Monitor Daily Podcast

August 21, 2017
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Monitor Daily Intro for August 21, 2017

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

A year ago, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was vilified for a black civil rights protest on the sidelines of a preseason game.

Kaepernick is out of a job now. He’s been blackballed by NFL owners for his politics, some say. 

But in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., the NFL sidelines are a telling barometer of shifting public sentiment.

Other NFL players are now protesting during the national anthem. What’s different? Some of those players are white.

“It’s a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality,” said Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long Thursday night, as he rested his hand on the back of black teammate Malcolm Jenkins, who had his fist thrust in the air.

After Charlottesville, the chief executive officers of major corporations also sounded, well, much like the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. The nation has arguably edged closer to Kaepernick’s position. Business execs are increasingly exercising moral authority on social issues, seeing qualities, such as tolerance, diversity, and equality, as important to their employees and customers.

Something else to watch for in the coming football season: Which NFL owner will make a values statement by hiring Kaepernick?

Here are our five stories for today:

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‘American eclipse’: coming together in the moon’s shadow

United in awe, Americans found in the US solar eclipse a glimpse of what unity feels like in a world often rived by differences.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Members of the media watch the solar eclipse at the White House in Washington Aug. 21.

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For roughly two minutes today, give or take 40 seconds, millions of Americans across 14 states looked up to the sky in wonder, sharing one of the rarest and most celebrated of cosmic events: a total eclipse of the sun. Several hundred million more paused to watch a partial eclipse. In an increasingly divided society, part of a fragmented and bulging information age, there are few such collective experiences. But for at least a brief period on Monday, millions of Americans – spanning diverse ages, backgrounds, religions, and political beliefs – were united in a shared sense of awe. Through the ages, solar eclipses have offered humanity a chance to set aside all of those divisions, however briefly, and to reflect on our shared existence on this pale blue dot that is Earth. As one eclipse chaser and historian puts it: A total solar eclipse is “a deeply human experience that makes you feel connected to other people alive today, part of a continuum of humanity – connected to the past and to the future.” Click expand to hear from two Monitor reporters on-scene in the path of totality.

‘American eclipse’: coming together in the moon’s shadow


After all the hype and all the media attention and the lyrical first-hand accounts about the power of a total eclipse, there is just this: a dark circle in the sky where the sun should be. A luminescent ring that shimmers in strange ways. Stars and planets emerging in a twilight sky at 10:19 in the morning. And thousands of people in a hushed awe, giving a collective gasp, as together they watch a sky that seems completely unworldly.

For a few hours on Monday, millions of Americans across the country set aside the political rancor and social tension that have dominated public discourse in past months and weeks to witness the Great American Eclipse – together.

“That’s what makes it so special,” says Mike Kentrianakis, solar eclipse project manager for the American Astronomical Society, who has seen 10 total solar eclipses. “It’s an astronomical phenomenon that’s a shared human experience.”

The shadow of the moon doesn’t discriminate. During a solar eclipse, everything – cities and mountainsides; humans, animals, and plants; Republicans and Democrats; Red Sox and Yankees fans – in the path of totality goes dark, and anyone can look up and see the deep black sphere, ringed in light, where the sun used to be.

A total solar eclipse is “a deeply human experience that makes you feel connected to other people alive today, part of a continuum of humanity – connected to the past and to the future,” says eclipse chaser David Baron. “A total eclipse reminds you of your insignificance. It’s this sense of being humbled. Frankly, I think we all could use that.”

Indeed, as the moon began to slide in front of the sun, a quiet fell over the crowd gathered on Orchardale Farm in Hopkinsville, Ky. As totality began, at 1:24 local time, there were cheers. Hoots. Hollers. And then an electric hush fell over the crowd. As the sun reemerged, people turned to new friends they had just met that day, exchanged goodbyes, and vowed to find a way to catch the next eclipse.

A rare celestial treat

The Earth, moon, and sun haven’t aligned for a total solar eclipse on the mainland United States since 1979. For such a rare event to occur, the moon’s orbit must cross the Earth’s orbital plane at a close enough distance that it completely obscures the sun, while the planet is tilted in just the right way for the US to be aligned with the sun and moon as well. A solar eclipse can be seen somewhere on Earth about every 18 months, on average. But the moon’s shadow last slid from coast-to-coast in the United States in 1918. 

“The geometry is almost ideal for being accessible to many millions of Americans,” says Michael Zeiler, a cartographer who created the Great American Eclipse website. “Over half of the nation can reach the path within a day’s drive.”

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
People watch the total solar eclipse Aug. 21 from Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet (2,025m) is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. Location coordinates for this image are 35º33'24" N, 83º29'46" W.

And drive they did, though fears of hours-long traffic jams on highways leading toward the path of totality this morning proved largely unfounded.

Mary Ludwig of La Crescent, Minn., drove 15 hours to Kentucky with her husband and three of her children, whom she homeschools. Mrs. Ludwig planned the trip as both an educational and spiritual experience for her children. The family spent Sunday night watching shooting stars from sleeping bags atop the family van, which was scrawled with eclipse-related vocabulary. She hopes they see the eclipse as an opportunity to step away from short-term, negative human experiences and to ponder “the bigger picture of life” and to “come together in a positive community.”

A woman who describes her self as the “Voodoo Bone Lady” traveled from New Orleans to Kentucky with a Mandarin rat snake named Damballah to conduct a ritual "for peace and for unity.”

“Over the past few months, it has saddened me the way this country is going, with all the racism, the hatred, the bigotry,” she says.

In Salem, Ore., Rick D’Alli traveled all the way from Gainesville, Fla., to Oregon to view the eclipse with his friend Jon Fink, with whom he used to work in the NASA labs in the early 1980s.

For him, the experience is amplified by its collective nature. “It’s about seeing so many people with kids of all ages, ethnicities of all ages, brought together to experience, together, a miracle of nature that so trivializes the political theater,” Mr. D’Alli says.

A political reprieve

This isn’t the first eclipse to bring a polarized nation together, says Mr. Baron, a journalist and author of “American Eclipse.” In researching the 1878 eclipse, which passed over the American West, he says he was struck by many parallels to present-day America.

In 1878, he notes, America was still fighting over the last presidential election, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote, and there were charges of a fraudulent presidency.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A woman views the solar eclipse from Times Square in Manhattan, N.Y., Aug. 21. Location coordinates for this image are 40.7589° N, 73.9851°. W.

“The nation was bitterly divided, but here was a shared event that was completely nonpolitical that the whole country got behind,” Baron says. “I can’t claim that it had some long-lasting effect on politics, but it certainly provided a welcome distraction and a chance for Americans to unite around a shared moment of joy and excitement.”

With Monday’s eclipse, Baron and others have highlighted the proximity and mixing of “tribes” that is, by necessity, happening – especially as sold-out hotel rooms force travelers to book Airbnbs, camp on people’s land, and stay in their spare rooms. New Yorkers traveled to Hopkinsville, Ky; liberals from Boulder and Denver drove up to rural Wyoming.

Ahead of the eclipse, Baron told the Monitor, “It’s going to force that contact around something that will be shared, and it’s hard to believe it’s controversial in any way.”

Some people organized gatherings specifically with that sort of mixing in mind. Ross Matteson, a sculptor from Washington who owns a small piece of land in central Idaho, has been planning an event for more than a year to bring artists, academics, and scientists to mix with his rural ranching and farming neighbors in Idaho.

“Everybody can learn from everybody,” says Mr. Matteson.

United in awe of the universe

Eclipse chasers, also called “umbraphiles,” struggle to find the words for the power this event can hold.

“It’s almost as if you’re lifted off the surface of the Earth,” says Mr. Zeiler, who has seen eight total eclipses in his life, from the equatorial rainforests of Gabon to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. “Your spirit is elevated by the incredible beauty of the sight, and you feel a stronger connection to the universe, and a lot of the problems we have on Earth seem petty once you’ve had that experience.”

A solar eclipse is so much more than a spectacular sight, says Mike Simmons, founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders, who has seen seven total solar eclipses. “A total eclipse is not so much something that you see, it’s something that happens to you.”

“Whether it’s the shadow sweeping in and leaping over you, or the eeriness of the strange light that precedes the eclipse before things go dark and the stars come out, or the incredibly black-looking hole where the sun used to be with this pearlescent sort of corona around it that no camera can capture, or the animals that think it’s nighttime and start making noise and coming out, or the yells and whoops of the people around, it’s an experience which cannot be simulated or understood,” he says. “It’s like traveling to another planet in a Star Wars movie, suddenly.”

Solar eclipses aren’t the only celestial sights that capture universal attention. Astronomy overall transcends divides, says Mr. Simmons. And that’s the premise behind his organization, Astronomers Without Borders, which connects skygazers from nations as disparate as the United States, Iran, Ghana, Bulgaria, Brazil, and the Philippines.

Around the world, anyone can look up and see the same sky, the same moon, and the same sun, just from a different vantage point, Simmons says. And that can lend a unifying perspective.

“We're getting a different view of the same thing. This shows us that we're on a sphere, a little speck amidst everything, but we are really in the same place,” he says. “Earth seems like a big place to us, but it's not really such a big place after all.”

That's the impression that the moment left on Gretchen Millard after totality passed the state fairgrounds in Salem, Ore.

“It was so much more amazing than I expected,” she says. “It was so surreal.” The experience, she says, made her realize that “this world is bigger than us. And this world is going to keep going. It’s bigger than our petty stuff. Bigger than us.”

Can US push China to help curb North Korean nukes?

In attempting to stop North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons, the US is banking on China as a partner. Is that a credible path to progress?


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Military tensions with North Korea are in the spotlight again, as the United States and South Korea conduct joint military drills starting Monday. The allies say it’s all about defense against a nation that’s combining hostile rhetoric with threatening missile tests. The state news agency in Pyongyang, meanwhile, says North Korea is the one under threat. But for all the importance of armaments and military options, the way toward diplomacy and possible de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula may hinge crucially on economics. The United Nations Security Council recently moved to step up curbs on imports from North Korea. Such sanctions in recent years haven’t stopped the nuclear program of Kim Jong-un’s regime, because its key trade partner, China, hasn’t cracked down. The US is hoping to change that as the Trump administration has launched a trade investigation that imperils Chinese exports to America. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote recently that the nuclear risks “threaten the economic, political and military security China has worked to build over decades.”

Can US push China to help curb North Korean nukes?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Donald Trump gestures while speaking following his meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. In seeking to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program, US officials have voiced openness to negotiations. ‘The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,’ Mr. Tillerson wrote along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 13.

The tension between the US and North Korea revolves squarely around military threats. Recent missile tests have raised fears that Kim Jong-un’s regime is getting inexorably closer to long-range nuclear weapons capability. The flip side, on display as the US and South Korea engage in joint military drills this week, is that North Korea says it feels under threat from the West.

Pyongyang’s state media on Aug. 20 called this year’s drills a “reckless” move that could trigger the “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.”

As the drills began the next day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned the government in Pyongyang against any fresh provocations. The allies have said the 11-day drills are defensive in nature and do not include field training like live-fire exercises or tank maneuvering, the Associated Press reported.

But if the military factors are an inescapable nub of the challenge, recent events have also been pointing toward another kind of tension – over economics – that may ultimately prove vital as the US seeks leverage to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.

It’s not just that economic sanctions can bring direct pressure on North Korea. It’s also that US economic pressure on China could play an indirect role in nudging Beijing toward altering its pivotal stance in the conflict.

So far, the uncomfortable truth has been this: The more sanctions the West has piled on the regime, the more progress it has made in missile technology. Instead of blunting its nuclear ambitions, more than a decade’s worth of sanctions have pushed North Korea into the arms of China, which so far has resisted turning the screws on its troublesome ally.

But in recent days, as China announced severe new curbs on purchases of North Korean goods, in line with a recent vote by the United Nations Security Council, President Trump has ratcheted up trade pressure on China. He ordered an investigation of China’s trade practices regarding the intellectual property of US industries.

[Editor’s note: The opening paragraphs of this article have been updated to refer to joint military drills by South Korea and the US that began Aug. 21.]

What's possible, though far from certain, is that economic pressure from the US on China and from China on North Korea – coupled with robust US military preparation for any kind of action from Pyongyang – could set the stage for talks that lead to a diplomatic breakthrough on the larger geopolitical issues.

“North Korea, by definition, is a crisis,” says Jae Ku, director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Getting to the [negotiating] table is excruciatingly difficult.”

He says it will take some dramatic standoff, on the order of the Cuban missile crisis, to get Washington and Pyongyang to sit down and work out some compromise. “Until we get there, the road is fraught with many, many dangers.”

The way to get there is, he says, is partly through the kind of economic pressure that members of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, have agreed to.

After China pledged to implement the UN sanctions, Mr. Kim backed off a threat to fire nuclear missiles at Guam, a US territory, saying he would instead “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees."

From the pariah state’s perspective, economic sanctions hurt. The UN measures announced Aug. 5 aim to slash its annual $3 billion export revenue by more than a third. China said it would implement those sanctions, cutting off imports of coal, iron and lead ores, and fish from the regime at midnight Sept. 5. Coal alone accounts for about half of the regime’s exports.

The cuts could severely crimp an economy that, by North Korean standards, seems to have been doing relatively well. Last month, South Korea’s central bank estimated that the North’s GDP grew 3.9 percent, its best showing since 1999. (The regime is so secretive and its economy so closed that any numbers are highly speculative.)

By themselves, sanctions won’t force change. North Korea has become increasingly sophisticated at evading sanctions. To procure sophisticated nuclear technology, for example, it uses a small band of Chinese middlemen, so-called hwa-gyo, who operate on the shadowy fringe of the world’s No. 2 economy and are hard to trace even for Chinese officials, points out John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass.

China, meanwhile, has talked tough before with little change in trade volumes. The latest move “does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary,” writes Benjamin Silberstein, coeditor of North Korean Economy Watch, an online blog that monitors the North’s economy. “Whether or not it is enforced in the weeks, months or even years ahead will be the real test.”

Beijing has so far resisted cutting off oil exports, which would really cripple the regime and its military, and has kept the US from penalizing Chinese banks that give the North access to hard currency to pay for its nuclear technology. There are several reasons it’s reluctant.

Beijing doesn’t want the regime to implode, sparking a refugee crisis on its borders. Its soldiers have fought to defend North Korea. And an ally – even an unpredictable and troublesome one like North Korea – represents a buffer from South Korea and the 23,000 US troops stationed there.

That means one of the few good options for the US is to pressure North Korea by using its economic leverage over China. The leverage is considerable. Chinese exports to the US ran $460 billion last year, representing more than 4 percent of China’s GDP. (US exports to China represent less than 1 percent of America’s GDP.) The loss of even a portion of US trade dwarfs China’s total trade with North Korea, estimated at maybe $7 billion in 2014.

That is perhaps why President Trump interrupted his vacation Aug. 14 to return to Washington to order his trade representative to determine whether China is stealing US intellectual property.

The move could lead to stiff tariffs or quotas on Chinese exports to the US.

It’s a questionable strategy to link two such strategic issues. The intellectual property issue is huge, involving US high-tech industries from semiconductors to electric cars, who worry that China is systematically appropriating technology and trade secrets to build up its own companies to compete against them. If China finds a way to tamp down North Korea’s rhetoric, does the US ignore allegations of Chinese theft?

US trade officials say the trade move is independent of the North Korean crisis, but Mr. Trump has tweeted several times that the two issues are linked.

So far, all three players have left themselves some maneuvering room to avoid escalating the situation. The US investigation into Chinese trade practices could last a year or more. In an Aug. 13 Wall Street Journal commentary, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that they were ready to negotiate with North Korea if it would stop its threats and weapons tests.

“The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,” they wrote. “We do not seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone.”

China, for its part, has made noises that may be aimed at prodding North Korea to cool it. In June, China National Petroleum Corp. suspended fuel sales to the regime. A semi-official Chinese newspaper said Beijing might ban oil exports.

But getting to the point that the United States can offer something that will get North Korea to give up its weapons remains extraordinarily difficult.

“At the end of the day, what all this is about is the US fear that the North Koreans are just too unstable to own nuclear weapons and [North Korea’s] fear that we will wake up someday and decide we need another Saddam Hussein,” says Joseph DeThomas, a professor at Pennsylvania State University's school of international affairs and a former State Department official who worked on Iran and North Korea nuclear disarmament.

Iraq’s Hussein was another dictator who fanned global concerns about weapons of mass destruction, and was deposed in 2003 by a US-led invasion.

With ISIS out, early signs of ‘school’s in’ in embattled Mosul

The fight against ISIS left the schools in Mosul, Iraq, mostly in ruins. But the desire to learn, to expand horizons, and to move forward remains undimmed.


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Across Iraq, schools are set to reopen in weeks. But in western Mosul, after years of curriculum-changing Islamic State (ISIS) occupation and a months-long assault by Iraqi forces, most schools are damaged and the educational system in tatters. Still, teachers are eager to get back in their classrooms and teach the students who remain. “The Ministry of Education wants to do a lot of things, but has no money to prepare the school and books,” says one local teacher. “ISIS burned the books.” Nevertheless, despite the damage and the looming challenges, more than 100 schools have reopened recently in western Mosul, enabling some 75,000 children to return to school, UNICEF says. Rejuvenating the broken education system is just one window into the task of rebuilding Mosul. But, say officials and educators, it’s a crucial investment if Iraq’s future is to overcome years of war, deprivation, and sectarian conflict. Says Laila Ali, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in northern Iraq: “The importance of education in supporting reconciliation efforts and helping children deal with the trauma of what they have gone through cannot be overstated.”

With ISIS out, early signs of ‘school’s in’ in embattled Mosul

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
The Mosul Jadiida Primary School for Girls awaits renovation for the new school year in western Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 11. It was burned by an Islamic State suicide car bomb that in March 2017 targeted a temporary Iraqi Security Forces base set up across the street.

The Iraqi teacher’s school is wrecked.

The façade is burnt black from an Islamic State suicide car bomb, every window is broken, and everywhere are the signs of a war that has ravaged children’s education as much as it has shredded Mosul’s social fabric.

Sundus al-Yusuf can’t wait to get back into her western Mosul classroom to teach lessons in Arabic and math. Within weeks, classes are set to resume across Iraq.

But so far, after nearly three years of curriculum-changing ISIS occupation, and a nine-month assault by Iraqi security forces that left entire swaths of western Mosul in ruins, an Iraqi flag hanging from a rooftop pole is the only attempt to restore pride.

Rejuvenating the city’s broken education system is just one window into the monumental task of rebuilding Mosul from the rubble. But, say officials and educators, it is a crucial investment if Iraq’s future is to overcome years of war, deprivation, and sectarian conflict.

“The importance of education in supporting reconciliation efforts and helping children deal with the trauma of what they have gone through cannot be overstated,” says Laila Ali, a spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in northern Iraq.

Ms. Yusuf, who lives near the Mosul Jadidah Primary School for girls, where she taught, says half her school is burned, and the other half looted. “Now there is no decision on when it will open,” she says.

“ISIS changed everything, and 90 percent of the students left,” says Yusuf, noting how her school enrollment dropped from 300 students to just 35 students overnight, when ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014.

She says she was forced to teach for a year by ISIS, then then allowed to spend the last two years the last two years of ISIS occupation at home.

“The problem is the Ministry of Education wants to do a lot of things, but has no money to prepare the school and books,” adds Yusuf. “ISIS burned the books.”

The UN, which has requested nearly $1 billion in assistance for the people of Mosul, estimates that 15 of western Mosul’s 54 residential districts are completely destroyed, and 23 of them moderately damaged. The UN reckons that more than $700 million will be required to stabilize and make those areas livable.

Despite the damage, more than 100 schools have reopened recently in western Mosul, enabling some 75,000 children to return to school, according to UNICEF.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Classrooms overflowed at the Al Muthanna Primary School in eastern Mosul, Iraq, when school resumed in February 2017 after nearly three years of Islamic State rule over the eastern half of the city.

Yusuf reels off figures circulating among educators, that 60 percent of schools in western Mosul are damaged, and that 40 percent of students are “not here” – presumed to be among the 950,000 Mosulis who fled the city since last October, when Iraqi forces launched the anti-ISIS offensive.

The half of Mosul east of the Tigris River was officially “liberated” in February, with far less damage than the western side. Since then, 400 schools have re-opened on the east side to accommodate some 400,000 children, says UNICEF.

This western half was declared free on July 11, though ISIS sleeper cells, booby-traps, and unexploded ordnance are still taking a toll.

Still, an estimated 60,000 people have so far returned to the west side, and the Ministry of Education has promised that exams postponed earlier this year would be held on Aug. 23, with the regular school year set to begin in mid-September.

But as of last week Yusuf had heard little about how exams might be held under conditions of such destruction, never mind a heat wave that each day has brought temperatures to 115 degrees F.

'Patterns of displacement'

And in a city once renowned across Iraq for its educational prowess, says Yusuf, one fact towers above all: the destruction of buildings, dramatic imposition of a jihadist ISIS curriculum that taught “one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets,” and severe dislocation of families and entire communities all add up to “100 percent damage” to western Mosul’s education system. That, he says, means students are “starting from zero” post-ISIS.

“Many of these children have missed three years of their education and they are all eager to be back in the classroom, learning and aspiring towards a better future,” says Ms. Ali, the UNICEF spokeswoman.

A recent UNICEF report described the impact of war on Iraqi children.

They are “struggling with the physical and psychological wounds of war. Half of those being treated in trauma centers in west Mosul with bullet and shrapnel wounds are children,” notes the June report.

“Violence has generated patterns of displacement and destruction, and pushed more than 1 million children out of school, leaving them with fewer skills and at higher risk of sinking into poverty,” wrote UNICEF.

Even the process of “liberation” from ISIS can prove devastating, as this southwesterly neighborhood discovered when it was one of the first to be recaptured by Iraqi forces, in March.

Iraqi counter-terrorism troops set up a forward base in a house directly across the street from the school, which attracted the ISIS suicide car bomb on March 11, killing five or six people, the Yusuf family recalls. That explosion ravaged the school building.

Less than a week later, on March 17, the Jadidah district became infamous for another reason: A rapid string of airstrikes by the US-led coalition targeting ISIS militants on rooftops and in narrow alleys collapsed buildings on civilians sheltering in basements, killing more than 200.

A dearth of books

When the primary school opened temporarily in June, predictable problems arose. Aside from the missing teachers and students, supplies were slow in coming, and never enough.

On average, Yusuf says, there might be 20 books for 90 students. For social studies classes, there were just three books for 80 students – numbers which meant over-reliance on less-effective blackboard learning.

“Right now the students understand nothing, because [ISIS] affected their minds,” says Sajida Mahmoud al-Yusuf, a supervisor of education for western Mosul until 2003.

“Students don’t have shoes or clothes or money; most of their houses are destroyed,” says Sajida, who is teacher Sundus Yusuf's sister. In many cases the level of destruction means students are sitting on the ground.

“There are no desks, no chairs. Why no chairs? Because ISIS burned them to keep warm in winter, and to cook,” she says. Under ISIS “there was suffering, everything was bad. They just wanted to say, ‘We opened the schools' for propaganda purposes.”

Similar challenges and guarded optimism were voiced in eastern Mosul in February, weeks after Iraqi forces took total control. The fight there was less destructive than in western Mosul, where ISIS declared its Islamic “caliphate” in 2014 and dug in for a fight to the death.

In February, Mosul education was “empty” and students were returning with “bad in their hearts and their minds,” Assam Mohsin Jalili, director of the Resalah Islamiya High School for boys in eastern Mosul, told the Monitor at the time. Since then, UNICEF and other aid agencies have chipped in to help his school and others.

Eager to begin

Mr. Jalili’s previous concerns have now turned to optimism for Mosul.

Depending on their resources, Jalili predicts it will take eight months to a year for western Mosul schools to recover, though if there is little help from nongovernmental organizations, “it will take longer,” he says.

The Ministry of Education ordered students who fled the west side for the east side to return for the upcoming academic year.

“The ministry is supporting them, and that’s good,” says Jalili. “Right now the community is refusing ISIS. People lost everything for ISIS.”

That high price of the ISIS presence is felt in western Mosul at the girls’ school, where the view looking outside through smashed windows is of two destroyed cars and piles of charred rubble across the street.

The few usable chairs and desks are crowded into the few usable classrooms. Many walls are blackened with fire. The stench of burning seems permanent.

But Yusuf the teacher is optimistic, and says all eight teachers and 300 students can’t wait for the first day of school, whenever that comes.

“I am looking forward to everything being ready for the students,” she says.

Temples of nature: China’s ambitious plans for national parks

China’s leaders no longer see nature as an enemy to conquer. Nature, they say, is now something to deeply value. That means China’s first national park will be one of the biggest ever conceived.


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The Milky Way is still overhead when Gongson Zhuoma and her sister-in-law wake up to milk their family’s yaks. They tie woolen aprons around their waists and put on heavy jackets and stocking caps before stepping outside their white tarpaulin tent into the cold, cloudless night. These are the far western reaches of Sanjiangyuan, China, where the Tibetan Plateau reaches more than 15,000 feet above sea level. Windswept grasslands extend for miles in every direction. And they are at the heart of one of the most ambitious conservation experiments in the world: China’s first national park – the size of Pennsylvania. Six decades after Mao Zedong declared that “man must conquer nature,” Beijing is signaling a fundamentally different approach as it calculates the environmental cost of its rapid growth. “No one has ever experienced this set of circumstances in the world before, with so many people pressing up against the very limits of Earth’s boundaries and life-support systems,” says Gretchen Daily, a professor at Stanford University who calls Beijing’s investment in nature “completely unprecedented.” But in a country of almost 1.4 billion, creating harmony between humans and nature will be a mammoth task.

Temples of nature: China’s ambitious plans for national parks

Ann Hermes/Staff
Tibetan prayer flags flutter along the Mekong River in Angsai, a region of the Tibetan Plateau that will be included in China’s first national park.

More than 2,700 miles before the Mekong River drains into the South China Sea, before it winds past the ancient Khmer temple of Vat Phou and the poppy fields of the Golden Triangle, it begins on the Tibetan Plateau in western China. Tibetan Buddhists believe the spiritual source of the river is an alpine lake called Zaxiqiwa. Scientists have argued for decades over the river’s geographical origin. Not one of them doubts that it trickles down from a glacier high in the serrated mountains. The question is which one.

As the river makes its way down the plateau, it carves through russet-colored sandstone cliffs and passes meadows of white and yellow wildflowers. Tibetan prayer flags suspended on ropes crisscross its banks, and rocky streams feed into its waters. As I set up camp near one of these streams in late July, I think about the only other time I have seen the Mekong. It was four years ago in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. There, the river was a murky brown and smelled of sewage. Here, its headwaters are crystalline and unspoiled. 

The Mekong is the smallest of three vital rivers that begin in the glaciers, lakes, and wetlands spread across the Sanjiangyuan region. The other two are the Yellow and Yangtze. Combined, the three rivers supply water to more than 600 million people. If the Yellow River is the cradle of Chinese civilization, Sanjiangyuan is its wellspring.

But it’s a spring that isn’t inexhaustible. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Zhuoma Wangzuo gathers water near her family's tent in Hoh Xil or Kekexili on the Tibetan Plateau.

Over the past several decades, the effects of climate change, overgrazing, and human activity have led to widespread desertification on the plateau. To make matters worse, the region’s glaciers have receded 15 percent over the past 30 years. Hundreds of plant and animal species face imminent danger as a result, including the area’s most famous inhabitant, the elusive snow leopard.

Now the Chinese government is undertaking one of the most ambitious conservation experiments in the world to halt the degradation. It intends to combine three separate regions of Sanjiangyuan to create China’s first national park – setting aside an area the size of Pennsylvania. 

At the same time, China is working to set up a series of other trial national parks around the country. Thirteen projects have been established in 10 provinces so far. They include a national park for giant pandas and a separate one for Siberian tigers and Amur leopards.

Gretchen Daily, a conservationist and biology professor at Stanford University, says these initiatives, combined with other large-scale environmental projects Beijing is already pursuing, represent “a level of investment in nature that’s completely unprecedented.” 

The new thrust is part of an effort by President Xi Jinping to transform China into an “ecological civilization.” More than six decades after Mao Zedong declared that “man must conquer nature,” Chinese leaders have signaled a fundamentally different approach to the natural world. The change in attitude reflects a growing realization of the damage China’s rapid economic rise has done to the environment.

“President Xi Jinping believes the past model of economic development is no longer sustainable,” says Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, a Chicago-based research center that focuses on United States-China relations and is working with Beijing on the trial parks. “He is fully aware of the risk of not taking corrective action.”

The new parks movement is audacious – and risky. Scheduled to open in 2020, Sanjiangyuan National Park will, at 47,000 square miles, become the world’s second-largest national park (after Northeast Greenland National Park, which is bigger than all but 29 countries). The animal parks will both be at least one and a half times the size of Yellowstone, the crown jewel of the US park system. 

“It took the US 100 years to get to where we are with our national park system,” says Destry Jarvis, a founding member of Global Parks, a nonprofit consultancy started by retired US National Park Service managers. “If the Chinese keep it up, they could get to the same place in 25 or 30 years.”

Yet in a country of almost 1.4 billion people, Mr. Jarvis cautions, creating harmony between humans and nature will be a mammoth task. For both China and the world, the experiment is important for what it means for protecting the environment, for combating global warming, and for Chinese social cohesion, since tens of thousands of people will have to be relocated to make room for one of the most expansive conservation efforts in modern history. 

National parks have long been regarded as temples of nature in the US. President Theodore Roosevelt said as much after camping in Yosemite with the naturalist John Muir in 1903. “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral,” he later wrote, “far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau extolled unspoiled wilderness for its ability to rejuvenate the soul. Nature was intrinsically valuable in their eyes, an idea that still influences the debate over what to do with America’s most pristine natural sites. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
The Mekong river runs past mountains in Angsai, a part of Sanjiangyuan on the Tibetan Plateau. Sanjiangyuan means ‘source of the three rivers’ in Chinese, a reference to the headwaters of Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers.

The scientists and bureaucrats at the forefront of China’s national park program rarely speak in such soaring rhetoric. For them, natural areas are first and foremost providers of “natural capital,” a precise but uninspiring term that includes biodiversity as well as ecological services that are essential for human life. The Chinese government has even developed a monitoring system for tracking the country’s natural capital and quantifying its value.

In 2012, it launched its first national ecosystem assessment. With the help of more than 20,000 satellite images and 100,000 field surveys, a team of researchers measured how much natural capital China lost or gained between 2000 and 2010. A study published in the journal Science last June summarizes their findings: Water retention, food production, carbon sequestration, soil retention, sandstorm prevention, and flood mitigation were all up 4 to 38 percent; biodiversity conservation was down 3 percent.

“It’s like measuring GDP,” says Ouyang Zhiyun, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of the authors of the study, referring to gross domestic product. “We call it gross ecosystem product.”

Dr. Ouyang, who is overseeing the planning process for the new parks, is one of China’s most distinguished scientists in the field of ecology. He was born and raised in the Luoxiao Mountains in the southern province of Hunan, where, as a young boy, he spent his free time climbing trees and exploring the nearby woods. Earlier this summer, I caught up with him in his large, cluttered office on the north side of Beijing. 

“My home village was surrounded by nature. There were even tigers there in the 1970s,” he says with unfeigned excitement. Now in his mid-50s, Ouyang wears glasses and has short salt-and-pepper hair. He exudes an almost insatiable, childlike curiosity about the natural world. 

When Ouyang began his studies at Hunan Agricultural University in 1979, the Chinese economy was only starting to take off under the reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping. Ouyang had no idea China would grow to become the world’s second-largest economy over the next three decades, nor did he anticipate the scale of environmental destruction the country’s rise would bring. It wasn’t until the summer of 1998, when devastating floods along the Yangtze killed 4,150 people, that he came to fully grasp the Faustian bargain at the center of China’s economic boom. Although extensive rains linked to El Niño were the primary cause of the floods, they were intensified by decades of logging along the river – making them the worst in 44 years.

The floods were a wake-up call for China. In the weeks that followed, the central government enacted logging bans in 13 provinces to better protect the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, and the next year it launched the largest reforestation effort in the world. “It was a turning point,” Ouyang says. “The floods forced the government and the public to really start paying attention to ecological conservation.”

China has since spent more than $100 billion on planting trees; an estimated 21.7 percent of the country is now covered in forest, up from 18.9 percent in 2000. It has also expanded the number of nature reserves, forest parks, and other protected areas in an attempt to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental conservation. By the end of 2014, some 2,729 nature reserves and thousands of other parks had been established by all levels of government. A central goal of the national park program is to make these lands easier to manage and better ensure their preservation.

“The ecological environment has irreplaceable value,” President Xi told a group of lawmakers from Qinghai province in March 2016. “We should treat it as our lifeline and protect it like the apple of our eye.”

This mission is considered particularly vital for places such as Sanjiangyuan, which is located in Qinghai. At more than 12,000 feet above sea level, it harbors one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity of any high-altitude region in the world.

Yet some of its key wildlife face pressure from habitat destruction and poaching. No more than 7,000 snow leopards remain in the wild, and 90 percent of all Tibetan antelope, or chiru, have been wiped out over the past century. Shawls woven from their wool, known as shahtoosh, are a coveted accessory in Europe, where they can sell for as much as $20,000 on the black market. Now only about 100,000 to 150,000 chiru can be found on the Tibetan Plateau.

Equally ominous, climate change is melting whole swaths of Sanjiangyuan at an alarming rate. A government report published in 2015 estimates that more than 80 percent of the region’s permafrost could disappear by the end of this century, releasing large amounts of carbon as it thaws and accelerating global warming.

“What everybody hopes is that the awakening China’s experiencing now ... continues,” says Dr. Daily, the Stanford professor and a pioneer of the natural capital movement. “There’s no guarantee that it will. It’s a huge experiment. No one has ever experienced this set of circumstances in the world before, with so many people pressing up against the very limits of Earth’s boundaries and life-support systems. Everybody also hopes that with China’s leadership, other countries will experience this awakening, too.”

Ouyang and his fellow planners, however, still face significant challenges. Earlier this summer, Chinese officials visited Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon for advice on how the US manages its parks. Doug Morris, another member of Global Parks who accompanied them for two weeks, says that while the trip was a useful guide for the Chinese, they will have to address some pressing problems. One is how to ensure that the tourism boom expected to come doesn’t endanger the parks’ ecosystems and wildlife.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Under cauliflower clumps of clouds, Chinese tourists take pictures next to a sign marking a high point – 15,220 feet above sea level – in Hoh Xil, also known as Kekexili.

“There’s a lot of worry that the parks will turn into amped-up Disneylands,” says Daily, echoing a concern mentioned by almost every researcher I interviewed. 

Then there’s the question of what will happen to the people who live in the areas designated to become parks. “Ecotourism is big business now,” Judith Shapiro, author of the book “China’s Environmental Challenges” and a professor at American University, says in an email. “Especially as the pollution in the developed eastern part of the country, and the rising disposable incomes of the middle and upper classes, have created a huge influx of Han tourists in vulnerable regions in the west.”

A contentious issue is whether the influx of outsiders will benefit local people. 

People like Gongson Zhuoma.

Early one morning at 3:30, Ms. Zhuoma and her sister-in-law wake up to milk their family’s yaks. They tie woolen aprons around their waists and put on heavy jackets and stocking caps before stepping outside their white tarpaulin tent into the cold, cloudless night. Each carries a five-gallon bucket for the work ahead.

The Milky Way is visible overhead as they start to make their way through the rows of yaks. By the time they finish three hours later, the sun is beginning to rise. The two women return to the tent to help Zhuoma’s mother churn butter by hand. Once that work is over, they head back outside to shovel dung into large piles, which will be used to fuel the stove. It is their morning routine, one they repeat day after day. 

Zhuoma and her family live in the far western reaches of Sanjiangyuan, a half day’s drive from the headwaters of the Yangtze and just east of a biodiverse region known as Hoh Xil or Kekexili. Out here the Tibetan Plateau reaches more than 15,000 feet above sea level. Windswept grasslands extend for miles in every direction. Some call it “no man’s land,” but for Zhuoma and her family, it’s been their home for generations. “It’s a hard life,” says her husband, Ciren Gongbu. “But it’s the only life we’ve known. We don’t want to move.” Despite his insistence, he knows that the Chinese government might not give them a choice. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Gongson Zhuoma secures a calf on family's herding campground in Hoh Xil. In addition to nomadic herders, the Tibetan Plateau is home to prized wildlife such as the elusive snow leopard and the endangered Tibetan antelope.

Hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders across the Tibetan Plateau have been relocated into drab townships – so-called New Socialist Villages – over the past two decades. The “Ecological Relocation” program, launched in 2003, has focused on reclaiming the region’s fading grasslands by curbing animal grazing, but critics say its main purpose is to give the Chinese government greater control over people on the margins of Chinese society.

“Chinese authorities are coming to this issue with very set preconceived notions about what development means to Tibetans,” says Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group critical of China. “They need to listen to local people. Otherwise it will be a tragic end to one of the unique features of Tibetan cultural life.”

The Chinese government, for its part, says the Sanjiangyuan National Park will create 17,000 jobs for local people. It has even promised to hire at least one member of each family as a park ranger. Yet the costs are considerable; more than 20,000 people live in the Yangtze area of the park alone. While many have relocated to prefab villages, others, like Zhuoma and her family, have no intention of leaving the land.

“We would lose our yaks and have nothing to eat,” says Rishan, Zhuoma’s father, who like many Tibetans uses a single name. “How would we make a living?”

For now, the government has allowed them to stay and pays Mr. Gongbu 1,800 yuan (about $265) a month to work as a ranger. His job is to keep a daily record of local animals and human activity, such as fishing and hunting, in an official-looking blue notebook, which he turns in to government officials a few times a year. 

Other nomadic families have been less fortunate. In a shabby concrete house in the town of Yuegaizhen, 170 miles east of Hoh Xil, Cichengji and his wife, Duoji Zhuoma, are despondent. They moved here in 2015 at the request of the government and in the hope of starting a better life. Things went well at first. Shortly after they arrived, Cichengji was hired as a park ranger. He didn’t mind the work: picking up trash and counting wild animals twice a month in a region of Sanjiangyuan. Then the paychecks stopped coming. He received his last one in December and is now running out of money.

“We called the government but no one answered,” he says, noting that he plans to quit if he doesn’t get paid by the end of the year. “We can’t live like this.” Cichengji says he wishes he could return to his life as a yak herder, but he reluctantly acknowledges that the government is unlikely to allow that. Instead, his backup plan is to work in construction. “It’s difficult to find work here,” he says “There’s nothing else I can do.” 

Sanjiangyuan isn’t the only national park location where the Chinese government faces the dilemma of what to do with local people. In the southwestern province of Sichuan, the provincial forestry department announced in March that 172,000 people would be relocated to make room for the giant panda park. Ouyang and his colleagues have recommended allowing people to stay in areas of the parks where they won’t threaten key ecosystem services. In cases when they do have to relocate, they’ve advised the government to provide long-term subsidies and support. It’s perhaps too early to tell how far the government will take their suggestions. 

But if what’s happening in Sanjiangyuan is any indication, relocations remain controversial.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Duoji Zhuoma and her husband, Cichengji, stand outside their home in a resettlement area for nomadic Tibetan herders. The Chinese government is relocating herders from the Tibetan Plateau grasslands to create Sanjiangyuan National Park.

I flew home to Beijing after seven days on the Tibetan Plateau. The sky was dark as I took a taxi to my apartment near the northeast corner of the third ring road. Beijing officially has six roads that circumnavigate the city in uneven concentric circles. 

A seventh unofficial ring road – unofficial because only 24 miles of it pass through Beijing – opened last December. By connecting 13 cities around the capital, this 620-mile expressway is part of the government’s plan to make Beijing the center of a new mega­city of 130 million people – more than one-third the population of the entire US. And all of this is happening in one of the most water-scarce corners of China (Beijing’s per capita water availability is on par with that of Saudi Arabia).

As I stared out the window at the endless layers of concrete, steel, and glass, I found it hard to imagine a place more different from Sanjiangyuan. Which is perhaps the point: nature as an antidote to the irrepressible presence of humans. Certainly that is one rationale behind America’s century-old experiment with national parks and, to a certain degree, behind China’s new experiment.

“Nature can exist without man, but man cannot exist without nature,” Ouyang told me earlier this summer. Did he mean that man can’t survive without nature solely because of the ecological services it provides, or because of something more profound – the enrichment of the spirit that Thoreau and Emerson and Roosevelt rhapsodized about? I went back to his office the day after I returned from Sanjiangyuan to ask him, and I left with the impression that he had meant what he said literally.

Still, the question lingers as to whether there is value in nature beyond that which can be measured by even the most advanced computer models and rigorous field studies.

As I contemplated this, I remembered one afternoon driving through Sanjiangyuan in a rented SUV when, out of nowhere, a sparrow flew into the windshield. It fluttered its wings for a brief moment, then died. The driver, a 22-year-old Tibetan man who had spent much of the previous hour singing along to Chinese pop music and 1990s American rap, suddenly became solemn. He turned off the car stereo, removed his wooden prayer beads from around his wrist, and started to pray.

Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.

Home prices, and a thought shift, give ‘small living’ a boost

While China goes big, this next story is about how “Small is Beautiful.” Some middle- and upper-class Americans are downsizing, really downsizing. They’re choosing to live more fully, with less.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Shawna Nelson gives a tour of the back of her Ford Explorer, decked out like a bedroom, at a lot in Woodland Park in Seattle in July. Ms. Nelson, an office manager at a land-use company in nearby Mill Creek, Wash., has been living in her SUV for about a year. 'Would I rather spend $1,200 on an apartment that I'm probably not going to be at very much, or would I rather spend $1,200 a month on traveling?' she says of her lifestyle choice. 'And I was like, "Well that's an easy decision for me." '

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When Shawna Nelson leaves her office in Seattle’s suburbs, she does what 28-year-olds often do: dines with friends, goes out dancing, or sees a show. Sometimes she hits her swanky gym. But at the end of the night Ms. Nelson always returns to Dora, the dusty Ford Explorer she calls home – where she sleeps on a mattress covered with fuzzy animal-print blankets. “Would I rather spend $1,200 on an apartment that I’m probably not going to be at very much, or … on traveling?” she asks. This conscious shift toward smaller, leaner living, mainly among the middle and upper classes, was prompted by high housing costs. But it also springs from a desire to live more fully with less. For some it means choosing tiny homes or micro-apartments – typically less than 350 square feet – for the chance to live affordably in vibrant neighborhoods. For others, it means hitting the road, communing with nature and like-minded people along the way. “I think fundamentally it comes down to a shift in perception about the pursuit of happiness,” says Jay Janette, a Seattle architect.

Home prices, and a thought shift, give ‘small living’ a boost

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Shawna Nelson gives a tour of the back of her Ford Explorer, decked out like a bedroom, on July 20 at a lot in Woodland Park in Seattle. Ms. Nelson, an office manager at a land-use company in nearby Mill Creek, Wash., has been living in her truck for about a year. "Would I rather spend $1,200 on an apartment that I'm probably not going to be at very much, or would I rather spend $1,200 a month on traveling?" she says of her lifestyle choice. "And I was like, 'Well that's an easy decision for me.'"

When Shawna Nelson leaves her office in Seattle’s suburbs, she does what 28-year-olds often do: dines with friends, goes out dancing, or sees a show. Sometimes she hits her swanky gym.

But at the end of the night Ms. Nelson always returns to Dora, the dusty Ford Explorer she calls home. In the back, where a row of seats should be, lies a foam mattress covered with fuzzy animal-print blankets. Nelson keeps a headlamp handy for when she wants to read before bed. Then, once she’s sure she won’t get ticketed or towed, she turns in for the night.

“I still strive to have some sort of routine,” says Nelson, who started living in her car about a year ago. “Would I rather spend $1,200 on an apartment that I’m probably not going to be at very much, or would I rather spend $1,200 a month on traveling?”

For her, it was an easy choice.

She’s not alone. As housing costs soar, US communities have faced ballooning homelessness, declining homeownership, and tensions over gentrification. But the rising expense of homes, when combined with the demographic, cultural, and technological trends of the past decade, has also prompted a more positive phenomenon: smaller, leaner living. This conscious shift, mainly among portions of the middle and upper classes, springs from a desire to live more fully with less.

For some it means choosing tiny homes and “micro-apartments” – typically less than 350 square feet – for the chance to live affordably in vibrant neighborhoods. For others, like Nelson, it means hitting the road in a truck or van, communing with nature and like-minded people along the way. Proponents range in ages and backgrounds, but they all share a renewed thirst for alternatives to traditional lifestyles like single-family homes, long cherished as a symbol of the American dream.

“I think fundamentally it comes down to a shift in perception about the pursuit of happiness – how it doesn’t require a consumerist lifestyle or collection of stuff,” says Jay Janette, a Seattle architect whose firm has designed a number of micro-housing developments in the city. “They’re not really living in their spaces, they’re living in their city.”

Prioritizing experiences over stuff

John Infranca, a law professor at Boston’s Suffolk University who specializes in urban law and policy, says the phenomenon is driven largely by Millennials, who have been the faces of both the affordable housing crisis and the shift to minimalism.

Research shows that the 18-to-35 cohort continues to rent at higher rates than previous generations: 74 percent lived in a rental property in 2016, compared to 62 percent of Gen Xers in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. And while the Millennial desire to not buy homes tends to be overstated – studies suggest many want to own, but often can’t afford to – they do prioritize experiences over stuff.

They aren’t the only ones. Spending on experiences like food, travel, and recreation is up for all consumers, making up more than 20 percent of Americans’ consumption expenses in 2015. (In contrast, the share for spending on household goods and cars was in the single digits.) Baby-boomer parents, downsizing as they enter retirement, find that their grown children are uninterested in inheriting their hoards of Hummels and Thomas Kinkade paintings. The same “live with less” logic has begun to extend beyond stuff to the spaces these older adults occupy.

“There is some cultural demand for simpler living,” says Professor Infranca. “And by virtue of technology, we are able to live with a lot less.”

It’s a distinct moment for a culture that has long placed a premium on individual ownership and a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, Mr. Janette and others say.

“I think the recession changed the playing field for a lot of people,” notes Sofia Borges, an architect, trend consultant, and lecturer at the University of Southern California. “Job security, homeownership – a lot of that went out the window and never really returned. When a change like that happens, you have to change your ideas a little bit too.”

Growing culture of minimalism

That was certainly the case for Kim Henderson, who was a marketing manager making more than $80,000 a year before the recession. “I never again found a job like I had [before 2008],” says Ms. Henderson, now in her 50s. “When they were available, they went to younger people.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Kim Henderson plays with her dog, Olive, on Aug. 12 in her apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Ms. Henderson, who moved into the 175-square-foot unit about a year ago, says downsizing has been good for both her soul and her savings account. “There’s an energy you get from purging,” she says. “I have more money in my pocket and less things.”

Today Henderson makes about $37,000 a year as an executive assistant to a bar owner and lives in the Bristol Hotel, a mixed-use apartment building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Her studio, which she shares with her small dog Olive, is 175 square feet – the equivalent of about four king-size beds. The walls are covered in framed artwork that Henderson collected from thrift shops and friends. An apartment-sized fridge and a fold-out couch are her largest possessions.

“It’s the same exact lifestyle [I used to live], just with less things” – and more money in her pocket, she says.

Henderson pays $685 a month including electricity – a bargain for Los Angeles, where studios average $1,500. She can save money and still have enough disposable income to eat out and travel, she says. But at least as important is the sense of liberation. “There’s an energy you get from purging,” Henderson says. “You don’t need six towels. You don’t need a ton of dishes. You pick the things out that you really want to keep in the ‘useful’ category.”

The sentiment is in keeping with a growing culture of minimalism. Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which urges people to keep only those things that “spark joy,” has sold 1.5 million copies in the US alone. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, also known as The Minimalists, have also helped take the notion mainstream with a podcast, website, bestselling books, and documentaries.

There are other forces at play, too. Digital access to resources makes living lean more feasible, says Infranca at Suffolk. Henderson, for instance, doesn’t own a car, relying instead on ride-sharing services or her own two feet to get around. And because she lives downtown she’s closer to the amenities and establishments she loves.

“It’s a value proposition,” says David Neiman, whose Seattle design firm focuses on small-efficiency dwelling units, which start at 150 square feet. “I could live for the same price in a central location in housing that’s clean, has internet, and I can walk to work and exciting things. Or I can live farther away, have more space, and it’s in a secondary neighborhood and I have to drive.”

$20,000 tiny house 

Instead of renting a micro-unit in an urban center, filmmakers Alexis Stephens and Christian Parsons decided two years ago to build their own 130-square foot house and load it onto the bed of a U-Haul. They then set off across the country in a bid to live more simply and sustainably, travel, and invest in their own place – all while documenting the experience.

The Tiny House Expedition has since become a thriving enterprise. Ms. Stephens and Mr. Parsons have interviewed tiny house advocates and dwellers across 30,000 miles and 29 states. At a sustainability festival outside Seattle in July, they sold T-shirts and copies of the book “Turning Tiny,” a collection of essays they contributed to. They gave tours of their home. And they answered questions about building and living in a tiny house, touting its potential as an affordable, sustainable, and high-quality alternative lifestyle.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Christian Parsons stands inside the entryway of his tiny home on July 22 at a local sustainability festival at Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, Wash. Mr. Parsons built and shares the home with his partner, Alexis Stephens, and together they travel the country documenting tiny home communities.

“People are empowering themselves to build housing options that work for them that are not available in the market,” Stephens says.

Tiny homes can range from about 100 to 300 square feet and cost between $25,000 to $100,000, give or take. Stephens and Parsons built theirs using reclaimed material for about $20,000, and it comes with a loft for a queen-sized bed, a compost toilet, walls that double as storage, and shelves that turn into tables. For those with more lavish tastes, vendors like Seattle Tiny Homes offer customizable houses – complete with a shower and a washer and dryer – for about $85,000.

“You aren’t downgrading from a traditional home,” says founder Sharon Read. “It can have everything you want and nothing you don’t want.”

Those who would rather not lug around a whole house while they travel, however, have turned to another alternative: #vanlife. The term was coined in 2011 by Foster Huntington, a former Ralph Lauren designer who gave up his life in New York City to surf the California coast, living and traveling in a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. His photos, which he posted on Instagram and later compiled in a $65 book titled, “Home Is Where You Park It,” launched what The New Yorker dubbed a “Bohemian social-media movement.”

The hashtag has since been used more than a million times on Instagram. “Vanlifers” drive everything from cargo vans to SUVs, though the Volkswagen Vanagon remains the classic choice.

“It’s definitely found a renewed zeitgeist,” says Jad Josey, general manager at GoWesty, a Southern California-based vendor of Volkswagen van parts. “The fact that you can be really compact and mobile and almost 100 percent self-sufficient in a Vanagon is really attractive to people.”

People like freelance photographer Aidan Klimenko, who has been living off and on in vans and SUVs for three years, traversing the US and South America.

“The idea of working so hard to pay rent – which ultimately, that’s just money down the drain – is such a hard concept for me,” says Mr. Klimenko. Vanlife, he adds, “is access to the outdoors and it’s movement. I’m addicted to traveling. I’m addicted to being in new places and meeting new people and waking up outside.”

Small living isn't that big a trend

Still, the movement to live smaller may not be as extensive as social media makes it seem, some housing analysts say. Zoning regulations – especially in dense urban areas – often restrict the number and size of buildable units, slowing growth among micro-apartments and tiny homes. Constructing or living in a tiny home or micro-unit can still pose a legal risk in some cities.

And by and large, Americans continue to value size. The average new home built in the US in 2015 was a record 2,687 square feet – 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973, according to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Living mobile isn’t all grand adventures and scenic views, either. Van dwellers say they’ve had to contend with engine trouble, the cold and the heat, and unpleasant public restrooms. And Henderson in Los Angeles says she once lived in an affordable micro-housing development that had a pervasive drug-dealing problem.

Still, those who have embraced leaner living say what they might lose in creature comforts, they gain in perspective and experience. In crisscrossing the country, Stephens and Parsons opened themselves up to the kindness of strangers. “It’s a nice reminder that as Americans we have so much more in common than we realize,” Stephens says. They also spend more time connecting with others, instead of closeting themselves at home.

“Whether you’re choosing a van, a school bus, a tiny house, or a micro-apartment, you get a lot of the same benefits,” she says. “We need more housing options, period, in America. We’ve boxed ourselves in a very monolithic housing culture. We’re showing it’s OK to venture outside of that.”

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Teachable monuments?

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America’s debate over Confederate statues comes down to a question of context: What do those statues mean? Amid the debate there are also signs of a higher motive: to promote understanding and healing. Authorities at the National Cathedral, for example, aim to use the windows of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as part of a larger discussion about race in America. At Antietam National Battlefield, questions have been reignited about whether the Lee statue gives visitors false information about Lee’s life and views. Some Confederate statues weren’t erected until the Jim Crow era – when black civil rights were being severely restricted. Others were cast as part of an effort toward reconciliation. This much seems true: In Lee, America has found a man who points to the difficulty of distilling any argument over memorials and reconciliation to oversimplified answers.

Teachable monuments?

Stephen Spillman/Reuters
Workers remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the south mall of the University of Texas at Austin Monday.

A week after Charlottesville, Va., broke out in street battles over city plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s iconic general is under siege on multiple fronts. 

Duke University on Saturday removed a vandalized statue of Lee from the entrance to its chapel. The same is happening in Texas. And Maryland lawmakers want to retire Lee’s statue from Antietam, site of the greatest one-day loss of life on a battlefield in United States history.

The context for some of these statues is well known. Of the estimated 1,700 statues and artifacts honoring Confederate leaders across the country, most are in the South and weren’t erected until the Jim Crow era – when black civil rights were being severely restricted.

Yet that is not the full story. Across the rest of the country, private groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied for and often funded monuments to Confederates, citing the need for reconciliation between North and South.

The windows honoring Lee and Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the National Cathedral in Washington – installed in 1953 at the urging of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – were seen as just that, an attempt to unify North and South.

In today’s climate, they are now seen as toxic.

Duke’s statue of Lee was vandalized four days after Charlottesville. Three days later, it was on the way out. Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin announced on Monday that it was moving “severely compromised” statues of Lee and three other Confederate figures from a main area of campus immediately. “Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry,” wrote President Greg Fenves.

Yet even as the country struggles to decide the future of its Confederate statues, there are signs that the higher motive – to promote understanding and healing – remains.

Authorities at the National Cathedral aim to use the windows of Lee and Jackson as part of a larger discussion about race in America.

Duke will preserve its Lee statue “so that students can study Duke’s complex past and take part in a more inclusive future,” said university President Vincent Price in a letter to students, faculty, and alumni. The removal, he said, “presents an opportunity for us to learn and heal.”

At Antietam National Battlefield, the issue is whether the Lee statue gives visitors false information about Lee’s life and views. In 2003, businessman William Chaney bought land adjoining the battlefield and erected the monument, including a plaque that claims that Lee was personally “against secession and slavery” but fought for the South out of a sense of duty to his home. Historians differ on the claim, but unlike many Southerners of his generation, Lee accepted defeat. He urged, even embraced, reconciliation. He personally opposed Confederate monuments. And in 1856, he wrote in a letter to his wife: “Slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in any Country” – though he never spoke publicly about it.

In Lee, America has found a man who points to the difficulty of distilling any argument over memorials and reconciliation to oversimplified answers.  

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Joyful, capable – that’s us!

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Sometimes it can seem as if we’re stuck – with an injury, or sadness, or discouragement about what we hear in the news, or uncertainty about what the future holds. Christian Scientist Liz Butterfield Wallingford shares how at times like that, she’s found it helpful – and even healing – to think more deeply about how we identify ourselves. God, infinite good, didn’t create us as mortals doomed to periods of misery. Instead, joy and health are inherent in us. Divine Love holds us safe and secure. We can all experience the deeper, more spiritual peace that comes when we look beyond the surface and toward God’s reality and total goodness.

Joyful, capable – that’s us!


I lay on the couch, reminiscing about a time I had felt happy, capable, able to help others. Now I was feeling sick and helpless, and the thought “How could that joyful, energetic person possibly have been me?” crossed my mind.

But of course it was me. In fact, I realized, even though it didn’t feel like it at that moment, health and joy constituted a much truer sense of me than illness and lethargy did.

Sometimes it can seem as if we’re stuck – with an injury, or sadness, or discouragement about what we hear in the news, or uncertainty about what the future holds. At times like this, I’ve found it helpful to think about the nature of God as infinite divine Love, and each of us as Love’s spiritual reflection, safe and cared for. This is the truest way we can identify ourselves.

What we feel or see at a given moment isn’t always consistent with the truth about our real being. But as we dig deeper, as we seek a more spiritual sense of our identity, we find ourselves – and others – lifted up in concrete ways.

Christ Jesus showed the profound healing effect of understanding that health and harmony are normal and natural to the creation of a God whose goodness “endures continually” (Psalms 52:1). We can grow in this understanding through heartfelt prayer to better know this infinitely good God that created us not as mortals doomed to periods of misery but as spiritual expressions of the divine Being, eternally reflecting wholeness and joy.

That day, when I felt so weak and unwell, the realization that God never made us to suffer lifted me out of my mental anguish, and my health was quickly restored, too. “Good is natural and primitive,” explains Christian Science Discoverer Mary Baker Eddy in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” (p. 128). We can all experience the deeper, more spiritual sense of peace that comes when we look beyond the surface and toward God’s reality and total goodness – right here and now.



Susana Vera/Reuters
Two men embraced Monday at a memorial near where a van was driven into pedestrians last week in the Las Ramblas tourist zone in Barcelona, Spain. The Moroccan-born man who authorities say was the van's driver has reportedly been shot dead by police in a suburb an hour west of the city.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about the shifting US strategy in Afghanistan after President Trump’s Monday night speech.

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