Saturday, July 26, 2014

Nicaragua Contrast

About a decade ago, I made plans to lead a study tour on the geography of coffee to Nicaragua. I would go in January 2006, and then perhaps take the same concept to another country. As anybody who knows me is well aware, I fell in love with the place, and as I write this I am planning my ninth visit for January 2015. My wife has gone with me twice, and I am pleased -- as are my Nicaraguan friends -- that our daughter will be going with me this time.

My comfort in bringing both students and family members is my answer to the most common question I get about my travel there: "Is it safe?" Of course, no place is perfectly safe; murders happen even in our bucolic home town in New England. But Nicaragua is much safer than most people north of the Rio Grande would imagine, and is in fact among the least dangerous places in Latin America, despite having one of the highest levels of poverty.

As violence in Central America drives a refugee crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, it is important to understand the geography of that violence -- it is prevalent in four countries, three of which have been the "beneficiaries" of U.S. involvement. In What About Nicaragua?, Tim Rogers describes some of the reasons that Nicaragua is not part of the current crisis. (Thanks to my student Tom for finding this article!)

The article is not just cheerleading for the Sandinistas -- he points out some of the very real problems with Ortega's strange second run as president. But the article does call into serious question how and why the United States has continued disastrous policies in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Central America crime rates -- map by Fusion.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Capital of Latin America

I often ask students and audiences a quirky question: "What is the capital of Latin America?" Of course, it is a region of a couple dozen sovereign countries and the colonies of several empires, so there is no real capital. But if there were, I assert, it would be MIA: Miami International Airport. Specifically, the American Airlines hub at MIA is the nexus of most of the hemisphere, as illustrated in this 2002 route map.
Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Timetablist.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cabbage Hypos

From the newsfeed of the EPA's Facebook page (yes, there is such a thing) I learned the details of the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. I remember the events that triggered it, and was surprised to learn its tracking requirements were only in effect for four years, though every visit to a medical office reminds me that the lessons about the handling of "medical sharps" were learned. Or mostly learned -- I have seen medical waste during beach cleanups.

Whenever I think of this issue, I am reminded of "Sick of You," which is Professor Lou Reed's litany of indignities from of the waning days of the Reagan Administration.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coffee: Shifts in the Geography of Production

The International Coffee Organization was established by the United Nations to administer the International Coffee Agreement, by which producing and consuming countries used a series of yearly quotas to stabilize coffee production volumes and prices. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity on the planet (after oil), and wide swings in price and inventory had been seen as problematic for the industry itself and for the millions of people who earn their living as producers. The accord was in place from 1963 until 1990, when the United States withdrew, leading to the agreement's collapse.

The organization has re-emerged in recent years. As before, it is an unusual association in that it includes producers and consumers. It does not regulate the industry as it did previously, but it is fostering cooperation on a number of problems that threaten coffee production, such as poverty among producers (despite the billions of dollars to be made) and climate change.

Among its projects has been the release of a comprehensive history of the organization and of its member countries. Roast magazine is publishing highlights of the report on its Daily Coffee News blog, beginning with A Brief History, which focuses on shifts in production between the Agreement and post-agreement periods. Angola, for example, was once the fourth-largest producer but now produces only 33,000 bags (though this is up from a scant truckload a few years ago).

Many countries within the tropics grow one or both kinds of coffee, but of course within each country -- even the smaller ones -- coffee has a particular geography and is not found everywhere. This map from the German Coffee Association was included in the Distractify article 17 Awesome Facts That You Never Knew About Coffee. (Of course, most of my students know at least a few of the 17!)
For those wishing to do further research on coffee -- particularly those in the BSU community, librarian Pamela Hayes-Bohanan has created the Coffee MaxGuide, a portal to all of the online and on-shelf resources related to coffee at the Maxwell Library.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Riveting Malala

In her work Yes, She Can!, Texas muralist Anat Rosen envisions Malala as a modern Rosie the Riveter, the icon of U.S. women who provided much of the industrial might that helped to win World War II. 
Along with other geographers, I have been admiring the courage of Malala Yousafzai, a young activist who was nearly killed for advocating the education of girls in Pakistan. Hers is not a fight that is limited to the Islamic world, of course, as U.S. politics tilt ever further in the direction of the dystopian future portrayed in A Handmaid's Tale.

I am pleased to be reading her story -- I Am Malala -- with students in the BSU Honors Program this summer. I will be one of several faculty members leading discussions during a day-long program about the book in September. I am working with students in the program -- especially the geographers -- to develop  the Malala Honors Map, which will highlight all of the places mentioned in the rich story of her life.

At the time of this writing, the map includes only the location of the Salman Rushdie protests in Islamabad, but the students and I will be adding many more locations related to Malala's story as the summer progresses.

Misplaced Optimism

Because Brazil once had the greatest gap between its rich and its poor, scholars use the word Brazilianization to describe processes that concentration wealth. Brazil continues to have an extremely high wealth gap, but over the past decade, it has diminished. The United States has historically been more egalitarian and thereby more equal, but over the past decade that has been reversed by a series of policies motivated by political fetishes.

John Oliver explains how American optimism contributes to acceptance of a perversely rigged game. "If the economy were a little league game, someone would have called it by now."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Where Are the Songs?

Professor David Byrne is just one of the many musicians featured on Constantine Valhouli's interactive map of New York City. As explained on Mashable, he had friends help him use Google Maps to highlight locations mentioned in 200 popular songs of many genres, in and near New York City.
Small excerpt of the NYC Music Map
I call David Byrne of Talking Heads Professor Byrne because he teaches so much geography. Lessons on urban planning and world music are scattered throughout many posts on this blog that include his name. Without his pioneering work in cultural geography, my Musica project would never have happened. The subtitle of this iconic song is also one of several key quotes at the top of my Not-the-13th-Grade page.

I was so fortunate to have seen him perform this and other songs live one Halloween in Boston, about 30 years after the video above. His athleticism had scarcely diminished.

Monday, July 07, 2014

More Than Modified

This year is the sesquicentennial of what some consider the first modern geography book. In 1864, Vermont geographer and diplomat George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature. It would take another century for such a title to be seen as sexist, but the subtitle was ahead of its time and recognizes both men and women as ecological agents: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.

Marsh was in his prime just as the American frontier closed, and he was among the first to recognize the paradox of Manifest Destiny. As outlined in the Schoolhouse Rock classic "Elbow Room," what passed for resource planning for the first couple centuries of European settlement in North America (and really in South America, too) was simply to keep moving west. It was widely accepted that God had ordained that we should occupy the entire continent, but it still came as a bit of a surprise when we actually did.

Marsh had extended stays in both Italy and Turkey during this pivotal period, and especially in the latter he began to realize what happened as human population grew in place: the land changed, and not generally for the better. This allowed him to see changes in his native Vermont more clearly. Humans were affected by nature, to be sure, but nature -- no matter how vast it might seem -- could be affected by humans as well.

To some degree, Marsh was successful, and he deserves some of the credit for the first round of environmental conservation measures adopted by the United States. Those efforts were not enough, however, to overcome more than two centuries of simply getting resources elsewhere when they became scarce. Expansion as resource policy had become so deeply ingrained that the country turned to Plan B, which was for the colony to become a colonizer. This was, of course, at odds with our revolutionary rhetoric, so we have spent more than a century in deep denial of our place at the center of a global empire.

I was thinking about Marsh and the scant century and a half since we really began to recognize the human capacity to disrupt ecosystems, when I learned of a new an iPad app from NASA, based on a series of images that depict changes of many kinds that are taking place in the earth environment. The changes are of many kinds -- including floodier floods and droughtier droughts -- and most point to a growing influence of humans on the lands and waters that sustain us.
In 1996 I found myself in the center of these images, midway through the timespan depicted.
In many ways, this is where I became a geographer.
I recount the reasons and my findings on Rondonia Web.
I was drawn into environmental geography when I learned of one serious disruption -- tropical deforestation. It is the kind of change that Marsh would have recognized, though he could scarcely have imagined the speed and scale of that process.

Because the human population has grown about six-fold since Marsh was writing -- and the economy incalculably more than that -- these images depict changes that are beyond a scale that he could have imagined.

Not all change is visible, of course. The United States has recently -- and temporarily -- achieved what proponents call "energy independence" by the unregulated use of a new method of extracting fossil fuels. By shattering the earth's crust, hydraulic fracturing -- known as fracking -- makes available natural gas that was previously not economically viable to mine. Drilling companies displacing the environmental and social costs to neighbors and to the future, making a lot of money in the short term. The toxicity of ground water is one kind of invisible consequence; the seismic effects are another. As reported by The Guardian and others, the wastewater wells are causing a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes. Defenders are in two camps -- those who ignore the data and those who now argue that since they are relatively small earthquakes, this is not a serious problem.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Trending Ignorance

Seeing this on my Facebook newsfeed raises several questions, presented here in no particular order.

Some of these seem snarky, and are meant to be. Others are genuine questions.

1. How is it possible that this is the top story two days in a row?
2. What does "officially" mean in this sentence?
3. Who the flip is Eric Johnson?
4. Does this post build the trend?
5. Is Jessica Simpson still considered newsworthy?
6. How does this trend above all of the current stories about women's rights, immigration, and wars?
7. How does this trend above the World Cup?

Regarding #3, it is OK if I never find this answer. Regarding #4, if the answer is YES, I apologize to Malala, Margaret Atwood, and the rest of the universe.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Working with Limb Loss

I have to admit that I enjoy driving, despite all of the problems it creates. Aside from the chance to study landscapes through "windshield surveys" (which is what professional geographers call "driving around"), one of the great benefits is hearing fascinating stories on public radio.

We are members of WBUR in Boston, which produces a lot of the most interesting content, and today was an especially fine example. The very warm and gregarious Robin Young interviewed her colleague Miles O'Brien about the months of denial he experienced when losing most of an arm in a freak accident. Because he lost the arm far from home, he actually kept reporting on major stories -- such as the lost Malaysian airliner -- without colleagues or even his family knowing what had happened. In many ways, it turns out, he did not even let himself know what a loss he had suffered.
Miles O'Brien -- WBUR
I share this story on a geography journal because I think it resonates with experiences I have had with my students each year since 2009. That was the third year of my Geography of Coffee travel course, but the first in which we met with communities that were overcoming the effects of landmines. We were led to these communities through the efforts of BSU alumnus Michael Lundquist, who directs the Polus Center and its subsidiary project, the Coffeelands Landmine Victims Trust. In these communities, we meet people who have suffered limb loss through war, accident, or disease, and whose focus is on habilitation for themselves and others. It is necessary to process and cope with the loss, as O'Brien has discovered, but as he has also discovered, humor is part of moving forward.
When he joined us at the PLUSAA wheelchair factory, where custom chairs are built by and for people with limb loss, Michael Lundquist challenged my students and me to wheelchair races as part of overcoming the stigma and discomfort many of us have around limb loss. 
Although some of the Polus Center projects in Nicaragua have now become independent of the organization, I still bring my students to them, and will recommend listening to the O'Brien interview as part of the preparation for our travel course.

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