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Brandon Ramirez

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Composing with decomposing

Compost Me! The Ultimate Ecological Burial: Humusation

When people die, they should be able to dispose of their corpses in a way that nourishes the planet. For now, it's still illegal in most places around the world.


PARIS — Last week, an American company confirmed they would be opening the first "humusation" facility on Seattle. This charming technique is a state-of-the-art alternative to incineration and cremation. It involves placing the remains, wrapped in a simple shroud, in a plant bed made of pruning wood and covered, quite poetically, with a mixture of straw and dead leaves.

The result is that in one year, the body is transformed into fertile compost, and could, from there, be used to nourish trees (that retain a little bit of the person) and thus usher the deceased back into the cycle of life. Personally, I'm enchanted by the idea of becoming a sheet of paper.

The root word for human, "homo," comes from the Latin "humus," meaning the "earth." In other words, why not go back? Humusation is to be legalized in the state of Washington next May and may soon be approved by Colorado as well, the same states, incidentally, that pioneered cannabis legalization.

In most countries, however, it remains prohibited, and that, of course, includes France. Let me take a moment, therefore, to say that it's high time we liberalize death.

Let us start with the obvious, as stated in our Declaration of Human Rights: We should be free to do anything that does not harm others. Except when it comes to the body — the object of so many moral and religious prescriptions — we're not at all at liberty to do as we choose. In the name of "human dignity," a concept as philosophically vague as it is legally uncompromising, the legislation prohibits all sorts of practices, no matter how harmless they may be.

Humusation makes it possible to contribute to the general balance of the natural environment.

In the case of humusation, classical arguments against reification emerge. But how would we stay more "subject" by rotting away inside a box or by flying up in smoke? And why, if we do not believe in the resurrection, could we not dispose of a corpse as we see fit?

Paradoxically, humusation would already be legal if the practice corresponded to a religious tradition, all in the name of the fight against discrimination. Will freethinkers be mistreated until death?

Let's move onto the positive arguments. Supporters of humusation stress the environmental aspect. Burying cadavers, they note, pollutes the groundwater, especially nowadays, with all the drug residues and endocrine disrupters we leave behind. Yes, it seems that our modern corpses, stuffed with preservatives, are worse and worse at decomposing.

Truth be told, this ultimate act of recycling, as honorable as it may be, is pretty negligible from an environmental perspective. In view of the scale of the energy crisis, such symbolic contributions cannot replace necessary public policy. I'm more sensitive to ecological considerations in a broader context, and humusation, I'd say, makes it possible to integrate into the ecosystem and to contribute to the general balance of the natural environment.

Won't cemeteries be more cheerful when they look like English gardens?

In the epilogue of his novel Let My Joy Remain, Jean Giono describes the putrefaction of Bobi, an acrobat philosopher struck by lightning out in the wilderness. "Bobi opens up in many spots. The insects enter him and begin to work," he writes. "Bobi is, in that moment, science. He expands to the dimension of the universe. Bobi's fluids water the roots of savory, and thyme and the last living remains of a piece of plucked broom. Already the rich juices rise from the small stems… the piece of root is revived. In the spring, it will pierce the earth, and give life to the beginning of a stem, hard and green."

Isn't the idea of ​​dying more acceptable when it implies a circular permanence of generation and corruption rather than a linear eternity of delights (or torments)? Is it better to be covered with a cold gravestone, or to be transformed into a "hard and green stem"? Won't cemeteries be more cheerful when they look like English gardens?

By beginning to bury their dead some 100,000 years ago, while still nomads, Homo Sapiens ushered in the era of society long before they had any beliefs. Anthropology teaches us of both the importance of burial to civilization and the diversity of forms they can take.

The ethnologist Louis-Vincent Thomas, the founder of thanatology, defined our relationship to death as an irresoluble opposition between fleeting individuality and an immortal species. Perhaps in that sense, humusation — by connecting one's remains to the world of the living, without denying the virtues of memory — could help reconcile us with ourselves.

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Prison in Tal Abyad, Syria

A French Kid Dragged Into Jihad, Lingers In A Syrian Prison

An 18-year-old prisoner recounts his departure from Roubaix, his life in a country at war, and his detention with no way out.

Mourad can no longer remember the titles of the books he used to borrow from the library at his former elementary school in the northern French city of Roubaix. There are no books where he lives now, in a prison in northeastern Syria. His parents forcibly took him to the land of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), when he was only 12 years old.

And even if the "caliphate" is no more, he's remained a prisoner here: "I forget things ..."

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The wind of impeachment, on Dec. 19
eyes on the U.S.

Trump Impeached — Front Pages From The U.S. And The World

President Donald Trump became the third president in American history to be impeached. In a vote almost exclusively along party lines, Democratic-controlled House of Representatives charged Trump the high crimes of abuse of power and obstruction of justice following the President's alleged pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy to investigate former Vice President and political rival Joe Biden.

Hearings will now move to a trial in the U.S. Senate, where it appears highly unlikely that Trump will be convicted and removed from office, as the 100-member body is made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents, and a two-thirds majority is required for conviction.

Still, the impeachment is a moment of U.S. political history and a defining black mark on Trump's presidency. Here's how it looked Thursday on American and global newspaper front pages:


De Standaard

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Ribbon cutting for Chinese and Ukrainian ambassadors in Kiev

China's Next Step In Quest For Diplomatic Supremacy

The Asian giant still trails the United States economically, but it is now the world leader when counting total number of embassies and consulates. Bad news for Taiwan — and for the rest of the world?

BEIJING — China's ambition is to compete with the United States, not just on the economic front, but also diplomatically. The Asian giant's ambition to be a diplomatic superpower can be measured in its having established more embassies, consulates and permanent missions around the globe than any other country.

Looking through the diplomatic network of 61 countries (OECD countries, G20 countries and most Asian countries), the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute notes that China now has a total of 276 diplomatic representatives. That's three more than the United States, and nine more than France, which has the third largest diplomatic network.

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Growing avocado in Kenya

Can Kenya Cash In On The Global Avocado Craze?

More and more Kenyan farmers are growing avocados, the native Mexican fruit that are both profitable and relatively easy to produce. But global competition is fierce.

MURANG'A — Mwaura Morisson jokes that when he walks out in the morning and looks at the trees — some of which already carry tiny embryos of fruit — what he really sees is money. "It's not in my pocket yet," the elderly man says, smiling. "But I'm already counting how much I will make."

The farmer, his hands in the pockets of a worn out raincoat, is showing off his shamba, his plot of land, and talking about his avocado trees, which grow in a row of terraces in Murang'a county, a two-hour drive from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. The October rains have barely begun but boots are already sinking in the viscous, red soil of this fertile region, wedged between the Aberdare mountain range and Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano with snow-capped peaks.

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Banking on the blue bird

Why The World's Central Banks Are Turning To Twitter

It's about the money ... (and other stuff)

PARIS — To be efficient and credible, decisions made by central banks need to be widely known, clearly communicated and distributed quickly. They have to adapt their communication strategies, therefore, to the ways information in consumed and redistributed, including by platforms such as Twitter.

By the end of 2008, there were just five central banks registered on Twitter. Today there are more than 100, or six out of 10, according to a study by the Official Monetary and Financial Institution Forum (OMFIF). Nearly three-quarters of the central banks in Europe and the Americas have a Twitter account, while in Asia and Africa it's less than one in two. The People's Bank of China still has not taken this step.

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At a Berlin train station

'Blue Cards' And Quotas: Europe's Search For A United Immigration System

The EU introduced its 'Blue Card' system to facilitate the arrival of qualified, non-European professionals. But only one country — Germany — really takes advantage of it.

PARIS — Immigration quotas of the kind that the French government wants to implement have sparked plenty of debate over the years, but they are less common perhaps than people imagine, at least in their visible form.

Two months ago, speaking before the French National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of the OECD's International Migration Division, recalled that of the 36 members of the international organization, only nine used such a quota system. Among them are the United States, Canada, New Zealand and even Australia.

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A BCC is needed to keep CO2 emissions in check

The Case For Creating A CO2 Central Bank

It's time for the European Union to curb emissions the way it does inflation.


TOULOUSE — The question posed to us by climate change is no longer "what do we do?" — Reduce carbon emissions is what! — but "how do we do it?"

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Dating app

What The Data From France's Top Dating Site Tells Us About Love

A pioneering Swedish researcher has come up with new insights about love and romance after analyzing the databases of the dating site Meetic.

PARIS — When it comes to love and romance, everyone's ready to tell a little white lie to make themselves seem younger, thinner, or even bigger!

These deviations from reality are what sociologist Marie Bergström was able to quantify by using a 21st century tool: the digital traces we leave on dating sites. Among her findings, surprise surprise, is that the typical profile of a user on the French dating app Meetic is "2 centimeters taller and 2 kilograms lighter than the national average."

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Reflections in the water, Singapore

Madness And Wisdom: How Dickens Might See Our Fraught Times

The world faces a set of challenges not unlike the tumultuous​ times depicted in the classic British novel A Tale of Two Cities.


PARIS — Not all human societies follow the rhythms or same life paths. This is the painful observation Charles Dickens made in his 19th-century novel A Tale of Two Cities, which tells the story of a family caught between Paris and London and torn apart by the events of the French Revolution.

His novel, although historical, still speaks to us because it is about a phenomenon we recognize to this day: the issue of divergence. It touches on the political divergence between two countries, however close they may be, but also highlights the technological divergence of an England in the midst of an industrial revolution launched at full speed, and a France, in the meantime, plunged into terror.

Between the two is the distress of those seeking a middle way, who refuse to choose between social progress, political freedom and economic progress. People who have the impression that the epoch they're living through is "the best of times and the worst of times, the century of madness and the century of wisdom," as the book's opening lines famously read.

The serial "Tale of Two Cities," 1859 — Illustration: Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons

And in today's world? Who represents Paris and who represents London? There are several possible answers to this question, as the world plunges further and further into divergence between political leaders who don't even know if they're democrats or not, and between the giant tech companies and consumer citizens who grow increasingly worried and suspicious.

To continue benefiting humanity, technology — which is more powerful now than ever — must subject itself to a set of shared standards, particularly with regards to algorithms​. Just how intelligent should they be? What norms should they adhere to? What can they do and what can't they do? These questions are crucial, and they're being asked every time a technological advance transforms how we go about our business.

This is the case we find ourselves in today with artificial intelligence. Technology can be a tool of great convergence, of bringing together our practices and vision of the world. Today, wedged between the two technological giants of China and the United States, Europe knows this better than anyone. And those who don't want to choose between social progress, political liberty and economic development must do so urgently.

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Idrissa Gueye (right) trains with his coach, world champion Souleymane Mbaye, on Sept. 20, 2019, in Dakar

A Boxing Gym As Bridge Between France And Senegal

After earning fame and fortune in France, fighter Souleymane Mbaye made good on a promise to open a professional-level boxing club in Dakar.

DAKAR — The blows come fast and furious. The leather of the punching bag pops. The chains holding it in place grind and groan as Idrissa Gueye, 24, unleashes his fists — along with cries of exhaustion mixed with rage. "Go again, no time out!" yells Souleymane Mbaye, his coach.

Both men are dripping in sweat. It is the middle of the rainy season in Senegal, and the sultry, late-September air makes every move difficult.

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Plugged into Emotiv neuro-computing sensors

How Neuroscience Can Help Corporations Maximize Motivation

Researchers are studying brain function to better understand why and in what circumstances workers feel satisfied with their jobs.

MARSEILLE — The operator of a shipping company is concentrating hard on his computer screen when suddenly it talks back to him. "Would you like some help?" it asks. "You should take a break!"

Throughout the day, the man tracks freight quotes to move thousands of containers around the ocean. The work requires flawless concentration, but the cerebral monitoring sensors he has been equipped with have spotted a rise in stress and a drop in attention. He risks making mistakes that could be costly to his business, and the computer knows it.

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