2019
March
28
Thursday
Noelle Swan
Deputy Daily Editor

What could the border wall and the Green New Deal possibly have in common?

The two proposals have come to epitomize the political divisions in the United States. The goals behind them are not mutually exclusive. But for many Americans, they have become two sides of an increasingly impenetrable gulf. To support one is almost assuredly a vote against the other.

But must these two ideas exist in total isolation?

Earlier this month, a coalition of 28 U.S. engineers and scientists sketched out a vision that would unite the goals of both proposals in a nearly 2,000-mile energy and water corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposal calls for construction of desalination plants powered by a network of solar, wind, and natural gas plants across the border. These facilities would serve as a physical barrier along the border while bringing jobs and clean water to the region.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea has garnered little attention in Washington. But the thought behind it represents the kind of innovation that can arise when people take a step back from political grandstanding and dare to think boldly.

As Ronald Adrian, a coalition member and Arizona State University professor, put it, “At first blush the idea seems too big, too aggressive, but consider the Roman aqueducts or the transcontinental railroads – enormous undertakings that gave enormous benefits.”

Now onto our five stories for today, including a 39-way tug of war over the future of Ukraine, a critical look at the popularity of “simple fixes,” and a newfound embrace of art on the Arabian Peninsula.

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1. How the mythology of World War II shaped Brexit

To much of the world, Brexit is simply baffling. But to many in Britain, especially proponents of a hard “leave,” the debate is steeped in a deeply ingrained sense of national identity forged in World War II.

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From books to films to theater and TV series, World War II looms large in modern Britain. For some Brits, the war is still living memory, or has been passed down to aging baby boomers. And its mythology – particularly around the Battle of Britain – is framing Brexit for its proponents as the country moves closer to leaving the European Union.

In this narrative, Britain is forever battling alone, bereft of allies, against a dominant continental European power. In the hands of pro-Brexit politicians, myths of wartime derring-do fueled the 2016 referendum, which turned on ideas of sovereignty and EU overreach, as well as immigration and jobs. Since the referendum, the use of WWII rhetoric and imagery has grown more shrill. Faced with the prospect of Britain crashing out without a deal, politicians have invoked the “Blitz spirit” as a reason not to fear shortages of food and medicine.

But that point of view misunderstands the true history of WWII, historians say. “Britain never beat [Nazi] Germany on its own and never beat Napoleon on its own,” says David Edgerton. “It had European allies involved in both cases.”

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How the mythology of World War II shaped Brexit

To even the most casual fan of World War II movies, the propeller-driven Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft are instantly familiar.

Today these two planes rest on a verdant lawn in front of a red-brick chapel that commemorates the pilots and crew that flew in the Battle of Britain and other air campaigns, including those that never came back – 454 Allied airmen in the Battle of Britain alone. The modest chapel is bracketed by a new building, the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum, that speaks to an abiding national interest, even obsession, in that time.

In August 1940, as Nazi Luftwaffe bombardments intensified over England, Winston Churchill singled out these airmen for praise. “Undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, [they] are turning the tide of the World War,” he told Parliament. “Never before in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Inside the museum, a retired police officer peers into a cabinet of medals, maps, and crockery. “This is why a lot of people voted to come away,” explains Robin, who didn’t want his surname used. “We would like to stand alone again. We’ve always been an island nation.”

That vote, of course, was the 2016 referendum that set the United Kingdom on its troubled Brexit path. Last week European leaders granted the U.K. a two-month extension on leaving the EU, but Parliament remains deadlocked over the terms of departure, or even if Brexit should happen at all. Members of Parliament are due to vote again on Brexit on Friday, the same day that the U.K. was supposed to leave.

From books to films to TV series, WWII looms large in modern Britain. For some Brits, the war is still living memory, or has been passed down to aging baby boomers like Robin, who were more likely to vote “leave.”

But the mythmaking that connects the Battle of Britain to Brexit has a particular strain. In this narrative, Britain is forever battling alone, bereft of allies, against a dominant continental European power. And anyone who settles for less than victory is an appeaser on par with those of the 1930s, before Churchill led the nation to its “finest hour.”

“It’s a sense of Britain as a plucky little island that stands up against the overwhelming might of Nazi Germany,” says Lucy Noakes, a social and cultural historian at the University of Essex. “That codifies for us something about what it means to be British, about British character.”

In reality, says David Edgerton, a historian at King’s College London, Britain was never really alone, even in the Battle of Britain, given its vast empire and support from the United States. “People want to remember the war, and especially the early years of the war, as a time when the nation stood alone without an empire or without allies. Nobody at the time would have believed this,” he says.

‘A really attractive myth’

In the hands of pro-Brexit politicians, myths of wartime derring-do fueled the 2016 referendum, which turned on ideas of sovereignty and EU overreach, as well as immigration and jobs. One of their campaign buses blared the soundtrack of “Dambusters,” a 1955 war movie.

One month before the vote, Boris Johnson, a Churchill devotee and amateur historian who fronted the “leave” campaign, made the parallels explicit.

Unifying Europe under one authority has always been anathema to freedom lovers, declared Mr. Johnson, a Conservative lawmaker. “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods,” he told the Telegraph. He added: “This is a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe and to act as a voice of moderation and common sense, and to stop something getting in my view out of control.”

That the EU grew out of postwar cooperation by European powers to prevent a repeat of World War II did not stop this narrative taking root. (Brexiters point out that the U.K. had joined an economic community, not a union.)

It also draws on the myth of Britain standing alone, notes Mr. Edgerton. “Britain never beat Germany on its own and never beat Napoleon on its own. It had European allies involved in both cases,” he says.

Other conflicts hold a prominent place in U.K. culture, particularly World War I, which functions as a metaphor of futility and suffering. By contrast, the mass slaughter of WWII, with the exception of the Holocaust, has long been swept aside by stories of unflappable Brits who face down the Nazis.

“It’s a really attractive myth. It’s romantic and very singular and everyone can understand it. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?” says Dr. Noakes, co-author of “British Cultural Memory and the Second World War.”

The mythmaking began before the war was over: The first Battle of Britain commemoration was held in 1943. That year the Royal Air Force opened St. George’s memorial chapel – three conjoined prefab huts – at Biggin Hill. In 1946 the huts burned down and were replaced by a brick structure. One of its stained-glass windows shows St. George, patron saint of England, standing atop a vanquished dragon as RAF fighters take on German bombers overhead.

Darren Staples/Reuters
Planes from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight are flown in an air display to mark the flight's 60th anniversary at RAF Coningsby in Britain, July 11, 2017.

Different views of the war

Postwar British filmmakers burnished this heroic imagery, says Petra Rau, a lecturer in literature, drama, and creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. For veterans, movies like “Dambusters” allowed them to show their sons what they had achieved. “The war is a very nostalgic and consoling narrative because of its simplicity,” she says.

For other European countries, a consoling story is more elusive, given their occupation by and collaboration with Nazi Germany, says Ms. Rau, a German-born scholar of cultural representations of war and fascism. “World War II is simply not that easy.... It’s not a glorious memory,” she says.

This cultural memory informs how continental Europe sees the EU – not as a German plot but as a fresh start – and why British nationalists and newspapers reflexively revert to jingoism, says Mr. Edgerton. “In many countries [the war is] recognized as a disaster and a cause of immense suffering. In Britain’s case it’s seen as a uniquely powerful moment of national success.”

Since the referendum, the use of WWII rhetoric and imagery has grown more shrill, as the sunny promise of Brexit has come undone. Faced with the prospect of Britain crashing out without a deal, politicians have invoked the “Blitz spirit” as a reason not to fear shortages of food and medicine and even spoken fondly of postwar rationing and other privations.

“It’s part of the mythology. We have a stiff upper lip and will get through it,” says Ms. Rau.

Brexiters have also assailed the beleaguered prime minister for failing to muster Churchillian resolve. In December, Mervyn Davies, the former governor of the Bank of England, compared Ms. May’s deal to the appeasement of the Nazis.

In January, as Ms. May prepared for further talks with the EU, the BBC made the broadcasting equivalent of a Freudian slip: It accidentally showed black-and-white footage of Spitfires when it announced her travel plans. “Theresa May will not be flying to Brussels in Spitfire, BBC clarifies,” it said on its website.

In fact, the footage was for a news item on the opening of the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum.

A generation moving on from the war?

Built with $7 million of mostly public money, Biggin Hill has drawn criticism for spoiling the views of the memorial chapel and garden. Museum officials say income from paying visitors will help to maintain the chapel after the Ministry of Defense cut off funding. (The RAF closed its airbase in the 1990s; a civilian airport is still in use.)

Mike Giles was among a dozen or so visitors, mostly retirees, that day. He describes himself as a war history enthusiast. But he’s not in favor of Brexit and takes a more positive view of the EU. “We’ve been free of war since 1945,” he says.

One of the displays undercuts the Brexiters’ go-it-alone narrative. It is a globe with points of light for all the airmen who served at Biggin Hill, from New Zealand to India and Jamaica to South Africa – a reminder of the vast empire that Britain once ruled.

There’s another cultural memory of WWII and its aftermath that Brexit has largely obscured, says Dr. Noakes, that of a “People’s War” that led to the postwar creation of a modern welfare state, including the National Health Service. This framing of the national story, with the NHS as its icon, featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Events like that speak to a younger generation for whom WWII is not “the war” and Germany is another European country, not the enemy.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, two $40 million galleries about WWII and the Holocaust are due to open in 2021. Dr. Noakes is an adviser on the WWII gallery and hopes it can broaden the scope of the war and its legacy.

Museum visitors had large gaps in their understanding of the conflict and had stereotypical ideas based on film and TV, according to a 2015 survey. “The museum is really keen on educating rather than mythmaking,” says Dr. Noakes.

But it may be too late for Brexit, she sighs. “We shouldn’t let them have that history. We should’ve done a better job of educating people more broadly.”

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2. Ukraine votes: The incumbent, the populist, or the comedian?

Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution brought hope and enthusiasm to Kiev, but now much of that energy has sapped away. Sunday’s presidential election has a chance to reinvigorate Ukrainian reform.

Noelle
Emilio Morenatti/AP
Pedestrians walk past a billboard featuring Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine and candidate for 2019 elections, in central Kiev, Ukraine, on March 26. The banner reads 'Many candidates, one president.'

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Five years after the Maidan Revolution wrenched Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, its promises remain largely unfulfilled. Sunday’s presidential election will shed some new light on the way forward for Ukraine.

Two of the three leading candidates are familiar faces: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Mr. Poroshenko bears the brunt of popular disillusionment with the past five years, but has positioned himself as the candidate who will stay the revolution’s pro-Europe course. Ms. Tymoshenko is running on a platform of almost unalloyed populism, promising to roll back price increases and make popular living standards her main priority.

The most popular candidate is also the most unique: Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who once played the Ukrainian president on TV. Besides portraying an upstanding, honest fighter against corruption, his main appeal appears to be his complete lack of real-world political experience.

“Zelenskiy is not a politician, and voters support him because they want new faces in Ukrainian politics,” says Alexander Okhrimenko, president of the Ukrainian Analytical Center. “Many people want changes and hate the old politicians. We shall just have to watch how this all turns out.”

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Ukraine votes: The incumbent, the populist, or the comedian?

Ukraine’s presidential election, set for this Sunday, looks to almost everyone like a chaotic 39-way horse race. The campaign so far has featured plenty of allegations of skulduggery, including fraud, bribery and, of course, Russian meddling.

But despite its almost madcap complexity, the sheer diversity of the 39 candidates – representing different regions, interests, and ideologies – is a strong indication that genuine political competition is alive in Ukraine five years after the Maidan Revolution wrenched the country out of Russia’s orbit. Yet despite some success in efforts to bring European-style reform and democracy, the revolution’s promises remain largely unfulfilled.

Things will become a bit clearer next week. Barring a majority winner, which polls indicate is unlikely, the two candidates who receive the largest plurality of votes will head into a decisive April 21 second round. There are currently three front-runners, and which make it into that final round will determine the tone of debate over Ukraine's way forward.

In every case, that conversation will be tough – and the struggle for voters intense – in a country where surveys show most people have run out of patience with the status quo and virtually all familiar politicians.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose most famous role is his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes president, is leading the polls heading into the first round of Ukraine's presidential elections on March 31.

“Nothing has changed in this country since the Maidan,” says Pavel Movchan, a former deputy of the Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral parliament. “For 90 percent of Ukrainians, life has become worse. None of the three main candidates expresses the hopes of the Ukrainian people. So, things will remain the same.”

The front-runners

Ukraine’s economy is growing (albeit slowly), inflation has been tamed, and the financial sector stabilized after many dodgy banks were shut down. But per capita income, as a percentage of gross domestic product, remains well below the level of five years ago. Millions of Ukrainians have left the country – as many as 5 million heading west, and about 2 million moving to Russia. That makes election predictions difficult, as does the effective removal of about 5 million former Ukrainian voters who are now located in the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula and the rebel-held republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Some Ukrainian economists express cautious optimism for the country’s future. Most add, though, that progress will depend on serious efforts to fight the country’s rampaging corruption, carry out effective judicial reforms, and obtain international financing to manage the country’s huge debts.

According to the latest polls, the leading candidate is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who once played the Ukrainian president in a hit TV show and whose main campaign theme is the same as the show’s name: “Servant of the People.” Besides playing an upstanding, honest fighter against corruption on TV, his main appeal to Ukrainian voters appears to be his complete lack of real-world political experience. But he is also a Russian speaker from the restive eastern Ukraine who has said his top priority is to end the 5-year-old war that has killed at least 13,000 people, even if it means “negotiating with the devil himself.”

Running far behind is the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, who bears the brunt of popular disillusionment with the past five years, as well as enjoying the advantages of office. He’s exploited the latter by doling out pension increases, cash subsidies to help the poor pay skyrocketing utility bills, and bonuses for large families.

He has positioned himself as the candidate who will stay the pro-Europe course initiated by the Maidan Revolution, maintain the tough austerity program demanded by the International Monetary Fund, and hold off Russian aggression. He’s also championed the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church that would be free from any links with Russia.

His slogan “Army! Language! Faith!” is heavy on patriotism, but also appeals to those who continue to hope that Ukraine will ultimately find a safe harbor in Europe.

Close behind Mr. Poroshenko, in most polls, is the familiar figure of Yulia Tymoshenko, a fiery former prime minister who lost her bid for the presidency in 2010 to the subsequently deposed Viktor Yanukovych.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 7.

Ms. Tymoshenko is running on a platform of almost unalloyed populism, promising to end most of Ukraine’s obligations to the IMF, roll back price increases, and make popular living standards her main priority. Her revolutionary record and her tempestuous rhetoric still seem to draw crowds, though many experts say her star is fading. But while she talks a fierce, patriotic anti-Russian line, many experts recall that it was Ms. Tymoshenko who, as prime minister in 2009, negotiated a 10-year gas contract with Vladimir Putin that was very much in the Kremlin’s favor.

“Tymoshenko as president would greatly increase the chances of Ukraine defaulting on its international debt. All her ideas contradict the IMF conditions for Ukraine,” says Alexander Parashiy, an expert with Concorde Capital, a leading Kiev brokerage. “Nobody can predict this, but it seems likely that Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will go to the second round.”

An easing of hostility toward Russia?

Among the first-round candidates, there are several who espouse a more pro-Russian point of view. That should, theoretically, have some traction in Ukraine, since Russia remains Ukraine’s biggest single trading partner despite all the mutual sanctions and acrimony of the past five years.

Moreover, Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia are actually improving, with more than half of Ukrainians saying they feel more positively than negatively toward Russia in a recent poll.

“The desire for peace is very strong,” says Volodymyr Paniotto, director of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine’s leading pollster. “The closer you get to the border, the more concerned people are over the conflict. For them it is the No. 1 issue.”

But the pro-Russian candidates are divided, and they have little access to Ukrainian media. Mr. Zelenskiy, despite his image of innocence, appears to have the backing of a powerful east Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose fortunes have been badly battered in showdowns with Mr. Poroshenko’s government.

“Nobody knows who will win,” says Alexander Okhrimenko, president of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Analytical Center. “Poroshenko has considerable resources to spend, and he is using them. Tymoshenko is aggressive, and voters like her, but her support is constant, not growing. Zelenskiy is not a politician, and voters support him because they want new faces in Ukrainian politics. Many people want changes and hate the old politicians. We shall just have to watch how this all turns out.”

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3. World politics in the age of deceptively easy answers

The idea that solutions to the complex problems facing democracies may require time often doesn't resonate. That’s boosting an appetite for “quick fixes.”  

Noelle

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In an age of Instagram and Snapchat, citizens often have little patience for nuanced or sophisticated answers. Democracies, in particular, struggle to get past the quick fix – even if it ignores problems down the road for voters. In times of economic inequality and erosion of trust in “governing elites,” nuanced answers often seem no match for the siren song of simple solutions, especially when they locate the root of all troubles in an external threat.

Take Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning for reelection. Even some left-of-center citizens are choosing to set aside his opponents’ warnings that his aim of unilaterally asserting a long-term hold on disputed territories would be a recipe for trouble. For now, the simpler message is winning out.

Or Brexit. Some polls suggest support for the simplest and most radical option, a “no-deal” departure from the European Union, even though its champions acknowledge it risks serious economic dislocation. Still, the political haggling may be, in fact, reducing apathy. One poll suggests a majority of the mostly young voters who didn’t vote in the 2016 referendum would now vote to stay in the EU if given another opportunity.

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World politics in the age of deceptively easy answers

One day, we may look back at this time of anger and instability in world politics as the age of deceptively easy answers. But judging from identity crises gripping two important democracies – in Europe and the Middle East – it may be with us for some time yet.

The key question isn’t why the promise of political panaceas has become so alluring. What matters most, if we’re to understand the staying power of this trend, is the inability of time-honored institutions and traditions of democratic government to do much about it.

It’s not for lack of trying. Legislators, opposition leaders, media commentators, and other political voices have responded with a message broadly similar from country to country: government is complicated; promised panaceas ignore problems down the road that will impact seriously on our day-to-day lives and livelihoods. But at a time of economic dislocation and widespread erosion of trust in so-called governing elites, that message often seems no match for the siren song of simple solutions, especially when they locate the root of all troubles in an external threat or enemy.

That certainly seems true in Britain, where a thousand-day effort to convert one such glittering offer – a Brexit withdrawal from decades-long membership in what’s portrayed as a distant and controlling European Union – has descended into chaos.

Will Prime Minister Theresa May manage to get her own compromise formula through Parliament on the third attempt? Will she survive as PM? Will some alternative Brexit plan win a parliamentary majority? For those not living through it, there will no doubt be a dark fascination with the ordeal in the days ahead.

But more telling may be Ms. May’s address to the nation last week, in which she rounded on members of Parliament and set herself up as the people’s champion, determined to keep the MPs from somehow betraying the result of the 2016 referendum that decided, however narrowly, in favor of getting out of the EU.

Parliamentarians from all parties denounced her performance. Still, some recent polling has suggested growing support for the simplest and most radical option, even though its own political champions have acknowledged it risks serious economic pain and dislocation: a “no-deal” Brexit. Simply walking out the door.

That impulse – the hallmark of the age of deceptively easy answers – also seems in play in Israel, where four-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning for reelection on April 9. The vision he has offered is not just a muscular focus on his country’s undoubted security challenges. His main center-left rival, Israeli Defense Forces former chief of staff Benny Gantz, has also been talking tough on defense.

The real promise being held out by Mr. Netanyahu and his allies further to the right has been the idea of unilaterally asserting Israel’s long-term hold on the disputed holy city of Jerusalem, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights – in effect removing from the table even the theoretical notion of future peace deals involving the return of territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Will Netanyahu win another term? That remains to be seen. But as with the Brexit polling, what struck me on a recent visit to Israel wasn’t the extent of support from those ideologically committed to a “Greater Israel” vision. It was that even some people in left-of-center political strongholds seemed drawn to Mr. Netanyahu’s pitch.

They told me: Look, we live in a tough neighborhood; the White House has Mr. Netanyahu’s back. Yes, they had heard – and even accepted – opponents’ warnings that permanent control over the West Bank, home to some 3 million Palestinians, would be a recipe for trouble. Demographic trends alone could force Israel to choose between being a Jewish state and a truly democratic one. But that was in the future. For now, it appeared, the simpler message won out. 

Interestingly, the Brexit conundrum does suggest how, over time, the pendulum might yet swing back, with younger people disproportionately alarmed at the real-life costs that have become clearer during the Brexit debate. One recent poll suggested a majority of the mostly young voters who didn’t take part in the 2016 referendum would turn out, if a second one were held, and back staying in the EU.

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4. Out of history’s trash heap, clues to ancient collapse

Scholars have long pondered the role of climate change in the rise and fall of empires. Such research has taken on renewed significance as modern-day societies grapple with climatic shifts.

Noelle

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You never know what you are going to find when you start digging through an ancient pile of trash. Researchers studying an ancient garbage dump in Israel’s Negev Desert uncovered evidence that shifts in climate may have contributed to the demise of the once bustling Byzantine settlement of Elusa.

Researchers are cautious about over-attribution of environmental factors, and are taking a more nuanced view of how climate change may have influenced societies throughout history. That approach may yield insights into what makes a civilization resilient or vulnerable to environmental changes.

Not everyone agrees on what can be extrapolated from correlations spotted in archaeological and environmental records. But some ideas have come to light. “Societies have to be viewed as complex adaptive systems,” says Tim Kohler, regents professor of archaeology at Washington State University. If they stretch themselves too thin, “they become susceptible to external disruptions of almost any sort” – environmental, political, or economic.

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Out of history’s trash heap, clues to ancient collapse

Dumpster diving archaeologists in Israel may have uncovered a connection between climate change and the decline of a once bustling Byzantine settlement.

Researchers studying an ancient garbage dump in Israel’s Negev Desert found evidence that shifts in climate in the mid-sixth century may have played a role in the downfall of the urban settlement of Elusa.

Scholars have long pondered the role of climate change in the rise and fall of empires. Such research has taken on renewed significance as modern day societies grapple with climatic shifts.

Over the years researchers’ perspectives on how closely to link environmental factors to societal outcomes have shifted. Scientists today are cautious about overattribution, and are taking a more nuanced view of how climate change may have influenced societies throughout history. That approach may yield insights into what makes a civilization resilient or vulnerable to environmental changes.

“You can’t say that climate changed civilization, full-stop,” says Brian Fagan, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“The way you have to look at this is to think of throwing a pebble into a calm pond, and there’s a plop, and there are radiating circles that come from the impact, which then vanish,” says Professor Fagan. “It is very much those sort of social and economic changes which really make a difference.”

That’s just the kind of evidence that researchers studying Elusa reported finding this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When Guy Bar-Oz, lead author of the new study and a professor of archaeology at Israel’s University of Haifa, first began surveying the archaeological record of Elusa, evidence of the so-called Late Antique Little Ice Age following three volcanic explosions was just coming to light. So he hadn’t considered that climate change could have been a factor in the demise of the settlement.

As the team examined the artifacts remaining in ancient trash mounds around the city, they found that right around the mid-sixth century, Elusa’s landfills went from containing immense amounts of trash and a broad variety of items from deep inside the city to practically nothing.

Courtesy of Guy Bar-Oz
A study of ancient urban trash mounds suggests a correlation between climate change and societal collapse in the Byzantine Empire. Researchers posit that a change in the disposal of trash in the settlement of Elusa in the Negev Desert could be linked to a sudden climactic shift.

It’s possible that the city transitioned to a different waste management system around that time. But it also could indicate a more profound shift in Elusa that may have marked the beginning of the city’s downfall, the authors say. Historians generally think that the Byzantine Elusa declined in the mid-seventh century, as the early Islamic period rose in the region.

There’s no environmental evidence that Elusa experienced the Late Antique Little Ice Age, further complicating that possible link. But, Dr. Bar-Oz says, climate change in Europe, where there is evidence of that cooling, could have had an economic impact on societies linked through trade. Perhaps a dramatic downturn in demand for Elusa’s products prompted residents in the city to move elsewhere or at least change how they did things. But at this point, the researchers caution, there is only a time correlation between Elusa’s trash transition and climate change. More research has to be done to see if the cooling period did indeed play a role.

That’s the tricky part of connecting climatic shifts with civilization changes, says Tim Kohler, regents professor of archaeology at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Often the evidence is simply that both things happened at the same time. And climate change is not always a direct causal relationship or the only factor involved. So, he says, making an argument for a relationship takes seeing as much of the whole picture as possible.

Nineteenth-century scholars saw environmental factors as one of the main drivers of societal changes. More recently, that perspective, known as environmental determinism or climate determinism, has been thought to have over-attributed the role of these external factors. But a few decades ago, social scientists began looking anew at the role of climate, this time taking a more nuanced view of environmental factors as just one influence among many that societies respond to in myriad ways, both directly and indirectly.

Scholars today are also looking for hints as to what makes a civilization either resilient or vulnerable to climatic changes, particularly in light of current environmental challenges. Not everyone agrees on what can be extrapolated from correlations spotted in archaeological and environmental records. But some ideas have come to light.

Professor Kohler, for example, points to how societies expand as a potential vulnerability. “Societies have to be viewed as complex adaptive systems,” he says. If they stretch themselves too thin, “they become susceptible to external disruptions of almost any sort” – environmental, political, or economic.

Empires that reached across regions and were reliant on long-distance trade networks, like the Byzantine, theoretically should be buffered by those many relationships, says Professor Kohler.

“Nevertheless,” he says, “there is also a sense in which all those connections also make them vulnerable because it means that if any portion of that complex network of relationships that sustains an area collapses, then it puts other portions of that network at risk, and you can have cascading failures.”

To Professor Fagan, “By far the most important characteristic, I think, is societies that are governed by people with very rigid views. If you have a society with rigid views, ruled by authoritarian rulers who have done things for generations a certain way, they are very resistant to change. And you get this happening with all kinds of societies. The Maya are a good example,” he says, pointing to evidence that a series of droughts shook the civilization sufficiently to lead to its demise.

It goes beyond a society’s resistance to change, though, Professor Fagan says. In a society based around divine rulers, if the rains don’t come, the people may begin to question the power of their leaders.

One lesson is clear today, says Professor Kohler. “I would guess that many of these societies were quite confident in their own abilities to weather climate downturns because they could say things like, ‘Oh we plant maize in many different places. Oh, we have these long-term, long-distance trade relationships with other societies,’ and so forth,” he says. “But then they get to a point where there will be a downturn to which those things are no longer adequate buffers.”

“As we continue to grow, you know, as we go from 7 to 9 billion people in the next couple decades, we should worry that ... there will be something that can disrupt the elaborate global system that we have put together that we cannot envision,” he says.

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5. A floating Louvre is just the start: Abu Dhabi’s big plans for art

In the young and oil-rich United Arab Emirates, culture is seen as one key to moving away from a fossil fuel economy, and art has become more than just a philanthropic pursuit – it’s a national priority.

Noelle
Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, off the coast of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 3. The ultramodern universal arts museum was created under an agreement with France and the Louvre in 2007 and opened its doors to visitors in November 2017.

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On the shores of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates is building up an oasis of international and Arab art. And as the Emiratis build a tourism economy and make their country a must-stop destination for culture, they are sparing no effort or cost. Lacking the rich histories of Arab capitals like Damascus, Cairo, or Baghdad, the UAE – a young country flush with cash and stability – has set out to become a beacon for international and Arab art and artists.

The ultra-wealthy ruling families, themselves collectors and patrons of the arts, have elevated their private pursuits to state policy: They’re buying up Western and Arab art to bring home to their citizens. The centerpiece of their vision is the Louvre Abu Dhabi – designed to anchor an entire island devoted to arts and education – which opened to visitors in November 2017.

“We don’t have to go travel the world to see Rembrandt or Da Vinci,” says Fatemah, an Emirati university student visiting the latest visiting exhibition in February. “It all comes here for us to see, and it is beautiful to share this with the rest of the world.”

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A floating Louvre is just the start: Abu Dhabi’s big plans for art

European and Asian tourists drift through the galleries, stopping every few minutes to raise their mobile phones to snap a shot of another timeless classic: Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait,” Da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière,” Whistler’s “Mother.”

Although the sign outside the spotless museum says “Louvre” and French is one of the dozen languages available on audio headsets, they are a long way from Paris. This is not even Europe. This is Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

On the sandy shores of the Persian Gulf, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates is building up an oasis of international and Arab art. And as they build a tourism economy and make their country a must-stop destination for culture, the Emiratis are sparing no effort or cost to place this tiny country on the global art map.

Lacking the rich histories of the Arab capitals of Damascus, Cairo, or Baghdad, the UAE – a young country flush with cash; arid space; a small, educated population; and stability – has set out to become a beacon for international and Arab art and artists.

Since the 2000s, the UAE has worked tirelessly to attract regional and international artists and exhibitions to its shores. In the cool winter and temperate spring months, the country hosts festivals that have become fixtures, including Art Dubai, the Sharjah Biennial, and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

The ultra-wealthy ruling families, themselves collectors and patrons of the arts, have elevated their private pursuits to an official state policy: They’re buying up Western and Arab art to bring home to their citizens and inviting up-and-coming and renowned artists, musicians, painters, and filmmakers from across the globe.

Here, the Emiratis say, the arts are not a philanthropic pursuit or a public good – they are a national priority.

Destination Louvre

Officials here say the UAE is counting on tourism and culture to help it move away from the turbulence of a fossil fuels economy. And it’s selling the Emirates’ geographic location – at the tip of the Gulf and at the heart of flight paths connecting Europe and Asia – as a meeting place of peoples, cultures, and traditions.

The centerpiece of the Emiratis’ vision is the establishment of the Louvre Abu Dhabi – an ultramodern universal arts museum designed to anchor an entire island devoted to arts and education.  

Created under an agreement with France and the Louvre in 2007, it opened its doors to visitors in November 2017. It hosts a permanent collection of 600 pieces, many of which were bought up by the UAE government and rulers during a “buyer’s market” in the art world amid the global recession of 2008 and 2009.

The permanent collection ranges from Gauguin, Manet, wood-carved Buddha statues, and Islamic inscribed stones, to a 19th-century portrait of George Washington. On loan are iconic pieces such as “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.”

But perhaps most striking is the museum itself. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi stands as a separate city, detached as a domed island floating on the Arabian ocean, connected to Saadiyat Island by a ramp.

The structure’s design is East meets West, in line with the UAE’s vision as a global meeting place, with Arab and Islamic-inspired stars and geometric patterns in the 500-foot-wide dome that filter the desert sun onto walkways linking 55 ultramodern buildings and galleries.

Asian and European expats, tourists, and Emirati students mingle underneath the dome, going from one gallery to the next.

“We don’t have to go travel the world to see Rembrandt or Da Vinci,” says Fatemah, a 20-year-old Emirati university student visiting the latest visiting exhibition – “Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the Dutch Golden Age” – in February.

“It all comes here for us to see, and it is beautiful to share this with the rest of the world.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi attracted more than 1 million visitors in its first year, the museum says, with the largest number of visitors coming from India, followed by the UAE, Europe, other Gulf states, and China. 

Three miles away from the Louvre, New York University’s Abu Dhabi satellite campus houses a center for performing arts and offers classes including art, art history, preservation, and photography.

Plans for Saadiyat Island also include a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a 320,000 square-foot seaside museum designed by Frank Gehry to house modern and contemporary art and act as a center for contemporary and Islamic art and artists.

Taylor Luck
Suheyla Takesh, curator of the Barjeel Art Foundation, points out "La Gardien De La Vie" by Egyptian painter Hamed Ewais, one of dozens of pieces of modern Arab art expressing the political and social changes that shook the region, at the Sharjah Art Museum in Sharjah, UAE, Feb. 20, 2019.

Arab Art

While Abu Dhabi is acting as a beacon for international art with its Louvre and Guggenheim, the sleepy port city of Sharjah, an emirate 100 miles up the coast, is quietly emerging as the leading incubator and center for Arab art.

The private Sharjah Art Foundation runs several workshops, incubators, arts spaces, and residencies at venues across the city for residents and artists across the region.

Among coral stone and simple cement houses with sandalwood-thatched roofs evoking the historical architecture of the port town, the foundation hosts several-month residences for up-and-coming artists and education programs ranging from ceramics, mixed media, and calligraphy for all ages.

Between public art displays and graffiti art, the town resembles more a Brooklyn neighborhood than a centuries-old port 100 nautical miles from Iran.

But perhaps the hidden jewel is the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent foundation dedicated to supporting, promoting, and researching modern and contemporary Arab art.

The foundation is built upon the private collection of Emirati scholar and founder Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. It documents the history of the Arab world through visual arts that speak to the social and political currents of the times, and the hopes and dreams of entire peoples and nations.

War, national struggles, heritage, women’s movements, socialism, and cultural ideals are on display in Barjeel’s collection at the Sharjah Art Museum, from Egyptians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and others.

It is more than a display; it is a record of history and identity for Arabs and people across the world to discover and study.

“What we are providing at Barjeel and here in Sharjah is a place and a platform for people to view and study modern Arab art, which has sadly been mostly inaccessible for decades,” says Suheyla Takesh, Barjeel’s curator, as she points out a painting of “The Prisoners” by 20th-century Egyptian women’s rights advocate Inji Efflatoun. ”Western canons and terminology have been historically applied to the study of art from the region, and artistic developments have often been filtered through a lens and placed in a framework that were not always applicable to them.”

The art market

Dubai, meanwhile, has emerged as the commercial hub of the UAE art world, complete with auction houses and art dealers.

From this glitzy city of 21st-century spires and skyscrapers, art and artifacts from both East and West are auctioned off for millions as the super-rich and Arab Gulf collectors come to add to their collections of 20th-century Arab greats.

Sensing the growing market, British art dealer Christie’s opened a Dubai branch in 2006 and has since auctioned off more than $215 million worth of Middle Eastern and Islamic art.

Some recent sales include Syrian painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Lebanese artist Yvette Achkar, and even a wristwatch that belonged to Libya’s late deposed dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

According to Christie’s, 70 percent of purchases of Middle Eastern art are now made through this auction house.

The Emirates, art observers say, have succeeded in building a “complete ecosystem.”

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The Monitor's View

Defeating Islamic State with justice, not just guns

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Much of the world barely took notice last weekend when the last stronghold of Islamic State fighters finally fell.

The capture of a small village in Syria by local Kurdish forces marked an end to a four-year international campaign to destroy the group’s self-declared caliphate, which once stretched across large parts of Iraq and Syria.

But the territorial win came with a special plea. The victorious Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces asked that some 900 foreign ISIS fighters be tried in an international tribunal for horrific crimes. The request for the international trials is worth a serious consideration by the United Nations.

In a region rife with mass atrocities against innocent people, applying universal ideals of justice to the terrible crimes of ISIS would send a signal about the moral standards of humanity. Such trials might also bring healing closure and restored dignity to the victims and, perhaps, force some militants to reckon with their actions and repent.

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Defeating Islamic State with justice, not just guns

Much of the world barely took notice last weekend when the last stronghold of Islamic State fighters finally fell. The capture of a small village in Syria by local Kurdish forces marked an end to a four-year international campaign to destroy the group’s self-declared caliphate, which once stretched across large parts of Iraq and Syria.

But the territorial win came with a special plea. The victorious Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) asked that some 900 foreign ISIS fighters be tried in an international tribunal for horrific crimes against ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Yazidis.

The foreign militants hail from countries as far-flung as the United States, Tajikistan, and Germany. Most of the countries refuse to take back their own citizens. Yet the SDF cannot keep holding the prisoners in makeshift jails, especially with their wives and children.

Meanwhile, thousands of other captured militants from neighboring Iraq are steadily being returned to stand trial in overworked courts that largely fail to meet international standards of justice.

The request for the international trials is worth a serious consideration by the United Nations. In a region rife with mass atrocities against innocent people, applying universal ideals of justice to the terrible crimes of ISIS would send a signal about the moral standards of humanity. Such trials might also bring healing closure and restored dignity to the victims and, perhaps, force some militants to reckon with their actions and repent.

The U.N. already took a step in this direction in 2017. The Security Council voted to investigate evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by ISIS in Iraq. The next step is to decide whether to establish a special tribunal or to authorize the International Criminal Court to take the cases.

As difficult as it might be to collect evidence and hold a trial, the attempt at justice could be as impactful on world thinking as the trials held after World War II. And with thousands of ISIS militants still at large in the Middle East and elsewhere, the struggle against the group and its ideology must include the world taking a stand on the highest ideas of justice.

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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.

Creativity, innovation, and spiritual inspiration

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Today’s contributor explores the idea that creativity and innovation, which support meaningful solutions to problems, are spiritual qualities everyone has the ability to express.

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Creativity, innovation, and spiritual inspiration

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Years ago, as a new advertising copywriter, I thought creativity was something that only special people had – a gift, a unique talent that set them apart and above from everyone else. But then a musician I admired told me, “Creativity doesn’t come from you; it comes through you.”

When I asked him what he meant, he replied that his innovative approach to music really didn’t come from some special, personal talent; he saw it instead as starting with spiritual inspiration, whose source is the one divine creator, God.

That idea was a huge help to me in my early career path through the creative and highly competitive world of advertising. The push to develop fresh, innovative ways of presenting products and services to the public felt relentless and incredibly difficult at times. But gradually, through my study and practice of Christian Science, I began to discover that creativity and innovation are actually spiritual qualities rather than privileged human talents only a select few can express.

Today I’ve come to understand that in music, art, writing, or anything else, true originality and freshness are qualities of divine Soul. Soul is a Bible-based name for God that Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, described as “the creative, governing, infinite Principle outside of finite form, which forms only reflect” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 71).

In every aspect of our lives, turning in prayer to this “governing, infinite Principle” can bring fresh, God-derived inspiration and ideas. It can help us find better ways to settle problems at home, run businesses, teach school, prepare new recipes, address the myriad issues facing our communities, and even contribute to addressing the larger problems of the world.

And this capacity to develop new ideas is available to every one of us – without the need to steal or copy the work of others – as we embrace our true nature as God’s spiritual image and likeness, the expression of His intelligence.

In this way we discover the rich potential inherent in each of us. Believing we’re incapable or lack talent or that the source of creativity is a limited brain, we can come up short. However, if we view our creative capacities as truly spiritual, if we accept that creativity has its source in the one infinite God, we can prove this in so many different ways!

At one time I was tasked with presenting complex research data to an international audience. The PowerPoint presentation slides made available to me were unpolished and contained mistakes. It was up to me to make the needed corrections and rework the entire presentation. There were three problems: I had never before used the PowerPoint computer program, it was now late at night, and the presentation was the very next day.

Opening my laptop, I wasn’t sure where to start. But through a lifetime of turning to God for answers, I’d witnessed divine Soul, infinite Principle, inspire original solutions time after time. And so it was clear that I needed to begin this assignment with prayer – to realize that whatever was needed was not hidden or dormant. An arresting thought from Science and Health came to me: “Mortals are egotists. They believe themselves to be independent workers, personal authors, and even privileged originators of something which Deity would not or could not create” (p. 263).

It occurred to me that it wasn’t on me and my brain to personally figure it all out. The creativity and intelligence to perform the needed technical skills were already available; these qualities were there for me to recognize their source in God and employ them. And so I did, even though slowly at first. The next day, I successfully presented the full, updated research report to a receptive audience.

When we come to understand that God is indeed the creative, divine Principle, the original source of innovative thinking, we’ll find more ways to apply fresh, spiritually creative talents – every day.

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Viewfinder

A host, of golden daffodils

Owen Humphreys/PA/AP
Gardener Rob Ternent pushes his wheelbarrow through a crowd of daffodils at Alnwick Castle in northeast England March 28. The harbingers of spring were immortalized by William Wordsworth in his poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( March 29th, 2019 )

Noelle Swan
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when film critic Peter Rainer will offer his picks for March’s best movies, including “an anti-romantic romance” and “a pair of first-rate, lived-in performances.”

Monitor Daily Podcast

March 28, 2019
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