Tag Archives: quotes

Climate Change and Social Disorder in Central Africa

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Incorrectly named by Europeans as Lake Lake, Central Africa’s Lake Chad once sprawled across the region where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Camaroon and Chad meet. This massive lake district was once home to 100 million people, where numerous tribes utilized the lake’s bountiful fish and reed islands, grew crops and grazed cattle. In the 1970s, the lake and its tributaries started drying up. Drought descended, followed by tsetse files, famine and disease. Now the tribes and the jihadist extremist group Boko Harama battle over territory and scrarce resources.

In The New Yorker, Ben Taub reports from Lake Chad, where roads are rare and the desert is spreading, to examine how natural disaster and colonialism led to humanitarian disaster and jihadism. Boko Haram is a reaction to poverty and colonialism, and here on the front lines of climate change, shifting ecology contributes to social decay as much as homegrown greed and Western interference.

On the morning of July 22nd, we set off by boat in the direction of Médi Kouta. The chief of the island, a seventy-two-year-old Boudouma named Hassan Mbomi, met us at the shoreline and guided us uphill, through a grove of charred palm trees. He had returned to the island twenty days earlier, to try to grow millet, because he was starving on the mainland. About two hundred people had followed him. “When we got back, everything was burned,” he said. “We have to build our village from scratch.” A large group of men were waiting for us in a dusty clearing, but Mbomi said I couldn’t speak to them. He said that they had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and forcibly conscripted into the jihad before escaping.

To comply with U.N. safety rules, we were accompanied into the islands by a Chadian soldier named Suliman. He seemed ill at ease on Médi Kouta, and the people there eyed him with suspicion. When we left the island, Suliman told me that he didn’t accept the chief’s explanation. “Sometimes they go away, sometimes they come back,” he said. “But they are all complicit.” Some jihadis have a branding on their back—a circle with a diagonal line through it—but, in most cases, “we can’t distinguish who is Boko Haram and who isn’t,” Suliman said.

For two years, Suliman had been fighting in the islands. The Army had no boats. Sometimes his group commandeered fishermen’s pirogues, and he had come to believe that many fishermen worked as spies, alerting Boko Haram to the military’s movements. Like most soldiers, he grew up speaking Chadian Arabic, and cannot communicate with people in the Lake Region. We passed another island lined with burned palm trees. “The jihadis used to come to these islands at night, and we couldn’t see them,” Suliman said. “So we would light the trees on fire, so they wouldn’t come back.” He had torched the trees on Médi Kouta.

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The New Face of Military Recruitment

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Recruitment rates are down, and while the Army works to increase the number of enlistments, it’s simultaneously working to eliminate past unethical recruiting practices. At Task & Purpose, Adam Linehan accompanies recruiters in New Jersey to see how the process works, and to meet the people who might one day form the next generation of American soldiers — if they can qualify.

Since the mid-aughts, when thousands of recruiters faced allegations of so-called “recruiting improprieties,” the Army has gone to great lengths to crack down on unethical recruiting practices — such as fudging paperwork, purposefully overlooking blatant disqualifiers, helping recruits cheat on the entrance test, and lying to enlistees (telling them, for example, “You’ll never go to war”). But the temptation to bend the rules persists, increasing whenever the pressure on recruiters to fill quotas becomes greater. That’s the case now.

“The problem is that the Army didn’t just increase the mission, they increased the demand for quality recruits,” a recruiter told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So a lot of guys are cutting corners. Usually it’s just to keep their bosses off their backs — to avoid an ass chewing. It’s hard to flat-out lie when everyone has access to Google in their pockets, so they tell half-truths, which are still lies. Like, if a kid wants to join the reserve for college money, the recruiter will neglect to mention that the education benefits don’t kick in until a year after they sign their contract. That kind of stuff.”

However, among the East Orange recruiters, honesty isn’t just expected; it’s the foundation of their entire approach. In 2015, Lt. Col. Edward Croot, a Special Forces officer who commanded the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion until about five months ago, laid the groundwork for an ambitious strategy to reverse recruiting trends in the Northeast, which is the most challenging environment for recruiters in the country. Croot believed history was to blame: Over decades of dwindling participation in the armed forces, Northeasterners had grown vastly disconnected from the military. To mend the gap — to reacquaint people in the region with the organization fighting wars on their behalf — Croot opted for aggressive transparency. Recruiters would need to spend as much time as possible “outside the wire,” educating the masses about military service. In other words, they’d need to make the Army familiar.

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The Cost of Being a Regular Ol’ American Place

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Some places have easy-to-describe landscapes: Southeastern California is hot and dry. Southern Mississippi is swampy and green. Culture is something else, though — even though the Midwest’s flatness seems to define it, people mistakenly conflate its geography with its culture, which eludes easy description.

In The Hedgehog Review, Phil Christman recounts his struggle to make sense of his native Midwest after he moves back there with his wife. People call the Midwest “flyover country” and “the American breadbasket.” They comment on its orderly grid of roads and towns and its endless fields. But when locals tell Christman this is “the middle of nowhere” and “just like anywhere,” he not only realizes a place can’t be both anywhere and nowhere, but that viewing the region as average and normal works to the Midwest’s own detriment. As he wonders what normalcy in America even is, he questions what effect the Midwest’s sense of its own average American-ness has on people, including himself.

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

I took the first option. As a child, I accepted without thinking that my small town, a city of 9,383 people, contained within it every possible human type; if I could not fit in here, I would not fit in anywhere. (“Fitting in” I defined as being occupied on Friday nights and, sooner or later, kissing a girl.) Every week that passed in which I did not meet these criteria—which was most of them—became a prophecy. Every perception, every idea, every opinion that I could not make immediately legible to my peers became proof of an almost metaphysical estrangement, an oceanic differentness that could not be changed and could not be borne. I would obsessively examine tiny failures of communication for days, always blaming myself. It never occurred to me that this problem might be accidental or temporary. I knew that cities existed, but they were all surely just Michigan farm towns joined together n number of times, depending on population. Owing to a basically phlegmatic temperament, and the fear of hurting my parents, I made it to college without committing suicide; there, the thing solved itself. But I worry what would have happened—what does often happen—to the kid like me, but with worse test scores, bad parents, an unlocked gun cabinet.

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For the Love of Sturgill Simpson, Country Rocker Ignored by Country Music

Sturgill Simpson performs onstage during the Boston Calling Music Festival (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Oxford American’s winter issue is dedicated to music, and Leesa Cross-Smith writes lovingly about her appreciation of Sturgill Simpson, who won a 2017 Grammy award for Best Country Album despite being largely ignored by country radio and the country music establishment (Simpson was not invited to the Country Music Association awards and spent the evening outside the event busking for donations for the ACLU).

I’m also a huge fan of Sturgill Simpson’s music and the way it seems to defy all genres while still maintaining a clear country sound. Cross-Smith describes it perfectly:

I liked him from the jump but got super-attached to Sturgill when I was editing and trying to sell my novel. That anxious in-between. I listened to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on repeat, absorbing it. First listen felt a bit like solving a complicated word problem. I couldn’t process it. It feels from another time—the seventies. It’s tense and dramatic one moment, the next, languid and dreamy. It’s awash with blue, a country concept album—earnest letters to his wife and son, sea-moonlighting as songs. He sings common-sense dad lines like “Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean” and “Don’t let them try to upsell you, there’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, too.” He makes “stay in school, stay off of the drugs and keep it between the lines” sound fetching and profound when backed by his army of snap-punchy brass. He offers up his grunge-country version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and changes the “don’t know what it means and I say yeah” lyric to “don’t know what it means to love someone.” According to an interview with the New York Times, he misremembered the lyrics and inadvertently changed them, literally adding extra love to the song. The second track, “Breakers Roar,” defies its title and is instead a placid prayerlike lullaby. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a pristine, indefectible album that’s hard to categorize, although Sturgill’s voice is clearly country, clearly Kentucky—as Kentucky as Chris Stapleton’s voice, as country as Loretta Lynn’s.

Feast your eyes on what many consider to be a musical-taste unicorn: me, a black woman who knows and loves country music.

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Joan Didion and the Nature of Narrative

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The title of the new Joan Didion documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, can apply to any writer’s body of work: under scrutiny, does it hold? Now that Didion has published her final book, critics have started assessing her extensive body of work. At The Point, Paul Gleason takes his own look at Didion’s legacy, connecting her biography with her writerly interests. What Gleason sees is the realization of Didion’s own literary maxim that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Readers often expect journalists and cultural critics to help clarify the stories of our time, but as Didion tackled culture and politics through the decades, she was also examining the unsettling possibility that there was no grand narrative, only a human need to make sense of disorder. Didion told herself many stories in order to live, about her family’s place in the mythic West, about America and the 1960s, about her relationships, and she also tore those stories down. To me, as a longtime fan of Didion’s nonfiction, it seems she told stories that were not only about her subjects or her struggles — she told stories that were about stories, about the ways human beings construct meaning from the potentially meaningless, chaotic nature of existence. Didion might, as Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in Bookforum, have been “out of her intellectual range” when it came to large subjects like Feminism, but as a storyteller, Didion’s legacy has much to do with narrative itself and why we want answers, through-lines and resolution, and how we delude ourselves.

In the title essay of The White Album Didion insists that her cutting room experience had clued her in to something about the stories people live by: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In the rest of the collection, Didion charted the distance between Americans’ self-conceptions and the realities of their lives. In her essays young mothers abandon their infants on the interstate or, unable to attain the lifestyles they expected, murder their husbands. Jaycees wonder if campus Jaycee clubs are the answer to student unrest. An Episcopalian bishop rejects the divinity of Christ and chases the historical Jesus into the desert, where he dies of thirst. The national media treats the hippie lifestyle as a social statement, while the runaways and small-time drug dealers in the Haight-Ashbury district can’t tell the difference between militant anarchists and the John Birch Society.

Jaycees and an Episcopal bishop make easy targets for Didion’s acid irony. Of course the upheavals of the late Sixties threw respectable people like them into confusion, but Didion also criticized the wishful thinking of left-wing reformers and radicals. Not only do Hollywood liberals understand politics in clichéd story arcs, but they believe they can impose those arcs on American history: “Things ‘happen’ in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario.”

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Albania’s Blood Feuds

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Our neighbor accidentally drove over our lawn, dislodging a decorative boulder that I put in, but he never mentioned it. We could see the tire tracks from his side of our shared driveway. He probably saw me digging another hole to put the giant rock back in. It was just a boulder, but his un-neighborly silence irritated me. We avoided a feud because I decided an apology didn’t matter as much as our peaceful relationship. So I forgave him, and he kept being his painfully shy anxious self, gentle and unable to deal with the challenges of sharing a driveway. Forgive and forget, I figured. Not in the Balkans.

For Virginia Quarterly Review, Amanda Petrusich traveled to mountainous northern Albania to examine its culture of vengeance. For some Albanians, forgiveness is shameful. Someone must die to right a wrong, and families go on and on for generations, murdering the murderers or the murderers’ relatives, only to get shot themselves and continue the feud. Many blood feuds start over trivial acts, like refusing an alcoholic beverage. Feuds have killed an estimated 12,000 Albanians in the last 25 years. Traveling the region’s rough roads, Petrusich spent time with a negotiator whose job is to facilitate a détente between various parties. Some negotiators get murdered, too.

Per ancient edicts, the avenging family should hunt only an able-bodied adult male (the elderly, women, or boys who are too young to carry arms are excluded), though in recent years those dictums have relaxed, and it is no longer unusual to hear about the retaliatory murder of a young boy or girl. Feuds can begin over most anything, though a high percentage seem to involve property disputes. Despite earnest intervention by the church and the government, reconciliation between feuding families is rarely (if ever) brokered without blood, and the object of a feud—and his family members—are forced to spend decades barricaded inside their homes, hiding. To venture beyond the property line could mean a forceful and immediate death: sudden bullets from on high. Children are pulled from school; jobs are lost. Untethered from the rhythms of a regular life, and unable to conceive of a peaceful future, people drift into depression. Life is at once terrifying and terrifically boring. Families rely on donations to survive. Maybe friends bring food, boxes of groceries. Everyone watches a lot of television. Suicide is not unheard of.

That sounds like a horrible way to spend your life, and for what? Vengeance  seems to only bring more pain. Petrusich looks deeper to understand why this practice exists here and what retribution gets people. Albanian vengeance isn’t lawlessness. It’s an ancient code, so was there something in the exchange that made sense, something that connects back to humanity’s most basic collective unconscious? Most people don’t want to discuss resolution. They want revenge, and targets, as one told Petrusich, just wait for the bullets.

Despite believing these feuds to be barbaric and philosophically flawed—savage by any Western standard—I wondered if the blood feud was also the purest distillation of justice as practiced by a modern society, the least complicated restoration of some essential psychic balance. Blood let for blood let. By any accounting, it was a cathartic reckoning, to avenge a crime properly. It surely facilitated a particular kind of healing. Besides, what did it mean to witness and absorb something wicked, but not to correct for it yourself? Intellectually, I understood it was a mark of maturation and empathy and civilization to defer justice to a court, to some impartial entity separate from the family. But I thought, too, of the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep,” Sandel writes. Was justice not, at heart and freed from any attendant subtext, simply a faithful restoration of equity?

Vengeance is not merely prevalent in rural enclaves here; the notion of vigilante justice is threaded into Albanian culture. In 2015, Armando Prenga, a Socialist lawmaker and an elected member of Parliament, was arrested after getting into a barroom scrap with a sixty-six-year-old fisherman named Tom Cali. When members of Cali’s family went to local police to report the incident—Cali had been badly pistol-whipped—Prenga burst into the station with his brother and a cabal of associates, discharging several rounds of gunfire and hollering, “We will eradicate your tribe!”

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The Planet Is Pissed and Wants You Outta Here

(AP Photo/Diego Main/Aton Chile, File)

Lately, it seems like everything on Earth is aligned to kill us: hurricanes, fires, floods. That’s the short list. According to Howard Lee at Ars Technica, a host of scientists now believe that massive volcanic floods called Large Igneous Provinces, or LIPs, are the cause of most global mass extinctions. Scientists are trying to figure out how LIPs work and when — not if — another flood will destroy life on earth.

The article goes into fascinating geological detail about what science knows about this cataclysmic volcanism. Although the title, “When Will the Earth Try to Kill Us Again?” makes the process sound maliciously anthropomorphic, the idea of a hateful Earth, sick of humanity’s meddling, does add some welcome levity to a grave vision of our future.

Some scientists claim LIPs occur cyclically every 15 million years, and they think we’re overdue for one. Others admit we don’t understand them well enough to predict. Lee compares human activity on the earth’s surface to an LIP: We are filling the atmosphere with CO2, causing global warming and oceanic dead zones at a faster pace than LIPs. Although nobody can accurately predict when an LIP will destroy our species, we do know this: That vintage wine you’ve been saving in the basement for a rainy day? This is the rainy day. Pop the cork.

Even if LIPs are the “smoking gun” behind most mass extinctions, that still doesn’t tell us how they killed animals. It wasn’t the lava. Despite the moniker—flood basalts—these are not raging torrents. You could probably out-walk the lava from a Large Igneous Province. As vast as they were, they flowed in much the same way as lava in Iceland or Hawaii flows today, with glistening orange and grey lobes swelling, stretching, and spilling to make new lobes. An advancing front will typically move at about a kilometer or two in a day (the average person can walk that distance in 30 minutes).

Unfortunately, gas is deadlier than lava.

The 1783-4 Laki eruption in Iceland gave us a tiny taste of what to expect from a LIP. It bathed Europe in an acid haze for five months, strong enough to burn throats and eyes, scorch vegetation and tarnish metal, to kill insects and even fish. That may be a killer, but, as far as science can tell, the haze from a LIP on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to cause a mass extinction. The climate effects of volcanic gases are deadlier still. Stratospheric sulfur from Laki cooled the planet by 1.3 degrees Celsius for three years, triggering one of the most severe winters on record in Europe, North America, Russia, and Japan. Famines ensued in many parts of the world, and that may have planted the seeds for the French Revolution five years later.

A decade-long LIP eruption could cool the planet by about 4.5 degrees Celsius, although the climate would recover in 50 years. This would no doubt cause geopolitical and financial chaos, but it’s unlikely by itself to eradicate a significant percentage of species from the sea, given the time it takes to mix the oceans (about a thousand years) and their huge thermal inertia.

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Feeling the Wind in Their Beards

Teresa Mathew for BuzzFeed

Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion, but these peaceful people are greatly outnumbered and misunderstood in America. Uninformed people assume their turbans mean they’re Muslim, and racists continue to attack and harass them. The first hate crime after 9/11 was perpetrated against a Sikh man. Yet a group of Sikhs in New Jersey have embraced one of the most iconic pieces of Americana — the motorcycle — to pursue their own piece of the American dream on the country’s back roads.

At BuzzFeed, Teresa Mathew spends time with The Sikh Motorcycle Club Of The Northeast to report on these motorcyclists of faith. Club members fly the American flag and the Sikh flag on the back of their bikes. For them, riding is centering, creates brotherhood and reaffirms their commitment to Sikh values and ways of life. In the American imagination, bikers are associated with drinking, lawlessness, and rebellion. As Mathew points out, Sikhism was partly formed from rebellion against Hinduisms’ inequalities and India’s caste system, but members of The Sikh Motorcycle Club do not drink or smoke. And instead of defining themselves in opposition to authority, they submit to their ultimate authorities: family, faith, and god.

The members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club love to ride, to practice what KJ Singh, another founding member, calls “wind therapy.” One bright morning in early June, three members met in front of a gurudwara in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. In true Indian fashion, the other half of the group trickled in slowly. As the early arrivals waited, they prayed and ate the rotis and lentil curries provided as part of the gurudwara’s langar, a vegetarian meal cooked by volunteers. Once the whole crew was assembled, the riders helped one another program location details into iPhones and clambered aboard their bikes.

They rode for hours, past large swaths of rolling green fields and Shell gas stations and dappled, densely wooded back roads. As they drove their Harley Davidsons through small, sleepy suburban towns, the scene could have made for an edgy take on a Norman Rockwell painting. When they wear their helmets, clad head-to-toe in jeans and leather, the riders’ beards are the only thing that make them identifiably Sikh.

Harjot Singh Pannu doesn’t twist or tuck his beard away when he rides; it flies in the headwind like gray gauze. “I love it,” Harjot said. “People look at my beard and wish they have a beard like that.” When he rides, and the wind runs through his hair, he said, “to me, that’s like living with nature.”

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The Business of Building a Country’s Brand

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Flipping through a magazine — if you’re like me and still do that — you’ll often encounter a colorful advertisement beckoning you to visit some place like Montenegro or Switzerland. “Belarus,” the slogan says. “Hospitality beyond borders.” But do you even know where Belarus is? What images does its name conjure? At The GuardianSamanth Subramanian tells the story of a whole sector of the marketing industry outside tourism, whose machinations remain invisible to consumers, but whose work shapes our opinions about place.

Many people associate Mexico with drugs, China with pollution, and Russia with spies and snow, but each country has so much more to offer than those social ills. A host of marketing firms now work with nations, regions and cities to sculpt their public image, crafting an identity that either polishes preexisting rough edges, or builds one from scratch from history, character and potential. To attract visitors, a place must be safe and full of activities, but tourism is not rebranding’s only objective. Some places want to reposition themselves on the map of public opinion. They want to increase their status and respect among their neighbors. Many want foreign investment, and to attract business, they must appear flourishing and stable.

Nation-building requires more than writing taglines and designing logos. It requires psychology, and firms can conduct years worth of research and interviews to identify how to fix image problems or make places like Primorsky Krai visible in the first place. As with all marketing, some part of the image is a lie, and branding’s inherent manipulations don’t always work. Example A: Gaddafi’s Libya. As Subramanian asks in his piece: What makes a nation a nation?

Of all their projects, the Grands are proudest of Tatarstan, which has bolstered their reputation among the people who run Russia’s regional governments. The government of Tatarstan, a republic of around 4 million people in south-western Russia, was convinced it wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved, either in Moscow or overseas. In 2013, they hatched a plan to promote the region’s heritage.

When Instid was hired, the government merely wanted a thick book, with glossy photos and text about the artefacts in Tatarstan’s museums. The Grands expanded this meagre vision. They reached into the period of the Bulgar kings, who ruled this region between the seventh and 13th centuries, and distilled a set of attitudes and values that had persisted into modern-day Tatarstan. The people were perfectionists, the Grands decided. They honed their skills and craftsmanship continuously, they were competitive, and valued pragmatism; they also bore a sense of loss about their past, and they prized the material over the spiritual or the intangible.

The products of such study – lessons from medieval history, or patter about “mastery,” “decisiveness” and “speed” – can seem amorphous, or even concocted. But they lent structure to some of Tatarstan’s initiatives, Alex Grand said. Schools and universities folded these cues into their syllabuses; architects based blueprints on them. In their annual reports, government officials took to naming sections after the values the campaign celebrated. The tourism sector, which was never encouraged as warmly as industry, received a dose of state enthusiasm: its own ministry, more funds, better training.

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Can Portland’s River Cleanup Correct Environmental Injustice?

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.

Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.

That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.

“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.

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