How Can We Understand the Passage of Time?

(Photo Credit: DiscoA340 / Wikimedia Commons)

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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.

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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.

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

(Photo Credit: Jebulon / Wikimedia Commons)

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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.

How People Are Fighting the World’s Reliance on the War Economy

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Many people are already investing themselves in the local peace economy as they divest from the economy of war.

By April M. Short

War is not innate to humanity; it is learned culturally, and intentional systems of peace can prevent it from happening, according to anthropological research. We are living at a critical time in the history of humanity in which preventing and divesting from war are essential to our future existence—especially given the realities of the global climate crisis and the fact that the U.S. military is the worst single polluter that exists (and not even mentioning the unspeakable potential for destruction that nuclear weapons pose). If war is cultural, then we can prevent it by intentionally moving ourselves into a culture of peace. How do we do this? We begin with ourselves. We begin to break our war economy habits, and actively divest ourselves, wherever possible, from the ways in which the war economy takes hold in our lives. And we purposefully invest ourselves at the local level in what is often called the peace economy—the caring, sharing, supportive economies that already exist all around us.

The economy of war thrives on extraction and materialism, so it has—for thousands of years, and by no accident—made trite (or violently stifled) the things that are most valuable and important about living: caring; nurturing; love; art; peace; expression; and connection with nature, our bodies, and each other. The war economy, which is the overarching economic system of our times, promotes a culture that actively devalues play and community, and overly values hard work and individualism—to the grave detriment of mental and physical health. It uplifts money hoarding, competition, and the flaunting of one’s material wealth over generosity, sharing, collaboration, and appreciation. It stifles grief and asks us to harden ourselves against the expression of feeling rather than inviting us into depths of emotion where we can realize the gift of being alive in this world, together, for just a brief time.

The results of this unsustainable and unnatural lifestyle are ugly: Clear-cut, monocropped tree farms where once thrived biodiverse FernGully-esque old grove forests in the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon, and around the world; endless mining and building projects that plunder habitats, natural wonders, and Indigenous communities; worsening mental health afflictions, an opioid addiction epidemic, and soaring suicide rates; toxic chemicals and microplastics in our soils, oceans, streams, and bloodstreams that are causing irreparable damage to the planet and our bodies; people treated like criminals for experiencing homelessness, even amidst a devastating cost of living crisis; racist, militarized police murdering people in broad daylight, and often walking free even when they’re caught on camera; hustle and greed culture and the agony that comes with living a daily grind; so much unnecessary loneliness and stress… and this list could go on and on.

But a movement is building from the commons to break with these war economy ways and replenish ways of being that are actually livable. Around the world, there are projectspeople, and organizations creating solutions to the problems of our times. They are actively helping in divesting from the war economy in powerful ways. These examples of the local peace economy in action demonstrate that it is possible to create systems in which wealth and worth are rooted in equitable, community-centered care practices like health care for all, farming and feeding each other, parenting and education that are entrenched in love and engagement, and a culture that uplifts us and inspires interconnection.

The peace economy is built brick by brick, through the commitments of individual people and communities. What follows are some examples (of many more that exist worldwide) showing how people and communities are divesting from the war economy and investing in a future centered in peace, love, and aliveness:

Our globalized, Big Ag, monoculture food systems—which are monopolized by a handful of megacorporations owned by billionaires responsible for the war economy—are unraveling. The COVID-19 pandemic cast a bright light on the fragility of those systems. But the issues the pandemic exposed were present prior to 2020, and they promise to continue into the future. People in communities around the world are relocalizing food supply chains to create food sovereignty and reclaim culture in these times of fraying global food systems:

  • Communities in the Pacific Northwest have been working to regionalize food supply chains through relocalized flour mills, sustainable livestock ranches, a creative chicken farming model, and community garden programs. These efforts have paid off in creating food security for communities while also leading to greater job opportunities and a thriving ecosystem.
  • Palestinian farmers have been rekindling connections with Indigenous farming practices and creating community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs to resist Israeli colonialism. This has helped Palestinians to reconnect with their land and economically support locally grown food.
  • Black, formerly incarcerated people in Chicago are challenging the megacorporations that tend to dominate food contracting with schools and other large facilities in America by prepping locally sourced meals for schools, nursing homes, and transitional housing. The Chicago worker cooperative ChiFresh Kitchen is 100 percent employee-owned and provides nutritious and culturally appropriate food to these institutions and facilities.
  • There are many networks of Indigenous seed savers and others keeping and propagating seeds in community gardens and cooperative programs in the U.S. and around the world. Indigenous-led communities like Seeding Sovereignty and many others are keeping their spiritual connections and cultural practices alive through their connections with seeds, and seed savers are challenging the monocrop-based Big Ag industry that is responsible for so much deforestation and other climate destruction. These networks have also helped bring back “Indigenous foodways that were lost during genocide and forced relocation” inflicted by European colonizers.
  • The Deep Medicine Circle in the San Francisco Bay Area, a women of color-led, worker-directed 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is one group that is rethinking health care at its roots, and healing the ways U.S. colonial extraction is making people sick. Local community members who make up Deep Medicine Circle are creating systems of health and care, through the lens of community food justice. They’re planting community gardens and thinking up long-term models of localized food and community engagement that uplift Indigenous practices, provide access to healthy foods in poor urban neighborhoods, and dismantle colonialist ways of thinking and being in the world.
  • Neighbors are voluntarily keeping free-food fridges stocked in cities around the world, in a mutual aid movement that gained speed in response to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. People have fed and cared for each other through the pandemic and beyond, creating a free-fridge movement that has raised awareness about racial inequity in food systems.
  • Sallie Calhoun’s Paicines Ranch in California is working to bring agricultural business and investment up to date with our times and closer to nature by prioritizing ecosystem health, habitat, and the sequestration of carbon through soil practices. The project was founded with the aim of working with the dynamic natural world to explore ways of building healthy ecosystems while growing crops and supporting community through food. Paicines Ranch is intentionally creating a model of doing business that is focused on managing complexities rather than solving problems, and is centered on adding true value over profits.

Outside of the food system, examples of other applications of mutual aid, social justice, creative arts, community resilience, and activism for human rights and the environment that all embrace the peace economy include:

  • People are reimagining safety through alternatives to policing. Safety in the peace economy comes from the engagement of community and the reallocation of resources and funding into programs of care—not militarized police forces and punitive systems of justice. While many alternatives to policing already exist, recent initiatives after the murder of George Floyd by police in May 2020 have introduced changes, both big and small, across the U.S., and the global uprisings against systemic racism have led to these issues being part of the mainstream conversation.
  • Creative cooperatives are reclaiming real estate and bringing access to art, living spaces, and community spaces back to marginalized Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Oakland and elsewhere who have played an integral part in shaping the culture of cities across the U.S.
  • Fire recovery efforts in Oregon, California, and elsewhere have depended on people-led mutual aid projects and local volunteer networks. Devastating fires, worsened by climate change and the criminal negligence of public utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), have been increasing in recent years, some of them incinerating entire towns. Fire recovery efforts in Oregon and California have largely been community-led, and networks have formed among neighbors to create resilience and support—including grief spaces like those created in Ashland, Oregon, which provide a space for people to share their experiences of loss.
  • People are fighting the fossil fuel industry while building community spaces and support for people who are homeless in New Mexico. The grassroots project is part of a larger project in New Mexico. SOL for All has brought solar power to various locations across the state in an effort to support alternative energy solutions, which are necessary to combat climate change.
  • The largest dam removal in history started in 2023 in southern Oregon and Northern California, thanks to years of Indigenous-led community activism. The Karuk, Yurok, and other Native American groups for whom the Klamath River Basin is their ancestral home since time immemorial have been organizing against the dams since they were proposed in the 1910s—which have had disastrous results for people, salmon, and other wildlife—for decades. After multigenerational efforts, the massive dam removal project is expected to be completed by 2024.
  • Many people are also building a peace economy through creative sharing efforts and alternatives to money-based exchanges. This includes community gardens, mutual aid groups, and participation in the solidarity economy, and just transition efforts like those of Americans with jobs sharing their stimulus checks with those in need in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are also creating skill share networks like Kola Nut Collaborative and others, and millions of people daily are sharing tools and operating in a moneyless economy via “free” signs on street corners, Craigslist’s “free stuff” page, Freecycle, and other creative routes.​​

The above are just some of the countless examples of the peace economy in action—and most of these efforts were started by just one or two people deciding to do something about the problems they saw happening in their local community.

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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.

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

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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.

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

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

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

By Steven Rosenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

Are the guardrails of American democracy ready for 2024?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They saw themselves as super-patriots.

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

They saw themselves on a God-given mission.

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

They believed political fantasies and sought revenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

What can be done to strengthen American democracy before 2024?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

When Corporate Media Fail, Independent Media Rise Up

Click here to read the article on ZNet.

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

Click here to read the article on Resilience.org.

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).

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
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  • Editing/technical skills
  • Other useful resources

Please drop us a line!