Michael Hudson’s Hidden History of Debt

We’re honored to publish Michael Hudson’s research on the origins of Ancient Near Eastern banking and finance, and the civilizations that emerged out of them in the Observatory.

If you haven’t raced to read it already, if the topic sounds a little out of your interest zone, think again. The systems of finance and banking that much of the world uses on come out of this period and region—and the history has not been properly pieced together until now.

Hudson’s ancient history of debt is priceless—whether your aspiration is to know the economic history of the West, to mildly reform, or perhaps even revolutionize the world around us. We made a guide to give you a starting point. Don’t let your lack of knowledge about the origins of debt stop you—there hasn’t been a mortgage loan officer, World Bank director, or Treasury Secretary who knew much about economics of the ancient past before Hudson started researching it either.

Hudson’s work joins that of other pioneering authors in the field of human prehistory, anthropology in the Observatory’s Human Bridges area. One of the best things to happen in US culture in decades is the growing popular interest in the ancient past. Naturally, for millions in the United States, the first stop on the education journey has picked up with the Roman republic and its descent into empire.

But a careful study of this phenomenon reveals that the surging interest in our past extends far deeper, all the way into human origins— chiefly it’s because we’ve reached a critical mass in archaeology and sciences that allows a deeper and fuller reach into an increasingly global data set about the human past. In the case of Hudson’s research, we see the gradual development of a core economic thought matrix and social mechanisms that led us to today and the alternative directions we could have taken along the way.

The news all around us carries the premise that new technological products will deliver humankind into a new era, solve our problems, point us to opportunities.

They just might. But it’s a more likely bet that the history we never had before in such vivid and useful detail—of the rise of early states over the past 10,000 years, and the six million years we spent getting to that point—will enable us to reconsider the ways we live today, and all the pointless suffering we inflict on each other because we thought we had to.

More to come!

—Jan Ritch-Frel and the rest of the editors building the Observatory.

Photo Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

The Right’s Long Game to End Public Education

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on the Progressive.

Click to read the full article online.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona finally said the quiet part out loud.

On February 13, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, did something Democratic officials seldom do in public: He spoke the truth about what’s behind the relentless attacks on public schools by rightwing advocacy groups and their financial backers.

As HuffPost reported, one of the topics that came up during a meeting between Cardona and Black journalists that took place at the Department of Education, was the recent wave of new laws passed in mostly red states that target programs in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education that address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Advocates for DEI programs say they are needed to ensure positive academic, health, and social outcomes for students who often face discrimination and fewer educational opportunities due to their race, class, religion, gender, or ability level. Opponents say they shame white students and cause “reverse discrimination.”

Cardona called new laws passed by Republican state lawmakers to eliminate DEI programs “a deliberate attack on efforts to try to make sure schools are inclusive, welcoming places for all students—in particular, students from different backgrounds.”

But more than just defending schools for embracing DEI, Cardona went further to call out the intention behind these attacks on the programs, calling them “very deliberate attempts to seek division in our schools so that a private option sounds better [emphasis added] for parents.” 

“Every year, there’s something to stoke division in an attempt to disrupt our public schools and decrease the confidence in our public schools,” he said. “Four years ago were the masks. [Critical race theory] was a year after that. [Now,] DEI, [and] banning books.”

The serial crises that groups like Moms for Liberty and the Heritage Foundation string together year after year to inflame the populace with fear and suspicion about public schools have been the subject of extensive reporting.

But when major news outlets report on these outbursts of rightwing rage, the articles tend to focus solely on the legitimacy of specific grievances rather than considering whether the attacks themselves could be a tactic in a much longer game.

[…]

Read the rest of this article on the Progressive.

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr

How Long Has Humanity Been at War With Itself?

Click here to read the article on Asia Times.

Is large-scale intra-specific warfare Homo sapiens’ condition or can our species strive to achieve global peace?

By Deborah Barsky

The famous American astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” But can we ever know the history of human origins well enough to understand why humans wage large-scale acts of appalling cruelty on other members of our own species? In January 2024, the Geneva Academy was monitoring no less than 110 armed conflicts globally. While not all of these reach mainstream media outlets, each is equally horrific in terms of the physical violence and mental cruelty we inflict on each other.

Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, are known to partake in violent intra-specific skirmishes, typically to preserve privileged access to resources in response to breaches in territorial boundaries. But only humans engage so extensively in large-scale warfare. 

Do massive acts of intra- or interpopulational violence conform with Darwinian precepts of natural selection, or is this something we do as a competitive response to the stresses of living in such large populations? Looking back in time can help us find answers to such questions. Evidence preserved in the archeological record can tell us about when and under what conditions the preludes to warlike behaviors emerged in the past. Scientific reasoning can then transform this information into viable hypotheses that we can use to understand ourselves in today’s world.

As archeologists continue to unearth new fossil evidence at an increasing rate, so too are they piecing together the human story as one of complex interactions played out by (a growing number of) different species of the genus Homo that lived during the tens of thousands of years preceding the emergence—and eventual global dominance—of our own species: Homo sapiens. In fact, scientists have recognized more than a dozen (now extinct) species of Homo that thrived over the millennia, sometimes sharing the same landscapes and occasionally even interbreeding with one another. Millions of years of hybridization is written into the genomes of modern human populations.

Although we know very little about what these paleo-encounters might have been like, progress in science and technology is helping archeologists to find ways to piece together the puzzle of interspecific human relationships that occurred so long ago and that contributed to making us who we are today. In spite of these advances, the fossil record remains very fragmentary, especially concerning the older phases of human evolution.

First consider Homo, or H. habilis, so-named because a significant increase in stone tool-making is recognized following its emergence some 2.8 million years ago in East Africa. The evidence for the beginnings of this transformational event that would set off the spiraling evolutionary history of human technological prowess is relatively sparse. But such ancient (Oldowan) toolkits do become more abundant from this time forward, at first in Africa, and then into the confines of Eurasia by around 1.8 million years ago. Throughout this period, different kinds of hominins adopted and innovated stone tool making, socializing it into normalized behavior by teaching it to their young and transforming it into a cutting-edge survival strategy. We clearly observe the positive repercussions of this major advancement in our evolutionary history from the expanding increases in both the number of archeological sites and their geographical spread. Unevenly through time, occurrences of Oldowan sites throughout the Old World begin to yield more numerous artifacts, attesting to the progressive demographic trends associated with tool-making hominins.

Tool-making was a highly effective adaptive strategy that allowed early Homo species (like H. georgicus and H. antecessor) to define their own niches within multiple environmental contexts, successfully competing for resources with large carnivorous animals. Early humans used stone tools to access the protein-rich meat, viscera, and bone marrow from large herbivore carcasses, nourishing their energy-expensive brains. The latter show significant increases in volume and organizational complexity throughout this time period.

But were these early humans also competing with one another? So far (and keeping in mind the scarcity of skeletal remains dating to this period) the paleoanthropological record has not revealed signs of intraspecific violence suffered by Oldowan peoples. Their core-and-flake technologies and simple pounding tools do not include items that could be defined as functional armaments. While a lack of evidence does not constitute proof, we might consider recent estimates in paleodemography, backed by innovative digitized modelization methods and an increasing pool of genetic data that indicates relatively low population densities during the Oldowan. 

Isolated groups consisted of few individuals, organized perhaps into clan-like social entities, widely spread over vast, resource-rich territories. These hominins invested in developing technological and social skills, cooperating with one another to adapt to new challenges posed by the changing environmental conditions that characterized the onset of the Quaternary period some 2.5 million years ago. Complex socialization processes evolved to perfect and share the capacity for technological competence, abilities that had important repercussions on the configuration of the brain that would eventually set humanity apart from other kinds of primates. Technology became inexorably linked to cognitive and social advances, fueling a symbiotic process now firmly established between anatomical and technological evolution.

By around one million years ago, Oldowan-producing peoples had been replaced by the technologically more advanced Acheulian hominins, globally attributed to H. erectus sensu lato. This phase of human evolution lasted nearly one and a half million years (globally from 1.75 to around 350,000 years ago) and is marked by highly significant techno-behavioral revolutions whose inception is traced back to Africa. Groundbreaking technologies like fire-making emerged during the Acheulian, as did elaborate stone production methods requiring complex volumetric planning and advanced technical skills. Tools became standardized into specifically designed models, signaling cultural diversity that varied geographically, creating the first land-linked morpho-technological traditions. Ever-greater social investment was required to learn and share the techniques needed to manipulate these technologies, as tools were converted into culture and technical aptitude into innovation.

In spite of marked increases in site frequencies and artifact densities throughout the Middle Pleistocene, incidences of interspecific violence are rarely documented and no large-scale violent events have been recognized so far. Were some Acheulian tools suitable for waging inter-populational conflicts? In the later phases of the Acheulian, pointed stone tools with signs of hafting and even wooden spears appear in some sites. But were these sophisticated tool kits limited to hunting? Or might they also have served for other purposes? 

Culture evolves through a process I like to refer to as “technoselection” that in many ways can be likened to biological natural selection. In prehistory, technological systems are characterized by sets of morphotypes that reflect a specific stage of cognitive competence. Within these broad defining categories, however, we can recognize some anomalies or idiosyncratic techno-forms that can be defined as potential latent within a given system. As with natural selection, potential is recognized as structural anomalies that may be selected for under specific circumstances and then developed into new or even revolutionary technologies, converted through inventiveness. Should they prove advantageous to deal with the challenges at hand, these innovative technologies are adopted and developed further, expanding upon the existing foundational know-how and creating increasingly larger sets of material culture. Foundational material culture therefore exists in a state of exponential growth, as each phase is built upon the preceding one in a cumulative process perceived as acceleration.

I have already suggested elsewhere that the advanced degree of cultural complexity attained by the Late Acheulian, together with the capacity to produce fire, empowered hominins to adapt their nomadic lifestyles within more constrained territorial ranges. Thick depositional sequences containing evidence of successive living floors recorded in the caves of Eurasia show that hominins were returning cyclically to the same areas, most likely in pace with seasonal climate change and the migrational pathways of the animals they preyed upon. As a result, humans established strong links with the specific regions within which they roamed. More restrictive ranging caused idiosyncrasies to appear within the material and behavioral cultural repertoires of each group: specific ways of making and doing. As they lived and died in lands that were becoming their own, so too did they construct territorial identities that were in contrast with those of groups living in neighboring areas. As cultural productions multiplied, so did these imagined cultural “differences” sharpen, engendering the distinguishing notions of “us” and “them.”

Even more significant perhaps was the emergence and consolidation of symbolic thought processes visible, for example, in cultural manifestations whose careful manufacture took tool-making into a whole new realm of aesthetic concerns rarely observed in earlier toolkits. By around 400,000 years ago in Eurasia, Pre-Neandertals and then Neandertal peoples were conferring special treatment to their dead, sometimes even depositing them with other objects suggestive of nascent spiritual practices. These would eventually develop into highly diverse social practices, like ritual and taboo. Cultural diversity was the keystone for new systems of belief that reinforced imagined differences separating territorially distinct groups.

Anatomically modern humans (H. sapiens) appeared on the scene some 300,000 years ago in Africa and spread subsequently into lands already occupied by other culturally and spiritually advanced species of Homo. While maintaining a nomadic existence, these hominins were undergoing transformational demographic trends that resulted in more frequent interpopulation encounters. This factor, combined with the growing array of material and behavioral manifestations of culture (reflected by artifact multiplicity) provided a repository from which hominin groups stood in contrast with one another. At the same time, the mounting importance of symbolic behaviors in regulating hominin lifestyles contributed to reinforcing both real (anatomic) and imagined (cultural) variances. Intergroup encounters favored cultural exchange, inspiring innovation and driving spiraling techno-social complexity. In addition, they provided opportunities for sexual exchanges necessary for broadening gene pool diversity and avoiding inbreeding. At the same time, a higher number of individuals within each group would have prompted social hierarchization as a strategy to ensure the survival of each unit.

While much has been written about what Middle Paleolithic inter-specific paleo-encounters might have been like, in particular between the Neandertals and H. sapiens, solid evidence is lacking to support genocidal hypotheses or popularized images of the former annihilating the latter by way of violent processes. Today, such theories, fed by suppositions typical of the last century of the relative techno-social superiority of our own species, are falling by the wayside. Indeed, advances in archeology now show not only that we were interbreeding with the Neandertals, but also that Neandertal lifeways and cerebral processes were of comparable sophistication to those practiced by the modern humans they encountered. Presently, apart from sparse documentation for individual violent encounters, there is no evidence that large-scale violence caused the extinction of the Neandertals or of other species of Homo thriving coevally with modern humans. That said, it has been observed that the expansion of H. sapiens into previously unoccupied lands, like Australia and the Americas, for example, coincides ominously with the extinction of mega-faunal species. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not observed in regions with a long record of coexistence between humans and mega mammals, like Africa or India. It has been hypothesized that the reason for this is that animals that were unfamiliar with modern humans lacked the instinct to flee and hide from them, making them easy targets for mass hunting.

If large-scale human violence is difficult to identify in the Paleolithic record, it is common in later, proto-historic iconography. Evidence for warlike behavior (accumulations of corpses bearing signs of humanly-induced trauma) appear towards the end of the Pleistocene and after the onset of the Neolithic Period (nearly 12,000 years ago) in different parts of the world, perhaps in relation to new pressures due to climate change. Arguably, sedentary lifestyles and plant and animal domestication—hallmarks of the Neolithic—reset social and cultural norms of hunter-gatherer societies. Additionally, it may be that the amassing and storing of goods caused new inter-relational paradigms to take form, with individuals fulfilling different roles in relation to their capacities to benefit the group to which they belonged. The capacity to elaborate an abstract, symbolic worldview transformed land and resources into property and goods that “belonged” to one or another social unit, in relation to claims on the lands upon which they lived and from which they reaped the benefits. The written documents of the first literate civilizations, relating mainly to the quantification of goods, are revelatory of the effects of this transformational period of intensified production, hoarding and exchange. Differences inherent to the kinds of resources available in environmentally diverse parts of the world solidified unequal access to the kinds of goods invested with “value” by developing civilizations and dictated the nature of the technologies that would be expanded for their exploitation. Trading networks were established and interconnectedness favored improvements in technologies and nascent communication networks, stimulating competition to obtain more, better, faster.

From this vast overview, we can now more clearly see how the emergence of the notion of “others” that arose in the later phases of the Lower Paleolithic was key for kindling the kinds of behavioral tendencies required for preserving the production-consumption mentality borne after the Neolithic and still in effect in today’s overpopulated capitalist world.

Evolution is not a linear process and culture is a multifaceted phenomenon, but it is the degree to which we have advanced technology that sets us apart from all other living beings on the planet. War is not pre-programmed in our species, nor is it a fatality in our modern, globalized existence. Archeology teaches us that it is a behavior grounded in our own manufactured perception of “difference” between peoples living in distinct areas of the world with unequal access to resources. A social unit will adopt warlike behavior as a response to resource scarcity or other kinds of external challenges (for example, territorial encroachment by an ‘alien’ social unit). Finding solutions to eradicating large-scale warfare thus begins with using our technologies to create equality among all peoples, rather than developing harmful weapons of destruction.

From the emergence of early Homo, natural selection and technoselection have developed in synchronicity through time, transforming discrete structural anomalies into evolutionary strategies in unpredictable and interdependent ways. The big difference between these two processes at play in human evolution is that the former is guided by laws of universal equilibrium established over millions of years, while the latter exists in a state of exponential change that is outside of the stabilizing laws of nature.

Human technologies are transitive in the sense that they can be adapted to serve for different purposes in distinct timeframes or by diverse social entities. Many objects can be transformed into weapons. In the modern world plagued by terrorism, for example, simple home-made explosives, airplanes, drones, or vans can be transformed into formidable weapons, while incredibly advanced technologies can be used to increase our capacity to inflict desensitized and dehumanized destruction on levels never before attained.

Meanwhile, our advanced communication venues serve to share selected global events of warfare numbing the public into passive acceptance. While it is difficult to determine the exact point in time when humans selected large-scale warfare as a viable behavioral trait, co-opting their astounding technological prowess as a strategy to compete with each other in response to unprecedented demographic growth, there may yet be time for us to modify this trajectory toward resiliency, cooperation, and exchange.

Click here to read the article on Asia Times.

This article was produced by Human Bridges.

Deborah Barsky is a writing fellow for the Human Bridges project of the Independent Media Institute, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, and an associate professor at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). She is the author of Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Photo Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum / Wikimedia Commons

The Animal Feed Industry’s Impact on the Planet

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

The diet of factory-farmed animals is linked to environmental destruction around the globe.

By Vicky Bond

In some parts of the continental United States, you might drive through a nearly unchanging landscape for hours. Stretching for miles and miles, vast swaths of soil are dedicated to growing crops—corn, grains, fruits, and vegetables that make up the foundation of our food system.

The process seems highly efficient, producing enormous quantities of food every year. But only a small percentage of these crops will go toward feeding humans. According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, a mere 27 percent of crop calorie production in the United States actually feeds humans. So what happens to the rest?

Some crops are used for the production of ethanol and other biofuels. But the vast majority—more than 67 percent of crop calories grown in the U.S.—are used to feed animals raised for human consumption.

Rather than feeding people, these crops feed the billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals who live and die on factory farms. And that’s a problem.

The issue is that feeding humans indirectly—essentially, making animals the caloric middlemen—is a highly inefficient use of food. “For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef,” writes Jonathan Foley, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit Project Drawdown, for National Geographic. “Finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets… could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.”

This shift in growing and consuming food more sustainably has become especially important, with up to 783 people facing hunger in 2022, according to the United Nations. Research indicates that if we grew crops exclusively for humans to consume directly we could feed an additional 4 billion people worldwide.

Farming has always loomed large in American politics, history, and identity. But the idyllic farming we may imagine—rich piles of compost, seedlings poking through the soil, and flourishing gardens of diverse fruits and vegetables—has transformed into factory farming, a highly industrialized system far removed from earth and soil. Animal feed is essential for the sustenance of this industry—supplying the cattle feedlots, broiler chicken sheds, and egg factories that increasingly make up the foundation of our food system.

What Factory-Farmed Animals Eat

Take a moment to picture a farm animal enjoying dinner. Are you imagining a cow grazing on grass or perhaps a chicken pecking at the ground, foraging for seeds and insects? In today’s factory farming system, the “feed” these animals eat is far removed from their natural diets. Rather than munching on grass or insects, most animals on factory farms eat some type of animal feed—a cost-effective mixture of grains, proteins, and often the addition of antibiotics designed to make them grow as quickly as possible.

The ingredients in animal feed don’t just matter to the animals’ health. They also impact human health—especially since the average American consumes 25 land animals yearly. Researchers have noted that animal feed ingredients are “fundamentally important” to human health impacts. As author and journalist Michael Pollan puts it: “We are what we eat, it is often said, but of course that’s only part of the story. We are what what we eat eats too.”

So, what are the main ingredients used in animal feed today?

Corn and Other Grains

In 2019, farmers planted 91.7 million acres of corn in the U.S. This equals 69 million football fields of corn. How can so much land be devoted to a single crop—especially something many people only eat on occasion?

The answer is that corn is in almost everything Americans eat today. It’s just there indirectly—in the form of animal feed, corn-based sweeteners, or starches. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of corn. And a large percentage of all that corn is used for animal feed, supplying factory farms across the country.

While “cereal grains”—such as barley, sorghum, and oats—are also used for animal feed, corn is by far the number one feed grain used in the U.S., accounting for more than 96 percent of total feed grain production. Corn supplies the carbohydrates in animal feed, offering a rich energy source to increase animals’ growth.

Unfortunately, what this system offers in efficiency it lacks in resilience. Numerous researchers have expressed concern about the vulnerability of the food supply that is so reliant on a single crop. “Under these conditions, a single disaster, disease, pest, or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system,” notes Jonathan Foley in another article for Scientific American. “The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture.”

Soybeans

When you think about soybeans, you might imagine plant-based foods like tofu and tempeh. However, the vast majority of soybeans are used for animal feed. Animal agriculture uses 97 percent of all soybean meal produced in the United States.

While corn is rich in carbohydrates, soybeans are the world’s largest source of animal protein feed. Similar to corn, Americans might not eat a lot of soybeans in the form of tofu, tempeh, and soy milk—in fact, 77 percent of soy grown globally is used to feed livestock, and only 7 percent of it is used directly for human consumption, states a 2021 Our World in Data article—but they do consume soy indirectly through animal products like meat and dairy.

Soy production comes at a high cost to the environment. It is heavily linked to deforestation, driving the destruction of forests, savannahs, and grasslands—as these natural ecosystems are converted to unnatural farmland—and “putting traditional, local livelihoods at risk.” Critical habitats, like the Cerrado savannah in Brazil, are being razed to clear space for soybean production to meet the global demand for animal feed. More than half of the Cerrado’s 100 million hectares of native landscape has already been lost, with livestock and soybean farming being major contributors to this destruction.

“Most soybean-driven land conversions in Brazil have happened in the Cerrado,” said Karla Canavan, vice president for commodity trade and finance at World Wildlife Fund, in 2022. “The corridor [Cerrado] is like an inverted forest that has enormous roots and is a very important carbon sink. … Unfortunately, more than 50 percent of the Cerrado has been already converted into soybean farmlands.”

It’s a common misconception that plant-based soy products like tofu drive global deforestation. In reality, the vast majority of soy is used for animal feed. To fight this tragic habitat destruction, it’s far more effective to replace meat with soy-based alternatives.

Animal Protein and Waste

Editor’s note: The following section contains graphic descriptions that may disturb some readers.

It’s not just plants like corn and soybeans that go into animal feed. The factory farming industry has a long history of feeding animals waste and proteins from other animals. In 2014, outrage ensued when an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States revealed that pig farmers were feeding animals the intestines of their own piglets. At a huge factory farm in Kentucky, workers were filmed eviscerating dead piglets and turning their intestines into a puree that was being fed back to mother pigs.

This wasn’t even an isolated atrocity. The executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians in 2014 commented that the practice was “legal and safe” and was meant to immunize the mother pigs against a virus called porcine epidemic diarrhea, according to the New York Times. Pigs aren’t the only animals who are effectively turned into cannibals by the factory farming industry.

Farmers were only prohibited from feeding cow meat to other cows following concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes on its website that BSE may have been caused by feeding cattle protein from other cows. The practice was banned in 1997—but, notably, only because of the risks to human health and not out of concern for the cows.

Antibiotics

Another key ingredient in animal feed likely doesn’t come to mind when you think about animal nutrition. This ingredient is antibiotics, commonly used in the food given to animals across the country.

On factory farms, animals are confined in extremely crowded, filthy facilities—the perfect conditions for spreading illness and disease. Not only do antibiotics allow animals to survive the conditions in these facilities but they also encourage animals to grow unnaturally large and fast. Drugs are administered through food and water, starting when the animals are just a few days old.

The meat industry’s excessive antibiotic use has directly been linked to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a massive threat to human health. As bacteria are killed off, the surviving that remain gradually learn how to survive the attacks, becoming resistant to antibiotics over time.

AMR means that conditions that should be easy and affordable to treat—like ear infections—can become life-threatening. It’s “one of today’s biggest threats to global health, food security, and development,” according to the World Health Organization, states a News-Medical article, and it’s projected to kill four times as many people per year as COVID-19 did in 2020, according to the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.

Additives and Preservatives

Along with the mixture of corn, soybeans, and a cocktail of antibiotics, animal feed may also contain a plethora of additives and preservatives. The Code of Federal Regulations provides a long list of additives legally permitted in animals’ food and drinking water. These include “condensed animal protein hydrolysate” (produced from meat byproducts of cattle slaughtered for human consumption), formaldehyde, and petrolatum—to name a few.

Unfortunately, many of these additives and preservatives have been linked to adverse human health impacts. For example, formaldehyde, which is classified as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, is commonly used in animal feed to reduce salmonella contamination. In 2017, following concerns about farmworkers being exposed to the harmful substance, the European Commission voted to ban feed producers from using formaldehyde as an additive in animal feed.

Animal Feeding Operations

To understand the true impact of animal feed, we must look at animal feeding operations. Of all the animals in our food system today, 99 percent live on factory farms—enormous, vertically integrated operations designed to make as much profit as possible (at the expense of animals, people, and the environment). The transition to using animal feed has been closely intertwined with the transition to this type of large-scale factory farming.

The official term for a factory farm is concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO. As the name implies, these operations are laser-focused on feeding large numbers of animals until they reach “slaughter weight,” after which they are killed and turned into products.

The faster an animal reaches slaughter weight, the more quickly the industry profits. So factory farms have dialed in on the most efficient way to feed animals in the shortest amount of time. Rather than grazing on pasture, animals are confined in stationary cages or crowded sheds and given feed that will increase their growth rates—even while it hurts their health.

Take cows, for example. Along with sheep and other grazing animals, they are known as “ruminants”—because they have a rumen, an organ perfectly designed to transform grass into protein. But the industry feeds cows corn instead of grass because it brings them to “slaughter weight” much faster than grazing. Sadly, this high-starch diet can disturb a cow’s rumen, causing pain with severe bloat, acidosis (or heartburn), and other types of stomach upset.

When it comes to feeding animals on factory farms these are some key industry terms to know:

  • Growth rates: This is the rate at which an animal grows or how quickly the animal reaches “slaughter weight.” Sadly, most factory farm animals are bred to grow so quickly that their health suffers. Chickens raised for meat frequently develop bone deformities, muscle diseases like white striping, and heart problems. Many chickens have difficulty walking, or even just standing due to painful lameness as a consequence of their fast growth rate.
  • Feed conversion ratio: This is the ratio between the amount of feed an animal eats and the amount of body weight that an animal gains. In other words, a feed conversion ratio is the industry’s effort to feed animals as little as possible to make them grow as quickly as possible.
  • Selective breeding: This is the practice of breeding two animals to produce offspring with a desired trait. For example, the poultry industry breeds birds who quickly develop outsized breast muscles. In the meat industry, selective breeding is generally used to optimize both feed conversion ratio and growth rates.

Animal Feed Industry Impacts

Overall, factory farming is incredibly resource-intensive and harmful to the environment. From agricultural runoff to water waste and pollution, CAFOs are responsible for some of humanity’s worst climate impacts.

“Livestock farms generate about 70 percent of the nation’s [United States] ammonia emissions, plus gases that cause global warming, particularly methane,” according to the Public Broadcasting Service. The practice of growing crops for animal feed is one of the worst drivers of environmental destruction—leaving biodiversity loss, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions in its wake.

Deforestation

Growing crops necessary to feed huge numbers of animals to support human meat consumption requires vast amounts of land, which results in massive deforestation. Forests worldwide are systematically being cleared and replanted with monocrops (such as the corn and soybeans mentioned earlier) to meet the demand for animal products—and therefore, animal feed.

Brazil, for example, is the world’s biggest beef exporter. In the Amazon rainforest—nearly two-thirds of which is part of Brazil—crops for animal feed are one of the primary drivers of deforestation, damaging an essential habitat for countless species. Deforestation rates have averaged nearly 2 million hectares yearly since 1995 in the Amazon, or about seven football fields every minute.

Meanwhile, farmland expansion accounts for 90 percent of deforestation worldwide, “including crops grown for both human and animal consumption, as well as the clearing of forests for animal grazing,” according to a July 2022 article in Sentient Media.

Deforestation eliminates one of our best defenses against climate change as healthy, intact forests provide a crucial ecosystem service: carbon sequestration. Forests safely store more carbon than they emit, making them powerful “carbon sinks” critical to maintaining a stable climate. When we destroy forests for farmland and other uses, we remove that carbon sink and release all the carbon into the atmosphere that had been stored there.

Biodiversity Loss and Extinction Threat

Naturally, deforestation goes hand in hand with biodiversity loss—of which animal agriculture is also a key driver. A 2021 study found that land use conversions to support the “global food system” are a primary driver of biodiversity loss. Tragically, researchers project that more than 1,000 species will lose at least a quarter of their habitats by 2050 if meat consumption continues at the same rate.

At the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal in December 2022, delegates warned that if our land-intensive eating habits don’t change, more and more critical species will go extinct. As author and journalist Michael Grunwald points out in the New York Times: “[W]hen we eat cows, chickens, and other livestock, we might as well be eating macaws, jaguars, and other endangered species.”

Water Use

Along with vast amounts of land, growing crops for animal feed requires enormous quantities of water. In the U.S. alone, more than 60 percent of freshwater was used to grow crops in 2012, and around 2.5 trillion gallons per year of water was used for animal feed in the same year. Corn, soybeans, and the other grains used in animal feed require about 43 times more water than grass or roughage, which animals could access if they were allowed to graze.

Soil Degradation

The intensive farming practices required to grow vast amounts of crops—like corn and soybeans—even take a toll on the soil.

Healthy soil contains millions of living organisms, which naturally replenish and recycle organic material and nutrients. Soil filters water, stores carbon, and allows for carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles that are critical for life on Earth.

But intensive farming practices, like growing “monocultures” (huge amounts of one crop like corn or soybeans), can degrade soil and deplete critical nutrients. Not only do these farming practices prevent soil’s natural processes but they can also reduce the amount of carbon stored in soil—a huge problem in the face of climate change. Intensive agriculture, closely intertwined with factory farming, damages the soil beyond repair.

Change Is Possible

The impacts of our animal-based food production system are far-reaching and complex. The intensive farming practices that supply animal feed for factory farms are destroying our water, air, and soil—and harming countless animals raised in food supply chains. But there is hope. It’s not too late to build a better food system from the ground up.

The movement to build a healthier food system is growing every day. Around the world, people are advocating for systemic change—from plant-based food options to better treatment of farmed animals. In fact, according to a March 2022 article in Phys.org, “switching to a plant-based diet in high-income nations would save an area the size of the EU worldwide.” Moreover, if just one person follows a vegan diet, an average of 95 animals will be spared each year, according to the book, Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs.

Concerned citizens and consumers can also hold corporations accountable for animal abuse and environmental degradation—by pressuring companies to adopt more sustainable practices. Already, several large meat producers and fast food and supermarket chains have stopped keeping pigs in gestation crates after people expressed “disgust” at the practice. According to the New York Times, “[T]he tide is turning because consumers are making their preferences known.”

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life.

Vicky Bond is a veterinary surgeon, animal welfare scientist, and the president of The Humane League, a global nonprofit organization working to end the abuse of animals raised for food through institutional and individual change. She is a contributor to the Observatory. Follow her on Twitter @vickybond_THL.

Photo Credit: Albert Bridge / Wikimedia Commons

A Tale of Two Federal Grants for Public Education

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on the Progressive.

Click to read the full article online.

The Department of Education has separate grant programs for funding either charter or community schools; the latter provides money for what schools and families really need, the former, not so much.

Two education-related grant programs operated by the U.S. Department of Education—both of which dole out millions in federal tax dollars for educating K-12 children every year—present two opposing truths about government spending on public education: that it can be wasteful and misguided, or innovative and informed. 

The first program enjoys the significant backing of industry lobbyists and wealthy foundations, and allows private education operators—some that operate for-profit—to skim public money off the top. It also adds to racial segregation in public schools, and squanders millions of dollars on education providers that come and quickly go, or simply fail to provide any education services at all.

The second program helps schools expand learning time and opportunities for students, especially in high-poverty and rural communities; promote parent engagement; encourage collaboration with local businesses and nonprofits; and become hubs for child- and family-related services that contribute to students’ health and well-being.

These strikingly different outcomes result from two different intentions: the first program’s goal to promote a type of school that is vaguely defined versus the second’s goal to expand a way of doing school that is supported by research and anecdotal evidence.

The first grant program is the Charter Schools Program (CSP), which funds privately operated charter schools and their developers and advocacy organizations. The program, started during the Clinton Administration and greatly expanded during the Obama years, gives money directly to charter schools and to state education agencies and charter school-related organizations to distribute to new, existing, or proposed charters.

In October, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the nation’s top lobbyist for the charter school industry, hailed the federal government’s release of $572 million in taxpayer dollars from the CSP, calling the money “the most essential funding to enable the existence of public charter schools.”

In New Mexico, local press outlets reported that a $52 million CSP grant went to a charter industry advocacy group called the Public Charter Schools of New Mexico, which in turn would award subgrants to individual charter schools. One reporter quoted the group’s leader who said, “There was a large application with several requirements in there. And we were scored based on, you know, how well we met the requirements and a peer review process.”

In Idaho, Idaho Ed News reported about the $24.8 million CSP grant going to Bluum, which the reporter called “a nonprofit charter support organization.” The grant is to be used “to grow and strengthen Idaho’s charter school network,” the article said.

Maryland’s top charter school industry booster, the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, celebrated its $28.7 million CSP saying it would provide “subgrants to open new charter schools and/or replicate and expand charter schools.”

Not all CSP grants went to advocacy groups. The largest—totaling $109,740,731—went to the Indiana Department of Education. According to Chalkbeatone out of three charter schools in Indiana have closed since 2001.

A 2019 analysis conducted by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public schools advocacy group, found that over its lifespan CSP has wasted as much as $1 billion on charter schools that never opened or opened and quickly closed.

Another CSP grant of $37,579,122 went to the Minnesota Department of Education. In Minnesota, courts have grappled for years with the question of whether racial imbalances in public schools, caused to a great extent by the expansion of racially segregated charter schools, violate the constitutional right of students of color to receive an adequate education.

Other CSP grants went to credit enhancement for charter school facilities, essentially giving public money to real estate development firms and investment companies that finance and build new charter schools.

[…]

Read the rest of this article on the Progressive.

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Photo Credit: Fry1989 / Wikimedia Commons

Election Defenders’ Top 2024 Worry: Online Rumors, Deceptions, Lies Swaying Masses

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

Propaganda scholars report few measures change partisan mindsets to avert vitriol or violence. But they hope online influencers will counter some rumor mills.

By Steven Rosenfeld

A decade ago, when Kate Starbird dove into studying how rumors spread online and how people use social media to make sense of what is happening during crises, the future co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public had no idea that she would become a target of the darker dynamics and behavior she was studying.

Starbird, a Stanford University computer science graduate who turned professional basketball player, had returned to academia as an expert in “crisis informatics.” That emerging field looks at how people use online information and communication to respond to uncertain and chaotic events. Starbird initially looked at how social media could be helpful in crises. But she and her colleagues increasingly were drawn to how false rumors emerge and spread. They confirmed what many of us have long suspected. Mistaken online information tends to travel farther and faster than facts and corrections. “[B]reaking news” accounts often magnify rumors. People who fall for bogus storylines might correct themselves, but not before spreading them.

Those insights were jarring enough. But as Starbird and her colleagues turned to tracking the post-2020 attacks on America’s elections by Donald Trump, copycat Republicans, and right-wing media, they were no longer looking at the dynamics of misinformation and disinformation from the safety of academia. By scrutinizing millions of tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and Instagram pages for misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and alerting the platforms and federal cybersecurity officials about the most troubling examples, Starbird and her peers soon found themselves in the crosshairs of arch Trump loyalists. They were targeted and harassed much like election officials across the country.

Starbird was dragged before congressional inquisitions led by Ohio GOP Representative Jim Jordan. Her University of Washington e-mail account was targeted by dozens of public records requests. As her and other universities were sued, she and her peers spent more time with lawyers than students. In some cases, the intimidation worked, as some colleagues adopted a “strategy of silence,” Starbird recounted in a keynote address at the Stanford Internet Observatory’s 2023 Trust and Safety Research Conference in September. That response, while understandable, was not the best way to counter propagandists, she said, nor inform the public about their work’s core insights—which is how mistaken or false beliefs take shape online, and why they are so hard to shake.

“Some colleagues decided not to aggressively go after the false claims that we received about ourselves,” Starbird said—such as accusations that alleged they had colluded with the government to censor right-wing speech. “I don’t think that they should have gone directly at the people saying them. But we needed to get the truth out to the public… Online misinformation, disinformation, manipulation; they remain a critical concern for society.”

Barely a week after November 2023’s voting ended, the narratives dominating the news underscored her point. The reproductive rights victories and embrace of Democrats, led by growing numbers of anti-MAGA voters, had barely been parsed by the public before Trump grabbed the headlines by transgressing American political norms.

In a Veterans Day speech, of all settings, Trump, who is the leading 2024 Republican presidential candidate, attacked his domestic opponents with rhetoric that mimicked European fascist dictators that Americans had defeated in World War II. Trump called his domestic critics “vermin,” and pledged that, if reelected, he would use the Justice Department to “crush” them. Even the New York Times noted the similarity between Trump’s words to Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Trump’s outburst was one of many incidents and trends that have led election defenders and propaganda experts to say that their biggest worries about 2024 elections concern the reach of mistaken or deceptive propaganda—misinformation and disinformation—and its persuasive power to shape political identities, beliefs, ideologies, and provoke actions.

“It’s no secret that Republicans have a widespread strategy to undermine our democracy. But here’s what I’m worried about most for the 2024 election—election vigilantism,” Marc Elias, a top Democratic Party lawyer, said during a late October episode of his “Defending Democracy” podcast. “Election vigilantism, to put it simply, is when individuals or small groups act in a sort of loosely affiliated way to engage in voter harassment, voter intimidation, misinformation campaigns, or voter challenges.”

Elias has spent decades litigating the details of running elections. Since 2020, many Republican-run states have passed laws making voting harder, disqualifying voters and ballots, imposing gerrymanders to fabricate majorities, and challenging federal voting law. Democratic-led states have gone the other direction, essentially creating two Americas when it comes to running elections. Notably, this veteran civil rights litigator is more worried about partisan passions running amok than the voting war’s latest courtroom fights. And he’s not alone.

“It’s the minds of voters,” replied Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, when asked at the 2023 Aspen Cyber Summit in New York City about the biggest threat to the legitimacy of 2024 elections. Benson emphasized that it was not the reliability of the voting system or cybersecurity breaches. “It’s the confusion, and chaos, and the sense of division, and the sense of disengagement that bad actors are very much trying to instill in our citizenry.”

Information and Psychology

There are many factors driving the hand-wringing over the likelihood that political rumors, mistaken information, mischaracterizations, and intentional deceptions will play an outsized role in America’s 2024 elections. Academics like Starbird, whose work has buoyed guardrails, remain under attack. Some of the biggest social media platforms, led by X—formerly Twitter—have pulled back or gutted content policing efforts. These platforms, meanwhile, are integrating artificial intelligence-generated content, which some of these same researchers have shown can create newspaper-like articles that swaths of the public say are persuasive.

Additionally, the U.S. is involved in controversial wars in Ukraine and Israel invoking global rivalries, which may entice the hostile foreign governments that meddled in recent presidential elections to target key voting blocs in 2024’s battleground states, analysts at the Aspen Cyber Summit said. And domestically, federal efforts to debunk election- and vaccine-related disinformation have shrunk, as Trump loyalists have accused these fact-based initiatives of unconstitutional censorship and sued. These GOP-led lawsuits have led to conflicting federal court rulings that have not been resolved, but fan an atmosphere of lingering distrust.

It is “a real concern for 2024: That the feds and others who monitor and inform citizens about lies and false election information will unilaterally disarm, in the face of the constant bullying and harassment,” tweeted David Becker—who runs the Center for Election Innovation and Research and whose defense of election officials has made him a target of Trump loyalists—commenting after November 2023 Election Day.

What is less discussed in these warnings is what can be done to loosen online propaganda’s grip. That question, which involves the interplay of digitally delivered information and how we think and act, is where insights from scholarly research are clarifying and useful.

Debunking disinformation is not the same as changing minds, many researchers at the recent Trust and Safety conference explained. This understanding has emerged as online threats have evolved since the 2016 presidential election. That year, when Russian operatives created fake personas and pages on Facebook and elsewhere to discourage key Democratic blocs from voting, the scope of problem and solution mostly involved cybersecurity efforts, Starbird recalled in her keynote address during the conference.

At that time, the remedy was finding technical ways to quickly spot and shut down the forged accounts and fake pages. By 2020 election, the problem and its dynamics had shifted. The false narratives were coming from domestic sources. The president and his allies were people using authentic social media accounts. Trump set the tone. Influencers—right-wing personalities, pundits, and media outlets—followed his cues. Ordinary Americans not only believed their erroneous or false claims, and helped to spread them, but some Trump cultists went further and spun stolen election clichés into vast conspiracies and fabricated false evidence.

Propaganda scholars now see disinformation as a participatory phenomenon. There is more going on than simply saying that flawed or fake content is intentionally created, intentionally spread, and intentionally reacted to, Starbird and others explained. To start, disinformation is not always entirely false. It often is a story built around a grain of truth or a plausible scenario, she said, but “layered with exaggerations and distortions to create a false sense of reality.”

Moreover, disinformation “rarely functions” as a single piece of content. It is part of a series of interactions or an ongoing campaign—such as Trump’s repeated claim that elections are rigged. Crucially, while propaganda and disinformation are often talked about as being deceptive, Starbird said that “when you actually look at disinformation campaigns online, most of the content that spreads doesn’t come from people—those that are part of it [the bogus campaign], it comes from unwitting actors or sincere believers in the content.”

These layered dynamics blur the lines between what is informational and what is psychological. The factors at play include how first impressions, memory, and beliefs can clash with the ground truth—or eclipse it. Starbird cited one example she has studied. In 2020 in Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, Trump supporters had been hearing for months that the November election would be stolen. When they saw that some pens given to voters bled through their paper ballot, that triggered fears and the so-called “Sharpiegate” conspiracy emerged and went viral. Election officials explained that ballots were printed in such a way that no vote would be undetected or misread. But that barely dented the erroneous assumption and false conclusion that a presidential election was being stolen before their eyes.

“Sometimes misinformation stands for false evidence, or even vague [evidence] or deep fakes [forged audio, photos or video], or whatever,” Starbird said. “But more often, misinformation comes in the form of misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and mischaracterizations… the frame that we use to interpret that evidence; and those frames are often strategically shaped by political actors and campaigns.”

In 2023, online influencers do not even have to mention the triggering frames, she said, as their audiences already know them. Influencers can pose questions, selectively surface evidence, and knowingly—in wink and nod fashion—create a collaboration where witting and unwitting actors produce and spread false content and conclusions. Additionally, the technical architecture of social media—where platforms endlessly profile users based on their posts, and those profiles help to customize and deliver targeted content—is another factor that amplifies its spread.

Starbird’s summary of the dynamics of disinformation is more nuanced than what one hears in election circles, where officials avoid commenting publicly on partisan passions. But she was not the only researcher with insights into how and where mis- and disinformation are likely to surface in 2024. Eviane Leidig, a postdoctoral fellow at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, described another conduit during the conference where “personal radicalization and recruitment narratives” may be hiding in plain sight: influencer-led lifestyle websites.

Leidig showed seemingly innocuous pages from influencers that use “the qualities of being relatable, authentic, accessible, and responsive to their audiences to cultivate the perception of intimacy.” As they shared their personal stories, Leidig pointed to instances where influencers’ extreme views filtered in and became part of the community experience. “The messaging [is] to sell both a lifestyle and an ideology in order to build a fundamental in-group identity,” she said, which, in turn, ends up “legitimizing and normalizing… their political ideology.”

The reality that many factors shape beliefs, identity, community, and a sense of belonging means that unwinding false rumors, misconceptions, and lies—indeed, changing minds—is more complicated than merely presenting facts, said Cristina López G., a senior analyst at Graphika, which maps social media, during her talk on the dynamics of rabid online fandom at the 2023 Trust and Safety Research Conference.

López G. studied how some of Taylor Swift’s online fans harassed and abused other fans over the superstar’s purported sexuality—whether she was “secretly queer.” The “Gaylors,” who believed Swift was gay or bisexual, shared “tips about how to preserve their anonymity online,” López G. said. They anonymously harassed others. They used coded language. They censored others. Their mob-like dynamics and behavior are not that different from what can be seen on pro-Trump platforms that attacked RINOs—the pejorative for “Republicans in Name Only”—or anyone else outside their sect.

“Fandoms are really microcosms of the internet,” López G. said. “Their members are driven by the same thing as every internet user, which is just establish their dominance, and safeguard their community beliefs, and beliefs become really closely tied to who they are online… who they identify as online.”

In other words, changing minds is neither easy nor quick, and, in many circles, not welcomed.

“What this means is that real-world events do very little to change this belief,” López G. concluded, adding this observation also applied to political circles. “If you change beliefs, you’re no longer part of that community… So, it’s not really, ‘what’s real?’ and ‘what’s not?’ It’s really the friends we’ve made along the way.”

“Once you begin to see this phenomenon through that lens [where disinformation is participatory and tribal], you realize it’s everywhere,” Starbird said.

‘Counter-influencers’

At the Aspen Cyber Summit, the elections panel offered a sober view of the strategies undertaken during the Trump era, and challenges facing election defenders in and outside of government in 2024.

To date, the response essentially has been twofold. As Chris Krebs explained, “Information warfare has two pillars. One is information technical; the other is information psychological.” Krebs ran CISA—the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—during the Trump administration. He was fired after 2020 Election Day for retweeting that the election was “the most secure in American history.” As he told the audience, “It was also the most litigated election. The most scrutinized election. The most audited election. I could go on…”

On the “information technical” side, Krebs said that officials have learned to protect election computers and data. There was no indication that anyone manipulated any jurisdictions’ computers in recent cycles. But that achievement mostly took place inside government offices and behind closed doors. It has not been fully appreciated by voters, especially by partisans who do not believe that their side lost.

Instead, what many disappointed voters have seen of election operations has preyed on their insecurities—such as Starbird’s Sharpiegate example. In other words, the technical successes have been offset by what Krebs called “information psychological.” The strategy to respond to this dynamic, he and others said, is to curtail propaganda’s rapid spread on both fronts.

Some of that challenge remains technical, such as having contacts in online platforms who can flag or remove bogus content, they said. But the most potentially impactful response, at least with interrupting propaganda’s viral dynamics, hinges on cultivating what Leidig called “counter-influencers,” and what election officials call “trusted voices.” These voices are credible people inside communities, online or otherwise, who will say “not so fast,” defend the democratic process, and hopefully be heard before passionate reactions trample facts or run amok.

“All the tools we need to instill confidence in our elections exist,” Benson said at the summit. “We just have to get them—not just in the hands of trusted voices, but then communicate effectively to the people who need to hear them.”

But Benson, whose hopes echo those heard from election officials across the country, was putting on a brave face. She soon told the audience that reining in runaway rumors was not easy—and said officials needed help.

“We need assistance in developing trusted voices,” Benson said. “Second, we need assistance, particularly from tech companies in both identifying false information and removing it. We know we’re farther away from that than we have ever been in the evolution of social media over the last several years. But at the same time, where artificial intelligence is going to be used to exponentially increase both the impact and reach of misinformation, we need partners in the tech industry to help us minimize the impact and rapidly mitigate any harm.”

Still, she pointed to some progress. Michigan’s legislature, like a handful of states, recently passed laws requiring disclosure of any AI-created content in election communications. It has criminalized using deep fake imagery or forged voices. Congress, in contrast, has yet to act—and probably won’t do so before 2024. The White House recently issued executive orders that impose restrictions on AI’s use. While the large platforms will likely comply with labeling and other requirements, 2024’s torrid political campaigns are likely to be less restrained.

And so, Benson and others have tried to be as concrete as possible in naming plausible threats. In November, she told the U.S. Senate’s AI Caucus they should “expect” AI to be used “to divide, deceive, and demobilize voters throughout our country over the next year.” Those scenarios included creating false non-English messages for minority voters, automating the harassment of election officials, and generating error-ridden analyses to purge voters.

But countering propaganda remains a steep climb. Even before AI’s arrival, the nuts and bolts of elections were an ideal target because the public has little idea of how elections are run—there is little prior knowledge to reject made-up claims and discern the truth. Moreover, political passions peak in presidential years, and every election cycle has a handful of errors by workers who set up the devices that check in voters, cast votes, and count ballots. This November’s election was no exception, according to this tally of administrative errors by ElectionLine.org. After Trump’s 2020 loss, operational mistakes like these—which caused some votes to be incorrectly counted before the error was found and corrected—were misinterpreted, mischaracterized, and became fodder for his stolen election tropes. Much the same scripts surfaced after this fall’s snafus.

As crisis informatics researchers like Starbird have confirmed, doubt is more easily provoked than trust. Nor do labels and fact-checking alone change minds. At the cyber summit, Raffi Krikorian, the CTO at the Emerson Collective, a charitable foundation—who held that role for the Democratic National Committee during the last presidential election—made the same point.

“Our election system, in a lot of ways, is built on trust—like we trust a lot of the portions of the mechanics will work together,” he said. “There’s a lot of humans involved. It’s not necessarily all codified. And so, [if there is] any break in the system, it’s really easy to lose trust in the entire system.”

Krikorian, who hosts the Collective’s “Technically Optimistic” podcast, was worried about 2024. Turning to Benson, he said that his research about “where people [in Michigan] are actually getting their information,” shows that it is increasingly from smaller and more obscure online platforms. Others at the summit noted that people were turning to encrypted channels like WhatsApp for political information. In other words, the propaganda pathways appear to be shifting.

“We’re actually, in some ways, spending our time maybe in the wrong places,” Krikorian said. “We need to be spending our time on these other smaller and up-and-coming platforms, that also don’t have the staff, don’t have the energy, don’t have the people and the resources needed in order to make sure that they’re secure in the process.”

Nonetheless, the remedy that Benson kept returning to was locally trusted voices. For example, her office has stationed observers within 5 miles of every voting site to investigate any problem or claim. She said that she has been engaging “faith leaders, sports leaders, business leaders, and community leaders about the truth about how to participate and how to trust our elections.”

“AI is a new technology, but the solution is an old one—it’s about developing trusted voices that people can turn to get accurate information,” Benson said. “All of this, everything we’re talking about, is about deceiving people, deceiving voters who then act on that deception.”

But rumors, misperceptions, mischaracterizations, deceptions, lies, and violence in politics are as old as America itself, as political historians like Heather Cox Richardson have noted. There is no simple or single solution, said Starbird. Nonetheless, she ended her Stanford address with a “call to action” urging everyone to redouble their efforts in 2024.

“We’re not going to solve the problem with misinformation, disinformation, manipulation… with one new label, or a new educational initiative, or a new research program,” she told trust and safety researchers. “It’s going to have to be all of the above… It’s going to be all these different things coming at it from different directions.”

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and many others.

Photo Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr

The New Grand Tour

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Six million years of human evidence offers a powerful universal education to address humanity’s most significant challenges and opportunities.

By Jan Ritch-Frel

All of humanity can now take the Grand Tour: a travel circuit of global sites that help us understand ourselves and our history, made increasingly clear thanks to recent advances in archaeology and the sciences. The stops on this tour include archeological sites key to understanding the stages of human history starting six million years ago and leading up to the dawn of the modern era. Other sites include museums and spaces that educate visitors about the biology of our existence, focusing on our primate roots within a diversity of ecosystems.

The point of this Grand Tour is to co-mingle an education on the phases of human history with a study of our biology and evolution that only recently became available due to advances in science and research. It fosters an understanding of the human story as a single global data set. As people become accustomed to relying on the wider breadth of evidence to understand themselves, we are all stronger. It becomes easier to authentically connect with each other when we have a true universalizing framework. This framework will open constructive pathways for finding happiness, reducing suffering, and adapting together for resilience and survival. Wherever you are in life, there is potential to find value in this evidence-based understanding of human tendencies.

It only became possible in the past decade to trace the outlines of the complete human story. Travelers will be surprised by the increasingly clear evidence that illustrates the diversity of early hominin species, the pace at which they made complex and ingenious tools, and the emergence of ritual, religion, agriculture, and even our modern societies. Similarly, scientific discoveries we’ve made about brain development, hormones, and genomics will compel us to rethink the causes of criminal behavior and reimagine childhood development and education.

Taking the Grand Tour

Completing the Grand Tour may be easier for the one billion people who travel internationally each year than the seven billion others. But the good news is that the education embedded in the tour is available online through a study of the sites along the tour and related research. For many people, there are relevant pre-historical sites, museums, and research centers located within a few hundred miles to visit and more deeply enrich their educational experience.

You can say you’ve completed a Grand Tour when you have obtained a good general understanding of each study topic listed below and visited and/or studied at least two sites related to each of them.

The study topics are:

  • Paleoanthropology and the human evolutionary story of the past six million years of evolution.
  • Primatology and the behavior and lifestyles of wider mammal families.
  • Transitions from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to village societies and the establishment of the first city-states.
  • Behavioral biology and neuroscience to learn about the function of the human brain and its interactions with the processes that produce language and real-world functioning.
  • Ecology and the study of regional wilderness areas to understand animals as part of the fabric of interdependencies in the larger ecosystem.

Some experts who have tracked the paradigm shifts across these topic areas have predicted that many of the newest discoveries will spill over into the wider societal spectrum. The rising public interest in human cultural and technological evolution, early societies, and the biological facets dictating human behaviors is visible on best-seller lists, popular podcasts, and highly-rated YouTube channels. Educators believe there is potential for the new, globally sourced breadth of knowledge we now have about our species’ origins to become preeminent within the study of political and social sciences. This would edge out the near-monopoly that Europe has had on scholarly understandings of human history for the past 2,500 years.

Below is a sample list of Grand Tour locations for each of the geographical regions and/or topics of study listed at the bottom of this article. Over time, a map could grow to contain hundreds or thousands of sites that qualify as educational sources to populate the Grand Tour. Newer evidence, sites, and museum exhibits will often be easier to learn from as they are less weighed down by the historical attitudes of previous eras. The world has exceptional books and reference materials, tour guides, and teachers, real and online, to help people along their journey. And it is increasingly easier to ensure docents and guides educate people with the most up-to-date information about the sites they’re helping to interpret.

The Old Grand Tour

There was a Grand Tour in a previous era. This famous journey through Italy and the classical world established particular pieces of ancient history as central to humankind. The ancient worlds of Rome, Greece, Egypt, and the kingdoms of Sumeria were understood as the borders of the ancient past. What came before these worlds was vaguely understood to have involved stone tools and ice ages.

For 300 years, if you were a young, privileged European man, the final stage of your education would include a visit to Italy to learn about the Renaissance and its roots in Rome, then to Greece and the wider Mediterranean. Young elites gained a worldview shared across nationalities living in high-income countries, shaped by the expert guides who accompanied them. It was sweeping in scope entrenched in a reductive understanding of the human past and a linear sense of history and the progress of humanity.

This “old” Grand Tour cemented a particular political and philosophical education that the world has largely inherited today. This education is often presented through colonial and imperial conquest, modeled and legitimized by the collapsed empires and city-states of the northern Mediterranean regions.

Even with its many blind spots, misconceptions, and lapses, the old Grand Tour did help to create a shared sense of history and culture where none had existed before by linking together disparate sites across the European continent. It provided a common—if faulty—framework for understanding the then-contemporary world.

And it should not come as a surprise for students of history that there was an even older Grand Tour before this one. Young privileged men of ancient Rome relied on a Grand Tour guided by a historian and geographer named Pausanius to learn about a selectively chosen, venerated history of Greece. Touring is a hugely popular educational format, from the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage route for learning about medieval Europe to following the Great Wall of China to learn about the country’s wider dynastic history.

The New Grand Tour

The new Grand Tour proposes to revolutionize this outdated vision through visits to museums, archaeological sites, and research centers that explain the different facets of human biological and technological history. Together, these sketch a more accurate story of humanity. This Grand Tour takes us from the emergence of our genus, “Homo,” to the beginnings of our hunter-gatherer past and the transition to early societal organizational schemes. Then, onwards, to the founding of the first city-states.

This education can reshape our core beliefs, attitudes, and approaches to daily life. It also provides sounder, more actionable answers to some of the most important questions we face today, such as:

  • Does social complexity require social hierarchy?
  • What social models are the most resilient and produce the least suffering?
  • What kind of resource consumption are we designed for?
  • What is a sustainable and healthy mix of work and leisure?
  • How do we explain the prevalence of conditions like obesity, depression, anxiety, cancer, and heart disease—and what can we do about it?
  • What are the kinds of child-rearing and educational environments that the human lineage evolved with and depended on?
  • Does the moral arc of the universe “bend toward justice”?
  • How should we understand criminal culpability in a structurally unequal world?
  • What is addiction, and how can we treat it?
  • What social relations tend to promote cooperation or conflict? What is the relationship between social arrangements and the tendency toward peace or war?

You don’t have to make every stop on the Grand Tour. Get acquainted with and learn about at least a few items from each category below. Try to pick from two different regions of the Earth for each.

Human Origins

A series of recent archeological site findings have significantly updated our evidence and understanding of humanity’s origins. Some of the most significant discoveries include:

Koobi Fora / Lake Turkana — Kenya

A region of paleoanthropological sites in northern Kenya known as Koobi Fora, near Lake Turkana, features well-preserved hominin fossils dating between 3.2 and 1.3 million years ago. This includes at least two species of Australopithecus, three species of the genus HomoKenyanthropus platyops, stone tools dating back to 2 million years ago, and a nearly complete skeleton of a male adolescent H. ergaster specimen about 1.5 million years old called “Turkana Boy.”

Denisova Cave — Russia

Situated on the foothills of Siberia’s Altai Mountains, Denisova Cave is the only site known to have been occupied by Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. The cave has yielded impressive jewelry and other artifacts and provided genomic evidence of the direct descendants of Neanderthal and Denisovan parents.

Luzon — Philippines

In 2018, researchers discovered a cache of butchered rhino bones and dozens of stone tools that pushed back the earliest evidence for human occupation of the Philippines’s largest island from 100,000 years ago to a startling 700,000 years ago. Included in the discovery on Luzon was a unique human species that has been dubbed Homo luzonensis. This raises questions about how our supposedly primitive ancestors crossed the Southeast Asian seas. The northern areas of the island, with their extensive cave systems, illuminate the early movement of people to the Philippines—from Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene foragers to the spread of Neolithic farming and later metal-age cultures.

Central Narmada Valley — India

The Central Narmada Valley is a region in central India featuring extensive Early and Middle Pleistocene deposits, associated Palaeolithic fossils, and the only fossil evidence of a non-modern hominin species in the subcontinent. This makes it an especially vital region for understanding Acheulean stone tool technologies in the Paleolithic records of the Indian subcontinent.

Hunter Gatherer Transitions to Early Societies

Various recent archeological discoveries have expanded our knowledge about the societal transition from hunter-gatherer, to agrarian, to modern. Some of the most significant discoveries are below:

Transitions:

The following archaeological sites provide some key insights into important transitions made by early human societies:

Dolni Vestonice — Czech Republic

Dolni Vestonice is an Upper Paleolithic archaeological site in the Czech Republic and a particularly abundant source of prehistoric artifacts dating back 29,000 years. It is unique for its insight into Ice Age cultural practices in central Europe, with huts of mammoth bones, technologies like kilns, task specialization, burial practices, and art-making. Highlights include some of the earliest examples of symbolic representation, especially ceramic figures of humans and nonhuman animals, such as the famous “Black Venus” and an enigmatic grave known as the “Triple Burial.”

Mal’ta Buret — Siberia

Mal’ta, about 62 miles northwest of Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in Siberia represents the vast, vital Mal’ta-Buret culture dating back around 24,000 years. The site comprises a series of subterranean houses made of mammoth bones and reindeer antlers, from which have been excavated expertly carved bone, ivory, and antler objects. These include famous female figurines, as well as sculptures depicting swans, geese, and ducks, and engravings of mammoths and snakes. The findings shed light on the cultural practices of ancient northern Eurasians who contributed to the peopling of the Americas and whose technologies spread from Europe to Africa.

Scaling Up:

A variety of historical sites full of archaeological evidence show the enormous scale and scope of ancient human societies, some of which are below:

Caral-Supe / Norte Chico — Andes

Caral-Supe is a sacred ancient city dating back some 5,000 years and is thought to represent the oldest city in the Americas, at the origin of Andean culture. The 150-acre complex of pyramids, plazas, and residential buildings shows clear evidence of ceremonial functions, revealing the existence of a well-established and powerful religious ideology and a consolidated hierarchical state system. Bone instruments, quipus (the knot system used in Andean civilizations to record information), and extensive trade goods have been unearthed from the complex.

Teleilat Ghassul / Ba’Ja — Jordan

At Teleilat Ghassul, just north of Jordan’s Dead Sea, a cluster of hills contains the remains of several villages dating back at least 6,000 years. They offer an unparalleled glimpse into the increasing social and economic complexity between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. This encompasses the earliest production of olive oil, products such as fiber and dairy, and cult and religious practices.

South of the Dead Sea, shielded in the area’s rugged sandstone formations, lies Ba’Ja, a neolithic settlement of 9,000 years ago. The site features an ossuary with the bones of three adults and nine small children, with walls painted in a fresco technique showing abstract motifs and geometric figures, as well as the richly furnished tomb of a young girl whose magnificent necklace made of limestone and shell beads is on display at the nearby Petra Museum. The museum also includes a significant collection of Neolithic artifacts.

Şanlıurfa Province / Boncuklu Tarla / Çatalhöyük — Turkey

Şanlıurfa Province, in southeastern Turkey, contains multiple significant archeological sites. Three of these—Göbekli Tepe, Nevalı Çori, and Gürcütepe—have revolutionized our understanding of the Eurasian transitions from the Ice Age into domestication, agriculture, and a host of new technologies that lead to modernity.

Boncuklu Tarla contains remains from a settlement first occupied about 12,000 years ago. Houses and other dwellings have been unearthed alongside temples and other sacred buildings, accompanied by complex art forms and advanced artifacts. Together, these paint a picture of the settlement of northern Mesopotamia and the upper Tigris region. They reveal information about the cultures and religions of the people that lived there and the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle.

Çatalhöyük is the site of two ancient mounds, beneath which lie the remains of a complex, 9,000-year-old society with a population between 3,500-8,000 inhabitants. Layer-by-layer, excavation of the site has revealed evidence of continual transformation and radical changes in behavior, lifestyle, art, and ritual. The site is exceptional for its substantial size and longevity, distinctive housing layout, wall paintings, and reliefs. UNESCO refers to it as: “the most significant human settlement documenting early settled agricultural life of a Neolithic community.”

Communities and Institutions:

Evidence has shown how early human societies contained advanced institutions, communities, and culture, some of which are highlighted below:

Monte Alban — Mexico

The Monte Alban civic ceremonial center of an ancient metropolis in Oaxaca, Mexico, was inhabited for 1,500 years by the Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs. These people built terraces, dams, canals, pyramids, and artificial mounds carved into the surrounding mountains. They even constructed a ball game court, temples, tombs, and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. This site offers unique insights into pre-Columbian society in Mesoamerica.

Ugarit — Lebanon

A vital seaport city on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria and a key economic hub in the ancient Near East, Ugarit served as a trade center between Egypt and the major powers of Bronze Age Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. Key finds include the world’s earliest recorded treaty. Stratified mounds reveal the city’s development from its origins around 8,000 years ago, its peak around 3,470 years ago, and its destruction around 3,200 years ago. The excavation of its Golden Age libraries revealed a hitherto unknown cuneiform alphabetic script and an entirely new mythological and religious literature (some of which shed new light on the Hebrew Bible). The library also revealed archives dealing with the city’s political, social, economic, and cultural life.

Primatology

Expanding our understanding of our other primate relatives offers many clues and insights about humanity, and breakthrough research is happening in the following centers:

Gombe Stream Research Center — Tanzania

Founded in 1965 by Jane Goodall, the Gombe Stream Research Center is home to the longest-running field research on chimpanzees and remains a world-class research laboratory that uses the best available methods to advance innovative science, to support conservation, and to train Tanzanian scientists.

Camp Leakey, Tanjung Puting Reserve — Borneo

Camp Leakey is a center in the Tanjung Puting Reserve in Borneo where researchers study orangutan, proboscis monkey, gibbon, and leaf-eating monkey behavior and ecology. It also houses research into orangutan sign language abilities and cognition.

Behavioral Biology and Neuroscience

It is often difficult to access scientific research centers or real-world site experiments in behavioral biology and neuroscience, so the most approachable research in these fields is available through scientific journals and authors such as Robert Sapolsky and Frans de Waal.

A great place to start is by listening to Robert Sapolsky’s famous Behavioral Biology lecture series at Stanford University. It takes time to learn how to read academic journal papers on biology or to work through the many exceptional books on human behavior. Brenna Hassett’s book on the evolution of childhood, Growing Up Human, is another excellent starting point.

Museums

There are hundreds of museums with exhibits relevant to the Grand Tour, some of which include:

Iziko South African Museum  — Cape Town, South Africa

The Iziko South Africa Museum in Cape Town helps humanity reimagine the story of human evolution, centered on the diversity of humans today and how we came to be as we are. The museum pairs storytelling with fossils and artifacts from across the continent to paint a picture of how biology, technology, and culture influenced humanity’s emergence.

Museum of Human Evolution — Burgos, Spain

The Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, aims to offer a holistic vision of human presence on the Earth. It has one of the largest collections of early hominin fossils from many species, found at the nearby Atapuerca archaeological sites and elsewhere. It also showcases the scientific disciplines involved in fossil recovery and the scientific interpretations drawn from them.

Natural History Museum, Paleoanthropology Collection — London, United Kingdom

The palaeoanthropology collection at London’s Natural History Museum holds the United Kingdom’s largest assemblage of fossilized hominid remains and a diverse collection of hominin tools, with over 3,000 specimens. The collection includes 17 of the 24 generally recognized hominin species in the form of original fossils and scientific replicas.

Museum of Us — San Diego, California

Exhibits at the Museum of Us in San Diego, California, offer multicultural perspectives to spark dialogue, self-reflection, and human connections centered on the shared human experience.

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Jan Ritch-Frel is the executive director of the Independent Media Institute and a co-founder of the Human Bridges project.

Photo Credit: Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

New Fellow for Human Bridges: Deborah Barsky

We are pleased to announce that Deborah Barsky, author and researcher of ancient stone tool technologies, joins the Independent Media Institute as a Human Bridges writing fellow.

The Human Bridges project brings discussions of human origins studies to a wider audience, illustrating how the latest findings in the field can inform our current social and political understanding. With her expertise on human prehistory, as well as her teaching background, Barsky is the perfect addition in achieving the project’s overall mission.

Deborah Barsky has published numerous works in books and scholarly journals. One of her latest bodies of work is Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Barsky is also a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and an associate professor at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC).

How Right-Wing Brainchild ‘Universal School Vouchers’ Are Blowing Through State Budgets

Photo Credit: Overpass Light Brigade / Flickr

Click here to read the article on the LA Progressive.

Newly enacted universal school vouchers are greatly exceeding state budgets, and it’s not clear where the money to pay for cost overruns will come from.

By Jeff Bryant

In 2023, Republican state governors went to unprecedented lengths to enact universal school voucher programs in legislative sessions across the country and made support for these programs into rigid party ideology. Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, for instance, went so far as to recall the state’s legislature for a fourth special session, a historically unprecedented action in the Texas Legislature’s 176-year history, according to a November 7 article in the Texas Tribune. According to the report, “[t]he biggest point of contention” is a universal school voucher bill that House Republicans have repeatedly rejected. Previously, Abbott warned any Republican holdouts that they would be challenged from within the party in the 2024 primary elections if they didn’t get in line and extend their support for vouchers.

Abbott calls his voucher plan “education freedom,” echoing a term favored by former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who used her office to push for a federally funded nationwide school voucher program.

School vouchers can take on many forms, including tax credit programs—which give tax credits to anyone who donates to nonprofits that provide school vouchers—and so-called education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into an account that they can tap for education expenses. Abbott is attempting to push through an ESA in Texas.

When voucher programs were initially enacted in early adopting states, such as Florida and Arizona, eligibility was limited to low-income families or to children with special needs or circumstances. But the trend over the last few years has been to make these programs open to all or nearly all families. What Abbott is proposing, in fact, would allow all families to apply for vouchers.

Nine states have enacted universal school vouchers as of November 2023, including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia, according to State Policy Network, a school choice advocacy group. Indiana’s voucher program is “near universal,” as 97 percent of families are eligible under the scheme.

Republicans who oppose universal school vouchers, in Texas and elsewhere, have expressed concerns about diverting tax dollars from public schools, especially in rural communities, to private education providers that have little or no accountability for how they spend the money. They’ve also questioned the constitutionality of giving parents public funds to spend on private religious schools.

But Republican state lawmakers who claim to be strict watchdogs on government purse strings should also be concerned about another consequence of enacting these programs—their potential to quickly run through estimated costs and produce sizable deficits.

According to multiple reports detailed below, states that have been among the earliest to adopt universal voucher programs are finding that their costs are far exceeding estimates primarily due to the high numbers of families taking advantage of the programs. These families mostly never had their children enrolled in public schools.

In state after state, the number of families using vouchers to “escape” so-called failed public schools—an original argument for vouchers—is dwarfed by a larger population of families who already had their children enrolled in private schools and are using voucher money to subsidize their private school tuition costs.

Another large percentage of voucher users are parents who homeschool their children and use voucher funds to cover expenses they would previously have been shouldering themselves. Vouchers also appear to be incentivizing parents with rising kindergartners to choose private schools instead of their local public schools.

Other reports have raised concerns about the financial wisdom of giving parents free sway over how they use voucher money, citing evidence that parents have used the funding to make extravagant purchases or buy products and services that have dubious educational value.

In the meantime, policy leaders and experts alike warn that universal voucher programs are sending states, which are constitutionally obligated to balance their budgets, into uncharted financial waters.

‘It Depends on the State and Is Hard to Know’

Where will funding to cover cost overruns of voucher programs come from?

“It depends on the funding mechanism in the voucher law,” according to Jessica Levin, an attorney and director of Public Funds Public Schools, an organization that opposes efforts to redirect public funds for education to private entities.

“For programs that divert funds earmarked for public schools… the voucher funding would dip further into public school funds and/or appropriations,” Levin explained in an email to Our Schools. “For vouchers that are funded with general revenue funds, more money would come out of the state general fund.”

Funding for Abbott’s proposed voucher plan, for example, draws from the state’s general revenue rather than the main source of funding for K-12 education.

Levin added that there could be other mechanisms to prevent cost overruns, including spending caps written into the voucher law and separate appropriations laws that could limit the total funding.

But in terms of what a state might cut to balance out the impact of voucher costs, Levin said, “It depends on the state and is hard to know.”

So far, Republican lawmakers have either denied the existence of these cost overruns, or they’ve been unclear about where money to cover the deficits will come from.

“I haven’t seen coverage of that question,” said Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, who replied to a query from Our Schools.

Cowen has been an outspoken critic of voucher programs primarily because of their tendency to have a negative impact on student achievement.

Cowen has also expressed concerns about the potential financial impacts of these programs, noting in an April 2023 interview, that “[T]he real issue is that you’re getting the state standing up new budgetary obligations to prop up private school tuition where otherwise [those costs] have been borne by the private sector.”

And he has warned of the dangers of vouchers to incentivize a market for “sub-prime” private schools that would quickly open to get the money but then prove to be unsustainable and just as quickly close.

On the issue of voucher program cost overruns, Cowen told Our Schools, “I assume states have different rules about what amounts to deficit spending. But I’m not sure. Arizona is obviously the massive one.”

‘Arizona… the Massive One’

In Arizona, the first state to pass a universal school voucher program, according to the New York Times, Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs has raised an alarm about the enormous cost overruns coming from ESAs, according to KTAR News.

In a memo issued from her office, Hobbs declared that the voucher program “may cost taxpayers up to $943,795,600 annually, resulting in a potential $319,795,600 general fund shortfall in FY 2024.”

It would appear that these cost overruns would have to eventually be covered by the state’s general fund. According to Common Sense Institute Arizona, an organization that advocates for school vouchers, “The ESA program is fully funded by the state’s general fund.”

For that reason, Hobbs maintained that the impact of these costs will go beyond funding for public schools, KTAR reported. “Public safety, all the big budget priorities are going to be impacted if [the cost overrun] continues to grow at this pace,” she said.

In May 2023, Andrés Cano, who was then the Democratic state representative and House Minority Leader, seemed to agree with Hobbs and told ABC15 Arizona, “We’ll either have to tap into the rainy day fund, or we’ll have to cut core state priorities.”

Despite these unplanned costs, “Republicans who have the majority in the state legislature refused any attempt to cap or cut ESAs,” ABC15 Arizona reported. Arizona’s universal voucher program was created by the state’s former Governor Doug Ducey who called it the “gold standard of educational freedom,” according to the Washington Examiner.

Republicans also offer differing opinions on whether the voucher program is leading to overruns, and if they are, where the funding to offset costs will come from.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, insisted that money to plug the budget breach for the voucher program “comes out of basics of state aid for the schools.”

He added, “The burden on the budget will be much less because we’re talking about students who would be educated in one place or another, and if they choose ESAs, it costs the state 10 percent less.”

Horne’s math seems suspect based on the memo issued by Hobbs, which blamed the cost overruns largely on the high percentage of parents who receive voucher money despite never having had their children enrolled in public schools.

“More than 50 percent of ESA voucher funding represents a newly incurred cost to the [s]tate,” the memo read, “due to new applicants that were previously enrolled in private school, homeschooling, or were attending non-state aid schools prior to transferring.”

Horne’s claims of savings are even more suspect given that the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, according to multiple reports from 2023, has calculated that the cost of a basic voucher for a student in elementary and middle schools is approximately $424 more per pupil than what the state pays to public school districts and around $540 more than what the state provides for high schoolers.

Arizona’s universal voucher program also seems to be incentivizing the private school market in Arizona to expand, as Cowen predicted.

ABC15 reported that an unknown number of new private education startups have recently opened to take advantage of the funding. The rapid expansion of unaccountable education providers prompted Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes to warn parents that many of the new vendors “may be fraudulent,” according to the news outlet.

Another concern among Arizona Democratic lawmakers and public school advocates has to do with what parents are spending their voucher money on.

ABC15 examined state records of what parents have bought with voucher money in October 2023 and found “millions of dollars in expenses that could be considered extracurricular.”

Examples include “approximately $57,000 in purchases to Universal Yums,” a subscription service that peddles snacks with a trivia hook from a different country monthly, and $400,000 on “aeroponic indoor gardens” which families use to grow their own food—at a cost of $900 each.

Parents used voucher funds to pay for passes to a ski resort, ninja warrior training, trampoline parks, climbing gyms, and martial arts instruction.

According to an investigation of the 2022-2023 ESA transactions by ABC15, families also made a $3,400 “transaction at a golf store,” incurred a “$10,000 expense at a sewing machine company,” and purchased appliances for freeze-drying food that cost around “$3,000 each.” Parents spent voucher funds on costly items such as pianos as well.

When public schools occasionally buy these kinds of items, the products are used to educate hundreds of students for a whole school year or more and are not meant for single-family use or for small groups of students.

When ABC15 asked whether these purchases qualified for taxpayer reimbursement, ESA Executive Director John Ward replied, “[I]f that’s how… [parents are] going to choose to use… [the money], that’s their prerogative.”

Universal voucher programs are quickly running up costs and exceeding budget estimates in other states that have adopted them as well.

A DeSantis ‘Priority’

Florida was an early pioneer of school voucher programs and now spends more on school vouchers than any other state, according to Public Funds Public Schools. The state offers five different programs that, historically, have targeted specific populations of school children, such as students with disabilities or those from low-income or middle-class families.

That changed in March 2023, when Governor Ron DeSantis opened Florida’s ESA-style voucher program, created in 2019, to every family in the state.

The new law, which also eliminated the program’s enrollment cap and exemptions, was a “priority” for DeSantis, according to the Washington Post. And on the day he signed the universal voucher bill into law, he declared it would ensure Florida remained “number one when it comes to education freedom.”

The cost of the new program, however, is far from clear. Florida’s Senate Appropriations Committee initially proposed that the universal voucher program would need a budget of $2.2 billion with an additional $350 million in reserve “in case more students then [sic] we expect enroll in the program.”

But an analysis by the independent nonprofit Florida Policy Institute (FPI) and the legal advocacy organization Education Law Center (ELC) puts costs of universal school vouchers far higher, requiring an additional $890 million to pay for new public school students enrolling in the program who were previously not eligible, an additional $1.9 billion for private school students enrolling in the program for the first time, and $85 million for homeschooled students who are newly eligible for vouchers.

Those additional costs, added to the $1.1 billion current costs of the ESA program, would result in the state spending nearly $4 billion to introduce a universal voucher program in the first year alone, according to the FPI-ELC analysis.

Should the FPI-ELC estimate for voucher costs be closer to the truth, the substantial cost overrun would have to be covered with dollars from the public school budget, according to a different analysis by FPI.

“While voucher programs are often funded as line-item appropriations in the state budget or through state tax credits,” FPI’s analysis found, “the… [universal] voucher is funded from [Florida Education Finance Program] state allocations that would otherwise be directed to the student’s resident public school district.”

FPI added, “The movement of public funding to private education occurs in the context of Florida’s substantial underfunding of the state’s public schools, as highlighted in Making the Grade 2021.” In that analysis, provided by ELC, “Florida receives an F on an A-F scale on all three funding metrics: funding level, funding distribution, and funding effort.”

As with Arizona’s universal voucher program, much of the estimated overrun in Florida can be sourced to new voucher users who were never enrolled in public schools. There are also similar concerns over what Florida parents are using voucher money to buy.

As the 2023-2024 school year got underway, NBC6 reported that the nonprofit agency tasked with administering Florida’s universal voucher program, Step Up for Students, issued a report finding that the program had attracted nearly 123,000 new students. Most new voucher users, 69 percent, previously attended private schools, and 18 percent were entering kindergarten. Only 13 percent of voucher recipients had used them to transfer from public schools. (There was no figure given for the percentage of homeschoolers using vouchers.)

The Step Up for Students report also found voucher money was used to purchase items that have questionable educational value such as “theme park passes, 55-inch TVs, and stand-up paddleboards,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

‘A Grand Experiment’

Like Florida, Ohio is an early adopter of school voucher programs, having launched vouchers in Cleveland in 1996. In 2023, under the leadership of Republican Governor Mike DeWine, the state enacted an ESA-style statewide universal voucher program.

DeWine initially may have had some reservations about the potential cost of universal vouchers—warning it “would be very, very, very significant,” according to a February 2023 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But a spokesman quickly walked back the comment, saying, “the governor neither endorses nor opposes” universal vouchers, and his “attempts to expand vouchers [were] a possible precursor to seeking universal vouchers.”

Republicans in Ohio’s state legislature claimed that making the state’s voucher program universal “allows educational freedom.”

Supporters of universal vouchers in Ohio coined the name backpack scholarships to help promote the program. But regardless of the different branding, Ohio’s universal voucher program may come with the same financial problems other states adopting these programs are experiencing.

When the backpack program was still under consideration, the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC) that monitors government spending warned that the program would need $1.13 billion in the fiscal year 2025 if all 185,400 newly eligible students applied for vouchers.

That report by LSC readily contends not all eligible students will take advantage of the program. For that reason, Aaron Churchill, of the Fordham Institute, an Ohio nonprofit that advocates for vouchers, called the $1.13 billion estimate a “ceiling,” according to the Dayton Daily News, and not a true cost assessment.

But after the backpack program was enacted in July 2023, the Associated Press reported that an analysis by the Columbus Dispatch found that by September the state had received applications totaling approximately $432 million for the 2023-2024 school year—$34 million more than what the Legislative Service Commission estimated.

“When Ohio’s two-year budget was drafted, the commission estimated income-based vouchers would cost $397.8 million for fiscal year 2024 and $439.1 million for fiscal year 2025,” stated the AP report.

In Ohio, the state’s contribution to education funding, including its voucher programs, comes from the state’s general revenue fund, which means overruns from the backpack program may need to come from the same source that funds public schools and other state expenses.

A similar story is playing out in Indiana, another state with a long history of vouchers that began to accept nearly all family applicants in 2023. A family income threshold that limited eligibility for the previous voucher program was lifted to allow all but a small percentage of the wealthiest households to qualify, according to Chalkbeat.

Making its voucher program nearly universal may cost Indiana as much as $1.1 billion over the next two years, according to The 74. But “no one knows” what the final tab may be, Chalkbeat reported.

“One reason for the uncertainty: Universal vouchers are, in effect, a grand experiment states are conducting in real time,” said Chalkbeat. “Budget analysts have scrambled to predict the programs’ eventual price tags, but they can only guess at how many freshly eligible families will participate.”

‘Open Season on Private Entities Spending Your Tax Dollars’

Iowa is yet another Midwestern state that enacted an ESA-style universal voucher program in 2023.

Republican Governor Kim Reynolds—who declared vouchers a “top priority,” according to the Des Moines Register—signed the state’s universal voucher program into law in January 2023, calling it “just the first step in giving educational freedom to Iowa’s students and parents.”

In June, the Des Moines Register reported, “More students have applied for Iowa’s state-funded education savings accounts than expected, meaning the cost of paying for the private school scholarships could exceed what the state budgeted.”

In July, Iowa Starting Line reported costs surpassing the original state estimate of $107 million and rising to $133.5 million based on 17,481 approved applications. In October, the Iowa Department of Education reported that 18,893 ESA applications had been approved, which, at $7,600 per voucher, brought costs to more than $143 million for the 2023-2024 school year.

As costs for universal vouchers soar, it’s also not clear where Iowa lawmakers will come up with funds to cover the program’s overruns.

According to Sioux Land Proud, when Iowa lawmakers passed the state’s budget, money for universal vouchers was already “spoken for” in the state general fund. But that doesn’t answer the question of where money to cover the cost overruns will come from.

Meanwhile, there are reports of private schools in Iowa jacking up tuition costs to take advantage of newly available voucher funds. Such revelations prompted Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand to warn that there will be “[o]pen season on private entities spending your tax dollars with no oversight.”

Education Freedom Has a Cost

In May 2023, North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper declared a “state of emergency for public education” in a special address. “Legislative Republicans propose pouring billions of dollars in taxpayer money into private schools that are unaccountable to the public and can decide which students they want to admit,” Cooper warned.

Four months after Cooper’s declaration, Republican state lawmakers in the Tar Heel State passed a budget that included a universal voucher program, which Cooper allowed to become law, realizing his veto would quickly be overturned.

Cooper’s warning, absent from any kind of national campaign by Democrats against school vouchers, was a lone voice lost in the chorus of calls for “education freedom” coming from Republicans. And Democratic party leaders remain all over the place on education policy.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been openly opposed to vouchers, calling them a form of “privatization,” according to Politico. But other prominent Democrats, such as Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, have spoken in favor of vouchers—although Shapiro reversed his position on vouchers when confronted with a budget that included them.

When voucher programs result in cost overruns in multiple states, Republican lawmakers will likely conceive of some sort of unified strategy to shift the focus from the issue. But the financial fallout of universal voucher programs will give Democrats an opportunity to call out their political opponents for being reckless with public money intended for children.

Click here to read the article on the LA Progressive.

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

The Case for Protecting the Tongass National Forest, America’s ‘Last Climate Sanctuary’

Photo Credit: jcsullivan24 / Flickr

Click here to read the article on the Socialist Project.

The “lungs of North America,” the Tongass National Forest is the Earth’s largest intact temperate rainforest. Protecting it means protecting the entire planet.

By Reynard Loki

Spanning 16.7 million acres that stretch across most of southeast Alaska, the Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States by far and part of the world’s largest temperate rainforest. Humans barely inhabit it: About the size of West Virginia, the Tongass has around 70,000 residents spread across 32 communities.

A vast coastal terrain replete with ancient trees and waterways, the Tongass is a haven of biodiversity, providing critical habitat for around 400 species, including black bearsbrown bears, wolves, bald eagles, Sitka black-tailed deertrout, and five species of Pacific salmon.

The Tongass is a pristine region that supports a vast array of stunning ecosystems, including old-growth forests, imposing mountains, granite cliffs, deep fjords, remnants of ancient glaciers that carved much of the North American landscape, and more than 1,000 named islands facing the open Pacific Ocean—a unique feature in America’s national forest system.

The Tongass “is the crown jewel of America’s natural forests,” declared then-Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) during Senate deliberations of Interior Department budget appropriations in 2003. “When I was up there, I saw glaciers, mountains, growths of hemlock and cedar that grow to be over 200 feet tall. The trees can live as long as a thousand years.”

The National Forest Foundation calls the Tongass National Forest “an incredible testament to conservation and nature.” But since the 1950s, the logging industry has prized the forest, and the region has been threatened by companies that seek to extract its resources—and the politicians who support these destructive activities.

America’s Largest Carbon Sink

Carbon sinks absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, making them essential to maintaining natural ecosystems and an invaluable nature-based solution to the climate crisis. Between 2001 and 2019, the Earth’s forests safely stored about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted, according to research published in 2021 in the journal Nature Climate Change and available on Global Forest Watch.

The planet’s forests absorb 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits annually—around 7.6 billion metric tons. Consequently, maintaining the health of the world’s forests is central to humanity’s fight against climate change. But rampant deforestation and land degradation are not only removing this invaluable climate-regulating ecosystem service and supporter of biodiversity but also disturbing a healthy, natural planetary system that has existed for millennia.

“There is a natural carbon cycle on our planet,” said Vlad Macovei, a postdoctoral researcher at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon in Germany. “Every year, some atmospheric carbon gets taken up by land biosphere, some by the ocean, and then cycled back out. These processes had been in balance for the last 10,000 years.”

Carbon sinks like the Tongass are vital environmental protectors by sequestering carbon dioxide and preventing this greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere, where it can fuel global warming. And because “it contains the [Earth’s] largest intact stands of coastal temperate rainforest,” the Tongass acts as one of the world’s most effective carbon sinks. In this way, the Tongass provides a key “ecosystem service”—a benefit humans receive from nature that helps sustain life—not just for the U.S. but also for the entire planet.

“Basically, when you go through an old-growth forest, you’re walking through a stick of carbon that has been built up into the forest for many, many decades, [even] centuries,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a project of Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Berkeley, California. DellaSala was part of a research team that found that the Tongass holds approximately 44 percent of all carbon stored by U.S. national forests. The team’s research was published in 2021 by the Woodwell Climate Research Center, based in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

“[T]he largest trees in those forests store about 50 percent of the above-ground carbon, so they are enormously important from a carbon standpoint,” said DellaSala.

These undisturbed forest lands are increasingly scarce and, therefore, increasingly valuable ecosystems. “While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass… [acts as] the lungs of North America,” DellaSala told PBS in 2020. He calls the Tongass “America’s last climate sanctuary.”

“The Tongass National Forest provides us with the greatest opportunity in the nation, if not the world, for protecting temperate rainforest at the ecosystem scale, in the face of climate change,” according to Audubon Alaska, a nonprofit conservation organization. “It sequesters more carbon than any other type of forest on Earth, providing a much-needed opportunity for climate solutions that can simultaneously bolster regional economies.”

Unfortunately, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out, “ecosystem services are important to environmental and human health and well-being… [but they are] often taken for granted.”

Impact of Logging

Jerry Melillo, a scientist at the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory at the University of Chicago, noted, “[o]ver the past 8,000 years, humans have cleared up to half of the forests on our planet, mostly to make room for agriculture.” This has hampered the Earth’s natural ability to regulate the climate, allowing more greenhouse gases to escape into the atmosphere, thus exacerbating global warming.

“Cutting down or burning forests releases the carbon stored in their trees and soil and prevents them from absorbing more CO2 in the future,” he wrote. “Since 1850, about 30 percent of all CO2 emissions have come from deforestation. Deforestation can also have more local climate impacts. Because trees release moisture that cools the air around them, scientists have found that deforestation has led to more intense heat waves in North America and Eurasia.”

In the 1950s, the Forest Service contracted with two U.S. timber companies to build pulp mills near Ketchikan and Sitka. As part of the agreements, the agency promised to sell the firms a total of 13.5 billion board feet of Tongass timber over a 55-year period. These contracts massively accelerated logging in the region.

Since these contracts were signed, “more than 1 million acres of the Tongass have been clearcut,” according to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Adding economic insult to ecological injury, the federal government consistently loses money from logging contracts in the Tongass. According to a 2020 report by Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent, nonpartisan advocacy group, the Forest Service has lost more than $1.7 billion on Tongass timber sales since 1980. “It actually costs taxpayers millions to ‘sell’ timber that we collectively own, which makes no sense,” said Autumn Hanna, the group’s vice president.

“Scientists have long understood that logging old-growth forests triggers a cascade of negative effects on wildlife, eroding the biodiversity of places like the Tongass,” wrote Rebecca Bowe of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental organization headquartered in San Francisco, in 2021. “Clear-cutting old-growth… transforms ancient forests into carbon emitters.”

Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, International (WECAN International) is a climate activist group that works with Earthjustice to end the destruction of old-growth logging in the Tongass. “The Tongass has been called ‘America’s Climate Forest’ due to its unsurpassed ability to mitigate climate impacts,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, WECAN’s executive director, in 2021. “For decades, however, industrial-scale logging has been destroying this precious ecosystem and disrupting the traditional lifeways, medicine, and food systems of the region’s Indigenous communities.”

World’s Largest Wild Salmon Population

The Tongass ecosystem supports some of the world’s largest remaining wild salmon populations. The lakes, rivers, and streams of the Tongass produce some 50 million salmon every year—more wild salmon than all of the other U.S. national forests combined.

“One of the things that the Forest Service is interested in doing is estimating the value of the different activities and services that national forests provide,” said J. Ryan Bellmore, a biologist who co-authored a 2019 study, the first of its kind, that estimated the value of the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests to the commercial salmon industry in Alaska. “And the Tongass and the Chugach provide a lot of salmon.”

According to the study, the wild salmon born within the boundaries of the Tongass and the Chugach make up around 25 percent of Alaska’s commercial Pacific salmon catch and 16 percent of the total commercial value of salmon caught in the state every year. Commercial fishermen caught an average of 48 million “forest salmon” in Alaska yearly during the 10-year-long study period. That amount of salmon translated to an annual average commercial value of $88 million.

What these Alaskan fisheries provide goes beyond their quantifiable and significant economic benefit and food source for the people of Alaska and beyond. The salmon have also been part of the traditional way of life for the Indigenous Tribes of the region for millennia. “For over 9,000 years, the [I]ndigenous people of the region have survived because of the salmon,” wrote Brian Footen, a fish biologist who has worked with Tribal, federal, and state fishery departments in Washington state for over two decades. And the fish are also critical for the survival of wildlife, supporting healthy populations of bald eagles, wolves, and brown bears, which in turn, support the entire web of life across the region.

Importance to Indigenous Tribes

The Tongass contains the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, and its well-being is essential to these groups’ traditional way of life, health, and cultural identity. Even the name of the forest itself is wrapped up in Indigenous identity: Translated, “Tongass” means ​​“Sea Lion Tribe,” one of the main divisions of the Tlingit people living at Portland Canal, located at the border between southeastern Alaska and British Columbia.

Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake Tribal Council, noted that these Indigenous groups are “tied to our lands that our ancestors walked on thousands of years ago. … The land still provides food security—deer, moose, salmon, berries, our medicines. The old-growth timber is important in keeping all these things coming back year after year,” Jackson said, adding, “especially our salmon, because the trees keep our streams cool.” Maintaining these plentiful resources season after season requires a healthy Tongass.

“I identify my ancestry through descent-based kin groups indigenous to the Tongass Forest and recognize that we are all tied to each other—not independents,” said Wanda “Kashudoha” Loescher Culp, a Tlingit activist, in a statement to federal lawmakers in 2019 urging increased protections for the Tongass.

“Our food gathering and all other resource harvesting methods seriously involve the thanking of the recognized life we are taking for our benefit. We successfully use every ‘resource’ the Tongass offers wisely, efficiently, without waste, and in gratitude,” said Culp, who is also the coordinator for WECAN Tongass.

In addition to being a year-round natural “supermarket,” the Tongass is a powerful spiritual place for the Tribes who have called it home for generations.

Importance to Jobs and Economy

Because of its natural beauty and opportunity for outdoor recreational activities like camping, boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, and birdwatching, the Tongass is home to a vigorous and ever-expanding tourism industry.

The Tongass welcomes more than 2.8 million visitors each year, which generates “more than $380 million in spending and over 5,000 jobs,” according to the USFS. In particular, the cruise industry provides vital economic inputs to the local economies across southeast Alaska. “The vast majority of visitors to Southeast Alaska are cruise ship passengers,” according to the USFS.

“Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Tongass each summer in the hopes of experiencing its magnificence: 200-foot-tall spruce and 500-year-old cedar trees soaring overhead,” states Alaska Conservation Foundation, the only public foundation dedicated solely to conservation in Alaska. “Amid the lush ferns and mossy remnants of fallen trees, one might see a brown bear ambling its way to a salmon stream, in search of its next meal. There is simply no place else like it.”

Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA), which was crafted as an amendment to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, a federal law signed by President Jimmy Carter that established protection for more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska from development by designating “conservation system units,” including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness areas.

The main goal of the TTRA—which enjoyed massive congressional support, passing in the Senate 99 to 0—was to increase the protection of the Tongass National Forest from the ecological harms of industrial logging by designating approximately 856,000 acres as roadless areas so that large swaths of old-growth forest would “retain their wildland character.” Specifically, the act was intended “to protect certain lands in the Tongass National Forest in perpetuity, to modify certain long-term timber contracts, [and] to provide for [the] protection of riparian habitat.”

Following the law’s enactment, Alaska Pulp Corporation and Ketchikan Pulp Company, two industrial pulp mills located in southeast Alaska, ended their operations in 1993 and 1997, respectively. Alaska’s congressional delegation blamed the closures on environmentalists, the TTRA, and the Clinton administration “for destroying an industry that had been the region’s largest private employer,” wrote Rich Moniak, in a column for Juneau Empire in which he called that narrative a “fiction.”

The “TTRA was not a substantial factor—indeed, no factor at all—in the closure of the pulp mill and the resulting termination of the contract,” concluded Lawrence M. Baskir, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge who presided over the lawsuit that Alaska Pulp Corporation filed in 1994, a year after it closed its mill, in part due to declining demand for softwood pulp.

Bart Koehler, the executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council from 1984 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999, who was part of the grassroots effort to pass the Tongass Timber Reform Act, called the law “the most significant piece of conservation law signed by President George H.W. Bush.”

The Roadless Rule of 2001

In 1999, President Bill Clinton instructed the USFS to develop regulations to protect the nation’s roadless areas. The administration aimed to protect the nation’s biodiversity, air and water quality, opportunities for public recreational activities, and local economies. “In the final regulations, the nature and degree of protection afforded should reflect the best available science and a careful consideration of the full range of ecological, economic, and social values inherent in these lands,” Clinton stated at the time.

Issued in 2001, the Forest Service’s “Roadless Rule” is a federal regulation prohibiting most timber cutting and road building in specific forest lands known as “Inventoried Roadless Areas.” The Roadless Rule protects 58.5 million acres or 31 percent of lands within the federal National Forest System (NFS), which together amounts to about 2 percent of the total land base of the United States.

“Inventoried roadless areas provide benefits to over 220 wildlife species listed as either threatened, endangered, or proposed by the Endangered Species Act—approximately 25 percent of all animal species and 13 percent of all plant species,” according to the USFS. “The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System,” the agency states.

Trump Administration Rollback of Roadless Rule

The 2001 Roadless Rule designates and manages as inventoried roadless areas more than half of the Tongass National Forest—around 9.2 million acres. On October 29, 2020, in the final days of his presidency, Trump repealed the Roadless Rule from the Tongass, opening up a section of the forest to road-building and industrial activity. Trump’s USDA issued a notice saying that the final plan would open up 186,000 acres for timber production.

GOP leaders welcomed the decision.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was at the time the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, noted that Trump’s repeal of the Roadless Rule would help the state develop not only public infrastructure to help connect the isolated communities in the area but also cheaper sources of energy.

Industry groups also supported the decision. “There’s a handful of small operators that are working on the Tongass, harvesting timber,” Tessa Axelson of the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group, told Alaska Public Media. “In order to continue to survive, those businesses are dependent on a predictable supply of timber.”

Frank Bergstrom, a mining consultant in Juneau, said the rollback could attract investors to mineral exploration in the region. “There’s no roadmap to these things,” he said. “Maybe it’ll lead to a little more optimism. … This is one obstacle that has at least been diminished.”

Environmental groups decried the move. “Logging the Tongass is an unconscionable leap in the wrong direction,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation advocacy group.

“Americans already pay $30 million annually to subsidize commercial logging operations on the portion of the Tongass not covered by the roadless rule. This proposed decision would increase the costs to taxpayers by opening the most remote areas of the forest to clear-cutting,” said Ken Rait, project director for U.S. public lands and rivers conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts. “The Tongass is a global gem. Once these pristine forests are gone, they’re gone forever.”

The Trump administration rollback went against overwhelming public opposition: Only 1 percent of public comments submitted to the federal government during the U.S. Forest Service’s environmental review supported lifting the existing safeguards on the Tongass.

Statewide polling in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—all battleground states—conducted in 2020 also revealed strong opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to lift longtime environmental protections and open the Tongass to expanded logging operations.

Following the poll’s release, J.D. Hayworth, a Republican former member of Congress who represented Arizona from 1995 to 2007 and spent the majority of his six terms in office on the House Resources Committee, warned the Trump campaign months before Trump’s decision to lift the Roadless Rule in the Tongass was finalized that the move would hurt his chances at reelection.

“Now, with less than 75 days until election day, the Trump campaign needs to listen to the concerned voices of their base whose wavering support for Trump could be pushed further into the Biden camp if Trump moves forward with lifting protections in America’s largest and most important national forest,” Hayworth wrote in an opinion piece published by Bloomberg Law in August 2020.

After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, his revocation of the Roadless Rule would remain for about two more years. The Roadless Rule was important enough to the incoming Biden administration that on his first day in office, Biden committed to reviewing the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule of his predecessor as one “that may conflict with important national objectives including protecting the environment.” Still, reinstating the 2001 rule would still take around two years, as the Biden administration went through the lengthy federal review process, including months of allowing the public to comment. In addition, there was an ultimately failed lawsuit filed by the resource industries and the state of Alaska attempting to maintain Trump’s rollback that had to make its way through the court system.

Photo Credit: Flickr / jimmywayne

Biden Administration Reinstatement of the Roadless Rule

In July 2021, six months after he took office, President Biden froze old-growth timber sales in the Tongass as the administration began the lengthy process to reinstate the Roadless Rule. “The announcement that large-scale, old-growth logging is going to be ceased is very positive… because those mass clear cuts are not going to occur here anymore,” said Marina Anderson, Tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island.

Finally, in January 2023, the Biden administration was able to reinstate the Roadless Rule on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which brought back the 2001 protections that had been in place. The decision made constructing roads and harvesting timber inventoried roadless areas illegal, with limited exceptions.

“As our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of Tribal Nations and the people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy.”

In a press release issued on January 25, 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that the reinstatement of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass was “based on the multiple ecological, social, cultural, and economic values supported by roadless areas on the Tongass, and… [followed] months of engagement with Tribes, rural communities, and partners.” The agency noted that the majority of the approximately 112,000 comments that the Forest Service received from organizations and individuals during the public comment period (from November 2021 to January 2022) were in favor of the reinstatement of the Roadless Rule, adding that the USDA consulted with the Tribal Nations of Southeast Alaska before the decision was made.

This executive order protects not only a pristine, climate-protecting ecosystem and source of economic stability and growth for Alaska but also the traditional and customary hunting, fishing, and gathering areas for future generations of Southeast Alaska Tribes. It also protects an attraction for the millions of visitors whom it welcomes every year from across the nation and the globe. In addition to securing important wildlife and fish habitat, opportunities for recreation, and traditional and sacred sites, roadless areas in the Tongass will prevent the kind of intensive industrial development and resource extraction that have destroyed forests worldwide, many of which are damaged beyond repair.

As mentioned, preventing roads from being built in the Tongass has widespread popular support. According to the USFS, 96 percent of the 1.6 million letters and comments submitted during 600 public meetings supported the roadless initiative in the Tongass. Notably, most Alaskans were in support of maintaining roadless areas.

Republicans Denounce Reinstatement

Unsurprisingly, several leading Alaskan Republicans were quick to slam the Biden administration’s decision to reinstate the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.

“The Roadless Rule should never have applied to the Tongass, and the Biden administration’s decision to reinstate it is federal paternalism at its worst,” said Senator Murkowski. “Roughly 80 percent of the Tongass is already protected through existing law, land use designations, and the forest planning process, and there is no threat of large-scale development from timber harvesting or any other activity.”

This, of course, is not true. In fact, the reinstated rule does not stop public road-building or other necessary projects. Since 2009, the USFS received and approved 59 project proposals under the Roadless Rule that support power generation, access between communities, and other priorities.

Road-building of any sort is a direct threat to wildlife habitat. While much of the Tongass does have federal protection, what Murkowski fails to recognize is that existing manmade structures in the forest have already hampered the ability of wildlife to live in their natural state. Manmade road-stream crossings, including bridges and culverts, have fragmented natural aquatic habitats that impeded fish migrations. As of 2019, according to the USFS, 1,120 fish stream crossings—30 percent of the total surveyed within the Tongass—fail to meet current standards for fish passage. Adding noncritical roads would only increase this kind of wildlife habitat fragmentation and add undue stress to many species.

Indigenous Tribes Welcome Reinstatement of Roadless Rule

The return of Roadless Rule protections to the Tongass represents a commitment from the USFS not only to address the climate crisis but also to respect the natural integrity of the ancestral homeland of Southeast Alaska Tribes, who—like so many Indigenous groups across the globe—continue to be disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Following the Biden administration’s reinstatement of the Tongass Roadless Rule in 2023, a coalition of Southeast Alaska Tribal leaders—including the Organized Village of Kake, the Organized Village of Kasaan, the Ketchikan Indian Community, the Skagway Traditional Council, the Organized Village of Saxman, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Craig Tribal Association, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska—issued cautious praise for the move, making sure they were afforded agency in decisions that would impact the future of the region.

“As the Forest Service works to repair relationships with Southeast Tribes,” the leaders wrote in a press statement sent to the Independent Media Institute on January 25, 2023, “it is critical that the federal government ensure that the Southeast Tribal leaders be integral partners in creating a future for the Tongass that is guided by Indigenous values, a genuinely sustainable economy, and a healthy ecosystem—all of which will sustain the Tongass for future generations.”

In January 2023, following the reinstatement of the Roadless Rule, a group of Tribal leaders from the Tongass region issued a statement that said, in part, “We have engaged tirelessly throughout the Roadless Rule process—some of us for more than 20 years—to bring Tribal concerns to the forefront of the conversation through consultation and legal means.”

“Throughout time, many of our concerns fell on deaf ears,” said the Organized Village of Kake’s Joel Jackson in a statement emailed to the Independent Media Institute on March 21, 2023. “Now that the U.S. Forest Service is listening to Tribal concerns and reinstating the Tongass Roadless Rule, we are optimistic that we will be able to create long-term protections.”

“The return of 2001 Roadless Rule protections [to the Tongass also] signals a commitment from the… [U.S. Forest Service] to address the climate crisis and finally listen to the Southeast Tribes that will continue to be most impacted by climate change effects,” said Jackson.

These federal protections include possible co-management compact agreements “for areas inherent to our traditional and cultural uses through our Administrative Procedures Act Petition to Create a Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule,” the leaders’ statement said. Tribes also support the 2021 Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy (SASS). The strategy will end large-scale old-growth timber sales in the Tongass National Forest. It will instead focus on forest restoration, recreation, and resilience while identifying opportunities for investments through meaningful consultation with Tribes.

Going even further, Southeast Alaska Tribes will continue working toward permanent forest protection. The Roadless Area Conservation Act was introduced in the House in 2021 to put these protections in place.

The seesaw of the Roadless Rule between presidential administrations shows that executive orders can be issued and rescinded. The only way to prevent this back-and-forth policy would be for lawmakers to enshrine protections for the Tongass in state and federal law or for the judiciary to clarify the Roadless Rule’s original intent to protect the Tongass.

“The uncertainty with the Roadless Rule has been a debilitating factor for the last 20 years, and I do not see that ending unless the courts put a stop to it—the political revolving door will keep it in play as long as there are elections,” wrote Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference. This southeast Alaska regional economic development group supported the Roadless Rule revision in 2020.

Global Pledge to End and Reverse Deforestation

Leaders at the November 2021 COP26 climate talks in Glasgow signed a pledge to end and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, with 144 nations joining. The commitment, titled the “Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use,” collectively includes at least 90 percent of the Earth’s forests—amounting to more than 13 million square miles—and is supported by a $19 billion investment fueled by both private and public funds.

“Conserving our forests and other critical ecosystems is… an indispensable piece of keeping our climate goals within reach,” said U.S. President Joe Biden at the Glasgow conference. “If we all work together to make sure these precious resources are conserved… forests have the potential to reduce… carbon globally by more than one-third… So, we need to approach this issue with the same seriousness of purpose as decarbonizing our economies. That’s what we’re doing in the United States.”

Biden went on to mention the Tongass specifically, saying, “We have put in place protections for the Tongass Forest in Alaska, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.” He also announced a “new plan to conserve global forests, which will bring together a full range of U.S. government tools—diplomatic, financial, and policy—to halt forest loss, restore our critical carbon sinks, and improve land management. Through this plan, the United States will help the world deliver on our shared goal of halting natural forest loss and restoring at least an additional 200 million hectares of forests and other ecosystems by the year 2030.”

That is a massive amount of land. To put that figure into context, 200 million hectares is about 770,000 square miles—eclipsing the size of the state of Alaska by more than 100,000 square miles. The area is bigger than many nations, including Mongolia, Indonesia, and Mexico.

Environmental advocates cheered the move. Darci Vetter, global head of policy and government relations at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, called Biden’s executive order “a clear recognition of the critical role forests play for our climate and our communities. This science-based, cooperative approach to forest conservation and restoration is a smart strategy we should accelerate and amplify.”

Conclusion

Based on scientific evidence, it is clear that the Tongass National Forest is an important carbon sink not just for the United States—where it stores more than 40 percent of all the carbon stored by all the national forests—but also for the world at large, being the Earth’s largest remaining temperate rainforest.

The Tongass is also home to a rich diversity of plant and animal species, many of which are unique and found nowhere else in the world. It is a refuge for numerous endangered and threatened species, including the iconic bald eagle and the Alexander Archipelago wolf. Preserving this habitat ensures the continuation of these species and maintains the ecosystem’s delicate balance.

If the Tongass were subject to large-scale development, irreversible damage would be inflicted upon this unique ecosystem. Deforestation and infrastructure projects could lead to habitat fragmentation, loss of biodiversity, and disruption of critical ecological processes.

Additionally, the Tongass National Forest is a significant driver of Alaska’s sustainable economy, particularly fishing, tourism, and recreation. The forest attracts visitors worldwide, drawn to its stunning landscapes, abundant wildlife, and outdoor recreational opportunities. The commercial fishing industry, which heavily depends on the health of the forest’s rivers and streams, also benefits from its protection.

Crucially, the forest is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Indigenous communities like the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, who have relied on its resources for millennia. It holds spiritual, cultural, and traditional values, making its preservation essential for respecting the rights and heritage of these native groups.

Following the Biden administration’s reinstatement of the Roadless Rule in January 2023, Dr. Homer Wilkes, the USDA under-secretary for natural resources and environment, said, “Protecting the Tongass will support watershed protection, climate benefits, and ecosystem health and protect areas important for jobs and community well-being—and it is directly responsive to input from Tribal Nations.”

In their January 2023 statement, Southeast Alaskan Tribal leaders said, “As the USDA works to repair its relationship with our Tribal governments and communities on the ground, the agency will continue to be an integral partner in creating a future for the Tongass that is guided by collaboration, Indigenous leadership and values, the needs of future generations, and sustainable economies that will heal the divisions of the past.”

Preserving the integrity of Tongass National Forest is crucial for the Earth’s well-being. By safeguarding this irreplaceable ecosystem and awe-inspiring landscape, humanity can achieve many positive outcomes, from combatting the impacts of the climate crisis and protecting biodiversity to honoring Indigenous cultures and sustainably supporting local economies. As the Tongass is part of the United States, it is the responsibility of all Americans to act as stewards of this natural treasure, ensuring that future generations can continue to benefit from its immense ecological and cultural value.

Click here to read the article on the Socialist Project.

Reynard Loki is a co-founder of the Observatory, where he is the environment and animal rights editor. He is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent of Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food, and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media, covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health and Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, Asia Times, Pressenza, and EcoWatch, among many others. He volunteers with New York City Pigeon Rescue Central.