Last week the Lowcountry lost one of its greatest citizens and guardians. Steve Gates died Friday at his home on Wadmalaw Island. In a comparatively brief time in our community, he left an unparalleled legacy of generosity and service. I’m proud to say that Steve was a friend, but even more grateful that he decided to spend a good portion of his life in Charleston and the Lowcountry.
When Steve arrived nearly two decades ago, he lost no time devoting himself to causes that he felt were vital to the health and future of the region. Last year was an indication of the scope of his commitment. He chaired the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust board, the Library Society board, the Charlestown Neighborhood Association board and the Lowcountry Land Trust board. And, by the way, he also served on the board of the National Archives Foundation and the Yale University Library Council. And the stunning thing was that he carried out each task with his characteristic meticulous attention to detail and firm, decisive leadership.
Probably the first thing that will be said about Steve is that he was brilliant, and ridiculously well-educated – Yale undergrad and Harvard for law and business school. But I’ve known people almost as brilliant and, to paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, they were no Steve Gates.
He was a polymath. (This word isn’t used much these days because it applies to very few people, but Steve was one of them.) He was a scholar of history. He wrote a book on his family’s roots in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. He could speak authoritatively on a vast array of subjects, but he didn’t unless it was appropriate and welcomed. He was, however, slightly intimidating, just because you knew that he knew much more than you did.
He was an expert on obscure (to me, anyway) subjects. He collected antique globes, for which he produced a beautiful catalogue. He enjoyed laughing at exceptionally bad poetry. He was wise and thoughtful. I never heard him utter an ideological statement. But he had strong, informed opinions about politics and public policy, and he acted on those opinions.
It would not be possible to describe Steve without talking about his equally brilliant wife, Laura. We were blessed that she chaired the Conservation League’s board, with similar competence, at a particularly important phase in our organizational development. They were the perfect couple. Together, it’s hard to imagine anything they wouldn’t undertake and couldn’t accomplish.
Steve is gone but his legacy will endure in so many ways, including in the protected landscapes and the living history of the South Carolina Lowcountry. We will never forget him.
Now the news… In this first editorial, former Florida Governor Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator (under President George H.W. Bush) William Reilly—co-chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling—condemn President Trump’s effort to open the Atlantic and Arctic to oil exploration. The authors report that not only has the new administration formally begun the process to allow drilling, it has also eliminated the modest safety improvements implemented (at the recommendation of this Commission) in the toxic wake of the disaster. The authors write:
President Trump’s April 28 executive order on offshore energy threatens to abolish (the Commission’s recommended) safety improvements and, as he put it, start “the process of opening offshore areas” to energy exploration. He took a further step last week to expand oil and gas extraction in the environmentally sensitive outer continental shelf. The commission members are unanimous in their view that the actions proposed in the president’s executive order are unwise.
These actions are not only unwise, they are truly beyond the pale. One of the jettisoned recommendations was to strengthen standards for the “blow-out protectors,” a measure that could have prevented the BP spill. It is hard to imagine how any rational person, elected official, or oil company could oppose this. Yet oppose it our new president has…
Speaking of people behaving badly, Brian Hicks reports (maybe “fulminates” would be a better verb here) on a recent study concluding that South Carolina has the rudest drivers in the nation. He cites the example of trying to merge into traffic on Savannah Highway. I would add: trying to walk across Calhoun Street, or Coming Street, or any downtown street with a “crosswalk.” Or walking across an intersection after the light for oncoming traffic has been blood red for at least three seconds and then having to dive for cover when a driver runs straight through it. (This happens roughly 50 percent of the time.)
I’m not excusing bad driver behavior here, but I’m sure our worst inclinations are reinforced and magnified by the following things:
- There is zero enforcement of laws that require drivers to obey traffic lights.
- There is virtually zero enforcement of speed limits.
- In Charleston, unlike every tiny crossroads in almost every state, (take Maine, for example), AND in most towns and cities in South Carolina, (take Beaufort, for example), there are no stanchions in the crosswalks explaining “Pedestrians have right of way.”
- Neither is there the slightest effort to enforce the pedestrian right of way law.
While I’m on this subject, the farmers market at the Pour House on Sunday is wonderful. There are so many people there that cars must park blocks away or across Maybank Highway at the mall with the Terrace Theater. It is, however, unsettling to watch pedestrians dodging cars and crossing five lanes of asphalt (carrying bags of fresh vegetables if they are leaving). It would be so easy for the City of Charleston to provide a crosswalk here, along with a traffic light. But they haven’t.
Meanwhile, as pedestrians scurry for cover against the onslaught of crazed and angry drivers, residents are fleeing the historic district, as their neighborhoods are flooded with waves of Airbnbs, hotels and cruise ships…
As this article from France24 explains:
Memories of the past come flooding back as Manuel Mourelo strolls through Barcelona’s picturesque Gothic Quarter: children playing, fun with the neighbors, traditional bars… But now, “all of that has disappeared.”
Hordes of tourists fill the narrow, winding alleys on guided tours, bike and Segway rides, while residents have deserted buildings full of history to make way for quaint hotels and tourist rentals — an issue that affects popular spots Europe-wide…
“This was my village. I had it all here, my friends, my shops, I got married here, my children were born here, and I thought I would die here.
“I feel displaced,” he adds, his eyes welling up.
According to the city hall, the fixed population in the Gothic district so loved by tourists has dropped from 27,470 residents in 2006 to just 15,624 at the end of 2015.
Now, 63 percent are “floating” residents—tourists or people in short-term lets…
Rising rental prices, noise and crowds jostling for space in the streets and the disappearance of traditional, everyday stores have all contributed to forcing people out for economic reasons… or due to sheer frustration.
The arrival of Airbnb and other such home-renting platforms has only aggravated the problem, locals say.
“We’re not talking about gentrification, about substituting the original population by another more wealthy one,” says Gala Pin, a councillor in Ciutat Vella.
“We’re talking about the historic center emptying out.”
For sociologist Daniel Sorando, co-author of “First We Take Manhattan,” an essay that analyses the phenomenon in various cities, the trend is towards “urban centers conceived as machines to make money while the working classes are displaced outside.”
…For Socorro Perez, an expert in human geography, the outcome is “cities without residents, dead districts.”
“Cities transform into ‘clusters’ of entertainment and consumption, into tourism fast food.”
Almost down to the population numbers, you could replace “Barcelona” with “Charleston” and the article would make sense. Barcelona is clearly a cautionary tale of how unbridled tourism can erode the character and fabric of historic villages, towns and cities worldwide.
How many times and in how many places does this need to occur before elected leaders take the steps necessary to stabilize and secure living historic neighborhoods? In Charleston, that means bringing hotels under control, eliminating Airbnbs, and right-sizing and relocating cruise ships. And it means investing in infrastructure that supports residents and businesses. Not one of these things is complicated or difficult. It just takes leadership and energy…
And a little more empathy and, maybe, a little less testosterone, from our city and county council members.
This next opinion piece, from the New York Times, reports on a new study from the University of Pennsylvania concluding that elevated levels of testosterone diminished judgement and analytical performance in a sample of 243 men. From the article:
For the men with extra testosterone, their moods hadn’t changed much, but their ability to analyze carefully had. They were, on average, 35 percent more likely to make the intuitive mistake on the bat and ball question. They were also rushed in their bad judgment and gave incorrect answers faster than the men with normal testosterone levels, while taking longer to generate correct answers.
Some will shrug and say that making a mistake on a sneaky word problem isn’t a concern in daily life, but researchers are discovering that these reasoning errors could affect financial markets. A team of neuroeconomists, led by Dr. Nadler, along with Paul J. Zak at Claremont Graduate University, gave 140 male traders either testosterone gel or a placebo. The next day, the traders came back into the lab and participated in an asset trading simulation.
The results are disturbing. Men with boosted testosterone significantly overpriced assets compared with men who got the placebo, and they were slower to incorporate data about falling values into their trading decisions. In other words, they created a trading bubble that was slow to pop. (The emphasis is mine.)
Multiple studies have concluded that men are more confident in their reasoning than women are, even when their objective performance is no better. Now we have evidence that performance is actually worse (with higher levels of testosterone). Could it be that we need to elect more women to city and county councils!? I think so.
I suspect testosterone may also underlie the often-emotional arguments against the overwhelming evidence of climate change. (A friend of mine sent me a Breitbart news piece on this subject. It is not a model of calm, objective or thorough journalism, to put it mildly.) This next article from the Manchester Guardian argues that there is a distinction between skepticism, which is healthy in any inquiry—indeed, it is the basis for scientific progress—and cynicism, which is decidedly unhealthy.
The author poses a proposition and a question, “Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?”
A sceptic questions the evidence for a given claim and asks whether it is believable. A cynic questions the motives of the people who deploy the evidence, regardless of whether it is believable or not. Any attempt to defend the facts gets presented as evidence that the facts simply suit the interests of the people peddling them.
(My observation: This is, ironically, a new incarnation of post-modernism, formerly the purview of the left wing…)
Climate change is the defining political issue of our times and not simply because of the risks we run if we get it wrong. An inadequate response – if we do too little, too late – could inflict untold damage on the habitable environment. But even before that day comes, the contest over the truth about climate change is doing serious damage to our democracy.
This is a critically important point. It is one thing to debate the facts and the logic that lead to a conclusion. It is entirely different to impugn the motives to the researcher. Because motives are ultimately unknowable, that course leads to irresolvable gridlock, and to the type of incivility that characterizes the political debate these days. It is up to all of us to make the distinction, and whenever possible, to quash the destructive, personal attacks that too often are confused with true scientific discussion.
I wish there were some ambiguity about what is happening to coral reefs worldwide. This article from the Post and Courier reports on a new documentary, by the producers of “Chasing Ice,” (about the changes in polar ice shelves), called “Chasing Coral.” Prominently featured in the film is College of Charleston professor, and coral reef expert, Phil Dustan.
From the article:
Last fall, The Post and Courier featured Dustan’s work in “Fade to White,” a story that documented the carnage in reefs as close as Charleston and as far as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels has unlocked massive amounts of carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, and the ocean absorbs much of this, preventing runaway temperature hikes on land. But even relatively small increases can affect coral reefs. In Chasing Coral, scientists compare it to changes in body temperature — 98.6 degrees is normal for humans, but an increase of three or four degrees over long periods is fatal.
Because of rising water temperatures, some scientists predict that most coral reefs will be gone within 50 years or less.
This is serious stuff, but I think there is reason to be cautiously, and actively, optimistic. This next article from the Island Packet reports that a large majority of people who responded to a survey on single-use plastic bags on Hilton Head Island believe they should be banned.
From the article:
Of those who responded, 71 percent said they believed plastic bags should be banned on Hilton Head, according to the chamber.
Additionally, 67 percent of those who responded said that they already recycle their plastic bags. But, 60 percent also said they did not believe there are adequate recycle locations or ways to recycle the bags.
Rikki Parker, South Coast Project Manager for the Coastal Conservation League, said the survey results were reassuring. “The survey was geared toward local merchants, so it’s great to see that kind of positive feedback that the majority of the public and businesses support it,” she said.
Parker delivered a presentation to the Hilton Head Island Planning Commission on June 21, where she gave the commission members a draft point-of-sale plastic bag ban ordinance, based off of the two South Carolina ordinances recently implemented on Folly Beach and Isle of Palms.
Plastic bag bans will, obviously, not reverse climate change or coral decline, but they are indications that, when presented a problem, and a solution, people often care enough to choose the right course. So, good for the Hilton Head Chamber for being an honest broker on this important issue! It sounds like Hilton Head is on course to become the third municipality in the state to stand up for the oceans, for sea life and for environmental responsibility, enshrined in municipal statute.
Finally, on the subject of responsibility, local organizations are stepping up for seabirds—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the Coastal Conservation League and our partner environmental groups. As this editorial from the Post and Courier explains, Crab Bank, at the mouth of Shem Creek in Charleston Harbor, is one of only five seabird colonies in the state. It has traditionally been the breeding ground for thousands of baby pelicans, terns, skimmers, oystercatchers and gulls, annually repopulating the Lowcountry’s rich, bountiful avifauna.
Today, Crab Bank is almost gone. The authors applaud the initiative to rebuild the rookery and urge the S.C. State Ports Authority to join the effort. I’m willing to bet a trip to Crab Bank that they’ll do it!
Enjoy our beautiful, stormy, humid Lowcountry, and have a great week!