Is this the Portland we want?
It’s not your parents’ National Geographic.
The nonprofit National Geographic Society markets itself as a leading environmental steward committed to protecting our planet. So why is it running extravagant global travel programs for the rich that have major negative environmental impacts?
National Geographic Expeditions is currently offering five trips by private jet, two of them trips around the world.
The Wall Street Journal’s August 25, 2020 issue featured a full-page advertisement by the Journal and National Geographic Expeditions for “The Future of Everything: Exploring Global Innovation by Private Jet, August 21, 2021 – Sept. 13, 2021.”
The ad tempted big spenders to “gain illuminating perspectives on how advances in science and technology are shaping tomorrow’s global economy and culture.” In addition, “A top-notch team of experts and leading journalists will accompany the expedition,” including experts from National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal.
A deeper look, however, reveals that the trip will be more a luxurious sightseeing journey for the affluent than a deep, intellectual exploration of global innovation.
For example, according to the trip’s website, at their first stop in Kyoto, Japan, the travelers will have opportunities to tour the alleys of Nishiki Market, the historic geisha district of Gion, the bamboo grove of Arashiyama, the zen garden at the Ryoanji temple or traditional wooden townhouses called machiya. They will even be able toenjoy a cooking class in one of the historic dwellings.
During a two-day stop in Seoul, S. Korea, the travelers will visit the War Memorial of Korea and the National Museum of Korea, learn about Buddhist traditions at the centuries-old temple of Jingwansa and, as in Kyoto, attend a cooking class.
In Mongolia, they will settle into traditional ger tents and and gather to hear National Geographic Emerging Explorer Federico Fanti discuss new methodologies for curbing the illegal trade of fossils and natural resources in the Gobi. They’ll also explore red rock landscapes, see the Moltsog Els sand dunes and ride horseback across the steppe. They will even meet a nomadic family for tea.
All this for a mere $94,995 per person double occupancy or $104,490 single occupancy.
The private jet – “A Boeing 757—specially configured with VIP-style seating for just 75 passengers—affords us unmatched flexibility and is ideally suited for these remarkable expeditions,” National Geographic Expeditions says on its website. The plane’s usual capacity is 180 to 233 people. No small, fully loaded, and fuel-efficient plane for this journey. (Coincidentally, Donald Trump’s plane, which he bought in 2011 from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is a Boeing 757.)
Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan engines, the National Geographic’s Boeing 757 will fly around the world for 24 days.
Richard Heede, the co-founder and director of the Climate Accountability Institute, has estimated that a Boeing 757 emits roughly 26 tons of CO2 per 1,000-mile trip. The website for The Future of Everything trip doesn’t specify the distance the plane will fly, but a reasonable estimate is 22,000 miles. That means the plane will produce an estimated 572 tons of CO2 emissions. Human-related emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a primary driver of climate change and present one of the world’s most pressing challenges with a range of potential ecological, physical and health impacts.
Why is National Geographic behind this jaunt?
You just have to know that National Geographic is no longer just the publisher of the ubiquitous magazine with the distinctive yellow border that’s been published continuously since 1888.
In 2015, the National Geographic magazine abandoned its nonprofit status and became part of National Geographic Partners, a venture between its parent organization and 21st Century Fox. Under the $725 million deal, Fox became the owner of 73 percent of the new company. The National Geographic Society, which continues with the mission to “inspire people to care about the planet,” became the owner of 27 percent of the new company.
National Geographic Partners combined the National Geographic TV channels with a list of media properties that included National Geographic magazine as well as travel programs, including National Geographic Expeditions.
To say the least, promoting responsible environmental behavior is probably not high on 21st Century Fox’s mission, nor is inspiring people to care about the planet.
Now you know what’s going on, and it’s not pretty.
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have a long history in the United States.
They played a significant role, for example, in educating Black veterans returning from WWII. According to the journalist and historian Edward Humes, writing in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 12% of Black veterans went to college on the GI Bill, with upward of 90% of those attending HBCUs.
Now, in the wake of renewed black activism, HBCUs appear to be on a roll.
In the wake of increased calls for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, six HBCUs, Howard University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Tuskegee University, Hampton University, Morehouse College and Spelman College, announced in July that they had received substantial donations from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Howard received $40 million, Hampton, $30 million, Xavier, Morehouse and Tuskegee, $20 million.
The previous month, Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, said they were donating $120 million to Spelman College, Morehouse College and the United Negro College Fund.
Frosting on the cake came on August 11 when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a Howard University graduate, became the first graduate of a HBCU to become a vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic or Republican party.
“I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris told the Washington Post in 2019. “Howard very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.”
“HBCUs have a tremendous record,” Hastings and Quillin said in a news release announcing their gifts.
The 104 HBCUs do have a good record in some things, but not in one critical area, graduation rates. Their overall performance here is abysmal and large gifts to a few HBCUs likely won’t change that.
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has tried to sugarcoat the situation by asserting that “…in their most important function—enrolling and graduating college students—HBCUs perform far better than their small size and lack of resources would lead one to expect.” The problem is that the UNCF data is misleading.
For example, a 2018 UNCF report noted that “Florida HBCUs represent just 4 percent of the state’s four-year colleges and universities but enroll 9 percent of all black undergraduates and award 18 percent of all bachelor’s degrees to black college graduates.” More meaningful data is the graduation rate at individual HBCUs.
There are HBCUs located in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents 47 public HBCUs, the graduation rate for HBCUs is only 35%.
When the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education surveyed 64 HBCUs in 2014, only five graduated more than 50 percent of their students within six years: Spelman- 69%; Howard, 65%; Hampton, 59%; Morehouse, 55%; Fisk, 52%. At seven HBCUs, fewer than one in five Black students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years.
The current U.S. Department pf Education’s College Scorecard shows an improvement in the graduation rate at Spelman, but declines at the other four schools: Spelman- 77%; Howard, 61%; Hampton, 50%; Morehouse, 52%; Fisk, 41%.
The Scorecard reports appalling graduation rate at some other HBCUs as low as:
- Alabama State University, Montgomery, AL – 31%
- University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. – 28%
- American Baptist College, Nashville, TN – 27%
- Shaw University, Raleigh, NC – 27%
- Langston University, Langston. OK – 23%
Then there’s Shorter College, a private, faith-based, two-year liberal arts college in N. Little Rock, AR. The average annual cost, which includes tuition, living costs, books, and fees minus the average grants and scholarships for federal financial aid recipients, is $16,044. The college says on its website, “The goals of faculty, staff and administrators are the same: student success.” But its graduation rate is only 8%, according to the College Scorecard.
In comparison, about 62% of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in the United States in the fall of 2012 completed that degree at the same institution within 6 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In other words, by 2018 some 62 percent of students had completed a bachelor’s degree at the same institution where they started in 2012.
The problem of pitiful graduation rates at so many HBCUs is compounded by the debt accrued by Black students who don’t graduate. It’s hard enough for many graduates to pay off their college debt. Median total debt after graduation from Fisk College, for example, is $28,000 – $30,000, which translates into monthly loan payments of $291- $317 on a standard 10-year payment plan.
But if a student incurs $30,000 of college debt and never earns a degree, the burden is substantially greater. When they drop out, they don’t get the better job or the wage increase that graduates get initially and over time. One result is that the default rate on federal student loans is three times higher for students who drop out without a diploma. Adding insult to injury, drop-outs in default don’t have access to federal student aid that could help them go back and finish school for a degree.
If wealthy philanthropists and HBCUs really want to help Black college students, they will put money and effort into ensuring that students graduate with a good education. HBCUs that fail this test are doing their students no favors, undercutting the very people they claim to champion, and should close.
Finally, somebody stood up to the mob.
Briones Bedell, 17, a California high school senior, thought Trader Joe’s used racist branding and packaging, so she started a Change.org petition to stop it. “We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores,” her petition says. “The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of “Joe” that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.”
The petition touched a nerve with some people, generating castigation of Trader Joe’s by a Twitter mob and even a New York Times story on July 19, even though the petition had captured fewer than 2,000 signatures at that point, hardly evidence of a groundswell in public condemnation.
That all led to what appeared to be capitulation by Trader Joe’s, though the company said it had decided to get rid of the allegedly racist branding and packaging before the petition emerged.
In an unexpected and groundbreaking twist, however, Trader Joe’s reversed course, issuing a statement on July 24, 2020 saying the branding and packaging would stay: “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions…We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members… those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.”
Has the tide finally begun to turn against social media zealots? There are good reasons why it should.
In the case of Change.org, one good reason to ignore it is because its petitions are useless social barometers generated by a for-profit private company, not a nonprofit charity as many falsely assume. It makes millions by selling advertised petitions on its website. According to Activist Facts, its revenues come from tracking profile data on petition signers and promoting advertised petitions to targeted Change.org members. The promotion comes from Change’s staff of professional campaigners and organizers.
The Wall Street Journal reported on how the system works on the individual user’s end:
[You] join Change.org and sign a petition. Your email is registered as having an affinity with that subject. Change.org then matches you with petitions dealing with similar causes that are sponsored by political groups, activists or nonprofits such as Oxfam. You can sign their petitions and opt to learn more about the groups. If you do opt in, the sponsor gets your address.
“I have huge problems with Change.org because they are a lead-generation business disguised as a social-change organization for whoever is willing to pay them for the email addresses,” Clay Johnson, author of “The Information Diet” and a veteran of fund raising through social media, told the Journal.
A New York Times story on the effectiveness of online petitions expanded on this point. “Digital petitions are popularly used to build databases of names, emails and phone numbers of those who can be called on to act or donate. ‘It’s moved from an organizing effort to an intelligence-gathering operation,’ said Scott Payne, who worked as an organizer for a software company that helps clients gather supporters and donors. That granular level of detail also allows organizations to direct ads to supporters on Facebook.”
Change.org also makes money from people who choose to promote petitions. Promoted petitions let you pay to show any petition (including your own) to other potential supporters on Change.org or its distribution channels. As Change.org puts it, “When someone chips in to promote a petition it helps us share it with wide audiences of action-takers in the Change.org community. Each contribution helps cover the costs of distributing the petition to hundreds, thousands, even millions more people in the Change.org community, many of whom go on to sign the petition.”
Change.org petitions are also unreliable barometers of public opinion because, as the saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The people the petition is trying to influence don’t know much of anything about the signers. Does a signer buy their product, for example? Petition targets also don’t know if people are signing multiple times or signing for other people.
Is the signer a registered voter in a congress member’s district? When I worked for a congressman from New Jersey, he paid a lot more attention to a communication from somebody in his district than from an activist in Santa Clara, CA. That’s why members’ websites ask commenters to identify where they live. In the case of Change.org petition signers, it’s not clear where they’re from or even if they’re Americans. Signers are pretty much a blank slate.
A large number of petition signers is also an unreliable gauge of public opinion. A petition calling for hazard pay for United States Postal Service (USPS) employees, for example, had attracted 979,249 signatures as of early Tuesday afternoon, but the petition is hardly an action by a public-spirited citizen. It was submitted by “Carrying Mail 365”, an organization of U.S. postal workers, who on their own number almost 500,000. Nevertheless, media such as Newsweek, Fox Business and MSN have covered the petition as though it is news.
As with Change.org, mobs on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other Internet-based applications are often unreliable reflections of broad public opinion and should be treated with caution. One reason is because their algorithms pour gasoline on the flames, spreading the grievances of a scant few to the attention of millions.
In the case of twitter, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report:
- Adult Twitter users are younger and more likely to be Democrats than the general public. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Twitter users ages 18 to 49 identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, leading to a lot of urban liberal condescension.
- Twitter users are more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall.
- Twitter users are more likely to see evidence of racial and gender-based inequalities in society.
- Much of the content posted by Americans on Twitter comes from a small number of authors.
- The 10% of users who are most active in terms of tweeting are responsible for 80% of tweets from adult U.S. users
As with Twitter, it’s important to understand the demographics of Instagram’s users. In the U.S. they skew young, with 67% of those age 18-29 and only 23% of those age 50-64 using the app. Users also skew urban. A Pew Research survey found that 46% of urban respondents are using Instagram, but only 34% of suburban respondents and 21% of those living in rural areas.
Instagram’s audience is also a factor in its influence. Instagram is most popular with Hispanic Americans, with 51% of this audience using the app, compared to 40% of Black Americans, and 33% of white, according to Business of Apps. This may be connected with the rural/urban split, with Hispanic and Black users more likely to live in cities.
One unfortunate result of the insistence on personal accountability that emanates from social media campaigns is the lack of any notion of proportionality. Those with opposing views are assailed as enemies to be punished, rather than as fellow citizens to be persuaded (or, at worst, provocateurs to be ignored), U.K.-based researcher, Noah Carl, wrote in Quillette.
What’s the solution?
The best remedy would be resistance by strong adult leaders—university presidents, newspaper publishers, heads of corporations such as Trader Joe’s and so on—capable of standing up to Twitter, other nasty social media and profit-driven petition companies, says Lance Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
What’s the chance that will happen? “The odds are against such a miracle,” Morrow says. “The woke, like hyenas, hunt in packs, and those in authority are craven.”