2020
October
14
Wednesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 14, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

A ‘hero’ rat that challenges our perceptions

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

We’re going to step off the beaten news trail for a moment to talk about rats. We humans don’t tend to have much use for them. They fall somewhere between cockroaches and snakes on the “creepy” scale. 

That’s what makes Magawa notable.

We’ve mentioned this little African pouched rat recently in this space, when he won a British charity’s award for animal bravery. But we thought you’d appreciate hearing more of his story. Since the inception of that award 18 years ago, all the recipients have been dogs. Until now.

What did our whisker-nosed rodent do? For the past seven years, he’s been quietly saving human lives by sniffing out unexploded land mines in Cambodia. He was trained by a Belgian group that’s been mopping up after wars in Africa and Southeast Asia for the past 20 years. 

Rats can do the job more efficiently than humans or dogs, and they’re safer because they can lightly dance over a minefield without setting off the explosives. Unexploded land mines and bombs are a problem in 59 countries. Nearly 7,000 people were injured or killed by mines in 2018, the latest available tally. 

When Susie, a friend of mine with pet rats, heard about Magawa’s award, she wasn’t surprised. “They’re like little dogs. You can call them by name and they’ll come. They’re very smart, affectionate, curious, loving, and loyal,” she said. When Susie yells “Bedtime!” her critters scamper up her pants to be put in their cages. 

Susie’s perception of rats shifted years ago. Maybe the courage award for Magawa will change how a few more humans view these oft-reviled, lifesaving rodents.

 

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Calm before storm? How Senate could change after Barrett confirmation.

The respect shown during hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett may mask a political polarization building for decades. Our reporter looks ahead at the likelihood of scenarios that could alter the legislative and judicial branches.

David

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Unlike the House, the Senate does not traditionally operate by the maxim of majority rule. More deliberative, it’s often described as the “cooling saucer” for the House. But that could be changing before our eyes.

Amid the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, some Democrats are talking about increasing the number of Supreme Court justices so a Biden administration could “pack the court.” They’re also considering the removal of the 60-vote threshold informally required to pass most legislation.

Such moves would change how government works – though how significantly is a matter of debate. Their prospect is the latest development in a decade-by-decade arms race over judicial nominees that has amplified political division within the Senate.

Some judicial experts, including Gregg Nunziata, former chief nominations counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, believe packing the court would politicize it, especially in the eyes of the public. “At every turn over the last 50 years,” he says, “each party has used the tools at its disposal to fight over the control of the court, and I don’t think that’s changing.”

Calm before storm? How Senate could change after Barrett confirmation.

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Stefani Reynolds/AP
From left, GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Ted Cruz of Texas stand during a break in the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Oct. 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The last time a Supreme Court nominee came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was open warfare in the hearing room, as nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced last-minute allegations of sexual assault.

“Boy, y’all want power. God, I hope you never get it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham raged at Democrats over their treatment of the nominee two years ago.

This time around, the Republican senator from South Carolina, now the committee chairman, has pronounced the hearing “very good” with “very good questions, hard questions.” In contrast to 2018, the tone is respectful – in part because no one is challenging the character of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

But make no mistake. The judicial wars in the Senate have not subsided. In a body that has applied the term “nuclear option” to its consideration of nominees, some Democrats are now talking about detonating more procedural bombs: getting rid of the 60-vote threshold informally required to pass most legislation, known as the filibuster, and increasing the number of Supreme Court justices so a Biden administration could “pack the court.” These are moves that would change how government works – though how significantly is a matter of debate.

What’s not in dispute is the decade-by-decade arms race over judicial nominees, and how it has amplified political division within the Senate.

“At every turn over the last 50 years, each party has used the tools at its disposal to fight over the control of the court, and I don’t think that’s changing,” says Gregg Nunziata, former chief nominations counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and former policy adviser to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

At the Kavanaugh hearing, Senator Graham, boiling over with anger, hollered that “this is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics …!” Democrats this week have charged the same thing – albeit in a more measured manner.

Presidents are fully within their constitutional rights to nominate a justice at any time in their term. But Democrats have sharply criticized the rushed process, meant to confirm Judge Barrett before the Nov. 3 election, calling it “illegitimate” and a “sham” as millions of Americans are already voting. They’ve slammed Republicans as hypocrites for refusing to even consider President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, because a presidential election was coming in eight months. “The people should decide” who would pick the nominee, the GOP said at the time.

Why GOP lines up for Barrett

Throughout American history, presidents have sought to put their stamp on the high court, and that has led to some big battles, reminds former Senate historian Don Ritchie. Thomas Jefferson for instance, tried and failed to impeach a Federalist justice appointed by George Washington. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried and failed to pack the Supreme Court with more justices in order to protect his New Deal legislation.

Ken Cedeno/AP
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett listens during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Oct. 14, 2020. Democrats have pointedly questioned Judge Barrett on health care, abortion, gun regulation, and gay marriage.

When it comes to the courts, “there have been periods of polarization, but in recent years, it’s gotten much worse,” says Mr. Ritchie.

A big reason is that the courts have been deciding some of the most contentious issues that divide Americans and affect everyday lives – health care, abortion, gun regulation, and gay marriage, among others. Indeed, Democrats have pointedly questioned Judge Barrett, the ideological opposite of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on all of these issues.

At the same time, the political parties have evolved into more or less monolithic groupings of conservatives and progressives, rather than the ideological mixtures of old that lent themselves more easily to negotiating across the aisle to get things done. Also, beyond qualifications and character, judicial philosophy and ideology of nominees has become much more of a factor.

All of this explains why, as Chairman Graham observed on Monday, Republicans on the committee will line up for Judge Barrett, and Democrats won’t – and why Republicans backed President Trump’s nominee even before she was announced.

In the Senate, the judicial battle that ignited today’s war was the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1987. He was, as Mr. Ritchie recalls, “a human barbed wire, who offended a lot of people” by carrying out President Richard Nixon’s orders to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating Watergate, and by his comments about rolling back Supreme Court civil rights rulings. Like Barrett and her mentor, Justice Antonin Scalia, he was an “originalist” who believes the Constitution should be interpreted as written at the time.

Stefani Reynolds/AP
Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, wearing a mask with an image of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, listens during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Oct. 14, 2020. Judge Barrett and Justice Ginsburg are ideological opposites.

It was a contentious hearing that eventually ended in his 58-42 defeat, and set the stage for partisan escalation: filibusters to block the appointment of federal judges by presidents in both parties, subsequent backlogs of appointments, and eventually the detonation of “nuclear options” to blow up those backlogs and the filibusters that allowed them, by requiring only a majority vote for approval. The first one was set off by Senate Democrats in 2013, and applied only to lower court and executive nominees; the second by Republicans in 2017, to include Supreme Court nominees.

As Mr. Nunziata describes it, the nuclear option was a “brute force mechanism” imposed by a bare majority of the Senate on a body that does not traditionally operate by the maxim of majority rule, as does the House. The more deliberative Senate is often described as the “cooling saucer” for the House, but that could change if Democrats gain control of the Senate and do away with the filibuster altogether, allowing legislation to pass by majority vote.

“If taken to its logical conclusion, all minority rights of the Senate could fall, and [it could] become a legislative body like the House, operating on the brute strength of the majority,” Nunziata says.

Will Senate still be special?

Not everyone agrees with that scenario. Even if Democrats did kill the legislative filibuster, the Senate would retain many of its special characteristics.

For instance, senators are elected every six years instead of two, giving them a longer view. Some represent swing states, with no guarantee that they will always fall in line. A two-thirds majority is required to override a presidential veto, approve treaties, and convict in an impeachment trial. Meanwhile, individual senators can still muck up the works by, for instance, refusing to grant unanimous consent – required for so much of Senate business.

“I don’t really expect the Senate to turn into the House,” says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution and a professor of political science at George Washington University.

What Dr. Binder and others foresee, though, is a Senate with partisan policy swings: aggressive legislating, particularly if one party controls the Congress and the White House, followed by attempts to undo those laws when the other party takes control. Think of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which has been followed by at least 70 Republican attempts to repeal it.

Rather than reflecting compromise, with something for everyone, legislation would have a “love it” or “hate it” quality to it, suggests Mr. Ritchie.

“I don’t think the republic would collapse, but the Senate would be a very different body,” ventures Mr. Ritchie, noting that the Constitution never included the filibuster. “I can’t say it would be better or worse, but it would be different.”

Opinions range, too, on the implications of a larger Supreme Court. The Constitution doesn’t stipulate how many justices should sit on the court. It’s been nine since 1869.

Some judicial experts, like Nunziata, believe packing the court would politicize it, especially in the eyes of the public. He fears, as Joe Biden has speculated in the past, that there would be a tit-for-tat response by the other party in a subsequent election to add even more justices.

Dr. Binder says there’s uncertainty about what a larger court would mean. She’s not sure it’s the danger that some suggest.

She sees the move of adding seats, which she calls “court curbing,” as a move to protect the status quo.

“It eliminates most likely the fear of the immediate unraveling of decades of jurisprudence which have protected a whole range of individual rights,” she says.

Democrats mull fateful step

A lot of stars would have to align to actually make these changes happen. First, Democrats would have to win the House, the Senate, and the White House – a distinct possibility. Second, Democrats would have to agree – first on killing off the legislative filibuster and then on stacking the court. But it’s far from clear they would unite on either of these.

Erin Schaff/The New York Times/AP
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Oct. 14, 2020. In contrast to the 2018 confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the tone of the current hearing has been respectful.

Joe Biden is a Senate institutionalist, and this week – after saying he would not comment on court packing until after the election – he told a Cincinnati broadcaster that he is “not a fan.” When Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah attacked court packing in this week’s nomination hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second ranking Senate Democrat, told reporters “there’s no active conversation, or deliberation about any changes in court composition.”

However, the former vice president seems to have warmed to getting rid of the legislative filibuster, an idea he opposed as recently as February. He told reporters in July that it would depend on how “obstreperous” Republicans become in blocking legislation in Congress.

And then, too, there are those Democratic senators from purple states. Might failure to pass some major legislation, say on climate change or immigration, unite them? Possibly. Would an early Supreme Court decision striking down the Affordable Care Act bring them in line? Again, that’s a possibility. But what about public opinion? That worked against FDR’s court packing plan, for example.

Still, underneath these debates, the partisan divide reflected in the procedural arms race continues. Both parties have talked about getting rid of the legislative filibuster in the recent past. Now, many Democrats sound ready to take that fateful step. 

“The question is not, should Democrats pack the courts,” says Jeremy Parris, the former Democratic counterpart to Mr. Nunziata on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The question is, what are the Democrats going to do to respond to right-wing court-packing?”

Republicans, he charges, continue to push an unpopular policy agenda through the courts.

“If Republicans continue to abuse their power this way, it may be that we have no choice,” Mr. Parris says.

And if Republicans lose this election for failing to work through problems such as the pandemic, and then continue to block legislation even as a Senate minority, Mr. Parris is resolute: “Then we do away with the filibuster.”

Amid a pandemic, Republicans become the new door-knocking warriors

We look at a campaign experiment underway in the pandemic-influenced 2020 U.S. election that may offer clues to the most effective way to get out the vote: traditional, or digital?

David
Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Jim Bognet, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s 8th District, speaks to voters at a campaign event with Mark and Patricia McCloskey – his third in-person campaign event of the day – outside the office for the Republican Party of Luzerne County, Sept. 30, 2020.

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How can politicians best connect with voters during COVID-19? Jim Bognet, a Republican running to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, shakes hands, poses for selfies, and recently spoke to 500 people at a pig roast from the back of a pickup truck. His opponent, incumbent Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, hasn’t held large in-person events or done any door-to-door canvassing since March. 

These diverging approaches – reflected in races across the country, including the presidential race – serve to reinforce the two sides’ core arguments. Democrats’ minimal door knocking respects voters’ concerns about the pandemic, while Republicans are trying to emphasize a return to “normal” life. 

Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University and co-author of “Get out the Vote!,” found that connecting with 1,000 voters via door knocking generates 40 votes, while talking to 1,000 voters on the phone generates 28. But he says more targeted digital methods, including Democrats’ shift toward peer-to-peer organization, could prove to be effective.

“We may find that virtual friend-to-friend [contacts] may be more effective than a stranger at your door,” says Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University. “It’s kind of too early to tell.” 

Amid a pandemic, Republicans become the new door-knocking warriors

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As he wraps up his stump speech to a group of mostly maskless voters outside the Luzerne County GOP headquarters, Jim Bognet shakes hands and poses for selfies.

It’s his third in-person campaign event of the day. Despite the various COVID-19 guidelines restricting group activities, the Republican candidate for northeast Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District says he’s been operating almost as if it’s “a normal campaign year” since June. 

“A month ago, I spoke from the back of a pickup truck to 500 people at a pig roast,” says Mr. Bognet, who owned a communications consulting business before working as a Trump administration appointee at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Bognet’s opponent, incumbent Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, hasn’t held large in-person events or done any door-to-door canvassing since March.

“I would love to be out there having big events,” says Congressman Cartwright, an attorney who was first elected to Congress in 2012. But “I think it’s way more important to model good pandemic behavior and to do our part to slow the spread – and I think people appreciate that.”

As COVID-19 continues to upend everyday life in America, it has also disrupted campaigning – forcing presidential and down-ballot candidates alike to reevaluate once-routine forms of politicking. Everything from speeches and rallies to door knocking and handshaking now comes with a cloud of complications and a cost-benefit analysis.

Yet there’s a clear partisan split. Taking cues from President Donald Trump – who has resumed a jam-packed schedule of MAGA rallies after being sidelined by a COVID-19 diagnosis – many Republican candidates returned to the trail in early summer. By contrast, Democrats from former Vice President Joe Biden on down have been much more cautious, with some only just now beginning to hold small events and go door to door. 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Despite COVID-19, Jim Bognet, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s 8th District, has largely resumed campaigning as normal since June. “Most campaigns are two different messages with very similar tactics,” says Mr. Bognet, who is running to unseat incumbent Democratic Congressman Matt Cartwright. “This campaign has incredibly divergent messages. ... But even more so than that, they’re using different tactics.”

The diverging approaches serve to reinforce the two sides’ core arguments, points out Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in Atherton, California, who has studied get-out-the-vote methods for decades. “By not engaging in door knocking, or minimal door knocking, Democrats are sending a message – reminding people that we are in a pandemic.”

Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to emphasize a return to “normal” life.

“We see among Republican and independent voters, they still want to be talked to,” says Mr. Bognet. “They still appreciate it when we go door to door. And I just think the Democrats are making a horrible mistake by giving [that] up.”

Real-life political science experiment 

After months of mostly virtual campaign events, Mr. Biden recently embarked on an 8-stop train tour around Ohio and Pennsylvania, de-training to speak to small, socially distant crowds. Biden volunteers are just now beginning to knock on doors of voters who have been hard to reach by phone in the swing states of Nevada, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania – the first such efforts since the spring. 

By contrast, the Trump team claims to have already amassed impressive canvassing numbers. According to a campaign spokesman, the campaign has knocked on over 22.5 million doors to date, with a current average of 2 million doors per week (though figures like these are impossible to independently verify).  

In some ways, 2020 is offering a kind of real-life political science experiment: Just how much does face-to-face contact with voters actually matter?

Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillion has tried to reassure nervous Democrats that what’s important isn’t sheer numbers of doors knocked on, but meaningful conversations with voters – which she says have been easier than ever to have on the phone, with so many Americans stuck at home and on their devices. 

“Our operation has been highly successful when it comes to the most important metric, which is quality conversations,” a senior Biden official tells the Monitor. In the month of September alone, the campaign held 5.9 million of these conversations, the official says. 

The Biden campaign has employed various virtual tactics, from social media to Zoom rallies to mailing postcards. And they have experimented further with peer-to-peer organizing, in which supporters text or call their own friends and family – a method political scientists rank as highly effective.

Still, face-to-face interactions typically allow for more in-depth conversations than phone calls or texting. Compared with other campaign tactics, in terms of both cost and success in generating votes, in-person canvassing comes out looking “pretty good,” says Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University and author of the book “Get out the Vote!” with Alan Gerber. On average, they calculate that connecting with 1,000 voters via door knocking generates 40 votes, while talking to 1,000 voters on the phone generates 28.

“It all depends on the quality of the interaction,” Mr. Green adds. “We may find that virtual friend-to-friend [contacts] may be more effective than a stranger at your door. ... It’s kind of too early to tell.” 

Knocking on doors – in a mask 

With an umbrella hanging from his waist and a stack of campaign flyers in his pocket, Andrew Holter, a conservative running for the state legislature in Pennsylvania’s District 118, walks from house to house under a drizzling rain in Duryea, a town south of Scranton. He’s following a map of potential supporters on his phone; many of the homes he approaches have lawn signs for President Trump or other Republican candidates.  

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Andrew Holter, a conservative running for the state legislature in Pennsylvania's District 118, knocks on doors in a neighborhood south of Scranton, Sept. 29, 2020. “This is still the foundation of politics,” says Mr. Holter, motioning to the houses around him. “Nothing beats talking to somebody on their front porch.”

Wearing a black face mask that says “We the People,” Mr. Holter knocks on a door – firmly, but not aggressively – and then steps backward off the house’s porch. If the homeowner answers, Mr. Holter, a paramedic firefighter, introduces himself and gives a one-minute version of his stump speech, explaining what he would do differently from the incumbent, such as investing more in emergency services. 

One young woman listens from inside. “I really appreciate you being out here and taking the time to talk to people,” she says, before offering him a friendly wave and returning to her barking dogs.

As the number of swing voters has shrunk in America, canvassing activities in recent years have tended to focus more on turnout, making sure the candidates’ supporters show up on Election Day. A 2017 study by two political scientists found that door knocking can persuade undecided voters in a primary election, but has little to no effect winning over new supporters in general election campaigns. 

Still, Mr. Holter knocks on a few doors that he knows are home to registered Democrats, and even one with a sign for his opponent. When a woman answers, she listens quietly to his short speech and takes his flyer before giving a quick wave and closing her door. 

“This is the moment you get to change someone’s mind,” says Mr. Holter, who estimates he’s spoken with at least 600 potential voters when going door to door. “It’s the difference between them continuing to vote down the ballot when they might have just checked the top boxes and then moved on.” 

Door knocking helped Democrats win in 2018 

Ironically, until this year, Democrats were regarded as stronger when it came to field operations. The Trump campaign reportedly required its full-time staffers to read the book “Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America,” about the Obama campaign’s 2008 and 2012 on-the-ground efforts.

In 2018, extensive in-person canvassing was partially credited with helping Democrats win back a majority in the U.S. House.

In a recent episode of the podcast Pod Save America, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Democratic candidates this year have been constrained to some extent by the concerns of their voters, who polls show are more worried about the virus than Republicans. “Most people who would be targets for door knocking don’t want someone at their door,” he said.

“But it makes me nervous,” Mr. Plouffe added, saying he found door knocking to be the best form of voter contact during the Obama campaigns. For some voters, “that may be the only way you get them to register or maybe the best way to convince them to turn out.”

In part because of concerns like these, the Biden campaign is now carefully stepping up its efforts, sending out several hundred volunteers to canvass last week, according to the Biden official. All volunteers are provided with protective equipment and temperature checks, and homeowners receive texts beforehand so they know to expect a knock on the door. 

Republicans have been quick to level charges of hypocrisy, after Democrats spent months criticizing the Trump campaign for supposedly endangering its voters with in-person events. 

“For months, Joe Biden and his campaign suggested door knocking would put people ‘in harm’s way’,” says Samantha Zager, Mr. Trump’s deputy national press secretary. “But now that Biden realized he can’t win an election from his basement and without a field operation, his campaign’s hypocrisy is on full display.” 

Campaigning during a pandemic: ‘It stinks’

Of course, it isn’t just Democrats who’ve had to restrict their campaigning in various ways this year. GOP Rep. Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania’s 9th District says roughly three-quarters of his campaign events have been canceled, postponed, or moved to Zoom.

“We’re doing some door knocking, but less than we would have,” he says. “We’re following the appropriate guidelines.” 

Congressman Meuser’s challenger, Democrat Gary Wegman, sums up campaigning during a pandemic in two words: “It stinks,” he says, from a picnic table on his family farm in northeast Pennsylvania.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Mallie Prytherch, campaign manager for Gary Wegman, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 9th District, suspects COVID-19 has changed political campaigning for good. “There’s so much more emphasis on the digital,” says Ms. Prytherch. “And campaigns are finding that it’s cheaper and more efficient because you can target people exactly.”

Still, if there are any positives to this unprecedented election season, it’s that voters across the political spectrum appear to be tuned into politics like never before.

“People are looking at their representatives like they never have,” says Mr. Wegman’s campaign manager, Mallie Prytherch. “They’re saying, ‘What are you doing for us?’” 

Ms. Prytherch says she has more volunteers offering to help than she knows what to do with. And if deciding not to risk the health of supporters and volunteers with in-person events ultimately costs the campaign votes, she says she’s OK with that.

Above all, she suspects this election will inevitably change what political campaigning will look like in the future.

“Of course, it’s been very different to campaign with the pandemic – but I don’t think that necessarily means it’s been worse,” she says. Campaigns were already heading toward a much more targeted, digital approach anyway, she notes. “This has just kind of accelerated that process.”

Who should care for the forest? In Kenya, the question sparks violence.

There’s a conservation battle over who best protects a forest: the government, with all of its resources and expertise, or the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries?

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More than three years after a landmark case recognizing its ancestral home, an Indigenous, forest-dwelling community in Kenya continues to face forced eviction. 

Living deep in one of Africa’s largest forests, the Ogiek people have spent years in Kenyan and international courts seeking official recognition of their homeland. Despite a legal victory in 2017, some 300 Ogiek homes were destroyed by the Kenya Forest Service personnel earlier this year.

“We have now become synonymous with evictions from our ancestral land,” says Daniel Kobei, a Mau-Ogiek community representative.

“We are now homeless, and have sought shelter among other people, especially in the Marishoni area,” he adds, referencing villages neighboring forest areas where forcible evictions were recently carried out.

Advocates of the Ogiek, who hope to get their day in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in late November, point to community-ownership models that have helped other Indigenous communities in Africa live in peace.

“Globally,” says Maryama Farah of Natural Justice, a South African nonprofit that specializes in environmental and human rights law, “we are moving towards the recognition that community co-management and conservation is the way to go, when it comes to conserving forests for future generations.”

Who should care for the forest? In Kenya, the question sparks violence.

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Courtesy of Ogiek Peoples' Development Program
A member of the Ogiek community sits outside his ruined home in the Marishoni area of the Mau Forest Complex. As many as 300 Ogiek homes are said to have been destroyed by the Kenya Forest Service recently, in an attempt to evict the community from the forest.

More than three years after a landmark case recognizing its ancestral home, an Indigenous, forest-dwelling community in Kenya continues to face forced eviction by the government. 

Living deep in Kenya’s Mau Forest Complex, the Ogiek people spent 12 years in the Kenyan courts seeking legal redress and acknowledgment of their rights to their homeland. When that proved unfruitful, they turned to the international stage. 

After eight more years pursuing justice in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in May 2017, that court handed down a ruling recognizing the community’s claim to the Mau Forest Complex. 

Despite that landmark ruling, the Ogiek say that they have continued to be driven from their homes. After years of delays, they hope to air their grievances before the court again during its next regular session in Arusha, Tanzania, in late November. At stake is the principle of who can best protect a forest: the government, with all of its resources and expertise, or the people who live there.

“We have now become synonymous with evictions from our ancestral land,” says Daniel Kobei, a Mau-Ogiek community representative, citing recent events in which 300 homes were destroyed by Kenya Forest Service personnel. 

“We are now homeless, and have sought shelter among other people, especially in the Marishoni area,” he adds, referencing villages neighboring forest areas where forcible evictions were recently carried out.

From the Kenyan government’s perspective, the evictions are aimed at protecting a vital water resource that has become degraded through human habitation. George Natembeya, an Interior Ministry official who oversees the Mau forest, has denied that the Ogiek are really a forest-dwelling community.

During a community meeting this summer, he accused some members of the Ogiek community of trying to turn a profit on their land, according to Kenya’s Star newspaper. “We know you have sold your own parcels of land and we will soon kick you out to protect water sources,” he said.

Among the trees

The largest native mountain forest in East Africa stretches through Kenya’s Rift Valley, about 100 miles northwest of Nairobi, the country’s capital. Covering an area of more than 1,500 square miles, the Mau Forest Complex is also Kenya’s largest drainage basin and contains the largest of the country’s five water towers. 

The Ogiek community says that the forest has been its home for more than a thousand years, and provided its people with wild game, fruit, and medicinal herbs. The Ogiek are also known to practice beekeeping, as honey is a big component of their diet. 

But this way of life has severely been eroded, especially with the banning of hunting by the Kenyan government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now, the Ogiek have been forced to practice subsistence farming, by growing maize and beans as well as other crops.

The Mau Forest Complex is also the scene of a major environmental disaster. Due to the felling of trees for lumber, charcoal, and farmland, that forest ecosystem has shrunk by nearly 400 square miles since 2000.

Commercial logging has introduced fast-growing cypress and pine trees in place of indigenous ones, which has disrupted honey production. Water, too, has become restricted and contaminated. And members of the community have speculated that a number of bird, insect, animal, and plant species have reduced. Elephants, for example, cannot feed on cypress leaves and have moved elsewhere.

Courtesy of Ogiek Peoples' Development Program
Recent evictions of the Ogiek community from the Mau Forest Complex have led to destruction of property.

Into the cold

Of the 50,000 estimated total population of the Ogiek, the vast majority inhabit the Mau Forest Complex and are also referred to as the Mau Ogiek.  

A smaller community lives on Mount Elgon on the border between Kenya and Uganda. Otherwise, a proportion of its population has since been assimilated into other tribes. 

Other Indigenous communities have also allegedly been destroyed by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) recently. Amnesty International reported that, on July 10, perhaps as many as 28 homes belonging to the Sengwer – another forest-dwelling Indigenous community – were burned to the ground in another major native forest, Embobut Forest.

All this is happening during the coldest season in the country, and the mountainous environment in which families are forced out is already quite chilly. This “is a gross violation of really basic human rights,” says Milka Chepkorir, a member of the Sengwer people and a fellow with Natural Justice, a South African nonprofit that specializes in environmental and human rights law. 

And now the evictions are taking place in the middle of the COVID-19 global pandemic, raising health concerns for the displaced communities.

“These recent evictions have affected us really differently this time round,” Ms. Chepkorir says, “because they are taking place in COVID times, when the children are not in school but are playing in the glades.” 

Foreign aid or foreign hindrance? 

Although evictions are intermittent, there seems to have been a protracted period of relative calm and quiet since 2018, says Ms. Chepkorir. 

In January of that year, Robert Kirotich, a Sengwer herdsman was reported to have been gunned down by the KFS guards while tending to his cattle in the forest. This led to the suspension of the European Union-funded Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme. 

That initiative, launched in June 2016, aims to promote the enhancement of ecosystem services while improving livelihoods in Mount Elgon and Cherangany Hills – where two of the five water towers in Kenya sit. (Embobut Forest in Cherangany Hills is where the Sengwer community is allegedly being driven out.)

“Peace has prevailed for the Sengwer in Embobut Forest following the suspension of this funding, until recently,” says Ms. Chepkorir, alluding to the ongoing talks for resuming the EU funding.

Indications that the funding may resume have fueled mistrust from the Indigenous community. The community is doubtful that this financial backing is sufficiently helpful, and attributes its troubles to the availability of donor money. 

“You are bound to find displacements in regions where there are foreign funding for conservation purposes in Kenya,” claims Mali ole Kaunga, a representative of Il Lakipiak Maasai community, an Indigenous people found in northern Kenya.

Communities in the Kirisia Forest in northern Kenya, says Mr. Kaunga, have been living peacefully there for centuries, without either the KFS or the Forest Department getting involved. However, trouble erupted when the forest management body began demarcating the approximately 140 square miles of this forest.

Mr. Kaunga alleges that the demarcation is driven by the government’s pledge to raise the forest cover in Kenya from the current 7.2% to about 10% by 2022. This has affected a community of about 5,000 people.

Instead of engaging with the community, the government has elected “a top-down approach,” says Maryama Farah of Natural Justice.

One major hurdle for the Ogiek is the lack of titled deeds for the land. Community spokespeople have long complained that a proliferation of fake deeds has resulted in their land being divided. Last year, the Ogiek called on the Kenyan government to grant a communal deed for land in the Mau forest.

A better way?

But around the world, she says, there are many examples of amicable, environment-friendly resolutions that empower Indigenous communities to become owner-conservators of the land they inhabit. 

For example, community-owned forests have been shown to help in expanding natural forest protection in African countries such as Namibia, Gambia, and Tanzania. The same approach is now being employed in Liberia and the Congo. 

“Globally, we are moving towards the recognition that community co-management and conservation is the way to go, when it comes to conserving forests for future generations,” Ms. Farah adds.

A growing body of evidence now shows that honoring land rights of rural people in forests is the foundation for conserving forests sustainably. And such community-centered approaches go a long way toward promoting global conservation.

If progress is to be made, says Mr. Kaunga, there needs to be a decoupling of funding from conservation issues. “The community is open to negotiations, but has not been given the opportunity.”

A deeper look

Homegrown relief: Farming communities tackle rise in suicides

Our reporter looks at the systemic – and personal – efforts to address suicide among American farmers. For those struggling with debt and depression, healing often starts by reaching out to each other.

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cows amble toward a field on a dairy farm in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.

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Millions of dollars in debt, Randy Roecker had slid into a darkness that he was unable to shake. Despite years of careful planning, his family’s dairy farm was hit hard by the 2008 recession. So he struggled alone – until a friend and fellow farmer took his own life in 2018. Mr. Roecker broke down in tears on the Sunday afterward outside his church, explaining to the men gathered there, “You have no idea what it’s like when your world is collapsing.” 

Two years later, the support group started that day operates as the Farmer Angel Network. Along with other advocacy organizations, farm boards, agricultural extension workers, and politicians, they are mobilizing to reverse what has become one of rural America’s more disturbing trends – one, they say, that should be forcing a national reckoning over how this country grows, and values, food.

“We’ve always known that stress, emotional health, behavioral health in agriculture are always connected to bigger financial and legal stressors,” says Farm Aid’s Alicia Harvie. “They have to do with farm strategies that are not centered around the well-being and livelihood of people who grow our food.”

Homegrown relief: Farming communities tackle rise in suicides

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One humid afternoon this past July, on the gravel driveway of Lime Ridge Ag Supply in the rolling green heart of America’s dairy land, a small group of masked volunteers delivered sugar cones and goody bags to farmers in big trucks.

The purpose of this “drive-through ice cream social,” according to the promotional flyer, was to celebrate the farmers of Sauk County, Wisconsin – a way to say “thank you” and recognize that “as ‘essential workers’ farmers work hard every day to feed our nation.” 

But the goody bag materials belied an additional purpose, one that the Farmer Angel Network, the grassroots group that organized this get-together, has been promoting to increasing attention over the past two years. Along with the advertisements for seed companies and tractor suppliers, and the $5 off coupon for the Branding Iron Roadhouse and the foam cow stress toy, provided by a local veterinarian, each care package contained information about wellness resources – and pamphlets about how to keep loved ones from killing themselves. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“We needed to do something. We can’t afford to lose more lives,” says Dorothy Harms (left), a member of the Farmer Angel Network, who is narrating a hayride to raise money for the nonprofit that helps farmers deal with mental health issues.

“We needed to do something,” says Dorothy Harms, a Farmer Angel Network volunteer who helped pass out ice cream and who, with her husband, raises beef and dairy cows on the land his family has owned for 140 years. “We can’t afford to lose more lives.”

For the past decade, Ms. Harms and others living in agricultural communities across the United States have watched with alarm as a growing number of their neighbors have killed themselves. Although clear statistics are difficult to find, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those working in farming are among the most likely to take their own lives, compared with other occupations. Recently The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting confirmed that some 450 farmers killed themselves in nine Midwestern states between 2014 and 2018 – a  number that is likely higher in reality, the group says, because many suicides are classified as farm accidents. 

“Farmer suicide has reached all farming communities and all farming sectors,” says Tracy Brandel, a dairy farmer who also works as a senior agricultural program specialist at the Wisconsin Farm Center, which helps farmers with everything from financial planning to organic certifications to mental health counseling. “You don’t have to go too far to see how it’s affected someone’s life.” 

Now, a growing coalition of grassroots groups such as Ms. Harms’ Farmer Angel Network, along with farm boards, advocacy organizations, agricultural extension workers, and politicians, is mobilizing to offer relief to farmers across the U.S. With everything from local support networks to crisis hotlines, wellness podcasts, and suicide awareness trainings, they hope they can reverse what has become one of rural America’s more disturbing trends – one, they say, that should be forcing a national reckoning over how this country grows, and values, food.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A cornhusk angel stands by the booth of the Farmer Angel Network, a nonprofit that helps prevent farmer suicides, during a festival in Witwen, Wisconsin.

Safe spaces amid stigma

It took Randy Roecker nearly 20 years of planning and saving before he was able to expand his family dairy in the way he had been dreaming about since he was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

He was one of a cohort of local farm kids at the big city university, and after he graduated he was eager to bring what he had learned about modernization and economies of scale back to the small family dairy in Loganville, a farm town about an hour away from Madison. He toured larger operations around the state. After some years he hired a business planner. And then, in 2006, he invested $3 million in expanding the operation from 50 or so animals into a 300-cow farm. That same year he was appointed to the National Dairy Promotion & Research Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a position for those considered regional leaders in the industry.

Then the recession hit. His loan got sold to a bigger bank. Milk prices tanked. His farm was losing around $30,000 a month.  And Mr. Roecker slid into a darkness that he was unable to shake. 

“I had borrowed millions of dollars and then I felt the world was crashing down around me because of the worldwide economy,” he says. “I thought I was a failure.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jeff Ditzenberger climbs out of a tractor on his farm where he grows corn and beans in Argyl, Wisconsin.

For years, he tried to keep it to himself. Farmers, he knew, were a hardy and stoic bunch. His neighbors wouldn’t have much time for feelings, he thought – a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues, according to a recent American Farm Bureau Federation study, which found that nearly 60% of farmers say their friends and neighbors attach a great deal of stigma to mental health issues.

And so Mr. Roecker struggled alone.  

Then, in October 2018, a friend and fellow dairy farmer took his own life, not far from Mr. Roecker’s farm. The following Sunday, a group of men was talking about it outside St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a place where, back in the day, the sermons and social events had revolved around agriculture. That was before the dairy farms began closing in record numbers in this state, nearly two a day in 2019, according to the USDA.  

Mr. Roecker remembers walking up to the group and breaking down in tears.

“You just don’t understand,” he recalls saying to them. “You have no idea what it’s like when your world is collapsing.”

He started sharing his financial stress, the feelings of depression, and how he had thought many times about killing himself. The men listened, and as they talked Mr. Roecker had an idea. He contacted the head of his men’s group at church and asked whether he might hold an informal gathering for farmers and neighbors to discuss their struggles.  

He advertised the meeting in church bulletins around the county. Volunteers arranged for sandwiches and set up folding chairs. Mr. Roecker wasn’t sure if anyone would come. But some 40 people showed up for the first meeting, along with a local news reporter. Soon, people were driving several hours to join the group, looking for a safe space away from their own communities to find hope and healing. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A license plate on a truck in Wisconsin marks it as a farm vehicle.

“We sat around the tables; we introduced ourselves,” he recalls. “We wanted to share stories. There were a lot of tears shed.”

He decided with some of his neighbors that they should formalize the group, which they eventually called the Farmer Angel Network. Soon other churches in the region began holding similar get-togethers, and farmers began forming similar collaborations.  

Regional, and then national newspapers, started writing about the meetings, and Mr. Roecker got calls from television networks and magazines. Organizers of Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid benefit concert asked him to attend as a special guest – and he found himself sitting next to musician Dave Matthews and other performers on the main stage. 

“It was bizarre,” he says. “When I started on this, I had no idea this was going to happen. I just thought it would be a source of comfort for our area. I thought it would be a source of comfort that we could talk this out at church. ... Now we realize there is such a need, across the whole country.”

New pressures of farming, on top of the old  

Farming, of course, has never been an easy profession. It is physically demanding, often solitary, and dependent on the mercurial weather – all without the backstop of a guaranteed salary, health insurance, or other sorts of financial security.  

It is also, say those in the industry, more than a job. For many, farming is a way of life – an identity and an inheritance. According to 2017 census data, more than three-quarters of farms are generational – meaning that the vast majority of farmers are the children and grandchildren of farmers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Corn is harvested on a farm in Sauk County, Wisconsin, in late September.

“There’s a unique subculture in farming,” says Eric Karbowski, a community behavioral health educator with Michigan State University Extension who focuses on farm stress. “It’s an incredibly proud subculture.”

Which means that when things start to go badly, the emotional impact can be huge.  

And over the past few years, the normal pressures of agricultural life have been compounded by a combination of structural financial strains, climate change-related disruptions, and commodity pricing fluctuations. Using USDA data, Farm Aid estimates that farmers saw a nearly 50% drop in net income between 2013 and 2018.

By 2019, money made from farming made up only a small percentage of household income for those who own what the USDA classifies as small farms, those operations that have less than $350,000 in gross revenue. Instead, these households depend on nonfarm earnings, along with government payments.

That’s telling, say advocates, because these small farms make up approximately 90% of the country’s farms overall.  

Meanwhile, a small number of large-scale agricultural operations took an ever-bigger cut of the country’s farm income.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hay bales are painted with “God Bless America” at a dairy farm in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.

Can't just stop milking a cow

Dairy farmers, such as Mr. Roecker, face particular financial hardship. The vast majority of milk in the U.S. is sold as a commodity through cooperatives or directly to processors, and its price is determined by a combination of federal regulations, market forces, and regional agreements. Often farmers do not know what they will be paid until weeks after the milk leaves their farm.

Recently, dairy farmers have been getting paychecks that offer less than the $20 per 100 pounds of milk that it takes to break even. But unlike other commodity producers, who might decide to leave a field fallow for a season, it’s hard for dairy farmers to lower production. They can’t just stop milking a cow, and they have to feed all of their animals.

(This is why earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the milk market to at-home buyers rather than institutional purchasers, many dairy farmers who had contracted with schools and restaurants had to dump their milk. There was no way for them to stop producing it, and no safe way to store it.)

“Because our farmers are always living on the edge of poverty, as soon as the price goes up they need to get more cows and more milk to get themselves out of debt, and everyone does that at the same time,” says Sarah Gardner, associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, who made a documentary about New England’s declining dairy industry. “But then it produces a glut and the price goes down. ... There’s constant volatility.”

In early 2018, Agri-Mark, one of the largest dairy co-ops in the Northeast, mailed a suicide prevention pamphlet to its farmers along with their milk checks.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A flag stands prominently on a farm in southern Wisconsin.

“Farmers as a whole – they’re very independent, pull myself up by the bootstraps, put my head down, work harder and we’ll get through this,” says Rick Hummell, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “Well, that just hasn’t been working anymore. For four or five years, [they’re] not even earning enough money to pay for the work [they’re] doing. And for a lot of them, their father and their grandfather and their great-grandfather were doing it – it’s multigenerational. They don’t want to be the one who lost the farm. Hence the depression and the suicide we’ve been hearing about.”

The number of dairy farms in New England dropped from 20,000 in 1959 to fewer than 2,000 in 2012. Today Massachusetts has only 117 dairy farms remaining, says Dr. Gardner. Across the U.S., according to the USDA, the number of licensed dairy herds dropped from 70,375 in 2003 to 34,187 in 2019.

But increasingly, there are places farmers can turn for help. Mr. Hummell says that growers experiencing excessive stress are calling the Wisconsin Farm Center, which is part of the state’s agriculture department, in greater numbers. The center offers farmers $100 vouchers to pay for counseling. Last year the state government allocated $100,000 for the center to bolster its wellness programming. Advocates say they are also working on forming a network of therapists who are familiar with farming, often people who are farmers or from farm families themselves.

This summer, the Wisconsin Farm Center launched a new podcast focused on farmer wellness, called “Rural Realities.” It also started a 24/7 farmer counseling help line and paid for radio ads intended to reduce the stigma associated with depression. And it created new ways to train people who work with and around farmers – the service providers, the veterinarians, and so on – to help them recognize individuals at risk of taking their own lives.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A road sign cautions about tractor traffic in farm-heavy south-central Wisconsin.

The federal government is getting involved, too. In 2018, Congress earmarked $2 million to the USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which funds regional collaborations to help those working in farming. This year, it increased funding to $28.7 million over three years.  

In the Northeast, a coalition of agricultural groups, including Farm Aid and the National Young Farmers Coalition, is using that money to build a network of service providers, along with a website that will let farmers easily search for wellness and mental health resources. It will also continue to build out the Farm Aid hotline, which the group started during the farm crisis of the 1980s, amid plummeting commodity and land prices and record farm foreclosures. 

Calls to the hotline have increased dramatically over the past two years, says Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid’s advocacy and farmer services director. There was a 109% spike in calls in 2018 compared with the year before; 2019 was about the same. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, calls increased again.

“We should be alarmed that the people who grow our food are struggling to feed their families,” Ms. Harvie says. “That says a lot about what we are or are not prioritizing in our economy and our society. ... It’s literally human life that’s becoming at stake with this system.” 

This is why John Peck, executive director of the Wisconsin-based organization Family Farm Defenders, argues for a different approach to the growing stress he sees among his neighbors. Mental health resources are all well and good. But, he notes, even if you can talk someone off a cliff, “if they’re back looking at the cliff tomorrow, it’s hard to change things.”

The real challenges to farmer wellness, he says, stem from agricultural policies that benefit large farms, opaque pricing systems, and production methods that move control from farmers to agricultural corporations.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cornhusk angels stand by the Farmer Angel Network booth manned by Brenda Statz (left), whose husband killed himself, and Amanda Coorough at a festival in Witwen, Wisconsin.

Mr. Peck and some others have been pushing for a new system of milk purchasing and pricing, for instance, that would be closer to Canada’s system of supply-side management with quotas. This would allow dairy farmers to have a living wage, he says.

“We have state legislatures that say we need all this money for rural mental health services,” Mr. Peck says. “And farmers are like, ‘It’s the underlying socioeconomic conditions that are causing this.’”  

Caitlin Arnold Stephano, the national chapter manager for the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group, agrees. “The systemic issues are huge,” she says. “Agriculture today in the U.S. is a product of policy change.”

But those issues are complicated and political – and with government programs such as Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance, groups are supposed to work on services only, not policy.  

“We’ve always known that stress, emotional health, behavioral health in agriculture are always connected to bigger financial and legal stressors,” says Ms. Harvie, of Farm Aid. “They have to do with farm strategies that are not centered around the well-being and livelihood of people who grow our food.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“I don’t want people to feel like I felt the last day before my suicide attempt," says Jeff Ditzenberger. "We all need to take a step back and remember that everybody is facing a battle, and we just need to be a bit nicer to each other.” Mr. Ditzenberger, here with his dog, Luke, on his farm in Argyle, Wisconsin, is a suicide survivor who started the organization TUGS - Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting – to help other farmers.

A message of caring

Jeff Ditzenberger says this is why he always tells his fellow farmers that you can’t control anything but your attitude.

Mr. Ditzenberger farms corn and soybeans an hour outside Madison, and he has sold farm machinery in the region for about 20 years. He was the president of the Green County Farm Bureau for 10 years, and jokes that he and his dog, Luke, also have their own sweet corn business, Luke’s Luscious Corn. 

He is one of the area’s more outspoken survivors of a suicide attempt. Nearly 30 years ago, he brought a suicide note to an abandoned house and set it on fire, planning to go with it. Farming, he said, had just become too much, as were the images he clung to as a military veteran.  

But something kept him from following through. He was convicted of felony arson, and spent nine months in jail.

He began his organization – Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting, or TUGS – in 2013 when he saw how many people in his community were struggling. 

“I wanted a chance for people to meet other people that they might relate to,” he says. “You’re sitting there and Joe Smith tells his story and you think, oh my God, that’s what I’ve been through.” 

Mr. Ditzenberger’s approach is straightforward. He believes that listening, engaging, and spreading kindness are key to helping alleviate what he agrees is an epidemic in his region. He tries to convince people to stop and notice their neighbors, to ask what’s going on, to really listen.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cows graze on a farm in Wisconsin framed by russet and golden fields.

He is a proponent of the QPR approach to suicide prevention – an acronym that stands for “question, persuade, and refer.”  But really, he wants people to know that he – and others – care. He has brought this message to growing numbers of training sessions and public talks.

“I don’t want people to feel like I felt the last day before my suicide attempt,” he says. “We all need to take a step back and remember that everybody is facing a battle, and we just need to be a bit nicer to each other.”

This is exactly what Ms. Harms was hoping to do during the Farmer Angel Network’s dairy socials. Yes, the group wants to spread information about crisis hotlines and suicide prevention resources, she says. But as much as that, they wanted to build a sense of community.

“We tried to put a positive spin about bringing farm families together,” she says. “Fellowship in any of these situations is so good. Farmers get together and they start talking and they tell you about the tractor that broke down and the cow that got sick and the hay that got rained on. At the very least, you get talking to the other guys and you think, oh, my life isn’t so bad.”

The Chat

Why this sci-tech journalist ditched his smartphone

Our science writer takes us on his journey of reimagining life without a smartphone. It's a bold experiment in disconnecting in order to reconnect with his family. He’s also learning the smartphone's “Swiss Army knife” concept may not always offer the best tool for a job.

David

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Eoin O’Carroll, the Monitor’s science, technology, and environment writer, is unabashedly enthralled by technology. But a month ago, he traded his iPhone for a flip phone. 

“I’ve written a lot of stories on tech overuse, online misinformation, and all the ways digital platforms change how we treat each other, and I realized that I wasn’t myself immune to its effects,” he says in a chat with fellow Monitor science writer Eva Botkin-Kowacki.

Life without his iPhone has been a process of unbundling all the functions of a smartphone, Eoin says. Now he reaches for a weighty flashlight in the dark, turns the dial of a kitchen timer, and goes into another room to access the internet. 

“It feels a little bit like it did in the early 2000s,” he says. “When we wanted to use the internet to look something up, we would say, ‘I’m going online.’”

Eoin isn’t totally disconnected. He’s still always near a computer or tablet. But, he says, “I notice that I’m a little more present with my family. I no longer consult Wikipedia during dinner. I no longer check the news while I’m playing with my kids. Overall, I feel a little freer, a little less tethered.”

 

Why this sci-tech journalist ditched his smartphone

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Eoin O'Carroll
The Alcatel GO FLIP V features a robust hinge, large friendly buttons, and zero social media apps.

Eoin O’Carroll, the Monitor’s science, environment, and technology writer, is unabashedly enthralled by technology. He can turn on his lights just by talking to them, he has a closet dedicated to AC adapters of uncertain origin, and can plug in a USB cable in just three attempts.

And yet a month ago, this paragon of technological understanding traded his iPhone in for a flip phone. For this chat, Eoin discusses the transition with fellow Monitor science writer Eva Botkin-Kowacki. Along the way, Eoin has learned how technology is bundled – and the merits of unbundling it.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki: When you told me that you were getting a flip phone, I was surprised, given your penchant for gadgetry. What inspired you?

Eoin O’Carroll: I’ve written a lot of stories on tech overuse, online misinformation, and all the ways digital platforms change how we treat each other, and I realized that I wasn’t myself immune to its effects.

My iPhone’s screen-time tracker told me I was spending upward of an hour a day basically doom-scrolling Google News, Reddit, and Twitter. It wasn’t making me happy, I wasn’t really learning anything, and, as I was explaining to my kitchen light bulb recently, it was pulling me away from not just my family, but my whole external environment beyond my screen. I decided that I wanted my hour back.

Eva: I’m not sure I dare check my own screen time. An hour actually sounds low to me. Did you try anything else to reclaim that time?

Eoin: That’s on top of the 8 to 11 hours on my work laptop five days a week!

I’d tried other digital dieting strategies, like putting a rubber band around my phone, or setting the screen grayscale. But they just didn’t stick.

So, on Sept. 5, I removed the SIM card from my aging iPhone SE and stuck it in a dumb phone – “basic phone” is the preferred nomenclature – an Alcatel GO FLIP V.

Eva: How does your flip phone compare with the smartphone so far?

Eoin: It’s not nearly as slick as an iPhone, but it has a satisfying physicality to it. The buttons are real buttons. It feels natural to hold to the ear in precisely the way a glass-and-aluminum slab doesn’t. And I love being able to end my calls not with a feeble tap, but with a crisp and definitive snap.

In other words, it’s a phone. On my old iPhone, my phone was just an app on my phone. As the stand-up comic Gary Gulman remarked, calling a smartphone a phone is like calling a Lexus convertible a cup holder.

Eva: But what about all of the other functions of a smartphone? Having what is essentially a computer in your pocket has its benefits.

Eoin: I think that bundling gets to the heart of what the modern smartphone is about.

From the very beginning, the iPhone was a Swiss Army device. For me, it was my newsstand, my GPS, my camera, my pocket watch, my flashlight, my audio player, my external brain, my kitchen timer, my calculator, my video game console, my light switch, and my TV remote. And my phone.

This bundling achieves some amazing things. You can integrate geolocation, push notifications, and mobile payments to summon a personal driver. You can integrate a microphone, onboard processing, and internet connectivity to identify a song playing in a cafe. Having a smartphone is in some ways like having superpowers.

But it also subtracts from some of the original individual tools’ qualities. If you have a real screwdriver, you’re probably not going to use the one on your Swiss Army knife. The same goes for those little sproingy scissors and – especially – the plastic toothpick.

Eva: So how are you replacing all those other functions? And how is it different than having them all bundled?

Eoin: The past month has, for me, been a process of unbundling all of my iPhone’s functions. I started using an actual flashlight, we got a kitchen timer, and so on. As I go back to using the original tools, I’m reacquainting myself with a kind of tactility: Feeling the weight of an actual flashlight, tapping physical buttons, twisting the dial on the timer.

At least I don’t fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole every time I pick up my flashlight anymore.

I’ve also rebundled some of my iPhone’s functions onto my iPad – which I used to use mainly for reading comics and FaceTiming. Now I also use it for things like email, news, and social media. But, because I’m not carrying my iPad around in my pocket all day, I’m a little more intentional about how I use it.

It feels a little bit like it did in the early 2000s. When we wanted to use the internet to look something up, we would say, “I’m going online.” We don’t really say that anymore because we’re always online.

Eva: Do you feel like online and offline life has become unblurred for you over the past month?

Eoin: I’ve noticed I’m a little more present with my family. I no longer consult Wikipedia at the dinner table. I no longer check the news while I’m playing with my kids. Overall, I feel a little freer, a little less tethered.

It’s not like I’m totally disconnected. I can almost always be reached via phone and text and I’m never more than 20 minutes away from email, Slack, and Zoom. Still, my consciousness feels a little bit less divided these days.

Eva: Do you miss your smartphone? Have there been any times you’ve wished you had it?

Eoin: I sometimes take out my flip phone and mindlessly gape at it, just as I used to do with my iPhone. But I don’t get sucked in. Unlike with the iPhone, with its bottomless content pits, on my flip phone there’s nowhere to go. So I snap it closed like Captain Kirk and put it back in my pocket.

I’ve had a couple mishaps, though. The other week, I was doing a curbside pickup at Whole Foods, and I couldn’t figure out how to alert them to my arrival using the iPad version of the Amazon app. I ended up having to phone my wife and have her use her iPhone.

Eva: Oh no! It seems like society has gotten to a point where it’s assumed that everyone has a smartphone.

Eoin: Many of us don’t have a choice. If you make a living driving an Uber or walking dogs for Care.com, you need to have a smartphone.

For others, it’s a social necessity. If all of your friends are on Instagram, or WhatsApp, or Facebook, then your phone is how you connect to people. That can be just as important as being an economic lifeline.

But, as endless tech and business headlines are showing these days, by putting ourselves in a situation where our economic needs and our social lives are mediated by these platforms, all that convenience and flexibility comes at a cost.

Eva: Do you think more people will opt to unbundle as you have?

Eoin: I think we’re actually already witnessing an unbundling. Smart home speakers are growing in popularity, as are smartwatches. Even Google Glass is quietly making a comeback. This doesn’t mean the smartphone is going away, but it does mean that, for many of us, it’s playing less of a role as our primary connection to the internet. 

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Remedies for a global recession? That’s the idea.

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Economists almost everywhere are scratching their heads. Why is the world economy performing better than predicted six months ago after the pandemic stopped much of commerce? Which of the many theories in the “dismal science” called economics are actually working?

The International Monetary Fund cites “unprecedented” government support of businesses and households. Others point to debt relief. Some praise safety net programs. Still others commend workers and employers for coping with the coronavirus. Such a debate is the point. Each major economic crisis – from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Great Recession a decade ago – has generated new ideas and a broader consensus about what sustains an economy. The coronavirus-induced recession will be no different. Economic progress has long been linked to progress in practical, proven ideas that transcend old debates.

From the data-watching analysis by the IMF and others, the news about the pandemic’s effects does seem grim. “The ascent out of this calamity is likely to be long, uneven, and highly uncertain,” writes Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s chief economist. Yet every big shift in the economy can bring fresh ideas – and with them, a spirit of collaboration.

Remedies for a global recession? That’s the idea.

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Reuters
People walk across an intersection at a business district in Tokyo, Japan.

Economists almost everywhere are scratching their heads. Why is the world economy performing better than predicted six months ago after the pandemic stopped much of commerce? Total output has not contracted as much as expected. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) even sees global growth of 5.2% next year. Which of the many theories in the “dismal science” called economics are actually working?

The IMF cites “unprecedented” government support of $6 trillion to both businesses and households. Others point to debt relief offered by wealthier nations to 73 poor countries. Some praise well-targeted safety net programs. Still others commend workers and employers for coping with the coronavirus and trying to maintain income.

Such a debate is the point. Each major economic crisis – from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Great Recession a decade ago – has generated new ideas and a broader consensus about what sustains an economy. The coronavirus-induced recession will be no different. Economic progress has long been linked to progress in practical, proven ideas that transcend old debates.

“If the economics profession is going to help solve the world’s biggest problems – from pandemics and climate change to deglobalization and inequality – economists must stop tweaking the edges of their models and think outside the box,” writes Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar.

A hint of this can be seen in the latest Nobel Prize in economic sciences. It was awarded Monday to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson of Stanford University for their insights on the best rules for bidding in auctions, from homebuying to government sales of radio-wave spectrum. While their work may seem narrow to a particular activity, the prize committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences makes a larger point: “Their discoveries have benefited sellers, buyers, and taxpayers around the world.” In other words, their ideas had universal application that transcends controversy.

The 2018 Nobel laureate in economic sciences, Paul Romer of New York University, says his own work on “the economics of ideas” shows that progress is always possible, “even when the news is grim.” As the world economy has become driven more by new ideas in technology, governance, and, yes, economics, these ideas can sustain growth in a world where resources are scarce, Dr. Romer says.

And they come with a good side effect. “We start to see other people as allies because if they discover something, we can benefit from their discovery.” We will have a “better sense of connecting with, and appreciating, others; not seeing them as hostiles.”

This path of progress requires imagination, courage, and humility. “Imagination helps us see new possibilities,” he notes. “Courage lets us try them when we are uncertain. Having committed, humility prepares to revise as new evidence comes in.”

From the data-watching analysis by the IMF and others, the news about the pandemic’s effects does seem grim. Poverty is rising after the worst global downturn since the Great Depression. “The ascent out of this calamity is likely to be long, uneven, and highly uncertain,” writes Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s chief economist.

Yet every big shift in the economy can bring fresh ideas – and with them, a spirit of collaboration. Head-scratching economists might even start to agree.

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.

Prayer for the judiciary

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What does the legendary wisdom of the biblical King Solomon have to do with us today? Considering the idea that everyone has a God-given capacity to express wisdom, humility, and fairness opens the door to experiencing more of those qualities right here and now. Although written many years ago, this article feels remarkably timely for today’s headlines.

Prayer for the judiciary

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Many today are thinking about, and praying for, the U.S. judicial system. Wisdom, not ideology or partisanship, is vital to the intelligent administration of justice, so it is an essential quality in this work. While the Supreme Court justices are especially high-profile individuals in the United States, people everywhere can pray for judges who are just and wise in their interpretation of the law.

I like to follow the example of the biblical King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, when he knew he would succeed his father as king of Israel (see I Kings 3:5-14). Thinking of the diverse people whose welfare he was responsible for as king, he prayed, “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?”

And these words came to him as God’s answer, “Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and understanding heart.” The account that follows shows not only that Solomon’s desire was granted, but also that his wisdom was renowned far and wide.

We can pray for the wisdom of Solomon to inhabit the hearts of all departments of government, but it is in the judiciary that such pure wisdom is most needed. Knowledge of law and precedents, and even legal experience, isn’t really enough. It takes the wisdom of Solomon to truly lift judges above whatever would give their justice a partisan element.

And because this wisdom has its source in divine Spirit, it is available to all of them – and to us – just as it was to Solomon.

“The wisdom that is from above,” says the Bible, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Earlier in this same chapter, the reader is warned against envying and strife, and attitudes that are “sensual and devilish.” These negative aspects of thought can cloud one’s wisdom and misguide decisions.

In the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy divided the elements of thought into three categories (see pp. 115-116).

Wisdom is classified as the highest, or third degree. The second degree is described as “Moral” and has the marginal heading “Transitional qualities,” indicating that the qualities listed help us move into the third stage, where wisdom is found. They also lift us away from the first degree, named “Depravity,” which includes negative characteristics such as “self-justification, pride, envy, deceit, hatred, and revenge,” among others.

Probably everybody faces this at one time or another – I know I have. When I’ve noticed self-justification or pride, for example, in my thoughts, I’ve been comforted to know that as we think out from the basis of an altogether good God and His good creation, we see more readily that human foibles and even depraved characteristics are not the reality of anyone.

Each of us is, in truth, the spiritual child of God, and this knowledge enables us to separate ourselves from depraved thinking.

I am working to cultivate in myself the eight moral qualities listed in the second degree, and I prayerfully claim them when I pray for governments everywhere. They are “humanity, honesty, affection, compassion, hope, faith, meekness, temperance.”

Such prayer helps to support good government, but it also helps us as individuals. When we affirm hope in ourselves – as well as praying for its expression in judges and other officials – we become kinder to others and more compassionate toward government.

The same is true for meekness and temperance. To be truly helpful, we need to turn from arguing our viewpoint to expressing the humility of the young Solomon, who essentially admitted that he didn’t know how to judge “this thy so great a people.” He may have used “great” in referring to the size of the kingdom, but I like to think it was also a show of respect for the people he was to rule.

When decisions need to be made, two qualities help move us toward just judgment: respect, even affection for all concerned; and humility in asking for wisdom. These qualities let humanity and compassion enlighten our views.

The wisdom that is “full of mercy and good fruits” is “easy to be entreated” when it is supported by moral, transitional qualities. It is a wisdom that uplifts.

Adapted from an article published in the Oct. 4, 2005, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

Viewfinder

Vote early – and maybe bring a chair

C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
Alfreda Sales sits in a chair as she waits in line to vote on Oct. 14, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Early voting opened in Tennessee on Wednesday with people saying they waited for 90 minutes to just reach the door of this polling location. Across the nation, in-person early voting has often seen crowds for reasons including a high-stakes election, worries that mail-in ballots are an unreliable alternative, and pandemic-related precautions at polling places.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about how global friends and foes might respond to a Biden presidency.

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