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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
October
12
Thursday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Girls can now become Eagle Scouts.

That rank has prestige beyond the Boy Scouts – signaling a work ethic and leadership skills on a résumé or college application.

To some, giving girls full access to the Boy Scouts of America (their Exploring and Venturing programs are already co-ed) marks progress toward gender equity. To others (including the Girl Scouts), it’s a misguided effort to stop a decline in membership by bowing to winds of social change – and the step erodes the group’s founding principles.

Ironically, this comes at a time when single-gender education in the United States is making a comeback.

While most research shows no measurable benefit to attending an all-boys or all-girls school, it does offer advantages for urban minority girls. To address a gender gap, there are growing numbers of all-girl public and charter schools focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Early results show more young women graduating and taking on leadership roles in these fields.

If the Boy Scouts going co-ed produces better male and female leaders, and offers more choices for girls, speaking as a former Scout and parent of two daughters, that sounds like progress.

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Now on to our five news stories, aimed at highlighting generosity, paths to progress, and innovation at work. 

1. Trump move on health care reignites a central debate

A presidential order issued Thursday undercuts "Obamacare" and raises the question: Should "health insurance" be about consumer choice or completeness of coverage?

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadPresident Trump signed an executive order seeking to do what Congress hasn’t been able to accomplish: create new alternatives to Obamacare that can expand competition and lower health-care costs. He wants to let one realm of the insurance market, called Association Health Plans, to be less regulated – potentially exempt from the “essential benefits” mandated under the Affordable Care Act, and possibly without the ACA’s rate protections for people with preexisting conditions. The order also seeks to expand the use of short-term medical plans, which are currently designed as stopgap coverage for just a few months. Both moves (on AHPs and short-term plans) promote a model of insurance that might be cheaper but also less comprehensive than Obamacare-compliant plans. For fans, it’s a small step away from what they view as a costly, one-size-fits-all approach. Critics say it’s a slippery slope toward more people having “junk coverage” (which seems attractive unless they get sick) and one more way Republicans are destabilizing the ACA – encouraging healthy people to opt out as the less-healthy stay in Obamacare exchanges. 

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1. Trump move on health care reignites a central debate

What if health insurance were less comprehensive, but also cheaper?

That’s a politically volatile question, and it gained some currency this week as President Trump signed an executive order designed to undercut Obamacare’s premise that affordability shouldn’t come at the price of less-than-full coverage for medical care.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order designed to open the door to health plans that tread more lightly on consumer pocketbooks, but aren’t as generous in coverage. Separately, his administration said it will stop paying out a key subsidy designed to help people insured on Obamacare’s exchanges.

The president can't remake America’s health-care system without Congress’s participation, but his actions Thursday could destabilize the insurance marketplace even as they allow more Americans to buy coverage that’s outside the Affordable Care Act (ACA) rule book. And where conservatives celebrate what they see as a modest step to expand consumer choice, defenders of Obamacare say it’s one more instance of Republicans undermining a law that, while not a fix-all, has been a win for average Americans.

The executive order seeks to lighten regulation in one realm of the insurance market, called association health plans – potentially exempting them both from the ACA’s mandates for “essential benefits” to be covered and from its rate protections for people with preexisting conditions. The order also seeks to expand the use of short-term medical plans, which are currently designed as stopgap coverage for just a few months.

An open question is how many such plans will become available and how many Americans will migrate to them. But, to the degree that Mr. Trump’s new move draws people away from Obamacare’s marketplaces, the result could be to push up premiums within those exchanges, since the bias will be for healthier people to depart and less-healthy people to remain. And it comes as Republicans are already facing criticism for undermining Obamacare even as the American public wants to shore it up.

“These association health plans ... enable healthy groups to band together and get lower premiums, which results in higher premiums for other groups,” says Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere Health, a health-care consulting firm based in Washington.

“It's an invitation to cherry-pick [consumers] in the market,” and that will be destabilizing, he says.

Cuts to subsidies

Separately, late on Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services said it will cease to pay out subsidies known as cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments, saying Congress has never appropriated the needed funds. The Obama administration was able to continue the subsidies despite a lawsuit seeking to block them.

Those CSR payments amount to some $7 billion a year to insurers, to help moderate-income families with out-of-pocket medical costs (separate from the tax-credit subsidies they can receive to help with premiums).

Combined, the moves appear to signal a pointed strategy of undercutting Obamacare - which has been one of Trump’s key targets since the election campaign. Yet it’s a risky gambit for Republicans and Trump.

It’s conceivable that, to the degree the moves shake up insurance markets, pressure will mount on both parties to consider bipartisan reforms. But in today’s fraught political climate, a likelier scenario may be that Democrats focus on blaming the GOP, passing political ownership of insurance-market challenges to Republicans. Some analysts say attacks on Obamacare could backfire to the point that liberal calls for a single-payer system gain more traction than rival conservative ideas do.

Obamacare already under fire

Trump signed the order in the aftermath of repeated failures of Congress’s Republican majority to coalesce around legislation that would fulfill campaign promises to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.

Although not repealed, the law already faced headwinds, including Republican-led reductions in funding for “navigators” to help consumers shop for insurance on the exchanges.

And even prior to the announcement canceling CSR payments, rumblings from Trump that this might occur were rippling into insurance-plan prices.

Premiums on the exchanges appear set to rise on average by double-digit rates for 2018, affecting some 7 percent of Americans, who are in the individual marketplaces rather than enrolled in employer-based coverage, Medicare, or Medicaid. But an additional 9 percent of Americans are uninsured. Where a liberal solution is to bring more people into comprehensive care, many Republicans say this level of nonparticipation is a sign Obamacare is failing to deliver affordable insurance, and that consumer-driven reforms are the answer.

“Americans face a stark choice on what their health care will look like in the future,” health-policy expert Robert Moffit of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in September.

Referring to rising calls by Democrats for a single-payer system, he said, “they can adopt a government-run health-care system, financed by new and heavy federal taxation, with federal officials making all the key decisions about medical benefits and services. Or, they can adopt a system in which individuals control health-care dollars and decisions, including the kinds of health plans, benefits, and treatments that best suit their needs.”

The impact of the new executive order remains to be seen. It directs cabinet secretaries to consider changes that will require a months-long process including public comment and review of legal uncertainties. And then the actual uptake in the marketplace would be uncertain.

“A broader interpretation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) could potentially allow employers in the same line of business anywhere in the country to join together to offer healthcare coverage to their employees,” the order said.

In remarks at the signing, Trump said the move “would open up additional options for employers to purchase the health plans their workers want.”

Premium subsidies to rise?

Some conservative health-policy experts see the effort as a positive one for the health-care system, even if its scope is far short of a replacement for Obamacare.

Chris Pope of the Manhattan Institute says it may enable more small employers to offer insurance to their workers, as large employers typically do.

But he agrees with other analysts that the result would be to tilt the ACA customer base toward those who most need comprehensive plans. The result would be to push premiums up – and since those premiums are most often subsidized, much of the cost would fall on US taxpayers.

“Subsidies are going to continue to rise,” says Mr. Mendelson of Avalere.

And higher-income purchasers of ACA insurance, who aren’t eligible for subsidies, would see premiums rise faster than otherwise in this scenario.

With or without ripple effects from the executive order, members of Congress in both parties face voter pressure to address concerns about the Obamacare marketplaces. Not only have premiums been rising fast lately, but fewer insurers are offering plans, reducing competition even in many urban markets.

Steps to shore up the exchanges have already been the subject of some discussions across party lines, but broad partisan differences remain a formidable obstacle.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect subsidy cuts that were announced later on Oct. 12 than the president's executive order.]

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2. Should control over wildfire fight shift to states?

What’s the best path for preventing wildfires: a national solution that achieves economies of scale or a custom, localized solution?  To some in Utah, the answer is clear.

David
Chris Butler, a hydrologist with the US Forest Service, was the acting district park ranger the day the Brian Head fire broke out. Here he visits a portion of the Dixie National Forest that was seared by the blaze. Three months later, the ground remains hard.
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Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAll eyes now are on California, but more than 50,550 fires have burned 8.5 million acres nationwide this year. Many across the United States are wrestling with how best to battle this costly challenge, with 58 million more acres at high risk of burning. In southern Utah, where locals had warned the US Forest Service that it was mismanaging the forests nearly two years before a fire roared through this summer, there’s a strong verdict: Just let us control our own land and we’ll do a better job than the Feds. To the Utah Commission on Federalism, formed by state legislators, the fire is a prime example of the problems that arise when the federal government becomes too big and prevents the states from addressing local issues as they see fit. So in early August, they asked the head of the Forest Service to provide an explanation of “the failure on the part [of] your respective agency to manage public lands within our State” and “the legal and constitutional basis for your agency’s source and scope of jurisdiction over these lands....” They have yet to receive a response.

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2. Should control over wildfire fight shift to states?

Joe Adams had seen his share of fire. In Iraq. In Afghanistan. But never across the glassy Panguitch Lake in southern Utah, where he’d grown up.

Then on June 17, a small column of smoke appeared on the horizon. Fed by hot, dry winds, the blaze quickly became the largest active fire in the United States and the costliest in Utah’s history.

As the flames came roaring down toward his community, Mr. Adams – a young captain in the local fire department – drew up an evacuation plan for every neighborhood. He drove fire trucks and doused cabins.

But this young man who had left high school early to serve his country now faced the prospect that it was unable to save him and his neighbors. Every evening, he’d sit on his porch watching the billowing clouds of smoke across the lake and just cry. 

“Not from sadness or self-pity, just frustration,” says Adams. “I came from this world where you could solve almost any problem by picking up the phone, calling the right-ranking individual, and he would send the right equipment and it would be solved. And this – it was like, there was no one else to call. It was every resource that they had was out here fighting.”

Nationwide, more than 50,550 fires have burned 8.5 million acres this year – including the devastating fires currently burning out of control in California, where at least 23 people have already been killed and some 3,500 homes destroyed. Many across the country are wrestling with how best to battle this costly challenge, which only looks set to worsen. According to a 2016 government report, about a third of the National Forest System’s 192 million acres “are at high risk of ecologically destructive wildland fire.”

Crews battle the Shingle Fire east of Cedar City, Utah, on July 2, 2012. Over the past decade, 147,000 acres in the Dixie National Forest has been treated for the over-accumulation of vegetation, known as hazardous fuel.
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Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News/AP/File

Here in southern Utah, there’s a strong verdict: Just let us control our own land, and we’ll do a better job than the US Forest Service. In many locals' eyes, it's the Forest Service's mismanagement that is chiefly to blame for this summer's blaze.

Such views are driven in part by long-simmering hostility toward the federal government and environmentalists. To some state legislators, the fire is symptomatic of the problems that arise when Washington subsumes too much power and prevents the states from addressing local issues as they see fit.

State-held lands tend to be managed more for resource extraction and economic development than federal lands, for historical, legal, and political reasons, says Eric Biber, a law professor and director of environmental and energy law programs at the University of California, Berkeley.

The federal government and its allies, for their part, say they are in the business of sustainably managing forests for the benefit of all Americans, and making sure forests don’t get logged out of existence – a la The Lorax. But that can have negative effects, where the very effort to protect forests may now be contributing to their demise.

“What is ‘better’ is in the beholder’s eye. A forest ranger likely understands a particular national forest better than others. State and local zoning laws also contribute to risks by permitting more development next to and near national forests,” says James May, a scholar of constitutional law and co-director of the Environmental Rights Institute at Widener University's Delaware Law School. “On the other hand, national forest policies have had unintended consequences, such as preventing natural or controlled and periodic fires, which accumulates forest fuel for greater and catastrophic conflagrations.”

‘Everybody knew’

The day the fire broke out in Dixie National Forest, veteran hydrologist Chris Butler was acting district park ranger. A sixth sense told him something was going to happen that day. But so did common sense.

The blaze started in Brian Head, an area everybody knew was a “red zone,” says Mr. Butler, while taking a visitor on a tour of seared forests, where bright green undergrowth is beginning to rise from the caked earth.

In August 2015, Garfield County sent a letter to Dixie officials, warning that mismanagement and neglect in federally managed forests constituted “a catastrophic public nuisance,” citing a threat to the Panguitch watershed and an overabundance of “ground fuel” – low vegetation that enables fires to sweep across an area unchecked – that exceeded USFS land health standards.

Locals blame that high risk largely on a decline in logging, due to pressure from what one state legislator derided on TV as “bunny lovers, tree huggers, and rock lickers.” Since 1990, the amount of timber harvested from USFS lands has dropped 75 percent, according to Western members of Congress proposing a bill to improve forest management, particularly in fire-prone areas.

“Yes, we haven’t been logging as much as we used to. But we have a lot of restrictions,” says Butler. “There’s a certain segment of the population that doesn’t want to see trees cut at all.”

“Mechanical thinning” methods, including logging, can help ­reduce hazardous fuel. But the rise in catastrophic fires has also been linked to climate change, long-time policies of suppressing fires instead of letting them periodically run their course, a lack of biodiversity, and a lack of variety in the age and size of trees.

Over the past decade, 147,000 acres in Dixie – about twice the area that burned in the Brian Head fire – has been treated for the over-accumulation of vegetation, known as hazardous fuel. That makes Dixie one of the leading forests in the region in hazardous-fuel reduction, according to Butler’s office. But nationwide, it’s a problem that’s mushrooming; the 2016 report mentioned above noted that hazardous fuel is accumulating three times faster than it can be treated.

When the Brian Head fire broke out, there was a certain element of “we told you so” from locals and state officials. That didn’t keep them from springing into action, though.

As the fire came roaring toward Panguitch Lake over the ridge, local resident Walter Hatch and his friend Rick Beals, who happened to have brought a backhoe with him from California, jerry-rigged three 3,000-gallon water tanks to help fight the fire. Fed by an underground stream, the tanks were crucial to saving all but one house in the neighborhood.

Mr. Hatch has high praise for the fire crews who came to help, and for the feds who came by afterward and said, “Good going, guys!” But Hatch adds, the Forest Service was unaware of the locals’ firefighting capabilities, and communication was poor – literally on different radio frequencies.

“The feds are all bureaucracy. Everybody walks around – ‘Well, we’ll have a planning committee, and we’ll have a design committee, and then we’ll pick up a shovel to pick up the fresh cow [manure]’ – 30 days after we just wanted to flick it off the field,” says Hatch. “So we kind of overwhelmed the bureaucracy and went ahead and saved our cabins.”

Power to the people

When President Trump took office, he said he wanted to return power to the people. This was an issue a group of state legislators, known as Utah’s Commission on Federalism, had been working on since 2013, when they established the commission to rein in the ballooning federal government.

According to a tally from that year, there were more than 20 federal agencies or departments that each had more personnel than Congress; the Department of Agriculture alone had nearly six times more employees (95,223 vs. 16,432). Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory (R), co-chair of the Commission on Federalism, describes America’s current state as a bike with lopsided tires – one overinflated, the other completely flat. To him, it’s not so much about who is holding the handlebars. America simply can’t move forward until the air pressure is more equitably distributed.

So in February, members of Utah’s Commission on Federalism, with Trumpian winds at their back, drew up a list of more than five pages of powers they’d like to bring back to the state. Among them: Mitigate catastrophic fire risk on national forests and rangelands.

Six months later, on Aug. 4, they sent their opening salvo to the federal government. In a letter to the heads of the USFS, the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Land Management, and Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of Interior, they asserted that an estimated 80 percent of federally managed forests in Utah stood in the same “tinder box” conditions as those that burned in the Brian Head fire.

They asked for a written explanation by Sept. 15 “regarding the failure on the part [of] your respective agency to manage public lands within our State” and “the legal and constitutional basis for your agency’s source and scope of jurisdiction over these lands....”

They have yet to receive a response.

Still, the prospect of putting forest management under state control would raise a whole host of new questions. “What would Utah do with those lands? Would they be harvested?” asks Professor May. “Would Utah leave them alone? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t.”

And under the current system of federal control, there are ways for the state to play a role. For example, since Congress holds the purse strings for the Forest Service, Utah’s representatives and senators could call in members of the Forest Service to answer questions about their land management and fire prevention practices. And there are other mechanisms to allow state participation and input on federal policies, including land management plans.

“Everyone is part of the solution, everyone is part of the problem,” says May. “The Constitution is a compromise.”

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3. For Puerto Rico’s children, an escalating test of resilience

Even as President Trump threatens to pull FEMA and the US military out of Puerto Rico, our reporter finds many teenagers responding to the island’s hardships with acts of generosity and selfless support for others.

David
A community health-care worker leads a pep rally at the Padre Rufo secondary school in the Santurce section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The country's schools may be closed, but Padre Rufo is taking in children every day to work through post-hurricane Maria trauma and remind them that normal life goes on.
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Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs Puerto Rico’s recovery shifts to more long-term concerns, a close eye is being kept on children. “It can really shake children’s foundations and sources of confidence,” says a community sociologist, “if everything they depend on in the world … is solid one day and turned upside down or even lost the next.” At the still-closed Padre Rufo secondary school in San Juan, the principal opened her modest campus to elementary school children and teenagers alike as a shelter from the often-disheartening picture of hurricane Maria’s aftermath. Initially, the focus was on letting kids tell their Maria stories, but the principal decided it was important to quickly “move on to the future.” And many Puerto Ricans say they’re seeing signs among young people of a desire to give in the midst of so much loss. “It’s quite striking how much evidence we’re seeing of young people and even small children chipping in to help their home and their communities recover,” says an assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “Even at a young age there’s a sense of solidarity and some level of understanding that we feel better when we help others.”

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3. For Puerto Rico’s children, an escalating test of resilience

Half the houses in their seaside town may have lost their roofs, parents may have been thrown out of work, and surging waters may have claimed a favorite sofa for watching TV.

But Pablo Rivera and Yadiel Villalona have to admit that, from their perspective as 12-year-old boys, there are advantages to be seized upon in the aftermath of hurricane Maria.

Like the fact that days on end without school means more time to practice three-point shots and the quick breakaway on the local basketball court.

“My heart was beating fast during the storm, but our building was OK and now I’m fine,” says Yadiel, who lives in a public-housing high-rise in this poor town known for its beachfront seafood stalls.

His friend Pablo had a rougher experience with Maria – “Our roof didn’t blow away, but water came in anyway and we lost pretty much everything,” he says – but he too takes a dismissive approach to the calamity that beset Puerto Rico.

“We helped clean up the court three days after the storm and we’ve been playing almost every day since,” says Pablo. Adds Yadiel: “I’m in no hurry to go back to school, I prefer playing basketball.”

Pablo Rivera (l.) and Yadiel Villalona play basketball in Piñones, Puerto Rico, on a court they helped clean up after hurricane Maria.
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Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor

As 12-year-old boys just about everywhere seem to know instinctively, you’re better off not to let your guard down, in life as on the basketball court – so there may be a bit of adolescent bravado tucked into Pablo’s and Yadiel’s words.

But as Puerto Rico’s recovery gradually shifts from emergency response – getting food, clean water, medicine, and the much-coveted blue plastic “FEMA tarps” to communities that still have little or none – to more long-term concerns, educators and child psychologists say they’re keeping an eye out for signs of the emotional toll the island’s devastation may have taken among children.

“We’re still pretty much at the first stages of response, basically assuring that families have what they need to survive, but even as we do that we’re watching for the emotional vulnerabilities that this kind of disaster can cause, especially among children,” says Aurinés Torres, a community sociologist from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).

“It can really shake children’s foundations and sources of confidence,” she adds, “if everything they depend on in the world – their home, their family, their school – is solid one day and turned upside down or even lost the next.”

With her own normal routine of teaching community intervention at the university’s medical center disrupted, Dr. Torres is out in towns like Piñones, working alongside groups of doctors as they provide medical services. Hearing the anxieties of the mothers and grandparents (and kids) she meets, Torres can better assess the kinds of mental-health services Puerto Ricans will need in the months ahead, she says.

One of the groups Torres is piggybacking with is Talleres Salud, a women’s-health support organization that works from the premise that healthy communities start with healthy women.

“Our motivating principle is that if women are well, their children and their communities are well,” says Jennifer de Jesús, a services facilitator with the organization.

“There is so much stress for women after an event like Maria,” she says. “ 'Where am I going to get food and clean water for my family, how do I keep the kids from getting sick in these very bad conditions, where do I go for any help?’ If we can do things to relieve the mother’s anxieties,” she adds, “her children will feel that relief and they will be healthier, too.”

High school senior Francis Marciál told his mom, Yaraina Pitre, that he wanted to help out on hurricane Maria relief, so they volunteered to help deliver tarps in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Oct. 11.
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Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor

'What's important hasn't changed'

At the emergency response office in Torrecilla Baja, a half-collapsed neighborhood of Piñones, mothers and grandmothers seeking solutions to a myriad of Maria-spawned tribulations offer a picture of both the trauma caused by Maria and the resilience shining through.

Jannette Maysonet, mother of daughters Leylanis and Amahía and expecting a third child, says she and her husband are trying hard to assure their girls that the important things in their lives haven’t gone away, and that no hurricane can stop mom and dad from keeping them safe.

“We want them to feel as much as like normal life goes on, that despite everything we see around us that what’s important hasn’t changed,” Ms. Maysonet says.

When Amahía celebrated her fourth birthday four days after Maria, her mom didn’t let a knocked-out kitchen and shuttered local businesses deter her: She managed to find a small packaged cake and to put a candle on it.

And when Amahía started waking up at night crying for her father, a first-responder in a San Juan suburb who has been working almost nonstop since Maria, Maysonet settled on a heroic explanation for her husband’s absence. “I told her that daddy was doing his job helping other people, and she has been OK since then.”

Lisette Clemente is also turning bad circumstances into an opportunity.

Having lost her house to the storm, Ms. Clemente has moved in with her daughter – a change that serves as a daily reminder of her loss, but one which also has ended up giving her a sense that she’s contributing to her family in these tough times. She’s taking care of her granddaughter Amaya, since the pre-school she attends remains closed and Amaya’s mother is back at work at a reopened Sam’s Club.

“We’re really trying to show [Amaya] that she is safe and doesn’t have to worry about anything,” Clemente says.

From kids, a sense of solidarity

Indeed, when asked for her thoughts on Maria, Amaya says resolutely, “Maria? Maria went away.” She also happily offers one of the two tiny yellow flowers she’s holding to the pesky journalist peppering her with questions.

What prompted a little girl to share her prize with a stranger may remain unknown, but many Puerto Ricans say they are seeing signs everywhere – in particular among young people – of a desire to give in the midst of so much loss, and to do what one can to help others out.

Jannette Maysonet, mother of daughters Leylanis and Amahía and expecting a third child, says she and her husband are trying hard to assure their girls that the important things in their lives haven’t gone away, and that no hurricane can stop mom and dad from keeping them safe.
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Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor

“It’s quite striking how much evidence we’re seeing of young people and even small children chipping in to help their home and their communities recover,” says Yolanda González, an assistant professor at UPR’s Graduate School of Education. “It shows that even at a young age there’s a sense of solidarity and some level of understanding that we feel better when we help others.”

In Arecibo, a coastal town west of San Juan, Francis Marciál embodies this spirit as he joins his mother Yanaira Pitre and some municipal workers to distribute a truckload of tarps to residents whose roofs were carried away by Maria’s winds.

“I like helping other people, it makes me feel like I’m doing something for Puerto Rico,” says the high school senior aiming to study mechanical engineering. “I know a lot of people say the young people don’t do anything, but I don’t think that’s true. If you look around,” he adds, “you see a lot of young people doing something to help out.”

Professor González notes that hundreds of students showed up spontaneously at the university to help clear debris. As word spread, hundreds more came to pitch in over subsequent days.

Even Pablo at the Piñones basketball court makes the unsolicited clarification that he went to his cousin’s house to help clean up after Maria before he joined friends in clearing the basketball court of debris. “I think that made my aunt happy,” he says.

Focus on helping others

That desire to pitch in is on full display at the Padre Rufo secondary school in the Santurce section of San Juan. Like other public schools on the island, Padre Rufo is closed for regular classes until at least Oct. 23. But in the meantime, the school’s principal has opened her modest campus to elementary school children and teenagers alike as a shelter from what can be the disheartening picture of Maria’s aftermath.

When Padre Rufo first opened its doors about a week after Maria, the focus was on letting kids tell their Maria stories and on assessing their mental state. And there was plenty of hurt and sorrow, judging by the drawings the littlest ones did of their hurricane experience.

One little girl drew a phalanx of menacing visages arriving over a green Puerto Rico, their eyes and mouths wide-open and empty like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Another girl colored her Puerto Rico a jarring red and wrote, “God abandoned me.”

But the principal, Beverly Rodriguez, says she decided it was important for the kids to quickly move on from reliving what had happened to understanding that things would get better. “They have a lot to tell, but we didn’t want them to get stuck on talking about the hurricane,” she says. “We want to move on to the future.”

A science teacher takes kids out to the school’s small herb and vegetable garden to show them that all was not lost, that the parsley and basil and spinach are already growing back strong. A gym teacher leads students in calisthenics.

'Puerto Rico will rise up!'

And now Ms. Rodriguez says she’s seeing more signs every day of kids bouncing back and determined to surmount Maria’s challenges. That spirit is captured in another drawing on the school’s bulletin board that boasts the caption, “Maria was a category 5, but Puerto Rico is a category 10!”

One day this week in a classroom of adolescents, clinical psychologist Rosario Gomez, who normally works with at-risk juveniles, brought the kids to their feet with a kind of pep rally for Puerto Rico.

“Maria, Maria, you took away the roof, but Puerto is standing tall!” they chant. “Paint yourself with the colors of hope, so that Puerto Rico will rise up!”

There’s more than happy talk to such exercises, Dr. Gomez says, especially when the fun stuff like the cheers is accompanied by activities that allow for putting the slogans in practice. The kids in the class hand wrote letters to kids who lost their homes and are living in shelters, for example, starting each one with, “My Puerto Rican friend.”

“Kids have a lot of hope, but my worry is that as the long process of recovery from Maria moves slowly on, they lose faith,” Gomez says. “Focusing on helping others and on the small things they can do to contribute can help them keep their hope alive,” she says.

To one side of the boisterous classroom, a quiet Antony Smart offers a confirmation of Gomez’s approach – not to mention an unexpectedly guileless sentiment for a 15-year-old boy.

“I know a lot of people lost a lot in this storm, so it kind of feels good to do something to encourage them,” he says. “I’m feeling my heart when I share from it with others.”

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4. Independence drama in Spain: a Catalan family’s view

Sometimes the best way to get both understanding and perspective on an issue is to get really close and personal. Our reporter talks to a husband and wife on opposite sides of Catalonia's independence.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadSpeaking freely with a visitor before dinner in their Barcelona apartment, Alex Ros and his wife, Cristina Garcia, begin to reveal the complexity of the political situation that the separatist Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont faces as he wrestles with Spain’s central government in Madrid. Mr. Ros, a Catalan by birth, supports Catalonia’s independence from Spain. His wife was brought up in the Spanish heartland of Castile and “cannot imagine” backing secession. They differ on whether the drive for a split is foremost about economics or cultural differences, even about whether statehood would ultimately be viable. But both are relieved that President Puigdemont stepped back Tuesday from making an unequivocal, unilateral declaration of independence. Ros, like some other Catalans, backed independence on the dubious assumption that the breakaway region could stay in the European Union. “I’m an independentista and they didn’t fool me,” he says. “I know what I’m getting if independence happens. But if our leaders start explaining what independence entails, they will never convince the majority of Catalans. And that’s why ... independence will never happen.”

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4. Independence drama in Spain: a Catalan family’s view

Alex Ros is a burly, born-and-bred Catalan, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of Catalonian independence from Spain.

Which sets him at odds with his wife, Cristina Garcia, a delicate woman in a black silk blouse, who was brought up in the Spanish heartland of Castile and says she “cannot imagine” backing secession.

“He never thinks I’m right on the topic,” she says with a sigh.

And that makes them a pretty typical couple in today’s sharply divided Catalonia. Discussing their differences over a pre-dinner drink, though, it turns out that they agree on quite a lot as well.

Their good-natured banter, as they sit in the comfortable, high-ceilinged living room of their apartment in central Barcelona, illustrates the complexity and nuances of the political situation that the separatist Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont faces as he wrestles with Spain’s central government in Madrid.

Mr. Ros is a middle-aged manager of tourist rental apartments in Barcelona, a Mediterranean mecca for visitors. His wife, Cristina, is a translator. They have opposite goals, but they both take pride in being modern and moderate.

Pro-independence supporters take part in a rally in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said during his speech in the parliament that the region remained committed to independence but said it should follow dialogue with the government in Madrid.
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Felipe Dana/AP

And both of them are relieved that President Puigdemont stepped back on Tuesday evening from the unequivocal unilateral declaration of independence that he had pledged to make.

'I can do the math'

Addressing the Catalan parliament, Puigdemont said he was “suspending the effects” of independence to allow time for negotiations with Madrid. Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy, however, is still threatening to suspend Catalonia’s semi-autonomous status and impose direct rule from Madrid.

That would be an unprecedented step with unpredictable consequences. But even for Ros, a passionate independentista, the prospects of pursuing his breakaway dreams in the current circumstances are still riskier.

“I’ve been an independentista my entire life, but I can do the math. There was no majority on the side of declaring independence. I can’t decide for Cristina that she will be Catalan when there are more Cristinas living here than Alexes,” Ros says.

The Catalan government says that 90 percent of those who voted in a referendum Oct. 1 backed independence. But the vote was illegal, and only 43 percent of those eligible turned out to cast their ballot.

One of them was Ms. Garcia. Almost everyone in Catalonia who wants the region to remain part of Spain, as she does, boycotted the referendum; the central government and the courts had deemed it unconstitutional, and most unionists felt that a low turnout would help undermine its credibility.

“I decided to vote because I didn’t like that Madrid forbade people to do so,” she explains. “My grandmothers couldn’t vote because they lived in a dictatorship. I know the referendum violated the Constitution but I wanted to be able to vote.”

So did Alex, but he didn’t want his vote for independence to actually lead to a split. Only a legal referendum – agreed with Madrid the way the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 was agreed with London – would offer a realistic path to Catalan sovereignty, he says.

And the Oct. 1 referendum is backfiring, he points out, with leading banks and large businesses moving their headquarters out of Catalonia in recent days, for fear of what the future might hold.

“Catalans only realized what would happen after the referendum, when banks and companies started moving,” Ros says. “That awareness will hurt the separatist movement more than any disappointment over a suspended independence.”

Voters have also come to realize that, contrary to what Puigdemont had told them, a Catalonia that split from Spain unilaterally would be cold-shouldered by the rest of Europe and denied membership in the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have both publicly opposed Catalonian independence.

Unable to use the European common currency, the euro, Catalonia would risk serious devaluation and inflation, Ros says. “A pair of trousers that costs me 29.99 euros today would cost 59.99,” he speculates.

A 'revolution of hungry people'?

In Cristina’s view, Catalan nationalism is largely fueled by economic issues and grievances about the way tax revenues from the region – the richest in Spain – subsidize other parts of the country. Alex scoffs at that, emerging from the kitchen where he is preparing botifarra, a Catalan sausage, and a salad.

“This was never a revolution of hungry people, it’s about culture,” he insists, in a region with its own language, traditions, and a 600-year history of independence until the early 18th century.

That is a history that the couple’s seven-year-old son, Max, learns at school, in Catalan. (The next day, though, there is no school because un-independent Catalonia is still celebrating Spain’s national day, and Max is celebrating by staying up late and doing cartwheels around the living room.)

With his father Max speaks Catalan, with his mother he speaks only Castilian Spanish. He spends three weeks every summer with his conservative grandparents in the center of Spain, and two weeks with his Catalan grandmother near Girona, a separatist stronghold.

That Catalan granny had never supported independence until 2010, when the constitutional court in Madrid – presided over by a political ally of Prime Minister Rajoy – struck down an expanded autonomy statute that had passed both the regional and the national parliaments.

Independentistas like my mother are reacting to Rajoy more than they’re actually considering the consequences of an independent Catalonia,” says Ros. “What does my mother know?” he asks dismissively.

“Nothing,” Max screams in the background.  

Good thing that the grandmother in question, Alicia Uballs Alvarez, didn’t hear that. Joining the family conversation on the phone, she recalls her personal history.

“My father fought in the Spanish Civil War and was in jail because of [fascist dictator Francisco] Franco,” she recounts. “When I was 12, he took me to see a protest in Barcelona, but the police beat me and he never took me again. I grew up, got married, and life was good. I felt comfortable so I never thought about independence again.

“But recently I realized Catalonia has been oppressed for years,” Ms. Alvarez says, because she feels that the region has been unfairly milked for taxes that are spent elsewhere.

Asked if she thinks an independent Catalonia could be an economically viable state, she is uncertain.

“Sometimes I think it will be possible,” she starts. “But then I’m not so sure and I’m afraid my children and grandchildren will be worse off. I’m especially afraid about Catalonia leaving the European Union. I’ve been told we could remain in the bloc and if that’s not possible that will make things much more difficult,” she admits.

His mother is not the only Catalan voter to have backed independence on the almost certainly false assumption that the breakaway region could stay in the EU, says Ros.

“I’m an independentista and they didn’t fool me,” he adds. “I know what I’m getting if independence happens. But if our leaders start explaining what independence entails, they will never convince the majority of Catalans. And that’s why – it saddens me to say it – independence will never happen.”

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5. Among alternative-energy options, a newcomer: evaporation

We know turbines in a dam capture energy as water flows downstream. Now, scientists have tested a small “evaporative engine.” This innovative bio-system produces power as water evaporates and flows upward.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThere may be another renewable energy source on the horizon. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that energy derived from evaporation off lakes and reservoirs could, in some states, exceed energy demand. “If we put an engine between an evaporating surface of water and dry air, we can capture energy similar to how we use dams,” one researcher explains. The researchers previously developed such an engine out of spores of a bacteria commonly found in soils, Bacillus subtilis, affixed to plastic strips that sit on the water’s surface. The team has successfully produced small amounts of energy with their device – just about enough to power a toy car. But their latest study suggests that natural evaporation in US lakes and reservoirs (not including the Great Lakes) could theoretically generate up to 325 gigawatts or 2.85 billion megawatt-hours per year. The researchers hope that their calculations will inspire engineers to explore this untapped natural resource, which they say has the potential to bolster energy security while saving water.

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5. Among alternative-energy options, a newcomer: evaporation

There may be a new renewable energy source on the distant horizon.

Evaporation, a key process in the hydrological cycle, is an overlooked source of alternative energy that researchers say could be more reliable than solar or wind power. The technology has a long way to go to reach deployable scale – and there are environmental concerns to consider – but, scientists say, evaporation energy could one day be a vital component of a diversified energy strategy.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York estimate that energy derived from evaporation off lakes and reservoirs could, in some states, exceed energy demand. That figure assumes that freshwater bodies could be covered entirely in evaporation engines, which is not likely to happen. But the researchers hope that their calculations will inspire engineers to explore this untapped natural resource, that they say has the potential to bolster energy security while saving water.

“No one previously has provided an estimate as to how powerful evaporation could be,” says Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu, the lead author of a study published last month in the journal Nature Communications that attempts to quantify the evaporation technology’s energy potential. “With our work, we hope we provide added motivation for future research and development on this evolving class of materials.”

How it works

The evaporation engine described by Dr. Cavusoglu and colleagues relies on some familiar hydroelectric concepts. A dam generates energy by utilizing the flow of water from high to low places: Gravity moves the water downward into a turbine, which rotates to power an electric generator. But water can also move upward through evaporation.

“If we put an engine between an evaporating surface of water and dry air, we can capture energy similar to how we use dams,” says Cavusoglu. “To capture that energy, we need something – an artificial muscle – that mechanically changes due to being wet or dry.”

The researchers previously developed such a muscle out of spores of Bacillus subtilis, a bacteria commonly found in soils, affixed to plastic strips that sit on the water’s surface. This muscle expands and contracts with changes in humidity. As water evaporates from the surface of a lake or reservoir, the bacterial spores absorb the water and the muscle swells. When the muscle reaches capacity, a shutter opens and allows the water to evaporate back into the air. As the spores shrink back to their original size, they pull at a turbine to generate energy.

The team has successfully produced small amounts of energy with their device – just about enough to power a toy car. But their latest study suggests that natural evaporation in US lakes and reservoirs (not including the Great Lakes) could theoretically generate up to 325 gigawatts or 2.85 billion megawatt hours per year. In 15 of 47 US states studied, the researchers found that the total theoretical capacity exceeds consumption.

That estimation depends on the unrealistic assumption that evaporation energy harvesters would cover bodies of water entirely. More likely, researchers say evaporation energy could be one component of a diversified energy strategy that relies on a suite of energy sources.

The southern and western United States have the greatest capacity to produce evaporation-generated power from lakes and reservoirs, a new study in Nature Communications finds.
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Courtesy of Columbia University

Building a more reliable energy grid

“The fact is that diversification helps create a stronger and more reliable energy grid,” says Cavusoglu.

Dependence on a single energy resource or provider is thought to reduce overall energy security – volatile prices and reliance on foreign oil can cause both economic and political problems, not to mention potential outages. But by shifting focus to an energy mix of both renewable and nonrenewable sources, and by emphasizing domestic-scale renewables such as rooftop solar, a country can theoretically mitigate those issues and protect itself from energy disruptions.

“As we move to different types of energy sources, we do end up dealing with the question of renewable intermittency,” says Hisham Zerriffi, head of the University of British Columbia’s Energy Resources, Development and Environment Lab. “The wind might not be blowing right now, but the sun is shining. The more you rely on different types of energy sources, the more potentially resilient and energy secure your system is.”

Evaporation energy offers some advantages over wind and solar. While sunlight and wind speed fluctuate depending on the weather and time of day, an evaporation engine could theoretically maintain continuous power flow by using shutters to adjust energy production as conditions change. Such devices can also be built with bio-materials, unlike solar panels and wind turbines.

“The types of active material that capture energy from evaporation are typically biological – spores, wood, hair, silk,” says Cavusoglu. “That means the engines could be grown, in contrast with the steel frequently used for wind turbines and silicon semiconductors used in solar photovoltaics.”

The study also suggests that an evaporation engine would work best in conditions with low relative humidity and low wind speed. As it happens, those are exactly the kind of conditions projected by current climate trajectories, says Catherine O’Reilly, an assistant professor at Illinois State University who studies nutrient cycles and freshwater biogeochemistry.

“We know that there’s going to be longer dry periods punctuated by intense storms, so that should generally increase the amount of time that we do have relatively low humidity,” says Professor O’Reilly. “We also know that there’s sort of a general decrease in wind speeds called global stilling. That also would provide the kinds of conditions that would support this type of technology.”

Heading off environmental concerns

But before evaporation energy can come into its own, researchers will need to address some potential ecological problems posed by their technology. By slowing the amount of direct evaporation from a body of water, Cavusoglu notes, one could inadvertently change water temperatures by reducing the natural effects of evaporative cooling. Alternatively, by physically covering parts of a lake’s surface, these engines could reduce the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the water.

“Because water is very sensitive to changes in temperature, those changes can have lots of different rippling effects through the ecosystem, [such as] how water mixes in the lake and how fast organisms reproduce,” O’Reilly says.

The technology could also affect freshwater oxygen levels, says O’Reilly. In lakes and reservoirs, oxygen is produced by algae, which need sunlight to photosynthesize.

“Putting things on top of a lake can restrict its ability to get oxygen in two ways: by reducing the gas exchange between the atmosphere and the water, and by reducing sunlight available for algal growth,” says O’Reilly. “Under those circumstances, you could expect the amount of oxygen in your water to possibly decrease.”

Such changes could have substantial impacts on both freshwater and ocean ecosystems. So-called dead zones, like the ones found in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, are characterized by hypoxia, or low oxygen levels. Fish die-offs usually follow hypoxic conditions, which are in turn exacerbated by microbes that consume even more oxygen as they break down dead matter. And stagnation isn’t just a problem for marine organisms.

“If a lake or reservoir is used for drinking water and irrigation, these would be serious considerations,” says Stephanie Hampton, director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach at Washington State University. “Many lakes are also important for lakeshore economies, recreation, and wildlife. Much depends on how the tech is designed.”

The incentive to address those logistical concerns is significant, the study authors say. In addition to expanding the field of renewable energies, the technology could help save water during drought conditions by cutting evaporative water loss by nearly half. “By slowing down the loss of water due to evaporation, we effectively save water,” says Cavusoglu.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction that has since been issued by the study authors. The total potential of evaporation energy from all the freshwater bodies in the United States (excluding the Great Lakes) is 2.85 billion megawatt hours per year.]

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The Monitor's View

After a steelmaker’s deception, steps to restore trust

 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn an era of damaging deceptions by big businesses, the frankness of Kobe Steel chief Hiroya Kawasaki, who admitted Oct. 12 that his firm had been making shoddy materials, was refreshing. Mr. Kawasaki was quicker than most corporate chieftains in coming clean. And so far, Kobe is taking the right steps: Deliver an authentic apology, tell the whole truth, make amends, and fix those aspects of company culture that led to the deception. If it succeeds, the company will not only save itself and the reputation of the Japanese manufacturing industry, it may help reverse a worrisome worldwide trend: Trust in major institutions from government to media is at an all-time low, according to a 2016 survey of 28 countries by the Edelman communications firm. The key to earning trust is for companies to be more open to criticism and advice. Such humility allows for transparency. When trust in a company goes to zero, rebuilding it requires an openness to listening.

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After a steelmaker’s deception, steps to restore trust

The head of Kobe Steel, a giant manufacturer of metal products in Japan, made a rare admission on Oct. 12. After admitting his company had long lied about the quality of its materials, which are used worldwide in products from cars to computer chips, Hiroya Kawasaki added: “Trust in our company has dropped to zero.”

In an era of damaging deceptions by big businesses, his frankness was refreshing – and necessary to quickly figure out which vital metal products, such as airplane parts, need replacing. Many other big companies, such as Volkswagen and Wells Fargo, have recently lied about the quality of their products or services. Mr. Kawasaki was quicker than most corporate chieftains in giving a number for trust in his company..

His contrition now allows the 112-year-old steelmaker to begin the process of restoring its reputation in the global supply chain of manufacturers. Employees will be grilled on why the company shipped more than 20,000 tons of aluminum and copper products with fabricated inspection data to about 200 customers. Kobe Steel is also telling customers the details of its falsehoods. And the company will report within a month on which preventive measures it has put in place.

So far, Kobe Steel is following the necessary steps for rebuilding trust: Deliver an authentic apology, tell the whole truth, make amends, and fix those aspects of company culture that led to the deception. If it succeeds, the company will not only save itself and the reputation of the Japanese manufacturing industry, it may help reverse a worrisome worldwide trend. Trust in major institutions from government to media is at an all-time low, according to a 2016 survey of 28 countries by the Edelman communications firm. Trust in businesses has hit a low of 52 percent while the credibility of chief executive officers is only 37 percent.

The key to earning trust is for companies to be more open to criticism and advice. “The best companies are already deeply listening to and strategically acting on insights from their employees, customers, and other stakeholders,” says Edelman CEO Matthew Harrington.

Such humility allows for transparency. After the General Motors scandal in 2014 involving the coverup of faulty ignition switches, a new CEO, Mary Barra, encouraged criticism from customers and suppliers. She calls such candid feedback “a gift.” When trust in a company goes to zero, as Kobe Steel now knows, rebuilding it requires an openness to listening.

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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.

God’s care – universal and all-encompassing

 

Photos of the challenges faced by people around the world – such as famine – can tug at our heartstrings. But there’s reason for hope: Everyone has an unbreakable relation to God, good, and can experience God’s infinite love in tangible ways. Divine Love cares for and cherishes all individuals, providing ideas that help meet their needs. Whether an issue is dire or more modest, in our own home or across the world, prayer affirming that God’s healing love is right there is a valuable way to help.

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God’s care – universal and all-encompassing

Recently I saw a news photo of a schoolgirl living in famine conditions in Africa. That photo touched my heart. I wanted to pray about this, and I did – but that picture, making so clear her need, kept coming back to thought, and I wasn’t finding comfort from my prayers.

When I began to listen carefully for an answer, this thought came to me: “She’s with Me. I’m taking care of her.” I knew that message was from God, divine Mind. This inspiration helped me see, in a gentle but firm way, that this young girl had an unbreakable relation to God, just as I did – as everyone does. In fact, we’re not just “with” God: God created each of us as His own spiritual reflection, cared for and cherished. Everyone is embraced in God’s infinite love and can experience that sustaining love in tangible ways wherever they are.

I’ve kept on praying and trusting that God’s infinite wisdom is right there, providing the practical care for all who are living in that part of the world, and in every other corner of the globe, too. I know that prayer does make a difference. I’ve seen this in my own life, in meaningful ways.

There was the time we’d just moved into a house on the bank of a large river. On a day of heavy rain, flooding seemed imminent. We really didn’t know what to do, and so we prayed for answers. And then, some unexpected things happened. Neighbors helped us get a truck. County rescue workers were suddenly there, without anyone calling them, and filled that truck with our possessions. A friend offered us shelter until the water receded.

While not life-threatening, this experience showed that God provided the ideas that brought us just what was needed at that moment and in that situation. I knew it was God because God is the source of all good and communicates His goodness, comfort, and guidance to each individual. No one can be separated from God, the infinite divine Love that expresses itself in us. And we all have the intuitive ability to listen for and hear those God-sent messages, enabling us to find solutions to our needs, whether big or small.

So I keep being grateful every day for the spiritual fact that God’s care is universal and all-embracing. In her book “No and Yes,” Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy says, referring to God as divine Love, “God will ‘furnish a table in the wilderness’ and show the power of Love” (p. 9).

Efforts to provide needed help to those who are in famine regions can include prayer. And as I continue to pray, I also know that God’s healing love is right here – and right there – fulfilling the promise I heard that day: “They’re with Me. I’m taking care of them.”

A version of this article aired on the Aug. 22, 2017, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

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Preparing to celebrate

Indian potters stack earthen lamps in an oven in preparation for a Diwali festival in Allahabad, India. People buy earthen lamps to decorate their homes during Diwali, the annual Hindu festival of lights, which will be celebrated Oct 19.
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Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 13th, 2017 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow: We’re looking at the recent string of major US hurricanes and wildfires – and what role humans play, if any, in fostering such disasters.

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