but that's infectious, and that probably at some level embarrassed or incentivized the government and others to use that and to take it up. And I was just impressed by so many individual examples of people who have taken action.
So in my own life I'm a bit, also, sometimes humbled, as to what can I possibly do? And I think it's a struggle. We talked earlier about making individual choices and kind of the food that I ... I think more about where my food is sourced from. I drive a car that's more fuel-efficient, things like that. But as we said earlier, everybody doing that, you know, taking a shorter shower, isn't going to save the planet.
So I think it's a wicked kind of a problem for how can a person have an impact? It's basically trying to catalyze a community in wherever you live and to take action. Someone told me once that ... I was doing an environmental education program in Miami with middle-school kids, and a guy who I was there with, he says, "Well this is great." He says, "So what do you do back home in your own kid's school?" And I realized I was a thousand miles away, working with middle-school kids, and I'd never been to my own kid's grade school.
So I came home and I went and I saw the principal, and I went and talked to him, and I started doing environmental education there. So one of the things that I think you can do, wherever you are, wherever you live, is to take ownership of the community in which you live in. And we're so distributed, and we live ... No one's from here. This is a famous place, where no one is really from Washington. A lot of people aren't. You are. But take ownership of the place that you live in. And learn about it, and know about it, and try to become engaged in it. I think that's the only way I can think of, is to be involved in your community on a personal level.
Tuck Hines: I think that's a great comment. You know, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center focuses on our home in Chesapeake Bay. And we view the largest estuary in the country, the Chesapeake Bay, as really a system that includes the watershed. 64,000 square miles, six states and the District of Columbia. You know we're all sitting here on our main study site.
That's an enormous area, and an extremely complicated challenge to try to regulate and engage. It's got some 18 million people on it, now headed toward 24 million. But one way that we've found is it has to become personal. You'll be much more motivated about you and yours and your situation. And these things scale. So a 64,000-square-mile watershed has lots of little watersheds. And the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is on a much smaller watershed called the Rhode River where we've set this model system for understanding how it works, and what's driving it, and how it interacts with the larger world.
And the people in that community we've begun to increasingly interact with and get them aware of what we do and make that accessible, to engage them in that process. That engagement is part of what the Smithsonian and our new strategic plan is all about.
So, to Steve's comment, you have to interact and take responsibility for yourself. Yes, you are one person. But that's what you can control, for sure. And you can make that happen by connecting to others through culture and choices. And making the economy drive forward, and improve ... Apply those technologies in an effective way, rather than staying in the rut of how it was done before.
You have to interact and take responsibility for yourself. Yes, you are one person. But that's what you can control.
Denise Fairchild: Yeah. I think part of the solution has to do at the individual level. It depends on what you really ... Your perspective as to what the problem is. And if the problem is seen as how the economy works, then human agency needs to be deployed in a way that puts our money where our mouth is. Where we withdraw resources that we do not spend money in places for irresponsible business. Now there's a whole new movement of socially responsible businesses, the Ben & Jerry's of the world, and what we can name the B Corps. The whole notion of B Corps are growing. And so we should really pay attention to that.
And also, as our own agencies live large on less, and the different ways of doing that, but the notion of power. We have power with respect to money and how we use money, and I think it's not just the individual agency around withholding resources, but it's collective power as well. And to the extent that we actually join organizations and influence the policy environment and influence the market to behave in ways that will create a climate that will adjust for climate change, I think is important.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Like divest. Divest.
Denise Fairchild: Divestment. Mmhmm.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: And invest. Jed, you were trying to get in.
Jedediah Purdy: I just would like to agree and amplify how essential I think this point is, about collective work that aims at mobilizing power. If we're on the theme of optimism and what the individual can do, much as I think it's important to honor and cultivate all the kinds of virtues and local commitments that people are talking about, and I really do, I think we all do, I think optimism can be a double-edged thing.
An analogy. I will never forget this public opinion finding, now more than 15 years ago, that if you add up the share of Americans who think they're in the top 1 percent of national income, and the share who think they aren't yet but soon will be, you get more than 50 percent. So, that's optimistic.
And in some ways you might try things that you wouldn't try otherwise, if you didn't believe that, but it's a cruel and unrealistic optimism, and it sets people up for a disappointment that may account for some of the kinds of simplistic political solutions that they are drawn to.
So many of the environmental problems we're talking about will not be solved by more virtuous personal and local action. Even if that action is a necessary prerequisite to the kinds of collective action that'll be required. And so our optimism is cruel and incomplete if it doesn't include saying that one of the things people need to do is see how hard the problem is, and what kinds of changes at the level of the architecture of economic rules and power we're working within have to happen. Which are really questions, to come back to your point. These are really questions of collective power.
Steve Monfort: Just to add on to that. I think once you've made this personal decision to change your behavior or change the way you live, it makes you more likely to then join with others that share those values, and it makes you more motivated to want to vote with your money and vote in the ballot box with people who support your viewpoints, and makes you more active in wanting to see that end at a point that you believe it may occur.
And so I think maybe it's optimism that you can have an impact, but I think also that personal responsibility motivates you to be an engaged citizen, and to learn more, and to stay informed, and so forth. And I think that's another thing that we can all be doing. If everyone was more informed about the facts, they would at least make a better decisions, or at least more informed decisions.
Catrina Rorke: But I think this is really interesting, right? Because we talked earlier about how if you pulled an opinion and you see more evidence to the contrary, your opinion becomes more ingrained. And one of the obstacles we have to fighting climate change in the United States is the lack of political will, because there is a large population that sees data on climate change and says, "Oh no, God's just tugging us a little closer," or something. So how do we break through that?
We want to communicate with people in a way that brings them to solutions, without getting them bogged down in the problem, if the problem is their roadblock to seeing the solution. And so I work a lot with conservatives and trying to identify why there is this block, why we can't value the economic principles with which we look at other policy problems in this instance. And that is one of our obstacles, is that we talk about the problem in a way that makes it seem that solutions are expensive, and will require us to assume some deprived lifestyle to see the future, when what we want to do is communicate the sense of optimism.
So yeah, there is a problem. Yes, we all need to take some amount of action. But we don't want to get stuck on that problem and that individual action if it's what's stopping us from reaching a more complete solution.
Steve Monfort: But the question about getting more information and being more entrenched in your view, I think part of that is, where are we getting information from? And today it's very difficult for people to know, to receive information that isn't super biased in one way or the other. Even the way people get knowledge off the Internet, or watching the news media, there's inherent bias in the way things are being presented. People aren't being given the knowledge for them to make a decision, the actual facts.
When you say people are presented with climate data, I don't think very many people look at climate data. I think they look at someone else's spin on whatever the data was. That's a huge problem. Because where are people getting their information, how are they supposed to make a decision if all they're getting is what reinforces their own view?
David Skorton: I think we're depending too much on the usual ways of disseminating information. This is going to sound like a hopelessly retro suggestion, but what we're doing here today, and obviously this is a carefully selected group, it's like an old-fashioned salon. We're sitting around, we don't really know each other that well but we're talking about things that we find of mutual interest. Are we lacking that in our communities, even in our households? Individual, looking at our phones, trying to get information from some other source?
Steve Monfort: That's why you took away our phones, I think. So we'll actually talk to one other.
Denise Fairchild: I think it is an issue. And I think Catrina's right, in terms of how we have conversations. How do we talk about climate change? And if climate change is something that is going to create barriers, then we don't use the language of climate change.
I do have colleagues that work in rural communities, conservative rural communities. You can't talk climate change, but you can talk about environmental change, because they live it. They see it with their farming, what the seasons are looking like and how it's impacting their produce. They see it in their fisheries. They see it all around them. They know, whether it's extreme weather conditions and the number of tornadoes that are coming through or whatever. They see the environmental change, so we don't have to call it climate change. We can talk about what's happening in your backyard, in your approach to taking local initiatives, and then what can we do about it.
And so, we're stuck with language, even though I find it very curious that the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, was created under a Republican administration and up to ten years ago there was a bipartisan agreement that climate was an issue and environmental issues are important. What has happened to the communication vehicles that have all of a sudden shifted that, I'm not sure, but be what it may be, how do we talk to people where they are, to address the things that they see happening in their everyday lives?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I agree with that, of course, very much. And everyone's talking about framing and telling stories and so on. That's very much in the air, and I think it's terrific. I mean, the EPA came into being because of the Stockholm Conference on Environmental Development, and everywhere around the world started EPAs. So that was an international pressure as well.
And I just wanted to put back into the conversation a couple things. That we asked the question about individual action, which again comes from our valuing of individuals in our own culture. But I wanted to suggest that our individual action is always community based, and it's also resulting in further communities.
And I wanted also to suggest that I think some of the wisest traditions in the world have this very long-term sensibility of detachment from the fruits of our actions. We will never know what our particular life work is, the wu wei of Taoism. The Bhagavad Gita talks about karma phala. We will never know. This is what Gandhi based his work on for non-violence and Thoreau and King.
So I just want to tell two quick stories. Wangari Maathai, in Africa, in Kenya, the first woman to have a PhD in eastern Africa, started the Green Belt Movement of planting trees and empowering women, which was astonishing and extraordinary, against very difficult political odds, and she went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the first time the Peace Prize was given for environmental work. To say peace building and the environment are one, and women empowerment is essential. And she was doing this out of her religious sensibilities, being both African and Christian, profoundly spiritual person.
The other story I wanted to tell was, in the Ecological Society of America in Baltimore a couple summers ago, 10,000 of our best ecologists gathered. You were probably there.
Tuck Hines: I was there.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Exactly. And it was tremendous. And we had two days on religion and ecology, which was wonderful. And I love that meeting. In that meeting the president endorsed the papal encyclical, along with the past president and future president, which was unprecedented for a society like that. So I think we're making progress in this sense that there's a moral forte.
But I came out of that meeting, went back to the Holiday Inn, and an African-American older man was on the street of Baltimore, that had just exploded with its own internal issues, and he was putting water in those trees. And I said to him, "There's nothing in that water, is there?" And he said, "No man. This is just water." And he said, "These are my friends. And I do this every day." And he said, "During the winter this one tree was dying," he said. But somebody told him it's OK, it's gonna make it through the winter. And he said, "Look at that tree. It's growing." And he said, "I call this tree 'Hope.'" Which was so striking, hope in that tree.
And to me, this is the sense that even in urban settings, where we can have tree planting and so on, we can have that sense of the possibility of resilience and hope.
David Skorton: It's beautiful. Now, I'm going to ask the panelists one final question. Integrating all of this thinking, you’ve been thinking about this for years and decades in some cases, in the end, do you have reason to be optimistic about our future in this regard? Something more than a simple yes or no would be appreciated.
Steve Monfort: Yeah, I will start with that. I make the analogy about my job. People say, "What's the best part of your job?" And I say, "The best part of my job is the people, and the worst part of my job is the people." And I think that when it comes right down to it it's really about the nature of humankind, and whether or not we're the worst of what we are, or we can become the best of what we are capable of being.
So we're capable of being selfish and shortsighted and ignorant, but we're also capable of being incredibly generous and thoughtful and we have our intellect that we can exercise in amazing ways. So the question then becomes which of those are we going to choose? Which of those pathways will maybe save humankind?
So I believe that people, the best of people, will eventually come forward and win out. So I tend to be optimistic and hopeful for that reason, because frankly I think those two emotions are what make us able to go forward in our lives. And if you take hope away and you eliminate optimism, I think you lose a will to want to go forward.
We're capable of being selfish and shortsighted and ignorant, but we're also capable of being incredibly generous and thoughtful. So the question then becomes which of those are we going to choose?
David Skorton: Denise?
Denise Fairchild: I'm very optimistic. I have a book coming out, October 17, called Energy Democracy, presenting case studies, 12 communities around the United States, that are actually working on this question of environment, climate, economy, and social justice, proving at the local level that there are models being created, there are successes taking place, and there's a growing movement of movements that are merging together around this notion, this intersection of climate, economy and social justice.
So we're presenting case examples that can, we hope, grow from these sort of cottage demonstrations into sort of larger movements. So I'm very optimistic.
David Skorton: You know if we had our phones we could preorder that book. Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, I'm optimistic because of the students I teach at Yale, who are incredibly creative and dedicated and are inheriting some of the largest problems humans have ever had to know. And therefore I'm delighted to have this group circling us of young people who are working on these issues. I think it's so appropriate, symbolically and otherwise. So my hope goes into the next generation, and into our intergenerational handshake with them.
David Skorton: Thanks Mary Evelyn. Tuck?
Tuck Hines: I'm also very optimistic, for a number of reasons. As Mary Evelyn just mentioned, the next generation of scientists that's coming along is much smarter, much better integrated, and better trained than we ever were. And they're able to encompass the holistic and complex problems that we're taking on to arrive at solutions. Moreover, I've actually seen in my lifetime things get better. I've seen small instances, but also big complicated systems get better. Monterey Bay is doing better. Chesapeake Bay is even starting to do better. The sound system in North Carolina are coming along better.
So these are systems that have faced really big problems, and were way further, in much more trouble than they were. I believe that the technology can solve some of the really urgent problems of climate change, and will have to be brought to bear urgently now. But we've even seen in the last five years how that can actually come to fruition at a global scale. So I think that there's a lot to be optimistic about, but it's going to be a pretty heavy lift for the next 50 years.
David Skorton: Thanks Tuck. Catrina?
Catrina Rorke: I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic because I think we're already making it easier to solve these problems. Yeah, I'm a huge believer in technology. And I guess I'll say that the way that we can tell it's getting easier is one of my favorite analogies in the technology development space.
In the United States, the development of the telephone was a super democratizing influence that connected people in a way that we hadn't been connected before. But your access to this democratizing influence was based on where you were located geographically, having a telephone line go to your house. And that was limiting. I remember I would get hobby kits when I was younger and it would ask you even if you had a phone, not what your phone number was.
Denise Fairchild: You're not that old.
Catrina Rorke: Well there's been a lot of innovation, thank you, in subsequent years, and now we have cellphone technology, and it seems bizarre that you would need centralized infrastructure because cellphones can connect through distributed infrastructure, even through satellite technology.
So in the developing world, phone access actually never was predicated on last line phone service. It started when we had the cellphone. And we see that in energy technology today. So we're not going to build a massive electrical grid that starts at a coal-fired power plant and runs to every household in the world. That's an impractical and very expensive solution, and it worked for us 'cause it was what we had at the time. But right now we're giving people access to reliable forms of energy by sending out technologies that are getting cheaper every day. Wind power, solar power, small hydroelectric power, even, in a lot of parts of the developing world, and batteries that are getting astoundingly cheaper, largely because we want them for our cellphones.
And so, that we're already solving these problems today, sure energy might be a small example, but you can see this footprint of innovation allowing us to leapfrog a lot of the obstacles that we faced in the developed world to just skip over a lot of the problems we've generated for ourselves. And so I'm optimistic, because I think we're going to keep inventing really cool things.
David Skorton: Thanks Catrina. Jed? Last word.
Jedediah Purdy: I find that I can't let my attitude toward this question turn on the balance of optimism and pessimism. Because there are powerful reasons for optimism, which people have surveyed very articulately, but there are still crushing reasons for doubt in place, going back to the collective action structure, the very problem we're addressing, and many more rooted in the uncertain and ambiguous character of human nature.
But I don't find that a reason to despair. As Steve said, the reason we care about optimism is that it gives us reasons to act toward the future. But I think there's so much insight in Mary Evelyn’s adverting to the many, many traditions in which we have to detach our will to act from our expectation of consequences. And I think that that's not just an idea. If we look at the people who were historically responsible for many of the kinds of progress that give us the greatest sense of historical possibility now, especially reform in social life and economic life, they didn't necessarily take heroic measures because they were optimistic. It was because they felt solidarity. It was because they were in it together with other people, and that gave them enough reason to act together toward the future.
So I don't know whether I'm optimistic, but I'm sure that it's not the only way to have reason to act.
David Skorton: Beautiful. I want to thank the panelists for a really fascinating discussion. I learned a lot from each of you, really had a great time. And to those of you who are viewing this I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you learned a lot. You want to learn more, it's easy to do by going to www.smithsoniansecondopinion.com. You can drill down on some of these issues. And please watch for more interesting conversations with fascinating people coming up. I'm David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, bidding you a good day.
The second of the five volumes that make up the diaries of Jervis McEntee. He writes about the New York City art community, with his friends Henry Blackburn (art writer and editor of London Society and Academy Notes), Edwin Booth (actor), William Bryant (poet and editor), Frederick E. Church (his teacher), Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, John F. Kensett, Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect), Bayard Taylor (writer for the New York Tribune and author), Launt Thompson, John Q.A. Ward, John F. Weir, and Worthington Whittredge. He includes visits to artists' studios and social engagements such as concerts, theater, dinner parties, and lectures in the company of his friends or with his wife, Gertrude. He describes numerous sketching trips in the Catskills and the Maine woods with fellow artists and their involvement with the Century Club and the National Academy's Council. McEntee also describes his work, family life, transactions of paintings, and continuous financial troubles.
The fourth of the five volumes that make up the diaries of Jervis McEntee. He writes about the New York City art community, with his friends Henry Blackburn (art writer and editor of London Society and Academy Notes), Edwin Booth (actor), William Bryant (poet and editor), Frederick E. Church (his teacher), Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, John F. Kensett, Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect), Bayard Taylor (writer for the New York Tribune and author), Launt Thompson, John Q.A. Ward, John F. Weir, and Worthington Whittredge. He includes visits to artists' studios and social engagements such as concerts, theater, dinner parties, and lectures in the company of his friends or with his wife, Gertrude. He describes numerous sketching trips in the Catskills and the Maine woods with fellow artists and their involvement with the Century Club and the National Academy's Council. McEntee also describes his work, family life, transactions of paintings, and continuous financial troubles.
The third of the five volumes that make up the diaries of Jervis McEntee. He writes about the New York City art community, with his friends Henry Blackburn (art writer and editor of London Society and Academy Notes), Edwin Booth (actor), William Bryant (poet and editor), Frederick E. Church (his teacher), Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, John F. Kensett, Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect), Bayard Taylor (writer for the New York Tribune and author), Launt Thompson, John Q.A. Ward, John F. Weir, and Worthington Whittredge. He includes visits to artists' studios and social engagements such as concerts, theater, dinner parties, and lectures in the company of his friends or with his wife, Gertrude. He describes numerous sketching trips in the Catskills and the Maine woods with fellow artists and their involvement with the Century Club and the National Academy's Council. McEntee also describes his work, family life, transactions of paintings, and continuous financial troubles.