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

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

By Jeff Bryant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Arizona… the Massive One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A DeSantis ‘Priority’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Grand Experiment’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Open Season on Private Entities Spending Your Tax Dollars’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Freedom Has a Cost

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the article on the LA Progressive.

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

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

Photo Credit: jcsullivan24 / Flickr

Click here to read the article on the Socialist Project.

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

By Reynard Loki

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Largest Carbon Sink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact of Logging

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

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

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

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

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

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

World’s Largest Wild Salmon Population

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

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

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

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

Importance to Indigenous Tribes

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to Jobs and Economy

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

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

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

Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990

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

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

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

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

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

The Roadless Rule of 2001

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

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

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

Trump Administration Rollback of Roadless Rule

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

GOP leaders welcomed the decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Flickr / jimmywayne

Biden Administration Reinstatement of the Roadless Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans Denounce Reinstatement

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

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

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

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

Indigenous Tribes Welcome Reinstatement of Roadless Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Pledge to End and Reverse Deforestation

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the article on the Socialist Project.

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

How Can We Understand the Passage of Time?

(Photo Credit: DiscoA340 / Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to read the article on Pressenza.

Recent developments in the study of human prehistory hold clues about our times, our world, and ourselves.

By Deborah Barsky and Jan Ritch-Frel

We can all agree that most people want to know about their origins—spanning from their family and ancestral history and even, occasionally, deeper into the evolutionary story.

Lately, this desire has become more palpable in society at large and even taken on urgent tones as we drift away from the lifestyle patterns and traditions that humans relied on for millions of years toward a technoculture that is highly addictive, and hard to understand or break away from.

But the desire to know the deep past doesn’t translate so easily into understanding, especially since the information we encounter is necessarily filtered by our own sociohistorical context. One of the biggest obstacles to gaining a true understanding of the unfolding of humanity’s past is the way that modern societies foster a superficial understanding of the passage of time.

To delve deeply into human prehistory requires adopting a different kind of chronological stance than most of us are accustomed to—not just a longer period of time, but also a sense of evolution infused by the operating rules of biology and its externalities, such as technology and culture. But exploring the past enables us to observe long-term evolutionary trends that are also pertinent in today’s world, elucidating that novel technological behaviors that our ancestors adopted and transformed into culture were not necessarily better, nor more sustainable over time.

Nature is indifferent to the recency of things: whatever promotes our survival is passed on and proliferated through future generations. This Darwinian axiom includes not only anatomical traits, but also cultural norms and technologies.

Shared culture and technologies give people the ongoing sensation of the synchronization of time with each other. The museums and historical sites we visit, as well as the books and documentaries on the human story, overwhelmingly present the past to their audiences through simultaneous or synchronized stages that follow a kind of metric system of conformity in importance. Human events are charted along the direction of either progress or failure.

The archeological record shows us, however, that even though human evolution appears to have taken place as a series of sequential stages advancing our species toward “progress,” in fact, there is no inherent hierarchy to these processes of development.

This takes a while to sink in, especially if you’ve been educated within a cultural framework that explains prehistory as a linear and codependent set of chronological milestones, whose successive stages may be understood by historically elaborated logical systems of cause and effect. It takes an intellectual leap to reject such hierarchical constructions of prehistory and to perceive the past as a diachronous system of nonsynchronous events closely tied to ecological and biological phenomena.

But this endeavor is well worth the effort if it allows people to recognize and make use of the lessons that can be learned from the past.

If we can pinpoint the time, place, and circumstances under which specific technological or social behaviors were adopted by hominins and then follow their evolution through time, then we can more easily understand not only why they were selected in the first place, but also how they evolved and even what their links with the modern human condition may be.

Taking on this approach can help us understand how the reproductive success of our genus, Homo, eventually led up to the emergence of our own species, sapiens, through a complex process that caused some traits to disappear or be replaced, while others were transformed or perpetuated into defining human traits.

While new discoveries are popularizing the exciting new findings dating as far back as the Middle Paleolithic, the public is typically presented with a compressed prehistory that starts at the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. This is understandable, since the more recent archeological register consists of objects and buildings that are in many ways analogous to our own patterns of living. Ignoring the more distant phases of the shared human past, however, has a wider effect of converting our interpretations of prehistory into a sort of timeless mass, almost totally lacking in chronological and even geographical context.

Among recent breakthroughs reaching the public eye, it has been shown that H. sapiens emerged in Africa much earlier than previously thought, some 300,000 years ago. We now know that the first groups of anatomically modern humans arrived on the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea as early as 200,000 years ago, a fact that implies a far longer cohabitation of our species in territories already occupied by other forms of Homo, such as the Neandertals and the Denisovans.

Genomic research is progressively telling us something about what our interactions with these species might have been like, proving not only that these encounters took place, but even that they sometimes involved interbreeding and the conceiving of reproductively viable offspring. Such knowledge about our distant past is therefore making us keenly aware that we only very recently became the last surviving species of a very bushy human family tree.

Because of their great antiquity, these very ancient phases of the human evolutionary story are more difficult to interpret and involve hominins who were physically, cognitively, and behaviorally very different from ourselves.

For this reason, events postdating the onset of the Neolithic Period tend to be more readily shared in our society’s communication venues (e.g., museums and schools), while the older phases of human prehistory often remain shrouded in scientific journals, inaccessible to the general public.

But rendering prehistory without providing the complete picture of the evidence is like reading only the last chapter of a book. In this truncated vision, the vast majority of human development becomes a mere prelude before we move on to be amazed at how modern humans began to create monumental structures, sewage systems, and grain storage silos, for example. Just how we got there remains largely undisclosed to the public at large.

Bringing Prehistory Into the Open

The good news is that the rapid development of modern technologies is presently revolutionizing archeology and the ways that scientific data can be conveyed to society. This revolution is finally making ancient human prehistory understandable to a wider audience.

While many of the world’s prehistory museums still display only the most spectacular finds of classical or other “recent” forms of modern human archeology, we are finally beginning to see more exhibits dedicated to some of the older chapters of the human story. By generating awareness, the public is finally awakening to their meaning and significance, enabling themselves to gain a better understanding of the global condition of humanity and its links with the past.

People are finally beginning to understand why the emergence of the first stone tool technologies some 3 million years ago in Africa was such a landmark innovation that would eventually embark our ancestors onto an alternative evolutionary route that would sharply distinguish us from all other species on the planet.

By developing their stone tool technologies, early hominins provided the basis for what would eventually be recognized as a culture: a transformative trait that transformed us into the technology-dependent species we have become and that continues to shape our lives in unpredictable ways.

Archeologists provide interpretations of these first phases of the human technological adventure thanks to the stone tools left behind by hominins very different from ourselves and the contexts in which they are discovered. Among the authors of these groundbreaking ancient technologies are Homo habilis, the first species attributed to our genus—precisely because of their ability to intentionally modify stone into tools—but also other non-Homo primates, such as Paranthropus and Australopithecines, with which they shared the African landscape for many millennia.

Surprisingly, even at a very early stage beginning some 2,600,000 years ago in Africa, scientists have found that some hominins were systematizing stone toolmaking into a coherent cultural complex grouped under the denomination “Oldowan,” after the eponymous sites situated at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. This implies that stone toolmaking was being transformed at a very early date into an adaptive strategy, because it must have provided hominins with some advantages. From this time onward, our ancestors continued to produce and transmit culture with increasing intensity, a phenomenon that was eventually accompanied by demographic growth and expansions into new lands beyond Africa—as their nascent technologies transformed every aspect of their lives.

Unevenly through time and space, this hugely significant development branched out into the increasingly diverse manifestations of culture that came to characterize the successive hominin species composing the human family tree. Each technocomplex of the Lower Paleolithic, from the Oldowan to the subsequent Acheulian phase (beginning in Africa some 1,750,000 years ago and then spreading into Eurasia up to around 350,000 years ago), and onward into the Middle Paleolithic and beyond, is defined by specific sets of skills and accompanying behavioral shifts. The tools developed in service of those skills reveal to us the sociocultural practices of the hominins who used them.

Fossilized human remains, and the stone tool technologies they developed, provide the keys to understanding more about ourselves. We can comprehend the changes we observe in the archeological register through time thanks to the bodies of material evidence that tell the story of how humans evolved up to the present. It gives us a frame of reference to recognize the directions that our species might be taking as we move into the future.

To see more clearly, we need to explore how this evolution took place, understanding the transformations diachronically, with change often occurring in nonlinear ways. To do so, we need to leave behind models of path dependence that condition our thinking, leading us to believe that particular aspects recognizable to us through our lens of modernity have a forcing effect of change on the next stages of technosocial development.

Human prehistory widens our conceptual lens by taking into consideration not only innate human traits particular to each phase of hominin ancestral evolution, but also the exterior forces at play throughout the shifting climatic conditions that characterize the long time periods we are considering.

In much the same way as biological evolution, some technosocial innovations can emerge and persist, while others may remain latent in the human developmental repertory, providing a baseline for new creations that can be further developed. If proven to be favorable under specific conditions, selected behavioral capacities can be developed to the point of becoming defining aspects of the human condition.

The latent aspects of technology can, in different regions or time frames, be selected for, used, and refined, leading human groups to choose divergent evolutionary pathways and even triggering technological revolutions: when the changes lead to positive results, they can set off wider cultural developments in the populations that use them.

This way of thinking about technosocial evolution also helps to explain why, more often than not, specific cultural phases generally appear in some kind of coherent successive order through space and time, even though the transitions from one to the other—and the related social processes they engender—can appear blurry as we try to make sense of the archeological evidence.

In this case, it is essential to keep in mind that, through time, different hominins also evolved biologically, as toolmaking and its associated social implications had effects on the evolution of the brain. Developing stone tool technologies provided hominins with an evolutionary edge, enabling them to carve out a unique niche in the scheme of things since it improved their capacity to compete for resources with other kinds of animals. Technological and behavioral developments occurred and evolved in a nonlinear fashion because they were unevenly packed in accordance with each specific paleoecological and community setting.

When we look deeper into our prehistory, it is important to remember that the degree of complexity of human achievements was largely dependent upon particular stages of cognitive readiness. Human technosocial evolution thus appears to have global coherency through time because it reflects the successive phases of cognitive readiness attained on an anatomical level by distinct groups of hominins thriving in different paleoecological settings in diverse geographical regions.

While drawing straight lines between specific hominin species and particular kinds of tools presents some pitfalls, science has already demonstrated that cerebral development was (and is) tightly linked to technological evolution. Specific areas of the brain—the neocortical regions of the frontal and temporal lobes responsible for language, symbolic thought, volumetric planning, and other abstract cerebral functions—were merged with toolmaking. Toolmaking contributed to endowing hominins with unique cerebral capacities—in particular, the abilities to communicate complex abstract notions and create multifaceted sociocultural environments.

Different types of symbolic behavior—the use of a system of symbols to communicate—were employed by different hominin species who found them to be positively adaptive. As a result, cerebral and technological evolution were linked into a co-evolutionary process by which early Homo and subsequent hominins developed idiosyncratic brain structures relative to other animals.

Following the Oldowan, the Acheulian cultural phase is commonly (but not uniquely) linked with the arrival of the successful and widely dispersed Homo erectus. It is during this era that humanity produced some of its most significant technological and behavioral breakthroughs, like fire making and the capacity to predetermine the forms they created in stone. The archeological record attributed to the Acheulian bears witness to advanced technosocial standardization, with the advent of symmetrical tools like spheroids or handaxes attesting to the emergence of aesthetic sensitivity.

The expanding repertory of tool types that appeared at this time suggests that hominins were carrying out more diverse activities, while subtle differences observed in the ways of making and doing began to appear in specific regions, forming the foundation of land-linked traditions and social identities.

The fact that these breakthroughs occurred on comparable timescales in widely separate regions of the globe—South Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent—underpins that hominins already living in these regions had reached a comparable stage of cognitive readiness and that the specific conditions favoring the emergence of analogous latent technosocial capacities were ripe for the taking. The huge expanses separating the geographical hotbeds suggest that the Acheulian emerged without interpopulational contact.

The explanation that better fits the evidence is that there was a convergent development in the transition from a fairly simple form of Oldowan stone toolmaking to the more complex and sophisticated Acheulian—when Oldowan toolmakers spread out over the planet, they carried the seeds of the Acheulian with them in their minds, their culture, and in the shapes of the stone tools they brought with them.

Indeed, it was only during the later phases of the Acheulian, when we observe denser demographic trends in Africa and Eurasia, that hominin populations would have developed the social networking necessary for technologies to migrate from place to place through direct communication networking.

A similar process of latency and development is in fact observed even in more recent phases of the human evolutionary process—for example, with the emergence of such complex technosocial achievements as the intentional burial of congeners, the construction of monumental structures, the practices of agriculture and animal husbandry, or the invention of writing.

A diachronous approach to time permits more valuable insights from 7 million years of evidence we have of human development. How we structure our understanding of it can create big opportunities to have a better future.

Click here to read the article on Pressenza.

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

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

Alexander Zaitchik’s Book on the History of Pharma Featured in The New York Review of Books

The following is a review excerpt of Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 Vaccines by Economy for All fellow Alexander Zaitchik. Click here to read the full article.

Unreasonable Terms

In Owning the Sun, Alexander Zaitchik shows how American drug companies have exploited government contracts to pursue profit over public interest.

By Daniel J. Kevles

One of the main corporate participants in Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s multibillion-dollar crash program to create and produce a Covid-19 vaccine, was Moderna. The federal government gave Moderna, which in 2019 was a small, unprofitable pharmaceutical firm, some $2.48 billion for vaccine development and bought millions of doses at $26 each for essentially free distribution to US residents. Moderna’s profits soared to $21 billion over the course of the pandemic. In late 2022, when federal subsidies seemed on the verge of ending, the company announced that it would soon offer an updated version of its vaccine at as much as $130 per dose. Many Americans were outraged.

Moderna’s behavior will not surprise readers of the journalist Alexander Zaitchik’s Owning the Sun, an indictment of American drug companies and the federal government for all too often privileging profits over health, and of the research universities, medical professionals, and philanthropists who have been deeply complicit with them. Ranging for the most part from the early years of the United States to the Covid-19 pandemic, the book shows how the drug industry and its affiliates operated in a state of ethical grace through much of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth fell from it with accelerating speed.

Zaitchik relies heavily upon recent studies that have called the prescription drug industry and its allies to account, for example Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (2003) and Graham Dutfield’s That High Design of Purest Gold: A Critical History of the Pharmaceutical Industry, 1880–2020 (2020). What distinguishes Owning the Sun is its aim to be a “people’s history” that tells the interrelated stories of drug commerce and the patent system “from the perspective of the dissenters, critics, and antagonists.”

Click here to read the full article.

Ancient Roots: A Promising New Project to Organize Humanity’s Universal Heritage

(Photo Credit: Jebulon / Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to read the article on Resilience.org

An international group of researchers and data scientists are creating a comprehensive database of the world’s archaeological knowledge—and changing our understanding of humans’ prehistoric heritage.

By Eric Laursen

Archaeology isn’t what it was in Indiana Jones’s heyday. The traditional image of the khaki-clad researcher scrambling over an excavation site with rock hammer and camel-hair brush has been supplemented by aerial and satellite photography, CT scanners and 3D modeling, and lidar that can isolate the smallest details of long-buried settlements. What archaeologists do with the artifacts and data they gather is changing dramatically as well, as they use network science and new software tools to map the complex connections between regional economic networks in the millennia before written history.

With this new, technology-driven approach, researchers can form a far more comprehensive picture of early communities’ ties with other human clusters sometimes thousands of miles away, by examining the goods and raw materials they exchanged and tracing these from their points of origin to the far-flung places where they were abandoned and then rediscovered centuries later. This is yielding additional insights into social inequality and power relations within communities, differences and similarities between communities living next to each other, and patterns of migration and settlement.

“You get more of a sense of a dynamic,” says Tim Kerig, an archaeologist at Kiel University’s ROOTS Cluster of Excellence in Social, Environmental, and Cultural Connectivity in Past Societies, in Germany, “of people coming from other places and how, over the generations, they filled that landscape. So we’re looking at the whole system, over not centuries but millennia.”

Network science is the study of complex relationships—and probable relationships—between physical, biological, social, and cognitive phenomena. Applying network science to archaeology was an idea in the minds of researchers as far back as the 1960s, says Kerig, whose own work focuses on the European Neolithic period—from about 8000 BC to 2000 BC—and the evolution of social inequalities. But while interest grew in succeeding decades, archaeologists lacked the tools to easily collate and analyze the millions of data points that had been gathered over many decades. The few efforts to do so proceeded punishingly slowly, on top of which, there was less interest at the time in exploring the connections that material and economic exchanges between far-flung communities could reveal.

“Sociological questions were mostly answered by looking at goods that were found in graves—the ‘sphere of kings’—which tended to be highly valued luxury items,” Kerig says, while archaeologists were less interested in “the daily stuff”: fragments of flint or stone objects or implements that made up the fabric of most people’s everyday lives. This was partly due to an overabundance of these humbler items. “Don’t forget that at a Stone Age site in Denmark, for example, you might have 100,000 artifacts to deal with, and they all look to most of us exactly the same.”

“Big Exchange” is the name of a project that an international cluster of scholars and data scientists, including Kerig, launched in 2020 with the aim of using digital tools to break down the barriers to applying network science to archaeology. The most critical hurdle they faced was overspecialization. Traditionally, archaeologists have focused on specific objects or raw materials—amber, obsidian, jade, flint, other metals—rather than the totality of findings at a given site, which prevented them from seeing the totality of that community’s networks of exchange. Big Exchange’s first objective is to create a database that collates all these materials and makes them available for more sophisticated, cross-referenced study and analysis.

“The approach of our project is to include all recordable raw materials, their find locations and places of origin in the analysis for the period from the end of the Middle Stone Age [or Mesolithic, 10,000 years ago,] to Antiquity,” Johanna Hilpert, a Big Exchange postdoc researcher at the ROOTS Cluster, told Phys.org in July 2023. “This can only be done by means of network analysis and with AI [artificial intelligence].”

A Deeper, More Granular Understanding

As of July 2023, Big Exchange has already collated data from 6,000 sites from which millions of artifacts have been recovered, and expects to complete the task in another two and a half years. The objective is to collect and digitize as much information as possible and establish classifications for all of it—for example, by site location, time period, and how far a material was found from its place of origin.

Establishing the database itself has not proven to be an easy task. Some of the source data for Big Exchange had already been digitized in some form; some of it is being digitized for the first time. It quickly became clear that the way researchers analyze these findings has changed over the past hundred years, “and so you can imagine all kinds of technical problems,” Kerig says.

Big Exchange used PostgreSQL, a common relational database management system. Working bottom-up, they started by inputting the individual datasets, developing the formal structure of the database, including comparisons of attributes and concepts, as they went along. Once all existing data is integrated, the database can be used by researchers working to reconstruct long-vanished economic and social networks.

But the project is already producing results. One study, published this year in the journal Antiquity, analyzed the geographic expansion of one of the most studied Neolithic cultures, the Linear Pottery culture (LPC) that extended from roughly the present-day Netherlands to the Black Sea and flourished from about 5500 BC to 4500 BC.

Applying a heterogeneous information network (HIN) analysis—a sophisticated graphic model that can map the relationships between diverse but interconnected sets of data—to raw materials in circulation at the time, researchers were able to detect differences in material culture between the northwest subgroup of the LPC and other subgroups that surrounded it. For example, sites associated with the northwest group contained no shells of Spondylus, a bivalve mollusk, that were a prestige good in Neolithic burial sites farther east in the Carpathian Mountains.

Previously, researchers assumed this was because of poor conditions for preservation in the area that the northwest group occupied. But HIN mapping revealed that the region lacking Spondylus shells was much wider than the area where preservation was difficult, and that it contained a good supply of flint that had originated much farther west. This suggested that the blend of raw materials used by the northwestern group wasn’t dictated by local availability, but by cultural or economic choice, linking the group to exchange networks that other LPC subgroups didn’t participate in, in spite of the fact that those other subgroups were close neighbors.

The HIN analysis allowed the Big Exchange researchers to develop a deeper, more granular understanding of the LPC—a culture that archaeologists thought they had already acquired a detailed knowledge of—that teases out previously undetected cultural and economic differences between subgroups.

Combining Big Exchange’s practice of looking at all the objects found at a particular excavation site with its focus on networks of exchange, the project is also producing new insights into inequality and power relations within groups. “The meaning of these objects changes depending on the regional and chronological context,” says Kerig. For instance, a fragile item found in a protective leather wrapping, with no evident practical use, will tend to come from a greater distance than more common items, indicating that a distant origin and the difficulty of obtaining it conferred a prestige value on the object. A large finding of such objects would indicate that an elite was emerging in the community connected with that site.

Clearing Away Cultural Bias

Already, however, the researchers are confronting limitations in the data they are collecting: limitations that point to larger issues. The vast majority of known archaeological sites outside the Americas are in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Near East—a comparatively small area—with far fewer elsewhere, Kerig notes. Exchange networks in the Neolithic era certainly stretched far beyond these two regions. The more connections revealed by projects like Big Exchange, the more urgent will be the need to expand excavation and recovery into other parts of Eurasia; one goal of Big Exchange is to offer guidance as to where the most promising sites might be located.

Cultural bias is another issue. “We are not only collating datasets; we are also collating the authors of the datasets,” Kerig says. For some sites that he and his colleagues wanted to include, no actual data is available; perhaps research began in those areas but then was interrupted, or else documentation was lost during wartime, and all that remains are published or unpublished writings, often with less quantitative content and heavily informed by the preconceptions of the time. While evidence can be teased out of these sources, it has to be handled with care.

“These more qualitative things are very, very important—perhaps worth more than the actual datasets,” says Kerig. “But we meet regularly to discuss these things, and it’s new for all of us. I would expect that we will get a bloody nose if we don’t.” This is where technologies like artificial intelligence could become more useful in the future, by helping researchers to tease out valid observations from the mass of culturally biased material.

Big Exchange’s most pressing challenge, however, is keeping the project going. The painstaking work of inputting and mapping data into the project’s evolving database is currently being carried out by students at the Kiel ROOTS Cluster. “It’s a very labor-intensive thing,” says Kerig. He is now looking for a long-term home for Big Exchange that can host its growing data-analytic treasure trove and make it available to archaeologists and other investigators in coming decades.

But he remains hopeful about Big Exchange’s future. “I am pretty sure that something is coming in in this direction,” he says.

Click here to read the article on Resilience.org

Eric Laursen is an independent journalist, historian, and activist. He is the author of The People’s Pension, The Duty to Stand Aside, and The Operating System. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including In These Times, the Nation, and the Arkansas Review. He lives in Buckland, Massachusetts.

New Fellow for Human Bridges: Yann Perreau

The Independent Media Institute is pleased to announce that Yann Perreau will join the Human Bridges project as a writing fellow.

We are excited for his contributions to this project in our growing scope of media coverage, art and museums initiatives, and efforts in higher education.

Yann Perreau has a long background as an author, journalist, educator, and curator. His books include It Starts With One Person: Stories From the Climate Generation (Denoël, Paris, 2021) and Incognito: Anonymity, Stories of a Counterculture (Éditions Grasset, Paris, 2017).

His articles have appeared in Le Monde, Libération, Les Inrockuptibles, France Culture, the London Review of Books, East of Borneo, the Nation, and the Washington Post. He has served as a cultural attaché for both the French Embassy in London and the French Consulate in Los Angeles, California.

He also opened the Here Is Elsewhere contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles. He holds an MPhil in art history from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

What the NY Times Got Wrong About a Key Party Switch in North Carolina

Click here to read the article on EdPolitics.

Tricia Cotham’s defection to the Republican Party wasn’t about her relationships with fellow lawmakers; it was about the influence of big money and the charter school industry.

By Jeff Bryant

A July 30, 2023, headline in the New York Times promised to give readers an “inside” story about why North Carolina lawmaker Tricia Cotham changed her political allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in April and handed conservatives a veto-proof majority in the state House. But the ensuing story shed little new light on what motivated her decision to flip and overlooked how her deep dive into the right-wing networks promoting charter schools was likely instrumental in steering her change in political leanings.

For sure, Times journalists Kate Kelly and David Perlmutt are correct in reporting Cotham’s actions as having profound impacts in a purple state, but they erred in adopting an unlikely storyline about who and what lured her to jump.

As I’ve previously reported, Cotham’s own explanation for her party switch strains credibility. And just because Republican officials encouraged her to run in 2022—the Times article’s supposed big reveal—doesn’t mean they, or the Democrats with whom she had purportedly grown disenchanted, were the only, or most important, actors who mattered in her decision.

Yet Kelly and Perlmutt chose to amplify that narrative rather than delve more deeply into Cotham’s legislative record and the business associates she cultivated in the years she was out of office, from 2016 to 2022.

As I reported, Cotham’s split from the Democratic Party first became evident toward the end of her legislative tenure from 2007 to 2016. At the end of that period, Cotham had already decided to leave the North Carolina House to seek office in Congress. But she was soundly drubbed in the Democratic primary contest and returned to Raleigh, perhaps facing joblessness.

It was at that time that Cotham, who had voted strictly the Democratic Party line on legislation related to charter schools, chose to buck her party’s majority to join with just four other Democrats to vote for the creation of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD, whose name was eventually changed to Innovative School District (ISD), was created to take charge of low-performing schools and hand them over to charter school management companies.

But Kelly and Perlmutt either didn’t look back that far into Cotham’s legislative record or didn’t believe that vote was important. “In office, Ms. Cotham had criticized charter schools, but now her firm supported private investments in the public school system and charter schools,” was their open-and-shut assessment.

Nor did they bother to note to whom that vote would have mattered the most—Oregon billionaire John Bryan, who not only bankrolled the lobbying effort to enact the ASD/ISD but also founded the Challenge Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for charter schools, operates a firm that builds charter schools, and started a charter school management company called TeamCFA.

Bryan has also been described as “a national figure in libertarian circles when it comes to charter schools” and a donor who “contributes heavily and regularly to conservative causes.”

Cotham’s vote for the ISD preceded a series of career opportunities for her, which the Times article mostly ignored.

The first, beginning in 2017, was a stint at McGuireWoods Consulting, a highly influential lobbying firm whose clients include a long list of organizations closely associated with the charter school industry and right-wing school choice advocacy, including at least one organization funded by the Challenge Foundation. McGuireWoods was also the lobbying firm pushing the bill to create the ISD.

The second in Cotham’s series of business opportunities, which Kelly and Perlmutt did report on, came in 2019 when she was hired to lead Achievement for All Children. Achievement for All Children, the reporters noted, was picked to “turn around” Southside-Ashpole Elementary, a “foundering public school” in the state.

But what Kelly and Perlmutt left out of their reporting was that Achievement for All Children was a charter management company previously led by Tony Helton, who, as I reported, had previously worked for Bryan’s firm TeamCFA. Also, they completely left out the fact that Southside-Ashpole was under the control of the state because it was a school—the only school—incorporated into the ISD.

While Kelly and Perlmutt noted Cotham’s years as a lobbyist included a business relationship with C. Philip Byers, whom the article called “a major donor to state Republicans” and “president of a company that built charter schools,” the reporters didn’t mention that the company he led (Challenge Foundation Properties) was part of Bryan’s Challenge Foundation enterprises.

Cotham’s ties to right-wing individuals and organizations promoting charter schools don’t stop there, as my article reported. But wouldn’t it stand to reason that if Kelly and Perlmutt were to examine all the various possible influencers in Cotham’s decision to switch parties, then focusing on the billionaire in the room would make the most sense?Further, reporting that Cotham’s switch to the Republican Party was mostly because of her changing relationships with fellow legislators, on both sides of the aisle, as the Times article suggests, trivializes a matter of huge import in a state that figures to be pivotal in the 2024 elections. It also overlooks the growing influence of the big money behind the charter school industry in American politics and its destructive force in the Democratic Party.

Click here to read the article on EdPolitics.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

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

The 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.

Why Are Archaeologists Unable to Find Evidence for a Ruling Class of the Indus Civilization?

Click here to read the article on Resilience.

What we can learn from an ancient egalitarian civilization in the Indus Valley.

By Adam S. Green

Little more than a century ago, British and Indian archaeologists began excavating the remains of what they soon realized was a previously unknown civilization in the Indus Valley. Straddling parts of Pakistan and India and reaching into Afghanistan, the culture these explorers unearthed had existed at the same time as those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and covered a much larger area. It was also astonishingly advanced: sophisticated and complex, boasting large, carefully laid out cities, a relatively affluent population, writing, plumbing and baths, wide trade connections, and even standardized weights and measures.

What kind of a society was the Indus Valley Civilization, as it came to be known? Who lived there and how did they organize themselves? Archaeologists and other experts ask these questions to this day, but the first explorers were already noticing some unique features.

In Mesopotamia and Egypt, “much money and thought were lavished on the building of magnificent temples for the gods and on palaces and tombs of kings,” observed Sir John Marshall, who supervised the excavation of two of the five main cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, “but the rest of the people seemingly had to content themselves with insignificant dwellings of mud.” In the Indus Valley, “the picture is reversed and the finest structures were those erected for the convenience of the citizens. Temples, palaces, and tombs there may of course have been, but if so, they are either still undiscovered or so like other edifices as not to be readily distinguishable from them.”

In its heyday, from about BC 2600 to BC 1900, the Indus Valley Civilization created what may have been the world’s most egalitarian early complex society, defying long-held presumptions about the relationship between urbanization and inequality in the past. Its large cities were expansive, planned, and boasted large-scale architecture, including roomy residential houses, and smaller settlements in the surrounding areas appeared to support a similar culture with a similar standard of living.

The most tantalizing feature of the ancient Indus Valley remains is what they appear to lack: any trace of a ruling class or managerial elite. This defies the longtime theoretical assumption that any complex society must have stratified social relations: that collective action, urbanization, and economic specialization only develop in a very unequal culture that takes direction from the top, and that all social trajectories evolve toward a common and universal outcome, the state. Yet, here was a stable, prosperous civilization that appeared to remain that way for centuries without a state, without priest-kings or merchant oligarchs, and without a rigid caste system or warrior class. How did they manage it?

Unfortunately, in the early decades of exploration and research, archaeologists tended to assume that lack of evidence of a top-down, hierarchical society in the Indus Valley remains meant only that they had not yet been found. Some have argued that lack of evidence of inequality only indicates that the region’s ruling class was very clever at disguising the boundaries between itself and other social strata. Pointing to the fact that Indus Valley burial sites contain no monumental tombs, some researchers suggest that the rulers may have been cremated or deposited in rivers, as was the practice in other imperial cultures. But cremation is not archaeologically invisible; the remains of other cultures often include evidence of it.

More recently, archaeologists have been willing to go back to the original explorers’ observations and use the evidence directly in front of them to develop theories about ancient life in the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeological data from South Asia has improved greatly: and there is much more of it. Numerous Indus sites are now known to archaeologists that decades ago were not, and the environmental contexts that enabled urbanization in the region—climate, natural resources—are now much clearer. Archaeologists have also honed a strong set of tools for identifying inequality and class divisions: from mortuary data, palace assemblages, aggrandizing monuments, written records, and soon, possibly, from household data. Yet, in a century of research, archaeologists have found no evidence of a ruling class in the Indus Valley that is comparable to those recovered in other early complex societies.

In the late 1990s, Indus archaeologists started to consider a new concept that seemed to better fit the facts. Heterarchy asserts that complex political organization, including cities, can emerge through the interaction of many different, unranked social groups, rather than from top-down decisions by an elite: that cooperation, not domination, can produce collective action. It’s now widely argued that multiple social groups contributed to the construction of Indus cities and the economic activities that took place in them, and that none seemed to dominate the others.

Bolstering this argument, no evidence exists that any group of Indus producers was excluded from the use of scarce materials that craftspeople had to obtain from long distances away, or that particular groups limited access to those materials to seize a higher position for themselves in Indus society. One of the most distinctive and technically dazzling products of the Indus culture are stamped seals engraved with imagery and text; over 2,500 have been found at Mohenjo-daro alone. But the seals were produced by many different groups of artisans in many locations, and there is no evidence that a ruling class controlled production. Technological styles tended to cross-cut different groups of artisans, indicating a great deal of openness and knowledge sharing.

Indus city-dwellers built large- and small-scale public buildings; the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro is a massive structure that contained a large paved bath assembled from tightly fitted baked bricks, waterproofed with bitumen and supplied with pipes and drains that would have allowed control over water flow and temperature. At Mohenjo-daro, nonresidential structures were built atop brick platforms that were as substantial as the structures erected on top of them, and would have required a great deal of coordinated action. It’s been calculated that just one of the foundation platforms would have required 4 million days of labor, or 10,000 builders working for more than a year.

Yet, at both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, these large nonresidential structures were relatively accessible, suggesting that they were “public,” as opposed to palaces or administrative centers restricted to a privileged class. Some of these may have served as specialized spaces for exchange, negotiation, and interaction between different groups clustered in neighborhoods or along important streets and roads. These spaces may have helped the city-dwellers maintain a high degree of consensus on planning and policy and ensured that no one group was able to accumulate wealth at the expense of the rest.

The Indus Valley remains have yet to yield all of their riches. The Indus script has yet to be deciphered, and we still don’t know why the civilization started to decline in the second millennium BC. One of the most positive recent developments has been a dramatic increase in data and interest in the civilization’s small-scale settlements, which may shed light on the question whether these settlements were qualitatively different from one another or from the cities—and how far Indus egalitarianism extended across its broader landscape.

What we have already found, however, suggests that egalitarianism may have been a boon to collective action: that distinct social groups may have been more willing to invest in collective action if the benefits were not restricted to a subset of elites. That suggests that heterarchy may act as a kind of brake on coercive power amongst social groups, and across society as a whole.

If this is the case, and after a century of research on the Indus civilization, archaeologists have not found evidence for a ruling class comparable what’s been recovered in other early complex societies, then it’s time to address the Indus Valley’s egalitarianism.

Urbanization, collective action, and technological innovation are not driven by the agendas of an exclusionary ruling class, the evidence suggests, and can occur in their total absence. The Indus Valley was egalitarian not because it lacked complexity, but rather because a ruling class is not a prerequisite for social complexity. It challenges us to rethink the fundamental connections between collective action and inequality.

The priest-king is dead: or, in this case, most likely never existed.

Click here to read the article on Resilience.

Adam S. Green is a lecturer in sustainability at the University of York. He is an archaeological anthropologist focused on South Asia, specializing in the comparative study of early states through the lenses of technology, the environment, and political economy. Follow him on Twitter.