Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cigarette Butts -- Tiny Trash That Piles Up

"People who smoke use it as a stress reliever. It is satisfying to just toss it down when you are done."
~~ Annalynn LaChica, San Francisco

With this explanation, Ms. LaChica wins points for honesty, but not good citizenship. Having done a few beach cleanups, I can confirm that cigarette butts do not break down and they do float -- often to otherwise pristine beaches.

I am glad to see NYT covering this persistent problem of environmental behavior. More of my thoughts on the subject are at

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

WalMart - bad for society and bad for business

UMass-Dartmouth scholar Juli Parker makes the case against WalMart in terms of its positions on gender and race. She also cites the case I make against WalMart on economic-development grounds. The company does so much wrong that it is difficult to choose which of its offenses are most important!

Frontiers of Bigotry

Today the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that is a speedbump on the road to universal civil rights in the United States. NPR helpfully provides this interactive map for those who wish to keep track of where civil rights for same-sex couples are being respected, and in what ways.

Inevitably, the map of states that ban gay marriage will resemble the map of states that ban mixed-race marriages. (The film Mr. & Mrs. Loving tells the story of the beginning of the end of those laws, which seem ridiculous at this point in time, just as laws against gay marriage eventually will. The film If These Walls Could Talk 2 includes a fictional but all-too-real examination of why similar changes in the law are needed for all loving couples.)

For now, however, the geography of bigotry is an interesting one. On the so-called "Left Coast," the courts and the people have spoken - for now - against equal protection for same-sex couples. Even in California, however, the court could not bring itself to break-up already-married couples. The logic of this split decision escapes me. Elsewhere on the West Coast, some protections are afforded same-sex couples in committed relationships. On the East Coast, things are changing quite quickly, as states follow the lead of Massachusetts and Vermont.

The geographic surprise, perhaps, is in the common-sense middle, where Iowa has taken seriously the American values of freedom, reason, and compassion. This is the most hopeful sign of a turning tide that will help the United States to earn the title its citizens so often -- but erroneously -- claim: Land of the Free.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Concrete Solutions?

This program explains how concrete is a major source of greenhouse gases. It also describes some research into alternatives that could actually make concrete construction part of the solution.

Of course, concrete construction often replaces trees, which are superior carbon sinks!

Native Plants Bring Wildlife To The Garden

I always enjoy Talk of the Nation on NPR, and I especially enjoyed this program about minimizing lawn and maximizing habitat. Guest Doug Tallamy describes many of the things we are doing at our house, and a few ideas I had not thought of. We have about 0.31 acres, on which I am steadily reducing the lawn in favor of plants that will promote biodiversity. I like Tallamy's suggestion that on the small remnant of lawn, it is OK to take good care of it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Military Officers Tie Energy To National Security

A panel of 3- and 4-star generals has issued a report concluding what geographers have long understood: wasting energy threatens national security. This story is impressive because it makes the connection very directly, and challenges the U.S. military to take a leadership role in improving national security by improving its own energy efficiency.

If successful, this movement will echo the military's leadership in another environmental arena a generation ago. Once it was found that many military bases contained hazardous toxic-waste sites, the military became a leader in developing cleanup technologies and waste-management practices.

Perhaps the military can play a similar leading role in energy efficiency, if this report's recommendations are adopted.

Mass. Gains Ground In Conservation

Ironically, a periodic report entitled "Losing Ground" has welcome news for those concerned about land, water, and wildlife in Massachusetts. The report is issued every five years by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and usually it contains depressing news about the march of low-density development across the beautiful Massachusetts landscape.

Mass. Audubon Director of Public Policy Jack Clarke discussed the latest report with Bob Oakes of WBUR on May 18. It reveals that the concerted efforts of land trusts, conservation commissions, and state agencies have had a very positive effect. For the first time, more land has been set aside for conservation than has been developed for building.

The findings are not, however, uniformly optimistic. The report does not contradict the dire concerns raised by the Woods Hole Research Center's "Critical Mass" report, which discusses the rapid loss of open space in my part of the state. The Mass. Audubon report also raises concerns about the region surrounding the Quabbin Reservoir, where two-acre zoning and growing land values could lead to very rapid transformations of the fields and forests of that region, with serious implications for water and wildlife.

End Overfishing in New England

The Pew Charitable Trusts are sponsoring a petition drive to promote conservation efforts that will promote sustainable harvests AND sustainable fishing communities. The petition urges the National Marine Fisheries Service to work with fishing cooperatives to regulate harvests based on science.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Small World

A few years ago, my college revised its general-education program, creating something quite interesting and good for learning. In the process, though, foreign languages became an option, rather than a requirement. Reasons and excuses were given, but the real reasons are hard to know.

Fortunately, we have a lot of smart students who understand the value of foreign languages, so our courses have continued. The web page I created at the time of the debate is still available, and I am refurbishing it a bit for Round Two, as we open up the question again.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Small Farmers, Big Change

“Food for the earth, food for the animals, and food for humans. All three are very important and they are all connected.”
~~ Don Roberto Motato, ASPROCAFE, Colombia

One of the biggest challenges facing organic farmers is that the premium paid for organic products often does not compensate for the extra labor required or the lower yields. Even when retail and wholesale customers are paying a premium price, organic farming remains a labor of love.

Recognizing the benefits of helping organic farmers to improve their yields, fair-trade cooperative Equal Exchange (a neighbor of mine in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts) has partnered with Lutheran World Relief to support an agro-ecological project in Caldas, Colombia. The project will help members of the ASPROCAFE to improve yields and food security through a systemic approach to land management.

I am hoping to meet some of the cooperative members who are involved in this project when they come to our area later this year.

NPR: Piracy Careers

In the third in a series of reports on Somali pirates, Gwen Thompkins visits the land-based communities from which the pirates orignate. She explores differences among regions within Somalia, the motivations for piracy, and solutions that have worked in other parts of the world.

The only thing missing from the story is a good map of the places Thompkins visits. If anybody finds one, please post it as a comment below. April 2011 UPDATE: The NPR page for this story now has a locational map for the coastal villages mentioned, and an interactive piracy map. See also some more recent Somalia stories on my blog, including one about coffee!

NPR: Afghanistan-Pakistan Talks Highlight Complex Ties

Today President Obama is meeting with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, highlighting the importance of dialog in promoting common security interests. This NPR story describes some of the complex political geography that will be discussed. In one of the related stories (see links at the bottom of the page), Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke describes the lack of contact between important officials in the two countries.

For more information about current conflict in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, see BBC's Swat exodus as ceasefire crumbles.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Selva Negra

As most people who know me by now realize, I am passionate about fair-trade coffee. This is high-quality coffee that is sold at a premium price by farmers with small plots of land who are organized into democratic cooperatives. It is a terrific movement and I devote a lot of time to supporting it and to supporting companies that participate.

Fair-trade certification would not be necessary, if farmers everywhere were treated as they should be -- getting an honest share of the profits from the world's second-most traded commodity (oil being first).

Fair-trade certification is also not possible for large coffee farms, but many thousands of people work on such farms throughout out the world. How can access to a decent standard of living be ensured for them? Again, eventually I would like to see fairness throughout the coffee business, but until that happens, it is helpful to know the producers. Rainforest Action Network certifies producers in rain forest areas that meet certain social and environmental criteria.

A real showcase of this program is the Hammonia estate at Selva Negra, in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. I have had the privilege of visiting this estate with students in 2006, 2007, and 2009. We plan to return in January 2010. Meanwhile, we were delighted to have a visit to Bridgewater State College of Mausi Kühl, who owns Selva Negra with her husband Eddy.

Every time I visit this cloud-forest farm, I learn something new and am even more deeply impressed with how its 600 people practice social and environmental sustainability. With Mausi's visit to my coffee classes and my neighborhood organic farm, I continued to learn how much can be done with hard work and ingenuity, to improve the coffee and the lives of those who grow and consume it.

Flu science & society

The NPR program Talk of the Nation – Science Friday provides welcome balance in the discussion of the recent flu outbreak. Host Ira Flatow brings together several experts who approach the H1N1 flu seriously and sensibly. This one-hour program considers scientific, public-health, and social questions related to the disease and responses to it.

Most memorable for me is Howard Markel of the University of Michigan, commenting on the predictable rise of scape-goating in this public-health emergency. It is a common and useless response, he says, “that is a relic; we ought to put it in a medical museum.” Amen.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Immigrant bashing

Talk-radio host Jay Severin has been suspended from Boston radio station WTKK, for racist comments related to the current flu outbreak. His hate speech is the predictable result of a perfect storm to brew xenophobia: in a country that knows little about math and less about geography, a disease outbreak during an economic collapse create perfect scapegoats.

Taking Severin off the air, of course, only draws attention (this post included) to his vitriol. The incident creates a perfect opportunity, however, to address the four underlying factors mentioned above.

First, math: the flu outbreak is serious and the numbers are growing. Public-health officials in the U.S., Mexico, and beyond are rightly concerned and are making recommendations about specific, short-term measures based on evidence. Within two countries covering several million square miles and 400 million people, however, it is important to recognize that most people and most places are safe, at least for now.

Second, geography: Severin's comments reflect a deep failure to understand the interdependencies of the United States and Mexico. I lived for seven years in the borderlands of Arizona and Texas, and have spent several months in Mexico itself. I learned that we are connected in many ways, most of them positive. I also learned that just as some problems in both countries are related. Migration from Mexico may surpress wages in the United States, but drug policies and weak gun laws in the U.S. elevate crime in Mexico.

Third, disease: Because epidemics are inherently scary and difficult to understand, fear and ignorance thrive.

Fourth, economy: Prosperity in rich countries is absolutely dependent on low wages in poor countries. We who prosper work hard, so the illusion is created that we deserve our prosperity and that those who are poor must not be working. The reality is that excessive prosperity in one place requires poverty elsewhere. The economic problems of the middle and working class in the United States are clearly -- CLEARLY -- the fault of giving too much power to the super-rich. It is easiest, however, to blame the poor for our problems, and this is what Severin has done.

Severin and his ilk serve the interests of the super-rich by shifting attention from the real criminals -- at banks and brokerages -- to the "criminal" behavior of economic migrants. When the economy rebounds, the high dudgeon will cease until the next time a scapegoat is needed. And when that happens bottom-feeders will stand ready to exploit the fear and ignorance once again.

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