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When I met Tom Haines for coffee on a chilly January afternoon, he had snagged an ideal spot near the cafe’s small fireplace. The journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire, and long-time staff writer for newspapers like the Seattle Times and Boston Globe, was still reeling from the release of his new book Walking to the Sun, a deeply researched and personal account of his hikes across America’s key energy landscapes. Following more than a decade of overseas reporting, in 40 countries across five continents, Haines trained his wandering gaze back home, walking beside oil rigs in South Dakota, solar fields in the Mojave Desert, and sunken turbines off the coast of Maine. The idea occurred to him while overseeing the installation of a new home gas furnace, an experience that revealed how little he knew about the pipes that traveled up from his basement and plugged into to the broader energy apparatus that kept his family warm, their devices charged, cars running. Within minutes of joining Haines beside the fire, he made the same connection to our tiny gas-powered hearth. Walking aims to close a crucial gap that still plagues the environmental movement — that even as concerns about global warming take greater precedence, we too often overlook the demand curve of our own energy consumption. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MK: Can you talk a bit about what drew you to this subject, apart from that fateful day in your basement?

TH: I think a big part was my experience over the past 15 years, reporting on the ground in different parts of the world, and most significantly, in developing regions like Africa or Asia. There, I would basically be outside the industrial infrastructure in which we live. For example, I spent a week in a little village in Ethiopia writing about drought. I met farmers who worked the land, burned charcoal fires, walked for their water. Then, I would get in a steel tube and fly through Frankfurt and come back to Boston and drive home up I-95. I think all the shuttling back and forth between those two worlds primed me for exploring this subject without even knowing it.

I had already been thinking about our relationship with nature as a species, and the extent to which our industrial world is out of scale with the planet. As the climate debate continued to mount, energy became an appealing beat to stake out as a journalist, and was one that also helped me personally address a sense of helplessness or inability to even comprehend the problem.

MK: What about this immersive, on-the-ground approach did you find so empowering?

TH: I’ve always been drawn to reporting about place. I like to go where things are happening, so when I came to energy, and saw the millions of important stories about the latest science or economic findings, I knew I wanted to explore the place of it. My ancestors on my mom’s side of the family actually came from Welsh coal country to the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. So at the beginning when I was thinking about going to the source, I thought about going there to start. I kayaked down the Lehigh River and went to these old coal towns where my family was from. I never wrote a word about it, but it confirmed that there was a cool story to tell about place in terms of energy, and it confirmed that I have to write the story of now versus then.

Eventually, I took inspiration in journalistic books that followed a similarly granular, going-to-the-source approach. The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart, in which he walked across Afghanistan during the war. Ted Conover did a book called Coyotes in which he traveled with migrants as a way to write about immigration. Peter Hessler did a trilogy out of China called Country Driving and the narrative thread comprises his road trips through the country. Those were examples of a way of moving through place and talking about a bigger issue, instead of it being like a travelogue.

I also think I was working in the spirit of writers like Rachel Carson, books like Silent Spring that take a close look at the natural world as a way to understand ourselves and sound an alarm about the impact of human behavior. When I made my first camp in coal country, I wrote about the voles and the meadowlarks, the beautiful grasslands. I wanted to put the reader there, because it was so powerful to see that it’s still a natural place. Part of the problem is that we too often think of these places as just resources of fuel, something like Hunger Games District 12, the place where we get our coal. I thought there was a lesson in engaging more deeply with place.

The experience was often overwhelming, but also completely empowering — to reclaim that more original relationship with nature. It was exciting to be on the ground, exposed and vulnerable, feeling alive, sleeping in a tent on a prairie and thinking about myself as an animal.

MK: Along the way, you visit parts of the country that have long viewed land as primarily an economic resource. Are concerns about global warming compatible with this worldview?

TH: It really depended on where you were, and I saw a bit of everything. New York has a long history of natural gas drilling by conventional methods. But the rise of fracking sparked a debate between neighbors about whether it would help or ruin the place. It was interesting to observe how, as a species, we’re all over the map, trying to figure out how to move forward. Maybe it was because I was walking, and sort of vulnerable and isolated, but I never found myself in politically charged situations or moments where someone would say “You East Coast liberal! No wonder you’re out here!”

It was hopeful to find that the extent to which people defended the status quo of fossil fuels was because it was the thing that enabled them to make it all work financially. A great example is Texas, where I lived for seven years. Although it is a fossil fuel state, dominated by oil and gas, it’s also now the biggest developer of wind energy due to local economic incentives. At peak times, wind now powers up to 48 percent of the Texas grid. As a cultural thing, it feels like if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.

MK: What were some changes that surprised you over the five years of writing the book?

TH: One thing was the high level of journalism being produced, the way major news organizations have built out climate teams and put these stories front and center without holding any punches. If there is a social revolution that has to occur, that’s really heartening. But of course the bigger shift has been in the political realm. Back when I was walking through the Powder River Basin, which supplies about 40% of the country’s coal, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior had instituted a moratorium on all federal coal from that area, a small step in finally putting our land policies in accordance with our climate policies. One of the first acts of Trump’s presidency was to roll that back. So as part of what I was learning through the book project gave more reason for hope, the political landscape was getting less hopeful.

I don’t know how history will remember this bizarro time. It was 2019 and the current administration was doing lease auctions for drilling across the American West faster than companies could bid. They’ve opened up so much land, the industry can’t take it all. But this is also a point at which to hold progressives to account. In reality, that mindset is what makes our lives so comfortable. If they weren’t out there doing this dirty work, we’d have to pay more, and sacrifice conveniences we take for granted. It’s so intertwined.

Ten years ago, if someone had asked me if it would be beautiful to look out over the plains and see 500 wind towers as far as the eye could see, I would say no way. It would almost seem like a kind of failure, or a blight. But now, feeling the way I do about the urgency of the problem, we’re in the land of compromise. There’s no perfect solution anymore. So I look out there, and I think it’s at least a more honest representation. You can literally see how much we need to power ourselves.

MK: Do you feel like the broader culture is getting more or less insulated?

TH: In some ways, I think both. My kids are teenagers in high school, and I think they are more insulated literally, through phones and the creature comforts of industrial life. Cars are bigger and have heated seats. Everything is just more and more dialed in. But their generation is being educated about the situation, so in some ways they have more of an awareness of the vulnerability of that insulation. I think for previous generations, the insulation was not yet as strong but it was somehow more effective, because we either weren’t aware of the damage or costs, or at least there wasn’t a discussion of it.

In the book, I wanted to be fair to myself about the fact that we’re all the cause of this problem. It’s like the guys I met in the Bakken oil fields, who were replacing the casing of an oil well, talking about how that fuel is in our shoes and powers our airplanes. That is how deep we are. The incident with my basement furnace wasn’t just a device. There I was, an environmentalist, or a naturalist, and I was literally writing a check to connect more deeply into the system. Is it reasonable that I could live without any kind of fossil fuels? No, you can’t, because you live in this industrialized world, but we’re being told collectively that’s what we’ve got to stop doing.

MK: Now that you’ve returned to the modern world, do you have any recommendations on how folks can work towards that renewed compact with nature?

TH: Something anyone can do, which I found powerful for this book and might sound cheesy, is go for a walk. Get outside and feel our connection to the place, because I think that instills a kind of obligation, or responsibility. If we just tune out and live in our insulated worlds, we cede any responsibility we have as animals on the planet, which is what we are.

For someone who is already engaged, keep reading both the good and bad news stories. Learn more about both problems and solutions. Part of the reason my book dealt with industrial scale efforts as opposed to rooftop solar on someone’s house, which is also important, is that to my mind the only real hope is to achieve some kind of systemic change. We as a society have to prioritize that change, and that only happens if enough people know about it and care about it and do something about it. We can’t allow ourselves to become numb or overwhelmed.

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.

Matthew King is a writer, editor, and teacher. His essays and reportage on subjects ranging from post-apocalyptic art to digital prayer aids have appeared in The AtlanticPacific StandardBoston Review, and elsewhere.

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Since the seminal book by sociologist E. Digby Baltzel, Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia, in 1996, articles by a range of thought leaders appear episodically to remind us that Philadelphia is a city still on the edge of greatness. But a deeper understanding of Philly shows that the city is a paradox for becoming a great city and there are advantages to being on the edge.

For total population, while not as big as the Apple, LA, and Chi-Town, the City of Brotherly Love has been battling three newcomers in the Southwest and holding its own as one of the most populated cities in the US. While not the paragon of hospitality, Philadelphia gets high marks by tourist magazines for being inviting to several subgroups such as the LGBTQ community and young African American professionals. Funny thing though, as locals we may not be the best guides to the most popular sites to see; seeing the liberty bell and other sites in Old City quickly become a faint memory from grade school. We are more likely to take you to the Whispering Wall (Memorial Hall Park), to find the statue of Chief Tedyuscung in the Wissahickon, or visit the Devil’s pocket and Swampoodle blocks of Philly. More… “A City on the Edge”

Stephen F. Gambescia, professor of health services administration at Drexel, has perfect attendance at school reunions.

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Howard Hughes was one of the most significant and impactful figures of 20th century. Tycoon, movie producer, and philanthropist, Hughes was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a romanticized epic about the Hughes’s ascent as rugged individualist willing to combat the film industry, risk his life experimenting with airplanes, and manhandle classic Hollywood’s greatest actresses. The film also represents his eventual move toward complete isolation, his obsessive compulsive disorder encouraging him to seclude himself into sanitary screening rooms while watching and re-watching films. The film presents Hughes as a complicated but passionate man. Scorsese is nothing if not a film fan and The Aviator does much to unpack the ways in which Hughes’s foray into filmmaking contributed to Hollywood. The movie celebrates Hughes as a visionary and rugged individualist. He is reiterated as a folk hero. Like a true femme fatale, walks in Karina Longworth’s new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, which serves to provide more depth into Howard Hughes, looking not only at his work, but using his personal relationships to help illustrate his significance as Hollywood magnate but also addressing aspects of his character. The book not only challenges this image of Hughes as hero, but uses Hughes as a Trojan horse to unpack Hollywood’s ethically murky legacy. More… “Subverting Seduction”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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project mayhem
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For some of us, Fight Club is like a dirty bomb going off in the culture. I walk out of David Fincher’s iconic film sometime in the summer of 1999 feeling like I’ve just been touched by mad genius. The film is a hot, filthy, stylish channeling of rage against consumer culture and manufactured masculinity and the failing aspirations of an entire civilization. I love it. All of my male friends love it. We can’t stop talking about the one thing you’re not supposed to talk about.

Six months later, November 30, 1999, thousands of protesters are streaming into Seattle — most of them from student groups, labor organizations, and NGOs — all there to stop a big meeting of the World Trade Organization. Some of these protesters seize control of key intersections by chaining their arms together into “lockdown” formations. Others use newspaper boxes to form barricades. They stage marches and street parties designed to block traffic and prevent the WTO delegates from reaching the convention center. I am watching news footage of someone throwing what looks like a toaster oven out of the smashed window of a Starbucks, and I have an uncanny feeling of recognition. More… “The Project Mayhem Age”

Daniel Vollaro is writer and teacher of writing whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in Boomer Cafe, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Paperplates, and Timber Creek Review.

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Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is a ground-breaking look at American cities in many ways. It takes a deep and richly textured view into places that make up what we call cities and stretches the boundaries of that understanding beyond the often one-dimensional historical, economic, sociological, or political interpretations that try to explain urban environments. The authors do this by re-imagining, recreating, and retelling Philadelphia as a complicated story from the industrial past to the post-industrial present. They view the city through “layers” of the past that both speak to a bygone era, but also the possibilities for the future, seeing Philadelphia in a very nuanced way that challenges all of us to think differently of cities in the American context. On January 19, 2018, I had a chance to sit down with one of the authors, Nathaniel Popkin, to talk about the book and the broader attempt to interpret cities in the 21st century. It was a pleasure to take time to talk about their creative intellectual endeavor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City

Daniel Dougherty is a political scientist who spends his time teaching, researching, experiencing, pondering, and talking about cities. He is Associate Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and Director of the Honors Program at Drexel University.

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Boubacar drives nights for Uber. Often, impatient customers scream at him and then leave trash behind as he ferries them between their office jobs in glassy towers and warmly-lit SoHo restaurants. They rarely tip. By day, he delivers food for a popular salad and sandwich chain, weaving his bike through Midtown traffic and making minimum wage. It’s better than the busboy and delivery jobs his friends have, where their employers underpay. And despite the hour-and-a-half commute, he sometimes enjoys being out in the rush of the city — unlike his wife who works the cash register at their local CVS. At least he doesn’t worry about her the way he worries about his sister, who cares for three children on the Upper East Side and is often asked last-minute to stay until late.

But, mostly, he worries about his kids, ages five and seven. He’s had to find a new delivery job every few months and is still never guaranteed hours. He’d been hoping to train to be a nurse, as he’d like to have a regular schedule, save for his kids’ education, and do work that feels good, but he knows he’ll never have the time. How will they learn to love soccer, or remember their native Senegal, if he’s never home to talk and play with them? And when they’re older, will their lively minds be overwhelmed by worry about rent and food for the next week?
More… “Imagining A Way Out”

Abigail Fradkin studied political thought and history at Harvard College. She has worked in immigration and economic development and currently works for the New York City government. The views expressed in this article are her own.

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It’s a difficult task, writing about a country that is yet to appear on many printed maps. This is compounded when you’re writing as a foreigner, representing a foreign perspective that sees the new country mainly in terms of conflict and uncertainty.

It can also be argued that an outsider mining a newly independent country for fiction is doing a disservice to the authors from that country, whose own voices should be primary. Yet, fiction remains one of the most accessible ways that most people will come to learn about the country’s culture. And one unfortunate reality of Anglophone publishing is, blockbuster authors like Stieg Larsson aside, much literature written in other languages isn’t translated into English, or is published only in small print runs.

More… “Write Outside”

Christine Ro’s writing about books, music, and other topics is collected at ChristineRo.com.

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I am obsessed with books about people who, for unclear reasons, ruin their own lives. In Freudian terms, it’s Thanatos, the death drive. The classic example is that fear you feel on a rooftop or near the edge of a cliff, a fear not so much that you’ll fall but that you’ll throw yourself over, into the void. My own version of this fear: When I pull out my phone to take a photo of the vista from a bridge or a precipice, I’m afraid I’ll drop the phone and automatically go after it.

But this isn’t the death drive, not directly; it’s irrational fear of some latent suicidal tendency that may not exist. The characters I’m thinking of don’t throw themselves off literal cliffs. It’s slower, and stranger, like sleepwalking into the sea.

More… “The Self-Destruct Button”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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My first idea was to compile a brief and brisk user’s guide to recent rock memoirs, a sort of Consumer Reports of the best and the worst, perhaps grading them with an A minus or a C plus, the way Robert Christgau used to do with his surveys of pop records in the once-influential Village Voice. So I started with Keith Richards’s Life, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son before realizing that this whimsical vacation in reading was likely to turn into an unfinishable slog. Even as I read Keith’s (A), Bob’s (A plus), and John’s (C minus) revelatory or not-so-revelatory accounts of the rock ’n’ roll life, more kept issuing from the presses. Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Viv Albertine (the Slits), Donald Fagan (Steely Dan), Steve Katz (Blood, Sweat and Tears), Greg Allman (the Allman Brothers Band), Peter Hook (New Order), Bernard Summer (New Order), Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys), Mike Love (the Beach Boys), Nile Rodgers (Chic), Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids), Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses), and the drummer from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band (Woody Woodmansey): all have had their say, and that’s not even to mention continuing contributions to the genre by such heavy hitters as Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Townshend, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Morrissey. Where would I ever find the time to read all of these musicians’ books if I was ever going to read anything else? Or listen to their records? Or vacuum my living room? And then I read Petal Pusher by Laurie Lindeen and decided: the others can wait. More… “It’s the Drummer That Matters”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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I met with Valerie Graves before her interview with Paula Marantz Cohen on The Drexel Interview. She exuded a calm and poised excitement about having so many people discussing her new book. Her memoir, Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be, takes a new approach to the average rags-to-riches story — mostly because Graves doesn’t come from rags at all. She starts off in a middle-class, loving family that supported her intelligence and her journey to becoming the woman she is now. Her story isn’t just about gaining success, but about how to reach back and create spaces for other women of color in advertising. Our interview was conducted in two parts, both before and after her interview with Dean Cohen. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

More… “Pressure Makes Perfect”

Byshera Williams is a Senior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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