New feature in The Atlantic’s Inheritance Project

My essay, “The Louisiana Chemical Plants Thriving Off of Slavery,” looks at the links between the plantation economy and the petrochemical industry in south Louisiana, arguing that “it’s not by chance that 158 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, rural Black communities bear the environmental consequences of Louisiana’s biggest industry.” I’m delighted that it’s included in The Atlantic’s Inheritance Series, a project about Black life, American History, and the Resilience of Memory. I encourage you to read the whole series.

Politics in Louisiana often revolves around industry. “St. James Parish, on its face, is hunky-dory: fifty-fifty Black and white,” Anne Rolfes, the founder and director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit that partners with fence-line communities to advocate for environmental rights, said during the aforementioned bike tour. “However, the African American population is mostly at one end of the parish, in the Fourth and Fifth Districts. And where do you think the land-use plans put all the petrochemical plants?” Lavigne lives in the Fifth District, where nine plants are in operation, two are under construction, and four more, including Formosa’s megaplex—which itself includes 14 unique facilities—are proposed. This concentration of industry is enabled by zoning laws. Typically, land-use plans separate residential areas from industrial ones, but in 2014, the St. James Parish council voted to change river-adjacent sections of the Fourth and Fifth districts from “residential” to “residential/future industrial.” “The council will fight to keep the petrochemical plants out of the white districts, but they roll out the red carpet … when it comes to the Fourth and Fifth” Districts, Rolfes said. “It’s worse than redlining. It’s shocking, really. The council has a written plan to wipe out Black communities.”

Between Worlds

I’m thrilled that my essay “Between Worlds,about members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe who live (or used to live) on Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana, is up at Orion Magazine alongside Michel Varisco’s extraordinary photos. We were both profoundly moved by the people we met for this project and by the beauty of their vanishing homeland.

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“For Hurricane Audrey, I was young,” says Boyo, recalling the largest and deadliest June hurricane in US history, in 1957. “[Audrey] was the first time they had water on top of the land over here; maybe a foot and a half, two foot at the most.” Since then, hurricanes have routinely flooded the island, and for a while residents rode out storms in wash buckets and wooden canoes, called pirogues, that they tied to their houses. When the water rose, the islanders floated. Long-gone forests protected them from the winds.

Since 1998, Terrebonne Parish, which includes Isle de Jean Charles, has suffered a presidentially declared natural disaster every two or three years. Climate change has made hurricanes more dangerous, slower moving with heavier rains and higher winds. Waves wash waist high, breaking gas and power lines and gobbling chunks of the road. Storm surges, no longer softened by barrier islands, run boats aground and sweep furniture into yards. The only safe option is to evacuate, though not everyone does.

“Every time there’s a flood, we lose everything,” says Damian Naquin, a nineteen-year-old tribe member from nearby Pointeaux-Chenes. “We don’t have any valuables. We know, if we get something, the next storm that comes through, it’s going to ruin it. It’s going to carry it away.”

After each big storm, tired of the constant rebuilding and the worry, a few more families go. The homes that remain are perched fourteen feet up on stilts, above the floodlines, but even their time is limited. Scientists predict that by 2050, the island will be gone.

Buckets and Balloons

I wrote about Public Lab and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, two New Orleans environmental groups that use simple tools–buckets and balloons–to find and monitor oil spills. The entire article is available at Guernica.

Petrochemical operations tend to cluster in poor and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Residents learn about the Bucket Brigade from individuals already engaged in monitoring activities. Typically, the Bucket Brigade gets involved when community groups ask for their assistance. Education, Rolfes says, is crucial because it “empowers individuals to take a stand.” Learning the names of pollutants, symptoms of exposure, data collection methods, and advocacy skills can be transformative. “It is so time consuming to win and the wins can sometimes be temporary,” Rolfes says, “but the advantages [of community science] to an individual . . . last forever. It’s not me swooping in and doing the work. It’s them. They aren’t intimidated anymore.”

A Speck in the Infinite

Inspired by the Jet Propulsion Lab’s stunning new series of space travel posters, I wrote about the changing role of space travel in storytelling for Electric Literature.

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“Interplanetary life is still a far off dream, yet anxiety about Earth’s future imbues this research with new gravity. Rather than focusing on discovery, popular culture reflects an increased concern with the logistics of space travel: what psychological challenges will voyagers face during decades long missions to reach a destination; can travelers use asteroids to stock up on water and fuel; can astronauts have sex in space; can women give birth in zero gravity?

These practical questions give way to unsettling existentialism and thrilling narrative possibilities. The scale of the universe is unfathomable. What does it mean to be a speck in the infinite? Do specks have the right to colonize new planets? Will life on a new planet cause adaptations that fundamentally alter our species? To what extent would we include plants, animals, bacteria, fungus and viruses in resettling? Which humans would go and which would stay behind? What are the consequences of failure? Of success?”

Read the whole essay here!

Papa Can’t Buy You A Brand New Earth

“For decades, science fiction has viewed outer space as the great, and final, hope, the wildest Wild West, a blank canvas where we can deposit our trash and refuel space crafts and expand human civilization. As far as we know, Earthlings are the only humans in the universe, so the problems that typically accompany new colonies—unequal power, cultural imperialism, and genocide—aren’t at play, at least not in any kind of familiar way. Of course, exactly what does exist out there is still to be determined. Space, as any Trekkie will confirm, is “The Final Frontier,” and we don’t even know how little we know.”

I wrote about lullabies, Interstellar, and climate change for Public Books. Check it out!