Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gaita in the Neighborhood

One reason I teach is so that I can keep learning! Many thanks to my student Rosie for introducing me to yet another genre of Latin American music with which I was not yet familiar. Like Rosie, I am not yet a fan of the La Gaita sound per se, which we both find a bit tinny and repetitive. Music is important in its own right, however, and is also a gateway to other aspects of cultural geography. This particular music video offers an intimate look at neighborhood life on one street corner in Maracaibo, in the far northwest of Venezuela. The on-screen comments in English help to illuminate the role of the music in the community, and help to make some of the inside jokes accessible to outside viewers.

For more information about La Gaita, see:
Carruyo, Light. 2005. "La gaita zuliana: Music and politics of protest in Venezuela." Latin American Perspectives 32.3: 98-111. 

Gathering in eThekwini

See my CLIMATE page
The South African municipality of eThikwini is best known by the name of its major city, Durban. This city on the Indian Ocean is the focus of worldwide attention this week, as representatives of 190 countries meet to discuss the next phase of cooperation -- or intransigence --  on climate change. I had actually hoped to be part of the meeting, because of a connection to the host city and because of the real urgent need to involve farmers -- particularly coffee farmers -- more directly in the meetings. Although I did not make it to Durban, I'm pleased to see that a small Occupy Earth movement is present, as reported by Meanwhile, Mr. Pushpanath Krishnamurthy is walking across India to draw attention to climate justice; follow his progress on GoPushGo!

My heart is with those who have so far been marginalized in the discussion, but I need also to wrap my head around what the actual negotiators are doing, since our fate -- so far -- rests in their words and deeds. Two stories on the November 29 All Things Considered program serve to outline the major considerations in some detail. As Kyoto Protocol Ends describes the limitations that were inherent in the Kyoto agreement, which is binding, but only on countries representing 20 percent of carbon emissions. Of the major polluters, only the European Union is actually following the agreement. The subsequent interview with Todd Stern may cause some alarm. This U.S. climate negotiator does not consider success an option, if success is measured as a binding treaty, but he does count non-binding agreements announced in Cancun as successes.

To his credit, Stern does recognize that the United States is increasingly isolated; in the rest of the world people might disagree on how to share the burden of climate remedies, but the need to act is widely accepted.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ditching EPA

If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, then those who ignore history are determined to do so. Dallas Morning News columnist Dale McFeatters recently described the efforts of 16 senators who are trying to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.

As he points out in Return With Us Now to Those Pre-EPA Days (Nov. 25), some of the senators -- such as Sen. Orin Hatch -- should know better. The EPA was proposed and approved by President Richard Nixon precisely because a patchwork of local environmental rules (often none at all) had failed to protect both human health and the environment, and market forces showed no signs of doing any better.

The powers of the agency may seem draconian when described in the abstract, but in cases such as Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York -- where Hooker Chemical filled a ditch with thousands of tons of toxic waste -- the ability to regulate, penalize, sanction, and purchase or seize property proved essential, just a few years after Nixon's creation of the agency.

Toxic waste in a residential neighborhood.
Photo: AEG
Love Canal is admittedly an extreme case, but hardly an isolated one. The EPA has caused hundreds of similar sites to be cleaned up and returned to productive use, while continuing to monitor hundreds of others. Meanwhile, during the presidencies of Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the agency greatly streamlined its regulations and improved its ability to cooperate with the industries it regulates as it works to prevent similar disasters. Without the onerous authority granted by President Nixon and the Congress in 1970, however, Americans would not enjoy the level of environmental protection we now enjoy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Evolving Illiteracies

Recently I was lamenting the state of geographic illiteracy with a colleague. It is an increasingly common condition that was most famously exemplified by Miss Teen South Carolina (above) and Kellie Pickler (below).

The colleague responded that he was beginning to think that discipline-specific illiteracies are proliferating, as people emerge from years of education without rudimentary command of geography, chemistry, math, or even their own religions. This could mean that disciplinary illiteracy is a sign that we overestimate the importance of our own fields and of what constitutes "basic" knowledge. It could also mean that we are generalizing from small samples of unusually ill-informed celebrities. After all, the Miss Teen South Carolina video has had 8 million online views because so many people find it appalling.

Perhaps a simpler explanation is in order, though. Perhaps learning really has declined as decades of "reform" have reduced education to whatever is easiest to measure. Short-term gains in a few narrowly-defined areas of knowledge come with at least three significant kinds of costs. The first is that short-term drills to boost test scores will not be sustainable. No Child Left Behind has elevated "cramming" for a test from something the best students avoid to a blueprint for running entire schools. The second is that educators have to teach in ever-narrow bands of information, some subjects get left out. Third, conveying of that information becomes more important than the art of teaching and the skill of learning, until eventually a school becomes a building full of people simply going through the motions.

But I digress. The impetus for this post is a breath-taking display of scientific literacy at another beauty pageant. As reported on, when the 2011 Miss USA contest included the usual question-and-answer period, it uncovered a wide vein of scientific illiteracy. Relatively affluent young people from each of the United States revealed that they had not learned even very basic things about science and about the meaning of a democracy. Snopes is a web site that evaluates urban legends, and first became involved when its readers asked about the veracity of this video:

Aside from the fact that the actresses in this video appear several times each, with different sashes, it was apparently difficult to discern that this was a parody of the way real pageant contestants responded to a question about the teaching of evolution. Even the very few who exhibit some support for science are surprisingly willing to allow conjecture, opinion, and myth to share equal time in science classrooms:

This is more horrifying than amusing, as contestant after contestant reveals breath-taking scientific illiteracy. Opponents of science education have succeeded in shifting the debate toward some vague notion of fairness, rather than accuracy, as all views of the evidence are seen as somehow equally deserving. It is interesting that this kind of relativism comes from the far right, which in other contexts insists on absolutism in teaching. Most of the contestants also exhibit a lot of confusion between moral and scientific questions. Questions about how the world works are not moral questions, just as questions about how we should treat our neighbors are not scientific questions. I was also reminded of my colleague's concern about multiple illiteracies, since most of the responses fail in several dimensions: science, logic, and grammar.

In the actual interviews, Miss Vermont shows the best understanding of the issues, arguing that our understanding of short-term processes involving bacteria and disease only make sense in the broader context of evolution. In the parody, sadly, Miss Vermont is shown as the least gorgeous contestant, in a flannel-and-glasses stereotype. Of course, one can be both beautiful and capable in science and math, as Danica McKellar teaches young women through Kiss My Math and other books.

It is also too bad that the videos do not show how the non-voluptuous and non-female can be equally illiterate or inumerate. Examples abound, of course: just today a middle-aged man approached our car on his motorcycle, treating the double-yellow line as a lane rather than a divider, as if he and his Harley had zero width.

But I will close this post with one from Harvard University. It is a favorite among geographers, because Harvard closed its geography department in the 1950s and seems not to have recovered. The clip below is part of a longer project about science education known as A Private Universe.

September 25, 2012 Update:

The shuttering of Harvard's geography department deserves some elaboration, especially as the university has moved in recent years to re-fill the void but without reversing its mistake of a half century ago.

Homophobia certainly was part of the equation, which those who see Harvard as a bastion of liberalism might find difficult to believe. It was not the sole cause, of course, but it was a factor in the closing of  departments at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford.

Neil Smith's definitive 1987 article on the Harvard crisis details the demise of the department and its ramifications. The article is cited in a 2006 article in Harvard Magazine that dismisses the role of homophobia and focuses on the vocational value of GIS, mistakenly elevating it as the principle savior of the discipline. Geographic Information Systems and related geospatial industries certainly are important, and it is great to be in a discipline with both academic and practical value. But our friends on the Charles seem to remain resistant to the value of geography as vital discipline that integrates global education and the STEM disciplines.

Returning to the original theme of this post, it should come as no surprise that the failure to teach geography is associated with a failure to learn the subject. Fortunately, the cause of geographic and scientific literacy has been rejoined both in Massachusetts and nationally, and the book Geography for Life provides a clear map of the road ahead.

Photo (c) 2012 by BSU geographer Ashley Costa, opens the new
AAG/NCGE/NGS publication Geography for Life.

The Original Off-Season Lodgings

Yesterday we enjoyed a very pleasant and fairly traditional Thanksgiving dinner with friends. Living only a dozen miles or so from Plymouth Rock, we cannot help but give the holiday a lot of thought. It is one of our favorites, despite knowing all too much about the myths and realities of the original feast.

One thing that is often forgotten is that although the Pilgrim's first feast was in Plymouth, it was not the first place they tried to settle upon arrival in what would become the Bay State. As comedian Jimmy Tingle explains, they first tried the other side of the Cape Cod Bay, in Provincetown, which was no easier to book then than it is today. His riff beautifully captures many Bay State nuances that help to define our sense of place.

It comes as The New Yorker also sends up the Pilgrims in a mockery of today's immigration discourse and as a Jimmy Kimmel overlays a snippet of that discourse on the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special.

Today, by the way, is not just Franksgiving Day, but also the anniversary of a very significant event in the history of Bay State waters -- the rescue of 29 sailors during a ferocious storm in 1888. The rescue took place in Hull, just a bit north of Plymouth and Cape Cod Bay, but the U.S. Lifesaving Service is most closely associated with the Cape itself, where at least 3,000 shipwrecks have occurred.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Discord and Connections

When we think of music, we do not always think of the stuff that makes it possible. A Gibson guitar, for example, is as much an idea as an object. (See the wonderful film Herb & Dorothy for an exploration of this approach to art.) Even a Les Paul guitar, however, comes from somewhere, and efforts to ensure the social and ecological sustainability of timber harvesting in those distant "somewheres" has created a cultural and political backlash, according to Bruce Gellerman's report on efforts to undermine the Lacey Act.

Another segment on the same broadcast of Living on Earth reports that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences now recognizes the importance of integrating social science with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines if progress on environmental problems is to move from academic circles to the real world. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation has been recognizing such a need over the past several years and has expanded NSF geography programs within its Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences -- not a perfect fit, but one that is helping others to understand how geography does connect to many other fields.

Location, Location, Location. Plus Timing

February 2019 update: At some point since my 2011 post, the Green Bean came under new management. I now enjoy frequent visits there, mostly after my morning rows in New Bedford harbor. The staff are friendly and effective. I'm tempted to remove this post, but it remains a good reminder that location alone is not enough.  People are still the key variable in any business.
I spend a lot of time thinking about coffee and coffee shops. Not only do I visit a lot of shops to see what they are doing for coffee and how they fit into their communities; I also assign my students to do the same, and I have even investigated starting a few different kinds of coffee shops, though none has become a reality just yet. If I find something I do not like in a shop -- unless it is truly one of the bad guys -- I follow the adage, "If you don't have something good to say, don't say anything at all." But Saturday's experience was so instructive -- and geographic -- that I decided to share it.

We were headed to New Bedford to visit Travessia Urban Winery, the last stop on our Coastal Wine Trail we had pursued as an intermittent staycation over the past six months or so. Travessia is the only one of the nine wineries on the trail (from Southwest Rhode Island to the tip of Cape Cod) that does not grow its own grapes, but this three-year-young winery uses grapes from some of the others, and is already producing better wines than others. (More on the geography of this transect of wineries in another post.)

About a decade ago, I helped to organize a region academic conference in New Bedford, and became quite interested in the renewal that was just starting to take place there. Local investment in the Zeiterion Theater (to which we have returned many times for a variety of terrific performances) combined with federal investment in the National Historic Park (naturally, a BSU geography alumnus was involved in that) and a lot of other leaps of faith to create a vibrant downtown, in the midst of a city that is on its way back. In an earlier post, in fact, I shared the nationally-acclaimed work that another BSU graduate has done with the National Park Service and local youth to exhibit and cultivate a sense of pride among youth in the city.

Back to the coffee shop. When we planned our outing to Travessia, we decided to visit the Ocean Explorium to see its Science on a Sphere. While there, we planned to visit one of the area's new coffee shops. The first choice had been Celtic Coffee, because I had heard good things about it from several students, but when we found several others independent shops even closer to our destination, we decided to save Celtic Coffee for another time.

Instead, we decided to try Green Bean, because of the cool sign and the promise of ethical and sustainable product. We had noticed the cafe from the south, corner entrance, but we actually entered from the north side of the shop, through a side door facing a small lobby shared with the winery. This turned out to be a very important distinction. We entered the shop and were pleased -- as have been some other reviewers -- with the light, spacious ambiance. With a varied menu -- even including several single-origin coffees -- plenty of seating and an inviting atmosphere, it seemed the perfect cafe. Surrounded as it is by a number of thriving attractions where plenty of other entrepreneurs are now happy to invest in businesses both similar and complimentary, we were expecting an excellent cafe experience.

We were wrong, and we were reminded of three factors that are essential to success in an independent shop, even if all the other ingredients are in place. First is customer service. We were not greeted at all, and our orders were taken and prepared grudgingly by the younger of two women working at the time. The other employee then turned off the lights, and though the sunlight allowed us barely to notice the change, this was our first hint that we were about to learn about the second factor. It was 2:00 on a busy Saturday afternoon, and this cafe was closing. In fact, it was closing as we walked in the door, but this had not been communicated. We were advised that the time was posted on the door -- and we advised (very politely given the circumstances) that the door through which we had entered IN PLAIN VIEW had no such sign.

The closing time was bizarre, given the fact that the entire neighborhood was bustling. While we were inside, many people were walking the neighborhood while others struggled to find parking. Both Travessia and the Ocean Explorium across the street had groups of visitors, many of whom might have welcomed a coffee, but the cafe was closing earlier.

This leads to the third factor, which is a failure to pay attention to one's surroundings. Although the location of this cafe must have been chosen on the basis of surrounding businesses and institutions, its hours of operation -- and orientation toward customers -- was not affected by changes in this dynamic downtown. The staff were only vaguely aware that the business next door -- which shares a common entrance -- had recently expanded, and had not therefore considered the positive implications for their own shop.

Of course, I do not entirely blame the workers themselves, at least not entirely. Their behavior was unlike anything either of us has done in food or retail work, but the real culprit is a manager who has clearly failed to cultivate a spirit of pride in the establishment and focus on customers.

As a geographer, I often repeat that location matters. But it offers no guarantees, either.

Shop hours are scrawled on a cardboard sign on the main
entrance, but not posted at all on the second entrance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Our family does a lot of blogging. Our dog, Perry the spirited minpin, helps. So much so that we decided to hop on the branding bandwagon and put her on all the blogs. As I write this, in fact, Perry is in her accustomed position, laying alongside me in the comfy chair, staying out of trouble and letting us think, read, and write.

Some of the blogs to which Perry contributes in ways great and small:
This one, Environmental Geography
"Library" Books
Celebrating the States
Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana
My Year of Reading "Year of Books"
The Bridgewaters Project
Paloma Helps
BSU Geography
BSU EarthView
Teaching Geography
First Parish Bridgewater
Meaning Not Dogma (no pun intended)
Wiley GeoDiscoveries
Bridgewater Center Neighborhood Association
Fair Trade BSU
Fair Trade Bridgewater
Help. Hope. Haiti.

Where are the Humans?

It is hard to know what counts as a human being any more. As the Occupeligo has helped a much broader part of the population understand, it is not necessary to be a person at all, in order to be human, as many corporations could tell you. If they were people, that is.

As I wrote in my Human Sieve post last year, an increasingly greedy and xenophobic nation wants the labor of immigrants but not the immigrants themselves. Though most Americans do not yet take this as far as Mitt Romney has, there is a growing interest in narrowing the definitions of "person" or "citizen" to include only one's self and one's closest associates.

I was a fan of the Saturn car company from its inception to its untimely demise, only because it seemed genuinely to be working toward human-to-human relationships among people with many different roles, from designing and assembling the cars to selling and buying them. A formative experience for me, in fact, was watching a Saturn training video in which a man explained that he was so glad to have come to Saturn from a previous employer (another General Motors division) where he was "hired from the neck down." At Saturn, he brought not only his arms, legs, and back to work, but his mind and soul as well. Unfortunately, the room for such a brand in the GM stable appears to have been limited.

Just as it can be disheartening to be considered a one-dimensional worker, so, too, is it problematic to be thought of solely as a consumer. At some point after World War II, consumerism grew from being simply a lot of consumption into being a genuine -ism, which is to say a world view that is wrapped around consumption.

At some point the meaning of "shopping for the holidays" shifted -- for an alarming number of people -- from "shopping as part of the preparation for enjoying the holidays" to "shopping as a holiday." When the shift from "person" to "consumer" has gone this far, it has in fact gone too far.

As with many things in the U.S. these days, the trend seems to be bifurcating. Despite an economy that is foundering and environmental systems that are becoming unraveled, many people find themselves in a race to consume ever-more stuff, though they might not even have a place to put it all. Others, however, reject the idea that they should participate in their own objectification, and refuse -- as my family has done for two decades -- to purchase anything at all on Thanksgiving or the day after. These are days for feast and famine, and maybe a film and some music, but in our house, the day after Thanksgiving is BUY NOTHING DAY.

All the world is a stage, they say, but we might not even be players. The consumers who choose to play in the arms race of ever-earlier holiday openings and the workers who are forced to play along are more puppet than actor. When the invisible hand of the market is not pleasuring itself under the sheets of the global economy (as Carl Safina has so artfully written), it is busily working the strings of a marionette show whose point is increasingly obscure and whose ticket price is ever-growing.

Accountability and Community Colleges

As often happens, two stories appeared in the press on Friday that are essentially unrelated, but with contrasting elements that reveal something about our times. In this case, it is about the disparate expectations of accountability among public employees.

Mitt Romney -- though in many ways the least public-minded person in the country -- has been a public-sector worker and is seeking an even higher position as a government worker. Yet the "accountability" he and his ilk insist upon for others is something with which he cannot be bothered. He airily dismisses any questioning of his decision to erase most evidence of electronic communications from his term as Massachusetts Governor, and literally to buy the rest.

Meanwhile, "reformers" continue to push so many "accountability" measures on educators that it becomes increasingly difficult for them to educate. Any negative results, however, are assumed to be the fault of the educators, since the reformers themselves are never asked to account for themselves. Today's second story is about the most recent calls to squeeze even more out of the state's community colleges. Boston Mayor Menino suggests that educators -- whose work he cannot begin to understand -- be "taken to task if they don't perform."

Everyone consulted for the story -- which did not include the educators or even the administrators involved, incidentally -- conceded that the community colleges are underfunded and already do quite a lot with quite a little. Massachusetts, after all, is behind nearly all other states in the funding of public higher education -- some years ranking 50th, some years as high as 48th -- and community colleges have received the worst fiscal beatings. Some of the "reforms" suggested are simply ways to make the community colleges more effective at lobbying the legislature. For a legislative leader to insist on such a necessity is to shift the blame from the perpetrator and toward the victim.

Also mentioned in the article is the fact that community colleges have to accept any high school graduates who come their way. These graduates are a nearly pure sample of MCAS victims. That is to say that college readiness of arriving students continues to diminish as teaching-to-the-test becomes pervasive. It being too difficult to hold the promoters of MCAS accountable for their mistakes (and too costly for those receiving those testing fees), accountability is simply moved downstream, to the professors. Professors, incidentally, who teach ridiculous course loads, again because the governor and legislators are not held accountable for their unconscionable neglect of public higher education.

The same meager funding that lengthens the teaching day beyond what is reasonable also shortens the learning day, as students who pay ever-higher fees must work long hours flipping burgers or waiting tables, rather than focusing on their studies. Educators know that time on task is a crucial variable in achievement, but when time on task is reduced because the public has not supported its young learners, it is inevitably the learners and their teachers who are blamed.

Aside from misplacing accountability, those who would reform community colleges make an even more fundamental mistake by failing to understand the dual mission of community colleges. For certain students in certain circumstances, a community college is a place to get prepared for a particular trade or career. For other students in different circumstances, however, it is a place to get prepared for further learning at a four-year institution. For many students, community colleges serve both functions, one for a near future and one for a farther future.

The Boston Foundation should be aware enough of the dynamism of the world economy to realize that an education that is focused too narrowly on certain vocations is not an education for the future. The governor and legislature could more credibly improve community colleges by unshackling K-12 teachers from the MCAS and fairly funding the community colleges so that the teachers could be freer to teach and the learners freer to learn.

An op-ed published in the Globe on Sunday addresses the shortcomings of the "reform" movement from a different angle. University of California Vice Provost Russell Rumberger describes How College Prep is Killing High School, arguing that the emphasis on academic subjects poorly serves the one-third of future workers who will need other skills that were once taught in high school. He cites Thomas Jefferson, who stated in 1818 that "stated that the purpose of public education included giving citizens information for transacting business, the ability to express ideas in writing, and an understanding of duties to neighbors and country."

Rumberger's complaint is not limited to the amount of emphasis on college preparation; he also complains that the simplistic manner in which this has been done is leading to systemic failures for which the reformers are not being held accountable. High-stakes testing is associated with record low rates of graduation and a measurable decline in so-called soft skills -- a crisis, really, in the availability of even minimally prepared workers.

Moreover, all of this misplaced effort is not even achieving its stated objective: Rumberger confirms what those of us who teach at the college level have been seeing: standardized tests are making students less capable of college-level writing and critical, integrative thinking.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Geography Awareness

Many thanks to Jack Ohman, The Oregonian
It is fitting though sad that pizza magnate Herman Cain's presidential ambitions should be crashing on the shoals of his geographic ignorance during Geography Awareness Week. All that he could say for sure about Libya was that Obama's policy there was wrong, because he is Obama. The pause as he tried to remember anything -- anything at all -- about a country that has been in the news constantly for the past few months was excruciating. War is how Americans learn geography, if at all, but even war will not always do the trick, apparently.

Map of insurgent state in Libya as of February 2011,
  from the National Post in Canada. 
The lapse was embarrassing, even for the journalist asking the question, though it was a boon to comedian Jon Stewart. Political blogger Ana Marie Cox finds his demeanor about the incident even more troubling that the geographic ignorance itself.

For me, though, the greatest significance of the incident is that the ignorance we may mock in a politician is all too common in our own schools and workplaces. When I visit Nicaragua -- the second-poorest country in this hemisphere -- I notice that almost any kind of office or place of business has a couple of maps on the wall, as do most homes. In a contest over geographic knowledge, a high school graduate in almost any country of the world can run circles around most U.S. college graduates. Not just place-name geography, either, but where things are, why they are there, and how it matters. These things are much better taught in countries where progressive education did not mean getting rid of the geography teachers, as it has in too many parts of the United States.

In Massachusetts today, it is actually illegal to become a certified geography teacher at the secondary level. Fortunately, my colleagues and I have found allies in the State House who are interesting in changing this. If Senate Bill 182 -- which would simply restore geography to its previous position in the curriculum and teacher preparation -- becomes law, perhaps we could open a seventh-grade classroom for presidential hopefuls. Incidentally, the bill has both Democratic and Republican sponsorship; such a classroom would be open to candidates from any and all parties! 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Injustice Rising

Earlier this year, I posted two items about Carl Safina's The View from Lazy Point, which may be the best environmental book since A Sand County Almanac, a good environmental book being one that celebrates and explains the world as it is and warns gently but deeply about the consequences of our disregard for it. The first post was simply to alert my readers to the book and Safina's beautiful writing; the second was to share Safina's cogent comparison between our exploitation of whales a century ago and our exploitation of oil today.

Pam and I finished reading the book last night, and it is full of post-it notes on passages that one or the other of us found particularly powerful. (See Pam's marvelous review on her "Library" Books blog.) As I hinted in my first post almost a year ago, this might be the new text in my "flagship" Environmental Geography course, though the text I have used for more than a decade was written by close friends and mentors. Lazy Point is just that good as an introduction to what is going on with planet Earth these days.

A recurring theme in the book is rising water, an inexorable process that we will see increasingly in the news, starting recently and for the rest of our lives. Even as I give a talk this evening about the drought gripping East Africa, the places that do not have too little water seem to have far too much.

As the UAE's Khaleej Times reported this week, Climate-vulnerable countries are meeting in Bangladesh out of a shared concern about rising sea level. Melting ice and thermal expansion are combining to put countries with low-lying topography at the front lines of climate change that is well underway. Even before such countries are thoroughly inundated, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to occasional high water from storms, tsunamis, or even routine tidal fluctuations. Because those who have contributed the least to atmospheric carbon-loading are among those who are suffering the most, former UN Human Rights High Commissioner (and former Irish President) Mary Robinson has made Climate Justice the new focus of her work. She met leaders of vulnerable nations in February, also in Bangladesh.

The South Asian nation (formerly East Pakistan) is the largest critically vulnerable country, already losing thousands of people annually in floods that result from a combination of deforestation at a regional scale and climate change on a global scale.

Many of the other extremely vulnerable nations are small, low-lying islands, many of which are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), about which I wrote for Wiley GeoDiscoveries last winter. One such state is Maldives, whose cabinet famously held a meeting underwater in 2009 to draw global attention to its plight.

Because small islands are so much more visible on our giant EarthView globe than on most maps or globes, this middle-school outreach program has led me to take a much greater interest in the island nations of the world, and a number of my EarthView blog posts describe various aspects of their geography.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reason Shrugged

This week NPR's Morning Edition is exploring some of the influential thinkers who have influenced the current generation of politicians. It is fitting that the discussion begins with Ayn Rand, whose Foundtainhead and Atlas Shrugged loom large in the formative thinking of the libertarian wing of the Republican party.

Andrea Seabrook begins her story on Ayn Rand with excerpts of an interview between Rand and Mike Wallace, in which her ideas are contrasted with the conservative thinking of the day. Rand advocates a politics far more conservative than Eisenhower, who was president at the time.

Having emerged from the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War, she equated any government role in the economy with the totalitarian approach taken by Stalin. She retained the Soviet aversion to religion, arguing for a reliance on pure reason, rather than faith or even altruism.

Replacing faith in God with faith in the "invisible hand" of markets, Rand argued that only entrepreneurs are productive, and that any level of taxation and regulation are inherently destructive, because they victimize those on whom the rest of society relies for economic growth.

As Seabrook explains, Rand was considered a fringe thinker for many years, but now such assertions are an article of faith. That's right: faith in the private sector has become a new fundamentalism. A million-dollar birthday party for an executive is a productive use of shareholder money, but a million-dollar library  is not a productive use of taxpayer money. Hedge-fund managers need protection from teachers and firefighters, the latter being parasites on the former. By definition, no parasitic worms inhabit Rand's private sector, and all public work is wasted effort.

Of course, even those who most adoringly quote Rand are selective in their application of her reason. Government spending in the military sector (especially for hardware, not so much for soldiers and veterans) is a glaring exception, as is government intervention in matters of sexuality, a contradiction to which Rand the atheist would surely object.

Incidentally, after posting this I remembered the last time I mentioned Ayn Rand on this blog was in the summer of 2010, when one of her devotees inadvertently revealed his dependence on government programs. See my "Libertarians in Space" post for an explanation of the many ways in which the libertarian message below was subsided by taxpayers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Coffee Sense-ations

In a new Atlantic article Coming to Your Senses, Illy coffee expert Giorgio Milos explains the multiple sensations of coffee enjoyment. It can be a full-body experience befitting what is sometimes seen as a sensual beverage. For this reason, Milos is cited -- along with Sal at Lavazza -- at the top of my newly revised and expanded Coffee Romance page.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Romney School of Business

Today's installment of Tony Carillo's Bliss comic put me immediately in mind of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. People who have been paying close attention to the Occupy movement know that the creation of wealth and the creation of jobs are not the same thing. And when wealth is merely concentrated rather than created, the difference is even greater.

A common sleight of hand in politics, however, is to equate the two. Few politicians have done so as effectively in recent years as Mitt Romney, about whom I have written much on this blog in the past. Most rich people earn their money the old-fashioned way: they got poor people to earn it for them. Romney has taken this a step further. By mastering the liquidation of productive companies, he earns his money from the creation of poor people!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Farmers Markets: What's Cooking

I do a lot of writing and teaching about problems in the global food system. As recently as yesterday, I posted a link about the McRib sandwich, a near-perfect embodiment of the brutal efficiencies of a food system that disdains both its producers and its customers.

But later last night, I wrote about a growing movement to do things right. Farmers markets bring people together around fresh, local food. Supply chains are shortened, processing is minimized, and the environment benefits in any number of ways. The food actually looks, smells, feels, sounds, and tastes like food, so I posted my comments about the film To Market, To Market to Buy a Fat Pig on my family's cooking blog: Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Offal and Arbitrage

The sandwich in this box is not merely a sandwich. It does not merely represent the absurd and growing distance between farm and fork, or even the disdain of the food-industrial complex for its porcine and human participants.  No, this sandwich is much more: it is a hedge fund on a bun.

As Willy Staley writes in The Awl, the McRib is a very peculiar market manipulation, made possible only by the absurd scale of McDonald's, a corporation so big that its menu decisions -- something as simple as adding celery to a recipe -- "quickly become global agricultural concerns."

As nasty as the McRib may be, it has its fans, and they are frustrated by the shifting regional geography of its availability. By comparing the timing of McRib releases to fluctuations in pork commodity prices, Staley makes the case that McDonald's is able to use its mammoth purchasing power to shift a significant portion of the world supply from one market to another when the difference between the two is greatest.

This just in: more geography of McDonald's. The Huffington Post reports that "artist and scientist" Stephen Von Worley has found the point in the contiguous United States that is most remote from any McDonalds, and in fact has mapped the entire country according to its distance from McDonald's. I put "artist and scientist" in quotes because for me this really captures what a geographer can be!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Very Boss Cake

Buddy Valastro is known as television's Cake Boss for his elaborate cake designs and his ability to transport unusual cakes from his shop in Hoboken to wherever they might be wanted. 

Episode 15 of Season 4 is entitled Houses, Help and Hitting the Road. It is the story of Valastro's biggest challenge to date: feeding 4,000 guests at the 40th anniversary party of Century 21. Not only is the realty network focused on location, but its membership is truly global, inspiring Valastro to concoct a truly global creation reminiscent of our own EarthView. (Big as this Rice-Krispie-filled decoration is, its volume is only 1/500th that of our inflatable globe, though undoubtedly much tastier.)

Much of the episode is dedicated to the logistical challenges of making, transporting, and serving such a colossus. The geography of vernacular landscapes throughout the world is reflected in the parts of the cake that represent various kinds of houses.

For geographers, though, the most dramatic moments arise when Valastro realizes that a rather significant land mass is missing from the design. His indignation is endearing ("Where's Asia? You gotta fix Asia!"), as is the reference one of his staff members makes to Pangaea as they discuss remedies. In reality, none of the former continental configurations quite match the erroneous cake decoration, but the final result is magnificent.

View the episode in two parts on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2.

Girls Grow

National Geographic Special Series: 7 billion
It seems only a few years ago that I was in a classroom, telling students that the world's population had just reached 6 billion. In fact, it was 1999, and that classroom is now gone. Still, the time between that milestone and last week's estimated arrival at 7 billion was short. With any luck will have been the shortest such interval, a quick decade of growth in what E.O. Wilson has called the Bottleneck century. Between 1950 and 2050, the world population will have roughly tripled, and though the earlier predictions of Paul Ehrlich and others were of a J-shaped curve that would rocket us toward oblivion, the sigmoidal (S-shaped) curve on which we are embarked is no global picnic. Somewhere, we need to find the resources to feed, clothe, and -- increasingly -- entertain three people for every one person who was on the planet at the end of the second Great War.

Given the attention generated by this milestone, it is timely that scholars at the University of Chicago released Girls Grow, a report on the importance of supporting women and girls in rural communities. Equity in the education, health, and nourishment of girls in underdeveloped rural areas worldwide is a humanitarian imperative in its own right. Cultural relativism goes too far when it allows generations of women to be marginalized, sometimes brutally. Not only are the results inhumane, but failing to invest in the human capital of girls contributes to the perpetuation of poverty. The importance of investing in the capacity of girls is captured in the subtitle of the report: A Vital Force in Rural Economies.

Some economists continue to suggest that population growth should not concern us at all, partly because of their propensity to assume resources not in evidence and the failure of many in that field to realize the fundamental difference between open-ended, linear processes that characterize many human endeavors and the closed-loop process that define the natural systems of which our economy is only a subsidiary part.

Another commonly-cited cause for optimism, however, is that greater numbers of people mean greater potential for innovators. It is true that Kenya environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai was born in a high-growth country. In creating future leaders, however, the care taken in the education and encouragement of girls is far more important than overall population numbers.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Nuclear Coffee


I recently wrote about weapons-grade ratatouille on our recipe blog; my hero Adam @ Home has gone one better: Nuclear Coffee!

People often ask me, by the way, about what coffees are "stronger" and I rarely have a good answer. High-quality arabica coffees are actually lower in caffeine than the robusta coffee used in cheaper blends, such as Maxwell House. And the darker the coffee has been roasted, the lower the caffeine will be.

Of course, high "dosing" -- spoons per cup prior to brewing -- can make a difference, as can adding multiple shots of espresso in a single beverage. Each serving of espresso has less caffeine than a standard cup of coffee, but some coffee drinks might have four to six servings!

Read more in my June 24 Coffee Comics post.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Los Muertos: PRESENTES!

Almost every January since 2006, the city of Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua has been the gateway to the coffeelands of the states of Matagalpa and Jinotega that I visit with students as part of my Geography of Coffee study tours. Starting with that first visit, we have always taken the time to see the grave of Benjamin Linder, an engineer who was among the many volunteers who came to Nicaragua to support the revolutionary project of the 1980s and found themselves at odds with a U.S. president determined to crush that revolution, through the illegal support of the Contra War.

We learned from our guide that Linder had in fact been killed by insurgents who were funded by his own government, and that he was so well loved by the Nicaraguan people that he was buried with honor in the city's main cemetery, even though an alternative cemetery for foreigners who died in the region. I recall being impressed that Linder's family allowed him -- a young man -- to be buried so far from home.

My student Nikki took the photo below during my 2011 study tour; it is a view of Matagalpa from the Ben Linder grave site. When she forwarded it to me today, she commented that she had already forgotten how beautiful the cemeteries are. That may have been part of the Linder family's decision-making: not the physical appearance itself, but the attitudes towards the dead that lead to such special care being taken.
Credit: Nikki Sauber 2011
All photos: Click to enlarge
We were thinking of all this in preparation for an event on our campus during the day of Halloween, in which we explored the traditions associated with death in Latin America, particularly the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos, sometimes pluralized) as practiced in Mexico. The Day (or Days, as both November 1 and 2 may be celebrated) is well known as the time when the veil between the living and the dead is considered thinnest, providing the best opportunities for the relationship between the two to be celebrated.

It would be a mistake, though, to view these two days in isolation, as some kind of departure from the norm, as Carnival so often is. The Day of the Dead, in fact, is just the most exuberant manifestation of a special regard for the dead and departed that is felt throughout the year. And although this finds its greatest expression in Mexico, throughout much of Latin America, death is treated quite differently than it is in the United States or Europe.

When asked to share something for the day, then, I turned to my experiences at Ben Linder's grave in Matagalpa. As I mention above, I have visited for five of the past six years, but over time the visits took on more meaning for me, as I became more familiar with Linder, his work and sacrifice, and the regard in which he is held in Nicaragua. His death had occurred just a couple of weeks before my own marriage, and in retrospect I have to admit that great many changes we were undertaking at that time dimmed my recollection of a story that I surely followed to some extent at the time.

My interest began to deepen as I prepared for the 2009 study tour, when I learned that a BSC alumnus (from before my time, so I can claim no credit for his many achievements) had worked on a partnership to create a very special café in León. As described by Dean Cycon in Javatrekker, veterans of the war on both sides -- were brought together to form a number of projects by which they help themselves, each other, and other people who have suffered limb loss or other serious injury. When given a chance to name the cafe that they would operate in order to support the other projects, veterans of both sides chose to honor Ben Linder.

In January 2011, we worked with Matagalpa Tours to include a portion of the tour in the FAR north of Nicaragua so that we could visit the small hydroelectric plant that Linder was working on at the time of his assassination. More than two decades after his death, this renewable energy project sits in the center of the now-bustling town of Bocay.
Linder worked in the tiny villages of El Cuá and Bocay, which had been long neglected by the US-allied Samoza regime. The Contras (which means Those Who Are Against) were determined to undermine (and often literally to mine) any positive developments that could be associated with progress for the new Sandinista government. 
The covert war funded by Ronald Reagan killed many Nicaraguans and just one American, Ben Linder. To this day, his sacrifice is honored on the anniversary of his death, though the banner below remained prominent in Bocay many months after the most recent commemoration. The word "PRESENTE" is capitalized deliberately, for the same reason it is often set off with exclamation marks: ¡Presente! When activists meet to protest US-funded political assassinations -- which are ongoing in many parts of Latin America -- they often call the roll of victims, to which the crowd answers ¡Presente! meaning that these martyrs are in some very important sense still with us.
Our study tours to Nicaragua coincide neither with the anniversary of Linder's death (April 28, 1987) nor with El Dia de Los Muertos, but beginning in 2011, our visits to his grave include some of the rituals associated with the care of grave sites. In addition to a brief retelling the story of his life and death (see video part one and part two and is told much more richly in the 2008 documentary film American/Sandinista), this time we decided to honor the memory of Ben Linder by cleaning up the site, leaving some flowers, and drinking a toast in his honor.
On the way to the cemetery, we stopped with Freddy, our most excellent guide, to purchase flowers. These flowers are grown locally, part of a substantial flower-growing industry in the region. This area is historically quite isolated, but modern transportation and communication systems mean that flowers picked this afternoon in Matagalpa can be at a flower wholesaler in Boston at dawn tomorrow.
Credit: Nikki Sauber 2011
Linder's grave indicated that he was an internationalist whose light will always burn brightly. Between the dates of his birth and death is shown a unicycle: Linder was celebrated as much for his play with children as a self-taught clown as for his work on the civil engineering projects for which he was hired. Above the motorcycle is a dove in a circle of stars.
At Bridgewater State University, I worked with faculty, students, staff, administrators, and off-campus collaborators of many kinds to develop a proposal for a café that would have been named after the original Ben Linder Café in Nicaragua, honoring both the healing work of that project and the life of the man for whom it was named. Building on the concept of the original BLC, the intent would have been to create the best possible campus coffee shop, a model café with a commitment to continuous improvement in social and environmental sustainability.

The proposal has not been approved, but as the community of Bocay has done, so also will Bridgewater recognize the anniversary of Ben Linder's death -- specifically the 25th anniversary coming up on April 28, 2012. Nicaragua Nexus will be an opportunity for academic, religious, and other groups in and near Massachusetts to gather in Bridgewater, simply to compare notes about the many different kinds of partnerships and projects undertaken in Nicaragua by people from this region.

Ben Linder. ¡Presente!

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