Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Water Vapor and Climate Change

Two short letters to the editor of the Boston Globe illustrate the need for better geographic education and better science education in general. The first is entitled "Why Fight CO2," and perpetuates the common assumption that since water vapor is a more major greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the latter does not need regulation. This writer misses several critical details, which a second writer outlines in "Defogging the denial in the debate over CO2."

Water vapor varies from zero to four percent of the atmosphere, but as the second writer points out, its overall concentration is not changing. Over the past half-century, carbon dioxide has steadily increased from about 0.028 percent to about 0.036 percent of the atmosphere. It is the rapidity of this change that is the essential part of the story, and what makes the enhanced greenhouse effect so frightening.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Boxing Day, Five Years On

I awoke Christmas morning to this sad reminder of the tragic events of Boxing Day, 2004, when over 230,000 people were killed in the world's most deadly tsunami. All was not negative, though, in this interview with Mark Fritzler of Save the Children. His response was surprising when Renee Montagne asked whether the Aceh region -- which had experienced the highest death tolls -- had returned to normal. It had not been normal before the tragedy, and the rebuilding has actually brought some improvements to the war-torn region.

Coincidentally, the Aceh region is home to some exquisite coffees. See Sumatra coffee and travel notes from Sweet Maria's.

The before/after images below are from the Earth from Space series compiled by The Guardian UK.

Thanks to my friend Wing-Kai for pointing me to this five-year remembrance from CNN. Reporter Dan Rivers revisits stories he covered at the time, including that of Fitri Ani, a woman who was three months pregnant the day she survived the tsunami. The report combines grim images from the original event with more recent reflections. It shows that even those lucky enough to survive endured an ordeal most of us cannot imagine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dinero al Norte

Thanks to my colleague Vernon for pointing me to Marc Lacey's fascinating NY Times cover article about impoverished families in southern Mexico struggling to send money north to their relatives in the United States. Although the trend Lacey describes remains relatively small, this story is relevant to many key facets of migration between Latin America and the United States.
As I write this, I am enjoying a cup of decaf coffee from Chiapas, the home state of some of the families mentioned in the article. Although the article does not mention coffee, it is an important part of the background. People continue to leave coffee-growing areas because prices fluctuate between low and lower, so that even people who own their own land often work as virtual slaves. Since people in this position are not often represented at "free" trade negotiations, their options become fewer year by year. Nobody should complain about "illegal" immigration before thoroughly understanding these dynamics, because the "legal" and "just" are divergent concepts. The same process is unfolding in coffeelands throughout the world; see these examples from Oaxaca and Chiapas, and know that a similar story is behind every cup of conventional coffee sold.

Back to the NY Times story: It was first brought to my attention when we were discussing the exodus of Brazilians from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. As the U.S. dollar has weakened, many who moved to Massachusetts in order to bring or send money back to Brazil have decided to leave. In many cases, these have been middle-class Brazilians who saw coming to this region for a year or two as an expedient way to earn money to invest in a business or a nicer home in Brazil. When the U.S. economy weakened, many of these folks found their way back home, revealing the extent to which some sectors of the Massachusetts economy had become dependent upon them.

The case in Mexico is similar in some ways, except that the migrants tend to be much poorer, and the ability to move back and forth is much reduced. An ironic consequence of the poorly-conceived border wall is that crossing once is so risky that people will remain in the U.S. who in previous years might have gone home. As Lacey points out, this is not an option for people who have risked everything for a chance to earn money in the North.

For some families of Oaxaca and Chiapas, the result of these current absurdities is that undocumented workers in the richest country in the world are receiving small payments from some of the poorest people in Mexico, hoping to keep them in place until the economy improves. Eventually, they hope, the work that U.S. citizens usually eschew will be available to them once again, and the remittances will resume their usual pattern.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wisdom from Bill O'Reilly

Bill O’Reilly’s recent column on climate change (“Hmm, is it getting a bit warm in here?” December 15) includes at least one welcome suggestion but also some very problematic ideas about climate science.

It is good that O’Reilly’s understands the value of “positive environmental behavior” and a cleaner Earth. His authentically conservative conclusion is that conserving resources is a good idea, whether the climate is changing or not. Most of the remedies that arise from concerns about a changing climate are simply good stewardship.

O’Reilly’s interpretation of climate science and its implications, however, is flawed in several important ways. First, he asserts that “only the deity knows for sure whether the planet is in danger from warming.” It is one thing to exaggerate the uncertainty about climate change; it is quite another to assert that such uncertainty is inevitably permanent. We already know enough about our interruption of the carbon cycle – and its results – to act.

Second, O’Reilly describes the growing consensus on climate change and the growing business interest in alternative energy, and assumes that the latter caused the former. A far more reasonable interpretation is that the smart money is following the science. It is laughable to suggest that the “climate change industry” has somehow outflanked Big Oil in its ability to influence governments.

The reality is that the evidence is mounting in favor of the most direct explanation for climate change: roughly half the carbon that accumulated in fossil fuels over eons has been released in just two centuries, increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide dramatically and increasing average temperatures steadily.

Near the end of the article, O’Reilly expresses a desire for an affordable system to provide renewable energy for his home; on that, we can agree. At the very end of the article, however, he could not resist a flippant dismissal of the science that underscores the need for such innovations.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


As people from throughout the world gather to talk about climate change, it is good to explore some of the questions that will determine whether Copenhagen will be about hopes realized or hopes dashed by business as usual. Many stories are circulating in the media, globally and even here in the United States. Here are a few that I believe cut to some of the more important aspects of possible futures.

The December 4, 2009 installment of Living on Earth is an in-depth discussion of several ways in which the Amazon region of the world is involved -- and implicated -- in climate change. I followed this with particular interest, since I did my dissertation research in Rondonia and am currently working on the second edition of a book about the region and how it is perceived. The entire program is valuable; I find the Cattle Climate Connection segment particularly interesting, as it connects food and land use to a problem we normally associate only with transportation and electricity generation.

On the day prior to the Copenhagen conference, National Public Radio described recent surveys that indicate waning interest -- and even belief -- in climate change. The physical processes that drive climate change are not like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus; "choosing" whether or not to believe does not change the process -- only choosing to act can do that. This story links attitudes to some of their causes, including -- oddly enough -- a sense of futility. As Al Gore has pointed out, one reaction is to move quickly from disbelief in the whole process to a sense that the process is unstoppable -- these positions are exactly opposite, but yield the same result.

As if to signal a new administration's willingness to accept -- and act on -- scientific consensus, the Environmental Protection Agency chose the opening of the Copenhagen conference to release its finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants that threaten public health. NPR's All Things Considered describes the legal basis for this finding and its implications.

Finally, All Things Considered desribes the opening of the conference itself and reasons for skepticism about action that might be taken.

Bolivia Elections

Evo Morales has been re-elected in Bolivia -- a sign of the growing strength of the political left in Latin America. Although NPR's Morning Edition Saturday provided this insightful overview on election eve, the Morales victory was not mentioned on Morning Edition the Monday after the Sunday election. I went to BBC for its analysis, which predicts a deepening of the "social revolution."

As in Honduras (most recently) and elsewhere, the range of diplomatic options open to the U.S. is somewhat limited by our past involvement in Bolivia -- in this case our support of Colonel Banzer.

Following the election, however, the U.S. government did issue somewhat guarded congratulations to President Morales.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Finca y Feathers

This article from Coffee & Conservation discusses a wonderful preserve I visited with students on my first two study tours in Nicaragua. Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm) is an idyllic, mountaintop retreat that provides good, healthy food, incredible mountain views, and exquisite coffee.

On arrival, students have wondered how they could possibly survive for two whole days in a place with such limited access to electricity, clubs, and other essentials. In each case, however, the students have enjoyed their time. I did not return on the 2009 tour and will not make it back in 2010, but I do hope to take students to FEV again some day.

The only problem with Nicaragua is that each time I go, I learn of one or two additional places that I want to take my students, so choosing the itinerary becomes more challenging each time. It is a good problem to have, though.

Finca Esperanza Verde, by the way, is the location of a certain incident involving a very large insect, a much larger spider, and quite a few shrieks from my 2006 student group.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Minas Gerais -- Let's go!

Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon are two captivating parts of Brazil. Some say that God created all the rest of the world in one day, so that he could spend the rest of the week on Rio. The Amazon is known as the "lungs of the world" and a sort of modern-day Noah's Ark for endangered wildlife. Both places are beautiful and both have significant problems as well -- Cidade de Deus and all of the literature on burning forests make this clear. But Brazil is a continent-sized country with many other places to know and visit.

One of those places is the state of Minas Gerais (meaning General Mines), which happens to be the home of many Brazilians who currently live near Boston. This New York Times travel essay The Other Brazil makes it clear that Minas has a lot to offer. Because Minas is also home to Brazil's nascent efforts at growing specialty coffee, it will be part of a study tour I am leading in July and August of 2010. Stay tuned or contact me if you are interested in details, which will be available on our Study Abroad web site as they become finalized.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mo Rocca the Geographer

I love listening to Mo Rocca on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, and I was disappointed to have missed him when he spoke at BSC a couple of years ago. Only today did I learn -- from Matt Rosenberg's geography blog that Rocca is a capital fiend (and he knows something about the geography of coffee as well).

Of course, geography is much more than capitals (keep reading this blog or my home page for examples) but I still applaud Mo Rocca's enthusiasm for learning about places.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sierra Coffee

Thanks to my friend Rob (who lives full-time in the real world, rather than the Internet, so he'll never see this) for pointing me in the direction of some great little coffee articles in Sierra magazine. I send my students browsing in the online version of the magazine every semester to bring me back the best articles, so I might have found this eventually, but Rob found it for me first in the current print edition.

Searching the magazine -- which is the official publication of North America's original environmental organization -- I actually found three interesting little articles related to coffee and the environment.

Many of us know that coffee grounds are great for garden composting -- come see my hydrangeas some time -- but this Green Tip article provides some details about this, and links to many additional suggestions. The College Buzz article describes nationwide efforts to bring socially and environmentally sustainable coffee to campuses. I'm proud to say that our own Social Justice League students at BSC have been working very effectively in this direction -- with some changes already taking place and more to come.

The article that Rob mentioned originally is called Sustained Buzz, in which five coffee experts are asked to recommend coffees -- other than their own -- that provide good quality and good results for the environment. I was very pleased that Green Mountain Coffee's Lindsey Bolger recommends the coffee of Selva Negra where -- ironically -- I first met Bolger's colleague Rick Peyser and others from Green Mountain. In January 2010, I will be taking students to Selva Negra for the fourth time, and I agree that this is truly one of the world's most enjoyable coffees. During our annual coffee tasting in April 2009, Selva Negra was by far the most popular offering.

Later in the spring of 2009, we had the great privilege of Selva Negra proprietor Mausi Kuhl visiting our campus to describe some of the extraordinary ecological projects that make Selva Negra a place that grows both organic coffee and organic farmers!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Featured Chef?

The connection to geography is tenuous, but I cannot help but share a recent brush with fame. I am currently the "featured chef" on a popular web site known as FastRecipes.com. My killer queso dip recipe was found by the site editor, and apparently was a hit. I must admit that the yumminess-to-effort factor is pretty high. As the name implies, this is an important criterion for inclusion on the site.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A grand gift to the town from the man you can’t see - The Boston Globe

Albert Stone understands the value of libraries. I wish everyone did.

He has given the town of Townsend a great gift -- a new library. At a time when many people -- even educators -- are willing to kill or maim their school and town libraries, Mr. Stone funded a new one. (He is not alone; the wise voters of Walsenburg, Colorado recently did the same, without a major benefactor.)

Mr. Stone also seems to understand what a lot of rich people do not. None of us deserves great wealth, and none of us earns it on our own. Many who are wealthy point to the hard work it took to get wealthy, not realizing that many work even harder and remain poor. Mr. Stone recognizes that his success did not occur in a vacuum, and he is to be commended for giving something back.

In this case, he is giving the town a new heartbeat. I do not know anything about Townsend; maybe it has been weathering the recession just fine. But even in prosperous towns -- like my own -- the benefits of a good library increase during a recession. From the practical benefits of job hunting and skill-building to the solace of a place to spend productive and enjoyable time without spending money, a library is an essential investment in hard times.

And as some towns whack their library budgets, the bottom-line benefit of a library as comparative advantage should not be ignored; I cannot imagine that home values in Bridgewater will recover as quickly as those in towns with fully-funded libraries and schools.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Main Street USA/Mexico

View Larger Map
When I lived in Arizona and Texas for a total of seven years, I managed to cross the border at most points that were then open, but I do not think I ever made it to San Luis. From this story, however, it sounds very much like the places I did know well -- Nogales/Nogales, Hidalgo/Reynosa, and Brownsville/Matamoros.

This story focuses on a binational community just south of Yuma -- one of the hottest and driest places to be found in North America. When I lived in Tucson, people would warn me against going to this area, because it was dry! The green lands shown in the satellite image just west of town are irrigated by the canal that is shown entering from the north.

As with most cities on the border, the city on the Mexico side is close to ten times larger than its U.S. partner.

New Music From Long-Dead People

Mexico City percussionist David Lopez combines musical talent with academic curiosity to perform music that channels both Aztec and Mayan predecessors.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Driving through New York City just weeks after the 2001 attacks, Rick Meyerowitz and Maira Kalman were discussing the glut of new and unfamiliar tribal affiliations that were rapidly becoming commonplace among North Americans with little prior understanding of South-Central Asia. The result of that conversation was a map that would become an icon of that period.

Read about the map on Strange Maps or on Meyerowitz' own site. Find out what "-stan" really means.

The map calls attention to difference and tribalism both in the far-away and in the familiar. In so doing, the map deeply represents the notion that "People are more alike than different."

Monday, November 02, 2009

Birthdays for MOBALS

When he visited Bridgewater recently, geographer extraordinaire Harm de Blij spoke of three kinds of people in the world space-economy. "GLOBALS" are the 15 percent of the world's people who are relatively wealthy because they were born to parents in rich countries. Even the relatively poor GLOBALS are relatively rich by world standards. "LOCALS," de Blij said, are the vast majority of the world's people, born into relative poverty and likely to remain pretty close to where they were born, both in terms of location and in terms of wealth. Finally, the "MOBALS" are those people who move readily between the two. They serve an important function in the operation of the world economy, and they are rewarded richly for it.

Writing in the Boston Sunday Globe, Kate Darnton writes eloquently about one such group of MOBALS and how they exhibit their wealth. Her article on children's birthday parties in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi is both entertaining and distressing. One risk of being a MOBAL, apparently, is the temptation to adopt all of the most garish and least sustainable aspects of the lifestyle of the GLOBALS. Just as we try to reign in our own instincts toward over-consumption, the elite in the rest of the world take our bad ideas to entirely new levels.

And as if over-pampered children in India were not enough, the same edition of the Globe mentions the Prombron Monaco Red Diamond Edition -- an SUV for elites in Russia. Mileage figures are not available, but the excesses of this vehicle put Hummers in the same category as a Prius or a bicycle. See Worst Vehicle Ever for the sordid details.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Coffee or Tea?

As I embark on a new writing project on the geography of coffee and tea, I am finding a lot of interesting parallels and connections. I am interested in the geographies of production and consumption. This article by geographer Norman Berdichevsky is just the sort of thing I am looking for -- examining the spatial patterns of coffee and tea preferences outside of producing areas.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Beverage Snob

Jason, the blogger at 2BASNOB, is a man after my own heart. He started to learn a little bit about coffee, became increasingly interested in the finer points, and then unable to enjoy bad coffee. He has since become a snob (could we agree to say "enthusiast" instead?) of tea, beer, and wine as well.

What does this have to do with geography? Everything.

For all of these beverages -- and most foods -- the quality of the end product is improved if the people involved and the land and water they use are treated well. Moreover, at least for these beverages, geographic differences in soil, climate, and processing traditions contribute to great variety in the cup or bottle.

The 2BASNOB blog is a very nicely organized site that provides a very rich introduction to the four beverages mentioned above. I will be consulting it as I work on my new book about tea!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Taught to the Test

See the full comic at ComicStrips.
Signe Wilson's Family Tree comic strip of October 25, 2009 describes the problem of education "reform" eloquently. See it on Comics.com and then consider the cost of politically-motivated testing. Ironically, the most burdensome government mandates come from those who tend to distrust government. In their zeal to make educators "prove" their effectiveness, they have seriously undermined that effectiveness. The Heisenberg  Uncertainty Principle surely applies to K-12 education: the measurement surely effects what is being measured, and I would argue that the effect is mainly negative, as I encounter generations of students who have been undergone "teaching to the test" and who arrive at college in need of un-teaching.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Environment 360

Yale University sponsors the amazing e360 site, bringing together the latest and most important news about the environment. It can be a bit frightening, but many critical issues are brought together in a single, well-written source. Of course, I have to thank my favorite librarian for finding this site!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fair Trade: What Price for Good Coffee?

Thanks to my friend Henry Lucas at the Spellman Museum for pointing out this important article from Time. The article describes efforts to raise the fair-trade minimum price from $1.35 to $2 per pound of coffee. It is a risky but perhaps necessary proposition. Some of my industry contacts quoted in the article express dismay that farm families are not adequately compensated, even at fair-trade prices. But a dramatic increase could greatly limit the number of families benefiting from the programs, and even well-meaning consumers might balk at paying the real price of production.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Lessons from the world of girl gangs

Librarian Pamela Hayes-Bohanan has been reviewing 8 Ball Chicks by journalist Gini Sikes. Her final blog entry on the book explains why it is important to pay attention to the problems of these young people.

Jobless Recovery

Job seekers fill out applications for positions at a new bar and restaurant while standing in line in Detroit, Sept. 25, 2009. (AP - Posted on OnPointRadio.org)

Through geography -- particularly environmental geography -- we find that everything is connected. The human impact on the environment, for example, is inextricably linked to the economy. Economic geography analyzes spatial patterns of economic activity -- what humans produce where, and why they do so.

To understand economic geography, it is important to know something about financial systems, business cycles, and the connections between each of these and employment. Reliable and cogent discussions of these are difficult to find. That is why I was pleased to hear this hour-long discussion. On Point Radio host Tom Ashbrook leads a very informative discussion with Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren. It is worth investing an hour to hear what they have to say about the U.S. economy at a critical crossroads.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Family Tree Lesson

This is the first panel of a cute comic strip that makes an important point about what we are doing to waterways.

Because plastic is lightweight and durable, it eventually finds its way to rivers, and then to oceans. Re-use and recycling only delay the journey.

The time frame are mind-boggling. Hundreds of millions of years to produce, perhaps thirty minutes of convenience, and centuries of pollution.

Pacific Rim Action

See what bloggers at My Wonderful World have to say about the variety of tragic events in the western Pacific last week. The typhoon, earthquakes, and tsunamis did a lot of damage and raise a lot of geographic questions.

The photo of surfers riding the wave, by the way, is just symbolic of big waves -- tsunamis do not really work this way. If you were on a tsunami in the middle of the ocean, by the way, you would never know it.

My Wonderful World is a project of National Geographic. I am very fortunate to work closely with the MWW outreach person for Massachusetts as part of my department's Project EarthView.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Geographer Matt Rosenberg explains the coming fate of web addresses connected to a country that no longer exists. Years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the .yu suffix is slated to go the way of the Yugo automobile. The transition may be slow, as several thousand web sites still use the defunct suffix.

The George-Jetson solution to sprawl

In this October 4 Boston Globe article, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow traces the fifty-year history of the Pod Car – a George-Jetsonesque approach to the problems of suburban sprawl.

The ambitious idea has idealistic advocates and vigorous doubters. It could provide an alternative to current visions of public and private transportation -- both of which are seriously problematic today and bound to get worse. Near the end of the article, Tuhus-Dubrow mentions what would be the greatest advantage in the Boston area: avoidance of its "notorious drivers." As someone who was nearly run over at a petting zoo yesterday, I consider anything that gets my neighbors out of the driver's seat is a good thing.

San Jose, California is currently farther along than any other U.S. city in planning a pod-car system. See the sidebar article for details.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tipping Points

Feedback mechanisms have thresholds -- tipping points beyond which regulatory mechanisms fail. For example, perspiration is a feedback mechanism that keeps temperature from rising in some mammals. But the system has limits beyond which it will not protect the body from excessive heating.

Similarly, the Earth as a whole has a lot of mechanisms that tend to limit the damage we do to it. This study published in Nature and reported on MSNBC is the first comprehensive analysis of these thresholds on a global scale. The results are not encouraging. With respect to climate, nutrient loading, species extinction, and too many other systems, human activity is pushing the Earth past its thresholds.

Author Jonathon Foley says that the most important lesson is "that 'wait and see' is a bad environmental policy." Because this news is unpleasant, I anticipate most responses to range from apathy to a "shoot the messenger" effort to discredit the work. We can hope, however, that people will start to think about the fundamental problem of unlimited growth on finite planet.

Monday, September 28, 2009

US-Brazil Programs

I am pleased to be in the fourth year of a US-Brazil consortium program funded by the US Department of Education and its Brazilian counterpart. Our four-school consortium has enabled a couple dozen students to change their lives completely through semester-long exchanges. The binational program currently serves hundreds of students directly and thousands indirectly. The staff in DC and Brasilia have developed this map to show the scope of the program. See if you can find our partners.

View U.S.-Brazil Higher Education Consortia Program Grants FY 2006 - FY 2009 in a larger map

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Play Fair

Dean has struck again! Coffee is not the only industry that treats its producers unfairly. Dean Cycon is supporting fair trade in manufacturing -- something that the world could use much more of. By supporting a fair-trade factory in Pakistan, Dean is also doing a critical bit of public diplomacy. The more good will that is spread in this critical part of the world, the better.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More Trouble from Dunkin'

Under Mitt Romney's leadership (through Bain Capital), Dunkin' Donuts is pursuing a strategy that uses its legal department as a profit center. Having squeezed the farmers, the land, and customers, the franchise owners themselves are now the target of DD greed.

Brazilian Embassy in Honduras

This article from the BBC provides both more recent information than my previous post and some cogent analysis. I concur with the BBC that Brazil is taking this opportunity to exhibit leadership as a regional power, second only to the United States in the Western Hemisphere.

Embassies are treated as small zones of sovereign territory; this recognition allows President Zelaya to be in Tegucigalpa unharmed, as long as he is the guest of the Brazilian government. The de facto government may have limited respect for the rule of law, but it is not willing to transgress this diplomatic barrier.

It is clearly, ready, to test limits, and has cut off electricity and other connections to the Embassy. And although it is proud not to have killed any civilians, it has not refrained from beatings and tear gas as a means of discouraging any kind of rallying around the president.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy have offered to help their diplomatic colleagues from Brazil, though it is not clear what they can offer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Zelaya's daring return: A patch of Brazil in Tegucigalpa

As NPR and others have reported, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has returned to the capital, though in a diplomatically protected place: the Brazilian embassy. Also see coverage from the Miami Herald. This is Zelaya's first visit since he stepped over the Nicaragua-Honduras border for a few minutes during the summer. Ironically, he did so in an area from which CIA-backed Contras launched their illegal offensives against the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s.

For analysis from a variety of perspectives since the June 28 coup, see the Honduras page at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. A lot of the online chatter has focused on the relative merits of Zelaya and de facto President Roberto Micheletti, but the manner of President Zelaya's removal is of deep concern to elected leaders throughout the hemisphere.

A New Transamazon

In the 1950s President Kubichek who called the Brazilian Amazon "terra sem homen para homens sem terra" -- a land without men for men without land. This was both sexist and ethnocentric, as thousands of indigenous people already lived in the region. Because of the pressure on land in the dry Northeast of Brazil -- and the unwillingness of large landowners there to provide any relief to starving smallholders -- the Brazilian Amazon was opened with major and notorious road projects. The BR-364, for example, was paved with the good intention of providing land in Rondonia for 10,000 families to join 70,000 people then living there. When I arrived in 1996, a million and a half people lived in the state, and its deforestation was a rallying cry for environmentalists the world over.

Although the entire length of the Amazon River proper is found within the borders of Brazil, fully half of the watershed and the rain forest it contains is found in neighboring countries, such as Peru. Brazil and Peru are now working together on a road project that -- as with the Transcontinental Railroad a century ago -- will join South America from "sea to shining sea."

National Public Radio focuses on the Peruvian part of the project in an excellent series by , by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, The Amazon Road: Paving for Progress? The story includes a thorough explanation of how road development for one purpose leads to the exploitation of resources for other purposes. As with oil booms and gold rushes in the United States, brief explosions of populations in the pursuit of minerals lead to permanent settlements, even in places that are ecologically ill-suited to large-scale agriculture.

The series includes maps of the part of Peru involved in the project -- which skirts alongside forest reserves that are likely doomed by this opening. The maps suggest, erroneously, that the road does not yet continue past the Brazilian border. See the map below to explore the area and to see that the highway connects to BR-317, which crosses the western Brazilian state of Acre very close to the Bolivian border. BR-317, in turn, connects to BR-364, which so thoroughly changed the landscape of Rondonia two generations ago. (Chapter Two of my dissertation describes this process of change, and provides citations for more detailed descriptions.)

View Larger Map

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Equal Time for Tea

This posting is for friends who ask me why I do not care about tea. Actually, I do care ... I just do not know as much about tea as I do coffee. This report from the Mombasa Tea Center beautifully describes the rich traditions of trade in tea.

Find out more about the tea from Equal Exchange. Some fine coffee shops also offer tea, including Jaho Coffee & Tea in Salem and Rockin' K Cafe in Bridgewater.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why Capitalism Fails

Hyman Minsky was a peer of many of the leading economists of the second half of the twentieth century. He differed from most of them in one imporant way, which many of those peers and their successors are only now beginning to appreciate. He was a capitalist, but he saw in capitalism the seeds of its own destruction. His theoretical work can explain what free-market fundamentalism cannot: why does unfettered growth lead to collapse? Boston Globe correspondent Steven Mihm describes the Minsky revival and its importance for navigating the current global crisis.

What does this have to do with geography? Everything. The world-space economy has been dramatically reordered at the insistance of neoclassical economists whose self-confidence belies the fact that they did not really know what they were doing. The aid and credit policies of the leading Western economies and institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund not only assume that these models are correct; they insist that developing countries gamble their own futures on the models.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Water

During the annual water communion at my church in Bridgewater, our minister shared this lovely poem by Minnesota poet Sharon Chmielarz. It begins

All those years—almost a hundred—
the farm had hard water.

Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006) included this poem as Column Number 99 in his American Life i Poetry project. Visit the posting there to read the rest. It brings me back to the groundwater geology class I took in graduate school in Ohio late last century. After reading the poem to us, Rev. Ed went on to relate a very similar experience he had with a well of his own on Cape Cod.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Original Hub Coffee Shop

My fascination with coffee began with the farmers and has grown to include many other facets, including the cultural geography of the coffee shop. As this obsession has become well known, friends and colleagues have shared with me an amazing array of findings and recommendations, including this review of Jane Kamensky's book about Boston's original Exchange Coffee Shop, which was part of a then-enormous structure that dominated downtown from 1809 until a 1818 fire. As always, the story is about far more than coffee itself. In this case, the shaky financing of the building itself led to the nation's first banking collapse. PhiloBiblos offers more insight in its review of the same book.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Walt & El Grupo

I always enjoy Bob Mondello's movie reviews on NPR, and as a Latin Americanist I found this one particularly intriguing. Walt & El Grupo is a new documentary about time Walt Disney spent touring Latin America in 1941.

I look forward to seeing the film; perhaps it can restore some of the good feeling I had for Disney long ago, before I associated him with the creation of fake geographies and a children's films laced with racist stereotypes. In the main, Disney has worked against what I try to do as a geographer. This film, however, is about a time early in his career, and it apparently shows him learning about places and people, rather than trying to create and control both.

As Mondello points out, the work that resulted from this exploration is full of stereotypes. Given the rest of the Disney legacy, though "comparatively friendly" stereotypes might be all we can hope for.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Not Made in the Shade

The blogger and fellow coffee enthusiast who runs Coffee Habitat recently contacted me to see if I knew anything about Dunkin' Donuts environmental claims. Specifically, she had read that DD brews mainly shade-grown coffee, and as an expert on shade-grown, she was highly skeptical. Rightly so, as it turns out! See "No proof of shade coffee" for her exhaustive research, which includes a lot that I did not know about DD, its suppliers, and even its finances and franchisee relations. Hint: the story does not include anything flattering.

See my Coffee Hell page for my admittedly off-the-cuff musings about the company.

The Coffee Habitat article mentions DD's connections to Sara Lee and Procter & Gamble, the latter of which formerly owned Folger's. Sadly, my wife Pam and I played a small part in the growth of Folger's, by participating in a marketing study they it conducted in the 1980s. I also learned that DD is backed in part by Bain Capital, a.k.a. Mitt Romney, nemesis of public education. It is indeed a small world of coffee.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Subprime Herders in Mongolia

This radio story by Luisa Lim is an excellent piece of environmental geography, as she weaves together connections among the world financial crisis, shoppers in the United States, and pastoralists in Mongolia. As the sparsely-populated country seeks financial relief, a trade-off between overgrazing and damaging gold mining looms.
The only thing the web page for the story lacks is a map of Mongolia, which may be unfamiliar to most listeners and readers

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Just like Arlo

I was reminded of Alice's Restaurant when I read this article about Walt Staton, a fellow member of the UU church of Tucson being arrested for "littering" in the context of civil disobedience related to something much bigger. In Arlo's case, the war was in Vietnam; today it is much closer to home: a war on peasants. Politicians -- even "Christian" politicians -- grandstand about things they do not understand, and people die as a result.

Actually, we are not exactly "fellow members" in the literal sense. Staton is a young divinity student who attends the UU Church of Tucson, Arizona, where Pam and I were active members in the early 1990s. In those days, the church was pre-occupied with its own internal squabbles. I am glad to see that the membership has turned its attention back to making a difference in the lives of real people. Before our time, in the Reagan years, this church put itself on the line for refugees during the Sanctuary Movement against Reagan's criminal policies in Central America. Today, the church is once again taking a stand, on behalf of the victims of a misguided war on undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America.

In the 1980s, people were fleeing civil wars that were often funded by the United States; then they would be deported if they sought asylum here. Today, the causes of migration are somewhat less severe, but the consquences of crossing the border can be much worse. People are fleeing economic catastrophes rather than wars. Economic pain in Mexico and Central America benefits U.S. consumers who enjoy cheap coffee, cheap clothing, cheap radios and televisions, cheap corn, cheap ... fill in the blank. The relationships are complex, but the short version is that if rich consumers are getting something for less than it should cost, a poor person somewhere is making up the difference.

From living in the border zones of Arizona and Texas for a total of seven years, we learned that the area within about 100 miles of the border is more like a third country than it is Mexico or the United States. Anti-migrant sentiment (which flares up with every recession like a fish rising to bait) has in this instance focused like a laser on the center of that broad swath of land.

Politicians and pundits from far away have sliced the border zone in half with giant walls, creating even more problems. First, walls are built with regard only to political boundaries and not with any regard to cultural, economic, or ecological connections. Impoverishing the border region is no way to solve immigration problems. Second, the walls can actually contribute to longer migrant stays in the United States, as many of those who survive the ordeal are not inclined to repeat it. Third, the walls have been built to block relatively easy crossings, deflecting migration to the most hostile lands. The migrants, however, do not understand this and the coyote smugglers do not care.

The result is that hard-working, ambitious people who have paid thousands of dollars for safe passage across the border find themselves abandoned in the harshest environments in North America. Many, many have died, and people of conscience intervene. They are not encouraging migration, since they are ameliorating a problem that the migrants do not even know about. They are not smuggling; indeed, they are trying to stop the deaths of those who have been victimized by smuggling.

Since the article was published, Staton has been sentenced to community service -- 300 hours picking up litter -- and one year of probation. Further developments will be posted at No More Deaths.

What does this story have to do with geography? Everything. Complex and imbalanced economic relationships drive the migration. An even more severe imbalance exists between quasi-military strategists in the United States and their impoverished adversaries, in terms of access to geographic information about the border region. And lack of geographic education about the border contributes to political support for policies that do not serve the national interest.

British Columbia Climate Action Plan

My friend Brendan is an expert on state and provincial government in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. For a few years now, he has been researching the ways that state and provincial leaders address climate change.

Some of his findings are encouraging and a bit surprising. One reason that so many environmental problems are regulated at the Federal level in the United States is that individual states were once very reluctant to restrict activities that other states did not. Federal regulations on waste disposal, for example, ensure that a U.S. company cannot save money by shopping around for a state with a lighter regulatory burden. This has been one factor, by the way, in the flight of many U.S. firms abroad.

With current efforts to address climate change, though, things are different. State governments -- and even many municipal governments -- are concluding that climate change poses a serious enough threat locally that local measures should be taken instead of waiting on national governments. As the U.S. video below indicates, state- and provincial-level leaders from across the political spectrum are no longer willing to wait on national governments.

As an environmental geographer, I must admit to being rather surpised by the bold moves states and provinces, cities and towns are making. It takes quite a bit of courage to enact local regulations on climate change, since the regulations will only have a climate benefit if many other localities join the effort.

The British Columbia Climate Action Plan comes highly recommended, not only because it is a bold step in the right direction, but also because the plan's documents very clearly describe the expected threats to the local environment, should the status quo be allowed to prevail.

My climate change page provides more on the subject, including the basic science of climate change.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Just in time for Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19), I have ordered a couple pounds of Captain Phillips Pirate Brew from Dean's Beans. These are beans that were literally rescued from pirates during the Maersk Alabama incident in April 2009. When Dean realized that coffee he was importing from landlocked Ethiopia had been on that ship, he created a special brew and sent it to the captain, crew, and Navy SEALs involved.

Of course, real piracy is no joke. It is a global problem that is both a cause for concern and a reflection of even deeper problems in failed states such as Somalia, where piracy has become a way of life for many who see easy money in contrast to few other options.
Avast! I look forward to the brew regardless, for this troubled corner of the world is the home of Kaldi and all that he and his goats unleashed 15 centuries ago. And because Dean has brought the coffee, I know that the land and the farmers have been treated well.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Fun & Games

Some of my postings have been a bit gloomy of late. The bad news is important, but my readers deserve a break (as do I), so I am linking to this post from my other blog.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Drought Withers Iraqi Farms

We live on a water planet, but lack of water is an increasingly dire concern, contributing to poverty and perhaps even to war.

Most of the world's water is in the form of salt water, which is unsuitable for drinking or agriculture. The majority of what is left is frozen (at least for now). Just one percent of the world's water is fresh, liquid water. Significant portions of this are far from human populations For example, 20 percent in the Amazon Basin, where about 0.1 percent of the world's people live. Where water is near humans, it is often contaminated.

This radio story by Deborah Amos describes a more complicated problem -- in some places the interaction of physical and political geography contributes to water scarcity as upstream and downstream users do not cooperate. Professor Erwin Klaas provides other examples and some maps on his Potential for Water Wars page at Iowa State University. Closer to home, the U.S. is the problematic upstream neighbor along the Colorado River, which does not even reach the Gulf of California most of the time.

With climate change, we can expect such problems to worsen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Churrascão -- Guest Blog

My favorite librarian has a blog about a year-long reading project. She is reading some of the books to me aloud, and has invited me to guest-blog about a chapter we found particularly interesting. It concerns food in Brazil!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Geography of Ignorance

My last posting was about sin, so ignorance seems to be a logical next step. Those who try to ban books seek to reinforce their own ignorance and to share it with others. Almost anything written that is at all interesting will be offensive to someone. Rather than grapple with the offensive ideas, some prefer to bury them.
This map represents recent challenges in the U.S. To be honest, the pattern is not what I expected. Except for Southern California, it is rather representative of the distribution of population. This should not have suprised me, as efforts to ban books come from both the left and the right, the blue and the red.

Thanks to my favorite librarian for this link and thanks to ALA and ACLU for helping this country to live up to its ideals of liberty, which is often unpopular.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Geography of Sin

Thanks to my colleague Bryan Baldwin for thinking of me when he saw this collection of maps from the geographers at Kansas State University. Bryan saw it originally in Wired magazine, and I found an additional story with somewhat different maps on a newspaper site in – wait for it – Las Vegas. The article is proof that geography can be about anything!

I like Abigail Goldman’s description in the Las Vegas Sun: “precision party trick — rigorous mapping of ridiculous data.” Be that as it may, these maps are excellent illustrations of what geographers (and other social scientists) call “proxy variables.” Lust itself is not mappable, but STDs are, and they probably have at least some correlation.

I would like to see one more map. Hypocrisy could be estimated by dividing the other variables by membership in Mean-for-Jesus fundamentalist churches or subscriptions to the publications of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

Monday, August 24, 2009

For the love of libraries ... and librarians

In the summer of 1985, my friend (and fellow geographer) Mike Norris and I hopped in his 1960 bug at the end of our last day of a lousy summer job, and embarked on an 8,500-mile cross-country trek. Driving an air-cooled little car long distances in August required a lot of night-time driving and daytime sleeping.

This is how I came to know Walsenburg, Colorado -- a high-desert town that served as my introduction to the American West. We had drinks in an actual salloon -- it must have been noon somewhere -- with the long bar, big mirror, and everything. I saw tumbleweeds for the first time -- something I would never tire of watching when Pam and I lived in Tucson, years later. (We were there, by the way, for me to get geography education while Pam got library education.)

Mostly, though, I remember a well-kept elementary school with soft grass, where Mike and I were able to find a bit of shade for our daytime lodging. People drove around and thought us a bit odd, but it was summertime and people were not frightened about schools, so we were left to our rest. The next day, we drove on to Flagstaff, just in time for a big ice-carving event at NAU orientation. I remember Mike buying a couple of notebooks so we could pretend to be students there.

I returned to Flag quite a few times, but have not been back to Walsenburg. I remembered it fondly yesterday, though, when I heard a great story about the little town. As regular readers of this blog may know, I live in a town that whacked its library budget before the current recession. In other places, people have faced tough budget choices during the recession, and libraries have suffered.

In Walsenburg, however, the voters realized what has escaped the voters where I live (in the supposedly progressive Northeast): libraries are among a community's very most important resources. With our without the Internet, libraries are a hub of learning and literacy. Particularly in hard times, it makes sense for each member of the community to contribute a little (even if it is hard to come by) to gain access, really, to the whole world.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


As I mentioned a couple weeks ago on this blog, the movie Food, Inc. describes the frightening world of corporate agriculture, in which fewer and fewer players control more and more of our food. Now, the Obama Administration is doing something about it.

More specifically, the Justice Department has decided to enforce anti-trust laws against Big Agriculture -- something that was not likely under the Bush or Clinton Administrations. (President Bush never met a business regulation he didn't hate, and President Clinton was a wholly-0wned subsidiary of Tyson Foods.)

If successful, enforcement against Monsanto and other monopolies could be a real boon to local and genuinely organic food. In turn, this could have a significant impact on the cultural and environmental landcape of the U.S.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Border Foods

The focus of this radio story is a rather unusual hot dog that has apparently taken the Sonoran Desert region by storm during the 15 years since I moved away. Although the particular food is unfamiliar, the broader theme of this essay is quite familiar to me: the blending of cultures in the swath of land along the border between the United States and Mexico. No other border in the world comes close to the economic divide represented here, but the cultural and ecological ties go back several centuries. The lands, languages, peoples, and foods within 100-150 miles of the border often have more in common across that line than they do with the interior of either country. That is, in many ways Tucson is more like Hermosillo than either is like Washington or Mexico City. Having lived and taught in the borderlands for seven years, I am saddened that it has become so subject to the whims of far-away politicians. I am grateful to NPR for the stories it occasionally airs about this vibrant and misunderstood region.

As some of the online comments point out, the story neglects to mention the fourth border state on the U.S. side: New Mexico. It also refers to neighboring states in Mexico without listing them: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

An Amazon Culture Withers as Food Dries Up

NY Times environmental writer Elisabeth Rosenthal provides an important example of how climate change is already interacting with other environmental programs to put both ecosystems and people at risk. The article focuses on indigenous people in the Xingu National Park in Brazil whose livelihood is threatened by a combination of global climate change and regional climate change induced by excessive forest clearing. Citing additional examples of indigenous people for whom climate change is already a matter of life and death; the article makes very clear that the consequences of climate change vary a great deal according to geography.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

U.S. Economy Maps

The Perry-Castañeda Library at UT-Austin has one of the world's great map collections, and many of the maps are available online. It is a great site to find reliable maps of any part of the world. The librarians make an ever-changing selection of maps available from the main page, depending upon current events such as hurricanes, wars, or other events that will increase demand for particular kinds of maps. The current featured maps include quite a collection about the U.S. economy, providing insight into the geography of the current crisis.

My favorite of these is the Geography of Jobs from TIP strategies. The animation begins with a 2004 map of job gains and losses by metro area, which shows a clear rustbelt/sunbelt divide:

The map then shows the net gains and losses of jobs over the following five years, as a 12-month rolling average (to smooth out seasonal fluctuations and focus on the spatial variations). The impact of Hurricane Katrina is easy to see, and the subsequent crash of economies coast-to-coast is even more dramatic.
One silver lining is the revelation that Hurricane Katrina occurred during a time of relative propserity in the rest of the country. Had it taken place a couple of years later, the dismal situation would have been made even worse.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

U.S. Drought Monitor

I live in Massachusetts, where cool, rainy weather has been so persistent that the Boston Globe featured plans to build an ark a few weeks back. This has led some commentators to conclude that global warming is over. Far from it, the current pattern merely illustrates why scientists have started using the term "climate change" instead. With overall warming come greater deviations and greater variations spatially.

This site, sponsored by University of Nebraska Lincoln, details the deviations. They are especially severe in my old stomping grounds in South Texas (where people pray not to be missed by hurricanes!

Having lived through cool, wet, gray days and dusty droughts, I won't complain about the rain here in New England any more.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Chocolate and coffee taste great together -- I like a roasted coffee bean covered in dark chocolate, or an extra-dark bar with the coffee chopped up in it. And of course there is mocha!

The two share more than caffeine and rich flavor, however. Coffee and cacao can grow in similar climates and can have regionally distinctive flavor like wine. Most of all, they share a similar political economy. This New York Times article focuses on Venezuela, but it is true everywhere that cacao, like coffee, is rarely as lucrative for the grower as it is for those process it for gourmet markets.

On my next coffee tour, in fact, we will include a day or two in the nascent cacao cooperatives of northern Nicaragua. There, independent farmers are just beginning to get organized and to take control of the production chain, so that they can share in the profits. Otherwise, post-colonial trading patterns persist, ensuring a wide gulf between producers and consumers.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Almost Utopia

Yesterday we were enjoying a visit to the small Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, Vermont. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to the expected "folklife" items of quilts, duck decoys, and the like, the center celebrates the contemporary cultural diversity of Vermont. Working with refugee communities, the Center has brought, for example, Congolese drummers to the State House in Montpelier.

We were admiring the diversity of offerings in the gift shop when the attendant there invited us to the "Almost Utopia" exhibit upstairs. It is an excellent example of mid-twentieth century efforts around what is now called sustainability. Through old photographs and recent interviews, the exhibit describes the 1950s intentional community of Pikes Falls.

Middlebury itself is a delightful place to visit, full of shops that support local artisans and farmers. A visit any time would be worthwhile and should include a stop at the Folklife Center. Get there before September 5 to see the Pikes Falls exhibit.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cardinals go Amtrak!

The Cardinals baseball team found an economical, convenient, and environmentally-friendly way to get from Washington to Philadelphia: Amtrak. For short and middle-distance trips, this makes much better sense that air for several reasons:
1) Security screening is faster.
2) Train stations are often easier to reach than airports.
3) Trains use a lot less fuel per passenger-mile than planes or cars.
4) Trains contribute a lot less to climate change per passenger-mile.
5) The view is more interesting.

Ticket prices are often not as competitive as they should be. The Cardinals organization is doing its part by stimulating demand; Congress and the President should step up as well and invest more in trains, relative to air and highways.

Coffee Planting Month -- Philippines

Thanks to my colleague Henry Lucas for finding this article about efforts to make the Philippines self-sufficient in coffee. The Philippine Coffee Board is promoting a return to coffee production throughout the country -- not for export, but just to reduce dependence on imports from Indonesia and Vietnam.

Depending on the practices adopted, this could be very good not only for the economic condition of Philippine farmers, but also for wildlife, water quality, and the carbon cycle. The program encompasses many parts of the country and includes both high-quality and lower-quality varieties.

Throughout the world, small farmers and their communities have been displaced by low-cost competition from abroad (as described in the film Food, Inc. I must admit that everything I know about the Philippine coffee business I learned from this article, but I do know that the competition in Vietnam is pernicious.

The Philippine model would serve farmers in other coffee-growing regions well. I have been pleased to see that the coffee served in cafes and hotels in Guatemala is often (though not always) local, but the coffee served in most places in Nicaragua is imported -- low quality junk that has been processed by multinationals. One important barrier is that processing requires capital and specialized knowledge that have traditionally been lacking within producer countries.

Congratulations to the PCB for its coffee-planting campaign!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Food, Inc. the Movie Site - Hungry For Change?

Official Food, Inc. Movie Site - Hungry For Change?

We saw this film Saturday at Coolidge Corner in Brookline. It is a great piece of environmental geography -- explaining many of the connections between humans and the land. I have seen a lot of films about food, and I think this is among the best for making the case for local farming in a clear way.

Shared via AddThis

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mas sobre nopales

Looking for an image of nopales for yesterday's post, I was fortunate to find this amazing sculpture by Susan Shelton. Explore the rest of her site for more amazing works and insights.
Her discussion of the piece iluminates one of my favorite songs, ¿Donde Esta Mi Raza? by Bobby Pulido and Frijoles Romanticos (from our previous hometown of McAllen, Texas).

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Food is an important way that people identify with place. This is why it is best to avoid chain restaurants when traveling!

This story about nopalitos took me right back to Tucson, where I lived from 1990 to 1994. Nopal is the prickly-pear cactus, and as with several other food items, it is common to use the diminutive suffix in the name. The prickly-pear is, I have been told, the only cactus that grows in all U.S. states. I have not confirmed this, but I learned this when looking at them in Kentucky, which is not known for its cacti.

Despite its broad geographic range, prickly-pear is certainly more abundant in the Sonoran Desert than anywhere else I've been.

This story is about the green part of the plant, but the fruit is also quite interesting. During our 1989 summer in central Mexico, we came upon an ice cream stand whose flavors included "tuna" ice cream. What? What? This could not be, and indeed it was not. "Tuna" is the Spanish name for the fruit of the nopal. The Spanish word for tuna, by the way, is "atun," which I have not seen in ice cream so far!

The tuna fruit is a delicacy. We once sent a jar of tuna preserves to friends who were hiking the Appalachian Trail. They picked it up at a trail-side post office, and ate it directly from the jar -- no spoons, even!

Wherever they go, geographers try to learn about local food (and drink). This NPR segment is a terrific example of geography on the radio!

See my mas sobre nopales post for information about the significance sometimes attached to the nopal.


During a travel course to Costa Rica in January 2020, we visited the renowned CATIE research station, where hundreds of coffee varietals are curated, studied, and even invented. Although famous for its vital research in coffee, it is also an important site for the protection and development of other plant varieties, especially fruits. I was so impressed by a nopal I found there (it was not fruiting, but the light green segments indicate vigorous recent growth) that I decided to make a Nopal-en-la-Frente selfie!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What Exit?

This is a great example of "sense of place" -- ways that people create or express identity with a place. Playing off a stale joke about New Jersey identity, brewer Gene Muller is developing distinct beers for many -- perhaps all -- of the exits on the New Jersey Turnpike (aka, my home away from home).

As mentioned in this Boston Globe article, some people see this as a way to promote drunk driving -- neither Muller nor I see it that way. Rather, it is a way to express pride of place. Next time I have a chance to have a meal near the turnpike, I'll be looking for a "perfect pairing" -- a beer that captures the essence of the location, to go perfectly with a meal there. The idea of choosing a local beverage to go with a local meal is something I first understood from the book What to Drink with What You Eat.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Disappearing Mississippi Delta

This is a great example of environmental geography -- understanding the connections between natural systems and the activities of humans. I first started learning about the problems of the delta in the book The Control of Nature by John McPhee. It is one of the first environmental books I read, more than two decades ago. Now the topic is covered on one of my favorite NPR programs, Science Friday. Learn why this is happening and why it matters.

Fair Trade in Media, Pennsylvania -- just outside Philadelphia. This is a perfect example of thinking globally and acting locally.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Presidential Map

Thanks to geographer Matt Rosenberg at geography.about.com for sharing this image. It shows a president exercising his geogrpahic curiosity -- we could have used that in recent years!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Thoroughly Un-American Institution

Throughout the Cold War, the United States operated the notorious School of the Americas at Ft. Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. This article from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs explains how this training center contributed to some of the worst human-rights abuses on the part of Latin American dictatorships.

As the article mentions, the U.S. Congress is in a position to start making amends. After the school was strengthened and renamed (WHINSEC) by the second Bush Administration, Congress came close to shutting it down last year. Meanwhile, Congress is currently debating whether to publish the names of its graduates. (June 26 update: Congress has given preliminary approval to this amendment, mostly along party lines.)

Understanding SOA/WHINSEC is important to understanding world-wide concerns about U.S. military interventions.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hard Times for New England’s 3-Deckers

Thanks to Pam Hayes-Bohanan for this great article, which is full of geographic lessons. Most important is the great illustration of what geographers call "sense of place." The writer uses the phrase to describe how the physical form and arrangement of triple-decker houses contribute to neighborhood identity in many old mill towns throughout New England.

The article also describes how triple-deckers are particularly vulnerable to the sometimes destructive practices of real estate speculators, by comparing dereliction rates between triple deckers and other kinds of housing. The problem is that triple deckers are inviting targets for speculation. As long as markets are trending upward, such speculators can actually contribute to the rehabilitation of homes and the improvement of neighborhoods. The relatively low cost of the buildings, however, makes them very easy to abandon if markets slacken. When large numbers are abandoned in a short period of time, a neighorhood can quickly spiral downward.

A third interesting bit of geography is the fact that triple deckers could not legally be built today in most places. They are too compact; zoning requires sprawling, low-density residential building. Even the single-family home my family lives in would not be legal today, as it sits on a 0.3-acre lot. This affords me easy access to work, shops, a train station, church, and neighbors -- but it would be illegal to build today. When we started the US-Brazil Consortium on Urban Development (UBCUD), I was fortunate enough to bring James Howard Kunstler to our campus to explain this paradox. He does so very well in his book The Geography of Nowhere.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Geography unfolding daily

A bright young geography student recently expressed surprise that I was still reading the Boston Globe, seeming honestly to believe that it has nothing worth reading. Aside from the fact that the article I was mentioning is about geography and cites yours truly and one of our BSC students, this started me to thinking about my need to help people understand the connections between newspapers and geography. Indeed, I see newspapers as fundamental to civilization as we know it.

Many people dismiss newspapers, saying that they can get their news online. The most reliable and robust online content, however, comes from newspapers. Online sources that are independent of newspapers are fine -- they contribute to a rich dialog. But they supplement and critique -- rather than replace -- professional journalists. Government and industry are held accountable by a combination of independent writers and news organizations.

Fortunately, the Newseum is now available to help me make the case. The physical Newseum is located in my hometown (Washington, DC), but its online presence is even more important. Every day, it features the covers of hundreds of papers, from Kingston to Kuala Lumpur! I know of no other way to gain insight into the geographic diversity of world views. The Newseum site also includes a memorial to those who have given their lives in the pursuit of journalism.

Newspapers are not the sole source of great journalism, by the way. I listen regularly to National Public Radio and the BBC, which together give me somewhat different perspectives on the news every day. Some journalism takes place on television still, but its professionalism -- at least in the United States -- is plummeting.

I use newspapers (primarily their online editions, of course) and radio sources (again, online versions) on a regular basis in my teaching. I also do my best to include local newspapers in my efforts to raise awareness of geographic education in our region.

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