A number of years ago, I spent some time in Africa with members of the Kenyan Wildlife Service whose mission was to protect endangered and protected wildlife from poachers. The job was hazardous; poachers were generally armed and willing to shoot. And the penalties, if the poachers were caught, were severe. But, the KWS rangers said, it wasn't a clear case of good guys versus the bad guys. Yes, the poaching was terrible. And the big money it offered didn't even go, in most cases, to the hunters themselves. They might make $200 for elephant tusks that their "employers" would turn around and sell on the global market for many, many times that amount. "But it's hard to make the case that we need to preserve the elephants," one of the rangers explained to me, "to a Masai tribesman who is so poor that $200 could make the difference between his 6-year-old son living or dying. He's not going to sacrifice his son to save some wild animal."
No, of course not. No parent would. Part of the challenge, then, was to try to convince the tribesmen that the tourism the elephants would bring to the area would provide as much or more income, at far less risk, than poaching.
It's a point that was highlighted earlier this week during Secretary of State HIllary Rodham Clinton's visit to India, when her upbeat comments about being partners with India in fighting global warming were countered, almost immediately, by Jairam Ramesh, India's environment and forests minister. The Indian minister said that India was not in a position to take on legally binding emission standards, and already had one of the lowest carbon emissions rates per capita, in the world.
Roughly translated, Ramesh was saying, pointedly, that the U.S. could well talk about reducing emissions, because it already had a developed and basically well-fed society ... a position it had attained because it didn't have to worry about carbon emissions as it developed. India, with a population of over 1 billion, a poverty rate (living on less than $1.25 a day) of somewhere around 40%, doesn't have that luxury. The rich folk can worry about saving the elephants; the poor have more urgent problems at hand. When most Indians can afford clean transportation, are well fed and safely above poverty levels, come talk to them about reducing emissions.
It's a point echoed in "Mr. Gore, Your Solution to Global Warming is Wrong," a feature in the current issue of Esquire magazine. Written by Bjorn Lomborg, the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a professor at the Copenhagen Business School, the article offers an interesting perspective on the global warming debate. Or, rather, the global warming solution debate. Professor Lomborg does not believe that reducing carbon emissions will solve the problem, and argues that our focus on emission reduction is misplaced. In part because of the minor difference that approach is projected to have, over time, but also because of the punitive consequences of that approach for a large percentage of the world's population.
Global warming may harm your grandchildren's chances of survival in sub-Saharan Africa 50 years from now, but if you don't use that poorly maintained, diesel-guzzling truck you somehow got lucky enough to have access to, your children may die next week. And rather than investing billions in reducing carbon emissions, you'd much prefer the powers that be invested in mosquito nets.
When and how does that change? One way, according to Lomborg, is for the poor to become, well ... less poor. "Once a country achieves a certain standard of living, with their kids healthy and educated, citizens invariably begin to shift their focus toward the environment, and pollution starts to fall," he notes -- a dynamic known as the "Kuznets curve."
Consequently, Lomborg advocates a number of nutrition and economic initiatives that may not seem directly related to global warming, but could aid the effort by increasing the number of people with enough margin, or luxury, to care. Lomborg also argues that significant change needs to come from developing alternate fuel sources and eliminating the need for fossil fuel; an approach he believes would have a greater impact over time, and would also eliminate the punitive carbon-reduction-without-other-substitutes problem for the poor, or developing countries.
While eliminating poverty in the world is a noble goal, it might rate even higher on the challenge Richter scale than stopping global warming itself. Not that we shouldn't invest in mosquito nets, micro-finance and micro-nutrient initiatives. And not that we shouldn't, as a country that has more margin to play with, do all we can to reduce our carbon emissions. Just because the rest of the world isn't perfect doesn't excuse us from our own responsibility to be responsible.
But although Lomborg didn't explicitly make this point, it occurred to me that if the key to success is, in essence, to convince the Masai that they will economically benefit more by saving the elephant than killing it, there might be another benefit in his alternative fuels and technology approach. Investing in alternative fuels, versus focusing on carbon emission reduction, might reduce the punitive pressure on developing countries. But if there were somehow money to be made by alternative technology that could be developed, built, or somehow used to the profit and benefit of those people and countries, they might be more willing to work on keeping the elephant alive.
It's a complex issue, with more problems than answers. But looking at what would make the rest of the world want to get on board is certainly an angle worth considering in the debate.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.
When two black holes collide, the noises scientists hear are birdlike.
This morning, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravity Observatory announced that LIGO had detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, an event so cataclysmic that it converted the mass of three solar systems into pure energy in about a tenth of a second.
Scientists have been trying to figure out how to “listen” to gravitational waves—and to prove their existence—ever since Einstein predicted them in 1915. But until September 14, 2015, when the colliding black-hole event was first detected, this was beyond our technical abilities. In the words of Scott Hughes, “Gravity is a weak force. Measuring these things is bloody hard.”
Hughes is a theoretical physicist at MIT who has been contemplating LIGO since its inception in 1992. He has struggled with a question at the heart of the observatory program: Once we do hear gravitational waves, how will we know where they come from? How can we use them to explore the mysteries of the cosmos? To this end, Hughes has modeled the “sounds” of a host of astrophysical events, including colliding black holes. (You can listen to his impressions of these sounds below.)