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After millions of years of gloriously successful life on Earth, a dangerous new organism arose and spread rapidly across the planet. Mankind? No. Two billion years ago the delinquent organisms were cyanobacteria, the first photosynthetic life forms to give off pure oxygen gas, a chemical deadly to all extant organisms. There may be surprising parallels between the, eventually positive, cyanobacteria impact 2 billion years ago and human impact today. Human beings too are a self-inflicted biosphere disaster in progress, but, in the extremely long-term, we could be just what the planet needs. We have much to learn before we become guardians rather than despoilers of Earth. If our destiny is to safeguard life’s future, it’s time our apprenticeship began.
Federal regulators and members of Congress have been pressing private lenders to adopt flexible payment plans like those available through the federal loan system to no avail, according to an alarming report released last month by the student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Congress may have to step in and require them to do so.
The crisis in our political system is less about party than about horizon. Somehow, we seem to have lost the capacity for long-range planning and execution—at a time when, arguably, foresight and patience are more essential than ever before. Iit is hard to imagine how our system can possibly implement policies that would be effective in the long run—or how, if we managed to take the right course, we could possibly stick to it.
Many races are called as soon as the polls close, but the ones that matter most—that spell the difference between majority and minority status for a political party—usually aren’t. Commentators typically focus on large, well-known counties, overlooking smaller counties that may be more reliable bell-weathers. To test conventional wisdom and to develop a guide for people who don’t analyze politics for a living, we looked at all the contested Senate races this year.
The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at a runaway pace, according to a major new United Nations report. In the starkest language the IPCC has ever used, the expert panel made clear how far society remains from having any serious policy to limit global warming.
Participation in the body politic is widely considered to be both a privilege and an imperative to the enlightened urban citizen. To choose otherwise is quite literally heresy – and heretics by and large have a difficult time of it in society. The platitudes I face as a non-voter are known to everyone, precisely because they are platitudes – People have marched for miles! or Immigrants crossed oceans! Understanding the Soviet Union and North Korea gives a bit of insight into human social psychology. No matter how absurd the state line, a huge majority of the populace can be found to promulgate it. Frankly I am baffled that those of us who were nerds in high school now defer to the winners of popularity contests.
For Ebola Zaire to become airborne in humans, it would need to cause lung disease significant enough to release lots of virus into respiratory secretions. The virus would then need to survive outside the body, dried and in sunlight for a prolonged time. And it would need to be able to infect another person more than a couple feet away. There’s no evidence from previous epidemics or laboratory experiments that Ebola Zaire behaves in this way.
Iso-propyl cyanide has been detected in a star-forming cloud 27,000 light-years from Earth. Various organic molecules have previously been discovered in interstellar space, but i-propyl cyanide is the first with a branched carbon backbone. The branched structure is important as it shows that interstellar space could be the origin of more complex branched molecules, such as amino acids, that are necessary for life on Earth.
Between 1970 and 2010 populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent, says the 2014 Living Planet Report released today by World Wildlife Fund. This biodiversity loss occurs disproportionately in low-income countries—and correlates with the increasing resource use of high-income countries. The report’s data also point to other warning signs about the overall health of the planet.
For the past few weeks, as Scotland debated the wisdom of independence, Reuters has been asking Americans how they would feel about declaring independence today, not from the United Kingdom, but from the mother country they left England to create. Almost a quarter of those surveyed said they were strongly or provisionally inclined to leave the United States, and take their states with them. The sense of aggrievement is comprehensive, bipartisan, somewhat incoherent, but deeply felt. This should be more than disconcerting; it’s a situation that could get dangerous.
How large-scale US surveillance is harming journalism, law, and American democracy. The 120-page report documents how national security journalists and lawyers are adopting elaborate steps or otherwise modifying their practices to keep communications, sources, and other confidential information secure in light of revelations of unprecedented US government surveillance of electronic communications and transactions.
Over recent weeks there has been a constant background noise suggesting that Islamic State (Isis) and its ideology are some sort of throwback to a distant past.It needs to be said very clearly: contemporary jihadism is not a return to the past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture. Central to ISIS’s programme is its claim to Muslim heritage. Part of countering this requires understanding the contemporary sources of its ideology and its violence.
More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found. The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington and it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom. The think tanks do not disclose the terms of the agreements they have reached with foreign governments and have not registered with the United States government as representatives of the donor countries, perhaps in violation of federal law.
Economic predictions depend on figuring out what generates economic activity. Since the turn of the 20th century, economists have struggled to grasp what drives various parts of the economy, from consumer goods to commodities to housing. Recent research suggests financial markets and economic growth are supported mainly by animal spirits, not rational calculation
The four founders of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, cosmologist Martin Rees, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, economic theorist Sir Partha Desgupta and philosopher Huw Price, are in the business of “horizon scanning” – identifying low-probability-but-high-consequence events – and are concerned mainly with risks we have created ourselves – the consequences of being too clever for our own good. One prominent risk is that artificial intelligence (AI) will outcompete our own for predominance, ultimately allowing AI to relate to humans much as humans currently do to chimpanzees. There is also the risk of the deliberate or accidental release of a virus with a modified genome, the adoption of stratospheric aerosol geo-engineering, and the use of 3-D printers to create military-grade weapons.
Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, has shown that if only a few of the trillions of cells in a body escape destruction, a genome may survive for tens of thousands of years. For a long time, we have seen the genome as a tool for predicting the future, but it may have even more to tell us about the past. Geneticists are finding ways to explore not just big events but also the dynamics of populations through time.
Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education. Not coincidentally, as inequality has surged since the 1980s, the number of administrators at private universities has doubled. Administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country. As with education, the extremes forced upon us by free-market health care are nearly beyond belief.
A bitter fight erupted when the School Nutrition Association decided to oppose nutrition improvements to federally subsidized school meals. Michelle Obama has made the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 one of her top causes. The result is an unfortunate standoff between the White House and the SNA’s current leadership. Why did the SNA reverse its earlier position supporting healthier school meals?
Physics provides the evolving core framework on which other fields of science are built. And now, science can go far beyond any previous expectation and extrapolation. In coming decades, everything will be susceptible to major revision as new cross-disciplines – and undisciplined threads of study – emerge. Quantum engineering teams are already springing up in academic and research institutes all around the world. The merging of computer science and engineering with neuroscience has already produced results that not long ago belonged only to science fiction.
Marijuana is far less harmful to human health than most other banned drugs and is less dangerous than the highly addictive but perfectly legal substances known as alcohol and tobacco. That doesn’t mean marijuana is harmless; but, on balance, its downsides are not reasons to impose criminal penalties on its possession, particularly not in a society that permits nicotine use and celebrates drinking. Marijuana’s negative health effects are arguments for the same strong regulation that has been effective in curbing abuse of legal substances.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others have used open sources – media reports, court affidavits, NGO reports and independent field investigations – to piece together a strike-by-strike picture of more than 450 strikes in the US’s covert campaigns, revealing at least 2,681 reported deaths, including 480 people or more who are described as civilians.
Predicting global surface temperature changes in the short-term is a challenge for climate models. Temperature changes over periods of a decade or two can be dominated by influences from ocean cycles like El Niño and La Niña. We can’t yet predict ahead of time how these cycles will change. A new paper led by James Risbey just out in Nature Climate Change takes a clever approach to evaluating how accurate climate model temperature predictions have been while getting around the noise caused by natural cycles.
On an average day, some 100 million tons of carbon dioxide is liberated from oil and coal by combustion, wafting into the air. Only half of the carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere; the other half falls back to earth. While scientists know what happens to half of that half — it dissolves into the oceans — the rest is a continuing puzzle. Now NASA is launching a satellite to help solve the puzzle.
We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the neoliberal capitalist consensus that has prevailed throughout the West since the 1980s – and that many claim led to the economic disaster of 2008-2009. There is growing discontent among economics students with the university curriculum, which they claim has become merely a branch of mathematics, disconnected from reality.
One billion people watched the opening match of the FIFA World Cup in São Paulo, Brazil, and hundreds of millions more will tune in at some point during the month-long tournament. For FIFA’s six major partners and the event’s eight official sponsors, this audience is nothing short of a gold mine. Indeed, they pay tens of millions of dollars in the hope that some of the magic of the “beautiful game” will rub off on their brands. For viewers, that is probably not a good thing. Sponsorship by companies like Budweiser, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and the food giant Moy Park brings millions of dollars to the game. But what message does it send to the global audience? Promoting alcohol, sugary drinks, and fast food may mean massive profits for corporations, but it also means worse health for individuals and a costly burden on countries’ health-care systems.
Piketty is right that our political economy favors the growth of inequality, and that inequality in turn poisons our politics. But while we should aspire to create a society that shares its prosperity, we need to address a much bigger gap than the one between rich and poor. We need to address the gap between what’s demanded by our planet and what’s demanded by our economy.
Two major injustices – inequality and climate change – are threatening to undermine the efforts of millions of people to escape poverty and hunger. By concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few, inequality robs the poorest people of the support they need to improve their lives. And as climate change devastates crops and livelihoods, it undoes poor people’s efforts to feed their families.
In another attempt to stem the economic threat of high student debt and win favor for his party before November’s election, President Obama on Monday signed an executive order that will limit federal student loan payments for 5 million more people.
Homeowners can refinance a mortgage at under 4 percent. Car loans are available for under 3 percent. Yet college graduates are paying interest of 7 percent or higher on undergraduate loans, and are unable to refinance. Elizabeth Warren’s goal is passage of a bill that will allow students to refinance their loans at lower rates.
While Attorney General Eric Holder recently pledged that under his watch, journalists will not go to jail, the administration has continued to use the judicial system to harass journalists into revealing their sources. Journalists and press freedom advocates say the administration’s war on journalists has chilled national security reporting, with potential sources afraid to speak to reporters for fear of being prosecuted.
The Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times facing jail for refusing to identify a confidential source. The court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between what prosecutors said was an imperative to secure evidence in a national security prosecution and what journalists said was an intolerable infringement of press freedom.
“Every now and then, the field of economics produces an important book; this is one of them,” writes Tyler Cowen in his Foreign Affairs review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs, recently sat down with Piketty to discuss inequality and his controversial policy proposals.
The anti-oligarchy argument claim is that the rich have too much money, which they use to elect politicians who will enact laws that favor their interests. But it seems better to argue about the best policies to improve income distribution efficiently, and to point out which politicians support them. “Yes” to the EITC and pre-school education; “no” to subsidies for oil, agriculture, and mortgage debt.
As part of an effort to make the public see global warming as a tangible and immediate problem, the White House has inaugurated a website, climate.data.gov, aimed at turning scientific data about projected droughts and wildfires and the rise in sea levels into eye-catching digital presentations that can be mapped using simple software apps.
Scientists say they have extraordinary new evidence to support a Big Bang Theory for the origin of the Universe. The breakthrough was announced by an American team that has been using a telescope at the South Pole to make detailed observations of a small patch of sky. The aim has been to try to find a residual marker for “inflation” – the idea that the cosmos experienced an exponential growth spurt in its first trillionth, of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. inflation came with a very specific prediction – that it would be associated with waves of gravitational energy, and that these ripples in the fabric of space would leave an indelible mark on the oldest light in the sky -the famous Cosmic Microwave Background. The team says it has now identified that signal.
Working toward social justice requires the courageous protest by a minority to help the majority gain the wisdom necessary to change; criminalizing social activity that leads to crucial discussions about how to minimize suffering and terror, and labeling that activity a form of terrorism, is contrary to the values necessary for a healthy democracy.
World War I may have ended in 1918, but the violence it triggered in the Middle East still hasn’t come to an end. Arbitrary borders drawn by self-interested imperial powers have left a legacy that the region has not been able to overcome. No group of countries, particularly given their small sizes, has seen so many wars, civil wars, overthrows and terrorist attacks in recent decades. To understand how this historical anomaly came to pass, several factors must be considered: the region’s depressing history prior to World War I, the failure of the Arab elite and the continual intervention by the superpowers thereafter, the role of political Islam, the discovery of oil, the founding of Israel and the Cold War.
Climate change may be the world’s “most fearsome” weapon of mass destruction, and urgent global action is needed to combat it, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday, comparing those who deny its existence or question its causes to people who insist the earth is flat.
You don’t really read the endless pages of terms and conditions connected to every website you visit or phone call that you make, but every day billion-dollar corporations are learning more about your interests, friends, family, finances and secrets precisely because of this, are selling the information to the highest bidder, and you agreed to all of it.
It has now been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, but the European catastrophe remains relevant today. As the Continent looks back this year, old wounds could once again be rubbed raw. More than 60 million soldiers from five continents participated in that orgy of violence. The absolute focus on national interests did not lead to happy times for any of the wartime enemies. In the era of NATO and integrated armed forces, hardly anyone can imagine a war between Europeans. Still, it is possible to sow discord in other ways in the 21st century. Historians of different stripes note with concern that the course of events in 1914 are not that different from what is happening in Europe today.
Astronomers have measured the distances between galaxies in the universe to an accuracy of just 1%. This staggeringly precise survey – across six billion light-years – is key to mapping the cosmos and determining the nature of dark energy. While we can’t say with certainty, it’s likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time.
Our generation can end the ancient scourge of extreme poverty, but it can also destroy the earth’s life-support system through human-induced environmental devastation. By necessity, then, we have entered The Age of Sustainable Development. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University is launching a free, global, online university course by the same name in January 2014. Sustainable development is both a way of understanding the world and a way to help save it, it will become the organizing principle for our politics, economics, and even ethics in the years ahead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has created an anti-CNN for Western audiences with the international satellite news network Russia Today. With its recipe of smart propaganda, sex appeal and unlimited cash, it is outperforming its peers worldwide.
The same kinds of politics that influence other aspects of society also help explain why some countries, such as the United States, suffer repeated banking crises, while others, such as Canada, avoid them altogether. A country does not choose its banking system; it gets the banking system it deserves, one consistent with the institutions that govern its distribution of political power.
One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy, rather than discovery of fundamentals. Nobody really cares much about economic data except as a guide to policy: economic phenomena do not have the same intrinsic fascination for us as the internal resonances of the atom or the functioning of the vesicles and other organelles of a living cell. Critics of “economic sciences” sometimes refer to the development of a “pseudoscience” of economics, arguing that it uses the trappings of science, like dense mathematics, but only for show. As economics develops, it will broaden its repertory of methods and sources of evidence, the science will become stronger, and the charlatans will be exposed.
Of all the threats looming over the planet today, one of the most alarming is the seemingly inexorable descent of the world’s oceans into ecological perdition. Over the last several decades, human activities have so altered the basic chemistry of the seas that they are now returning to the barren primeval waters of hundreds of millions of years ago. The world faces a choice. We do not have to return to an oceanic Stone Age. Whether we can summon the political will and moral courage to restore the seas to health before it is too late is an open question. The challenge and the opportunity are there.
Dozens of psychological studies have shown that people primed to think about money before an experiment are more likely to lie, cheat and steal during the course of that experiment. Thinking about time, by contrast, makes people more honest than normal rather than less so and the more reflective they are the more honest they become.