Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nuevo Laredo Carpooling

Thanks to my favorite librarian and fellow Latin Americanist for sharing this wonderful collection of photographs from suburban Nuevo Laredo, which is a bit upstream and across the river from our old South Texas home. Photographer Alejandro Cartagena found a location from which to invade the private space of workers who are building suburbia in nearby Monterrey.

I recommend viewing the slideshow first and then reading Matt McCann's thoughtful commentary about what the photographs reveal about work, place, camaraderie, and even masculinity. The online comments are also interesting, as the reactions of readers vary quite a bit. They include some ribbing of  McCann for being too citified to know the difference between a flatbed and a pickup.

As McCann points out, the stillness of the men in these incredibly candid photographs reveals a determination to make an ordinary living in a place that in many ways has become extraordinarily chaotic. Though it is intimate to the point of invasive, Cartagena's vision is one that honors his subjects, who are honorable men living in dishonorable times.

Those not familiar with the region might want to spend some time browsing the map below. Communities along the Rio-Not-So-Grande are much more intricately connected than many folks from farther north realize. Notice, too, the tremendous difference in the amount of water used for household plants on either side of the border.

I think the photographer must have used a bridge along Route 85, the direct route to Monterrey.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cochabamba Continued

In this slide show, Jennifer Saltz of Water Today describes the deadly conflict over water privatization in Cochabamba and the ultimate reversal of Bechtel's onerous contracts in the region.

Writing for yes! a year after this video, Jim Shultz describes the decade following the Cochabamba conflict in more detail, including its relationship to the election of President Evo Morales and the encouragement of many other social movements. He points out that although Bechtel was defeated, the people of the region have not yet won access to water. In a separate article from the same source, Jessica Camille Aguirre explains that melting glaciers remain a severe threat to water supplies in the region -- yet another effect of climate change that is disproportionate in the Global South.
Emilia Laime demonstrates the use of a slingshot commonly found at Bolivian protests.
Of course, their effectiveness is determined by the extent to which this expression of bravery
is respected by police and army officials. And of course, this slingshot is now mine!
 I have been hearing the Cochabamba story for several years, but just last autumn I finally had the opportunity to meet somebody from the region -- a textile fabricator whose community is directly affected. Emilia Laime sells sweaters, bags, and other textiles on behalf of a cooperative in her comminty of Arani, about 30 kilometers to the east of the city. As is clear from the map below, this altiplano (high plateau) community is close to the edge of Andes mountains, on which it is dependent for runoff from glaciers and snowpacks.

Prior to meeting Emilia, I believed that the water crisis in highland Bolivia had been solved. When she told us that water for crops, livestock, and domestic use was being rationed at the local well, I asked how this could be, with Bechtel long gone. She replied that climate change had simply reduced the availability of water. The water crises therefore continues, albeit with a new set of villains -- all of us who use fossil fuels excessively. This is quite a clear example of the growing mismatch between climate winners and losers, and the need for work on climate justice.

View Larger Map

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Status Check

Cartoon: Lalo Alcarez
When I first saw this map online, I commented, "Wow. I would love to have my old Arizona back."

When asked to explain, I responded that the image reflects the Supreme Court's temporary approval of the new show-your-papers law in Arizona. Police officers there are now REQUIRED to check the documentation of anybody suspected of not being a citizen or otherwise authorized visitor. For example, if a person is beaten or raped and comes to the police station and "seemed" foreign, the police would be required to investigate that victim's status, as well as the crime itself.

I then explained that my comment refers to four years that I enjoyed living in the state. It was very conservative, of course, in many ways the most conservative politics in the country. But it was not a xenophobic place in those days, and freedom of movement and expression were valued. I think they still are by many Arizonans, but a tight economy (exacerbated by true Wild West banking and realty industries in the state) brings out the worst in people.

Finally, I noted that the Supreme Court decision was not final -- the way police actually use their new powers can be examined to modify the decision. In fact, as Jacques Billeaud explains in an AP article, the Court Ruling Leaves Arizona to Rely on Feds. This is a cogent explanation of exactly what the Supreme Court ruling does and does not do. Law Professor Margaret Stock provides a more detailed and expert -- but still readable -- explanation of this aspect of the decision as part of a symposium on the SCOTUS blog.

The decision does, as I mention above, leave in place the requirement that police check the status of people they encounter, but the court will monitor whether this is done in a racially biased way. Moreover, the police will have very limited ability actually to hold people once they are apprehended. This may be a proverbial distinction without a difference, however, as both the law itself and yesterday's decision convey a harsh antipathy to migrants that (and those who "seem" like migrants) that will frighten many people -- including both victims of and witnesses to crimes -- into avoiding police.

I close this post with a second Alcarez cartoon that I noticed while seeking to credit the artist for the map at the top of the post. The image is jarring because it contradicts the widespread assumption that President Obama is not winning the immigration debate. This is perhaps because the constancy of attacks from the most xenophobic wing of the political right cause the media and other observers to overestimate the importance of the President's most ardent critics.

As I mention in the "Immigration" section of my resent post entitled No se olviden Mexico, the President's handling of certain aspects of immigration policy is actually close to what a majority of U.S. citizens would advocate. Moreover, as the President has actually implemented policies that reduce the volume of extra-legal migrations, it is occurring to a growing number of people that this is not nearly as important an area of debate as are some others.

Depending on how the summer and early autumn unfold, this might become an increasingly positive issue for the president -- even though he is likely never to mention Mitt Romney's hiring of undocumented workers.


As my I wrap up my first summer session and our reading of Carl Safina's The View from Lazy Point, (about which see several Safina-related posts on this blog), I had the good fortune of hearing Neal Conan's discussion of many of Safina's themes on yesterday's Talk of the Nation. I was confused for a moment, because although TotN is a very eclectic show, in-depth environmental discussions are usually reserved for its Science Friday section, and this was -- I was pretty certain -- only Monday. Once I confirmed that it was a Monday and that I would therefore be seeing my students on Tuesday, I decided that listening to Conan's visit to the Aspen Institute would be a good way to reprise many of Safina's themes.
During the program, Conan interviews participants in the annual forum that brings together some of the leading thinkers about the relationships between humans and the environment on which we depend. They focus on first-hand observations of climate change, with much of the conversation centered on the same Arctic regions visited by Safina.

Conan also invites listeners to share their direct observations about how the environment is changing. As with most NPR call-in programs, this one attracts a better-informed caller than most AM radio.

The conversation illustrates both the unprecedented speed of climate change and its geographic variability. This reminds me of a talk I heard earlier this year (and about which I posted at the time) in which Dr. Mary Robinson of Climate Justice discussed the many ways in which climate "winners" and "losers" parallel already-familiar disparities in wealth and opportunity.

Discussions of this kind risk turning into gloomy "we're going to Hell in a hand-basket" hand-wringing, which is not my intent, nor is it that of Safina, McKibben, Robinson, or the many others who are sounding climate alarms. The bleakness of the big picture makes our attention to our own daily experience all the more important. Those who are motivated to act may find Bill McKibben's the most useful way to connect to others who are concerned.

By way of a very small example, while listening to this program, I am sharing some EcoLogic Agua de Vida coffee with my students. In addition to being grown and marketed under organic and fair-trade certifications, sale of this coffee supports clean-water projects in the Honduran communties in which the coffee is produced.

Those who missed the opportunity to participate in the Aspen Institute directly should consider attending one of the Bioneers conferences in October. I have attended -- and presented -- a couple of times at the Massachusetts satellite conference, and found it richly rewarding.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Victoria's Real Secret

This image recently appeared on the very popular, self-deprecating So Mexican page on Facebook. The post and most online comments reference the pulga -- flea-market -- as a bargain-hunter's dream that is widely appreciated in Mexican-American communities (among many others) in the United States.

My first thought, however, is that the photograph might just as easily have been taken in Nicaragua. Outside of Managua is a "zona franca" in which various incentives encourage investment in light manufacturing such as textiles or basic assembly operations. These facilities -- such as Las Mercedes and Las Palmeras provide business services and utilities that would be in short supply elsewhere in the country, so that the rent per square meter might actually be higher than comparable facilities in the United States.

What the zones offer really offer, of course, is very low-cost labor, adding a additional, very wide layers of profit between those who make clothes and those who purchase them. 

In the case of Managua, the facilities are accessible to ports, but for high-value, low-weight items for which tight timing is part of the business model, proximity to the airport is even more important. The current geography of lingerie is apparently such that the outskirts of Managua is a good location for a 200,000-square-foot Victoria's Secret shop. That is a lot of bras and panties! And the real secret is what portion of the price of a $50 bra is paid to the women who made it, and whether more than a few top managers benefit from the operation at all.

Back to the opening photo -- one of the few "benefits" of having such a facility in one's neighborhood is that flawed items go to real factory outlets (like we used to have in the United States), and from there to various local markets. In Central America -- as in textile-producing areas throughout the periphery of the world space-economy -- slightly imperfect designer fashions are easy to come by.

All of which raises the question: how much is this stuff really worth anyway?

Friday, June 22, 2012

FIFA's Global Fiefdom

Quick: Which of these people is the president of Brazil?
On the left -- wearing the sash of the presidency -- is Dilma Youseff. On the right is Jérôme Valcke. Youseff's claim to office is an election by the people of Brazil, who number nearly 200 million. Valcke's claim to office is that he is general secretary of FIFA, the governing body of soccer (or football as it is generally known).

The confusion arises around the question of beer, the sale of which has been banned in Brazilian stadiums since 2003. As a sovereign nation, Brazil as a whole -- and many of its states and cities on an individual basis -- decided to impose the ban as a way to reduce hooliganism.

Rather than comply with the laws of its host, FIFA is directing Brazil to change its laws.. Perhaps Valcke failed to get the memo about Brazil being a country -- and a growing and substantial country at that -- while FIFA is simply a sports league. Perhaps he was too busy worrying about pervasive corruption in his own organization to make note of the distinction.

In any case, the Budweiser-sponsored official was quite clear in his directive, according to the BBC:

"Alcoholic drinks are part of the Fifa World Cup, so we're going to have them. Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that's something we won't negotiate," he said.
"The fact that we have the right to sell beer has to be a part of the law."
Note that he does not cite any kind of prior agreement; rather, he just asserts that FIFA expectations trump Brazilian law. It will be interesting to see whether this view prevails.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

No se olviden Mexico

No se olviden Mexico, Mexico, mi Mexico
Mi Mexico

This is the plaintive cry as the music fades in Carlos Santana's Africa Bamba, his celebration of the rich diversity of the Americas: "Do not forget Mexico, my Mexico."
Mexico is the first place I visited in Latin America, and I was a close neighbor throughout most of the 1990s, first in southern Arizona and then in WAY southern Texas. I have since spent more time in Nicaragua and Brazil and elsewhere, but Mexico is never far from my mind, particularly over the past week or two. It has actually been impossible to forget, as the country has been in the news in so many important ways over the past week or two.
The states of Mexico I have visited, beginning with a quick
trip to Ensenada circa 1985.
This post is an attempt to bring together several disparate threads relating to a country whose fate -- whether any of us wishes this or not -- is interwoven with that of the United States. The far right in the United States has managed to paint Mexico as the root of financial devastation that began much farther north, while Mexico itself continues to derive both much of its pain and much of its gain from proximity to a northern neighbor that views it mostly in terms of well-worn stereotypes.

The Summit
When world leaders met in 1944 to write the rules for the world economy, they gathered at the Mt. Washington Hotel in New Hampshire in a conference known as Bretton Woods. (Readers can decide for themselves whether this intercourse was more or less transgressive than that of Rob Lowe and Jodie Foster in the other Hotel New Hampshire). All 44 of the Allied countries that had opposed Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II agreed at that point to create the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, which would eventually spawn the World Trade Organization, WTO).
Both Mexico and Brazil were represented in that initial meeting, but in subsequent decades such important matters were discussed in much narrower circles, often excluding those most affected. Both G7 and G8 (Group of 7 or 8, depending on whether the Russians were invited) drove the proverbial bus for many years, until they landed it in a colossal ditch of bank deregulation in 2008. At that time, the fig leaf of eight-country consensus was inadequate to the exposure, so a broader group of leaders was called together -- the G20 included such emerging economies as Mexico, Brazil, India, and China in a meeting that is sometimes called Bretton Woods II. Depending on one's point of view, the summit averted financial catastrophe or perpetuated an imbalance of power in favor of banks, or perhaps both.
Leaders of the G20 met in Mexico last week, with very low expectations and the predictable meager achievement of minimizing the damage thought likely to emanate from Europe. The kinds of crises that once threatened collapse only from the periphery now routinely infect the core, but no challenge to economic orthodoxies are yet forthcoming. Even Mexico, which was the host country and nominal "president" of the meeting, made only the feeblest of entreaties for IMF support of debt relief. The outcome was a predictably vague commitment to fostering growth, with no clear vision of how to do this or even whether it is desirable.

Clarification: Although 2008 marked a dramatic expansion in the importance of the G20, it had in fact first met in 1999. Geographer Matt Rosenberg describes the group's evolution in more detail on his What is the G-20? He mentions several other economic groupings and lists the five countries invited to this year's meeting by Mexico.

Chiapas and Greenwash
The latest G20 meeting took place almost simultaneously with a United Nations summit in Rio de Janeiro (described in more detail in a Brazil post I completed earlier today). Again, expectations were low, as leaders focus on short-term crises in the world's financial apparatus, to the exclusion of far deeper crises in the biosphere itself. And those expectations were met, with countries trumpeting environmental euphemisms rather than grappling with environmental realities.Writing for Triple Crisis, Timothy Wise charges that many of the food-security programs trumpeted by Mexico's at G20 are far less than real.
A further coincidence is that this all takes place just as two young friends have headed to Chiapas for a documentary film project that delves into the very real costs of empty environmental promises. Their blog CO2lonialism and the Green Economy examines the sometimes false promise of carbon offsets. Even when working honestly, these arrangements assuage first-world guilt by protecting forests to absorb carbon equivalent to that emitted by our own profligacy. But in Chiapas --- home both to Mexico's most marginalized indigenous communities and its most abundant biodiversity -- even that promise is not met.
Incidentally, as I discuss these and other matters with students in my Geography of Latin America course, I offer them two relevant coffees from Deans Beans, a genuine fair-trade company here in Massachusetts. One is Dean's NOCO2 from Peru, a delicious coffee whose carbon offsets are fully reliable; the other is Birdwatcher's Blend, which comes from certified bird habitat in Chiapas and Guatemala.

Drug War
We recently marked the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's declaration of war on drugs, a misnamed and misguided effort that has been as devastating abroad as it has been ineffective at home. I will not rehearse the many geographic implications that I have previously covered in this space, but again, a few stories are both relevant and quite recent.
It is in this context that Caravana por La Paz a USA (Caravan for Peace to the USA) is being organized, to begin later this summer. Activists from both countries will cross the United States from California to Washington, DC to bring attention to the brutal price ordinary Mexicans continue to pay for living adjacent to a country with such peculiar approaches to guns and drugs. It is difficult to know what to make of the current Fast and Furious scandal -- a weapons sting operation gone horribly wrong -- but it highlights the role of U.S.-origin weapons in the horrendous violence sweeping some of my favorite old haunts in northern Mexico. The degree of violence is brought home by the fact that the McAllen Monitor -- a paper to which I once subscribed -- recently carried a recommendation that diners tip their tables as shields in an event that a restaurant meal is interrupted by a tossed grenade. Yes, GRENADES are now part of the complex landscape of violence where the most heinous crimes are committed by those who were formerly the most elite police units.

Regarding immigration, Mitt Romney
is running for Hypocrite-in-Chief
Immigration is not, of course, synonymous with Mexico, as thousands of people enter the country legally and illegally -- or overstay legal entries -- every year, from many parts of the world. In Boston, undocumented Irish are part of the social fabric. But no land border in the world joins two countries with a wider wealth disparity than that between the United States and Mexico, so it is natural that labor would be traded across it. As I explained in The Border: Human Sieve, much of the debate about immigration centers around a desire to bring the labor without the humans.
Meanwhile, contrary to the wailing of nativists on the racist right,
President Obama has served as Deporter-in-Chief, sending more
undocumented people out of the country than any other president.
The question of migration has been very much in the news lately, largely because President Obama has responded to courageous and well-organized young Americans who have been living in limbo because they moved to the United States as children. Unable to become fully established in the country they consider home but also lacking roots in their countries of birth, many have risked deportation by speaking out for a compromise. Last week, the president issued a ruling that will allow young adults brought here as children to avoid deportation and gain the ability to work and study legally, though the benefits of the ruling are not as robust as many assume.
One very encouraging bit of news amid all the election-year noise on this subject is that people in the United States -- outside of the more demented segments of talk radio and Fox "News" -- are starting to put the question of immigration in a more realistic perspective than had been the case. Deportations are up, illegal crossings are down, and most people realize by now that the real threats to employment do not come from poor immigrants. As reported on Market Place, immigration is not a top priority for most Democratic or Republican voters, and those who do express an opinion generally support the accommodations the president has made for U.S.-raised migrants.
A related story that appeared in the New York Times represents a very large group of children who will not be helped at all by this week's decision: it describes the difficult adjustment faced by American-born children who join deported parents.

And as if Mexico were not putting up with enough, the invasive retail species known as Walmart continues to encroach. Just this morning, I learned that Walmart is slowing its expansion in Mexico, meaning that it is still expanding plenty. Over 6 percent of the world's largest retailer's revenues already come from Mexico, but more than 300 new stores will soon be added. Outside sources link slightly reduced pace of expansion to past bribery scandals, but Walmart simply asserts a desire to ensure proper business practices in its real estate transactions. 
Walmart infection poised to spread.
Map: William & Mary
AMST 370 students
In other words, the expansion is expected to be carried out legally, though the impacts will be criminal in a very real sense. Employment will be created, of course, but as in the United States, for every "real" Walmart job there are 100 menial jobs in which people will gain only slightly, and for each one of those, there will be an untold number of job losses in existing retail and manufacturing firms. As if Mexico did not have enough problems, the Walton family will be feeding on Mexico like a mosquito for years to come.

Last but certainly not least, Mexico will continue to be in the news as a presidential election is taking place there on July 1. After decades of essentially meaningless elections, the past few cycles have been very interesting, as power shifts among three major parties. NPR's Morning Edition reports that Mexican youth are expected to figure prominently in the upcoming decision.

The protester shown here objects to a possible return to rule by the PRI -- the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and oddly-named coalition that ruled Mexico longer than any other political party in modern history -- over seventy years -- before its power was eroded from both the left (PRD) and the right (PAN).

Fly Brazil

Despite its recent economic woes, the prevailing self-image in the United States is that it is -- and will remain -- very advanced relative to any and all countries of the tropics. While we have been busy congratulating ourselves and enjoying the fruits of hard work and ingenuity of the past, those traits have been taking hold in places that may surprise many of my North American compatriots.

My first visit to Brazil was in 1996, when I spent three months in Rondônia. I was primarily interested in deforestation and had chosen the location of some of the most severe and notorious forest clearing on the planet at the time. Among the many surprises in store for me was the widespread commitment to learning, exemplified most poignantly by this computer school in Porto Velho -- an area considered "unexplored" even by many in Brazil.

The contrasts between perception and reality, in fact, eventually led to the publication of our small book Olhares, which I describe on my Rondônia page and which we hope to update soon.

I have had the good fortune to return to Brazil a half-dozen times, always meeting avid learners -- people pursuing two degrees at the same time, or working full time while also studying English or Spanish, for example. it is no surprise, then, that during my acquaintance with Brazil, it has climbed the ladder of largest economies, from about 12th place then to 6th place today.

Some in the United States who are aware of this growth -- through programs such as Brazil's Rising Star, a 60 Minutes profile of Brazil's immediate past president that I consider required viewing for anyone interested in understanding the future of this hemisphere. But even those who have noted the growth might be surprised at the sophistication exhibited in We Are Embraer.

If you have flown on American Eagle, chances are you have been on aircraft manufactured by this Brazilian company. The last leg of my long return from the Amazon in 1996, in fact, was on just such a plane!

Not only is Embraer competing with U.S. aviation companies, it is moving quickly ahead in some areas of critical importance to the industry. As illustrated in the Clarissa segment of Discovery Channel's Brazil Revealed, aviation is a career path of growing importance for young Brazilians.

Fortunately, opportunities are available and increasing for U.S. students and scholars to study in Brazil or with Brazilians who are studying in the United States. And although a growing number of Brazilian professionals speak English, learning the Portuguese language is an increasingly wise career-development strategy.

Online campaign demanding government agreements to curtail deforestation.
The difference between 1992 and 2012 is that such demands increasingly
arise within Brazil itself.
I do not wish to romanticize Brazil's achievements. Its economy is growing, education is becoming more widely available, and its income gap -- one of the most severe in the world -- is narrowing. But although Brazil is a leader in many aspects of renewable energy development, its financial strength does remain inordinately dependent on the exploitation of natural resources. Deforestation remains a vital concern both globally and within the country, where the United Nations Rio+20 conference is fostering debate and innovative public art. From my point of view, two decades have seen a growing sophistication in Brazil's environmental movements.
Giant fish made from plastic bottles eye Sugarloaf as world leaders
gather at the 20th anniversary of the Rio Summit.
The Atlantic published a stunning photo essay that includes
this and many other creative expressions of environmental concern.
NOTE: Many thanks to my student Andres for the Embraer video and my friend Viviane for the Rio+20 image.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Palau -- Paradise in Recovery

Carl Safina's The View from Lazy Point continues to provide fodder for my teaching and for this blog, as regular readers will have noticed. Although filled with lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the world -- particularly the avian and marine -- his message is mainly bleak, as he documents so many ways in which our thoughts and actions are unraveling the biosphere on which we rely.

In his chapter on Palau, entitled Travels Solar: Rainbow's End, he provides a bit of encouragement. My experience with EarthView has made me increasingly curious about the Pacific Ocean and its islands, and I am proud that geography games have helped me to know where many of them actually are located. Having learned the basic locations, I have found myself even more eager to learn something about the many islands and island nations of the Pacific; Safina's description of the recovery of corals in Palau is an opportunity, therefore, to dive in a bit deeper. (Sorry, pun not resistible.)

View Larger Map
Safina had enjoyed a visit in the 1990s, and was actually reluctant to return, citing Aldo Leopold's caution about revisiting pristine places from our pasts. Given grave threats to coral reefs in general and to those of Palau in particular, his reluctance was justified. He was pleased to see, however, that combined fortune and diligence has reversed the decline in Palau's coral reefs. Given the fragility of these ecosystems and their very slow growth, the recovery is all the more remarkable.

In this video, British high school student Margaret Sheekey describes some of the factors that continue to threaten Palau's delicate reefs, providing some useful imagery along with further remedies that may be a bit facile.

More detailed analysis is available in the Palau case study from Reef Resilience. Ongoing study continues at the Palau International Coral Reef Center, whose Exhibits and Displays page provides a good introduction to the variety of biological communities found on and near the islands.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Big Bang Chronology

It was yesterday -- upon hearing some geological terms in the music streaming from my daughter's computer -- that I became aware of the educational merit of the theme song from television's Big Bang Theory, a show with which I am only minimally familiar.

My first guess was that the song might be by They Might Be Giants, whose nerdy tracks include Why Does the Sun Shine?, which I frequently use in my teaching. But in this case, the artists are Barenaked Ladies, who are five (usually) clothed guys who come all the way from Canada and all the way from the late 1980s.

All of this is in the context of recent discussions about geologic time with students. We have been exploring the possibility  -- suggested by Carl Safina among others -- that we are leaving the Holocene behind as we enter the Anthropocene, in which humans are becoming the principal environmental force on the planet.

Big Bang Theory

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait...
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang!

"Since the dawn of man" is really not that long,
As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song.
A fraction of a second and the elements were made.
The bipeds stood up straight,
The dinosaurs all met their fate,
They tried to leap but they were late
And they all died (they froze their asses off)
The oceans and pangea
See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya
Set in motion by the same big bang!

It all started with the big BANG!

It's expanding ever outward but one day
It will cause the stars to go the other way,
Collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it wont be hurt
Our best and brightest figure that it'll make an even bigger bang!

Australopithecus would really have been sick of us
Debating out while here they're catching deer (we're catching viruses)
Religion or astronomy, Encarta, Deuteronomy
It all started with the big bang!

Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
It all started with the big bang!
It all started with the big BANG!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

ACK: A Whole 'Nother (Island) Country

As I wrote very recently, Texas is in many ways a whole other country. The travel bureaus boast as much, and living there for three years we really experienced it. We even subscribed to the national magazine for a while after we left, and we had the great pleasure of spending this past Thursday evening in the company of the "governor of the heart of Texas" during his tour of the Northeast. (Note: I thought I made up the "national magazine" quip, but it is prominent on the web site for Texas Monthly.)
But this is a post about our next destination, Yesterday's Island (ACK). The only place in the United States in which a town, an island, and a county are coterminous, Nantucket is just a lovely whiff of glacial deposits out in the ocean, as close to Bermuda as one can get in the Bay State, and as far from North Adams.

Just as we were preparing for a few days of quiet enjoyment on the island,  I noticed a photo essay on, regarding the ten smallest countries of the world. As part of my preparation for the EarthView project, I have spent a fair amount of time recently playing online geography games that are helping me to keep track of many of these microstates, and I am very concerned about the future of several that are quite vulnerable to climate change.

None of the countries is quite as small as the very cute first image in the collection, but most are quite small indeed, and six of the ten are islands (all of the rest are in Europe, within or very close to Italy, as it turns out). I was wondering about Nantucket's place in such a listing, and found that if it were an independent country, it would just make the list, in ninth place.

sq mi
St. Kitts & Nevis
Marshall Islands
San Marino

(At 270 acres, my campus is just 10 acres shy of Vatican-sized.)

At 30 feet, the highest point on Nantucket stands at double the elevation of the highest point in Tuvalu, and towers nearly four times the 8-foot peak in the Maldives. Most of the small islands of the world are quite vulnerable to storms and tsunamis, all the more so as their margin of safety is removed by melting ice and expanding seas. Nantucket has the added vulnerability of highly erodible parent material, deposited as debris a few short millennia ago.

And what about Texas? At 268,820 square miles, it would rank as the 76th largest country, after Burkina Faso and ahead of New Zealand.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

A Whole 'Nother Country

Writing for Slate, Gail Collins offers an entertaining if somewhat frightening essay about my former home state. As she describes it, Texas is "a fast-growing, increasingly urban place whose citizens have nevertheless managed to maintain the conviction that they’re living in the wide open spaces."

In Everything's Bigger in Texas, she writes about the contradictions rampant in a state that is equally likely to draw the rest of the country into its orbit, or to cut ties and become its own country. Again. It is, after all, the only state to have had six national flags (those of Spain, France, Mexico, Texas, the United States, and the Confederacy).
Texas counties I have visited

Monday, June 04, 2012

There is No "Today" There

Today is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, except online in China. In the online arms race between those who try to protest the killing of protesters and a government that tries to censor them, even the word "today" is now banned, according to an article about the anniversary in The Christian Science Monitor.

Of course, the United States has had its own bitter history with the suppression of dissent, such as the Kent State massacre on my seventh birthday. One wonders, though, how long the United States will continue to embrace trade with China while forbidding it with Cuba, when no commensurate disparity exists in the human-rights records of the two countries.

Fitting to Work

As unemployment remains remarkably high in the United States -- over 8 percent officially and 14 percent if we use the measures that were in place before President Reagan changed the measuring stick in order to get better-looking measurements -- Renee Montagne's interview with David Wessel is especially timely. Even though he is an economist, and a Wall Street Journal economist at that, Wessel offers some very interesting insights into the problems facing job seekers.

The full interview is well worth a listen, as it examines unemployment in terms of factors that are more nuanced than the broad considerations of macroeconomic factors and business confidence. Of a handful of hypotheses he explores, I find two particularly interesting.

First, it appears that software is a big part of the problem. Wessel describes both anecdotal and experimmental evidence that potentially qualified applicants cannot make it through the filters commonly used in many hiring departments. In one extreme case, a human-resources executive found that his own resume would not have made it through the filters to get hired for his own job. Wessel does not connect this to recent waves of downsizing, but of course the reliance on software has increased at the expense of human resources officers who were, well, human.

Webb Machinery
Second, because of decreasing employee loyalty -- which of course results from post-Reagan erosion of employer loyalty -- employers are reluctant to train new hires. Where someone 90 percent capable of doing a job in the past would have received that last measure of training on the job, employers are now hoping to find people ready to walk through the door with exactly the right skills to do the job.

Wessel suggests that they increasingly expect schools to do this training work and unfortunately, some political leaders are all-too eager  to accommodate these unrealistic and unsustainable demands. The demands are unrealistic because they confuse training (which is specific) with education (which is more general). Even fairly specialized education does not and should not emphasize particular tools, systems, or software versions. Shifting too much of the training burden to schools is also not sustainable, as anti-government activists push politicians to limit support for education at all levels, and so-called education reformers dilute the actual education with rote test preparation.

As Wessel does suggest in the interview, employers and government -- and potential employees -- can use this information to close the apparent gap between what employers demand and what employees have to offer.

The Worth of Children

Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press
Mike Thompson's incisive cartoon about the contradictions between pro-child and anti-teacher rhetoric arrives just as the two sides are coming to a showdown in an unthinkably bitter recall election in Wisconsin.

Locally, teachers in the town of Abington recently decided to curtail voluntary activities after all other efforts to negotiate a contract had failed. I know from my own limited experience with this kind of "work to rule" action that it is difficult for most educators to limit themselves to the work for which they are actually paid. The intent, of course, is to help administrators to see just how much is done on a voluntary basis, with the hope that this will result in more reasonable offers for the work that is done for pay.

I recall a discussion as we considered such an action a number of years ago on my own campus. (We are almost always without settled contracts in Massachusetts, as disregarding higher-education seems to be a bipartisan sport of long standing, but we only take action in especially egregious circumstances.) As we discussed whether or not to skip graduation ceremonies, a colleague argued that we should do our best to shield students from our conflict with the Board of Higher Education.

In that moment, my own thinking on the question shifted. I had seen students as potential victims in the crossfire between faculty and our governing body, but I realized that the opposite was true. When schools and teachers are underfunded or treated with disrespect by state and local governments, they are caught in the crossfire between politicians and students.

And then I remembered something I heard years ago from a scholar who had recently returned from a research trip to Scandinavia. She reported realizing that the United States is really a country that hates children (and young adults, too, it seems). Our rhetoric, of course, is pro-child, and as individuals we would do anything for our children. Even anti-government nihilist Grover Norquist is indulgent with his own daughters.

Our collective deeds, however, all too often reflect a distaste for the children of others. We are indeed fortunate that teaching, social work, and child care continue to attract those who hold children and youth in higher esteem than the value implied by the typical pay for these professions.

Through my EarthView program and other activities, I work with enough teachers to know that there are some exceptions -- teachers who really should not be working with children. But in my experience these are rare. Most teachers I meet do amazing work with children (or youth or adults), despite the incredible barriers to teaching that are imposed by politicians, and despite pay rates below those of their non-teaching peers.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

No Place for Meaning

The United States is entering the final stages of a presidential race that -- in my view -- will be a referendum on the value of work. Quite honestly, I fear that racism may provide the margin of victory for a vision of labor that will forever diminish the lives of workers of all races and all but the most rarefied economic classes.

The View from Lazy Point -- Carl Safina's sweeping exploration of the gap between our conventional ways of thinking about the world and the challenges we face as a human race -- includes the following passage about how we have come to value work. One presidential candidate has built his fortune on a much different view, but the following really captures my own view of what business can and should be. This passage bears careful reading, for its examination of the unraveling of work, family, commerce, democracy, and thought itself.
In my town, the Sou'wester Bookstore is no more, Rudy the druggist and his wife are holding on by their fingernails, and the youngish couple who've bought the hardware store are clearly worried. These are true men and women in the best sense of the word "business." they are enterprising threads in the fabric of our community, not just commuters who drive away in the morning and appear only behind their lawn mower and their trash cans. When I enter a local store and the bell above the door rings, I know I will be welcomed by name and the shopkeeper and I will trade something valuable.
That's why for their sakes and mine, I do my shopping on this side of the tracks when I can. This gets increasingly difficult as the mall-and-chain drags real businesses and real people to exhaustion. By so dreadfully shrinking opportunities for people to go into business for themselves, the chains keep people acting as their stockboys and salesgirls well beyond the time they should have taken their place as adults in our communities. The middle-aged workers in the big-box stores seem like elderly teenagers, deprived of authority, creativity, responsibility, and pride. Mostly, they're nice people with a desire to be helpful. What could they have accomplished if given a chance? They may never understand who they are; they'll certainly never know who they might have been. Open on holidays, the chains undermine tehir employees' time for family. (Why anyone is actually shopping for TVs and washing machines on Thanksgiving is a question so large its answer eludes the wide, wide net of even my own cynicism.) Thus the chain stores threaten family more than any same-sex marriage, threaten Sunday more than Darwin ever could. Seeing my island in chans has driven me to the fringes, made me a castaway on my own native shores, a refugee inside my homeland. And for that I thank them. In that banal way, they helped me understand, at least, who I am not.
Though the shopping mall has largely driven Main Street out of business by usurping its commercial intercourse, it rejects Main Street's civic discourse. A friend reports tha in his nearby megamall, people handing out anti-war leaflets were arrested. Free speech has no place on "private property"; it could distract those in the consumer caste from tehir main task and sole worth. Just keep the lite jazz playin'. A generation or so ago -- one tends to forget -- those same people were citizens in a democracy. (Safina, 306-307)
I would quickly add that the poverty of opportunity Safina identifies is a loss of meaningful work not only for the potential owners of small businesses, but also those who could contribute so much more to their communities as employees of local business than they can as employees of distant investors and speculators.

Sadly, educational institutions often contribute to the growth of McJobs described above, as they outsource much of the employment that is available on their campuses. As I explain in my Guru, Inc. post, this is partly the result of ever-shrinking public support for public education. In such circumstances, creative thinking is required if we are to provide education by both word and example, and to have critical thinking removed even from the seats of learning.

Photo: Zohaa Basra
The busy coffee shop shown above is at at Stetson University. It is not an ideal situation -- the workers are employed by Sodexo rather than by the university itself. But they are employed, and they work in an environment that is varied and interesting and that -- most importantly -- allows them to participate meaningfully with the students and faculty at that university.
Vending machines humming along 24/7 in a space between a state-of-the
art bottle filler and a vacant space that could employ actual people
to serve food. Some sort of cafe will eventually be in place for peak hours,
but those vending machines are proving VERY difficult to remove.
Meanwhile, at my own university, a proposal to create an even more dynamic work place languishes. A space designated for a cafe remains empty, but the space immediately behind it already "employs" vending machines -- a reserve army of mechanized food service that stands ready to disemploy human labor, even as it consumes enormous amounts of electricity and plastic packaging. 

The vending machines remind me of the looms that were the targets of the original Luddite movement two hundred years ago, but with added environmental demerits. Given the confluence of environmental destruction and rampant unemployment in this Luddite bicentennial year, people are re-examining the relationships among technology, labor, and the environment. 

Many of the original Luddites were executed -- some for crimes against other humans, but more for their crimes against machines. Yes, even in the early decades of the industrial revolution, the state sided with capital, and quickly made the destruction of a loom a hanging offense.

It is easy to dismiss those who try to defend the interests of labor over capital, tagging them as "Luddites" opposed to progress. But just as the original Chipko tree-huggers were loggers who resisted the pace and scope of logging in India, modern critics of "creative destruction" call into question the pace of disemployment and the breach of social contracts. When official unemployment is 8 percent, real unemployment 14 percent, and youth unemployment closer to 75 percent, it is time to take a serious look at the choices we make, both as individuals and as institutions.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Thank the Friar of Fife

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As I prepare for each of our school visits with EarthView, I check the Brainy History site for anniversaries of geographic importance. On June 1, for example, Mt. Pinatubo erupted and the Warsaw Pact dissolved (both 1991), a horrific race riot took place in Tulsa (1921), William Walker conquered Nicaragua (1855), and the first earthquake recorded in the United States took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1638).

I listed these and other events for my middle school audience, and we discussed some of them during our program, along as the commemoration of a tragedy closer to home -- the tornadoes that struck Monson, Springfield, and many other Massachusetts communities on June 1, 2011.

In my research, I found another geographic anniversary worthy of celebration, but not appropriate to share on a middle-school blog.  For it was on June 1 in the year 1494 that the first written record was made regarding Scotch. Not the tape: the whisky. It was in Lindores Abbey in Fife that Friar John Cor was granted malt to be used in the production of the distilled beverage.

As blogger Alastair writes for The Whisky Barrel, the site of the earliest documented production of Scotch is often overlooked on the increasingly popular pilgrimages to the superlative distillery sites in Scotland. Such journeys are a geographer's dream -- especially for this 11th-generation Scottish geographer -- since the highest, lowest, northernmost, and southernmost are among the destinations involved.

At this very moment I am sipping a whisky that may originate at Scotland's highest elevations, and though it is probably affiliated in some way with my family, Buchanan's is a treasure that I usually encounter in duty-free shops (or on the plane) as I return from travels in Latin America. The price is in proportion to years in the barrel, and as with other members of the family, this beverage definitely improves with age!

I remember a minister who once remarked -- in response to a question about alcohol -- that almost every human society has figured out how to ferment something, almost immediately after learning how to grow food. The variety of potent potables (as they are known on Jeopardy) is quite remarkable, but the emergence of Scotch is particularly notable, once the number, timing, and sensitivity of the various stages are understood.

The complexity of the process and the geographic variability of soils, ground water minerals, microclimates, and even bog deposits result in an incredibly intricate geography of a beverage that is only produced in one small place, about the size of South Carolina. As with coffee, wine, tea, and other beverages, the physical geography combines with specific production practices that are either preserved with great care or are lost in the consistent but uninteresting blends that emerge from commodity markets. This is why the addage "you get what you pay for" applies so well to all of these beverages.

Encouraged by our recent successes with various ales and what seems to be a good start with wine (a Barolo aging in bottles and a Chardonnay fermenting in the kitchen as I write), I'm thinking that if we start learning now, we might be able to make some Scotch in time for our retirement parties.

With regard to the hills, peats, and distilleries of Scotland I am long overdue for a visit! After all, the first Bohanan to come to America was only 20 miles south of Lindores Abbey when he started his voyage in 1734.

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