2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 18, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

In Washington, a source of ‘panda-mic’ joy

In normal times, the National Zoo in Washington can be a haven from hectic city (and political) life. Now it’s a special source of joy – home to a 4-week-old giant panda cub, which just had its first, quick checkup and is doing great. Gender still unknown, it weighed in at about 1.5 pounds, squawks loudly, and is getting its little black-and-white panda markings

That this baby exists at all is a story to behold. The mama panda, Mei Xiang, was considered almost certainly too old to reproduce again. But in March, a week after the pandemic forced the zoo to close, she entered a brief window of “heat” and a small crew of panda reproduction specialists artificially inseminated her. On Aug. 21, Mei Xiang gave birth.

Aside from providing a welcome distraction to humans via peeks at cute pictures and the zoo’s “panda cam,” the cub is also a reminder of a more hopeful time in U.S.-Chinese ties. “Panda diplomacy” has been an enduring legacy of the Nixon era. Whether it lasts may be the least important question hanging over the fraught relationship. But for now, the baby panda remains a happy story. 

“People need this,” Brandie Smith, the zoo’s deputy director, told The New Yorker right after the cub’s improbable birth. “It’s the story of hope, and the story of success, and the story of joy.”

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A deeper look

The United Nations at 75: Indispensable or irrelevant?

It may be no coincidence that there has not been a world war since the U.N. was founded 75 years ago. Still, the institution faces the challenge of staying relevant as rising nationalism threatens the very idea of global interdependence.

Linda
Stephane Mahe/Reuters/File
The U.N. flag is seen during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 8, 2015.

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As the United Nations marks its 75th anniversary this fall amid a worldwide pandemic, there is widespread stock-taking of just how the existence of the first truly global multilateral institution has changed the world.

Is it indispensable or irrelevant?

The institution’s existence corresponds to three-quarters of a century of remarkable progress for humanity in world health, life expectancy, extreme poverty reduction, recognition of universal human rights, and women’s and girls’ equality. It has set principles for everything from development to democratic governance and created the concept of international peacekeeping.

“The U.N. was set up first and foremost as a security organization,” says Stephen Schlesinger, a U.N. historian at the Century Foundation in New York. “And it can’t be said enough that there has been no nuclear war or world war in the 75 years of the U.N.’s existence.”

Some, however, believe the U.N.’s glory days are over, as powerful trends weaken the idea of multilateral institutions – such as a return to big-power geopolitics, a surge of nationalism, and a global shift from civil and political rights to social, economic, and cultural rights.  

Yet, the most vocal critics say they are speaking out because the world needs the principles on which the U.N. was founded.

The United Nations at 75: Indispensable or irrelevant?

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It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Siddharth Chatterjee owes his life to the United Nations.

His Hindu father was a refugee from what is today Bangladesh. Young Siddharth grew up with the chaos of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan as his history, but the security of U.N. assistance programs as his cradle.

At 3 years old, the boy was diagnosed with polio. Yet the quick intervention of a doctor and the U.N.’s polio eradication program – one of the young global institution’s first health initiatives – helped him recover.

At 6, a proud Siddharth marched off to school sporting a backpack marked UNICEF, for the U.N. agency dedicated to promoting children’s welfare.

And years later, as a young lieutenant in the Indian army who had come to question resorting to armed conflict to solve disputes, he would find a new sense of purpose in the U.N.’s peacekeeping and peace-building operations. His first assignment: Bosnia. Iraq, South Sudan – where he spearheaded an initiative to decommission child soldiers – Indonesia, and Somalia would follow.

Courtesy of Nicholas Wilson/UNDP Kenya
“The U.N. ... can be the convener, the catalyst, the connector to new forms of partnerships with the private sector and other development actors – a global enabler of humanity’s continued progress.” – Siddharth Chatterjee, U.N. country coordinator in Kenya

“You see why I say that for me, the U.N. is personal,” says Mr. Chatterjee, now the U.N.’s resident country coordinator in Kenya. “A story like mine demonstrates how, whatever its faults may be, the U.N. is woven into the social fabric of so many countries.”

This fall the United Nations marks 75 years since its founding charter took effect in October 1945. The organization’s structure had been hammered out at an international conference in San Francisco attended by the 50 nations that made up the immediate post-World War II world of 1945. (Today, by contrast, the U.N. has 193 member states.)

That milestone is prompting widespread stock-taking of just how the existence of the first truly global multilateral institution has changed the “social fabric” of the world that Mr. Chatterjee cites. To some, the organization is more indispensable now than ever. To others, it has become irrelevant. 

***

Although the U.N. may be celebrating its diamond anniversary in the middle of a devastating global pandemic, the institution’s existence does correspond to three-quarters of a century of remarkable progress for humanity. By many measures – world health, average life expectancy, extreme poverty reduction, recognition of universal human rights, and women’s and girls’ equality – the postwar period has been unmatched for human advancement.

AP/File
Delegates listen to President Harry S. Truman speak, by radio, to the first session of the United Nations organizing conference in San Francisco in April 1945.

What role has the U.N. and its myriad agencies played in that progress? True, many experts point out that other factors – for example, China’s drive since 1980 to lift more than 1 billion people out of poverty – often eclipse the U.N.’s role in recent improvements.

But others counter that having an institution that has set global norms and principles for everything from development to democratic governance can’t be separated from postwar progress. The U.N. was instrumental in assisting the new nations that emerged from postwar decolonization and has created new concepts like international peacekeeping.

Few in the world’s wealthiest countries would have reason to think of the U.N. as does Mr. Chatterjee – as something “personal.” But many experts say it is worth thinking back to where the world was in 1945 to start to answer the question about the U.N.’s contribution to global progress.

“You have to remember they were just coming off two of the most catastrophic wars in world history within 25 years of each other and the two together having caused nearly 90 million deaths,” says Stephen Schlesinger, a U.N. historian and fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. “So the pressure was on in San Francisco to create some system and set of guiding principles that would ensure they did not end up in a third world war.”

“The U.N. was set up first and foremost as a security organization,” he says, “and it can’t be said enough that there has been no nuclear war or world war in the 75 years of the U.N.’s existence.”

Seth Wenig/AP/File
Members of the U.N. Security Council vote on the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in July 2015.

For some, the crucial innovation of the U.N. was establishing the Security Council, a forum where the major powers could at least air their differences before things turned hostile. “The success at prevention of great-power conflict is a contribution of the U.N. that tends to be underrated,” says Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, an expert on multilateral and U.N. issues at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Recalling former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s famous anti-American outbursts at the U.N. in 1960, Dr. Sidhu says, “The fact is they have been able to abuse each other in the U.N. instead of throwing missiles at each other. There may be a lot of stalemate and use of the veto [by the council’s five permanent members] as we’re seeing now,” he adds, “but better a heated dialogue than going to war.”

Others cite the importance of the U.N.’s innovative peacekeeping and peace-building operations. “There’s a powerful story to tell in how a precipitous drop in the victims of armed conflict directly corresponds to the creation and expansion of U.N. peace efforts,” says Elizabeth Cousens, a U.S. diplomat who worked for years on peace-building and security issues before this year becoming president of the United Nations Foundation, a Washington-based philanthropic organization that promotes U.N. programs.

Almost from the beginning, the U.N. took cautious steps at addressing international conflicts, “but it was really at the end of the Cold War that the U.N. had new space for mediating and resolving a sweep of civil wars around the world” – from Guatemala and El Salvador to Mozambique and Angola, she says.

AP/File
Two soldiers from the U.N. Emergency Force stand guard at an outpost in the Gaza Strip, between Egypt and Israel, in 1957.

It was during this period, in 2003, that a young former U.N. peacekeeper named Chatterjee, now with UNICEF, would bring new ideas like “school in a box” – replacing burned-out schools within 48 hours with a fully supplied makeshift classroom – to a conflict-torn Aceh province in Indonesia.

Beyond peace and security issues, Ms. Cousens ticks off a host of advances over the last 75 years that she says carry the U.N.’s fingerprints. She cites the eradication of smallpox and progress in wiping out other global health scourges, the jump in average life expectancy from 45 years in 1945 to 72 years today, steep reductions in maternal and infant mortality, and expansion of and adherence to a universal set of human rights.

“If you were to draw a line from 1945 to 2020 tracking all of these factors and many more, you would find considerable improvements in the lives of most people,” she says, “and I would say the U.N. to varying degrees has been critical to all of these advances.”

Yet as the U.N. prepares to blow out the 75 candles atop its birthday cake, some see its glory days already in the past as powerful trends weaken the idea of multilateral institutions. Among those forces are a return to big-power geopolitics, illustrated by a sharpening U.S.-China rivalry, and a surge of nationalism that threatens to replace global interdependence with a my-country-first approach.

Within the U.N., some see bureaucratic stasis and a failure to innovate undermining the organization’s relevance. Others believe the U.N. simply shouldn’t exist.

Yet even many of the institution’s most vocal critics say they are speaking out because they believe the world needs the U.N. and the principles on which it was founded.

***

Emma Reilly was an idealistic human rights lawyer out to better the world when she joined the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in 2012. A year later she was disturbed by evidence that the office was complying with China’s requests for the names of Uyghur dissidents and family members. She was further dismayed, she says, when alerting superiors didn’t bring efforts to stop the practice but instead resulted in attempts to silence and even fire her.

Kathy Willens/AP/File
Somali women carry a heavy sack of corn after picking it up from a U.N. World Food Program site in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Today Ms. Reilly is officially recognized as a U.N. whistleblower, her seven-year “Orwellian odyssey,” as she describes it, having culminated in a meeting in February of this year with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. But the dual Irish-U.K. national says nothing has changed about a system that operates to protect the powerful and highly paid officials within U.N. agencies over the world’s weak and defenseless people.

“The entire system is designed in a way to ensure that criticism must be stopped and prevented from going public,” she says. “And what my case reveals is a shocking willingness to keep things comfortable for everybody by doing a favor for a member state – even if at the price of violating the norms for which the office was created.”

Despite her disillusionment, Ms. Reilly says that she plans to stick with her work – because of the good she has seen the U.N. do and the promise of guiding principles that she believes remain valid.

“I have personally been part of progress and had real impact that has ranged from prison visits that got children out of prison or people released who had committed no crime, to seeing countries move from systemic lawlessness to the rule of law,” she says. “So to me the U.N. is deeply necessary, but it needs to change and be very different if it is to fulfill its promise.”

The U.N. is, in fact, both changing and standing still, many experts say. It is changing in ways that reflect a world moving away from the Western-based liberal order that formed the organization’s foundation, but also resisting reforms, including a major effort underway by Secretary-General Guterres, that would allow it to better serve a 21st-century world.

Khalil Hamra/AP/File
Palestinian children attend classes at a U.N. school in a refugee camp in Gaza in 2007.

On human rights, some see the organization ominously following a global shift away from the rights of the individual to social well-being and state security. It’s a shift that can be seen in Ms. Reilly’s experience and China’s conception of the Uyghurs as a domestic security threat, or in China’s crackdown on the nominally autonomous Hong Kong.

But it is also visible in some Western countries’ counterterrorism campaigns or their response to the pandemic, some experts say.

“In the transition from the U.S.-Western-led international liberal order to the world we are entering now, we’re seeing the balance shift from civil and political rights to social, economic, and cultural rights,” says Ramesh Thakur, director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University in Canberra.

But Professor Thakur is most concerned about the U.N.’s inability to reform the Security Council, which he says is dooming the institution’s role in peace and security issues. The Security Council, which has five permanent veto-wielding members – the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain – “is frozen in a completely different world that existed in 1945,” he says. Unless it expands to reflect today’s multipolar world, he says, the Security Council will become irrelevant.

“The council has proven to be reform-proof. ... So on the security side, at least, I don’t have any hope for the U.N. for the foreseeable future,” says Professor Thakur, who was a senior adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “So you put that to one side and keep going on the humanitarian and other functional areas of cooperation and build on that.”

But the U.N.’s inability to adapt to a changing world is not limited to the Security Council, others say. Brett Schaefer, an expert on international institutions at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, says the U.N.’s lack of flexibility and nimbleness has opened the way for other institutions to carry out the same functions it does – in some cases with greater effectiveness and efficiency. “The U.N. is very rigid and doesn’t respond quickly to changing circumstances, so you end up with situations where the Gates Foundation is much more effective at addressing an international health challenge that the [World Health Organization] was designed to address,” says Mr. Schaefer.

AP/File
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev addresses the U.N. in 1960.

He asserts that a country’s own economic policies have been the biggest factor in global poverty reduction, and that bilateral aid and the involvement of nongovernmental organizations and the international business community have been most decisive in a developing country’s trajectory. What that means, he says, is that the U.N. “just isn’t the major player in development” in the 21st century.

***

So where does that leave the U.N. as it moves on from 75? Will it even be around to celebrate its centennial?

Not everyone thinks it will be. 

“If the U.N. manages in the coming years to adapt to new powers and energize new actors on global issues, then I think it can do better than just muddling along, and even remain central,” says NYU’s Professor Sidhu. “But if not, it may become irrelevant, or even collapse and die.” One key, he says, will be the extent to which the global nationalism trend continues.

Others will be watching for signs the U.N. is able to adapt to the geopolitical shift away from multilateralism. “We’re seeing heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, but also Russia,” says Heritage’s Mr. Schaefer, “and these kinds of great-power competitions will increasingly relegate the organization to the sidelines.”

And yet as pessimistic as some critics are, they insist the organization will retain a critical role in setting global standards. “The U.N. system remains very important in articulating standards and norms and bringing ... knowledge of emerging issues to the attention of the world at large,” says Professor Thakur. He cites the issue of food security, which will become more urgent as climate change causes global disruptions and has especially dire impact in countries with expanding populations. 

That kind of issue is only going to exacerbate what he describes as the “increasingly apparent dichotomy in perceptions about the U.N.” between high-income countries and developing low-income nations that continue to depend on it.

In his office in Nairobi, Mr. Chatterjee is surrounded by photos and other memorabilia highlighting his five years of work with Kenyan officials on youth unemployment and girls’ empowerment. He, too, worries about population shifts: As much of the developed world loses population, Africa is expected to grow from 1.2 billion people to 2.4 billion people by 2050. 

“There will be constant and indeed growing demand for food and health, for education and technology, and for greater equity so that more of that expanding population shares in prosperity,” Mr. Chatterjee says.

“The U.N. cannot provide those things, but it can be the convener, the catalyst, the connector to new forms of partnerships with the private sector and other development actors – a global enabler of humanity’s continued progress.”

As Oregon fights historic fires, college students on front lines

College students make up 30% of Oregon’s wildland firefighters. For some, it’s a way to put their love of forestry into practice. For others, it’s a great way to pay for tuition while helping their state.

Linda

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With historic fires burning in Oregon, the state needs all hands on deck. So last week, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown put out the call to universities and colleges: Please don’t penalize students like Paul Catino who are wildland firefighters for missing the start of classes. They’re needed on the front lines.

Seasonal firefighters make up the bulk of America’s forest firefighters, and college students play a critical role. In Oregon, upward of 30% of the crews that contractors put together are students. It’s high-paying work that can cover college tuition, but with longer fire seasons, it’s become a challenge for those who manage fires.

“Fire seasons have gotten longer and longer due to climate change and other factors,” says Sara Brown, manager for the National Forest Service’s fire, fuel, and smoke science program in Missoula, Montana. College students play a big role in wildland crews all over the country, she says, and the “million dollar question” is how agencies that deal with fire can adjust their work forces.

Corinne Heiner Buystedt loves fighting fires. She loves the forest, true, but also the camaraderie and teamwork. “It’s kind of like a family,” the recent graduate of Oregon State University says.

As Oregon fights historic fires, college students on front lines

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Courtesy of Paul Catino
A bulldozer clears a fire break to box in the Sweet Creek MP2 fire near Mapleton, Oregon, on Aug. 30, 2020. The fire took place on land owned by timber company Campbell Global, where college student firefighter Paul Catino was interning. He worked on this fire.

Paul Catino’s summer internship has put him on the front lines of the West’s cataclysmic fire season.

He and other workers at timber company Campbell Global launched an initial attack against a wildfire on company land, working until the early morning hours with bulldozers with flashlights to clear a “contingency line” to box in the fire. He was back at it for five or six hours the next day, and the following day worked 12 to 15 hours.

“It was an unreal experience for me,” says Mr. Catino, a senior at Oregon State University in Corvallis majoring in forest management.

The Oregon Department of Forestry gave a shoutout to the company last week, saying that quick work by employees played a “huge role” in minimizing the fire’s footprint.

And Mr. Catino says he’s been thanked by several people who recognized his uniform at the Safeway in Sweet Home, Oregon.

“People have thanked me quite a bit. It’s very nice, especially now when so many communities have been affected,” says Mr. Catino, who is working on the Holiday Farm Fire. It’s one in a series of fires up and down the state that have burned about 1 million acres – nearly double the 10-year average.

With historic fires burning in Oregon, the state needs all hands on deck. So last week, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown put out the call to universities and colleges: Please don’t penalize students like Mr. Catino who are wildland firefighters for missing the start of classes. They’re needed on the front lines.

Seasonal firefighters make up the bulk of America’s forest firefighters, and college students play a critical role. In Oregon, upward of 30% of the crews that contractors put together are students. It’s high-paying work that can cover college tuition, but with longer fire seasons, it’s become a challenge for those who manage fires.

“Fire seasons have gotten longer and longer due to climate change and other factors,” says Sara Brown, manager for the National Forest Service’s fire, fuel, and smoke science program in Missoula, Montana. College students play a big role in wildland crews all over the country, she says, and the “million dollar question” is how agencies that deal with fire can adjust their work forces.

One idea gaining traction is professionalizing firefighting so there are fewer seasonal workers. Federal agencies are trying to increase the number of permanent employees through a wildfire apprenticeship program and conversion of temporary positions to permanent or permanent seasonal positions.

Risks and rewards

“I’ve been a professor and a college student, and it’s nearly impossible to say, hey, can we delay school for these few people?” says Dr. Brown, who fought fires all through college and into her master’s degree. “Students who come back late – several weeks, a month, maybe longer, there is no way to catch up.”

She has fond memories of firefighting. Having grown up in the rural town of Oakridge, Oregon, she loved the outdoor work, that it was physically challenging, that a crew could come together and do something greater than one single person. During her career, she served on a helicopter crew, a hotshot crew, and as a smoke jumper.

“I loved that it was a little bit dangerous,” she adds. She paid for that as a smoke jumper, when her parachute collided mid-air with her partner’s over the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. She lost a leg because of it.

Today’s college students are well aware of the risks – and rewards – of their summer jobs. They learn about safety in training that typically lasts a week for beginning firefighters. Firefighting is grueling work with 12-hour days or more that can go for 14 days straight. Conditions can be smoky, dusty, and hot on remote, steep terrain. Wildland firefighters face the potential of a sudden wind shift and change in fire direction, rolling logs or rocks, stepping into a hole that’s a burning stump, and vehicle accidents.

When hazards include 300-foot trees

Corinne Heiner Buystedt, who just graduated from the forestry school at Oregon State University in Corvallis, recalls the summer of 2017, when she was on a crew in the state’s mountainous Three Sisters Wilderness. They worked late into the night to hand-dig a line to stop the fire’s advance in a heavily forested area, but had to return the next day.

Courtesy of Corinne Heiner Buystedt
Corinne Heiner Buystedt, then a student at Central Oregon Community College, working as a fire lookout at the Sheep Creek Fire in Utah in the summer of 2016. She notified a crew that there was smoke on the hill below them and to leave the area.

That morning, she suddenly heard a crew above them start yelling. She looked up and saw a 300-foot cedar tree coming down on her and her crew. They yelled for everyone to run – she running perpendicular to the tree and those below her running downhill. The moment it hit the ground, she ran back to check on everyone. Within 30 seconds, the crew lined up. All were accounted for and there were no serious injuries.

“It was one of the scariest moments of my entire life,” she recalls. And yet, the recent graduate loves fighting fires. She loves the forest, true, but also the camaraderie and teamwork. “It’s kind of like a family.” By the time of the tree incident, she had been trained as a squad leader who manages a group of four to six people within a standard crew of 20. At first, it was hard to be taken seriously as a woman, she says, but after she earned her squad’s respect, “it was great.”

She describes her tree-episode squad as “really incredible,” but also traumatized as they continued working. “A lot of guys told me they didn’t want to go into a certain area unless they knew I was watching the back door – had my eyes on the fire behind them.”

With his study of forest management, Mr. Catino is disturbed by what he sees as a wasteful, reactive approach to fire, instead of a proactive one. Often, he says, he’ll go out on a fire and, in his view, the appropriate thing is to let it burn out rather than suppress it. But that’s not what the orders are.

This questioning is a good thing, says Randall Rosenberger, associate dean of student success at Oregon State University. “That’s where we get change,” as college students with firefighting experience move up into management across the fire field, he says.

Delayed start to the semester

Not all college-student firefighters are in forestry. Many are doing it because it can pay very well – especially in a busy fire season with overtime. With nowhere to go and nothing to spend it on, it’s not unusual for summer firefighters to make anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 for three months work.

Porter Bovee, a friend of Mr. Catino’s at the university, is studying mechanical and manufacturing engineering, and is in his third summer of firefighting. He’s working about 100 hours a week, and thinks he will be able to cover tuition for the entire school year. “It’s a fun job,” he says at the end of a long day, “but it really is because of the money.”

Oregon state schools have an advantage over other schools when it comes to fire season. They are on the quarter system, which means they start at the end of September instead of August. Mr. Bovee’s last day will be Sept. 20, with classes resuming on Sept. 23. But a lot of people are just going to take the term off, he says, because the fire need is so great – and the earnings are so good. Mr. Catino says he’ll probably work until Oct. 1, then go back to school. He’s already been in touch with professors about it.

Indeed, the university tries to work with these students, urging professors to be flexible. They help students with course substitutions and even adjust scholarships. But the return to school is still a major concern for agencies and contractors that have to find the labor to fight fires in the fall.

“We are at max capacity,” says Bryan Wheelock, vice president at Grayback Forestry, a contractor in Medford, Oregon.

Over the years, the company has tried to adjust by screening college-student applicants more carefully about their planned return times, and providing housing to attract more candidates. Mr. Wheelock expects a good chunk of his college students will try to stay longer, but the company is looking to train another 10 to 20 firefighters to replace the students who are leaving.

“It’s a scramble to maintain full strength.”

 

 

 

 

Reporters on the Job
Staff writer Francine Kiefer gives the inside scoop

I came to Portland, Oregon, to cover the protests. But my ears perked up at a virtual press briefing when I heard Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ask colleges and universities not to penalize college-student firefighters for starting late. My nephew had been a summer wildland firefighter and had amazing stories. I emailed a question about the percentage of Oregon’s firefighters who are students. I was stunned: upward of 30%. 

Finding student firefighters to interview during a fire emergency was not easy. I called a half-dozen Oregon Department of Forestry stations and a couple of incident command centers within driving distance of Portland. I got a few callbacks, but no one was able to connect me with students. 

I thought about simply driving to a staging area, but the smoke was too thick. Fortunately, I was also working another channel: Oregon State University in Corvallis. It connected me with a recent graduate, Corinne Heiner Buystedt, who passed me to her firefighter friend, who connected me with his friend. I interviewed all three over the phone.

Bolivia cancels school year. Parents ask: What now?

Remote learning has proved patchy at best for many families around the world. But what happens when you simply cancel the school year altogether? Bolivia’s about to find out.

David Mercado/Reuters
Claudia Bustillos takes online classes at home as her mother, Maria Elena, works at a computer amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in La Paz, Bolivia, Sept. 1, 2020.

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Bolivia has been through the wringer over the past year, from contested elections and the flight of its ex-president to the arrival of COVID-19 and the challenges of online learning. But since early August, Bolivian parents are facing a new dilemma: no school, at all. Full stop.

Only about 25% of the country’s households have broadband internet, and continuing digital classes was unrealistic, the government argued. The rest of the school year, which typically ends in November, was canceled, though public school teachers still receive their salary, and many continue trying to reach out to students. There are targeted efforts to reach children in secluded Indigenous communities, and nonprofit groups are attempting to bridge the education gap with lessons, too. But many parents and observers are concerned about long-term effects.

“The pandemic lifted a veil on the historic disparities that still exist in Bolivia,” says Lina Beltrán, chief of education for UNICEF Bolivia. She notes that the longer students are out of school, the more likely they are to drop out entirely. “The learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress,” she adds.

Bolivia cancels school year. Parents ask: What now?

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Four kids. One cellphone. No internet.

That was the distance-learning setup for José Luis Torrez’s family in Tilata, Bolivia, a town on the outskirts of La Paz, at the start of the pandemic. “We were blowing through our savings” to buy phone credit, says Mr. Torrez, who runs a mechanic’s garage. But in early August, not long after a neighbor helped Mr. Torrez set up a Wi-Fi connection, Bolivia’s department of education canceled the rest of the school year.

Ever since schooling moved online last spring, just a month after classes started in the Southern Hemisphere, millions of Bolivians without access to the internet or electronic devices struggled to keep their children learning and engaged. The government argued that continuing digital classes through November, typically the end of the school year, was simply unrealistic – pointing to disagreements with the teachers union, its inability to provide universal education online, and the public-health danger of in-person classes. 

“Just like any parent, our dream is for the kids to achieve more and go further than their parents,” says Mr. Torrez, whose children range from 4 to 12 years old. “I always hoped they’d become professionals.”

“After this,” he says with a sad laugh, “Bolivia’s best hope may be for a generation of mediocre professionals.” 

Bolivia has been through the wringer over the past year: From a contested presidential election, nationwide political protests, and the flight of its leftist ex-president, to a right-wing caretaker government that has postponed new elections, and the arrival of COVID-19. The political unrest and presidential elections promised for next month have created an additional layer of uncertainty. Although nongovernmental organizations, individual teachers, international organizations, and even the Ministry of Education are trying to bridge the schooling gap, many observers and parents are concerned about the well-being of Bolivia’s children – and the future of the nation.

“Imagine the implications of having six months without any type of instruction,” says Gustavo Sever, the director of a private school in Cochabamba. “Not having the continuity of formal education – whether virtual or not – is huge. You create a discrepancy and create gaps between the world and the students in this country,” he says. As a private school, Mr. Sever’s institution is still offering online courses, though nearly 60% of parents withdrew their children, in many cases due to economic hardship, once the academic year became optional.

The government says all students will be promoted to the next academic year, regardless of grades or attendance.

“It’s a child’s right to access education and it’s the responsibility of the state to provide that,” Mr. Sever says.

Continental challenge

Only about 25% of Bolivian households had broadband internet in 2016, well below the Latin American average of 45%, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. A 2018 report by Bolivia’s Agency for Electronic Government and Information and Communication Technologies found only 42% of Bolivians have access to a computer and 10% have fixed internet. In rural areas the numbers are ever more extreme: 19% and 3%, respectively.

“The vast majority of rural areas don’t have internet,” Yerko Núñez, a government minister, said in August when clarifying the decision to end the school year early. “There’s no other option than to close out the year.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to written request for comment.

“The pandemic lifted a veil on the historic disparities that still exist in Bolivia,” says Lina Beltrán, chief of education for UNICEF Bolivia.

“When education systems collapse, [peaceful], prosperous and productive societies are undermined,” Ms. Beltrán writes in an email. “The learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress, not least in support of girls and young women’s educational access and retention.” She notes that the longer students are out of school, the more likely they are to drop out entirely, and estimates the closures could decrease affected students’ future earnings by 8% to 10%.

Plenty of Latin American countries struggle with internet access. But Bolivia is the only one to use it as a reason to halt education entirely.

Mexico deployed pre-recorded, televised classes featuring trained actors and teachers to reach its estimated 30 million public school students. It’s not a perfect model for learning, says Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, an expert on Latin American education. But it’s a success in terms of the government trying to reach the most vulnerable.

“TV may not be the best, but it’s certainly better than nothing,” says Mr. Zinny, the former education minister for the province of Buenos Aires. “Governments aren’t making enough of an effort to create opportunities and share knowledge” during the pandemic.

Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Brazil have incorporated some televised education into their distance learning approaches, as well. The Dominican Republic has expanded free access to internet hotspots across the country and teamed up with a cellphone company to offer internet plans at special prices. In Buenos Aires, government institutions already delivering meals to vulnerable children are also printing out school materials for students without access to computers or printers.

“Kids are desperate to do work”

In Bolivia, public school teachers are still receiving their salaries, and many are still making an effort to send students materials, parents say. Some educators put on superhero costumes to try and keep their students motivated online, while others travel house to house to try to keep their most isolated students looped in. There are targeted efforts to reach children in secluded Indigenous communities, like radio education programs that UNICEF estimates reach more than 6,000 children. The United Nations organization also teamed up with cellphone provider Tigo Bolivia to provide teacher trainings for online instruction, counseling for students, and other resources for not just learning but staying healthy during the pandemic.

For Alicia Layme, the pandemic has been a blur of stress. Her husband, a construction worker, lost his job. Her family, complete with an 8-month-old baby, 8-year-old, and 10-year-old, have been forced to move twice due to evictions over late rent payments.

“We don’t know what to do. We can’t cry anymore,” Ms. Layme says. “These schools don’t recognize the realities for so many of us.” Many students didn’t have a chance to buy their books for the academic year before Bolivia mandated a quarantine. She doesn’t have a smartphone, and before classes were called off, her kids’ teachers were frustrated that she couldn’t receive photos of assignments and print them out. Her kids told her she’s not their teacher when she tried to help them through tough homework.

But Ms. Layme says her family is fortunate in some respects. A local initiative run by the international NGO Bolivia Kids and the local Sariry Foundation delivers food and psychological support to communities surrounding La Paz. Roughly 30 families, or 70 kids, have weekly visits from three foundation staff who give informal lessons on the street in front of participants’ homes.

“Kids are desperate to do work,” says Elisa Aguilar, director of programs and community development for Bolivia Kids. On top of connectivity challenges, many parents don’t have enough education themselves to help their children with schoolwork. Staff members walk from house to house – there’s no public transportation running in the area – delivering printouts or giving lessons.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of kids dropping out of school next year – nationwide,” Ms. Aguilar says. “We’re trying to help in the ways we can, but at a certain point, we all feel powerless.”

Ms. Layme can relate.

“Parents are told we have to make sacrifices for our kids,” she says. “What does that even mean at this point? Am I supposed to steal phone credit so that my child can keep learning?”

Ms. Layme says the distance education situation was bad, "but there are alternatives to closing schools or doing it online.” 

“The government just needed to try.”

Life in clouds of Venus? Why murky clue tantalizes scientists.

Could life exist in toxic clouds above a planet hot enough to melt lead? Suddenly the question isn’t merely theoretical, portending new steps in the search for life beyond Earth.

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With a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, and thick acidic clouds enshrouding the planet, Venus is not the most inviting place in the solar system. But the tantalizing idea that Earth’s next-door neighbor might harbor life made headlines this week.

No, scientists did not discover aliens. But they found a signal coming from those toxic clouds blanketing Venus that, according to the little we know about the planet’s chemistry, can only be explained by the presence of life. 

“It’s been an exploration of the unknown,” says Paul Rimmer, a co-author on the new paper and an astrochemist at the University of Cambridge. “The only known molecule that can cause that feature is phosphine. The only known explanation for the concentration is life. But so little is known about the nature of phosphine, and so much is unknown about the constitution of the atmosphere of Venus. And so it really does bring you face-to-face with your own ignorance.”

Although it’s not a grand announcement of aliens, this discovery thrusts Venus into the spotlight for astrobiologists, and serves as a reminder that life on another world could look very different from the life we know here on Earth.

Life in clouds of Venus? Why murky clue tantalizes scientists.

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The planet Venus is seen from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Akatsuki probe. A report released on Sept. 14, 2020, says astronomers have found a potential sign of life high in the atmosphere of our nearest neighboring planet.

Venus seems like the last place where any creature would make its home.

A thick, extremely acidic cloud layer enshrouds that rocky planet, trapping so much heat that the surface is roughly 900 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s more than hot enough to melt lead. As such, our neighboring planet has earned nicknames like “hellscape” and “Earth’s evil twin.”

But this week, sweltering Venus became a surprising hot topic in humanity’s quest to find extraterrestrial life. On Monday, a team of researchers revealed in a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy that they had spotted something that just might indicate that some sort of life resides in those toxic Venusian clouds. 

Did they actually find aliens? 

Not exactly. What they spotted was the fingerprints of a gas that, according to everything we know about Venus, shouldn’t be there unless something – or someone – was actively producing it. And on Earth, that gas, known as phosphine, is produced by microorganisms. 

“It’s cool to think that it might be life, but the real thing is this is just a strange thing that we found that has some really cool implications that we need to learn more about,” says Paul Rimmer, a co-author of the new paper and an astrochemist at the University of Cambridge in Britain. “Whatever explains this feature, it’s something weird.”

Finding evidence of phosphine in the Venusian cloud bank thrusts the planet into the spotlight anew. This discovery also informs our search for habitable worlds outside our solar system, serving as a reminder that life on another world could look very different from the life we know here on Earth. 

“We have essentially always considered Venus to be an uninhabitable world because of its incredibly high surface temperatures and its inhospitable sulfuric acid clouds and its ionizing environment, being closer to the sun, etcetera,” says Michael Way, an astronomer at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. So if closer scrutiny of the planet reveals that there is indeed life in Venus’ clouds, it could be a “game changer,” he says. “If it’s true, it makes us reevaluate what habitability means and the robustness of life-forms.”

Whittling down the possibilities

When Dr. Rimmer initially saw the data that bore a fingerprint of phosphine, his first thought was that it had to be something else. The colleagues that showed him that initial data might’ve been mistaken. That much phosphine shouldn’t be there.

Still, he was intrigued, so he joined the team and together they took another look with a different telescope. Sure enough, that phosphine fingerprint showed up again in the new data. And although it’s possible that the data could be indicating the presence of a molecule that scientists don’t yet know exists, says Dr. Rimmer, among known molecules, this signal is unique to phosphine.

But could phosphine only exist there if life does, too? Phosphine does appear elsewhere in the solar system, such as in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, likely without biology. Rather, scientists think it forms deep in those gas giants’ atmospheres at extremely high pressures and temperatures – conditions that don’t exist on a smaller rocky planet like Venus or Earth. On Earth, phosphine is produced industrially or by microbes (specifically bacteria involved in decomposition).

“It’s been an exploration of the unknown,” Dr. Rimmer says of the study. “The only known molecule that can cause that [spectral signature] is phosphine. The only known explanation for the concentration is life. But so little is known about the nature of phosphine, and so much is unknown about the constitution of the atmosphere of Venus. And so it really does bring you face-to-face with your own ignorance.”

What would Venusian life even look like?

In the quest to find life on another world, scientists only have one model of what to look for: Earth.

“As scientists, of course we have to be open-minded about what life might be like. But you’ve got to start somewhere,” says Laura Kreidberg, director of the Atmospheric Physics of Exoplanets department at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. 

Venus may be a harshly hot and forbidding world today, but planetary scientists say it wasn’t always that way. Early Venus was likely quite a bit like early Earth. Sometime in its history, something made our once-twin take a different path.

Many scientists think it might have happened quite early in Venus’ history, says Dr. Way. But he has another idea: The surface of the planet might have been habitable for an extended period of time.

“It’s possible,” Dr. Way says, “it could have had surface liquid water oceans for, maybe, a few millions of years, hundreds of millions years, even as long as a couple billion years. And that something else happened to the planet later on in life that put it in the state that we see today.”

Dr. Way’s current hypothesis, described in a paper published earlier this year, is that some sort of extreme volcanism kicked off climate change of epic proportions on Venus, perhaps as recently as 700 million years ago. That event thrust carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, heating up the planet enough for its oceans to boil off into the atmosphere. And, given that water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, Venus would’ve just gotten hotter and hotter as all of its liquid water boiled off, thrusting it into a wildly different climatic state.

If Venus ever had flowing oceans, it could’ve possibly hosted some form of life at that time. But scientists agree that life probably couldn’t survive the intense heat on the dry surface today. 

What about those cloud banks? The thinking goes that perhaps some tough survivors may have escaped Venus’ surface on droplets in the planet’s atmosphere. However, those clouds seem to be intensely toxic.

“These droplets are 90% sulfuric acid. They’re more acidic than any body of water on Earth,” Dr. Rimmer says. “It’s not quite right to even call it water when it’s 90% sulfuric acid.”

On Earth, biological material gets destroyed by that much acidity. Sure, there have been extremophiles found residing in incredibly acidic conditions, like the hot springs of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, but never in any place even remotely as acidic as Venus’ clouds.

Still, Dr. Way says, it might be that “evolution finds a way.”

“As the planet transitions into this ‘inhabitable’ state,” he says, if it doesn’t happen too quickly, it might be that “life has a chance to evolve along with it, in a way.”

A case study for exoplanets

To researchers searching for signs of life on distant worlds outside our solar system, this week’s news means Venus could provide an exciting opportunity.

“The holy grail of my whole research field is searching for signs of life in the atmospheres of other planets,” says Dr. Kreidberg, who studies planets orbiting stars other than our own sun, called exoplanets. 

Those signs of life are called biosignatures, substances (like phosphine) that scientists think can only exist in a given environment if life is there, too. But when it comes to exoplanets, we don’t have the technology to go check it out up close.

But Venus is right next door. 

“The really exciting thing is that we get to explore these questions in our own backyard,” she says. “We have the opportunity to actually go to the planet and learn in a lot more detail what’s happening in its atmosphere.”

NASA hasn’t sent a dedicated mission to Venus since the Magellan orbiter launched in 1989, and since then, the planet has mostly been observed by telescopes or as a spacecraft flew by on its way to another destination. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) does currently have an orbiter around Venus, but the last spacecraft to dip into the planet’s atmosphere was the Soviet Union’s Vega 2 in 1985.

“People like me, and others working in this discipline much longer than me, have been begging for in situ missions to Venus for decades,” Dr. Way says. “And if this brings that, then all the better. Let’s go back to Venus.”

How video games are teaching the world to speak English

Video games are not always associated with learning. But increasingly, players are finding that along with their high scores and world-building, they are acquiring new language skills.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Malte and Rasmus Bruhn play a video game in Berlin on April 1, 2020. Increasingly, gaming is being shown to have an impact on the learning of languages.

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There’s an unexpectedly productive outcome from video gaming, a pastime often considered a time vacuum: Many of the 2.7 billion gamers around the world are now learning English.

People are “growing up using video games informally to teach themselves English,” says Jonathon Reinhardt at the University of Arizona. “Or, they would play the game because they wanted to. ... And since it wasn’t available in their first language, they would … incidentally learn the language.”

The industry now eclipses music and film combined and has accelerated during the pandemic. But learning isn’t confined to English. Fiona Girotti explains how her love of K-pop led her to an online gaming platform she uses to learn Korean. She says learning grammar online is tough, and gaming isn’t a direct replacement for in-person instruction. “But you get good at conversations and sentences, things you can say to anyone.”

Alvaro Rodriguez, a college student who was born in the Dominican Republic, credits gaming for helping his language studies too. School was sometimes “tedious” when he was younger. But he says, “when it comes to video games, they engaged me. … I guess that engagement is what’s important, you know, when people want to learn languages.”

How video games are teaching the world to speak English

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Alvaro Rodriguez didn’t love kindergarten, but after school he would grab his dad’s gaming console, boot up “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind,” and lead the charge in a gripping crusade to save his virtual kingdom. 

He also had a side quest: learning English. 

When Mr. Rodriguez moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States as a toddler, “all I really knew was Spanish,” says the sophomore at Boston College, who credits gaming for engaging him when school lagged. “I had my video games, and that’s kind of how I had that [language] practice.”

Mr. Rodriguez is one of 2.7 billion gamers around the world, participants in an industry that now eclipses music and film combined and has accelerated during the pandemic. Many of those gamers are learning English in the process, an unexpectedly productive outcome of a pastime often considered a time vacuum.

“There are generations of people all over the world growing up using video games informally to teach themselves English,” says Jonathon Reinhardt, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and president of the Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO). “Or, they would play the game because they wanted to play the game. And since it wasn’t available in their first language, they would … incidentally learn the language.” 

There’s no way to pinpoint the number of gamers learning English, Dr. Reinhardt says, but he estimates there to be “at least a couple hundred million who are thinking about it,” based on the number of young gamers to English language learners. “It’s just far more popular and far more widespread than we realize,” he says. 

The pandemic has seen the gaming community grow. The percentage of players who call themselves “serious gamers” increased from 63% to 82% during the pandemic, according to a study by strategy and marketing firm Simon-Kucher & Partners. The group also found that people are gravitating toward more interactive, time-consuming games, with 60% reportedly opting for more multiplayer games during the spring lockdowns.

Valerie Baeriswyl/Reuters
A video gamer plays on the street outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 10, 2020.

All that gaming has an impact on language comprehension. A 2017 peer-reviewed study published in CALICO Journal found that of young Danes who played video games in English, those who did so regularly outside school scored higher on English vocabulary tests than their peers who did not. 

With video games, “all of a sudden English becomes an instrument; something that’s very useful for them in order to progress in the game,” says the author of the study, Signe Hannibal Jensen, assistant professor in the department of language and communication at the University of Southern Denmark. This shifts kids’ focus from “learning to learn,” as in a classical school setting, to “learning to play.” 

It makes sense that “the very things that we can’t drag out of students in school are the kinds of things that they’re doing for fun on their own in online extramural environments,” says Steven Thorne, a professor of second language acquisition at Portland (Oregon) State University and of linguistics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “You’re sharing an activity. You’re sharing a passion,” he says. 

The language learning isn’t confined to English. From internet-spotty central Pennsylvania, Fiona Girotti explains how her love of K-pop led her to download an online gaming platform she uses to learn Korean. She says learning grammar online is tough, and gaming isn’t a direct replacement for in-person instruction. “But you get good at conversations and sentences, things you can say to anyone.”

And her online language practice is working. When Ms. Girotti listens to K-pop now, she can understand many of the lyrics. It’s not really the same as being in class, though, she says – “of course, classes are structured,” so “when you’re just me, [learning independently], you don’t really understand the grammar.” She uses a grammar app on her phone to figure out tricky sentence construction.

Dr. Thorne notes that video games are not a perfect solution. Some gaming environments “are very language heavy and language rich, others don’t really require much language at all,” he says. And gaming isn’t always virtuous, he cautions – players can become addicted, and some games can promote extreme violence.

But, combine a quality, communication-dependent game like “World of Warcraft” – Dr. Thorne’s choice – with the 15 hours a week kids spend gaming, and learning will come out of that, he says. 

In the future, video games might become a more utilized option among the tools language learners already use, including phone apps, podcasts, YouTube videos, and in-person instruction. Dr. Reinhardt says it makes sense that gaming would increasingly seep into more formal classroom settings. “What we’re going to see is a generation of people who grew up with games and recognize inherently their potential as learning objects,” he says. “They have the skills and the abilities to build these sorts of things.” 

Mr. Rodriguez, the Boston College student, has moved on to learning a third language, Korean, and created several language-learning groups on Discord, a popular online platform where gamers connect. “I wanted to create that safe space ... where people can come on, they can check out resources they like and really just, you know, grow.” His online group Korean Language Exchange has 690 members who game or just practice Korean together.

He says that school was sometimes “tedious” when he was younger. “When it comes to video games, they engaged me. … I guess that engagement is what’s important, you know, when people want to learn languages.”

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An oil giant’s epiphany on climate change

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One of the pandemic’s economic effects has been a drop in demand for oil. Yet once the global economy recovers, will oil demand go back up? Some experts say no, given other ongoing shifts away from fossil fuels. Humanity may finally be reaching “peak oil consumption” a century and a half after the first oil well was drilled.

Oil and gas will still play a big role for decades. But as more consumers, businesses, and governments tackle climate change, alternative sources will continue to gain ground. One bright spot in this energy transformation is BP. Ever since its Deepwater Horizon rig gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has had a slow epiphany about the commercial wisdom of relying on carbon fuels. In August chief executive Bernard Looney said BP aims to boost its spending on low carbon projects from $500 million a year to $5 billion a year within a decade.

Ramping up clean energy might need companies capable of building giant infrastructure and yet nimble and enlightened enough to transform themselves. BP is showing a new course in a world weaning itself off energy sources that pollute.

An oil giant’s epiphany on climate change

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Logos of the largest publicly traded oil companies: BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total.

One of the pandemic’s economic effects has been a drop in demand for oil. Yet once the global economy recovers, will oil demand go back up? Some experts say no, given other ongoing shifts away from fossil fuels. Humanity may finally be reaching “peak oil consumption” a century and a half after the first oil well was drilled.

Oil and gas will still play a big role for decades. Fossil fuels, including coal, currently are about 85% of the world’s energy supply. But as more consumers, businesses, and governments tackle climate change, alternative sources – wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear – will continue to gain ground.

One bright spot in this energy transformation is BP, the world’s sixth-largest petroleum company. Over the past decade, ever since its Deepwater Horizon rig gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has had a slow epiphany about the commercial wisdom of relying on carbon fuels. Once known as British Petroleum, it now seems ready to become the Beyond Petroleum company.

In August chief executive Bernard Looney said BP aims to boost its spending on low carbon projects from $500 million a year to $5 billion a year within a decade. “We’re transforming BP into a very different kind of company,” Mr. Looney said. “Not overnight, but quickly.”

According to Dev Sanyal, BP’s executive vice president of gas and low-carbon energy, in the next five years BP will initiate more than 20 gigawatts of renewable energy projects, from about 2.5 gigawatts today. The company will also stop looking for new oil and gas sources and would cut its oil and gas output by 40%.

Instead it will invest in giant offshore wind as well as solar projects, perhaps reimagining its thousands of BP gas stations as convenience stores with recharging stations for electric vehicles. It aims to be a carbon neutral company by midcentury.

The plan is to keep profits from fossil fuels flowing long enough to transition BP to something more like an electric utility that could offer investors solid, though not spectacular, dividends in the 8% to 10% range.

The alternative, Mr. Looney said, was to not act and wait to get “regulated out of business” by measures aimed at halting climate change.

The latest edition of the company’s respected World Energy Outlook lays out three scenarios for the oil market. One shows rapid moves to protect the environment and climate, resulting in a dramatic drop in oil consumption. A second is less aggressive but still results in much lower oil use. And even its “business as usual” shows consumption staying at current levels and then drifting gradually downward.

Other oil giants have faced the same dilemma as BP: change or become less and less relevant. ExxonMobil recently lost its place as one of the 30 benchmark stocks making up the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Ramping up clean energy might need companies capable of building giant infrastructure and yet nimble and enlightened enough to transform themselves. BP is showing a new course in a world weaning itself off energy sources that pollute.

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.

Decisions, decisions

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Sometimes making a decision can feel overwhelming or even agonizing. But as a woman found when she needed to choose where to live and work next, a willingness to be led by God, our caring divine Parent, brings clarity and peace.

Decisions, decisions

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Making decisions can be really difficult sometimes. I used to agonize over making decisions, from small ones (what to wear to work or what to eat for dinner) to bigger life choices, such as where to live or what jobs to apply for. And I would invariably second-guess every decision I made.

But I’ve found there’s an approach to decision-making that also brings peace of mind. It’s a spiritual perspective, one that opens our hearts to guidance from God.

The book of Joshua in the Bible states, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve … as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (24:15). Each of us can make that same choice. That’s not to say we all need to have religious careers. Rather, we can start and end our day with listening to God, and letting God, who is divine Love, inspire what we do. And we can do this during the day, too!

Christ Jesus once prayed, “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). That was shortly before he was taken to be crucified. Jesus’ empowering example of literally placing his entire life in God’s hands demonstrated such humility and trust in God, whom he taught is our divine Father.

Each of us, too, can strive to live a life that yields to God, good. This is not about blind faith, but an understanding of God as Love and of all of us as God’s beloved children – watched over and protected by our divine Parent. There is a verse in the “Christian Science Hymnal” I have found helpful at many critical junctures in my life:

Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
(Frances R. Havergal, No. 324, adapt. © CSBD)

When we turn to God with a receptive and humble heart, then we are prepared to act on the divine wisdom that is present to guide us. There is a little poem I learned in the Christian Science Sunday school as a child; I still start each morning with it today: “Father, what shall I do today? / Tell me. / And I will obey” (Marvin J. Charwat, “Simplicity of plan,” Christian Science Sentinel, Jan. 10, 1953).

I find this so helpful in shaping my motives for the decisions I need to make. We can ask ourselves, How can I best serve God through expressing spiritual qualities such as unselfishness and joy?

At one point, I packed up my belongings and lived on the road for half a year – during which time I had many opportunities to listen for God’s guidance and experience God’s care, protection, and provision along the way. Then, when I was back visiting friends and family in the town which I had left, I found myself praying about next steps.

I figured I would only stay for a month and then head off somewhere else again. In all honesty, I had no interest in staying in that town.

However, a willingness to listen for and obey God’s will involves self-sacrifice, and in this case I recognized that I had to let go of a stubborn willfulness that was keeping me from being fully receptive to inspiration from God. As I allowed my thought to be more open to divine direction, I felt impelled to stay and find an apartment.

The great thing is, when something is truly God-inspired, we can trust that it is the right thing at the right time. I found when I was still and listened to where divine Love was leading, reasons for staying came to me that fit right in with the things I’m most excited about in life and my work. As I prayed for divine direction about how I could better serve God and my community, every step of that transition – from finding an apartment, to moving in, to job opportunities to help young people, something very important to me – unfolded in the fastest and most harmonious way imaginable.

Though it wasn’t at all the decision I’d expected to make, staying felt completely natural. I found that I didn’t have to agonize over each decision. When we listen with an open heart and a willingness to walk in whatever direction divine Love points us, the way forward opens up more naturally and harmoniously and is filled with blessings for ourselves and others.

Viewfinder

Good stoops make good neighbors

Ann Hermes/Staff
Summer in New York City looked a bit different this year. Many restaurants are closed, the parks are full, and backyards are hard to come by. In a bid to spend the warmer weeks socializing in safety, New Yorkers have taken to their stoops. The iconic architectural features were originally designed to separate main doorways from trade entrances, or to increase the distance between manure-covered streets and clean living spaces. Today, whether it be a wide and sturdy stairway to the door of an old brownstone, or just two or three simple steps outside an apartment complex, the stoop is the hottest spot to see and be seen. “We do this all the time,” says Brooklyn resident Philipp Hoffman as he shares a picnic with friends on his front steps. “We don’t have a backyard, so this is it!” With colder weather on the way, it’s hard to imagine what outdoor socializing will look like in the future. But so far, New Yorkers have made the most of the space between the front door and the sidewalk. Winter entertaining will surely be elevated. - Ann Hermes/Staff
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

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