Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vertical Space

From Bucharest comes a very interesting geography of just a few square meters of land -- as it is occupied in vertical layers. Romanian photographer Bogdan Gîrbovan  selected one of the city's many identical apartment blocks, and then chose a location within that building.

He took this photograph in an apartment on the top floor:
He took photographs from the same position on each floor below, in apartments that had been identical initially. In this way he demonstrates how humans modify space at a very fine scale. All ten images are presented -- and stacked -- on the Bright Side blog.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Marawa, Karawa, Tarawa

Sea, Sky, Land
Sea, Sky, People

In the language of the I-Kiribati people of Kiribati (key-rah-BAHS), the words for sea, sky, and land rhyme, as their world is very much at the intersection of all three, and tides are the rhythm of their lives. Just as telling, although they have dozens of words for the fruit of a palm tree, they have only one word -- tarawa -- for both land and people. The fate of one is the fate of the other.
Fifty thousand people share the main island of Kiribati, known simply as Tarawa ("Land"). All of its six square miles are 8 feet or less below sea level. The dark green around the edges are mangroves, a key to the survival of these islands and their Tarawa ("People"). Image and article: Kadir Van Lohuizen and Kennedy WarneNational Geographic
As with the other tens of thousands of people living on atolls in the warm Pacific, climate change presents an existential crisis for the I-Kiribati. Expertise in fishing developed over  three millennia is proving inadequate as rising seas change the habits of the fish in the surrounding seas. Changing hydrology has already meant a changing diet, as traditional varieties of tarot can no longer be grown. Because a warming ocean brings more frequent bleaching of coral, the islands will have less sediment with which to match the rising tides. 

As world leaders (an over-used and often ill-deserved term) turn their attention to climate change for a few weeks surrounding the Paris climate talks, it would behoove us all to consider the problem from the point of view of low-lying island states, particularly those of the Pacific Ocean.

Among these, the story of Kiribati -- about which I wrote in Climate Foxholes in 2013 -- is perhaps the most poignant. It is a country that is already losing ground -- quite literally to the gradual advance of the ocean. As serious as that gradual inundation is, the battering of Kiribati and similarly situated countries by wind and wave is much more complicated and a much greater threat, as several recent reports bear out.

To learn more and to stay informed, visit the web site of the Alliance of Small-Island States (AOSIS) and follow its efforts.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Tea for the Coffee Maven

I teach three courses on coffee and one on tea. Because the tea course is only one credit-hour, this is a ratio that is proportional to my knowledge and enjoyment of the two beverages. They are very different in geography, flavor, history, and preparation, but I am always interested in connections between the two.

From 44 North Coffee in Maine -- by way of The Salt on NPR -- comes just such a connection. The normally-discarded husk of the coffee cherry -- known in Spanish as the cascara -- can be dried and brewed, just like the hibiscus tea (jamaica) that is popular in the coffee-growing areas of Central America. According to the reporting, the tea can be made from the husks whether the cherries are dried whole (natural or dry process) or depulped at harvest time (wet process).

The article answers another question some of my students and I have had for some while -- can a wine or beer be made directly from the coffee fruit? New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado says yes, at least on the beer side, and ran a limited batch recently. Too bad I did not realize that when I was in Ft. Collins. The reasons to return keep accumulating!

My first order is on its way ... scheduled to arrive for the last session of this semester's tea class, and the first session of next semester's coffee class. Stay tuned for a review.

Deluge Without Equal

From the excellent program The World, I learned that Chennai -- the fourth-largest city in India -- is experiencing a flooding disaster comparable to Katrina right now.

The BBC reports on rescue efforts as a week of continuous rain was followed by the most intense rains in more than a century in this southern city also known as Madras. Elsewhere on BBC, activist Nityanand Jayaraman blames the severity of the damage on unregulated development and poor infrastructure planning. It is true that the vulnerability of the world's poor to climate extremes is made worse by lack of resilience. It is also true that no city in the world would be prepared to receive a half-meter (18 inches!) of rainfall in a single day, as Chennai did this week.

From a Climate Justice perspective, this is a case of the very uneven geography of climate-change consequences. But increasingly intricate global economic connections mean that the Core "suffers" along with the periphery, as Paddy Padmanabhan explains eloquently on Quartz. I use quotes around the word "suffers" because the inconvenience to customers and financial losses to shareholders are trivial in comparison to the lives and households currently being swept away. Some may remember the supply-chain interruptions Padmanabhan cites from earlier floods.
A fascinating aspect of 21st-century disaster is the role of social media in recovery and reporting, even in places with extremely low incomes and poor infrastructure. Smart phones proliferate in many surprising places, to the extent that the British newspaper The Guardian is able to solicit first-hand reports directly from the scene of the disaster.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Energy Futures Make Coal History

To a great extent, coal has built the modern world in general, and the modern U.S. economy in particular. As Simon Winchester has shown, the search for coal to fuel the industrial revolution also revolutionized the study of geology. Many members of my own family worked in West Virginia mines throughout the early and middle twentieth century. The industry continues to employ thousands of people and it holds billions of dollars in capital assets.

So the demise of the industry is no trifling matter. But for the future of the planet, that demise is absolutely essential, and news of its progress is most welcome. On the WBUR program here & Now, Michael Grunwald explains how a combination of economic, regulatory, and political factors have led to the shuttering of 1/3 of U.S. coal-burning power plants. 
Burning coal along the Potomac.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
This story offers a bit of encouragement as the world faces some critical decisions related to climate change. Few would have thought this possible a decade ago, given the political and economic interests committed to maintaining the status quo.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Royal Cartographic Decree

When I stand with students --usually elementary or middle-school -- in front of the Africa side of EarthView, I usually ask them to repeat a simple phrase in unison: "Africa is not a country!"

I do this, of course, because I so often encounter people who speak or write as if it is a single country, rather than a continent of 55 countries (or more, depending on which neighboring islands are counted).

From Michael Blanding's fascinating book The Map Thief, I recently learned that my declaration about Africa echoes the words of King Ferdinand VI of Spain , who decreed in 1747 that "California is not an island!"

He was frustrated by the fact that a cartographic error made by British mathematician Henry Briggs in 1622 had been copied so often that it was thought to be true more than a century later. Eventually, the king's decree -- and better field work -- fixed the error, though the notion of California as an island in the figurative sense remains popular.

Click on map to enlarge.
For more, visit 18 California-iland maps at
I learned all of this on the same day that I learned that my colleague Dr. Joseph Kerski has made available the materials from a workshop and presentation entitled Why Maps Matter. It is part of the ongoing educational work of ESRI, a major GIS software provider.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Mainstreaming Coffee Justice

I have the great privilege of counting some of the world's best coffee farmers among my friends. I also know of coffee retailers who do their best -- through certified fair trade or other models -- to connect customers to producers in ways that enhance the social and environmental sustainability of production.

But after more than two decades of growing attention to specialty coffee, fair trade, and other forms of innovation for sustainability, all of these efforts continue to reside in niche markets -- even boutique markets. The vast majority of customers do not know anything about where their coffee comes from, and seem to prefer not knowing. "Cheaper than a cup of coffee" remains a byword in fundraising, to signify amounts of money too small to notice -- despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on coffee each year, and the millions of people who depend on their miniscule shares of those dollars.
As I have been thinking about my coffee seminars in the spring 2016 semester -- the tenth year of these seminars -- I have been considering an assignment that would directly address the question of mainstreaming coffee justice.

That is, I have been hoping that at least some of the student research in the course could be devoted to options for improving the lives of coffee farmers who will, realistically, never be part of the elite ranks of specialty producers. Coffee is an industry that provides only modest rewards to those at the very top of the quality scale, and essentially no rewards to everyone else. The latter part of this equation must change.

Here is where George Clooney enters the conversation. Yes, George Clooney, nephew of Rosemary. Two aspects of his off-screen work have been overlapping of late, with interesting results. He is a celebrity face for Nespresso, the coffee-pod branch of Nestle -- about as mainstream and far from quality as one can get in coffee. He has also been politically active in South Sudan. The result has been a nascent attempt to develop coffee production in the world's newest country, and to get Nescafe to think about the (obvious?) connection between sustaining coffee producers and sustaining coffee production.

So far, the corporations involved in Clooney's efforts seem to be discovering problems that those of us who study coffee communities have long known, and the remedies they are beginning are inadequate. But their recognition -- however belated -- of the crucial role of farmer viability in their businessses may provide a vital opening for bringing some modicum of justice to mainstream coffee.

Both the country of South Sudan and our department's beautiful wall map were new when South Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Akec Khoc, paid a visit. We were pleased that the new map shows not only his country, but some details that he mentioned in a talk that day. He is shown here with several BSU faculty members. L-R, Dr. Madhu Rao, Dr. Khoc, Dr. Vernon Domingo, Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan, and Dr. Jabbar Al-Obaidi.
... and Climate

Environmental concerns around coffee have centered on organic, shade-grown, and bird-friendly coffee. These practices tend to require a lot of additional work on the part of the farmers growing the coffee, and they command premiums from concerned buyers, myself included. Somehow the dollar-per-pound premium at retail translates to pennies or a dime at the farm gate, even in fair-trade models, but at least the farming communities get the benefit of cleaner air and water, and less exposure to chemicals in the field.

Just as important as the potential threats to the environment posed by conventional coffee-growing methods are the environmental threats to coffee production, particularly from climate change. The best coffee -- like the best wine -- depends on delicate and rare combinations of cloud-forest microclimate and volcanic soils. A skilled farmer can work with these to coax amazing flavors from a plant whose fruit would be unremarkable in a different location.

The farmers I know who work in such locations have been worrying almost constantly about climate disruptions for a decade or more, but most conventional farmers have until now been relatively unaffected. Mainstream coffee has not been as vulnerable to climate change as the rare specialty coffees are, but that is about to change, according to a new study by World Coffee Research.
Click image to enlarge. Both optimal (purple) and suitable (other colors) conditions for coffee are expected to become more scarce in East Africa.
The forecast decreases in suitable coffee lands pose an existential threat not just to the elite segments of coffee, but to coffee in general. Sadly, this may be what finally motivates some folks to get serious about climate change.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Akademik and Counterintuitive

When the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy was caught in thick ice between Australia and Antarctica just after Christmas 2013, its crew and owners were dismayed, but among climate deniers it evoked a definite sense of Schadenfreude. The expansion of sea ice that caused this mishap was taken as evidence that the planet could not be warming. If the planet is getting warmer, they asked, how could a cold place have more ice than ever?

Decades ago, geographers and other planetary scientists realized that the overall warming caused by increasing concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases would have complicated results. Just as cake batter that heats too rapidly will not cook evenly, so too would a complicated system of fluids (air and water) at the earth's surface behave somewhat chaotically when experiencing unprecedented rates of change in temperature. For this reason, "global warming" gave way to "climate change" or even "climate disruption" as descriptive terms.

Since we are living through the first and only "experiment" of its kind, we cannot know all of the implications of unprecedented increases in carbon dioxide (increased nearly 50 percent in just two centuries), methane, and other gases. This is precisely why scientists and activists have urged caution -- alas, to little avail.

The area of ice cover in the Southern Ocean  continues to expand, though little is known about the ice volume, and the causes of the expansion are not yet fully understood. Among climate skeptics, this expansion of ice-covered surface is far more interesting that then disappearance of ice at the opposite pole, even though that loss is THREE TIMES GREATER than the gains in the south.

The expanding ice is important. It reflects solar energy, which will slow -- however infinitesimally -- the overall warming of the planet. But it does not negate the evidence of climate change provided by droughts, floods, wildfires, coral bleaching, and sea-level rise elsewhere on the planet..

NASA scientists provide a brief explanation of the see-saw phenomenon between the two roofs of the world in this video, as well as two more extensive discussions of the current state of our understanding of Antarctic ice here and here.


In college I majored in geography, but in high school I lettered in math. So I decided to put this phenomenon in some perspective, mathwise.

Arctic Ice
     Arctic Ice      Annual
Earth Surface Area 510,072,000 km2 1.53%  0.0037%
Earth Ocean Area  361,900,000 km2 2.15% 0.0052%
Southern Ocean Area 21,960,000 km2 35.43% 0.0861%
Antarctic Sea Ice Maximum 7,780,000 km2 100% 0.2429%
Antarctic Sea Ice Annual Gain 18,900 km2 100.%
Arctic Sea Ice Annual Loss 53,900 km2 35%

This is to say that at 7,780,000 square kilometers, the greatest-ever extent of Antarctic sea ice (defined conservatively as ocean areas with 15% or more ice cover) covered about 1.5 percent of the earth's surface, about 2.5 percent of all the earth's ocean surface, and just over 1/3 of the Southern Ocean -- that narrow band of ocean poleward of 60 degrees south latitude.

The annual ice gain is one half of one one-hundredth of a percent of the world's oceans, and about one-third of the amount of ice surface lost annually in the Arctic. It is not trivial -- it is an area larger than Connecticut -- but it hardly means we can quit worrying about the other 99+ percent of the planet.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Language Learning

As I wrote recently in Land of the Free and Home of the Cafe, fear seems to leading many to abandon core values. Fear of the "other" is compounded by ignorance, as employees of Southwest Airlines recently demonstrated.

The airline has cited safety and security, rather than apologize to these customers after initially barring them from a flight. Fortunately, Mahar Khalil had the presence of mind to call 911 when his rights were being violated, and local police responded appropriately. Some passengers continued to give the travelers a hard time, but Khalil and his friend Anas Ayyad prefered to remember those who treated them kindly.

The incident began when passengers overheard them speaking Arabic. It is likely that these passengers did not even know what language they were hearing, but presumed that it was Arabic. This was the sole basis of alerting the gate agents, who then barred these men -- who had already cleared security -- from the flight.

Lack of language learning reinforces xenophobia, while learning languages makes people a bit less paranoid when they hear other languages being spoken. These are among the reasons I am encouraging my own university to reinstate and expand its language requirement a decade after its inexplicable removal. Two quotes on Small World -- the web page I created about the controversy -- suggest additional reasons:
Man's [sic] mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.Oliver Wendell Holmes
You can buy whatever you want in English. To sell, however, you need to speak other languages.Overheard

In other words, language learning is great exercise for the mind, and it is good for business. The latter point is echoed in post on the Forbes business blog: Leadership Skills Multiply with Language Skills. Unfortunately, the post could use a bit of editing, but writer Rawn Shah does share a lot of evidence of the value of language learning, while pointing out that much of Europe is way ahead of the United States in this area.
Map: Language expert JakubMarian via Forbes.
The Forbes article includes this map showing that throughout Europe it is common to know more than one language. In an increasingly globalized world (which we always talk about preparing our students for), U.S. college graduates are in competition with people elsewhere. And those people know languages.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Scrambled States

As reported by Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post blog and others, the presidential campaign of Dr. Ben Carson briefly aired a map that seriously scrambled the New England states.
Mashable blogger Max Knoblauch zooms in to show the trade-offs implied by the creative cartography of the Carson team, and he has some fun with the imaginary lands that would result.
It took me a while to figure out exactly what had gone awry here. The designer actually kept five of the New England states together, but keeps only Vermont in its correct position relative to New York. The rest is moved northeast, so that Connecticut borders northern Vermont. On both maps above, eastern Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts get a bit of a haircut.
As Ingraham's article indicates, it is just in time for Geography Awareness Week, and it is also the case that Dr. Carson's team is far from alone: geographic illiteracy is rampant. 
Our late, great friend Harm de Blij used to write 1,000 letters each year to media outlets that had published geographically erroneous maps or text.
In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Geographic Alliances and allies in the state legislature -- from both major parties -- are trying to improve on the situation. A geography bill currently under consideration would create a commission to examine ways to restore geography in the curriculum and in teacher preparation. Both were cut about 15 years ago, so that it is rare to find a high-school geography teacher in Massachusetts, and it is essentially illegal to become one.

Incidentally, the purpose of Dr. Carson's map is to promote the idea of closing the U.S. to refugees, a common reaction that I address in another post: Land of the Free and Home of the Cafe.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nicaragua: Tenth Anniversary Tour

Since January 2006, I have had the privilege of taking students to Nicaragua almost every year to learn about coffee directly from some of the world's most remarkable coffee growers. Over 100 of us have made the journey from Bridgewater to Matagalpa, some more than once. I consider it a home, as I have been warmly welcomed nine times so far, and never pass a day without thinking of these Coffeelands.

This winter, many of the students who hoped to take the course were unable to do so, and we canceled the program for the first time. Not going to Nicaragua in our tenth anniversary year, though, is hard to accept. Our BSU Office of Study Abroad and our wonderful friends at Matagalpa Tours have worked together to offer a pilot program -- BSU's first non-credit educational program.

During Spring Break 2016 -- March 5 to 12 -- Pamela Hayes-Bohanan and I will take a group to Nicaragua for an abbreviated visit that focuses on the coffee-growing areas, though it will be outside of the coffee harvest season. The two-week, credit-bearing version of Geography of Coffee Travel Course will return in January 2017.

March 5-12, 2016. Details and application HERE.

Rio Doce Disaster

Ironically, Rio Doce means "Sweet River," but this river in Southeastern Brazil is the site of an environmental disaster that is bitter indeed. The disaster occurred at Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais, a state whose very name means "General Mines" and which has been the location of just above kind of metal mining one can think of. The breeches on November 5th destroyed the small community of Bento Rodrigues, and toxic muds continue to flow toward the Atlantic Ocean.

The scale of the damage caused by the collapse of two mining dams is difficult to exaggerate.

More of the story is told by Greenpeace and by Reuters.

I learned of this story from a Brazilian student who is from Espirito Santo, a small state that is downstream from the disaster, and toward which the toxic waters and sediments are moving. From her I also learned that many in Brazil are comparing this to the Fukushima disaster in Japan, in which lack of disaster preparedness led to a massive release of toxic material, affecting thousands of people. So far, neither the mine owners nor government officials have been willing to respond adequately to the scope of the disaster.

This dramatic images and haunting music of this video capture the anguish and frustration many in Brazil are experiencing two weeks after the breeches, as they demand a more thorough response from both industry and government.

In some ways, the Rio Doce collapse is similar to the 1889 Johnstown Flood near Pittsburgh, in which a privately-owned dam was neglected and collapsed (see also NPR interview). In that case, no long-term effect from toxic waste was involved, but the immediate death toll was much higher, as a wall of water killed 2,200 people in very short order.

Like the Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima itself, both crimes remind us that although climate change is our single biggest environmental hazard, it is far from the only one.

UPDATE November 23, 2015

According to ABC News and other sources, the toxic tailings have now reached the Atlantic coast, after polluting approximately 200 miles of river along the way.
Photo: O Globo
Additional resources

This is both a rapidly developing story and a situation that has many facets and that will be with the people of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, and possibly other coastal locations for decades. Below are a few resources for those interested in learning more and in helping in some way.

RioDoce.Help is a clearinghouse for real-time information about assistance. It is a bit tricky to navigate at first, but it does include both English- and Portuguese-language tools for connecting donors to specific people in need.

Greenpeace provides information about the disaster on its main site and information on how to help (como ajudar) on its Brazil site.

The Globo news site also provides news about aid in Portuguese, along with maps of the affected area.

¡Sí Problemo!

In geography, the real world is a big part of what we do. If we think backward from what we want to solve to what we need to understand in order to work on solutions, the study of geography is often a key part of preparation.

Of course, geographers will also need to learn from related disciplines (fortunately, all disciplines are related to geography) and from their own independent explorations, from travel, and from the study of languages.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Land of the Free and Home of the Cafe

I share this as a reminder -- in the wake of terrible attacks in Paris -- of what our country can be. If we want the bragging rights of a free and brave nation, we have to work at it. Terrorists half a world away know this, and they are challenging us either to live our values or to abandon them.

I am an optimist -- otherwise I could not be a teacher -- so I think we will get through this crisis and be the stronger for it. But not if we give in to our fears.

Herewith, then, are brief links to several voices making the case that as we work against the terrorists, we should not also work against their victims, which is exactly what many are calling for at the moment.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argues that ISIS Wants Us to Think Refugees are the Enemy. Even if we do not think of them as the enemy, treating them as the enemy will have the same exact effect, Giving ISIS Exactly What it Wants, according to Daniel Marans.

To resist this, we can examine why Fear Drives Out Compassion, and work to overcome this natural reaction. Both the fear and resistance to that fear can be bipartisan, as statements by Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice make clear.

Some more detailed analysis of the prospect of refusing refugees is provided by Max Fisherwho includes constitutional issues and the vetting process in this discussion. Elise Foley provides more information on the screening process.

It is at this point that many will point to the inevitable costs and risks. And of course there are both. But the costs and risks we are being asked to bear are a tiny fraction of those already being borne in Europe and by several of Syria's neighbors, such as Turkey. And, believe it or not, Syria itself actually HOSTS more refugees from other countries than the number of Syrians who would be hosted in the U.S. under President Obama's plans.

(Those who urge Syria's neighbors to do even more can consider doing more for the refugees in our own corner of the world, including women from Central America, or other refugees world-wide.)

Of course, the refugee discussion is part of a broader debate this year about migration in general, whose long history Spencer Dukoff examined back in August. As he pointed out, we love to brag about our melting pot, but we've tended to dislike each new ingredient.

I will digress into the world of mathematics with brief mentions of non-Muslim terror threats and the non-terror threat of climate change, before returning to coffee to wrap up this post.

Yes, coffee. More specifically, coffee shops. After a hiatus for caution and for mourning, Parisians are taking to their cafes again, determined not to live in fear.

A gift from France. Our ally that tried to dissuade us from the deadly folly of the Iraq War, and got mainly derision (remember "Freedom Fries?") for their efforts. May we remember their example.

Minutes after I posted this, French President Hollande -- in the midst of discussing decisive action by French police -- exhorted his country not to engage in reprisals against Muslim neighbors, whom he reminded them are also victims of terrorism. He also renewed his commitment to welcome 30,000 refugees.


Steve Sack of the Star-Tribune captures this moment, in which many are choosing exactly the path ISIS desires.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pole-Vaulting Troubadore

During Arlo Guthrie's recent concert at the fabulous Zeiterion in New Bedford, he played a song with an infectious melody and lyrics that were only vaguely familiar. So I found the song on YouTube, and thought he said something about Baltimore. Checking the lyrics, I found that the line I was mis-hearing is actually:

Coming in from London from over the pole

Which of course is geographic! He is referring to the great-circle route from London to Los Angeles. Counter-intuitively, one leaves London headed northwest to get to Los Angeles, which is to the southeast. You can try this kind of routing on a globe by stretching string from one point to another. You can also do it more precisely at Great Circle Mapper.
The lesson, alas, is not entirely accurate. A London-Los Angeles flight does go poleward, but it only gets to about 62 degrees north latitude, not breaking the Arctic Circle.
As for the rest of the geography of the song, we'll save that for another day -- the traveler has a "couple of ki's" he would rather not reveal to Customs.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Cafe Crawl for Credit

"For me, coffee is a way to connect our students to the wider world." -James Hayes-Bohanan, geography professor #HumansofBSU
Posted by Bridgewater State University on Friday, November 13, 2015

I am very pleased to have been included in my university's #HumansofBSU series of vignettes about members of the campus community. I am even more pleased that it was one of my students who suggested I be invited to participate. It was a great opportunity for me to talk about the relationship between two of my favorite subjects -- geography and coffee -- and how both relate to my work with students. More on those relationships can be found in Coffee Bellwethers -- a somewhat longer video recorded in April of this year as part of the first annual TEDxBSU event. My Geography of Coffee web site points to many more facets of the work, and I enjoy giving occasional public lectures on coffee to a wide variety of audiences in our region. (Note the lectures link seriously needs updating, but the frequency and types of such lectures continue in a similar vein.)
Coffeelands World Gifts Espresso Cafe connects customers to their local community and the world community of coffee growers like no other. It will be part of the Coffee Week (NOT Weak) course in July 2016.
Travel Courses
The real opportunities for learning, of course, come in my credit-bearing courses on the subject, in which I am able to serve as a sort of bridge between my students and the many extraordinary coffee experts I am privileged to know. The courses, mentioned in the video above, include a travel course (a.k.a. study tour) in Nicaragua each January. The course last two weeks and usually costs just under $3,000. Well over 100 people have participated since the first tour in 2006. Everyone who has gone agrees that it is money well spent, but of course not everybody has that kind of money to spend.

Because I also know that a number of area teachers are interested but cannot travel in January, I'm hoping to offer a Peru version of the trip some day. Meanwhile, because our travel course did not get enough students to run in January 2016, we are going to pilot a new kind of academic travel -- a non-credit tour of the coffeelands of Nicaragua in January 2016. The cost will be about $1600, and details will be posted here by November 20.

Classroom Courses
With over a dozen sections offered since 2007, the other coffee class mentioned in the video is a Second-Year Seminar entitled the Secret Life of Coffee. Well over 200 students have taken this course, including about a dozen who participated in the travel course as well. In addition to general discussions of the coffee industry and the book Javatrekker, students report on coffee shops as individuals and work in small groups to organize a major coffee tasting and fair for the campus community.

As popular as the seminar is, many interested students are not able to take it because only second-year students are eligible. For years, I have been looking for a third way, and just this week -- between the recording of the "Humans" video and its posting online, the university announced a new course format that is perfect for a new course.

The Third Way
In order to promote new approaches to summer teaching, the university is supporting one- and two-week programs that would meet every day for a full or half day, respectively. The idea is to allow longer time frames for different kinds of experiences, including regional travel and guest speakers, and an overall more intensive learning experience that might be easier for some students to schedule.

Given this format, it did not take long to develop a week-long program, and my brilliant wife Pamela (who named the Secret Life of Coffee course) suggested a play on the word "week." Hence:

GEOG 400: Coffee Week (NOT Weak)
That really is the proposed title, with tentative dates of Monday to Friday, July 18-22, 2016 (if not the week before). This will be a three-credit course, available to all. I will soon know details of the cost, if any, of proposed cafe visits. Below are the course description and a tentative schedule.

The purpose of this course is to learn about coffee as a global commodity, an agricultural product, and a cultural vehicle. Drawing on more than a decade of experience and contacts in all segments of the industry, this course is an intensive exploration of the physical, human, and environmental geography of coffee. Through readings, lectures, film, music, and site visits, students will emerge from the week with a much greater appreciation for coffee and the 10 million people who make a living from this globally popular beverage. The course culminates with a service project in which the students share their newfound coffee knowledge with the campus and surrounding community.

Meets Daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Order of activities subject to change

Café Jumpstart – local cafe
Coffee Workshop – field to cup
Roasting lecture by BSU alum / master roaster
Café Jumpstart – local cafe 
Roasting field trip – 2 specialty roasters in our region
Café Jumpstart – local cafe
Coffee on currency, stamps, and film
Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History
Café Crawl – visiting innovative cafés throughout the region, including Coffeelands World Gifts Espresso Cafe in Clinton (shown above)
Café Service – creating a temporary, teaching café for the campus community


I'm glad you asked! Current BSU students can just look for GEOG 400 in the listings for summer classes. The course has no prerequisites -- the 400 is just a number applied to all of our special-topics classes. And what topic is more special than coffee? That's right: none.

For non-BSU students, we have a single office to help navigate the application, registration, payment, and transfer bureaucracies. Visit the BSU SUMMER page of our College of Continuing Studies for all the details, or call 508-531-2788.

Then choose your favorite travel mug and clear your calendar for a week of caffeinated learning!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Climate in the Rearview Mirror

At the risk of adding to the already rich mix of metaphors in Professor Callan Bentley's excellent post on his Mountain Beltway blog, his work reminds me that the climate I grew up with is receding in the rearview mirror. It never pays to be too nostalgic, and that is certainly the case when it comes to climate. In so many ways, my daughter will never know the world I grew up in, and a lost climate is just part of that. Something about passing the 400 ppm mark for the final time, though, should give us all pause.

On his blog -- hosted by the American Geophysical Union -- he explains that although the global concentration of carbon dioxide passed the  400 ppm mark for the first time about 18 months ago, it passed it for the last time this past Sunday.
As Al Gore explained in An Inconvenient Truth, the observatory at Mauna Loa provides a long-term estimate of temporal changes in global carbon dioxide concentrations, because CO2 mixes very evenly in the troposphere. For reasons that professor Bentley explains (i.e., geography), the concentration varies oscillates quite steadily over a range of about 8-10 ppm each year. But it has been ratcheting up steadily for decades, going up 9-10 but coming down only 7-8. I would love to play a game of chance with anyone who believes these are "random fluctuations."

The number was 280 when carbon-based industrialization began, and was 350 when I was in college. The climate talks in Paris at the end of this month will be considered successful if they limit future increases. But we -- and our children and their children -- will almost certainly not see the number this "low" again.

I provide a bit more context for this graphic on my general climate change page, and although I think trying to convince people of the "reality" of climate change should not take too much of our time, I have done exactly that on my posts Climate Foxholes, the Business Case, and Frosty Denial.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Sertão: Dry Lives and Cold War

From the University of Cincinnati film archives comes a 1964 film that provides as much insight into Cold War thinking about Latin America as it does its ostensible subject, the prolonged drought in the sertão -- the "Barren Lives" region of Brazil.

The sertão is also the region of forró music, The widely-known Asa Branca and the more modern (if obscure) Chover are among many forró songs specifically about drought. See my Musica: Brazil page for these examples.

The film is entitled Brazil the Troubled Land, and was produced by McGraw-Hill, apparently for classroom use. I will actually be using it in my own classes, both because of the lessons it intends to convey and because of the unintended lessons about U.S. attitudes toward Brazilian peasants in particular and economic disparity in Latin America in general.

The intended lessons are about the bleak landscape of the Brazilian Northeast and the difficulties of life in perpetual drought. Visually, the 25-minute piece made for U.S. classrooms strongly resembles the 100-minute epic by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, which I studied as a film adaptation of Vidas Sêcas and as an exemplar of Brazilian Cinema Novo (New Cinema). That film can be found on Amazon and on YouTube, and preceded the classroom piece by just one year. Both films show the Northeast as a place of hard work, dry lands, and bleak prospects for those who make their living most directly from the land.

Of course, the drought is both a physical and a social phenomenon. Everyone experriences the same climate, but not everyone experiences it the same way. The Troubled Land film hints at land tenure as the real problem in the sertao, but couches this mainly about the threat that creates for the United States. The minifundio/latifundio (small farm/big farm) problem is illustrated in rather grotesque fashion, as a peasant family explains that they need more land on which to work and a fazendero jokes about killing those who try to organize.

The narrator also explains that life expectancy for peasants is in the 30s, implying that it has to do with the climate itself, rather than social inequality. From the work of La Isla Foundation among sugarcane workers in Nicaragua and elsewhere, it is evident that long hours in the hot sun with minimal hydration may make sugar harvesting one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

But all of this is couched in terms of the threat that peasant organization might pose for the United States. Both films emerged shortly after the Cuban Revolution, and in the United States the greatest concern was not for the livelihood of workers but for the possible "domino effect" of the revolution.

The film was produced in the same year as the coup that began two decades of military dictatorship in Brazil. This was a dictatorship that had the support of the United States government, as did many in Latin America and beyond.

BRAZIL THE TROUBLED LAND (1964) from HMH Archive on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Paris Pivot?

Every year since 1995, the United Nations has convened a Conference of the Parties (COP) to address climate change, most notably in 1998 when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, though never ratified by major parties such as the United States.

Better known as climate-change conferences, these meetings are where action at the level of the nation-state is negotiated. Most years, expectations are low, and they are certainly not exceeded. Every few years, reason for higher expectation will be found, as in the runup to the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen (which I dubbed Hopenhagen, only to be disappointed almost before it started).

At this writing, hopes are attaching to the upcoming meeting in Paris, whose main goal is a "guardrail" commitment to limiting further warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (that's 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has been a moving target for some years now -- not more than two more, please! 

The term "guardrail" refers to the emphasis on limiting overall change, which of course is important. Equally important, however, is the need to address the differential vulnerabilities of people to climate change. However much further warming takes place, some people will be more vulnerable than others, and an exclusive focus on global targets necessarily means outcomes that are uneven, perhaps even fatally so. The uneven geography of vulnerability is is one of the central concerns of climate justice, and something to watch as the Paris conference unfolds.

The geography of responsibility is another important concern, however, and the pre-conference negotiations are all about countries pushing each other to make commitments to the "guardrail" target in proportion to their responsibility for greenhouse emissions.

In a recent essay on NPR, Nell Greenfieldboyce compares the problem to that of friends trying split a bar tab. It is a useful analogy, but she errs slightly in putting the emphasis on what various parties can afford to pay, rather than what they should pay. Instead of asking a wealthier friend to kick in a few extra bucks, as she suggests in the essay, those who have enjoyed a few extra cocktails while their friends sipped on soft drinks should be the ones to step up when the bill comes.

Unfortunately, in each of the previous conferences, the major parties have simply chosen to order another round in order to put off paying the tab.


When discussing the conference -- and the "bar tab" metaphor -- in my Climate Justice class this week, a student asked the very appropriate question of what the relative contributions actually are. The cartogram below is a good way to visualize the variation in contribution. Emissions are proportional to three factors -- population, consumption, and technology.

This infographic was made published in 2009, so although the general impression it creates is correct, it is not quite precise in detail. Since this was created, the rapidly growing economy of China has moved that country into the dubious position of first place in greenhouse pollution. Although per-capita pollution from the United States remains much higher, its population is four times as great, so its overall impact is greater. It is part of an interesting collection of cartograms of the social and economic world.

To make current comparisons, look at the greenhouse country list on Wikipedia. Note that it combines emissions of all the major heat-trapping gases.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Observing Saci

This time of year I enjoy learning and teaching about the Day of Dead, a Mexican tradition that immediately follows Halloween. Both are coincident with the English All Saints (or Souls) Day or Celtic Samhain, one of eight days of solar importance in the course of a year. The Farmer's Almanac explains the importance of these quarter and cross-quarter days, while the EarthSky site provides more astronomical detail.

I was feeling pretty good about the degree of inclusion with which I approach this autumnal holiday/holy day, when the following came over the digital transom by way of one of my dearest Brazilian friends:
Halloween, No!
Stop mimicking gringos.
Day of Saci
October 31
Value Brazilian Culture
Knowing I'm one of his favorite gringos, I did not take it personally. Rather, I wondered how I had failed to know anything about this folkloric figure after spending time in so many different parts of Brazil over the past two decades.

This drove me straight to Google, I must admit, and I found that although Saci has deep roots in Brazil itself and its European and African antecedents, the observance of Saci Day on October 31 did not begin until 2005, when it was introduced specifically to counter the growing importance of Halloween (Dia de Bruxa -- Day of the Witch) in Brazil.

Saci is an impish character, one of many figures in Brazilian folklore that conveniently allows for small mistakes or misdeeds to be explained away. He is seen as deft and agile, despite the holes in his hands and his having only one leg. His origins are indigenous, though his appearance varies according to differing associations with Africa or Europe. He is often seen as the embodiment of dustdevil storms.

One version of the Saci Pererê legend is told in this English-language slide show:

It is also described in a short Portuguese video, A Verdadeira História de Saci Pererê (The True Story of Saci Pererê). In addition to his own new mini-holiday, Saci has been frequently represented in song, including the samba song Fumo de Rolo.

Now that I know something of Saci, I'm already looking forward to an even more inclusive Samhain in the future.


As soon as I shared this blog post, the Brazilian friend from whom I had posted the Saci notice above passed along this video from a popular children's variety show, in which children dance on one foot to celebrate Saci.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

No Place (Setting) for Distraction

The dining version of a classroom. Meals and classes should be considered a brief vacation from constant distraction. The lulls in conversation are when the best ideas are allowed to flourish.


A recent article in Forbes includes social-media addition as Habit #9 of 14 habits that can get a person fired. This is a bit tricky, since mastery of social media is often important in finding a job and in advancing the goals of an organization. But it can very easily get out of hand, and interfere with the all-important matter of being present.

November 2017 update: Writing for the New York Times, Professor Susan Dynarski makes a strong case for excluding laptops from classes and meetings, even if they are being used primarily for note-taking.

Something About the Coffee ...

At one point in our lives we were reading a lot of Dave Barry, the Miami-based humorist. (Humorist means a comedian who is only somewhat funny, or funny to older people.) Our favorite essay is "Some of the Pluses of Having a Pet..." in which he describes the exploits of his "auxiliary dog" Zippy. Read the essay now if you want to avoid the spoiler below.

Dot... dot... dot...

While you are gone I'll mention that this post is really about Facebook, not Dave Barry. Specifically, it is about the placement of ads, which show that so far we have little to worry about from whatever algorithms bring us those ads. "We think you'd like a blue bathrobe!" is not very brilliant insight if I have just bought one. Which I have.

You're back? If so, you know that Zippy destroyed a rug despite being admonished not to. Repeatedly. In the tiny dog's tiny brain, all it could remember was "something about the rug." Leading him to rush to the rug with no clear idea what they had been saying about it.

And thus it is with Facebook, coffee and me. The tiny brain of its ad algorithm sees a lot about coffee on my feed, and therefore decides I will want opportunities such as this one:

Yes, indeed: I have the opportunity to buy the "highest rated K-Cups" and I must be interested, because I seem to have a thing about coffee. Heck, I even have a thing about K-Cups, though not exactly as a fan of the technology.

Aside from the ecological concerns, clearly the algorithm has not caught on to my concern for coffee care and the impossibility of getting good quality from this technology. As the ad indicates, the coffee will have been ground a week before it reaches a customer.

I have seen the nitrogen-flush packaging machines that fill the K-Cups, and they are indeed impressive. We used a similar process when I was in the rations business, and we could keep foods shelf-stable for up to three years. But coffee acts as a sponge, and fine grinding makes it stale quite quickly. This does not matter much for mediocre coffee like Dunkin' Donuts, but for "gourmet" coffee it does make a difference.

And any coffee that costs $23 a pound should be a specialty coffee, though I have my doubts about these. The offer above is equivalent to paying $23 for a $10 bottle of champagne, but having it opened and recapped a week ahead of time. Not quite a bargain.

I know these will sell, though, perhaps to people in offices on my own campus, where the coffee "bargains" are even less favorable. Keurigs and vending machines have been placed throughout so-called "green" buildings, even as students have worked with me to propose a much better alternative.

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