Derek Larson on “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

If I were assigned the classic “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” topic for a back-to-school essay this fall the focus would be on an eight-day road trip my family took from Atlanta to Dallas in July. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to mark my 50th birthday and to see to the last of the fifty states I had never visited, but the real motive was to experience a bit of the rural South and to explore some of the iconic sites associated with the Civil Rights movement and the history of Black liberation in America.

Along the way we visited dozens of historic sites and museums, ate barbeque and okra, avoided sweet tea whenever possible, and talked endlessly about history. At most stops we were met with diverse crowds of other visitors eager to learn more about the historic roots of racial oppression in our society and the generations of resistance required to improve the lives of people of color in America.  Among the places we visited were numerous locations along the recently-established U.S. National Civil Rights Trail, managed by the National Park Service and spanning 14 states with over 100 sites, many of them justifiably famous—or infamous –for their roles in the battle for racial justice and equality in the 20th century. All were familiar to us from textbooks and movies, but experiencing these places in person—and in the context of a broader conversation about civil rights and justice –made each day a memorable experience.

Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott Marker, Montgomery, AL

In Montgomery, Alabama, we visited the bus stop where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most effective large-scale acts of resistance against segregation in the Jim Crow South. In Little Rock Arkansas, we walked the steps of the public high school pro-segregation whites tried to prevent Black students from attending 1957.

Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas

In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court decision schools were ordered to desegregate but white opposition was strong in many locations. Little Rock Central High School, still operating as a public school today, was named a National Historic Site due in part to the response to the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black teenagers who arrived for the first day of classes in September of 1959 but were turned back at the doors by armed members of the Arkansas National Guard acting under orders from the Governor. Ultimately the children were admitted, three weeks later, under the protection of the 101st Airborne unit of the U.S. Army, who were ordered by President Eisenhower to enforce the law over the opposition of Governor Orval Faubus.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pulpit, Atlanta along with the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King tomb, King Center, Atlanta

In Atlanta, we sat quietly in the pews of at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and across the street from his tomb at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. As recordings of MLK’s sermons played, the spirit of the church—now managed by the National Park Service –came alive. The entire neighborhood surrounding the church, a hub of the historic Black community in Atlanta, has been designated the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park by the National Park Service, and is maintained now as it appeared when King lived there.

Medgar Evers home, Jackson, Mississippi

In Jackson, Mississippi we drove through residential neighborhoods to find the modest 1950s ranch home where NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in June of 1963. A WWII veteran and father, as Field Secretary for the NAACP Evers challenged illegal segregation at the University of Mississippi and worked across the state in campaigns for voting rights and equal access. His murderer was tried three times; all-white juries failed to convict twice in the 1960s but a retrial in 1994 finally led to conviction. Evers was widely viewed as a martyr for the cause of racial justice and his murder helped raise awareness of the struggle outside the segregated South.

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama and Statue recognizing the bombing victims, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham

In Birmingham, Alabama, we saw the 16th Street Baptist Church where terrorist bombers detonated 15 sticks of dynamite in September 1963, killing four little girls as the children were preparing for services. The adjacent museum, operated by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, places the attack in the broader context of Birmingham’s long history of racial discrimination and violence. The city-owned Kelly Ingram Park across the street uses art and opportunities for reflection to promote healing and justice.

In Selma, Alabama, we walked across the notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge, where peaceful civil rights protesters were attacked by armed police on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, as they attempted to march to the capital in Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. The 2014 movie Selma told the story in remarkable detail, but walking across the bridge on a hot July day took on an ominous feel soon after cresting the arc, where the marchers would have first seen the armed, angry white mob awaiting them on the opposite side.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

The most informative and emotionally taxing of all the places we visited, however, was not part of the formal Civil Rights history trail: it was the newly-constructed National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Exterior of memorial pavilion, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

Sculpture representing enslaved people, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Dedicated earlier this year, the site colloquially known as “the National Lynching Memorial” gives voice to the nearly 4,400 Americans murdered in acts of racially-motivated terrorism between 1877-1950. The accompanying museum documents the history of racial oppression and violence from the Colonial period to the present, placing the lynchings in the broader context of racial violence that remains part of American culture to this day.

Markers listing victims of racial murder by U.S. county, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Markers listing lynching victims, suspended overhead, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The memorial presents a haunting multi-acre pavilion though which visitors walk by hundreds of hanging steel boxes marked with the names of victims and the counties in which lynchings have been documented.The sloped design of the memorial is such that these markers are at face level initially, and as one walks through they are eventually suspended far overhead, symbolically raised and hung from above as lynching victims themselves were.

Memorial to lynching victims in St. Louis County, Minnesota; it is hoped this steel marker will eventually be relocated to a site near Duluth where the murders took place in 1920

Outside, a matching set of steel boxes—now clearly representing coffins –lay on the ground in rows, waiting to be removed and placed on display in the counties where the victims they mark were murdered. Though none have yet been removed, advocates are already working to establish related memorials in every U.S. county where a lynching has been documented. Eventually, it is hoped, the outdoor portion of the memorial will be emptied as these markers “go home” to the counties where the victims were killed to serve as reminders of the local role in this violent history.

The final element of the memorial is a quiet reflection space with a series of benches across from a wall-sized fountain on which the following is inscribed: “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are honored here.” The scale and scope of the monument gives these victims voice, and present a deeply moving memorial to this very dark chapter in our history.

At these and other sites along the Civil Rights Trail we were struck by the sheer courage of those who risked their lives to stand up for freedom and justice, not just leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, but the thousands of Americans who spoke out, alone or in crowds, against injustice, violence, and hatred. While the cumulative impact of visiting these many places in a relative short time was emotionally overwhelming, it was also deeply inspiring. At The Legacy Museum—the companion to the Memorial established by the Equal Justice Initiative –exhibits made the connections between the history of slavery, racial terror and murder, and our contemporary struggles with justice abundantly clear. The final exhibits in the gallery there are not about the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the Civil War, but rather are reflections on the violence, both direct and indirect, done to Americans of color every day in our unequal and unjust society. The choice of the word “legacy” in naming the museum was indeed apt.

Toward the end of our journey we visited two somber places that weren’t directly linked to the Civil Rights movement but prompted more reflection on peace and justice: the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The first of course reminded us of the long history of violence aimed at the innocent by cowards seeking to impose their will on others; the children killed in the Murrah Building in 1995 were part of a tragic legacy that spans centuries, just like the four little girls killed in Birmingham in 1963. In Dallas we visited the former Texas School Book Depository, now a museum, the site from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired upon President Kennedy’s motorcade just two months after the Birmingham bombing. There we saw a temporary exhibit of photographs illustrating the lives and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, both assassinated in the late spring of 1968, and featuring many of the sites we had visited on the way from Georgia to Texas.

Our summer road trip was sparked by my desire to visit the last few states I had not seen before, as a way to mark my 50th birthday and to continue the family tradition of exploring history together that started with my parents in the 1960s. A half-century is a long time in human terms, more than half a lifespan. Double it and you’re talking about a different world, a century of progress stripped away. Halve it and it’s still more than a generation’s span; time enough to experience great change. What remains constant on any scale are two things this summer vacation brought to the fore: the horrific impacts of hatred and violence between Americans and the enduring and inspiring power of hope to overcome them both.

So “what I did on my summer vacation” was take a 1,800 mile family road trip across nine states to visit a bunch of museums. But it was so much more than that: humbling, enraging, tearful, electrifying, and inspiring. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a modern civil rights organization based in Montgomery, asks visitors to its museum what they will do to promote justice after their visit. It’s a very good question. What I did on my summer vacation was to try to learn more about the struggle for justice in America, to help my teenage children better understand our history, and to spend some time thinking about just that: what can I—can we –do to create a more just society?

Derek Larson on “Moving Toward Climate Resilience”

As south Texas begins the recovery process in the wake of hurricane Harvey and Irma bears down on south Florida, good reporters have been careful not to claim these storms are the result of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. That of course is true: human-driven climate disruption cannot be said to have caused these or any other specific extreme weather events. But it almost certainly has increased their severity; in the case of tropical storms directly as a product of higher ocean surface temperatures lending more energy  to developing storm systems. A multi-decade study published last year in Nature Geoscience found an increase in storm frequency of 2-3 times the baseline rate and increases in average storm intensity of 12-15% across a wide region of the Pacific, giving us some idea of how much worse tropical storms have become within our lifetimes. Neither of those figures may seem that impressive unless you have experienced a Category 3 or 4 hurricane directly, then imagine such events coming more often and with even greater force.

Harvey from space (Image: Colorado State University)

For decades climate scientists warned that we were running out of time to prevent serious disruption of the global climate system, and today the consensus is that our time has expired. We can no longer speak hopefully of preventing climate change, but instead must speak of mitigating its effects and adapting to a new baseline climate. Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce emissions and ideally limit the scope of future warming. Dramatic reductions in fossil fuel consumption, strict controls over greenhouse-gas emissions, and widespread efforts to sequester carbon outside the atmosphere and oceans will be required to prevent catastrophic climate disruptions a century from now. But what of the shorter term, which in the geosciences might mean a generation or two?

Ultimately adaptation to a changed climate will be required because we cannot easily reverse the consequences of actions taken over the last 150+ years as ancient fossil carbon was liberated into the atmosphere. We have, as some climate scientists like to say, “baked climate change into the cake.” At this point some level of overall warming is guaranteed, and indeed we are witnessing its effects already in the form of rising average temperatures on every continent, rising surface temperatures in the world’s oceans, and other signals that a “new normal” is developing around us. Like a massive ocean liner steaming straight ahead, simply turning off the engines can only slow, but not stop, this forward momentum in the short or medium term. We now need to exhibit the critical human trait of adaptation: we must plan for, prepare for, and accept the reality that climate in which our common future plays out will not be like that of our past.

Global fossil carbon emissions, 1800-2000 (Graph: Wikimedia Commons)

The key to climate adaptation is resilience. Both scientists and planners speak of “climate resilience” when asked what we must do to adapt to climate change. This quality of resilience refers to the ability of a society to survive disruption and manage change. It could be local; a coastal city like Houston could intentionally plan to become more resilient to hurricanes, for example by improving infrastructure and limiting new development in flood-prone areas. It could be national; a government initiative could fund both research on and implementation of resilience efforts on a broad scale, from coastal erosion controls to disaster preparedness. It could even be global; bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization could work to secure the global food system against future climate disruption as insurance against famine. Unfortunately, far too little time and energy is actually going into such efforts, and with the ascendency of Trumpism in the United States progress has actually been reversed. Today the U.S., and as result the entire globe, is actually headed in the wrong direction, toward being less resilient, less prepared, and less adaptive to our changing climate. This will not only make things worse for current generations, but will make the challenges faced by future generations even more daunting, surely a moral failing that will not easily be forgiven by our grandchildren.

What we have seen in Houston and surrounding areas was not in itself a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. But human-induced global warming amplified the severity of the storm, and our failure to prepare adequately—to take the idea of resilience seriously –has made the consequences more severe as well. Like other metropolitan areas Houston is a product of urban sprawl that dramatically reduced the capacity of surrounding natural systems to absorb water from major rain events. The unchecked expansion of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs ensured that even more water rushed into overburdened drainage systems, streams, rivers, and soils than otherwise would have. Despite suffering three five-hundred-year storm events in three years, life in coastal Texas has continued under a business-as-usual approach in the era of climate change. This is not to single out Houston; no major US city is prepared for the new normal or has shifted either its resources or policies toward resilience to the degree necessary to do much beyond responding to short-term crises. Adaptation, for all of us, lies well into the future, and perhaps farther off today that it was six months ago.

Visit the Climate Resilience Toolkit

Extreme weather events like hurricane Harvey are part of our new normal. In North America we will see more hurricanes, more flooding, more precipitation records broken—and also more heat waves and droughts, because climate change does not yield similar effects across all geographical boundaries. All we can count on is disruption: more, bigger, stronger, and costlier weather events will take their toll even before the impacts of global sea level rise, new patterns of disease, severe agricultural declines, mass extinctions, loss of the polar ice caps, or other projected threats from climate change are realized. Indeed, responding to the localized weather impacts of climate change may be among the easiest challenges we face at this juncture. We have the capacity to adapt, to become more resilient, and to stop making the problem worse—but we need to muster the collective will make a move in the right direction. The clock has been running since the Industrial Revolution, and our opportunities to keep hitting the snooze button are clearly running out. The political leadership of the federal government has failed America and the world. The responsibility to address climate change and to develop a more resilient society now rests firmly with the states, municipalities, and individuals who are already suffering the consequences of our inaction.

Derek Larson on “Trump’s War on the EPA”

House Republicans recently introduced legislation to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Sponsored by freshman Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, House Resolution 816 has one operative line of text: “The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

Normally such a bill might be shrugged off as an act of political theater. Soon after it was introduced Trump transition team member Myron Ebell told The Guardian the president’s campaign pledge to eliminate the EPA was “aspirational” because “You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.” But what if he could?

The roots of the EPA go back to the late 1960s when rising public concern over air and water pollution, urban sprawl, and a series of high-profile environmental disasters put pressure on Congress to act. By 1969 a full-blown environmental movement was evident, a complex mixture of suburban residents awakened by Rachel Carson’s 1962 pesticide exposé Silent Spring, urban residents choking on smog and disgusted by dirty rivers, and traditional rural conservationists tired of seeing farms and forests plowed under for development. The war in Vietnam dominated the headlines, but with images of Cleveland’s Cuyuhoga River in flames (it was so polluted it caught fire), a pictures of a massive oil spill on the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara, California, and the flurry of photos of the Earth from space sent back by the Apollo astronauts also caught the public’s attention. The fragile appearance of the planet from afar, combined with regular news of environmental decline in Americans’ backyards, created a powerful sense of urgency around the environment that registered in Gallup polls as a greater concern than racial tensions or crime.

Congress responded to public demands for action with a sweeping piece of legislation, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970. In his comments at the  signing ceremony, the President noted that “A great deal more needs to be done [on the environment]. It is a question of whether you put it off or do it now. This is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later.”

NEPA established a new priority for the federal government: “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” As an initial step toward this lofty goal, NEPA established a new Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the White House to “to formulate and recommend national policies to promote the improvement of the quality of the environment.” One of the first actions the CEQ took was to recommend the creation of a new federal environmental agency, which Nixon did by executive order, establishing the EPA in 1970.

Richard Nixon on the beach, near San Clemente (undated)

Early in its history the EPA established a project called “Documerica,” sending a group of professional photographers around the country to capture images of the American people and landscape in the early 1970s. Much like the famous images of the Great Depression produced by the Farm Service Agency in the 1930s, the Documerica collection offered a warts-and-all portrait of a country striving to move forward despite great challenges—in this case, the challenges of pollution, sprawl, and environmental decline.


These images—and thousands like them –illustrate what the nascent EPA was up against in its early years, and how far we have come from the days when our skies, rivers, lakes, and land were routinely used as dumps for chemical wastes, manufacturing byproducts, and the various effluents of modern living.

Weyerhauser Paper Mills and Reynolds Metal Plant, Longview,WA. 1973

Along Route 580, near San Francisco. 1972 (EPA)

Today the Environmental Protection Agency is headquartered in Washington, DC, and operates ten regional offices under a mission that combines regulatory enforcement, environmental research, and public education derived directly from NEPA. Its 15,000+ employees are responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, regulating the transport of toxic materials, monitoring facilities that generate hazardous waste, and investigating violations of federal environmental laws. Perhaps most prominently they aid state and local agencies in developing and implementing policies intended to bring them into compliance with federal regulations on environmental quality and human health—a direct bridge between Congressional directives to “clean up pollution” and action on the ground.

Waste drums piled near home in Jamaica Bay, NY. 1973 (EPA)

Illegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike, Facing Manhattan Across the Hudson River.1973 (EPA)

The drive to eliminate the EPA comes not from the impulse to advance “productive harmony” between humans and nature, as NEPA sought in 1969, but for purely ideological and political reasons. The Congressional sponsors of H.R. 816 all hail from southern states with significant constituencies hostile to regulation of the energy and fossil fuel industries. Donald Trump’s selection of Scott Pruitt to lead the agency stems from similar animus; Pruitt is a long-time opponent of the EPA who in his former capacity as Oklahoma’s Attorney General sued the agency thirteen times to prevent it from enforcing regulations on air quality, drinking water safety, and clean energy. Ultimately,  while Trump may not have a magic wand with which to wave the EPA in oblivion, his administrative appointments and proposal to slash the agency’s budget by over 30% would render it ineffective at its most basic task: keeping our air, water, and land safe for human life.

The impact of these proposed cuts would be felt most dramatically in programs aimed at studying, preparing for, and adapting to climate change. The new administration began slowing down or shuttering climate-related work at EPA and other agencies even before transmitting a budget outline  to Congress. In January, Trump administration officials instructed the EPA  to remove all information related to climate change from its web site, triggering fear among scientists that critical data might be lost. In March, employees of the Department of Energy were told the words “climate change” could no longer be used in official written communication. Less than two weeks ago the President signed an executive order striking down many of the Obama-era programs intended to prepare the nation for the now-inevitable impacts of climate change and dismantling the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our commitment to international climate agreements.

All of this has happened  before the EPA’s budget is cut and the reality of having a climate-change-denier in charge of the nation’s primary environmental agency fully sinks in.

Almost a half-century ago the public demanded Congress act to ensure access to clean air, clean water, and healthy environments for all Americans. Legislators responded with a forward-looking law that promised to “Fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations… and assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.” In the decades since, the Environmental Protection Agency has held primary responsibility for that work. That we can breathe freely in our major cities, safely drink our tap water, and even see wildlife like bald eagles and timber wolves without traveling to Alaska all point to a record of relative success—we no longer live in the dirty, stinking, unhealthy world the EPA’s Documerica photographers illustrated in the mid-1970s. But without a functional EPA going forward we may well once again, and likely won’t need another half-century to get there.

Derek Larson on “Lame Ducks and the Antiquities Act: How (most) Presidents Use a 1906 Law to Ensure Their Environmental Legacies”

derek-larsonIn a 1999 episode of the NBC political drama The West Wing, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) found his efforts to preserve a prime piece of Montana wilderness from development blocked by a coalition of Republican Senators and mining-industry lobbyists. Just as all appeared lost, one of Barlett’s aides rushed into the Oval Office shouting “I’ve got it! We’ll use the Antiquities Act!” As with the fictional president of The West Wing, many real presidents—including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton –turned to the same century-old law to establish or preserve their environmental legacies. In recent months President Obama has exercised his authority under the act to extend permanent protection to federal land at an almost unprecedented level, as congressional opposition left him with few other paths to advance his environmental agenda.  Continue reading