The New Grand Tour

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

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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:


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.


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.


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.

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

The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Africa

Click here to read the article on African Arguments.

By Nnimmo Bassey

The struggle for environmental justice in Africa is complex and broad. It is the continuation of the fight for the liberation of the continent and for socio-ecological transformation. It is a fact that the environment is our life: The soil, rivers, and air are not inanimate or lifeless entities. We are rooted and anchored in our environment. Our roots are sunk into our environment and that is where our nourishment comes from. We do not see the Earth and her bountiful gifts as items that must be exploited, transformed, consumed, or wasted. The understanding of the Earth as a living entity and not a dead thing warns that rapacious exploitation that disrupts her regenerative powers are acts of cruelty or ecocide.

We bear in mind that colonialism was erected on the right to subjugate, erase, or diminish the right to life and the right to the unfettered cultural expression of the colonized. In particular, the colonized were dehumanized and transformed into zombies working for the benefit of the colonial powers. Ecological pillage was permitted as long as it benefited the colonizers. This ethos has persisted and manifests in diverse forms. Grand theft by the colonial forces was seen as entrepreneurship. Genocide was overlooked as mere conquest. Slavery was seen as commerce. Extractivism was to be pursued relentlessly as any element left unexploited was considered a waste. What could be wasted with no compunction was life. So most things had to die. The civilizers were purveyors of death. Death of individuals. Death of ecosystems.

Thus, today, people still ask: What would we do with the crude oil or fossil gas in our soil if we do not exploit them? In other words, how could we end poverty if we do not destroy our environment and grab all it could be forced to yield? We tolerate deforestation, and unregulated industrial fishing, and run a biosafety regulation system that promotes the introduction of needless genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and by doing so, endanger our biodiversity and compromise our environment and food systems.

Plunder is presented as inescapable and desired under the cloak of foreign investment. Political leaders in despoiled regions offer ease of doing business, tax holidays, sundry lax rules, and other neocolonial governance policies.

The reign of exploitation and consumption without responsibility has driven Africa and indeed the world to the brink. The current civilization of death seeks ready investment in destruction through warfare and extractivism rather than in building resilience and adapting to the environmental changes that result from corporate and imperial misadventures.

We are in a reign in which condescension is the hallmark of multilateralism. The collective action needed to tackle global warming has been reduced to puny “nationally determined contributions” that add up to nothing. Rather than recognizing and paying a clear climate debt, we expend energy negotiating a loss and damage regime to be packaged as a humanitarian gesture. Pray, who negotiates what is offered as charity?

Today, Africa is facing multiple ecological challenges. All of these have resulted from the actions of entities that have seen the continent as a sacrificial zone. While the world has come to the conclusion that there must be an urgent shift from dependence on fossil fuels, we are seeing massive investments for the extraction of petroleum resources on the continent. And we must say that this investment comes with related infrastructure for the export of these resources out of the continent in a crass colonial pattern. A mere 1 percent of the labor force in the extractive sector in Africa are Africans. A mere 5 percent of investment in the sector is in Africa. More than 85 percent of the continent’s fossil gas infrastructure is for export purposes.

The shift to renewable energy brings the same old challenges to Africa. Extraction of critical minerals for renewable energy is done without prior consultation with and consent of our people. The continent’s environment is being degraded just as it has been with the extraction of oil, gas, gold, diamond, nickel, cobalt, and other solid minerals. The array of solar panels and wind turbines could well become markers of crime scenes if precautionary measures are not taken now.

Are we against renewable energy? No. They provide the best pathway toward ending the energy deficit on the continent. However, this should be pursued through discrete, autonomous, and socialized ownership schemes.

While the world knows that we must rebuild our biodiversity, what we see is the push towards more deforestation in Africa and for monoculture agriculture, all of which are against our best interest and that of the world. A sore issue, land grabbing has not disappeared with the coming innovations.

As Chinua Achebe writes in his classic 1958 book Things Fall Apart about Eneke the bird, “Since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.” For us, until the despoilers of our environment halt their destructive acts, we will intensify our resistance and never give in to their designs. We believe this conference will not only break the yoke of colonialism but will also puncture the hold of coloniality. Our book, Politics of Turbulent Waters, is one of the tools toward these ends.

Every African nation should:

  1. Commit to issuing an annual State of Environment Report to lay out the situation of things in their territories.
  2. End destructive extraction no matter the appeal of capital.
  3. Demand climate debt for centuries of ecological exploitation and harm.
  4. Require remediation, restoration of all degraded territories, and pay reparations to direct victims or their heirs.
  5. Support and promote food sovereignty including by adopting agroecology.
  6. Adopt and promote African cultural tools and philosophies for the holistic tackling of ecological challenges and for the healing and well-being of our people and communities.
  7. Promote and provide renewable energy in a democratized manner.
  8. Recognize our right to water, treat it as a public good, and halt and reverse its privatization.
  9. Recognize the rights of Mother Earth and codify Ecocide as a crime akin to genocide, war crimes, and other unusual crimes.
  10. Ensure that all Africans enjoy the right to live in a safe and satisfactory environment suitable for their progress as enshrined in the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights.

Click here to read the article on African Arguments.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. This article is an edited version of a speech the author delivered at Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s 10th Anniversary Conference with the theme ‘Advancing Environmental Justice in Africa’ held in June 2023 in Abuja, Nigeria.

Nnimmo Bassey is the director of the ecological think tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), and a member steering committee of Oilwatch International.

Archaeology Is Flipping the Script on What We Know About Ancient Mesoamerica

Click here to read the article on Resilience.

By Gary M. Feinman and David M. Carballo

Recent archaeology emerging from ancient Mesoamerica is flipping the script of public understanding about the people and institutions that inhabited this world: the evidence tells us that cooperative and pluralistic government was at least as common as and more resilient than despotic states.

This more complex picture and the achievements of Mesoamerica’s peoples are all the more impressive given the area’s rugged terrain and resource constraints. Compared to ancient Eurasia, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica—the region stretching from Costa Rica to central Mexico—lacked beasts of burden and wheeled transport, and the use of metals was generally limited.

Until recently, our understanding of how most societies and early states developed was heavily grounded in interpretations of urban societies in Eurasia. Despotic, coercive rule was assumed (except for ancient Athens and republican Rome), the actions of the elite were ascribed great importance, and core functions of the economy were presumed to be in the hands of the ruler.

Precolonial Mesoamerica doesn’t fit this cookie-cutter framework: neither was economic production or distribution centrally controlled by despotic rulers, nor was governance in societies with very large populations universally coercive.

This new perspective is the outgrowth of a decades-long shift in archaeological research’s focus from temples and tombs to regional settlement patterns, urban layouts, house excavations, domestic economies, and agricultural production.

By concentrating on the archaeological record, recent generations of researchers have brought fresh attention to features of precolonial Mesoamerica that did not fit entrenched stereotypes, many of which had their roots in the 19th century. Mesoamerica’s cities and large-scale societies arose independently of other global regions, spawned by their own regional populations. Mesoamerican technological development never experienced the centralizing impact of the monopolization of bronze weaponry through control of scarce tin deposits, nor the “democratizing” or “decentralizing” effects of the adoption of more widely available iron.

Mesoamerica was also spared the stark inequalities in military and transportation technology that appeared in Eurasia when some societies developed the chariot, serious naval capabilities, and fortified palaces while others lagged behind. In Mesoamerica, military might came through the control of large infantries using weapons crafted primarily from widely available stone, all of which made for generally more balanced political relations than in Eurasia.

Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica is therefore emerging as an ideal place to examine the different ways that humans coalesced in urban contexts, in both collective and autocratic political formations, without some of the key factors that earlier scholars have traditionally seen as necessary or transformative for the rise of premodern societies.

How were these large, preindustrial urban centers in Mesoamerica organized? Were they long-lasting? And if so, what accounts for their comparative degrees of resilience across time?

In a 2018 study, we coded data from a carefully selected sample of 26 precolonial Mesoamerican cities and prominent political centers. We found that more than half of them were not despotically ruled and that the more collective political centers had greater resilience in the face of droughts and floods, and warfare or shifts in trade. Cities that addressed their social challenges using more collective forms of governance and resource management were both larger and somewhat more resilient than the cities with personalized rulership and more concentrated political power.

In general, collectively organized political centers relied more heavily on internal finance generation, such as taxes, as compared to the more autocratic centers that relied more on external financing, such as monopolized trade networks and war booty. The more that political elites can support themselves without relying on financing from the general population, the less they face accountability from the people, and the greater the likelihood that governance and power are hoarded. Additionally, higher levels of internal financing and communal resources often corresponded with evidence of the wider circulation of public goods and the bureaucratization of civic offices. Collectively organized centers with these features as well as spatial layouts, such as large open plazas and wide streets, that provided opportunities for householders and urban dwellers to communicate and express themselves seem to have fostered community persistence as major centers.

In a later study that included an updated and expanded sample of 32 well-researched Mesoamerican cities, we found that centers that were both more bottom-up and collective in their governance were more resilient. While some of these cities had palaces and monuments to rulers as their focal points, others featured more shared and equitably distributed forms of urban infrastructure. This includes apartment compounds, shared terraces or walls within neighborhoods, neighborhood plazas, temples and other civic buildings, and shared roads and causeways, all of which required cooperation and collective labor for their construction and maintenance and would have facilitated more regular face-to-face interaction and periodic public gatherings.

The implications of this archaeological research are too informative and powerful to stay put in textbooks. They resonate with evolving views of our present world, which are finding that public space, open communication, fair taxation, and effective bureaucracy can be cornerstones of well-being. These parallels with and understandings from the past can be insightful for us today as models to guide our future planning and identify the social models that best position us to survive the tests of time.

Click here to read the article on Resilience.

Gary M. Feinman is an archaeologist and the MacArthur curator of anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

David M. Carballo is a professor of archaeology, anthropology, and Latin American studies and assistant provost for general education at Boston University.

2024 Presidential Election Poses New Tests for Guardians and Guardrails of American Democracy

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

Despite many accomplishments by officials and defenders since 2020, Trump’s return revives election deceptions and distrust as GOP loyalty tests.

By Steven Rosenfeld

In May, David Becker welcomed dozens of elections officials and their allies in legal, policy and academic circles from around the U.S. to a “Summit on American Democracy” by doing what he has done many times since 2020’s presidential election. He recited a crisp list of what should be indisputable facts affirming the fall’s elections were among the best-run in U.S. history.

Across America, elections administrators had learned the lessons from the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020’s spring’s primaries. They stood up and vastly expanded systems enabling people to safely vote early at polls and from home with mailed-out ballots. They partnered with the private sector and recruited legions of poll workers to replace at-risk seniors. They turned sporting arenas into vote centers.

When the general election ended, a record 160 million voters had cast ballots. That turnout, 20 million more voters than in 2016, followed last-minute litigation by the parties jockeying for advantage. Republicans won 85 percent of pre-election rulings. Yet, as Donald Trump fell behind Joe Biden, Trump Republicans began making exaggerated, unsubstantiated, and false claims of mass illegal voting, sleazy poll workers, unverifiable mail ballots, and more. They filed 60-plus lawsuits in state and federal courts. Not one judge found evidence of foul play.

“The 2020 election stands as one of the great accomplishments of American resilience and know-how,” Becker said, praising the efforts by election workers in 10,000-plus jurisdictions nationwide. “This remains true, regardless of whether one is happy with the results.”

Becker, a polished, driven voting rights attorney, leads the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. He invited election officials and other experts to the security-protected top floors of Washington’s International Spy Museum to discuss the profession’s readiness and concerns about 2024’s presidential elections.

But his summation was not the full story of the 2020’s elections, its aftermath, nor of 2022’s midterms. The profession’s accomplishments did not stop the January 6 insurrection, nor the emergence of a well-funded cottage industry of conspiracists and publicity hounds who put forth mistaken information, fabrications, and propaganda about Trump’s loss, and how votes are cast and counted. Nor did it anticipate the unprecedented targeting of elections officials for abuse, harassment, and threats at work, in public, and in their homes.

While the 2024 political season has barely begun, it is possible to spotlight key emerging trends that will once again test democracy’s guardrails. Notwithstanding the administrators’ recent accomplishments, the presidential cycle is likely to see new stresses on officials, and new mis- and disinformation that preys on those pressures by blurring facts and opinions, or, at its worst, presents persuasive propaganda.

“The 70 percent of Republicans who believe that the [2020] election was stolen do not care about your transparency,” Sarah Longwell told the summit’s closing panel. “They don’t have a series of real reasons you can address.”

Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark, a commentary website run by never-Trump Republicans. Her blunt message to attendees, which included Democrat and Republican secretaries of state, and officials from swing counties in swing states—where she conducts GOP focus groups—was not the encouraging words put forth by Becker. It was that American politics have only become more tribal since 2020; the election profession’s assurances about trusting elections have not changed the minds of many Trump supporters; and 2024 may bring the country closer to a political precipice than 2022’s midterm elections.

In fact, last fall’s losses by many election-denying candidates in competitive top races in presidential battleground states like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania was probably a temporary reprieve, she told the audience. That assessment drew nods of agreement from others on her panel, including two of the country’s most seasoned election lawyers for each major party, Republican Ben Ginsberg, and Democratic Bob Bauer.

Last November, pundits and election defenders were too eager to declare that American democracy was the midterm’s real winner, Longwell said. First, Trump was not on the ballot, she explained. More importantly, Trump has remade the Republican Party by attracting infrequent or new voters who now comprise the majority of its base and believe that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected. They want to participate in Trump’s circus, she said, and embrace its grievances, misinformed patriotism, provocations, deceptions, and authoritarian bend.

“Donald Trump may well be the nominee in this upcoming election,” Longwell warned. “He’s going to talk about elections being stolen. And, as a tribal proposition, as a connection to Trump, people will reiterate that, even though [they say,] ‘I’m a little bit bored with that storyline,’ or ‘a little bit past it.’ It’s how you say, ‘I’m on this team.’”

Longwell was speaking before Trump’s federal indictment on charges he put national security secrets at risk and obstructed investigators, his subsequent vow to keep campaigning, and menacing words from those sharing the stage with Trump at recent GOP conventions and supporting him from GOP leadership circles in Washington and state capitals.


Are the guardrails of American democracy ready for 2024?

When asked, elections officials almost always say that they will do their best—and most mean it. Their profession, where a majority of officials are women, has an ethic of being impartial referees who want to avoid the spotlight. Yet many officials will face an uphill climb for reasons that are beyond their control and little-known outside their circles.

Since 2020, Trump’s agitators have accelerated a wave of experienced officials leaving this civil service profession. The turnover rate is now twice the national average, according to Reed College’s Election and Voting Information Center. As discussed in a June 8 webinar, a fifth of the officials administering 2024’s elections will be new to a job where, as Reed’s Paul Gronke and Paul Munson explained, one learns by doing over several cycles.

Presidential elections have the highest turnout, which, in turn, puts the most stresses on workers, their procedures, and the voting machinery. Mistakes always occur in elections. Most are caught and corrected. But in the Trump era, obscure errors have been twisted into attacks on unpopular outcomes, the process, and officials administering elections.

Another factor may heighten this dynamic in 2024. Officials plan for an election’s logistics by using statistics from the most recent comparable election. That planning includes picking voting sites, assigning poll workers, deploying the computers used, deciding how many ballots to print, etc. These variables, if misappraised, can lead to all kinds of delays and consternation for voters.

The baseline for 2024 is not as reliable as one might hope because 2020’s election was during a pandemic where emergency measures were implemented. For example, in the general election, 46 percent of voters nationally cast mailed-out ballots. That rate was about twice the volume of 2018. In 2022, a third of voters cast mail ballots. (That decline was due, in part, to red states reeling in the option.) These fluctuations underscore the difficulties with planning for 2024.

These nuts and bolts—high turnover and planning challenges—will lead to some errors with setting up or running elections. In 2020 and 2022, a handful of administrative mistakes occurred and fueled some of the most widely disseminated misleading and false claims. It did not matter that the administrative mistakes were very rare, corrected, and many occurred in counties won by Trump. The snafus became starting lines for narratives and conspiracies where what was being described and broadcast nationally was not how elections work. 

  • In 2020 in Antrim County, Michigan, for example, officials did not check if the candidates on their paper ballots matched the configurations on their tabulators—they did not. That led some Trump votes to be tallied for Biden, which, in turn, was portrayed as an inside job stealing votes and the tip of a nefarious national iceberg.
  • In 2020 in Mesa County, Colorado, a back-office manager did not know how to use software that examined screenshots of sloppily marked ballots to determine the voter’s intent. Her confusion initially caused thousands of ballots to be counted twice, which morphed into a sweeping attack on using computers in elections.
  • In 2022’s midterms in Maricopa County, Arizona, officials did not notice that some ballots were too poorly printed to be read by precinct scanners. That error became a narrative that county officials wanted to sabotage Trump-aligned candidates in Election Day voting.

In each of these examples, Trump’s allies mischaracterized errors as election theft plots. In most instances, officials explained what went wrong and was fixed in their local press. But nationwide social media platforms used by Trump supporters, right-wing infotainment, and pro-Trump TV networks spent days, then weeks, and then months, telling other stories that misrepresented the snafus. These same forums downplayed the January 6 insurrection and derided the House January 6 Committee hearings and report.

The jingoistic drumbeat was so persistent and persuasive that many election deniers won 2022’s Republican Party primaries for governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. Though most of these candidates lost in the fall’s general election, some have since become state Republican Party officers or are running for U.S. Senate.

The mindset and ingredients that run through this political dysfunction are not new. In 1971, Hannah Arendt, a refugee of Nazi Germany who was one of last century’s foremost political philosophers, wrote an essay, “Lying in Politics,” that described the way authoritarians have always had to subvert facts to sway public opinions. That template—mixing “deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologizing and defactualization”—is rampant among election deniers and shows no sign of abating.

If anything, it may get worse. Trump’s dominance of the 2024 GOP field intersects with the emergence of a powerful communications tool—language-generating artificial intelligence.

AI’s rapid embrace since GPT-3’s release in late 2022 will supercharge the production, customization, and targeted distribution of deceptive political ads and persuasive propaganda, according to Alex Stamos, director of Stanford University’s Internet Observatory and Facebook’s former security chief. In April, he told a webinar about new research that found it was hard for 8,000 people to tell the difference between articles written by credible media and intentionally deceptive propaganda fashioned by AI. (The false AI content was modeled on Russian and Iranian propaganda aimed at Americans in 2020.) Other academic research has found thousands of state legislators believing AI-written letters were from people, and state regulators believing AI-generated public comments for new state policies also were real.

“The marginal cost has gone effectively to zero for content creation. That was not true before,” Stamos said, referring to AI’s use by partisans and propagandists. “As bad as everything is on the Internet [today], I think we are entering an incredible era of things that you can’t trust.”

Already, by mid-June, Trump and his leading contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have used AI to forge images in “high-profile” videos attacking each other. But some seasoned observers suspect that AI’s biggest impact will be with candidates that are undefined to voters, in congressional and down-ballot races, unlike the presidential race where Biden and Trump are well-known.

These varied and quickening factors will challenge the guardrails of American democracy. In many respects, these trends are beyond the control of the people who administer elections. High turnover, insufficient time to learn the job’s complexities, poor precedents for planning, and new tools for propagandists are disconcerting enough for any public-serving agency.

At its heart, the challenges that American democracy faces concerns how public confidence or distrust is shaped. The seeds of what lies ahead in 2024 can be seen in the recent past. A closer look also poses the question of what might loosen the grip of disinformation.


Election denialism, or denying that factual, evidence-based outcomes are accurate and legitimate, is not new. It has been a recurring feature in presidential elections since 2000, when the Supreme Court stopped Florida’s presidential recount. That ruling effectively elevated the Republican nominee, George W. Bush, to the presidency.

After 2004’s and 2016’s presidential elections, progressives—not Democrats—questioned the results. They collected affidavits from upset voters, alleged that the vote-counting computers had been sabotaged by operatives, filed election challenge lawsuits, paid for recounts, and sought to preserve and to examine ballots. They discovered hardball campaign tactics, inconsistencies in election administration, but could not present proof in court to alter the results. 

That playbook was taken to more impactful extremes by Trump and his supporters during the 2020 campaign and after Election Day, including the failed Electoral College coup in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. But Trump’s allies did not stop there.

Later that year, an “audit” sanctioned by pro-Trump state senators in Arizona became a months-long propaganda campaign to instill doubts and conspiratorial narratives. The “audit” was led by self-appointed “experts” who had no experience evaluating ballots and vote-count systems before 2020. Even though it eventually declared that Biden had won (after struggling to accurately recount ballots and votes), its highly publicized suspicions and cynicism helped cement the wide view among today’s Republican base that Trump was robbed of a second term.

It did not matter to Trump’s brigades that officials refuted all of their claims. Or that independent analysts who know how elections work, including Republicans in Arizona and other states, looked at voting patterns and found that tens of thousands of voters—a much larger figure than Biden’s margin—had voted for most of the Republican candidates but not for Trump. Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly noted that 24,000 Georgians did not vote for president in 2020.

One does not have to guess what Trump cultists were thinking then or now. After the insurrection, the leaders of Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ movement turned their attention from a handful of rural counties in Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania to Arizona. There, as seen in tens of thousands of text messages that were obtained after litigation by American Oversight, an accountability focused non-profit, the stage managers of the soon-to-start Arizona “audit” were obsessed with Trump’s loss and followed Arendt’s delusion and deception template.

They saw themselves as super-patriots.

“This needs widest dissemination—the American people need to know that we have been under a coordinated attack every bit as dangerous as Pearl Harbor or 9/11,” Phil Waldron, the ex-Army colonel with an information warfare background texted in February 2021, referring to an already debunked claim on a right-wing infotainment website that foreign governments had hacked voting machines in key states. “Nevada Sec State sent the voter roles [sic] to Pakistan—I have the email.”

They saw themselves on a God-given mission.

“Hey General Flynn, I’d like to get at least two people praying every hour during the entire audit (~3 weeks, 24×7); and I was thinking of getting my church to fast and pray for 3 days before it all starts and possibly having the invitation be out wider than that,” texted Cyber Ninja CEO Doug Logan to Michael Flynn, Trump’s ex-national security advisor turned Christian nationalist. “Any chance is that something you’d be interesting in leading the charge on getting Patriots out there to be involved?”

They believed political fantasies and sought revenge.

“Apparently [Democratic Party attorney] Marc Elias has hired 70 attorneys to go after the audit,” texted Christina Bobb, then the One America News anchor covering the Arizona audit on that pro-Trump TV network who later joined Trump’s post-White House staff, to Logan.

“This is going to be interesting,” Logan wrote back.

“It’s gonna be fun. So freaking fun. We’re going to take them ALL down,” Bobb replied. “I don’t know if you know, but I’m a lawyer. I litigated for a while. I’m so ready for this.”

Nearly two years later in mid-2023, the vitriol and gleeful menace has not changed—even if many election-denying candidates lost in 2022’s midterms. On June 3, Mike Lindell, the bedding supply CEO who spent millions to put conspiracists and their false claims before right-facing media and voters, “celebrated” a “victory.” Bill Gates, a Republican, lawyer, and Maricopa County supervisor and election defender, announced that would not seek re-election.

“Our legal team did an incredible job representing [failed gubernatorial candidate] Kari Lake and exposing the criminality of Maricopa County elections, with Bill Gates at the helm,” Lindell said in a falsity-filled email blast. “Bill Gates and his office deliberately violated Arizona law.”

Factually, it was Lake’s lawyers who have been sanctioned for making false stolen election claims in court. Moreover, Lindell is smearing a man who opted not to seek re-election after he and his family received death threats, were forced to move from his home and live under police protection, and told The Washington Post, in astoundingly candid detail, how severely he was traumatized for defending his county’s 2020’s and 2022’s elections.

Gates was at the democracy summit days after the Post’s profile appeared. He was applauded as an election defender and trauma survivor, which was as grim as it was heroic.

“It’s a little embarrassing for me to be sitting up here in front of this group, telling this story, because I think this is the story of many people here and many people across the country,” Gates said. “My colleagues and I were one vote of the [Arizona] Senate away from literally being jailed… All these people that I had worked with, other Republicans for years on local issues, statewide issues, they turned their back on me and my colleagues.”

It is not just the political fringes that are still pushing election-denial propaganda. A few days after Trump was indicted for mishandling secret documents that may contain war plans, Lake, now running for U.S. Senate in Arizona, said that Trump’s defenders may have to use their guns—to defend their vision of America.

The democracy summit ended with Longwell reminding the audience that 30 percent of self-described Republicans, and many independents who were inclined to vote for Republicans, were not swept up in the Trump fervor or election denialism. Her priority was engaging with these swing voters to try to restore fact-based norms among conservatives.

“Don’t treat them like deplorables,” Longwell urged.

But on June 9, just days after Trump was indicted by the Department of Justice, Longwell was very flustered that most Republicans in Congress and seeking the 2024 presidential nomination were defending Trump or equivocating—not speaking truthfully or clearly to GOP voters about the federal charges that were instigated by Trump’s refusal to return the documents.

“It’s how you never break the cycle” of lying and politics, she said on her podcast. “You always move in the self-radicalizing direction. You never move in the de-escalating, de-radicalizing direction, because… there’s a collective action problem. Not enough people are willing to say the truth. They’re always in some gruff minority that’s slowly being excised from the party.”


What can be done to strengthen American democracy before 2024?

The answers differ with the issues and the audience—officials, voters, partisans, and the election jurisdiction.

Most likely, there will not be another attempt to hijack federal ratification of Electoral College votes because Congress reformed the Electoral Count Act in response to the attempted coup on January 6, 2021. Congressional ratification will be a ministerial and ceremonial event affirming each state’s vote—and little more.

At state and local levels, election officials need to have resources to keep modernizing and becoming familiar with new technology, voting options, laws, and procedures. In blue- and red-run states, legislatures generally have gone in opposite directions since 2020, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, with blue states expanding options and red states curtailing them.

This divergence can be seen in several ways. Many blue states have enshrined mail-based voting that was expanded in response to 2020’s pandemic, while red states have reeled in that option. Many red states have also banned local election offices from using funds from foundations to modernize their infrastructure, which was a factor in how many jurisdictions stood up systems to accommodate voters in 2020. Some red states have even instituted or increased criminal penalties for elections officials and workers, which is part of a trend of legislatures preempting local government decision-making in blue epicenters.

Under any of these policies, officials and voters will have to adapt. The sooner any changes are put into place for voters and officials, the lesser the likelihood of problems arising for all involved, the experience of recent elections has shown.

Battleground states also are likely to be targets for last-minute litigation over some voting and counting rules as the parties vie for advantage. That pattern shows no sign of abating according to seasoned election lawyers at the democracy summit like Bauer and Ginsberg.

Other unconstructive factors likely will remain. For years, both major parties have exaggerated voting-centered fears to motivate their base for fundraising, events, and turnout. Republicans keep demonizing their opponents by reciting voter fraud narratives. Democrats likewise keep hyping voter suppression threats.

“There is now a fraud-suppression industrial complex,” Ginsberg told the democracy summit. “Republicans see fraud everywhere. Democrats see suppression. I don’t want to make a moral equivalency about that because I think my Republican Party has been far worse about it… [But] that does not improve confidence in elections.”

These narratives are corrosive because they misrepresent the reality of who is voting and how elections work.

Factually, with few exceptions across America, it has never been easier to vote. That baseline will remain true in 2024. In most states, there have never been more options to get a ballot into one’s hands and to cast a ballot that will count. There has never been more immediate help for motivated voters if problems arise—via text, email, phone—as people chose to vote early, or from home, or on Election Day. Nationally, turnout keeps increasing, affirming this trend.

Similarly, on the vote-counting side, there is more data on the computer systems in elections to prove that the voters who cast ballots are qualified, that their ballots are legitimate, and that the votes on their ballots—which now are mostly paper—are being accurately counted.

On the other hand, the fine print of the election administration process has been increasingly politicized and propagandized. In this regard, it is important to distinguish election administrators who are trying to be fair referees from other elected officials with overt partisan agendas, especially state legislators, constitutional officers—and county commissioners.

In almost all of 2024’s likely presidential battleground states, none of the senior officials who will administer elections are election deniers. They all embrace more convenient and predictable voting options. This includes top officials in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Indeed, many of those officials weathered 2020’s attacks by election deniers and prevailed in court.

But, as one looks ahead, the 2024 election’s landscape has been overshadowed by an ex-president who has made attacking elections a pillar of his comeback and by challengers like DeSantis who has also trafficked in election deceptions. Not in many decades has a major party’s base, elected establishment, and presidential contenders embraced such high-profile election falsehoods as today’s GOP.

This deception-laced backdrop is why the challenge of countering mis- and disinformation, which involves changing minds, is the biggest hurdle facing American democracy.


While the intensity of many of 2024’s concerns hinges on whether Trump is the GOP’s nominee, the challenge of restoring the public’s trust remains.

With few exceptions, the nation’s elections officials are not poised to adopt new public education and persuasion strategies for 2024’s election, including increased transparency surrounding their operations.

Since Trump’s 2020 loss, the most common response to attacks by officials has been to reply with communications that boil down to saying, “Trust us. We’re your neighbors.” Or to point to technical tests of voting systems or statistical audits to allay concerns about accuracy. Or to invite critics to become poll workers to see how things work. Almost every official at the democracy summit said that they planned to stick with this approach as they looked ahead to 2024.

There is some basis for that response. Officials take pride in their accomplishments in 2020 and 2022, even if that work has not been widely praised. Elections scholars repeatedly have found that voters tend to trust local elections more than elections across their state or in other states—regions they are unfamiliar with. But doubters’ views often harden when they hear about purported threats in locales dominated by the opposing party, or if they cannot judge the accuracy of the controversial results for themselves. Thus, a vacuum emerges and invites mis- and disinformation.

As MIT election data scientist Charles Stewart told the democracy summit, “For political scientists, it’s pretty clear why this [atmosphere of distrust] is happening… most people don’t know about election administration.”

Whether greater transparency surrounding key decision points in the process would breed more acceptance of close results is an open question. Just as Longwell said that it was an “untested” proposition whether the minds of more Republicans might change if GOP leaders told the truth about Trump’s federal indictments, it remains untested whether giving more timely and easily understood evidence to skeptics in presidential battleground states would quell their doubts.

Many Trump supporters have clamored for such proof. Since 2020, they have followed “Stop the Steal” leaders and inundated officials with records requests—in swing states and across the country. But the activists have not done much with the data; most likely because it can be large and unwieldy. Also, the records requests have come as other Trump loyalists have harassed some of the same officials and their workers, which, unsurprisingly, has cast a shadow over more transparency.

In short, a transparency gridlock has emerged that likely will carry over into 2024.

In Pennsylvania, the state’s election agency has opposed public access to more election records, such as screenshots of every side of every paper ballot card and the final spreadsheet listing all of the votes on every ballot.

In Arizona, a bill to make more key records public—to attest to the legality of each voter, authenticity of every ballot, and accuracy of the vote count—was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who previously was secretary of state. Liberal advocates, like Common Cause, opposed it, contending that making the voter information more accessible to the public could be used to threaten voters. (Political parties and consultants already have this voter information.)

In mid-June, an attempt was made to revive the Arizona bill. Its author, Ken Bennett, a Republican former secretary of state and now a state senator, put forth a narrower proposal that removed the voter records. At a forum by AUDIT US, a non-profit, non-partisan transparency group, Bennett explained that by comparing the starting line of the tabulation process—screenshots of every ballot, to the finish line—a spreadsheet listing every vote on each ballot, “anyone can verify that the election was done correctly.”

But Bennett’s effort, which exemplified Longwell’s plea to not treat Republicans as “deplorables,” fell victim to the very propaganda that it sought to stem.

Trump activists peeled away Republicans by distorting another aspect of the bill and claiming that unvetted voters would get ballots—reviving the voter fraud myth. Liberals peeled away Democrats by saying that right-wing vigilantes would use ballot images to find and harass voters—a voter suppression scenario that has not been seen in Florida and Maryland, where ballot images have been used to verify results and to convince the losing side.

“It’s just completely made-up nonsense,” said John Brakey, AUDIT US’ executive director, of the contentions from the left and right that killed the bill.

Thus, a modest effort to lessen the grip of disinformation in a battleground state again failed. The episode underscores the issues, dynamics, and dangers facing the guardians and guardrails of American democracy before the 2024 election, where distortions, deceptions, and propaganda pose the biggest challenges—far more than what officials do to get ballots into voters’ hands and to count them accurately.

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

Exploring Community Care Systems in Boston Inspired by bell hooks

The following is an excerpt. Read the full article on LA Progressive.

The Boston Ujima Project’s assembly All About Love: Community Care Systems asks: What would it take to love and care for the most marginalized people in the city?

By April M. Short

“[O]ne of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places where we know we are not alone,” wrote bell hooks in the 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

While her work builds on that of Black feminist scholars before her—like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison—hooks’s “legacy is singular in the way she [centers the fight] against structural and institutional oppression” in the importance of community care, as notes Juliette Fekkar in a 2022 article published in Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge.

All About Love

What would it take to love and care for the most marginalized people in a given community?

This is the question the Boston Ujima Project is asking. The group works to build cooperative economic infrastructure and return wealth to working-class communities of color.

Inspired by bell hooks’s work on “the power of love to reshape systems for the better,” as notes Paige Curtis, culture and communications manager for the Ujima Project, the member-run organization is hosting an assembly called “All About Love: Community Care Systems.” The event, taking place throughout April 2023, draws its name from hooks’s groundbreaking, iconic book.

“bell hooks understood that care is just one component of love,” says Curtis. “In her words, ‘Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust.’”

In Boston, as in cities across the U.S. and the world, there is a lack of overarching care for the most marginalized residents. Housing shortages, food insecurity, and the cost-of-living crisis were already significant issues prior to 2020, and many of those issues worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for better systems of care is likely to deepen in the next decade with the impacts of climate change. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 assessed a set of serious risks to humans now, as well as risks projected 10 years into the future. It found the most urgent current risk to be the cost-of-living crisis, and the most urgent in 10 years to be the climate crisis.

Curtis says while COVID-19 has exposed the financial hardships of residents and businesses in the city, even before the pandemic, the Ujima Project’s members and supporters put together a mutual aid fund to offer support to those in need, “governed by mutual respect for our collective well-being.”

Click here to read the full article on LA Progressive.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor, and she is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she was a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Good Times, a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, Pressenza, the Conversation, Salon, and many other publications.

Announcing the Observatory

We’re pleased to announce the launch of the Observatory—a free encyclopedia and guide resource for everyday life and the issues of our times. It holds the work of a wide range of journalists, experts, historians, and research organizations.

We hope to become a handy trusted resource to educate you on specific issues and questions, and also offer big-picture education on particular issues. There’s a lot more material in the works that will appear there.

We all know how difficult it is to learn about an issue just from reading the news. The fuller background education to situate what happened today, this week, or this year has to come from somewhere, and we hope the Observatory can contribute to that.

Check it out—visit an article or two, and be sure to check out our Guides!

—The Observatory founding team, Jan Ritch-Frel, Jenny Pierson, Reynard Loki, and April M. Short

P.S.: If you like what you see, and you want to share your:

  • Expertise
  • Definitive research
  • Editing/technical skills
  • Other useful resources

Please drop us a line!

Agrivoltaics: The Farm-to-Solar Trend That Can Help Accelerate the Renewable Energy Transition

The following is an excerpt. Read the full article on

Using the same land for the production of both agriculture and solar energy is a win-win for the climate and farmers.

By Tina Casey

Access to solar power is increasing in rural parts of the U.S., partly with the support of farmers who lease out their land for utility-scale solar arrays. This farm-to-solar trend known as “agrivoltaics”—defined by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as “the co-location of agricultural production and solar energy generation on the same land”—is intertwined with regenerative farming, a trend that has centuries-old roots within Indigenous cultures. This mindful cooperation between farming and energy poses a threat to the status quo fueling climate change and is facing a surge of opposition, but the emerging field of agrivoltaics could help neutralize the critics and break down barriers to solar development.

The Importance of Rural Solar

Leasing out land for a utility-scale solar array can provide farmers with an important source of steady revenue. The income can be a lifeline for individual farmers, and for entire industries. Solar leasing, for example, is credited with helping to sustain the cranberry industry in Massachusetts.

“[R]ural communities have a significant opportunity to strengthen and diversify their local economies by embracing and actively engaging in the ongoing renewable energy transition,” wrote Katie Siegner, Kevin Brehm, and Mark Dyson, authors of a 2021 report published by Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization working to accelerate the clean energy transition.

“By 2030, renewable energy capacity in the United States will at least double, and potentially grow by a factor of seven or higher if new policies are enacted to capitalize on continuing cost declines in wind and solar,” they wrote. “As a result, rural communities—which host 99 percent of onshore wind and a growing share of utility-scale solar projects—stand to receive a sizable boost to their local economies. In fact, annual revenues from wind and solar projects could exceed $60 billion… by 2030—on par with expected revenues from the top three U.S. agricultural commodities: corn, soy, and beef production.”

Bringing more solar energy to rural communities is a priority for the Biden administration with a focus on improving solar access for underserved low- and middle-income communities. Among other provisions, Biden’s 2024 budget proposal specifies $30 million in grants and $1 billion in loan guarantees for solar, other clean energy systems, and energy efficiency improvements for farmers and small businesses in rural communities, along with $15 million toward the creation of a new Rural Clean Energy Initiative tasked with helping electricity providers meet clean energy goals.

Helping rural businesses reduce their dependence on fossil fuels is another priority for many federal policymakers. In the U.S., the funding sources include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which was created through the 2008 Farm Bill to support energy efficiency upgrades as well as solar and other renewables on farms, including utility-scale projects.

Click here to read the full article on

Tina Casey has been writing about sustainability, the global energy transition, and related matters since 2009. She is a regular contributor to the Observatory, CleanTechnica, and TriplePundit, where she also focuses on corporate social responsibility and social issues.

Families Getting Government Funding to Switch From Public to Private School Put Their Rights at Risk

The following is an excerpt. Read the full article here.

The harrowing story of a Maine family shows the potential perils families face when they transfer to privately run schools that are less subject to government oversight.

By Jeff Bryant

“I am the type of parent who always made sure my kids had the good teachers and always took the right classes,” said Esther Kempthorne in an interview with Our Schools. So, in 2014, when she moved with her husband and two daughters to their new home in Washington County, Maine, in a bucolic corner of the state, near the Canadian border, she made it a top priority to find a school that would be the right educational fit for their children.

“We settled in Washington County hoping to give our children the experience of attending one high school, making lasting friendships, and finally putting down some roots,” said Esther’s husband, Nathan, whose career in the military had sent the Kempthorne family traveling the world, changing schools more than 20 times in 17 years. “Both of our children were born on military bases while I was on active duty with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force,” said Nathan, whose role in military intelligence often meant that he was deployed to high-risk assignments in war zones.

“We said that when we got to Maine, we weren’t going to keep bouncing from school to school,” said Esther.

But after some firsthand experience with the education programs provided by the local public schools, the Kempthornes decided to investigate other options the state offers. One of those options was the state’s provision that allows parents who live in a district that doesn’t have a school matching their child’s grade level the choice to leave the public system and transfer their children to private schools, with the “home” public school district picking up the cost of tuition and transportation, subject to state allowance.

Because the rural district the Kempthornes lived in did not have a high school, they took advantage of that option to enroll their daughters—at taxpayer expense—in Washington Academy, an elite private school founded in 1792 that offers a college track curriculum and access to classes taught by faculty members from a nearby university.

Their decision to leave the public school system for Washington Academy seemed all the better when Esther, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico, got a full-time job teaching Spanish at the school.

Thinking back on how the Kempthorne family negotiated the school choice landscape in Maine, Nathan recalled, “I thought we were finally going to be okay.”

But the Kempthornes weren’t okay. Far from it, in 2021, the Kempthornes found themselves in the front seat of their car while they were traveling in another state, using Nathan’s iPhone to call in via Zoom and provide testimony to a Maine legislative committee on why Washington Academy, and other schools like it, pose significant threats to families like theirs and how the state needs to more heavily regulate privately operated schools that get taxpayer funding.

Read more here.

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.

Americans Want Government-Run Health Care—What’s Standing in the Way?

The following is an excerpt. Read the full article at ProgressiveHub.

It’s true that the number of uninsured Americans has dropped to an all-time low. But that fact obscures the failures of our patchwork, profit-driven health care system.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Here’s one of many indicators about how broken the United States health care system is: Guns seem to be easier and cheaper to access than treatment for the wounds they cause. A survivor of the recent mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, reportedly said to Gov. Gavin Newsom that he needed to keep his hospital stay as short as possible in order to avoid a massive medical bill. Meanwhile, the suspected perpetrator seemed to have had few obstacles in his quest to legally obtain a semi-automatic weapon to commit deadly violence.

Americans are at the whim of a bewildering patchwork of employer-based private insurance plans, individual health plans via a government-run online marketplace, or government-run health care (for those lucky enough to be eligible). The coverage and costs of plans vary dramatically so that even if one has health insurance there is rarely a guarantee that there will be no out-of-pocket costs associated with accessing care.

It’s hardly surprising then that the latest Gallup poll about health care affirms what earlier polls have said: that a majority of Americans want their government to ensure health coverage for all. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all Democrats want a government-run system.

Gallup also found that a record high number of people put off addressing health concerns because of the cost of care. Thirty-eight percent of Americans said they delayed getting treatment in 2022—that’s 12 percentage points higher than the year before. Unsurprisingly, lower-income Americans were disproportionately affected.

Read more at ProgressiveHub.

Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Our Planet Versus Plastic Bags—A Tale of Two Cities

Americans discard 100 billion plastic bags annually, the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil.

By Erika Schelby, Independent Media Institute

12 min read

With oceans, countries, populations, and governments inundated by a plague of plastic worldwide, it may be useful to focus on the single-use plastic bag choices made by two cities, in the same U.S. state, located at a distance of only 64 miles (104 km) from each other. Both Santa Fe and Albuquerque share many qualities and conditions, foremost among them a distinctive cultural mix of American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American citizens. But the two communities are also dissimilar, and this is reflected in the way they have dealt with the plastic bag dilemma.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States. It is the seat of the New Mexico government and is home to the country’s third-largest art market. It calls itself “the City Different” and has more than 250 art galleries and dealers, a dozen state and private museums, and a world-class opera, for its more than 88,000 residents.

The “costly negative implications for tourism, wildlife and aesthetics” led Santa Fe to ban single-use plastic carryout bags with Ordinance No. 2015-12 in April of 2015. The decision was also made “to protect the environment while reducing waste, litter, and pollution in order to help improve the public’s health and welfare.” In April 2016, an open letter was sent from the mayor and addressed to the local businesses explaining the project and the new rules in detail.

Nearby Albuquerque is also attractive but less rarefied and more of a workhorse city. It is much larger with a population of 562,599 as of 2021, a growth rate of 24.8 percent since 2000, and a metropolitan area population of 942,000 until 2022. It has a total of 49.8 percent Hispanic inhabitants. Most have lived here for generations. Located in the high desert along the Rio Grande, Albuquerque has several museums, an Old Town dating back to 1706, and various cultural and recreational attractions.

After long debates, Albuquerque’s Clean and Green Retail Ordinance became effective on January 1, 2020. Single-use plastic bags were banned from the point of sale. But then came the pandemic, and enforcement was deferred. Doing business at the retail level had already grown difficult and stressful for management, employees, and shoppers. Supply chains were disrupted. With the new challenges thrown up during the pandemic, these changes seemed all too much at once. The city council listened to the plight of constituents and decided to oppose Mayor Tim Keller’s progressive plastic bag ban. It voted 6-3 to revoke it. The mayor bravely vetoed the reversal. Yet on April 4, 2022, the councilors’ motion to override the veto passed with a vote of 6-3 once again. The ban on single-use plastic bags was lifted. Convenience won the battle against environmental concerns but did not win the war.

That struggle is undeniably bigger than one city council’s decision to put off what needs to be done. In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to pass a law against the use of single-use plastic bags. California followed by implementing a statewide ban in 2014. Puerto Rico and 10 states have enacted legislation to ban single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. And in contrast to Albuquerque’s reversal of the ban, a growing number of American cities have introduced plastic bag bans or bans and fees—among them are Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boulder, New York, Portland, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Internationally, a growing number of countries have launched nationwide bans on producing, using, and distributing plastic bags.

Experiencing devastating floods in the summer of 1998, Bangladesh noted that thin plastic bags were clogging hundreds of storm drains and drainage systems during flooding, worsening the situation. This caused an estimated 80 percent of the flooding blockages in cities. So in 2002, Bangladesh implemented a ban on all plastic shopping bags in the nation, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Others followed. “According to a United Nations paper and several media reports, 77 countries in the world have passed some sort of full or partial ban on plastic bags,” reported Statista.

Unfortunately, such prohibitions are not enough. Despite the fact that Bangladesh became the world’s first country to ban plastic bags, their use continued to cause environmental harm. Its Department of Environment confiscated 592,223 metric tons of polythene from 2019 to 2021. The number of illegal polybag manufacturers increased from 300 in 1999 to an estimated 700 to 1,000 by 2021. In addition, until 2019, about 1.2 million metric tons of plastic waste was shipped in from the U.S. and the UK, making a bad situation worse.

Instead of finding solutions to the issues related to plastic pollution, reports by Western nonprofits and companies have, meanwhile, helped push the blame for polluting the world’s oceans onto “a small geographical area in East and Southeast Asia.” In July of 2022, the well-known nonprofit advocacy organization Ocean Conservancy delivered an official apology for the damage done by a report it coauthored along with McKinsey Center for Business and Environment in 2015: Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean.

Impeccably written, professional in tone, and convincing in language, the report claimed research had shown that more than half of the plastic pollution entering the ocean originated from five Asian countries: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. The report claimed that “increasing economic power” and “exploding demand for consumer products” had led these countries to produce and use plastic heavily, and they lacked the infrastructure to deal with the resulting plastic waste tsunami. Consequently, the waste ended up in the ocean. The study argued that the most effective way to deal with this was through recycling. What was meant by this euphemistic term was the deployment of waste-to-energy technology: gasification, and incineration.

Yet burning plastic discharges a potent and dangerous mix of toxins and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and into the communities unfortunate enough to be near the incinerating sites. Moreover, for a number of rich countries with environmental restrictions, the cynical hype for recycling has fostered the export of plastic trash to less developed countries like Bangladesh, resulting in the charge of “waste colonialism.” Additionally, the report created an injurious and false narrative. Although it was removed from the Ocean Conservancy website, it lingers on as a sophisticated and warning masterpiece of greenwashing. It is surprising that it took so long to acknowledge this truth, given the list of the project’s supporters: the Coca-Cola Company, the Dow Chemical Company, the American Chemistry Council, and the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa, among others.

Meanwhile, with a March 2022 UN resolution adopted during the United Nations Environment Assembly 5.2 in Nairobi to end plastic pollution, governments have started to strive for a global, legally binding agreement by 2024. It could not be like another timid 2015 Paris Agreement. It needed teeth. So from November 28 to December 2, 2022, delegates from 150 countries met for the UN’s first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC1) in Punta del Este, Uruguay, to begin negotiations that will eventually lead to an international plastics treaty. Or so one hopes. “Turn off the tap on plastic,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Plastics are fossil fuels in another form.”

Indeed, that’s what they are: products made from oil and gas. Americans discard 100 billion bags annually, which are manufactured from 12 million barrels of oil. And what makes these flimsy thin, light, cheap, containers especially dreadful is perhaps the fact that globally 500 billion of them are used annually, for an average of only 15 minutes. After that brief moment in time, they are thrown away. Yet they go on polluting the environment and causing health hazards for years.

What is more, most of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that have been manufactured since the 1950s remain in landfills or within the natural environment. By 2050, it is estimated that around 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will reside in landfills or the natural environment. Plastic is a synthetic substance. It does not biodegrade. Eventually and very slowly the sun, wind, water, waves, and abrasion break it down into tiny particles. Single-use polyethylene plastic bags will take up to 1,000 years to photo-degrade. Effective recycling, specifically in the U.S., may be a pipe dream. The practical infrastructures, facilities, workers, and readiness to handle this daily flash flood of indestructible waste do not exist and would be expensive to achieve. Incineration is not a solution: it does more harm than good. Therefore it is no big surprise that globally, more than 90 percent of plastic is not recycled. The pile ends up in landfills, rivers, and oceans.

Much of the plastic waste is dumped in landfills. As it breaks down, it leaches hazardous chemicals, contaminates the surroundings, and infiltrates the food chain. According to a fact sheet from, “Researchers in Germany indicate that terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution—estimated at four to 23 times higher, depending on the environment.”

Nevertheless, tossing plastic garbage into the oceans proceeds at a furious pace. A lot of it is swept in from rivers. At least 10 million tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans each year. If this continues, we may have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Globally, people generate so much filth and debris that these waste products are now beginning to accumulate and occupy significant space, sometimes larger than the size of whole cities and countries. One such example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), which “is a collection of marine debris” spanning “waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan.” It is already enormous—estimated to be some 1.6 million square kilometers, about twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France—and may spawn a whole family of floating trash concentrations that drift and travel with ocean currents and thereby can reach additional bodies of water. The relentless energy of the sea grinds portions of these garbage vortexes into microplastics. This produces a thick, cloudy gumbo in which larger items are suspended. A share of this mess sinks down to the seafloor. As a result of this, algae and plankton are deprived of sunlight and wiped out, which leads to fish and turtles growing hungry and weak. Many perish. This causes less food for tuna, sharks, and whales, leading to the marine food web being destabilized.

Humans already eat—literally—five grams of microplastics and nanoplastics, or a credit card’s worth of plastic, every week. That amounts to between 39,000 and 52,000 particles of plastic added to our diet every year. Microplastics can be found in animals, fish, and birds, and also in human blood and organs. They even invade the placentas of unborn babies. They are everywhere.

Plastic is affecting human health and reproduction and might have irreparable consequences for the human species, even leading to “human extinction” if uncontrolled use of plastics is not prevented. In mice, research has already shown a decrease in the quantity and quality of sperm and a reduction of total follicles in the ovaries of females. So far, investigations into the effects of microplastics absorbed into the human body have barely begun. Science needs another 10 to 15 years to come up with answers.

The wish for a clean, safe personal space—a home—is hardwired into humans. Indeed, many individuals want to make their homes as beautiful as possible according to their means and their taste. But each person also generates waste and is responsible for it—that’s the flip side of our way of life. In contemporary households, the waste is flushed away or picked up in a trash bin by the waste management services of a city. Residents pay fees for this convenience. But the waste is still theirs. It has simply been relocated—it’s out of sight, out of mind.

That is where the problem lies. Municipalities and landfills are overwhelmed with plastic waste. In 1960, the U.S. generated 88.1 million tons of solid waste; by 2018, this had increased to a whopping 292.4 million tons. America had become a wasteful society that throws stuff away. In 2022, it became the second largest per capita generator of solid municipal waste in the world—surprisingly after Denmark, which is often cited as a model global citizen. Other highly developed countries produce far less waste than the U.S. A special case is Australia’s city of Adelaide, which may have the most effective waste program anywhere. A recent article in the Guardian tells the story of Alice Clanachan, a woman who applied the city’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” plan so resolutely, that for a total of 26 months, she didn’t need to put her rubbish bin out for collection.

Here in the United States, in the state of New Mexico, the city of Santa Fe succeeded in banning single-use plastic bags years ago. Its residents understood that you cannot maintain a beautiful home for long without caring for the surroundings. If individuals loathe the idea of befouling their own interior spaces, they can also leap to the wider view of detesting the squalor inflicted on the entire planet—our common home. Perhaps this was easier to do in Santa Fe. It’s a small place that knows its own mind.

For Albuquerque, the American can-do attitude may reassert itself sometime soon. Civic pride and civic duty will remind the residents that the ban on single-use bags is a rare thing they can control and do right here and now, at the local level. People have done just that before the plastic plague began. And we can even do our shopping by adopting the uncomplicated routine of bringing our own durable and reusable bags. This simple step could help decrease plastic waste and help promote a cleaner way of living and supporting all life on Earth.


Erika Schelby is the author of Looking for Humboldt and Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond (Lava Gate Press, 2017) and Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future? (Lava Gate Press, 2013), which was shortlisted for the International Essay Prize Contest by the Berlin-based cultural magazine Lettre International. Schelby lives in New Mexico.

Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing the climate/environment, food/agriculture, and nature/animal rights, and champions action—specifically, how responsible citizens, voters, and consumers can help put society on an ethical path of sustainability that respects the rights of all species who call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

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