2018
December
28
Friday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Seldom has pessimism been an easier sell.

News seeps in that is objectively bad. Some 4 million US schoolchildren reportedly were subjected to lockdowns in 2018, for example. (Many were precautionary.) Intolerance of “the other” gives rise to episodes of inhumanity.

News seeps in that is subjectively disastrous to some and defended by others as progress. The current US administration, for example, has rolled back nearly 80 environmental regulations set forth by the one that preceded it.

So where – if anywhere – is there unity around optimism?

Followers of the Monitor’s recent Perception Gaps series stay open to hopeful counternarratives. So do thinkers like Steven Pinker, the explorer of social relations and serial puncturer of pessimism.

As former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels writes in The Washington Post, pointing to work by Dr. Pinker and others: “Pick your favorite worry and it’s likely to be getting better, not worse.”

There’s a hazard associated with using that as a reason to stop working for change. But a worthwhile set of charts from Quartz also uses data to show indisputable progress: The share of global energy generated from renewables, for instance, passed 10 percent in 2018. Literacy is growing worldwide. More women are in government. More species keep moving out of the endangered column.

More reasons, as the old year passes, for looking forward.

Now to our five stories for your Friday, including an exploration of farmers’ faith in their ability to be better stewards of their lands and a reflection on Americans’ faith in democracy.

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1. Syria at war: How departure of US forces opens up a ‘Wild East’

Semantics play a huge role in today’s geopolitics: What is a “wall”? Or, in the case of the Syrian theater, what is a “withdrawal”? This piece zooms back to look at players’ perceptions and long-term plans.

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Many analysts warn that ISIS could bounce back in the vacuum caused by a US departure from Syria. But the US presence has also served as a block to other parties seeking influence over the vast northeastern territory held by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, intent on regaining control over the country; Turkey, which is threatening to invade northeast Syria to crush the Kurdish element of the SDF; and Iran, which is interested in ground supply routes to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Much depends on the nature of the US withdrawal and its support for the Kurds, who have done most of the heavy-lifting in the fight against ISIS. Will the US air war against ISIS continue? What signals will the United States send to Russia? Will the US dissuade Turkey? “My sense,” says Frederic C. Hof at the Atlantic Council, “is that there is not a lot of time to decide.... Unless we can come to some specific understandings with the Kurds ... they will likely retire from the ISIS fight, consolidate in the northeast, and reach out to the [Assad] regime and the Russians for a cooperative arrangement.”

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Syria at war: How departure of US forces opens up a ‘Wild East’

President Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria could make the eastern third of the country an open arena for several competing forces and herald a new chapter in the country’s bloody civil war, just as it was beginning to wind down.

Some 2,200 US Special Forces are deployed in the vast terrain east of the Euphrates River, where they support and train the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a local Arab and Kurdish militia that has played a leading role in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Mr. Trump declared victory over ISIS as the reason for pulling out of Syria, but many analysts warn that the extremist group could bounce back in the vacuum caused by a US departure. The US troop presence has also served as a block to other parties that might seek influence or control over the territory.

They include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has long stated his intention to restore full control over the entire country, and Turkey, which views the YPG, the Kurdish element of the SDF, as a terrorist organization, and is threatening to invade northeast Syria to crush the force. Then there is Iran, which is steadily entrenching militarily in Syria, a consequence of the key role it has played in helping safeguard the Assad regime. The US departure from eastern Syria potentially eases the way to develop ground supply routes between Iran and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, while all parties are mulling the consequences of Trump’s decision and assessing courses of action, much depends on the nature of the US withdrawal and future support for the Kurdish-dominated SDF, which has done most of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

“What the Kurds do will depend, I think, on how the precise implementation of President Trump’s decision plays out,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and former envoy to the Syrian opposition under President Barack Obama. “Will this simply amount to the removal of US ground forces from eastern Syria? Will the air war against ISIS remnants in support of YPG ground operations [against ISIS] continue? Will the US military communicate to Russian counterparts that the Euphrates River remains a ‘do-not-cross’ de-confliction line? Will US air assets and the [SDF] continue to defend that line? Will the United States dissuade Turkey from invading northeast Syria?”

Kurdish options?

These questions are apparently being debated within the administration in light of Trump’s decision. The Pentagon reportedly is mulling using Iraq as a base of continued operations – such as air strikes or Special Forces raids – against ISIS in Syria.  

“My sense, however, is that there is not a lot of time to decide,” Mr. Hof says. “Unless we can come to some specific understandings with the Kurds that might mitigate President Trump’s announcement, they will likely retire from the ISIS fight, consolidate in the northeast, and reach out to the [Assad] regime and the Russians for a cooperative arrangement.”

Indications of such a Kurdish appeal were evident Friday. Syria said its troops had entered Manbij, a northern town reportedly still patrolled by US Special Forces, though CNN quoted an unidentified US official as saying the Syrian claim was premature.

The SDF has warned that a US withdrawal could lead to an ISIS resurgence, reversing the gains of the past 18 months during which the group’s self-declared caliphate – which once extended across the Syria-Iraq border – shriveled to a few isolated locations in the desert of eastern Syria and villages along the Euphrates.

But overshadowing the prospect of a revitalized ISIS is the possibility of a Turkish military invasion of mainly Kurdish-populated northeast Syria to fight the YPG, which is linked to the Kurdish Workers Party – classified by Ankara as a terrorist organization. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned of an imminent offensive, and the US presence in the region was seen as a check to his plans. Following Trump’s tweeted announcement of the US withdrawal – shortly after a telephone conversation with the Turkish president – Mr. Erdoğan said the planned offensive would be postponed, but added “this is not an open-ended waiting process.”

“In the upcoming months, on the ground in Syria, we will follow a style of incursion that eliminates both [Kurdish] elements and remnants” of ISIS, Erdoğan told business leaders in Istanbul.

Erdoğan’s domestic concerns

Nevertheless, the decision to invade northeast Syria may stem less from the threat posed to Turkey by the YPG and more out of domestic political concerns for Erdoğan in the run-up to municipal elections in March, analysts say.

“The rally-round-the-flag effect … seems to be his only hope to win votes,” says Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Erdoğan’s “ultranationalist allies have already made clear that they want to go ahead with full-scale military operations in eastern Syria. Erdoğan, desperate for the support of the ultranationalists, is not in a position to go against their will.”

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will intercede to protect its erstwhile Kurdish allies from a Turkish onslaught. But, Mr. Erdemir adds, “Erdoğan’s political survival instincts at home will trump any offer Washington can make.”

SOURCE: PeopleDemandChange.com
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Pinned between the prospect of an ISIS resurgence and a Turkish invasion, the Kurds may find their only hope lies in reaching some form of accommodation with the Assad regime and the Russians, the main outside power in the country. If Damascus reasserts its authority over eastern Syria, perhaps with some limited autonomy for the Kurds and with Russian blessing, it might dilute Erdoğan’s enthusiasm for an invasion.

“Erdoğan would now prefer Assad’s direct rule in eastern Syria to self-rule by the [Kurds]. Erdoğan has long given up his goal of regime change in Syria, and killing the idea of Kurdish autonomy across Turkish borders has become a key objective,” says Erdemir.

Iran sees a US plot

It is for that reason that some in Iran view with suspicion Trump’s motives in withdrawing. While some in Tehran see it as part of a reelection bid by Trump, “other Iranian views, which likely will be shared by many at the top ranks of the regime, look at Trump’s decision not as a sudden emotional decision but as a calculated sinister step,” says Alex Vatanka, senior fellow and Iran expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“These observers believe that Trump is pulling out of Syria as part of a plan to break the Iran-Turkey-Russia alliance by pulling Turkey out with the promise of giving Ankara a free hand to crack hard down on the Syrian Kurds,” he says. “In this view, the decision to pull out of Syria was not just Trump’s decision but a US plot to prolong the Syrian war and deprive Iran, Russia, and Assad of a chance to solve the conflict politically.”

With its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and associated Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has played a pivotal role in protecting the Assad regime. Now it’s establishing a discrete but potentially potent military presence in parts of western Syria that bring it into closer proximity to Hezbollah and Israel.

For its part Hezbollah, which at the height of the war fielded 5,000 to 10,000 fighters in Syria, has returned most of its cadres to Lebanon, where they have switched their full attention back to Israel. Tensions lately have been running high, due in part to Israel’s discovery of cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon, allegedly constructed by the Iran-backed group, as well as Hezbollah’s ongoing efforts to improve the accuracy of its stockpile of guided missiles.

Israel’s close eye on Iran

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a hard-liner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, predicted that with the withdrawal of US forces in eastern Syria, Hezbollah could receive more weapons from Iran.

But the US presence in Syria has not been an insurmountable barrier to Iranian arms convoys coursing west through the deserts of Iraq and Syria. US forces currently deployed at the Tanf border crossing near Jordan effectively block the shortest route from central Iraq to Damascus, but another option, albeit more circuitous, is a route that crosses the border well to the northeast, travels along the west side of the Euphrates, and then turns toward Damascus at Deir el-Zour.

Still, Israel has signaled it will destroy consignments of Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah regardless of whether they are transported across Syria by ground or air.

On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu said the departure of US troops from eastern Syria would not change Israel’s policy.

“Protecting our homeland begins with nipping major threats in the bud,” he said at an Israeli Air Force graduation. “We'll not accept Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which is meant to harm us, and we are acting to eradicate it.” The US withdrawal “doesn't change our policy. Our red lines remain the same – in Syria and everywhere else.”

Netanyahu spoke hours after reports of multiple Israeli air strikes Tuesday night against Syrian military bases around Damascus. It was the first significant Israeli air attack in Syria since mid-September, when a strike on missile facilities near Latakia in northwest Syria led to a Syrian air defense system shooting down a Russian surveillance aircraft. Russia blamed Israel then for “irresponsible actions,” and on Wednesday Russia again chided Israel, saying it had threatened the safety of two civilian airliners passing through the area.

Nevertheless, Iran’s interests in eastern Syria – unlike those of the Assad regime and Turkey – are limited, perhaps solely to establishing land corridors for arms transfers and possibly securing economic benefit from oil and gas fields east of the Euphrates.

“I just can’t see the Iranians investing too much in this project [in eastern Syria] at the moment given the situation on the home front and given that they have already helped secure Assad’s survival,” says the Middle East Institute’s Mr. Vatanka. “I would bet on the Iranians being cautious about their involvement in eastern Syria. They really don't have a strategic case to risk much there.”

SOURCE: PeopleDemandChange.com
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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2. Britain’s effort to end knife crime only starts with stopping violence

News that Britain may be getting a handle on knife crime could be a sign of progress or hopeful spin. But how best to address the underlying issues – and even precisely what those are – remains up for debate.

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Across England and Wales, the number of police-recorded offenses with a knife or sharp instrument has been rising steadily since 2015. This year saw a 25 percent increase, compared to the past three years, in knife crimes leading to court action. In December, London recorded the 132nd homicide of the year – the most in a decade – and 77 of those killings were stabbings. All this has prompted a race to understand what’s driving the increase in stabbings, and work to prevent them. That’s complicated, because the causes are complex and interconnected, and because not everyone agrees on what they are. The suggested drivers of knife crime range from structural problems such as poverty and inequality, to more recent phenomena such as changes in gang activity and an austerity policy in Britain that has slashed resources for police and social workers over the past decade. The focus now is on preventive efforts through “early intervention,” directed at young people. The action plan launched by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, focuses heavily on such efforts in the hope that keeping young people from getting involved in violence is easier than getting them out, and that addressing deeper causes will bear long-term fruit.

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Britain’s effort to end knife crime only starts with stopping violence

Sephton Henry is on a mission: he wants to keep British kids away from violence and gangs.

The activist was once in their shoes himself. As a child, he was groomed into a gang, and he went to prison seven times before he found a way out. One of the keys to turning his life around, he says, was finding mentors who could relate to him, and who saw his worth and made him understand it, too.

Now he does the same for others, mentoring at-risk young people and speaking in schools, using his personal experience to get through to them. “We go into schools to try to prevent them from getting into it in first place,” he says. “They’re young enough that they’re not conditioned yet. But it’s not so much about what we say, it’s about who says it.” His past gives him credibility.

Work like Mr. Henry’s is suddenly getting more attention as knife crime is surging across England and Wales. The number of police-recorded offenses with a knife or sharp instrument has been rising steadily since 2015. This year saw a 25 percent increase, compared to the last three years, in knife crimes leading to court action.

In December, London recorded the 132nd homicide of the year – the most in a decade – and 77 of those killings were stabbings. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick suggested in a recent interview that knife crime in London may have “leveled off” in 2018, noting that the number of stabbing deaths this year was on a par with the 80 such killings in 2017. But London's murder rate is just one aspect of a broader phenomenon. Particularly worrying is the rising number of young people involved in knife crime – both as victims and perpetrators.

The concerning figures have prompted a race to understand what’s driving the increase in stabbings, and work to prevent them. That’s complicated, both because the causes are complex and interconnected, and because not everyone agrees on what they are, or how best to address them. The suggested drivers of knife crime range from structural problems such as poverty and inequality, to more recent phenomena such as changes in gang activity and an austerity policy in Britain that has slashed resources for police and social workers over the past decade.

But the focus now is on preventive efforts through “early intervention,” directed at young people. The action plan launched by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, focuses heavily on such efforts in hope that keeping young people from getting involved in violence is easier than getting them out, and addressing deeper causes instead of just immediate symptoms will bear long-term fruit.

‘County lines’ crime

England and Wales are not experiencing a massive crime wave. Overall, crime levels are lower than they were a decade or two ago, and serious violent crime, while rising, is still relatively rare. (There have been more than twice as many murders so far this year in New York than in London.)

But the rise in knife crime is happening alongside an increase in serious violent crime throughout the two nations, particularly in cities. And that is causing worry.

For Rick Muir, director of The Police Foundation, an independent think tank in London, the best supported explanation for the recent surge in stabbings is that gangs are changing the way they deal drugs, which has led to increased competition and conflict.

Increasingly, gangs based in cities are not only selling drugs in their own territory, but also exporting drugs to provincial towns – and often using children to do so, an activity known here as “county lines” (after the phone lines drug gangs use to communicate between towns). That’s bringing the groups increasingly into contact with other gangs, which can fuel conflict.

“What may be happening now is that we’ve seen increased competition between groups trading in crack cocaine and heroin, and obviously increased competition leads to conflict, and conflict in this world leads to violent crime,” says Dr. Muir. He added that the groups use violence to control and intimidate the young people they’ve recruited.

Some also see a connection to austerity policies in Britain, imposed in 2008, that have led to reduced funding for police forces and social services, including youth centers that worked with disadvantaged and at-risk young people. Research by the YMCA shows that local government spending on youth services fell by 62 percent since 2010.

Hannah McKay/Reuters
A police officer stands at a cordon after police arrested a man carrying a knife outside Buckingham Palace in London in August 2017.

Fighting crime like an epidemic

Mayor Khan’s strategy to reduce the numbers takes the public health approach: Authorities treat violent crime not just as a police problem, but as an infectious disease that must be stopped from spreading. Such an approach has been successful elsewhere – Glasgow saw murders drop by half between 2004 and 2017 after adopting it.

In addition to increased police funding and more targeted police intervention, the mayor is boosting prevention efforts, much of them focused on young people. That includes a planned “Violence Reduction Unit” that will bring together police officers with social workers and health workers to focus on early interventions. The mayor is also funding initiatives directed at organizations that target at-risk youth.

There are now multitudes of organizations trying to keep young people away from gangs. Growing Against Violence (GAV) is one of them. Shaun Willshire, operations and safeguarding manager at the organization who spent three decades as a police officer, says the growing number of children recruited into “county lines” gang activity has led to a normalization of violence.

“To stab someone or to shank someone, it’s just part and parcel of being a ‘road man,’ and there’s no talk whatsoever as to consequences or the reality of what they’re doing,” he says. Violence is sometimes used as a way to prove themselves to senior gang members, to earn “ratings.” “They don’t actually see it as stabbing someone, they see it as their way of getting ratings,” he says. “You would pick up a car keys and go out of the house; they would pick up a knife and go out of the house.”

GAV targets students, giving talks to all the students in each grade at the same time, in an effort to instill “positive peer pressure” against gangs. “The reality is, the kids are groomed into gangs by negative peer-on-peer pressure,” he says. “Now our program is about the positive peer-on-peer pressure. It’s the preventive program. Our program works in that we get kids to look out for each other, and speak out for each other.”

Underlying problems?

The mayor’s plan has won praise, but also some criticism – including that the funding falls far short of what is needed. The London Assembly’s police and crime committee raised concerns with the plan in a recent letter to the mayor, including that it had an outsized focus on young people.

One of the challenges for the program is that its efforts won’t bear fruit immediately, says Muir. “The important thing is all of this won’t result in easy wins. You might be able to suppress some of this through enforcement activity in the short term.... But unless you deal with some of these underlying problems, you’ll end up in the same place in two years time or five years time.”

Those deeper drivers of violence are exactly what Henry, the former gang member turned activist, sees as the biggest issues. The root causes of young people getting involved in gang violence are simple, he says: structural inequality and poverty that lead to social alienation, particularly for young people of color.

“The biggest thing is this: These young children don’t feel a part of society, so they make their own worlds,” he says. When they don’t see members of parliament or police officers or business leaders who look like them, they don’t see opportunities for themselves in a world outside street culture. “Unless these young men see themselves in places of power, they will not see themselves as part of society,” he says.

He says the government does not focus enough on poverty and inequality as drivers of violence. He’s also frustrated by bureaucratic rules that can sometimes keep help from those who need it, and what he sees as a failure to empower the right people to do the job. Because of his past, Henry has a credibility that many others don’t, and can serve as an effective role model and mentor. Henry says more of the support and funding needs to go to people who have credibility in the communities they are targeting.

Preventive work is also personal for Yvonne Lawson. She started the Godwin Lawson Foundation, named for her son, after he was stabbed to death eight years ago. She works with students, visiting schools to share her story and help young people understand the consequences of getting involved in criminality. Her organization also does workshops for students deemed high risk, working to develop their personal and emotional development, resilience, and self-esteem.

“Most of the young people that we spoke to before our project would say they’ve been forced into a certain lifestyle against their wish,” she says. “So developing those skills gives them power and confidence that they can face up and express themselves and actually tell to the gang that they don’t want to be a part of it.”

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3. Millet anyone? Facing soil crisis, US farmers look beyond corn and soy.

Here’s an encouraging roots-of-success story from the US Midwest and Plains, where some farmers, thinking of both their crops and the environment, are looking more closely at what’s beneath their feet.

Som Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune/AP/File
Snow accents a North Dakota field. Some farmers are experimenting with growing cover crops, such as barley or oats, on their fields during the winter season.

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Corn and soybean crops have been good to farmers in the American Midwest and Plains. But these staple crops have taken a toll on the very earth they draw nourishment from. Now, a new generation of farmers is looking underground to try to replenish their soils in a way that both restores nutrients and reduces chemical runoff into the environment. “Mainstream agriculture, they just don’t get it,” says North Dakota farmer Jerry Doan. “You have got to feed the biology of the soil.” Some farmers are experimenting with growing cover crops on their fields. Devoting valuable land to new crops can be risky for producers, whose thin margins make them reluctant to make big changes if their yields are going to fall, even temporarily. But in some communities, such as Washington County, Iowa, farmers are taking the leap together. Producers tour each others’ farms and readily share their experiences, says Darrell Steele, a farmer who’s experimenting with 10 acres of barley, which he mixes into the feeds for his 2,000 hogs. “We all do our own thing but it’s teamwork, too,” Mr. Steele says.

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1. Millet anyone? Facing soil crisis, US farmers look beyond corn and soy.

Shovel in hand, Duane Hager heads for his cornfield and digs up a shovelful of dirt, revealing wriggling earthworms. Although a pelting rain has soaked his gray T-shirt in seconds, not a single puddle lies in the field or in the cow pasture beyond – a sign of vigorous, uncompacted earth.

“If you have soil that is healthy and balanced, it translates into your animals,” says the Kellogg, Minn., dairy farmer.

Across the American Midwest and Plains, small groups of farmers are looking at their most important resource – the soil – and contemplating big change. Their grandfathers and great grandfathers planted trees for windbreaks and planted along the contours of the slopes rather than up and down them to reduce soil erosion. Their fathers began leaving crop stubble in their fields to improve moisture retention, and some gave up tilling the soil altogether. Now, the new generation of producers is looking underground to try to replenish their soils, and they’re doing it by growing something in addition to corn and soybeans. The new farm bill, which President Trump signed on Dec. 20, includes measures that could help popularize the idea.

“Mainstream agriculture, they just don’t get it,” says Jerry Doan, standing by a mix of 20-plus cover crops from low-lying legumes to tall stalks of millet on his farm in Sterling, N.D. “You have got to feed the biology of the soil.”

It’s an international problem, with a third of the world’s soils already degraded, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, due to everything from erosion and salinization to untreated urban waste and mining.  Here in the United States, a big concern is commercial agriculture, where evidence is growing that decades of an exclusive corn-soybean rotation has caused farmland to lose nutrients and its ability to hold and filter water.

The effects reach far beyond the farm to waterways and the grocery store. Because farmland doesn’t hold the nitrites and nitrates produced from fertilizers and herbicides, they leach into the water and find their way as far as the Gulf of Mexico, creating state-sized areas of low or no oxygen, which kills fish and other marine life. What’s more, the commercial vegetables at the grocery store have fewer nutrients than in the 1950s, according to several studies, in part because the soil has fewer nutrients they can take up.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Duane Hager, owner of Hager Farms, a dairy farm in Kellogg, Minn., has been embracing healthy soil practices, such as limited fertilizer and no till, for years. On a rainy summer afternoon, his efforts pay off: There is no flooding, or even large puddles, anywhere in his field.

Farmers have tried to minimize the environmental damage by using GPS and soil analysis to fertilize only areas of fields that need it and by creating buffer strips between crops and ditches and waterways, so the nitrates and nitrites stay put.

But “we are not going to fix water quality with just fertilizer [reduction],” says Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit helping producers build resilient farms and communities. “We need other products with more roots.”

In the Midwest and Plains, that means finding something to grow in addition to corn and soybeans.

“We’re always going to grow corn and soybeans but we need other stuff,” says University of Iowa water expert Chris Jones. “We need a third crop in Iowa really badly.”

Seeding ‘hotspots’

Farmers are experimenting with growing cover crops on their fields, such as barley or oats, during the winter season. The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., is pushing perennials, such as Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass it developed and trademarked. That way farmers wouldn’t have to plant new crops every spring. Still others are calling for a return to a mix of animal and crop agriculture that used to predominate in rural America.

“My grandfather started contouring, my dad started no-till, so I wanted to do this,” says Darrell Steele, a farmer in Iowa's Washington County, who’s experimenting with 10 acres of barley, which he mixes into the feeds for his 2,000 hogs. “But when you put these things in, you take a hit. In the off-season, the ground is on the couch eating Ho Hos. But when you start putting this stuff in, it’s like telling the ground to run a marathon. It’s going to stumble and fall at first.”

That’s a problem for many producers, whose thin margins make them reluctant to make big changes if their yields are going to fall, even temporarily. Another challenge: Making the switch can be costly. For example, continuous no-till and low-till farming, which decades of studies have shown improve the soil and reduce costs, is still used on only 1 in every 5 acres of US cropland, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One big reason: It requires farmers to invest in completely new equipment.

Then there’s the cultural barrier: Farmer communities tend to be conservative.

“That peer pressure, that is huge,” says Kristin Brennan, state soil health specialist at the Minnesota office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “No one wants to be the weird farmer with lots of Kernza.”

Still, there are exceptions.

“Where we see it really taking off is where you have a community of farmers,” says Ms. Brennan. “We call them hotspots.”

Washington County, which has the most acres of cover crops of any Iowa county, appears to be one of those communities. Farmers tour each others’ farms. Mr. Steele, the local hog producer, says he tried barley on the advice of a fellow farmer. At least once a week, he talks to Steve Berger, a Washington County farmer who has gained national attention for his use of no-till cover crops. “We all do our own thing but it’s teamwork, too.”

“In this neighborhood you just have a bunch of really conservation-minded folks,” says Tony Maxwell, a district conservationist for the NRCS.

Provisions of the new farm bill, which encourages farmers to plant cover crops and use soil-sensitive crop rotations and grazing techniques, suggest that awareness of the problem is growing. “We had a lot of strong champions this past year for legislation related to soil health,” says Alyssa Charney, a senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of grass-roots sustainability groups. “There's a growing interest for sure.”

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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A letter from

The US heartland

4. ‘I used to think I couldn’t make a difference’: Voices from America

And here’s another heartland report. In a trying time for the American republic, our writer found encouraging signs of coping, from Kansas to Kentucky, in her travels this year. 

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Amy McGrath (c.), a former Marine Corps fighter pilot then running for Congress, talks with voters at a diner in Carlisle, Ky., in October.

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Is the American republic in danger? In my travels for the Monitor this year, I’ve heard people on both the right and the left voice concerns. But what’s made the biggest impression is how many people are energized about their role in making American government better. There was the young, scrappy, passionately liberal woman yelling over the fence at a weathered GOP supporter exiting a Montana rally; their conversation was honest, earnest, and brave, and I stopped in the cold autumn night to watch American democracy in action. There were nationally ranked high school debaters in Kansas, who spent weekends lugging around crates of evidence, proud of their ability to not only articulate but defend political positions opposed to their own. And there was Scott Browder, who had started volunteering for a Kentucky congressional campaign after concluding that voting wasn’t enough. There were farmers, welders, mayors, and governors who all exemplified democracy in action. If you don't have hope in America’s government, look to its people. 

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‘I used to think I couldn’t make a difference’: Voices from America

At a time when many see looming clouds on the horizon of American democracy, I’ve been thinking about glimmers of hope.

From interviewing high schoolers running for governor in Kansas to following a canvasser in Kentucky as he knocked on doors, I’ve had the privilege this past year of meeting many Americans energized about their role in making government better.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Jack Bergeson, pictured outside his parents’ restaurant in Wichita, Kan., was the first teenager to run for governor in Kansas – after discovering that there was no age limit for the position.

Political activism in America, especially as depicted on social media or TV, tends to focus almost exclusively on die-hard Trump supporters or those who form the official “resistance” to the current administration.

But in between the red Make America Great Again hats in Appalachian diners and the pink hats at urban protests, a renaissance of everyday citizens, especially women, is sweeping American politics, posits the journal Democracy. The encouraging signs I’ve seen across the heartland this year are, I believe, part and parcel of a broader awakening that includes both sexes.

An earnest argument

It’s easy to miss even the most poignant examples of democracy in action.

I almost did.

After 12 days on the road for The Christian Science Monitor in Montana, I was exhausted when I finally left a carefully crafted rally featuring the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., in late September. Earlier in the evening I’d seen protesters bang on a window after being denied entrance, holding up their pink poster-board signs and yelling.

When I walked out into the cold autumn night, one of those protesters was still there, leaning over the fence, arguing with a supporter of GOP Senate candidate Matt Rosendale on his way out. She was young, scrappy, and passionately liberal. He was older, weathered, and equally fervent.

Yet more rancor, I thought as I walked past them.

But what I heard in passing was honest, earnest, and brave. They were asking serious questions about what kind of America the other wanted to live in – and responding with substantive answers.

I turned around to listen, savoring democracy in action. Right there in the dusty parking lot of the Bozeman fairgrounds, two Americans were coexisting in a rarely inhabited space between Facebook diatribes and in-person “Kumbaya” sessions. If we are ever to bridge our current divides, the most crucial bridge-building will take place here.

Learning to defend the other side

This spring, I saw high schoolers preparing for the sort of reasoned argument that would enable them to be such bridge-builders.

“Debate forces you … to hear the other side,” student Ben Engle told me on the sidelines of a Saturday qualifier for national championships.

“Not just hear them, but defend their beliefs,” added fellow student Bobby Phillips, one of the top nationally ranked policy debaters. (The contest requires that debaters also argue the other side of the question.)

Nationwide, more than 140,000 students are involved in the National Speech & Debate Association, and the national championships have doubled in size since the 1990s to 5,200 participants.

Shared love of country

Lest you be tempted to think reasoned debate is limited these days to high school students in controlled environments, meet Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot.

Lt. Col. McGrath ran for Congress as a rookie Democrat in a Kentucky district where President Trump won big, drawing many national reporters to the Bluegrass State, myself included.

In a diner parking lot along the campaign trail, where she had sat and talked for more than an hour with a handful of locals, I asked her about how losing fellow soldiers affected her view of a politician’s role. She told me about a fellow pilot in the Marines – a Republican with whom she had had vigorous political debates.

“Sugar Bear and I might have disagreements but we never doubted our patriotism, we never doubted our love of country,” said McGrath, who is part of a broader movement to put country above party on Capitol Hill.

McGrath narrowly lost her bid for Congress, but she seeded a new crop of civic activists – people like Scott Browder.

“I used to think all I had to do was vote, and let others do the work. No more,” said Mr. Browder, a first-time canvasser who let me follow him around for an afternoon in Richmond, Ky. “I used to think I couldn’t make a difference. No more.”

‘Without you ... the election just won’t be the same’

Back in Montana, Rebecca Johnson organizes people like Browder, except her team’s whole focus is getting people to vote, period –  never mind for whom. She and her team visited the farmers’ market, college classes, even homeless shelters, chipping away at the masses of Americans who are too busy or apathetic or despairing to go to the polls.

They adopted the slogan, “Without you ... the election just won’t be the same.” 

Montana registered the third-highest turnout rate of any state, helped in part by the tight Senate race but undoubtedly by volunteers like Ms. Johnson as well.

While there’s ample room for improvement – even in Montana, about 1 in 3 eligible voters are still forfeiting their role in shaping America’s path forward – it’s people like Johnson who give me hope.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Glenn Brunkow checks on his ewes and their lambs, March 2018. He and his father farm 2,500 acres in northeastern Kansas, including land their forebears homesteaded in the 1860s. Mr. Brunkow, who sells about half his beef to Asia, voiced his concerns to his representatives in Washington over President Trump’s trade policy.

‘We the people’

There were many other inspiring examples of democracy in action, too: Glenn Brunkow, a Kansas farmer concerned about President Trump’s steel tariffs, who left his lambs during a chilly week in March to talk with his representatives in Washington; Ohio welders with tough hands and well-worn overalls sitting around a sleek glass conference table presenting their proposals for making their shop floor more efficient, battling America’s dearth of skilled laborers with grass-roots ingenuity; and the team of folks in a West Virginia city at the epicenter of the opioid crisis who cut the city’s overdose rate in half.

If you don’t have hope in America’s government, look to its people. They are sovereign in this country, after all. As Abraham Lincoln once said ­– drawing on the words first penned by Bible translator John Wycliffe – our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

And there are a lot of good people out here in America.

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On Film

5. The best films of 2018: our critic’s picks

Our film critic’s favorite productions, year in and year out, are the ones with humanity. But when I asked what struck him about 2018 he focused first on the record-setting $11 billion box-office gross. “It shows that audiences still crave a communal experience,” he said. “They still want to see movies on a big screen, surrounded by other people.” Click the button below for his wide-ranging riff on this year’s offerings. 

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Maria Mozhdah in a scene from ‘What Will People Say.’ The Monitor’s Peter Rainer called the film – about a 16-year-old girl living with her tight-knit immigrant Pakistani family in Norway – “one of the strongest movies ever made about the cultural and generational divide within immigrant communities.”
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The best films of 2018: our critic’s picks

There were lots of movies to like in 2018, although the most ballyhooed ones, as usual, tended to show up in bunches toward the end of the year. That’s the time when awards voters with short memories can be counted on to bite into Oscar bait. The fact that some of the most heavily heralded movies were also good helped ease the glut.

I just wish the goodies were spread out a bit more evenly – or, more to the point, that awards-worthy movies that opened relatively early, like, say, “Journey’s End” or “Paddington 2,” had longer shelf lives in the public imagination. But that’s part of why I’m here: to bring some perspective to the year and remind you of some very good films you may have missed. I’ve seen, by my count, around 300 movies in 2018, most of them far less than marvelous, but at least 40 of which, for a variety of reasons, are eminently worth noting.

Given how consequential and combative the global political landscape has become, I was surprised by how few movies, from Hollywood or elsewhere, directly addressed the disquiet. Perhaps we have arrived at a time in popular entertainment when, as opposed to the headline-grabbing gabble on the internet and the airwaves and the nightly news, audiences are seeking something less in your face.

The few mainstream “political” movies in 2018 often fused the personal with the politics. “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as the young, feminist crusader lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Vice,” starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, attempted to humanize their protagonists, not altogether profitably, as flesh-and-blood people and not as historical icons or effigies. (In the case of Ginsburg, the icon-making was achieved in the hit documentary “RBG.”)   

Without a lot of grandstanding and with varying degrees of success, such issues as homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder (“Leave No Trace”), teen drug addiction and the toll it takes on families (“Beautiful Boy,” “Ben is Back”), ecological ruination (“First Reformed”), and gay conversion therapy ("Boy Erased," "The Miseducation of Cameron Post") were humanized.

Even in movies, many from outside the United States, where one might expect a more upfront and scathing treatment of social issues, the examinations were muted, as in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which focused, without being accusatory, on the travails of a live-in domestic worker of an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City; or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” which dealt with a poverty-row Japanese family linked by crime; or Nadine Labaki’s marvelous “Capernaum,” about Lebanese street kids. It would be misleading to call these films indictments. 

The portrayal of racism was the major exception to this generally muted approach to social issues. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” was ostensibly a 1970s period piece about a black cop who infiltrates the Klan, but Lee doesn’t really make period films. The speechifying and agitprop in this movie close out with newsreel clips from the violent 2017 Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist rally.

Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” tries (and fails) to be this year’s “Get Out.” Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” draws on the outrage in James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, even if it unduly poeticizes that outrage. Unlike these other films, “Green Book,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, is a mostly successful, if shameless, attempt to revive the old-school, we’re-all-brothers-under-the-skin type of movie that was popular decades ago. It plays like a racially role-reversed “Driving Miss Daisy.”

And then there is “Black Panther,” which locked into the Marvel zeitgeist, decried racism, opened up a whole new world for black performers (I’m not talking about Wakanda!), made a fortune, and aside from all that, managed to be pretty terrific. From a critic’s standpoint, if not a sociologist’s, I’m more excited by the success of this film than, say, the commercial success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which, whatever its racial composition, I found insipid and likely to lead only to “Crazy Rich Asians 2.”

In the same vein, it was nice to read that, according to a recent study, a strong relationship exists between female-led films released in the US from 2014 to 2017 and box office gold, even though, as a critic, I wish more of those films could be more like “Eighth Grade” and less like “Ocean’s 8” (or, while I’m at it, the scabrous, smart-alecky, overrated “The Favourite,” not my favorite). 

When “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s invaluable documentary about Fred Rogers, came out, I kept hearing people say, “This is the kind of movie we need right now.” Judging from its unexpectedly phenomenal success, I suspect what is going on is that audiences are craving movies that are feel-good in ways that don’t devalue one’s intelligence. There is more than nostalgia at work here. It has more to do with an authenticity of feeling and a sense that you can be a superhero without ever wearing a cape. A cardigan sweater will do just fine.

And now for my 10 best list, ranked in roughly descending order:

At Eternity’s Gate: I wasn’t exactly craving yet another movie about Vincent van Gogh, but director Julian Schnabel, himself a renowned artist, delivers one of the most powerful renderings of the creative act and its ravages that I’ve ever seen, topped by a career-best performance from Willem Dafoe.

What Will People Say: Iram Haq’s ferocious drama is about a 16-year-old girl (the extraordinary Maria Mozhdah) living with her tight-knit immigrant Pakistani family in Norway until her Westernized ways impel her father to remove her to Pakistan. It’s one of the strongest movies ever made about the cultural and generational divide within immigrant communities. 

Amazing Grace: Finally finished after years of legal wrangling, this documentary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles – the basis of her mega-selling record album – is an ecstatic musical feast. It will reopen in early 2019.

Burning: Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s allusive, creepy, melancholy mystery movie – it’s really a movie about the mystery of character – stayed with me in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” does.

Paddington 2: This is a transcendentally cheerful movie about the marmalade-loving bear, complete with a scrumptious roster of human actors headed by the deliciously nasty Hugh Grant. He looks as if he’s having the time of his life. So will audiences.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
Paddington is voiced by Ben Whishaw in 'Paddington 2.'

A Quiet Place: Director John Krasinski co-stars with Emily Blunt in this film about aliens that hunt by sound and a family under siege from both inside and out. It’s one of the most beautifully crafted and acted horror films I’ve ever seen.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Who says a leopard can’t change her spots? Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a real-life, down-on-her-luck author who becomes an expert forger, and she extends her powerhouse comic persona into darker and sadder realms than perhaps even she might ever have imagined she could inhabit.

Leave No Trace: Debra Granik’s incisive drama about a homeless veteran (Ben Foster) and his adoring 13-year-old daughter (the sensational newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) does justice to the vast complexity of its characters’ lives.

The Death of Stalin: Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci’s riotous, fanatically intelligent political farce takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet dictator’s demise, but don’t let that fool you. It also rings many a bell today.

Monrovia, Indiana: Our greatest documentarian, Frederick Wiseman, blessedly free of blinders and bias, offers up a meditative, richly observed portrait of small-town rural America.  

Other worthy films, besides those mentioned favorably in my intro, are “Isle of Dogs,” “The Guilty,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Cold War” (at least the first half), “A Star is Born” (ditto), “Lean on Pete,” “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” “The Other Side of the Wind,” “The Insult,” “Shirkers,” “En el Séptimo Día,” “Juliet, Naked,” “On Chesil Beach,” “Science Fair,” “Free Solo,” “The Guardians,” and, for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance, “The Kindergarten Teacher.”

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The Monitor's View

Hold off the forecasts of doom

Two ways to read the story

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The social progress reported by the likes of Harvard University’s Steven Pinker (see intro, above) doesn’t come without effort. It’s being stirred by individuals’ love for humanity and maximized by intelligent thinking. “As ingenuity and sympathy have been applied to the human condition,” Dr. Pinker writes, “life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.” Earthly troubles haven’t dampened human curiosity about the cosmos: Private aerospace companies have joined governments to launch payloads to plan trips to Mars. On Earth, innumerable individual acts of courage and kindness were represented by a few that gained international attention, including the brave Thai Navy SEALs who rescued a dozen schoolboys from a flooded cave in July. Today, volunteers along the US-Mexico border are stepping up to give food, shelter, and other aid to migrants. Tragedies land outsized emotional wallops. And people tend to think about potential dangers more than enjoy what’s good. But more stories of inspiration and progress like these lie ahead in 2019.

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Hold off the forecasts of doom

The year 2018 would seem to be ringing itself out in a Dickens of a mess, a prime candidate for “the worst of times.” 

Paying attention to what troubles humanity is understandable: The out-of-whack needs fixing. But some observers are looking deeper and seeing a different picture.

Harvard University’s Steven Pinker makes the case that humankind’s current great leap forward is being overlooked. The reason seems to lie with human nature: Tragedies land outsize emotional wallops. And people tend to think about potential dangers more than enjoy what’s good. (His book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” made the Monitor’s list of the best books of 2018.)

The better news of 2018 is there for the finding, almost across the board. While the world needs to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible, renewable energy supplies are coming on strong: They make up almost 25 percent of the world’s electrical output, and the figure is growing. At the same time electrical service, with its many benefits, now reaches 87 percent of humanity.

The number of girls in school worldwide now almost equals the number of boys. In 1986 it was about 85 girls in school to every 100 boys.

Women’s role in politics has seen huge gains in many countries. In Spain women hold 11 of the 17 cabinet posts. In the United States, nearly 23 percent of the members of the new Congress will be women, bringing their share of seats close to the international average of 24 percent. 

Worldwide rates of ills such as poverty, infant and maternal mortality, and teen pregnancy continue to trend down, down, down. 

And so on.

This progress doesn’t come without effort. It’s being stirred by individuals’ love for humanity and maximized by intelligent thinking. “As ingenuity and sympathy have been applied to the human condition,” Dr. Pinker notes, “life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.”

“More interesting” might include the fact that earthly troubles haven’t dampened human curiosity about the cosmos: Private aerospace companies have joined governments to launch payload after payload into earth orbit, and even to lay plans for trips to Mars. For its part, in 2018 NASA placed the unmanned lander InSight on the Mars surface, the first landing on that planet’s red dirt since 2012.

Innumerable individual acts of courage and kindness were represented by a few that gained international attention, including the brave Thai Navy SEALs who rescued a dozen of schoolboys from a flooded cave in July. 

During the Christmas holidays, church members and other volunteers along the US-Mexico border are stepping up to give food, shelter, and other aid to asylum-seeking migrants. They’re being dropped off, sometimes by the hundreds, by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel at bus stations or in front of homeless shelters and churches to fend for themselves.

Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, a shelter in El Paso, Texas, is one volunteer now scurrying to meet a surge of need. He’s been at it a long time and says he’s just where he wants to be. 

“I’m really, really glad” to be doing this work, he told the Monitor in 2012. “I get to do something with depth and purpose and meaning. I get to live my life in a way that is fundamentally about the rights and dignity of the human being.”

More stories of inspiration and progress like these lie ahead in 2019.

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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.

Face up to stress

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When today’s contributor, feeling overwhelmed, reached out to God for answers, she found that divine Love is able to lift even the heaviest sense of stress and sadness.

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Face up to stress

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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When we were younger, my sisters and I played a game, building a tower out of playing cards. Carefully we added cards to the stack, until it was one card too many – and the whole pile came tumbling down. Life may feel equally precarious at times!

Is it possible to withstand the stresses associated with daily life? A clue may be found in a comparison Jesus made between two men who built houses on very different foundations. One man built on rock, the other on sand. When storms battered the houses, the one built on sand collapsed, while the one built on the rock-solid foundation remained intact.

There was a time when many things that are often considered major causes of stress all seemed to come at me at once – a move to a new house, tough finances, relationship issues, loneliness, and sorrow over the death of someone dear.

I tumbled into a deep depression, but having always turned to God during times of difficulty, I reached out to Him, through floods of tears. I longed to hear some answer.

In the midst of my distress the answer came to me in words from a hymn in the 1932 “Christian Science Hymnal”: “Hear His voice above the tempest: I have not forsaken thee” (Johannes Heermann, No. 76).

I felt a quiet calm wash over me, and feelings of peace replaced strain and stress. I was not forsaken! I began focusing on my inseparability from God, divine Love, who made each of us as the spiritual expression of His endless love – and here’s what happened. It wasn’t always easy, but the move went smoothly, my financial burdens eased, and loneliness disappeared. My sense of family and friends expanded, and the grief I was feeling began to lift as I learned more of my and everyone’s eternal relation to God.

It’s so encouraging to know that divine Love is able to penetrate and remove even the deepest sorrow. Praying to better know God as being in complete control of His all-good and eternal universe allows us to pass through trials spiritually strengthened. We may face many storms in life, but divine Love is not a pack of cards. Letting God’s love in helps us become more deeply rooted and established on an endlessly solid, spiritual foundation.

Other versions of this article appeared on the Dec. 5, 2018, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast and on spirituality.com on April 6, 2010.

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Viewfinder

Cold feat

Colin O'Brady/AP
Colin O’Brady created an action selfie Dec. 26 while traversing Antarctica. The Portland., Ore., native has become the first person to cross that continent without any assistance, finishing the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) journey across the continent in 54 days, lugging supplies on a sled as he was tested by extreme cold.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 31st, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Have a good weekend. For Monday we have seven writers contributing to a report on global trends to watch for in 2019. And a look at how, in an attempt to promote long-term thinking, artists are engaging with a concept known as “deep time.” 

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 28, 2018
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