shadow
2019
February
20
Wednesday

In a hyperpartisan era, it can be easy to think of the United States Supreme Court as little more than a biased referee for partisan grudge matches. Wednesday was not one of those days.

The case involved the police seizure of a man’s Land Rover after he was caught selling a few hundred dollars’ worth of heroin. But it really went to whether a specific kind of 1980s tough-on-crime law had been warped beyond recognition.

State seizure laws allowed cops to take suspects’ money, car, or home even before charging them with a crime. The intent was to prevent drug lords from using ill-gotten millions to avoid justice. But Timbs v. Indiana considered whether something more venal and insidious had crept in.

Time and again, the Founders sought to protect individual liberties against government intrusion. So as state seizure laws expanded, bringing in billions of dollars in revenue, justices grew troubled. In oral arguments, Justice Neil Gorsuch asked the Indiana solicitor general: “Here we are in 2018, still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, General.”

The justices struck down the laws unanimously Wednesday. Even at a time when so much is contested, the ruling was a window into a shared sense of fairness and honesty that, in some cases, is not all that controversial.

Now here are our five stories for today, which touch on  views of power in Washington, an attempt to prevent one country from becoming the smoking capital of the world, and how a camera lens changed lives in Nigeria.

Share this article

1. Has the EPA lost its teeth? House to investigate dwindling enforcement.

The Trump administration has made headlines for removing environmental regulations and restrictions. But early signs also point to another, perhaps deeper shift: less enforcement.  

Mark
J. David Ake/AP
The US Environmental Protection Agency has drastically scaled back enforcement of pollution regulations under the Trump administration, data show. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce will hold a hearing next week to investigate this ‘troubling enforcement record.’

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

In the past two years, the administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency have been clear about their desire to correct what they see as overreach and overregulation on the part of the agency. They have sought to roll back numerous rules on pollution. But while those efforts work their way through the courts, some critics see a more immediate concern: an easing up on enforcement.

The most recent enforcement data released by the EPA paints a picture of an agency seemingly less willing to conduct inspections, levy penalties, and tackle big cases. The EPA insists it is and will continue to be serious about enforcement, and notes that the high variability of cases can make it challenging to compare enforcement data year to year.

But critics say the larger holistic picture that the numbers show leaves them concerned and has very real effects on the ground. “Enforcement is where the rubber meets the road,” says Leif Fredrickson, coauthor of a watchdog report on EPA enforcement. “You can have all the regulations in the world, and they won’t make a difference if they’re not enforced.”

Collapse

Has the EPA lost its teeth? House to investigate dwindling enforcement.

Much attention has been paid to the Trump administration rollbacks of environmental regulations. But while those decisions can get tangled in the courts for months if not years, another shift is occurring on the ground: drastic reductions in pollution enforcement.

Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency released its enforcement data for fiscal year 2018, and in many key areas data continued to show a downward trend in the civil and criminal punitive measures meted out to large polluters. And on Tuesday the House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced it will hold a hearing next week to investigate the Trump EPA’s “troubling enforcement record.”

With large cases that often stretch out over several years, and where a handful of big settlements can drastically shift figures, the variability can make it difficult to compare enforcement figures year to year. But observers say a holistic look at enforcement across a wide variety of measures has raised strong concerns about the degree to which the agency is holding polluters accountable.

“Enforcement is where the rubber meets the road,” says Leif Fredrickson, coauthor of a report on EPA enforcement from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), a federal watchdog group. “Many studies show that when you have strong enforcement, you have better outcomes: less pollution, less threats to public health. It’s fundamentally a public health issue.”

The EPA takes issue with the idea that it’s been lax on enforcement, emphasizing the high variability of annual results and its continued commitment to focusing resources on cases with major human health or environmental effects.

“In fiscal year 2018, we continued our focus on expediting site cleanup, deterring noncompliance, and returning facilities to compliance with the law, while respecting the cooperative federalism structure of our nation’s environmental laws,” said Susan Bodine, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in an EPA announcement of 2018 enforcement results.

But the numbers, across the board, seem to indicate an easing up on that mission.

Take civil penalties, the fines resulting from cases brought by the EPA against polluters. For fiscal year 2018, they totaled about $69 million – the lowest, by a significant degree, since the EPA’s enforcement office was first created in 1994.

On another key measure, injunctive relief – what it costs a polluter to comply with an EPA order – the $3.95 billion figure reported by the EPA is the lowest in 15 years. Some 40 percent of the total is from cases that were settled by the EPA under former President Barack Obama. (Large settlements, which can stretch out for some time, often carry over into subsequent years.) The average annual cost of compliance is $7.74 billion.

Those two figures are particularly good indicators to evaluate whether the administration is actually going after the worst polluters, says Cynthia Giles, who was the head of the EPA’s enforcement office under Obama and is now a guest fellow in the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School.

“Injunctive relief tells you whether the EPA is taking on the tough, very hard, big pollution cases,” says Ms. Giles. “This data shows the Trump EPA is not doing that.”

A spokesperson for the EPA notes in emails to the Monitor that setting targets for any level of civil penalties or number of cases would be inappropriate and emphasized that a couple large cases – such as the high-profile ones around Volkswagen and BP – can strongly influence the figures for civil penalties. With the looming Fiat Chrysler settlement, for instance, the figure for civil penalties for fiscal year 2019 is already much higher than last year’s.

But critics say that the overall picture tells a different story.

Trend lines

The enforcement process generally begins with inspections, and then, depending on the severity of the violation, either civil or criminal cases are initiated. The most serious civil cases are referred to the Justice Department. As cases are concluded, fines are levied, compliance orders are issued, sentences are meted out in criminal cases, and compliance costs are measured.

“In basically all of those areas, fiscal year 2018 looks very bad,” notes EDGI’s Mr. Fredrickson. “In many of those cases, the measures are the worst on record.”

Ted S. Warren/AP
Andrew Wheeler (second from left) the US Environmental Protection Agency's acting administrator, addresses reporters, after touring the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station in Seattle on Oct. 3, 2018. Mr. Wheeler, if confirmed as EPA administrator, has pledged to pursue a course of reduced regulation.

For the number of inspections, for instance, the 2018 data were the lowest since records began in 1994. The number of civil cases initiated was the lowest of any year since 1982. The number of judicial referral cases for both 2017 and 2018 was 110 – the lowest number since 1976 and less than half the average annual number of 239.

The effects of not enforcing such laws, say experts, can be serious.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, points to the Denka Plant in LaPlace, La., where the EPA estimated that concentrations of chloroprene, a substance used to make neoprene and that is a likely carcinogen, ranged from 50 to 800 times the limit established by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  

“The companies agreed to a ‘voluntary cleanup,’ ” says Mr. Schaeffer. “But if you read the inspection report, it sounds like a disaster at this plant.... Where’s the enforcement action? It’s nice to do some voluntary things to monitor chloroprene and bring [emissions] down, but you should pay” for having violated the law in the first place.

Schaeffer’s organization has been compiling a list of other cases opened before President Trump took office, many of which remain unresolved and have had little or no enforcement action taken. They include:

• An iron ore processing facility in Minnesota that, among other violations, allowed its furnaces to release particulates directly into the air for some 600 hours without going through the normal controls to reduce pollution. As a result, the furnaces released 10 times as much particulate matter as they should have.

• An Ohio company whose steel plants were emitting twice the limit of mercury and three times the limit of fine particulate emissions.

• Indiana hydrochloric acid regeneration plants that violated the Clean Air Act standards hundreds of times between 2006 and 2016, leading to high emissions of chlorine and hydrochloric acid.

“We’re looking at pretty bad stuff,” says Schaeffer. “This isn’t, oh, you got your form in late or your plant had a hiccup.”

When pushed about enforcement, the Trump-era EPA has sometimes said that it is emphasizing voluntary compliance – a tool that has been used by every administration to some degree – and the states’ role when it comes to enforcement of pollution laws.

“The states have an important role,” says Giles, noting that there’s always been a productive tension between federal and state interests. States have local perspective and knowledge, while the EPA brings more enforcement resources and the insistence that everyone in the country will be protected equally.

But many of the biggest, most technically complex cases – or ones involving multinational companies – are beyond the capacity of state agencies. What’s more, the impending threat of federal enforcement can incentivize violating companies to work with states, says Giles. “If the EPA is not there to be the gorilla in the closet, those companies will push back against states harder than they used to,” she says.

‘A backdoor to deregulation’

For the EDGI report, in addition to analyzing data the authors also conducted more than 100 interviews with current and recent employees of the EPA, which generated more nuanced anecdotal assessments of the agency’s stance on enforcement, along with some internal memos acknowledging that enforcement numbers are of concern.

“What we heard from a lot of people was the real concern that the EPA might be failing in its mission to protect [people from pollution] because of the pullback on enforcement,” says Marianne Sullivan, an associate professor of public health at William Paterson University in New Jersey and a coauthor of the report.

Some people interviewed cited high turnover and loss of agency staff and their institutional knowledge as a major reason, as well as some confusion over what their enforcement priorities should be, particularly if it involves a regulation that the EPA is trying to change.

One staff member told interviewers that employees had been instructed to stop inspecting natural gas drilling sites along Colorado’s Front Range (and the report notes that inspections of stationary sources under the Clean Air Act for that region were indeed down in 2018 by nearly 60 percent).

Another interviewee said they were seeing more pushback from industry in the past two years, even from smaller businesses, such as landlords who are required to inform tenants about the possibility of lead-based paint in homes that they rent.

“What we hear from staff is a lot of concern about what this means for communities in the US,” says Professor Sullivan.

Internal documents highlighted in the report also indicate both awareness and concern about the enforcement numbers from leadership within the EPA, with one document from June 2018 suggesting seven possible explanations, including “inconsistent messaging” – particularly around how much to defer to states – or a possible “chilling effect” of “various actions/perceptions of shifts in enforcement direction.”  

Ultimately, say observers, they see a number of parallels between this EPA and the EPA in the early 1980s under President Reagan’s first administrator, Anne Gorsuch – a two-year period in which the agency’s budget was slashed and enforcement and regulations were relaxed and which ended in scandal.

There has been a clear and consistent message from both EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his proposed successor, Andrew Wheeler, that the EPA in recent years has been guilty of overreach and too much regulation and that some regulations need to be rolled back. Some large settlements, including the one reached with Volkswagen, have also been criticized by many conservatives as being tantamount to extortion. But rolling back regulations – as the EPA has started to do with the Clean Power Plan and limits on mercury and methane, among others – takes time and often long court battles.

“This is a backdoor to deregulation,” says Fredrickson. “Enforcement matters, because you can have all the regulations in the world, and they won’t make a difference if they’re not enforced.”

shadow

2. For some, emergency declaration pits conservatism against Trumpism

Republicans in Congress face a difficult choice over President Trump’s emergency declaration to expand the border wall: Support your president or your own power.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to secure more funding for his border wall is drawing political attacks from Democrats and legal challenges from states and other organizations. It is also, less conspicuously, creating internal strains in the president’s own party.

A majority of Republicans supports the president’s decision. But some conservatives are finding it hard to get behind a move that risks expanding presidential power. That split is reflected in Congress, where Republican senators may soon face a tough choice. House Democrats are expected to pass a resolution to block the declaration, which would send the legislation to the Senate. If just four Senate Republicans join the Democrats in refusing to cede congressional power to the executive branch, it would prevent Trump from moving forward. Alternatively, they could stick together – and stick with Trump, wherever that may lead.

“Are you an institutionalist, or do you stand with your president?” says former Republican Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia. Either way, “those actions may come back to bite you.”

Collapse

For some, emergency declaration pits conservatism against Trumpism

President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to secure more funding for his border wall is drawing political attacks from Democrats and legal challenges from states and other organizations. It is also, less conspicuously, creating internal strains in the president’s own party.

While a majority of Republicans supports the president’s decision, some conservatives, especially those concerned about constitutional rule and limited government, are finding it hard to get behind a move that risks expanding presidential power.

That split is reflected in Congress, where Republican senators may soon face a tough choice. House Democrats are expected to pass a resolution to block the declaration once lawmakers return from the February recess. That would send the legislation to the Senate, where majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky would have 18 days to put it up for a vote.    

If just four Senate Republicans join the Democrats in refusing to cede congressional power to the executive branch, it would prevent Mr. Trump from moving forward – albeit at the risk of losing support from the president’s base ahead of the 2020 elections. Or they could stick together and stick with Trump, wherever that may lead.

“Are you an institutionalist, or do you stand with your president?” says former Republican Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia. Either way, “those actions may come back to bite you.”

Just ahead of Trump’s announcement, an Economist/YouGov survey found that 80 percent of Republican voters say there is a crisis on the southern border, and 64 percent say they would support a declaration of national emergency to address it. The figures highlight the president’s influence on a party that had made a point of calling out similar actions in Democratic administrations, says Emily Ekins, director of polling at the libertarian Cato Institute.

“You have to wonder: How many of these folks would go along with this if it were President Obama?” Ms. Ekins says.

Still, she points out that the 64 percent figure is 20 points below Trump’s overall approval rating among Republicans. “It pricks that part of conservatism that venerates the nation’s founding, history, and traditions,” Ekins says.

Mainly these conservatives worry about setting a precedent for executive overreach, and certainly both parties have done their share to chip away at congressional authority over the years. “Today’s national emergency is border security,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement. “But a future president may use this exact same tactic to impose the Green New Deal,” the climate policy advocated by liberal Democrats.

Others say that allowing Trump to bypass Congress to fund a campaign promise, no matter how popular with the party’s base supporters, is a dangerous ceding of the power of the purse, which the Constitution explicitly entrusts to the legislative branch. “The spending power – that’s always been sacrosanct for Congress,” says Gary Rose, chair of the department of politics and government at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. When lawmakers give that up for a political win, he says, it’s a loss for the democratic process.

Yet that political reality may once again hold sway for the GOP. The 2018 elections showed that diehard Trump supporters are willing to turn out to the polls to reward loyalty to the president and punish what they perceive as betrayal.

With 22 Senate seats to defend against the Democrats’ 12 in 2020, Republican lawmakers are being especially careful not to offend Trump’s base – even, some say, at the expense of traditional conservative principles.

“Members understand the power he has,” Davis says. “He has tremendous influence over the direction of party right now.”

“It is the Trumpist revolution,” adds Paul Rosenzweig, a fellow at the R Street Institute, a center-right public policy firm. A longtime conservative who now registers as an independent, Mr. Rosenzweig is disappointed that so many Republican members are supporting the president’s actions, which he sees as counter to the bedrock values of a true conservative. 

“The party’s response to this exercise is either the death knell for it being taken as a serious party of principle or a demonstration that it’s really all about winning and they don’t have principles at all,” Rosenzweig says.

Still, there are those who say that stemming the tide of illegal immigration and keeping the nation’s border safe are urgent goals – and that they do comport with conservative values. More than 70 percent of Republicans say that the wall is the only way to secure the southern border, the Economist/YouGov poll shows. “What it comes down to is whether or not you believe there is a real emergency,” says the Heritage Foundation’s John Malcolm.

And all the hand-wringing is overwrought, he says. While not thrilled with the president’s use of executive power – “ ‘supportive’ would be a little bit strong,” Mr. Malcolm says – he’s also not too concerned that Democrats could easily use the same move in the future.

The emergency declaration only started the ball rolling, he says. Trump still needed to ensure there were existing statutes that would support diverting funds for the express purpose of building a wall on the border.

“I am unaware of any other law that would enable a president to declare a national emergency and then divert funds to battle climate change,” says Malcolm, who serves as director of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the nonprofit.

For now, he says, it’s up to the courts. Since Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Biological Diversity, and a group of 16 states have all filed lawsuits challenging the president’s declaration.

shadow

Point of Progress

What's going right

3. No smoking: How one city is cutting the hookah haze

For years, Jordan tried to address its status as one of the smoking capitals of the world. But nothing really changed until its largest city stepped in. And there’s a lesson in that, some say.

Mark
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
A vendor displays sweets at a market in Amman, Jordan, in May. Smoking in the capital city is gradually being restricted mostly to the outdoors. Restaurants and cafes are no longer allowed to advertise tobacco products.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Jordan has a higher percentage of smokers than any other country except Indonesia, and more than one-fourth of Jordanian children age 13 to 15 regularly smoke a water pipe. Even after a law against lighting up in many buildings was passed a decade ago, doctors and nurses still smoked in examination rooms, and government ministers dragged on cigarettes while addressing Parliament on national television. So in 2017, Amman Mayor Yousef Shawarbeh decided that if the nation couldn’t comply, then the municipality would try to enforce the ban itself.

It teamed up with Partnership for Healthy Cities, a 54-member global alliance to tackle noncommunicable diseases and public safety. Laws were made more restrictive and were enforced, and two years in, the city-based approach is making a noticeable difference. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the emergence of a new establishment: the smoke-free Jordanian eatery.

“We are not talking about enforcing a law, we are talking about changing a culture and attitudes, and that takes time,” says Bilal Amra, a restaurant general manager. “More people are demanding it. This is the future.”

Collapse

No smoking: How one city is cutting the hookah haze

For years, this kingdom has struggled to kick the habit.

Going cold turkey was out of the question; not even a fatwa, or religious edict, could shame people into putting out their cigarettes in public.

No government office or police station would be complete without a haze of smoke, or desks littered with cigarette-stuffed coffee cups. Wedding hosts who failed to serve cigarettes to guests on a silver platter were considered rude. Public service announcements and images of diseased lungs stamped on cigarette packets did little to slow down the nation’s nicotine intake. Raising cigarette prices twice failed to do the trick.

Jordan is home to the second-highest smoking prevalence in the world, with more than 60 percent of adult citizens and 70 percent of adult males smoking, according to Jordan’s Health Ministry. The World Health Organization warns that the tiny kingdom is poised to knock off Indonesia for having the highest number of smokers per capita in the world. 

With health costs rising and medical experts linking smoking to 26 percent of male cancer cases, Jordan’s Parliament passed a law in 2008 banning lighting up in government offices, shopping centers, malls, airports, hospitals, and schools.

Compliance was, officials and citizens say, “minimal.” Many openly flouted the law. Teachers still smoked in the hallways of government schools, doctors and nurses lit up in examination rooms, and government ministers dragged on cigarettes while addressing Parliament on national television.

So in 2017 Amman Mayor Yousef Shawarbeh decided that if the nation couldn’t comply, then the municipality would try to enforce the ban itself.

“Half of Jordan lives in Amman, and the other half come here to do business and visit their relatives,” says Mervat Mheirat, deputy director of the health and agriculture department at the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). “If we can change the culture in a diverse capital city, when people go to their home towns and villages, they will start to bring that culture with them.”

Mr. Shawarbeh and the GAM in 2017 teamed up with Partnership for Healthy Cities, a 54-member global alliance sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies to tackle noncommunicable diseases and public safety issues ranging from diabetes to smoking and traffic accidents.

The Partnership for Healthy Cities linked Amman with municipal workers and health officials from across the globe waging their own health campaigns. From Cape Town and Jakarta, Amman officials learned how other developing countries were tackling tobacco. The municipality trained 22 health inspectors to patrol parks, museums, malls, and restaurants across the capital to enforce the ban.

“We believe in the significant role of cities in influencing national governments and legislatures by providing a positive model, and Amman has run with it,” says Kelly Larson, director of Partnership for Healthy Cities.

The municipality also had a secret weapon: an acute understanding of Jordanians’ smoking habits.

With youth, a borderline crisis

Unlike the United States, Europe, and most of Asia, Jordan has to contend not only with cigarette smoke, but with shisha. The tobacco water pipe, or hookah, made famous in Ottoman-era Turkey and Egypt, has become widespread in much of the Arab world over the past two decades.

With flavors such as bubblegum, watermelon, and Red Bull, shisha became particularly attractive to Jordanian teenagers and children as a socially acceptable alternative to cigarettes and alcohol, becoming the pastime in Amman, with the water pipe creeping into restaurants, cafes, and public parks.

It was a phenomenon bordering on a crisis: More than one-fourth of Jordanian children age 13 to 15 regularly smoke shisha, according to the Health Ministry.

The Amman municipality passed an edict banning the issuance of any new shisha permits, but already-licensed cafes and restaurants could renew each year in perpetuity. 

Then, through intensive lobbying alongside the Health Ministry, the municipality encouraged members of Parliament to pass an amendment to the law in 2017 to include restaurants, hotels, and cafes in the smoking ban, requiring establishments to restrict smokers to walled-off smoking sections, and prevent the entry of people under the age of 18.

Under the amended law, individuals smoking in public areas face fines from $140 to $280. Establishments in violation may be fined a stiff $1,400 to $4,200 per infraction, and owners face a potential of three months in prison.

The Amman municipality took it one step further and banned restaurants and cafes from advertising tobacco products, particularly shisha. Now cafes cannot even include an image of a water pipe in brochures, menus, and posts on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

Cultural shift?

Two years in and the city-based approach is making a noticeable difference. City buses no longer reek of smoke, and drivers stop passengers before they can reach for their lighters. Public parks have mostly been cleared of water pipes used by young men, women, and children.

Fear of inspections has led most government ministries and offices to section off smoking areas; many have plans in place to gradually restrict smoking to outside government buildings.

More than 200 out of the 300 registered tourist restaurants are complying with the regulations by walling off separate smoking sections, in addition to 160 cafes, according to the Jordan Restaurants Association.

Cafes now turn away young unaccompanied minors, and workers warn those lighting up in the nonsmoking section, saying, “We don’t want the municipality to catch us.” In the last three months of 2018 alone, the Amman Municipality raised almost $68,000 in fines from institutions and restaurants. It issued 982 fines last year in total.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the emergence of a new establishment: the smoke-free Jordanian eatery.

Dahab, an upscale restaurant a stone’s throw from the US Embassy, became the first restaurant to comply with ministry and municipal regulations in 2017, walling off half of its restaurant for smokers. At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, after the lunch rush hour, there are four full tables in the nonsmoking section. In the glass enclosure, some 15 people recline in chairs and puff away on 12 shishas.

Customers were indignant at the changes at first, staff say, but they are catching on.

“We are not talking about enforcing a law, we are talking about changing a culture and attitudes, and that takes time,” says Bilal Amra, general manager of Dahab. “But people are learning that you can indeed go out with your family, enjoy a meal or a coffee, and not sit in a cloud of smoke. And more people are demanding it. This is the future.”

Despite the success, the question remains whether an urban campaign can reach the outer, rural provinces, where small communities often pressure officials – their relatives – to bend the rules.

The Amman municipality and Bloomberg say they have a model ready for those willing to try.

“We have proven that if you have the political will and commitment to clean the air in a city of 4 million, we can do it in a town of 40,000 or a village of 4,000,” said Ms. Mheirat, the Amman Municipality health director.

shadow

4. Early humans conquered the Sri Lankan rainforest – one meal at a time

How did humans come to rule the world? By eating giant squirrels. Seriously. New research shows just how versatile humans have been.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Homo sapiens have walked on almost every inch of dry land on Earth, from the frigid Arctic to dense tropical forests. That makes us unique in the animal kingdom. As far as we know, no other species has ever colonized the globe as extensively.

So how did we do it? Many scientists think that our species’ ability to adapt to diverse, extreme environments may have been key. And part of that picture is finding something to eat.

The latest piece of the puzzle comes from a tropical rainforest site in Sri Lanka. Researchers found that as humans were starting to move into the region some 45,000 years ago, they quickly figured out how to hunt and eat small arboreal mammals, such as monkeys and giant squirrels. That’s not an easy feat, bolstering the idea that H. sapiens were particularly adept consumers.

Some scientists posit that what we eat is just an expression of what truly sets us apart. Perhaps, they say, our capacity for abstract thought and planning is what allowed us to conquer all corners of the globe – and find enough snacks along the way.

Collapse

Early humans conquered the Sri Lankan rainforest – one meal at a time

You are what you eat.

That’s what parents tell their children to get them to eat their vegetables. But there might be another side to the story. Humans’ eating habits may have helped lay the groundwork for our rule of the planet, setting us apart from all other animal species.

Homo sapiens have walked on almost every inch of dry land on Earth, from the frigid Arctic Circle to dense tropical forests to extremely high elevations. That makes us unique in the animal kingdom. As far as we know, no other species has ever colonized the globe as extensively as H. sapiens – not even other human species, such as the extinct Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

So how did we do it? Scientists have been pondering that question for decades. Many now think that our species’ ability to adapt to diverse, extreme environments may have been key. And surviving in a new place means finding something to eat.

The latest piece of the puzzle comes from a tropical rainforest in Sri Lanka. Researchers examining archaeological artifacts there found evidence that, starting around 45,000 years ago, people predominantly ate small arboreal and semiarboreal mammals like monkeys and giant squirrels. Furthermore, they made specialized tools from the animal bones to hunt them. The scientists reported their findings in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

O. Wedage
Fossils and tools found in the Fa-Hien Lena cave in Sri Lanka suggest that early humans developed specialized technology to hunt and consume small arboreal prey, such as monkeys and squirrels.

Why does that diet matter?

“These small animals are very hard to catch, and they don’t have much meat on them,” explains study coauthor Patrick Roberts, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Previously, some scientists thought these small mammals were just an emergency food source.

“What’s quite interesting in our study is that we don’t have evidence for that,” he says. “This is actually occurring as humans colonize the rainforest in this part of the world and continues all the way from the beginning of this period right through to around 3,000 years ago, at least.” Furthermore, isotope analysis of human teeth found at the site suggests these people’s diet was chiefly rainforest derived, so they weren’t venturing out of the trees for much sustenance.

“This adds to an impressive body of evidence,” says Peter Ungar, a paleoanthropologist and director of the environmental dynamics program at the University of Arkansas, “that shows us just how versatile a species we are, not just today, but into the distant past as well.”

Exploiting resources with a new intensity

Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist and a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, says it’s not surprising to find that H. sapiens were exploiting the environment in Sri Lanka at that time with that level of sophistication, because these were fully anatomically modern humans. “People were already people,” he says.

But, Dr. Tattersall adds, H. sapiens were not the only humans to be flexible eaters. “Dietary generalism goes back right to the beginning of the hominid family,” he says. When the earliest members of the genus Homo were expanding into new environments across Africa, he explains, they were exploiting a much wider variety of food resources than their ape relatives. “What changed with H. sapiens was the way in which they did this, was the intensity with which they were able to exploit the environment.”

Dr. Roberts thinks that plays out as our species occupying a unique ecological niche. Animals typically are either generalists – able to eat pretty much anything and survive in any environment, such as raccoons – or specialists. Giant pandas, for example, live only in humid bamboo forests on mountains in China, chowing down only on bamboo.

But H. sapiens, Roberts argues, are “generalists-specialists.” Our species can acclimate to pretty much any environment. And once we’re in it, we can develop tools and adaptations specifically to exploit the resources available there. For example, in the Sri Lankan rainforest, those early human populations made bone tools specially designed to hunt monkeys and squirrels, the abundant resource there.

Meal planning and abstract thought

So how did we come to be such versatile and skilled eaters? Climate change, Roberts says.

Human evolution occurred during dramatic and rapid climatic fluctuations during the last ice age. In fact, many scientists think that’s what drove our speciation. And in Roberts’s generalist-specialist model, that’s why H. sapiens are so adaptable and why our species now reigns: because we evolved under those seesawing conditions.

Dr. Ungar agrees. “I think our success as a species is probably due in part to the fact that we could find something to eat on all of this planet’s myriad biosphere buffet tables,” he says. Whether that capability is a result of evolving under such conditions or simply how H. sapiens survived them remains an open question.

But other members of the genus Homo – like Neanderthals – were around during that climatic time, too. So why aren’t they, too, living all over the globe?

Tattersall asserts that there’s something unique about the way modern humans think.

What makes H. sapiens different, he says, is the “ability to deconstruct the environment into a vocabulary of mental symbols that can then be moved around to create new visions of the world.”

This capacity for abstract thought, Tattersall argues, enables members of our species to plan ahead, to carefully consider how to interact with the environment, and to develop complex technologies to do so. Other species, he says, simply respond to stimuli.

In this hypothesis, it’s not what we eat or where we are; it’s how we relate to food and our environment more generally that sets H. sapiens apart from other species. Tattersall expands on this view in his upcoming book, “The Accidental Homo Sapiens,” which he co-wrote with Rob DeSalle.

But finding evidence of cognitive capabilities in the fossil record isn’t straightforward, says Roberts. And, he adds, it’s a question of which came first: Did a symbolic cognition allow for humans to colonize diverse environments, or did the process of doing so develop such a way of thinking?

What he can say, though, is that the early Sri Lankans didn’t plunder their food resources. The fossil record suggests that the populations of those small mammal meals remained stable up until about 4,000 years ago. And that suggests a recognition of ecosystem dynamics, and perhaps even a conscious effort to conserve the resource.

shadow

Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. In Nigeria, documentary films spark social change

Our last story is about how one Nigerian activist stopped a city from demolishing residents’ homes. But more deeply, it’s about how the determination to stand for one’s rights can spread.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Nigeria’s Niger Delta is rich with natural resources. But most of its residents live in 49 waterfront shack communities. In 2008, the local government announced that it was going to demolish them in order to expand a glittering business district. Within one week in August 2009, the community of Port Harcourt, on the Atlantic coast, had been reduced to rubble and 19,000 people rendered homeless. 

Filmmaker Michael Uwemedimo, who was working in the area, got a call from Amnesty International. Soon his footage of the aftermath was circling the globe. In 2010 Mr. Uwemedimo took his work to another level: He started the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform to train local artists and activists in using cinema, radio, and music for social change. One outgrowth: the community art project Chicoco, named for the dark-brown mud of the Niger Delta. Today, the organization screens its own films about the communities – alongside global stories on evictions, housing rights, peaceful resistance, and inclusive development. 

Besides encouraging people in the settlements to think differently about themselves, CMAP’s projects work to change outside perceptions. “Chicoco has been a fantastic … tool for community mobilization,” says the director of a regional nonprofit. “Waterfront communities have been able to improve their lives,” he says, “and halted further efforts to demolish their communities.”

Collapse

In Nigeria, documentary films spark social change

Every morning, as dawn breaks through the gritty black smog encasing Nigeria’s Port Harcourt, Prince Peter hangs a Lumix GH4 camera around his neck and walks out of his house in search of his next story.

If he is not filming acts of forced eviction in the city, he is chronicling life in one of its waterfront shantytowns for the documentaries he regularly produces.

“I see this [camera] as my eyeglass,” he says. “In the case of forced evictions, instantly, I must be there.”

Mr. Peter knows those stories intimately. After his own house and barbershop were demolished under the pretense of a sweeping “urban development plan” in 2009, he was homeless and unemployed for nearly a year. But now, he’s one of about 40 community volunteers documenting and fighting forced evictions with art. 

Founded in 1912 by British colonial administrators as the launching point for coal flotillas destined for Europe, Port Harcourt is a city of 3 million on the Atlantic coast in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta.

But despite the region’s rich natural resources, nearly half a million of its residents live in 49 waterfront shack communities, crammed with rickety zinc-roofed houses that have poor ventilation. 

Reduced to rubble

These settlements have long been an eyesore for the local government, which announced in 2008 that it was going to demolish them in order to expand its glittering business district into a Dubai-like ultramodern city. 

In August 2009, bulldozers flanked by armed soldiers arrived at the Njemanze waterfront, where Peter lived. Within a week, the entire community had been reduced to rubble. About 19,000 people were rendered homeless, and 12 protesters were shot by soldiers. 

At the time, documentary filmmaker Michael Uwemedimo was in town working on a film project, and he got a call from Amnesty International. They asked if he would visit the demolished community and film the violent eviction’s aftermath. 

Soon, his footage was circling the globe as part of Amnesty’s worldwide dignity campaign against forced displacements. But it also found an audience closer to home. 

In the weeks after the eviction, Mr. Uwemedimo, who is a dual citizen of Britain and Nigeria, began traveling to communities in the area with an inflatable screen to show them the scenes he had filmed in Njemanze. The reaction was powerful.

“Suddenly, they recognized themselves as recognized,” says Uwemedimo, a lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London. “They realized they could use this camera as an instrument to tell their story.”

With that in mind, in 2010 Uwemedimo started the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP), in part to train local artists and activists in using cinema, radio, and music for social change.

The group called their community art project Chicoco, after the dark-brown mud found around the Niger Delta’s mangroves and swamps. The name echoes the history of Port Harcourt’s waterfront shantytowns, which were built using the mud to reclaim swampland on the city’s peripheries.

Since then, volunteers have received a three-year training in journalism, technical maintenance, on-air operations, production skills, and audio engineering.

Today, the organization has its own mobile cinema, which tours waterfront neighborhoods each week, screening films about the communities alongside global stories on evictions, housing rights, peaceful resistance, and inclusive development.

Musicians trained by the group, meanwhile, produce songs in local pidgin tailored toward encouraging potential and actual victims to speak up. They perform each Sunday in the waterfront shack communities.

“The government and big people think whatever they say is what should stand in the country and state, but we use our songs to tell them, ‘We are not zombies,’ ” says Sira Dumedam, a Chicoco singer.

Besides encouraging people in the shack settlements to think differently about themselves, CMAP’s projects also try to change outside perceptions. Dramas on Chicoco Radio feature soap opera-like story lines that show shack dwellers as decent, hardworking people. The narratives also dramatize the grating effects of the constant police raids that many shack communities are subject to.

“Chicoco has been a fantastic and effective tool for community mobilization. Through it, waterfront communities have been able to improve their lives and halted further efforts to demolish their communities,” says Ken Henshaw, executive director of We the People: a Center for Social Studies and Development, a nonprofit working with marginalized communities in the Niger Delta. “Most importantly, Chicoco Radio has become a rallying point for information and engagement, providing a platform for people to strengthen community ties and resilience.”

No more government-sponsored evictions

Since 2009, there have been no further government-sponsored evictions in Port Harcourt, which some activists credit at least in part to Chicoco’s awareness-building art campaigns. But private land grabs and evictions have continued, and despite Chicoco’s success, the organization doesn’t have enough resources “to run training programs for all who would like to receive them,” says Ana Bonaldo, CMAP’s director of media programs, who quit as a BBC conflict correspondent and audio engineer to train Chicoco volunteers.

Still, for those involved, the program has been life-changing. 

“If we had a voice like Chicoco [in 2009], I think that the [Njemanze] demolition would not have come up,” says Peter.

• For more, visit www.cmapping.net.

shadow

The Monitor's View

Ode to joy, and peace, in Venezuela

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

In Venezuela on Friday, the soft power of music will go up against the hard power of Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro. British billionaire Richard Branson is putting on a concert just across the border, in Cucuta, Colombia. The live crowd is expected to reach 300,000.

While the main goal is to solicit donations from online viewers and provide relief for Venezuelans, the concert also has a less tangible goal. “We want to make it a joyous occasion,” Mr. Branson told The Associated Press. Organizers hope “that sense prevails and that the military allows the bridge [from Cucuta] to be open” to the flow of relief. Mr. Maduro – whose legitimacy as leader is widely challenged – is so worried about the concert’s impact that he planned a counterconcert on the other side of the border. In effect, he recognizes that he must compete in a duel over the best music. 

Art may help decide the real power in Venezuela. In many world trouble spots, peace has often come quietly through the back door. May joy, instead of violence, help restore Venezuela’s democracy.

Collapse

Ode to joy, and peace, in Venezuela

Can art be a tool for peace? We shall see this Friday at an open-air concert planned by British billionaire Richard Branson in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. The soft power of music will be up against the hard power of Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, and his generals.

The concert will showcase top-name Latin stars before a local crowd expected to reach 300,000. It will also be livestreamed worldwide. While the main goal is to solicit donations from online viewers and provide relief for millions inside Venezuela, the concert has another, less tangible goal.

“We want to make it a joyous occasion,” Mr. Branson, founder of Virgin Group, told The Associated Press. “And we’re hoping that sense prevails and that the military allows the bridge [from Cucuta] to be open so that much-needed supplies can be sent across.”

The concert is one more tactic being used by Venezuela’s pro-democracy forces to oust Mr. Maduro and end a tense crisis over who is the legitimate ruler. Years of street protests against Maduro have only led to violent crackdowns. Last month, the duly elected but sidelined National Assembly decided to elevate one of its own, Juan Guaidó, as interim president. He is now recognized as the ruler by most countries in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. He was the one who asked Branson to organize the concert.

Without weapons, Mr. Guaidó must rely on persuasion to erode support for Maduro within the military. One of his tactics is to offer amnesty to officers who switch sides. Another is to call on Venezuelans to go to the border on Feb. 23 and collect millions of dollars’ worth of foreign aid arriving in Colombia and Brazil, mainly on United States aircraft. The move is seen as a Gandhi-like way to showcase the loyalty of the people.

Then there is the concert, which is being billed as similar to the Live Aid concert for Ethiopia in 1985. Maduro is so worried about its impact that he plans a counterconcert on the other side of the border this weekend. In effect, he recognizes that he must compete – peacefully, rather than by force – in a duel over the best music. Art, in other words, may help decide the real power in Venezuela.

In many world trouble spots, peace has often come quietly through the back door. Diplomats have used the shared experience of the arts, sports, or other “soft” arenas of life to sway opinion or break a logjam. Ping-pong diplomacy renewed US-China ties. The two Koreas have shared teams in international sports. Serbia and Albania put on a joint production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The annual Pan-European singing contest called Eurovision helps unite the continent. In recent months, a museum in New Delhi has showcased art from both India and Pakistan as a way to ease tensions between the neighbors.

In a website about the concert, Branson wrote, “Let the music inspire and mobilize you.” And may joy instead of violence help restore Venezuela’s democracy.

shadow

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.

Healed of a smoking addiction

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

For today’s contributor, a better understanding of God was key in finding her freedom from a 20-year smoking habit and the effects it was having on her health.

Collapse

Healed of a smoking addiction

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

For 20 years I suffered because of a smoking addiction. I smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day and could not get rid of the habit. During this time I made several attempts to break free of the addiction but had no success with any of them.

I had bruises on my legs, which, according to a medical diagnosis, were a result of poor circulation caused by excessive smoking. To disguise the spots, I used a white creamy skin lightener, which bothered me in addition to not solving the problem.

One day during an examination, the doctor jokingly told me that I was getting “rusty” because of the blemishes, which had grown larger, and he alerted me to the fact that they would not disappear until I quit smoking. He also warned me of more serious future consequences from the circulatory problem, which would tend to worsen over time. I was alarmed by what I heard because I was already feeling all the symptoms described by the doctor.

That day I decided I needed to do something to heal my addiction. When I got home, I asked a friend to lend me “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, because I had heard a lot about it and about the healing brought about by the teachings of Christian Science.

I started reading, always in the company of my daily cigarettes. Sometimes sparks would fall on the book, which I immediately extinguished. Although I had not yet quit smoking, I continued firm in the purpose of reading the book from cover to cover.

When I reached the end of the book, I realized that I wasn’t smoking anymore. I was surprised because, honestly, I hadn’t noticed that I had stopped smoking. I hadn’t missed the cigarettes either. I experienced none of the withdrawal symptoms that often happen with those who quit smoking suddenly through willpower or medication.

It seemed clear to me that this was no coincidence. All the time I was reading I was gaining a better understanding of divine Truth, God. This Bible passage, which introduces Science and Health, helped me a lot: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

I also leaned heavily on the ideas in this passage: “If a man is an inebriate, a slave to tobacco, or the special servant of any one of the myriad forms of sin, meet and destroy these errors with the truth of being, – by exhibiting to the wrong-doer the suffering which his submission to such habits brings, and by convincing him that there is no real pleasure in false appetites” (Science and Health, p. 404).

I had used cigarettes to achieve a sense of well-being. But I realized that I needed nothing material to find true satisfaction because God created me as His complete, spiritual offspring and because He constantly provides all of us, His children, with happiness, love, wisdom, and needed resources. Looking back, I can see how this spiritual truth and all the ideas in the book filled my consciousness and brought me permanent joy and healing.

Today I am healthy. This experience happened over 30 years ago, and I never again felt the urge to smoke. The circulation problem ended, and the spots on my legs disappeared. I stopped feeling fatigue, shortness of breath, and all other discomfort associated with smoking. I am completely cured, and I feel free and happy.

Adapted from a testimony published in the April 2, 2012, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel. This testimony was originally published in the Portuguese edition of The Herald of Christian Science.

shadow

Viewfinder

Out of harm’s way

Felipe Dana/AP
A boy rides in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds from the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria. The evacuation signals the end of a weeklong standoff and opens the way for US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to recapture the territory.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( February 21st, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us. Please come back tomorrow when we look at why two-year colleges are becoming an increasingly important part of the pipeline for universities, offering affordability and diversity.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 20, 2019
Loading the player...

More issues

2019
February
20
Wednesday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.