At Contemporary Issues Forum’s season opener, Edward Humes to talk trash to fix local, planetary ills


Last summer and fall, 14 elaborate sculpture exhibits representing marine life, built of plastic debris removed from Oregon’s coastline, adorned the grounds. Thanks to the support provided by Jane Batten, the installations of “Washed Ashore – Art to Save the Sea “enlightened Chautauquans about the volume and diversity of plastic garbage in American waterways.

Remember the “Jelly Bloom” hanging from the Main Gate Welcome Center’s ceiling? “Eli the Eel” above the staircase within Smith Memorial Library? The penguins, Maggie and Charlette, in Odland Plaza? The triggerfish, Rufus, near the Sports Club?

This summer, the Chautauqua Women’s Club will be opening its 2024 Contemporary Issues Forum with a surprisingly hopeful talk about trash — plastic and otherwise. It turns out, there’s lots we can do to rescue our households, communities, nation, waterways, oceans and planet from this ugly and debilitating global disease.

At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, Edward Humes will explain what actions Chautauquans can take, on the grounds and everywhere else, during his presentation titled, “Want to Save the World? Start By Being Less Trashy!”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Humes is the prolific author of 17 published nonfiction books, including a serial about prosecutorial misconduct that became both a book and an audiobook. As a freelance writer, he has also “kept (his) hand in journalism from time to time,” mainly by writing articles for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and other news magazines.  

His pioneering long-form writing style and tenacious, groundbreaking investigations — a number of which have put him in harm’s way — have led to eye-opening revelations about crime, the U.S. justice system, science, nature, and sustainability.

“I grew up in Philadelphia,” Humes said. “My parents had me late in life. My dad was a World War II veteran. He bought a small home in the city with the G.I. Bill and established a family.”

Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt two weeks after D-Day, the purpose of the federal G.I. Bill was to reintegrate into society the 16 million veterans who were coming home. Humes said that this legislation’s creation of “a generation of homeowners” piqued his interest, which culminated in his 2019 book, Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream.

Combining credible statistics and the personal stories of 10 returning vets, Over Here brings to life the profound effects of turning a generation of renters into homeowners, and of opening up higher education to eight million military personnel, many of whom had never before considered pursuing a college degree.

Humes himself was a first- generation college student at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.

“I attended a large regional high school. In Philly, high school was just 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. It was immense. (By the end of 11th grade, I was in a) graduating class of over 1,200 students. It was bigger than all of Hampshire College. In 12th grade, I transferred to the Parkway Program — famous as the ‘school-without-walls.’ The idea was to use the city as a platform. (My) inaugural graduating class was eight.”

Inspired by nature shows on television in the 1970s, including about Jacques Cousteau, Humes said he’d wanted to be a marine biologist. But when he took a Constitutional law class taught by a Philadelphia attorney with the ACLU as part of his Parkway Program curriculum, his interests broadened.

“From that, I saw value in more experimental approaches,” Humes continued. “I entered Hampshire College in the fall of 1975 and was in the fifth graduating class. Ken Burns was in the first. I took courses at Amherst, U.Mass, and Smith Colleges. … There I shifted to journalism; journalism of social consciousness, such as the muckrakers of the early 20th century.”

As a college student, Humes began working part-time for a newspaper. There his “reporting triumph” was his front page article about a community scandal involving the heating system at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 

It wasn’t working, and everyone was cold.

Upon investigation, he discovered that the system “was so incompetently constructed that the heating pipes were installed backwards; the conduits all failed because the air was pushing the opposite way.”

In 1979, Humes accepted an offer from The Texas Observer in Austin, which had been co-founded in 1954 to cover issues that the daily newspapers in Texas had largely been ignoring – primarily racism, class inequity, and working people.  

From the Observer, he said he made a “big shift” to the “fertile terrain” of The Pine Bluff Commercial, Arkansas’s second-largest daily paper.

As it happens, this past Tuesday the Pine Bluff posted “OPINION | EDITORIAL:  Waste Management not managing waste.” Of late, Pine Bluff’s garbage collector has not been collecting all of the city’s garbage.

From Arkansas, Humes moved to Tucson, Arizona, for a job at The Tucson Citizen, the city’s afternoon newspaper, and until 2014, the state’s oldest continuously published newspaper. There he learned how to cover the courthouse.

After working for three newspapers in 10 years, Humes learned from his predecessor on the citizen’s court beat about The Orange County Register and moved to southern California. He said that the Register had been an unusual, Libertarian-leaning newspaper and was then in competition with the Los Angeles Times.

Half of Humes’ time at the Register was to be spent covering the large defense presence in Orange County, including the U.S. Marine Corps aviation base, large naval and National Guard bases, and aerospace and weapons design. The other half was to be spent on general assignments.

“For his in-depth reporting on the military establishment in Southern California,” Humes received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in Specialized Reporting.

After a private plane and a jet liner collided, Humes “became part of the team that tried to break into the reason why.” For a while, he focused on that investigation instead of the military.

When an American — “the nephew of the most senior U.S. Customs official” — was found murdered on the Mexico/Texas border and an international manhunt ensued, a publisher asked Humes to write a book about the crime.

During his year-long leave from the Register, he discovered a cult committing human sacrifices to protect drug smuggling in Matamoros. He said that finding that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency  investigations and an inter-agency war impeded apprehension, was as interesting to him as the murder.

In order to write Buried Secrets: A True Story of a Serial Murder, Humes said he “learned a form of very long-form writing,” which “at that time, no one was teaching.” In part, he studied the works of John McPhee, and to a lesser degree Truman Capote.

Chilling as Buried Secrets is, “it worked so well” that his publisher asked him what his next book would be. “My first child was on the way,” he said, “and it was very appealing to me to be at home” writing. 

Sticking with crime, Humes wrote Murderer With a Badge: The Secret Life of a Rogue Cop. It chronicles Bill Leasure — a traffic cop nicknamed Mild Bill, in part for rarely issuing tickets — who became L.A.’s “dirtiest cop” by running highly profitable scams. He stole yachts, collected cars and guns, and established a trigger-for-hire ring, all while bamboozling his wife, an otherwise savvy city prosecutor. 

“Eventually he was caught on the deck of one of the stolen boats, with some crew,” said Humes. “He said he was duped by them.”

After being granted full immunity to become an informant, one of the crew — a school bus driver — said that he had killed three people for Leasure.

“ Mild Bill was convicted, and he’s never been paroled,’ Humes said. “You can make a story like that read like crime fiction, which is what people want.”

Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia was his third crime book. It is his bestseller, and like Buried Secrets and Murder With a Badge, the corruption and crimes uncovered, and the networks involved, are astonishing. Read them to believe them.  

Having worked and lived in Arkansas, Humes said he felt he had enough knowledge to help the daughter of a couple murdered in Biloxi crack the case. Lynne Sposito’s father had been a Mississippi judge, and her mother the leading candidate for mayor of Biloxi.

Humes said that he phoned Sposito, they spoke for three hours, the next day he traveled cross-country to meet with her, and thereafter he immersed himself in Biloxi, which was “a little scary sometimes, with scary people.” A “proper Southern town” on the surface, in reality it was “mired in corruption” — like “midnight in the garden of good and evil.” Currently, Mississippi Mud is in development for a film.

The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Murder, published in late 2022, is Humes’ latest crime book. Currently, it is also in development for a film.

After Mississippi Mud, Humes decided to transition to a book requiring a more immersive style of research and investigation. The result was No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court.

“L.A.’s juvenile court was the largest in the U.S. at the time, if not the world,” Humes said. “That left me wanting to know the larger story. The presiding judge supervises hundreds of court houses.”

After he convinced this judge to give him carte blanche to go anywhere necessary to truly “represent what happens day-to-day,” a wise chaplain who had helpfully opened doors for him convinced him to teach a writing course to high risk offenders.

“That changed the whole project,” Humes said. “I got to meet offenders. … Sometimes I would encounter one of their cases in juvenile court. My book has been adopted on campuses … and is still very much in print. That was a new kind of story; a model I really liked. ”

No Matter How Loud I Shout, published in January 1996, won the PEN Center USA award for research nonfiction, and the Best Book award from Investigative Reporters and Editors Published by Simon and Schuster.

Humes then focused on the prosecutorial misconduct serial and book noted earlier. Mean Justice: A Town’s Terror, A Prosecutor’s Power, A Betrayal of Innocence was honored as a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 1999.

“I switched gears completely and embedded in a neonatal ER, moving from crime, to children and crime, to children,” Humes said. He served as author in residence for a year at a top neonatal intensive care unit. Baby ER: The Heroic Doctors and Nurses Who Perform Medicine’s Tiniest Miracles, published in January 2000, tells that story. 

For his third book of this genre, School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School, Humes immersed himself in a Los Angeles-area high school where a grassroots revolt led to its transformation from a failing public school to one of the nation’s best. The year was 2001, the United States was shaken following Sept. 11, and as it turned out, a high percentage of the students were Muslim.

School of Dreams earned Humes a Washington Post Book World “Rave,” a Booklist Editor’s Choice, and an American School Board Journal’s “Must Read,” published by Harcourt. 

The path that led Humes to his books on nature and sustainability began with the environmental writing he had done in Arkansas for The Pine Bluff Commercial and to a lesser extent for Tucson Citizen.

His first such book was Eco Barons: The New Heroes of Environmental Activism, followed by Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution — How It Could Transform Business and Save the World.

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash came next, in 2012. It led to articles written by Humes for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Sierra Magazine.

On the Garbology page of his website, Humes wrote: “What is America’s largest export, most prodigious product and greatest legacy — the biggest thing we make? Our trash. Each of us is on track to toss 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime, 7.1 pounds a day, every day.”

It continues: “We roll to the curb our collective body weight each year — eighteen times over. Our disposable plastic alone outweighs the entire U.S. Navy — and it costs us hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Published earlier this year, Total Garbage: How We Can Fix Our Waste and Heal the World, provides far more than just a Garbology update.

In both books, Humes points out the flawed methodology that the Environmental Protection Agency has been using to calculate the average number of pounds of trash that each American throws away every day, in order to make it appear that Americans are far less wasteful than they actually are.

Based on the measurable data collected and analysis conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, Humes states in Total Garbage that “EPA’s latest trash data is total garbage. … The real numbers put Americans’ trashiness at 8.2 pounds a day for every man, woman, and child.”

According to Humes, the EPA officially claims that Americans’ personal waste footprint is 4.9 pounds a day.

“The reason that I wanted to write (Total Garbage) is that waste is not just what we roll to the curb every week,” Humes said. “It’s so imbedded and omnipresent we don’t notice it anymore. It’s one of our biggest problems. But it’s hopeful because there are no waste doubters. And it has a household solution, a community solution, a local solution, and a systemic solution for the entire country.”

Moreover, “fixing our waste not only helps save the world, but it’s the secret sauce that turns helplessness and anxiety into opportunity and unity. When waste is the common enemy, fixing the planet stops being about giving up things we love. Instead, it’s about upgrading to stuff we’ll love better.”

Tags : Chautauqua Women’s ClubChautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues ForumCIFContemporary Issues ForumEco Barons: The New Heroes of Environmental ActivismEdward HumesForce of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution — How It Could Transform Business and Save the WorldJane BattenLos Angeles Times MagazineOver Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American DreamSchool of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High SchoolWant to Save the World? Start By Being Less Trashy!Washed Ashore – Art to Save the Sea

The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.