In Louisiana, climate change threatens the preservation of history
When I visited the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana last year, I was surprised to find that a museum tour of the history and legacy of slavery also discussed climate change. Among crooked live oaks covered in Spanish moss, as green dragonflies buzzed in the intense heat, I paused to read a sign entitled “Climate Change and Threats to Conservation.”
Its text explains that Hurricane Ida, which hit the museum grounds on August 29, 2021, was exacerbated by “warming oceans caused by climate change.” The sign linked Ida and climate change to products made at Cancer Alley in Louisiana, 85 miles along the Mississippi River, home to more than 150 petrochemical and refineries, and the Whitney Plantation. Another “Hurricanes and Other Storms” sign stood in front of a wide expanse of grass, empty except for scattered wooden piles. These were the remains of the slave huts that had stood there before the hurricane struck.
“We have begun to officially interpret climate change as a response to this storm,” said Ashley Rogers, chief executive. “The hurricane sat over us for seven hours. Every building was damaged and three of them completely collapsed. Two slave huts were demolished. It’s a part of the Louisiana cultural landscape that no longer exists.”
the museum was closed for three months for extensive and costly repairs, and when I visited, 10 months after Ida, the 19th century Antioch Baptist Church was still wrapped in scaffolding and yellow warning tape.
While Whitney Plantation has been able to restore some (but not all) of their buildings, Rogers wonders how the museum will withstand major storms like Ida in the future, not to mention what loss of land, flooding and nearby industrial development could mean. for him. site survival. She sees a kind of feedback loop in the environmental problems facing southern Louisiana.
“We are fighting industrial encroachment, which only exacerbates land loss conditions, which then lead to climate change, which then leads to more severe storms,” Rogers said. “It seems almost inevitable that there will be a significant loss of heritage sites like ours. Climate change poses an existential threat to our existence as a historic site.”
Whitney Plantation vulnerabilities are not an anomaly. Historical and archaeological sites around the world are under serious threat due to climate change, and this fact is clearly stated in a comprehensive recent report published in the journal Antiquity entitled “Climate Change and the Loss of Archaeological Sites and Landscapes”. The climate change and archeology press often touts discoveries made possible by melting ice or erosion of coastlines, but these stories obscure the big picture: we’re losing far more than we’re saving.
From Libya to Greece, from Scotland to Australia, the world’s cultural treasures are under threat, and efforts to preserve them have so far fallen short of the threat. A 2018 paper compared the situation to a global “burning of libraries,” irreplaceable resources that we must protect now if we are to preserve them. “I hope that authorities in countries around the world will begin to understand that the threat of climate change to archaeology is an urgent issue that needs to be confronted,” said Jørgen Hollesen, author of the report. “The sooner, the better.”
Because of how rapidly climate change and its impacts are accelerating, the report acknowledges that it will not be possible to save every place. Projects such as Legacy on the Edge, which aims to “digitize more places before they’re lost” are trying to fill in the gaps, but a digital model is no real substitute for a physical place, especially a place that isn’t fully catalogued and explored. Deciding what and how to save is a subjective and complex minefield. “We’re saving sites for future generations of people, so we need to evaluate what will matter to them, not to us,” Hollesen said.
While we can’t know for sure what will matter most to future generations, here and now Whitney Plantation’s work is helping to make visible the ways in which America’s past is very much alive in its present. “Climate change and environmental racism are the legacy of slavery,” Rogers said. “The fact that Cancer Alley exists, and that it is in exactly the same place as the most densely populated plantation area in the country, is no coincidence.”
Cancer Alley is what is known as the “sacrifice zone,” a place where residents, often people of disproportionate color, are regularly exposed to pollution and hazardous waste. In 2021, the United Nations called on the US federal government to end further industrialization of Cancer Alley, citing ongoing public health risks and human rights violations. Rogers said the Cancer Alley refineries and factories are located on the tops of former plantations where generations of enslaved people were born, worked, died and were buried.
A few miles upriver from Whitney Plantation in St. James Parish, residents are vying for a proposal to build a giant new petrochemical plant. The history of the land and the close proximity of the graves of enslaved ancestors played a role in a judge’s decision in 2022 to revoke the company’s flight permits. But many of the largely unmarked old Cancer Alley plantation burial grounds have already been destroyed by industry, and climate change could wipe out what’s left.
On the way back to New Orleans after the tour, we passed the unwieldy infrastructure of Cancer Lane: huge rust-coloured structures belching thick white smoke; pipes spewing brown water into open fields; creepy flashing orange lights; cranes and towers, and a Shell billboard with a picture of a smiling worker, the words “Louisiana Rhythm” and the hashtag #MakeTheFuture. There was little sign of wildlife in the long grass and creeping kudzu that grew along the road. As we drove, a storm was brewing, and the sky darkened to bruise-purple, blotting out a sunny afternoon that had been a few minutes earlier. Fat drops of rain fell heavily through the windows.
In our interview, Ashley Rogers spoke about Antioch Baptist Church, a structure built by former slaves after the Civil War that originally served as a funeral home for the African American community in St. James Parish. After Ida severely damaged the church in 2021, its roof was replaced with 50-year-old shingles as part of a $350,000 major renovation. “Tell me: will this place be there in 50 years?” Rogers asked. “I don’t know.”
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