A paper recently released in the journal Science makes use of high-resolution satellite data to provide the most detailed account of global deforestation to date. The picture it paints is a grim one. Over the past 12 years more than 500,000 square miles of forest has been lost worldwide, an area equivalent in size to the state of Alaska. Even more has been degraded or replaced with palm oil or rubber plantations.
Peace is the future: the title given to the great annual interreligious meeting organized this week in Antwerp by the lay Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio, seemed supremely ironic: a question mark seemed more appropriate than an exclamation point. Religion seems tightly associated with violence these days, both conflicts that erupt like a sudden storm from a cloudless sky, and the deliberate, brutal, and religiously explained violence that we see in the leaders of the Islamic State (IS). The memories of the outbreak of World War I are vivid in Belgium and the Ukrainian crisis is live and close by. Yet the climactic ceremony in Antwerp's central square on September 9 was full of exuberant hope. The ancient ideal of true peace is not a utopia, many cried out, but something that we can and must achieve.
My always iconoclastic grandfather intrigued me by insisting that he wanted to go to Hell. It might be unpleasantly hot but the people there would be interesting and would have a sense of fun. The virtuous people who went to Heaven were not people he wanted to spend a lot of time with.
Not such a long time ago, it was common, even expected, that many babies, children, and mothers would die. Family histories (mine included) are full of poignant stories of lives lost to a multitude of causes. Today, in our country the death of a mother or child is rare and tragic. Many parts of the world have yet to experience the transformation that modern medicine and better public health can bring, but there is rapid progress and very reasonable hope that we will soon live in a world where all families experience this miraculous change. With so much bad news bombarding us, the astounding improvements in child and maternal health that have come in recent decades are a true beacon of hope.
A band of birds of different species set out on a perilous journey through the unknown, in search of their king. That is the story of The Conference of the Birds, the twelfth century masterpiece of Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, it offers an amalgam of myths and vignettes of daily life, tales of courage and divine inspiration, and silly, telling stories. It is a parable for humankind's spiritual quest and life's journey.
The word religion keeps coming up in commentaries on the just launched World Cup in Brazil. Let's pick that apart. Obviously people are fingering negative aspects, especially the sense of fanaticism and partisan fervor that seems to be part of large sporting events. But the positives are broader, hopeful, and exciting. Sports has a capacity to transcend barriers and to energize people, all around the world. Many of the values that underlie sports are the core values of social justice, values that should lie at the heart of religion.
"We need passionately moderate Muslims", argues former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Moderates, yes, but not tepid or vacillating moderates; instead, moderates with vim, ready to engage and to bring about change. I was with such a passionate moderate this week, who adds to passion and moderation a sweeping vision of what's happening to modern human society and what it demands of religious communities, one and all.
Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor renowned for his challenging analysis of social trends, lectured Thursday night at Washington's Kennedy Center to an audience that included two Catholic cardinals and a motley group of very religious and distinctly non-religious people. He presented slides showing graph after graph that looked like gaping sharks' jaws. Again and again the lines that show trends in America between rich and poor open wider and wider. The gaps get larger. That's true for education, nutrition, participation in sports, and teen pregnancy. Putnam's message is that inequality is unmistakable and it is getting worse.
Tuberculosis (TB) is often remembered through long-dead artists and poets who left moving testimonies of the suffering it caused. Scriptures of various religions cite TB because it was a constant reality in societies everywhere. But today TB is so rare in wealthier societies today, the result of better sanitation and better drugs, that it is almost forgotten: Even medical schools long treated TB as a disease of the past. But the stark reality is that TB is very much with us. It is one of the "big three" infectious diseases that are the leading causes of death in poor communities across the world. A new TB infection occurs somewhere in the world every second. The saddest figure is that 3 million people with TB do not get the care they need.
As you walk through Kibera (taking note of friendly warnings to watch for thieves and for the flying toilets -- plastic bags that double for more sophisticated facilities) it does not take long to grasp how much people want health care. Located in central Nairobi in Kenya, Kibera is said to be Africa's largest contiguous slum. But, though many families have been there for generations, there are no government-run clinics (or schools, for that matter) in this "irregular" settlement. The crude signs everywhere that advertise medicines, male circumcisions, tooth extractions, pretty much any kind of care, are clues to how people deal with sickness and pain: a blend of hearty entrepreneurial energy and altruism.