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.

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