Episode #24 of In The Moment brings us a conversation between Chief Correspondent Steve Scher and Seattleness co-author Natalie Ross (2:50). She details the things she loves about Seattle, and reveals her history as a Geography major and how it morphed into a focus on landscape architecture and interest in maps. Together, Natalie and Steve discuss the fascinating new insight that comes from examining information from a topographical perspective—and an opportunity to see the place we live in a different light.
Steve also sits in with Dr. Marie Wong (13:04) about the upheaval of land value that’s happening in Seattle’s International District. Wong explains how developers are swooping in and purchasing one-story buildings with the intent to redesign them for newer (and more expensive) purposes. Wong outlines the harmful effects of this practice and explores the potential consequences of this new wave of developments—whose rise may precipitate an exodus of local businesses who can no longer afford to remain in the International District.
Town Hall Correspondent Grace Hamilton interviews David Hu (15:45) about cutting-edge research in the field of animal locomotion and behavior, and how new discoveries are yielding benefits in a vast array of fields, from robotics to food conservation. Hu enlightens us on the topics that are intriguing scientists the most, including the water-storage capacity of cat tongues and the rapid food waste breakdown capabilities of the black soldier fly larvae.
And Edward Wolcher (28:01), Town Hall’s Curator of Lectures, offers us an update on the November calendar. He talks about upcoming Town Hall programs surrounding the rapidly approaching mid-term elections, including our Election Night Viewing Party. Edward also highlights a handful of more lighthearted Town Hall events taking place following the elections—in case audiences need a break from intense political discussion.
Interested in the history and future of Seattle’s districts? Last season Erik Molano, one of our Inside/Out Neighborhood Residents, put together events about two of Seattle’s neighborhoods. Check out out recordings of these events about the history and future of both Capitol Hill and the Central District.
Last year, Grace Hamilton interviewed Yale Ornithologist Richard Prum about animal mate choice and the evolution of beauty. Listen to her interview here.
Edward Wolcher has appeared on In The Moment a few times before. You can hear him again in Episode #10 and Episode #22 (or onstage giving introductions at many Town Hall events!)
In episode #23 of In The Moment, sit in with our correspondent Lesley Hazleton as she talks with Michael Hebb (2:05) about her memories of one of his Death Over Dinner discussions. She shares her feelings of freedom and the depth of the kinship she felt at being able to talk openly about death with complete strangers. Hebb and Hazleton explore the philosophy of such deep and meaningful conversations, and how they have the power to transform our understanding of our mortality and ourselves.
Chief Correspondent Steve Scher brings us back-to-back interviews. First he meets with acclaimed journalist and former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges (16:35), who insists that resistance must become our education if we are to fight the collapse of American society. Then, Steve speaks with David Reich (25:18), Harvard Medical School’s Professor of Genetics, about his work with ancient human DNA. Reich illuminates us on modern DNA research and the ways it is changing our understanding of ourselves as a species.
Host Jini Palmer highlights a Q&A from the conversation between Jose Antonio Vargas and Ijeoma Oluo (27:18). An audience member asks them “How do we go from the microcosm of life to the macrocosm of the country?” To answer this question, Jose and Ijeoma explore the idea that we are all activists in our own way, and address the question of taking action in our communities in order to bring about change on a larger scale.
Lesley Hazleton is Town Hall’s first Scholar In Residence, and a veteran of our stage. Hear more talks with her in our online media library.
Learn more about Death Over Dinner, Michael Hebb’s end-of-life awareness project turned global phenomenon.
It’s been nearly 160 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s the origin of species with its dazzling description of a model for the evolution of life inspired by those lovely whimsical finches. In that time, Evolutionary Science has advanced a long way, but according to Yale Ornithologist Richard Prum, something also has been lost: a scientific accounting, not just of the functional advantages that drive evolution, but of the aesthetics of animal sexuality that inspire individual choice.
He develops this theory in the new book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us which he will discuss at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, June 11 at the PATH Auditorium in downtown Seattle. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between him and Grace Hamilton. Grace is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington and a participant in this year’s UW ScienceEngage program for public science communication. They spoke about the evolution of beauty, the terrifying arms race of duck genitalia and the queering of Homo Sapiens.
Grace Hamilton: I wanted to tell you first how much I enjoyed your book The Evolution of Beauty.
Richard Prum: I’m glad! That’s why you write it, to hopefully get some readers on the other end.
GH: Yeah, I’m not an ornithologist or an evolutionary biologist by training, but I really enjoyed the intellectual passion you bring to the task of resurrecting Darwin’s long neglected theory of mate choice, your dissection of the cultural biases that drove it out of the scientific mainstream in the first place, and the hypotheses about human evolution that this theory of aesthetic evolution provoked. Could you briefly define aesthetic evolution for listeners who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your book?
RP: Aesthetic evolution is a process that involves a sensory perception, a cognitive evaluation, and some kind of social or sexual choice. And when these three things come together with some kind of heritable substrate or genetic or cultural substrate, then the result is a distinct kind of evolution that I have called aesthetic evolution. And it’s distinct because the features that evolve this way function in the perception of animals, not in the physical world. So we can compare, for example, the roots of a plant to the flower of the plant. The roots we could describe entirely in terms of their physical functions: holding the plant into the soil, absorbing water and nutrients of some kinds and also interacting with bacteria or fungi in the soil, these kinds of things. But the flower functions in the brain—if you will—of the bee or the hummingbird, the pollinator. And in that way, it functions in a distinct fashion where perception and essentially the taste of the animals matters.
GH: But this isn’t how the field of Evolutionary Biology, how they tend to view traits. Usually the argument is that these traits are not just for the perceptual benefit of others, but that they must convey some sort of information about reproductive value. So what led you down this very different mode of viewing evolution?
RP: Yeah, quite right. The majority of my colleagues think that the pleasure of animals or the subjective experiences of animals, if you will—what it is like to be a bird listening to a song or a bee looking at a flower—most of my colleagues think that these experiences need to be explained away, that is as some kind of utility. And this is a worldview that requires that requires that adaptation by natural selection is a strong force that kind of dominates all the events in evolutionary history. However, somehow or other, the way I have connected my own personal history as a birdwatcher and as a national historian to my scientific research, I’ve just been attracted to another idea, a different theory, and it’s one that actually is historically the original one proposed by Darwin in 1871. And that is the idea that beauty can evolve because of the pleasure it produces, because of the fact that animals like it, right? And that alone can drive the evolution of ornament, sexual ornament in nature in many different ways that are unpredicted by adaptation.
GH: You study one of the most classically beautiful areas of biology, the birds, and what made you think that these ideas initially based on the observation of birds and their mating behavior, could be fruitfully applied to human evolution as you do so excitingly, in The Evolution of Beauty?
RP: Yeah. Well, a lot of my colleagues ask me “Rick, why would you create this mess for yourself? Why would you get involved with talking about people?” and there’s a lot of reasons. One: people are important! How we think about our own sexuality, our own sexual selves, our own beauty has really been influenced greatly by the same kind of science that I have been battling essentially in ornithology. That is the idea from evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, areas of evolutionary biology that have worked on human evolution, have been trying to support the idea that human beauty, whether it’s asymmetry or waist-to-hip ratio or various kinds of aspects of human beauty are all indicators of genetic or quality or condition. Right? And, and I think much of this work is notably bad science, and so that’s one reason to counter it, but it also has, I think, come to influence how people think about themselves. How humans think about their own sexual self.
So I think children or teenagers today grow up looking in the mirror with more challenges than teenagers had in the past in the sense that they look at every asymmetry or every difference from maybe canonical descriptions of beauty and imagine that that indicates actually objective qualities of themselves. And that idea is just deeply flawed scientifically and deeply damaging culturally. And so one of the reasons why to take on the evolution of human sexuality was to try to address that and propose a different path to understanding how we got here, how we got to be this way.
GH: In your book I found it very poignant your discussion of this bad science that often occurs in evolutionary psychology. How there are attempts to “quantify” even female beauty—and usually female beauty—in terms of things like waist-to-hip ratio or facial asymmetry.
RP: One of the oddities of the field is it takes a lot of intellectual shortcuts, but one that’s really prominent is to state that sperm are cheap and eggs are rare and expensive, relatively, and therefore males should be profligate and females should be sexually coy. And this has typically been played out as a sort of rich explanation of human reproductive biology. And I try to document in the book how failed that really is in many ways.
GH: And you cite a sort of intellectual antipathy towards the evolutionary power as female sexual autonomy as something that goes all the way back to Darwin and something that may have predisposed many evolutionary biologists to be hostile to aesthetic evolution.
RP: You know, a number of reviews and some of my colleagues have asked me: “why get into the political history of evolutionary biology and some of these topics?” And I think it’s responsible as a scientist to understand the implications of your statements, so I’ve gotten into these issues because I think that the culture has influenced the science—and not in a good way.
GH: You’ve done fascinating, and in some quarters notorious, research into the torrid sex lives of ducks.
RP: Yeah. I’ve come to realize that duck sex is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever volume you put it in. Keeping it hemmed in a little bit. Yes, we have been working duck sex with my former Postdoc, Patricia Brennan, now a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and her work has really been revolutionary in understanding an area of Evolutionary Biology called sexual conflict. It turns out it is quite related to the evolution of beauty and it’s really about what happens when freedom of mate choice is infringed or violated by sexual coercion or sexual violence. So the rather violent and troubling sex lives of the ducks turn out to be really instrumental in understanding sexual conflict in a new way. And that’s a big focus of the book.
GH: I was struck by your discussion of this research in The Evolution of Beauty. You assert that the revelation of an aesthetic mechanism for the evolution of female sexual autonomy in waterfowl is a profound feminist scientific discovery. What does it mean for a scientific finding to be feminist?
RP: Well, since the 70’s and on, there has been a fascinating literature in feminist science, feminist biology. But much of it is a cultural critique of science itself, and that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m not talking about science that starts with some kind of political conclusions or assumptions and then elaborate theories. I’m talking about finding that aspects of the political and cultural debate of feminism—and by contrast, patriarchy—are actually evolved in other species than human beings. In the case of duck sex, the discovery is that freedom of choice matters to animals, right? There is something it is like to have freedom of choice, and as a result when freedom of choice is violated by coercion or sexual violence, there turned out to be evolutionary consequences of that.
And the way in which they work is deeply fascinating and I think actually informative to both human evolutionary biology and contemporary culture. So I think of this as a feminist discovery in the sense that we’re finding out that the concerns of human culture and of human wellbeing and thriving are not unique to us. Sexual autonomy is not a concept discovered by suffragettes and feminist in the 19th and 20th century only. It is an evolved feature of the social sexual lives of other kinds of animals. And that opens up a whole new kind of conversation between evolutionary biology, feminism, and gender theory that I’m very excited about.
GH: It’s fascinating stuff. But because of this research funded by the National Science Foundation, studying sexual autonomy and a sort of terrifying genital arms race between male and female ducks, you were briefly the right-wing poster child for profligate government spending. What was that like? That sounds like every scientist’s nightmare.
RP: Well, it was a bit horrifying. So what happened was during one particular phase of debate about government spending during the Obama administration, our grant to study the evolution of the evolution duck sex, the co-evolution of sexual conflict in ducks, was found by a right wing think tank and then soon became the subject of Fox News and other attacks. You know, it was sobering. But one of the things that we were confident of is that duck sex is fascinating, right? The fact of the matter is that the reason why they picked—in one case, $30 billion of government waste and they’re picking on our $350,000 grant—the reason why it’s so fascinating is that duck sex is fascinating! And we knew that if we had, if you will, a fair fight or a level playing field that people would find it fascinating and worthwhile
GH: And it’s not just the sex lives of ducks though, that you talk about in The Evolution of Beauty. You have a whole chapter called “The Queering of Homo Sapiens” in which you— and I’ve heard several theories about the evolution of homosexuality in humans, the idea that it’s kin selection, that this will somehow benefit the nieces and nephews of people with exclusively same-sex attractions—but you posit a new theory that I hadn’t heard before: that males with traits associated with same-sex preferences were actually preferred as mates by females. I was wondering if anyone had pointed out that this theory is an inversion of a classic lament that all the good ones are gay. You’re saying that rather than all the good ones are gay, all the gay ones are good—as in desirable.
RP: Well, you know, starting with a study with a human sexuality is complicated because of course there’s a lot going on! You know, there’s male choice, female choice, male/male competition, female competition, sexual conflict, and culture all piled on top. And so I originally imagined one chapter on human sexuality, but it turned into four because doing it responsibly took so much more time. But you’re right, there is a chapter on the evolution of same-sex preferences and attractions and that I, it as you stated, propose a new theory. And basically what I’m proposing is that same-sex behavior, both between women and men, evolved because it furthered female sexual autonomy during our human evolution. That is, female/female sexual interactions would foster alliances that were appropriately defensive against male sexual and social control—essentially a male hierarchy—and that male/male sexual interactions would also further a social environment that would be less focused on the control of female sexuality and allow females with more social opportunities to further their own autonomous interests.
And so what this means is interesting in two ways. One: it is congruent with the more conservative hypothesis that may be represented by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a book called Virtually Normal. Which was basically that the gay couple next door are just like everybody else except for who’s in their bed, right? And this is the sort of normalizing view. And it’s true in that sense that I think that this is a deep part of evolutionary history, of the changing of the evolution of a pro-social human species.
However, this hypothesis is also congruent with the more radically queer theorists within the discipline who see same-sex behavior as inherently disruptive. And the reason why I use the term “queering” of Homo Sapiens is to say that same-sex attraction I think evolved specifically because it functions to undermine male social and sexual hierarchy. That is, it evolved because of this feature, which means that there is something inherently queer about it. “Queering” in the sense of undermining the normal, undermining the control, undermining in this case male social control. So I think there’s something for everybody in there. This is a way of opening up the topic that begins with the aesthetic. Previous theories have tried to explain same-sex behavior through its indirect or correlated features, right? But I’ve been saying that at the center of this biology is subjective experience.
What is it that animals want? What do they prefer? And in this case, when it comes to the diversity of human sexual preferences and desires, we can see that we can’t just explain it away as “oh, gay folks are helping raise their nieces and nephews and therefore that’s how the genes are propagated,” right? These are end-arounds, these are dodges, if you will. The real issue is the evolution of desire itself. And that’s something that other previous theories have not gotten to. And so I’m trying to propose that, and by taking the aesthetic view that means that that becomes our, our main question: how does desire itself, how does the object of desire, evolve? And that’s, I think, why it’s been a successful idea.
Richard Prum is the author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us out now from Doubleday books. He spoke with Grace Hamilton, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry at the University of Washington. He will be speaking about the book on Monday, June 11 at 7:30pm at the PATH Auditorium.
You just a heard a selection from the first part of Tornado, a new piece composed by Town Music Artistic Director Joshua Roman and performed by the JACK Quartet. Over the course of 27 minutes, the piece takes the audience from that peaceful musical setting into the eye of a whirlwind and out again to the other side.
Tornado will have its Seattle debut next week on Thursday, May 10 as part of our Town Music series. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Joshua Roman and Melinda Bargreen, a writer, music critic and composer based in Seattle. They spoke about Tornado, and Roman’s developing work as a composer.
Melinda Bargreen: I’m curious about your new work that we’re going to be hearing in Seattle, Tornado, where it came from, where the title came from and how the commission took shape?
Joshua Roman: Yes. So I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve been in, I never bothered to count but enough tornadoes that counting seems silly. I grew up with the weekly test sirens on Saturday afternoon at noon. I love them! They’re horrible and they’re scary and they’re just these giant pieces of nature that just come out of the sky and still you with… you can’t avoid it. You can’t ignore it. It just takes over. And I think there’s something incredibly powerful about that and about nature, and that’s the natural disaster that we had in Oklahoma. Now we also have earthquakes. But back when I was growing up it was basically just tornadoes. Maybe love is the wrong word, but I had this extreme fascination with tornadoes. And so when I’m thinking about writing something for the JACK String Quartet, which was how this came about because I’d worked with the JACK String Quartet.
We love playing quintets together. We had Jefferson Friedman write us one that Town Hall commissioned years ago, and Ari (Streisfeld), the former violinist from JACK arranged some Gesualdo madrigals. And we started playing around with how to build the repertoire out. And I had started composing in the meantime. And so we figured: well, that’s easy, while we’re trying to decide how we take the next step, let’s just go ahead and move forward. I’ll write a piece for us and we’ll have an even more complete program that we can take around and play together. And so when I started thinking about that, I really wanted to give myself a way to utilize JACK’s strengths, which there are many of, but one that sets them apart is their ability to just tackle all sorts of crazy stuff and make it fit together. I mean, they’ll play John Zorn and Gesualdo in the same program. It’s amazing. So I wanted to write something that really gave us something to sink into in that way. And when I start as a composer, each piece, it helps me—sometimes I can get going with just a musical idea—but sometimes to think of that first musical idea, I want to have some non-musical inspiration. And for this I just thought of the chaos in the swirling of a tornado and that would be such a wonderful way to have a context for me to explore JACK’s sounds and how we could play together. And so it sort of built out from there. But the original kernel of this was finding a way to marry working with the JACK Quartet with really being myself. And this is how it all fits together.
MB: Well, I noticed in the music there’s a great deal of pictorial element, which I think is fascinating because it really does suggest a tornado. First: it sounds like you’re opening with something sort of jaunty and pastoral. There even sounds like there’s a little quote from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
JR: Funny. I didn’t even notice that. But it is. Yes.
MB: That is funny. Yeah. And then of course things escalate from there and I swear at one point we are hearing a siren warning. Is this accurate? Like a tornado siren?
JR: Yes, there is a spot where the viola does it, and then the other strings come up and join in. It’s right as the not-so-literal—the figurative funnels start to develop. This swirling starts to really come out of this chaotic sound. So yeah there are elements in there for sure.
MB: It’s fantastic. It seems to me there may be a theater element in there somewhere too. Some of the effects that I’m hearing on the strings. I wish I were seeing as a listener in a concert hall because I know you’re doing weird stuff there that I can’t tell except by sounds.
JR: Oh yeah. That is the wheelhouse of the JACK String Quartet. So there’s lots of slapping the strings with the bow. I play the tailpiece at one point. John, the viola player, turns his viola around and crunches the hair with the stick of the bow against the back of the viola. There’s something that we ended up just calling a “duck crunch” because there’s no name for it, but I had to notate it somehow. There’s all sorts of stuff that people will see.
MB: At some point it sounds like you’re actually blowing on the strings. Does that happen?
JR: Yes. So that’s actually the air sound, and I didn’t know what to call it besides air sound. It’s the bow being very lightly drawn across the strings while the left hand is touching them with the whole hand so that you don’t get harmonics. The idea is not to have any pitch, which is actually a little difficult, but to have just the sound of the wind, and it’s a very difficult but fun technique of just making string sound with the bow.
MB: That sounds so cool. Well, what I hear with the ears is pretty fascinating and I think it’s going to be one of these sort of concert/performance pieces where you really benefit from being in the hall.
JR: Yeah. I’ve found that. Of course I know what everyone’s doing, so when I listen to it I like to either be playing it, or: headphones on, all the lights out and then you just get immersed in that sound world and it’s quite terrifying. But seeing it, you really get a sense for all of the crazy things that are happening musically and instrumentally.
MB: I wanted to ask you, does the cello interest you a little less now that you’re composing more, just straight cello performance recitals, performance opportunities? And would you like to write more pieces based on purely the solo cello feel like Bach suites and all the famous pieces in the repertoire—the Britons—the things that only exercise your own instrument.
JR: It’s interesting. When I first started composing, largely there, there was some desire to do it for its own sake, but a lot of the push aside from what was coming from situations that came up was this philosophical notion that in order to understand the music of Bach and the music of Beethoven, I should challenge myself to put myself in their shoes, and actually write music. How can I interpret the work of somebody like Dvořák, if I have not sat down with a blank page and tried to turn it into a piece of music? A lot of this is still, for me, very much connected to playing and as much as I love composing I think I’m doing about the right amount right now. I wouldn’t want to do too much more because I’m still incredibly passionate about the cello.
And up to this point, I’ve written almost exclusively pieces that I would be involved in, and I’m not super interested in writing something that I wouldn’t be playing because I am still focused on the cello. And for me, this is about becoming in some ways, ironically, a more traditional classical musician going back to 18th and 19th century roots when that was just expected. I feel like it makes me, when I play Beethoven, it makes me more able to relate. And that’s been one of the really fun byproducts of throwing myself into this process. So for me it’s not really a conflict and it’s one of those things that I think when you talk about it in terms of branding, it can be a little difficult because it’s not something that people have been used to in recent decades, but if you’ve really looked back, that was their tradition to be making and playing music. And so I feel pretty good personally and artistically about how that all matches together and it’s a matter of making sure that people understand how it fits together, my colleagues and the people that I play for, that it’s all from the same place.
MB: That makes absolute perfect sense. A really well-rounded musician is able to do several things at once. It seems to me. And that’s certainly the direction that you have moved. Well, Joshua, one thing I’d like to say is that as a Seattle music lover and part of the community here, it has been so terrific having you come back periodically, watching you grow and develop, watching the way you change the soundscapes around you and the atmosphere of music in Seattle: from chamber to orchestral to solo to your ability to express yourself in words as well as music, so we feel very lucky here. I think everyone who loves music is eager to have you back in town.
JR: That’s so sweet. Thank you. I’ve always felt incredibly supported on this journey and when I go to Seattle, and even just these conversations—I carry them with me everywhere I go. I feel very much like Seattle is home. It’s a beautiful feeling and I don’t feel alone on this journey.
That was Joshua Roman, Artistic Director of the Town Music Series here at Town Hall. He spoke with Melinda Bargreen. The Seattle debut of his piece, Tornado, will be part of our upcoming concert with the JACK Quartet on Thursday, May 10 at Seattle’s First Baptist Church.
Increasingly, activists who work on climate change frame their movement around the idea of environmental justice, an interweaving of social, racial and economic justice with the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change and seek a just transition from the fossil fuel economy.
For Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, the key sites of this struggle are the world’s cities: where radical social movements and innovative urban planning rise up in places at the highest risk of environmental disaster. He tells this story in his new book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.
He will be discussing the book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, May 6th, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Ashley and Town Hall correspondent Jessica Ramirez. Jessica is an organizer working with Puget Sound Sage, a cross-sector organization based in Seattle that works on equitable policy solutions for our region.
She and Ashley spoke about Extreme Cities, their common experiences witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand, and what urban resiliency really means in an era of rising waters.
Jessica Ramirez: Thank you Ashley for talking with me today. Where are you right now?
Ashley Dawson: In Jackson Heights in Queens, a neighborhood in New York City.
JR: So you are from the very urban center of the urban centers.
AD: That’s where I live now. I’m originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but I’ve been a New Yorker for several decades. So I think I get to claim this beast as my own at this point.
JR: Well I really wanted to get to know you a little bit more and touch on the book through ways of your life experience. I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, born and raised there. My family continues to live there. I’ve lived in Seattle for the last 15 years and going home about once a year for the last 15 years I’ve seen and witnessed the radical change that the coastline has undergone over the last decade or more. We had a really intense hurricane come through there last year. The year before that, around the holidays, we had a water shortage because of a chemical that was leaked into our water system that left the whole city without water for over a week. People were having to drink bottled water. I’ve really seen the change of the coastline with the new refineries popping up all the time.
When I was younger I remember looking at them and thinking how pretty they were because in the evening they look like big towers with Christmas lights. So I was always really fascinated by them and I just thought “oh the twinkling lights across the bay,” and as I’ve gotten older and with the work that I do at Puget Sound Sage and the kind of issues that we touch on around environmental justice and environmental racism and the way that effects low income communities and communities of color, I’ve really had an incredibly different relationship with my hometown and I’m starting to look at it in a much different way: in which ways can I help insert kind of this popular education on climate change within my family with family, friends with neighbors when I’m home. And I’m curious for you growing up in Cape Town, how have you seen where you’re from change over the last several years?
AD: That’s a great question. I have not lived in Cape Town for many years. As you can tell from my accent, I spent my teenage years in the United States. My family left South Africa in the 1970s because of apartheid. But Cape Town has been in the news a lot recently because of the drought. I mean there’s a very severe drought affecting all of southern Africa and in fact there are bad droughts right now in many other parts of the world, but since much of Sub-Saharan Africa really relies on rain fed agriculture, the drought in southern Africa is particularly devastating for people and farmers. In South Africa it really threatens to undermine the gains that have been made since the end of apartheid. There’s been a real struggle for the black majority in South Africa to get access to the land that was taken away from them by white settlers—my own ancestors included. The ANC I think has not done enough to help that land redistribution and the farmers who have gotten access to land still are really, really struggling and the impact of the drought has made things a lot worse.
That hasn’t made the news so much as the water crisis in Cape Town. Where the city is about to essentially run its main reservoirs dry and it’s already rationing water, so what that means is that many of the more affluent people living in the city, which because of the history of apartheid means the predominantly white populations of the city, are struggling with lack of access to drinking water, which the majority of people in South Africa have coped with for a long time and it’s generated a lot of fears about the viability of the city going forward and of course this is one crisis among many around the world and I’d be happy to talk about New York City and some of the experiences I had been living in New York City in recent years that help to catalyze the book and those have to do not so much with drought but with sea level rise and the impact of hurricanes. So they’re connected in a lot of ways to what you’re just described experiencing in the south in Texas, Jessica,
JR: Thanks Ashley. I read through your book and you do have a significant amount talking about Hurricane Sandy, so I imagine living in New York City that had an impact on you. Can you tell us more about the connection of what drew you to this book and your experience with Hurricane Sandy?
AD: Sure. Well, as you could tell from the comments I just made about South Africa and given my background and the work I’ve done in recent years with environmental justice organizations, I think it’s absolutely crucial to think about cities and the impact of climate change driven natural disasters on cities and urban populations in a kind of variegated way. You can’t think of cities as homogenous. Even though a lot of statistics produced about cities tend to treat cities as unified units. There are places that are very radically segregated and segmented by histories of racism and economic inequality and exploitation, and when you have some kind of a climate-change-driven disaster like a hurricane, it impacts communities that are uneven and the impact is consequently very uneven and often efforts to help people cope in the aftermath and help them rebuild reflect those histories of racism and economic inequality. And I very much saw that with Hurricane Sandy.
The neighborhood I live in is predominantly immigrant and predominantly people of color, but it was pretty much spared a lot of the wrath of the hurricane. However other neighborhoods in Queens, like the Rockaways, which are on an island—kind of barrier island—off the coast of New York City was very, very hard hit. And that community has a disproportionate amount of the public housing in our borough of New York. Basically under the master builder of the Twentieth Century, Robert Moses, a lot of working class people of color communities for essentially just moved as far away from the center of the city as possible to these barrier islands. And when Sandy came, it knocked out power for the island and flooded a lot of parts of the Rockaways so that people living in the projects didn’t have running water above the fifth floor. They often didn’t have functioning elevators and they didn’t have functioning boilers, so their heat was not working.
This kind of experience is reproduced in many vulnerable communities around New York City so that although the hurricane devastated Wall Street and the area around Wall Street and famously that bottom quarter of Manhattan lost power was plunged into darkness. The really dramatic impact was on people who were already struggling economically before the storm hit. And we already know about those kinds of uneven impacts of climate change from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But those dynamics were working themselves through in cities around the globe today and not always in quite as visible ways as in Hurricane Katrina with all of its tragic images of people struggling on rooftops and trying to escape the floods. So my book really tries to talk about urbanization and climate change as a global crisis and a crisis of global urban inequality,
JR: Yeah. There’s definitely a lot there. Urban Centers, for me, when I think about climate change, for a really long time I always thought about climate change as being kind of over there in a corner somewhere.
Actually in my mind I just went straight to California where there’s no water and I just thought, you know, this is an issue for them, not something that I don’t need to care about, but I just thought of it as being… that there is a bigger gap between me and climate change. But then about three years ago I got involved with the farm worker campaign up in the Skagit valley, about an hour north from here, and really started to hear about what struggles are for farm workers who pick in the fields and the kinds of pesticides that they’re working with and what those pesticides are for are to grow foods in radically difficult climates and that is the food that we eat and these are the foods that they pick. This is the poison that gets seeped into their hands, that they bring home to their families, the areas and the environment that their children grow up in.
And this is also making me remember about the last handful of years in Seattle, wildfires in Eastern Washington where the smoke just billows beyond the mountain pass and into Western Washington and how everyone complains about the smoke and can see what’s happening, but the connection of why that is happening is still hard for some people to make and so thinking about urban centers as the center of where climate change is existing, and then even rural areas are not safe to be either. Where is the medium—what are the ways in which we mitigate climate change and how do you see people doing that? How are some of the most radical ways that you see folks working on climate issues from the urban center?
AD: Yeah, that’s a great question. I want to, before getting into radical adaptation and mitigation, I want to just backtrack to what you said because I think it’s really important about the ways in which people deal with toxicity and how hard that is to pin down because getting exposed to pesticides and potentially—years down the road—developing some kind of cancer is very different from getting exposed to a hurricane or a heat wave. It’s a form of attritional disaster unfolds over an extended time span and consequently is often kind of invisible to science. And corporations are very quick to exploit that and to say “well, you know, you can’t prove any kind of connection between exposure to a certain toxin and an impact many years down the road.”
The critic Rob Nixon has talked about this as a form of slow violence. He also talks about, for instance, Gulf War syndrome, that is the result of soldiers sent to Iraq during the US invasion—either the most recent one or the one in the 1990s—getting exposed to depleted uranium which they were using to blow up tanks and other things and becoming sick after many years. So I think a lot of this has to do with understanding different forms of time and temporality and how we can make connections between different forms of violence and the unfolding of injustice on different temporal scales. And that’s really important to do I think because as you say, often the way that climate change is framed is as something that’s going to happen in some remote future, you know, unless we do, x, y, and z one day we’re going to have to deal with something that’s going to impact us. So I think it’s really important to emphasize that climate change is happening in the present. It’s likely to become much more extreme than the future, but it’s already happening and it’s happening in all sorts of different ways.
So just to give you a kind of concrete example of this, to think about the ways in which existing urban infrastructures are impacted by climate change as the heat island effect in cities means that there’s increasing heat stress on pipes, on transportation systems, on electric grids that can often cause catastrophic and sudden breakdowns, but that are a long time in the making. So to think about those kinds of things and then to think about the ways in which people are exposed to these forms of climate change and how there’s a kind of attritional violence to climate change so that people gradually get worn down and we need to be aware of that as well as to think about so-called natural disasters like hurricanes for example. So all of that is really important in thinking about how we engage in adaptation and mitigation because it means we have to reframe how we conceive of disasters and preparation for disasters. Right now, particularly in the United States, a lot of work around disasters has to do with sending in resources to communities that are affected by disasters. Treating those communities as homogenous as I was saying previously…
JR: Puerto Rico, right?
AD: Yeah, exactly. And FEMA doesn’t think about the inequalities in communities and the need to dispense aid in recognition of these kinds of histories of inequality which we’ve been talking about. And so one has to be aware of those kinds of histories and impacts as one thinks about adaptation and mitigation. So to give you a concrete example of this, a couple of examples that I look at it in the book, one has to do with a very ambitious project that was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation and which the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department got involved in which was trying to rethink design and architecture in order to deal with sea level rise and climate change in New York City. And so it proposed things like sea walls to protect downtown Manhattan or to protect an area of the southern Bronx where there’s a huge food and produce market that supplies food for about 20 million people in the New York metropolitan region.
So there was this idea of creating sea walls to protect these areas. But because of the efforts of community groups who had been excluded by previous redevelopment initiatives and particularly the redevelopment of downtown, for example, after 9/11—predominantly working class communities like Chinatown and the lower east side—really didn’t get very much of the aid after 9/11. Most of it went to affluent communities living down around Wall Street. So there was a real push to have community involvement in the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Sandy in the plans for future development. And so the plan for sea walls was to make them wide enough that they could have community amenities like parkland for example, or access to the waterfront and in the more radical cases that some of the construction would be done by local folks who had good unionized jobs. So there was something quite progressive about that.
But plants that were drafted by community organizations took some of those efforts much further. So there are other examples. For instance, the environmental justice organization, WE ACT which is based in Harlem, drafted a plan: a kind of climate action manual for northern Manhattan, which is predominantly people of African descent and people originally from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Latinx folks. And so there was a effort to really think about community development to cope with histories of police targeting and mass incarceration of these communities and to do things like build community owned solar powered micro grids that would be resilient in the case of some kind of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but which would also generate income for communities and jobs for communities and that’s just one example of something that would be both mitigating since it would cut down on carbon emissions, but it would also be a form of adaptation since it could increase resilience and it would also fight against gentrification and structural divestment in communities like Harlem over many, many decades.
JR: Puget Sound Sage for the last three years, has been a member of a state wide coalition for communities of color working on climate at a statewide level (Front and Centered), forming and shaping the policy for an initiative that folks are collecting signatures to put on the ballot in November, initiative 1631, which is a fee on pollution, wanting to reduce pollution by investing in clean air, clean energy, healthy communities, and more specifically it takes workers out of the fossil fuel economy and brings them into job training programs to work in clean energy. It helps try to mitigate the tribal nations who are losing land along the coastline every single day and really trying to stop that in its place. And really holding the people who are creating a lot of this pollution accountable for what it is that communities of color and low income workers are really facing on a day to day.
The Alliance for jobs and clean energy is this amazingly robust—over a hundred different organizations from labor, environmental organizations, and communities of color—who come together for three years to shape this initiative. And I feel very lucky to live in Washington state where we have people who are really thinking beyond the most… you know, when we talk about sea walls, you could build a sea wall all day long and it could get as high as it needs to, but is that the answer? And so thinking really long term about how do we actually stop this in its place.
And also at Sage, we have another program where we’re trying to build out a climate resiliency hub in south Seattle so that should there be a day where we need to be “off the grid”, can that infrastructure exists in a place where communities of Color and immigrant and refugee folks, low income folks, houseless, folks can all be at and still thrive in and it can that be the place where people can restructure and center themselves and ground themselves again on what we need to do next. I’m curious, through your studies, can you tell me where you’ve seen the most long term work be put in place? As you were talking about WE ACT and the climate action manual, I know that people are in a lot of places all the time and this is just really ringing to me how much we need to be more coordinated in our efforts around long-term strategy on climate. So I’d love to hear from you where you see other long term strategies existing in the urban centers.
AD: That’s such an important question. A lot of what you described Jessica early resonates with some of the things that I encountered as I was doing research for the book. For instance, that climate resiliency hub that you talked about. Part of the WE ACT climate action manual is a call for social centers. The idea is to have spaces which people can escape to when there is some kind of natural disaster or places that would have power or air conditioning if the grid goes down in the summer for instance. But even more importantly they would be places which would give access to various community organizations because I think there’s a real recognition that resiliency isn’t just about shoring up infrastructure. That it’s really about making social connections. You know, the difference between life and death, studies have shown, when a heatwave occurs in the city often has to do with knowing your neighbors and having folks check on one another.
And that I find is very much the case. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, it was organizations like Occupy Sandy and then the Good Old Lower East Side, which is a tenants rights organization in the Lower East Side, but during Sandy it was kind of transformed into this community survival organization which really sent people door to door to check on vulnerable folks. That social connection is hugely important. So core questions about how to foster that long-term by creating spaces like a resiliency hub and by kind of multiplying those spaces across cities are a really key. It’s hard to do to be honest because particularly in a place like New York City, which is a center for global capitalism, which over the last 40 years has shifted increasingly into some financialization strategies and into accumulation through investment in high end real estate. You know, there’s a huge premium on space in the city and so public housing are really under attack and communities are under attack and I’m sure there’s similar kinds of phenomena in Seattle.
So I think it goes back to the beginning of our conversation where you’re talking about ways to think about community control of land. You know, not only protecting existing public housing. We’re pretty lucky in New York City. We have a public housing authority which has survived all the attacks on public housing in cities in the last few decades. The situation is terrible in a lot of the housing in New York City and our current governor has just been scandalously cutting funding for public housing. So there are huge fights to carry forward around these kinds of basic issues. And then in terms of struggling for social hubs or community resiliency centers, it’s a tough one. And we need to call for those and we need to push progressive politicians like our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, to create that kind of infrastructure while also pushing for some of the elements of just transition away from fossil fuels that you were describing.
We have a similar alliance to what you just talked about there in Washington. In New York, it’s called a New York Renews, and it’s a alliance of Labor—progressive labor unions—and environmental justice organizations and other social movements that are fighting to put fees on big fossil fuel polluters and to direct resources to people working in fossil fuel industries and also to communities that are environmental justice frontline communities that are particularly adversely impacted by climate change. We haven’t managed to get that through the state legislature. There was a huge mobilization on April 23rd, just a few days ago around this and we’re pushing in the state legislature, but unfortunately again, our democratic governor Cuomo, who is likely to try and become president has not been supporting these measures adequately, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do politically around this stuff.
JR: Well, Ashley, thank you so much for your time and as we’re talking about social organization and the need to be more connected from urban centers to rural areas and from west coast to east coast, I appreciate you taking time out to talk to me about your book and look forward to seeing you in Seattle.
AD: Thanks so much, Jessica. It’s really been a privilege to talk to you and to hear about the work that you’re doing. I really look forward to hearing more.
Ashley Dawson is the author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change out now from Verso Books. He spoke with Jessica Ramirez from Puget Sound Sage. Ashley’s upcoming Town Hall event will be on Sunday, May 6th at 5pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.
Over the past five years, Seattle has seen a tremendous expansion of worker protections, driven largely by the organizing of low wage workers themselves. According to Annelise Orleck, a labor historian at Dartmouth College, this is just one part of what has become a worldwide movement, and the defining labor struggle of the 21st century.
In her new book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now, she argues that this movement can only be understood, and can only flourish, when placed in a truly international context. Annelise will be discussing her book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, April 23, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between her and Town Hall correspondent Alex Gallo-Brown. Alex is a writer and former labor organizer in Seattle who currently works on the outreach team of the Fair Work Center where he helps train and advocate for workers rights.
They spoke about the new class of workers called “the precariat” and the place for joy in the labor movement.
Alex Gallo-Brown: First of all, thank you for writing this book. I thought it was really compelling and important. One of the most striking things about the book was that so much of the stories are told by the workers themselves. You really focused on the workers and their voices from Tampa, Florida to the Philippines, to Cambodia, Bangladesh. Why was it important for you to let the workers speak for themselves?
Annelise Orleck: Well, that’s something that’s been a hallmark of my career really from my first book, Common Sense and a Little Fire, which talked about garment union organizers in the early part of the 20th century. It really was important to me to get as much material as I could in workers’ voices and poor people’s voices. My third book, Storming Caesar’s Palace, is about a group of welfare mom activists in Las Vegas who opened this incredibly effective anti-poverty organization in their own community. And there too, I really tried not to speak through them, but to let them speak for themselves. So this was more challenging in a sense, obviously because it’s global and because there are so many voices, but I felt like the hope, the resistance, the resilience, the creativity, the humor, the enjoyment of protests, all of that would come through so much better in their words than if I tried to narrate it from a distance.
AGB: Absolutely. And I think that really does come through, the global aspect, especially. You open with this powerful vignette about McDonald’s workers who’ve come to a conference in Brazil and they lift their sleeves up and they all have the same identical fire burn scars on their arms, but they’re from different places. One’s from Tampa, one’s from Tokyo, and one’s from Manila. When we’re talking about economic justice, why is it so important to focus on the global or to emphasize the global?
AO: In the last 30, 40 years, the economy has become global and we have the rise of these transnational corporations. There are probably about two dozen of which have more power than most national governments, most countries. And so it’s really important to talk about the global because we have a global trade regime through the World Trade Organization and their courts, and we have a global economy and therefore workers have recognized that they need to organize globally. So that conference that you talked about in Brazil in the summer of 2015 brought together fast food workers from around the world, because Brazilian fast food workers convinced the human rights committee of the Brazilian Federal Senate that McDonald’s, which was the second largest employer in Brazil and also the second largest private employer in the world, was driving down wages and eroding safety regulations and overtime laws around the world, not just in Brazil.
And so the Brazil Senate invited workers from around the world to testify about their conditions and also what they saw as the effect of McDonald’s on their larger economies. So I think being global is really key. And in the age of social media and cell phones, they can do that. A garment worker organizer Kalpona Akter who’s a leader from Bangladesh but who’s traveled around the world trying to explain to people—to make people see—the killing conditions under which clothing is made today, said, “workers may not have water in their homes, but they have phones.” Almost everybody’s got a phone these days and that enables them to communicate with workers in other countries.
AGB: You use this term “precariat” to describe the new class of post-industrial worker. Listeners may be familiar with that term. What does that mean in the context of neoliberalism and this global trade regime?
AO: Obviously it’s a play on Marx’s proletariat and this notion of a vanguard of workers, which he saw as industrial workers by and large. The precariat are the people who are rising up today and they are workers who have been denied the status of employees, have been reduced to contract workers or freelance workers, or in this country we call it “gig workers”, right? The gig economy. We passed a lot of these labor laws in the United States, in many countries around the world, that guarantee that you don’t have to work longer than a certain number of hours, that you have overtime protections, overtime pay and safety protections. That precariat doesn’t have that because they’re not employees. They’re precarious workers are contract workers. And the thought was that not only could you pay them less, but not give them benefits. They don’t have benefits, they don’t have retirement, pensions, they have no job security, they have little mobility within the company in addition to very, very low wages. So the idea was that they wouldn’t rise up because they’d be afraid. But again and again, what people who have worked in the precariat said to me is “what do I have to lose?” Right? There are so many of these jobs out there. Unemployment is no longer the issue. We have almost full employment in this country, for example, right now, but people need two or three jobs to put a roof over their heads.
AGB: And we see this in Seattle in particular, we’ve had a lot of these new labor laws passed over the last five years that have been really great in a lot of ways. We have a $15 minimum wage. We have paid sick and safe time, wage theft, ban the box, secure scheduling—and yet the gig economy and this move towards the independent contractor as well as rising costs, rising housing prices in the city have made it almost uninhabitable for low-wage workers. I’m wondering what you think the movement for economic justice in a place like Seattle looks like.
AO: I think in many ways Seattle lead the way, being the first to pass the $15 wage, paid sick and safe days, all the things that you just outlined demonstrate the extent to which the low-wage workers organizing, union organizing, and coalition politics in Seattle have yielded some real victories in terms of laws. But as fast food workers in the Philippines just told me they just won a big victory where they lobbied for and got the Federal Department of Labor to say that thousands of fast food workers have to be regularized. They have to be called employees, they have to be protected by labor laws. But they said “now we have to enforce those laws.” And that’s always been the case: going back to the New Deal, when you started to get minimum wage and maximum hours laws federally, workers had to enforce them.
And so I think that’s part of what has to happen in Seattle. The passing of the laws is just the first part. It’s not just economic justice laws, right? You can think back to Brown v. Board or some of the big civil rights victories. The civil rights movement came afterwards to enforce those decisions. So I think once the laws are passed that’s step one, and then the movement needs to go on. But I think increasing union membership in Seattle will really be crucial. I think that going back to campaigning for some kind of rent control, public housing, some kinds of protections so that the city can remain economically diverse will be really crucial. And again, these are all rights that people fought for a hundred years ago, and 70 years ago. And that’s part of the story of this book: how we’ve gone back a century in terms of the rights of poor people in workers and how we need to campaign for those rights again.
AGB: Another striking aspect of the book for me was this idea of joy, that organizing can be a pleasurable and joyful experience. You write that “resistance is contagious, rebellion feels good.” And you quote sociologist who talks about the Eros effect. In some ways this contradicts maybe our popular notion of organizing as being tedious or difficult, especially for folks who are working 40 hours a week or more in places like Walmart. Can you talk more about the pleasures of organizing and reclaiming power?
AO: I think it’s both. Obviously it is tedious, it’s difficult and it’s risky. People have lost their lives in this struggle and many people have lost their jobs as a result of their organizing. But there is a feeling when people get together. The sociologist I quote talks about how something changes in your mind. You won’t let people speak to you in the same way they once did. One of the consciousness-raising groups that I write about in this book was of grape pickers in the Western Cape in South Africa. They belong to this union called Sikhula Sonke—We Rise Together and We Grow Together—and this woman talked about how she started looking people in the eye, that she started standing up to her full height when she would speak to people, whether it was employers or politicians or male union leaders who didn’t take her seriously, and that was an important example for her children.
And then I think when you interview people about their protests, they’re fun, right? You’ve got the Philippine fast food workers who are largely young and they’re doing singing, dancing, flash mobs for protests. It’s fun, right? They sing to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” They started a strike in 2014 that pulled fast food workers out all across Manila with this snaking dance line singing “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. And their signature song is Aretha Franklin’s 1967 mega hit “Respect” and they call themselves the R-E-S-P-E-C-T Fast Food Workers Alliance. So I think in all of those ways the pleasure of organizing is really palpable. And I go back to an earlier book of mine on the antipoverty welfare rights activists. The leader of that movement in Las Vegas, Ruby Duncan, said: “You know, all our lives people have been demanding things of us. It felt so good to finally be the ones doing the demanding.” I think that’s part of the pleasure of rebellion.
AGB: At the end of the day, I think this is a really hopeful book. The typical narrative of the labor movement is that it’s in decline. Union membership is going down, wealth disparity is growing and we have this Janus decision that is being heard by the Supreme Court which may devastate public sector unions. Trump is president. Why should we feel optimistic?
AO: Because I think there’s a lot of great stuff going on and there are a lot of important changes. And I think people need hope to keep going. I just spoke to a union conference on women in the trades in Milwaukee and that’s what folks were saying, that it really helped to have some hope. It really helps to see these young people around the world who are standing up not just to Donald Trump, but the murderous dictators like Duterte in the Philippines, and really dangerous dictators like Hun Sen in Cambodia. So I think we need hope and I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. For example, the fact that in four years, American low-wage workers won sixty-one and a half billion dollars in increased income and raises for themselves. Some of that was through local laws like Seattle’s, some of it was through private corporations being convinced to raise wages. Some of that was through the big victories in New York and California when the state legislated the $15 wage. I think those were victories and we need to celebrate them and we need to celebrate the fact that workers gave them to themselves. The fact that this transcends party lines. In the same night Donald Trump was elected, five red states voted an increase in the minimum wage. So I think all of those things are our victories and I think workers’ sense of power and pleasure also matter. Laphonza Butler who heads the largest union local in the country right now—the health and hospital workers in California—said people were feeling literally strangled before this movement and the psychological benefits far outstrip the economic.
AGB: Great. Thank you so much. We’re really excited that you’re coming to Seattle and thank you for sitting down and talking to me.
AO: Thank you and I appreciate the work you’re doing, so thanks so much.
Annelise Orleck will appear on Monday, April 23 at the Summit Event Space on Capitol Hill in conversation with The Stranger’s Heidi Groover. Her book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages is out now from Beacon Press.
In 2017, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket booster. Later this year, Virgin Galactic—the spacefaring spinoff of Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines—intends to take tourists into suborbital flight. And here in the Pacific Northwest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s true passion is his commercial space company Blue Origin. According to journalist Christian Davenport, a staff-writer at the Washington Post, this flurry of activity marks the beginning of a new era of space exploration and a brand new space race: not between nations but between private companies and the eccentric billionaires driving them.
Davenport tells this story in his new book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. He’ll be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th. But in the meantime, Town Hall’s Alexander Eby spoke with Christian Davenport about this new frontier and whether he’ll be in line for a ticket to the stars.
CD: In the book I focus on Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen. I think what makes them interesting is that all of them obviously have enormous wealth and come from a Silicon Valley background or ethos and saw space as a dynamic new frontier that was ripe for disruption and innovation. Their approaches are different, their personalities are different, but what unites them is that they made their fortunes elsewhere focusing on very different industries. Elon Musk has worked at PayPal and Tesla, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and Richard Branson has a myriad of companies. They all have experience in business and entrepreneurship and going up against big industries like Amazon taking on Barnes and Noble and the book industry, and Elon Musk with Tesla taking on virtually all of Detroit. But I think Space presents to them perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It’s the most difficult and I think the reason why they chose it is that it’s something they’re really, truly passionate about.
These guys coming at these different projects from the perspective of entrepreneurs… it’s right there in the title ‘The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos’. This is ultimately public-facing. The goal is to put people into space.
That’s right. Particularly with SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that’s their main goal. There’s only something like 550-560 people who have ever been to space. In a lot of cases they grew up watching the Apollo era and seeing people in space. Elon said a year ago: it’s 2018 we should have a base on the moon by now. That’s clearly a goal of Blue Origin’s right now. They clearly are focused on human space flight and getting people into space.
When Jeff is asked about this—“aren’t these tourism trips up to space just trivial, like going on a rollercoaster ride?”—he has two responses. One is that it’s really good practice. You’re not going to get good at something you do a half dozen or a dozen times a year. To really get good at space you have to launch repeatedly, to do it over and over again which is what they hope to do with these suborbital spaceflights. Then: when you get up there you have a few minutes of weightlessness, you unbuckle your seatbelt and float around the cabin of the spacecraft, you’re able to look at the windows and see the curvature of the Earth: the globe without any lines delineating countries, the thin veneer of the atmosphere. People talk about that being a transformative effect. If these companies are able to get more people out into space and have that experience, where it comes to the point that you know someone whose gone to space or know someone who knows someone and that begins to spread, that could have a transformative effect on our society.
Is it the sort of thing you expect will happen in our lifetimes?
I think the first suborbital flights might be as soon as this year, might be next year. Virgin Galactic is gunning for this year, although they had a setback in 2014 with a fatal crash that killed a co-pilot. Obviously it’s very dangerous and a huge challenge but they’re getting close. I think Blue Origin is getting close as well. SpaceX has been hired by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. It now currently flies cargo and supplies and experiments to the International Space Station and its next step is to fly humans there.
Is it a trip you would take if you could?
When I met with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, ahead of the meeting I went to the NASA archives and pulled the journalist-in-space application. A lot of people forget that NASA had a journalist-in-space program that was cancelled after the space shuttle challenger blew up. People remember the teacher who was onboard that flight because there was a teacher-in-space program. They also had planned to do a journalist-in-space program. So I submitted my application to Jeff and to Richard. I haven’t heard back yet, though I don’t think I want to be on the first flights. I’ll let them fly a few times and get the kinks out and then I’d consider it.
As Jeff Bezos likes to say, there’s nothing quite like Earth! I think I’d be earthbound and watch others do that and explore (I’ve got young kids and a family). But I do think there are people who would want to go. We’ve got a permanent presence in space now on the International Space Station. The goal of NASA now under the Trump administration and the goal of SpaceX and Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin and some of these other companies is to work with NASA to create a permanent presence deeper into space: on the moon or in the vicinity of the moon. We went to the moon in the 60s and early 70s and left flags and footprints and came back, but the goal is to establish a longer term presence there that could then be used as a stepping stone to get deeper into space and to Mars.
It sounds a lot like Science Fiction!
It does. When we’re thinking about mining asteroids, or Jeff’s goal of millions of people living and working in space, that’s the big distant goal that’s hundreds of years out. But the first step to get there is to make access to space much more affordable, economical and reliable by building a transportation network to the stars. Just like the railroads opening up the west. Right now it’s just too hard to get to space. It’s too expensive. They want to lower that cost, make it much more affordable and much more accessible
Then help other people establish a further foothold into space once they’ve got that foot through the door?
That’s the idea, that they create the stepping stone and that other people follow in their footsteps and other industries emerge. We’re already starting to see that. What we’re talking about is the launch providers—the guys who just lift stuff off the surface of the Earth and get it into space. But once you’re in space there’s all kinds of things you can do. We’ve seen companies like Bigelow Aerospace that’s for years has been building habitats that expand—I don’t think they like the analogy but it’s a little like a balloon. They’re made of a very durable kevlar-like material and filled up with air and pressurized and become habitats, become space-stations and that’s another commercial company.
There’s a company called Made In Space that’s using 3D printers to manufacture in space. You’ve got the small satellite revolution: companies like Planet that are already putting up many small satellites to monitor the health of the earth. Then there are all the things that once you get up to space and it does get more accessible that you don’t know will happen. You can’t always tell what opportunities that will open up.
It boggles the mind to think that this is something we might see.
I try to lay that out in the book. Whatever happens, let’s not forget that space is hard. There are setbacks and delays and not all of these dreams are fulfilled in a timely manner. But I do think that this is a time that we’ll look back on 30-40 years from now as a historic moment. We had the cold war space race that begin with the Mercury Program, then Gemini then Apollo which got us to the moon. Then there was the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. And this is a new era in its own right: a privately financed commercial space age that frankly could not have been possible if it weren’t for visionary entrepreneurs who had a lot of money that they were willing to invest into this.
Christian Davenport will be speaking at the Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:30pm as part of Town Hall’s Science series. He is the author of The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos out now from Public Affairs books.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who worked for nearly two decades at Merriam-Webster dictionary, a world she reveals in the new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She will be speaking about the book at her upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, March 25th. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about her love of language, the lexical merits of emojis, and the wonderfully weird word that is ‘gardyloo.’
You’re a lexicographer. For the common person, what is that? A lexicographer is a writer and editor of dictionaries.
Have you always had an interest in words and writing and reading? I always loved reading but really in high school I started loving individual words—the way that individual words sounded, or what they meant, or how they could be deployed.
Anytime I told people what I did for a living I was bombarded with questions and assumptions about what the job was and lots of assumptions about what English was that just aren’t true.
I started blogging about language and then decided to write this book as a behind-the-scenes of how dictionaries are made but also to give people some kind of entry point into what English actually is. As a dictionary writer, you often hear from people who think English is dying and they complain that English is falling by the way side, and kids these days and so forth.
Texting and emojis…
Exactly. Soon we’re all going to devolve into gestures and grunts. But the reality is that all of things actually enrich English. English is such a resilient and wild and beautiful language. I wanted to write the book as a love letter to this oft-maligned language that is actually really inventive and beautiful.
What do you hope readers gain from reading your book, then? The recognition that language is dynamic and dictionaries are dynamic. That neither of those things are, or should be, static. Language changes at a really quick pace and that’s good and right, so dictionaries should also change and that is also right.
I suppose people are often surprised that dictionaries don’t just sit at the library, the giant tome opened up. I’m assuming a lot of people believe that’s still the case. It’s just a thing that existed and it is never edited, reworked, redone. It’s just like the Bible. The analogy of the Bible is a really good one because it’s not that it doesn’t move or change but for some people the dictionary has this elevated status. It is the arbiter of good English. It tells you exactly where the language is. That’s just not the case. Dictionaries just record the language which is terrifying when people realize what that means. The language is pretty wild. You can’t really stuff it into a box very easily.
Do you get complaints when people think there’s a word that isn’t elevated enough to be placed in the dictionary?
They’ll always find something that they don’t think deserve to be in the language. Dictionary.com just this week announced that they’re trying something new. They’re going to enter some emoji into their dictionary. From a lexical and linguistic standpoint, emoji are used as lexical items. So that makes sense. The response to that has been like Dictionary.com is blowing up the English language. Because people are responding with ‘Those aren’t words.’ ‘That’s not real communication.’ ‘Only kids use those.’ People find just amazing things to complain about whenever a dictionary does anything.
So, personally what is your least favorite word?
In a professional capacity I have no least favorite word.
Off the record.
Lexicographers are people, too. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I cannot stand the word impactful. I understand that is an irrational dislike. I’m completely aware of how irrational that is. I’ve had to revise the entry for impactful, so I’m very aware of how current it is. It’s just a word I don’t like.
What are some of your favorite words?
One word I love because it makes me laugh that there is a word for this and that there’s enough use of it for it to merit entry into the dictionary is the word gardyloo. Its definition is something like “used as a warning cry in Edinburgh when it was customary to throw slop out the upper story window” I love that there’s a word for that.
Yeah! Only in Edinburgh. Only during this time when it was customary. I love that. Etymologists, people who study word histories, think that gardyloo actually comes from French. Which tells you something about not just the time this was used but also that there was a time when Scotland was under French rule. But it’s a ridiculous word! But I love that it’s ridiculous. I love that it has a place in the language.