Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Billion People Plus One Tree

Thanks to Quartz blogger Michael Silverberg for Acacia Fatigue, in which he discusses an article about book covers from Africa is a Country. (That title, of course, is meant satirically; whenever I get students in front of the Africa portion of our EarthView globe, I encourage them to repeat "Africa is NOT a country" because so many people operate as if it is.)
As both blogs make clear, the widespread reluctance to engage the variety and complexity of the second-largest continent is represented by a rather narrow range of design choices, even on the covers of a broad range of books. No matter what the topic, on dozens of books, that one tree appears, rarely with a human in sight, and within a very narrow palette of dusky colors.

These observations remind me of a very useful article I read years ago, as I prepared for my first trip to Africa (and my only one so far). In the deeply satirical How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina offers Granta readers a verbal equivalent of the scenery shown above. In his scathing satire, he models the focus on myriad pathologies that travel writers and journalists seem determined to include when writing about Africa.

These covers are from African music collections produced by Putumayo. The label offers several other collections from (North) Africa on its Middle East page. AfroPop Worldwide offers an even greater variety of music from throughout the continent and beyond.

Learning about the cultural, physical, political, and economic geography can help those outside Africa better understand this enormous region that is home to one out of every seven humans, living in rural, urban, and suburban places in places that are dry, wet, flat, hilly in over 50 countries (depending on how one counts island nations such as Cape Verde) and speaking scores of languages.

As an example of what many of us are missing, I provide the results of two Google image searches for a single city representing less than one percent of the continent, but illustrating its diversity. The two groups of images were found by searching on Durban and "Durban people." Durban is an exceptionally diverse city (and the home of the fellow geographer who shared the acacia articles with me), but this random assortment of images is a nonetheless valuable glimpse of the richness of the continent as a whole.

In addition to geography resources, it is useful to seek news from Africa from media outlets that have reporters working throughout the continent. The Africa portal pages at Al-Jazeera, BBC, and NPR are good places to begin explorations.


Power is the ability to tell the story of another person, and to do so in a way that makes it the definitive story of that person -- or people. A key way to exercise that power is to choose the stage at which to begin telling the story.

Updates -- June 2018

The acacia may be overdone as a symbol, but of course it is a tree and deserves our respect. Another tree that is important throughout much of Africa is the baobab, which I first encountered when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona. where the entire campus is a carefully curated arboretum. I remember being stopped in my tracks the first time I saw one of these magnificent trees there.

I heard this story just a couple of days after reading -- and blogging about -- a new report on the degree to which the United States is unprepared to engage with the increasingly important continent of Africa.

Elevating Profits

The illusion of water shooting out of this model's chest is only the first of several disturbing features of this poster, which can be understood in terms of feminist, post-colonial, and world-systems perspectives.
The Representing

This poster -- appearing in duplicate above a shop in Huaracondo, Peru -- is problematic on several levels. As with many uses of women's bodies to sell products, the product being sold has no direct connection to the woman being represented. The phrase at the top of the poster reads like a critique of the poster itself, but is played without irony: "the interior is what is important."

The poster is part of an overwhelming tendency -- described in the documentary Miss Representation -- to market not only products but also particular ideals of beauty. These messages are damaging enough when they are pushed too far within a given society. The damage is compounded when such representations are taken across borders. As with any country, Peru is sufficiently diverse that the woman in this poster could be representative of some Peruvian women. But it stretches credulity to suggest that she is broadly representative, and in the region where this poster was found, it is simply implausible. What messages are internalized by the Quechua women and girls who see these posters? Or by the men and boys in their communities?

The Represented 

The poster is also deeply problematic at the level of the product itself. In this case, the "product" is water. As purveyors of consumer products in the global core compete for small slivers of market share, the real money to made is in expanding sales into the global periphery. Cosmetic and hygiene products have been among the sectors that pursue this strategy most aggressively, followed by soft drinks and fast food. Though the multinational corporation behind this campaign is based in Spain, it is no coincidence that this poster is next to a Coca Cola sign, as the U.S.-based firm Coke has pushed its way into virtually every corner of the earth, often capturing local water supplies and undermining public health.

The Agua Cielo campaign goes a step further, and again the poster does not flinch from the insult it is inflicting, using the word "life" without regard to the fact that it is seeking to commodify a life-giving substance that should be a human right, rather than an object of trade. That substance of course is water. The poster suggests that by purchasing Agua Cielo -- Heaven Water -- people can actually elevate their lives (specifically, it reads "Elevate your life"). Research on ecological marketing in Peru indicates that this poster is part of the company's broader greenwashing strategies. In addition to health claims, these strategies follow two lines familiar to consumers in the United States -- co-opting NGOs into meaningless "alliances" and bragging about slight reductions in the amount of plastic used to deliver something that should be coming from the tap (see my Cochabamba post for much more on this).

The red flag indicates that locally-made chicha is for sale. It is a mildly fermented corn beverage similar to those found in many parts of Latin America.
The bottled water is -- as in the United States, including my own "green" campus -- marketed alongside soft drinks. The results include a greater consumption of plastic -- which is damaging whether it is recycled or not -- and an increased incidence of diabetes.

The most prevalent offering in this shop is artificially sweetened soft drinks. Whether the brand appears to be local or global, almost all soft drinks are now produced by global companies such as Coca Cola, and it is in large part through these beverages that commodity corn -- heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers -- is replacing local varieties. On the patio behind the bottled beverages can be seen local blue corn drying in the sun. Drying corn and the red flag for chicha remain common sight throughout the Sacred Valley of Peru, but aggressive marketing of bottled beverages is hastening the demise of sustainable, genetically diverse crop production.

Monday, May 26, 2014


Yesterday morning as we flew into Cusco, our pilot seemed to have deliberately tipped the wing so we could have a good view of Salcantay -- it was amazing to see from above, and looked just about like it does on the satellite imagery above. (Pan and zoom to see more of this fascinating part of the world.)
This glorious vista brings to mind, however, the retreat of glaciers all over the world. The water stored in this form melts and feeds both ecosystems and crops below, throughout the Andes, the Himalayas, and other highlands throughout the world -- the kind of disparity in climate-change vulnerability that has been the focus of Mary Robinson.
Many of the world's refugees from climate change will be people who can no longer farm in areas near glaciers like this one. In some cases, those changes have already begun, as I wrote last year in The Most Important Town in the Americas.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Flag Futbol

Brazil is, of course, the most soccer-obsessed country on a planet full of soccer obsession. My first stay in Brazil was during the 1996 Olympics, so that football (aka soccer) was everywhere I turned, from local pickup games (I wisely opted not to join, probably saving myself some broken bones) to the usual national leagues to the Olympic games themselves, in which Brazil "only" won bronze. I learned that the word duration of an announcer's calling of the word "GOL!" was in proportion to the importance of a goal, and that if I heard it on my television -- or a neighbor's television -- I would hear firecrackers in the neighborhood in just a few seconds, in proportion to the number of Os in GOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!

It would seem, then, that Brazil would be a logical host for this year's World Cup, and it is in many ways. But Brazil is a country that is just beginning to make progress on serious issues of corruption and wealth inequality (Brazil is progressing as fast as the U.S. is regressing), so the HUGE public expenditures have led to considerable protest and even unrest.

So the World Cup is fraught, and the concerns are quite serious. But it is still the World Cup and it is still Brazil, so there will be much to celebrate and much to learn -- about the geography of the world in general and the geography of Brazil in particular.

It is in this context that Colombian superstar Shakira offers La La La. As the title suggests, it is not her most intriguing work in terms of lyrics. In fact, the song makes little sense to me, aside from the video. But with the lush visual performance, it is a great example of music as cultural geography. Specifically, it is an engaging exercise in corporeal vexillology. The comments section on YouTube shows that the video is sending people to their search engines in great numbers, all with the question, "What flag was THAT?"

If you are as intrigued by flags as I am -- though I really frustrate myself by not being able to remember them -- have a look at all the vexillology entries in this blog and even more vexillology on EarthView, which includes some quizzes.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Not Just Nye

I do not know how Bill Nye has replaced Al Gore as "the" face of climate science in the United States, but in both cases, I have seen deniers of the science attempt to shift the focus to these individuals, rather than the science.

I could find fault with Nye and Gore -- and I have -- but their association with the science is not relevant. Critics rant that Gore is a hypocrite and that Nye is not a real scientist, neither of which implies that the climate is not changing..

Congratulations to John Oliver for illustrating this so beautifully.

This video contains a bit more profanity than I normally host on my blog. The real obscenity, though, is the damage caused by climate denial.

The reason so many scientists agree that humans are causing the climate to change is that we are. As I explained in Frosty Denial, the physics is actually quite simple, and is the physical model of climate change is increasingly validated by the statistical evidence. I do not know anybody who finds this a pleasant or convenient reality, but other explanations for growing heat in the presence of heat-trapping gases have not been put forward.

Unable to accept such an inconvenient truth, carbon-economy defenders have argued that scientists would not be in agreement were it not for all the money they make from climate-related grants.

It is like Scooby Doo in reverse, with an angry old rich guy catching the shaggy young crooks.

Famously overpaid wheel-spinner Pat Sajak has joined that plucky band, not only excoriating the intellectual elites for their abuse of financial elites, but becoming a defender of campaigner against racial discrimination (sic) in the process.

As reported in Huffington Post, the racial reference is at this point a bit of a mystery.


Just after I posted this, I saw an important article by Peter Gwynne. The name might not be familiar, but the title of his article in Inside Science suggests that we have all heard of his work: My 1975 'Cooling World' Story Doesn't Make Today's Climate Scientists Wrong. The article requires careful reading, as it is by a scientist for other scientists. As he makes clear, his original article only qualifies as "evidence" if the discussion is being held at a talk-radio level.

Glaciers reflect long-term temperature averages. This is the McCarty Glacier in Alaska, 1909 and 2004.
The dates were two weeks apart -- July 30 and August 11, respectively

Indigenous Town

Mashpee is a small Cape Cod town with an interesting name and an even more interesting geography. Its establishment as an indigenous town began with a declaration of self-government on this date in 1833. Today just over one tenth of the population is indigenous, but the town retains its unique and complex identity as an indigenous community.

During my department's annual field camp on Cape Cod, we are very fortunate to explore the geography of Mashpee with Annawon Weeden, a local actor who played King Philip in the PBS film After the Mayflower.

We have also had the good fortune of taking our EarthView globe to the Quashnet School and Mashpee Middle School.

Read the whole story on MassMoments.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Butterfly Junk Food

This is a tough one for me. I love the butterfly bushes and the butterflies they attract. But they are apparently the lepidopterous equivalent of Snickers, and they are also bad neighbors to more wholesome butterfly food sources.
 Pretty as this picture is, Leah Zerbe explains that we should never plant butterfly bushes again. Rather, we should encourage sustainable, local food sources for the entire food web. To learn what will work better at specific U.S. locations, she recommends Douglas Tallamy's book Bringing Nature Home and the Native Plant Database at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Destination: Attention

Image: Shamelessly lifted from Facebook.
Smart phones have brought the whole world into classrooms and other face-to-face meetings, putting the pressure on all of us to be interesting, second-by-second. Where we might once have competed with daydreams, comic books, passed notes, inside jokes, or other sources of distraction, we now compete with the WHOLE WORLD being carried in the pockets of our students or coworkers.

Who can compete with that? Sometimes, not even the WHOLE WORLD itself!

See my Dose of Distraction post for more snarky humor and serious discussion of attention in a distracted age.

Crisp and Self-Assured

For my classes on the geography of the Global South, I use a text by Harm de Blij, a prolific geographer who died this spring. The day after he died, I received the latest edition of the book I use, and found that he and his co-authors had dedicated it to Malala Yousafzai.

When I was asked a few weeks later to participate in the reading of I Am Malala with our Honors Book Club, I agreed right away to do so. Our program will be in September, but I started reading the book right away. I am both moved by her story and learning a lot of geography from the background that is recounted in the opening chapters.

I am reading about this brave young woman at a time that the world is deeply concerned about a large group of young women in Nigeria who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram while daring to pursue their education. I have been following this as a story about human trafficking, which it is. But it is also a story about the education of women, as illustrated by the strange interactions among celebrity advocates for their release, Rush Limbaugh's disdain for that advocacy, and Jon Stewart's mockery of that criticism.

Stewart connects the bravery of Malala to the bravery of her sisters in Nigeria. In Too Crisp and Self Assured?, journalist Michel Martin connects the story of those young women to the career of Boston-born Barbara Walters, who is retiring this week. She started her career two years before I was born and is famous not only for her work but for her willingness to advocate for herself, and in turn for women and girls everywhere.

Sadly, the next story I read after hearing this inspiring story was that of the firing of New York Times senior editor Jill Abramson, illustrating the persistence of the glass ceiling while predictably bringing forth its apologists.
This is far from over.
Cartoon: Liza Donnelly

Getting Around to Procrastination

Charleston designer -- and blogger -- Jessica Hische explains my blogging perfectly.

This meta-image was created by anonymous students at Columbus College of Art & Design and
represents their own work perfectly.

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