• Can You Name This Civil War?

    1. Which civil war on the African continent caused the massacre of more than 1,000 civilians in a single town, sent hundreds of thousands of others fleeing their homes, forced the country’s strongman to hole up in a basement and compelled a European army to intervene with ground troops all in the last two weeks? Its not Libya, but Ivory Coast, pop. 21 million. The violence there failed to attract much international attention until opposition forces closed in on Abidjan, the capital, and prepared to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to relinquish power despite being voted out of office last year. French forces and U.N. peacekeepers attacked the Presidential palace in an attempt to persuade Gbagbo to surrender, but Gbagbo held out for more than a week, until he was finally arrested on April 11. The crisis has left more than 1,500 people dead, displaced at least 200,000 and wrecked the economy of Ivory Coast, the worlds largest cocoa producer.

  • Chinese “Democracy”

    2. With revolutions busting out all over the Middle East this year, some political analysts speculated that the winds of change might even spread to the worlds biggest nation: China. Instead, China’s leaders have provided autocrats everywhere with a blueprint for how to stamp out dissent. They have ramped up media censorship, restricted Internet access and jailed dozens of prominent writers, artists and intellectuals. Their most audacious move was detaining Ai Weiwei (pictured), a critic of the ruling Communist Party and one of the country’s most famous artists, as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong. Just three years ago, Ai was hailed as a national hero for designing the Bird’s Nest, the iconic facade of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium. Today, like Nobel laureate Liu Xiabao, he languishes in a government jail for the offense of speaking his mind. The more things change…

  • Budget Woes

    3. The last-gasp deal between Congress and the White House on the 2011 federal budget averted a government shutdown that would have closed national parks, delayed tax refunds and sent 800,000 federal workers on a forced vacation. It’s still going to cause pain. The agreement to slash $39 billion in federal spending is the largest one-year reduction in history and will mean substantial cuts in funding for things like health care, foreign aid and high-speed rail. For the moment, Democrats were able to fend off Republican attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and kill NPR. But now comes the hard part: this summer, the U.S. will hit a Congressionally-mandated ceiling on the size of the national debt. If the ceiling isn’t raised, the government will be unable to pay off its debts, which would set off a chain-reaction of events that could push the U.S. back into a recession. But debt-obsessed Tea Partiers are insisting that GOP leaders not compromise, which means all of the social programs the Democrats thought they saved this time around are going to be put right back on the table. At least Yosemite stayed open.

  • Another One Bites The Dust

    4. The latest European country to run out of money is…Portugal! The Lisbon government announced that it needs, oh, about $100 billion from the E.U. to make its debt payments. The Portuguese economy is contracting and the unemployment rate has risen above 11%, the highest since 1998. The government’s belated efforts to bring the debt under control, by reducing spending and raising taxes, have prompted labor strikes and violent demonstrations. Portugal now joins Greece and Ireland in Europe’s bailout club, and Spain may be signing up soon too. Led by Germany, the E.U. has insisted that nations receiving bailout money adopt harsh austerity measures in return such as eliminating subsidies to business, raising taxes and reducing investments in things like education. But that makes it harder for those nations to kickstart economic growth. All of which means that millions of Europeans will see their quality of life deteriorate for the foreseeable future, because of their leaders’ shortsighted unwillingness to make hard choices. Does this sound familiar? (photo source: Markusram

  • The Case Of The Magical Shrinking Cheesy Treats

    5. It turns out theres a reason why youre still hungry after scarfing down that bag of Cheetos. The soaring cost of raw materials like sugar and corn soaring has prompted food retailers to charge more for less. Six-ounce cans of tuna now hold just five ounces of fish. Bags of Doritos contain 20% fewer chips than they did in 2009. Thats annoying, but food inflation is a much more serious issue in the developing world. Food prices around the world are at their highest levels in 20 years, according to the U.N. The World Bank estimates that since last June, nearly 50 million people have been thrown into poverty because of food costs, which have also fueled social unrest in countries from Egypt to Bangladesh. How did food become so expensive? One reason is the push by the United States, China and other countries to replace carbon-emitting fossil fuels with clean-burning biofuels, which are often made from food products, like corn. Because farmland is finite, devoting more of it to growing corn for fuel means theres less available for growing food, which pushes up prices and puts many basic staples out of reach for the worlds poorest people. That raises an unsettling question: will a greener planet also be a hungry one?