Highlights From the Aspen Ideas Festival
Video excerpts from six days of debate and discussion
Video excerpts from six days of debate and discussion
The fires blazing in Brazil are part of a larger deforestation crisis, accelerated by President Jair Bolsonaro.
The Amazon is burning. There have been more than 74,000 fires across Brazil this year, and nearly 40,000 fires across the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. That’s the fastest rate of burning since record-keeping began, in 2013. Toxic smoke from the fires is so intense that darkness now falls hours before the sun sets in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital and the largest city in the Western Hemisphere.
The fires have captured the planet’s attention as little else does. The Amazon is the world’s largest and most diverse tract of rainforest, with millions of species and billions of trees. It stores vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide and produces 6 percent of the planet’s oxygen.
The president’s narrative stands in stark contrast to what is happening on the ground. That raises serious questions.
At the Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz, France, there are, in effect, two different summits under way—one that’s happening in President Donald Trump’s mind, and another that is actually happening on the ground; there’s the summit Trump is trying to will into existence, and the summit unfolding in real time.
To hear Trump tell it, predictions that the weekend summit would be contentious were all wrong. Only the “Fake and Disgusting News” would conclude that his relations with the other leaders meeting in the coastal resort were “very tense,” he tweeted, when in fact, they were “getting along very well.” His counterparts, he insists, are coming forward and agreeing with him that it’s a good idea to readmit Russia to the group, he said today (it was tossed out in 2014 after it annexed Crimea). He’s hearing broad support for his trade dispute with China and a lunch visit yesterday with Emmanuel Macron was the best he’s had yet with his French counterpart, he said.
Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out.
In the summer of 1987, I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and headed northeast to attend Yale. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at various universities—the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees along the way. Today, I teach at Yale Law, where my students unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities. I pass on to them the advantages that my own teachers bestowed on me. They, and I, owe our prosperity and our caste to meritocracy.
Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.
If elected, can the candidate be trusted to hold government officials accountable and oversee a progressive criminal-justice system? Her past says no.
When Senator Kamala Harris is criticized for actions she took as San Francisco’s district attorney or as California’s attorney general, the Democratic presidential hopeful responds in two ways. She cites the most progressive aspects of her record, arguing that she’ll advocate in the White House for more reforms to the criminal-justice system. And she asserts that it is laudable to work for change from within broken institutions, “at the table where the decisions are made.”
She says very little, and nothing convincing, about some of the most serious charges against her, like that she fought hard to keep innocents in prison and failed to fight hard against corrupt cops.
If elected president, Harris seems as likely as any of her Democratic rivals, and far more likely than Donald Trump, to pursue a criminal-justice-reform agenda that overlaps with policies I favor as a civil libertarian. And I do not hold it against Harris that as a municipal and state official she enforced many laws that I regard as unjust. All the candidates now running for president will, if elected, preside over the enforcement of some laws that they and I regard as unjust.
He understands men in America better than most people do. The rest of the country should start paying attention.
Every morning of my Joe Rogan experience began the same way Joe Rogan begins his: with the mushroom coffee.
It’s a pour-and-stir powder made from lion’s mane and chaga—“two rock-star mushrooms,” according to Joe—and it’s made by a company called Four Sigmatic, a regular advertiser on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast. As a coffee lover, the mere existence of mushroom coffee offends me. (“I’ll have your most delicious thing, made from your least delicious things, please,” a friend said, scornfully.) But it tastes fine, and even better after another cup of actual coffee.
Next, I took several vitamin supplements from a company called Onnit, whose core philosophy is “total human optimization” and whose website sells all kinds of wicked-cool fitness gear—a Darth Vader kettlebell ($199.95); a 50-foot roll of two-and-a-half-inch-thick battle rope ($249.95); a 25-pound quad mace ($147.95), which according to one fitness-equipment site is a weapon dating back to 11th-century Persia. I stuck to the health products, though, because you know how it goes—you buy one quad mace and soon your apartment is filled with them. I stirred a packet of Onnit Gut Health powder into my mushroom coffee, then downed an enormous pair of Alpha Brain pills, filled with nootropics to help with “memory and focus.”
Most of the atoms in the universe lie in its flyover country.
Most of what astronomers know about the universe comes from what they can see. So their ideas have been prejudiced toward stars and galaxies, which are bright. But most of the regular matter in the universe is in the form of gas, which is dim. Gas called the intergalactic medium fills the space between galaxies; the gas of the circumgalactic medium surrounds galaxies more closely. The gas in both places regulates the birth, life, and death of the galaxies, and holds a detailed history of the universe. Only lately have astronomers been able to detect it.
Shortly after its birth, the universe was filled with gas, mostly hydrogen. Over time, here and there, gravity pulled the gas into clouds, which turned into galaxies and in which stars ignited. Stars shine by thermonuclear burning of the gas; of those that die in explosions, some blow the gas back out of the galaxies. Out in intergalactic space, the gas cools and gets denser, until gravity pulls it back into the galaxy where new stars form. The process repeats: Gravity condenses gas into galaxies and stars, stars blow up and kick the gas out, gravity cycles the gas back in and makes new stars.
Eighty years ago, MGM’s sparkly pink rendering of Glinda expanded American pop culture’s definition of free-flying women.
Whenever I introduce myself as a witch who writes about witches, conversation often turns to The Wizard of Oz, and when it does I’m always tempted to focus on the movie’s verdant villain. Many fans delight in the Wicked Witch of the West’s deranged cackle and her lust for power and ruby pumps. Even when she meets her demise at Dorothy’s hands, she goes down in style, seething: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” The filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) has said, “That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep, like a prayer.”
Still, on the 80th anniversary of the movie that made the Wicked Witch famous, I find myself more drawn to her pastel counterpart, Glinda the Good Witch of the North. She was arguably the first American pop-culture figure to prove that, despite their reputation for diabolical antics, witches could be benevolent beings. Though there had been two silent-film adaptations of the Oz story before MGM’s The Wizard of Oz came out in August 1939, the typical moviegoer would’ve been most familiar with screen witches who were creepy old crones or black-frocked fairy-tale monstresses out to get wide-eyed ingenues. In all her rosy-pink goodness, Glinda was literally and figuratively a witch of a different color and an unlikely feminist force.
One person shouldn’t have the power to set policies that doom the rest of humanity’s shot at mitigating rising temperatures.
When Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election last year, having run on a platform of deforestation, David Wallace-Wells asked, “How much damage can one person do to the planet?” Bolsonaro didn’t pour lighter fluid to ignite the flames now ravaging the Amazon, but with his policies and rhetoric, he might as well have. The destruction he inspired—and allowed to rage with his days of stubborn unwillingness to douse the flames—has placed the planet at a hinge moment in its ecological history. Unfortunately, the planet doesn’t have a clue about how it should respond.
The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms
I. Wiped Out
“You ever chop before?” Willena Scott-White was testing me. I sat with her in the cab of a Chevy Silverado pickup truck, swatting at the squadrons of giant, fluttering mosquitoes that had invaded the interior the last time she opened a window. I was spending the day with her family as they worked their fields just outside Ruleville, in Mississippi’s Leflore County. With her weathered brown hands, Scott-White gave me a pork sandwich wrapped in a grease-stained paper towel. I slapped my leg. Mosquitoes can bite through denim, it turns out.
Cotton sowed with planters must be chopped—thinned and weeded manually with hoes—to produce orderly rows of fluffy bolls. The work is backbreaking, and the people who do it maintain that no other job on Earth is quite as demanding.
Two weeks of outrage and head-spinning news show that institutional unification on Israel has gotten much weaker under President Trump.
Updated on August 25, 2019 at 12:19 p.m. ET
For a long time, elected officials in Washington maintained a rough consensus on Israel. The United States and Israel were unquestioned allies. Military and aid packages were guaranteed winners in Congress. And support for Israel was bipartisan. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, when the country’s survival seemed imminently threatened, Jewish organizations helped build this American consensus, and helped sustain it: Lawmakers and other political leaders were entitled to their own opinions, but at a basic level, being anything other than pro-Israel was unacceptable.
As the past two weeks of head-spinning news about Israel have demonstrated, some aspects of Washington’s long-standing consensus on the country are changing. Donald Trump has upended normal channels of advocacy, leaving large, traditional institutions constantly scrambling to catch up with his latest tweet or off-the-cuff remark. He constantly amplifies far-right and far-left voices on subjects relating to Israel, fueling a narrative of fracture and polarization. And while Republicans have long worked to portray themselves as the only true friends of Israel, Trump has made this a priority, last week going so far as to say that Jews who vote for Democrats show “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” later clarifying that he meant disloyalty to Israel. The past three years have exacerbated existing fissures among American Jews, with activists on the left loudly questioning the old consensus and political leaders on the right going along with Trump’s tactics.
A number of surprising factors may be contributing to the modern obesity epidemic.
A fatal accident at a waterslide park was the result of gross negligence, lax state regulations, and a whole lot of hubris.
Venture to an island off the coast of Australia to meet the quokka, the world’s smiliest mammal.