2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 15, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

On Inspiration4 mission, a poet champions diversity in space

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” was a searing spoken-word indictment of inequality in 1970 (the year after Neil Armstrong made his famous lunar stroll). There’s been progress, but spaceflight has been mostly a white man’s journey.

That may be changing. 

On Wednesday evening, Sian Proctor expects to join three others in the first all-civilian crew in space – no professional astronauts on board. Unlike the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic suborbital tourist jaunts of a few minutes in July, this private SpaceX flight plans to orbit the Earth for three days. Tech billionaire Jared Isaacman is footing the bill.

Ms. Proctor is a private pilot, geoscientist, teacher, and poet. She’s also going to be the first Black, female pilot of a spacecraft – a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “If we slip, then … people will say you were never qualified. They’ll compare you to the white, male fighter pilot who has always held that seat,” she tells Miriam Kramer in the podcast “How It Happened.” But she adds, “I feel like I’m up to the task.” 

Ms. Proctor often talks about the “J.E.D.I.,” not the Star Wars kind, but the goal of a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive approach to human spaceflight. One of her crewmates is Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant, who will be the first astronaut with a prosthesis and, at 29, the youngest American in orbit. 

What does inclusive space travel look like? The crew of the Inspiration4 mission offers us a glimpse.

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Can there be a winner in the school culture wars?

Schools are often the front line of America’s culture wars, our reporter finds. Parents want to know if the state is supporting – or contradicting – their values, especially on issues such as racism, health care, and gender identity.

David
Chris O'Meara/AP
Students arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Florida, Aug. 10, 2021. The academic year started in Florida with debate and legal action over Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' mask mandate ban, which is currently still in effect.

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A new school year is underway in the United States, highlighted by dueling images of students heading to class in masks and angry parents debating whether those face coverings are necessary.

The latest fights – over masks, but also critical race theory and transgender rights – are raging in part because they touch on differing views of social values and what it means to be an American, experts say. Such disputes are also driven by a desire to win local victories and to change national narratives. Yet despite the long history of culture wars in U.S. education, the question of whether these wars are really winnable is one that’s rarely asked, says Adam Laats, a historian at Binghamton University in New York who studies cultural battles in education. If there is a winner, he says, whoever that is will “try and rally the troops under the threat of whatever it is next.” 

In Williamson County, Tennessee, parent and activist Revida Rahman says a win would be coming together to do the work of addressing racism. “This is a long process,” she says.

Brett Craig, a parent in the same county and a Moms for Liberty volunteer, says, “A win to me would be to ‘live and let live.’ That’s the American bargain.”

Can there be a winner in the school culture wars?

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In a typical back-to-school season, markers and poster board might be on a classroom supply list. This year, they’re also hot items for protesters attending their local school board meetings. 

Mask mandates, critical race theory, “you name the issue and people want to speak out,” says Heath Miller, a high school band director in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who considers this the most stressful period of his 20 years teaching.

In recent weeks, individuals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, lit masks on fire outside a school board meeting. Pro-mask protesters in Fort Worth, Texas, staged a mock funeral outside the school board president’s home in August. The critical race theory debate continues to burn after erupting last spring, with new laws passed in eight states banning teachers from covering “divisive topics” and multiple other states considering restrictive measures. Loudoun County, Virginia, saw contentious clashes over the district’s expansion of transgender student rights. 

The latest fights are raging in part because they touch on differing views of social values and what it means to be an American, experts say, and are driven by desires to win local victories and to change national narratives. Yet despite the long history of culture wars in education in the United States, the question of whether these wars are really winnable is one that’s rarely asked, says Adam Laats, a historian at Binghamton University in New York who studies cultural battles in education. 

“I think there’s a bunch of seeming paradoxes when it comes to winnability,” Dr. Laats says. “If there is a winner, whoever the winner is will not claim it as a victory but instead try and rally the troops under the threat of whatever it is next.” 

Conflict over the idea of what America stands for often intensifies during periods of change, says Andrew Hartman, an Illinois State University professor of history who studies culture wars.

“It does seem that we’re in another period of mass reflection on this larger question of what it means to be an American. This stems from the rapid changes in how we think about gender identity, certainly the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says. “The current culture wars in schools, particularly with regards to race, critical race theory, sex education, and gender, are stemming from these changes that are taking place not just politically, but in people’s consciousness.” 

Crystal Freemon
Demonstrators gather outside a Williamson County Schools school board meeting in Franklin, Tennessee, to show support for the district's diversity and equity initiatives on May 17, 2021. The event was organized by One WillCo, a racial equity group co-founded by Revida Rahman.

Polling shows some of the divides. In August, a survey by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 58% of American adults favor mask mandates for students attending K-12 schools in person, with about 30% of Republicans supporting mask mandates compared with about 80% of Democrats. (Support rose to 65% of Americans supporting mask mandates for students in an early September poll by USA Today/Ipsos; results were not broken down by political party.)

A Morning Consult-Politico survey in June found that less than a majority of Americans knew about critical race theory, a decades-old idea targeted by conservative activists that considers the ways race and racism influence American politics, culture, and law. Among those Americans who are aware of it, Republicans are more likely to view it unfavorably. 

Cultural wars around education happen in part because of the role schools play in the parent-child relationship, says Dr. Hartman. “By sending your kid to a public school you’re conceding in part the raising of your kid to the state, at least in theory or principle. You can see why conflicts would develop over schools for that reason.” 

“Not above the fray”

Disputes over education in America are as common as reading, writing, and arithmetic – from the 1920s Scopes Monkey Trial that dealt with the teaching of evolution to the 1962 Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court case that ruled school prayer unconstitutional, to 1990s battles over proposed national history standards. 

Long-term trends in culture wars tend to favor progressive causes, says Dr. Laats of Binghamton University. But conservatives can claim victory over the fact that education still follows a traditional format in most places and that local activists have succeeded at changing curricula, he says.

“The sense I get is it’s more about exerting political influence and illustrating or demonstrating that your group is highly motivated on this issue and therefore a force to be reckoned with,” rather than changing others’ minds, says Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. 

The system is working the way it’s supposed to, with local control of education and mechanisms to voice concerns through school board meetings and elections, says Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow who studies K-12 education at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center think tank in Washington. “Education is not above the fray, it is the fray,” he says. “It should surprise no one that in a diverse and divided country, people are going to bring those divisions to their schools in the forms of these heated debates.”

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
Deputies remove Chris Mink from an emergency meeting of the School Board for Seminole County Public Schools in Sanford, Florida, Sept. 2, 2021. Mr. Mink, the parent of a Bear Lake Elementary School student, opposes a call for mask mandates and was escorted out for shouting.

“A long process”

When Revida Rahman attends school board meetings in Williamson County, Tennessee, she’s on the side with people holding posters reading “Racism hurts us all.” Brett Craig typically sits with people holding up signs like “My Child. My Choice.” 

Both local parents say they’re turning out to urge school leaders to do what’s best for kids, but they differ in their ideas about what it means to win.

“Winning for us isn’t like a football game win, where you make the play and it’s over. This is a long process,” says Ms. Rahman, co-founder of One WillCo, a group that advocates for racial equity in schools.  

“A win to me would be to ‘live and let live.’ That’s the American bargain. You’re free to have absolute convictions about whatever you want, but you’re not free to impose convictions on me,” says Mr. Craig, a public relations volunteer with the local chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty. He favors parent choice on masks and removing curricula he sees as politically motivated. 

A recent NBC News analysis of school districts where disputes are flaring over critical race theory found that many of the districts are in locations where demographics are diversifying. In Loudoun County, Virginia, the share of students of color in the average white student’s school has increased by 29.5 percentage points since 1994, above the overall national rise of 11.2 percentage points. 

Patti Hidalgo Menders, president of the Loudoun County Republican Women’s Club and mother of a high school junior, pushes back on the implication that disputes stem from changing demographics. She’s a daughter of immigrants from Cuba, and she says her parents taught her to assimilate and be proud Americans.

Ms. Menders organized recent “Education, Not Indoctrination” rallies and is involved with an effort to recall six members of the Loudoun County school board. Among other things, she’s upset the district has limited what she calls the “freedoms” of parents and students, such as choices around masks and vaccinations. She feels like her side has “not won anything.”

Many grassroots activists hope they will win policies advancing their causes, at least on the local level, by attending school board meetings and organizing to elect school board members that represent their values, says Dr. Hartman, the education historian. Some politicians, lobbyists, and members of the media intentionally stir up cultural battles to gain votes, fundraising, or ratings, he says. 

“Some people profit and benefit and enjoy fighting these culture wars and some see it as more existential and think they can win,” says Dr. Hartman.  

Ms. Rahman in Tennessee started working to improve her children’s schools after she and her husband chaperoned their sons on field trips to a plantation about five years ago and were dismayed by the lack of information about slavery and the lack of compassion shown by others on the trip.

“They were showing empathy for the 12-, 13-year-old [Confederate] soldiers who were fighting, but the same empathy wasn’t shown to the slaves that were on the plantation,” says Ms. Rahman, who identifies as Black. Ms. Rahman says her two sons and their classmates of color continue to face incidents such as white children using racial slurs on the school bus.  

She and other parents went to the district with their concerns and have succeeded in some of their goals, such as having the district start a cultural competency council. She views the latest disputes in Williamson County as less about “culture wars” and more about long-standing racism in America. She thinks it would be a win for people to continue the reckoning with racism that was started after the death of George Floyd rather than “everyone retreating to their corners,” as she’s seeing now. 

Ms. Menders is also trying to get people to come together. She recently gathered friends and acquaintances from a range of political and racial backgrounds to discuss their different positions. 

“I would love to have more dialogue like that,” she says, even though one person in the group decided they didn’t want to participate in the future. “Our goal was to help each other understand the other people’s point of view.”

With journalist’s murder, have Dutch values fostered a crime problem?

The Dutch are now wondering if their embrace of tolerance, individual rights, and judicial leniency is allowing drug crime to flourish. Is a broader legalization of cannabis the answer?

David

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When investigative journalist Peter de Vries was shot and killed on an Amsterdam street in July, it was a startling wake-up call to the Dutch about the scope of crime in their nation.

But it has highlighted the long-standing coexistence between Dutch liberalism and a criminal underworld that uses the Netherlands for international drug trafficking.

Dutch society prides itself on being modern and tolerant. Yet the Dutch tradition of tolerance may have unwittingly aided the development of a sometimes violent drug-running subculture.

It was, and still is, illegal to import, sell, or possess large quantities of cannabis. But national guidelines ruled out prosecutions of individuals for possession of small amounts of cannabis. That opened up commercial opportunities for Amsterdam’s “coffeeshops,” cafes licensed to sell cannabis.

Meeting the demand of a large number of individuals for their “user’s quantity” of drugs, however, requires wholesale quantities. Criminal traffickers, the only source of drugs in the absence of legal suppliers, moved in to satisfy market demand. Their activities, which are illegal, are what keep coffeeshops open and casual drug users supplied.

Holland has “unconsciously created a criminal economy … a two-sided marijuana economy that power-charged money-flow to criminal gangs,” says Dutch investigative reporter Allart van der Woude.

With journalist’s murder, have Dutch values fostered a crime problem?

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Eva Plevier/Reuters
A woman leaves flowers in Amsterdam, July 7, 2021, where famed Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries was shot the day before in an assassination attempt. He died from his injuries on July 15.

When famed investigative journalist Peter de Vries was shot and killed on an Amsterdam street in July, it was a startling wake-up call to the Dutch about the scope of crime in their nation.

“When it was gang-on-gang violence, we felt annoyed and saw it as ‘their’ problem. Now it’s affecting lawyers, journalists, and family members,” says Judith Begeer, a Dutch cybersecurity analyst based in London. “In a politically liberal country such as Holland, that is a massive shock.”

The investigation into Mr. de Vries’ slaying is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the long-standing coexistence between the laissez-faire, open Dutch liberalism honed over centuries and a criminal underworld that uses the Netherlands as a hub for international drug trafficking.

Dutch society prides itself on being modern, tolerant, and “an open society with strong rule of law,” thanks to a pluralistic system of coalition government, a rigorous judiciary, and media freedom, says Daniela Nadj, research fellow at the British Institute for International and Comparative Law. Crime rates have been so low since 2000 that jails have closed because there are not enough prisoners to fill them.

Yet the Dutch tradition of tolerance and compromise may have unwittingly aided the development of a sometimes violent drug-running subculture, thanks to complex drug policies originally designed to protect individual rights.

Holland has “unconsciously created a criminal economy … a two-sided marijuana economy that power-charged money-flow to criminal gangs,” says Dutch investigative reporter Allart van der Woude.

Demand and supply

The Netherlands was born thanks to land that was reclaimed from the sea through collective efforts by locals in the medieval and early Renaissance era. In most of the rest of Europe at this time, the church was extending its control of land; in Holland, the religious authorities did not press their claims, but made way for ordinary people to buy and sell plots.

This attitude, alongside busy coastal trade, laid the foundations for Dutch liberalism, allowing citizens a certain leeway in their behavior so long as they respected the common good.

“Amsterdam’s 16th century policy of looking the other way has a lot in common with the modern Dutch notion of gedogen, or tolerance of illegal activity,” says Russell Shorto, a historian and author of “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.”

“Today’s gedogen, or multilayered tolerance, is about marijuana ‘coffeeshop’ businesses paying tax, just like anyone else, even though what they sell is technically illegal,” he adds.

Hans Nelen, a professor of criminal law at Maastricht University, dates the development of a criminal underworld to the 1970s, when it emerged as a byproduct of the liberal Dutch fashion for experimenting with drugs.

It was, and still is, illegal to import, sell, or possess large quantities of cannabis. “For 35 years, our drug laws have prohibited cannabis, but our criminal justice system allows it through a so-called opportunity principle, whereby a judge may refrain from prosecution if it’s not in the general interest to prosecute,” explains Mr. Nelen.

National guidelines ruled out prosecutions of individuals for possession of small amounts of cannabis, he adds, and that judicial leniency opened up commercial opportunities such as Amsterdam’s “coffeeshops,” cafes licensed to sell cannabis.

The authorities expanded the “opportunity principle” to include other drugs as well; it is illegal to import or sell most hard drugs in the Netherlands, but permissible to possess them in a “user’s quantity.”

Meeting the demand of a large number of individuals for their “user’s quantity” of drugs, however, requires import and distribution in wholesale quantities. That remains illegal and not tolerated.

Criminal traffickers, the only source of drugs in the absence of legal suppliers, moved in to satisfy market demand. Their existence and activities, which are illegal, are what keep coffeeshops open and casual drug users supplied, which the authorities still tolerate. That, in turn, keeps them in business.

Today, Holland’s busy coast and sizable ports present attractive opportunities for drug smugglers. For example, the Tito and Dino cartel, one of the most notorious Balkan networks, controls one-third of the cocaine that enters Rotterdam – one of the biggest ports in the world – and can rapidly send a container of drugs almost anywhere in Europe. Corruption among Dutch port officials is rife, Mr. van der Woude says.

Time to liberalize?

The very public nature of recent assassinations has begun to shift what had been a relatively muted discourse on how Dutch liberalism might combat its decades-old criminal underbelly. Before the shooting of Mr. de Vries, thought to have been a victim of drug barons, other innocent bystanders had been gunned down in drug disputes in recent years. In a lengthy cocaine-trafficking case, a witness’ family member and lawyer were murdered in April 2018 and September 2019 respectively.

But it is the de Vries shooting that has sparked new reflection on drug policy. A group of local mayors in July publicly advocated the legalization and regulation of drugs such as cannabis, along with support networks to prevent young men from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds in particular from falling into gang life.

“In effect,” says Mr. van der Woude, “it would take the product out of the criminals’ hands.”

Mr. Nelen, the criminologist, agrees with the initiative. “To legalize the [drugs] market even just a little bit more means that you can control it better,” he argues. “The moment you start criminalizing markets, they immediately go underground. Liberalization gets rid of the dark side.”

Hannah, a local government officer who prefers not to identify herself because of “the fear that some people have in Holland right now” about organized crime, says that rural Dutch citizens do not share metropolitan, laissez-faire attitudes to drug control.

“I have zero need for drugs and cannot understand why people need them”, she says. But she says that many people like her remain on the fence about further liberalization and await the results of recent legalization efforts in other parts of the world, including some U.S. states.

The way forward could be what Dr. Nadj says is a deeply Dutch value – pride in international cooperation and law. “They need to do more intelligence and infiltrate the gangs, working more closely with EU allies and crime agencies,” says Dr. Nadj.

She is optimistic that, ultimately, assassinations like that of Mr. de Vries “won’t change the fundamental beliefs of Dutch society.”

“It will remain a very liberal society, proud of its constitution but bound by international law and very much aware of its place in the world,” predicts Dr. Nadj, pointing to a plethora of nongovernmental and international organizations in the Netherlands, such as the International Court of Justice. “Its core values won’t change.”

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Advantage joy: Teenage US Open tennis champ vs. world’s woes

Sports have always offered some relief from the serious news of the day. Our London columnist revels in how two young tennis players gave the world the gift of pure joy this past weekend.

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Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Emma Raducanu of Britain celebrates with the U.S. Open trophy after winning her maiden Grand Slam title last weekend. Her final match, against Leylah Fernandez, was an inspiring explosion of self-confidence and joy on both sides of the net.

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Sometimes, even in the darkest and most divided times, a sports event has the power to unite, with an uplifting sense of wonder and joy.

Last Saturday’s women’s final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament was such an event, reaching far beyond tennis fans and national borders. Two teenagers from richly varied ethnic backgrounds, neither of whom seemed to have the faintest hope of even making it past the first round of the competition, played beautiful tennis with determination, self-confidence, and, yes, joy.

The winner, Emma Raducanu, is an Englishwoman born to a Romanian father and Chinese mother whose parents moved from Canada when she was 2. She crowned each victory with an incandescent smile that combined equal measures of pleasure and disbelief.

It was the smile that stayed with one former tennis star, Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova. “That smile comes from the heart. It’s pure. It’s real,” she said. Her wish for Ms. Raducanu was that she manage to keep that smile.

And, she might have added, that the rest of us manage to keep ours as well.

Advantage joy: Teenage US Open tennis champ vs. world’s woes

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The pandemic. Afghanistan. Superpower tensions. America’s bitter partisanship ...

All of it – for at least a few hours last weekend – was pushed aside by an uplifting sense of wonder and joy, which, even in today’s world, demonstrated the power to unite.

That a sports event provided this catalyst may not be that surprising. Back in the 1960s, no less a figure than Earl Warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, quipped that he liked to read his morning newspaper from back to front. “I turn to the sports pages first,” he said. “They record people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

Still, this particular sporting contest – the women’s final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament – carried a special potency, reaching beyond mere tennis fans and national borders.

Why? Largely because of the almost ridiculously unlikely finalists. Both teenagers, ranked well outside the top tier. Both from richly varied ethnic backgrounds. Both bringing a mix of self-confidence, determination – and, yes, joy – to their sudden emergence on the sport’s largest stage.

On one side of the net, Canadian Leylah Fernandez, who’d turned 19 just days earlier. She’s the daughter of an Ecuadorian father and a Filipina mother. On the pro tour for just a couple of years, she was ranked outside the world’s top 70 players when the Open began.

On the other, Britain’s Emma Raducanu, a mere 18; her father, Romanian, her mother Chinese. Her route to the final – which she won in front of more than 20,000 rapt and screaming fans – was even more improbable.

Before her major tennis debut last summer, courtesy of a wild-card invitation to Wimbledon, her world ranking was 338. Though she had nominally turned professional, her focus this summer was on her “A Levels,” the British equivalent of SATs, in her two favorite subjects, math and economics.

Any thought of joining the world tennis tour was scotched by the pandemic. Her parents insisted this was no time to be traveling the globe.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports NPSTrans toppic
Emma Raducanu of Britain (left) hugs Leylah Fernandez of Canada after their women's singles final of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Neither teenager had been expected to get much beyond the first round of the tournament.

So she first drew real attention at this summer’s Wimbledon. She had an unlikely run there as well: She reached the fourth round, a step away from the quarterfinals. Yet she had to retire with breathing difficulties. In her words, the unfamiliar spate of success had “caught up” with her.

Fast-forward to the U.S. Open this past weekend. With some in Britain’s media suggesting her Wimbledon exit had meant she lacked the “toughness” to rise further, she had pocketed her A Level results – an A-plus in math, an A in econ – and, last month, set out for America to compete in lower-level events. The aim was to raise her ranking sufficiently to get into the three-match qualifying process for entry into the U.S. Open.

By the time of Saturday’s final, much of the tennis world, and huge numbers of new fans in the wider world, were riveted. She’d made it through her three qualifiers, and six main-draw matches against increasingly experienced and high-ranked players, without dropping a set.

And she’d crowned each match with an incandescent smile that seemed to contain equal measures of pleasure and disbelief.

When she won the final, the response from the tennis cognoscenti was pure awe. She was the first player to have gone all the way from the qualifying rounds of a major tournament to the final, let alone to win it.

But it was the wider reaction that offered such a powerful contrast to the news diet of concern, conflict, and division that has become familiar in today’s world.

There was a worldwide outbreak of celebration, lavished on both Cinderella finalists. Canadians were especially well placed to embrace both: Ms. Raducanu was born in Canada; her parents moved to Britain when she was 2.

She has always embraced her varied roots. Her Instagram profile reads: London/Toronto/Bucharest/Shenyang. By the time of the final, she had built up some 600,000 followers. Now, she has 1.7 million, and rising.

Amid a torrent of interviews long into Saturday night, she recorded a thank-you message – in Mandarin – for supporters in China. “She speaks just like a Dong Bei girl,” gushed one fan on China’s Weibo network, referring to the ancestral home of Ms. Raducanu’s mother.

In Britain, sporting figures, politicians, even the queen celebrated her feat. But more than that, they celebrated the feelings that the final inspired.

“What a glorious day for two remarkable young women,” wrote British actor and author Stephen Fry. “Yes, it may be ‘only’ sport, but in that ‘only’ there can be found so much of human joy, despair, glory, disappointment, wonder and hope.”

“We’ve witnessed such heaviness and pressure in the last year,” added American tennis great Chris Evert. “These girls brought joy.”

The most eloquent postscript came from another former star, the Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova. Enlisted as an analyst by Amazon Prime for its coverage, she’d followed Ms. Raducanu’s march to the final, round by round.

Her abiding memory, she said, was “the smile. ... That smile comes from the heart. It’s pure. It’s real.” Her wish for Ms. Raducanu was that she manage to keep that smile.

And, she might well have added, that the rest of us manage to keep ours as well.

Beyond sand castles: Sculptors create dunes to save America’s shoreline

Our reporter looks at a novel way of building coastal resilience to erosion. Is this approach a temporary sand castle or something to be emulated?

David
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Alan Robertson looks out over a human-made dune system on Tybee Island in Georgia on Aug. 26, 2021. A retired banker turned dune builder, Mr. Robertson led a $15 million project to not only rebuild an eroding beach, but also create a comprehensive plan to build the island's resilience against storms and floods.

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Alan Robertson wasn’t expecting to lead an island’s response to rising seas. But the retired banker from Chicago loved oceans and shorelines, and ended up leading a $15 million project to build new, natural-looking dunes to protect Tybee Island, Georgia.

As he began to immerse himself in the politics of sand, “I suddenly entered ‘the Matrix,’” he says. “Now I can’t look at this without seeing all the processes at work.” 

At its heart, so-called beach renourishment is a herculean form of sandcastle building. It is expensive, and critics say it may be futile. Yet with America’s coastal defenses buckling, and 100 million Americans living in coastal counties, it is becoming an important adaptive response to rising seas and storm surges.

“Clearly we are creating conflict every time we put a new house or a new road right on the coast,” says Jens Figlus, a coastal engineer at Texas A&M University. “But at the same time, to move forward and to keep economies going ... we can’t remove ourselves from the coast. So we have to figure out ways to live with it so that we are doing this with nature, not against it.”

Beyond sand castles: Sculptors create dunes to save America’s shoreline

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A ghost crab skitters into the cordgrass. Sea oats bow to a southerly breeze. A kestrel swoops hard on a hunt for beach mice.

Alan Robertson takes stock of a scene that is in some ways more movie set than nature’s handiwork. 

Clad in the coastal fashion – red fisherman’s shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops – the architect of the island’s defenses peers at his creation: an award-winning network of dunes, wind fences, and walkovers, overclad with native plants, some washed in on wrack. 

In reality he is standing on a fully engineered coastal resilience project replete with tide gates, water boulevards, and dunes. Unlike a levee, this $15 million, 1.3 million cubic yard project, completed in 2019, is designed not to resist nature but to absorb it.

“If you didn’t know it was not nature, well, you wouldn’t know [it was built by bulldozer],” says Mr. Robertson, a global banker turned dune builder. 

At its heart, so-called beach renourishment is a herculean form of sandcastle building. It is expensive, and critics say it may be futile. Yet with America’s coastal defenses buckling, and 100 million Americans living in coastal counties, projects like this one are emerging as an important piece of larger efforts to adapt to rising seas and greater flood risks.

These battles may at times merely postpone poignant decisions to stop fighting and retreat. But some experts say the efforts with pumps and dump trucks, dredges and pipe, represent an inevitable balancing act between changing coastlines and the humans who live there.

“Clearly we are creating conflict every time we put a new house or a new road right on the coast,” says Jens Figlus, a coastal engineer at Texas A&M University’s Galveston Island campus. “But at the same time, to move forward and to keep economies going ... we can’t remove ourselves from the coast. So we have to figure out ways to live with it so that we are doing this with nature, not against it. [But] it requires money and political will, which is difficult.”

One problem is that hard data is difficult to glean and compile, amid the unknowables of climate change and sea level rise. That, says Mr. Figlus, is why many engineers – and community leaders – still prefer “gray” infrastructure: bulwarks like sea walls and groins that are permanent one-time investments. 

Projects like the one on Tybee Island take a very different tack.

“We are trying to understand how nature is moving things around so we can capitalize on those natural processes,” says Mr. Figlus, one of the nation’s foremost dune engineers. 

Gray infrastructure like levees fail catastrophically when they do fail. By mimicking nature, Mr. Robertson says, the Tybee dune project “is designed to fail gracefully.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
A ghost crab looks out from under a sprig on Georgia's Tybee Island on Aug. 26, 2021. The crab has made its home on a human-made dune system that is helping communities around the U.S. re-imagine their resilience against natural forces.

His leadership here on Tybee has earned plaudits. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, mentions Tybee Island’s comprehensive flood management plan as a model. Republican Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia, who grew up fishing on the state’s coast, is a fan.

“Tybee is six or seven years ahead of the country, in my opinion,” when it comes to resilience work, says Clark Alexander, director of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah, Georgia. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has asked Mr. Robertson to write a book of best practices to help other communities create and execute resilience plans.

Mr. Robertson admits he is neither artist nor engineer, but a project manager on a mission. “My best skill is I know how to hold people accountable,” he says. 

Sand isn’t cheap

A century since the United States first began bolstering its beachheads with fresh sand, the cubic yards involved have been growing exponentially by the decade.

The nation has now dumped and pumped some 1.6 billion cubic yards of sand. At anywhere from $14 to $28 per cubic yard, it is not likely to get any cheaper, experts predict.

At a recent symposium in Georgia, an Army Corps of Engineers officer noted that “sand will soon be as valuable as water.” 

The Army Corps now requires communities to pay a larger share of projects it gets involved in, because there are ever-growing demands on a fixed sand-moving budget. 

Flood risks and costs have always been present, of course. But Hurricane Ida joined a long list of increasingly powerful and rain-soaked storms that lumber into some of the most expensive real estate in the world, pummeling refineries, fishing villages, and tony communities alike.

“There are a lot of forces at work,” including sea level rise, population growth, and shifts in funding for resilience projects, says Todd Miller, founder of the North Carolina Coastal Federation in Newport. “That’s part of the reason [the growth in beach renourishment] seems so rapid: There are needs everywhere now.” 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
A plover looks for food on a Tybee Island beach on Sept. 7, 2021. Over 300,000 migrating birds visit the Georgia barrier island every year, a contingent that islanders are protecting as part of a $15 million flood resilience project.

Using everything from oyster castles to water boulevards, morning glory vines to dune fences, the push is on to create living coastlines, engineered to channel nature’s powers rather than hold them at bay. 

It is not a theoretical exercise. Much of the Texas coast, for example, is losing 6 feet of beach – every year.

Juggling costs in one North Carolina town

“It’s ultimately a race against the climate,” says Mr. Miller, at the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “And there will be a tipping point where that shift is going to exceed the capacity of communities to keep up with it financially and physically.”

Ken Thomas says he can feel that moment coming. 

As the mayor of Oak Island, North Carolina, he along with the city council has struggled to bolster parts of a 9-mile-long beach. This year, a project had to be shut down before it was finished. Funding is difficult. The city intended to assess homeowners on a scale depending on how much the dune project would affect them. But the council this summer scrapped that plan amid an uproar over equity.

Competition for engineers and dredges, Mr. Thomas says, is fierce and getting fiercer as needs shift elsewhere – particularly Gulf of Mexico communities that have borne the brunt of recent storms. 

Several North Carolina beach communities found themselves excised from an Army Corps list of projects in February. And on the rapidly eroding Outer Banks, there is very little available sand to dredge.

“There ain’t no easy answers,” says Mayor Thomas. “If we do nothing, it isn’t that long before the houses fall into the ocean, and then the tourism stops. But you’ve still got to maintain water and sewer and police and the fire department. Taxes will go through the roof.” 

Rocks or sand? Depends on the place.

The dynamics differ by community based on the mix of tourists versus locals, the relative wealth of the region, the availability of sand – and the political savvy to get attention in Washington.

Sea Island in Georgia, a retreat for wealthy retirees, privately funds its renourishment projects. Tybee Island has gone all-in on pumping sand. In a bid to not be a tourism outpost like Tybee, St. Simons Island to the south has long resisted beach renourishment, choosing instead to place rocks on the beach to block erosion. 

“It’s not really about tourism in these communities, but about the homeowners,” says Megan Desrosiers, executive director of One Hundred Miles, a conservation group in Brunswick, Georgia. “A lot of beachfront homeowners are pretty wealthy people, and so the question that each community has to ask is, what is the benefit to everybody of spending these resources ... to stabilize the island?”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Sea oats wave atop a debris pile of rocks dumped on the beach during a dune project on Tybee Island, Georgia, on Sept. 7, 2021. The oats took root on their own after the sand was disturbed. Now a new dune is emerging of its own volition.

The natural processes are visible in real time, with 250,000-year-old Tybee Island slowly rotating on an axis. Georgia’s newest island – Pelican Island – appeared just south of Tybee only a decade ago. As morning glories and sea oats take root, dunes grow noticeably season to season. 

Mr. Robertson grew up in coastal Maryland and swam in the world’s oceans as a global-trotting banker from Chicago. Looking for something to do in retirement after buying a house here, he joined the Tybee Island Beach Task Force. As he began to immerse himself in the politics of sand, “I suddenly entered ‘the Matrix,’” he says. “Now I can’t look at this without seeing all the processes at work.” 

One of his most important current projects is to survey people who live far inland, to better understand how those who don’t live on the coast calculate the value of preserving it. That survey, he says, is likely to drive funding and design decisions.

“There are so many competing factions,” says Mr. Robertson. “Some people believe it is a waste of money. But we believe it’s worth it.”

Books

September sparkles with literary gems

Our 10 picks for this month include books that convey insistent compassion, the bond between father and son, the exploration of Black genius, poetry that confronts abuse, and the delight of following an eccentric quartet of British crime solvers.

David

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Virginia Woolf wrote, “All the months are crude experiments out of which the perfect September is made.” For avid readers, the “perfect September” involves new releases by their favorite authors. 

The month marks the return of top-drawer novelists Colm Tóibín, Colson Whitehead, Anthony Doerr, and Richard Powers. In a deeply inspiring memoir, Joy Harjo pays tribute to her Native American roots. Anita Hill writes a powerful challenge to sexism and gender violence, and Nathaniel Philbrick explores the continuing relevance of George Washington’s life to the American story. 

September sparkles with literary gems

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Doubleday, Scribner, Penguin Random House, and W. W. Norton & Company

With the arrival of fall, publishers are rolling out their highly anticipated titles, creating a bonanza for book lovers. Prestigious authors such as Colson Whitehead, Anthony Doerr, and Joy Harjo are among the headliners. 

1. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead switches gears from his two previous novels, "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys," to write a crime caper novel with moral undertones. In 1950s Harlem, a Black furniture-store owner and family man, who’s seeking upward mobility, agrees to fence stolen goods for his cousin. The atmosphere, characters, and especially New York itself are richly evoked. But underneath lurk questions of self-determination and culpability.  

2. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A Greek myth about a utopian city in the clouds connects five sharp-cut characters – two in 15th-century Constantinople, another pair in modern-day Idaho, and a pioneer to a planet years in the future. Riveting storytelling and insistent compassion define this ode to libraries and librarians.

3. The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín’s historical novel about Thomas Mann brilliantly weaves together the German Nobel laureate’s personal life with the creation of his major works – including “Death in Venice” and “The Magic Mountain” – set against the rise of Nazism, which propelled Mann’s family into exile. This stirring novel is a paean to great literature and music and a sobering reminder of what happens when a nation embraces fascism. Read the full review here

4. Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Astrobiologist Theo Byrne is raising his troubled 9-year-old son after the death of his wife. While the genre-defying novel explores such issues as the expanding cosmos and our endangered planet, at the center of this heartbreaking but beautifully written story is the bond between a father and son. (Readers may wish to know about a disturbing plot twist.)

5. The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Richard Osman’s action-packed second outing with the Thursday Murder Club overflows with wit, friendship, and derring-do, as the eccentric quartet of British crime solvers joins forces from a countryside retirement village. They tussle with the mafia, investigate murders, and, of course, enjoy teatime.

6. Read Until You Understand by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Farah Jasmine Griffin, one of the leading scholars of African American literature, uses works penned by Black authors to address race, sexuality, and gender. Part memoir, part tender exploration of Black genius, the book gives us a new way of using our own lives as catalysts for change.

7. Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo

In this poignant memoir, Joy Harjo, United States poet laureate, reflects on the power of memory and stories to shape one’s understanding of life and vision for the future. Using poems and prose, Harjo pays homage to her Muscogee (Creek) Nation family and confronts historic and personal abuse. The result is compelling and healing.  

Knopf

8. App Kid by Michael Sayman

Michael Sayman has written more than a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps success story. It’s a memoir about a boy growing up with negligent parents, loneliness, and an unsupportive school, and how his coping mechanism – mentally escaping into coding – became the key to a new and better life.

Viking

9. Believing by Anita Hill

Anita Hill’s testimony during the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment. In her powerful new book she challenges the economic, political, and social forces that perpetuate gender-based violence.

10. Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

This delightful book retraces the journey of George Washington across the former colonies shortly after his inauguration. It’s a meditation on our first president’s continued relevance to the American identity. 

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Celebrating a well-rooted Israeli-Arab deal

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Peace deals are rarely celebrated only a year after they are signed. Many prove too fragile. But this week, peace has an air of inevitability as officials from both the Biden and Trump administrations are honoring the first anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, the first peace deal any Arab country has signed with Israel in 26 years. Inked Sept. 15 last year, the U.S.-brokered deal has created a thriving partnership between Israel and two Gulf states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The accords were not named after the biblical patriarch Abraham for nothing. Muslims from the Arab states have been able to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, while Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community has been able to hold its first Shabbat services in a synagogue since 1947. Such public expressions of each religion’s shared roots may be key to the pact’s longevity.

“Our region is tired of war,” said Moroccan Ambassador to the U.N. Omar Hilale, whose country plans to fully join the accord.

That may be why the various celebrations of the pact in the United States are so bipartisan. Done right, peace can transcend politics.

Celebrating a well-rooted Israeli-Arab deal

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AP
Israeli couple Noemie Azerad, right, and her husband Simon David Benhamou, grasp hands on the shoulders of skullcap-wearing groomsmen during their wedding party at a hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 17, 2020.

Peace deals are rarely celebrated only a year after they are signed. Many prove too fragile. But this week peace has an air of inevitability as officials from both the Biden and Trump administrations are honoring the first anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, the first peace deal any Arab country has signed with Israel in 26 years.

Inked Sept. 15 last year, the U.S.-brokered deal has created a thriving partnership between Israel and two Gulf states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. (Sudan and Morocco later agreed to the accords.) “What is most remarkable is that in the past year, we’ve gone from ink on the page to concrete improvements between countries,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at a celebration in New York on Monday.

The accords were not named after the biblical patriarch Abraham – Ibrahim in Arabic – for nothing. Muslims from the Arab states have been able to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, while Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community has been able to hold its first Shabbat services in a synagogue since 1947. Such public expressions of each religion’s shared roots may be key to the pact’s longevity.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have visited the UAE – where they can find kosher buffets in hotels – while Gulf businesses have signed deals with Israeli tech firms. Perhaps related to the new comity, a new Israeli government has included an Israeli Arab party in its coalition for the first time.

The real test of the pact lies in whether it can calm the region’s conflicts, especially the one between Israelis and Palestinians. It provides “another tool to use to build common positions and deal with problems that are shaking the entire region,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. Although the pivotal state of Saudi Arabia has yet to sign on, its foreign minister praises the deal for the “positive effect on relations in the region.”

The massive exchange of long-estranged peoples may help ensure the new peace lasts a long time. “Our region is tired of war,” said Moroccan Ambassador to the U.N. Omar Hilale. “Our region suffered a lot from all kinds of extremism, terrorism, and rejection of ‘the other,’” he said. “We need peace in hearts. We need peace in minds.” That may be why the various celebrations of the pact in the United States are so bipartisan. Done right, peace can transcend politics.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Everlasting home insurance

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After a powerful storm significantly damaged a woman’s home and property, prayer brought the peace and inspiration she needed in navigating the restoration process.

Everlasting home insurance

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I live less than two miles from Lake Michigan, and it is not unusual for strong winds and storms to sweep across the lake. One particular afternoon five years ago, one storm picked up tremendous speed and force, and it hit the coastline with straight-line winds estimated at 90 to 100 miles an hour. My town was directly in its path.

Thousands of trees were blown over, and power lines went down in a tangled mess, leaving roads impassable and hundreds of homes without power. Six trees had fallen on my roof, and dozens more on my property. I will be forever grateful that my adult children, who were visiting at the time, and I were unharmed. In fact, we all immediately turned to God in prayer, acknowledging His presence, protection, and authority and listening for direction as to where we should begin the cleanup.

Our prayers included gratitude for the many friends who arrived over the next few days, having walked under, over, and around more than a mile of downed trees to reach my home. Everyone came at the right time with the right knowledge and equipment to be of service, as if orchestrated by the divine intelligence I believed was moving them to care for us in this way.

A week after the storm, my local Church of Christ, Scientist, was able to reopen for a Sunday service. One of the hymns we sang was especially appropriate. The second verse says:

What though my human comforts die,
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round,
Songs in the night God giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging;
Since Love is God of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
(Pauline T., adapted, “Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 533, © CSBD)

These words were meaningful to me as I looked ahead to all that was still to be accomplished, which included working with the insurance company. I’d heard stories of bad experiences with insurance claims, so I knew that as I approached this process, I needed to continue praying. I decided to stay on “that Rock,” God, and keep singing, refusing to let the enormity of the task or the challenge of paying for it overwhelm me.

I also looked up the word “insure” and found that it means “to make sure, certain, or secure” (“The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language”). Through my study and practice of Christian Science, I’ve learned that our security and protection from loss and harm have their source in God. So my prayers also took me to the Bible, where I found so many references to the everlasting covenant of love, protection, provision, and security God made with His children from the beginning. For example, God promises Abraham: “I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you” (Genesis 17:7, Common English Bible).

I also found helpful an idea shared by the builder I worked with. He said the work his crew would do was not about repair but restoration. I loved that idea and knew I could trust God to fully restore my home. My home had always been a place of hospitality to others, and I realized that the heart of my home really wasn’t a structure of wood and windows. It was an expression of divine Love, welcoming and embracing all those who came through its doors. That expression of Love could never be lost.

My interactions with the insurance company were harmonious. Everyone was clear in explaining the process, fair in the compensation for the work, and supportive of the entire project. As it turned out, I was fully compensated even before all of the work was completed. Within a year, my home and property were fully restored.

Each one of us is always at home – and forever insured – in the arms of our Father-Mother God, who is divine Love. We can never be cast out or left out of this Love. As Mary Baker Eddy reminds us in the beautiful rendition of Psalm 23 in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house [the consciousness] of [love] for ever” (p. 578).

Adapted from an article published in the Aug. 30, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Viewfinder

Broadway’s back

Craig Ruttle/AP
A member of the audience is dressed as the character King George as he arrives to see "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, as the show opened on Sept. 14, 2021, after being closed since early 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about what Louisiana can teach us about resilience in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

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