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Reproductive Revolution

Posted on: March 31st, 2024 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Two weeks before her 48th birthday, Eboni Camille Chillis lay in a hospital bed, ready to give birth to her first child. As she nervously waited for the doctors to begin a cesarean section, she put on a playlist she had made for the occasion. It consisted of songs she found calming and empowering, such as Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” and “Lovely Day,” by Bill Withers. With her phone next to her ear, she sang along. A few nurses joined in too.

Chillis had always wanted to be a mother. In her 20s and 30s she’d expected the rom-com ending. “I would fall in love, get married, have a baby,” the Atlanta-based educator and entrepreneur told me. “And it didn’t happen that way.” When the pandemic forced her to slow down and reflect, she committed to having a child on her own. She was in her mid-40s. Based on her age and test results, she was told that the odds of conceiving with her own eggs were less than one percent, which led her to seek an egg donor. For a year she scrolled through profiles of egg and sperm donors, scrutinizing their baby photos, medical history, favorite films. After finding donors who felt like the right fit, it was time to prepare her uterus for an embryo transfer. She gave herself daily progesterone injections for two weeks before the procedure and continued the shots throughout her first trimester.

Last January, Chillis’s daughter was born, making her debut as Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” played. A nurse placed the baby on the new mom’s chest, and her tiny mouth immediately began searching for Chillis’s breast. When she latched, the uncertainty of the preceding years dissolved, and Chillis thought, We’re going to be OK.

Chillis is part of a shift that’s been under way for decades: More and more, people are postponing parenthood. In the United States in 1970, the average age of a woman giving birth for the first time was 21.4. By 2021, it was 27.3. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1985 through 2022 the birth rate for women ages 40 to 44 rose almost continuously, from four to 12.5 births per thousand women. For women over 45, the rate remained low in 2022, at 1.1 per thousand women, but represented an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. (CDC data do not reflect that people who give birth have a range of gender identities.) Although the numbers vary by country, many parts of the world show the same trend.

To be clear, some women have always had children later in life. In 1940 the birth rate in the U.S. for women 40 to 44 years old, and even for women over 45, was slightly higher than it was in 2022. But at the time, these births were typically the mother’s third, fourth, or fifth child.Today people are starting families later and in some cases without partners. It’s a familiar story: People, often with access to more reliable contraception, prioritize education and careers—not to mention footloose freedoms—before taking on the all-consuming responsibilities of child-rearing. Greater opportunities for women and evolving gender roles have been key factors. Meanwhile, assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) have enabled people to have children in circumstances where it previously would have been difficult. The result has been at least 12 million children born worldwide through IVF and a profound transformation of human reproduction. Now scientists are pursuing new lines of research that appear poised to revolutionize it even more.


THE FIRST BABY CONCEIVED through IVF was born on July 25, 1978, in Oldham, England. The procedure involves fertilizing an egg with sperm in a petri dish, creating an embryo that can be transferred into a person’s uterus. It was initially used in cases of blocked fallopian tubes but proved capable of addressing other infertility issues. At the time referred to as “test-tube babies,” children conceived by this method inspired fascination and alarm in the media and the public. Fears ranged from the possibility of birth defects to religious concerns about intervening in the reproductive process. But it didn’t take long for the procedure to become common and widely accepted.

In some cases, a patient’s eggs were not viable, due to age or other factors. So the medical field started exploring egg donation. The first successful egg-donor birth was reported in 1984. On February 3, a headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times blared: “Woman Bears Donor’s Baby”—phrasing that suggests some confusion about who was the mother. In March 1992, Jonie Mosby Mitchell, a former country singer, gave birth at 52 using an egg from a younger woman. At the time, she was reported to be the oldest mother in the U.S. to have a baby through IVF.

Mitchell already had four children from a previous marriage and an adopted daughter with her new husband, but wanted a baby with him too. When I spoke with her recently, she remembered reading in the newspaper about Mark Sauer, then a physician at the University of Southern California who was a pioneer of egg donation. She reached out to Sauer about having a baby at her age, and she recalled his response was, “You know, Jonie, there’s no reason in the world you can’t have one.” She became a patient of Sauer’s and delivered a son, Morgan. The birth was covered widely in the press. “Everybody was tickled,” she said.

Successful egg-donor pregnancies confirmed that age was not necessarily an impediment for the uterus, even after menopause. The challenge lay in the ovaries, which age at a markedly accelerated rate compared with other organs in the body. Ovarian reserve refers to the quantity and quality of a person’s eggs. Over time, the number of eggs sharply decreases, and those that remain accumulate DNA damage and chromosomal problems, making fertilization more difficult and miscarriage more likely.

Sauer co-authored a series of articles in high-profile medical journals about his early IVF work, culminating in a 1993 Lancet paper titled “Pregnancy After Age 50.” The ensuing media attention drew droves of new patients from around the world. Although he faced some backlash, he said it was gratifying to help people realize their dreams of parenthood. He recalled friends of his own children coming to his house and saying, “My mom said to tell you thank you for my brother.”


THE COMPARATIVELY RAPID AGING of the ovary has long been a mystery. There are different theories as to why. “People talk about how there must be some evolutionary advantage to menopause, perhaps,” said Rebecca Robker, a professor of biomedicine at the University of Adelaide in Australia who studies female reproductive biology. “You know, like the grandmother hypothesis. Is it beneficial for societies to have these older, wise women assist in the families?” Another theory is that most humans didn’t live much past 40 before medical advances lengthened life spans. But in that case, why do other organs remain healthy for longer, and why does sperm production continue?

The aging of the ovary itself is distinct from the decline in egg quantity and quality, but the two are related, albeit in ways scientists don’t yet fully understand. And both relate to hormone production, which affects not just fertility but nearly all aspects of health, from cognitive functioning to bone density.

Egg donation as well as the increasingly popular practice of egg freezing can enable older women to use younger eggs, whether their own or someone else’s. But what if scientists could figure out a way to slow down or turn back the biological clock, so that women could prolong their fertility while also reducing the negative health effects that accompany ovarian aging?

In recent years, a growing number of researchers have begun to pose that question. One key discovery was made in 2016 by Francesca Duncan, a professor of reproductive science, and her team at Northwestern University. They noticed that the ovary becomes stiffer, or “fibrotic,” over time. “The ovary’s very dynamic,” Duncan said. There’s a lot going on, including the growth of follicles (the structures that contain and nurture immature eggs, or oocytes), the rupture of a follicle to release an egg with ovulation, and the death and reabsorption of unreleased oocytes.

All of this activity means that tissue is constantly getting repaired, which can lead to fibrosis—essentially, scarring. Duncan and other scientists, including Robker, have been investigating possible therapies that could “soften” the ovary and extend fertility. A 2022 paper in Science Advances, co-authored by Robker, reported that existing antifibrosis drugs restored ovulation in 15-month-old mice, comparable to humans around age 50.

David Pépin, a reproductive biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, is investigating a different angle. He’s studying the little-known but important anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH), produced by follicles in the ovaries. He believes modulating AMH could, in effect, help switch fertility off and on. Pépin formulated a synthetic version of AMH that he’s tested on animals, including mice and cats. He discovered that at elevated levels, AMH prevents the activation of growing follicles. When a sufficient dose of the hormone is administered, he said, “you have very few follicles activate, and those that do are basically incapable of growing and maturing.” As a result, AMH could act as a contraceptive. (He’s developing a feline contraceptive to control feral cat populations, but it consists of a onetime injection, whereas the goal for humans is a daily pill.)

When treatment ceases, fertility may be restored and possibly even enhanced. The follicles resume growing, and because they’ve been accumulating for the duration of treatment, more follicles than usual grow concurrently. If someone with a dearth of eggs were to undergo IVF at that time, the odds of success could rise. AMH treatment could also interrupt some of that perpetual activity in the ovary, potentially diminishing the aging associated with it.

Scientists agree that no single solution will dramatically prolong fertility or ovarian health. But if research in several relevant areas bears fruit, it could add up to meaningful progress in the coming years. “We’re at a point in time when there’s a lot of eyes on this topic,” said Duncan. For example, the Global Consortium for Reproductive Longevity and Equality was founded in 2019 to support research and foster a global network of scientists and clinicians to study the subject. The organization has distributed more than $14 million to 48 researchers worldwide, including Duncan. They call their efforts “a moon shot initiative to tackle female reproductive aging.”


EVERY MORNING, EBONI CAMILLE CHILLIS goes to the crib, hugs her baby, and thanks her for being her daughter. Although the path to parenthood was different from what she’d envisioned, Chillis has come to embrace it. “There’s a wholeness and happiness to me that I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced,” she said.

Other people who’ve had children through IVF later in life are similarly enthusiastic. “It is awesome,” said Susie Troxler, who gave birth at age 50, using a donor egg and her husband’s sperm after the couple tried to conceive on their own for almost a decade. “If it weren’t for that technology, we wouldn’t have been parents at all.”

Yet some researchers and clinicians add a note of caution about delaying parenthood, even as their own work has contributed to the shift. One of the biggest risks is that the joyful endings don’t always materialize. Sauer said that the high-profile success stories can  obscure “the reality of how difficult it can be to achieve.” According to the CDC’s most recent data, the percentage of live-birth deliveries from IVF cycles by patients of all ages was 37 percent in 2020. The rate drops significantly for IVF patients over 40. (Using younger donor or frozen eggs improves one’s chances, of course, but there are still no guarantees.) IVF is a costly procedure, often not covered by health insurance. The successes may give people misleading reassurance that they can always wait.

The risks of aging apply to men as well. “Men’s sperm quality declines significantly over 40 and continues to decline,” said Pépin. Although these sperm may still fertilize an egg and result in a successful pregnancy, DNA damage can result in adverse health outcomes for a child.

There are many reasons people postpone having children, and one of them is lack of social support. Robker noted that with more family-friendly government policies—affordable childcare and paid leave—some might choose to start their families at a younger age. “I can’t do anything about the policies, so I’m working on how do we help people have the best ovary health for both their fertility and their overall health,” she said.

Beyond ovarian health, significant research is under way on more futuristic concepts. A process known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) involves creating gametes from stem cells—for example, deriving an egg from another kind of cell, such as a skin cell. IVG could enable same-sex couples to have children with genes from both parents; it could allow more than two people to reproduce together. There’s also the possibility of growing a fetus outside of a uterus in a synthetic womb.

Robker expects reproduction to change dramatically in the coming years. “People feel very, very passionate about having biological children,” she said. “So that is pushing the boundaries on the development of new technologies that can facilitate generating embryos.”

IVG and artificial wombs are likely still years, if not decades, away. But as these new tools evolve, vexing medical and ethical dilemmas are bound to follow. There are many risks, to be sure, yet there have already been many rewards from current reproductive technology: millions of parents who are grateful to have children when that hadn’t seemed possible. “She’s the light of our world,” Troxler said of her daughter, Lily. “She’s here when she’s supposed to be here, to do what she’s on the planet to do.”

Will Gun Owners Fight for Stronger Gun Laws?

Posted on: October 2nd, 2022 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Abra Belke was home for the holidays in 2012 when she watched a speech that would soon become infamous. She woke up jet-lagged at her brother’s condo — she had flown into Montana from D.C. late the previous night — but she forced herself out of bed, went downstairs in her pajamas and turned on the television. She saw Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, standing at a lectern. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he proclaimed, one week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., had claimed the lives of 20 students and six educators. Sitting on the couch, Belke looked over at her brother’s fiancee and said, “Oh my God, I have to quit my job.”

For more than a year, Belke had been working as a lobbyist for the NRA. From an early age, guns had been a part of her life. She’d grown up in Butte, Mont., where her father was president of the local gun club. He’d given her a Chipmunk 22 LR Rifle, a youth-sized firearm, for her eighth birthday, and their primary father-daughter activity was to shoot targets at the range together. As was common for children in Montana, according to Belke, she was forbidden from touching guns in the house under normal circumstances — but was also taught how to shoot in response to a human or animal threat. “These are not toys,” her father would tell her. “The second you disrespect this firearm you will wind up dead.”

In her 20s, she spent several years working for Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, then Montana’s sole representative in Congress, and a position at the NRA felt like a natural next step. Her job involved drafting riders for appropriations bills, attending happy hours and steakhouse fundraisers, and, above all, frequently communicating with her assigned lawmakers and their aides. Although she respected her colleagues in the organization’s lobbying arm — the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) — she was always a little uneasy with the bombast from LaPierre, who was based at NRA headquarters in Virginia, and the rhetoric of the organization’s ad agency at the time, Ackerman McQueen. Insiders drew a distinction between ILA and headquarters, but she knew that the general public did not.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, Belke found her employer increasingly hard to defend. “I remember watching the speech,” Belke, now 40, told me recently, “just, like, mouth on the floor, because it was so tone-deaf and stupid.” She recalls that she spoke with her boss at ILA — “I think I started the conversation with the phrase, ‘What the hell was that?’ ” — but agreed to stay on for a time. The NRA was, initially at least, participating in talks about the universal-background-checks bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), and Belke was hoping an agreement could be reached. Meanwhile, she was fielding voice-mail threats from people who held the NRA responsible for the massacre. To cope with the stress, she began keeping a bottle of bourbon at her desk and splashing it into her coffee. In April 2013, the NRA came out against the bill, which was then voted down in the Senate. The following month Belke gave notice, and that summer she went home to Montana. (When reached for comment, an NRA spokesperson wrote via email, “The NRA has a long-standing policy of not discussing personnel matters — past or present — in the public domain.”)

About seven years later, Belke was working as an attorney when she got an Instagram direct message from Amanda Carpenter, a conservative CNN commentator who was a longtime reader of Belke’s fashion blog and followed her on Instagram. Carpenter told Belke about a new organization called 97Percent. The name refers to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, which found that 97 percent of American voters — and the same percentage of gun owners — support universal background checks. The group, founded by entrepreneurs and philanthropists Adam and Staci Miller, promotes pragmatic gun-policy reforms — with a twist: Their principal goal is to engage gun owners in the conversation. In polls and focus groups, they say they have found that gun owners are more amenable to reforms than most Americans believe. To make real progress on the issue, they argue, gun owners must be at the table.

The organization had approached Carpenter, known as a moderate and a strong communicator, about joining the advisory board. She didn’t have time, but she thought of Belke, who had recently posted a series of Instagram videos answering questions about gun ownership. Belke was open to the idea and talked to executive director Matt Littman. “I said I’m interested in doing this, but I’m not going to do it by myself.” She didn’t want to be the “token gun owner” on the board. She invited John Goodwin, another former NRA lobbyist, to join as well.

Both are now members of the advisory board, which aims for a balance of Republicans and Democrats as well as gun owners and non-gun owners. It includes former U.S. representative Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, Emmy-nominated actor Jason George, and Richard Aborn, former president of Handgun Control Inc. (now known as Brady). Members contribute in different ways, depending on their background. Belke is often enlisted to communicate with congressional staffers; George filmed a lighthearted video with tips for talking to your gun-loving relatives over the holidays. (“The mute button is your friend. … Listen to what they have to say.”)

This might be a good time to disclose my own position on the issue. Since Sandy Hook, sickened by the unrelenting slaughter haunting our country, I’ve felt compelled to do something to try to stem the bloodshed. Over the years, I’ve volunteered, on and off, with groups promoting stronger gun laws, including Moms Demand Action and Brady. (I am not currently affiliated with, nor do I speak for, any group.) Unlike Belke, I grew up in urban and suburban areas in the Northeast, guns were not a part of my childhood, and I am not fond of them.

When I learned about 97Percent, following the Buffalo and Uvalde, Tex., shootings in May, I was cautiously intrigued. At the time, the nation seemed to be at an unconscionable impasse. Arguably, the subsequent success of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Biden signed into law in June, shows that the organizing of recent years has at last paid off; among other provisions, the legislation enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, tightened the “boyfriend loophole” for domestic abusers and invested $250 million in community-based violence prevention programs. But given the scale of the crisis — in 2020, there were 45,222 gun-related deaths in the United States, including suicides and accidents, and firearms overtook car crashes as the leading cause of mortality for children and adolescents — these remedies are relatively limited. A bipartisan organization pushing for change, including multiple former NRA lobbyists no less, made me wonder: Could an effort to get gun owners to speak up — and vote — for gun policy reform on a broad scale succeed? Could it actually change the conversation? And, when it comes to strengthening gun restrictions, how far could a campaign guided by the preferences of gun owners really go?


In 2020, Adam and Staci Miller, a married couple based in Los Angeles, launched (the P stands for “planet”), with a mission to tackle intractable problems. Adam was the founder and former CEO of Cornerstone OnDemand, a human resources and education software company, and Staci was a former McKinsey analyst. No issue seemed more intractable in the United States than gun violence. “When Newtown happened, we had a first-grader at the time,” Staci told me. “When Parkland happened, we had a high-schooler at the time. We really looked at each other and said, God forbid, if this touches our community, will we be able to say to our kids, ‘We did everything we could’?”

They began by setting up conversations with experts and veterans in the field of gun-violence prevention. One of them was Richard Aborn, who is now president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “I strongly suggested that the way to crack open the gun-control debate was to try and figure out some safe place for gun owners for gun control to voice their opinion,” he told me. He thought it was crucial to convey to gun owners that “there is perfect consistency between legally acquiring a firearm or firearms, and regulating the distribution of guns.”

Their next step was to find out where gun owners really stood. The Millers brought on two external firms to conduct focus groups and ethnographic interviews in purple states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Colorado — in addition to a national survey of more than 1,000 gun owners. They found that large majorities supported universal background checks, training requirements for a firearm purchase, and temporary removal of guns from individuals in crisis who pose a risk to themselves or others (red-flag laws).

But the research also found that gun owners who are receptive to regulations feel alienated by the current national conversation. They have a fundamentally different view than most gun-safety activists and pro-reform politicians who don’t own guns. Whereas someone like me sees guns as dangerous, gun owners typically see them as a way to keep safe. Whereas I associate guns exclusively with harm, gun owners see them as a tool that can be used for good or bad purposes. This helps explain a widespread conviction among gun owners: that policy should focus on “keeping guns out of the wrong hands,” not on bans of certain types of weapons or attempts to reduce the number of guns in the country. Another survey found that most gun owners believe that gun-reform advocates ultimately want to take their guns away. This belief makes them mistrustful and reluctant to speak out for any reforms at all — the “slippery slope” argument.

Based on this research, the Millers developed a vision for a new organization that would identify and expand areas of consensus among gun owners and gun-reform proponents. Their North Star is legislation that is both broadly popular and backed by evidence. Their empirical orientation also led them to recognize that, as Adam said, “There’s really three sets of gun violence.” One set is mass shootings, which prompted the Millers (and me) to get involved but account for a tiny fraction of all gun homicides; another is the community violence that is concentrated in racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods; finally, there are suicides, which make up the majority of gun deaths (54 percent in 2020). Each of these sets requires specially tailored responses.

The Millers incorporated the organization as 97Percent — going with the poll that has found the highest level of support for universal background checks — and officially launched in October 2020. They now have a staff of seven and 14 advisory board members, with the Millers providing most of the funding (a small portion comes from undisclosed foundations and individual donors). In the future, they are likely to start a 501(c)(4) to engage in more direct lobbying. So far, though, their purview has been mainly research and education. They are working with Michael Siegel, a professor of public health at Tufts University, to further gauge gun-owner opinion. Siegel has found that the majority of gun owners support four laws shown to be effective: universal background checks, prohibitions for those convicted of violent misdemeanors, permits for concealed carry, and permits for gun purchases and possession. He estimates that if all four were implemented, firearm homicides would decline by 35 percent.

Advisory board member and actor Jason George — known for his roles on the TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19” — is not a gun owner, but he told me he is “a good shot.” (“I’m from Virginia, from a military town in Virginia. I speak purple.”) George thinks that most gun owners are responsible citizens who are appalled by the violence ravaging the nation, and that blaming them for tragedies precludes potentially fruitful dialogue. “Don’t demonize them,” he urges. At the same time, he believes in asking more of gun owners: “If you’re standing by and not saying anything,” he says, “you’re part of the problem.” Another advisory board member, Rep. Seth Moulton, an Iraq War veteran, told me, “I want to see gun owners become leaders in this conversation, not just occasional but reluctant participants. I think the people who understand guns have a lot of credibility here.” Indeed, if the message is coming from a fellow gun owner, it is easier to trust that the ultimate goal is not confiscation.

The leaders of 97Percent believe that the gun-owner perspective can inform the writing of legislation and make laws more effective. People who do not own guns often lack a sense of what legislation would mean for those who do, Abra Belke told me: “It has to be done with gun owners at the table because non-gun owners don’t understand what they’re asking of dealers, what they’re asking of sellers, what they’re asking of law enforcement. And how the process would need to happen to make sure that people complied and to make sure that compliance was meaningful.”

The organization also started a campaign to encourage safe use and storage, in partnership with the National African American Gun Association, a gun rights group. Douglas Jefferson, senior vice president of the association, told me his views are derived from his reading of African American history: “When you have an unresponsive government, what else is there to do but make sure that you exercise all your rights available?” He is wary of almost all gun restrictions because he thinks they have a discriminatory impact on Black Americans without addressing the roots of criminal behavior. But he is keen to encourage safe practices: “As responsible gun owners, we want to make sure that we’re not just seen as gun owners but we’re seen as good citizens who happen to own guns.”


To some gun-reform proponents, the idea of engaging gun owners in the fight for gun restrictions may sound naive or downright nonsensical. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik spoke for many Americans when he stipulated “what ought to be a basic concept of a liberal democracy: that nobody who lives in one has any need for a handgun” and described weapons such as AR-15s as “the kind of gun that should never be in the hands of anyone except soldiers.” If guns and gun ownership are the problem, how can pro-gun people be part of the solution?

The contemporary gun-control movement — rebranded as the “gun safety” or “gun violence prevention” movement — has struggled to reconcile the views expressed by Gopnik with a more pragmatic approach. Every social movement must navigate choices about how much to demand and how much to compromise, how to balance long-term goals and short-term gains. But the gun issue introduces several distinctive challenges. Guns are possibly unique in that they are seen by many as not only the problem but the solution; the more gun violence increases, the more some people will feel the need to arm themselves for self-defense. There is also reason to believe that calls for new gun laws lead to increases in gun sales. Both of these factors explain the well-documented trend of gun-sale surges after mass shootings. In the month after the Sandy Hook shooting and President Barack Obama’s call for new restrictions, about 2 million guns were sold, compared with 754,000 in the wake of 9/11. In short, while staking out a bold position on some issues — say, demanding a $15 minimum wage — can help move the political center, stronger demands for gun regulations seem to carry a particular risk of entrenching polarization and maybe even exacerbating the problem.

This dilemma has informed the strategy of the contemporary gun-safety movement. The antiabortion movement unabashedly pushed for the reversal of Roe v. Wade for decades — and, of course, recently succeeded. By contrast, mainstream gun-safety groups have not called for a wholesale gun ban or made a big issue of District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that established an individual right to gun ownership for the first time. This approach results from a mix of conviction and concession; some advocates sincerely believe in the right to self-defense, while others are bowing to political realism. Either way, they have generally taken a more incremental, moderate path — calling for “common sense” restrictions, recognizing that we will never eliminate guns but we can try to reduce the carnage associated with them. They have also long insisted that the vast majority of Americans want change, and that the NRA has essentially tricked politicians and the public into believing otherwise. “It’s really the gun lobby, not gun owners, that is interested in propping up the industry’s profits,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told me.

As a result, 97Percent is arguably a natural extension of the movement more than a radical departure. When I asked mainstream gun-safety advocates about the group and the broader idea of engaging gun owners, most responded favorably. If anything, some were quick to point out that the idea is not entirely new. Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who now promotes gun reform, has always emphasized that she is a gun owner. The group she co-founded, Giffords, has a “Gun Owners for Safety” coalition, and Watts told me that Moms Demand Action has many members who are gun owners as well. Still, Watts believes that the newer organization can make a valuable contribution. “I think that groups like 97Percent that are focusing solely on organizing and talking to gun owners are important,” she said.

I heard a similar perspective from activists involved in March for Our Lives, the youth-led group formed by survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Matthew Hogenmiller, 20, joined the group as a high school sophomore in Austin. At school, he said, the fear of guns had always been pervasive. Then, the shooting in Parkland reinforced his feeling of helplessness. Joining March for Our Lives and organizing a successful protest in Austin gave him a sense of agency. He now works on staff as the digital acquisition manager. Living in Texas, he has spoken with many gun owners. The conversations typically begin as debates but end up arriving at points of consensus, especially regarding universal background checks. “Often,” he said, “the people that I would talk to are gun owners who bought a gun legally, went through a background check, did it all,” and didn’t realize that others can exploit loopholes in the system. He has come to believe that “gun owners have a part in this fight,” he said. “More often than not, responsible gun owners are the best advocates for gun safety.”

That does not mean that 97Percent has been universally embraced. For some activists, there is the feeling that gun owners are getting pats on the back for minimal gestures. Margot Bennett, executive director of the Los Angeles-based group Women Against Gun Violence, wrote in a blog post that when she sees 97Percent research on gun-owner attitudes, she rolls her eyes. “No matter what individual gun owners say about safe gun storage or closing the Charleston Loophole or prohibiting domestic abusers from owning guns, I only care about what they do,” she explained. “Do they vote for legislators and policymakers that will support gun regulations that will help keep our children, families, and communities safe? For the most part, they don’t.” When I spoke to Bennett, whom I met through my volunteering, she told me, “To pretend that this is not an issue of sides, to pretend that this is not a political issue, I think is a mistake.” Instead of expending energy on trying to accommodate gun owners, she would rather push to elect more lawmakers who will fight for more stringent regulations — even if it means voting to expand the Supreme Court and appointing justices who would reconsider Heller.

And even if the country managed to implement every law that the majority of gun owners support, the problem would hardly be solved. The 35 percent reduction in gun homicides that Siegel, the Tufts researcher, projects, would be fantastic — “a huge effect in public health terms,” he wrote in an email. There are also measures that sidestep gun restrictions altogether but could save a lot of lives, such as funding for local groups working to interrupt violence in their communities. But all of these steps would almost certainly leave us with a higher rate of gun deaths than peer countries with stronger laws and fewer guns.

In the end, I was left with this conclusion: A movement that defers to gun owners will not realize the dream of bringing gun violence down to the levels in Australia or Western Europe, but a movement without gun owners on board likely can’t accomplish much of anything, at least at the national scale. The bill that recently made it through Congress — the first significant gun violence prevention legislation to pass in nearly 30 years — illustrates this reality. The measure fell far short of what many gun-safety advocates sought, but it was still a major breakthrough. At a closed-door meeting before the vote, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) reportedly cited a survey showing strong support in gun-owning households for the bill’s provisions. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who played a leading role in shepherding the bill into law, wrote via email through a staff member, “Support from responsible gun owners was critical to getting enough Republicans to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and they’ll remain key players in building the movement’s political power and notching more wins.”

It’s a strange moment in the history of this struggle. The recent Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen has called into question some of the gun-safety laws on the books in blue states, which are sure to be challenged by gun-rights groups in the months and years to come. At the same time, the recent bipartisan legislation — demonstrating that Republican lawmakers were more willing to engage than at any other point in this century — has the gun-safety movement feeling optimistic. “This fight has been ups and downs,” said Hogenmiller of March for Our Lives. “You see progress happening and then gun violence occurs. In those moments it’s incredibly disappointing. It’s difficult to pick up and continue to move.” But, he said, “lately I’ve felt more hopeful now than ever.” He added, “When it comes to gun violence, nearly any progress is good progress.”


During the recent negotiations for the bipartisan bill, Abra Belke was in frequent contact with legislative staffers. She told me that Republican staffers would call her and say, “This is what they want to do. Where are the pitfalls? How can we make it better?” With Democrats, the conversations are different. “I’ve become the person Democrat staff can reach out to and say, ‘I’m hearing this. AR-15s are used for hunting. Is that true?’ I can explain to them, yes, some people do hunt with AR-15s. There are some animals — feral hogs, varmints, coyotes — that are hunted with AR-15s. And they trust me to tell them the truth.” An aide to Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) told me that Belke was “one of the few experts who was really able to illuminate the complexities, both political and cultural, of gun ownership.” Belke thinks that both sides have learned from the post-Newtown failure and were more willing to listen and talk through stalemates. “And that was probably the most encouraging part of all of it to me,” she said.

In recent years, Belke has become less comfortable with the direction that gun culture has taken. She doesn’t like the fear-based rhetoric of the industry advertising or the attitudes she sees among some younger gun owners. “I go to the range and I see people shooting these incredibly tricked out AR-15s, and they’re not very good at it,” she said. She was also frustrated by the failure to prevent shootings in Buffalo and Highland Park; both New York and Illinois have red-flag laws, which have been shown to work but only if people know about them and put them to use. “You can’t pass a law and then walk away from it,” she said. “You see those little flaws in the system, and you have to be willing to address those flaws.”

If 97Percent succeeds on its own terms, perhaps Belke will be a kind of bellwether of the change underway in this country, agonizingly slow but perceptible, in the decade since Newtown. Then, she was working for the NRA, which contributed to scotching the proposed legislation; now, she is working with 97Percent and trying to engage in dialogue. The NRA opposed the new federal legislation, but this time, it passed anyway. Belke thinks at least some conservative lawmakers and ordinary gun owners have learned what the NRA has not: “We do have to be willing to have the discussions that we haven’t had in the past, and ‘no’ can’t be the only answer.”

Computer says not OK

Posted on: August 13th, 2022 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

NO BAND CAPTURED the uneasy feeling of the final years of the millennium more faithfully than Radiohead. As the band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, recently put it: “I don’t know why we thought it was the last days on earth, but I guess we did.” Song titles such as “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Paranoid Android” offer a sense of their fixations. After starting out in the early 1990s as a standard alt-rock band, they grew more ambitious and experimental. Electronic beeps and automated voices turned up alongside the guitar and keyboards. The lyrics often seemed to be in quotation marks – overheard snippets, self-help platitudes, corporate blather. Weaving together these borrowed sounds and clichéd lines made for some strikingly original music. After the release of their third album, OK Computer (1997), Radiohead secured a devoted international fan base as well as critical adulation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this made them miserable. Yorke in particular came close to a breakdown. But in 1999 they entered an intense creative period that culminated in the recording of two albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), that would go on to be considered masterpieces. During this time Yorke and Stanley Donwood, a friend from art school who had done most of Radiohead’s cover art, were churning out visual materials – sketches, paintings, digital images – as well as scribbling lyrics, lists and notes. These ephemera have now been gathered and published in two books, Kid A Mnesia: A book of Radiohead artwork and Fear Stalks the Land!: A commonplace book.

In Kid A Mnesia’s introduction, which takes the form of a dialogue between the two collaborators, Donwood describes his role as “extracting what the music looked like from the music [itself].” While Kid A Mnesia comprises mostly images and Fear Stalks the Land! mostly text, each is a mishmash of words and pictures. Recurring motifs, such as variations on the cute-creepy minotaur on the cover of Amnesiac, show up in both. They embody Radiohead’s tone: portentous, ironic, arch. And, like the music, many of the images are quite beautiful, in an ethereal, disturbing way.

The books are also intended as a glimpse into a fertile artistic process. After OK Computer Yorke suffered from severe creative block. His girlfriend at the time, he reports, told him: “‘Stop trying to make music. Stop completely for a while.’ So I was wandering around just drawing anything I could see.” This loosened him up, as did his collaboration with Donwood. Yorke marvels that he and Donwood felt at liberty to “paint on each other’s paintings, and write on each other’s writing,” in a partnership they recall as idyllic.

In that sense the books are not visual analogues to the albums: while the band are known as musically perfectionist, here they are displaying rough drafts and rejects, repetitive and unrefined. The aesthetic is reminiscent of the zines of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their unmethodical pastiches that prized intuition and randomness. Only the most dedicated fans will want to pore over every page. But in addition to Radiohead’s idiosyncratic preoccupations, there are intimations of broader societal anxieties, some of which jump out amid today’s headlines. A polar bear crouches on what remains of an iceberg. A drawing of two smarmy men in suits, locked in an embrace, bears the caption “EXCITING NEW DIGITAL REVOLUTION.”

In an interview with Yorke in 2019, Stephen Colbert noted that Radiohead’s work had expressed apprehension about the world for decades, and asked: “How does it feel to be right?” Like the albums they salute, the contents of these books are very much of their time, but in some ways they seem even more timely in our current era of widespread fear and foreboding. More happily, they also remind us of the potential to mine those feelings for art. As Yorke puts it, “Kid A and Amnesiac are, if nothing else, a celebration of what is possible when a bunch of people get together and forget about everything except trying to create work that speaks to them at that moment, in a sort of frenzied, last-days-on-earth kind of way … that kind of madness is important.”

What Should America Do with Its Nuclear Waste?

Posted on: June 5th, 2022 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

A little more than a decade ago, Marni Magda was reading Scientific American magazine in her living room when she came across an infographic titled “Aging Fleet under Review.” Published shortly after an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the two-page spread showed a map of nuclear facilities across the United States, with color coding to indicate seismic risk. Looking to her own region, coastal Southern California, Magda spotted a nuclear plant icon superimposed over an alarming shade of red. It represented the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, about 20 miles south of her city, Laguna Beach, and near multiple geological faults. “I realized as a California resident, we were in a great deal of trouble,” she recalled recently.

For Magda, a retired elementary school teacher, the interpretive map has acquired a status akin to a sacred text; she kept it and had it laminated. She handed it to me as we sat at a table in her backyard, birds chirping riotously in a large orange tree heavy with fruit. She explained that soon after her wake-up call in 2011, she found other area residents who also feared that an earthquake or tsunami could lead to a nuclear disaster in Southern California. She began attending marches in the state park adjacent to the plant, holding banners aloft and chanting, “Shut it down!”

The plant, which had about 2,000 employees and produced enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes, had operated since 1968. The looming domes of its two reactors were visible to drivers on Interstate 5, a heavily trafficked freeway, and to surfers who trekked from all over the world to catch waves at famed beaches nearby. The utility company that ran the plant, Southern California Edison (SCE), assured the public that the facility could withstand any plausible seismic or weather event. But in 2013, SCE announced that San Onofre would be decommissioned for a different reason: Flaws had been discovered in the steam generators. Many community members hailed the decision as a victory. “Oh, I was thrilled,” Magda, now 75, told me. “I was absolutely thrilled.”

The celebration, however, was short-lived. Magda and other activists realized that all of the high-level radioactive waste that had accumulated at the plant over the course of its lifetime — 1,600 tons of spent fuel rods — would remain at the site for the foreseeable future. Although the federal government is legally responsible for disposing of commercial spent nuclear fuel in a permanent underground repository, there has been no plan for fulfilling that obligation since the Obama administration halted the project at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2010. There are currently about 80 locations in 35 states — mostly at operational and decommissioned nuclear plants — where spent fuel is being stored indefinitely.

Since the San Onofre plant shut down, Magda has been trying to get the spent fuel moved to a more suitable site and to ensure that, until then, it is stored as safely as possible. As of 2017, she has represented her local chapter of the Sierra Club on the Community Engagement Panel, an entity established by SCE that holds quarterly meetings with the public. In her garage, she showed me a gray filing cabinet with four vertically stacked drawers, her granddaughter’s teal bike propped up against the side. The drawers contain hundreds of manila files with hand-scrawled labels: “Western Interstate Energy Board,” “Sierra Club — Comments on Scoping Process,” “Thick vs. Thin Canisters & Corrosion Cracking.” Inside the folders are notes from meetings, business cards of public officials, news clippings, academic papers and government reports. In addition to earthquakes and tsunamis, Magda and other activists are worried about coastal erosion and sea level rise caused by climate change. “We can’t leave it here,” Magda says.

The question of what to do with the nation’s spent nuclear fuel has recently garnered renewed attention. This is thanks in part to U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), who represents the district encompassing San Onofre and has taken up the cause as one of his signature issues. An environmental lawyer by training, he told me he ran for Congress partially to make progress on reviving the nation’s stalled efforts. In January 2019, he established a task force of local stakeholders to study the situation at San Onofre. He has also co-founded the bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus, with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), and introduced the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act, which would ensure that the material is moved first from the most sensitive locations, including San Onofre.

Among scientific experts and government officials, there is broad consensus that the optimal solution is to eventually bury nuclear waste in a deep geological repository. But that is a long-term goal, and in the near future, Levin and many others are pushing for “consolidated interim storage.” This would mean that the spent fuel scattered at sites across the country would be moved to one or more facilities, in appropriate settings, that would be devoted entirely to safely storing the fuel until a geological disposal facility is ready.

There is also agreement, of a limited sort, between many nuclear opponents and supporters on the importance of addressing the waste issue. But for many opponents, such as Magda, the waste is a reason to abandon this form of energy altogether. By contrast, supporters of nuclear power — the generation of which does not emit greenhouse gases — seek to resolve the spent fuel issue to clear hurdles to its expansion. A better waste management strategy is essential if nuclear power, which provides almost half of the country’s low-carbon electricity, is to play a meaningful role in a future energy system that does not rely on fossil fuels. To reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the Biden administration has called for substantial investments in nuclear reactors. “The United States views nuclear energy as a pivotal technology in the global effort to lower emissions, expand economic opportunity, and ultimately combat climate change,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has said in a statement.

Despite recent momentum to break the spent fuel impasse, the obstacles are considerable. “Frankly we have a real problem in the U.S., not just at San Onofre,” Levin told me. “San Onofre is just the symptom, with 9 million people within 50 miles and two earthquake faults and rising sea level. The actual problem is that we’ve got nowhere to move it to.”


In a landmark 1957 report by the National Academy of Sciences, “The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land,” the authors proposed that the most viable method would be to inter it deep underground, preferably in salt mines. In the ensuing years, different ideas — including burying the waste in ice sheets and shooting it out into space — were thrown around. But the enduring conventional wisdom favors the original idea of deep geological repositories.

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act was the first major law to address spent nuclear fuel, and assigned the federal government the task of constructing and operating such facilities. By that time, there were dozens of commercial nuclear plants that had been accumulating spent fuel and storing it on-site with no plans for disposal. According to the law, the Department of Energy was required to move promptly to site two geological repositories for permanent disposal.

In 1987, however, amendments to this law identified only a single location: Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The selection was based on the Energy Department’s assessment of the site’s geological features and was also thought to reflect political dynamics at the time. In the state, the legislation became known as the “Screw Nevada Bill.” Nevada’s powerful long-serving senator, Harry M. Reid, made it his mission to see that this repository would never come to pass. In 2010, the Obama administration announced that it would withdraw the license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the project. “We’re done with Yucca,” Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s energy adviser, said. (The United States does have a deep geological repository for some defense-related radioactive waste such as contaminated clothing and tools, in New Mexico, but not for commercial spent fuel.)

Meanwhile, Obama’s secretary of energy convened the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to devise a new strategy. The commission issued a report in January 2012. “The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments,” the report stated.

The report’s first recommendation, highlighting its importance, was a “consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities” for both permanent underground disposal and temporary aboveground storage. That is, instead of selecting sites based strictly on physical characteristics, the new approach would solicit volunteers, and engage communities, states, tribes and other stakeholders to obtain their approval before proceeding with plans. This idea was built around observations of more successful programs in other countries, including Finland and Sweden. The goal is “to work with the community to find out what they need, what they want, from their point of view, not from our point of view,” Tom Isaacs, a veteran nuclear waste expert who served as lead adviser to the commission, told me. This could mean jobs, investment in parks and schools, or other forms of compensation.

The Blue Ribbon Commission report was widely regarded as a seminal document in nuclear policy circles. But until recently, virtually no progress had been made toward implementing its recommendations, which included developing one or more geological disposal facilities as well as one or more consolidated storage facilities. (The Trump administration briefly tried to revive the Yucca Mountain plan, then reversed course.) “I’m both happy and sad that 10 years later, they’re still looking at that report,” Isaacs told me — proud that it is still a go-to resource for those working on the issue but frustrated that so little has changed.


The spent fuel at San Onofre is stored in 123 canisters, in what’s called an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI, pronounced “ISSfuhsee”). Contrary to the popular impression of nuclear waste as green goo, the fuel rods consist of solid pellets, each slightly larger than a pencil eraser. The fuel rods, bundled into fuel assemblies, were retrieved from the reactors over the course of decades. After cooling for at least five years in pools of water, they were transferred into stainless-steel canisters, with walls five-eighths of an inch thick. Workers then transferred the loaded canisters, each of which weighs 50 tons, to a concrete pad overlooking the ocean and lowered them into stainless-steel cavities beneath the pad’s surface.

When I visited the site recently, on a bright, gusty day, I was led by John Dobken, San Onofre’s public information officer, and Jerry Stephenson, the ISFSI engineering manager, through security and outside to the concrete pad. On our way, we passed workers in hard hats engaged in the ongoing demolition of the plant — major decommissioning work is expected to continue through 2028 — as well as the construction of a rail yard. It was a reminder that radioactive spent fuel is not the only kind of waste produced by nuclear plants: Millions of pounds of metal and steel, and tens of thousands of titanium tubes, will eventually be loaded onto rail cars and shipped away, some to be recycled, some to a landfill. One day, according to the plan, the spent fuel will be shipped away on this rail line as well, though no one knows to where.

Out on the concrete pad, in my immediate vicinity, I could see a partially demolished industrial site; farther out, it looked like a commercial for a seaside vacation. The pad is elevated above sea level, but the ocean is about 100 feet away, behind a sea wall. “Dry fuel storage is very self-sufficient,” Stephenson said. “There’s no fans, there’s no cooling systems; it just sits there, fat, dumb and happy, as I like to say.”

We could not see the canisters, which were below our feet, inside the enclosures. Dobken told me that each canister was surrounded on the sides by 10 feet of concrete, as well as a three-foot reinforced concrete slab at both the top and the bottom, all of which blocks radiation that isn’t shielded by the stainless steel. According to SCE, the canisters were designed to handle any earthquake that could occur in the area and up to 125 feet of water. (There are two sections of the ISFSI with somewhat different designs; the older one is farther from the shore, above grade, and built for inundation by 50 feet of water.)

When I mentioned that I felt warm air emanating from the enclosures, Stephenson explained that vents allow air to continuously cool the spent fuel, and the air comes out heated. “I joke that we should put a little restaurant out here and serve drinks,” he said. He assured me that almost no radiation was escaping. A radiation monitor installed on the pad showed a reading of 13 microrem per hour, just slightly higher than the area’s natural background radiation. (For context, over the course of a cross-country flight passengers — because they are closer to the sun — are exposed to about 3,500 microrem, or 3.5 millirem.)

How dangerous is this material? As with everything related to nuclear power, answers to that question are highly polarized. As is so often the case, you can tell where someone stands by the language they use: Opponents call the substance “waste” and the sites where it’s stored “waste dumps.” Proponents tend to call it “used fuel,” as opposed to “spent,” to indicate that it has the potential to be recycled; they see it less as a threat than as a resource. These differences in perspective have been underscored by recent events. The attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant proved to anti-nuclear advocates that the energy source is unacceptably risky; pro-nuclear people see the geopolitical situation as a sign that Europe needs more nuclear power to pry itself from dependence on Russian oil and gas.

The fear of this substance, whatever we might call it, is hardly without basis. The 1957 National Academy of Sciences report stated, “Unlike the disposal of any other type of waste, the hazard related to radioactive waste is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety.” Being in the same room with unshielded nuclear waste, fresh out of the reactor, could very quickly give you a fatal dose of radiation.

Proponents argue that these hazards are real but entirely manageable. As Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, put it in a recent New America webinar, “We know exactly where it is, we know exactly what it is, and it’s being very safely stored. … There’s other forms of generation that create waste, many of which you’re breathing.” James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for originating the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that life on Earth interacts with the planet to form a self-regulating system, is a champion of nuclear energy. “The nuclear waste is a minor burial problem, but the carbon dioxide waste will kill us all if we go on emitting it,” he wrote in a 2009 book.

Another point of contention involves the prospect of recycling. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” said Korsnick in the webinar, noting that “the thing we call waste” has more than 90 percent of its potential energy still untapped. The United States has eschewed reprocessing because of concerns about proliferation — that is, the risk that the material could be diverted for weapons — but other countries, such as France, do reprocess used fuel in civilian nuclear reactors. Recently, fresh interest in this option has emerged in the States. In March, Oklo, an advanced nuclear start-up, along with Deep Isolation, a company focused on nuclear waste disposal, won a $4 million grant from the Energy Department to develop the nation’s first nuclear fuel recycling and disposal facility.

Some of these divergent views, and gradations in between, are apparent in the community surrounding San Onofre. The community has been vigilantly monitoring the decommissioning process, with a contingent of activists who are critical of SCE. The Community Engagement Panel’s meetings have been well attended, and before they shifted online because of the pandemic, often raucous. David Victor, a professor of public policy at the University of California at San Diego, was tapped by the utility to lead the panel. “I’ve visited many plants in various state of closure,” he told me. “I’ve never seen this degree of public engagement.”

Rob Howard worked at the plant for 31 years. During that time, “I did pretty much everything,” he told me recently over a turkey sandwich, when we met at a cafe. In addition to working as a reactor operator and on the decommissioning, he was heavily involved in the union. Since being laid off in 2020, he has been leading an energy consulting firm called Zodiac Solutions and has participated in both Levin’s task force and SCE’s Community Engagement Panel.

Howard grew up in Memphis, as the son of a Baptist preacher. After a stint in the Navy, he was hired at San Onofre in 1989. His experience as a Black man in the nuclear industry gave him a distinctive, nuanced perspective. It wasn’t always easy; the industry is overwhelmingly White. At work, as in the rest of his life, he explains, he was obliged to put himself “in a position where people aren’t afraid of me. I cross the street before you do because I don’t want you to accuse me of anything. I can’t get angry at work. The onus is on me to keep you from being fearful.”

Nonetheless, he appreciated the economic security his career gave him. He has lived a good life with his wife and two children in Oceanside, a beach community not far from San Onofre. In fact, he felt an unexpected affinity with his job. “Nuclear power, I kind of had a kinship with it,” he told me, “because I knew people were afraid of it, and I knew what that felt like.”

As for the spent fuel, he says he is not particularly concerned about the risks, at least in the near term. But he supports efforts to move it, and he believes hosting it could present significant opportunities for the right community. He’s skeptical, however, that the government will exhibit the “cultural competence” to engage these communities in a constructive way. “I’m not saying the people who are doing it are bad people. But I always tell people: It’s not your intent. What’s the impact of your work? Are you actually having real conversations, and the people who you’re talking to, do they trust you?”

Other area residents are focused less on moving the fuel and more on addressing what they see as deficiencies in the current storage system. They were alarmed by a “near miss” incident in August 2018 when a canister was improperly lowered into an enclosure and was briefly wedged there. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later reported that “the canister could have dropped 18 feet into the storage vault if the canister had slipped off the metal flange,” and it identified “multiple performance deficiencies.” SCE also did not notify the NRC Operations Center in a timely manner. In the aftermath, the utility instituted new training and procedures. But some community members have raised questions about the integrity of the canisters and the plans for addressing any problems that might arise.

Another reason some activists place less emphasis on moving the fuel is that they doubt it will happen in their lifetimes. “The idea of ‘just get it out of there’ is a convenient motto,” says Cathy Iwane, a yoga instructor and American activist who was living in Japan at the time of the Fukushima accident and now lives in Del Mar, another city in Southern California. (She serves as secretary of the Coalition for Nuclear Safety, an umbrella group of concerned organizations and individuals.) But Iwane and others are also wary of foisting their problem on a less affluent community. They believe that consolidated interim storage would inevitably drag on longer than promised. Iwane acknowledges that “some disenfranchised community will get infrastructure, equity and money,” but notes that “they will also be saddled with the nation’s radioactive waste.”


During the past decade, as the stalemate in the United States has continued, a handful of other countries have made progress in planning for the disposal of their nuclear waste. Finland is very close to opening the world’s first geological repository for spent fuel, and Sweden is not far behind, while Canada has narrowed its search to two possible host communities. They all followed the principles of consent-based siting: They invited communities that were potentially interested to engage in a dialogue, learn about the possibilities without making a commitment, and discuss their priorities and concerns.

According to Tom Isaacs, who is now an adviser to both SCE and Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the Canadians pay candidate communities to do “visioning exercises.” “They give them money to do the work to say, ‘Where would we like our community to go? How could this help us? What would we need in order for this facility to make our community better?’”

I spoke with Penny Lucas, the mayor of Ignace, Ontario, one of the two final candidate communities in Canada. She told me that the economy in Ignace had been based on mining — for gold, palladium and other metals — and forestry. But in recent decades, the mines have become less active, and the population has shrunk to about 1,300 people, roughly a fifth of whom are Indigenous and the rest White. She sees a nuclear waste repository — which would be about 22 miles away, in an uninhabited area — as an economic development opportunity. “There’s the possibility of getting our students, the younger generation, educated and ready for when the project does come here, then they’ll be able to apply for the jobs that would come along,” she says. Other workers would also presumably move to town, bringing ancillary benefits like new shops and restaurants.

Is she worried about safety? “Everybody hears the word ‘nuclear’ and they panic,” she responds. “Everything in life is a risk. We understand that. The forestry, the mining, all the things our community has been involved with already.” The question, she says, is “how you’re going to manage those risks.”

In the United States, we are nowhere near siting a permanent repository, but the Energy Department has begun working toward a program for interim storage facilities, with a budget of $20 million allocated for each of the past two fiscal years. In December, the department issued a request for informationon consent-based siting for such facilities, inviting any member of the public to submit comments on what such a process should look like. The Energy Department’s developing approach “centers equity and environmental justice” and “makes the needs of people and communities central,” Kim Petry, the agency’s acting deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel and waste disposition, said in a virtual meeting with SCE’s Community Engagement Panel in February. In terms of how they will define consent, Petry told me: “It will be based on what the communities want. One community might want a referendum. One might want their state legislatures to vote on it.” She promised “close collaboration with these communities.”

Although the government is not yet at the stage of negotiating with towns or cities, two corporate ventures have engaged in talks with communities in New Mexico and Texas about potentially hosting interim storage sites through private initiatives. That is, the initiatives would be for-profit enterprises led by the companies — Holtec and Orano — that manufactured the spent fuel canisters, although they would still need approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Hobbs, N.M., is one of these communities; the proposed site is 35 miles from the closest population center. The four co-owners of the land — Hobbs, neighboring Carlsbad, and their respective counties — entered into an agreement with Holtec. In exchange for the land, Hobbs would get jobs associated with the storage and royalties from Holtec’s gross revenue. (The majority of the town’s population, according to 2020 Census data, identifies as both Hispanic/Latino and White.) In terms of community consent, Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb told me there has been no formal mechanism to gauge it. According to Cobb, at public meetings, many more people have expressed support than opposition. In the state legislature, however, bills have been introduced to block the site from proceeding.

When I asked Cobb about the possibility of becoming a de facto permanent storage site, he replied with his own question: “If you had a situation where you felt something was inherently safe and you could get revenue for the next hundred years, would you take the deal?”


Marni Magda, the retired teacher, believes that the waste at San Onofre is stored as safely as possible. She even flew with other members of the Community Engagement Panel to a Holtec factory in Turtle Creek, Pa., in 2018 to learn about the canisters and considers them “top-of-the-line.” Still, her mind is not eased. “There are so many things we don’t have control of,” she told me.

Magda points out that for real progress to occur, the law needs to change so that Yucca Mountain is not the only permissible site for a permanent repository. Levin has not yet introduced legislation to change that, but he told me he plans to. One arguable reason for optimism is that an improved waste management strategy, unlike so many other causes, has bipartisan support. “Nuclear waste doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Levin says.

But the challenges are formidable. Isaacs, the veteran nuclear waste expert, told me that in other countries there are higher levels of trust in the government and in fellow citizens. “One of the reasons it works so well in Finland is that they have an ethic where they don’t believe their neighbors would do anything to harm them, or the environment.” Americans have a long history of distrust of the nuclear industry and, especially in recent years, have been increasingly suspicious of both the government and one another. Certain aspects of our political system — such as the power of states — pose additional hurdles.

Though Isaacs considers San Onofre’s storage “perfectly safe,” he does agree that the status quo — with the spent fuel languishing at sites scattered across the country, in communities that didn’t sign up to host it — is undesirable. “We know what we have to do. We know we have to do it,” he says. “We’re the ones who created the waste; we’re the ones who benefited. We need to not simply pass this off to future generations and say, ‘Look, this is your problem.’ ”

What Masks Signify

Posted on: June 5th, 2022 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

In the spring of 2020, when masks abruptly became a common sight in the United States, they introduced a new element into our social relations. They hampered our ability to communicate, muffling our voices and hiding our smiles. But they also gave us new criteria by which to form impressions of the people we saw at the park or in the grocery store. In addition to judging each other’s clothes, hair, smartphone habits, and so on, we could now also judge strangers based on how well they followed epidemiological guidance.

As the pandemic wore on, and masks became politicized, they sent increasingly specific signals. Faithfully wearing them became the badge of a pro-science progressive, while a bare face suggested the opposite. Masks with verbal messages on them—Black Lives Matter, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” the names of high schools and sports teams—allowed the lower halves of our faces to take on the role previously delegated to car bumpers. Then there was the rise of the anti-mask mask, with phrases such as “This is dumb” or “I only wear this so I won’t get fired.”

Contemplating these dynamics, I occasionally found myself wondering what Erving Goffman would have made of them. Goffman, one of the most celebrated sociologists of the 20th century, was famous for his rigorous analysis of social interactions, especially the ways in which we strive to both control the impressions we give others and to read the impressions they give us. In his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he reflected repeatedly on the masks that we all employ in face-to-face encounters. In social life, he wrote, we are all performers: “Behind many masks and many characters, each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look.” When the normal course of events is disrupted, people may get “an image of the man behind the mask.” Using the term metaphorically in the 1950s, he could not have known that 60-odd years later, Americans would be donning material face-coverings en masse. Now, our masks are literal andfigurative: physical accessories that also give social cues.

As I read more of Goffman, I came across other passages that made me stop short, with their uncanny mix of the strange and the familiar. American society of the 1950s had more formal rules and clearer hierarchies, and it was far more homogenous. Social interactions occurred at soda fountains and sock hops, not on Snapchat or TikTok. But Goffman was a scholar of the stagecraft of social life, as well as its stigmas and status anxieties, all of which are decidedly still with us.

Returning to Goffman’s work today reveals both what has changed and what has not—or, more precisely, how the same impulses he identified play out in a United States defined by new technologies, dramatic cultural shifts, and now, the behavior adjustments induced by a global pandemic. Looking back at Goffman’s life can also shed light on some of these changes. He came from humble origins and succeeded in climbing the American social ladder, but he would, in certain respects, be starkly out of place in present-day society. At this moment, when the rules about masks—and about so much else in public life—are in flux, it’s an opportune time to glimpse the world through Goffman’s eyes.


Goffman was born in 1922 to Russian-Jewish émigrés, in a rural area of Western Canada where anti-Semitism was the norm. When he missed school for the High Holidays, he made up excuses for his absences rather than admit his religious background. Adding to his social challenges was his short stature—as an adult, he was just a couple of inches over five feet tall. These characteristics seem to have made him acutely sensitive to the gradations of social hierarchies. As one friend recalled, “Being a short Jew in worlds dominated by tall ‘goyim’—he was pissed off and this shaded all of his perceptions and analysis.”

Not that those disadvantages seem to have held him back. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, where he became a top student, and he was known as “quite a Romeo,” according to one account. He eventually married a fellow student named Angelica Schuyler Choate, whose father was the wealthy founder of the Choate prep school, thus marrying into the WASP elite. Goffman’s side of the family was evidently not invited to the wedding. (There is no full biography of Goffman, but I am drawing on UNLV sociologist Dmitri N. Shalin’s 2013 article “Interfacing Biography, Theory and History: The Case of Erving Goffman.” That paper in turn drew on the Erving Goffman Archives, which includes remembrances by his family, colleagues, and friends.)

As a professor at Berkeley and then at the University of Pennsylvania, Goffman published a series of influential books analyzing how people conduct themselves in the public sphere. “The issues dealt with by stagecraft and stage management are sometimes trivial but they are quite general; they seem to occur everywhere in social life,” Goffman wrote in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Performances could be deceptive—Goffman was fascinated by con men—but they weren’t necessarily so. At the benign end of the spectrum, a performance might essentially be a matter of ensuring that the way we present ourselves aligns with who we think we are. Goffman quoted another sociologist, Robert Ezra Park, arguing that our chosen masks can represent “our truer self, the self we would like to be.” Indeed, Goffman went so far as to suggest that our masks are what distinguish us from other species; they make us human.

Social life, then, is a sort of game: in navigating an arcane set of rules, we try to set forth images of ourselves and to decode the images presented to us. While this idea now sounds fairly commonplace, Goffman was one of the first sociologists to dissect the specifics of this game. His writing could be dry and academic, but he had a gift for capturing concepts in pithy phrases. He coined the term impression management to describe our constant (if not always conscious) efforts to influence how we are perceived. These efforts, however, are limited by the constraints of observable realities and our place in the social hierarchy. Goffman, for instance, might have sometimes been able to pretend he wasn’t Jewish, but when he entered a room, it was not possible to pretend to be tall.

Goffman also explored how people behave differently in different contexts. In the public-facing “front region,” he observed, people follow the formal rules appropriate to the setting. A restaurant’s dining room, for example, is the front region, where the tables are immaculate, and servers and busboys are deferential. In the “back region” or “backstage,” either alone or with others on the same “team,” Goffman wrote, “the performer can relax, he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character.” The restaurant’s kitchen is the backstage where workers discard their solicitous demeanor, make fun of the customers, and shoo away pests.

In 1963, Goffman published a slim book that focused specifically on those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, he analyzed the “situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance” in the mainstream of society. His summary of the characteristics that give rise to stigma is worth quoting at length:

First there are abominations of the body—the various physical deformities. Next there are blemishes of individual character perceived as a weak will, domineering or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and dishonesty, these being inferred from a known record of, for example, mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts, and radical political behavior. Finally there are the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion, these being stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family.

Goffman was himself intimately acquainted with stigma, Shalin, the UNLV sociologist, notes. Not only did he encounter anti-Semitism, but his wife also suffered from mental illness; the year after the book was published, she killed herself.

In a personal sense, Goffman was an enigma. He was extremely private, never wrote autobiographically, and ordered his papers to be sealed. The testimony collected in the Erving Goffman Archives, however, paints a portrait of a man who was capable of kindness but who could also be callous and cold.

His curiosity about the rules of social life outweighed his desire to adhere to them. He had a penchant for conducting micro-experiments on people he came across in everyday life. Once, a new graduate student at Berkeley showed up unannounced in Goffman’s office, introduced himself, and stuck out his hand. In the words of another student who was in the room, Goffman stood up and regarded the hand. “Goffman just let him stand there with his hand out. Then very softly he said, ‘I am busy Mr. Jones.’ When the man left, Goffman said to me, ‘He doesn’t understand, we are students of those kinds of things.’”


Goffman’s interests were wide-ranging—his subjects also included mental institutions and gambling—and it would be intriguing to see how his observations hold up in many domains today. But it is particularly tempting to invoke Goffman in reference to the Internet, since that is where so much of our self-presentation now takes place. (The sociologist David H.P. Shulman applies Goffman’s work to today’s world in his 2016 book The Presentation of Self in Contemporary Social Life, and the cultural critic Jia Tolentino cites Goffman in her analysis of the Internet in her 2019 book Trick Mirror.)

Not only do many of Goffman’s insights still apply; they seem prescient, because online, impression management feels that much more explicit and unrelenting. You can, as is well known, curate the life you present on Facebook, displaying an existence made up exclusively of vacations and promotions, sunsets and parties, leaving out the rejections and the nights spent alone eating Cheetos. On Instagram, you can filter your selfies, generating images that may bear only a passing resemblance to your actual face.

People have always selected what kind of information about themselves to volunteer; they have always taken artificial measures to look good. But physical, face-to-face presence provides all sorts of additional cues that are unavailable on our screens. Goffman distinguished between the impressions that people intentionally give and those they involuntarily give off. For instance, he wrote of one housewife, who, in serving dishes to a guest,

Would listen with a polite smile to his polite claims of liking what he was eating; at the same time she would take note of the rapidity with which the visitor lifted his fork or spoon to his mouth, the eagerness with which he passed food into his mouth, and the gusto expressed in chewing the food, using these signs as a check on the stated feelings of the eater.

In the realm of the Internet, though, we have far less context; it’s hard to fact-check the “likes.”

At the same time, as Shulman notes, we have seen another trend that seems at first glance contradictory: a blurring between the front region and the backstage. The examples are so endless that it’s hard to know where to start. Celebrities and ordinary people disclose details about their lives, ranging from childhood abuse to digestive issues, that most Americans would at one time have taken pains to hide. In the workplace, disputes that previously would have occurred behind closed doors now take place on Twitter, as colleagues call out each other and employees call out their bosses. YouTube videos show us the literal backstage of Broadway shows. Sometimes, in truth, Facebook users do post about their rejections and their nights at home eating Cheetos; Instagram users post photos of their zits and unruly body hair. In many cases, people are striving to be as authentic as possible, and this can be healthy and liberating, but of course the authenticity is part of a performance.

This blurring—which overlaps with the blurring between public and private—is not entirely new. Goffman himself indicated that there was always leakage between the front regions and the backstage. But the leakage, in recent decades, has become a deluge. The contributing factors have been myriad: confessions on Oprah and Jerry Springer; Internet forums that enabled people to find others with the same sexual fetish or skin condition, thereby alleviating their shame; the advent of cell phones, which allowed our private conversations to spill out into streets and cafés. In countless ways, for better and for worse, we began to bring our private lives out into the public sphere and allow the public access to our private spheres.

In an aside in Presentation of Self, Goffman noted that the risk of leakage from the backstage to the front region was particularly pronounced in the realm of radio and television broadcasting. Here, the backstage was “defined as all places where the camera is not focused at the moment or all places out of range of ‘live’ microphones.” Inevitably, there were mishaps when people did not realize they were on the air. “For technical reasons, then, the walls that broadcasters have to hide behind can be very treacherous, tending to fall at the flick of a switch or a turn of the camera.”

We are all broadcasters now. Often, we voluntarily share video of ourselves, but also, in a world where security cameras are ubiquitous and nearly everyone post-puberty has a smartphone, we never know if we are on camera or near a hot mic. These days, it is hard to be confident that anything will remain backstage. During the pandemic, with many people working from home via Zoom, the line between onstage and backstage eroded even further, as evidenced by Room Rater (a Twitter account that evaluates the home décor of public figures) and the experience of Jeffrey Toobin.

It’s hard to imagine Goffman in the 21st century. He did not allow his lectures to be tape-recorded or, with rare exceptions, his photo to be taken—rules he’d have trouble enforcing today. And some of his insensitive behavior would no doubt invite castigation on social media.

And yet, he’d presumably be pleased by the decline in the casual anti-Semitism that was once so widespread. He’d be struck that, in general, the stigmas he identified have been aggressively challenged. The ascendant ethos holds that instead of stigmatizing physical disabilities, mental illness, and homosexuality, instead of the “tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion,” we should stigmatize discrimination based on those characteristics: people who use racial slurs, not their victims, should be “disqualified from full social acceptance”; the baker who refuses to serve a gay couple, not the couple themselves, deserves a “spoiled identity.”

The new ethos comes with its own ethical pitfalls. A spoiled identity is a severe penalty, and as recent public discourse has already exhaustively covered, there is a fine line between holding people accountable and treating them in an overly punitive and arbitrary way. But in principle, it certainly seems like progress to stigmatize bigotry rather than stigmatizing what we can’t control. Consistent with this new ethos, we have not stigmatized those who contract Covid-19 through no fault of their own, as other societies might have, but some of us do shame those who neglect to take sufficient precautions—which brings us back to masks.


If the pandemic has been an accidental sociological experiment, the results seem to support Goffman’s hypotheses. Even when people were not socializing, many were still focused intently on self-presentation—posting photos of freshly baked sourdough bread or of tidy closets they finally had time to clean. The virus gave us new behaviors to laud as socially valuable—physical distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing, and more recently, getting vaccinated. By the same token, it gave us new grounds for stigma: the refusal to do any of the above.

From Goffman’s time to ours, what is constant is that people perform and judge one another; what changes is the nature of how we wish to present ourselves, what we deem worthy of sharing and in need of hiding, what we consider good reasons for shunning. All of this varies not only across time, but also across places and even cultures that coexist within a place. In a country as racially and politically diverse as ours, different stigmas collide and conflict. Indeed, even as masks were held up as a sign of good citizenship, some Americans were harassed for wearing them—blamed for the virus or suspected of being criminals—based on racial stereotypes.

Now, at this uncertain stage of the pandemic, the semiotics of masks are evolving and ambiguous. There was a window this spring and summer when it seemed that our masks would imminently become artifacts, reminders of an aberrant year. Clinging to them even seemed to take on a new meaning: ideological stubbornness. But with the rise of the Delta variant, wearing them may again indicate simple prudence.

With all the changing circumstances, the changing instructions, and the sheer fatigue, it’s hard to know when, where, and whether to wear masks, and how to interpret the choices of others. But outdoors, at least, in many parts of the country, the consensus seems to be that we’re relatively safe, and most people have determined that a naked face is again both medically and socially acceptable.

Goffman often used the word face, like the word mask, in a figurative sense, as in the common expression of “losing face.” But just as we’ve been compelled to wear literal masks, we might consider the preciousness of literal faces. We might marvel at the way the subtlest differences in the angle of an eyebrow—or the curve of a lip, the flare of a nostril, the set of a jaw—can convey utterly distinct emotions.

There’s something touching about the limited control we have over our faces, both their features and expressions. Sure, we can rub in creams, apply lipstick, remove or grow facial hair, inject chemicals, even undergo surgery. And we can arrange our mouths into a sympathetic frown or a polite smile. But in the end, our faces “give off” impressions, as Goffman would have put it, despite our intentions. Even when we leave behind our face-coverings, we are still wearing masks, as Goffman would be quick to remind us. But those masks are hardly perfect or impenetrable.


Unsentimental Education

Posted on: June 5th, 2022 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

The defendant was a gray-haired grandmother. In the courtroom in downtown Brooklyn, she sat silently as the prosecutor, James E. Wilkinson, read aloud a document she had written—a document that, according to the indictment, was “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy, vile and indecent.” Addressing the 12 men in the jury box, Wilkinson read it in a low monotone, except for the parts that seemed to offend him most; for these, his voice rose to a louder and more dramatic register.

The document at issue was a pamphlet called The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People. Mary Ware Dennett had written it 14 years earlier, and now, on April 23, 1929, she was on trial for having sent it through the U.S. mail.

Dennett, 57, was likely aware of the irony in this situation. Before the trial, she had been best known as Margaret Sanger’s more conservative rival for leadership of the birth control movement. Sanger had deliberately violated the federal and state laws that suppressed the dissemination of information about contraceptives, and she had served time in prison as a result. Dennett, by contrast, believed that laws should be respected, and she complied with them even as she worked to change them. Her sex education pamphlet said nothing about how to obtain or use contraception. And yet here she was, forced to come from her home in Astoria, Queens, and spend a lovely spring day inside a courtroom.

When Dennett took the stand, she explained the circumstances under which she had written the pamphlet. “When my children reached the age when they needed something beside what had been taught to them by their parents, I hunted for something to give them to read,” she began. She recounted that she had consulted some 60 existing publications but had found none of them satisfactory, so she had taken it upon herself to write one. She went on, “The manuscript of this little explanation was loaned incidentally to my friends who have children, to parents and to young people themselves. It was loaned till it was tattered.” Later, she had published it in pamphlet form and mailed copies, upon request, to individuals and organizations throughout the country.

In his closing argument, Wilkinson leaned over the rail of the jury box, waving the crumpled blue pamphlet in the faces of the jurors. He denounced it as “pure and simple smut” and accused the woman who wrote it of trying to lead the country’s children “not only into the gutter, but below the gutter into the sewer.”

Dennett was appalled by the absurdity—she’d been charged with a felony for attempting to educate children. But there was another aspect to this story that would become apparent only with time. For years, she had worked diligently on behalf of birth control and against censorship. As she sat in court that day, she had no way of knowing that this case would do far more to advance those causes than all the leaflets she had written, all the petitions she’d circulated, all those meetings with congressmen. The repercussions of United States v. Dennett, in the end, would extend to the legal status of imported Japanese contraceptive devices and the fate of a modernist literary masterpiece—and far beyond.


Mary Coffin Ware was a child of Protestant New England. Born in 1872, she grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then Boston. Her extended family was on the periphery of the New England elite. Her great-uncle, Charles Carleton Coffin, had been a celebrated Civil War correspondent, and he once introduced her to Louisa May Alcott. She was also related by marriage to William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

In 1900, Mary married an architect named William Hartley Dennett, but nine years later, the marriage fell apart. Hartley had become emotionally involved with another woman, and though they were apparently not sexually intimate, they insisted on their right to a “spiritual” love. Mary sued for custody of the couple’s two surviving sons (one had died in infancy) and found herself in the middle of her first high-profile courtroom drama. The local media couldn’t get enough of the spectacle. “ ‘SOUL LOVE’ DEFENCE OF HARTLEY DENNETT FAILS TO MOVE JUDGE,” blared The Boston Record. Mary won custody, but the public humiliation intensified the pain of her husband’s betrayal.

As a single mother, she needed money, and she wanted to plunge into a new life. Her old life had revolved around her family and her love of art and design. She had also been involved in various reform movements, including the campaign for women’s suffrage. With her sons temporarily in the care of her sister and soon to be in boarding school, she relocated from rural Massachusetts to New York City, took a job with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and moved into a cramped fourth-floor walkup on West 55th Street. She was 38 years old.

In New York, her horizons expanded. She read Freud and Havelock Ellis. She joined a lively feminist group called Heterodoxy, which met regularly at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. She threw herself into her job, mediating between internal factions and churning out articles and leaflets. Over the years, she became known as a superb organizer. But she also took issue with certain decisions made by her fellow suffragists. “The suffrage movement stands for enfranchising every single woman in the United States,” she wrote indignantly to Alice Paul, who had declined to invite African-American women to a suffragist parade. In 1914, her disenchantment with the organization’s political caution, among other frustrations, led her to resign.

The country and the world were as unsettled as Dennett’s personal life. In the United States, labor disputes and unrest were frequent. In April 1914, the Colorado National Guard opened fire on striking coal miners and their families; dozens died in the massacre and ensuing riots. Social and sexual mores were shifting in the young century—especially in the bohemian circles of Manhattan, where political radicalism was also common. And then, in July 1914, war broke out in Europe. Dennett, dismayed, joined the Woman’s Peace Party, a new antiwar organization.

Amid all this, another issue increasingly captured Dennett’s attention. At one Heterodoxy meeting, a petite woman in her mid-30s named Margaret Sanger spoke about what she called “birth control,” arguing that all women needed access to it in order to control their bodies and their lives. When working as a nurse, Sanger had seen the ravages of unwanted pregnancies and the tragedy of unwanted children among the poor; she was also a radical socialist. In 1914, she assembled the first issue of The Woman Rebel, an eight-page “monthly paper of militant thought.” Without the power to determine how many children they would have, Sanger argued, working-class women were not only subject to the pain and risks of unceasing pregnancies but also forced to supply an overabundance of cheap labor to the capitalist system, keeping wages down. “No plagues, famines or wars could ever frighten the capitalist class so much as the universal practice of the prevention of conception,” she wrote.

At the time, the status of contraception was somewhat muddled. The existing methods were fairly rudimentary—condoms, pessaries (now more commonly called diaphragms), douches, sponges—and not particularly accessible. The Comstock Act (named for anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock, a crusader on behalf of Victorian moral attitudes) prohibited sending articles of contraception, as well as any information about them, through the mail, thereby severely restricting their circulation. This federal law, passed in 1873, primarily targeted erotic literature, lithographs, and other “smut” that had begun circulating widely in the mid-19th century, but the statute lumped contraception in with those materials. A couple of dozen states also had “mini-Comstock laws,” imposing their own restrictions. As a result, it was especially hard for the poor to find much-needed information. Perhaps equally to blame was the inhibited social environment: to discuss birth control or to advocate for it was taboo—something Sanger was trying to change.

Dennett was impressed by Sanger and invited her over for lunch to discuss the matter. Part of Dennett’s interest was personal. “I was utterly ignorant of the control of conception, as was my husband also,” she confided in a letter to a friend (demonstrating that even among the relatively affluent, knowledge at the time could be elusive). “We had never had anything like normal relations, having approximated almost complete abstinence in the endeavor to space our babies.” She might have wondered whether, had they had access to effective birth control, the marriage would have survived.

In August 1914, the federal government indicted Sanger for sending The Woman Rebel through the mail. In October, she skipped her court date, took a train to Montreal, and then sailed to England in early November. But before fleeing, she published Family Limitation, a 16-page pamphlet with even more explicit information on contraception. While she was abroad, one of Anthony Comstock’s agents paid a visit to her husband, William, an artist and architect, at his studio on East 15th Street. The agent claimed to be a friend of Margaret’s and requested a copy of Family Limitation. After rifling around in some of his wife’s belongings, William found a copy of the pamphlet and handed it over. Comstock himself later returned to arrest him.

Although the incident sparked outrage among Dennett’s circle in New York, she was initially hesitant to get involved, wanting to avoid press attention after the scars of her divorce. But her hesitation didn’t last. By March 1915, she had organized, with two friends, the inaugural meeting of the National Birth Control League, the first organization of its kind in the country. At the meeting, she made the case for birth control partly on the basis of the growing realization that sex could have purposes—emotional, psychological, even moral—other than producing children. She noted that “this evolved use of the sex function seems to be peculiar to the human race—an evidence of its higher development and actual progress.”

These were messages she wanted to convey not only to the general public but specifically to her sons, Carleton and Devon, who were 14 and 10 years old.


When Mary was a girl, she once caught a glimpse of one of her great-aunts taking a sponge bath, fully clothed in a long-sleeved, high-necked, white cotton nightgown. Mary looked on with “fascinated apprehension” as the aunt undertook the labored process of bathing, unaware of the little girl’s gaze. Her cotton nightie flapped around as her elbows and knees contorted into odd angles. “I wondered what in the world there could be under the nightie that had to be so zealously guarded from even her own sight,” Mary would later write. “I dared not ask her why she bathed that way, but without any words at all she made me feel that I should be a very shocking and reprehensible little girl if I did not take my own bath in the same manner.”

This moment, and several others like it, stuck with her. As a bright and precocious child, she thrived in the vital intellectual and cultural world of her native New England. Yet those New England families that “produced notable citizens of high intellectual attainment, admirable civic conscience, and many recognized virtues and abilities” were also “shot through with this serious disability of a sense of fear and shame regarding sex. … They had no realization that it was like a hidden infection spreading trouble through their own lives and tainting the lives of their children.”

She was determined to raise her sons differently. So in 1915, around the time that she was cofounding the National Birth Control League—when her search for a sex education publication that met her standards proved fruitless—she set out to create her own.

For weeks, she spent her spare time at the library of the New York Academy of Medicine, on West 44th Street, poring over anatomy and physiology books. She drew her own simple diagrams and carefully labeled them. But though it was crucial to her to be scientifically accurate, what really distinguished her letter was its tone—candid, reassuring, never condescending—and its focus on both the physical and emotional dimensions of sex.

“When boys and girls get into their ‘teens,’ ” she began, “a side of them begins to wake up which has been asleep or only partly developed ever since they were born, that is, the sex side of them.” She went on, “If you feel very curious and excited and shy about it, don’t let yourself be a bit worried or ashamed. … Remember that strong feelings are immensely valuable to us. All we need to do is to steer them in the right direction and keep them well-balanced and well-proportioned.”

As she had done at the first meeting of the National Birth Control League, she drew a distinction between human and animal sexuality: “The sex attraction is the strongest feeling that human beings know, and unlike the animals, it is far more than a mere sensation of the body. It takes in the emotions and the mind and the soul, and that is why our happiness is so dependent upon it.”

The manuscript explained intercourse, conception, pregnancy, and menstruation, all in clear and simple language. Dennett also discussed syphilis and gonorrhea, two scourges of the era, and noted that treatment was increasingly effective. Many other materials at the time focused extensively on these diseases, with the aim of discouraging premarital sex. But rather than emphasize the dangers of sex, Dennett firmly emphasized the joys. She included a brief section on masturbation, which had long been seen as a terrible hazard and was a source of widespread and intense shame. Dennett wrote, “There is no occasion for worry unless the habit is carried to excess.”

She also got in a dig at the Comstock law’s section on contraception but stayed clearly within its bounds, predicting that, in the future,

people will more generally understand how to have babies only when they want them and can afford them. At present, unfortunately, it is against the law to give people information as to how to manage their sex relations so that no baby will be created unless the father and mother are ready and glad to have it happen.

The impression she really wanted to leave was that sex was healthy and good—not obscene. “Don’t ever let any one drag you into nasty talk or thought about sex,” she wrote. “It is not a nasty subject.”


On a chilly November evening in 1921, Margaret Sanger arrived at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. The occasion was the concluding event of a conference intended to launch her new organization, the American Birth Control League. The title of that night’s talk was “Birth Control: Is It Moral?”

The Town Hall, a stately brick building with a large auditorium, had been erected earlier that year by the League for Political Education, a suffragist group. Tasteful chandeliers hung from the high ceilings; 1,500 seats filled the ground floor and a balcony. That Sunday evening, the doors had opened at seven p.m., and hundreds of people had poured in. Sanger was still outside, along with Harold Cox, a former member of the British Parliament who was also scheduled to speak, and hundreds of others waiting to be admitted. Limousines were lined up on 43rd Street.

At about 8:00, however, the police arrived, announcing that the meeting was canceled and closing the doors. The people inside could not get out. But outside, the size of the crowd only grew.

At about 8:30, Captain Thomas Donahue announced that the doors would be opened to allow those inside to leave. Instead, the assembled throng was able to bypass the police, sweep Sanger and Cox inside, and lift Sanger onto the stage. Shouts of “Defy them! Defy them!” came from throughout the hall. “Go on with the meeting,” someone called. When Sanger attempted to speak, two officers walked up to her on the stage and grabbed her arms. “You can’t speak here,” one of them said. “They don’t dare arrest you,” a woman cried. “Where’s the warrant? What is the charge?” Dozens of audience members, including Sanger’s close friend and colleague Juliet Barrett Rublee, jumped up onto the stage to try to stop the arrest.

As the audience erupted into “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” the policemen led Sanger away, taking her up Eighth Avenue to the police station on 47th Street. A large crowd followed.

Dennett was not in the audience that night. She was sick at home, and besides, she and Sanger were not on good terms. After Sanger’s return from Europe in 1915, she and Dennett had collaborated on occasion; they were both involved in launching the Birth Control Review, a monthly publication. But over time, the conflicts between them grew increasingly pronounced. When Dennett learned of Sanger’s intention to found the American Birth Control League, she argued that it would be more efficient and effective to consolidate efforts instead of having rival organizations. But Sanger repeatedly rebuffed her.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Dennett had hosted Marie Stopes, the British author of the controversial book Married Love, for a talk about birth control, also at the Town Hall. The tension between Dennett and Sanger had come to a head when Sanger tried to dissuade Stopes from associating with her rival. “I personally consider Mrs. D– outside the pale of honesty & decency,” Sanger wrote—a message that Stopes then relayed to Dennett.

Still, when she heard about the hubbub at the Town Hall that Sunday night, Dennett felt compelled to defend Sanger, even though she was feeling ill. After all, her own meeting on the same subject had been allowed to proceed in peace, and Sanger, she knew, deserved the same right to free speech. At the police station, she looked for the officer in charge, but he was nowhere to be found. So she decided to speak with the press instead, navigating through the crowd gathered outside. She waited until Sanger had finished her account, and started to add her own contribution. According to Dennett, that’s when Rublee, who was standing in front of her, turned and jabbed Dennett with her arm, forcefully enough that, Dennett later recounted, she would have fallen if not for the density of the throng. “This is our affair, we don’t want you in it,” Rublee told her.

The incident encapsulated a lot about the relationship between Sanger and Dennett, the former charismatic and media savvy, the latter principled almost to the point of absurdity. Certainly, the acrimony between them was partly personal. Sanger could be tremendously loyal to and supportive of her friends, but she felt she deserved to be the undisputed leader of the movement, and she could brook no threats to her primacy. Yet there were also genuine differences of opinion over tactics, goals, and the direction of the movement—and they reflected evolutions in both women’s thinking over time.

Although Sanger had started out as a radical, she gradually brought her movement firmly into the mainstream, establishing organizational infrastructure and recruiting influential “club women.” In the same vein, she sought to establish alliances with the medical community. Starting in 1924, the American Birth Control League promoted what was known as a “doctors only” bill, which would amend the Comstock law to permit physicians, but no one else, to mail contraceptive devices and information. Sanger believed that this would help guarantee that women had access to quality birth control—that is, it would be a defense against quacks and charlatans. As she wrote in the Birth Control Review, if just anyone were able to send such information through the mail, the “result would be, that while women were debarred from real scientific knowledge of the subject, they might through the mails receive information entirely unsuited to their needs.” She also thought that having the medical community on board was key to public acceptance and political progress.

Dennett, however, deplored the idea of a doctors-only bill. Her organization—by this time reincarnated as the Voluntary Parenthood League—advocated for a “clean repeal,” which would simply strike the text related to contraception from the Comstock law. This was much more in line with Dennett’s values: she believed in the free circulation of information and education as the antidote to ignorance and misinformation. She also worried that the exception for doctors would leave in place the impediments for many poorer women to receiving the information they needed:

[It] would create a complete medical monopoly of the dispensing of the information; would give doctors an economic privilege denied to anyone else; would treat this one phase of science as no other is treated, that is, make it inaccessible to the public, except as doled out via a doctor’s prescription, as if the need for the knowledge were a disease.

She also felt strongly that it was important to sever any link—in the law and in the public mind—between birth control and obscenity. By leaving that part of the Comstock law intact, the doctors-only bill would do nothing to eliminate that association. Though Sanger was known for her earlier fiery language and brazen lawbreaking, by this point, in some ways at least, Dennett had become the more radical figure.

Dennett and Sanger also differed in the arguments they made on behalf of birth control. Sanger saw it as all but a panacea—not only the key to sexual and feminist liberation but also a cure for everything from poverty to overpopulation to war. Dennett was both more principled in her reasoning on behalf of birth control and more intellectually rigorous. At the same time, her reasoning was simpler. She believed that couples should be able to separate their sexual lives from their reproductive lives, and she believed that all people should be able to decide on their own how many children to have.

In August 1924, Dennett submitted a 3,600-word essay titled “Birth Control, War and Population” to The Century, a prestigious general-interest magazine for which she had written in the past. “So far as I know,” she typed in her cover letter, “nothing has yet appeared in any of the major magazines to counteract the cheap and easy current fallacies as to birth-control.” In the essay, she wrote, “There are current[ly] many sweeping claims for birth control as a preventive of war, and there is much talk about ‘overpopulation’ as an existing or threatened danger that can be mitigated only by birth control.” Asserting her strong support for birth control, she asked, “Is it wise for enthusiasts in the birth control movement to let their zeal lead them into making greater claims than facts can warrant?” She referred to an idea that was gaining traction—that countries should “limit their populations to their own resources.” The idea, she wrote, seemed to be that governments would mandate birth control. “The mental picture which the idea creates is one of appalling paternalism, as well as a shockingly unthinkable intrusion upon private life.”

She went on to note “two scares” prominent in the birth control movement: the first one, which, she said, was promoted by Sanger and her allies, was “that the world is sure to run short of food sometime, and certain countries are scheduled to run short very soon, which will cause war.” The second, promoted not by Sanger but by others, was “that the more prolific, undeveloped, unfit and dark-skinned peoples are sure to overwhelm the less prolific, highly civilized, more fit white skinned peoples.” Dennett objected to both arguments. She contended that, given access to contraception, along with education and economic opportunity, parents would opt to use birth control “for the welfare of their own families. … Education and economic opportunity are well worth worrying about in every country, but ‘overpopulation’ is not.”

When the editor of The Century passed, Dennett sent the manuscript to other prominent newspapers and magazines of the day, from The New Republic to The Saturday Evening Post. All of them turned it down. Most did not give reasons, but an exception was an editor at The Nation who wrote, “The fact is, I think it hardly worth while, whether they are right or wrong, to attack quite so violently your opponents, who want, after all, just about what you want.” After receiving more than a dozen rejections, Dennett filed the essay away.


By 1929, the year she was indicted, Dennett’s hard work on behalf of birth control had apparently been in vain. She and Sanger had not been able to unite behind a federal bill, and although Sanger had made headway on other fronts, neither of their preferred bills ever passed. But perhaps it was some consolation that the “little explanation” Dennett had written for her sons and then published as a pamphlet was widely considered to be among the best sex education materials available at the time. Churches, schools, and the YMCA distributed thousands of pamphlets all over the United States. She also fulfilled individual orders. For 25 cents apiece, she would send a copy through the mail; for bulk orders, she charged 15 cents per pamphlet.

The indictment, which Dennett found among a pile of New Year’s greetings in early January 1929, was not completely unexpected. The post office had notified her years earlier that it had deemed the pamphlet “unmailable” under the Comstock law. She had repeatedly requested an explanation, or at least a specification of which parts of the pamphlet were considered obscene, but to no avail. So she had continued to send it. Although she didn’t like to break laws, she refused to comply with capricious, unreasonable demands; she suspected she had been targeted because of her work to change the Comstock law. As she later wrote,

Obscenity differs from all other ‘crimes’ in that it is not legally defined. It is whatever any legally empowered officials choose to think it may be. … As I knew that this pamphlet did not reflect any obscene thoughts from my own mind, but could be deemed obscene only because of what was read into it by minds in which sex dirt had previously lodged, I of course would not allow the Post Office decision to affect my actions.

Dennett had even contacted lawyers at the recently founded American Civil Liberties Union to discuss a challenge to the post office’s ruling in court, as a kind of test case. But the post office moved first, and she was indicted. One of the ACLU lawyers she had been in touch with, Morris Ernst, immediately agreed to represent her free of charge.

In the courtroom that April day, the 12 men of the jury (New York State did not allow women to serve at the time) deliberated for about 45 minutes before filing back into the jury box at 5:30 p.m. The foreman partially rose from his seat, holding his overcoat and hat in his lap, and said in a muffled voice, “We find the defendant guilty.”

Dennett was sentenced to a fine of $300, which she promptly refused to pay. Ernst announced that they would appeal the verdict. Newspapers throughout the country came to Dennett’s defense. A New York Times editorial lamented that the decision “shows once more in what a confused and unsatisfactory condition is the law covering such cases.” In The San Francisco News, an editorial stated: “This miscarriage of justice has aroused citizens everywhere to the menace of an archaic and unscientific attitude toward sex education. … We do not believe that the enlightened American public will stand for such suppression.” Dennett was inundated with letters of support. A group of prominent citizens formed the Mary Ware Dennett Defense Committee, with the philosopher and reformer John Dewey serving as chairman. The committee held a meeting at the Town Hall, attended by about 1,500 people.

In 1930, a three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in Dennett’s favor. In his decision, Judge Augustus Hand wrote, “The defendant’s discussion of the phenomena of sex is written with sincerity of feeling and with an idealization of the marriage relation and sex emotions. … We hold that an accurate exposition of the relevant facts of the sex side of life in decent language and in manifestly serious and disinterested spirit cannot ordinarily be regarded as obscene.” The decision was widely celebrated, and the government elected not to appeal.

For Morris Ernst, the case was one of the first in a long and illustrious series of successes in his battle against censorship. Ernst was a complicated figure who allegedly worked as an informant for the FBI, but his record in court was impressive. In 1931, he defended the book Married Love, by Dennett’s close friend Marie Stopes. He argued that Stopes’s book was essentially doing for adults what Dennett’s pamphlet had done for adolescents, and the judge agreed. Ernst then successfully defended Stopes’s book Contraception, which broadened permissible content to include information on birth control, not just sexuality—another milestone.

But Ernst not only had his eye on the dissemination of information, he also wanted to fight on behalf of literature. In the early 1930s, he took on the case of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been banned from importation because of its treatment of sexuality and its inclusion of language deemed crass. He won, in a historic victory for literary expression. He also defended Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, about life as a lesbian, and other books now forgotten. Then, returning to contraception, he won the landmark 1936 case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, with Sanger’s colleague Hannah Stone as his client. This case overturned the prohibition against importing contraceptive devices into the country and then went further, permitting physicians to freely prescribe birth control.

As Laura Weinrib, a professor at Harvard Law School, has written, United States v. Dennett, though “often overlooked in histories of free speech,” was in fact seminal. “Dennett’s heavily publicized conviction, overturned by the Second Circuit on appeal, generated popular hostility toward the censorship laws,” Weinrib wrote. “In the months after the Second Circuit’s decision, the ACLU took advantage of the popularity of the Dennett case to re-evaluate and expand its position on censorship.” The case, she argues, was “a landmark event in the history of civil liberties. … The very fact of winning in United States v. Dennett made a broader agenda seem possible.”


In the years after her trial, Dennett published a book about the experience (called Who’s Obscene? ) and then a short volume, The Sex Education of Children, expanding on the philosophy embodied in her pamphlet. The pamphlet’s new fame led to a surge in demand, which Dennett scrambled to meet. She still didn’t care for publicity, however. She turned down public speaking invitations, preferring to spend her time reviving an earlier passion: a form of leatherwork craft she had mastered in her youth.

Since her death in 1947, Dennett has been largely lost in the shadows of her more glamorous nemesis, Margaret Sanger, who has been rightly remembered as an icon of women’s rights. But in recent years, Sanger’s star has dimmed because of her connection to the eugenics movement. In Sanger’s time, eugenics was mainstream—even considered progressive—and had various meanings; for her, it was not race related, but she did believe that those with hereditary disabilities should not reproduce, and her statements about the “mentally and physically defective” are now painful to read. For years, she has been accused of a racist agenda by opponents of Planned Parenthood, the present-day successor organization to the American Birth Control League. More recently, amid self-reflection on the left, Sanger’s own heirs have also grown increasingly critical. In July 2020, the Greater New York chapter of Planned Parenthood decided to remove Sanger’s name from its Manhattan clinic, because of her “harmful connections to the eugenics movement.”

Challenges in appraising historical figures are obviously not unique to Sanger. The most vexing cases are the leaders and pioneers to whom we are indebted but who held views we now find misguided or even repugnant. If the Planned Parenthood chapter determined that its links with Sanger no longer served its mission, dropping her name was of course its prerogative. But perhaps the rest of us ought to be capable of honoring her monumental achievements even as we recognize her significant flaws. To value contributions from people in the past—or in the present, for that matter—is not to condone their every action and belief.

It would be tempting to hold Dennett up as a pure, unsung heroine, but she is not entirely exempt from association with the now-disgraced ideology, either: when lobbying Congress, she solicited endorsements from the Eugenics Advisory Council for her preferred bill. Still, for the most part, her views have aged quite well. Though it’s hard to say in retrospect who had the better argument on tactical grounds regarding the clean repeal versus doctors-only bill, on principle Dennett’s more democratic stance has undeniable appeal. In March 2020, Time magazine published an article called “9 Women from American History You Should Know, According to Historians.” Lauren MacIvor Thompson chose Dennett, lauding her vision for reform as “more expansive” than Sanger’s:

Sanger wanted to ensure that birth control remained under the control of physicians and thought medicalizing it was the best path for social acceptance. … It is interesting to think about how our understanding of contraception and reproductive rights might be different had Dennett prevailed.

Dennett’s simple, principled reasoning for why people should support birth control has been vindicated by history. Her manuscript warning of the “appalling paternalism” implied by some of the contemporaneous arguments for contraception, as well as their racial overtones, was prescient. (It also suggests that, whatever her reasons for reaching out to eugenicists, she did not buy into their most pernicious beliefs.) Starting in the mid-20th century, global efforts at population control did result in a “shockingly unthinkable intrusion upon private life,” especially in countries such as India, where forced sterilization was widespread, and China, with its one-child rule. The difficulty Dennett faced in trying to publish her essay, apparently in part because it dissented from her own side’s orthodoxy, should also give us pause about dismissing ideas that don’t adhere to current fashion.

As for sex education, her pamphlet would today seem not only innocent and tame but also noticeably retrograde in certain ways—chiefly in its assumption that all of its readers would share the same desires. Sensitively written sex education materials now acknowledge a broad range of sexual desires, practices, and identities. Still, Dennett’s honesty and her attitude—what we might today call “sex-positive”—represented a large step forward for sex education. She was strong willed, brilliant, and imperfect. All of us are shaped to some extent by the assumptions that surround us. More than most, Mary Ware Dennett was both able to recognize sophistry when she saw it and willing to do something about it.

Author’s Note: To write this essay, I relied heavily on several books. Paramount among them were books by Mary Ware Dennett herself, particularly Who’s Obscene?—in which she recounts her trial, the circumstances leading up to it, and the aftermath. I also drew on The Sex Education of Children and her first book, Birth Control Laws: Shall We Keep Them, Change Them, or Abolish Them. Another key source was the archive of Dennett’s papers, collected at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where I found her unpublished manuscript, “Birth Control, War and Population.” And I relied on Constance M. Chen’s 1996 biography, “The Sex Side of Life”: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education as well as The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928, edited by Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, and Peter C. Engelman. For some of the material on the rivalry between Dennett and Sanger, I consulted a resource titled “How Did the Debate between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett Shape the Movement to Legalize Birth Control, 1915-1924?” This resource is a collection of letters from Dennett, Sanger, and others, curated and placed into context by Melissa Doak and Rachel Brugger. It is part of Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. Finally, for certain details, such as the description of the police raid on the Town Hall, I drew on contemporaneous accounts in The New York Times.

The Activists Who Embrace Nuclear Power

Posted on: June 5th, 2022 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

In 2004, Heather Hoff was working at a clothing store and living with her husband in San Luis Obispo, a small, laid-back city in the Central Coast region of California. A few years earlier, she had earned a B.S. in materials engineering from the nearby California Polytechnic State University. But she’d so far found work only in a series of eclectic entry-level positions—shovelling grapes at a winery, assembling rectal thermometers for cows. She was twenty-four years old and eager to start a career.

One of the county’s major employers was the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, situated on the coastline outside the city. Jobs there were stable and well-paying. But Diablo Canyon is a nuclear facility—it consists of two reactors, each contained inside a giant concrete dome—and Hoff, like many people, was suspicious of nuclear power. Her mother had been pregnant with her in March, 1979, when the meltdown at a nuclear plant on Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, transfixed the nation. Hoff grew up in Arizona, in an unconventional family that lived in a trailer with a composting toilet. She considered herself an environmentalist, and took it for granted that environmentalism and nuclear power were at odds.

Nonetheless, Hoff decided to give Diablo Canyon a try. She was hired as a plant operator. The work took her on daily rounds of the facility, checking equipment performance—oil flows, temperatures, vibrations—and hunting for signs of malfunction. Still skeptical, she asked constant questions about the safety of the technology. “When four-thirty on Friday came, my co-workers were, like, ‘Shut up, Heather, we want to go home,’ ” she recalled. “When I finally asked enough questions to understand the details, it wasn’t that scary.”

In the course of years, Hoff grew increasingly comfortable at the plant. She switched roles, working in the control room and then as a procedure writer, and got to know the workforce—mostly older, avuncular men. She began to believe that nuclear power was a safe, potent source of clean energy with numerous advantages over other sources. For instance, nuclear reactors generate huge amounts of energy on a small footprint: Diablo Canyon, which accounts for roughly nine per cent of the electricity produced in California, occupies fewer than six hundred acres. It can generate energy at all hours and, unlike solar and wind power, does not depend on particular weather conditions to operate. Hoff was especially struck by the fact that nuclear-power generation does not emit carbon dioxide or the other air pollutants associated with fossil fuels. Eventually, she began to think that fears of nuclear energy were not just misguided but dangerous. Her job no longer seemed to be in tension with her environmentalist views. Instead, it felt like an expression of her deepest values.

In late 2015, Hoff and her colleagues began to hear reports that worried them. P.G. & E., the utility that owns Diablo Canyon, was in the process of applying to renew its operating licenses—which expire in the mid-twenty-twenties—with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Because its cooling system takes in and spits out about 2.5 billion gallons of ocean water each day, the plant also needs a lease from the California State Lands Commission in order to operate, and P.G. & E. was applying to renew that as well. Environmental groups had come to the commission with long-standing concerns about the effects of the cooling system on marine life and about the plant’s proximity to several geologic faults. The commission, chaired by Gavin Newsom, then the lieutenant governor, had agreed to take those issues into account. At a meeting that December, Newsom said, “I just don’t see that this plant is going to survive beyond ’24-2025.”

Around this time, Hoff discovered a Web site called Save Diablo Canyon. The site had been launched by a man named Michael Shellenberger, who ran an organization called Environmental Progress, in the Bay Area. Shellenberger was a controversial figure, known for his pugilistic defense of nuclear power and his acerbic criticism of mainstream environmentalists. Hoff had seen “Pandora’s Promise,” a 2013 documentary about nuclear power, in which Shellenberger had been featured. She e-mailed him to ask about getting involved, and he offered to give a talk to plant employees. Hoff publicized the event among her colleagues, and baked about two hundred chocolate-chip cookies for the audience.

On the evening of February 16, 2016, a couple hundred people filed into a conference room at a local Courtyard Marriott hotel. Shellenberger told the audience that Diablo Canyon was essential to meeting California’s climate goals, and that it could operate safely for at least another twenty years. He said that it was at risk of being closed for political reasons, and urged the workers to organize to save their plant, for the sake of their jobs and the planet.

Kristin Zaitz, one of Hoff’s co-workers, was also in attendance. A California native and civil engineer, she had worked at Diablo Canyon since 2001, first conducting structural analyses—including some meant to fortify the plant against earthquakes—and then managing projects. Zaitz, too, came from a background that predisposed her to distrust nuclear power—in her case, an environmentally minded family and a left-leaning social circle. When she first contemplated working at Diablo Canyon, she imagined the rat-infested Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on “The Simpsons,” where green liquid oozes out of tanks. Eventually, like Hoff, she changed her thinking. “What we were doing actually aligned with my environmental values,” she told me. “That was shocking to me.”

Zaitz and Hoff sometimes bumped into each other at state parks, where both volunteered on weekends with their children. After Shellenberger’s talk, they lingered, folding up chairs and talking. Before long, they decided to team up. Using the name of Shellenberger’s site Save Diablo Canyon, they organized a series of meetings at a local pipe-fitters’ union hall. They served pizza for dozens of employees and their family members, who wrote letters to the State Lands Commission and other California officials. Other nuclear plants across the country were also at risk of closing, and soon they decided that their mission was bigger than rescuing their own plant. They wanted to correct what they saw as false impressions about nuclear power—impressions that they had once had themselves—and to try to shift public opinion. They would show that “it’s O.K. to be in favor of nuclear,” Zaitz said—that, in fact, if you’re an environmentalist, “you should be out there rooting for it.”

Hoff and Zaitz formed a nonprofit. Like the leaders of many other movements led by women—protests against war, drunk driving, and, of course, nuclear power—they sought to capitalize on their status as mothers. They toyed with a few generic names—Mothers for Climate, Mothers for Sustainability—because they worried that the word “nuclear” would scare some people off. But they ultimately discarded those more innocuous options. “We wanted to be really clear that we think nuclear needs to be part of the solution,” Zaitz said. They now run a small activist organization, Mothers for Nuclear, which argues that nuclear power is an indispensable tool in the quest for a decarbonized society.


On December 8, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations General Assembly. He described the dangers of atomic weapons, but also declared that “this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.” Eisenhower proposed that governments make contributions from their stockpiles of uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic-energy agency. One purpose of such an agency, he suggested, would be “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

The first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States opened four years later, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. In the following decades, dozens more were constructed. There are currently fifty-six nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. They provide the country with roughly twenty per cent of its electricity supply— more than half of its low-carbon electricity.

The plants were not always presumed to be environmentally unfriendly. At the dawn of the nuclear age, some conservationists, including David Brower, the longtime leader of the Sierra Club, supported nuclear power because it seemed preferable to hydroelectric dams, the construction of which destroyed scenery and wildlife by flooding valleys and other ecosystems. But Brower changed his mind in the late nineteen-sixties and, after a bitter split within the Sierra Club over whether to support the construction of Diablo Canyon, left to found Friends of the Earth, which was vehemently anti-nuclear. As John Wills explains in his 2006 book, “Conservation Fallout,” these disputes coincided with broader philosophical shifts. Conservationism—with its focus on the preservation of charismatic scenery for outdoor adventures—was giving way to the modern environmentalist movement, sparked in part by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” Carson’s book, which investigated the dangers posed by pesticides, articulated an ecological vision of nature in which everything was connected in a delicate web of life. Nuclear power was associated with radiation, which, like pesticides, could threaten that web.

By 1979, the U.S. had seventy-two commercial reactors. That year proved pivotal in the shaping of public opinion toward nuclear power in America. On March 16th, “The China Syndrome,” starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, was released; the film portrayed corruption and a meltdown at a fictional nuclear plant. Twelve days later, one of the two reactors at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in southeastern Pennsylvania partially melted down. Most epidemiological studies would eventually determine that the accident had no detectable health consequences. But at the time there was no way the public could know this, and the incident added momentum to the anti-nuclear movement. By the time of the Chernobyl catastrophe, in Soviet Ukraine, in 1986—widely considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in history—opposition to nuclear power was widespread. Between 1979 and 1988, sixty-seven planned nuclear-power projects were cancelled. In the mid-eighties, the Department of Energy began research into the “integral fast reactor”—an innovative system designed to be safer and more advanced. In 1994, the Clinton Administration shut the project down.

Today, the looming disruptions of climate change have altered the risk calculus around nuclear energy. James Hansen, the NASA scientist credited with first bringing global warming to public attention, in 1988, has long advocated a vast expansion of nuclear power to replace fossil fuels. Even some environmental groups that have reservations about nuclear energy, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, have recognized that abruptly closing existing reactors would lead to a spike in emissions. But U.S. plants are aging and grappling with a variety of challenges. In recent years, their economic viability has been threatened by cheap, fracked natural gas. Safety regulations introduced after the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in 2011, have increased costs, and, in states such as California, legislation prioritizes renewables (the costs of which have also fallen steeply). Since 2013, eleven American reactors have been retired; the lost electricity has largely been replaced through the burning of fossil fuels. At least eight more closures, including Diablo Canyon’s, are planned. In a 2018 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that “closing the at-risk plants early could result in a cumulative 4 to 6 percent increase in US power sector carbon emissions by 2035.”

The past decade has seen the rise of a contingent of strongly pro-nuclear environmentalists. In 2007, Shellenberger and his colleague Ted Nordhaus co-founded the Breakthrough Institute, a Bay Area think tank known for its heterodox, “ecomodernist” approach to environmental problems. The organization, which presents itself as more pragmatic than the mainstream environmental movement, supports nuclear power alongside G.M.O.s and agricultural intensification. Other pro-nuclear groups include Third Way, a center-left think tank, and Good Energy Collective, a policy-research organization. (Shellenberger left the Breakthrough Institute, in 2015, and founded Environmental Progress, partly to focus more on efforts to save existing plants.)

The 2011 Fukushima disaster shifted the landscape of opinion, but not in entirely predictable ways. Immediately after Fukushima, anti-nuclear sentiment surged; Japan began to shutter its nuclear plants, as did Germany. And yet, as Carolyn Kormann has written, studies have found few health risks connected to radiation exposure in Japan in the wake of the accident. (The evacuation itself was associated with more than a thousand deaths, as well as a great deal of economic disruption.) Pro-nuclear advocates now point out that, after retiring some of their nuclear plants, Japan and Germany have become increasingly reliant on coal.

Heather Hoff watched news footage of the Fukushima disaster while at Diablo Canyon. What she saw resembled the scenarios she had learned about in training—situations that she had prepared for but never expected to face. “My heart instantly filled with fear,” she later wrote, on the Mothers for Nuclear Web site. For a time, her confidence in nuclear power was shaken. But, as more information emerged, she came to believe that the accident was not as cataclysmic as it had initially appeared to be. Eventually, Hoff concluded that the incident was an opportunity to learn how to improve nuclear power, not a reason to give up on it. She and Zaitz visited the site in 2018. They saw black plastic bags of contaminated soil heaped on the roadside, and ate the local fish. Afterward, they both blogged about the experience. Zaitz wrote that she understood the fear provoked by radiation, “with its deep roots in the horrendous human impacts caused by the atomic bomb.”

Pro-nuclear environmentalists often tell a conversion story, describing the moment when they began to see nuclear power not as something that could destroy the world but as something that could save it. They argue that much of what we think we know about nuclear energy is wrong. Instead of being the most dangerous energy source, it is one of the safest, linked with far fewer deaths per terawatt-hour than all fossil fuels. We perceive nuclear waste as uniquely hazardous, but, while waste from oil, natural gas, and coal is spewed into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases and as other forms of pollution, spent nuclear-fuel rods, which are solid, are contained in concrete casks or cooling pools, where they are monitored and prevented from causing harm. (The question of long-term storage remains fraught.) Most nuclear enthusiasts believe that renewables have a role to play in the energy system of the future. But they are skeptical of the premise that renewables alone can reliably power modern societies. And—in contrast to an environmental movement that has historically advocated the reduction of energy demand—pro-nuclear groups tend to focus more on the value that abundant nuclear energy could have around the world.

Charlyne Smith, a twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. candidate in nuclear engineering at the University of Florida, who shared her story on the Mothers for Nuclear Web site, grew up in rural Jamaica, where she had firsthand experience of “energy poverty.” During hurricanes, she told me, no one knew when the electricity would come back; food would spoil in the fridge. Smith learned about nuclear power as an undergraduate and decided to enter the field, with the goal of bringing reactors to the Caribbean. She is not naïve about the risks: she is writing a dissertation on nuclear proliferation. But, she says, “Waste and radiation—those are risks that are minimizable. Proliferation of nuclear material—that risk is minimizable. Versus what you can get out of nuclear energy, weighing the pros and cons. I strongly believe that nuclear energy can solve countless problems.”

The pro-nuclear community is small and fractious. There are debates about how large a role renewables should play and about whether to focus on preserving existing plants or developing advanced reactors, which have the potential to shut down automatically in the event of overheating and to run on spent fuel. (These reactors are still in the experimental phase.) There are also differences in rhetoric. At one end of the spectrum is Shellenberger, who seems to see mainstream environmentalists as his main adversaries; his newest book is titled “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.” His recent commentary decrying what he calls the climate scare has been widely circulated in right-wing circles and has perplexed some pro-nuclear allies. At the other end is Good Energy Collective, co-founded, recently, by Jessica Lovering, Shellenberger’s former colleague at the Breakthrough Institute. Her organization situates itself specifically on the progressive left, and is attempting to ally itself with the broader environmental movement and with activists focussed on social and racial justice. Mothers for Nuclear falls somewhere in between: their tone is less combative than Shellenberger’s, but Hoff and Zaitz often seem frustrated with anti-nuclear arguments and, in their social media feeds, point out the downsides of renewables—an emphasis that may turn off some of the people they are trying to persuade. (They believe that nuclear power should do most of the work of decarbonization, supplemented by renewables.)

Nuclear energy scrambles our usual tribal allegiances. In Congress, Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Sheldon Whitehouse have co-sponsored a bill with Republican Senators John Barrasso and Mike Crapo that would invest in advanced nuclear technology and provide support for existing plants that are at risk of closure; a climate platform drafted by John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez included a plan to “create cost-effective pathways” for developing innovative reactors. And yet some environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and Climate Justice Alliance, deplore nuclear energy as unsafe and expensive. Perhaps most telling is the ambivalence that some groups express. Although the Union of Concerned Scientists has warned about the climate impacts of shutting down nuclear facilities, it has historically sounded the alarm about nuclear risk. Ed Lyman, its director of nuclear-power safety, told me that, because “there are so many uncertainties associated with nuclear safety analysis,” it’s “very hard to make a conclusion about whether it’s safe or not.” He noted, dispiritingly, that climate change could increase the hazards at nuclear plants, which will have to contend with more extreme weather events.


When Hoff and Zaitz officially launched Mothers for Nuclear, on Earth Day, 2016, they had to figure out how to tell their story and to change minds. The standard images of renewables—gleaming solar panels, elegant wind turbines in green fields—are welcoming, even glamorous. It seemed to Hoff and Zaitz that, by comparison, the nuclear industry had done a terrible job at public relations. By emphasizing safety, they thought, the industry had activated fears. Airlines don’t advertise by touting their safety records. It might be better to unapologetically celebrate nuclear energy for its strengths.

They gave talks at schools and conferences, shared stories on their Web site, posted on social media, and eventually started chapters in other countries. Iida Ruishalme, a Finnish cell biologist who lives in Switzerland and now serves as Mothers for Nuclear’s director of European operations, told me that she was drawn to the organization, in part, because of its appeal to emotion. The widespread impression, she said, is that “people who like nuclear are old white dudes who like it because it’s technically cool.” Mothers for Nuclear offered “this very emotional, very caring point of view,” she said. “The motivation comes from wanting to make it better for our children.” Ruishalme said that online commenters often tell her that the group is “clearly propaganda, a lobbyist front, not sincere—because it’s so preposterous to think that mothers would actually do this.” On the organization’s Web site, a photo montage of women and children is accompanied by a caption clarifying that they are pictures of real people who support the group—not stock images.

Among opponents, there is a long-standing assumption that anyone who promotes nuclear power must be a shill. The name “Mothers for Nuclear” sounds so much like something dreamed up by industry executives that it can elicit suspicion, even anger, in those who are anti-nuclear. The organization is entirely volunteer-run, with a tiny budget, and has not accepted donations from companies. But Hoff and Zaitz work at a nuclear plant and have been flown to give talks at industry-sponsored events; Mothers for Nuclear has received small donations from others who work in the industry. There is no denying the conflict of interest posed by their employment; even within the pro-nuclear community, their industry ties provoke uneasiness. Nordhaus, the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, wrote in an e-mail that, although he thinks Hoff and Zaitz are “well-intentioned,” nuclear advocacy should be independent of what he called “the legacy industry.” (The Breakthrough Institute has a policy against accepting money from energy interests.) Yet, from another angle, their connection to industry may be an asset. “Where they’ve been successful is coming at it from a personal perspective,” Jessica Lovering, the co-founder of Good Energy Collective, told me. Their approach to telling their stories, as outdoorsy, hippie moms, “humanizes the industry,” she said.

On a drizzly morning in May, 2019, when such visits were possible, Hoff and Zaitz offered me a tour of their plant. Hoff picked me up from my hotel in San Luis Obispo in her slate-gray electric Ford Focus, adorned with a “Split Don’t Emit” bumper sticker. While we waited for Zaitz at a café a few blocks away, Hoff told me about the lavender pendant hanging around her neck. Crafted for her by an artist she knew in Arizona, it was made partly of uranium glass, an old-fashioned material that has a touch of uranium added in for aesthetic purposes. “I wear it as a demonstration—radiation is not necessarily dangerous,” she said. Like many nuclear advocates, Hoff believes that the fears provoked by radiation are often unfounded or based on information that is not contextualized. A CT scan of the abdomen involves about ten times as much radiation exposure as the average nuclear worker gets in a year. Some scientists argue that no level of radiation exposure is safe, but others doubt that exposure below a certain threshold causes harm, and note that we are all exposed to natural “background” radiation in daily life. (Uranium glass emits a near-negligible amount.) Hoff and Zaitz believe that panic about radiation from nuclear energy has, cumulatively, caused more harm than the radiation itself.

After Zaitz arrived, we set out for Diablo Canyon. I rode up front; Zaitz sat in the back, pumping breast milk for her year-old daughter. The light rain had stopped, but mist still hung in the air. We passed through the town of Avila Beach, driving alongside the ocean. To our left, aquamarine water sparkled. On our right lay gently sloping terrain of grasses, sagebrush, wildflowers, and shrubs. The facility sits amid twelve thousand acres of otherwise unoccupied seaside land. Along the curving road, a sign proclaimed “Safety Is No Accident.” In the distance, the two massive containment domes rose above a cluster of shorter structures.

We pulled into the parking lot. In one of the outbuildings, I handed over my passport, then placed my jacket and bag in a plastic bin for an X-ray. I walked through a metal detector, then stood under the arch of a “puffer machine,” which blasted me with air, shaking loose particles and analyzing them for traces of explosives. Once I’d been cleared, we walked upstairs to Hoff’s office, where the two women exchanged greetings with a few co-workers. We put on safety glasses and hard hats before entering “the bridge,” a narrow corridor with large windows that connects the administration building to the turbine hall. Through the windows, we could see the ocean, where water was continually cycling into and out of the plant. A security guard, armed with a handgun and a rifle, and wearing a red backpack, sauntered by.

The turbine hall, a vast space with a soaring, arched ceiling, was dominated by two large generators. Outside, within the two containment domes, uranium atoms were splitting apart in a chain reaction, heating water to more than six hundred degrees Fahrenheit; the steam spun the turbines, which in turn drove the generators. The resulting electricity would bring power to about three million Californians. Warm air rushed noisily around us. Through the din, Hoff explained different parts of the system: the pipes, the springs that supported them, the condenser, which takes wet vapor from the turbine exhaust and turns it back into liquid. Vending machines selling Pepsi and Chex Mix stood against one wall. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but Hoff snapped a few of me and Zaitz. We smiled as if we were at Disneyland.


In June, 2016, not long after the formation of Mothers for Nuclear, P.G. & E. announced that it would not renew its operating licenses: the reactors at Diablo Canyon would cease operations in 2024 and 2025, respectively. The company said that its decision was based largely on economic considerations. Customer demand was declining, in part because of the growing popularity of a system called community-choice aggregation, in which localities can choose their energy sources; often they choose wind or solar farms (though they still need to rely on natural gas at night, when solar is unavailable). The year before, California had passed Senate Bill 350, which requires the state to derive half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030; since P.G. & E. would be legally required to increase its procurement of renewable energy, it could end up with more electricity than it needed if it kept Diablo Canyon online.

The environmental groups that supported P.G. & E.’s plan, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, see it as a model for gradually transitioning to a grid fed entirely by renewable energy. P.G. & E. has pledged to replace Diablo Canyon with other low-carbon energy sources. And yet energy storage remains a major challenge. Even if P.G. & E. does manage to fill the gap without help from natural gas—a heavy lift—some argue that, given California’s ambitious climate goals, the state should be adding to its total portfolio of low-carbon energy rather than subtracting from it. Experts differ on the wisdom of the choice. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who served as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Energy, told me that he had urged P.G. & E. not to decommission the plant. “It’s really the last twenty to thirty per cent of electricity where it’s going to be hard to go a hundred per cent renewable,” he said. Daniel Kammen, a physicist and a professor of nuclear energy at the University of California, Berkeley, however, was more sanguine. Although he is not opposed to nuclear power, or even to keeping Diablo Canyon open, he said, “We don’t need nuclear, and we certainly can get to a zero-carbon future without nuclear. The mixture of other renewables means you don’t have to go there.”

Hoff and Zaitz are not especially optimistic about the future of Diablo Canyon, but they hope that, between now and the planned closure, P.G. & E. and state officials can be persuaded to reverse course. They seek to recruit ordinary Californians to their cause. After touring the plant, I accompanied them to a radio studio, where they were scheduled to be guests on Dave Congalton Hometown Radio, a popular local talk show. On the air, Hoff explained who they were. “Mothers for Nuclear offers a different voice,” she said. “Nuclear power plants are run by lots of men, and women have been more scared of nuclear energy. We’re here to offer the motherly side of nuclear—nuclear for the future, for our children, for the planet.”

The phone lines lit up. The first couple of calls were favorable. “It’s kind of nice to hear a little bit of sanity about nuclear power, for a change,” a caller named John said. But then Pete, a listener who said that he had protested the construction of Diablo Canyon back in the early eighties, brought up nuclear waste. “There’s been numerous efforts to put it here, put it there, put it in barrels, bury it in the sea, bury it in deep caves—this, that, the other thing,” he said. “I don’t think any really good solution has even come up.”

“Pete, where do you put your garbage?” Hoff asked. “Where do you put your plastic waste?”

“That’s not radioactive!”

“It’s still really damaging to the environment,” Hoff said.

“An accident at a nuclear plant is a lot worse than an explosion at an oil plant,” Pete said.

Zaitz jumped in. “The surprising thing, Pete, that we found out is that nuclear is actually the safest way to make reliable electricity when you look at even the consequences of the worst accidents we’ve ever had,” she said. “Any other energy source ends up, in the long run, killing more people, whether it’s due to air pollution, whether it’s due to industrial accidents. Air pollution kills about eight million people per year.”

As the conversation continued, Hoff and Zaitz held their own, but it seemed unlikely that many minds would be changed decisively. In trying to plan a carbon-free future, we are faced with imperfect choices and innumerable unknowns. In such situations, we typically go with our guts. Gut feelings are hard to alter. And yet, especially for younger people, nuclear power may not elicit visceral fears. Many people who did not grow up with the threat of a nuclear holocaust now face a future of climate chaos. Many lie awake at night imagining not meltdowns but lethal heat waves and calving glaciers; they dread life on an inexorably less hospitable planet.


Since I first met with Hoff and Zaitz, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the world. At Diablo Canyon, the comparatively small fraction of the plant’s workers who need to be on site—security guards, control-room operators, and the like—are now doing so in masks, and with other safety protocols in place; Hoff and Zaitz have been working from home. Meanwhile, last summer, wildfires set the West Coast ablaze. For Hoff and Zaitz, both crises have reinforced their existing beliefs. Evidence that air pollution exacerbates vulnerability to COVID-19 is yet another reason to move away from fossil fuels; the importance of ventilators and other devices at hospitals underscores the need for reliable, around-the-clock electricity. Last August, when thick smoke blocked the sun in parts of California, solar output in those areas temporarily plummeted.

Rolling blackouts have raised questions about how California’s grid will function after Diablo Canyon is shut down. In May, the office of the California Independent System Operator, which is responsible for maintaining the grid’s reliability, filed comments to the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Its modelling, the office reported, showed that “incremental resource needs may be much greater than originally anticipated and that the system hits a critical inflection point after Diablo Canyon retires.” At the same time, the plant’s outsized role is not without drawbacks. The reactors periodically need to be taken offline for maintenance, withdrawing a substantial amount of electricity from the grid.

Our energy system is in flux. There are innovations under way in the renewables sphere—advances in battery storage, demand management, and regional integration—which should help overcome the challenges of intermittency. Nuclear scientists, for their part, are working on smaller, more nimble nuclear reactors. There are complex economic considerations, which are inseparable from policy—for example, nuclear power would immediately become more competitive if we had a carbon tax. And there are huge risks no matter what we do.

To be fervently pro-nuclear, in the manner of Hoff and Zaitz, is to see in the peaceful splitting of the atom something almost miraculous. It is to see an energy source that has been steadily providing low-carbon electricity for decades—doing vastly more good than harm, saving vastly more lives than it has taken—but which has received little credit and instead been maligned. It is to believe that the most significant problem with nuclear power, by far, is public perception. Like the anti-nuclear world view—and perhaps partly in response to it—the pro-nuclear world view can edge toward dogmatism. Hoff and Zaitz certainly seem readier to tout studies that confirm their views, and reluctant to acknowledge any flaws that nuclear energy may have. Still, even if one does not embrace nuclear power to the same extent, one can recognize its past contributions and question the wisdom of counting it out in the future.

One of the last times I spoke with Zaitz, she noted that a lot of people seemed to be feeling discouraged at this moment, overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges ahead. But she counselled against despair. “The hopeful way to go into that is, ‘Oh, wow, we actually have technology that can do this,’ ” she said. “And that’s nuclear. And so I’d rather stay hopeful.”

Flight Shame

Posted on: September 12th, 2019 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

In mid-August, to much fanfare, sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg set sail from England on the Malizia II, a solar-powered yacht. With a small crew, she embarked on a journey across the Atlantic in order to attend the UN Climate Action summit in New York in September. Conditions on the vessel were austere, The New York Times reported. While aboard, Thunberg drank seawater made potable by a desalination machine; in lieu of a toilet, she used a bucket. Last Wednesday, after two weeks at sea, the yacht pulled into the North Cove Marina in Lower Manhattan, where it was greeted by a jubilant crowd.

Thunberg is the most celebrated of a small but expanding tribe of environmentalists who eschew air travel: “non-flyers,” as some of them call themselves. Non-flyers are not typically afraid of flying—at least not in the usual sense. They do not fear that a plane will malfunction but that it will function exactly as intended. If Thunberg had flown from London to New York and back, her share of the flight’s CO2 emissions would have amounted to roughly a ton: more than the average annual per capita emissions in fifty-six of the world’s countries, according to an analysis by The GuardianIn Thunberg’s native Sweden, two women have launched a campaign to encourage people to give up flying for a year. Reflecting these attitudes is a Swedish neologism: flygskam, or flight-shame.

Here in the US, Thunberg has given new life and luster to a crusade that has been building slowly for some years, mainly centered in academia. A growing number of environmentalist academics have pledged to cut back on flying or stop altogether, and a few are trying to persuade their colleagues and institutions to follow their lead. In 2015, Parke Wilde, a food economist at Tufts University, and Joseph Nevins, a geographer at Vassar, established a petition, asking universities to take measures to reduce flying by faculty, staff, and students “commensurate with the cuts suggested by climate science.”

Aviation accounts for a relatively small fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions: a commonly cited figure is 2 percent, although some estimates are higher. But air travel is projected to rise sharply in the next few decades, and aviation is one of the sectors of economic activity least susceptible to greening.

In 2017, Peter Kalmus, an earth scientist at the UCLA Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science & Engineering, founded a website, No Fly Climate Sci. The site gathers stories of scholars who have chosen to fly less and to push for systemic changes in higher education. “Academics are expected to attend conferences, workshops, and meetings,” the site notes. “Many academics, including Earth scientists, have large climate footprints dominated by flying. Meanwhile, colleges and universities ostensibly exist to make a better future, especially for young people. We want our institutions to live up to that promise.”

Aviation has long enjoyed a kind of exceptionalism. Many people who take pride in their green lifestyles—perhaps they bike to work and always carry a travel mug—also happen to be frequent flyers. This incongruity grows in part out of cultural factors. A certain type (and I count myself in this category) aspires to be both worldly and socially conscious. We would never think of driving an SUV, say, but we’ve been known to drop the names of far-flung capitals we’ve visited. To be sure, our portable bamboo utensil sets and canvas grocery bags accord with our principles, but they also accord with our self-image, our aesthetics, our personal brands.

In other words, those choices are not sacrifices. Opting out of flying, by contrast, requires actual renunciation.

Air travel also elicits a particularly pronounced version of the common feeling that individual actions don’t matter. If you walk to work instead of driving, the amount of carbon emissions averted is trivial, but at least you know you averted them. If you choose not to buy a plane ticket for a given flight, though, that flight won’t be canceled. The act of flying feels extremely remote from its consequences, even though the associated emissions exceed those from almost any other single activity that we might personally engage in.

In 2012, Kalmus, the earth scientist, was on his way to a meeting in Rome. He was sitting in his seat on the plane in Los Angeles, waiting to take off. When the doors shut, he was overcome by a visceral sense that he didn’t belong there. It felt “gross,” he told me, “kind of like committing a crime.” Since then, he has not set foot on a plane, except in nightmares. Kalmus has absorbed the reality of what we are doing when we fly; very few of the rest of us have done the same.

For all of these reasons, aviation has until recently remained largely off the radar in discussions of emissions reductions. But the paradoxes and contradictions of this situation, as they become increasingly clear, might ultimately represent opportunities to confront the problem. 


An airplane defies gravity and effectively shrinks vast distances. This defiance of nature makes it a marvelous achievement, but also an ecological disaster. The high cruising altitudes of jetliners exacerbate their climate impact. The contrails can form clouds that trap thermal radiation, and at that height, other emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, also contribute to warming. As a result, the total warming caused by aviation is estimated to be at least double the amount caused by the CO2 emissions alone. The supernatural speed of planes also amplifies their environmental harm: they make feasible trips that would otherwise not occur. In other words, flying from JFK to LAX not only emits far more greenhouse gases than, say, taking a bus; if we had to travel by ground, we would be far less likely to make the trip at all.

It’s hard to know exactly when the idea of flight abstinence was born, but one important milestone cited by non-flyers was the British writer George Monbiot’s 2006 book Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning. One of the chapters (excerpted at the time in The Guardian, where Monbiot is a columnist) covered the climate hazards of air travel. After reviewing the literature, Monbiot concluded that there was, alas, “no technofix. The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled.” Most airplanes would need to be grounded, he wrote, which he realized was “not a popular message.” He went on: “But I urge you to remember that these privations affect only a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.”

The idea of carbon offsets emerged at around the same time, amid a general rise in concern about climate change (Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth had appeared in 2006). Some airlines began offering the option to add a small fee to the price of the ticket, which would then help underwrite projects like planting trees or building wind farms. Offset programs, however, have been widely scorned—likened to “indulgences” in the Middle Ages, which allowed sinners to pay off the Church in this world in order to escape punishment in the next.

To some environmentalists, particularly in the UK, there was a simpler, albeit not especially appealing, answer: If you want to prevent the damage caused by flying, you shouldn’t fly. Beyond Flying, an anthology that appeared in 2014, included essays mainly from British writers and activists, all of whom had changed their flying behavior as a result of climate concerns.

That book was pivotal for Parke Wilde, the Tufts food economist. Starting about a dozen years ago, he had begun to consciously reduce the number of flights he took. Then, inspired by the anthology and a couple of other non-flying academics—Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist in the UK, and Nevins, the Vassar geographer—he decided in 2014 to stop flying altogether. Wilde and Nevins run a blog titled Flying Less

Non-flying academics can’t help but notice a conspicuous tension between, on the one hand, the espoused values of universities and professors, and, on the other, the flying behavior that is condoned, incentivized, and relished at their institutions. Professors are not especially highly paid, considering their educational credentials, and getting flown out to give talks and hobnob at conferences in destinations such as Berlin, Bangkok, or Johannesburg is a major perk of the job. At the same time, even if they would prefer to stay put, junior faculty members feel pressure to travel, in order to schmooze with colleagues and promote their work.

With their petition, which currently has signatures from more than 600 academics, Wilde and Nevins ask both universities and professional associations to take steps to modify this system. One idea they propose is the “regional hub” conference model, in which academics would congregate in their respective regions for personal connections and use video-conferencing to interact with other hubs. A few of these associations have begun to consider experiments with the conference model, which, after all, has remained static for decades—why shouldn’t it change in the face of both new technological options and new environmental imperatives?

The pioneers include those parties you might expect—notably, the American Geophysical Union, which includes a good many climate scientists—and those with a less obvious connection to climate change. In April 2018, the Society for Cultural Anthropology held a virtual conference titled “Displacements,” which it advertised as “an international experiment in carbon-conscious conferencing and radically distributed access.” The American Anthropological Association has articulated, as perhaps only anthropologists could, the need to rethink longstanding ways of doing things: In a report, they wrote, “Reshaping the relationship between people and their carbon-intensive lifeways entails a shift in habitus.”


Changing our lifeways means reassessing not only conference design but also our personal customs. It might mean some amount of sacrifice, which has become a taboo “ask” of people. Wilde objects to the assumption that “it’s naïve to make sacrifices,” he told me. “People make sacrifices for the common good all the time.” He does not think it’s viable to send the message that our efforts to stave off climate catastrophe can be sacrifice-free. “The message has to be, ‘If we made this change, we would still be doing great.’ Zero sacrifice is beyond what I can promise.”

But what about the argument that the plane will take off anyway? When I raised this question—with perhaps a touch of desperation creeping into my voice—Wilde was having none of it. “Think about any time you see a new route announced for airplanes. Isn’t it sort of obvious to you that it’s because of the consumer demand for it?” he asked. “I kind of want to give you a hard time about this one.”

Every time you book a flight, non-flyers argue, you are sending a signal to the airline industry about the appetite for its service; you are also sending a signal to friends, family, anyone who knows about your travel plans. If you choose to stop flying, that decision also sends a signal. “There’s this silly debate about individual versus collective action,” says Peter Kalmus. “The only thing we have is this stream of choices we make every day. And all of those choices influence other people.”

And if refraining from flying is a significant sacrifice, some non-flyers consider that a point in its favor. Renunciation conveys to those around us that the situation is serious. Especially in the case of climate change—where the effects are dispersed, gradual, and tenuously linked to the causes—this kind of social cue is crucial.

Nobody would claim that one person’s airplane avoidance will forestall any heat waves or keep any glaciers intact. Non-flyers see their choice as part of a larger commitment—a way of living with integrity by declining to take part in an activity that feels wrong to them. All of the non-flyers I have mentioned are also deeply engaged in campaigning for more systemic reform.

The prime example, of course, is Greta Thunberg, who has inspired millions with her unyielding moral clarity. And yet, Thunberg’s heart-stirring voyage across the Atlantic also reveals the pitfalls of environmental purism. As her detractors were quick to point out, the journey did end up involving flying, after all—just not for her. The manager of Team Malizia acknowledged that two more crew members would fly across the Atlantic to return the boat to Europe.

Abjuring fossil fuels in a society powered by them is tricky. Even with the sincerest of intentions, strict rules about personal behavior can lead to absurdities and hypocrisies.

I for one do not begrudge Thunberg her adventure, which also illustrates another favorite argument advanced by non-flyers: that abstaining from air travel can be a blessing, that slower modes of transit offer richer experiences. Thunberg’s trip certainly seemed more exhilarating than any transatlantic flight I’ve taken. (She was able to document the trip by using a satellite phone to send photos and messages to friends, who posted them on Twitter. “Some dolphins showed up and swam along the boat last night!” she wrote on Day 2.) But it is also worth noting the limitations of her trip as a model: most of us do not get offered free rides across the ocean on a solar-powered yacht.

A more fruitful alternative might be the concept of “flying less,” which is analogous to “reducetarianism”—the practice of cutting back on animal products, without renouncing them altogether. Flying less seems both more feasible on a large scale and focused less on personal purity than on achieving a broad impact.

In Sweden, there is some evidence that public awareness of this issue may have shifted consumer choices, with a recent dip in air travel and a rise in train travel. (The counterpart to flygskam is tågskryt, or train-bragging.) But the global picture looks quite different. A decade after George Monbiot wrote that most planes would need to be grounded, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announced that in 2017, the industry had carried a record-breaking 4.1 billion passengers, a 7.1 percent increase over 2016. By 2037, the International Air Transport Association projects that passenger numbers could double, to 8.2 billion. And it’s not just personal travel that’s on the rise; air cargo has increased globally, with freight traffic up 9.5% in 2017.

As Wilde points out, aviation exceptionalism extends far beyond the realm of individual consumer choice; it is systemic, influencing public policy on a transnational scale—with air travel winning exemptions from international agreements, including the Paris accords, and tax breaks on jet fuel. In France, it is widely known that the gilets jaunes protesters have loudly opposed a proposed tax on diesel fuel for their cars; less publicized is that they have proposed a fuel tax on airplanes as an alternative. They see it as an issue of social justice: Why should working-class folks bear more of a burden than affluent jet-setters? Other activists, such as the British environmental group Plane Stupid, have protested airport expansions, sometimes by blocking taxiways with their bodies.

While our personal travel habits can play a role in shifting the culture, more systemic and institutional changes will obviously be needed if we are to have any hope of curbing emissions from aviation. Universities that boast about their LEED-certified buildings but encourage excessive flying among their faculties; governments that neither tax jet fuel nor invest in low-carbon ground travel infrastructure—the people behind these decisions are the ones who really ought to get acquainted with flygskam.

The new feminist armpit hair revolution

Posted on: July 11th, 2019 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

I am usually late to catch on to shifts in the zeitgeist; this one came to my attention just recently. While watching the HBO show High Maintenance, I noticed that Lee, the protagonist’s hip and beautiful love interest, was sporting hairy armpits.

“Look!” I cried to my husband, as though I’d unexpectedly spotted a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of my favorite obscure band. For the past couple of decades, I have seldom shaved my armpits. Now, all of a sudden, I was on-trend.

Among both celebrities and the masses, female body hair is sprouting all over. Ilana of Broad City has exposed her underarm growth; so have Jemima Kirke and Zazie Beetz. In January of this year, Laura Jackson, a British college student, ran a campaign called “Januhairy,” urging women to grow out their body hair and post selfies on Instagram.

In some ways, this phenomenon harks back to the second wave movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when feminists began to challenge restrictive beauty standards. At a famous march outside the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, protesters ceremoniously discarded their bras and stiletto heels; many feminists of that era also ditched their razors and tweezers. But today’s renewed enthusiasm for female hirsuteness comes with a distinctly 21st-century twist.

Unshaven women in 2019 often meet other criteria for traditional feminine beauty –they have sculpted eyebrows, wear lipstick or sexy lingerie – while proudly displaying their armpit hair. If the ethos of the 70s was a refusal to spend time and effort on cosmetics, the more common approach today is for women to curate different elements of their appearance, remaining conventionally attractive while deploying body hair as a feminist fuck-you: half-statement, half-ornament.

Enter Billie, a New York-based subscription service that sells “razors built for womankind”. In January, the company announced a $25m investment from Goldman Sachs and other backers.

Since its launch in November 2017, Billie has positioned itself as explicitly feminist. It denounces the so-called “pink tax” (the documented premium women pay for personal care products) and offers a “pink tax rebate” (a coupon toward a purchase). The company also says it donates 1% of all revenue to “women’s causes around the world”, including Every Mother Counts, a not-for-profit dedicated to global maternal health.

Billie’s most radical feminist move is to show, in its various promotional materials, women removing actual hair from their bodies: models dragging razors up shaggy, moistened legs. As the company’s web copy notes, “Commercials show women ‘shaving’ perfectly smooth, airbrushed legs. Strange, huh?” In a move that is either generously self-undermining or shrewdly opportunistic (or both), Billie also runs Project Body Hair, an image library of hair in all sorts of places it’s not supposed to be.

One of Billie’s models is Hale, a 19-year-old musician and student at Bard College. On Billie’s website, Hale sits on the floor against a bed, wearing a frilled white tank top. She is smoothing the hair on her head back with arms raised, revealing undisturbed axillary fuzz.

Hale hit puberty early, she told me, and her body hair was dark and noticeable. At one point, “I shaved literally everything,” she said. “I shaved my whole stomach when I was in elementary school, because I didn’t like my happy trail.”But in high school, she began to question the hairlessness ideal, and realized that “having autonomy over my body didn’t make me less attractive or less valuable”. Now, she sometimes, but not always, removes hair from her legs and other body parts, but never from her armpits. Until recently she waxed her unibrow, but as it grows back, she’s started to think it’s “really cute”.

Billie’s branding strategy may come across as fishy – they do sell razors, after all. But it seems to fit right in with the emerging ethos around body hair: celebrating women’s choices as a hodgepodge of individual decisions about how to adhere to or violate cultural norms.

As Georgina Gooley, Billie’s 33-year-old Australian-born co-founder, told me, “If you choose to shave, we have a great product for you. If you don’t, we have other products as well.” (The company also sells lotion and body wash.) With Project Body Hair, she says, “We weren’t sending the message that shaving is an expectation. We were saying shaving is a choice.”


Back in the 1970s, the conversation sounded quite different. As Rebecca Herzig writes in her 2015 book Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, two camps emerged in the second wave movement.

The very first full issue of Ms. Magazine, in July of 1972, featured an article titled Body Hair: The Last Frontier. It criticized the shaving norm as an “embodiment of our culture’s preoccupation with keeping women in a kind of state of innocence, and denying their visceral selves”. The time, money and psychological energy required for depilation were oppressive. Hairlessness was also infantilizing – it made women look like prepubescent girls. The social norm suggested, not very subtly, that there was something inherently wrong, gross and dirty about women’s bodies as they naturally were.

But another faction of feminists, led by Betty Friedan, had a different take. Friedan believed the preoccupation with body hair was counterproductive. She considered these concerns a trivial distraction from more important issues, such as professional opportunities and subsidized childcare. She also thought they harmed the cause of feminism by casting feminists as hairy, ugly, man-hating weirdos.

I came of age in the 1990s, a midway point of sorts. My two best friends and I stopped shaving in high school. For me, this decision was not explicitly about feminism, but about an allegiance to my idea of authenticity (not to mention my allegiance to laziness). It wasn’t that I didn’t care how I looked; I wanted to look like I didn’t care how I looked. I wanted to be attractive, but I did not want to invest effort or enlist artifice into making myself so. Any such measures, to my 16-year-old mind, would have been cheating.

At the same time, I usually felt self-conscious about my body hair, and often wore pants or long skirts. Displaying smooth, bald legs would have felt like selling out, but I felt a different sort of discomfort displaying hairy ones. I envied one of my friends whose leg hair was fine and wispy. Mine was not. (Later I resumed shaving my legs.)

Back then, in my recollection, body hair did not register much in the cultural conversation. The founders of Instagram were in middle school. Feminism was in something of a lull, with a few exceptions such as the Riot Grrrl scene. My favorite magazine, Sassy, did embrace feminism, but not in a way that involved challenging beauty norms very aggressively. As far as I recall, nary a patch of stubble could be found on the waifish bodies of their models.

It’s hard to say exactly when what Hale refers to as the new “body-hair movement” emerged – she describes it as “non-boys taking up space and deciding that they’re not going to adjust to the norms”.

But she remembers thinking something was afoot when dyed armpit hair became fashionable a few years ago. One of the pioneers of that micro-trend was Roxie Jane Hunt, a hairstylist in Seattle.

Hunt, 35, shaved as a teenager, but, she says, “I always hated the action of doing it. It felt like a big chore but also a little bit of violence against my own body.” When her daughter was about two, she saw Hunt shaving and asked her why. “I realized I didn’t have a good enough answer,” Hunt says. She grew out her armpit hair, and found it “much more sexy and natural”.

In 2014, on a lark, she and a friend dyed their underarm hair “ethereal blue”, and Hunt posted photos of the colorful pits on her blog. “The blogpost kind of went viral from there,” she says. She described the attitude with which they approached the exercise as “sort of joy. It opened up a little more imagination.” Many people have since posted pictures of their “unicorn pits”, dyed in all the colors of the rainbow.

If body hair has historically been invisible – too shameful to even show in razor commercials – this aesthetic makes it ultra-visible. In that sense, it takes the pro-hair ethos to its extreme. But in another sense, this practice is the opposite of the “let it all hang out” approach: it is, after all, hard to think of a grooming choice less natural, less laissez-faire, than polychromatic armpit hair.

The look is also highly social-mediagenic, destined for virality. And social media, for both dyed and virgin body hair, is obviously a key part of what makes this round of hair affirmation different from previous eras. Women are not only refusing to conceal their body hair; they’re flaunting it.


A long-running debate within feminism has been whether we should respect women’s choices – even if they seem to result from oppression – or whether only certain “liberated” choices merit approval. The new body-hair acceptance advocates land squarely in the former territory. When I was growing up, a common catchphrase was “I’m not a feminist, but …” followed by some statement of support for feminist principles, such as equal pay. Now, much more common is something like the reverse: claiming the mantle of feminism no matter how un-feminist the position may seem.

A theme that came through loudly in my conversations with young women was that we should judge nothing – except perhaps judgment itself. “I think the 70s wave of feminism was outright rejecting femininity. We don’t need makeup, we don’t want to be housewives,” said Ashley Armitage, a 25-year-old photographer who shot one of the Billie marketing campaigns. “Now it’s like, wait a second, you can be a feminist and a housewife. You can shave.”

Surveying this new world of body hair, I wondered: are women making these choices because they think body hair is feminine, or despite the fact that they don’t think it’s feminine? Is there ever tension between their aesthetic preferences and their values?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the prevalent reluctance to judge, no one wanted to say that they didn’t like any particular aesthetic choice. According to Gooley, the Billie co-founder, she found a range of attitudes in her focus groups and market research. Some women think “it’s a patriarchal view to force women to shave. Other women are like, ‘I just think it’s really cute. I like my underarm hair.’”

Just as there’s a mix of motives, there’s also a series of decisions – not a one-time resolution to always shave everything or never shave anything. “So many people, maybe sometimes they’ll shave, sometimes they’ll grow their hair out,” says Armitage. “Sometimes they’ll shave their legs, sometimes they’ll grow their armpit hair.” Considering this reality, Billie’s pitch starts to make a little more sense.

So far, this is all sounding very kumbaya: the shaven and the waxed and the hairy and the semi-hairy all getting along famously, showering each other with love and likes in a judgment-free festival. There is some truth to that: this discourse is refreshingly peaceable.

But of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. For all the love that the photos of body hair have generated, they have also, inevitably, attracted trolls. MaryV Benoit, another Billie model, told me about the comments on the campaign: “Seventy percent of them would be, ‘Oh, that is awesome.’ Thirty percent would be these weird men that would be like, ‘You girls need to shave.’” Some of the comments were nastier. And some came from women.

Posting a picture of your hairy self online takes guts. You know that not everyone will approve, and some will let you know it. Merely going out in public with female body hair takes a different sort of courage. You’re less likely to hear direct insults, but more likely to get funny looks, unmediated by a screen.

Female hairiness is still far from mainstream. But the more people who brave the all-caps comments and the whispers and stares, the less shocking it becomes. This is how norms change. And one of the few real upsides of social media, in my view, is its power to accelerate that process of dismantling dubious norms – not, in this case, in order to replace the old one with a new, equally unforgiving one, but to challenge the need for any norm at all.

Climate Change on Trial

Posted on: November 16th, 2015 by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

On August 12, twenty-one young Americans, led by the organization Our Children’s Trust, filed a lawsuit against the federal government. By now, President Obama is used to getting sued, but these were not his usual adversaries. Far from challenging his efforts to reform health care or immigration policy, these teenage plaintiffs were pleading for more aggressive action to address climate change. According to the complaint, Obama and a number of federal agencies are violating the youngest generation’s constitutional rights—to life, liberty, and property—by promoting the use of fossil fuels (through, for example, subsidies and leases of federal lands). The plaintiffs are asking the court to mandate a national plan to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million by 2100. Joining the suit is famed climate scientist James Hansen, representing his granddaughter Sophie.

Does the lawsuit have any chance of success? As it happens, a similar lawsuit recently triumphed in the Netherlands: in June, the Hague District Court ruled in favor of the environmental group Urgenda, ordering the government to cut the country’s emissions to at least 25 percent below 1990 levels in the next five years. The judges cited IPCC reports as well as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Dutch Constitution, which compels the government to safeguard the living environment. But the outlook for such a case in the United States is less rosy. We are not, of course, a party to the European Convention, and our Constitution makes no mention of the environment.

And yet, more than is commonly recognized, U.S. courts have played a critical role in the country’s fledgling response to climate change. There have been hundreds of relevant cases (at least 740, according to Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law)—more than in all other countries combined. This is in part because Americans are exceptionally litigious. It’s also because of the glaring absence of legislation to address the crisis in a country that has contributed so extravagantly to it; environmental groups have resorted to litigation to some extent as a fallback plan in the face of total Congressional recalcitrance. The results, in contrast to the Dutch decision, have been piecemeal and inconsistent, opening some doors while closing others. But to the extent that the United States has any federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, they have emerged primarily from the crucible of the courts.

Given the complexity and reach of climate change, there are many potential legal avenues to pursue. Numerous cases have succeeded in blocking individual projects, such as coal-fired plants. While motivated largely by climate change, these have often explicitly relied on other legal grounds, such as well-established restrictions on industrial pollutants in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. In a different vein, several plaintiffs have attempted to sue major polluters, such as ExxonMobil, on public nuisance grounds, a kind of tort law. So far, these cases have been dismissed. The constitutional argument advanced by Our Children’s Trust is another experiment.

The most consequential cases have been those that compel the government to implement existing laws in ways that take climate change into account. As a result, at this point, federal U.S. climate change policy grows almost entirely out of laws that were written at a time when carbon dioxide was more associated with Pepsi Cola than global chaos.

Updating the world’s strongest environmental laws

The flagship environmental laws enacted in the 1970s—including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—are remarkably strong. Some environmental lawyers consider them, collectively, the strongest in the world. Not only are they written broadly, but they allow for “citizen suits.” This means that ordinary citizens can sue for enforcement of the laws without having to demonstrate personal injury in the same manner as would normally be required. (These provisions suggest another explanation for why the United States has seen such a disproportionate number of climate change cases.) Although this concept has been intensely debated, and by no means have all aspiring plaintiffs been granted standing, it does at least open up the possibility of many more lawsuits. Over the decades, litigation has been an indispensable tool in the green arsenal.

The broad language of these laws was meant to provide flexibility to future generations, to enable them to address shifting environmental challenges. The Clean Air Act, for instance, stipulates that the government “protect the public health” with an “adequate margin of safety,” and enables the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to list new pollutants. And the citizen suit provisions equip citizens to hold the government accountable for doing so. A number of plaintiffs have persuaded courts that these laws should consider climate change. As one expert put it in the new book Climate Change Litigation by law professors Jacqueline Peel and Hari M. Osofsky, “it’s not the law that has to change; we need the political will to actually implement it.”

The Supreme Court lent credence to this view in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), ruling that the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. The Bush administration did virtually nothing to act on the agency’s affirmed authority, but the Obama administration has acted on a variety of fronts. In 2009, Obama announced a new national policy to increase fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions for all new cars and trucks sold in the United States. Timing was, in a way, fortuitous: the automobile industry was seeking a bailout, and Obama used this leverage to impose new standards. The program, which took effect in 2012, stipulated that car manufacturers increase average fuel economy by 5 percent a year until 2016; it has since been extended to 2025, and, according to government projections, will yield emissions reductions of about 6 billion metric tons over its lifetime—a little less than the total U.S. emissions in 2012. More recently, Obama has instructed the EPA to issue regulations for power plants, heavy-duty trucks, and airplanes. In early August, the administration announced its final Clean Power Plan, requiring the nation’s existing power plants to cut emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Predictably, the regulations have provoked lawsuits from industry as well as states. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have so far been largely favorable to the EPA, but have recently pointed in a troubling direction. In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (2014), the Court mostly upheld the EPA’s actions, but struck a different tone than in Massachusetts v. EPA, warning the agency not to overreach. In the most recent case involving the Clean Air Act, Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court blocked some regulations. The case focused on mercury, not greenhouse gases, but the Court’s decision showed worrisomely little regard for the EPA’s expertise. Now, the Obama administration expects a torrent of lawsuits in response to the Clean Power Plan.

Obama’s executive actions, and the backlash against them, have made headlines. But meanwhile, an important but little-noticed body of litigation has developed under the aegis of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their proposed actions (including projects that receive federal funding or permits). In these cases, the plaintiffs have argued that the environmental impact statements should take into account greenhouse gas emissions.

Intuitive as it may seem, this argument has not been taken for granted in the courts. Because of the tenuous connection between any given molecule of carbon dioxide and the impacts of global climate change, a court could plausibly argue that the effects of greenhouse gases from one project are too diffuse and too uncertain to merit inclusion—and some courts have in fact ruled in this manner. In the 1990 case City of Los Angeles v. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that a small change in fuel economy standards did not warrant a full environmental impact statement concerning global warming, although it was a “close question.”

More recently, other judges have bought the argument. In Border Power Plant Working Group v. Department of Energy (2003), the court ruled that the department’s NEPA analysis for a proposed power transmission line in California should have taken into account the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in Mexico that used the line. In another case, Center for Biological Diversity v. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2007, the plaintiffs sued the government for, among other things, failing to take carbon dioxide emissions into account in its establishment of fuel economy standards for pick-up trucks and SUVs. They won the case, and the agency duly set tougher standards. The court wrote that the “impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change is precisely the kind of cumulative impact analysis that NEPA requires agencies to conduct.” Crucially, the court found that the global nature of climate change and the influence of actions beyond NHTSA’s control did not let the agency off the hook.

Granted, the significance of these rulings is debatable. NEPA entails only assessments, and does not mandate reductions in emissions. But these cases have helped to legitimate climate change as an issue to be reckoned with. (They’ve also helped to derail a number of heavily polluting projects.) As Peel and Osofsky write, NEPA cases have “created an expectation of litigation over projects that involve significant greenhouse gas emissions.” In addition to the direct orders for specific projects, this expectation has ripple effects in the form of “more indirect changes to corporate culture around project development.”

Cases involving other landmark laws, such as the ESA, have had less success, although there have been some encouraging moments. In 2005, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned to list the polar bear as endangered as a result of the effects of global warming. Under continuing legal pressure, the Bush administration did finally list the polar bear as “threatened” in 2008. But the listing has yet to translate into practical action on climate change. Another important decision, upheld on appeal in 2013, ruled that the question of whether the ESA was an “effective or appropriate tool” to address climate change was beyond the purview of the court. This decision has cooled efforts to use the ESA for now, but groups such as CBD have not given up on this legal avenue.

Why not just sue Big Carbon?

From 2005 to 2013, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by 9 percent, and the new regulations should curb them further. But, with climate experts urging global emissions cuts of 8 to 10 percent per year—and the United States remaining a top polluter—it’s clear that bolder action is necessary. And when it comes to the courts, the most obvious recourse, to many, would be tort law—that is, suing major fossil fuel corporations, along the lines of spectacularly successful cases against Big Tobacco in the 1990s. This kind of lawsuit is sexier and more emotionally satisfying than statutory litigation. Nobody is going to make a movie about Massachusetts v. EPA. But despite some enthusiastic media coverage, this legal route faces serious obstacles. One challenge, again, is the tenuousness of the connection between the actions of a given corporation and any specific impacts.

But there’s an even bigger impediment—and ironically, it’s deeply intertwined with the biggest victory of climate litigation. In 2004, a group of plaintiffs, including eight states, sued a group of electric power corporations. In 2011, in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the corporations, 8-0, explaining that because the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, corporations cannot be sued so long as they are obeying current regulations. In effect, the ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA has foreclosed this other legal avenue. This is known in legal jargon as “displacement.” Though the court’s decision did leave open the possibility of such public nuisance cases at the state level, it was a major blow to efforts to “sue the bastards,” to quote the early motto of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The same obstacle blocked a lawsuit brought by Kivalina, Alaska, a village on a small barrier island that scientists predict could be underwater within a decade. The village is set to be relocated at an estimated cost of over $100 million—local officials claim $400 million—and, in 2008, Kivalina filed a suit against ExxonMobil and twenty-three other corporations for damages. But in 2012 the case was dismissed, ultimately by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in part because of the displacement issue.

Some lawyers adamantly believe that as the effects of climate change continue to worsen, more tort cases in this vein will succeed. Others are less optimistic about whether such cases will ever rock ExxonMobil as they did Philip Morris.*

Legislation v. litigation

If litigation was Plan B, how has it panned out? Possibly better than any realistic version of Plan A—that is, new legislation. Opinions differ on whether the cap-and-trade bill that failed to pass early in Obama’s presidency would have been preferable to the executive action he’s taken instead under the Clean Air Act. The bill would actually have removed some of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and was so full of loopholes that some environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, opposed it. And the chances of a stronger bill—a carbon tax, for example—getting through today’s Republican-led Congress are effectively nonexistent. (In the current Congress, four bills have been introduced to put a price on carbon; seven have been introduced to undercut the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.)

In a sense, efforts to regulate greenhouse gases are arguably still relying on Congress. But they’re relying on the Congress of the 1970s, when environmentalism was an enormously popular bipartisan cause, and when the chambers were not as polarized. With their sweeping language and inclusion of citizen suits, those lawmakers laid the groundwork for a dynamic response to evolving environmental issues.

No doubt this approach has its limits. The laws of the 1970s were not specifically tailored to address climate change, which makes them less than ideal instruments. The Clean Air Act, for example, is much better at regulating proposed power plants than existing ones, according to Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia’s Sabin Center. And even legal victories can force the government to do only so much. As the aftermath of Massachusetts v. EPA shows, the executive branch has a lot of discretion, and its response to court decisions matters supremely. Obama has done far more than Bush, though not as much as some environmentalists wish. If a Republican is elected, a lot of this work could be undone, though not as readily as some environmentalists fear.

In the ongoing interplay between Congress, the executive branch, and the courts, an equally important wild card is, of course, judicial interpretation. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1990 ruling suggests, the views of judges may change over time, along with scientific evidence and public opinion. In many cases, such as Ginsburg’s own subsequent rulings, these trends have favored climate action. But it is sobering to recall that Massachusetts v. EPA was a 5-4 decision, and to realize that the outcome of future cases may hinge on one question: who replaces Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

It’s clear that we can’t just sue our way to climate justice. But in the absence of new legislation, the courts will continue to be a vital forum for challenging the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on politics. Litigation is one tool among many that activists can use to sway public opinion and hold those in power to account.

The current teenager-led lawsuit against the Obama administration on constitutional grounds is certainly quixotic. But then, almost nobody expected the Dutch case to succeed either. The youth complaint could be seen as a kind of opening salvo in the larger battle to establish the right to a livable environment. After all, other cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and most recently, Obergefell v. Hodges (the marriage equality case) enshrined rights that are not spelled out in the Constitution. The young citizens and their guardians cite the decision in Obergefell: “The identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution.” Just as the framers never envisioned same-sex marriage, they never imagined the need to avert, in the words of the complaint, the “irreversible destruction” threatened by climate change. “I think we’re taking extreme action because we need extreme change,” nineteen-year-old plaintiff Kelsey Juliana told MSNBC. “But I don’t even think this is that extreme. We’re just advocating for our rights.”


* Update, November 2015: A more promising prospect, which also has an antecedent in tobacco litigation, is that the fossil fuel companies could be sued for fraud. This possibility has recently gained traction, due to revelations about Exxon’s history of climate research and blatant deception. See this article at Inside Climate News for more detail.