Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Climate Change is Personal

I am spending this week in Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, where I did research for my dissertation in 1996. At that time, and during subsequent research visits in 2000 and 2003, the problem of deforestation was framed primarily in terms of land-use change. As I return, the same problem is -- rightly -- viewed through the lens of climate change.

Even when traveling, I often listen to WBUR in Boston, and this afternoon it brought me this excellent reporting on a story I have been following very closely since the summer of 2016. Journalist Rebecca Hersher examines the costs of two catastrophic floods in Ellicott City -- July 30, 2016 and May 27, 2018 -- in terms of personal relationships within a close-knit community that has great personal significance for me.

As the reporting indicates, even though they may disagree on the most appropriate ways to respond to the flooding, town residents acknowledge that climate change makes further severe flooding inevitable. The story briefly and obliquely alludes to land-use change as an additional factor; I discussed this in some detail in some of my previous posts about these floods.

Flood Flash -- July 31, 2016 -- my initial post about the first of the two floods mentioned in today's reporting. We had enjoyed a visit to Ellicott City just a week before this flood. This post explains why it was unprecedented, even for a town with a history of memorable floods.

Flood Peak -- August 5, 2016 -- following up a week after the first of the severe floods. Of course, at that time we thought of it as the only one.
Flooding: It's Not in the Cards -- June 4, 2018 -- a detailed explanation of the multiple reasons that expressions like "100-year flood" are no longer useful, if ever they were.

Houston, Too Close to New Orleans -- August 7, 2018 -- compares flood disasters in three great American cities, two big and one small.

Burying the Survivors -- September 1, 2018 -- in which I indicate which remedy I oppose.


Two posts from well before these floods, merely reveling in the charm that is Ellicott City:

Haunting My Old Haunts -- July 12, 2012 -- is just what it sounds like. This is a great place for ghost stories.

Great Divide Beer -- June 11, 2009 -- a geographic tidbit at one of our favorite E.C. boates.

Photo by Geoffrey Scott Baker conveys the hold this town has on people.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


I grew up outside a small town in northern Virginia in the first decade after the what is commonly called the Civil Rights Era. My early lessons in U.S. history were through a very particular set of lenses that foregrounded Virginia's place in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; we learned both names for all the battles in the latter war, and spent a full day exploring the nearby fields of Manassas / Bull Run after extensive study of its details. We knew that slavery was at the center of the war and that it was a terrible thing, though we also learned that many heroic figures of the revolutionary period had held slaves.

A few years later, we learned about Jim Crow, Kansas versus Board of Education, and Martin Luther King -- all of which seemed to belong to a much earlier period. I was an adult before I realized how close in time those events had been, and middle-aged before I realized that some victories had come very late to our particular part of Virgina.

I was reminded of all of this today by the way one of my favorite journalists opened a program devoted to the 400th anniversary of a particular part of Virginia history I do not recall learning. It was 400 years ago this month -- in August 1619 -- that people were first brought as slaves to what would become the United States. This grim anniversary is being recognized by the New York Times in a project known simply as the 1619 Project. (I had seen some links to this project, but had not yet clicked through -- living in Massachusetts, I was curious but for the wrong reasons: I thought it was a project about pre-Plymouth communities surrounding my current home.)

Tanzina Vega explored the topic in three brief but powerful conversations on her radio program The Takeaway. The first segment is a discussion with Dr. Ibram X Kendi and Professor Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers of the importance of slavery as a foundational aspect of the United States, and the tendency to underplay its importance.

To open the discussion, Vega asked her listeners to describe what they learned about slavery in school. This turned out to be a great way to enter the discussion, because the approaches varied so much. Americans have a lot of opinions about slavery, but little common understanding of it, and a general tendency to underestimate its importance.

In the second segment,  Vega and William "Sandy" Darity examine the important wealth gap that persists a century and a half as a result of slavery, a century and a half after its formal end.

In the third segment, Vega discusses asks scholar and poet Clint Smith how the 1619 project can inform responses to the notion that slavery in the United States took place so long ago that it is now time to "get over it." They wrestle with whether such a sentiment is even worthy of a response, concluding that although some remain impervious to history's lessons, education remains a worthwhile undertaking. Listen through the final minute, when Smith reads powerful poetry he contributed to the NY Times project.

The Middle Passage, Mapped

An example of the gaps in my own education about slavery is that I did not know the term "middle passage" until I visited a museum in Regla, Cuba in 2003. I was aware of the phenomenon signified by the name, though I did not comprehend the scale of the transAtlantic trade in humans.  Several visualizations now help to convey the enormity, but I think even these resources simply show how incomprensible it is.

I highly recommend the conversation WAMU journalist Joshua Johnson had with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who launched the 1619 Project for the New York Times Magazine. From this conversation between them and with listeners and other key contributors, we learn the reasons for the project, the profound impact it has already had on many readers, and the predictable backlash from people whose worldview has been challenged, perhaps for the first time.

I had gradually become aware, for example, that the project avoided the conventional use of the word "slave" as a noun. This conversation explains why this was a conscious -- and important -- choice. I am reminded of some of my own, much more modest writing about immigration policies that function as human sieves. In other words, the institutions of slavery, immigration policy, and gerrymandering contrive to extract the wealth of human labor without recognizing the full personhood of the associated humans.

Backlash: The Vague and the Furious

In Who Got the Maddest About the New York Times’ Slavery Coverage?, Slate journalist Ashley Feinberg describes the response of various pundits -- including at least one with actual history credentials -- who could have used a trigger warning; without one, they lashed out at the messengers of uncomfortable truths about the central role of slavery in the history of the republic. Their sputtering ire is testament to the importance and veracity of the 1619 project.

That historian, of course, is the inevitable Newt Gingrich, a fellow member of the professoriate described by Feinberg as "a former speaker of the House and noted wife enthusiast."

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Run, Nina

From the today's episode of BBC Witness History, I learned that Nina Simone had lived in Monrovia, Liberia for a three-year period when she was quite a prominent performer in the soul genre.

BBC reporter Lucy Burns combines her interview of Simone's friend James Dennis with archival interviews of Simone herself to tell the story of how personal and political motivations came together to lead the singer to a country that was at the time attractive to many African Americans. The discussion moves on to changes both in the singer's personal circumstances and in the country itself, which has fallen into very difficult times since its cultural heyday in the 1970s.

Liberian Calypso was written by Simone, but draws heavily on Maya Angelou's marvelous 1957 calypso tune Run Joe.


When I am rowing in New Bedford harbor, we often see the word Monrovia on the stern of ships at anchor, and fellow rowers will ask about the name, or about the Liberian flag, which looks vaguely like the U.S. flag. Although it is a small country with a proportionally even smaller economy, Liberia is the registry of record for many ships; it is one of the world's most important flags of convenience.
This ship is not registered in Brazil.
Photo: Maritime Studies

Thursday, August 15, 2019

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Nacho!

Today's Google Doodle honors culinary hero Ignacio Anaya García on what would be his 124th birthday. I did not know his name, but we all know his nickname: Nacho. And yes, he invented nachos. As a quick-thinking maitre d' in Piedras Negras, he did exactly what is shown in the gif above, for the wives of U.S. soldiers who had wandered across the border looking for a snack.

Bonus: he used Wisconsin cheddar!

The origin story of nachos is yet another reminder of the interdependence of borderlands communities along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Without both the creative Señor García and the peckish visitors from across the river, nachos themselves would be impossible!

Lagniappe: A Literary Coincidence

If Nacho is short for Ignacio, then it follows that Nacha is the nickname for Ignacia. In Laura Esquivel's smoldering Like Water for Chocolate (film, book, and food) she is the household cook who "who presides over the story before and after her death as spiritual adviser," according to reviewer Janet Maslin. Coincidentally, Esquivel's story takes place in Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, when Nacho was a young man.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Baby on the Shelf

Writing for NPR's Planet Money, journalist Greg Rosalsky brings to mind -- perhaps inadvertently -- the annoying Elf on the Shelf craze in his discussion of recent research in demographic economics. He begins his explanation of the current Baby-Less Recovery in the United States, by citing the tendency of some economists to put babies in the "durable goods" category, alongside cars and refrigerators.
This reporting draws on research that shows significant correlations between declines in birth rates and subsequent economic recessions. In other words, people anticipating economic put off baby-making early in economic slowdowns. They put, as it were, the baby on the shelf.

The research further finds that the sensitivity of potential parents to economic stress is far from uniform across demographic groups. For the first time, in fact, married women aged 30-34 are now the most likely to have children because they are less susceptible to economic woes than their younger sisters. For the first time, student loans are cited as a significant demographic factor. The pernicious ramifications of Grover Norquist's politics of austerity, in other words, are showing up in population figures.

The article is a good illustration of details that sometimes arise in discussions of the later phases of the demographic transition model. Broad patterns in population change result from fundamental shifts in the economy, from rural to urban, agricultural to manufacturing. Smaller but still significant shifts then occur as a result of important but less profound economic cycles or social changes.

I found this article via another story I had heard on air -- Less Sex, Fewer Babies: Blame The Internet And Career Priorities. In this lighthearted but very important segment, journalist Sam Sanders explores several reasons that the United States -- along with other economically prosperous countries -- faces a growing need for immigration. That's right: while politicians exploit xenophobic fears of migration in the short run, our current reliance on millions of immigrant workers (regardless of legal status) will only increase in coming decades.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The World Between Two Covers

I will be assigning this very geographic book in my spring 2020 class, Advanced Global Thinking.

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the GlobeThe World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As my favorite librarian Pamela says in her review (, this is "not a beginner's 'year of' book." It is the first of the genre we've read that does not follow a calendar, for example, and some chapters will be a bit obscure for those with limited exposure to postmodern lit-crit.

But the work is full of wisdom about the value of reading in general and the importance of reading beyond one's usual bounds in particular. Her insights into the highly uneven geographies of publishing and translation are particularly valuable.

Her insights into the origins and current status of globalization are so keen -- and clearly articulated -- that I will be assigning an early chapter or two in my new Advanced Global Thinking class in 2020.

For another discussion of Morgan's project, read Winnie Khaw's review.

To see what Morgan chose to read, view the list on her blog.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Walk

Amidst some errands Tuesday morning, I enjoyed hearing most of a conversation between WBUR journalist Meghna Chakrabarti and Norwegian author Erling Kagge, whose most recent book is Walking: One Step at a Time. Just as I was contemplating the pathetic irony of listening to their conversation -- Why We Walk -- in my car, I heard a caller describe her neuroscience research (yes, call-in shows in the Boston area are not like those in other places) about a place where I had a walk planned the very next day!
In the fall semester of alternate years, I teach a course called Land Protection (GEOG 332). It is the epitome of environmental geography class in that it examines the interface between physical and human geographies. In this case, we study forest ecology and landscape change as it relates to conservation policy and related elements of the tax code. It's a fun course, really, and many who take it go on to work as volunteers or professionals in conservation.

One of the texts in that course is Thoreau's Country, in which author David Foster compares observations from Henry David Thoreau's daily journal with his own observations of New England forests, especially those he has made as the long-time director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. I take my students to that forest -- almost all of which would have been agricultural land in Thoreau's day -- for some close-up examination of landscape change. Over the years I've been aware of various kinds of research going on in the forest, including snow studies by a friend of mine and long-term climate studies under the auspices of the United Nations.

It is at about 22m45s into the On Point installment that the caller Susan discusses her research into the mental-health benefits of walking, particularly in the woods, and by extension a key benefit of maintaining public open space. She has been learning more about these benefits through research in the very same woods that I was visiting in order to fine-tune the forest-ecology exploration I will be repeating in the autumn.


Humorist Bill Bryson has written a very different book with a similar title, which I have read with students in another context and that I highly recommend -- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Squaring History

Amidst the jumble of place names strewn across this scene from a busy part of the Belgian capital is symbolic but hard-won effort to right -- albeit in a very small way -- an historic wrong of European colonialism in Africa.

The square recognizes the 1960 independence of the Belgian Congo -- now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- by honoring Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. In 2018, officials in Brussels renamed Bastion Square in his honor; as of this writing, Google Earth continues to use both names.

As reported by Times journalist Milan Schreuer, the honor is in stark contrast to the brutality of Belgium in the Congo in general and of its treatment of Lumumba in particular. That he would be honored in a neighborhood that is both in the metropol and populated by many of his compatriots gives the irony of the honor a spatial manifestation.
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo in New York in 1960.
Allyn Baum/The New York Times

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Coffee Prices Under Water

I welcome this story from NPR's Planet Money journalists Sally Herships and Stacey Vanek Smith, in which they draw attention to the perilously low prices of coffee.

Image (as seen in my family's dining room)
By Oliver Ray
They rightly ask why prices paid to farmers can be so low when retail prices for coffee drinks is increasing. The answers they provide are correct, as far as they go, and include one that I had not thought of: coffee itself constitutes a shrinking proportion of what is in a typical retail cup of coffee, as concoctions involving milks, creams, sugars and syrups become more popular.

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised that as a Coffee Maven, I have several caveats:
  • The story focuses on Colombia, which is an important producer, and Brazil, which is the biggest. Production trends in these countries certainly are important. They neglect to mention Vietnam, where the World Bank has promoted high-volume, low-quality production. Its rapid move to second place about two decades ago continues to disrupt the market, while causing environmental problems and not providing much benefit to farmers in Vietnam itself.
  • At $1.08/pound, the current price in Colombia, though low, is a bit higher than the most commonly used benchmark price, which is $0.94. Readers of this blog can always find the benchmark price at the top-left of this page, courtesy of a widget from
  • These prices refer to the export price -- coffee as it gets placed on a ship in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, or any producing country. Most farmers are several steps removed from this, and must work through a series of middlemen (they are always men), including unscrupulous ones known as coyotes. Unless they are involved in a fair-trade or direct-trade contract, farmers will see only a fraction of the export price.
  • Farm workers will earn even less if they do not own the farm. Harvesting coffee pays the equivalent of a nickel or so per pound.
  • Just as the piece focuses on Colombia as a producer, it also focuses on a single retailer: Starbucks. It is indeed important, but in many ways not representative of the retail side of the industry.
  • And finally, a small mistake that is often made. The story references the New York Stock Exchange, which facilitates public trade in equities (stocks) that constitute corporations. Coffee is traded on the New York Coffee Exchange, also known as the C Market. The operation of this market is explained in the very important film Black Gold, which I mention in various contexts throughout many posts on this blog.
Still, this story is an important one, and I am very glad to hear it told to an audience beyond my small orbit. Please scroll up and give a listen!

And always remember: #thankthefarmers

Dam Problems

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. Journalism can also serve as a window on geography. That is often the case with the work of journalist (and fellow employee of Massachusetts public higher education) Steve Curwood. The view is amplified by the journalists and scholars he brings onto his show, Living on Earth.
I recently found his January 2018 conversation with environmental journalist Fred Pearce is an excellent example. Wetlands are seasonally inundated areas that play a vital role in ecosystems throughout the world.

In the segment (13 minutes) entitled African Dams Dry Up Wetlands & Local Jobs, Pearce explains the causes and consequences of wetland losses in several parts of Africa. His emphasis is on the lost of riparian wetlands lost as annual floods are eliminated by the construction of dams. The conversation illustrates how environmental problems interact with economic security, migration, and even national security. He links the loss of wetlands to decisions about migration on the part of people who would have much preferred to stay home.
Manantali Dam, Senegal River Basin
The conversation also reminds us that although climate change has wide-reaching consequences, it is not always the primary driver of environmental problems. Sadly, humans have no shortage of ways to disrupt the natural systems upon which we depend.


The very first project initiated by the World Bank was the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which created electricity and extended growing seasons, but disrupted the floods that had supported Egyptian civilizations for thousands of years and made farmers there dependent on chemical fertilizers. It would be the first of many dams that came to symbolize the arrogance of Rostovian  development theory (simply build infrastructure and everything will improve).

Dams featured prominently in the very first book I read as a geography student, and small dams were essential parts of my master's thesis, Source-area erosion rates in areas tributary to Miami Whitewater Lake (Ohio). Finally, this blog includes the story of the Rio Doce, a dam failure in Brazil that did incalculable damage.

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