2019
June
25
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, we’ll look at continuity in U.S. Supreme Court decisionmaking, address conflict with Iran, break down quantum jumps with a cartoon strip – and learn how California oyster farmers are coping with climate change and why one South African reads while he runs.

But first, here’s a question: What do ducklings and neo-Nazis have in common? Not much. But check out the creative solutions found for two civic problems on opposite sides of the world.

First, let’s go to Germany, where white supremacists descended on the town of Ostritz this past weekend for a “Shield and Sword” music festival. To prevent violence from breaking out (and frankly, discourage attendance), locals got a court order to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol at the event, reports Deutsche Welle. Police confiscated 4,200 liters of beer. But just in case concertgoers tried to replenish in town, residents bought out all the beer in the local supermarket. “We wanted to dry the Nazis out,” Georg Salditt told the ZDF Television. Did it work? About 600 people attended this year’s festival, half as many as last year.

Meanwhile, in Littleton, Colorado, authorities faced a completely different challenge. Last Thursday, eight ducklings were swept into a storm drain. Half were easily rescued. But four were still out of reach in a pipe. That’s when a member of the South Metro Fire Rescue team pulled out his phone.

He found a YouTube video of a duck quacking, and held his phone near the pipe. The frightened baby birds stopped chirping long enough to listen. Perhaps they heard the sound of safety. Or a stern rebuke. In any case, they responded by waddling into the waiting hands of a firefighter.  

Whatever the challenge, lost ducklings or neo-Nazis, there just might be a lesson for all of us in pausing to listen for an inspired solution.

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1. Overruled: Is precedent in danger at the Supreme Court?

Our reporter looks at the shrinking value of legal precedent to this conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court.

David

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As the United States Supreme Court nears the end of its first term with a reliably conservative five-justice majority, a debate over when to overturn precedent has surged back to prominence. Two long-standing precedents have been overturned in 5-4 decisions split along ideological lines. In a climate where the fate of higher-profile precedents like Roe v. Wade are uncertain, the justices have been writing at length about how they think the court’s approach to handling precedent needs to change.

Stare decisis – a doctrine, dating back to English Common Law, that courts should follow the precedent set by past cases – is not a “universal, inexorable command,” Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932. But it “is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.”

Since then, Supreme Court justices have debated when it is not “the wise policy.”

Overturning precedent is not always a bad thing. If the Supreme Court can’t overturn a bad precedent, the only other option is a constitutional amendment. But the high court must balance that with an obligation to not sow too much uncertainty over what the law of the land is. At stake is not just the future of precedents like Roe, court watchers say, but public confidence in the court itself.

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Overruled: Is precedent in danger at the Supreme Court?

In the early years of Oklahoma’s statehood, tracts of public land were leased to energy companies on the condition that a portion of the revenue be put into a state fund for public schools. When the federal government tried to levy income tax on that revenue the case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. It ruled the federal taxation unconstitutional, citing a precedent from a decade earlier.

In a dissent to that 1932 opinion, Justice Louis Brandeis articulated what still forms the core of how the high court approaches one of its weightiest powers: overturning precedent.

Stare decisis – a doctrine, dating back to English Common Law, that courts should follow the precedent set by past cases – is not a “universal, inexorable command,” he wrote. But it “is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.”

Since then, Supreme Court justices have debated when it is not “the wise policy.” As the current court nears the end of its first term with a reliably conservative five-justice majority, that debate has surged back to prominence. Two long-standing precedents have been overturned in 5-4 decisions split along ideological lines. In a climate where the fate of high-profile precedents like Roe v. Wade are uncertain, the justices have been writing at length about how they think the court’s approach to handling precedent needs to change.

Overturning precedent is not always a bad thing, legal experts note. Indeed, on constitutional interpretations if the Supreme Court can’t overturn a bad precedent the only other option is a constitutional amendment. But the high court must balance that with an obligation to not sow too much uncertainty over what the law of the land is. At stake is not just the future of precedents like Roe, court watchers say, but public confidence in the court itself.

“There’s no supermajority required when the court is considering overturning precedent. So instead what we hope the court will do, consistent with stare decisis principles, is give serious consideration to prior opinions,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago. There is a higher bar, he adds, “and the dispute between the justices is, where is that bar?”

Four factors

The Supreme Court has over time developed four factors to consider when overturning precedent: the quality of the past decision’s reasoning, its consistency with related decisions, legal developments since the past decision, and reliance on the decision throughout the legal system and society.

When the court last month overruled Nevada v. Hall – a four-decade-old precedent concerning states’ immunity from lawsuits in other states’ courts – in a 5-4 decision along ideological lines, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that none of the four factors justified the majority’s reasoning.

“The majority has surrendered to the temptation to overrule Hall even though it is a well-reasoned decision that has caused no serious practical problems in the four decades since we decided it,” he wrote. “Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.”

The next overrule came last week: a 5-4 decision along ideological lines that scrapped Williamson County v. Hamilton Bank, a 34-year-old interpretation of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. This time, Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent.

With Williamson County rooted in decisions from the late 1800s, the opinion “transgresses all usual principles of stare decisis,” she wrote, and “smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens.”

Stare decisis, of course, is ‘not an inexorable command.’ But it is not enough that five Justices believe a precedent wrong,” she added, quoting Justice Breyer’s dissent. “‘Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.’ Well, that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again.”

‘Serious cost to keeping an error on the books’

While the high court has overruled two long-standing precedents this term, they were undoubtedly less significant than precedents like Roe. (The court may choose to overrule another significant precedent this term, Auer deference, that restricts a court’s ability to overrule agency regulations.)

Under Chief Justice John Roberts, there have been four other major overrulings. In 2008, the court broadened Second Amendment protections for firearm possession, overturning a 1939 ruling. Two years later, it overruled a 20-year-old precedent in deciding that a ban on corporate donations to political campaigns was unconstitutional. Five years later, the court made same-sex marriage constitutional, overturning a 1971 ruling. The court overruled a 40-year-old precedent last year, deciding that public sector workers don’t have to pay union dues even if they’re covered by a union contract. All three decisions were 5-4. 

The slim majorities contrast with the court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, which overturned a number of precedents during the civil rights era, starting with outlawing segregation in the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. 

Thirteen years later the court was unanimous again in overturning precedent and legalizing interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia. In 6-3 decisions, the Warren Court also overturned precedents to require that states provide a defense lawyer to criminal defendants who can’t afford one and to ban poll taxes.

Many of these decisions support the notion that precedents should sometimes be overturned, says Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. 

Stare decisis will not stop the justices from overturning a precedent, and I think it shouldn’t,” he adds. “There is a serious cost to keeping an error on the books indefinitely when, as a practical matter, the error can only be cured by a Supreme Court decision.”

The flexibility built into the doctrine acts as a compromise mechanism, of sorts. While Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Breyer’s and Justice Kagan’s dissents criticizing the scrapping of precedents this term, she voted to overturn a long-standing precedent last term and allow states to collect sales tax on online sales.

“For most of the justices the fuzziness may be a virtue more than a defect because it allows them to overrule when they want, and also to appeal to stare decisis when they don’t,” says Professor Somin.

Whether that approach continues now there are five reliable conservatives on the court is another question. The opinion overturning Hall “shows there’s an erosion” occurring, says Kimberly West-Faulcon, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“They opened the door to a broader rationale of reasons to” overturn precedent, she adds. “It remains to be seen what it will mean.” 

‘How much of a change?’

How the court approaches precedent in the short term could depend on Chief Justice Roberts, who became the de-facto ideological center of the bench this term. Throughout his tenure he has favored a gradual overturning of precedent, hearing multiple cases challenging a past decision before finally overturning it. (Both the decision scrapping Hall and the decision on public sector union dues were preceded by similar opinions that questioned the precedent without overturning it.)

In oral argument on the case challenging Auer deference this term, the chief justice suggested that precedent could be weakened over time, thus making overruling it less consequential.

“To get back to stare decisis question, I think the issue depends at least in part about how much of a change you’re making,” he said. “I just wonder exactly how much of a change at the end of the day you’re talking about.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, the most ideologically conservative member of the court, would like to eliminate some of the fuzziness.

Following incorrect precedents has been especially “disastrous” in substantive due process cases, abortion cases in particular, he wrote in a solo opinion last week. The court should instead value the Constitution – specifically, his “originalist” philosophy that it should be interpreted as the Framers intended when they drafted it – over adhering to past Supreme Court decisions, he wrote. (Abortion was legal in every state until roughly 100 years after the country’s founding.)

“When faced with a demonstrably erroneous precedent, my rule is simple: We should not follow it,” he added.

The fact that no other justice was willing to join his opinion is notable, says Josh Blackman, associate professor at the South Texas College of Law.

“On stare decisis I think he’ll be on his own for a while,” he says. “The other justices aren’t [always] willing to say what they think. Justice Thomas has no filter, as they say.”

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Comic Debrief

2. How physicists moved beyond Schrödinger’s cat

Ready for a little manga journalism? Our reporters walk us through an explanation of quantum jumps with a cartoon strip.

David

Earlier this month, Yale scientists took up one of quantum physics' oldest questions: When an electron goes from one orbital to another, does it jump instantaneously without warning? Or is the transition more smooth and predictable?

Two major figures in the history of quantum theory had different answers. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr thought that quantum jumps were instant and completely unpredictable. The Irish-Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought that they were smooth and continuous, that is to say, they're not jumps at all.

To learn more, Yale University physicist Zlatko Minev and his colleagues built an artificial atom, a small superconducting circuit that has discrete energy levels just like a naturally occurring atom, and observed how its energy levels change. In a paper published in Nature, Dr. Minev found an “advance warning signal” – a momentary lull of excitation prior to the jump. They found that, while quantum jumps are indeed random and discrete, as Bohr said, the evolution of the jump is also coherent and continuous, as Schrödinger said.

“These two seemingly opposed viewpoints coexist,” Dr. Minev says. “While quantum jumps are unpredictable and discrete on a long timescale, they are continuous and can possess a degree of predictability on a short timescale.”

This comic strip, which Dr. Minev reviewed for accuracy (but had no say in how he was drawn) explains the history of the question and the Yale experiment. – Eoin O’Carroll

Jacob Turcotte and Eoin O'Carroll/Staff
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Patterns

Tracing global connections

3. For US friends and rivals, vexing questions about Iran endgame

As global leaders gather for the G-20 summit, they’re likely to discuss ways to peacefully reduce tensions between the U.S. and Iran. How might they do that?  

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As America’s friends and rivals gather for the Group of 20 summit, vexing questions about U.S.-Iran tensions are preoccupying them. What’s the endgame? And how do we get there?

Beijing and Moscow see themselves as Tehran’s diplomatic allies. But Russia’s immediate priority remains Syria. China has key economic interests in Iran: oil and the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. It, too, has another immediate priority: its trade and tariff war with the U.S.

European allies are more open to President Trump’s declared political goals: keeping Iran from a nuclear weapon, and reining in its ballistic missile program and bid to develop an arc of influence from Tehran to Lebanon.

All were signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal, which traded looser economic sanctions for limits on Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons. The Europeans have given up on the U.S. reentering that deal. Now their focus is new negotiations. But there are two major impediments. Russia and China will resist any attempt to extract an effective Iranian diplomatic surrender in any talks. And European signatories will be trying to convince the U.S. of a quid pro quo: sustained loosening of the sanctions on Iran.

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For US friends and rivals, vexing questions about Iran endgame

Here’s the good news: Not just America’s friends, despite growing tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance, but major rivals like China and Russia are all on the same page when it comes to the spiraling tension between the U.S. and Iran.

None of them wants to see a shooting war, and all are relieved that, at least for now, President Donald Trump has drawn back from that option.

Yet as their leaders gather in Japan for this week’s annual summit of the Group of 20 major world economies, they’re also preoccupied with a pair of vexing questions. First, what’s the endgame? In other words, what are the respective bottom lines for Washington and Tehran in any non-military resolution of their showdown?

The second question, even more complex and very possibly testing the international consensus in the longer run, is: how to get there?

The sigh of relief over the U.S.-Iranian stand-down doesn’t mean China and Russia are suddenly ready to march arm-in-arm with U.S. Middle East policy, especially since the region has emerged as a key arena for their geopolitical rivalry. Both Beijing and Moscow have important ties with Iran and see themselves as diplomatic allies with Tehran against the Trump administration’s escalating economic and political squeeze on the regime.

Calibrating priorities

But Russia’s immediate Middle East priority remains Syria, where its military intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad – and its effective linchpin role between Iran and Israel now that he’s essentially won the brutal civil war – has given Moscow greater regional influence than at any time since the Soviet-U.S. rivalry of the 1960s and 1970s.

China has key economic interests in Iran, both as the main importer of Iranian oil and as part of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. But it, too, has another immediate priority: finding a way to resolve its trade and tariff war with the U.S. That’s one reason that, at least at present, Beijing seems to have greatly scaled back its purchases of Iranian crude in keeping with recently tightened U.S. sanctions.

America’s European allies are more open to President Trump’s declared political goals in Iran: not just keeping it from developing a nuclear weapon, but reining in its ballistic missile program and its use of proxy forces to develop an arc of influence from Tehran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon, Israel’s northern neighbor on the Mediterranean.

But that’s where the “how to get there” question is likely to prove critical in the weeks and months ahead.

Not just the major West European allies, but Russia and China, were co-signatories of the Obama administration’s 2015 deal under which a loosening of economic sanctions was traded for limits on Iran’s then-accelerating drive to develop a nuclear weapon – the deal from which President Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. a year ago.

They’ve been trying, so far successfully, to keep that deal alive without the U.S. But with Iran now – for the first time – within days of breaching the agreement’s limits on uranium stocks, they recognize it’s on the cliff's edge. They’ve given up on convincing President Trump to reverse course and rejoin the accord – not to mention, jettison one of his presidential campaign promises.

The Europeans’ focus will now be on Plan B – a workaround they tried hard to sell to the Americans before the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear deal. Essentially, it would involve a new set of negotiations to include the missile issue and Iranian proxy forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. It could even conceivably extend the original deal’s time-limited constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.

But there are two major impediments. Those are all but certain to emerge in the side discussions at the G-20, even though Iran is not on the official agenda.

The first is that Russia and China will resist any attempt to extract an effective Iranian diplomatic surrender in any renewed talks, assuming the diplomatic process envisaged by the Europeans can actually be initiated.

The second is potentially more difficult. The European signatories will be trying to convince the Americans that, especially if they want an even more ambitious agreement than the one painstakingly negotiated under President Barack Obama, there will have to be a quid pro quo: a sustained loosening of the sanctions on Iran.

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4. As the oceans acidify, these oyster farmers are fighting back

A California oyster farm offers a digestible primer on the adaptation and resiliency needed to cope with ocean acidification.

David
Amanda Paulson/The Christian Science Monitor
Volunteers from Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, California, help scientists from the University of California, Davis monitor native oyster populations in Tomales Bay on June 6. Hog Island Oyster Co. has been collaborating with researchers to better understand the effects of ocean acidification on oysters and other shellfish and how the company can adapt and stay resilient.

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Ocean acidification – the rise in pH levels in the oceans as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – is an often ignored side of global climate change. But it threatens to severely disrupt ocean ecosystems, and that includes the seafood industry.

Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, California, isn't taking this phenomenon sitting down. The company has partnered with the Bodega Marine Laboratory at UC Davis to monitor the waters of Tomales Bay. The business has also started experimenting with acidification-resistant oyster breeds.

The work could help highlight the challenges caused by ocean acidification in a way that makes it easy for ordinary people to understand.

“It feels incredibly tangible,” says Tessa Hill, a marine scientist at the University of California, Davis who has developed a partnership with the oyster company. “It’s about the food on our plate; it’s about family businesses; it’s about people’s livelihood along the coast. Ocean acidification and climate change will fundamentally change our relationship with the ocean.”  

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As the oceans acidify, these oyster farmers are fighting back

When visitors to Hog Island Oyster Co. shuck Pacific oysters at picnic tables overlooking Tomales Bay, it’s the final stage in a story that founding partner Terry Sawyer likes to tell about the shellfish, the bay, and all the steps that went into bringing the briny delicacies to the plate just a few hundred meters from where they were harvested.

It’s a story that now also touches on the carbon cycle, climate change, and the ways in which the very chemistry of the ocean is shifting and how small businesses like Hog Island – along with the entire ocean ecosystem – are struggling to adapt. 

The oyster farm helps make abstract issues like ocean acidification and climate change concrete, says Tessa Hill, a marine scientist at the University of California in Davis who studies acidification and has developed a partnership with Mr. Sawyer and Hog Island. “It feels incredibly tangible,” she says. “It’s about the food on our plate; it’s about family businesses; it’s about people’s livelihood along the coast. Ocean acidification and climate change will fundamentally change our relationship with the ocean.”   

Amanda Paulson/The Christian Science Monitor
Gary Fleener, an ecologist with Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, California, shucks oysters at the company's picnic area. Hog Island farms oysters in Tomales Bay and has partnered with scientists to better monitor ocean acidification in the bay and how it's affecting shellfish.

‘A giant sponge’

Ocean acidification is a direct result of increased carbon dioxide emissions. The oceans – “a giant sponge,” as Professor Hill likes to explain it – absorb about 30% of the carbon dioxide humanity emits. As those levels rise, the chemistry of the ocean fundamentally changes, measurably lowering the pH and making it more acidic. For sea life, one of the biggest risks is to creatures – like shellfish, corals, and sea urchins – that need carbonate ions to build their shells or other structures. The shifting chemistry of the ocean makes those key building blocks scarcer.

The problem has only begun to get significant attention in recent decades. At this point, the average pH of the surface ocean has dropped by 0.1 pH units since preindustrial times, amounting to about a 28% increase in the acidity of the oceans overall, says Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But he notes that that change is distributed unevenly geographically, with more of the pH changes seen farther away from the equator. On the Pacific coast of the United States, meanwhile, the changes are most acute because the decreasing of the pH at the surface is combined with upwelling of carbon dioxide-rich waters from below. 

“We’re seeing pH values here that you might see at the end of the century elsewhere,” says Dr. Feely. “We’re seeing it first here, and we’re also seeing the biological impacts of acidification first here.” Pteropods, for instance – tiny sea snails which play a critical role in ocean food chains – have been dissolving in some of those acidic waters.

Mr. Sawyer and his partners at Hog Island Oyster Co. first started seeing indicators of problems with acidification more than a decade ago, though they didn’t yet know that was the problem. 

At the time, they were buying all their oysters as “seeds,” at about a quarter-inch size. For the first time, they started having trouble with oyster seeds not being available. He and others in the industry started realizing the oyster crashes were coinciding with upwelling and high acidification events, and acidification became a hot topic for the industry.

For Hog Island, it’s meant some changes, including investing in a hatchery of its own and even starting to experiment with different brood stock to find a strain more resistant to acidification. The farm is also looking to natural buffering solutions, like growing edible seaweed along with the oysters.

And it's led to a partnership between Hog Island and Professor Hill and the Bodega Marine Laboratory where she works. Together, they started monitoring the waters of Tomales Bay, first with rudimentary equipment that was checked monthly and now with monitors provided by NOAA that give real-time data on temperature, salinity, carbon dioxide, and other metrics.

That data, says Mr. Sawyer, translates to “how hard an organism is working to build a shell.” 

“We need resiliency,” says Mr. Sawyer. “We’ve done diversification vertically and horizontally. … What you need to do from a resiliency point of view, for any farming, is have the ability to try new methods, new gear, different zones within the tidal range, or different species.”

‘Corrosive water’

Some of the ongoing research is also helping with projections and with mapping out the changes along the West coast – data that could help Hog Island and other oyster companies make decisions about where to place future farms or hatcheries and can help state agencies making decisions about various native species.

From Professor Hill’s perspective, the partnership has given her and other researchers more data and monitoring – a critical piece of understanding how ocean acidification is playing out – as well as a concrete way to talk to people about ocean acidification and how climate change is impacting them. She and Mr. Sawyer have talked to key policymakers, legislators, and regulators in both Sacramento and Washington about the issues.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time passed several bipartisan ocean acidification bills. The four bills, which now move to the Senate, authorize more coastal and ocean monitoring, research on the impacts of acidification on coastal communities and estuaries, prizes for scientists who come up with innovative approaches to ocean acidification, and the creation of a new ocean acidification advisory board.

Amanda Paulson/The Christian Science Monitor
Terry Sawyer, (r.) a founding partner at Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, California, stands with Tessa Hill, a marine scientist at the University of California, Davis on June 7. The two have developed a partnership to monitor acidification in the bay. Ocean acidification, a byproduct of climate change, is a growing problem along the Pacific coast, and shellfish are among those most affected. Mr. Sawyer is working to find ways for the company to adapt.

It’s a good first step, says Professor Hill, noting that that monitoring, along with investment in trying to understand adaptation and mitigation, is really important. “But what we’ll need is large scale government action,” she says.

Mr. Sawyer, sitting next to her outside the oyster company by the salt marshes and mudflats of Tomales Bay, is more blunt: “We need a paradigm shift,” he says. “What’s really striking is the difference between the rate of change [in the ocean] and the rate of the ability to change and the resiliency on the policy side. It’s diametrically opposed.”

While Hog Island is finding ways to adapt to current and future ocean acidification, there are tougher questions on the horizon for native shellfish and pteropods. Currently, intense acidification events have been limited to a few weeks of the year and haven’t been a major threat for the Olympia oysters that are native to Tomales Bay, a 12-mile-long narrow estuary that stretches southeast from the Pacific along the San Andreas Fault. Low salinity, stemming from big winter rain events, and invasive snails that prey on the oysters have been bigger problems for those oysters.

“But lab experiments we have done show that every year that goes on, [ocean acidification] will be a bigger and bigger issue for native oysters,” says Professor Hill. Ecologists active in restoring native species – oysters, abalone, coral reefs – need to start looking ahead as they do restoration work, she says. “The way that things have been for the past 10 years is not that relevant. We have to think of the ocean that we have to face in 50 years. We have to be restoring species to survive that condition.”

“Right now during the spring, you have pockets along the coast that are corrosive enough that it’s very hard for anything with a shell to make a shell,” she says. “By 2050, half of the year will be those conditions everywhere along the coast. It will be a blanket of corrosive water.”

One of the public faces of Hog Island, Mr. Sawyer is bearded and loquacious, a former aquarium keeper at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who loves surfing, diving, and paddleboarding and relishes his current lifestyle, living just nine miles from the oyster company in what he calls “paradise.”

“We’re not a huge company, but we’re known for activism,” says Mr. Sawyer of his business that has grown from three partners to almost 300 employees and includes restaurants in Napa and San Francisco.

“You can have somebody come here, whatever level of connection they have to the issue … and you can connect them to the food and you get the full sensory – the visual, the smells, the taste, everything. Then they can tie that to the issues,” he says. “You can get through to people through their stomachs.”

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. He’s a reader on the run – a 56-mile run

What do you pack for an ultramarathon? Our reporter spoke to a South African who brings a book. Running and reading opened up his world – and he’s combined those passions to help broaden the next generation’s literary horizon.

David
Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Marukgwane Moremogolo reads the novel ‘Moletlo Wa Manong’ (Feast of the Vultures) as he runs the 2019 Comrades Marathon, an annual 90 kilometer race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Mr. Moremogolo reads during races as part of his project to collect books for underserved schools.

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The Comrades Marathon is a particularly South African form of madness. Each June, about 20,000 people line up to run nearly 90 kilometers. That’s about 56 miles, or just over two marathons – the largest ultramarathon in the world.

One of those racers is a government lawyer named Marukgwane Moremogolo. But running isn’t all Mr. Moremogolo is doing out there. Once in a while, he pulls out a book.

Long before he became a runner, Mr. Moremogolo was a reader. Growing up in a township – areas the apartheid government created to house black workers – “we had no electricity,” he remembers. “So there was no TV. The radio could go for as long as there was a battery. At a point, the only thing left to do was read.”

Today, many township schools still struggle. Mr. Moremogolo has made it his mission to collect books for their empty libraries. For the past year, every race he has run has become part of his campaign.

That’s “really the spirit of the Comrades – it’s all about community,” says Mignon Hardie, whose nonprofit pledged one book for every kilometer Mr. Moremogolo ran this year. In the end, he made it through all 90 – crossing the finish line with a book in hand.

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He’s a reader on the run – a 56-mile run

On a gauzy winter morning in June, a government lawyer named Marukgwane Moremogolo laced his sneakers, pinned on his race number (27100), and took off to run a marathon through the rolling hills outside this coastal city.

When he finished five hours and 20 minutes later, Mr. Moremogolo slumped into a camping chair beside the course and cracked open a novel. He was reading Sabata-Mpho Mokae’s political thriller “Moletlo Wa Manong” (Feast of the Vultures), and he was eager to get back to it.

“It’s a hard one to put down,” he says.

Seven minutes later, though, he marked his place, closed the book, and stood up. He kissed his wife, who’d come to cheer him on.

And then, with the novel still in hand, he jogged back onto the road and ran another marathon.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Runners cross the start line of the 2019 Comrades Marathon at the City Hall of Durban, South Africa on June 9, 2019. Almost 20,000 runners started the race, the world's largest ultramarathon, which is nearly 56 miles in distance.

The Comrades Marathon is a particularly South African form of madness. Each June, about 20,000 people line up to run nearly 90 kilometers – despite the event’s name, it’s about 56 miles, or just over two marathons – between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

The race, the largest ultra-distance run in the world, has a bewilderingly democratic air to it. Many serious athletes attempt it, of course, but also gym teachers, maids, your car mechanic, the teller at your bank, that policeman who pulled you over last week for going 70 in a 60 zone. There is almost no South African who doesn’t know someone running the Comrades, and that creates an idea that almost anywhere else would seem utterly bizarre: anyone can run 90 km, if they really want to.  

And on top of that is an even more foreign notion: that running an ultramarathon can make you famous – at least for a few minutes.

Every year, millions of South Africans who aren’t running are watching on TV, all 12 tediously glorious hours of it, stretching from before sunrise until the sky is inky black again that evening.

They’re watching the leaders, of course. But they’re also looking for the weird runners. You know – the guys in cow suits. The Rastafarian who runs backwards to raise awareness about the plight of bees. The runners with t-shirts hidden under their running singlets that they flash for the camera. JESUS SAVES, one read this year. I LOVE YOU, MUM, said another.

And then there’s the guy who reads. 

“Look, there’s a way in which reading during this thing is actually really advisable,” says Mr. Moremogolo. This year, he read during every walk break during the second half of the race. “It forces you to take a break before you’re tired. And in the Comrades, if you wait until you’re tired to take a break, you’re already too late.”

He would know. Before this year, he’d already finished the race twice, along with a couple more ultramarathons and a few more of those little 26.2 mile races too. And since last year, he’s carried a book through every race he’s run. It’s an oddball campaign with an earnest mission.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
The Comrades is run between the South African cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, which are divided by an area known ominously as "the Valley of a Thousand Hills."

Mr. Moremogolo is collecting books to fill the shelves of two empty primary-school libraries.

That’s “really the spirit of the Comrades – it’s all about community,” says Mignon Hardie, the executive director of FunDza Literacy Trust in Cape Town, which pledged one book for every kilometer Mr. Moremogolo ran of the Comrades this year.

For Mr. Moremogolo, books came into his life long before marathons. Growing up in a township outside Pretoria, he spent school holidays tagging along with his aunt to the palatial house where she cleaned for a wealthy white family.

“They had an enormous library, and they started to give me books from it,” he says. “Oliver Twist.” Biographies of Napoleon and Elvis Presley. “At home we had no electricity. So there was no TV. The radio could go for as long as there was a battery. At a point, the only thing left to do was read.”

Soon, his teachers were slipping him copies of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Bessie Head. It was the 1980s, the dying days of apartheid. “We all aspired to be revolutionaries,” he says, “so reading African literature was the revolutionary thing to do.”

But it would take another two decades to pick up the other half of his obsession: running.

He flipped on the TV one Comrades morning, overweight and overworked – too exhausted to do much of anything except melt onto his couch. But if all those people dragging themselves past the TV cameras could run 90 km, he thought, why not him too?

Four years later, in 2017, he ran his first Comrades. And the year after that, he took a strange bet from a friend – I bet you can’t run it while reading a book.

So for the last 2 km of the 2018 race, he did exactly that, polishing off an essay by Nelson Mandela as he walked across the finish line. “People loved it. The thing went viral on social media, and so we thought, why not do this for a cause?” he says.

Friends quickly pointed him to schools in townships – the bedroom suburbs originally created for black laborers by the apartheid government – that were hungry for books. A recent study showed that 78% of South African fourth graders couldn’t “read for meaning,” putting them just a step above illiteracy.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Runners stream across the finish line of the 2019 Comrades Marathon. The race's cutoff time is 12 hours, and about a third of runners finish in the final hour each year.

Soon, after every marathon, Mr. Moremogolo was getting boxes of novels and vouchers to bookstores from his well-wishers. By the time the Comrades rolled around, he’d already blown past his target of 400 books, with more than 1,000 stuffed into his garage.

And so he decided to use the longest race on his calendar to make another point. 

“Do you know sometimes now I struggle to speak my own first language, Setswana?” he says. “We fight and we fight to send our kids to the best schools to learn the best English, but what is it doing to our own mother tongues?” To draw attention to that, he says, he chose Mr. Mokae’s novel, the second in a Setswana-language trilogy, for his race day read. 

But there was still the small matter of getting through those 90 km. Whether you carry a novel or not, the Comrades is brutal.

Mr. Moremogolo ran through fog and an early morning drizzle. He ran through neighborhoods like the one he grew up in – scruffy and blue-collar – and neighborhoods like the one he lives in now – tidy suburban developments rimmed by clicking electric fences. He shuffled past warehouses and chicken farms, watching the signboards slowly ticking down the kilometers left: 87. 42. 15.

By the time he reached the last kilometer, Mr. Moremogolo was hurting. He looked at his watch and did the math. There was still a half hour until the race’s 12-hour cutoff. So he slowed his pace and lifted his book. 

Eleven minutes later, he walked over the finish line.

“People said to me afterwards, I saw you on TV, you just looked so chilled,” he says. “And I was. Because I wasn’t chasing a time. That isn’t why I run. I was just there to enjoy it.”

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The Monitor's View

Iran’s voices that may drive peace with the US

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If the U.S. and Iran can avoid violent conflict, it will mean the voices of peace have become stronger than the voices for confrontation.

In the U.S., such voices are obvious. But in Iran, where are the voices for peace? One clue lies in a government crackdown on the countless women defying the Islamic dress code by not wearing a hijab. The crackdown on this latest type of protest hints at a regime more worried about its survival at home than its survival in a war with the U.S.

Since 2017, as Iran’s economy has nose-dived from drought, mismanagement, and U.S. sanctions, its people have agitated for a greater focus on internal reforms and less spending on Iran’s military proxies in Arab countries. But it may be the Islamic Republic’s bans on social freedoms that are driving the most intense discontent.

Iran needs peace with its people, not only with the U.S. Protests still can drive changes in Iran. Now women are on the frontlines. They may be the voices that help prevent a war with the U.S.

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Iran’s voices that may drive peace with the US

If the U.S. and Iran can avoid violent conflict in the weeks ahead, it will mean the voices of peace have become stronger than the voices for confrontation. In the U.S., such voices are obvious. They start with President Donald Trump’s political base. It wants a focus on domestic issues, not foreign wars.

But in Iran, where open debate and political freedom are highly restricted, where are the voices for peace?

One clue lies in a government decision this month to set up special courts to fast-track the trials of women who have publicly defied the Islamic dress code by not wearing a hijab. Starting nearly two years ago, countless women have taken off the veil in purposeful displays of defiance. Their message: Telling women what to wear on their heads is like telling them what to think in their heads. The crackdown on this latest type of protest hints at a regime more worried about its survival at home than its survival in a war with the U.S.

Since 2017, as Iran’s economy has nose-dived from drought, mismanagement, and U.S. sanctions, its people have agitated for a greater focus on internal reforms and less spending on Iran’s military proxies in Arab countries. Teacher strikes have risen. Workers and merchants have taken to the streets to protest economic hardship. An estimated 1 in 3 young Iranians is unemployed.

But it may be the Islamic Republic’s bans on social freedoms that are driving the most intense discontent, especially among young people who are tied to the world through the internet. In a recent anti-hijab protest at Tehran University, one popular video on Instagram showed demonstrators chanting “Students will die, but never accept humiliation.”

Iran needs peace with its people, not only with the U.S. Last month, Mr. Trump’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, told Congress, “Much of the energy that you see in Iran today is through the women’s movement and protesting the mandatory compulsory wearing of the hijab.”

Under Iran’s hybrid democracy, in which candidates are vetted by Islamic clerics, young people have become frustrated with the regime’s priorities. “For the first time in our society, a large percentage of the people have come to the conclusion that nothing will change whether they vote or not,” says activist Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister. “When the people realized that the ballot boxes were ineffective, they decided that the only way to speak to the ruling establishment was from the streets.”

Protests still can drive changes in Iran. In 2015, Iran agreed to suspend the country’s nuclear program, in large part to appease a restless population. He called his decision “heroic flexibility.” Now women are on the frontlines of protests. They may be the voices of peace that help prevent a war with the U.S.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

What really makes us what we are?

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Consumer DNA tests have become more popular than ever as people seek greater knowledge about their roots. Here’s an article exploring a radically different take on one’s origin and the impact an understanding of God, Spirit, as our creator can have on our day-to-day lives.

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What really makes us what we are?

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In 2018, people purchased as many consumer DNA ancestry tests as had been purchased in all of the preceding years combined. By the beginning of 2019, more than 26 million people had taken such a test. Such a fast-moving trend shows how very interested people are in learning more about their origins. That’s certainly natural.

Lately, however, I have been finding how surprisingly interesting it is to go even deeper than what a DNA test may provide. What is it that really makes us what we are?

Christian Science has prompted me to think of myself and others in a completely new way: as created by a substantial, powerful, divine presence that has made us all as its conscious, wholly spiritual offspring.

We may rightly define such a presence as God, but it couldn’t have been a man-on-a-throne-in-the-clouds, supermortal kind of God. The life and teachings of Christ Jesus revealed God as not having any mortal features, but literally as infinite, all-present divine Spirit and Love, which is defined by spiritual qualities instead of material elements.

Like produces like, so if a very conscious presence who is Love and Spirit truly conceived us, this opens up a thought-provoking question. A common view of creation includes a material beginning followed by an expulsion into a physical realm, where we ultimately end up alone and vulnerable. But are we truly just an assemblage of material components?

It was Jesus who said, “Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee” (John 17:21). That which is conceived spiritually could never be expelled out of God, but remains forever inseparable from Him, the very expression of all-present Spirit. This is a wonderful way to think about oneself, and it carries with it invaluable benefits.

Many years ago, after chipping the corner off my front tooth, I began exploring more deeply my origin in God. This exploration, and the reasoning that followed, could well be defined as prayer. I found such comfort as I studied and pondered the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy. Through this I learned more about my oneness with all that God is and with all that God gives.

Understanding my true, spiritual origin helped me reason clearly and intelligently about my present state: The chipped tooth was not part of what I really was. Gradually, I recognized that nothing can damage the relation of infinite Spirit to its manifestation – which is the true identity of everyone.

Some weeks after the tooth had chipped, I noticed that there was no longer a chip broken off the tooth. That tooth was entirely whole, just like the others. As I remember it all now, this healing makes me want to explore my spiritual origin even more deeply!

The takeaway here is that a spiritually conceived being remains spiritual. Science and Health observes, “Whatever reflects Mind, Life, Truth, and Love, is spiritually conceived and brought forth” (p. 303). And God being absolute good, God’s spiritual children can never leave Him; God’s goodness is never separate from us. Neither are health, abundance, wholeness, love, and ability, which God expresses in us at full strength. “God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us,” says the Bible (I John 4:12).

A DNA ancestry test might give some interesting information, yet only spiritual inspiration can provide insights as to our true origin. Jesus declared, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Naturally, our whole sense of ourselves changes when we recognize what we include as manifestations of Spirit – such as intelligence, patience, humility, might. As we open our thoughts to this inspiration, we come to see just how much of an impact it can have on the quality of our present-day experience.

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Viewfinder

Safe landing

Alexander Nemenov/Reuters
The Soyuz MS-11 capsule carrying the International Space Station crew of NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency lands in a remote area outside Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, June 25. Over the course of their seven-month stay aboard the ISS, the three traveled 86.4 million miles and orbited Earth 3,264 times.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 26th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about how polling may muddy the waters of “electability” ahead of the first TV debate among Democratic candidates.

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