2019
October
16
Wednesday

Welcome to your Daily. Today’s stories explore a shift in U.S. foreign policy, a reach for power self-sufficiency amid California’s blackouts, a search for long-term water sustainability in India, the promise and perils of international trade in agriculture, and how one Marine veteran has sought meaning in war.

But first, drug addiction and homelessness are often met with judgment. Here in Boston, there’s an area that has been unofficially branded “Methadone Mile” – it’s thought of as a hub of drug activity, with clinics, homeless shelters, and drug treatment programs nearby. The Bostonians who can’t avoid the area often avert their gaze from those experiencing homelessness there. 

But one woman goes out of her way to meet these would-be castaways with respectful compassion.

Every Sunday since June, Celsea Tibbitt has led a group of volunteers to the area to hand out bottled water, fruit, and hundreds of healthy, home-cooked meals. 

“I know one meal a week isn’t going to do it,” Ms. Tibbitt told The Boston Globe. “But it lets people know a group of us care. We need to take care of each other.”

A public health nurse, Ms. Tibbitt hands those experiencing homelessness much more than food. She extends humanity and empathy to a group of people who are often dismissed by society.

“I know from doing this work there is so much stigma around these members of our community. I have the privilege to be able to speak and listen to their stories,” she says. “It’s about being present and not looking the other way.”

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1. From Ukraine to Syria, is America’s ‘beacon’ dimming?

President Trump has faced overwhelming bipartisan criticism of his Syria policy. His Ukraine dealings have also elicited broad concerns. What has changed? Observers see a shift in values.

Eva

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President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria constitutes an unvarnished acknowledgement that the world’s erstwhile policeman would now be leaving the kind of crises American diplomacy once excelled at resolving to others – allies and adversaries alike.

But others see a hint of a retreat of another kind. In Syria, in recent diplomatic dealings with Ukraine now coming to light through the House impeachment inquiry, and in other cases, some analysts see a retreat from the values and principles that have for decades made America a global leader and guide of a different order.

“Trump’s grand strategy ... gets traction because it does tap into the older strains in U.S. foreign policy of isolationism, unilateralism, and protectionism,” says Charles Kupchan, at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But where we are seeing something new is in President Trump’s departure from the values of liberal democracy and shared economic prosperity, and above all from the idea of America as a beacon to the rest of the world, that go back to the earliest days of the republic.”

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From Ukraine to Syria, is America’s ‘beacon’ dimming?

Responding to the withering and bipartisan criticism he faced over his spur-of-the-moment decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria and leave the Kurdish fighters the U.S. had partnered with against ISIS to fend for themselves, President Donald Trump chose not to mollify, but to double down.

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out” without the United States, the president tweeted defiantly.

A day earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had informed Mr. Trump by phone call that his country would soon launch an offensive across its southern border into northern Syria to push the Kurds from territory formerly held by the Islamic State.

To some, the president’s tweet was a shocking if accurate reflection of an accelerated American retrenchment under Mr. Trump, an unvarnished acknowledgement that the world’s erstwhile policeman would now be leaving the kind of crises American diplomacy once excelled at resolving to others – allies and adversaries alike.

But to others it was this and more. In the abandonment of an allied fighting force and the distancing from regional partners that had for decades relied on the U.S. for support and guidance, they see a hint of a retreat of another kind.

In the Syria developments, in recent diplomatic dealings with Ukraine now coming to light through the House impeachment inquiry, and in other cases, some analysts see a retreat from the values and principles that have for decades made America a global leader and guide of a different order.

“Trump’s grand strategy is not a bolt from the blue, it is quite reminiscent in many respects of American foreign policy pre-Pearl Harbor, and it gets traction because it does tap into the older strains in U.S. foreign policy of isolationism, unilateralism, and protectionism,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow specializing in security alliances at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.

“But where we are seeing something new is in President Trump’s departure from the values of liberal democracy and shared economic prosperity, and above all from the idea of America as a beacon to the rest of the world, that go back to the earliest days of the republic,” he adds. This dimension of Mr. Trump’s actions is “unprecedented,” he says, in that “it not only raises questions about American reliability and what the aims of our foreign policy are, but it removes us as an example that others around the world have aspired to follow.”

For some analysts, Mr. Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria alone constitutes a retreat from principles they say have guided U.S. foreign policy since at least World War II.

“The Trump decision in Syria is disastrous not just for the immediate struggle and prospects for the Kurds and what it signals about the United States in the Middle East, but it is disastrous in terms of our alliances and the questions it raises about the principles of reliability and credibility that have been at the heart of those alliances for decades,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

“We have learned that President Trump is a person of instincts rather than strategy when it comes to foreign policy,” he adds. “But when it results in the message that U.S. allies are going to be abandoned and left out to dry, it is damaging to American interests, let alone to our alliances, and frankly to human decency.”

Lasting impact

The mounting evidence of the U.S. turning away from principles that have guided its foreign policy is not going to go unnoticed but will be acted upon by allies and adversaries alike as they seek to fill the void of what Mr. Kupchan calls the “brave new world” left by the U.S. retreat.

The U.S. pullback in Syria “is going to have a lasting impact” beyond the Kurds who feel they have been “stabbed in the back” by the power they helped in the fight against ISIS, says Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a political ally of the president on domestic issues but a frequent critic of his foreign policy, expressed his concern on just that issue Wednesday.

“I worry we will not have allies in the future against radical Islam, ISIS will reemerge, & Iran’s rise in Syria will become a nightmare for Israel,” he tweeted. “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking.”

But Syria is just one episode in a string of recent actions that cement the image of a retreating power leaving the field for others to occupy, says Mr. Cook.

Pointing to how the U.S. responded “in the most limited possible fashion that it could” to what were assumed to be Iranian missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September, Mr. Cook says “this sent a very strong message to allies in the Gulf that the commitments that we had made about their security and … about the free flow of energy resources out of that region were not good.” He spoke before reports surfaced of a secret U.S. cyber strike against Iran following the oil fields attack.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 25, 2019.

“The message is being sent,” he says, “that the United States comes calling and asking for help and makes commitments … and doesn’t always keep them.”

“As countries believe that they’re on their own,” he adds, “we’re going to see more types of disastrous policies pursued by countries that don’t have the capacity to do the things that they believe they can.”

Parallel foreign policy

In the case of Ukraine, it was not so much a country that felt abandoned by its powerful ally but rather pressured by it to undertake certain actions of personal interest to the president of the United States.

The U.S. detour from its traditional role in promoting the values of international liberalism and democratic governance is also evident in testimony before the House impeachment inquiry focused on President Trump’s actions in relation to Ukraine. Current and former State Department and White House national security officials are set to continue testifying this week.

In closed-door testimony Monday, former Trump White House Russia expert Fiona Hill said she and former national security adviser John Bolton had worried about a parallel foreign policy the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and other officials close to the president were running concerning Ukraine and with the president’s personal political interests in mind.

On Tuesday George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, told lawmakers carrying out the impeachment inquiry that he was instructed to back off the Ukraine portfolio and leave matters to a group of officials close to Mr. Trump, according to post-hearing comments by some congressional Democrats.

The shadow Ukraine policy group, who called themselves the “three amigos,” consisted of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.

Last week the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, testified that the State Department had been “hollowed out” under President Trump and that she had been removed by the president for standing in the way of his personal goals in Ukraine – which included pushing for the investigation of his personal political rivals.

The world is watching

The international impact of these and other accounts is likely to be broad and lasting, says Mr. Kupchan, who adds that the Ukraine operation “tarnishes” the sense, held both domestically and in much of the world, of American “exceptionalism” and status as an exemplar of higher ideas.

“The Ukraine saga demonstrates to the world that our diplomacy is in the service of digging up dirt on the president’s political rivals,” Mr. Kupchan says, “and it’s not the kind of example we have traditionally tried to set and that others have looked to us for, to say the least.”

It may be too early to say what long-term impact the U.S. retreat from its traditional guiding principles in foreign policy will have, but there’s no doubting that the world is already taking notice, analysts say.

“The U.S. continues to have the material power to play a leading and even indispensable role in world affairs, but that is very much dependent on leadership and commitment,” Georgetown’s Professor Lieber says, “and all that is what is sorely lacking.”

Mr. Kupchan, who served as a special assistant on European affairs in the Obama White House, notes that President Obama was already a “retrencher” when it came to the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, while factions of both the Republican and Democratic parties have soured on free trade. “So some elements of the American withdrawal are here to stay,” he says.

But at the same time, he says a retreat from “America’s core principles of statecraft,” from commitment to alliances to promoting pluralism, ethnic tolerance, and the elements of liberal democracy, need not be permanent.

“What is correctable – and urgently so – is the abandonment of republican values and practices,” Mr. Kupchan says, “and the restoration of decency and probity and steadiness.”

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2. With outages, fire risks, California eyes ‘local’ electricity

When PG&E turned off the power, that action may have helped divert disaster. It also highlighted a growing push for self-sufficiency in California’s electricity landscape.

Eva
Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat/AP
Personal banker Joce Richmond sits outside a Wells Fargo branch to help customers during the power shutdown in Santa Rosa, California, Oct. 10, 2019.

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After bankruptcy, two years of fatal wildfires, and last week’s controversial decision to lower fire risks by cutting power to more than 700,000 customers, it’s hard to pinpoint the lessons from California’s Pacific Gas and Electric. Is the utility poorly managed or just plain too big?

Either way, power problems are pushing the Golden State and other places to experiment with “microgrids,” which provide electricity to individual neighborhoods or even single facilities, like a fire station.

In 2012, Connecticut passed the nation’s first microgrid law. Wracked by the costs and uncertainties from power outages caused by hurricanes and storms, most states along the northern half of the Eastern Seaboard have state-funded microgrid programs in place.

Japan is deploying microgrids. So could developing nations as they build their power grids. Localized power has its own complexities, such as regulations and ownership. Still, within the next decade, the global market for microgrids will grow fivefold, estimates energy researcher Peter Asmus. Even utilities are deploying them, he adds. “They see the writing on the wall.”

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1. With outages, fire risks, California eyes ‘local’ electricity

Is small beautiful when it comes to power companies and their ability to prevent destructive wildfires?

Pacific Gas and Electric, the behemoth that serves nearly two-thirds of California, caused an uproar last week when it cut power to 730,000 customers – a blunt tool against predicted bone-dry conditions and gusty winds that might damage its equipment and spark a catastrophic fire.

PG&E averted a fire disaster. But the vast outage lasted days for some customers, and endangered those with medical needs. At least one man hooked up to an oxygen system was killed. Schools and businesses closed. And the utility’s bankruptcy – prompted by the threat of massive payouts from fatal fires in the last two years – is raising questions of whether the utility is too big to nimbly deal with fire prevention and needs to be broken up or restructured.

(Southern California Edison also cut off power preemptively last week – but to fewer customers and, unfortunately, not to an area where a deadly fire actually started.)

At the same time, energy trends point to greater reliance on locally generated power – “microgrids” that provide clean energy and battery storage on a small scale, often just to essential facilities like firehouses and hospitals. It allows them to keep running when the power shuts off. Also, starting next year, all new homes in California are required to have solar panels.

Small-scale power appears to be gaining momentum. 

“I believe that California will emerge as the national leader [in microgrids] because of these preventative grid shutoffs,” says Peter Asmus, research director at Navigant Research, a market research firm studying energy markets. 

David vs. Goliath? Not quite.

But it’s not so simple as small and local versus big and centralized, says Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program. “There are some advantages to being small, and some to being big.”

Small utilities are more focused, have much less system to manage, and really know their systems. Energy experts and officials point to San Diego Gas & Electric, investor-owned like PG&E but much smaller, as a model. While PG&E is falling far short of goals to work on its grid, clear vegetation, and trim trees, the smaller utility is hardening against fire and modernizing more quickly, burying some power lines and insulating others. It has also “sectionalized” its grid to such an extent that it can surgically target a specific neighborhood for a preventive power cutoff.

On the other hand, a fire can devastate a smaller utility’s finances. In Northern California, the Trinity Public Utilities District faces multiple lawsuits over a 2017 fire caused when a branch fell on its electrical lines and burned 72 homes.

The lesson from the 20th century is that electricity costs fell as utilities got bigger, Mr. Wara points out. San Francisco has offered to buy infrastructure from PG&E, but splitting off cities would be a real problem for rural areas in terms of fire risk and costs – the state would have to take over, he says. A breakup would also be a huge distraction for management, just as bankruptcy is now.

“Size is good because of economies of scale,” agrees Greg Conlon, former president of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities. Administrative functions and computing can be done more efficiently serving 1 million customers than 100,000.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Pacific Gas & Electric employees work in the PG&E Emergency Operations Center in San Francisco Oct. 10, 2019. California's utility regulator is issuing a series of sanctions against the company for what it calls "failures in execution" during the largest planned power shut-off in state history to avoid wildfires.

PG&E’s special challenges

Both men point to problems more serious than size. Mr. Conlon believes PG&E’s main challenge is geography – vast forested areas – and state legal norms that hold a utility liable for damage caused by its equipment, even if the utility was not negligent.

Mr. Wara singles out mismanagement at PG&E. What really makes San Diego Gas & Electric a model is its culture, he says. “It has a management culture built around safety.” PG&E has to-do lists. San Diego has an ethos. If it’s met a goal, it wants to improve it, he says, even by half a percent.

Still, more locally generated power – whether home-based systems powered by solar panels or community microgrids – looks to be picking up steam nationally and internationally.

Mr. Asmus says that right now Alaska leads the nation in microgrids because of the difficulty of transporting energy to the state’s remote villages. It has more than 200 microgrids operating in small communities. In 2012, Connecticut passed the first microgrid law in the United States. “Now, most of the states from Washington, D.C., north along the Eastern Seaboard all have some sort of microgrid program in place with state funding,” he adds, pushed to act in part because of the costs and unreliability associated with hurricanes and storms on the East Coast.

In Japan, outages caused the country to deploy microgrids, he adds. And as developing nations build their power grids, he sees the use of localized power growing. Within the next decade, the global market for microgrids will increase from $8.1 billion to $40 billion, he estimates.

Legal barriers for microgrids

Microgrids pose their own challenges, however. “Microgrids also come with a lot of regulatory issues, which may be more difficult to comply with than people expect, as the laws are struggling to catch up to the technology,” says Jayashri Ravishankar, a senior lecturer in energy systems at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, in an email.

In California, the obvious advantage is immunity from fire-prevention power outages. “You can keep the lights on,” says James Kirtley Jr., a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The principal advantage of microgrids, he explains, is not having to transport electric power as far as energy that comes from a central station.

That’s exactly the idea behind a project to develop a clean-energy community microgrid on the California coast at Santa Barbara. [Editor's note: This sentence was trimmed to avoid the misimpression the installation would cover a 70-mile area.] The area is served by only one set of transmission lines, making it vulnerable to an outage – just like Napoleon’s long supply line that doomed him in Russia, says Craig Lewis, a Santa Barbara resident and director of the nonprofit Clean Coalition. “Our supply line is 40 miles long, a sitting duck.”

California has set ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gases. Last year it passed a law designed to boost microgrid development. Solar costs keep dropping. The puzzle pieces are coming together for local systems that eventually could make up 25% of the total power pie, Mr. Lewis estimates.

What’s changed most recently is that utilities themselves are deploying microgrids, says Mr. Asmus. “They see the writing on the wall.”

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3. A city in India almost ran dry. What will prevent a repeat?

Taps running dry grabs attention. What happens after the water returns? In the wake of a water crisis in India, one city highlights the long-term need for more sustainable policies.

Eva

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Fall monsoon rains are even more welcome than usual in Chennai, India, this year. The coastal city of 10 million grabbed headlines this summer for nearing “Day Zero” – that is, for nearly running out of water.

As taps ran dry, hundreds of tankers and trains supplied water, but residents complained about irregular schedules that left some having to skip work or school. For those who could afford it, there were thousands of private tankers, too.

Reservoirs are filling up again, but many worry scarcity will return. Climate change has worsened droughts and water issues across India. But poor management and rapid development have exacerbated the situation, analysts say. Six hundred million Indians face high to extreme water stress – and officials must take that reality into account as their cities expand, resource experts say.

In the meantime, neighbors help each other – like Suryakumar. Every morning, he wakes up at five, walks to the pumping station a mile and a half away, and accompanies the water tanker back to the narrow street where he lives, helping residents fill their pots.

“I have had to take this responsibility because the metro or the driver don’t care if there’s no water in my neighborhood tomorrow. But I do,” he says.

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A city in India almost ran dry. What will prevent a repeat?

On a sultry September afternoon Eswari meanders restlessly around her neighborhood. Dressed in a floral printed nightgown and her hair tied in a messy bun, she halts occasionally to exchange a few words with passersby. At one moment, she joins a group of women who look at the gray clouds gathering overhead and release a collective sigh. There is only one topic of discussion here: water.

Eswari works as a security guard at an IT firm, but today she took leave. She wanted to ensure she would be available to fill the two large water drums that her family uses for everything except drinking and cooking, on the odd chance water came through the pumps outside their building. It did not. 

“We are not informed which day or time water will be supplied next,” says Eswari, who uses only one name. For the past two months, she says, the average gap has been about six days. “I think it will be supplied tomorrow. I’ll ask my daughter to skip school and fill the drums.” 

In June, this southern Indian city of 10 million grabbed international headlines for nearing “Day Zero”: almost running out of water, in other words. Of Chennai’s four main reservoirs, three had gone completely dry – and the last, Poondi, had 26 million cubic feet of water, against its full capacity of 3,231 million cubic feet. 

Now, as late-fall rains finally arrive, many are breathing a sigh of relief. But long term, the water situation here and in many other Indian cities is exacerbated by poor management and rapid development, observers say, leaving many poorer residents feeling like they must fend for themselves.

“Managing the demand for water for a growing population in the country is a major challenge,” says Kangkanika Neog, an analyst at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based think tank. “There are existing gaps like poor water quality due to lack of proper monitoring and low treatment capacity, inefficiency in the supply of water, and groundwater depletion. ... Climate change is only making things worse.”

“It’s time for institutions to come together and look at water as an integrated component during urban planning,” Ms. Neog adds. “The infrastructure of old cities was based on the scenario of water plenty but that’s no longer the case.”

Six hundred million people across the country face high to extreme water stress. According to a recent report by World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, India is the 13th most water-stressed country in the world – but has triple the population of the other 17 worst-affected countries combined. Another report, released by India’s Central Water Commission, observes that scarcity is a result not so much of water deficit as of “severe neglect” and lack of monitoring.

Waiting for water

Over the summer, as taps ran dry, about 900 city tankers supplied water to Chennai, but at an irregular schedule. Tankers source most of their water from agricultural wells and farms in the outskirts of the city, however, draining farmers and rural residents to meet urban needs and further depleting groundwater in the process. Chennai is overdrawing its groundwater by 185%. 

For those who can afford it, there are about 5,000 private tankers, and for a while, even special trains were arranged to carry water. At the crisis’s peak, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, of which Chennai is the capital, argued that the media was blowing the issue out of proportion, and requested that residents “understand the situation and cooperate” until expected fall rains. 

For a large percentage of the city, however, regular access existed only on paper. In Kannagi Nagar, where Eswari lives – a neighborhood built to resettle slum residents – the tankers were both inaccessible and unaffordable, and scarcity began almost a year ago. 

In a report submitted to the state high court, the government reasoned that the lakes began drying up after a failed monsoon in 2017, following which the city’s water supply had been reduced by more than a third. But the court criticized the state’s lack of management and passivity, asking questions about attempts to source other water as the lakes ran dry, to preserve excess rainwater, or to reclaim bodies of water from encroachment.

Chennai, the commercial hub of south India, has been expanding for decades. By 1975, it had already quadrupled in size, and there are plans to expand it sevenfold, making it the country’s second-largest metro area. A large part of the development has been at the cost of – and literally over – water bodies, whose number and size have shrunk rapidly.

The flat, coastal city lies in the rain shadow of the Eastern Ghats mountain range, and needs to be designed with that geography in mind, as well as the erratic nature of the northeast monsoon it relies on, emphasizes Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based environmental activist and journalist. The same reservoirs that had overflowed in 2015 and caused devastating floods in the city were now dry.

“The solution to both is preserving water bodies, and to build the infrastructure to help the water seep in, soak, stay, and flow,” he says. “If you can’t prescribe these four behaviors of water, you will get into trouble.” Open spaces, which are also important for groundwater recharge, he adds, have been replaced with construction.

Neighbors step up

This month, monsoon rains have begun to arrive, restoring groundwater supplies. The last water train arrived last week, and the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh has begun releasing water through canals toward Chennai. But some residents fear scarcity will return unless long-term solutions are adopted. “There is a big worry. We have reduced water usage and started saving rainwater,” says resident Lamuel Enoch, who says he has not had tap water for four months.

For Sunil Jayaram and his neighbors in Chitlapakkam neighborhood, the 2015 flood was a wake-up call to Chennai’s water management problems. The following year, their bore wells ran dry, with no groundwater even 400 feet down. The nearby lake “was allowed to be encroached to a large extent and the rest of it was filled with garbage,” Mr. Jayaram says. 

Residents came together to form Chitlapakkam Rising, a group with about 2,500 volunteers, who began a drive to restore the lake. They began to clean the lake themselves, and after three years, successfully campaigned for a government desilting project.

Mr. Jayaram notes that the progress has been minimal, but that the scarcity led to greater awareness and initiative. “Rainwater harvesting is definitely picking up. I see a lot of individual houses redoing it themselves,” he says. Resident welfare associations have constructed dozens of pits along road corners to collect water, as well. 

Throughout Chennai, residents have taken responsibilities on their shoulders. There’s Suryakumar, a resident of Triplicane, one of Chennai’s oldest neighborhoods, who wakes up at five every morning, heads to the pumping station a mile and a half away, and accompanies a public water tanker back to the narrow street where his home is. He directs traffic and helps residents fill their pots with water before getting ready for his day of work at a courier service. “I have had to take this responsibility because the metro or the driver don’t care if there’s no water in my neighborhood tomorrow. But I do,” he says.

Many, like Eswari, feel as if they have been left to the margins.

“We just want the government to provide at least one other alternate source of water,” one of her neighbors, Ramu, says solemnly. “Even if the water is salty or contaminated, we can use it for something. We can manage. It will be better than the many days when we have nothing.”

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4. Too much milk: A tale of two nations’ travails with dairy policy

Modern agriculture is in many ways a marvel, feeding vast populations that have left farms for cities. But its productive success can be matched by deep stress for farmers themselves.

Eva

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Just as U.S. dairy farmers are beginning to climb out of an unprecedented five-year downturn, Canadian farmers fear they will be entering one. Three trade agreements are slated to open up nearly a fifth of Canada’s dairy market by 2024. Under Canada’s strict supply control system, that could either send prices plunging or farmers packing.

The United States abandoned its own supply control system in the early 2000s, but international trade has also made its dairy industry more volatile. First exports boomed. Then came five years of declining milk prices, forcing many smaller farms out of business.

Some U.S. farmers are pushing for controls that, while not as strict as Canada’s, would discourage oversupply and the shift toward larger farms. Such reforms may be unlikely, as the U.S. industry looks poised to rebound.

Canadian dairyman Tommy Faulkner doesn’t envy his U.S. counterparts. He says, “How do you take the country with the strongest agricultural production base in the world and then when you look into it, it’s with people who are barely hanging on with crazy amounts of stress in their lives?”

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1. Too much milk: A tale of two nations’ travails with dairy policy

Standing in her barn outside Cambridge, Wisconsin, surrounded by cows with tags in their ears, Tina Hinchley is growing optimistic that the five-year crisis in America’s dairy industry is coming to an end.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” she says. But “I see blue skies.”

Five hundred miles east, in London, Ontario, clouds of doubt are beginning to form for Canadian dairyman Tommy Faulkner. He and many other dairy farmers worry that three trade deals to open up market access across Canada will flood the nation's carefully balanced milk supply and send prices plunging. 

“I don’t think anybody knows [the true impact]. But the impact is not going to be minimal,” he says. “Our government did not think this out. They didn’t plan it. They reacted to international pressure.”

The diverging outlook on dairy in the United States and Canada illustrate the powerful role international trade plays in agriculture. It reshapes industries, concentrates production in fewer and bigger farms. And there are winners and losers no matter whether nations embrace trade, as the U.S. has, or try to protect themselves from it, as Canada has.

Trade also makes agriculture more volatile. Nine months ago, it was the U.S. dairy industry that was gripped with pessimism in the face of an unprecedented five-year decline in milk prices. Now, it’s the Canadians who are worried.

“I don’t think that Canada’s model is sustainable,” says Sylvain Charlebois, scientific director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “We are in much worse shape than in the U.S. I think we just don’t know it yet.”

More milk ... and more trade

For both nations, the challenge is too much milk. Every year, thanks to better feed and other advances, the average dairy cow produces a little more milk – often more than the annual rise in per capita consumption of milk, cheese, and other dairy products. So in 1972, Canada put in place a supply management system that limits the production of milk to domestic consumption levels as a way to keep prices stable for farmers.

It means Canadians, by many measures, pay more for milk than Americans do. The system also requires keeping foreign dairy products out, including American ones. President Donald Trump railed against Canadian tariffs that reached as high as 270% on some products and scored a victory, at least symbolically, by gaining 4% access to Canada’s dairy market as part of a pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement.

For Canadians, that came on the heels of two other trade deals – the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership with Pacific Rim countries – that also opened up Canadian dairy.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada estimates that market access represents an annual loss of the equivalent to 8.4% of the country’s milk production. “Adding these concessions to the access already granted under the WTO [World Trade Organization], it is estimated that by 2024, nearly 20% of domestic demand for dairy products will be met by imports,” the group said in a press release in August. 

That would mean Canadian farmers either cut back production or exit the business altogether. That exodus has been going on for decades. Even with supply management, Dr. Charlebois points out, dairy farm numbers have plunged from 45,000 in 1972 to some 10,000 today – a whopping loss of more than 3 of every 4 dairy farmers in less than 50 years.

The decline has been even more severe in the U.S. – more than 9 in 10 have disappeared.

Here in Cambridge, Ms. Hinchley is one of the survivors. Even during the downturn, she and her husband, Duane, expanded their herd so they could justify four robotic milkers. Now, instead of her milking nine hours a day with two hired hands, the cows line up to get themselves milked (they get a treat when they do) with just one overseer.

The downturn itself was unprecedented for its length. 

U.S. dairy farmers were used to price slumps lasting one or two years, and managed their operations so they would be financially prepared for it, says Mark Stephenson, director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Instead, milk prices fell for five years straight. “We haven’t had that kind of persistent slump,” he says.

The genesis of the change started in the early 2000s, when Congress moved the dairy industry away from strict and expensive supply controls, where the government would buy excess cheese and other dairy products to keep prices stable. Instead, the government began paying farmers only if milk prices fell below a specific level. The prices were low enough that U.S. dairy products became competitive with other nations’. And exports began to soar, particularly to Asia and Latin America.

The dairy industry boomed and expanded to meet that growing international demand. And the beauty of the system was that the prices paid by foreign nations were generally higher than what the U.S. government used to pay to buy up excess cheese, points out Peter Vitaliano, chief economist of the National Milk Producers Federation in Arlington, Virginia. 

Weathering the storm

But after 2014, for a variety of economic and political factors, export markets stopped growing, the dairy surplus reappeared, and milk prices began to fall year after year.

Very large dairy farms, typically the most efficient operations, weathered the storm. In the upper Midwest, home to many smaller farms, the blow was much harder. In a single year, Wisconsin lost 10% of its dairy farms, more than twice the usual rate, says Mr. Stephenson of the University of Wisconsin. In Michigan, the drop was 13%.

That turmoil has revived calls for supply controls. For Canadians, peeking across the border, the need is obvious. 

“It’s crazy what America has. Their system is not the answer,” says Mr. Faulkner, the Canadian farmer who works at London Dairy Farms, a large 1,200-cow operation his son owns. “The rate of bankruptcy in the U.S. has never been higher, ever in history. ... How does that benefit anybody? How do you take the country with the strongest agricultural production base in the world and then when you look into it, it’s with people who are barely hanging on with crazy amounts of stress in their lives?”

Few, if any, U.S. producers want something as strict as the Canadian system, Mr. Stephenson says. But a proposal that dairy farmers who expand their herd pay a surcharge for the extra milk they produce has gained some adherents.

“I think supply management is important,” says Ms. Hinchley here in Cambridge. “I have a problem with farmers who think milking 10,000 cows in one location is a good thing.”

She’s a member of the Farmers Union, a member organization that has long advocated for supply controls. 

But with the outlook for the industry brightening, the pressure for reform may well lessen.

“We haven’t been involved in any efforts,” says John Newton, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington. 

“It’s very difficult to believe that the United States Congress is going to enact, basically, a supply management program for dairy,” says Mr. Vitaliano of the National Milk Producers Federation. “There’s a lot of dairy farmers that are not supportive.”

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Q&A

5. A former Marine on finding meaning during – and after – war

On a personal level, the meaning of war can be an impenetrable realm for civilians. Here, Elliot Ackerman, a Marine veteran and journalist, reveals his search for purpose during war and beyond. 

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Author Elliot Ackerman, who wrote "Waiting for Eden" and "Places and Names," is pictured here on Oct. 30, 2018, in Boston. Mr. Ackerman is a Marine veteran with five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Some of the world’s greatest literature is about war, its brutalities and heroics, and its consequences. Elliot Ackerman, who has been nominated for the National Book Award for his 2017 novel, “Dark at the Crossing,” is the Monitor’s guest at the Boston Book Festival Oct. 19. After five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines, the Silver Star recipient has traveled to Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as a journalist, seeking deeper insight into his own and America’s role in its “forever wars.” Here, he discusses his new memoir, “Places and Names,” finding meaning in war, and his post-military search for purpose and peace of mind. 

“There is, obviously, more to life than the battlefield,” says Mr. Ackerman. “However, in war, you see the entire spectrum of what we as humans are capable of, from the savagery we’re capable of inflicting to the sacrifices we’re capable of making. It’s all there – the entire spectrum of human emotional capacity. Ultimately, as a writer, [that has] become foundational whether I’m writing about war or not.”

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A former Marine on finding meaning during – and after – war

Elliot Ackerman’s meditative memoir “Places and Names” distills his experiences during and after five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines. Since leaving the military, the Silver Star recipient has traveled to Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as a journalist, seeking deeper insight into his own and America’s role in its “forever wars.” In this email interview, Ackerman – nominated for the National Book Award for his 2017 novel “Dark at the Crossing” – discusses finding meaning in war and his post-military search for purpose and peace of mind.

After leaving the Marines, you met a former al-Qaeda jihadist in Turkey who fought in Iraq at the same time as you. He tells you “I regret none of the war.” You say, “I don’t regret my choice, but maybe I regret being asked to choose.” Have your questions about U.S. war policy affected how you see your combat experience?

When I reflect on the war, the U.S. cause isn’t central to how I feel. I didn’t join the Marines because I agreed with one set or another of U.S. policies. I joined because I wanted to serve my country. I did that and feel no regret about it. Actually, I feel a lot of pride about it. I feel pride for how my friends and I took care of each other in the wars. As a citizen, I regret that our leaders didn’t come up with better policies. I think every American at this point wishes we hadn’t gone into Iraq.

You write of friends lost in war, “I hope they’d think what we did for each other was worth it.” Does the absence of resolution in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars complicate the question of whether what occurred was “worth it”?

Perhaps it is difficult for people to understand, but at the ground level, war becomes very personal, even intimate. [Americans] often only hear about the policy debates or ideological debates. But for the people fighting, those debates often feel like abstractions; it’s about your friends and what you’re doing for each other every day. To say you regret the experience, or that it wasn’t worth it, is to say that you wish undone everything that happened. I don’t feel that way.

You write that war infuses troops with such an intense sense of purpose that some veterans later struggle to readjust to civilian life. How did you handle that change?

Simply put, I had to repurpose myself when I got out of the Marines. I found that purpose in becoming a writer and also in being a father. For many, though, it’s hard to figure out what you’re going to do next. We talk a lot about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in our society. There are, of course, types of PTSD which include flashbacks, night terrors – really dramatic symptoms. But there’s also another type of PTSD – one which is less intense, arguably more widespread, and particularly insidious: a drifting that many veterans struggle with when they come home, an inability to find that next purpose.

How have the internal creative process of writing and the external act of visiting conflict zones revealed for you a purpose beyond combat and influenced your work?

There is, obviously, more to life than the battlefield. However, in war, you see the entire spectrum of what we as humans are capable of, from the savagery we’re capable of inflicting to the sacrifices we’re capable of making. It’s all there – the entire spectrum of human emotional capacity. Ultimately, as a writer, [that has] become foundational whether I’m writing about war or not.

You describe a church in Berlin that has been left partially in ruins since it was bombed in World War II as “a reminder that remembrance and reconciliation are often one and the same.” Did writing a memoir help you reconcile your combat experience with a deeper understanding of war?

In my journalism (and in the book), I go back to some of the places where I fought. I’ve since been asked if that was cathartic, and the truth is: not really. Perhaps it would be cathartic if the wars weren’t still going on in those places – like how Vietnam vets return to a booming Ho Chi Minh City or World War II vets return to the beaches in France. But in places like Fallujah [in Iraq] or the Hindu Kush [mountain range in Afghanistan], the war is still going on, so returning feels more like the updating of an experience as opposed to the closure of an experience. And that gets to one of the things that’s been challenging in these “forever wars”: everyone who has returned [home] has ultimately had to make their own separate peace, declaring the war over for themselves even as it continues.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

If you’re in the Boston area, join us for a conversation with Monitor reporter Martin Kuz and author Elliot Ackerman at the Boston Book Festival, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

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The Monitor's View

A radical choice for equality in Tunisia

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Tunisia keeps sparking new lessons in the basics of democracy. Last Sunday’s election of a new president was no exception. The surprise victor, law professor Kais Saied, won in large part because disenchanted young people were inspired by his radical concepts of equality, in both words and actions. His campaign alone was an expression of equality. He paid for it out of his own money, even returning contributions. Likewise, his platform was based on the concept of providing equal opportunity for all to become equal. Rather than propose many programs, he told voters “you are the program.”

This icon of equality is setting an example for much of the Middle East, where most leaders treat people more as subjects than citizens. Mr. Saied even used his victory to turn the burden of governance back on the people. “My advice to Tunisian young people is to use this great opportunity to ... put forward examples of honesty and righteousness.” He sees such gifts of character as equally given to everyone.

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A radical choice for equality in Tunisia

Tunisia, the North African nation that ignited the 2011 Arab Spring, keeps sparking new lessons for Arab and Muslim countries in the basics of democracy. Last Sunday’s election of a new president was no exception. The surprise victor, law professor Kais Saied, won in large part because disenchanted young people were inspired by his radical concepts of equality, in both words and actions.

His campaign alone was an expression of equality. He paid for it out of his own money, even returning contributions. His headquarters was a small room on the upper floor of a building with no elevator. With few aids or advisers, he often met voters going door to door or in small gatherings. When his main opponent was temporarily jailed, Mr. Saied suspended his campaign. He did not like “the lack of equal opportunities between the two candidates.”

Likewise, his platform was based on the concept of providing equal opportunity for all to become equal. Rather than propose many programs, he told voters “you are the program.” He plans to shift power to elected local councils and make it easier to remove national leaders. He said the era of political parties is over and the “state” is only a “democracy of individuals.”

In his victory speech, he vowed to “work so that all the laws apply to all Tunisians, including myself.” It was his way of attacking a legacy of patriarchy, tribalism, and nepotism that still lingers in Tunisia despite a new Constitution and equality-promoting laws that, on paper, claim individual liberty. Without greater equality of opportunity in many aspects of Tunisian life, a dormant economy cannot begin to thrive.

To be sure, Mr. Saied has a weakness in his concept. He opposes, for example, women being given equal inheritance. One reason is that the Quran is quite specific on men receiving a larger share of family wealth. The other is that a majority of Tunisians, including women, still hold to this discrimination.

Despite this, Tunisia’s election of this icon of equality is again setting an example for much of the Middle East, where most leaders treat people more as subjects than citizens. Mr. Saied even used his victory to turn the burden of governance back on the people. “My advice to Tunisian young people is to use this great opportunity to ... put forward examples of honesty and righteousness.” He sees such gifts of character as equally given to everyone.

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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.

Uninterrupted employment

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Sometimes the prospects for finding a job can look bleak. But under God’s guidance we can discover, nurture, and express our God-given talents in ways that benefit others as well as ourselves.

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Uninterrupted employment

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Sometimes the prospects for finding a job can look bleak, perhaps owing to claims that we are too old or too inexperienced, or that job opportunities are few or nonexistent. I’ve learned, though, that during trying times we still have help at hand.

After working at a particular organization for more than 20 years, when I was less than seven years from retirement, it was disconcerting to learn of the impending delocalization of more than 100 roles, including my team of 11. As more than two-thirds were being moved to other countries, there was a lot of anger and fear in the office atmosphere.

At first, I couldn’t contemplate working anywhere else. But I had turned to God and the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, for help finding solutions and direction throughout my career, so it was natural for me to do so again during this challenging period.

As I began to pray about job prospects for all concerned, I found it important not to outline the source and nature of those prospects. This idea came to me from something I read in the Bible. It states that when Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, he faced the temptation to “command that these stones be made bread” – to outline the specific form in which his supply would come. However, rather than falling into this trap, Jesus said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:3, 4).

Jesus’ encounter illustrates the need to faithfully rely on every word of God. Malachi promises that God will “pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (3:10). Not only is a blessing poured out to us in the form of interesting and satisfying work, but we are also poured out as a blessing in our place of work. We are the very expression of God, good, at every moment, and we can strive to live this spiritual reality wherever we are – at home, at work, around town, abroad, and so on. Under God’s guidance, we can discover, nurture, and express our God-given talents. Every one of us has our own special niche.

Under my circumstances, to fully eradicate the fear that it would be impossible to find a job locally because other organizations in the region were also delocalizing work, I found it helpful to ponder the question, “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?” (Psalms 78:19). The answer was and is and always will be a resounding yes!

For example, when Moses placed full reliance on God, he found water and manna in the wilderness to feed the children of Israel and himself. This truth was also beautifully demonstrated after Mrs. Eddy learned that a local farmer’s well was empty, which was affecting his cows’ ability to produce milk. She said, “Oh! if he only knew, Love fills that well.” The next day his well was full of water, to the utter surprise of the farmer, as there had been no rain for days (see “Mary Baker Eddy: Christian Healer,” Amplified Edition, p. 177).

This reassured me that there would be fulfilling employment for all concerned, in spite of the tight job market.

As I clung to all these ideas, the right path forward for me became clear. I had a quick and harmonious transition to an equally satisfying and progressive position in another organization. And happily, everyone else in my team also found new employment.

In God’s kingdom, supply and demand always balance each other. There cannot be any gaps or holes in God’s creation. We cannot be without purpose, usefulness, or value. God never wastes His work – not even one speck! God’s plan for good is complete and unfolds at the right time for everyone in a harmonious and orderly way.

As we focus on loving God – daily affirming our identity as His cherished and worthwhile offspring, and doing the good work He directs – the needed opportunities to express Him come along, showing our true, uninterrupted employment as His children.

Adapted from an article published in the Oct. 7, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Toast of the capital

Patrick Semansky/AP
Washington Nationals' Howie Kendrick holds his series MVP trophy as he celebrates with his family after Game 4 of baseball’s National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals Oct. 15, 2019, in Washington. The Nationals won 7-4 to sweep the series. Kendrick came up big in the regular season too, with a career-high .344 batting average in 121 games. The Nats now head into their first World Series.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 17th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll look at how Britons living in Spain are grappling with life-altering questions raised by Brexit.

Also, a quick note: The quick-read version of a story we ran yesterday on Ohio’s status as a swing state quoted a former Democratic chair describing voters in Westerville, when (as the full story makes clear) he was referring to voters in Mahoning County, in another part of the state.

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 16, 2019
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