2018
December
31
Monday

This is the season when we wish peace and goodwill to our fellow man for the coming year. And if you’re like me, you might be tempted to do it a little tentatively, given all the upheaval of 2018.

Will 2019 be more of the same? Will it be worse? The problems leap to the fore: government shutdown, Wall Street, Mueller investigation, Brexit, Syria, Afghanistan, China trade, cyber-espionage. But a look backward suggests there’s an antidote for New Year’s pessimism.

The year 1919, for example, was full of upheaval, too: civil war in Russia; wars of independence in Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ireland, Egypt, and Mexico; strikes and uprisings as far as the eye could see. That was the year Mussolini established Italy’s fascist movement and Hitler made his first speech to what would become the Nazi party. In the United States, the states ratified Prohibition, anarchists started a wave of bombings, President Woodrow Wilson became incapacitated, and eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series for money.

And yet, 1919 was also the first full year of peace after the carnage of World War I, the Save the Children Fund was established in Britain, and the US Congress approved women’s suffrage and sent the 19th Amendment to the states for ratification.

Many of these had a big impact, but which of them have been more enduring: the upheaval or the progress? I leave it to your New Year’s spirit to sort it all out.

Now to our five stories for today, including a look by Monitor writers at seven global trends that, without much fanfare, could help shape the world in 2019 and beyond.

Share this article

1. Seven global trends to watch in 2019

Sometimes social movement is global and makes headlines. Sometimes it begins almost unnoticed, and spreads. Seven writers took part in this survey, presented as 2019 dawns.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 18 Min. )

Globally, trends with momentum from 2018 are sure to shape the news in 2019. The first wave of #MeToo awareness swept China, for example, in January 2018. Now it must navigate big obstacles. The European Union felt tremors but remains the world’s largest trading bloc. Most of its citizens think membership has benefited them. Fake news – and its potential for harm – have been a growing concern globally, but in pockets of Africa such as Cameroon and Nigeria, the stakes are often literally life and death. Mexico has laid the groundwork to become the third country in the world to legalize marijuana. Arguments for it have been made on a fundamental rationale: human rights. Canada is exploring a carbon tax to curb greenhouse gases at a time when nations around the world are struggling to meet the standards pledged under the 2015 Paris climate accord. Russia has seen a revival of local and regional pride, where larger cultural forces, such as being Russian or Soviet, have long dominated. And even amid forbidding headlines, signs suggest that 2019 may see a change in the trajectory of the war in Yemen.

Collapse

Seven global trends to watch in 2019

Crusading for women’s rights in patriarchal China

By Ann Scott Tyson/ Correspondent

Lü Xiaoquan knows firsthand the risks of advocating for women’s empowerment in China. The young lawyer has faced detention, threats from irate husbands, and political pressure in his quest to advance women’s rights.

Mr. Lü’s professional challenges underscore the obstacles preventing a #MeToo movement from catapulting change in China, despite growing visibility and support among women here. “It goes without saying that the #MeToo movement is sensitive in China,” Lü says at his women’s rights law office in a high-rise apartment in north Beijing.

The first wave of #MeToo awareness swept China in January 2018, Lü says. Inspired by the #MeToo outcry in the United States, Luo Xixi, a graduate of Beihang University in Beijing, published an open letter online detailing sexual harassment a decade earlier by a professor, her former doctoral adviser. The professor denied the allegations, but a month later the university fired him after determining he had sexually harassed several students. Ms. Luo urged Chinese women who’ve faced harassment to speak out and say “no.”

That spurred thousands of students at dozens of Chinese universities to support petitions calling on school administrators to establish anti-sexual-harassment guidelines. More victims came forward, and a few prominent men lost their jobs. 

“A trend began to develop,” says Lü, as “these waves enlightened some victims.”

Lü welcomes the heightened awareness, having spent the past decade fighting for women’s rights. Raised in a poor household in southern Hunan province, Lü graduated with a master’s degree in law from Beijing Forestry University in 2008 and joined the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm, where he is now executive director. 

In the past 10 years, Lü’s firm has handled about 500 cases related to women’s rights, including many involving victims of domestic violence. They have also run workshops training an estimated 3,000 people – including police officers and court officials – on sexual harassment, domestic violence, and gender equality.

Still, Lü has grappled with entrenched opposition rooted in China’s traditional, patriarchal culture; a lack of legal protections for women; and political controls that he says are blocking a full-fledged #MeToo campaign. China, where surveys show a majority of women face sexual harassment, ranks 100th among 144 countries on gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum 2017 Gender Gap Report. “In terms of sexual violence or discrimination, all of it is rooted in traditional culture,” he says.

China, for example, did not hold people who bought women or children criminally liable until late 2015, and only passed an anti-domestic-violence law in 2016. Women who are victims of domestic violence or sexual harassment are often blamed for causing it, and so hesitate to come forward, Lü says.

Ann Scott Tyson
Lü Xiaoquan is executive director of a law firm in Beijing that specializes in legal aid for women and upholding women’s rights.

The tradition of discrimination has led to threats against Lü and his work. Four years ago, when he went to a village in Hebei province to instruct villagers on women’s land rights, he was detained. “The village [Communist] Party committee was opposed to women’s land rights” and didn’t want to compensate women whose land was taken to build factories, he says. 

Negotiating with husbands charged with domestic violence is also “risky,” Lü says. “A person who has committed domestic violence for a long time ... may lash out at the lawyer” for supporting the wife, he notes.

#MeToo is hampered in China by the lack of a clear legal definition of sexual harassment or guidelines for its prosecution, he says. A draft law is under way, but he considers it flawed.

China’s ruling Communist Party is also moving to stifle the spread of the #MeToo movement. The government has censored the term #MeToo and its Chinese variants online. Amid a tightening of controls on civil society, it has also cracked down on feminist activists and women’s rights groups.

Still, Lü hopes for progress in combating sexual harassment in China. “Maybe in 10 to 20 years it won’t be totally changed, but better compared with today,” he says.

Mexico’s new drug revolution: legalize pot?

By Whitney Eulich / Correspondent

When Andrés Aguinaco, a promising young lawyer, first told his parents he wanted to change the landscape of marijuana regulation in Mexico, they were concerned. “Are you using drugs?” Mr. Aguinaco remembers them asking.

He wasn’t. And after roughly six years of collaborating on a legal strategy that’s led to five victories before the Mexican supreme court – the number needed to set a binding precedent under Mexican law – Aguinaco has helped lay the groundwork for Mexico to become the third country in the world to legalize the drug. The next step is for legislators to pass a new law – something analysts expect to see in the new year. 

The supreme court cases ranged from a group of professionals seeking to build a “grow club” for personal use to a young girl with a condition diagnosed as epilepsy whose family wanted marijuana as a treatment option. But the cases were argued on a more fundamental rationale – human rights. Aguinaco contended that a complete ban on marijuana violates an individual’s right to self-determination, something enshrined in Mexico’s Constitution.  

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Andrés Aguinaco is a Mexican lawyer who has pushed decriminalizing marijuana in the courts.

Latin America has been at the forefront of the drug legalization debate for years. The debate has been driven by tough policies, many pushed by the United States, that have resulted in substantial casualties in the fight to curb trafficking and put large numbers of people behind bars. 

While many people in these countries – including Mexico – remain opposed to legalizing marijuana, proponents say it could lead to a new approach to the “war on drugs” with less violence, fewer people behind bars, and fewer soldiers on the streets.

Countries in the region “have done everything the US has told them to and paid a very high price in terms of lives lost, the debilitation of democratic institutions, and growing prison populations,” says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on human rights. 

In 2015, some 60 percent of inmates in correctional centers in nine states in Mexico were being held for offenses related to cannabis. 

Mexico’s fifth supreme court decision was handed down in late October, creating a precedent at a politically receptive moment for decriminalizing marijuana. Canada legalized the drug in October, and Mexico’s newly inaugurated president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has signaled an openness to the idea after more than a decade of tough drug policies in which 250,000 people have died and another 37,000 have disappeared, according to the government. The Mexican Senate is now weighing legislation that would allow firms to produce pot for commercial, medicinal, and recreational use. 

“What the judiciary says and what the laws say are out of step. The next move is to change the laws on the books,” says Lisa Sánchez, director of Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD), a group that favors legalization. Public perceptions of drug regulation in Mexico have shifted, according to MUCD, with some 56 percent of Mexicans now opposing legalization, down from 77 percent in 2010. Yet opposition remains. 

“When we talk about the world of drugs we know there are serious challenges, nonetheless, the most worrying is the consumption of illegal substances in childhood and adolescence,” the National Union of Parents said in a press release this fall. 

Aguinaco always knew he wanted to focus on human rights in his career. But it wasn’t until a semester abroad at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in 2009 that he realized how he could use his passion to change social policy. In 2012, he heard an established corporate lawyer, Juan Francisco Torres Landa, talk about the need to fight drugs without militarizing the country. 

“A lightbulb went off,” Aguinaco says on a recent morning, flanked by towering shelves of law books at the firm his grandfather, a former supreme court justice, founded. “I went to his office and said, ‘[some classmates and I] have an idea that could complement this, but we don’t have the power or credibility that you do to carry it out.’ ” Mr. Torres Landa was on board – and eventually became one of the plaintiffs in the first case Aguinaco argued. 

Many hope legalizing marijuana will reduce violence here, although few see it as a silver bullet. “I never thought I’d be litigating drugs,” Aguinaco says. But “this is a tool to fight violence in Mexico.”

Where Europe goes after Brexit

By Peter Ford / Global correspondent

Europe is standing on the brink of a momentous 2019. But perhaps “tottering on the brink” would be more accurate.

The European Union’s second-largest member, Britain, is due to leave the group at the end of March. The continent’s ­lon­gest-serving leader and symbolic standard-bearer, Angela Merkel, looks unlikely to serve out her full term as chancellor of Germany in the wake of electoral setbacks that have weakened her.

The EU’s most ardent supporter and reformer, French President Emmanuel Macron, has been seized by a crisis of credibility at home amid a wave of public unrest. Ahead lie European Parliament elections that are expected to see right-wing euroskeptic nationalist parties win a record number of seats. By the end of 2019 the EU will have a new president.

But beneath the political uncertainties sit two foundation stones that assure the EU’s continued global influence and domestic stability: It remains the world’s largest trading bloc, and nearly 70 percent of its citizens think membership has been good for them.

Even without Britain, “the EU will still sit at the top table internationally, and it has a very clear idea of how it sees itself in the global system,” says Maria Demertzis, deputy head of Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank.

Britain’s expected departure, though, is “definitely a big economic and diplomatic blow,” says Przemyslaw Kowalski, who runs the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. EU relations with Washington, for example, will be more difficult to manage without the benefit of Britain’s historic transatlantic ties, he predicts. And Brexit has served as “a big red flag for all of us,” Dr. Kowalski adds. “It is a moment of reflection for everyone.”

Not that any other member state is likely to follow London out the door. Brexit has proved such a political mess for Britain that “it has been like a cold wave for people in other countries who were talking about leaving,” says Dr. Demertzis.

Even the increasingly popular nationalist parties, which have made hostility to the EU a mainstay of their programs, have mostly begun to soften their stances, pulling back from the idea of pulling out. That means even if they do as well as expected in the European Parliament elections in May, their success would not pose any existential threat to the EU.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, face a tough 2019.

It would, though, probably check any further moves to deepen European integration. That’s a problem, worries Kowalski, because if Europe is to survive any repeat of the 2015 migration crisis or the earlier euro crisis it needs its members to follow common policies in harmony.

But the rise of nationalism across the continent, he says, makes this “the worst time in history to try to do that. There are so many opposing forces in so many countries.”

Still, Kowalski thinks, barring any unexpected crises, the EU will muddle through. “The EU is not based on military domination” like the last multinational grouping Poland was a member of, in the Soviet bloc, he points out. “It’s based on trade and cooperation and unity in diversity. That’s its strength.”

Canada’s carbon tax test

By Sara Miller Llana / Staff writer

The battle playing out in Canada over how to reduce carbon emissions mirrors a global clash on climate change, as countries grapple with how to enforce unpopular policies – or face catastrophic consequences outlined by climate scientists.

When Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a federal carbon tax this fall for provinces without their own climate plans, he gave Conservative opponents the perfect wedge issue for the 2019 federal elections. After all, the idea of imposing a major tax, in this case to curb fossil fuel consumption, often draws fire in industrialized countries.

But Mr. Trudeau is trying to make the tax more palatable by promising to return the money to Canadian households. In October, Trudeau announced that 90 percent of revenues from his “carbon fee and dividend” system would be given back to consumers to offset the added costs of climate action.

The question is whether Canada has found a way to boost a principal tool used to curb greenhouse gases at a time when nations around the world are struggling to meet the standards pledged under the 2015 Paris climate accord. The next few months will be crucial in determining public acceptance of the idea – and whether it might become a global model.

“Unless people come forward with smart, market-based solutions, then we’re probably going to end up going down the road of more economically destructive solutions,” says Mark Cameron, a former Conservative government adviser who recommended a tax-and-rebate plan that closely resembles the new government policy.

Larry MacDougal/AP
An oil pump bobs in a wheat field in Saskatchewan. Companies in several Canadian provinces now face a tax on carbon emissions.

Carbon taxes have received a mixed reception around the world. They are a favorite solution of many progressives, because they encourage less consumption of fossil fuels. They appeal to some conservatives because they do so by using market-based incentives. According to the World Bank, some 40 countries have carbon pricing initiatives in place, about half of which impose a tax on the emissions produced by firms that burn coal, oil, or gas. These include Chile, Japan, and several Scandinavian countries.

Yet many fiscal conservatives and others rebel at the idea of tax increases, which are often passed on to consumers as higher utility bills or prices at the pump. In early December, widespread rioting in France forced President Emmanuel Macron to suspend an increase in the gas tax aimed at combating climate change. In Washington, one of the “greenest” states in the United States, voters vigorously rejected a carbon-fee initiative on the ballot in 2018. Australia rescinded a carbon tax in 2014 that targeted major polluters. 

Trudeau’s government has tried to avoid calling his plan a “tax,” since the money is returned as “dividends” to individuals. But Conservative opponents have unleashed a storm of criticism, led by new Ontario Premier Doug Ford who calls the carbon fee a government “cash grab.” 

“There is a strong anti-carbon-pricing narrative right now,” says Isabelle Turcotte, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute in Ottawa.

Mr. Cameron, who worked under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, insists the Trudeau plan is a win-win, despite his party’s opposition. Canadians for Clean Prosperity, of which he is executive director, commissioned a report this fall that estimated most families in the provinces where the program applies will see more money in payments than they spend in tax increases. That takes the burden off regular Canadians while incentivizing energy efficiency.

Longer-term, says Cameron, the market-based tool could find increased support in the US, where it’s been promoted by the Climate Leadership Council, which includes prominent Republicans. “If it’s successful in Canada, then it could help create momentum for it in the US,” he says.

One Russian town’s unusual renaissance 

By Fred Weir / Correspondent

Torzhok is an industrial town of about 50,000 people in the Tver region, in the wilds of central Russia. 

Though it’s almost 1,000 years old, with some magnificent architecture and famous local handicrafts, it has languished in obscurity over the past century – one of scores of Russian towns like this. Known only for a few minor factories and as a pit stop on the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Torzhok has long been a place that the brightest young people would flee.

One of those was Tatiana Sokolova. Born and raised in Torzhok, she left after graduating high school about 30 years ago. She obtained a business education and founded a network of commercial office centers in Moscow in the 1990s. A successful businesswoman is already something quite new in Russia, but about eight years ago Ms. Sokolova made an unusual decision: She decided to return to her hometown and work to develop it. Her idea was to help restore what she saw as its unique local identity and promote it as a tourist attraction.

Courtesy of Tatiana Sokolova
Tatiana Sokolova, who is galvanizing locals to help revive Torzhok, stands in front of an open-air museum of wooden architecture in the city.

“Every small city has some crazy person like myself,” she says. “But I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I had my Moscow resources and contacts, but I needed to find local activists, people with enthusiasm to help get this project off the ground.”

This kind of citizen initiative – which arises spontaneously, draws energy from the community, and seeks constructive engagement with authorities – is something radically new in Russia. It symbolizes a revival of local and regional pride in a country where larger cultural forces, such as being Russian or Soviet, have long predominated. Indeed, many communities across the country have their own histories, traditions, and special features that, like Torzhok, could help spur a revival. 

“Tatiana has done a lot here in Torzhok,” says Igor Kondratyev, a local tourist guide. “What we’ve learned in the past few years is that if you change something, everything will change.”

At first, Sokolova found herself pushing against an enormous amount of inertia. Russia’s ageless provincial torpor, long ago described by authors such as Gogol and Chekhov, led many local people to greet any fresh ideas with traditional apathy, pessimism, and suspicion. “People in such small places live in an isolated way,” she says. “They tend to live their own stereotypes. They talk a lot about how nothing works properly, and how hopeless it is to try and change anything.”

But gradually Sokolova won local trust. A festival of local gastronomy came off fairly well. Then local authorities cooperated in the renovation of a town park. More and more local people joined in, and Sokolova now has a loose organization of about 40 activists working on various projects, including an upcoming blacksmith festival and ongoing renovations of historical buildings. Next June there will be a celebration of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who often passed through Torzhok; a small museum in town is dedicated to his work.

“We plan to become a regional tourist operator, with a guesthouse and excursions to many regional places of interest,” she says.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
The Monastery of Saints Boris and Gleb dominates the center of Torzhok, an ancient town in central Russia trying to become a tourist mecca.

Local elections last summer brought in a new mayor who is far more supportive of Sokolova’s ideas. Another recent breakthrough was a decision by regional authorities to begin train service to Torzhok, which started in December. It will make the town easily accessible to passengers from Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“What we have learned is that when you make a beginning, a chain reaction occurs. One thing leads to another, and then good things start happening even without your participation,” Sokolova says. “People’s way of thinking starts to change.”

The hard truth about fake news in Africa

By Ryan Lenora Brown / Staff writer

In late June, a gruesome video began circulating on Cameroonian social media. In it, a man leans over a steaming cooking pot filled with what look to be human body parts.

“If you’ve eaten meat but you’ve never eaten this, then you’ve never really eaten meat,” he says in a local dialect, then chuckles.

“Scenes of cannibalism among secessionists,” blared the headline of one local newspaper, which explained that the video had been made and distributed by separatists from the country’s Anglophone region, who had been fighting a low-grade war for independence from the country’s Francophone majority since early 2017. 

Soon, the government was weighing in as well. “Cameroon’s own terrorists have done worse than Boko Haram,” said Paul Atanga Nji, a government minister, in an outraged TV interview. 

But for Monique Ngo Mayag and her colleagues at StopBlaBlaCam, a site that debunks fake news in Cameroon, something about the video struck them as suspicious. So they began scouring the internet, looking for the video’s source.

They soon found it. On June 17, three days before the video had begun making its rounds on Cameroonian social media, a Nigerian makeup artist named Hakeem Onilogbo had posted the clip on Instagram, explaining that it was “prosthetic body part[s] for a movie” that he was working on.  

“No,” announced StopBlaBlaCam in a headline on its site. “This gory video was not shot in Ambazonia” (the secessionists’ name for the Anglophone regions of Cameroon). 

Globally, fake news – and its very real potential for harm – have been the subject of growing concern and pushback in recent years. But in Africa the stakes are often, very literally, life and death.

“False information is often worse than a Kalashnikov,” says Ms. Mayag, noting that fake videos, images, and rumors can spill off the internet and into actual armed conflicts.

That’s been true elsewhere on the continent. In Nigeria, violent images taken from other African wars have frequently been recycled on social media with claims they show murders committed by members of one Nigerian ethnic group against another, sparking reprisals and killings.

And during recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa, migrant communities circulated pictures of gruesome murders from Nigeria and Congo claiming they showed attacks against foreigners in South Africa. “While [these images] may be shared with good intentions, they can also be used to stir tensions further,” noted the fact-checking site Africa Check, which debunked several of the photos circulating.

Africa Check, which was founded in 2012, was the first major African fact-checking organization, and works in several countries across the region. In October, employees of Africa Check and Agence France-Presse began operating as “third party fact-checkers” for Facebook in Nigeria, sifting through stories the site’s automated system flags as false to determine whether they should remain up.

But as a BBC investigation recently noted, the organization’s four fact-checkers stand little chance of keeping up with the 26 million monthly Nigerian Facebook users. And many on the continent still worry that fake news is proliferating faster than fact-checking organizations can keep up.

“As in all countries in the world, fake news is created here to manipulate people’s opinions,” says Mayag.

And often, it’s still far easier to build a fake story than to take one apart.

New hope for ‘worst’ war

By Scott Peterson / Staff writer

Will 2019 mark a turning point in Yemen’s relentless, four-year-old civil war?

No doubt the country still warrants the grim title “world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” The suffering is mind-boggling in scale and getting worse: 17.8 million Yemenis face food shortages, with 8.4 million of those considered severe – a 24 percent increase over 2017 – according to United Nations reporting.

Amid this famine risk of biblical proportions, some 61,000 people have been killed by the war, by one count, as a United States-backed coalition of forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) fight against northern Yemeni Houthi rebels who have support from Iran. A further 2.3 million people have been displaced by a conflict that has witnessed more than 18,000 Saudi-led airstrikes – with widespread bombardment of civilian areas – and a cholera epidemic.

Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters
Masar Mohammed Saleh eats at a malnutrition center in Sanaa, Yemen.

But amid such forbidding headlines, signs suggest that 2019 may see a change in the trajectory of the war. Both sides met in Sweden for a week of talks in early December, for the first time in two years. They agreed on a swap of more than 16,000 prisoners, and a cease-fire over the rebel-held port city of Hodeidah – a key lifeline for humanitarian aid for 18 million Yemenis, where the UN will now play a leading role. A framework for political negotiations will be the focus of the next round of talks.

That neither side walked away on the first day was itself an achievement of the talks, which were orchestrated by the UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. He physically traveled with Houthi delegates to assure them of their safety. 

“There is so much hate, and so little trust, and so much emotion, that it’s actually pretty good – a lot of people expected one or the other side to walk out, and they haven’t,” says Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert at Oxford University’s Pembroke College.

Ironically, it was not the years of dire UN warnings of deepening humanitarian disaster caused by war that prompted a global desire for action. It was the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October that shifted the spotlight onto the Yemen war and the Saudi role in it.

The US Senate voted on Dec. 13 to withdraw American support for the Saudi-UAE war effort. It was a bid to curb the civilian death toll and came as a second Senate resolution condemned Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for Mr. Khashoggi’s death. Riyadh rejected “any interference in its internal affairs.”

US support for the Saudi-led coalition with bombs, refueling of jet fighters, and intelligence has led to charges of complicity in war crimes in the Yemen war.

“The international pressure is a very key element” in the peace push, says Ms. Kendall, speaking from the castle where the Yemen talks were taking place in Rimbo, Sweden, north of Stockholm. “Everybody in the international community really wants to see this resolved ... and suddenly the world has come aware that this famine is not just now looming, it’s starting.” 

The UN has been warning the world for years about Yemen, a war largely hidden from view compared with the blanket news coverage of the Islamic State battle in Syria and Iraq, and the massive flow of migrants into Europe in 2015. But Ambassador Griffiths is counting on the new spotlight and long-standing military stalemate to goad both sides toward eventual peace.

“At no other time has there been such a palpable international urge for the warring parties in Yemen to find a solution,” Griffiths wrote in The New York Times as the talks began.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
shadow

2. ‘It’s like we don’t exist’: California’s invisible rural housing crisis

Much has been written about the housing shortage in US cities from Boston to Boise. But behind the headlines, an unnoticed crisis is growing in America’s countryside.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

The US Department of Agriculture runs a housing program for low-income residents in rural areas that is shrinking, even as the need expands. Two reports this year found that the program – housing an estimated 435,000 people – faces a dark future. In the early 1960s, federal lawmakers directed the USDA to create and expand low-income housing for the country’s large rural population by extending 30- to 50-year loans to developers to build multifamily dwellings outside urban areas. But the agency ends rental assistance when property owners fulfill their loan obligations, and the loss of subsidies leads most of them to leave the program and raise rents. “In many small communities, these properties are the only kind of affordable housing,” says Lance George of the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C.  “If they disappear, there are no other options.” His concern is echoed by Kathleen Griffin, who lives in an apartment subsidized by the USDA in Winters, Calif. “Without this building and without the rent help, I’m not sure how I’d get by,” she says.

Collapse

‘It’s like we don’t exist’: California’s invisible rural housing crisis

The town of Winters lies 30 miles from California’s capital of Sacramento and half that far from three other cities with a combined population of almost a quarter-million people. Despite its proximity to urban areas, Winters, with 7,300 residents, qualifies as a rural area under federal guidelines, and like small towns across the state and country, it faces an acute shortage of affordable housing.

The municipality has designated 235 housing units for low-income residents. Six apartment complexes account for that total, including Winters Senior Apartments, where Kathleen Griffin moved in three years ago.

The two-story, 38-unit building, tucked into a leafy neighborhood a few blocks from the city’s tidy downtown, provides subsidized housing through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency’s rural housing service supplies financial aid to low-income tenants that typically covers 70 percent of their rent.

For Ms. Griffin, who pays a third of the $820 monthly rent on her one-bedroom apartment, the assistance enabled her to return to her hometown and look after her elderly mother, who lives nearby. Before the unit opened at the Winters complex, she had languished for months on the waiting list of another subsidized apartment building while she stayed with a relative.

“We feel a little forgotten here in rural America,” Griffin says. A retired mental health counselor, she copes with severe neck, back, and knee pain and survives on a monthly $1,000 disability payment. “Without this building and without the rent help, I’m not sure how I’d get by.”

Housing advocates across the country share a similar concern, as the precarious state of low-income housing in rural areas threatens to deteriorate over the next decade – and from there descend into a full-blown crisis.

The USDA’s rental housing inventory comprises 416,000 subsidized units with an estimated 435,000 residents. Two reports this year found that, in the absence of more federal funding and better planning, the program will shed some 20,000 units by 2027. At that point, analysts predict, the loss rate will accelerate through 2050 with up to another 380,000 units expected to exit the program, gutting the overall supply by 90 percent or more.

“We want to sound the alarm,” says Lance George, director of research for the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit advocacy and policy group based in Washington, D.C., that conducted one of the studies. “In many small communities, these properties are the only kind of affordable housing. If they disappear, there are no other options.”

The separate reports from the council and the Government Accountability Office identify maturing mortgages and early repayment of loans on USDA properties as the primary causes of the program’s troubles. The agency has seen its housing stock decrease by 29,000 low-income units in the past decade and has lacked funding to build new housing since 2011.

The projected drop-off in affordable housing would hit hardest in the Midwest and Southeast, where two-thirds of the agency’s properties are located. At the same time, California could lose nearly 27,000 units, more than any other state.

The country’s most populous state seldom receives mention in discussions of rural issues, and likewise, the plight of rural areas seldom receives mention in discussions of California’s affordable housing shortage. Yet advocates warn of the fallout in Winters and other small towns statewide if the USDA program unravels.

“The impact will be gigantic,” says Rob Wiener, executive director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing in Sacramento. “Without these properties, those residents will have nowhere to live.”

‘It’s like we don’t exist’

The problems plaguing the USDA’s rural housing service trace to its origins in the early 1960s. Federal lawmakers directed the agency to create and expand low-income housing for the country's large rural population by extending 30- to 50-year loans to developers to build multifamily dwellings outside urban areas.

The program gained momentum in 1978 when the agency began offering rental assistance to tenants and limited their monthly payments to 30 percent of their adjusted income. The USDA picks up the difference, ensuring an equitable return to landlords on occupied units.

The subsidies spurred construction of low-income housing through the 1990s, and the USDA now manages properties in more than 85 percent of US counties. The units alleviate a profound need. The average income of tenants falls below $14,000, and almost two-thirds are seniors, disabled, or both.

But the demand for affordable housing contrasts with the thinning supply as property owners pay off their USDA loans. The agency ends rental assistance when property owners fulfill their loan obligations, and the loss of subsidies leads most of them to leave the program and raise rents, an increase that can force out residents on fixed incomes.

“Homelessness in rural areas isn’t usually as visible as it is in cities,” Mr. Wiener says. “What’s already happening is more people are couch surfing with neighbors or relatives or living in cars or RVs as more of the affordable housing is going away.”

Some 3 million renter households in California – more than half the statewide total – meet the federal standard of “rent-burdened,” spending at least a third of their income on housing. The figure includes 550,000 low-income seniors, and those living in rural areas could be imperiled by the USDA’s shrinking housing inventory.

“They are the most vulnerable,” says Gideon Anders, a senior staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco. “People who are 70 or 80 years old and subsisting on Social Security can’t afford the market-rate rent in the community.”

Rents in the state’s less populated areas have climbed in recent years as more residents seek to escape the high cost of urban living. The migration of people into towns once considered remote has enticed landlords to hike rents and, in turn, pushed low-income residents closer to the margins.

Gloria Rhodes struggled to find a new home in Winters two years ago after the owner of the guest cottage that she rented for $700 a month died. Unable to afford a market-rate apartment in town – monthly rent on a one-bedroom unit averages $1,000 – she placed her name on the waiting lists of Winters Senior Apartments and two other low-income housing complexes.

In the meantime, Ms. Rhodes, a retired customer service supervisor for a phone company, had to move 30 miles away to the city of Fairfield, where she lived in a cramped apartment in a run-down neighborhood. When a one-bedroom unit finally opened last spring at Winters Senior Apartments, she recalls, “It felt like I was going to heaven.”

“People talk all the time about the housing crisis in California,” she says, sitting in her wheelchair in her apartment, the walls decorated with framed photos of her children and grandchildren. “But when was the last time you heard about what’s happening in rural areas? And especially what’s happening with seniors in places like Winters? It’s like we don’t exist.”

Living with dignity

The USDA mortgage on the Winters complex will mature in 2045. The distant date holds little relevance for Rhodes and other older tenants. But the prospect of the property one day losing its rental assistance worries Kate Laddish, 48, who was diagnosed with a complex array of muscle, organ, and neurological disorders that qualify her for disability payments and low-income housing.

Ms. Laddish has lived here since 2006, and while distinguished by age from most of her neighbors, she shares their gratitude for the stability the housing provides. “When you’re elderly or disabled, you’re already coping with uncertainty, so knowing you have a home, a safety net – it’s invaluable,” she says.

Laddish’s condition derailed her career as a college professor and cost her the market-rate apartment where she lived. The rent subsidy enables her to remain close to her doctors and support network, and her experience informs her alarm over the failure of federal officials to address the bleak future of the USDA housing program.

“Services for seniors and people with disabilities don’t get a lot of attention in Washington,” she says. “Poor people can’t hire lobbyists.”

The growth of the country’s urban population over the past 20 years has siphoned off public and political attention from rural housing concerns. The ticking clock on the USDA’s housing loans has gone unheard by federal lawmakers and President Trump, whose inaction follows that of predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The Housing Assistance Council’s report on the program outlines remedies to preserve the supply of properties. The group proposes that the agency offer various tax incentives to landlords to remain in the program and continue rental assistance for tenants after mortgages mature to reduce the odds that owners will convert properties to market-rate housing.

The changes would require congressional approval and additional funding. Bob Rapoza, executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition in Washington, worries that ongoing “bipartisan neglect” could doom the program’s chances of survival. (USDA officials refused interview requests for this report.)

“There is a window of time for Congress to come up with ways to solve this problem. And it is solvable,” he says. “But Congress doesn’t usually deal with something until it has to.”

Another answer to the program’s woes involves transferring properties from private owners to nonprofits, which manage 18 percent of the USDA’s affordable housing units nationwide. In northern California, the Community Housing Improvement Program operates three low-income apartment complexes that the USDA subsidizes.

Kris Zappettini, the group’s interim president, explains that each one took an average of four years to complete, and she suggests that simplifying the process would draw more nonprofits into the program. “If it was easier,” she says, “everyone would be doing it.”

The declining supply of low-income housing units threatens to obscure a related challenge for the USDA. The agency reported in 2016 that the program needs $5.6 billion over the next 20 years to maintain and upgrade its aging properties.

AWI Management Corporation, the owner of Winters Senior Apartments and dozens of other properties in California, Arizona, and Hawaii that are subsidized by the USDA, renovated the complex two years ago. The bright hallways and manicured grounds create a buffer between residents and their economic hardship, giving them a sense of independence. 

“Apartments like this one allow people to live with dignity,” Laddish says. “They can live here and not feel like they’re being a burden on anyone. Everyone deserves that.”

shadow

3. Weighing the danger of sending Afghan migrants home from Europe

When immigrants from war-torn lands don't qualify for asylum, should governments send them back?

Massoud Hossaini/AP
Afghan security forces blocked the road at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul Nov. 20. Deepening insecurity is raising questions about the ethics of sending migrants who’ve made it out of the country back to an active war zone.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Declaring at least parts of Afghanistan safe enough, a 2016 deal between the European Union and the Afghan government allowed European countries to forcibly repatriate Afghans whose appeals for asylum were repeatedly denied. But in 2017 the United Nations reclassified Afghanistan from a “post-conflict” country to an “active conflict” one. And guidelines published Aug. 30 by the UN’s refugee agency said indiscriminate attacks in Kabul would expose returnees to “serious risk to life, safety, liberty or health.” According to a leaked EU memo, even back in 2016 European countries were “aware of the worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed” in Afghanistan. Under the deal, more than 1,000 Afghans have been sent back to Kabul. “There is of course a great irony in these [European] governments, who won’t come out of their embassies in Kabul, and when they do they are in armored cars wearing full body armor, saying it’s safe for people to be returned,” says Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan associate director for Human Rights Watch. “We think, because of the deteriorating security situation, they shouldn’t [repatriate Afghans]…. It is not a good idea right now.”

Collapse

Weighing the danger of sending Afghan migrants home from Europe

Abdul Ghafoor knows what it’s like to be forced from the relative safety of Europe back into the perilous cauldron of Afghanistan.

A former resident of Ghazni Province who was threatened by the Taliban and fled to Europe in 2010, he was forcibly returned from Norway in 2013 – even before a controversial 2016 repatriation deal between the European Union and the Afghan government.

Upon his return he found himself in Kabul with no family or other support network, and ever since has been on a mission to improve the lives of fellow returnees to an Afghanistan that is only becoming increasingly dangerous.

“I had no one,” recalls Mr. Ghafoor, about his surprise return to his home country. “It was a strange feeling, I was traumatized.”

But the deepening insecurity in Afghanistan, which has limited the success of Ghafoor’s mission, is also raising questions about the ethics of sending migrants back to an active war zone. The 2016 deal had declared at least parts of Afghanistan safe enough.

Ghafoor set up the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization in 2014 to give returnees a safe haven and help them reintegrate. “I try to let them know that deportation is not the end of the world,” he says.

But every one of the 50 or so men he hosted in his shelter from mid-2016 to late 2017 are no longer in Afghanistan.

Some could not find jobs; others had grown up as Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran and were lost in Afghanistan. All were affected by the ongoing war and the toll of suicide attacks.

Several times bombs blew up when he was meeting returnees in his Kabul office, and through the window they saw the fire and rising smoke.

Once a blast took place soon after a returnee had left the office, prompting Ghafoor to make a panicked call to make sure the man was safe.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghans, whose asylum applications had been rejected, arrive from Germany at Kabul airport in Afghanistan, March 28, 2017.

Such incidents “put a lot of trauma in the heads of returnees who have never seen anything like this in their whole lives,” says Ghafoor. “These are factors that encourage people to get out of the country.”

The number of Afghans arriving in Europe has shrunk since columns of would-be migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere marched toward Europe’s borders in 2015 and 2016.

In 2016, 180,000 Afghans applied for EU asylum, but only a quarter of that figure, 45,000, did so in 2017. Today fewer Afghans are willing to pay smugglers thousands of dollars for a chance at getting to Europe – given stories of ill treatment, dangerous journeys, and uncertain results, as apparent in high-profile forced returns wrought by the EU deal with Kabul.

Under the deal, more than 1,000 Afghans have been sent back to Kabul, despite the growing risks from the violent conflict here.

Such risks have only intensified since a restricted EU memo written in March 2016 was made public. It stated that 200 million euros in funding were “intended to be made migration sensitive,” and contingent upon Afghanistan accepting a migration deal at an October 2016 summit, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The memo also noted the EU was “aware of the worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed” in Afghanistan. Yet it added: “Despite this, more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future.”

'Serious risk to life'

In 2017 the UN reclassified Afghanistan from a “post-conflict” country to an “active conflict” one.

More recently, the risks have been spelled out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which published its latest guidelines on Aug. 30. The 100-plus page report cited “negative trends” and the “highest levels of civilian casualties” from indiscriminate attacks in Kabul. It found that, even in the capital, returnees would face “serious risk to life, safety, liberty or health.”

Likewise, the US military’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted “several discouraging developments” in its quarterly report on Oct. 30. Afghan security force casualties from May to October were the “greatest it has ever been during like periods,” the report noted, and Afghan government control or influence in all districts of the country stood at just 55.5 percent, down from more than 70 percent in late 2015.

And in another gauge of risk to Afghans, SIGAR reported 13,940 “enemy-initiated attacks” from January to mid-August this year, and a 38 percent increase in suicide attacks, which often result in civilian casualties.

On top of the returnees from Europe, Kabul has also since 2016 had to cope with hundreds of thousands of returnees from Iran and Pakistan. Afghan officials have earmarked $750 million specifically to boost basic services for all returnees, from education and health to water and sanitation.

Yet the decision by European countries that it is safe enough to forcibly repatriate Afghans, contrary to widely accepted humanitarian principles, has brought pressure on EU capitals.

Afghanistan “is getting obviously worse in terms of security,” says Will Carter, program head of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Kabul. “It’s perplexed us as to why so many governments around the world have changed and have a very optimistic outlook for the safety of the people in the country, because it is certainly not what we see.”

The Afghan government has a vested interest in demonstrating improved security and showing that it can deliver to weary citizens – key points pushed by President Ashraf Ghani ahead of presidential elections next spring. But challenges abound, as exemplified by the fate of returnees.

“For years now, we’ve seen this narrative of the country rebuilding and things getting better, and that this has been the payoff of all the development assistance and [positive] military impact,” says Mr. Carter. “But the flip-side is a worsening humanitarian crisis…. We’ve got higher-than-ever levels of internal displacement, and worse-than-ever levels of conflict. So the two don’t hang together.”

Full body armor in Kabul

Legally, there are no restrictions on European countries repatriating Afghans, as per the 2016 EU-Afghan deal, which is meant to target only those whose asylum requests have already been repeatedly rejected. But there should be other standards, says Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan associate director for Human Rights Watch.

“There is of course a great irony in these [European] governments, who won’t come out of their embassies in Kabul, and when they do they are in armored cars wearing full body armor, saying it’s safe for people to be returned,” says Ms. Gossman, contacted in Brussels.

“We think, because of the deteriorating security situation, they shouldn’t [repatriate Afghans]. We don’t call for it on legal grounds, but on moral grounds, it is not a good idea right now,” she says.

With Europeans forcibly deporting a fraction of the 6,000 to 10,000 per week who are being repatriated from Iran, for example, the EU moves are “largely symbolic,” Gossman adds. The repatriations serve as a deterrent to future would-be Afghan migrants, and demonstrate action on the hot-button immigration issue for internal European political consumption.

President Ghani has made migration a priority, officials say, and appointed a high-ranking committee to lay out measures for reintegrating returnees, and ultimately to convince them that they can and should stay home.

“This is every Afghan’s country, and the government will do everything it can to create conditions for people to return,” says Khyber Farahi, a senior adviser to the Afghan president on migration issues.

“To be realistic, we know that the conditions will not so easily be made favorable, whether it’s large number of returns from Iran and Pakistan, or smaller numbers from Europe,” says Mr. Farahi. “So now to come back, having spent all their savings…. They are coming back to a country that is even more insecure than when they left.”

Plucked off the street

Critics of the EU repatriation deal abound, noting that some migrants from Germany, for example, were plucked off the street or even from their jobs with no notice.

“On one flight I found a guy from Paktia [Province] who still had on the jacket of the security firm where he worked in Germany, and was not allowed to pack anything,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.

That returnee had a job, paid his taxes in Germany, had an apartment, and even had a car that was left parked on the side of the road – and he was not the only one apparently picked up by authorities to meet a quota, says Mr. Ruttig.

“It is violating German law, or at least bending German law, and it’s violating international duties of protection,” says Ruttig, a German citizen. “These are broken lives, often already broken lives when they arrive in our countries. But also the way they are treated makes the situation worse.”

Still, “when you don’t even feel safe in the capital of a country … you want to get out, you want to go somewhere safe,” says Ghafoor, who set up the shelter for returnees.

“So until the security in Afghanistan gets better, I don’t think [the exodus] will stop,” he adds. “But the moment people feel there is hope for them, and things are getting better, then people will come back by themselves.”

shadow

4. How much should a former church’s past affect its future use?

As religious buildings hit the real estate market in an era of shrinking congregations, some are weighing how to strike a balance between the buildings’ former purposes and communities’ modern needs.

Eloy Alonso/Reuters
A man practiced skateboarding inside the deconsecrated Santa Barbara church in Llanera, Spain, in January 2016. The church had been abandoned for decades.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

For many denominations across the West, as congregations shrink, churches are being decommissioned and sold. In the Netherlands, for example, a third of the country’s 1,600 Catholic churches are due to fall out of religious use in the next decade. In Canada, one-fifth of Catholic churches have been deconsecrated since 2000 amid a drop in churchgoers. Yet as they are sold off, critics say too little thought is being given to what they might become: bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and in some cases even strip joints. In a message sent to a December conference on the subject in Rome, Pope Francis said that deconsecrated churches could be given “a new life,” preferably in service of the poor. This is not a desire to hold onto a building for the sake of it, says David Deane, an associate professor of Catholicism and moral theology, but to make an intentional choice that does not “surrender to the power of capitalism.” Churches often play anchoring roles in communities as hubs, beyond the congregations they serve. “And to see that hub getting blown up again in favor of the inexorable flow of capitalist power, I think that can also destabilize and hurt the whole community.”

Collapse

1. How much should a former church’s past affect its future use?

Religion plays no role in the professional life of Drew Sinclair, a principal of the contemporary architectural firm SvN in downtown Toronto. But when he sets out to repurpose a church here – a growing architectural niche across the West – he is guided by a teaching found in the Bible.

It is the Parable of the Talents, which was shared with him by an Anglican bishop whose congregation was wrestling with its own redevelopment. In one version of the biblical tale, three slaves are put in charge of goods while their master is away. When the master returns, each servant is assessed according to his stewardship. While two invest wisely, one buries the “talent” in the ground, fearful of losing it. He is punished for the missed opportunity.

For Mr. Sinclair the lesson is clear for churches, as they face dwindling congregants in buildings that are increasingly hard to maintain and often sitting on prime real estate. If they stand unwilling to budge, they may end up “burying” their possibilities; or they can adapt to the needs of their communities today, even beyond the faith mission. “If we keep them as carcasses of themselves, they will fail,” he says. “If we figure out how to make them lively and active and real parts of their communities … then they are doing well by their original purpose.”

These are the kinds of considerations that priests and church leaders, not to mention architects, developers, and urban planners, must make as they attempt to halt the abandonment, desecration, and complete sell-off of centuries-old structures amid a wave of secularization. So concerned is the Vatican about the potentially profane uses for Catholic churches that it convened the first ever conference devoted to the issue in November entitled “Doesn’t God Live Here Anymore?”

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Irish sculptor Patrick O'Reilly poses with his piece 'Haystack,' in his studio, a deconsecrated monastery in Drumcondra, north Dublin, in May 2013.

The losses they face are clear. In the Netherlands, for example, a third of the country’s 1,600 Catholic churches are due to fall out of religious use in the next decade. In Canada, one-fifth of Catholic churches have been deconsecrated since 2000 amid a drop in church-goers. Fifty years ago in Quebec, around 80 percent of people attended mass; that stands at 10 percent today, says Paul-André Durocher, the archbishop of Gatineau. “Many villages are becoming ghost towns and they can’t afford the upkeep of big stone buildings, especially when you consider what our harsh Canadian winters can do to them,” he says. “The reality is that we have too many churches.”

And the Catholic Church is far from alone in grappling with how to respond to market forces today. According to a Ministry of Tourism and Culture guide from Ontario, some 12,000 properties in the Canadian province are now or were historically in religious use. Of these, about half remain religiously active.

Yet as they are sold off, critics say too little long-term thought is being given to what they might become: bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and in some cases even strip joints.

Congregations are particularly vulnerable in hot real estate markets. In Toronto, many churches are now luxury condominiums with units that can fetch a million dollars or more.

David Deane, an associate professor of Catholicism and moral theology at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says sell-offs to the “highest bidder” fail to account for the trends that could reverse over time. For starters, immigration is changing religious make-ups. Whether Poles in Britain or Latin Americans in the United States, newcomers have revitalized older houses of worship. And if traditional faiths are losing members, start-up evangelical churches are booming in places. Plus, he says, customs change. “We in the West, we have very short memories. We assume that the second half of the 20th century, from 1930 on, was a world in which everyone goes to church, and that it was always this way.” That is wrong, he says, and the lesson for him is clear: Even if people aren’t church-going today, they could be in the next century.

That’s what the Church of St. Mary and St. Martha, part of the Anglican diocese of Toronto, is grappling with today. It sits in a neighborhood that once was a Protestant-dominated village in the west end of the city. But the community gave way to high-rise construction that has brought new immigrants and left many old churches like the Church of St. Mary and St. Martha empty. The church rents pews to an evangelical Ghanaian congregation, but they need new partners, faith or community providers, to sustain the property.

On a railway line, developers were eyeing the land for condos, an idea that some congregants entertained. They instead contracted SvN to envision the possibilities for the future: what the religious demographics might look like, in their own community but also among newcomers, thinking in ways “churches usually don’t think,” says Sinclair. These conversations are what Sinclair calls the hardest aspect of redevelopment, well before the technical challenges of converting a church begin.

A year after discussions began, they still don’t have a concrete vision – except they won’t turn into housing.  “They realized that was the death knell for them,” says Sinclair. “They are reducing their footprint, taking a large payout or sum, and they are left in the same position, where they are shrinking and they are no longer a highly visible partner within the community.”

That is in line with guidelines in the last six months from the Anglican Church’s Archdiocese of Toronto, which worked with SvN to study 20 churches that have undergone the process of redevelopment. For now the Archdiocese has decided to halt further site sales in acknowledgement of the vulnerability they face, says Sinclair. “We are going to slow down. There is too much interest. It’s too hot right now in this marketplace. We are going to lose all of our inventory and any potential for future growth.”

The Vatican, too, is working on a global standard for how to manage the sale of deconsecrated churches so that they can ideally be put to community, rather than commercial, use. “This is going to be a big issue in the future and that’s why guidance from Rome is so important,” says Sophie Andreae, vice-chair of the patrimony committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

In a message sent to the Rome conference, Pope Francis acknowledged a decline in the number of faithful but said that deconsecrated churches could be given “a new life,” preferably in service of the poor.

This is not a desire to hold onto a building for the sake of it, either out of power or nostalgia, says Professor Deane, but to make an intentional choice that does not “surrender to the power of capitalism.”

Churches often play anchoring roles in communities as hubs, beyond the congregations they serve. Churches are often the last community space left, he says. “And to see that hub getting blown up again in favor of the inexorable flow of capitalist power, I think that can also destabilize and hurt the whole community.”

shadow

5. Forget short-term resolutions. This art prompts ‘deep time’ thinking.

Between daily meetings and weekly appointments, long-term thinking often falls by the wayside. These artists aim to foster appreciation for the “long now.”

Courtesy of Ryland West
Four 'millennium cameras' situated around Lake Tahoe document the long-term effects of climate change. This pinhole image of the lake was taken from Eagle Rock in Homewood, Calif.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

As the world welcomes 2019, many people are making plans for the year, or maybe even years, ahead. But how many people are thinking about the millennium ahead? In an attempt to promote long-term thinking in an age of instant gratification, a number of artists are engaging with “deep time.” Projects include a 639-year organ performance, a 10,000-year clock buried in a Texas mountain, and a series of cameras with no moving parts and no electronics designed to take a long-exposure photograph over the course of a thousand years. “These are philosophical instruments,” says conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, who created the cameras. “These are means to reckon with the unreckonable. And they are very much products of our times. But they are also meant to allow us to see the the world, the future, and the greater context of human experience outside of the limited experience and the limited framework of our times.”

Collapse

Forget short-term resolutions. This art prompts ‘deep time’ thinking.

“Beware of the bat guano,” says conceptual artist Jonathon Keats.

Few people venture up the cramped staircases leading to Stearns Steeple at Amherst College. The 150-foot Gothic Revival tower is typically closed to visitors. But that’s part of what makes it a suitable setting for a centuries-long art project.

There, in the steeple’s south facing window below the belfry, sits Mr. Keats’s “millennium camera,” a device with no moving parts or electronics designed to capture a 1,000-year exposure photograph.

The camera itself, a small copper cylinder with a pinhole at one end, was installed in the steeple in 2015, with the pinhole facing south toward the Holyoke Range through a window. If all goes to plan, the light entering through the pinhole will strike the pigment inside, producing a single image of the landscape over the next 10 centuries.

Earlier that year, an identical camera went up at Arizona State University, capturing the ever-evolving city of Tempe. In November 2018, an installation organized by Tahoe Public Art placed four more millennium cameras around Lake Tahoe to document the long-term effects of climate change.

Keats is the first to admit that, despite his efforts to make the cameras durable, including using non-reactive 24-karat gold for the pinhole, it’s unlikely that any will actually make it to the 31st century. The project, he says, is to prompt thinking about “deep time” in an age when lives are more frenetic than ever, and when humanity’s effect on the planet is more consequential than ever.

“These are philosophical instruments,” he says. “These are means to reckon with the unreckonable. And they are very much products of our times. But they are also meant to allow us to see the world, the future, and the greater context of human experience outside of the limited experience and the limited framework of our times.”

The plans for Keats’s camera are currently on display at the Mead Art Museum, in Amherst, Mass., as part of an exhibition on time and temporality that runs until early March. Several other projects around the world also aim to inspire long-term thinking.

Since 2001, a specially built organ in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, has been playing John Cage’s composition “As Slow as Possible” in a performance expected to end in 2640. In Norway, 1,000 spruce saplings await the year 2114, when they will be cut down and turned into previously unpublished novels written by contemporary authors such as Margaret Atwood and Han Kang. And hewed into the cobblestones in the Dutch city of Utrecht is an ongoing poem begun in 2012, where every Saturday, the city’s poets guild adds one new letter. Each sentence takes about three years.

“This whole endeavor about art and time is pretty interesting,” says Bill Fox, the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. “It’s a complicated endeavor on a lot of different levels, from the effort of the individual creator to the institutions that try and preserve what she or he has done.”

‘The long now’

Perhaps the most prominent deep-time undertaking, supported by a $42 million donation from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is the Clock of the Long Now. Constructed inside a limestone mountain near Van Horn, Texas, and standing hundreds of feet tall, it is designed to tick for 10,000 years.

Keats partnered with the Nevada Museum of Art to create a biological counterpart to the mechanical clock, using one of the longest living tree species. A grove of bristlecone pine, which can live up to 5,000 years, just happened to be on land in eastern Nevada owned by the Long Now Foundation, the San Francisco nonprofit behind the clock. Keats’s idea – a calendar – would surround pine trees with double spirals of stone pillars marking the expected girth of each tree as it grows over 100 years, 500 years, 1,000 years. As carbon dioxide concentrations and other climatic factors fluctuate, the growth of the trees would fall out of step with the solar year, serving as a physical measurement of environmental changes.

Long-term thinking, says Alexander Rose, executive director of the Long Now Foundation and the 10,000-year clock’s project manager, can inspire confidence. “Imagine somebody asked you to solve climate change in just a few years, you would just think they’re crazy,” he says. “But if someone asked you to imagine how you might solve climate change in two or three or four hundred years, you could imagine how you might get started on a project like that. So by giving yourself that time frame, it makes these kinds of intractable problems tractable.”

Fostering long-term thinking requires overcoming people’s natural tendency to think on shorter time horizons.

“Human scales, they’re days, weeks, sometimes months,” says Andrew White, a quantum physicist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “We’re not really comfortable thinking of years.”

Professor White is the custodian of what Guinness World Records calls the “world’s longest continuously running laboratory experiment,” although he insists it is not an experiment but a demonstration.

Started in 1927, the Pitch Drop Experiment consists of a funnel full of pitch, a derivative of tar that looks like black concrete, mounted above a beaker. Pitch is more than 100 billion times as viscous as water, so it takes about a decade for each drip to form and fall into the beaker. The ninth drop broke away in 2014, and now a live webfeed monitors the demonstration.

“In there you can see the drop that dropped before you were born, and the drop that dropped before your parents were born,” says White. “It’s slower than continental drift.”

“Anything that raises awareness of timescale,” says White, “I’m very much in favor of.”

shadow

The Monitor's View

The impetus driving an anti-lynching bill

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

The Senate’s passing of a bill in the last days of 2018 defining lynching – or murder by mob rule – as a hate crime was long in coming. Final approval of such a law would acknowledge how the public conscience can be elevated to the higher virtues behind all matters of justice, even if slowly. Attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law go back to 1901. A black journalist, Ida B. Wells, sought support for such a measure from President William McKinley. “The way to right wrongs,” Ms. Wells wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.” The Tuskegee Institute estimates that 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A monument that opened in Montgomery, Ala., last spring reminds Americans of the practice. It uses hanging steel columns to depict the lynchings. Laws, too, can be symbols and not only enforcers of a society’s moral awakening. Congress may be late in addressing such brutal injustice. But passing a law on lynching will go far to show how moral progress is made. 

Collapse

The impetus driving an anti-lynching bill

New laws about justice are often a lagging indicator of the moral progress already made in a society. The best example may be a bill passed by the Senate in the final days of 2018.

The bill would make lynching a federal hate crime for the first time. This practice of murder by mob rule, which was directed mainly against blacks as a form of racist terror, ended decades ago in the United States. At the least, final approval of such a law now would acknowledge how the public conscience can be elevated to the higher virtues behind all matters of justice, even if ever so slowly.

Attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law go back to 1901. An African-American journalist, Ida B. Wells, sought support for such a measure from President William McKinley. She was famous as a national crusader for documenting lynchings and exposing the myths behind their use. The House did pass a bill – in 1924, then again in 1937 and 1940.

With the Senate finally acting in 2018, as a result of efforts by three black lawmakers, the incoming House will need to act again to make sure such a measure becomes law.

Ms. Wells, who was born into slavery in 1862 and died in 1931, knew there can be no rule of law or equality before the law without morality first driving the law. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” she wrote in one of her many pamphlets and books.

Such an enlightened impetus often starts in the conscience of one person. It enables others to see through an evil to a truth that lies ready for full expression. Many like Wells have led similar campaigns, such as against land mines or domestic violence, by appealing to ideals such as sanctity of life or equality.

The Tuskegee Institute estimates that 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A new monument that opened in Montgomery, Ala., last spring reminds Americans of the practice. It uses weathered steel columns hanging from a ceiling to depict the lynchings.

Laws, too, can be symbols and not only enforcers of a society’s moral awakening. Congress may be late in addressing such brutal injustice. But passing a law on lynching will go far to show how moral progress is made.

shadow

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.

Peace in the new year

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

We can all strive to see and express God’s peace in our lives and the world around us – in the new year and beyond.

Collapse

Peace in the new year

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

It was New Year’s Eve in Recife, Brazil, and for as far as the eye could see, the city streets, the beach sands, even the shallows of the ocean were covered with people wearing white. The color represented their desire to bring peace into the new year.

The spectacle has stayed with me in the years since, not just because of the striking imagery, but also because of the reason. I was amazed that of all the different hopes and desires people could ask for, so many wished for the same thing: peace. At some level, doesn’t each one of us, deep down, want to see all conflict overcome – to find an enduring, satisfying peace – for ourselves and the world?

That innate desire for the serenity, harmony, and lovingkindness that constitute peace points to an idea I’ve learned from the Bible and the teachings of Christian Science – an idea that has meant a lot to me. It is that Love, commonly referred to as God, is our true source of being. I’ve seen how understanding that we each have our origin in Love can transform our lives and bring peace.

I remember having an argument with a friend that was breaking our friendship apart, leaving both of us especially upset. When I got home later that evening, after replaying the argument in my head, I began to pray about what had happened – something I had found helpful and healing in the past.

My prayers weren’t a recitation or kneeling down in worship. They were sincere desires and mental pleas that helped me come to a revelation at that time: It wasn’t about getting this friend to come over to my view, or for me to switch to hers – it wasn’t even about the conflict itself. It was about how I could better see a higher, spiritual view of what we truly are and where we come from.

In truth, we are the expressions of God, reflecting His peace. It’s a concept that comes from the teachings of Christ Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Understanding that we all are children of God, good, gave Jesus the power to heal, and all who pray from this basis have the ability to heal. It isn’t limited to any person, time, or place; God’s law of peace is innate to us all.

Prior to this argument, my friend had told me that being stubborn was just “who she was.” Yet the heart of Jesus’ teachings, the Science of what he taught, showed that we are spiritual, made in Love’s likeness and inherently capable of expressing qualities that reflect God’s love, including thoughtfulness, kindness, and joy. In spite of the picture around us, this is the lasting reality of our being, and Jesus showed that even a glimmer of this understanding brings a healing peace. Striving to see my friend as God made her, not as a stubborn person, was my way of practicing what Jesus taught.

As I prayed in this way, I began to see my friend more spiritually and felt an overwhelming peace that I knew could only come from God, from divine Love itself. The joy I felt from this prayer is summed up perfectly by the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy: “What a glorious inheritance is given to us through the understanding of omnipresent Love! More we cannot ask: more we do not want: more we cannot have. This sweet assurance is the ‘Peace, be still’ to all human fears, to suffering of every sort” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 307).

Just moments after feeling this grounding, harmonizing peace, I received a phone call. It was my friend! She had called to apologize. I told her that all was well and that I was there to support her in our friendship. I was so grateful not only to continue our friendship and to feel at peace, but to see how directly and clearly prayer can bring real harmony into our lives.

Although this is a small example, to me it illustrates the power of God, of Love, to bring us peace. Going forward, I hope we can all be encouraged to see and express the peace that comes from divine Love – for the new year and beyond.

shadow

Viewfinder

Looking up, and ahead

Amit Dave/Reuters
Schoolchildren hold balloons as they pose during celebrations to welcome the new year at their school in Ahmedabad, India, Dec. 31.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( January 2nd, 2019 )

Happy New Year everybody! We'll be off celebrating, too, then back on Wednesday, when we look at what Nancy Pelosi has learned along her journey from House speaker to minority leader and back again. Also, are all those recession jitters justified? Come back to the Monitor in 2019 to find out.

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 31, 2018
Loading the player...

More issues

2018
December
31
Monday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.