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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.

2018
May
29
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

If you’re looking for a window on the future of cars, take a gander at Norway.

In March, almost 56 percent of the new cars sold in the Scandinavian country were electric or plug-in hybrids. That’s the highest rate in the world. (In 2017, the comparable figure in the United States was 1 percent.)

As a result, say some analysts, gasoline, diesel, and oil lubricant sales in Norway are all declining for the first time in seven years.

Yes, there’s a bit of irony in that fossil fuel money is helping to pay for a national shift in thinking. Norway derives 15 percent of its economic output from oil. Its path to a moral high ground is government subsidized by as much as $8,200 per car per year (including about $5,000 worth of free parking). And Norway gets 99 percent of its electricity from hydropower, so citizens don’t have the ethical trade-offs many countries face. For example, is your Nissan Leaf juicing up with electricity from a coal-fired power plant?

But to quote the Oracle in “The Matrix,” “what’s really going to bake your noodle” is that “56 percent of new car sales” figure may be suppressed. Studies show that traditional auto dealers (even in Norway), for a variety of reasons, tend to push customers away from electric vehicles.

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Now to our five selected stories, including a look at courage in France, the pursuit of justice in Iraq, and creative problem-solving in Ohio.

1. In North Korea talks, what role is China seeking?

North Korea’s nuclear program may dominate the news. But zoom out a bit, and you can see the contours of a larger rivalry between the US and China for economic and military influence.

David

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As the United States and North Korea feint and parry toward a proposed summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un on June 12, what role China has been playing in the process is a mystery. Has it been applying the brakes on the diplomatic process so as to maintain maximum leverage with the US? Or is it truly eager for the US and North Korea to come to some agreement on the latter’s nuclear program? What is certainly clear is that Beijing is playing a role, and Mr. Trump last week appeared to be paying President Xi Jinping a compliment by calling him a “world-class poker player.” Though his precise meaning was unclear, he, too, had strategic cards to play. On Tuesday Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports and other limits on Chinese investment in the US. Bonnie Glaser, an Asia analyst in Washington, says Trump’s linking of trade with North Korean diplomacy “has given the Chinese tremendous leverage.… No one can predict where all this is going, but I think you’d have to say that given everything, China is in a pretty good position right now.”

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In North Korea talks, what role is China seeking?

When President Trump last week dubbed Chinese President Xi Jinping a “world-class poker player” for his diplomatic prowess in handling the tricky North Korea challenge, it raised eyebrows in Beijing and left US-China watchers perplexed.

Mr. Trump, in comments during his May 22 White House meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, referred specifically to North Korea’s “change in attitude” after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent second meeting with Mr. Xi in just over a month.

It was the North’s hardened position that prompted Trump to cancel a proposed June 12 summit between him and Mr. Kim.

Was Trump warning the Chinese leader through feigned admiration, some analysts wondered, that he was pushing Mr. Kim too far into a position that risked scuttling the advancing diplomacy between the United States and North Korea?

Or, as others wondered, did the reference to master poker-playing signal Trump’s recognition that China’s Xi was cleverly playing all the cards in his hand, from North Korea and US-China trade issues to great-power relations?

Whatever Trump meant to suggest, the reference reflected two realities: first, that China will play a determinant role in the off-again, on-again diplomacy between the US and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. And second, that no matter how Trump’s gambit with China’s rogue neighbor works out, relations between the world’s sole superpower and the rising challenger will remain the over-arching game of the century requiring master skills.

“Remember that when Trump came into office, it was great-power competition – with Russia and China but mostly with China – that was going to be the priority and that was the focus of every national security document the new administration put out,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies and a Northeast Asia expert at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

“That got put on the back burner as North Korea rose as the top national-security concern, but it’s never pushed too far back. And I can tell you,” he adds, “that there are some senior White House officials and senior State Department officials who would love an excuse to move ahead with a full-blown containment strategy on China.”

Clearly North Korea diplomacy and the prospects for reviving the canceled Trump-Kim summit remain front and center, as events over the weekend and Tuesday demonstrate.

Trump announced in a tweet Tuesday that a senior North Korean official, Kim Young Chol, was on his way to New York for meetings with US officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to meet with Mr. Kim this week.

Moreover, the dispatching of one US diplomatic team to Singapore, where the June 12 summit was scheduled to take place, and another to the North Korean side of the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone for meetings Tuesday with senior North Korean officials, underscored the intensive efforts under way to put the summit back on track.  

But the kind of strategic card-playing Trump attributed to China’s Xi was also evident in Washington.

On Tuesday, Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports and to introduce a raft of new limitations on Chinese investment in the US high-tech industry.

Trump did not commingle the China trade issues with the North Korea diplomatic efforts in his tweets, but the president has openly related the two issues, some US-China experts note.

“Let’s not forget that it’s been President Trump who’s linked trade issues and addressing North Korea’s nuclear program in the past,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It was Trump who said during his trip to Beijing in April “that if China helps us with North Korea, he’d be willing to give China a better deal on trade,” she says. “That has given the Chinese tremendous leverage.”

Ms. Glaser says she was “baffled” by Trump’s “poker player” reference to Xi, and to the implication many took from it that the US was blaming China for North Korea’s hardening stance on nuclear negotiations.

“There’s something going on that prompted the president to say this but that we’re not hearing,” says Glaser, who says “past experience shows President Trump usually makes these bizarre comments based on something he’s heard in an intelligence briefing. But what I can say from my observation,” she adds, “is that the Chinese have no interest in sabotaging the summit with Kim Jong-un.”

Other analysts in Washington and in Beijing seem to agree.

“China has a strategic interest in securing a positive outcome of the summit,” says Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

Kim’s opening to the US shows he wants to “start a long-term transition from a pariah state” to a modern state with a globally connected economy, “and for China, that’s a very important strategic goal to achieve,” Mr. Tong says. “If the summit fails, if the US tries to strengthen … the maximum-pressure campaign,” he adds, “China will be placed in a very uncomfortable place.”

Still, while that may be true, others see reasons Xi might have aimed to influence Kim short of causing a total Washington-Beijing rupture.

“It’s quite imaginable that Xi could have told Kim Jong-un, ‘Hey, slow down, what’s the rush,’ ” says Joseph Yun, a former State Department special representative for North Korea policy with decades of experience in the China and North Korea portfolios. Kim’s two visits to China in just over a month “reflect a caution and unease the Chinese were feeling over the rapidly progressing diplomacy,” says Ambassador Yun, now a North Korea expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

Indeed, China very likely saw as twin worries the building rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang even as Washington-Seoul ties sailed on smoothly.

“I think Xi took it as a slap in the face when Kim Jong-un unilaterally stopped nuclear testing even as he dropped his insistence on an end to US-South Korean military exercises,” says Glaser. “What Xi does have very high on his agenda is driving a wedge between the US and Seoul and undermining the alliance.”

Seconding the theory that Xi may be out to slow but not scuttle US-North Korea diplomacy is Mr. Kazianis of the National Interest, who says the Chinese have liked nothing better than to see Washington “bogged down” with the North Korea issue. “For them, what’s not to like? Among other things they’ve been able to run the table in the South China Sea,” he says, pointing to Beijing’s military build-up in neighboring waters as the Trump administration has focused on the North Asian nuclear threat.

Kazianis says no one should rule out “some connection” between China’s ongoing trade negotiations with the US and Kim’s abruptly toughened stance toward the US after his second meeting in 40 days with Xi. Indeed, Trump’s own reference broadly to such a connection and specifically his surprising softening of US penalties on Chinese telecom company ZTE (sanctioned heavily by the US for doing business with both North Korea and Iran) suggest Xi might indeed be angling to play several cards at once.

But at the same time, he says China is at risk of running afoul of administration officials who are itching to get back to tough action with China and who have no qualms about the prospects of a trade war.

“If the game [the Chinese] are playing is to bring Kim Jong-un to the table in exchange for trade concessions, they’re opening up a Pandora’s box,” Kazianis says. “They should remember that the China hawks are waiting and ready to take off.”

That may be, but at the same time some analysts say they still see Xi and China coming out ahead if the outcome of the current theatrics of US-North Korea diplomacy is a solid nuclear deal that China helped facilitate.

“No one can predict where all this is going, but I think you’d have to say that given everything, China is in a pretty good position right now,” says Glaser. “Xi has just had two summits with North Korea, relations with South Korea are improving, and at least right now the picture on US-China trade isn’t as bad as it might have been. So unless it turns out Xi really is in the president’s crosshairs,” she adds, “I’d say things are going pretty well for China right now.”

Michael Holtz contributed from Beijing.

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2. In heroics of 'Le Spiderman,' recognition of what migrants can offer

France's rush to honor "Le Spiderman" Mamadou Gassama is natural. But it also highlights an oddity of the migrant experience: the strength and courage needed to make the trip to Europe often isn't recognized there.

David
Thibault Camus/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron (l.) meets with Mamoudou Gassama, from Mali, at the Elysée Palace in Paris on May 28. Mr. Gassama is being honored by Mr. Macron for scaling an apartment building over the weekend to save a 4-year-old child dangling from a fifth-floor balcony.

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When Mamoudou Gassama scaled five stories of a Parisian apartment building to rescue a 4-year-old boy dangling from a railing, he became an overnight folk hero. With viral videos capturing his actions, his heroism earned him praise from top officials, including President Emmanuel Macron, and a chance to legalize his status in France. But the strength that helped Mr. Gassama save that boy was also that which helped him get out of Mali in the first place. And the drive it takes to cross, in his case, Africa and the Mediterranean is rarely praised by locals in France. More often it’s perceived as a threat. Now, for a few days at least, many migrants feel their strength and stamina are being recognized as traits that make their host country a better place. “He gives another image of illegals in France,” says Catherine de Wenden, a migration specialist at Sciences Po in Paris. “It shows to the public that illegals are not only people we have to avoid, but those who can participate generously in forms of citizenship, including solidarity on the streets.”

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In heroics of 'Le Spiderman,' recognition of what migrants can offer

It was his quick instincts, his strength – and no small dose of daring – that led Mamoudou Gassama up five stories of the façade of a Parisian apartment block where a small child was gripping onto an exterior balcony for his life.

“Le Spiderman,” as he’s been dubbed, has been feted across France for saving the four-year-old boy. He received accolades from the mayor of Paris, the French interior minister, and the French president himself. His rescue resonated around the world, including in the US on a holiday weekend meant for reflection on the sacrifice of others. But his global celebrity also stands in contrast to the darkening mood around immigration in France and beyond.

As the unauthorized immigrant from Mali was invited to apply for naturalization by President Emmanuel Macron, his fortitude was on full display. In a gilded room in the Elysee palace, Mr. Gassama’s muscles bulged from under a white, short-sleeve button-down.

Yet that brawniness led him not just on the path to French citizenship, but out of the scrubland of Mali in the first place. The drive it takes to cross, in Gassama’s case, Africa, to get to Libya, and then across the Mediterranean is rarely praised by locals. More often it’s perceived as a threat.

And for a few days, at least, many migrants feel their strength and stamina is being recognized – as traits that make their host country a better place.

“We are so happy, he saved a child,” says his countryman Lamine, who arrived in Paris illegally a month ago at age 19 and is now living in a temporary camp on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin.

“He gives another image of illegals in France,” says Catherine de Wenden, a migration specialist at SciencesPo in Paris. “It shows to the public that illegals are not only people we have to avoid, but those who can participate generously in forms of citizenship, including solidarity on the streets.”

A video capturing Gassama climbing briskly to reach the dangling boy went viral, and he became an overnight folk hero in France. “I just climbed up and thank God, God helped me. The more I climbed the more I had the courage to climb up higher, that's it," he recounted the experience to the local press.

“Bravo,” President Macron told him at their meeting Monday. “Because this is an exceptional act ... we are obviously, today, going to regularize all your papers.”

Gassama is not the only unauthorized immigrant to be lauded a hero. In 2015, it emerged that it was a Malian, Lassana Bathily, who led six hostages to safety during a terrorist attack at a kosher grocery store in Paris. He was also granted citizenship.

But Macron was quickly called out this week for hypocrisy, after a toughening migration policy that seeks to more quickly differentiate refugees and economic migrants. “An exceptional act does not make policy," Macron said when questioned by reporters on the point. He has long maintained that France’s policy must be fairer for those in dire need, and stricter for those who are not.

Along the canal, migrant camps spring up continually. One social worker on a recent day from the organization France Terre d’Asile, (France, Land of Asylum), which helps find housing for the most vulnerable migrants, says Gassama’s exploit is a rare piece of positive news for the unauthorized community in Europe. “If a person does something extraordinarily brave, he or she could be rewarded for it.”

Still, the vast majority endure the “ugliness of life here,” he says pointing to a garbage-strewn stretch of the canal where he estimates about 300 unauthorized immigrants are currently living. The government has said it wants all such makeshift encampments shut down.

Lamine, the Malian teen, says life is not as good in France as he imagined, and he believes it can only improve if he is granted asylum and a chance to work.

This becomes a vicious circle of anti-migrant sentiment, says Professor de Wenden. “What shapes the image [towards migrants] is mostly those living in the streets, even if it is due to the lack of welcoming policy we have in France and in other European countries,” she says. “We have people in the street who are not allowed to work. A lot of the public thinks they come here to be helped by social services. They came to find a job.”

Gassama has been offered one – to apply to become a firefighter. Adjacent to the camp sits a fire station. “Gassama has the courage, and the mentality, that it takes,” says firefighter Jean-Marc, dripping wet, with flippers and goggles in his hand, as he gets out from a morning diving practice.

He might just want to look across the canal to find some candidates. Lamine and a group of friends around him says they could do what “Le Spiderman” did – they have all spent months training by trekking from Africa or the Middle East to Europe. “We have done more than that,” Lamine says, smiling.

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

3. The mounting pressure on nuclear nonproliferation efforts

To those nations with nuclear weapons, they represent a kind of strength and security. But is humanity becoming safer as nuclear weapons proliferate?

David

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The post-World War II “club” of nuclear-weapons states has remained remarkably exclusive. Yet the world could be entering an age of proliferation, with the added threat that nonstate groups like Al Qaeda could eventually gain access to nuclear weapons material. North Korea presents a key issue: Not only has it succeeded in going nuclear, it has reaped political benefits. Then there’s Iran: The international agreement to freeze its nuclear program is precariously balanced, following the US's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. For many decades, nonproliferation efforts did well. By the late 1960s, only four countries in addition to the United States had developed nuclear weapons. That began to change after nonaligned India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974. By the late 1980s, Pakistan was nuclear, and technology and expertise from its clandestine program was passed on to others, including Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Now the world faces twin threats. First, the technological and scientific barriers have become easier to overcome. And short of preemptive military action, a diplomatic carrot-and-stick approach may no longer work to prevent proliferation. 

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The mounting pressure on nuclear nonproliferation efforts

As private clubs go, few have managed to remain so exclusive for so long. And none has had a more profound effect on international politics: ensuring that the concluding horror of World War II, the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would not usher in an age of nuclear conflict around the world in the years that followed.

Yet amid all the other uncertainties surrounding the planned US summit with North Korea, it is becoming clear that the “club” of nine nuclear-weapons states – and the wider cause of nuclear nonproliferation – are facing unprecedented new pressures. In fact, it is possible that we could be entering an age of proliferation, in which more countries will move to acquire nuclear weapons. Since one prime possibility for a new nuclear arms race is the politically unstable Middle East, there is an additional danger: that nonstate groups – like Al Qaeda, its offshoots or rivals – could eventually gain access to nuclear weapons material as well.

Though the nonproliferation régime has been under growing pressure in recent years, it now faces a potentially critical challenge. This is not just because the North Koreans, despite serial international efforts to find a diplomatic way to prevent them from doing so, have succeeded in going nuclear. It is that by doing so, they have reaped palpable political benefits. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has gone from being derided as “little rocket man” to getting an invitation from the president of the United States to sit down face-to-face for summit talks.

Meanwhile, the international agreement to freeze the nuclear-weapons program of Iran is precariously balanced, following President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal and his decision to impose tough new sanctions.

The key question is how, and whether, the Americans and others in the international community can succeed in halting Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon and convince or prevent other would-be nuclear states from following suit.

In some ways, it’s amazing nonproliferation has done so well for so many decades. Although the USSR broke the Americans’ atomic monopoly several years after World War II, by the late 1960s only four other countries had tested and developed nuclear weapons: Britain, France, China and Israel.

Yet things began to change dramatically after nonaligned India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974. By the end of the 1980s, India’s neighbor and rival, Pakistan, had gone nuclear. Even more significantly, technology and expertise from Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program was passed on to other countries, including Libya, Iran, and North Korea. North Korea, in turn, provided key help in a bid by Syria to develop a nuclear weapon in the early 2000s.

There are now twin challenges. First, the technological and scientific barriers have become easier for would-be nuclear powers to overcome or evade. And short of preemptive military action – like the Israeli air strikes which prevented first Iraq in 1981, and then Syria in 2007, from developing a nuclear weapon – it’s not clear that the mix of diplomatic carrot-and-stick that was employed in the past to limit the spread of nuclear weapons will necessarily work.

Far from paying a major price for getting over the nuclear finishing line, the most recent entries to the nuclear-weapons club – India, Pakistan, and now North Korea – have reaped strategic and political benefits. And the one example of a country that did negotiate away its nuclear-weapons program – Libya – is unlikely to act as an incentive for others to do likewise. That 2003 agreement did lead to an easing of isolation and sanctions on Libya, and to active moves by major Western states to bring Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi into the international fold. But he ultimately ended up being captured, beaten and killed in a 2011 uprising in which NATO countries sided with the rebels.

The two earliest nonproliferation challenges are likely to come in Asia and the Middle East, and the first may be easier to navigate. Among North Korea’s neighbors, both South Korea and Japan are economically advanced countries that could, if they felt it necessary, develop a nuclear weapon. But like a number of West European countries in the early years of the nuclear weapons age, they have long chosen to rely on the security umbrella of the United States. Depending on the diplomatic results of the Trump-Kim summit, that arrangement could still hold.

The Middle East situation is potentially more fraught. If Iran does resume, and succeed in, its effort to become a nuclear-weapons state, even Washington’s considerable diplomatic leverage in the region might not forestall one or more of the Iranians’ major Sunni Muslim rivals – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – from pursuing a nuclear option of their own.

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4. Wanted: innovative farmers to help clean up Lake Erie

Recurring problems can sometimes feel inevitable. In Ohio, a growing number of farmers are breaking from industry norms to creatively combat an annual scourge on Lake Erie.

David
Paul Sancya/AP
Algae floats in the water at the Maumee Bay State Park marina in Lake Erie in Oregon, Ohio, Sept. 15, 2017. On March 22, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure from environmental groups, put western Lake Erie on a list of 'impaired' bodies of water.

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As summer approaches, researchers have their eye on Lake Erie, where summer blooms of toxic algae, known as cyanobacteria, have been taking a toll on the local economy and raising public health concerns for at least 15 years. Forecasters started watching the lake and its tributaries this month as they work to estimate how extensive this year's problem may become. Scientists have tied the annual algal bloom to runoff of nutrients from surrounding agricultural operations. The Environmental Protection Agency considers nutrient pollution one of the biggest threats to water quality in the United States, and it’s a growing problem worldwide. In Ohio, a lot is being done to address the annual blooms. Scientists are learning more about soil chemistry, farming practices, and nutrient pollution. More farmers are adopting environmentally friendly methods, often with financial help from the federal government. New laws are regulating when livestock farmers can spread manure on their fields. But so far the problem is outstripping efforts. As farmers become attuned to the problem, more of them are taking ownership of their role in both the problem and the solution.

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Wanted: innovative farmers to help clean up Lake Erie

Flat, mosquito infested, and barely passable, the Great Black Swamp once covered 1,500 square miles of northwestern Ohio and neighboring Indiana. Drained and settled in the 19th century, the area includes the farm that Duane Stateler’s great-grandfather started back then. Today, Mr. Stateler and his son raise hogs and grow corn, soybeans, and wheat on the family’s acreage. But for the sake of Lake Erie, he’s giving a small part of it back to the swamp. 

The old Black Swamp used to hold back and clean the water that flowed into Lake Erie, which forecasters started watching this month to predict how bad the summer’s harmful algal blooms will be. Stateler’s six muddy acres gone to marsh is a small part of of one farmer’s attempt to help minimize the unwanted growth that turns western Lake Erie green, a condition for which agricultural nutrients are largely to blame. 

Farmers are facing mounting pressure to keep nutrients on their land and out of the lake. Toxic algae—cyanobacteria—has been getting worse since at least 2003, hurting the local economy and raising public health concerns. On March 22, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure from environmental groups, put western Lake Erie on a list of “impaired” bodies of water, a designation that could lead to stricter water quality standards and tougher regulations on agriculture.

“I think the success so far is the recognition across pretty much all the stakeholders that what’s going on now is a problem and that something needs to be done to fix it,” says Madeline Fleisher, a lawyer with the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. “The disagreement is over what needs to be done.”

A lot is being done already. Scientists are learning more about soil chemistry, farming practices, and nutrient pollution. More farmers are adopting environmentally friendly methods, often with financial help from the federal government. New laws are regulating when livestock farmers can and can’t spread manure on their fields – not on frozen ground or before heavy rain.

But so far the problem is outstripping efforts. Algal blooms keep reaching record proportions. Agricultural nutrients in the Maumee River, Lake Erie’s biggest source of pollution, are undiminished. Research suggests that most nutrient pollution is caused by big storms like the eight-inch rainfall that lashed the Stateler farm last July, and with climate change these storms are becoming more common.

A local problem with international reach

An international commission representing the Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces wants to reduce phosphorous, the main nutrient behind the algal blooms, by 40 percent. Scientists say this goal is within reach – but only if a lot more farmers take part. “We need to have farmers participating at a scale that’s unprecedented,” says Don Scavia, a professor emeritus of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.

The EPA considers nutrient pollution one of the biggest threats to water quality in the United States, and it’s a growing problem worldwide. It afflicts big estuaries and marine ecosystems, but also many smaller bodies of water across the country – more than 2.5 million acres, according to one EPA estimate. 

Richard Mertens
Duane Stateler, a farmer near McComb, Ohio, and a participant in the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network shows off equipment measuring how much nutrient is coming off his field, both on the surface and in drainage tiles underneath.

For Lake Erie the problem is both new and old. In the 1960s and ’70s, the lake was notorious for its foul-smelling water. The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the US and Canada began to change that. A crackdown on industries and upgrades to sewage treatment plants helped bring about dramatic improvement. The 1972 Clean Water Act had a similar effect across the US. But agriculture and other “non-point” pollution sources remained unregulated.

Stateler’s 1,000 acres near the village of McComb dwarfs his great-grandfather Samuel’s 240 acres at the edge of the Black Swamp, where he felled trees and made crude wooden pipes to drain the wet soil. Drainage systems like these, later made of clay and PVC, underlie much of northwestern Ohio. They have made agriculture possible but hastened the flow of nutrients off the land.

Stateler has adopted many strategies to reduce runoff, some costly and time-consuming: grassy strips along waterways and controls on his drainage systems; extensive soil tests so he knows how much nutrient a patch of field needs. He plants cover crops to protect the soil over the winter, and he doesn’t spread manure over the ground but injects it – one of the most important things a farmer can do, researchers say.

Two years ago Stateler joined the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, an initiative of the US Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau. Nearly 500 farmers, public officials, community leaders, and graduate students came last year to see how farmers can reduce agricultural pollution. Many “had no idea what we were doing,” Stateler says.

The number of outreach efforts is growing. The fertilizer industry and the Nature Conservancy, a farmer-friendly environmental group, started a voluntary certification program to encourage more careful fertilizer use. Fishing boat captains are taking farmers out on Lake Erie to let them see algal blooms first-hand. “Their reaction is ‘Wow’ … ‘I didn’t understand it was as bad as it really is,’ ” says Dave Spangler, vice president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. The association says algal blooms have hurt business by as much as 30 percent.

Efforts like these may be having an effect. People who work with farmers detect a growing acceptance that agriculture is at least partly to blame for Lake Erie’s woes. “They’re very concerned and want to do something,” says Robyn Wilson, a researcher at Ohio State University. “But they’re not convinced that the recommendations are feasible at the farm level, or that if enough farmers did it, it would solve the problem. So we’re kind of falling flat on the last piece of the puzzle.”

Are voluntary measures enough?

The USDA says farmers are making “significant headway” toward reducing nutrient pollution, but many researchers say that voluntary actions aren’t enough. A recent report urges more outreach and better targeting of conservation dollars, but also mandated soil testing. “If we could get everybody to do soil tests regularly and follow the tests, we’d go a long way toward solving the problem,” says Jeffrey Reutter, one of the authors and former head of Ohio Sea Grant.

Meanwhile, wetland restoration – bringing back bits of the Black Swamp—is getting more attention. Beyond the Stateler's new little wetland, the Black Swamp Conservancy is working on turning 60 acres back into swamp, among its other projects that protect natural and agricultural lands in northwestern Ohio. William Mitsch, a retired Ohio State University professor and wetlands expert, envisions something bigger. He says that restoring a tenth of the Black Swamp – about 100,000 acres – would be enough to clean Lake Erie.

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, he says. Constructed wetlands in south Florida are cleaning water from sugarcane fields before it reaches the Everglades. Dr. Mitsch’s idea is to build temporary wetlands that can be flipped back to fields, with crops feeding on nutrients the wetlands have trapped. 

He’s begun to test this idea in northwestern Ohio. At the corner of an empty field, Mitsch and a crew have sunk 28 plastic tubs into the ground. Nutrient-rich water from a drainage ditch will be pumped to the tubs. Planted with cattails, each tub, or “mesocosm,” as Mitsch calls them, will become a small wetland.

Soon dirty water is gurgling through the pipes. Mitsch and his colleagues want to know how many years these mini-wetlands can absorb nutrients, and how well they can nurture crops afterward. “I’m sympathetic to farmers,” Mitsch says, gazing across the barren countryside. “But I’d like to see it in wetlands on a bigger scale. Bring back the Black Swamp! Bring back the Everglades! It’s not enough to say, ‘Let’s mitigate an acre here, an acre there.’ That’s not going to do it.”

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5. The priest who chronicles religious persecution of all faiths

Justice is not bounded by a particular faith, or place, or even the expanse of time.  Our reporter looks at how a French Roman Catholic priest was led to address injustices found in Iraq.

David

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Across the forests and fields of Europe, the Rev. Patrick Desbois has painstakingly re-created hidden Nazi crime scenes for more than a decade. He and his team are documenting the 1.5 million to 2 million Jews and Roma who were shot and buried at more than 2,000 mass graves during World War II. But in 2014, Father Desbois received an email that opened his eyes to the plight of the Yazidis, the ethnic religious minority being decimated by the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq. From France, Desbois followed the news and prayed, but then he made a decision to go himself, deepening his commitment to historical truth and to those persecuted because of their religion. Desbois is fighting to ensure that mass killings are not only prosecuted by authorities but are also condemned by all of society. “The lesson I retain is that we don’t have the right to be indifferent,” says historian Marc Knobel. “We cannot forget the victims of the Shoah [Holocaust]. And it’s not possible to let Christians of the Middle East suffer. And it’s not possible to allow the Yazidis to be exterminated.”

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The priest who chronicles religious persecution of all faiths

Like many people, the Rev. Patrick Desbois in 2014 had never heard of the Yazidis, the ethnic religious minority being decimated by the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq.

At the time his gaze was still fixed closer to home. For more than a decade, the French Roman Catholic priest had been documenting the mass graves left by Nazi firing squads in the forests and fields of Eastern Europe. His work not only has garnered the gratitude of Jewish communities around the globe and France’s highest honor, the National Order of the Legion of Honor, but, unwittingly, has also turned him into a leading expert in the methods of genocide.

He received an email from a Jewish donor in New York in 2014, just as the assault on the Yazidis was at its height. “He said, ‘Father, I’d love to support you for the past, but I prefer you take care of the genocide of the present,” Father Desbois recalls. “When I received this email, it opened completely my eyes. It’s true.... Today there are mass shootings, and we don’t care, so is it because a guy is not killed by Nazis that it has no import?”

Desbois followed the news as Yazidis fled the jihadists of the Middle East. He knew Pope Francis was praying for them. He prayed. But in the end, he made a decision to go himself. “I said, ‘I will not watch the TV. I will not issue a communiqué. I will not make a Facebook page, because people don’t care,” says Desbois in the offices of Yahad-In Unum, his humanitarian organization based in Greater Paris.

With that decision, Desbois has deepened his commitment to historical truth and to those persecuted because of their religion, whatever faith they may be. His decision comes amid a wave of anti-Semitism at home and religion-inspired killing in the Middle East. Desbois is fighting to ensure that mass killings are not only prosecuted by authorities but are also condemned by all of society.

He shared thoughts about his mission less than 48 hours after returning from his most recent trip to refugee camps in Iraq.

If a French priest seems out of place in a modern civil war, consider that his path there began during World War II. His grandfather, a French soldier, was deported to the Nazi camp Rava-Ruska in Ukraine. He survived but refused to discuss the details, only driving Desbois to want to know more.

When Desbois arrived in 2002 at the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, the mayor said he didn’t know anything about what happened to the Jews and others. Desbois refused to settle for that answer.

He kept returning, until a new mayor took him to the site of a mass grave, and he found 50 farmers who talked for the first time. He wanted to know everything about the lives of victims and witnesses alike during the war: when villagers harvested their potatoes, where they slept in their homes, how they celebrated their holidays, and, of course, how Jews were shot and who was hired to kill them, dig their graves, and then fill them in.

“These people were ready to speak,” he says. “It could have been finished [that] day. But when I came back to the car ... the mayor told me, what I did for one village I could do for 100 villages. And for me it was like God’s call.”

More than 2,000 sites

Since then, he and his team have visited not just 100 villages, but more than 2,000 sites across eight countries in Eastern Europe. Acting as part historian, part detective, they have painstakingly re-created a crime scene – between 1.5 million and 2 million Jews and Roma were shot and buried – that until then had been overshadowed by murder in Nazi extermination camps.

On a recent Friday afternoon, sun fills the offices of Yahad-In Unum (a combination of Hebrew and Latin meaning “together in one”). Kateryna Duzenko, a Ukrainian who has worked with the priest since 2010 as an interpreter, is now managing an interactive map by which users, if they know when and where family members were killed, can find events surrounding the execution. There is testimony when available and geographical and historical data.

Ms. Duzenko says people are still desperate for this information “all these years later,” but the organization’s work serves not just to bring peace to victims’ families. “As a Ukrainian, to know my history and know what happened, and accept that Ukrainians participated, makes me move forward and do better things in the future and prevent the same thing from happening in the future,” she says. “What Father Patrick does is important for Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish people.”

When Desbois decided to pack his bags for Iraq, he realized that dealing with a “genocide of the present” required new methods. He made a crucial link at a barbershop in Brussels: The hairdresser was a Yazidi, and his father was teaching English in refugee camps in Iraq. Now the hairdresser works full time with Desbois as they interview the Yazidis who survived.

The early interviews were difficult. They weren’t talking to witnesses of crimes committed decades ago, but to victims themselves, still terrorized. “The first time it was only men [conducting interviews]. We realized we made a mistake. We couldn’t interview women with a troop of men,” Desbois says.

Now they employ Yazidi women in the camps as they set out to understand ISIS methods: how the militant group came into villages and put up checkpoints, forced them to convert to Islam, raped the women, and indoctrinated the youths so they believed they are children of the caliphate.

The takeover of Sinjar

More than 5,000 Yazidis were killed after ISIS took over the town of Sinjar in August 2014, and as many as 7,000 women and girls were rounded up to work as sex slaves. The United Nations has ruled that ISIS’s tactics amount to genocide.

Desbois has documented it in the book “The Terrorist Factory,” which is to be released this summer. He also penned “The Holocaust by Bullets.”

“We try to know the topography of the crime,” he says. Such details are crucial in getting beyond labels and religious slogans. Attributing crimes to the brand “Hitler,” he says, minimizes the responsibility of the individual killer, and the same is true of Islamic terrorists today. “Terrorists are first criminals. They kill innocent people. In name of religion, in name of God, in name of power, but in end they are killers.”

Desbois made his first trip to Iraq in May 2015, and to date he has visited more than a dozen times and interviewed 200 victims.

Yet unlike his work in Eastern Europe, he hasn’t stopped at preserving recollections. Rather, he’s fought for justice for victims and their reintegration into society.

“I couldn’t do an interview and say, ‘Bye-bye, I’ll come back in one month.’ It was impossible on an ethical level for me,” he says.

Desbois has opened centers in five refugee camps to help vulnerable children, many orphaned or so brainwashed they don’t remember their native tongue. He’s also created sewing workshops for women who lost everything to ISIS.

No ‘right to be indifferent’

Marc Knobel, a historian and director of studies at CRIF, the Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France, says that Desbois’s work with the Yazidis represents the essence of the priest: his strength of spirit to work in a combat zone, to speak to those living through a massacre, and to look beyond faith groups to see his role as being part of all humanity.

“The lesson I retain is that we don’t have the right to be indifferent,” Mr. Knobel says. “We cannot forget the victims of the Shoah [Holocaust]. And it’s not possible to let Christians of the Middle East suffer. And it’s not possible to allow the Yazidis to be exterminated.”

Desbois says he believes mass killers, including ISIS, carefully designate their targets so the majority of the population feels little concern. Even though ISIS has killed Europeans in recent attacks and inspired radicalization and violence in the United States, most have not empathized with the Yazidis. They sleep well at night, he says. “My goal is to try to federate the maximum number of people who don’t sleep well.”

For Yahad-In Unum’s interactive map, go to yahadmap.org/#map.

Other organizations working with children

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups working to create a stabler environment for various children:

One Mobile Projector per Trainer uses low-cost technology in the education of the world’s poorest people. Take action: Give money for a youth peacebuilding initiative in South Sudan.

Children of the Night rescues youths in the United States from prostitution. Take action: Support the Children of the Night home.

New VietGens backs the young generation in poor areas of Vietnam. Take action: Make a donation to pay for food and health-care items for disabled orphan children.

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The Monitor's View

Saudi Arabia’s struggle to define national identity

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Most nations allow at least some public debate over issues such as economic policy or the role of social media. In Saudi Arabia, the debate is even more basic. Are the Saudi people even a nation, one with a clear national identity? That question has become more central as the monarchy – which is based on the ruling Al Saud family – has begun to make rapid reforms aimed at altering the way Saudis perceive themselves. The difficulty of this identity-shaping task is reflected in the government announcing last year that women would be allowed to drive starting June 24 but then deciding last week to arrest about a dozen people who had campaigned for this liberty. The move reflects a wider struggle between the introduction of new values and the old authoritarianism, especially the strength of the conservative Muslim clergy. It also shows a people trying to define a universal civic identity beyond one based on traditional Arab customs and a strict interpretation of Islam. Countries that are reaching for a more expansive identity must eventually settle on the governing virtues that best reflect the values of the people. Monarchies are usually not good in either defining those values or giving up power. Eventually, Saudi Arabia may be an exception, if it allows the people, including female dissidents, the freedom to define a national identity.

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Saudi Arabia’s struggle to define national identity

Most nations allow at least some public debate over issues, such as economic policy or the role of social media. In Saudi Arabia, the debate is even more basic: Are the Saudi people even a nation, one with a clear national identity?

That question has become more central lately as the monarchy – which is based on the ruling Al Saud family – has begun to make rapid reforms aimed at altering the way Saudis perceive themselves. 

The difficulty of this identity-shaping task is reflected in the government announcing last year that women would be allowed to drive starting June 24 but then deciding last week to arrest about a dozen people who had campaigned for this liberty. The reason for the arrests remains unclear. Perhaps the regime wants to take credit for the new policy or to send a signal that reform must be from the top down, not driven by dissidents.

The move reflects a wider struggle between the introduction of new values such as gender equality and the old authoritarianism, especially the strength of the conservative Muslim clergy. It also shows a people trying to define a universal civic identity beyond one based on traditional Arab customs and a strict interpretation of Islam.

The lyrics of the national anthem, written in 1984, mainly serve to glorify the king and Islam. Only in 2005 did the government introduce a “National Day.” And schools now include “national education.” Since 2016, a new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, has begun radical change to wean the economy off oil revenues and ensure jobs for the nearly half of the population under 25 years old. To achieve that, he needs foreign investment and, to some degree, more social freedoms and an attractive national identity.

“Saudis don’t want to lose their identity but we want to be part of the global culture. We want to merge our culture with global identity,” the crown prince, who effectively rules day to day, told The Atlantic in an interview.

More Saudis may now see themselves as citizens of a state and not subjects of a monarchy. A 2016 survey of Saudi youth, for example, found 90 percent believe women have equal civil rights. Many want to assert individual rights as a check on centralized power. So far, however, the crown prince has shown little interest in political rights. He has arrested almost anyone who challenges the regime, including liberal intellectuals, outspoken clerics, and nearly 400 princes and businessmen accused of corruption.

Countries that are reaching for a more expansive identity must eventually settle on the governing virtues that best reflect the values of the people. Monarchies are usually not good in either defining those values or giving up power. Eventually, Saudi Arabia may be an exception, if it allows the people, including female dissidents, the freedom to define a national identity.

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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.

Value that’s not contingent on circumstance

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Today’s contributor writes of a woman gaining freedom from the emotional baggage of an abusive upbringing through a clearer sense of her spiritual worth.

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Value that’s not contingent on circumstance

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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A woman I know spent her early years wishing she’d never been born. She knew she wasn’t wanted from day one. In fact, even before she was born she was referred to as “Calamity Jane.” Her family situation included mental illness, physical abuse, and alcoholism. As an adult, she still felt trapped by the circumstances of her birth.

In desperation, she earnestly began to study Christian Science, which included reading its two key texts: the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy.

Imagine her enormous relief when she read these words in the Bible and glimpsed that they were true: “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). This shows that we are all actually children of God. As such, we inherit the characteristics of our divine Parent: we are spiritual, valued, and whole.

The woman came to realize that God, who is good, loves us unconditionally and that our worth isn’t determined by genes or early childhood experiences. And she saw how recognizing these spiritual facts of our existence enables us to live them. Her life turned around, and instead of falling into the same destructive patterns her parents had, she became productive and successful.

The first line of the Lord’s Prayer shows us that God is “our Father.” In Science and Health, there is a spiritual interpretation of this line: “Our Father-Mother God, all-harmonious” (p. 16). A life that expresses harmony because our divine Parent is all-harmonious? Wow! Is such a thing possible? Absolutely!

Through prayer, as we learn more of our relation to God, the perception of existence as nothing more than mortal, physical, and vulnerable can be exchanged for an understanding of our immortal, spiritual nature. It’s often not easy, but we can overcome problems as we grow in our understanding of our identity and inherent value as God’s children.

Adapted from the May 14, 2018, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

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Bee season

Alex Brandon/AP
Kayden Wilkins, age 10, from Upper Marlboro, Md., ponders his word during Round 2 of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Tuesday, in Oxon Hill, Md. The most adept spellers under age 15 will compete for three days, with the winner being named May 31. Last year's winning word? Marocain.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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( May 30th, 2018 )

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Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We’re working on a story about the latest gender discrimination battle: the African tradition of the groom, or his family, paying a “bride price.”

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