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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

When Corporate Media Fail, Independent Media Rise Up

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Corporate media outlets have often furthered racist narratives, and do so even today. In contrast, independent media outlets have centered racial justice, offering platforms to marginalized communities.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Right-wing media outlets such as Fox News have long pushed racist narratives to further their goals. And, outlets like the New York Times—the so-called “liberal media”—do too little, too late, to push back; it falls to the ranks of independent media outlets to create and promote counternarratives based on racial justice.

This is not a new phenomenon. Pacifica Radio, where I spent nearly two decades as a radio programmer, houses in its archive a rich library of recordings of civil rights leaders who are considered iconic heroes today, but who, during their lifetimes, were generally ignored or even vilified by the establishment press.

From talks by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to James Baldwin and Angela Davis, and almost everyone in between, Pacifica Radio’s journalists painstakingly recorded speeches and interviews featuring movement leaders and activists of color considered too controversial for the white-dominated press. Meanwhile, their mainstream counterparts only found the courage to do the same decades later, after society had concluded that the Black Freedom movement was on the right side of history.

That trend continues today.

Believing Black Accounts of Injustice

On December 22, 2014, I invited Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, for an interview on my live morning drive-time radio show on 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles (also televised on Free Speech TV). Together with her colleagues Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, Cullors had helped to coin and popularize the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” in summer 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Cullors, now a best-selling author and a sought-after speaker, at that time was not as well known to corporate media outlets and was rarely offered a platform to discuss ideas that corporate media outlets felt uncomfortable tackling.

She told me the origin story of the simple, but powerful phrase “Black Lives Matter” in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal:

“I just lost it, I was crying and disturbed. We have all this evidence that this young man was hunted by George Zimmerman, and yet George Zimmerman still gets off the hook. So, what do our lives mean?… For me, it was this intense amount of grief that came over me. But I’m also an organizer, and so I quickly moved my grief into action, and I just started going on social media and started writing [to] Black people and saying that I love them and checking on other Black people.

“Myself and Alicia Garza got into a Facebook conversation and she said this thing—to Black folks in particular who were saying, ‘We should have known better, of course they were gonna treat us this way’—she started saying to folks, ‘You know, I’m always going to be surprised. I’m never going to let them numb me from saying that our lives don’t matter.’ And she said, ‘Our lives matter, Black lives matter.’

“And then under the Facebook thread, I hashtagged ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And so, from there, literally in that moment, it was like a light bulb for so many Black people, and on social media at that point. And I started tagging Black folks saying, ‘Your life matters, Black Lives Matter.’ I started tagging all my Black friends. I got on the phone with [Alicia] that night. We said we wanted this to be a project. And so, a couple of days later on July 15, riKu Matsuda from ‘Flip the Script’ here [on KPFK] called me up to be on the show and I was going to talk about Black Lives Matter. It happened very organically.”

When I asked her if there was a link between the police killings of Black people and the history of Black people being lynched in America, Cullors said, “I think Black Lives Matter [activists]… are making those connections. And I think mainstream media is not talking about this.”

Although most news media in 2020 temporarily and superficially embraced the idea behind Black Lives Matter—the simple notion that Black people are human—they largely ignored it for the first seven years. Luckily, in the meantime Cullors had a platform to speak about her crucial work: the independent press.

‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’

Cullors had brought with her to the 2014 interview a young woman named Jasmine Richards who had become newly politicized that summer when a white police officer named Darren Wilson killed a young Black teenager named Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Richards went on to lead a chapter of Black Lives Matter in Pasadena, California, where I live.

In what was one of her first live interviews, Richards made an astute observation about why protesters had engaged in property damage during the racial justice uprisings in Ferguson: “They weren’t looting and messing up things to take them. They were burning things and messing things up so people could pay attention, so CNN could pay attention, ’cause that’s the only way a Black life would matter, is if you mess up some stuff and go crazy… What you see on TV is not really what it is.”

The idea that “if it bleeds, it leads” has long been a corporate media mantra, one that activists have taken note of. But independent journalists have generally refused to succumb to such pressures. Freed from the yoke of ratings and market valuations, independent journalists were able to explore and embrace the idea behind “Black Lives Matter” years before the corporate media caught on.

Similarly, independent media did not need to see videotaped proof of racist police brutality to understand that it was a systemic problem. In the era before smartphones, police claims (“he reached for his gun!”) countered those of Black survivors, and corporate media readily accepted law enforcement’s word. But independent media outlets, understanding the power dynamic between police and their victims, did not require proof of Black people’s word. If Black folks said they experienced racist police brutality, that was reason enough to investigate and report.

Although there are exceptions, the narratives at work in independent media spaces have generally questioned authority and been mindful of Black people’s humanity and truthfulness, whereas corporate media outlets have tended to reproduce an internalized narrative that police—and all other authorities—are almost always right.

Connecting the Dots to Build Racial Justice Narratives

Reluctant to connect dots and identify patterns in the public interest, corporate media outlets have often presented stories as if they are isolated incidents unconnected from one another. Malkia Devich-Cyril, founding director of MediaJustice, noted, “In stories about people of color, about Black people, in particular, the [media] coverage ends up being episodic versus thematic. History and context are lost in these stories.” For consumers of this type of programming, the political landscape can appear bewildering and overwhelming, best left to the “experts” to make sense of.

But context matters, especially in the case of Black Lives Matter. When presented in isolation, the phrase can appear jarring to those who enjoy white racial privilege. It can suggest that Black people are asserting their sovereign right to live in a way that’s confrontational to notions of racial hierarchy. It should not have surprised us, then, that the defensive rejoinders of “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” emerged soon after #BlackLivesMatter was formulated.

When contextualized within the historical arc of racial violence facing Black America—tracing back to the barbarity of enslavement, the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, the systemic and institutional racist structures that persist—the meaning behind the phrase “Black Lives Matter” becomes crystal clear. Black Americans are demanding that the nation start valuing their lives, history, and rights, for it simply hasn’t done so.

It is common practice within independent media to invoke history, to link seemingly disparate phenomena via common threads, to see the patterns that emerge, and to be unafraid to craft narratives with long historical arcs. This is one aspect of what sets us apart from corporate media. And it is what helps readers and viewers of such media to make better sense of the world and its injustices.

In contrast, by reporting isolated stories with little background or historical framing, corporate media outlets rely on the internalized racist narratives promoted by right-wing media outlets to fill in the blanks for readers and viewers.

Click here to read the article on ZNet.

This excerpt is adapted from chapter two of Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice by Sonali Kolhatkar. Copyright © 2023 by Sonali Kolhatkar. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books. www.citylights.com. It was produced for the web by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Ancient Patterns of Migration

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Today’s hot-button issue is actually as old as the human race.

By Deborah Barsky

We live in an era of mass migration. According to the United Nations’ World Migration Report 2022, there were 281 million international migrants in 2020, equaling 3.6 percent of the global population. That’s well over twice the number in 1990 and over three times the estimated number in 1970. In countries that receive them, migrants are often blamed, rightly or wrongly, for everything from higher crime to declining wages to social and cultural disruption.

But the frictions provoked by migration are not new problems; they are deeply embedded in human history and even prehistory. Taking a long-term, cultural-historical perspective on human population movements can help us reach a better understanding of the forces that have governed them over time, and that continue to do so. By anchoring our understanding in data from the archeological record, we can uncover the hidden trends in human migration patterns and discern (or at least form more robust hypotheses about) our species’ present condition—and, perhaps, formulate useful future scenarios.

Globalization in the modern context, including large-scale migrations and the modern notion of the “state,” traces back to Eurasia in the period when humans first organized themselves into spatially delimited clusters united by imaginary cultural boundaries. The archeological record shows that after the last glacial period—ending about 11,700 years ago—intensified trade sharpened the concept of borders even further. This facilitated the control and manipulation of ever-larger social units by intensifying the power of symbolic constructions of identity and the self.

Then as now, cultural consensus created and reinforced notions of territorial unity by excluding “others” who lived in different areas and displayed different behavioral patterns. Each nation elaborated its own story with its own perceived succession of historical events. These stories were often modified to favor some members of the social unit and justify exclusionist policies toward peoples classified as others. Often, as they grew more elaborate, these stories left prehistory by the wayside, conveniently negating the common origins of the human family. The triggers that may first have prompted human populations to migrate into new territories were probably biological and subject to changing climatic conditions. Later, and especially after the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens, the impulse to migrate assumed new facets linked to culture.

From Nomadism to Migration

The oldest migrations by hominins—the group consisting of humans, extinct human species, and all our immediate ancestors—took place after the emergence of our genus, Homo, in Africa some 2.8 million years ago and coincided roughly with the appearance of the first recognizably “human” technologies: systematically modified stones. Interestingly, these early “Oldowan” tool kits (after the Olduvai Gorge site in Tanzania) were probably made not only by our genus but also by other hominins, including Paranthropus and Australopithecines.

What role did stone tools play in these early steps along our evolutionary path? Archeology tells us that ancient humans increasingly invested in toolmaking as an adaptive strategy that provided them with some advantages for survival. We see this in the noticeable increase in the geographical distribution of archeological sites beginning about 2 million years ago. This coincided with rising populations and also with the first significant hominin migrations out of Africa and into Eurasia.

Toolmaking in Oldowan technocomplexes—distinct cultures that use specific technologies—shows the systematic repetition of very specific chains of operations applied to stone. This suggests that the techniques must have been learned and then incorporated into the sociobehavioral norms of the hominin groups that practiced them. In fact, there are similarities between the first Eurasian stone tool kits and those produced at the same time in Africa. Technological know-how was being learned and transmitted—and that implies that hominins were entering into a whole new realm of culture.

While the archeological record dating to this period is still fragmentary, there is evidence of a hominin presence in widely separated parts of Eurasia—China and Georgia—from as early as 2 million to 1.8 million years ago; we know that hominins were also present in the Near East and Western Europe by around 1.6 million to 1.4 million years ago. While there is no evidence suggesting that they had mastered fire making, their ability to thrive in a variety of landscapes—even in regions quite different from their original African savannah home—demonstrates their impressive adaptive flexibility. I believe that we can attribute this capacity largely to toolmaking and socialization.

How can we envision these first phases of human migrations?

We know that there were different species of Homo (Homo georgicus, Homo antecessor) and that these pioneering groups were free-ranging. Population density was low, implying that different groups rarely encountered each other in the same landscape. While they certainly competed for resources with other large carnivores, this was probably manageable thanks to a profusion of natural resources and the hominins’ technological competence.

From around 1.75 million years ago in Africa and 1 million years ago in Eurasia, these hominins and their related descendants created new types of stone tool kits, referred to as “Acheulian” (after the Saint-Acheul site in France). These are remarkable for their intricacy, the standardization of their design, and the dexterity with which they were fashioned. While the Acheulian tool kits contained a fixed assortment of tool types, some tools for the first time displayed regionally specific designs that prehistorians have identified with specific cultural groups. As early as 1 million years ago, they had also learned to make fire.

Acheulian-producing peoples—principally of the Homo erectus group—were a fast-growing population, and evidence of their presence appears in a wide variety of locations that sometimes yield high densities of archeological finds. While nomadic, Acheulian hominins came to occupy a wide geographical landscape. By the final Acheulian phase, beginning around 500,000 years ago, higher population density would have increased the likelihood of encounters between groups that we know were ranging within more strictly defined geographical radiuses. Home base-type habitats emerged, indicating that these hominin groups returned cyclically to the same areas, which can be identified by characteristic differences in their tool kits.

After the Oldowan, the Acheulean was the longest cultural phase in human history, lasting some 1.4 million years; toward its end, our genus had reached a sufficiently complex stage of cultural and behavioral development to promulgate a profoundly new kind of cognitive awareness: the awareness of self, accompanied by a sense of belonging within a definable cultural unit. This consciousness of culturally based differences eventually favored the separation of groups living in diverse areas based on geographically defined behavioral and technological norms. This was a hugely significant event in human evolution, implying the first inklings of “identity” as a concept founded on symbolically manufactured differences: that is, on ways of doing or making things.

At the same time, the evidence suggests that networking between these increasingly distinct populations intensified, favoring all sorts of interchange: exchange of mates to improve gene pool variability, for example, and sharing of technological know-how to accelerate and improve adaptive processes. We can only speculate about other kinds of relations that might have developed—trading of stories, beliefs, customs, or even culinary or medicinal customs—since “advanced” symbolic communicative networking, emblematic of both Neandertals and humans, has so far only been recognized from the Middle Paleolithic period, from 350,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Importantly, no evidence from the vast chronological periods we have outlined so far suggests that these multilayered encounters involved significant inter- or intraspecies violence.

That remained the case moving into the Middle Paleolithic, as the human family expanded to include other species of Homo over a wide territorial range: Neandertals, Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, Homo naledi, Nesher Ramla Homo, and even the first Homo sapiens. Thanks to advances in the application of genetic studies to the paleoanthropological record, we now know that interbreeding took place between several of the species known to have coexisted in Eurasia: humans, Neandertals, and Denisovans. Once again, the fossil evidence thus far does not support the hypotheses that these encounters involved warfare or other forms of violence. By around 150,000 years ago, at least six different species of Homo occupied much of Eurasia, from the Siberian steppes to the tropical Southeast Asian islands, and still no fossil evidence appears of large-scale interpopulational violence.

Some 100,000 years later, however, other varieties appear to have died away, and Homo sapiens became the only Homo species still occupying the planet. And occupy it they did: By some time between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, most of the Earth’s islands and continents document human presence. Now expert in migrating into new lands, human populations flourished in constantly growing numbers, overexploiting other animal species as their dominion steadily enlarged.

Without written records, it’s impossible to know with any certainty what kinds of relationships or hierarchies might have existed during the final phases of the Paleolithic. Archeologists can only infer from the patchy remains of material culture that patterns of symbolic complexity were intensifying exponentially. Art, body decoration, and incredibly advanced tool kits all bear witness to socially complex behaviors that probably also involved the cementing of hierarchical relationships within sharply distinct social units.

By the end of the last glacial period and into the Neolithic and, especially, protohistoric times—when sedentarism and, eventually, urbanism, began but before written records appear—peoples were defining themselves through distinct patterns and standards of manufacturing culture, divided by invented geographic frontiers within which they united to protect and defend the amassed goods and lands that they claimed as their own property. Obtaining more land became a decisive goal for groups of culturally distinct peoples, newly united into large clusters, striving to enrich themselves by increasing their possessions. As they conquered new lands, the peoples they defeated were absorbed or, if they refused to relinquish their culture, became the have-nots of a newly established order.

An Imagined World

After millions of years of physical evolution, growing expertise, and geographic expansion, our singular species had created an imagined world in which differences with no grounding in biological or natural configurations coalesced into multilayered social paradigms defined by inequality in individual worth—a concept measured by the quality and quantity of possessions. Access to resources—rapidly transforming into property—formed a fundamental part of this progression, as did the capacity to create ever-more efficient technological systems by which humans obtained, processed, and exploited those resources.

Since then, peoples of shared inheritance have established strict protocols for assuring their sense of membership in one or another national context. Documents proving birthright guarantee that “outsiders” are kept at a distance and enable strict control by a few chosen authorities, maintaining a stronghold against any possible breach of the system. Members of each social unit are indoctrinated through an elaborate preestablished apprenticeship, institutionally reinforced throughout every facet of life: religious, educational, family, and workplace.

Peoples belonging to “alien” constructed realities have no place within the social unit’s tightly knit hierarchy, on the assumption that they pose a threat by virtue of their perceived difference. For any person outside of a context characterized by a relative abundance of resources, access to the required documents is generally denied; for people from low-income countries seeking to better their lives by migrating, access to documents is either extremely difficult or impossible, guarded by sentinels charged with determining identitarian “belonging.” In the contemporary world, migration has become one of the most strictly regulated and problematic of human activities.

It should be no surprise, then, that we are also experiencing a resurgence of nationalistic sentiment worldwide, even as we face the realities of global climate deregulation; nations now regard the race to achieve exclusive access to critical resources as absolutely urgent. The protectionist response of the world’s privileged, high-income nations includes reinforcing conjectured identities to stoke fear and sometimes even hatred of peoples designated as others who wish to enter “our” territories as active and rightful citizens.

Thanks to the very ancient creation of these conceptual barriers, the “rightful” members of privileged social units—the haves—can feel justified in defending and validating their exclusion of others—the have-nots—and comfortably deny them access to rights and resources through consensus, despite the denigrating and horrific experiences these others might have undergone to ameliorate their condition.

Incredibly, it was only some 500 years ago that an unwieldy medieval Europe, already overpopulated and subject to a corrupt and unjust social system, (re)discovered half of the planet, finding in the Americas a distinct world inhabited by many thousands of peoples, established there since the final phases of the Upper Pleistocene, perhaps as early as 60,000 years ago. Neither did the peoples living there, who had organized themselves into a variety of social units ranging from sprawling cities to seminomadic open-air habitations, expect this incredible event to occur. The resource-hungry Europeans nevertheless claimed these lands as their own, decimating the original inhabitants and destroying the delicate natural balance of their world. The conquerors justified the genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants in the same way we reject asylum seekers today: on the grounds that they lacked the necessary shared symbolic referents.

As we step into a newly recognized epoch of our own creation—the Anthropocene, in which the human imprint has become visible even in the geo-atmospheric strata of our planet—humans can be expected to continue creating new referents to justify the exclusion of a new kind of migrant: the climate refugee. What referents of exclusion will we invoke to justify the refusal of basic needs and access to resources to peoples migrating from inundated coastal cities, submerged islands, or lands rendered lifeless and non-arable by pollutants?

Click here to read the article on Resilience.org.

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).

Exploring Community Care Systems in Boston Inspired by bell hooks

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

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

By April M. Short

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

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

All About Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full article on LA Progressive.

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

Announcing the Observatory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please drop us a line!

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

The following is an excerpt. Read the full article on Resilience.org.

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

By Tina Casey

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

The Importance of Rural Solar

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full article on Resilience.org.

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

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

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

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

By Jeff Bryant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

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

Our Planet Versus Plastic Bags—A Tale of Two Cities

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

By Erika Schelby, Independent Media Institute

12 min read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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