Author Archives

Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

When Media Miscalculations Pivot Talented People Out of a Job

Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Anyone who has ever worked retail or food service jobs (raises hand) or droll office jobs (raises other hand) has a solid baseline against which to assess their current job. Former Deadspin editor David Roth worked enough dead-end jobs in what he calls a “fluorescent mehscape of anoffice” to know when he found great media jobs, but even those soured or squeezed him out, and he ended up basically where he began: at the mercy of other people and forces he could not control. For Hazlitt, Roth writes about the media plague that was known as “pivoting to video,” a plague he both contracted and unwittingly became the face of for a short time.

Facebook lied about the demand for video content. Many websites listened to Zuck’s overinflated numbers and replaced writing with video. Many writers like Roth suffered, and it’s still unclear how much video people even want to watch online. Sure, media is a fickle industry. Things change constantly. Great jobs end. Writers and editors struggle to find new ones and wonder if this one should be their last media job before they pivot entirely to different professions like advertising or nursing, because damn, dude, you’re getting old, and media’s getting even tougher than it already was. Thankfully for readers, Roth has stayed in media. He’s as incisive as he is hilarious, breaking down the dark comedy of media work in the internet era and his own wonky place in it. His sentences are killers and all the more proof that we need him publishing. “Much of my job,” he writes, “there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day.” But even in that grim environment, he found reasons to work hard and take pride in his projects.

My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken.

Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good.

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Purging the Unhealthy Value System of the American Literary World

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

When searching for a publisher for her sixth book, Janice Lee realized she had internalized more of the commercial publishing economy’s value system than she wanted. In a brilliant essay for Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Lee interrogates the way America’s cultural values push against her own values and have influenced her behavior, and she narrates her efforts to dismantle the dominant linear idea of progress, success, artistic development, and “making it” that many of us writers inherit. The concept of success, even the subtler concepts of big versus small presses and breakout novels, are wrapped up in authors’ self-worth, desire for external validation, past trauma, and capitalism, which has turned art into products and human beings into resources. This is a searing, crystalline essay, as practical as it is beautiful, and in it, Lee’s cut a path for other writers who want to free themselves from indoctrination. “It is difficult to see how we are restrained by our own internalized oppression,” she writes, “and then, to blame the systems we participate in when we don’t feel supported, understood, heard, seen.” She asks: What if books were bridges and not products? Can’t they be something other than commodities?

How can we all heal from the trauma of a publishing industry that is just another extension of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? How might we move beyond the myths of meritocracy and the capitalist paradigms where legitimacy and success are so closely linked, casting so many of us as undeserving, mediocre, invisible? Publishing “success” often looks like the escape we are looking for, especially when we have trained our entire lives to survive in this system. Everything has taught us that this is how we survive and get ahead, to jump on the train and go along with it, along with everyone else, and so when we get left behind, we feel shame and humiliation, we think that we must have done something wrong, that perhaps someone forgot about us or made a mistake. There has to be another way. We have to be more conscious of the ways in which we have all internalized publishing supremacy, the harm of unconsciously assigning more worth to books or authors that have had more commercial success, of using language that feeds the idea of linear progress and hierarchy.

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Responding With Weapons to Racism in Colorado Territory

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The American West was filled with people with pistols and places to hide, and many vigilantes’ violence and escapes made them legendary. California’s Joaquin Murrieta is one of the most famous, but Colorado Territory had its own, though nowadays, few remember them. For 5280 magazine, Robert Sanchez narrates the bloody tale of Felipe and Vivián Espinosa, two Hispano settlers whose presence in Colorado’s San Luis Valley predates American ownership of the region, and he reexamines their motives. Seven thousand Spanish descendents moved into the San Luis Valley before territorial annexation, but as soon as Mexican ownership was transfered to the United States, the white settlers and legislators started creating problems, and some Hispano settlers retaliated. History either erased the Espinosas and their Hispanic communities, or they framed the brothers as what Sanchez describes as “Spanish-speaking, sociopathic killers without an origin story—or, at least, not one based entirely on facts.” That racist framework is finally being rewritten.

The Chicano Movement of the 1970s gave rise to a new narrative, reimagining the pair as Hispano protagonists fighting on behalf of an oppressed people. Songs and at least one screenplay have been written about the pair. The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa, a novel published in 2014, sought to untangle the brothers’ faith and familial past as a way to understand their murderous motivations. Wild West Exodus, a British tabletop game, includes a version of the brothers, with Felipe described as a “rogue, desperado, thief, mariachi, and to many, a bold freedom fighter.”

Historians have finally begun to examine that record, investigating the plight of civilizations wiped out or marginalized by settlers. “These citizens were made to feel like they were foreigners, and the historical record traditionally treated them that way,” says Virgina Sanchez, a genealogist and historian who has studied life within southern Colorado settlements and is the author of Pleas and Petitions: Hispano Culture and Legislative Conflict in Territorial Colorado. “The Espinosas are an important part of that history if you’re using them to understand the deeper, day-to-day hardships and prejudices that faced non-Anglos trying to survive within their own country.”

Nick Saenz, an associate professor of history at Adams State University who has studied Hispano settlement in southern Colorado, argues that while the Espinosa brothers are “like folk heroes” within the San Luis Valley—if not outright celebrated, then happily accepted—it’s a disservice to history if the narrative focuses only on the murders. “This is really the story of two distinct groups of people, with different languages and cultures and ideas of what this land should be, and they find themselves smashed together in the same place at the same time,” Saenz says. “More than anything, this is a story of survival. Ultimately, one side got to tell that story.”

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Brazil’s Roads to Destruction

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

You’ve probably slammed on your brakes after a squirrel darted in front of your car. (Maybe, one time, you didn’t slam your brakes fast enough.) Imagine a road through a rainforest or a tropical savanna, a road teeming with not just passenger cars but logging trucks and mining equipment and heavy machinery, the carriers of industry. That is Brazil’s BR-262. Measured by roadkill, it is one of the earth’s deadliest roads for wildlife. BR-262 cuts across Brazil from the Atlantic coast to the Bolivian border and is causing the rapid decline of Brazil’s iconic giant anteaters through direct collisions and habitat fragmentation. And it’s one of many similar roads in Brazil, which has the fourth largest road network on earth.

For The Atlantic, Ben Goldfarb travels 112 miles of BR-262 to assess the disturbing impact roads have on wildlife, and how scientists and the burgeoning field of road ecology work to understand and moderate that impact. Roads do improve peoples’ quality of life, but there also are what he calls “the brutal costs of infrastructure.”

Often, practicing road ecology means knowing when a road shouldn’t be carved at all. Fernanda Zimmermann Teixeira, an ecologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, pointed out to me that no amount of eco-friendly engineering can blunt the habitat destruction that will follow the paving of certain Amazonian tracks. It occurred to me that, in a tragic twist, wildlife crossings and fences could even become a form of green-washing, a cynical tactic for laundering a harmful road’s environmental reputation. “We cannot talk only about mitigation—you have to talk about avoiding roads,” Teixeira said. “Passages won’t make any difference if we change the whole land use and burn everything.”

Yet new routes are coming, whether we’re prepared or not. The International Energy Agency has estimated that more than 15 million miles of new road lanes will be built by 2050, nearly 90 percent of them in the developing world—a trend the ecologist William Laurance calls an “infrastructure tsunami.” Many of the regions slated for massive road networks—Sumatra, Central Asia’s steppe, the Peruvian Amazon—harbor our planet’s most intact habitat.

Conservationists have staved off some especially frightening projects: A highway that would sunder the Serengeti’s wildebeest migration lies dormant, fought to a standstill by local activists. But the Hydra only sprouts new heads, forcing scientists into hard decisions. “The way I see it, many of these roads are going to be built whether we like it or not,” Rodney van der Ree, an Australian road ecologist who often consults with foreign governments, told me. He recently helped persuade officials in Myanmar (also known as Burma) to add underpasses to a highway that could disrupt the movements of leopards, tigers, and elephants. “From a biodiversity standpoint, they shouldn’t build the road at all,” van der Ree said, “but at least it’s a better outcome than it was.”

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Rural California Feeds the Nation, But Too Many Rural Residents Can’t Feed and House Themselves

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

If you eat California lettuce, broccoli, or strawberries, chances are it came from the Salinas Valley. Situated in Monterey County, south of San Francisco, this so-called “salad bowl of the world” boasts an $8 billion agricultural economy that feeds America, but low wages and a dearth of low-income housing make it extremely difficult for many families to house and feed themselves. In Salinas, almost half of all elementary school students are homeless. For The California Sunday Magazine, Brian Goldstone profiles one family of five to tell the larger story of the many families who sleep in their cars and shelters, and the people who try to help them. Both parents work. Their three children attend public school, but a cascade of events left the family living in their minivan. There are a number of services to help the working poor here, but official definitions of homelessness are so skewed that many people in dire need cannot access these resources. Many families find help at the Family Resource Center and from school teachers like Cheryl Camany. “In Monterey County,” Goldstone reports, “approximately 8,000 schoolchildren were homeless last year, more than San Francisco and San Jose combined. For many of these kids, the safest, most dependable part of their lives is the school they attend.”

Camany’s ability to call attention to the scale and consequences of student homelessness had recently been paying off, and the mandate taken up by the resource center was being embraced by others: pastors and city leaders, school administrators and teachers. “There’s so much injustice outside these walls,” said Maria Castellanoz, a third-grade teacher, “but in my classroom, I make sure every student is treated with the dignity they deserve.” Over time, she had come to recognize the signs of homelessness among her students without them having to say anything. When she spotted a kid hoarding snacks underneath his jacket, she brought him extra food the next day. When students nodded off in class, she let them sleep, tutoring them later so they wouldn’t fall behind. All this had altered her understanding of what teaching should look like and what a school was for.

But there’s only so much a school can offer. It can’t give families apartments, or money, or jobs that pay a housing wage. It can’t pass stronger tenant-protection laws or prevent exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. Oscar Ramos, who heads the elementary teachers union, told me that he feared the long-term effects of such widespread volatility — that this “toxic stress,” as pediatricians have termed it, would leave its mark on the physical and emotional health of his students well into the future. “The more I learn about what these kids are carrying,” Ramos said, “the more overwhelmed I get.”

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Thou Shalt Not Mess With a Mom in a “Mamacita Needs a Margarita” Sweater

Waltraud Grubitzsch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Proud, bold, feminine yet threatening, and frequently touting alcohol use and caffeine dependency, the slogans American mothers plaster on their shirts, mugs, and sweaters broadcast their identities as exhausted super-women, as well as their need for recognition and connection. For The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explores what she calls “sassy mom merch,” which has proliferated in our era of Etsy, Amazon, and social media, but whose spirit Tolentino recognizes from her years eating at Cracker Barrel as a Texas youth. Where does the desire to wear the slogan “This mom runs on caffeine, wine, and Amazon Prime” come from? What does this #momlife phenomenon say about being a woman in America? As one successful t-shirt maker told Tolentino, “When you put out a little signal on a shirt, like, ‘I’m struggling too,’ it starts a conversation. Anytime I wear something like that, I always have people comment, or I get those random smiles. It’s sort of like when you’re nursing in public: someone gives you a smile and a thumbs-up, and you know you’re O.K.”

Social media exacerbates two competing impulses in the performance of one’s everyday self: aspiration and honesty. Women, in particular, find these impulses rewarded on the Internet, where the ever-present cultural interest in female desirability and failure—in encouraging women to balance atop pedestals in part because it is satisfying to watch them fall off—is codified in the form of public comments and likes. My colleague Carrie Battan recently wrote about the rise of the “getting real” moment for Instagram influencers, in which women who have built their public identities on meeting an ideal version of womanhood offer a moment of catharsis to their audience: all of this is constructed, they say, and it’s anxiety-inducing, and there’s so much that you don’t see. But this form of expression doesn’t seem to cut back on aspiration so much as complicate it—women are now encouraged to be both very perfect and very honest at once.

The mom-centric Internet has been working out this tension for almost two decades: so-called mommy bloggers turned aspirational honesty into a profitable genre long before Instagram existed. (Quite a few of the best-known mommy bloggers have since upended the lives that looked so perfectly-imperfect-but-mostly-really-perfect, getting divorced, or leaving their religion, or both.) Social media and smartphones have brought motherhood real talk to minimally hierarchical online spaces, such as Facebook groups and messaging apps like Marco Polo. “People ask for support, people talk about things that might be embarrassing elsewhere,” Heather Plouff, an Etsy seller in New Hampshire and a mother of three, told me. “The hashtag #momlife is this big community, where we’re all a little sassy, and we love our children, but we also know that children can be a real pain in the ass.”

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How Jazz Pianist Erroll Garner Fought for His Rights

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Erroll Garner is not a household name, but when the jazz pianist was in his prime between the 1940s and 60s, anyone who listened to popular music knew him. On the Johnny Carson show, on the radio, Garner was one of those rare jazz players who managed to be innovative and popular, which is why he was both a big earner for Columbia Records, and one of the few true jazz artists to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For Variety, Dan Ouellette writes about something else that made Garner famous: the successful lawsuit he filed against his record label, Columbia Records, for breaking his contract. Record labels ripped off many Black musicians, particularly jazz musicians, and Garner’s successful suit made him, as the article’s title puts it, “the first artist to sue a major label and win.” It started when Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, was able to get Columbia to include a clause in his contract, which let Garner approve or reject any new music released under his name. This was highly unusual. When Columbia breached Garner’s contract, he sued, not just for himself, but, as he said, for “the rights of my fellow members of the record and music industry.” The money his suit generated allowed he and Glaser to start their own record label, and eventually set a precedent that musicians could own the rights to their own material. It being America, racism played a significant role in how his lawsuit and his success was framed in the mainstream media.

Kelley points out another factor in the dispute, which started in 1958, when the Saturday Evening Post wrote a negative portrayal of Garner, a self-taught master improviser who couldn’t read music. “They portrayed him as a happy, naïve guy,” Kelley says. “They said he was out of touch with reality. When asked about Bach, the writer said Erroll thought it was some kind of beer. They said he was illiterate and set Garner up as someone who had nothing to do with money and didn’t care. The mainstream press saw him as an idiot savant.” In contrast, Kelley says that the black press, where his battle was a headline story, heralded him as a sober, articulate, intelligent David-who-beat-Goliath. I feel this can be seen as a civil rights case as well as a precedent for artists.”

When Garner won his landmark case of making a groundbreaking statement on an artist’s freedom, he received a cash settlement, his masters were returned and Columbia agreed to recall and destroy the records it had released without his approval, although many of those albums ended up for sale on the black market (it’s possible that distributors, rather than Columbia, were responsible for illegally selling the albums).

The money funded the launching of Garner’s own independent label with Glaser. With Glaser producing, Garner recorded 12 albums in 18 years for Octave Records. Those albums were distributed by different companies through the course of the label’s existence.

“That was also a remarkable feat,” says Peter Lockhart Senior Producer of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project and a vice president of Octave Music. “As far as we know, that was the birth of an artist doing his own licensing deal.”

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A Town Split By a Play About the 1980s AIDS Epidemic

Chelsea Purgahn/The Press via AP

In 1999, theater director Raymond Caldwell staged Angels in America at Kilgore College. Kilgore is small town in east Texas’ piney woods, and this play about the 1980s AIDS epidemic created a huge schism in this conservative, religious community. Writer Wes Ferguson grew up in Kilgore. Twenty years after the performance, Ferguson’s Texas Monthly article examines the effects this Pulitzer Prize-winning play had on the Kilgore residents through its brief performance. Angels in America has enormous artistic merit, but “artistic merit carried only so much weight in Kilgore,” writes Fergesun.

Ferguson edited Kilgore College’s student paper, and he published a story about the play and its potential controversy. Unfortunately, some people blamed Ferguson’s catchy headline for igniting the trouble that followed, but Kilgore was already a town divided. It was a town where two of Ferguson’s high school classmates murdered an innocent man because of his sexual orientation, a town where one of the parents of the play’s lead actor insisited he not perform the role because they feared for his life and for their reputation, and a town where many Kilgore College professors supported their students who acted on their values, no matter how much they differed from their parents’ or their peers’ values.

While chatting with old friends recently, I have discovered that my world-view wasn’t the only one transformed by the arrival of Angels in America in the Piney Woods twenty years ago. Danea Males, then a photojournalist for the Flare, whose father had not allowed her to see the play, says that photographing the protests was the first time she stepped away from the fundamentalist church she’d grown up in. “It was a defining moment,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to question things. I was supposed to have faith that guided my path. But the petitions and the protests—they were so ugly and mean-spirited.” Today, Males is an art professor at a university in South Carolina.

Last spring, I was visiting family in Kilgore when Adams, through sheer coincidence, also happened to arrive in town. A longtime New York resident, he’d just completed the twelve-week run of a play in Florida called Straight White Men, and he’d come to East Texas to see family too and to talk with a local film producer who was interested in a movie script he’d written about Kilgore’s brush with Angels. We met at a pool hall in Longview. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and the crack of billiard balls, he could still recite his favorite line from the play: “From such a strong desire to be good, they feel very far from goodness when they fail.” It was a sentiment that strongly resonated with Adams, who, long before he took on the role of the spiritually tormented Joe Pitt, had twice asked God to save him. “My grandfather baptized me, and I didn’t think it was good enough, so I got baptized again,” he said. “I didn’t resonate with being gay, necessarily, but I resonated with trying to fit into something you don’t fit into”—namely, for him, fundamentalist theology and stifling small-town culture.

Four months after Adams appeared in Angels, his uncle Jason killed himself. Adams had no idea his uncle was gay, nor that he had AIDS. “When that happened,” he said, “I was galvanized.” Upon leaving Kilgore, he was accepted into London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, from which he graduated in 2003. “Angels in America defined who I am,” Adams said. “All my career, I’ve tried to be a torch for marginalized people.” In 2012, Adams wrote and directed an off-Broadway play titled The Man-Made Rock, about repressed East Texans. Joseph Magee, who over the years had made his peace with Caldwell and everyone involved with Angels, was the major backer of Adams’s production.

Adams’s mother was changed by the experience too. “It opened my eyes up,” she said recently. “Justin’s an actor, he’s around all sorts of people, and I have really become fond of them—it’s not my business if they’re gay. I like them as a person, and I’m not gonna judge them. There was a time I did. I was worried what other people would think.”

Adams’s activism has long outlasted that of the protesters, who abandoned their cause before the end of the four-night, sold-out run. The Gregg County Commissioners Court did make good on its threat to yank financial support from the Shakespeare Festival, though. “What comes to my mind when I think of Shakespeare are folks with some spears,” Commissioner Danny Craig told the Houston Press, admitting that he’d never seen a Shakespeare play. Donations from theater supporters around the country more than made up the difference, as did a check presented to Holda when he received a PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for his refusal to cancel the play.

“I would not want to go through it again, but I don’t regret having taken a stand,” Holda says now. “Without the confrontation that occurred, Kilgore might not have awakened as quickly to the realities of its own community. The world was changing.”

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How To Destroy Texas While Helping The Coal Economy

AP Photo/LM Otero, File

Natural gas, wind, and solar power are all cutting into coal’s profitability, so mining companies are looking for ways to reduce expenses, including reducing clean-up efforts. In their three-part collaboration with Grist and The Texas Tribune, journalists Kiah Collier and Naveena Sadasivam expose the ways the good state of Texas allows coal companies to bypass federal laws about land reclamation in order to save millions in clean-up costs. “Coal companies are required to restore land used for coal mining to the shape it was in before they started digging it up,” Collier and Sadasivam write. This process of reclamation is meant to return mined land to its former condition so people can farm, graze, and even live on it again. Unfortunately, that is not happening.

One article tells how a company violated its contract and federal law and ruined large swaths of a family’s 25,000-acre ranch. One looks at how the town of Rockdale pinned its hopes to an old coal mine that was not properly restored, land where supposedly “pristine lakes” are actually old waste-water pools. The other article looks at the free land the Luminant coal company gave to Sulphur Springs, in East Texas, who intends to turn it into parkland ─ except the company is trying to avoid properly removing a huge mound of toxic dirt and a large, acidic wastewater pool. Instead, they want to cover the lake with a bit more dirt, even though that has proven ineffective for containing toxins, and the city wants to let them and turn the mound, which locals call Mount Thermo, into seating for an amphitheater, and the lake into a fishing pond. An amphitheater built atop toxic heavy metals! It’s lunacy! It’s also obviously about money. The free land is worth $25 million, and leaving the mess saves the company an estimated $4 million. To sell the idea to the public, interested parties have framed the toxic mound as a “community asset,” a gift from the company. Well, isn’t that swell?

In a prepared statement, Luminant spokesperson Meranda Cohn said that the company is committed to completing restoration of the property, including addressing the high acidity at the pit. She said the mound is being left in place at the city’s request and that any implication that Luminant’s deal with Sulphur Springs was solely a cost-saving measure was wrong.

“This transformative project would benefit the people of Sulphur Springs and East Texas for decades to come,” Cohn said. “This is a great example of how a public-private partnership between the city, Luminant, and the [Railroad Commission] can be a win for all.”

In 2017, the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association, of which Luminant is a member, honored Maxwell for his vision, granting him its “elected official of the year” award for “leading the charge to breathe new life into this community asset.”

Not everyone’s on board with this toxic plan.

Ryan King, a biologist at Baylor University who has served as an expert witness in half a dozen federal lawsuits against coal companies, said staff concerns over the company’s reclamation plan are well founded.

“The idea of an amphitheater and having a lot of people right where you can potentially have a lot of airborne dust that is almost certainly going to contain toxic materials seems like a very risky situation,” he said. “That community is either uninformed or being misled about the potential hazards of doing such a thing.”

But Maxwell, the city manager, doesn’t see the problem. He said he trusts the Railroad Commission and Luminant will work it out, and that the company will do the right thing. “We don’t see a lot of risk there,” he said.

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Should We Create New Life As Our Planet Struggles to Support Life In General?

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Procreation is one of many issues environmentally minded people wrestle with when thinking about our role in combating or worsening climate change. If it isn’t completely irresponsible to have children on a warming planet, how many children are too many? Aren’t parents damning their kids to a life of ecological chaos and economic instability? Or will some of these kids actually save us from self-destruction? In a new probing essay, Sierra magazine‘s adventure and lifestyle editor, Katie O’Reilly, takes us along her journey to figure out whether or not to have kids during our time of human-made climate change. She isn’t just environmentally conscious. She works for Sierra, the print extension of the Sierra Club, the largest and oldest grassroots environmental group in the U.S, founded by none other than John Muir. “I’m worried that if I procreate,” she writes, “I will contribute to melting ice caps, rising seas, and extreme weather.” To help her make a decision about parenting, she visits what’s called a clarity counselor, and the junction of her climate anxiety and her reproductive anxiety is a timely situation many readers will recognize from their own lives, though one we will not have articulated as clearly, or as humorously, as O’Reilly.

When Davidman started clarity counseling in 1991, her typical clients were professional women in their late thirties or early forties. About five years ago, though, clients in their early thirties started coming in with climate anxiety. Generally, Davidman finds that as she works with these clients, other anxieties emerge. “It’s easier and more socially acceptable to say ‘climate’ than ‘I’m really ambivalent about having children.'” Ambivalence, she says, may be the least acceptable response in a pronatalist society that equates motherhood with women’s manifest destiny. “We often get judged and shamed for not knowing. But the climate argument shuts people right up.”

This makes me wonder whether I’m pinning all my unresolved personal issues onto the poor climate. Last Thanksgiving, when I mentioned to my mother that global warming was giving my ovaries pause, she rolled her eyes and told me that if she’d taken the out du jour back in 1984—in the midst of Cold War nuclear tension—I wouldn’t be here to navel-gaze about whether life is worth living without polar bears and autumn leaves.

Like the threat of nuclear annihilation, climate change demands a reckoning of everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about security and the future, but its fires, floods, and famines are already causing existing children to suffer. So try as I might, I can’t see my reproductive anxiety as something to just sequester in a jar. And I know that to some extent, my ambivalence is a privilege—unlike many women around the world, I have a choice about whether I have kids. Still, this doesn’t make the decision easier.

O’Reilly talked with other people about her reproductive predicament, including Blythe Pepino , a young British artist-activist who used to want children, until she accepted what she sees as the inevitable collapse of civilization. But as O’Reilly points out, Pepino’s position is not without issues:

Critics of Pepino’s approach point out that corporate power structures got us into this mess, and not having kids won’t get us out of it. They say that shoveling more guilt and shame for systemic, societal ills onto individuals, especially women—effectively expecting them to stave off the apocalypse with their uteri—detracts from holding the fossil fuel industry accountable.

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