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Natural Treasures at Risk

Madagascar’s extraordinary biodiversity is suffering increased assaults because of a political power vacuum. Last March the millionaire mayor of the country’s capital, Antananarivo, with the support of the military, overthrew Madagascar’s president, Marc Ravalomanana. Many of the country’s plant and animal species exist nowhere else in the world. There is now little protection in areas where some species now face extinction. Political turmoil has especially jeopardized the island’s lemurs, small monkey-like animals with large eyes. Unimpeded, poachers now trap and slaughter them as “bushmeat” for luxury restaurants.

Illegal logging, along with slash-and-burn agriculture by subsistence farmers, has already damaged much of Madagascar’s unique environment. Mining brings another form of environmental degradation, as foreign companies dig up forests for the mineral ilmenite, which is valuable for the production of titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in paper, paint and plastics. Since Madagascar relies heavily on ecotourism, some commentators regard the ecological losses as killing the goose that lays the golden egg. But the environmental losses also make clear what can happen when political chaos reduces a country’s ability to protect its most fragile natural treasures. Efforts are underway to reach a power-sharing agreement between Madagascar’s ousted elected president and the upstart media magnate Andry Rajoelina. In the meantime, however, environmental destruction of the island’s rare flora and fauna continues.


The Passing Of the Green Revolution

The father of the Green Revolution, Norman E. Borlaug, died on Sept. 12. Borlaug, an Iowan, was a plant scientist whose tireless work has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives. When Mexico and the nations of the Asian subcontinent faced famine, Borlaug helped create sturdy, high-yielding varieties of rice and other grains that have literally fed the world during the last five decades.

His passing offers an opportunity not only to acknowledge his accomplishments but also to re-evaluate the high-tech, input-reliant food production model to which they led. We may already be near the “peak yield” years of the Green Revolution, and some of its drawbacks are becoming more evident. Soil depletion and environmental damage result from large-scale irrigation and the overuse of fertilizer and pesticides. Worth considering, too, has been the impact on farmers, the foot soldiers of this revolution, and their families and communities. We are only now attempting to gauge the effect of persistent exposure to pesticides on agricultural communities. The toll may be high.

Borlaug’s goal, to rid the world permanently of the misery of widespread hunger, has not been achieved. Hunger persists, even in the world of food plenty that Borlaug helped to create. Thanks to Borlaug’s genius and inspiration, there is more food, but people remain too poor to buy it. Across Africa and Central America, in wealthy and poor societies alike, people are hungry—not because of drought but because of indifference, a famine of solidarity. As brilliant as he was, Norman Borlaug probably had no idea how to respond to that particularly human calamity.

Master of None

Most people would agree that motorists and train operators should not use cellphones or send text messages while driving. Such multitasking has resulted in crashes and deaths.

But what about other kinds of multitasking? Can people do several things at once and do them well? An expectation that they can and should underlies the help-wanted ads that specify “must be able to multitask.” Multitasking has become something of an ideal in our fast-paced society—a model of success and efficiency often aided by technology and sleek electronic gadgets.

It turns out, however, that the “competent multitasker” may be more fable than fact. In August researchers at Stanford University reported results of a study of media multitasking in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After testing 100 college students, researchers found that on virtually every measure the students most persistent at multitasking performed worse than those who seldom attempted more than one task at a time. Multi-taskers lacked focus, were easily distracted, could not switch smoothly from one task to another and did not organize information well. When tested on content, they showed confusion rather than comprehension. Both the researchers and the students were surprised by the findings, an indication of just how appealing the myth of the “competent multitasker” has become.

If further studies corroborate the ineffectiveness of multitasking, then we ought to drop it as an unattainable ideal. Why not elevate focus, concentration, analysis and reflection instead?

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9 years ago
I am not at all surprised at the findings of the researchers at Stanford University on multitasking.  What Jean-Pierre Caussade, S.J. calls "Blessed Experience" would lead anyone  to the same conclusion. 
Christopher Mulcahy
9 years ago

“Across Africa and Central America, in wealthy and poor societies alike, people are hungry—not because of drought but because of indifference, a famine of solidarity.”


Not indiffence.  Please.  Americans are the most generous people in the world and have poured multi-millions into food aid in Africa and Central America.  Perhaps because of stupidity, though.  Those millions have often been stolen by bureaucrats at both ends and wasted by recipients in many cases.  “GM” (“genetically modified,”  like what Kellogg buys and you eat) grain sits today in warehouses in Zambia while Zambians starve.  What aid is delivered often wrecks local markets.  African politics is toxic to American help. 


The real answer was expressed in the 1973 book on foreign aid by William and Elizabeth Paddock entitled “We Don’t Know How.”  It’s not indifference, and it’s a gratuitous insult to say that it is to generous Americans.  We simply don’t know how.

9 years ago

Seventy-eight species of oak trees are globally threatened with extinction, including 17 species that are under threat in the United States, according to the latest BGCI publication, The Red List of Oaks.
Equally disturbing is the realisation that over half of oak species are so little known that it is currently impossible to say what level of threat they may be facing.
Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) is co-author of the report, along with Antonia Eastwood of the Macaulay Institute in Scotland.


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