Here on planet Earth, things could be going better. The rise in atmospheric temperatures from greenhouse gases poses the most dire threat to humanity, measured on a scale of potential suffering, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany launched near-simultaneous wars of conquest. And the problem has turned out to be much harder to solve. It’s not the money. The cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, measured as a share of the economy, may amount to a fraction of the cost of defeating the Axis powers. Rather, it is the politics that have proved so fiendish. Fighting a war is relatively straightforward: You spend all the money you can to build a giant military and send it off to do battle. Climate change is a problem that politics is almost designed not to solve. Its costs lie mostly in the distant future, whereas politics is built to respond to immediate conditions. (And of the wonders the internet has brought us, a lengthening of mental time horizons is not among them.) Its solution requires coordination not of a handful of allies but of scores of countries with wildly disparate economies and political structures. There has not yet been a galvanizing Pearl Harbor moment, when the urgency of action becomes instantly clear and isolationists melt away. Instead, it breeds counterproductive mental reactions: denial, fatalism, and depression.
A few months ago, 62-year-old Todor Jankovic was gathering wood when he accidentally activated a land mine. Designed to explode two feet above the ground, the device miraculously failed and fell at his feet. He still can’t believe his luck.
Jankovic and his wife have been living in Skipovac Donji, a small village in northeast Bosnia and Herzegovina, for nearly ten years. A few steps behind their house, red banners marked with white skulls designate mine-infested areas. Almost two decades after the end of the war, the country remains under the threat of more than 120,000 land mines buried in the ground along former front lines. A total of 1732 people have been involved in land mine accidents since the war’s end. Six hundred have died.
The trailer where Dylann Roof found refuge is faded yellow with a thousand tiny dents. It is on the western edge of Columbia, S.C., along an unpaved road strewn with damp garbage, and it is where Roof briefly lived until the day he allegedly killed nine black church members at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Now, a month after the June 17 shooting, the blinds are drawn at noon and the family that hosted Roof is inside, where the boom of gunfire and explosions is so loud the trailer vibrates.
“Ha ha. I just killed all them mothers,” says Justin Meek, 18, playing a video game in which blood and body parts fly across a 42-inch TV screen.
“You got enemy on the other side! Use a grenade!” says his brother Jacob, 15. “Kill yourself! Kill yourself!”
On a lopsided couch is Lindsey Fry, 19, flicking her tongue ring, eyes locked on a cracked cellphone for news about the shooting, which has lately included her boyfriend Joey, 21, the third Meek brother who lives in the trailer, which is in a town called Red Bank that the Meeks call Dead Bank.
If a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago found himself on his home territory in 2015, he would be shocked by the modern innovations, and not just electricity, airplanes, and iPhones. Arabic as an official language in over two dozen countries would also seem as counterintuitive to him as if people had suddenly started keeping aardvarks as pets.
In our time-traveler’s era, after all, Arabic was an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads. The probability that he even spoke it would be low. There were countless other languages in the Middle East in his time that he’d be more likely to know. His idea of a “proper” language would have been Aramaic, which ruled what he knew as the world and served, between 600 and 200 B.C.E., as the lingua franca from Greece and Egypt, across Mesopotamia and Persia, all the way through to India. Yet today the language of Jesus Christ is hardly spoken anywhere, and indeed is likely to be extinct within the next century. Young people learn it ever less. Only about half a million people now speak Aramaic—compared to, for example, the five and a half million people who speak Albanian.
How does a language go from being so big to being on the verge of dying out entirely?
“Get in,” said Gunnar Karl Gíslason, pulling up in a Land Rover Defender outside his groundbreaking Reykjavík restaurant, Dill. He wanted to take me to visit a few of the producers who helped put his place on the forefront of a rapidly changing local food scene, but he wouldn’t tell me where we were going.
Before being named head of Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer’s highly touted new restaurant in New York’s Grand Central Station, Gíslason regularly drove around the countryside meeting micro producers. It was essential, he believed, that he understand the nature around him and meet the people directly immersed in it.
In Iceland, the elements have shaped the cuisine in ways that few other countries can compare. Fresh food was rarely available during the winter months. With just a few hours of sunlight each day few plants can grow, and the weather limits hunting and fishing. The cold and lack of drastic weather changes cause life to grow more slowly, infusing plants and shellfish with rich, deep flavors. Many of the old methods of preparing food, formed out of necessity, had the same effect, though sometimes to the point of overkill.
I’m reasonably confident the exact same thing would happen if he were visiting a rural Nebraska county:
I drove up to the Red Lake County, Minn., courthouse not knowing exactly what to expect. This was, after all, the seat of the county that I had just a few days ago proclaimed, in a story, the “absolute worst place to live in America.“Residents had been outraged. A county commissioner told the state’s largest newspaper I could kiss his butt. Would I be arrested? Beat? Flogged with a hotdish?
But what greeted me instead last week was pure spectacle. A drum line from nearby Lafayette High School performed a routine on the courthouse steps. Officials and county residents, beaming and full of civic pride, lined up to shake my hand and welcome me to their home. And a gaggle of local press was there, cameras rolling, to cover it all.
As a reporter, I’m used to folks disagreeing with me, especially when covering contentious topics like guns, gay marriage and drug policy. But until I wrote about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s natural amenities index— which rates and ranks counties on measures of scenery and climate — I had never been disagreed with so much.
And so politely.
What’s America to do about its stadium problem?
Over the past 15 years, more than $12 billion in public money has been spent on privately owned stadiums. Between 1991 and 2010, 101 new stadiums were opened across the country; nearly all those projects were funded by taxpayers. The loans most often used to pay for stadium construction—a variety of tax-exempt municipal bonds—will cost the federal government at least $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to bondholders. Stadiums are built with money borrowed today, against public money spent tomorrow, at the expense of taxes that will never be collected. Economists almost universally agree that publicly financed stadiums are bad investments, yet cities and states still race to the chance to unload the cash. What gives?
With the air conditioner off for filming, the only noise in Steve Gleason’s home is the breathing machine that keeps him alive. That’s as good a place as any to start a Katrina story, with the wires and plugs and tubes strapped to the back of his wheelchair, a life-support apparatus doing the heavy lifting for one of the most fervently alive people the city has ever known. The city has known its share. New Orleans treasures hyperlocal folk heroes: Soulja Slim, the king of the street rappers before the storm, shot at least three times in the face and once in the chest, dead in his black Reeboks; Trombone Shorty, who closed out this year’s Jazz Fest instead of Elton John or Lenny Kravitz; Chris Rose, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist who wrote the best stories about the storm until his life unraveled and he found himself waiting tables. Gleason is that kind of hero. In the team’s first night back in the Superdome after the storm, he stretched out his arms and blocked a punt in the opening series of a Monday Night Football game. There is a 9-foot statue of him outside the Dome now, but the actual Steve Gleason is paralyzed, four years into an ALS diagnosis. Most people don’t make it past five.
“OK, I’m rolling,” the camerawoman says.
Gleason uses his eyes and an interactive tablet to highlight the first sentence of the text, one of a series of love letters to the city that a local nonprofit asked influential citizens to write on the 10th anniversary of the storm. Since he can no longer use the muscles in his mouth, he speaks through a computerized voice, his humanity blunted by a droning, syllable-centric machine. Nothing works but his eyes.
“Dear New Orleans,” he begins, and when he finishes reading the letter, one of his assistants, Lauren, wipes Gleason’s eyes and nose with a towel.
“I cry every time I read it,” he says.
Lauren stays strong in front of Steve but when she gets around the corner into the kitchen, she falls apart, slipping into a bedroom to be alone. It’s an ugly thing to watch someone fight a battle he cannot win. Living, then, is in the fighting. “No White Flags,” it says on the Team Gleason foundation’s T-shirts and wristbands.
Dear New Orleans.
No white flags.
Gore Vidal famously said that he never missed a chance to have sex or appear on television. Me, I never miss a chance to eat in New Orleans. So when my literary agent proposed lunch there with the actor Wendell Pierce—best known for portraying Baltimore homicide detective Bunk Moreland in “The Wire” and trombonist Antoine Batiste in “Treme”—there was no way I was going to pass.
I was skeptical, however, of the lunch’s purpose. Wendell, a native New Orleanian, was planning to write a memoir of his family’s roots in south Louisiana and how the devastation of Hurricane Katrina renewed his love for the city. He also wanted to write about how African-Americans have always responded to hardship by making art.
He had read my 2013 memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and saw potential for us to collaborate. Knowing Wendell’s formidable reputation as an actor, I was flattered that he had read my book—and humbled that he thought it good enough to consider hiring me to help him write his own. So why my skepticism?
Wendell and I come from the same state and are of the same generation, but we grew up in different worlds. He is a black liberal from the Crescent City; I am a white conservative from the rural hills of West Feliciana Parish. How could we possibly have enough in common to work together? I figured I would enjoy having a meal with the guy, but it wouldn’t go anywhere.
We met at Lüke, the Franco-German brasserie just outside the French Quarter. Following the hostess to our table took longer than usual because everybody in the joint seemed to know Wendell and reached out to say hello. A New Orleans friend had advised me that Wendell is beloved in the city because he is friendly, unpretentious, and genuinely cares about the place. And here it was, playing out in front of me before we even sat down.
In 2011, Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide following the death of her four-year-old son. Nelson, it’s crucial to note, was not driving. She didn’t even own a car. She and her three children were crossing a busy four-lane road from a bus stop to their apartment building in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She’d stopped on the median halfway across when her son let go of her hand and stepped into the second half of the road. Nelson tried to catch him but wasn’t fast enough; she and her two-year-old daughter were also injured.
The driver admitted to having alcohol and painkillers in his system (and to being legally blind in one eye) and pleaded guilty to the charge of hit-and-run. He served six months in prison. For the crime of walking three tired, hungry children home in the most efficient way possible, Nelson faced more jail time than the man who had killed her son.