Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

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How Concerned Should You Be About AirTags?

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Photograph of an AirTag from Wikimedia Commons. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Creator: KKPCW.

I didn’t even know what an AirTag was until I attended a cybersecurity talk by Nick Tripp, senior manager of Duke’s IT Security Office, but according to Tripp, AirTag technology is “something that the entire Duke community probably needs to be aware of.”

An AirTag is a small tracking device that can connect to any nearby Apple device using Bluetooth. AirTags were released by Apple in April 2021 and are designed to help users keep track of items like keys and luggage. Tripp himself has one attached to his keys. If he loses them, he can open the “Find My” app on his phone (installed by default on Apple devices), and if anyone else with an Apple device has been near his keys since he lost them, the Bluetooth technology will let him see where his keys were when the Apple device user passed them—or took them.

According to Tripp, AirTags have two distinct advantages over earlier tracking devices. First, they use technology that lets the “Find My” app provide “precise location tracking”—within an inch of the AirTag’s location. Second, because AirTags use the existing Apple network, “every iPhone and iPad in the world becomes a listening device.”

You can probably guess where this is going. Unfortunately, the very features that make AirTags so useful for finding lost or stolen items also make them susceptible to abuse. There are numerous reports of AirTags being used to stalk people. Tripp has seen that problem on Duke’s campus, too. He gives the example of someone going to a bar and later finding an AirTag in their bag or jacket without knowing who put it there. The IT Security Office at Duke sees about 2-3 suspected cyberstalking incidents per month, with 1-2 confirmed each year. Cyberstalking, Tripp emphasizes, isn’t confined to the internet. It “straddles the internet and the real world.” Not all of the cyberstalking reports Duke deals with involve tracking devices, but “the availability of low-cost tracking technology” is a concern. In the wrong hands, AirTags can enable dangerous stalking behavior.

As part of his IT security work, and with his wife’s permission, Tripp dropped an AirTag into his wife’s bag to better understand the potential for nefarious use of AirTags by attackers. Concerningly, he found that he was able to track her movement using the app on his phone—not constantly, but about every five minutes, and if a criminal is trying to stalk someone, knowing their location every five minutes is more than enough.

Fortunately, Apple has created certain safety features to help prevent the malicious use of AirTags. For instance, if someone has been near the same AirTag for several hours (such as Tripp’s wife while there was an AirTag in her bag), they’ll get a pop-up notification on their phone after a random period of time between eight and twenty-four hours warning them that “Your current location can be seen by the owner of this AirTag.” Also, an AirTag will start making a particular sound if it has been away from its owner for eight to twenty-four hours. (It will emit a different sound if the owner of the AirTag is nearby and actively trying to find their lost item using their app.) Finally, each AirTag broadcasts a certain Bluetooth signal, a “public key,” associated with the AirTag’s “private key.” To help thwart potential hackers, that public key changes every eight to twenty-four hours. (Are you wondering yet what’s special about the eight-to-twenty-four hour time period? Tripp says it’s meant to be “frequently enough that Apple can give some privacy to the owner of that AirTag” but “infrequently enough that they can establish a pattern of malicious activity.”)

But despite these safety features, a highly motivated criminal could get around them. Tripp and his team built a “DIY Stealth AirTag” in an attempt to anticipate what measures criminals might take to deactivate or counteract Apple’s built-in security features. (Except when he’s presenting to other IT professionals, Tripp makes a point of not revealing the exact process his team used to make their Stealth AirTag. He wants to inform the public about the potential dangers of tracking technology while avoiding giving would-be criminals any ideas.) Tripp’s wife again volunteered to be tracked, this time with a DIY Stealth AirTag that Tripp placed in her car. He found that the modified AirTag effectively and silently tracked his wife’s car. Unlike the original AirTag, their stealthy version could create a map of everywhere his wife had driven, complete with red markers showing the date, time, and coordinates of each location. An AirTag that has been modified by a skilled hacker could let attackers see “not just where a potential victim is going but when they go there and how often.”

“The AirTag cat is out of the bag, so to speak,” Tripp says. He believes Apple should update their AirTag design to make the safety features harder to circumvent. Nonetheless, “it is far more likely that someone will experience abuse of a retail AirTag” than one modified by a hacker to be stealthier. So how can you protect yourself? Tripp has several suggestions.

  1. Know the AirTag beep indicating that an AirTag without its owner is nearby, potentially in your belongings.
  2. If you have an iPhone, watch for AirTag alerts. If you receive a notification warning you about a nearby AirTag, don’t ignore it.
  3. If you have an Android, Tripp recommends installing the “Tracker Detect” app from Apple because unlike iPhone users, Android users don’t get automatic pop-up notifications if an AirTag has been near them for several hours. The “Tracker Detect” Android app isn’t a perfect solution—you still won’t get automatic notifications; you’ll have to manually open the app to check for nearby trackers. But Tripp still considers it worthwhile.
  4. For iPhone users, make sure you have tracking notifications configured in the “Find My” app. You can go into the app and click “Me,” then “Customize Tracking Notifications.” Make sure the app has permission to send you notifications.
  5. Know how to identify an AirTag if you find one. If you find an AirTag that isn’t yours, and you have an iPhone, go into the “Find My” app, click “Items,” and then swipe up until you see the “Identify Found Item” option. That tool lets you scan the AirTag by holding it near your phone. It will then show the AirTag’s serial number and the last four digits of the owner’s phone number, which can be useful for the police. “If I found one,” Tripp says, “I think it’s worth making a police report.”

It’s worth noting that owning an AirTag does not put you at higher risk of stalking or other malicious behavior. The concern, whether or not you personally use AirTags, is that attackers can buy AirTags themselves and use them maliciously. Choosing to use AirTags to keep track of important items, meanwhile, won’t hurt you and may be worth considering, especially if you travel often or are prone to misplacing things. Not all news about AirTags is bad. They’ve helped people recover lost items, from luggage and wallets to photography gear and an electric scooter.

“I actually think this technology is extremely useful,” Tripp says. It’s the potential for abuse by attackers that’s the problem.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Library Shakedowns: Book Bans and Censorship

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“I started thinking about how I might be different, how my life might be different, how my conversations might be different, if [‘To Kill a Mockingbird’] had not been a book that I was able to read in the 8th grade… to keep reading and reading again,” recounted Professor Kisha Daniels in her opening remarks of last month’s “Policing Pages” panel. 

Professor Kisha Daniels is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Education at Duke University and the moderator of Duke Alumni Lifelong Learning “Policing Pages: The American Classics” event.

What truly is more formative in the awkward, acned stretch of middle school than Lip-Smackered gossip and English class? Yellow page paperbacks, palimpsests of doodles and students from years past. Purchased on teacher budget scraps and booster club wrapping paper sales, Shakespeare, Orwell, a hundred used copies of “Tuck Everlasting”: stained, dog-eared, and coverless

Psychology and neuroscience researchers agree that reading (and, thus, books like “To Kill a Mockingbird”) weaves tapestries of yarny neurons and synapses, beneficial for the development of social-emotional skills, empathy, and creativity during childhood and adolescence. 

Yet, America has recently witnessed persistent efforts to ban certain titles from K12 schools. In 2004 and 2005, for example, Stanford Middle (here in Durham) challenged the inclusion of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in its own library, citing the novel’s use of racial slurs.

It ultimately was not removed from the shelves, but the book remains one of the most challenged/banned titles in U.S. school history.

Professor Sarah Ludington, a Duke Law faculty member and director of the First Amendment Clinic

In 2021, the American Library Association reported an unprecedented 729 book challenges. So why, Daniels prompted, are we seeing such a high number of banned books? And why now?

Before answering this, Professor Sarah Ludington clarified some of the misleading rhetoric propagated by the popular media. “’Banned books’ is more of a slogan,” she explained. More accurate is the idea of challenging a book, whether in a library or on the class curriculum. This does not necessarily mean the book will be outright banned or even removed from the shelf or, if it is banned, permanently. In fact, books can be reinstated, even after their removal, back to their shelf and the occasional dust bunny.

In North Carolina, such a statute exists in state law that bars an individual, like a single librarian, teacher, or parent, from undemocratically removing or banning a book. Instead, local administrative boards must take a vote.

PBS’s “Books Behind Bars”
Illustration by: Jane Mount

University Librarian Joseph Salem argued that social media platforms, like Facebook, and online groups, like Moms for Liberty, create tectonic shocks that trigger tidal waves of book challenges. They’re echo chambers: amplifying calls to remove specific books from school libraries, ping-ponging literary “hit-lists” through cyberspace with titles such as: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (you can take a look at the full list here).

Joseph Salem is Duke’s newest University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs

These books disproportionately feature marginalized voices and are often “charged and sentenced” for containing “LGBTQ content, profanity, and/or sexual references.”

As we’re all aware, what once was local news can quickly leach into national discourse. A book ban in a rural Ohio county, for example, can be picked up by the local media, trend on Twitter, disseminate through Facebook until someone, say, in Texas or Arkansas or North Carolina decides they too want to challenge said book in their own school district.

This book-banning rhetoric and its implications are present elsewhere in education-related conversations. Take, for example, Florida’s dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In March, lawmakers in the Sunshine State argued that merely mentioning sexual orientation/gender identity in primary school settings is grounds for a lawsuit on the basis that such content is innately “sexually explicit,” no matter its context.

However, challenging certain books and even passing certain laws are usually not intentionally malicious acts. It is indisputable that some books simply do not belong on school bookshelves. A medical textbook, Ludington analogized, wouldn’t make sense in a library for children just learning how to read. But, in a high school with a more mature student body, its inclusion wouldn’t bat an eye. Further, in the U.S. more generally, First Amendment rights do not extend to all forms of speech anyways, including but not limited to “obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and the advocacy of imminent lawless action.”

And though societal concern over the well-being of children is well-intentioned, it can often be misguided or out-of-proportion.

I don’t think it’s too outrageous to consider children as sentient and receptive, whether to new ideas, new perspectives, and/or new people.

Still, in the United States, a number of moral panics, concerning everything from poisoned Halloween candy to “Dungeons & Dragons” to subliminal messaging in rock music to Tide Pods, have been cause for parental concern.

In 1985, for example, Tipper Gore bought Prince’s “Purple Rain” album for her 11-year-old daughter and was shocked by its age-inappropriate lyrics. She took her concern to the Senate in a series of Congressional hearings which, though largely mocked, called for a music rating system like the kind adopted by Hollywood for movies. 

In 1985, Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver (from left to right respectively) testified before the Senate against music censorship and the Parents Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.). Notably, John Denver advocated for his song “Rocky Mountain High.

Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver somehow managed to assemble into the eclectic “primary counsel” for the musical defense and eloquently argued that labeling and banning albums is akin to censorship.

Gore’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

But, it’s not difficult to see how censorship concerns voiced in the Senate in the 80s mirror the ones voiced today.

Ludington, a self-proclaimed First Amendment enthusiast, added that “…inherent in our idea of freedom of speech is this notion that truth emerges from robust dialogue… The best way to counteract whatever pernicious effect there might be, say from a book that you wanted to ban, is actually to read the book and reason against it.” 

This kind of civil discourse is an idealism baked into the “apple pie” of American democracy. Quite arguably the Golden Delicious themselves. Over the course of U.S. history, there have been just and unjust efforts to suppress individuals’ freedom of speech. Take the infamous “yelling FIRE in a crowded theater” anecdote. 

Experts concur, however, that most censorship is unproductive and often does little to actually stymie the ideas it so desperately wants to quash. In fact, as Daniels pointed out, banning books from school libraries typically does not decrease their readership and can actually drive their sales up. 

But the implications of book banning run deep, implying that, as a society, there is little value in responsibly harboring and learning from certain (and often difficult) materials. 

Salem described a collection on hate groups, gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and possessed by the Duke University library. He said, “If we take a step back for a moment and think that everything in the Duke University library… is something we endorse without understanding the complexity of why we might have it, either to learn from it as a good or bad example… one might say that owning or stewarding means that we support what’s in that collection. I would push back on that vehemently. It doesn’t comport with our values at all.” 

After book banning efforts in school libraries reached an all time high in 2021, 2022 is trending to exceed last year’s figure.

Instead of arguing with disgruntled parents and Facebook groups, many underpaid librarians and teachers, Salem described, choose to self-censor, quietly removing contentious titles from their shelves to avoid unfair accusations lobbied at them in heated PTO meetings, over angry phone calls, or during school board votes. 

To oppose this form of censorship, Daniels, Ludington, and Salem agreed: Read the books! Parents, Facebook group members, and legislatures alike, read before challenging, before banning, and then after banning. Reading is really the preeminent way to avoid unnecessarily suppressing free speech in schools; to introduce yourself to new ideas, to new discourse, and to new perspectives. Daniels put it best, “The book is innocent until proven guilty.”

Give it a fair trial.  

In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus describes empathy to Scout in a way which resonates with many of the “Policing Pages” talking points, saying: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

If interested in the “Policing Pages: The American Classics” discussion, click here to watch.

If interested in resources on book banning, check out the American Library Association for more information.

By Alex Clifford, class of 2024
By Alex Clifford, class of 2024

Is it Time to Decolonize Global Health Data?

In the digital age, we are well-acquainted with “data,” a crouton-esque word tossed into conversations, ingrained in the morning rush like half-caf cappuccinos and spreadsheets. Conceptually, data feels benign, necessary, and totally absorbed into the zeitgeist of the 21st century (alongside Survivor, smartphones, and Bitcoin). Data conjures up the census; white-coat scientists and their clinical trials; suits and ties; NGO board meetings; pearled strings of binary code; bar graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, pictographs, endless excel rows and columns, and more rows and more columns.

However, within the conversation of global health, researchers and laymen alike would more often than not describe data collection, use, and sharing as critical for resource mobilization, disease monitoring, surveillance prevention, treatment, etc. (Look at measles eradication! Polio! Malaria! Line graphs A, B, and C!)

Thanks to the internet, extracting health data is also faster, easier, and more widespread than ever . We have grown increasingly concerned, and rightfully so, about data ownership and data sovereignty.

Who is privy to data? Who can possess it? Can you possess it? As you can see, the conversation quickly becomes convoluted, philosophical even.

Dr. Wendy Prudhomme O’Meara is an associate professor at Duke University Medical School in the Division of Infectious Diseases, visiting professor at Moi University, and the Co-Field Director of Research for AMPATH. Her research focuses on malaria. 

Dr. Wendy Prudhomme O’Meara, moderator of the Data as a Commodity seminar on Sept. 29 and associate professor at Duke University Medical School in the Division of Infectious Diseases, discussed bioethical complexities of data creation and ownership within global health partnerships.

“We can see that activities—where data is being collected in one place, removed from the context, and value being extracted from it for personal or financial benefit — has very strong parallels to the kind of resource extraction and exploitation that characterized colonization,” she said in her introductory remarks.

Data, like other raw materials (i.e. coffee, sugar, tobacco, etc.), can be extracted, often disproportionately, from lower-middle income countries (LMICs) at the expense of the local populations. This reinforces unequal power dynamics and harkens to the tenets of colonialism and imperialism.

This observation is exemplified by panelist Thiago Hernandes Rocha’s research which focuses on public policy evaluation and data mining. He acknowledges that global health research, in general, should prioritize the health improvements of the studied community rather than publications or grant funding. This may seem somewhat obvious to you; however, though academic competition often fosters nuances in the field, it also contributes to the commercialization of global health. Don’t be shy, everyone point your finger at Big Pharma!

Though Dr. Rocha’s data mining technique refers to “pattern-searching” and analysis of dense data sets, I find “mining” to be an apt analogy for the exploitative potential of data extraction and research partnerships between higher income countries and LMICs.

Dr. Thiago Hernandes Rocha joins the discussion via Zoom. He is an advisor on health data analysis for the Pan American Health Organization.

Consider the British diamond industry in Cape Colony, South Africa, and the parallels between past colonial mineral extraction and current global health data extraction. Imagine taking a pickaxe to the earth.

Now consider the environmental ramifications of mining, and who they disproportionately affect. Consider the lingering social and economic inequalities. Of course, data is not a mine of diamonds (as your Hay Day farm might suggest) nor is it ivory or rubber or timber. It’s less tangible (you can’t necessarily hold it or physically possess it) and, therefore, its extraction also feels less tangible, even though this process can have very concrete consequences.

Data as a power dynamic is a rather recent characterization in academic discourse. Researchers and companies alike have pushed the “open data” movement to increase data availability to all people for all uses. You can see how, in a utopian society, this would be fantastic. Think of the transparency! I’m sure you can also see how, in our non-utopian society, this can be exploited.

Dr. Bethany Hedt-Gauthier, a Harvard University biostatistician and seminar speaker, described herself as “pro ‘open data’ … in a world without power dynamics” — an amendment critical to understanding research as a commodity itself.

She justified her stance by referencing the systematic review of authorship in collaborative health research in Africa that she conducted in collaboration with others in the field. They found that even when sub-Saharan African populations were the main sites of study, when partnered with high-income, elite institutions (like Duke or Harvard), the African authors were significantly less likely to be first or senior authors despite the comparable number of academics on both sides of the partnership. To what can we attribute this discrepancy?

Dr. Bethany Hedt-Gauthier is a biostatistician in health systems research that focuses on the optimization of care and health outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Hedt-Gauthier describes forms of capital that contribute to this issue, from cultural capital (i.e. credentials) to symbolic capital (i.e. legitimacy) to financial capital; however, she poses colonialism (and its continuity in socioeconomic and political power dynamics today) as the root of this incongruity from which the aforementioned forms of capital bud and flower like poisonous oleander. In recent years, institutions, including Duke, have increased efforts to “decolonize” global health to achieve greater equity, equal participation, and better health outcomes overall. 

Dr. Hedt-Gauthier briefly chronicled some of her own research in Rwanda at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within her research partnerships, she recollected slowing down, thoughtfully engaging in two-way dialogue, and posing questions like the following: “Who is involved [in the partnership]?” “Are all parties equally represented in paper authorship?” “If not, how can we share resources to ensure this?” “How can we assure that the people involved in the generation of data are also involved in the interpretation of its results?” “Who has access to data?” “What does co-authorship look like?”

Investing time and energy into multi-country databases, funding collaborative research infrastructures, removing barriers within academia, and training researchers are just some of the methods proposed by the speakers to facilitate equitable partnerships, data sharing and use, and continued global health decolonization.

Dr. Osondu Ogbuoji is an Assistant Research Professor at Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) and Deputy Director at the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at DGHI.

Dr. Osondu Ogbuoji, the final panelist, puts it best: “… We should ensure that the people in the room having the discussion about what values the data has should be as diverse as possible and ideally should have all the stakeholders. In our own research, sometimes we think we have an idea of what data to collect, but then we talk to the country partners and they have a totally different idea.”

Though the question of data ownership may feel lofty or intangible, though data legality is confusing, though you may feel yourself adrift in the debate of commodity and capital, the speakers have thrown you a buoy, grab on, and understand that generally:

It is necessary to engage with “data” in a communicative and critical manner; it is necessary to build research partnerships that are synergistic and reciprocal; and, finally, it is necessary to approach global health via these partnerships to advance the field towards greater equity.

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

Watch the recorded seminar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRmFzif8a1c

Banned Books Then and Now

With the never-ending news of schools banning books, one has to ask about the history and effectiveness of banned books. Fortunately, the Duke Forever Learning Institute hosted a seminar on the history of banned books in late September and provided examples that showed the ineffectiveness of banned books throughout time.

There was one particular story, however, that caught my eye, and that was the retelling of the history behind a banned book written by a man named Gottschalk. Clare Woods, an associate professor of Classical Studies at Duke, delineated the narrative of Gottschalk’s life from birth to prisoner.

A map containing the monasteries Gottschalk visited. (provided by Dr. Clare Woods)

Gottschalk was born to an aristocratic family around 803 AD and started his academic career when he moved into Fulder, a monastery, to become a monk. However, in 829 AD, Gottschalk left Fulder for reasons based either on the loss of his older brother or the enlightenment he received from the monastery he attended while studying abroad.

Upon leaving Fulder, Gottschalk studied at the monasteries of Corby and then moved to northern Italy after he received his orientation as a priest. Gottschalk was unusual because monks tended not to move around that much, and monks also tended not to speak about their studies on heretical doctrine. Unfortunately for Gottschalk, he ignored the criticisms from other monks and instead grew confident in his studies to the point where he wrote a book about them.

While receiving hate for his ideas from multiple people, one man from Gottschalk’s past was truly adamant about having Gottschalk punished. This man was named Rabbanis, and he was accused by Gottschalk of coercing Gottschalk’s earlier career as a monk. From that, and with Gottschalk leaving the Fulder, Rabbanis developed a personal vendetta against Gottschalk.

This is an excerpt from Gottschalk’s confession, which was provided by Dr. Clare Woods.

Gottschalk, the confident man he was, decided to defend himself at a Synod in Mainz, but it proved unsuccessful because he was condemned by the Synod and banned from the Kingdom of Louis. From there on, things did not improve for Gottschalk because, in the following year, he was brought to a second Synod that was attended by King Charles, who was the brother of King Louis the German. By the end of this Synod, Gottschalk was stripped of his priesthood, sentenced to silence, and imprisoned.

However, even with the punishments Gottschalk personally received and his books being burned, his books were still preserved and influential on others.

This influence seen with Gottschalk’s books after being banned was not an anomaly because that was seen with all banned books throughout history.

Another example was given by Lauren Ginsberg, an associate professor of classical studies, who presented Permussius Cordis, an author who lived under the Roman emperor Tiberius in the 1st century AD.

His story ended in tragedy since his books were included in a mass book burning and he was sentenced to death. However, his book still was able to influence the Roman population due to his daughter Marsha’s vigilance in keeping her father’s book alive.

While I only provided two examples, this pattern of books withstanding their ban is throughout time, and it is being repeated in the present. Across this country, book banning is back in style. In 2018, there were only 347 books that schools formally challenged, but in 2021 it became 1,500.

An example of books that have been banned in multiple schools (Freedman)

While this does put light on our current education system in this country, this is simply a gesture. It does make us think about what children will be learning in schools, but because the books are banned in schools does not mean the information within those books will not reach their target demographic. As seen in history, knowledge always finds a way of spreading, but of course, that is dependent on those who want to expand that knowledge.

At the end of this article, I hope you are reassured that seeing a banned book does not mean it is forever silenced. Instead, I hope that by reading this, you understand that you have all the power to ensure that the words within a book can withstand anything, including time.

Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

Citation: Freedman, Samuel G. “A Display of Banned or Censored Books at a Bookstore Last October. Over a Recent 9 Month Period More than 1,500 Books Have Been Banned in Schools, Most Featuring Nonwhite Protagonists, Dealing with Racism, or Addressing the LGBTQ Experience.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2022, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-06-27/book-bans-critical-race-theory-wisconsin. Accessed 10 Oct. 2022.

What Happens When You Give People Money?

What happens when you give people money? Dr. Aisha Nyandoro and Natalie Foster know: through their research, they’ve seen the impacts of guaranteed income firsthand.

On November 9, as part of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy’s Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture series, these experts discussed their work and what we can learn from it at “What Happens When You Give People Money: The Future of Economic Security for Children and Families.”

Natalie Foster

Foster, co-founder and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, began with the big idea of guaranteed income. Before the pandemic, wealth and income inequality were at all-time highs — disparities that “can be traced back to the origins of racialized capitalism.” But recently, things have gotten even harder. Wages have remained stagnant despite increases in productivity — and despite inflation, making it harder to afford things like rent. Foster denounced the “strong ideology that says that lack of security in this system is a personal failing. That if you can’t pull yourself up, there’s something wrong with you.” There’s something wrong with the system, Foster said. “People are working. The economy isn’t.”

Foster explained that the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” fundamentally changed welfare by converting the old New Deal-era unlimited grant program into the flat-funded block grant we now know as TANF, leaving determination of eligibility to state discretion and generally “making welfare more punitive.” The Act, Foster said, was built on racist stereotypes, like that of the welfare queen. To make matters worse, it was passed against the backdrop of a persistent devaluation of the labor of people of color

Foster said that even though there didn’t appear to be room in these political conditions to do things differently, she had the “audacity to imagine something else: the ‘adjacent possible.’” She wanted to give cash to people directly, ensuring an income floor regardless of whatever crises that may abound.

Foster worked with the mayor of Stockton, California on the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which provided 125 Stockton residents with $500 monthly payments for two years. 

Dr. Aisha Nyandoro

Foster was connected by a mutual friend to Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. Nyandoro had launched The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi with $1,000 monthly payments for one year. 

With The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Nyandoro sought to shift away from economic policy “rooted in ‘what is,’ and toward ‘what could be.’” This concept has a rich history, she said, and includes the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. She had a specific ‘what if’ in mind: “What if when Black women told us what they needed, we believed them?” What if we sought to overturn the very structures that keep these people down, and subverted the “paternalistic nature of the social safety net”? 

Nyandoro stated that as a researcher, when she has questions, she “goes back to the people.” When she did, she found that although people’s needs were individual, “cash was ubiquitous” — cash was a solution that could address every single one of the problems that she heard. Giving cash directly could help combat a system that “penalizes people for being poor, rather than trying to lift them out of poverty.” 

Why low-income Black mothers? Nyandoro explained that in order to do the work of economic liberation, one must identify what’s wrong with the system. In this case, that meant identifying those who are the most negatively impacted by the system, and using what limited resources are available to help them specifically.

Nyandoro turned to her findings: giving people cash works. These mothers are often working tirelessly, holding down two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet. After receiving the money, people continue to work and often do so at higher rates (a major fear of opponents of guaranteed income). As a result, their income is often doubled — with life-changing results

Beyond the numbers, Nyandoro emphasized that “we are seeing joy. We don’t talk about joy enough as it relates to Black women.” This money allowed Black women to feel free, to be entrepreneurial: to “dare to dream for the first time — for themselves and for their families.” 

She referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous speech “The Danger of a Single Story,” explaining that in order to change the narrative, “we need to change the narrator.” It’s time to think about whose voices we center.

In Jackson, Mississippi and Stockton, California, the pair had carried out research about the ‘adjacent possible.’ They’d used cities and states as “laboratories in democracy.” Foster said that their work was paving the way for gradual advances in guaranteed income — slowly, but surely. Then, the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, ideas that had recently been dismissed as too radical were viewed as necessary. Often unable to work, people needed money fast in order to put food on the table and cover their most urgent needs. The federal government rose to the challenge with the American Rescue Plan, providing stimulus checks and pandemic unemployment insurance, plus expanding the Child Tax Credit. “The ‘adjacent possible’”, Foster said, “had become the possible.”

The country saw an “immediate drop in poverty.” The pandemic was revealing, said Foster. It revealed that cash provides time, stress reduction, and resilience. It revealed that cash serves as a tool to create economic security and “build back better.” Above all, it revealed that “poverty is a policy choice that we’re currently making. We could make a different policy choice in order to eliminate it.”

The pandemic also revealed that stimulus checks and the Child Tax Credit were “very popular policies.” Nyandoro has observed support in the form of petitions for monthly cash transfers, the founding of organizations like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, and the launch of over a hundred guaranteed income pilots of some sort. All these efforts, Nyandoro said, are pushing toward “the same North Star”: centering the needs of families and achieving economic liberation through federal policy.

Foster turned the discussion toward next steps: “these victories have been immense, but could disappear” if the Build Back Better Act does not pass. The Act includes a year-long extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a key instantiation of guaranteed income. The Child Tax Credit has bipartisan support

If the extension of the Child Tax Credit passes, then according to Foster, guaranteed income is one step closer to becoming a cornerstone of social policy. This would be a “nail in the coffin of the way we’ve done policy for the last fifty years — that you’re only worth what you do in the world. Every human has dignity and worth, and we have the opportunity to build a policy that says just that.” 

Nyandoro agreed with Foster. As an anti-poverty advocate, she believes in a world without poverty: a world where “everyone can have a life of dignity for themselves and their families.” She believes that the ‘adjacent possible’ is achievable if “we can move beyond our own individual needs in order to view life as a collective, where prosperity is shared rather than hoarded.” She ended by quoting Toni Morrison: “if you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.”

Last Friday, the House voted to pass the Build Back Better Act, which now heads to the Senate.

Post by Zella Hanson

Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition

Swine Country Documentary Project

As conversations about the energy transition away from fossil fuels become increasingly important (and time-sensitive), some experts in environmental policy aren’t just worried about the conversations themselves. They’re worried about who has a seat at the table — and who doesn’t. 

Sherri White-Williams

On November 8, at “Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition,” a few of these experts — Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Policy Director at the NC Conservation Network; Josh McClenney, the North Carolina Field Coordinator at Appalachian Voices; and J. Spenser Darden, the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy — spoke about this and other issues. Thomas Klug, a Research Associate at the Duke Energy Access Project, moderated the panel, which was put together by the Sanford Energy & Environment Club.

Klug asked the panelists to define what a “just transition” really means in the context of the panelists’ work, and whether it differs from a diverse and inclusive transition.

J. Spenser Darden

McClenney answered that a just transition entails recognizing that Black, brown, and indigenous communities, as well as low socio-economic status individuals, have historically faced the worst effects of fossil fuel economies. Living in the “physical and economic traction zones,” they’re the ones that lose jobs — like coal miners, in the case of McClenney’s work with Appalachian Voices. 

However, where a diverse and inclusive transition involves “getting people to the table,” just policies will actually reflect the conversations had at the table. An unjust transition, McClenney said, is one where “people clap themselves on the back for doing such a great job having these diverse, inclusive discussions — then make policies that work against their participants.” Ensuring inclusion for communities that have historically been excluded is important, but it’s equally important to make sure the resulting policies are actually inclusive.

Josh McClenney

White-Williams agreed with McClenney — inclusion should never end at “checking the box.” The goal should be to incorporate the input of marginalized voices into resulting policy. White-Williams also added that fairness, while not necessarily guaranteed by diversity and inclusivity, is a key part of a just energy transition. 

Spenser stressed the need to move away from “extractive, colonial” ways of thinking about energy and who makes up society, and to instead incorporate indigenous ways of thinking. He stated that diversity and inclusion is reactive: people realize flaws in the way they’ve built something and try to address it later by incorporating new elements. A just system, on the other hand, is built to be “for and by” communities that have been excluded from the very start.

Klug asked the panelists to recount some of the ways they’ve seen organizations, utilities, and decision makers putting the processes required for a just transition into practice.

McClenney spoke of revelations from the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. Preventing utility shutoffs became critically important: people were losing jobs or forced to stay at home. They couldn’t come up with the money to pay their utility bills. While fighting utility shutoffs with Appalachian Voices, he saw a group of Knoxville organizations, including Knoxville Water and Energy for All, bringing attention to the fact that the shutoffs were not just a COVID problem. For some Black and brown communities, McClenney said, “keeping the lights on had always been an issue.” These grassroot groups’ advocacy expanded beyond the pandemic: they wanted energy and water recognized as human rights.

Klug asked the panelists how they feel about President Joe Biden’s performance with regard to just transitions in the energy sector — specifically, his January executive orders and recent bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill

White-Williams cited a major concern with Biden’s policies: they don’t give enough attention to rural issues. In Sampson county here in North Carolina, massive hog farms overwhelmingly surround communities of color. North Carolina’s new Farm Act will allow Smithfield Foods to build a system to trap methane from hog waste to be processed and eventually used as renewable electricity. But residents living near hog farms already experience toxic water, unbearable stench, and heightened risk of other diseases, and this system would likely make the problem even worse. It’s a textbook example of an unjust energy transition. That’s why environmental and civil rights organizations have asked the EPA to intervene — to no avail, at least thus far. (White-Williams is featured in this article about the current state of affairs.) “Rural America is suffering,” White-Williams said. She wants to see federal agencies using their power to ensure a just energy transition.

McClenney echoed White-Williams’ concern about hog farms, adding that deaths have resulted from providing workers with limited information about the conditions they would be working in — especially those who don’t speak English and whose undocumented status puts them in a vulnerable position. 

On a different note, he thinks Biden’s expansions to Broadband and clean water are a step in the right direction. He stated that with North Carolina’s House Bill 951, which requires the Utilities Commission to cut emissions by 70% by 2030 (even more ambitious than Biden’s executive order, which seeks to cut US emissions in half by 2030), “there are opportunities right now to effect positive change — we just have to do a good job.” It’s about how we get to that carbon reduction goal.

Klug asked how people at universities — faculty, students, and staff alike — can contribute to this work in policy and in advocacy.

White-Williams told the audience to recognize that “having a degree does not make you an expert when you walk into these communities.” Community members have lived experience: they can tell policymakers and activists what they need, not the other way around. Change should be a partnership, and so should research: “Academics have a research question before they’ve even spoken to anyone.” Instead, “listen and learn from the people who have been there all their lives.”

Spenser invited the audience to think about “who the real experts are” in unique and different ways. Institutions like Duke are often separate from the communities they inhabit, serving as a sort of beacon on the hill. “We need to invert this paradigm,” he said.

McClenney added to Spenser’s criticism of schools like Duke, who “throw food out every day and hold dorm rooms empty during the summer while people go hungry and unhoused.” What’s needed is a fundamental reimagination of the university’s relationship to the community it inhabits. He also added to White-Williams’ point about research: it can be merely “another type of extraction” if not carried out in a just manner.

Klug asked the panelists whether we need to assess the impacts of energy policy differently through the lens of research.

McClenney flagged the words “affordability” and “reliability” in energy research, asking the audience to consider who that applies to. Affordability is not just about how rates compare to New York City or California, but whether someone has to forego insulin or go hungry in order to make a payment. By thinking through these words and what they really mean, we can “begin to understand impacts on a deeper level.”

Spenser implored researchers to use an intersectional lens: instead of considering economic impact and efficiency in isolation, to consider the way in which policies “contribute or ameliorate historic disparities.” In order to truly measure impact, efficacy, and outcome, researchers must be “historically aware and community invested.”

White-Williams agreed with McClenney and Spenser, asking researchers to consider whether policies are a “band-aid or a true fix.” She cited North Carolina’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which allocates tens of millions of dollars toward fixing “patched-up” homes that may have serious underlying problems. She wonders whether it may be better to simply spend the money on programs to place people in housing that is “actually livable.”

Klug opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked the panelists what concrete steps they recommend in order to “harness the power of diversity.”

White-Williams reiterated the importance of working with impacted communities, stressing the need for local leaders who can serve as experts on the needs of the community. Elected officials might “sacrifice the needs of these communities for some other interest,” but local advocates can apply pressure where needed.

Spenser pushed back on the question, stating that instead of urgency and speed, “we need to commit to a longer process” — honoring historical legacies and “spending time helping people understand what the conversation is.” 

“Environmental policy isn’t sexy,” Spenser concluded. (“Except,” he added, “for pipelines.”)

Maybe not. But it’s important that it gets made — and that it gets made justly.

Post by Zella Hanson

“News for the Rich, White, and Blue”: Nikki Usher on her new book and the state of American journalism

Erik Carter

News organizations are facing an economic crisis

In their battle for survival, they are “realigning their priorities in ways that favor audiences who are willing to pay.” And those who are willing to pay tend to be rich, white, and politically blue.

On November 3, as part of the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Fall 2021 Information Inequalities Speaker Series, author and University of Illinois associate professor Nikki Usher discussed her new book News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

Usher began by explaining that as newspapers face “market failure,” only non-geographical news is in a position to survive. As news becomes a private good (The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times come to mind), the result is inconsistent and unequal access to news. 

According to Usher, 1800 local communities lack any regular access to local news. Usher stated that political consequences result when news organizations pull back from places that don’t exhibit that aforementioned willingness to pay. 

She gave an example of one such consequence: many journalists had their “heads in the sand” about the rising tides of populism in rural America. As a result, they were blindsided when Trump won the election. But the win simply revealed what had been the case all along. 

The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged this after the election: “We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

Usher said that another consequence of the delocalization of news is reduced trust: only 11% of Republicans say they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount. Additionally, when places lose news, they grow more polarized, with reductions in split-ticket voting. 

Usher said that she practices a kind of “gestalt scholarship,” employing the tools of ethnography and lived experience as well as quantitative data. She dipped into this side of her research, recounting a few anecdotes which represent the “materiality” of the loss of local news.

In 2018, the LA Times moved from its Downtown home, near Skid Row, to El Segundo. The move was not without controversy. In a 2018 editorial, an anonymous author wrote that “location matters, on both a physical and symbolic level, and… moving the headquarters far away from the local power base and the most important entities and stories the Times covers… is the wrong choice.” 

The Miami Herald’s old home got demolished in 2015. Now the newsroom is near the airport, across from a cow pasture. “It’s bad for the psyche for there to be no building to exist for people to see every day,” said an editor. (A recent bit of unnerving news regarding the future of the Herald and journalism at large.)

Usher then stated that newsrooms are “places of power” that are becoming “increasingly inhospitable places for those who are non-white and who lack financial resources.” 

In June 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after the publication of an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” led to a walkout by dozens of staff members. At the LA Times, Latinx journalists penned an open letter drawing attention to the fact that its 13% Latinx newsroom does not reflect its nearly 50% Latinx community. In Detroit, the disparity is even worse: an 80% Black population is served by a newsroom that is only 14% Black. 

In 1968, the Kerner Commission put down a series of recommendations to improve diversity, noting that the journalistic profession was “shockingly backward” in its absence of Black journalists. The American Society of News Editors set a target date for newsrooms to be at parity with the populations they represented: 2000. They’ve since pushed the deadline to 2025. 

It’s not looking good. That’s because, according to Usher, newsrooms aren’t hiring, and “when newsrooms don’t hire, they don’t hire minority journalists.”

Usher also touched on the “death of the working class reporter.” Increasingly, the only young people who are not deterred by journalism’s instability and lack of lucrativity are those who come from copious amounts of privilege. Add this to the inability of poorer students to pursue resume-building journalism activities alongside work-study jobs, and the preference of news outlets for the oft-wealthy students of elite universities, and one can see why “journalism is becoming a profession for the elite.” 

Usher said that when “newsrooms become bastions of privilege, [that’s] bad news.” Losing journalists who come from blue-collar backgrounds means losing the ability to “empathize” with a whole set of experiences.

Usher said that as news revenue goes increasingly digital, reliance on those willing to pay is even more pronounced, with “consequences for equity in access and geographically specific news coverage.” She referenced The New York Times, whose rise “mirrors the rise in inequality” of access to news. “They know they’re leaving people behind,” Usher said. She quoted Dean Baquet, who acknowledged that 98% of Americans “were now excluded from The New York Times’ journalism and might well have to do with substandard information.”

Usher also discussed “Goldilock newspapers” — not too big, not too small, but just right for survival according to the “upside-down logic” of digital advertising. The problem is that, as Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News put it, “the pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we’re covering” — sometimes to the detriment of local readers. As a result of this phenomenon, Usher has seen reduced coverage in places considered too low-income to get advertisers. In one instance, she saw a dismissal of concerns about ad- and malware clunking up the computers of those with inferior Internet access because “those people are less likely to subscribe anyway.” 

Where does this leave us? Usher identified a few potential solutions. She reiterated calls for more inclusive newsrooms, and added her own call for higher-ed financial aid reform so that lower-income students can have a fighting chance at pursuing journalism. She discussed the need for a “post newspaper consciousness” — to acknowledge that we cannot save the newspaper, but we can identify what journalism does best and save those “special parts.” 

She left the audience with a final recommendation: journalism should “embrace the partisan media system.” Usher clarified her position: the news media like The New York Times “hides behind a veil of neutrality,” when this is only an (unconvincing) illusion. “People want to see them advocate for social justice,” she said, and she agrees. Usher doesn’t think polarization is inherently bad “if it’s polarization toward social justice and breaking down systemic inequality.”

“There’s no use assuaging people who have given up and aren’t listening. And then you have lots of people unsubscribing because the phony neutrality was irritating them,” Usher said. For organizations like the Times, the veil of neutrality is looking like a lose-lose.

She advised them to “go for those who are still listening. And just own it.”

Post by Zella Hanson

School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

Post by Zella Hanson

Will the Humanities Save the World?

Lorenzo Gritti

The bad news about the energy transition, according to Dr. Matthew Huber, is that it’s not happening. At least, not at the scale we need it to. A June report stated that the share of fossil fuels in the world’s total energy mix is still about 80%, as it has been for several decades. “We still live in a system fueled by fossil fuels,” Huber said. 

Matthew Huber
Jennifer Wenzel

On October 18, Huber, author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital and a professor at Syracuse University, joined Dr. Imre Szeman, author of On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy and professor at the University of Waterloo, and Dr. Jennifer Wenzel, author of The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature and professor at Columbia University.

Moderated by Dr. Ranjana Khanna, professor and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute here at Duke, the panel discussion “What Can the Humanities Contribute to the Global Energy Transition?” explored the potential of humanities fields to help supplement perspectives offered by the sciences, teaching us about new ways of living for a greener world.

Imre Szeman

Khanna posed the titular question: what do the panelists think that the humanities have to contribute to the energy transition?

Huber responded that in dealing with climate disaster, the “critical issue of our time,” there’s a civic responsibility to engage with the “public and political struggle” for change.

Humanities scholars excel in the art of persuasion and argumentation, and they can use that in public forms, like the Op-Ed and social media. Whereas the public conversation is skewed towards economics and engineering, humanities scholars can emphasize the equally important political and cultural barriers toward the energy transition. 

Huber also called on history scholars to help recover the “deleted history” of what is politically possible.

“After four decades of neoliberalism we’ve forgotten what the public sector can actually do,” Huber said, “but when we remember the Soviet-style planned economy during World War II, and the New Deal, we recover that these large mass scale transformations have happened, and are possible,” Huber said. He also lamented that the social movements of today’s Left have become “atomized, neutralized, and largely ineffective” such that “students don’t believe in large-scale social change anymore.” With public history, activists can show how and why struggles of abolition have won in the past, and how that could be applied to the struggle for carbon abolition. 

As the Climate Critic in the Green Party of Canada’s Shadow Cabinet, Dr. Imre Szeman drafted the Green Party’s proposal for the energy transition. He says that upon seeing the recommendation to end all production of fossil fuels, journalists asked Szeman, “Is this realistic? Here? Now?” They seemed to view such a change as “impossible — even though they might want it.”

Szeman argued that whether climate solutions are considered ‘realistic’ isn’t so much a question of cost, but of “our ability to conceptualize another way of being in the world,” which is where humanities fields come into play. He then posed a series of questions, including “What do we love about our current habits and behaviors? Who is culpable for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? How did we get here, and what does this say about our ability to get somewhere else?” He said that the role of the humanities in the energy transition is to answer all of these questions — and to remind us of the need to ask them in the first place.

Wenzel agreed, explaining that energy humanities can help us examine the literary and cultural narratives that shape our experience. She explained that fossil fuels enable a “chain of ease” wherein the primary mode of thinking about fossil fuels in everyday life is not thinking at all. She discussed the oil inventory activity she does with her students, where they account for the ubiquitous significance of oil in their lives. We develop an “embodied attachment” to the things that oil makes possible — the smoothness of plastic, the speed of auto, the smell of a butane stove. This leads us to an “impasse: we know where we stand, but we’re unable or unwilling to take action at the scale we know we need to.” 

Wenzel explained that the oil inventory was actually invented by the oil industry with an insidious intention — to get consumers to consider the indispensability of petroleum products in their lives “to produce wonder and appreciation.” She showed the audience an Exxon commercial, in which scenes of vast, interconnected energy grids play across the screen as a soothing voice tell us, “you don’t need to think about the energy that makes our lives possible. Because we do.

Wenzel emphasized that the effect of rhetoric like Exxon’s is to “ensure passivity.” The lesson? When we take stock of the impact of oil on our lives, how we use that information matters most. Climate activists must reclaim the oil inventory to “disrupt habits of mind” rather than entrench them.

Khanna noted that one of the humanities’ core methods is a “revelatory gesture of critique,” and asked the panelists what they thought about “moving past that initial gesture, toward some broader consensus for change.” 

Wenzel said that doing the work of the oil inventory is powerful, but “not the last move.” We must make other moves, and in terms of thinking about what we might do otherwise, we must take care to be “forward thinking, but deeply, critically, historically informed.”

Huber said that we need to interrogate the “politics that attach oil to life,” because it’s a strategy of moving politics away from work, production, and who decides its conditions. Production today feels invisible — it’s offshore, outsourced — so that we fail to ask questions about who’s controlling it, and to what effect. He called upon the 1930s, when a “radical politics of production was on the table,” and said that climate-conscious humanities scholars need to work to recover this history.

Szeman had one “next move,” in the words of Wenzel: to realize that oil companies in the US are private, unlike in much of the rest of the world. “There’s a decision made very early on” about how and in what quantities oil is to be used — a decision that could be amenable to change.

Khanna opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked about how to advocate for an energy transition in light of the fact that capitalism is ultimately responsible for much of the status quo and the damage it has caused. How can humanities scholars critique the status quo without critiquing capitalism to the point of suspicion from would-be supporters?

Szeman emphasized the need for recognition that there are some things that one can do in the political sphere, and some things one can’t. Even though the Green Party falls squarely on the political left, “we don’t explicitly criticize capitalism right off the bat, because that doesn’t seem like the winning position.” It’s important to give voice to discussions about change “to the extent possible within the official political sphere.”

Wenzel told the audience about giving a talk on energy humanities at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference. She had to “stand in front of the oil industry” — regulators, landowners, executives — which meant “thinking about which values and assumptions to share.” By establishing credibility, she could “make conversations about this problem, which implicates all of us, possible” — despite their different perspectives.

Huber contended that when the enemy is as abstract as the quasi-global system of capitalism, it can “induce paralysis.” He’s “not sure we can absolish capitalism on the time scale” necessary for the energy transition. He quipped that the earth is not dying, it’s being killed, and “those who are killing it have names and addresses.” Those people are the target, he said — just as in the abolition of slavery, when the target of struggle was the slave owning class, another oligarchical power representing about 1% of the population. Although he supports a systemic critique of capitalism, right now “we need to be more concrete. These people have names and addresses,” he reiterated.

Another audience member asked about how to “break down the concepts of beauty and pleasure” that support the current oil regime.

Huber discussed the need for “low-carbon luxury” and an investment in open green space as part of any Green New Deal. Climate politics has often been about “shame, fear, guilt, sacrifice,” he said, and “we’re not going to win on that.” A beautiful, pleasurable vision of the future is what’s needed to win people over.

Wenzel identified the role of literature in “collecting and borrowing” ideas of beauty, arguing that beauty is always constructed. To those who view renewable energy, like wind and solar, as an eyesore, Wenzel posed the question: “Are oil spills ‘beautiful’?” (Take a glimpse.)

Someone asked a question about science fiction’s ability to “dream futures into being” — what should humanities scholars aspire to read and write? 

Wenzel said that there are many ways to think about the future, and that apocalyptic renditions of science fiction are essentially “practicing for possible bad futures.” Huber agreed, stating that apocalyptic visions can be galvanizing — but there must be a positive vision that wins people over (he pointed to AOC’s “Message From the Future”).

Szeman said that utopian narratives tend to say more about the viewpoint by which a fictional world is considered a utopia than a “prescriptive way to get there,” and suggested that humanities scholars interested in fiction might consider creating more of the latter.

Revolutionary ideas were discussed during the two hours, and panelists acknowledged that humanities fields can’t do all of this work alone. 

Wenzel told the audience about a discussion she had with an economist from the Energy Policy Center. She’d said, “we’re interested in the non-technological obstacles to transition and non-technological tools to foster public demand for these changes. We want to understand why people remain so attached to the world that fossil fuels have created.” The economist said, “Right. We call that demand-side management.”

The audience laughed, understanding the frustration that often results from the disparate methodologies of science and humanities fields. Wenzel said she “felt a bit deflated” — but also learned a word she could use in future collaborations with economists and policymakers. 

The humanities have many valuable contributions to the energy transition: recovering histories, disrupting the status quo, crafting new narratives. But what’s important right now is communicating this. Wenzel left us with an instruction: “We need to learn to build bridges across different disciplines.”

This event was organized by the Energy Humanities Working Group in partnership with the Duke University Energy Initiative, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. Duke students or faculty members can join the Energy Humanities Working Group by contacting Dr. Tom Cinq-Mars (tom.cinq.mars@duke.edu).

Post by Zella Hanson

Restoring the “Sacred Link”: Water Rights in Australia

(Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

For 223 years — ever since Britain established its first Australian colony in 1788 — indigenous Australians have exercised resistance to colonial plundering and exploitation. One thing colonizers have plundered and exploited is water — water that is “cultural, spiritual; water for our people, water for our country,” according to Tati Tati Elder Brendan Kennedy.

As part of the Fall 2021 Global Environmental Justice Speaker Series — part of a student-led Environmental Justice course here at Duke — on October 6th, Dr. Bruce Lindsay, the Senior Lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), discussed indigenous water rights in Australia. 

Because the Australian constitution is “silent on key issues” of land and water use, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, water use was regulated according to English riparian rights in conjunction with English common law. Under this colonial law, whoever owned the land on which water flowed had the right to that water. 

Dr. Lindsay argued that Australian law was designed according to the “gross fantasy of the empty continent.” Upon the premise that Aboriginals simply did not exist, colonizers proceeded accordingly — buying and selling land that was already occupied and under aboriginal custodianship. Because Aboriginals didn’t own land in a way recognized by the law, they were “marginalized and excluded” from decisions about water infrastructure and allocation “while degradation [went] on around them.”

Dr. Lindsay and the EJA work primarily with aboriginal communities and organizations in the Murray Darling Basin. The Murray Darling Basin is the largest river Basin in Australia, hosting 90% of the population, 70% of irrigated land, and providing 40% of agricultural production. A precious resource amidst Australia’s hot, semi-arid climate, the Basin has been the site of major conflicts over water since the early 19th century. 

The Murray Darling faces a problem called “over allocation,” which means that more entitlements for water use have been issued than can be sustained at their full value. By the 1990s and 2000s, over-extraction had led to drought and unprecedented water shortages, and the ecosystems supported by the Murray Darling Basin were “on the verge of ecological collapse.” The Australian government passed the Water Act of 2007 and the Basin Plan of 2012 to bring the Basin to a “healthier level” and “ensure that the Basin is managed in the national interest” as they saw fit. 

To highlight the tension between the Australian legal view and the Aboriginal view, Dr. Lindsay read the Aboriginal anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose’s definition of country. According to Australia’s indigenous people, country “gives and receives life… is lived in and lived with… is a proper noun… is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow with a consciousness, and a will toward life.” For Aboriginals, the flow of water should support this notion of cultural wellbeing and “genuine coexistence.” But according to Dr. Lindsay, Australian law (being a “pillar of the settler state”) does not currently provide for “life, ecosystem health, and spirit except for where it intersects with the utilitarian purpose.” Thus, Dr. Lindsay believes that the law needs a massive upheaval in order to be reconciled with the indigenous vision.

The EJA is currently working with Aboriginal communities on one such upheaval: the “cultural flows” concept of water management. Cultural flows necessitates reallocation and redistribution of water rights by the Australian government in order to increase Aboriginal control and authority over water. To restore life to country, reverse environmental catastrophe, and revitalize their economic health and culture, Aboriginals hold that there must be a change from the current model where water is understood as something to be continually exploited. Such a change is not without historical precedent: in New Zealand in 2017, the government granted the Whanganui River legal status as a living entity, so that New Zealand law now views harming the Whanganui tribe and harming the river as equivalent. 

Ultimately, the EJA hopes to implement the cultural flows framework across the Basin. They’re starting by working with the Tati Tati First Nations community to implement cultural flows in the Margooya Lagoon. Because this requires the Victorian government to deliver the rights to manage water there, the EJA must work with both Australian law and the Aboriginal view. Dr. Lindsay claimed that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The EJA seeks to find the intersection where water as a public good to be managed in the public interest can also be water managed for the good of country and the health of the community. Thus, the EJA aims to advocate for policy that enables that mutually beneficial outcome.

Dr. Lindsay ended by recalling his earlier point of reconciling Australian law with indigenous vision. He stated that a “broader set of changes” need to occur in order to really bring justice to Aboriginal communities. Although the Australian High Court’s passing of the Native Title Act of 1993 ostensibly ended riparian rights by recognizing “native title” (the aboriginal traditional ownership of land “according to their own laws and customs”), native title is a “limited device” as far as water rights. Indigenous Australians have native title rights over 30% of the Australian continent, but own only 0.01% of water entitlements. Because state governments have a large role in reallocation, cultural flows projects would have to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

What Dr. Lindsay really hopes to see is a legal mechanism other than native title that will grant legitimacy to aboriginal traditional ownership. He recalled the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It states:

“[Our] sovereignty… has never been ceded or extinguished. How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”

Uluru Statement from the heart


How could it be? Sadly, the fact that only 0.01% of water entitlements are owned by indigenous Australians indicates that the sacred link of traditional ownership has disappeared — at least in the legal sense. So this is the ultimate goal of Dr. Lindsay and the EJA’s work with indigenous communities: to restore this sacred link.

Post by Zella Hanson

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