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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
July
05
Thursday
Noelle Swan
Science Editor

For much of Southeast Asia, the term "tsunami" conjures up images of devastation. But in Pakistan, a so-called Billion Tree Tsunami has become a symbol of hope.

The monumental effort to plant more than 1 billion trees in the country’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in just over two years has been lauded as “a conservation success story” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That success has since been confirmed by an independent audit conducted by the Pakistani branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

Forest managers say these newly planted trees will help fight erosion, mitigate climate change, and reduce flooding. But the project caught the World Economic Forum’s attention for boosting local incomes and creating jobs, particularly for widows, poor women, and young people.

“I am now getting over 12,000 rupees per month, just by looking after the saplings in my home,” one nursery manager told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2016. “I have also acquired the skills I need to grow different seedlings, and this will help me earn enough even after the project is wound up.”

The effort has inspired a federal Green Pakistan campaign, which aims to plant 100 million additional trees across the nation by 2022.

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Now on to our five stories for today, highlighting a wave of new hope cresting in Mexico, shifting perceptions around marijuana use among US veterans, and the scientific quest for a better way to recycle plastic.

1. In Mexico, optimism around a new presidency, and electoral engagement

Politics is rarely a source of optimism in Mexico. But the election of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency on Sunday has brought hope to Mexicans – and perhaps a new view of voting.

Noelle
Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrate his victory on Mexico City's main square, the Zocalo, July 1.
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Ramon Espinosa/AP

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Mexicans have long been profoundly cynical when it comes to their elected officials. That's been especially true the past six years under President Enrique Peña Nieto, who ran on a platform of change but instead became synonymous with corruption and violence. So the fact that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, won the presidency so resoundingly Sunday – with an absolute majority in a multi-candidate field – represents a new wave of hope for many here. And his win, along with the forceful rejection of the country’s traditional parties, could signal a sea change in how Mexicans are approaching politics. Instead of having fixed loyalty to one party, voters may be acting more like "consumers," picking the best candidate for their current status. Yet the excitement around AMLO has created high stakes for his presidency. His party won majorities in both chambers of Congress, leaving him few excuses if he fails to push through promised policy changes. “AMLO’s not a saint,” says Isaîas Cesto, who voted for AMLO’s party. “But I do expect him to change things. That’s why I voted for him.”

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In Mexico, optimism around a new presidency, and electoral engagement

It’s not every day a nation wakes up after a presidential vote and collectively dons the colors of their national flag.

In Mexico Monday, that national pride had something to do with a World Cup soccer match. But the image of unity in the flag-waving, jersey-clad masses was an apt reflection of the energy and hope here following Sunday’s historic presidential vote.

Three-time candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to by his initials, AMLO, took the presidency with about 53 percent of the ballots. It’s the first absolute majority earned by a president in nearly two decades, and with 30 points between him and his closest competitor, the highest winning margin since 1982.

Mexicans have long been profoundly cynical when it comes to their elected officials. That's been especially true the past six years, under a president who ran on a platform of change, but instead became synonymous with all-too-familiar scourges like corruption and violence.

But Mr. López Obrador’s overwhelming victory represents a new wave of hope for many here. He ran on promises to end corruption and to direct the country toward a fresh path that leaves behind violence and unemployment. There are nevertheless still plenty of Mexicans, many of whom have expressed a desire for change, who are skeptical of what kind of leader he will be, or if he can deliver on his pledges.

Yet his win, along with the forceful rejection of the country’s traditional parties, could signal a sea change in how Mexicans are approaching politics. After nearly two decades of multiparty democracy under the conservative PAN and the outgoing PRI, voters now may be approaching politics not with fixed loyalty to one party, but as "consumers" picking the best candidate for their current status.

A new path for Mexican democracy?

It's a marked shift, but one that the establishment parties laid the groundwork for – and which voters welcome now.

“For the first time in memory,” says Armando Zuñiga, a retiree who voted for AMLO this year after casting ballots for PAN and PRI in the past three elections, “I feel optimistic.”

In the first several days since his historic win, AMLO has gotten to work assuaging fears in the business community and with international investors, while letting his base supporters know that his focus remains on lifting up the poor and improving conditions for the most vulnerable and overlooked.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the MORENA party arrives at a polling station during general elections in Mexico City on July 1. Mr. López Obrador won the Mexican presidency with an absolute majority, the first time that has happened in nearly two decades.
Caption
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Ramon Espinosa/AP

“For the good of everyone, first come the poor,” he bellowed during his victory speech on Sunday. The PRI and PAN candidates conceded by 9pm – hours before the electoral institute even released its initial quick-count results.

“What I think we’re witnessing and will continue to witness in Mexico is that the voter has become more like a consumer,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, based in Washington. “It used to be that you were a PRIista, PANista, or PRDista” he says, loyal to a party regardless of the party’s candidate. “Now, we are in a new reality where voters are choosing the option that makes the most sense for his or her life at the time.”

This election – and the move away from party identity – will have a lasting impact on the old party system, analysts say.

“Nobody would have thunk 20 or 30 years ago that the three parties [PAN, PRD, and PRI] that gave us electoral democracy, that steered it to safe port over the last generation, that they’d all be basically on their deathbed today,” says Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, who has tracked the country’s political transition since the late 1980s.

Those parties failed to meet citizen expectations since Mexico’s transition to multiparty democracy in 2000, after more than 70 years of uninterrupted PRI rule. But they have played a key role in creating a landscape where citizens understand the importance of their voice in democracy, observers say.

The past three presidents, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, and Enrique Peña Nieto, “worked on the creation and strengthening of institutions, and as a result civil society has grown and strengthened” over the past 18 years, says Valeria Scorza, program director for Avina Foundation, which works on citizen-driven, collaborative social change projects.

She expects citizens – even AMLO supporters – to continue taking to the streets and holding the government accountable under this administration, something Mexico has seen more of in recent years amid high-profile human rights and corruption scandals.

‘We all have a role to play’

But the excitement around AMLO has generated more than just hope and excitement – it’s created high stakes for the president. His party won majorities in both chambers of Congress and he has three years until midterm elections, leaving him few excuses if he fails to push through promised policy changes.

“AMLO’s not a saint,” says Isaîas Cesto, a musician who voted for López Obrador’s MORENA party across the ticket. “I’m not putting him on a pedestal. But I do expect him to change things. That’s why I voted for him. That’s what’s given me hope for the future.”

In a column for leading newspaper Reforma, political scientist Denise Dresser encapsulated the concerns of many AMLO voters and detractors, alike.

“I am not afraid that Mexico will become Venezuela,” she writes of a common scare-tactic used against AMLO in previous elections, due to his leftist agenda and populist rhetoric. “I fear that Mexico will remain the same Mexico.”

But amid the jubilant celebrations Sunday night in the historic Zocalo plaza, the honking cars zooming through city streets and excited screams spilling out of open windows, there’s also a burgeoning sense of responsibility that reaches beyond the enthusiasm for AMLO himself.

“I’m glad ‘el Peje’ won,” says Carolina, using the AMLO nickname that refers to a sharp-toothed, fresh-water fish from his home state of Tabasco.  “I like his ideas, but he won’t change Mexico alone,” says the bank employee who asked not to use her last name. “Change means everyone. If we don’t change [as a society], nothing will change. I’m hopeful, but we all have a role to play.”

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2. With high court in play, Democrats link abortion rights and health care

With the makeup of the Supreme Court in play, abortion is suddenly the issue of the midterms. But at least in one race, health care looms just as large in the minds of voters.

Noelle

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Last week, a political tornado barreled through the campaign of Sen. Claire McCaskill and those of other red-state Democrats. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the United States Supreme Court, announced his retirement, throwing these senators into a precarious position as they face an expected confirmation vote for his replacement this fall. No issue is getting as much attention as the highly charged one of abortion. Missouri is an antiabortion state, but that’s not where Senator McCaskill stands. “Most conservatives know that I have a long record of supporting women’s reproductive health freedoms ... and that is not going to change,” she told reporters Monday. McCaskill, and Democrats generally, are talking about abortion rights by emphasizing the context of health. It’s not only a “less emotionally charged way to talk about it, but a more realistic way ... because so many facets of it have to do with health care,” says Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women and politics at the University of Virginia. Take Marty Walsh, of Glendale, Mo., a former seminary student who describes himself as “pro-life.” That’s just one issue though, he says. Health care also is “very important” to him, and he says he’s upset “by what Republicans are trying to do to health care.”

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With high court in play, Democrats link abortion rights and health care

On Monday, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was on her third health-care event of the day. Blessedly, the Democrat noted, this one was air-conditioned.

The endangered senator, running for reelection in a state that President Trump won by 19 points, has put health care front-and-center in her campaign – a potentially winning issue in a race considered a toss-up.

But last week a political tornado barreled through her campaign and those of other red-state Democrats trying to keep their seats in a Senate that Republicans narrowly control. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the United States Supreme Court, announced his retirement, throwing these senators into a precarious position as they face an expected vote on whether to confirm his replacement early this fall.

Suddenly, the balance of the court is at stake, with no issue getting as much attention as the highly charged one of abortion. Missouri is an antiabortion state, but that’s not where Senator McCaskill stands. “Most conservatives know that I have a long record of supporting women’s reproductive health freedoms ... and that is not going to change,” she told reporters Monday.

What’s interesting here is the way in which McCaskill, and Democrats generally, talk about abortion rights – long emphasizing the broader context of health. It’s not only a “less emotionally charged way to talk about it, but a more realistic way ... because so many facets of it have to do with health care,” says Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women and politics at the University of Virginia.

It’s not surprising then – and indeed a “smart” strategy, according to Professor Lawless and others – that Democratic Senate minority leader Charles Schumer of New York is highlighting and pairing abortion rights and health care as issues that hang in the balance with Justice Kennedy’s replacement.

“Two issues of … profound consequence, which could well defeat a nominee who opposes them, are the fate of affordable health care and a woman’s freedom to make the most sensitive medical decisions about her body,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed Monday.

If Americans do not want to see a justice who could overturn the 1973 landmark case that legalized abortion – Roe v. Wade – or who will “undo” health care, he wrote, they should tell their senators not to vote for a nominee from Mr. Trump’s list of 25 candidates.

That list, he pointed out, was vetted by organizations committed to overturning Roe and shrinking government’s role in health care. As a candidate, Trump said he would nominate justices who would reverse Roe, and he has worked to repeal and weaken the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. He’s expected to announce his nomination Monday.

Recent polls show upward of 60 percent of Americans want the Supreme Court to uphold abortion rights – though not necessarily without restrictions. But is that a top issue for voters in a midterm election year?

On Election Day 2016, a fifth of all voters said the Supreme Court was their No. 1 voting issue – and most of them voted for Trump, says Mallory Quigley, spokesperson for the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports antiabortion candidates and lobbies on behalf of law and policy restricting abortion rights. Supporters are “fired up” over the vacancy, she says.

The advocacy group plans to protest outside of senators’ offices. It has 500 door-to-door canvassers on the ground in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Florida, and it will soon expand to West Virginia and North Dakota – all states that Trump won and where Democrat senators are up for reelection. Last year, Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only three Democrats to break from their party and vote to confirm Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

“This is a major vulnerability for Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Manchin ... but also for people like Bob Casey [a Democrat from Pennsylvania] who calls himself pro-life, Claire McCaskill, and other vulnerable Democrats in states that Trump won overwhelmingly,” says Ms. Quigley.

In Missouri, McCaskill’s likely Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, has seized on the Supreme Court vacancy, challenging McCaskill to a debate on the issue. “The future of our country is on the line in the Supreme Court,” he said last week. On Facebook, he calls the high-court vacancy McCaskill’s “nightmare.”

In April, the state House passed a “fetal pain” law banning abortions after 20 weeks. Women must receive counseling that discourages abortion and nearly all of the state’s women (94 percent) live in counties where no clinic provides abortion.

McCaskill told reporters she is happy to debate Hawley on a variety of issues and in a town hall setting. But her main rejoinder to Hawley is that he has signed on to a lawsuit from 20 conservative states that takes aim at the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions – one of the most popular portions of the law. Indeed, her Monday afternoon campaign event was focused on that very issue.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake does not see a catastrophe for McCaskill if she rejects a Trump nominee for reasons that include abortion rights. “I don’t think it’s that challenging because even people who would be considered ‘pro-life’ – not the hardcore pro-lifers – a lot of people are in the middle.”

That would be someone like Marty Walsh, of Glendale, Mo., who came to the McCaskill event and describes himself as “pro-life” – a former seminary student who studied the Roman Catholic viewpoint on the issue. But that’s just one issue, he says. Health care is also “very important” to him, and he says he’s upset “by what Republicans are trying to do to health care.” His state has not expanded Medicaid, for instance, and rural hospitals keep closing.

A week ago, says Ms. Lake, the No. 1 issue for Democrats was health care – the issue where they have the single biggest advantage. Then came the Supreme Court vacancy. But that “elevates the saliency of other issues” where the Supreme Court has ruled, including the Affordable Care Act and coverage for contraception. “There’s an easy linkage for these two issues,” and that, she says, will motivate swing voters and the base: women, baby boomers who don’t want to lose their health benefits, and Millennials who thought reproductive rights were resolved.

“I’m worried about the future of women” if an anti-abortion nominee is confirmed, says Christine Leeper, a content provider for bloggers and one of the younger people at the event. As for McCaskill, “I think what could get her to win is health care, because there are so many pro-life Republicans, so many older people, who don’t want health care taken away.”

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3. How combat-trauma cases may lessen federal stigma around cannabis

Republicans have long embraced the war on drugs. But recently many Republicans have shifted their stance, thanks in part to veterans who say cannabis softens the symptoms of combat trauma. 

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Vietnam War veteran Terry Chambers gets up every morning and promptly commits a state and federal crime in his hometown of Marion, Ind.: He crunches on a cannabis cookie. A teetotaler who doesn’t smoke, he credits the cookies with helping him break a 21-year opioid addiction. “I can care less if they arrest me,” he says. “What are they going to do? All I’m trying to do is stay alive.” Thanks in part to a phalanx of veterans, including Mr. Chambers, the United States could be on the brink of reversing course on 50 years of federal marijuana prohibition. The shift in national attitudes, especially among Republican lawmakers, comes amid a backdrop of high opioid addiction and suicide rates among veterans. Among veterans, support for legalization is high: A 2017 American Legion study found 83 percent of veterans support federal cannabis legalization. Veteran-heavy red states are responding by legalizing medical marijuana or introducing legislation to do so. And President Trump recently signaled he would sign the STATES Act to deregulate marijuana at the federal level. “Politicians say we’re just adding more drugs to the street,” says Indiana veteran Jeff Staker. “We’re not. People have problems.... It isn’t about getting high.”

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How combat-trauma cases may lessen federal stigma around cannabis

Vietnam War veteran Terry Chambers gets up every morning and promptly commits a state and federal crime in his hometown of Marion, Ind.: He crunches on a cannabis cookie.  

It remains illegal to possess marijuana in the United States, yet 60 percent of Americans now live in states that allow either medical or recreational cannabis. 

Indiana began allowing the medical use of non-psychoactive cannabis extracts in March, but Mr. Chambers is still committing a criminal misdemeanor with his illicit scratch baking. No matter, he says. A teetotaler who doesn’t smoke, he credits the cookies with breaking a 21-year-long opioid addiction that he says, “took my manhood.”

“I can care less if they arrest me,” he says, “What are they going to do? All I’m trying to do is stay alive.” 

Chambers is part of a phalanx of veterans advocating for recognition of cannabis as a safe and effective painkiller to relieve the mental aches and physical wounds of war. The shift in national attitudes, especially among Republican lawmakers, comes amid a backdrop of high opioid addiction and suicide rates among veterans. 

Among veterans, support for legalization is high: A 2017 American Legion study found 92 percent of veteran households support more research on cannabis and 83 percent support federal cannabis legalization. Supporters say a positive side effect is its potential to ease opioid addiction and lethal overdoses among veterans. 

Deep concerns remain that removing the federal stigma from cannabis may worsen a situation where millions of Americans are using illegal chemicals to get high. The focus, critics argue, should be on making Americans, including veterans, whole and productive without taking a hit.

Nevertheless, the US could be on the brink of reversing course on 50 years of federal marijuana prohibition. President Trump signaled on June 8 that he would sign a bipartisan bill called the STATES Act to deregulate marijuana at the federal level. 

Veterans “have been pushed to the brink by the government not helping them with their problems,” says Chris Conrad, a political scientist at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif., which bills itself as “America's first cannabis college,” adding that they “have become a fulcrum point” in the push to bring the US marijuana market, projected to hit $50 billion by 2026, to light. 

Already, they are leading the trend: The share of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who treat their symptoms with marijuana grew from 13 to 23 percent between 2002 and 2014, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

Veterans take on Washington and weed

Former Navy SEAL Nick Etten, founder of the Veterans Cannabis Project, stands astride the nexus of Washington and weed. 

As part of the drug war in Central America in the 1990s, Mr. Etten projected America’s prohibitionary stance to the world. Later, after he returned home, he watched as the opioid epidemic began to rage, especially among veterans returning from the Middle East.

And as his former military buddies began touting the potential of cannabis to end nightmares, ease pain, relieve head injury, and end opioid dependency, Etten began making the rounds, this time armed with a suit, tie, and talking points, on why the VA should consider cannabis as an alternative to powerful pharmaceuticals. 

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration in June approved the first drug in the US that contains CBD, a compound found in cannabis. It may pave the way for more research and mainstream acceptance of medical marijuana. 

“We owe it to veterans to unpack the medicinal capabilities of this plant,” says Etten. “This is where the rubber is going to meet the road at the federal level [on marijuana], is around veterans’ health.”

Judging by veteran-heavy states moving toward legalization, he may be right.

  • Last Tuesday, Oklahoma, where 9 percent of residents are veterans, legalized possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana with a doctor’s note.
  • In Texas, which has more veterans than any state except California, the state GOP recently amended its platform to decriminalize medical marijuana.
  • And in early June, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Indiana passed a resolution to “petition the Congress to enact legislation that would provide our veterans with legal, safe medical cannabis programs.” 

To be sure, much of the movement toward federal deregulation has to do with changes in the Republican Party, where veterans have joined a broader libertarian movement to get government out of people’s lives.

“There is a feeling by some of the Trumpian antigovernment faction that the dysfunctionality of federal laws on marijuana are just symptomatic of broader government dysfunctionality, so getting rid of federal regulations makes sense from that standpoint,” says Dale Gieringer, author of the “Medical Marijuana Handbook.” 

Amid opioid epidemic, marijuana offers solution

What’s giving the issue urgency is a national disaster of overdoses and suicides among veterans. Last week, an Air Force veteran, angry with the VA, lit himself on fire on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. 

A 2016 study by the South Texas Veterans Healthcare system found a nearly 400 percent increase in overdoses and suicidal behavior by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans taking five or more drugs that affect the central nervous system. 

The VA’s prescription rate of pain medications such as morphine surged 259 percent between 2001 and 2013. In West Virginia, the VA in Huntington has prescribed take-home opiates at a rate about 230 percent higher than the national average. During a four-hour period in 2017, 28 people in the town overdosed from heroin.

In response to the opioid epidemic, the VA has slashed its opioid prescription rate by 41 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to VA data. 

Studies have shown that suicide and overdose deaths are on the decline in medical marijuana states. And even though VA doctors are not allowed to recommend medical marijuana, veterans are encouraged to discuss its use with VA staff. 

Indiana veteran Jeff Staker returned from duty to see fellow soldiers become shadows of themselves, riven by nightmares, pain, and addiction. When unable to procure opioids, some turned to heroin and other powerful street drugs, sometimes with lethal impact, he says. He used marijuana to wean himself off opioids prescribed by the VA for pain, and says he worries about those who don’t have that option as the VA turns to alternative therapies, including yoga, to replace opioids.

“Veterans see the danger,” says Mr. Staker, founder of Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis. “If you look at all the stuff that I did as a Marine sniper, I see the battleground,” he says, referring to veterans struggling and dying back home after having been diagnosed with PTSD and addiction.

“Politicians say we’re just adding more drugs to the street,” he adds. “We’re not. People have problems.... It isn’t about getting high.”

At the same time, he acknowledges concerns about deregulation by veterans like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Army Reservist who has rescinded Obama-era protections for medical marijuana, and who told Congress in 2016 that the US government should send a clear message that “good people don't smoke marijuana.” In Congress, Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions, (R) of Texas, has scuttled several bills in committee, including bipartisan ones that would open the door to VA research into cannabis and allowing them access in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Mixed reaction from lawmakers 

“Some folks suggest [cannabis] is a less evil replacement for other pain medications, but my answer is that we need to be able to feel some pain in this country and stop trying to eliminate all pain and feeling from our lives,” says David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, and a former Army judge advocate general. “We need an America that gets up in the morning, is clearheaded, motivated to go to work, can tolerate a moderate amount of pain, and follows the rules that are set for us. If that’s ridiculous, well, then it’s ridiculous.”

But other veterans say the debate is more nuanced. 

Growing up, Ryan Miller says he smoked pot twice and “felt horrible.” In high school, the self-described jock would ridicule teammates for smoking marijuana. He ended up joining the Army and becoming an infantry captain before his life changed, irrevocably.

“In 2007, I get blown up, legs mangled – any other war I’d be dead,” says Mr. Miller, recounting the events that led up to amputation. “I was all [expletive] up for a couple of years. At first I found marijuana as a nice alternative to pain medication. Two days after [using] my body felt calmer. Yeah, guys can exaggerate stuff [about the benefits of marijuana] but I know people who would be alive today if they had access to cannabis.”

Such stories resonate with Rep. Tom Garrett (R) of Virginia, an Army veteran and former prosecutor.

A longtime medical marijuana skeptic, Congressman Garrett took note when the American Legion, a congressionally-chartered organization, began advocating for marijuana reform. “That was a watershed moment,” he says. “There is no more mainstream, red-blooded, mom and pop and apple pie organization than the Legion. That was stuff that needed to be said.”

Since then, Garrett, who recently said he is battling an alcohol addiction and will not seek re-election, has spent the bulk of his time on the Hill lobbying for a federalism bill he filed last year. 

Federal oversight of marijuana overextends the Constitution, he says, and creates a “tyranny of good intentions.” Reverting regulation to the states will, he says, “let people be people.” 

Other conservative lawmakers have been looking to Rep. Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee, an Army Medical Corps veteran, for guidance.

Congressman Roe, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says he won’t trust anecdotal claims until double-blind studies are done. He is chief sponsor of a bill that will let the VA do that work.

“[Cannabis] is a chemical. You don’t want state legislators deciding what medicine to prescribe. It has not been FDA approved,” says Roe. “But I also think that the VA is a great place to take up the banner and do the research.”

In mid-June, a ragtag troop of veterans, including Chambers and Staker, gathered outside the VA in Marion, Ind.

After long discussions about symbolism and framing, they took a photo designed to catch Mr. Trump’s eye: Some kneeled like NFL players protesting police brutality. Others held upside-down American flags. 

“A soldier will understand the upside-down flag for what it is,” says Staker. “A duress call.”

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4. Trash talk: China tries a more aggressive tack on domestic recycling

It’s a perennial problem for governments across the world: how to encourage best practices like recycling. After trying incentives, China’s authoritarian government is now turning to punitive measures. 

Noelle

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Beijingers are not very good at sorting their garbage for recycling, but for now it doesn’t matter that much; an army of migrant worker trash pickers is there to do the job for them. It won’t be for long, though, as consumers are generating more and more trash, and the authorities are kicking migrants out of the capital. The government has tried all sorts of ways to encourage Beijing residents to go green, including reverse vending machines that award mobile phone credits in return for plastic bottles, but none of them have worked. So this week the country’s top policymaking body announced that if city dwellers are not sorting their trash properly by 2020 the government will charge them a fee to do it for them. That’s bad news for the trash pickers, who are being squeezed out of the market, and it is by no means certain that Beijingers will behave more responsibly even under duress. But “this is a good starting point,” says one environmental activist.

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Trash talk: China tries a more aggressive tack on domestic recycling

Liang Jiong spends most of his life rummaging through other people’s trash. He’s in search of anything that he can peddle to local middlemen, who sell it on to recycling plants: cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans.

“Time is money,” he shouted one recent morning as he raced from one trash can to another in his electric three-wheeled cart. Not much money: Mr. Liang says he earns just $450 a month – one-third of the average Beijing salary – by working 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

But it is a regular income he can count on thanks to an irrefutable fact of life in Beijing: the vast majority of the city’s 22 million residents don’t recycle. “Most people in Beijing think sorting trash is too troublesome,” Liang says. “They prefer to let scavengers like me do it for them.” 

That will soon change if the Chinese government gets its way. Over the last two years, the authorities have pushed to bring under their control a recycling system that has long relied on an informal network of trash collectors like Liang. But that approach is failing as the number of scavengers declines and the amount of household waste rises. So the Chinese government is hoping to convince local residents to pick up the slack.

“People’s awareness about sorting trash needs to be strengthened,” Yang Haiying, a deputy director at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, said at a news conference in Beijing last Friday. “The practice of sorting household waste still isn’t widespread."

Going green by diktat?

The government announced last year that it would make it compulsory for householders in 46 cities, including the capital, to sort their own garbage by the end of 2020. Last Monday the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s most powerful regulatory agency, announced that all cities and towns will begin charging householders a fee for waste management by then too, if they don't manage it themselves.

Creating new laws and regulations is the easy part in China’s authoritarian political system. The hard part will be persuading consumers to adopt greener habits as the army of scavengers shrinks under pressure from the Beijing city government, which has shut down polluting processing facilities and kicked out tens of thousands of migrant workers. 

Beijing poses the biggest challenge to China’s new waste management campaign. The capital is the biggest municipal producer of trash in the country, throwing out nine million tons of household waste last year. That is about twice as much as a decade ago – one of the most tangible indicators of China’s rapidly swelling consumer class.

A study by Beijing's Renmin University published last year estimates that the cost of processing waste in Beijing could have been cut by 64 percent in 2015 if waste sorting by household had been enforced.

The city government has been trying in vain for nearly two decades to promote residential sorting. Since 2010, it has recruited more than 20,000  “Green Armband” volunteers to teach people how to sort their garbage. Last Friday, Mr. Yang said that his ministry will conduct public education campaigns, especially for students, to raise citizens’ consciousness. 

Making nice makes no difference

The fee system announced this week is the most aggressive step China has taken so far. Up until now, the government has largely relied on incentive programs to encourage people to sort their waste. 

In 2014, for example, Beijing installed reverse vending machines throughout the city that offered mobile phone minutes or public transport credits in exchange for plastic bottles. 

Earlier this year, the district of Xicheng launched a pilot program that awards points to residents for properly sorting their household waste and dropping it off to trash collectors at designated times. The points can be exchanged for small prizes such as toilet paper, toothpaste, and shampoo. 

But these voluntary initiatives have not made much difference. Beijingers habitually ignore public recycling bins and the waste sorting bins – labeled “kitchen waste,” “recyclables,” and “other waste” – that are increasingly common in the city’s residential districts. 

Chen Liwen, a co-founder of China Zero Waste Alliance, an environmental non-governmental organization, predicts that this will change once the waste management fees are formally introduced. In its announcement on Monday, the NDRC said householders would be charged according to the quantity and nature of their garbage. (Though the agency did not explain how the authorities might monitor residents’ trash-sorting, nor how they would be punished for unsatisfactory performance.)

“This is a good starting point,” Mr. Chen says. “You need to change people’s attitudes, but you also need to change the system and the infrastructure.” 

To that end, China’s new ban on all imports of 24 types of trash from abroad, including plastics and paper, will allow it to focus on doing a better job disposing of its own waste.

A waste of money?

The government has said it plans to invest more than $31 billion in household waste management between 2016 and 2020. Beijing alone has shut a thousand illegal landfills and quadrupled its incineration capacity in recent years, according to official figures.

The government’s target is for 35 percent of household waste in large Chinese cities to be recycled by 2020. But it’s not just individual households that will have to do a better job than the scavengers if that target is to be met.

Beijing residents have reported seeing sorted bins being emptied into a single municipal garbage truck, leaving them wondering where their trash really ends up. 

“It’s not only about people’s awareness,” says Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, who is skeptical of Beijing’s commitment to waste management.

One of the biggest challenges facing the government, he warns, is to reassure householders that they are not sorting their trash in vain. “If all of the garbage is taken to the landfill at the end of the day,” he points out, “it is useless for people to sort it at home.”

 Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.

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Breakthroughs

Ideas that drive change

5. Rethinking the fundamental process of making plastic reusable

Current recycling technology can only take waste reduction efforts so far. Some scientists are working to remake plastic from the ground up by taking cues from nature.

Noelle
A Vietnamese man works recycling plastic bottles at Xa Cau village, outside Hanoi. Since the 1950s, humanity has generated some 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Just 9 percent of that waste has been recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or as litter.
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Kham/Reuters

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Despite the unending cycle implied by the recycling symbol – you know the one, a green triangle made of arrows – when it comes to plastics, recycling ends up being a more linear process. The most common way to recycle plastics is mechanical recycling, or melting it down so it can be remolded. But that process typically degrades the material, giving it just a few extra lives before it ends up in a landfill. So some scientists are looking at the process from a different angle: digging into the chemistry of plastics for a way to reuse the material endlessly. The idea is to break plastics down all the way to their chemical building blocks and then rebuild the plastics from the ground up. Researchers have already come up with some successful ways to do this, but challenges remain. Such processes must be highly specified and are difficult to scale up, particularly economically. Still, says Jeannette Garcia, a polymer chemist at IBM Research, chemical recycling has a lot of potential. “The forward-looking goal,” she says, “is to have a truly closed-loop relationship with plastic.”

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Rethinking the fundamental process of making plastic reusable

The word “recycle” suggests movement in a circle. But when it comes to plastics, that vision doesn't quite match reality.

Since the 1950s, humanity has generated some 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Just 9 percent of that waste has been recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or as litter.

But even when plastic does make it to a recycling plant, there are limitations to how much recycling can happen. Current modes of recycling usually result in some form of downgraded product. Researchers are searching for solutions in plastic’s very chemistry.

“The forward-looking goal is to have a truly closed-loop relationship with plastic,” says Jeannette Garcia, a polymer chemist at IBM Research – Almaden in San Jose, Calif.

From the recycling bin, most discarded plastic is processed in mechanical recycling facilities, where plastic is cleaned, sorted, broken or melted down, and then remolded. But that process can erode some valuable properties, such as flexibility or clarity.

As a result, recycled plastics are often “downcycled,” such as when plastic water bottles are turned into carpeting. And plastic can be downcycled only so many times before ending up in a landfill.

But scientists realized that there might be another way to return products to their original uses – or even better ones.

At the chemical level, plastics are made up of long-chain molecules called polymers. The idea is to break those polymers down into individual links, or monomers. Then scientists could rebuild the same plastic products from the ground up, without chemical distortions.

Dr. Garcia and other scientists are also working on ways to “upcycle” plastics, breaking them down into new types of monomers. That way they could take something like the plastic that is used for soda bottles (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET), and turn it into the plastic used for high-performance products, like airplane parts.

Is 100 percent attainable?

To make chemical recycling a widespread reality, chemists like Garcia and her colleagues must first clear some major hurdles.

“In mechanical recycling, you’re treating everything the same,” Garcia says. “But in chemical recycling, you’re actually treating each plastic differently, because each plastic is structurally different” on the chemical level.

Researchers have to figure out a specific catalyst for each type of plastic, some of which have already been identified. For some others, inspiration has come from nature in the form of plastic-eating caterpillarsmealwormswax worms, and fungi.

In 2016, researchers discovered a plastic-eating bacteria in a Japanese plastic recycling plant. Since then, an international team has been researching how those organisms may have evolved to take advantage of this new food source in hopes of learning how they might bioengineer an organism to break down PET into the desired monomers. And in April, they announced that they had figured it out.

The catch with these chemical and biochemical recycling innovations is that they’re expensive, consume a lot of energy, and aren’t ready for an industry-level scale, says Gregg Beckham, a member of that team and a chemical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

“But that’s the promise of research,” he says. “We are constantly trying to improve every step of the process that will one day make this cost-effective to do.”

These recycling techniques likely wouldn’t be deployed alone, says Susan Selke, director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University. Ideally, she says, plastic would be put through mechanical recycling as many times as possible before it is too degraded for another round. Only then would it be chemically recycled or burned for fuel.

Still, it’s unlikely that we could get to a point where all plastic is recycled, Dr. Selke says. “To get to 100 percent, you have to collect 100 percent of everything and not have any waste in the processing. And that just doesn’t happen in the real world. So can we get way higher than we are now? Absolutely. But 100 percent? I don’t think so.”

There’s also the question of should we, Selke adds. If you look at the whole system, she says, it might not always make sense environmentally to recycle plastic. For example, if a plastic bottle would need to be shipped hundreds to thousands of miles to get to the right recycling facility, a lot of fuel would be consumed just to get it there. If there was an incinerator nearby, at least some energy could be extracted from the plastic without expending too much more.

Plant-based 'bioplastics'

Even if all plastic were to be recycled or upcycled, more virgin plastic would likely still need to be created, to accommodate economic growth. So some scientists are rethinking the other end of the lifecycle, focusing on developing plastics from more readily recyclable materials.

Some plant-based “bioplastics” already exist. Packing peanuts, for example, are sometimes made with starch instead of styrofoam. But almost all of the current bioplastics are made from sugars, which offers just one set of chemical building blocks.

Beckham and his colleagues are looking to lignin, a durable polymer that makes trees and grasses stand tall, and could be used to make a whole suite of other plastics and useful materials. In June the team reported in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications that they found some enzymes to break down lignin.

Not all plastics made from biological sources are biodegradable. If bioplastics are chemically identical to petroleum-based plastics, they will still take centuries to degrade. So Beckham and others are innovating.

“The great thing about using plant-based feedstocks and using a combination of biology and chemistry to convert them,” says Beckham, “is we don’t necessarily have to be bound by the set of molecules that we make from petroleum today.”

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The Monitor's View

Can NATO use truth against Russian lies?

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When the leaders of NATO member countries convene next week in Belgium, the focus will be less on countering Russia’s military threat and more on addressing its attempts to use information warfare to sow fear and discord within Europe, especially during elections. Countries in Europe have had different reactions to Russia’s disinformation campaigns. In Finland, public employees are taught how to spot false news and warn the public. In France, journalists worked together during a recent election to not report false rumors from Russian sources. For its coming election, Sweden has set up an agency to identify meddling and provide a response. Latvia’s approach: Build up “critical thinking” and promote media literacy. Most of all, Latvian students, teachers, and others are encouraged to demand truth in public information and learn the skills necessary to check facts and sources. One effect of the campaign is that support for NATO has risen, even among Latvia’s Russian-speakers. The NATO summit has many issues on its agenda. But its real work may be in nurturing the efforts of individual member countries to make sure that truth-seeking wins over fearmongering.

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Can NATO use truth against Russian lies?

When leaders of NATO’s 29 member countries meet July 11-12 in Belgium, the main topic will be less on finding new ways to counter Russia’s military threat and more on addressing another kind of threat: Russia’s escalating attempts to use information-warfare tactics to create fear and discord within Europe, especially during election time.

That kind of warfare is difficult to respond to in kind, the way more tanks and more troops can deter a Russian invasion of, say, one of the Baltic states. Rather, the Kremlin’s spreading of false information requires NATO countries to arm citizens with a love of truth and the tools to discern accurate information so as to negate the effects of lies planted in social media and elsewhere.

“The first priority is to be able to protect the minds of our people,” Janis Garisons, Latvia’s defense secretary, told the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, last year. “If you lose your population, you will not need your troops or NATO or anything else.”

Cyberspace knows no borders, and Russia has used the latest digital means to disseminate fake news to sow distrust and fear of government and specific groups in Europe's open societies.

The battlefield for NATO these days is in the thinking of every citizen in Europe and the United States. Yet how can one of the most successful military alliances of the 20th century now shift toward the task of countering fear?

In the new book “The Monarchy of Fear,” University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum gives this advice: “We need to think hard about fear and where fear is leading us. After taking a deep breath we all need to understand ourselves as well as we can, using that moment of detachment to figure out where fear and related emotions come from and where they are leading us.”

Countries in Europe have had different reactions to Russia’s disinformation campaigns. In Finland, public employees are taught how to spot false news and warn the public. In France, journalists worked together during a recent election to not report false rumors from Russian sources. For its coming election, Sweden has set up a new agency to identify Russian meddling and then provide a response. In 2014 NATO created the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence to design ways to deter Kremlin propaganda.

One of the most comprehensive responses is in the tiny Baltic state of Latvia, in large part because about 40 percent of its residents are ethnic Russians and can be easily reached by Kremlin-directed information sources just across the border.

“Fake news is one of the strongest modern weapons that is constantly being used in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of Latvia,” said Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia’s president, in December.

Latvia’s approach is to build up “critical thinking” and promote media literacy among schoolchildren, teachers, and many others. People are taught how to be aware of their own biases in assessing information and how to spot bias in media outlets.

Most of all, they are encouraged to demand truth in public information and learn the skills necessary to check facts and cross-reference sources. One effect of the campaign is that support for NATO has risen in recent years, even among Latvia’s Russian-speakers, despite Russia’s misinformation campaigns.

The NATO summit has many issues on its agenda. But its real work may be in supporting the efforts of individual member countries to make sure truth-seeking wins over fearmongering.

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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.

See potential in every child

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Today’s contributor shares how the idea that everyone has a God-given ability to succeed inspired her work as a special education teacher.

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See potential in every child

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Conventional thought, especially within academia, can pigeonhole people. It says some people are bright or talented, some not so much. Some people are intellectual or artistic superstars, but some are slow learners or learning-disabled. When I was a public school teacher, I was encouraged to give instruction taking into account these individual differences, but not so much encouraged to see each and every student as having unlimited potential.

Through my study of Christian Science, however, I’ve come to see potential as just that – unlimited. This is based on the idea that God is divine Spirit and that we are each made in His spiritual image and likeness, meaning that we reflect the nature of our creator. So everyone has the ability to express God’s unlimited good in uniquely beautiful and individual ways, including through spiritual qualities such as intelligence and capability.

This does not fit with the picture we see each day. But as we’re willing to accept our own and others’ real identity as spiritual, we come to see that our potential is not subject to good or bad human genes, bodies, homes or neighborhoods, and so on. All these are based on a material sense of identity. But as the loved spiritual children of God, we are complete and perfectly nurtured by God, forever.

The Bible encourages us to exchange the “old man” for the new (see Ephesians 4:17-24). I understand this to mean putting off a material concept of ourselves that is by nature limited and accepting our God-given spiritual identity, which is unlimited. Learning to do this is a step-by-step process. But we can begin now and experience the freedom this brings.

As a special education teacher, I had a perfect opportunity to silently affirm the spiritual identity of students and to witness their God-derived success. The school system had labeled these students as slow, disabled, disturbed, and so on. But I always tried to remember that they were not really limited mortals but gifted children of God – intelligent, loving, and expressing every facet of God’s spiritual nature. Although our school’s curriculum provided instruction that was adapted to meet these students academically at their current level, in my thought the ladder of achievement for them had no top rung, so they were free to climb as high as they chose.

How did this approach pan out? Here is a favorite example involving four students who were placed in my small special-needs class. From ninth to twelfth grade I taught them at least two hours a day in reading, English, and various social studies courses. At the beginning, they were reading at a level that was five or more grades behind their peers. Despite this initial skill deficit, each one graduated from high school on time, and at least three of the four went on to become successful professionally. These students were diligent, loving, and routinely hilarious. I am so privileged to have spent four years with them and to have watched them knock down limits and low expectations.

How did their reading levels improve enough to reach these academic and vocational goals? While I did apply various reading strategies and tried to immerse them in stories, words, and ideas, I don’t feel any of that would have moved the needle to such an extent without their feeling something of God’s love each day and something of the spiritual inspiration and understanding of their unlimited abilities as God’s creation. I don’t remember ever talking with them about this. That was not my role as a public school teacher. But I always knew the spiritual truth about them in my own heart, and I think they felt that.

These students, of course, were helped along the way by other teachers, friends, and family members. But I felt it was such a privilege to prayerfully witness to their receptivity to God’s love in their lives and to their natural reflection of His boundless good. It was a joy for me to come to school each day and find God’s gifted children everywhere.

We can hold to the idea that we are not flawed material beings but the spiritual creation of God, who gives us the ability and wisdom we need. As we come to realize everyone’s boundless, God-given potential, we are better able to nurture that potential in ourselves and in others.

Adapted from an article published in the July 2, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Tennis and Teletubbies

Fans wearing costumes from the late-1990s British children’s television show snack on strawberries – a tournament delicacy – as they watch the Wimbledon action at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in southwest London July 5.
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Toby Melville/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 6th, 2018 )

Noelle Swan
Science Editor

Come back tomorrow for a critical look at a New York proposal designed to equalize access to the city’s most prestigious public schools.

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