2020
September
15
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 15, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

For the Marines, a mission to protect ... baby sea turtles

What do you picture when you think of the U.S. Marine Corps? Muddy recruits powering through epic combat endurance tests? Rows of impeccably starched uniforms marching in formation? How about protectors of threatened species?

This summer, Marines in Hawaii have been keeping watch over baby sea turtles. Marine Corps Base Hawaii assumed the responsibility this spring after green sea turtle nests were discovered on Corps training ground at Bellows Beach on Oahu.

The green sea turtle, or honu in Native Hawaiian, is a threatened species. Thanks to conservation efforts, Hawaii’s green turtle population has been increasing in recent years. 

This was the first time green sea turtle nests were found on Bellows Beach. The Marines roped off the nests and recruited civilian volunteers to help monitor the turtles through the end of nesting season in October, Hawaii News Now reports.

Marines have incorporated species and habitat protection into their roster of responsibilities for decades. In the 1970s, federal legislation required the Corps to start to address the environmental impacts of training and to assume stewardship of the land used. 

For Lt. Col. Timothy Pochop, the task is a labor of love. He spent much of his career flying helicopters, sometimes through dangerous missions. But as a zoology and environmental management major in college, he leapt at the chance to lead the Environmental Compliance and Protection Division at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. As he told Honolulu Civil Beat, “It’s not just about the legal obligation.”

Nobel politics: Do Thunberg and Trump have something in common?

In the world of Nobel Peace Prize politics, Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg, along with their constituencies, would seem to be worlds apart. But the key question is: Did they advance the cause of peace?

Noelle
Reuters/AP
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (l.) and President Donald Trump, with vastly different constituencies in international politics, have both been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and President Donald Trump have both been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ms. Thunberg for this year’s prize, for her role leading youthful protests against leaders who have failed to take serious action on climate change. And President Trump for next year’s, for coaxing the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel.

In the realm of Nobel politics, their nominations reveal a swirling sea of global thought trends that is as riven and polarized as the political landscapes of many countries.

There is no getting around the fact that the supporters of the two nominees are very different. Ms. Thunberg was nominated by two Left Party members of the Swedish Parliament. Mr. Trump was nominated by a member of Norway’s Parliament from the right-wing populist and anti-immigration Progress Party.

But this is by no means the first time the Nobel Committee has received polarizing nominations, says Vincent Keating at the University of Southern Denmark. While the patterns of global thought that are the impetus for Nobel nominations may be constantly shifting, he notes, “the underlying justifications for why these individuals should win the prize is relatively stable.”

In other words, are they peacemakers or not?

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1. Nobel politics: Do Thunberg and Trump have something in common?

Imagine the world as a theater with two Nobel Peace Prize nominees on the stage and global public opinion as the audience.

In this corner – over to the left – is Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist who has led high schoolers across the globe in Friday classroom walkouts to protest world leaders’ failure to take seriously and act on the dire consequences of a warming planet.

And in the other corner – over to the right – is President Donald Trump, on the stage for his role in coaxing the United Arab Emirates (and now a second Gulf kingdom, Bahrain) to normalize relations with Israel. The latest step toward resolving the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict was formalized in a signing ceremony at the White House Tuesday.

The audience observing Ms. Thunberg and Mr. Trump is split into two distinct camps that stand about as far apart from each other as the two Nobel nominees on the stage.

Indeed, what the two nominations reveal – Ms. Thunberg’s for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced Oct. 9, Mr. Trump’s for the 2021 prize – is a swirling sea of global thought trends that is as riven and polarized as the political landscapes of many countries, including that of the United States.

Ms. Thunberg’s supporters are not just the young who berate older generations for doing too little to reduce carbon emissions and halt the march toward an unlivable planet. Also present are groups of adults who admire the Swedish student’s activism and dedication to an existential cause. Many of them are in international media or are climate scientists, academics, philanthropists, or progressive political and cultural leaders.

Both sides dismissive

For many on President Trump’s side of the audience, Ms. Thunberg’s supporters are reduced with an eye roll as belonging to the “global elites” – or as Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld says derisively, “the cool kids in the cafeteria.” Supporters of a Trump Nobel may themselves be members of the global elite, but they hold themselves separate from the dominant “cool kid” mindset they say could never acknowledge that Mr. Trump just might deserve the prize.

“There are times when you can almost hear the Left-wing aneurysms happening. Such a moment occurred this week when it was announced that Donald Trump’s name had been put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize,” wrote the London Telegraph’s Douglas Murray last week. “Cue outrage, shock, denial, grief, rage, and a number of less elevated emotions.”

Of course the right side of the global theater – including Mr. Trump himself – had been equally dismissive and even merciless with Ms. Thunberg last year when she arrived in New York via solar-powered boat to address the United Nations General Assembly, spoke to the cream of the elites in Davos, and was named Time magazine’s 2019 person of the year.

There is no getting around the fact that the supporters of the two nominees are very different. Ms. Thunberg was nominated by two Left Party members of the Swedish Parliament who said that if neglected, the climate crisis will lead to new conflicts and wars. President Trump was nominated by Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a member of Norway’s Parliament from the right-wing populist and anti-immigration Progress Party.

Mr. Tybring-Gjedde had already nominated Mr. Trump for the Nobel in 2018 for his overtures to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – whom he also nominated.

Tom Brenner/Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks prior to signing the Abraham Accords as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani applaud at the White House in Washington, Sept. 15, 2020.

To a great extent, President Trump’s poor standing in global thought is a reflection of his deep unpopularity across much of the world. Outside of a few exceptions – Israel, the Philippines, to some degree Nigeria and India – Mr. Trump receives dismal and, in some cases, unprecedentedly low marks.

New Pew poll’s falling numbers

A new Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday of 13 countries, including key U.S. allies and partners, confirms the world’s falling esteem for the United States and dim view of the U.S. president.

The survey found historically low levels of esteem for the U.S. in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, with just above one quarter (26%) of Germans having a favorable view of the U.S. Based on the results of other questions posed in the survey, the unprecedented low ratings are tied to perceptions of disastrous management of the pandemic in the U.S. as well as to Mr. Trump’s broad unpopularity.

At the same time, the Pew survey found pockets of relatively higher favorability ratings for President Trump in each of the countries surveyed – by and large among adherents to their country’s right-wing populist and anti-immigration political parties. People like Mr. Tybring-Gjedde in Norway.

“People on the right of the political spectrum were more likely than those on the left to have a positive view of both the U.S. and Donald Trump,” says Janell Fetterolf, an expert in global attitudes at Pew Research Center in Washington. “We also found this last year,” she adds, “that supporters of right-wing populist parties are more likely to support Mr. Trump, particularly over his policies related to immigration.”

This year’s survey found eye-poppingly low levels of support for Mr. Trump – 11% in France, 10% in Germany and Denmark, 9% in Belgium – but higher support across the board among right-wing populists.

Thus President Trump’s numbers in Spain rose sharply to 45% among supporters of the right-wing Vox party; and to 34% among voters for Germany’s Alternative for Germany party.

But even among Europe’s nationalists, Mr. Trump takes a hit on the question of global leadership over his shift away from previous U.S. presidents to his “America First” outlook on international affairs, Ms. Fetterolf says.

Polarizing is nothing new

Some experts in international affairs point out in any case that while the Thunberg-Trump Nobel nominations may indeed reflect a hyper-polarized world of deep political divides, this is by no means the first time the Nobel committee has received polarizing nominations.

“The fact that polarizing people are being nominated should not be all that surprising,” says Vincent Keating, an expert in international politics at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. “The prize has previously been given to people that have been polarizing, both in terms of the reverence or contempt for them among certain political constituencies, and questions over whether they deserve the prize,” he adds. “See Kissinger and Obama for contrasting American examples.”

In any case, Professor Keating notes that while the patterns of global thought, political and otherwise, that are the impetus for Nobel nominations may be constantly shifting, reflecting widely divergent perspectives, “the underlying justifications for why these individuals should win the prize is relatively stable.”

In other words, are they peacemakers or not?

“Trump isn’t being nominated for just anything, he is nominated for his alleged role in brokering a deal that could sustain peace” in the Middle East, Professor Keating says. “Same with Greta Thunberg – her climate change activism is explicitly linked back to the role it has in preserving peace.”

Perception Gaps

Comparing what’s ‘known’ to what’s true

Can America move beyond mass incarceration? (audio)

Most agree that America’s justice system is broken. But how should it be fixed? The final episode of “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” explores different paths forward.

Noelle

Many Americans question the complex role of the U.S. justice system. And over the course of our podcast, “Perception Gaps: Locked Up,” we’ve taken a hard look at what we think we know about who we lock up and why, how much we spend on this massive institution, and the people and communities the system has left behind.

Today, in the season’s final episode, we ask: How do we chart a way forward?

Answers to this question, understandably, vary. Some believe we should follow the example of other nations that operate more humane, rehabilitative prisons. Others say we should adopt models that help reconcile people who have caused harm with those they’ve hurt. Still others want better support for communities, including survivors of crime and the formerly incarcerated. And some want a justice system without prisons and jails at all.

But the key, they all say, is a willingness to imagine other ways of pursuing justice – instead of relying so heavily on incarceration. 

“We really need to think outside the box,” says Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied justice systems around the world. “We need to shake up our ideas about prison, and we need to think about what really builds safe communities.”

Note: This is Episode 6 of Season 2. To listen to the other episodes and sign up for the newsletter, please visit the “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” main page

This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story here.

Incarceration, Reimagined

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Why Russian aid for Lukashenko doesn’t end Belarus crisis

Belarus is dependent on Russia to navigate out of its crisis. But experts indicate that despite his summit with Vladimir Putin, President Lukashenko is the most immediate concern for the Kremlin and protesters alike.

Noelle
TUT.by/AP
A woman wearing white stands in front of a riot police line during a Belarusian opposition supporters' rally in Minsk, protesting the official presidential election results, on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. Protests calling for the Belarusian president's resignation have broken out daily since the Aug. 9 presidential election that officials say handed him a sixth term in office.

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Belarus has long been joined in a largely theoretical “union state” with Russia. The economic part of this linkage has enabled Alexander Lukashenko to maintain his grip as president of a quasi-Soviet paternalistic regime. 

Now, beyond the storm of protests over alleged fraud in Mr. Lukashenko’s reelection, an economic crisis is brewing, and Russia is growing weary of subsidizing Belarus.

Despite a meeting Monday between Mr. Lukashenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a solution to a month of tumultuous protests appears no closer. There is no longer any doubt that Russia intends to back Mr. Lukashenko’s claim to legitimacy, after Mr. Putin promised him a lot of cash and political support. But without acknowledgment of the opposition in Belarus, many analysts say a resolution to the crisis will remain murky.

“We want to see relations between the Belarusian and Russian people continue to reflect the level of trust and friendship that exists,” says Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the U.S., who would probably have been Mr. Lukashenko’s top contender in the election if he hadn’t been forced to leave the country in July. But “Lukashenko has already deceived everyone many times.”

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3. Why Russian aid for Lukashenko doesn’t end Belarus crisis

Despite a four-hour-long, mostly secret meeting Monday between Belarus’ disputed president, Alexander Lukashenko, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a solution to Belarus’ month of tumultuous protests over alleged electoral fraud appears no closer.

But there is no longer the slightest doubt that Russia intends to back Mr. Lukashenko’s claim to legitimacy, after Mr. Putin promised him a lot of cash, political support, and other forms of assistance that remain unspecified.

While this may increase Mr. Putin’s leverage over Mr. Lukashenko, who has promised much to the Kremlin over the years while delivering little, Belarusian and Russian experts say that it does not solve the most glaring, immediate problem for both Russia and the Belarusian opposition: Mr. Lukashenko’s continued hold on power. Without an acknowledgment of the opposition, they say, a resolution to Belarus’ crisis will remain murky.

“What we have learned is that Putin will unambiguously back Lukashenko with money and political support. There were probably some other informal agreements made to strengthen the union state,” says Alexei Dzermont, a political analyst who heads Northern Eurasia, an independent think tank in Minsk. “There is nothing inherently bad in the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko. Any way out of our predicament would require Russian help. ...

“But Russia might also have made some efforts to establish relations with the Belarusian opposition as well. They could do that. But in Moscow it seems they see the opposition as anti-Russian, and they don’t believe claims by opposition leaders that they are not.”

Russia’s involvement, EU’s absence

Mr. Putin publicly offered Mr. Lukashenko an immediate $1.5 billion lifeline to rescue his struggling economy from imminent collapse, reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to the ill-defined “union state” economic integration project, and vowed full allegiance to the NATO-like military alliance that binds Russia and Belarus. Mr. Putin vocally approved of Mr. Lukashenko’s road map out of the crisis, which involves rewriting Belarus’ constitution, holding a public referendum to adopt the new document and then, after some time, fresh elections for a new president and parliament.

The Kremlin leader denied Belarus’ opposition protesters what they most wanted – recognition of their grievances and support for their demand that Mr. Lukashenko depart immediately – but offered vague assurances that Russia wishes to see Belarusians resolve their own differences free of external interference. Perhaps as an olive branch to Belarusian protesters, he ordered the withdrawal from the Belarusian border of a “reserve unit” of Russian police that had been pledged to help restore order in the event of civic breakdown in the protest-hit country.

The Kremlin’s prominent role in resolving Belarus’ future highlights how dependent Belarus, with 9.5 million mostly Russian-speaking people, is upon the economic largess, political approval, and security weight of Russia. The cautious response of the West might also be an indicator of how much the world has changed in the past couple of decades.

Andrei Stasevich /BelTA/AP
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko steps down from his plane after arriving at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.  He was visiting Sochi for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin a day after an estimated 150,000 protesters flooded the streets of the Belarusian capital.

Just six years ago the European Union offered full-throated support for Ukraine’s efforts to change its geopolitical allegiance, including EU association and massive financial assistance. Today, apparently more leery of getting directly involved, the EU declared Belarus’ Aug. 9 election invalid, sanctioned a few dozen top Belarusian officials, and will likely confine itself to verbal expressions of disapproval going forward. Only Lithuania has so far declared Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to be the country’s legitimate leader.

For her part, Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee to Lithuania last month, addressed Mr. Putin with the warning that any deals he strikes with Mr. Lukashenko will be regarded as illegal and added, “I regret that you have decided on dialogue with a dictator and not with the people of Belarus.”

Valery Tsepkalo, former Belarusian ambassador to the U.S. and a business leader, would probably have been Mr. Lukashenko’s top contender in the election if he hadn’t been barred from the ballot and forced to leave the country in July. He says that, given Mr. Lukashenko’s record of perfidy – including arresting 33 Russians and accusing them of subversion before the elections – Mr. Putin should know better than to make any agreements with him.

“We want to see relations between the Belarusian and Russian people continue to reflect the level of trust and friendship that exists,” he told the Monitor by phone. “Lukashenko has already deceived everyone many times, and can be expected to continue doing so ... It’s important to recognize that he is not legitimate in the eyes of the Belarusian people.”

Russian financial aid to Mr. Lukashenko will only prop up his regime, he says. “The salaries of most state employees have already been delayed. Huge amounts of money are being paid to riot police and security forces. They are receiving big bonuses, and we can see that the redistribution of resources is aimed at rewarding those whom Lukashenko’s regime relies upon. ...

“It seems to me that if Russia wants to be constructive, it should demand the release of political prisoners and the termination of criminal cases that were opened on absurd grounds,” he says. “As for the constitutional reforms, we need to discuss not just general terms but the nuts and bolts of the road map that Lukashenko is proposing. Otherwise it’s just empty talk that Lukashenko is giving to Belarusian society and the Russian leadership.”

Lukashenko’s limbo, and after

Belarus has been joined in a largely theoretical union state with Russia since before the Putin era. The economic part of that arrangement has enabled Mr. Lukashenko to maintain his quasi-Soviet paternalistic regime in which everyone gets fed, housed, and educated, but most development is frozen. Belarusians have watched over the past 20 years as neighboring Poland and Lithuania joined the EU and radically improved their lives. Meanwhile next door Russia underwent a different transformation under Mr. Putin that brought order and relative prosperity. To the south, Ukraine is still going through a concerted effort to detach itself from Russia’s sphere that some Belarusians find inspirational, and others view as cautionary.

“Lukashenko built his system on cheap Russian oil supplies, which were processed in Belarusian refineries and sold on to Europe. He, his family, and government profited from the margins,” says Oleg Sosna, a business leader in Belarus’ information technology sector. “Using the rhetoric of the union state, he received huge loans from Russia. Playing his ‘pendulum’ diplomacy [playing Russia against the West], he also negotiated big loans from the World Bank and the EU. ... Over 40% of our exports go to Russia, including things that would not be competitive in the EU, like our agricultural production and the vehicles produced by the Minsk Automobile Plant.”

But Mr. Lukashenko’s economic model has been collapsing for some time. With global oil prices plunging and Russia growing weary of subsidizing his archaic system, an economic crisis has been creeping up. By many accounts, the Belarusian banking system is paralyzed, the ruble is sinking fast, and reforms are going to be necessary regardless of who is in charge.

The political trappings of the union state, which include a joint parliament and government agencies, have remained toothless talking-shops for almost two decades, and their only utility appears to be to provide sinecures for retiring politicians. The joke – or rumor, depending on who you ask – going around is that a special chair is being prepared for Mr. Lukashenko in that apparatus.

Polls in both countries show that majorities value good relations, but that enthusiasm for the union state has been falling, with almost half of Russians saying it’s not needed in a recent survey by the state-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center.

“I understand that Russia wants the level of our relations to remain. And this is a legitimate concern,” says Mr. Tsepkalo. “We should maintain our relations with Russia, but we should also seek normal trade and investment relations with the West. We also need to build new values inside our society: the principle of the separation of powers, the right to choose our own leaders, civil liberties. I’m sure that Russians can understand this. We can’t develop just in one direction, we need several vectors.”

As Belarusian protesters continue to flood the streets, Russia holds many advantages in its efforts to maintain Belarus’ geopolitical allegiance, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. But it lacks the ability to inspire the youth and professionals who yearn for greater freedom and civil rights, and risks alienating them if it continues to support Mr. Lukashenko.

“Belarus is always going to be the object of geopolitical competition between East and West,” he says. “Just now there seems to be little appetite in the EU to get engaged with this crisis as they did in Ukraine a few years ago. That puts a damper on the hopes of pro-Western Belarusian liberals. But it doesn’t really help Russia. ...

“Russia has money, and raw power, but no good ideas. For those Belarusians who are transfixed by the aspirations of nation, liberal values, or joining the global mainstream, Russia has nothing to offer.”

Holy misdirected anger! Bats not to blame, say scientists.

During times of crisis, it’s natural for people to try to identify a scapegoat, or in this case, a scape-bat. But scientists suggest that we resist this urge.

Noelle
Martin Grimm/picture-alliance/dpa/AP/File
A maternity colony of the common pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) is seen under a wooden beam of a house in Hesse, Germany. Insectivorous bats like these help protect food crops from pests, say scientists.

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Bats are often seen as threatening – especially lately, as scientists have suggested a connection between a bat species and the coronavirus pandemic. 

But to bat biologists, such fear is misguided. Not only are there more than 1,400 different species of bats, but many bats play vital roles in their ecosystems.

In the tropics, where all kinds of bats are often killed out of fear of vampire bats, fruit-eating bats have been found to play a key role in pollinating rainforests. 

In North America, some insectivorous bats may be vital to agriculture. Researchers estimate that losing bats across the continent could have an economic impact of agricultural losses perhaps more than $3.7 billion a year. 

But researchers say there is also inherent value in understanding bats, regardless of what they do for us. “They represent kind of the pinnacle of evolution in my mind,” says Joy O’Keefe, a wildlife biologist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The fact that they can fly and that they use echolocation to navigate at night in the dark is remarkable. Bats are just super cool, and we know so little about them, and we have so much to learn from them.”

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4. Holy misdirected anger! Bats not to blame, say scientists.

Often associated with darkness, bats have long been vilified in Western culture. And now scientists’ claims that a species of bat likely played a role in the origin of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped their popularity.

But to bat biologists, such animus is misguided. For one thing, bats are incredibly diverse: There are more than 1,400 different species of bats, making up between a quarter and a fifth of all mammal species.

“People really do think of a bat as just one kind of animal,” says Gerald Carter, an assistant professor and behavioral ecologist at Ohio State University.

Bats also play vital roles in the ecosystems they inhabit. By spreading seeds, fruit bats help regenerate rainforests, and by eating insects, insectivorous bats help protect plants – including crops – from pests. When it comes to bats, say scientists who study them, we’ve got it all wrong.

“Bats are ecologically just really important,” Professor Carter says. “They provide billions of dollars’ worth of ecosystem services to people.”

So what exactly is a bat?

“Bats are the mammals that can fly,” Dr. Carter says, and, besides sharing a common ancestor, that’s all that unifies all bats. 

Counter to the popular image of bats, not all of them are nocturnal. A few bat species have been observed searching for food during the day. 

Bats don’t all look like one another either. Some are massive, like the Philippine golden-crowned flying fox, whose wingspan stretches more than 5 feet. Others are tiny, like the inch-long Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, also called the bumblebee bat. 

And although the horror-story view of bats often depicts them as blood-sucking, bat diets are extremely varied from species to species. While some do feed on blood, many munch on insects or fruit, and one kind of bat even eats fish.

Vampire bats draw perhaps the most ire. And although they can be reservoirs for disease, the way that humans that live near them often respond is to try to eradicate all the bats around, says Dr. Carter. And that can create more problems.

A 2013 study found that reducing vampire bat populations may actually increase rabies cases, likely because of a sort of herd immunity in some populations. When bats are killed off indiscriminately, Dr. Carter explains, more individuals from farther afield will be moving around and interacting with one another, thus bringing more disease into a given population. 

We know that bats are really sensitive to disturbances, says Joy O’Keefe, assistant professor and wildlife extension specialist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. So between eradication and habitat loss, bats are probably getting less and less healthy more broadly and that is increasing the likelihood of them being disease spreaders. 

It’s not all about disease, though. Those bats that eat insects or fruit also play key roles in agriculture and the broader ecosystem.

In the tropics, where all kinds of bats are often killed out of fear of vampire bats, fruit-eating bats have been found to play a key role in rainforest regeneration. Their diets help disperse seeds of a wide range of plants.

Snacking on crop and forest pests in North America, some insectivorous bats may be vital to agriculture as we know it. Researchers estimate that losing bats across the continent could cost $3.7 billion in agricultural losses. 

Amir Cohen/Reuters/File
Bats are seen in the Old City in Caesarea, Israel, April 26, 2017. Fruit bats like these are thought to be important pollinators, helping to sustain plant life and spread seeds for crops.

Shifting perceptions

Dr. Carter’s enthusiasm for bats goes beyond their benefits to people and the broader ecosystem. 

“I just love bats so much,” he says. “It’s a real deep-down thing.” He compares vampire bats – the main subject of his research – to wolves. 

“Right now, people really value wolves. They put them on T-shirts, they say wolves are really majestic, cool, smart, and socially charismatic animals,” Dr. Carter says. “But for a long time, people wanted to just eradicate wolves because the entire idea that we had of a wolf was that it was just terrible for ranchers and that they were really aggressive and nasty.”

And, he says, to someone who studies them, vampire bats are all those same things, too.

Dr. O’Keefe agrees that there is inherent value in understanding bats, regardless of what they do for us. “They represent kind of the pinnacle of evolution in my mind,” she says. “The fact that they can fly and that they use echolocation to navigate at night in the dark is remarkable. Bats are just super cool, and we know so little about them, and we have so much to learn from them.”

Bats aren’t just diverse in how they eat or where they live or what they look like, too. They also have rich social lives that are incredibly varied among species, Dr. Carter says. For example, vampire bats – his subject of study – have very individualized relationships with one another, much like humans have distinct friendships. They display altruism by feeding and grooming one another, and those relationships seem to be reciprocal even among non-kin

There’s also a bat social system that seems unique in the animal kingdom: social groups entirely made up of unrelated individuals. Scientists still don’t quite understand why the greater spear-nosed bat forms such groups, Dr. Carter says, but the bonds among group members seem to be quite strong. When a young pup falls from the roost, other groups will try to attack it, but females – even unrelated to the pup – will guard it.

Over the last couple of decades, bat biologists and conservationists have made a concerted effort to change the perception of bats. A big push came with the discovery in the 2000s that white-nose syndrome was decimating North American bat populations. In fact, says Dr. O’Keefe, some of the funding to save the bats across the U.S. was specifically allocated to outreach efforts to engage and educate the public about the importance of bats.

There have been children’s books like Stellaluna, scientists have worked with farmers to understand the role bats play in their fields, and bat biologists have hosted events and visited schools and libraries to foster a culture of appreciation for bats. 

And it seems to be working, says Dr. O’Keefe, who was formerly director of the Center for Bat Research, Outreach, and Conservation at Indiana State University. 

“Certainly in North America, we have made really serious inroads in bat conservation and in people’s perceptions of bats,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed that in the supermarket or wherever you go and see Halloween stuff, but over the years, we’ve all noticed that there’s been a big shift toward these smiling bats instead of bats with scary fangs and glowing red eyes. You don’t see that as much anymore.”

Points of Progress

What's going right

A council to give women seat at table in Afghanistan

This is more than feel-good news – it’s where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.

Noelle
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5. A council to give women seat at table in Afghanistan

1. United States

Law firms from every state have joined the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance, an initiative dedicated to using members’ legal expertise to challenge laws and policies that negatively affect people of color. The death of George Floyd inspired a group of pro bono lawyers to start the project in partnership with the nonprofit Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, with the goal of shifting their sights from individual cases of racism and discrimination to advocating for systemic change. The alliance has grown to include 260 law firms since its July launch, and is now drafting papers to become a formal nonprofit. This is an essential step in making lasting change, said Ben Weinberg, pro bono partner at Dentons law firm, a founding member of the alliance: “If you don’t have infrastructure, something that exists independent of the good will of individual volunteers, it becomes all but impossible to generate an ongoing project.” (Westlaw Today)

2. Angola

Between January and June, the National Demining Institute (INAD) cleared about 5 acres of land mines in the province of Zaire, paving the way for new development projects and safe travel. Twenty-six years of civil war left the countryside littered with land mines, and despite demining efforts, many people are maimed every year by the relics of a conflict that ended in 2002. During the latest demining campaign, sappers removed 9,982 explosive devices, including anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. They also educated citizens about the risks of land mines and how they can stay safe, according to the provincial department of INAD. The same source said nearly 10,000 explosive devices including bombs, anti-personnel mines, and ammunition were removed from the region in 2019. (Angola Press News Agency)

3. Ethiopia

Researchers have created a portable laboratory that can test water samples for millions of bacteria, allowing scientists to identify waterborne hazards faster and at lower cost. In sub-Saharan Africa, monitoring water quality can be a time-consuming and expensive process. Jemila Mohammed, a postgraduate student at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia who worked on the project, says the initial investment in one of these toolboxes is one-fifth the cost of conventional benchtop sequencing machines.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Women collect water rations on May 18, 2017, in Melkaselah Village, Ethiopia. Clean water is crucial for drinking and cooking.

If the suitcase-sized laboratory can keep up with local standards, experts say it could become an essential tool for developing countries. “Any new research which targets simplifying water testing, which may reduce cost, will play a significant role in increasing access to water,” said Worlanyo Siabi, CEO of Ghana’s Community Water and Sanitation Agency. (scidev.net)

4. Afghanistan

Afghanistan is setting up a council to empower women and safeguard their rights – a promising development ahead of the country’s peace talks with the Taliban. The council will include female deputy governors from various provinces. The announcement came after a coalition of women’s rights activists wrote to President Ashraf Ghani, demanding a seat at the table to ensure that “our place and contribution towards rebuilding our country [will not] be erased.” Activists are concerned the reemergence of the Taliban in politics could set back decades of progress toward gender equality. While it’s not clear what formal powers the council will wield, its creation gives hope to Fawzia Koofi, a lawmaker and vocal critic of the Islamist militant group. Ms. Koofi, who has been involved in the peace process, said the council would not only preserve gains made since 2001, but also help advance rights for women. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

5. India

As part of a new effort to empower female students, any girl who passes her end-of-school exams in the state of Assam will receive a gas-powered or electric scooter. The goal is not only to “empower the girls and make them independent,” as the state’s education minister said, but also to encourage promising students to continue their education. Lack of safe, efficient transportation is often cited as a major reason for dropping out of school or missing class, according to a report from the Child Rights and You charity.

Anupam Nath/AP/File
Indian girls walk to a school in Burha Mayong village, about 28 miles east of Guwahati, in Assam state, April 9, 2015.

While some say the Assam scooter plan doesn’t go far enough with addressing the infrastructure barriers to higher education, others see it as an encouraging first step. College student Gitashree Das said the reward would allow her to swap an hourlong commute on a cramped bus and auto rickshaw for a 20-minute scooter ride. (Reuters)

6. New Zealand

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has helped the wild population of black stilts – or kakī, in the Māori language – grow by 30% over the past year. The kakī is a critically endangered wading bird that used to be common across the North and South islands of New Zealand. There are 169 adult birds known to live in the wild. Wild kakī are primarily threatened by introduced predators, such as cats and ferrets, but this year has been particularly difficult due to excess flooding during the breeding season. In August, the Department of Conservation’s captive-breeding and reintroduction program also released 104 birds (not included in the earlier figure) to help boost wild populations. Despite these challenges, the success of the Kakī Recovery Programme has made conservationists hopeful that they can save one of the world’s rarest birds. (Mongabay)

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When political clichés fall away

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Every American election cycle seems to recycle clichés that don’t always hold up. Then there are moments when clichés fall away. This was captured in a tweet Sunday by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. After two of his law enforcement officers – one a young mother – were ambushed by a lone gunman in Compton, the sheriff wrote:

“On behalf of @LASDHQ, I would like to extend our deepest gratitude to both @RealDonaldTrump and @JoeBiden for reaching out today and offering their kind words regarding the horrific ambush which our two brave deputies survived last night.” Both presidential candidates had condemned the act.

It used to be that inflamed rhetoric during a campaign would ebb following an election and give way to a modicum of civility when it came time to govern. That is less true today. Robert Gates, a former CIA director and defense secretary, once warned of the consequences of deepening distrust on public service. This need not be the case.

Sheriff Villanueva’s tweet carries more than appreciation for bipartisan concern. It conveys an appeal for empathy. That can go a long way toward helping those in public service reach the higher ideals of their calling.

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When political clichés fall away

Every American election cycle seems to recycle clichés that don’t always hold up. Republicans are greedy and uncaring. Democrats are socialists and soft on crime. This year is no different. Yet there are signs voters are weary of stereotypes that can harm. In their desire for social justice, Black people are tired of being mischaracterized. Police are tired of being vilified. In the digital age, every group with a grievance more easily sees how labels spread – and can hurt.

Then there are moments when clichés fall away. This was captured in a tweet Sunday by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. After two of his law enforcement officers – one a young mother – were ambushed by a lone gunman in Compton, the sheriff wrote:

“On behalf of @LASDHQ, I would like to extend our deepest gratitude to both @RealDonaldTrump and @JoeBiden for reaching out today and offering their kind words regarding the horrific ambush which our two brave deputies survived last night.” Both presidential candidates had condemned the act.

It used to be that inflamed rhetoric during a campaign would ebb following an election and give way to a modicum of civility when it came time to govern. That is less true today. Robert Gates, a former CIA director and defense secretary, once warned of the consequences of deepening distrust in politics: “Cynicism about the people and institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive. Too often, those who chose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse and, in many cases, politicians run for office running down the very government they hope to lead. In the eyes of many successful private citizens, the burdens of public service have grown too onerous. To them public life seems too mean, too ugly, too risky, too dangerous, and too frustrating.”

This need not be the case. On many issues, voters are not as far apart as they seem. Take public security. Nearly two-thirds are concerned about “law and order,” finds a new Monmouth University poll. That term is problematic as it is historically loaded with racist undertones. Yet after months of social justice protests, some of which resulted in looting or attracted violent confrontations with counterprotesters, a plurality of Republicans and Democrats agree that restoring calm should be a priority.

Importantly, half of Black Americans also agree. While the social justice movement has given voice to the frustration and anguish Black people feel about police violence in their communities, a June Yahoo News/YouGov survey taken after the killing of George Floyd found that 50% of Black respondents still said that “we need more cops on the street.” Only 22% supported zeroing out police department budgets altogether, according to a Gallup poll in July.

Politicians are fond of noting that elections have consequences. That is true as much for how they are waged as for what they determine. Sheriff Villanueva’s tweet carries more than appreciation for bipartisan concern. It conveys an appeal for empathy. That can go a long way toward helping those in public service reach the higher ideals of their calling.

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.

Thirty-one orange jumpsuits

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The more weight we put on the side of God’s goodness, the more good we’re empowered to do – and this is true for each of us, no matter where we are or what circumstance we’re in.

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1. Thirty-one orange jumpsuits

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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As the guard brought me into the room at the juvenile detention center, I paused to get my bearings. My prayer went something like this: “God, help me to express Your wisdom. Keep reminding me that each one who comes into this room belongs to You. Put Your words in my mouth.”

I was there to offer inspiration, and I’d been expecting two, three, maybe four people. Then 31 teenagers, with hands behind their back, entered and slowly made their way to rows of chairs. Thirty-one orange jumpsuits. Four young women. Twenty-seven young men. All in their teens, except two boys, age 10.

Not a single smile or hello. Their body language screamed disdain. “Thirty-one,” I couldn’t help thinking. “You have trouble just talking to your own two kids!”

A quick battle took place in my thought. “What chance do you have to help them? They’re just losers. You’ll never get their attention.” But then inspiration took over: “Are they really losers?”

Christian Science explains that fundamentally we are not mistake-prone, volatile mortals. Each of us is a child of God – spiritual, spiritually dynamic, and expressing divine dignity. And everyone – including those in orange jumpsuits – is capable of thinking and acting in a way that better and better reflects this true, spiritual nature.

So I tried to look past the orange, to see the God-given potential and good in these young people. What came to me was to challenge them to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermometer just rises or falls according to what is happening around it. A thermostat, on the other hand, regulates.

I challenged them to be spiritual healers. What we learn in our individual spiritual journeys about God as good, and about our identity as the expression of divine good, enables us to be “thermostats.” That is, to turn situations higher, holier – to uplift those we meet to greater happiness and health through the understanding of God as our divine Life. We can view ourselves and others, day by day, in that light.

Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, did this to such an extent that people yearned for even just his shadow to fall on them (see Acts 5:15). Today, too, the “shadow” of our growing spiritual understanding can help ourselves as well as others. God’s love, which is expressed throughout creation, heals minds and bodies. The more weight we put on the side of God’s goodness, the more good we’re empowered to do, no matter where we are or what circumstance we’re in.

The hour and a half we were together flew by. What had started as 31 orange jumpsuits turned into 31 precious friends. We all smiled and laughed.

At the end, one of them asked, “What is it like to change someone’s life?” This young man had started the session with arms folded and a scowl on his face. I thought he’d be the last to ask such a question. But the smile on his face and tenderness in his eyes told me that he, himself, might just be taking up the challenge.

Will you?

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Rock-a-bye

Petros Giannakouris/AP
A 2-month-old baby from Afghanistan sleeps at an abandoned building near Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Sept. 15, 2020. Just over 6% of people have been rehoused following a recent fire that destroyed Greece's biggest refugee camp, making 12,500 people homeless.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Staff. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow, when we’ll be debuting our first animated Home Forum essay.

Also, a reminder: If you’d like to check out some of the faster-moving news stories that we’re watching, jump over to our First Look page for the latest headlines.

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