Saturday, December 31, 2016

Before the Flood

I really did not want to see Before the Flood, even though I teach several courses that relate directly to it. I pictured myself viewing it like a kid (or me) at a scary movie, watching through little gaps between my fingers as I try to shield my eyes from the screen. I have watched An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel a few times, and even with Al Gore's dry presentation, I found it nervous-making, at least.
Melting Arctic ice. Some parts of the film actually are pretty frightening.
So when I heard that a real film-maker had produced something very convincing about climate change, I knew that I had to see it and would want to avoid it, at the same time. Given the dramatic potential of climate change, I feared being sucked into an experience that would manipulate audience emotions with dramatic music and images of peril.

Thankfully, this film does none of that, and I managed to watch it three times in a ten-day period, without being scarred.

Leonardo DiCaprio documents his travels as the U.N. Ambassador for Peace over a two-year period. Of course, I felt compelled to map his travels for him:

 He speaks in grown-up terms to a broad audience about the physical evidence for climate change and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation, though students I showed it to found attention to remedies insufficient.

The variety of places included in the film exemplify the many important ways in which climate change is experienced -- from the disruption of crops to the rising of seas to the disruption of Hollywood film planning. Among the more interesting remedies is a more concerted effort to build batteries. The earth receives far more solar power than is needed to provide all the electricity we need -- even in New England, solar power is providing almost all of the electricity my family uses over the course of the year. This is only possible because our summer surpluses are "stored" on the grid. For solar to be a comprehensive solution, advanced batteries must be more widely available, and DiCaprio explores how this could be done.

DiCaprio could have focused more of the film on mitigation and prevention if he were making it for any audience other than a U.S. audience. But in this country, a significant amount of any discussion of climate change must be spent (squandered) on establishing that it even exists, despite mounting evidence that it does.

In my own classes, I have learned to spend relatively little time on climate denial for two reasons. First, I do not have to undertake similar apologetics for other topics, even if the topics are uncomfortable. Second, moving the discussion from scientific questions to matters of opinion is likely to use quite a lot of class time, and to do so ineffectively.

When I showed students an early draft of this blog post and asked for their suggestions, though, several suggested that I include the screenshot above -- it is a map of the relationships between semi-academic or even faux-academic organizations and their funders. The funding does not necessarily negate the findings of these think tanks, but it does suggest that skepticism would be better placed on the skeptics than on the scientists they doubt. Or harass and threaten, as DiCaprio details in the case of a scientist whose family was bullied by deniers.

Lagniappe -- not just Miami

DiCaprio's conversations with local planners in Miami are among the more persuasive sequences in Before the Flood. While members of Congress can respond to campaign donors, local officials have to respond to rising water. The increasingly frequent "sunny-day floods" in Miami are impossible to ignore, and are a very good reason to watch this film.

Shortly after I watched the film, I found a similar story from my former home in Maryland, where I studied and worked on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1980s ... and where I enjoyed a skipjack sail last summer. Baltimore Magazine recently published The Sea Also Rises, about the loss of low-lying areas in the Chesapeake Bay.

When I think of areas that are particularly vulnerable to rising waters, of course, I think of Miami, New Orleans and Louisiana generally, Bangladesh, and island nations such as Kiribati. But I should have thought of the unique geography of the Chesapeake Bay. Known by indigenous people as Great Shellfish Bay, it remains an important fishery, but the fish, crabs, and oysters are under pressure from suburban sprawl and its effects on both the quality of water and the concentration of runoff. The bay is quite shallow -- less than 40 feet deep over most of its area.  If a map of the entire 200-mile-long bay were printed on a sheet of paper, its greatest depths could be represented by scratches that would not go through the entire thickness of the sheet. Because the Chesapeake estuary is a post-Pleistocene flood of a series of river valleys, its coastline is incredibly intricate -- 8,000 miles of water front surround a 200-mile body of water --  a real boon to realtors!

I'm not sure whether that 8,000-mile figure includes islands, but it is certainly the case that islands are an important part of the human geography of the Bay. And it is the water rising around these islands that is the focus of Ron Cassie's excellent reporting.

In 2010, for example, this house became the last house to be lost to the waters rising around Holland Island. A significant portion of the island has disappeared since I took a course on the Bay as an undergraduate.
I'm getting older, but not enough older that this much of an island
should have disappeared since I was in college.
Lagniappe -- China database

The film includes pollution monitoring in China as one example of the many ways in which people around the world are taking responsibility for addressing climate change. I decided to track down some details for readers of this blog.

The organization profiled is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which is described in some detail on social-entrepreneurship website of the Skoll Foundation. The Institute hosts a real-time map of pollution sources of various types, shown in both English and Mandarin.
Dec 7 snapshot of air sources from IPE.
Some of these sources contribute directly to climate change; some also compound the damage to public health caused by climate change, and others are simply environmental problems that warrant attention and abatement efforts, regardless of any climate connection.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Fellow Americans...

Although described by Huffington Post as squashing the question, author and NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten is gracious in his conversation with a C-SPAN listener who called in to suggest "vetting" migrants from Puerto Rico. Gjelten ignores the racist undertones of a call that begins by praising migrants from Norway and then goes on to suggest that migrants from Puerto Rico need extra screening. Rather, Gjelten patiently explains the difference between migration and immigration -- people from Puerto Rico cannot immigrate to the United States because they are already here.

Gjelten takes it easy on the caller for two reasons. One is that his style is naturally inclusive, and he is used to conversations with people of many different ideological persuasions -- so he glides past the "good" immigrant memories in order to get to the teachable moment.. The other reason might be that he knows the breadth of geographic ignorance in the United States, even regarding our own country.

The status of the Commonwealth is unusual, and even as a geographer I sometimes need reminding of the details. It is a semi-colonial place that has partial representation, full citizenship, limited taxation, and almost no autonomy. It is a complex relationship that is explored in cogent detail by actress and comedian Rosie Perez in her film ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! (available on Netflix DVD and elsewhere).

For more on Puerto Rico, see our 2010 Celebrating the States entry (from our year of marking the entrance of each state or state-like entity into the United States) and our posts about a Puerto Rico-related film and book. For comparison, I also suggest our post about my home town, which also has a semi-colonial relationship to the United States.

Finally, feel free to enjoy some of the photos we took during our first visit to Puerto Rico, in May 2016. We had won a stay in a villa near San Juan at a school auction over a year earlier, and were glad to be able to enjoy several parts of the island as a family. Of course we included a coffee farm! And we did not need our passports.
Photo from my first visit to the island. See the full collection of
Hayes-Boh photos from Puerto Rico 2016 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Your Cheatin' Climate

Lipstick on the collar
Strange phone calls and hang-ups
Working late far too often
Business travel with an attractive co-worker
You get the picture...

No one of these things proves an affair, but a pattern draws suspicion. Hire a PI, and the pattern is confirmed. Hire 100 PIs, and 97 of them agree. This still proves nothing, but the next strange event will be hard to ignore.

I watched the Leonardo DiCaprio film Before the Flood three times in the past couple weeks -- twice with classes and once with my spouse (and fellow climate-change scholar). At the end of this period, our New England weather was swinging wildly -- not setting record highs or lows for these December days, but coming close. And more importantly, changing extremes from high to low on a daily basis.

This results from oscillations in the flow of the jet stream that are more meridional (N-S) than zonal (E-W). Changes of this kind have been anticipated by climate scientists for decades, and in fact are the main reason the term "climate change" came to replace the original nomenclature.

No single week of temperature swings in a single place "proves" that our climate is unraveling. But such swings are consistent with the finding that the changes that were starting to become evident during my graduate-school days are now quite well established. At this point, our climate is Michael Douglas as Dan Gallagher, and that lipstick really should not be ignored.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Breaking with Reagan

I became a geographer as an undergraduate, while Ronald Reagan was president. His lack of international experience and his commitment to simplistic views of geopolitics was worrisome, and also amusing. This poster went on my wall in those days, and I moved it from place to place for years. The original, tattered print is probably buried in my office somewhere; I was fortunate to find a clear version on Kelso's Corner, the blog of Washington Post cartographer Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso (the actual artist is named Horsey).
Those who know me know that I could digress -- and I probably will in class next week -- about many parts of this map. But for now I will focus on just one corner of the map -- the outsized island labeled "Our China" -- better known as Taiwan or more archaically as Nationalist China.

Of the two, Taiwan is by far the closer to the United States in terms of political outlook, but mainland China is far more important in economic terms, as a major supplier of many billions of dollars in products each year. Even before trade became so important, its military might meant that U.S. presidents were loathe to speak very honestly about our relationship with Taiwan, generally pretending not to recognize it.

So even though Ronald Reagan was perhaps the staunchest anti-communist president we ever had, he participated in the awkward diplomatic charade of pretending not to recognize both Chinas as the same time. In fact, he refused to speak to Taiwan's president, even though he had a deep ideological affinity for Taiwan. None of Reagan's successors have changed that practice..

Until this week.

Technically, of course, it is still the case that no president of either party has yet parted ways with the Gipper in theory or in practice. But a president-elect has done so, and knowledgeable diplomats are aghast. Even those who wished to change the policy have been alarmed by the cavalier way in which it was done. The exception seems to be the intransigent John Bolton, who might actually have orchestrated Donald Trump's latest faux pas.

Writing about the call and its aftermath, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker concedes that it might very well be time to end the charade and admit our de facto recognition of Taiwan. But the approach was reckless, creating substantial new risks.  Osnos explains how entertainer-turned-politician Trump may actually have walked into a trap. He writes:
I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. 
As evil as John Bolton's intentions usually are, he is quite smart, and certainly able to realize an opportunity in Trump's lack of background in foreign policy. His influence is all the greater, given that Trump has waived off most of the actual policy briefings he has been offered. Osnos notes that this is exactly what George W. Bush did as he entered office -- when he ignored intelligence on preparations then being made by one Osama bin Laden.

Or perhaps it was not ignorance at all, but a very simple conflict of interest. Osnos writes:
Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to [the city of] Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia ...

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Practical Geography

I always knew that the U.K. had a lot of pubs, but I did not realize it was quite this many. Go ahead, count them:
To understand which parts of these islands are in the UK and which are not, I recommend
a five-minute tutorial on the UK by CGP Gray
Done counting? It is quite a few, is it not? Some but not all are mentioned in Bill Bryson's book Little Dribbling, which I have written about recently here and here. I expect to have maps of some of those pubs in the spring, when my geography seniors will be mapping some aspects of the book.

The snapshot above was created for the benefit of those whose computers or phones might not support exploration of the actual map. It is included in an article that finds this pub map somewhat reassuring. One comment suggests -- humorously -- that the map reveals something about alcoholism in the UK. I am no expert on pubs, but the ubiquity depicted here reinforces my notion that pubs are at least as much about community as they are drink.

The default view of the actual dataset is an area of London that includes several dozen pubs, centered on a Yahoo! office. I chose to explore Glasgow, which will be a destination for me in the next few years, possibly for a family wedding and definitely to explore the place from which the first Bohanan (Buchanan) migrated in 1734. (Andrew Bohanan was 25 when he was pressed into naval service, perhaps as he overstayed in a pub one night; he promptly went AWOL when he reached Boston. Yes, I am an 11th-generation undocumented migrant. But I digress.)
When the time comes, I will need to do "research" in several pubs, but I think I will start with the Iron Horse, handily located as it is near Buchanan Street and Buchanan Gardens. In addition to a pint or two of ale, I will also be seeking the family recipe that we always keep at our house.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Beyond Castro

Fidel Castro died last week, several generations after entering Havana in the vanguard of a revolution. A decade after passing political power to his "younger" brother Raul, his corporeal passing was nonetheless long-anticipated in Washington and Miami.
A montage from my Geography of Cuba page, recounting my
2003 visit to the island nation.
Whether this is a new, new era in relations between two countries or simply a chance to rehearse old controversies for the sake of nostalgia, it is too soon to tell. As a Latin Americanist, I have been indulging in a bit of the latter and also seeking resources to which I can point my students and other readers for some context. 

One might start with the overview provided by Charlotte England's survey in the Independent (UK), in which she explores how each of these presidents shown above interacted with the elder Castro. Writing for Slate last spring, Fred Kaplan draws connections between Fidel's 1959 conversation with then-VP Nixon and the President Obama's more recent overtures. During that 1959 meeting, it was not clear what direction Cuba would take following the overthrow of the US-allied "friendly dictator" Batista; by the end of that year, the relationship was firmly frozen along Cold War lines.

See my 2009 Cuba May Finally Be Open, 2011 Against the World, and 2013 Cuba Paradox posts for some of my observations about the relationship between Washington and Havana in recent years. 

My real impetus for this post, however, was NPR's Morning Edition, which offered four stories on various aspects of Castro's passing during its November 28 program. Together they convey just some of the complexity of this enigmatic figure and his legacy. Hearing some of these items reminded me of The New Latinos, Episode 4 in the six-part PBS series Latino Americans. This episode details migrations from the Caribbean -- Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba -- between World War II and the 1960s. Particularly in the case of Cuba, it emphasizes the rapid shifts in the public perception of migrants, depending on race, class, and political context.

Whatever happens next between the United States and Cuba -- and whatever we make of the revolution and its aftermath -- one lesson of my 2003 visit remains vitally important: much more unites us as people than divides us.
A rumba lesson in Lajas and a great conversation in Havana, 2003

Saturday, November 26, 2016

¡Mariposas, Presentes!

Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognized on the anniversary of the 1960 assassination of the remarkable Mirabel sisters. Known as the Butterflies, Patria, María Argentina Minerva and Antonia María Teresa inspired and energized the opposition to the dictatorship of the U.S.-allied Rafael Trujillo, resulting in his eventual downfall.
Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal
Their story is told in the novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and in the equally excellent film by the same name starring Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos and Lumi Cavazos.

In searching for a film trailer, I found two that were created by students;

The one by Kevin Peralta posted a video labeled as an official trailer, though it does not does not actually show the film at all. Rather short takes of high-school students reenacting some of the film's key moments provide  a moving introduction to the story.

A literature student identified only as Travis has also posted a compelling trailer by editing clips for the actual film.

Note: I use the exclamation ¡Presente! in the title of this post in reference to the way those who are killed or disappeared by governments in Latin America are recognized at ceremonies or rallies. The term ¡Viva! is sometimes used, but often not quite accurate for those whose fates are unknown. So when someone like the Mirabel sisters is remembered, the word ¡Presente! (or its plural) is shouted, signifying their ongoing presence in the movement.

In recognition of this practice, the newsletter of SOA Watch is known as ¡Presente! It documents ongoing efforts to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which has a long, bipartisan history of training U.S. allies in the suppression of democratic movements.


In 2016 Minerva Mirabal's daughter Minou Tavares Mirabal told the story of the Butterflies on BBC Witness History (nine-minute audio, as always in this series).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Happis, Hayes, Whatever

My favorite librarian and I often read to each other -- mostly she to me: I talk for a living, but do not read out loud as well as she does -- and currently we are enjoying a new book by Bill Bryson, who is rapidly becoming one of our favorite authors. See Pam's reviews of other Bryson works on her Liberry Books blog.

This book -- The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of An American in Britain -- is so rich with geographic gems that it is one of two Bryson books that I will be assigning in my senior seminar in geography in the spring. I cannot possibly include all of his geographic insights on my blog, but after reading the following paragraph, Pam suggested I blog about it. And of course she was correct, for reasons that will become apparent.
In the morning I woke to watery sunshine, and after breakfast in the Burlington's large but empty dining room drove twenty miles down the coast to Happisburgh, a remote and lonely but good-looking village roughly halfway between Sheringham and Great Yarmouth. Happisburgh is dominated by a tall, lovely lighthouse with three red stripes. A sign in the neighboring parking lot informed me that this was "the only independently run lighthouse in the Uk." Now I am very sorry, but how can you possibly pass a lifetime in a country and not know how to abbreviate it? Why did you bother going to school at all? Why did your teachers turn up in the morning? Apart from this minor outburst of illiteracy, Happisburgh seemed to be an entirely agreeable place. It is pronounced, incidentally, hays-burro, or even just hays-brrrrrr. Norfolk specializes in odd pronunciations. Hautbois is hobbiss, Wymondham is windum, Costessey is cozzy, Postwick is pozzik. People often ask why that is. I'm not sure, but I think it is just something that happens when you sleep with close relatives [sic].
Sic in this case letting readers know that this blog does not traffic in humor of this low variety, but Bryson did it, so I am leaving it here for readers to judge for themselves.

More important, though, is the geographic question: where are all these places?

This phenomenon is very familiar to residents of Massachusetts, who are used to some fairly odd pronunciations.

I was introduced to the special nature of Massachusetts town names early in my tenure here, when I told students that a field trip would include a rest stop in LEO-minster -- the first town mentioned in the video above. Fortunately, I was well-versed by the time I made a visit to Leominster High School a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Just Read

Lifted shamelessly from Instagram.

Expert guidance on this topic from my favorite librarian: BBW MaxGuide.

Civil-rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis cites the value of reading and libraries and teachers on the occasion of accepting the National Book Award in 2016. (October 2023 note: I am incredulous that this video has only been watched 20,000 times since then -- many of those times by me. Please share this widely; every American should here what he has to say about the right to read!)

The movie Selma tells some of the story of this national hero. I highly recommend it! And I will be ordering the graphic novel for which he and his co-authors won this award: March: Book Three (the link is to a boxed set of all three volumes; each volume is available in a couple of formats). To learn about the importance of this series, see Jody Arlington's review of the first volume, the Washington Post's announcement of the award for Book Three. I also recommend his 2009 interview with Terry Gross, about the movement to win the vote.

MEMORIUM: Rep. Lewis died July 17, 2020 exactly a week before my own mother, who was an admirer of his. Although it is quite long at a bit more than four hours, I recommend the recording of his funeral, which I watched in its entirety in real time. He brought out the best in a wide variety of speakers and musicians.

Good writing stems from time spent reading. If I see what someone has written, I cannot tell whether they went to a "good" school or not. But I can tell whether they have devoted any serious attention to reading. For more on the connections between reading and writing, please see my How to Become a Better Writer page. It is one of several Writing Tips pages on my Not-the-13th-Grade web site. As "Dear Abby" Abigail Van Buren has written, "Those who do not read are no better off than those who cannot read."

For more on libraries, visit the web site or blog of my favorite librarian.


Item #3 above refers to the skills ascribed to Christian mystic Edgar Cayce.


In the same week that Rep. Lewis so eloquently articulated the importance of reading, other politicians announce their opposition to literacy. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyders -- and his education bureaucrats -- have argued in court that students in Detroit have no right to an education that would afford them basic literacy.

Gov. Snyders doubles down on low-quality education.

All of this comes as the results of a study of information literacy confirms that students across a wide range of ages have difficulty discerning real news from fake news or opinion. When "my opinion is as good as your facts," reality becomes a very slippery concept. The Wall Street Journal report on this study cites educational "consultants" who blame parents for not teaching information literacy, even as it admits that high-stakes testing and the elimination of school librarians are the real culprits.

In addition to bringing information professionals back into schools and allowing teachers to teach there subjects rather than taking of tests, students should be encouraged at every turn to read both deeply and widely. The more we read, the less easily we are fooled.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Still a Small World

Circles of Learning from ACTFL
by way of my Small World page.
A decade or so after revising our general-education requirements in a way that removed the study of foreign languages, my university (Bridgewater State) is considering revisions to the program. A lot of interesting ideas are being proposed, but to my utter dismay, none of the options would restore the study of foreign languages as a core requirement.

I encourage current colleagues and students to read the proposed changes and to participate in the online forum. Both are available on our campus intranet for currently-affiliated persons. 

Alumni and others interested in my contribution to the discussion can read my comments below. Unfortunately, I am too dumstruck by the omission of foreign languages to give much attention to the other parts of the proposal, though I did discuss them during an on-campus forum.

I was quite active in the debate at the time our requirement was reduced from two courses to zero; my Small World web page contains many of the arguments I made at that time.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Carbon Upcycling

Industrial leaf prototype. Image: University of Illinois Chicago via TakePart
From a team of researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago comes news of a technology with the potential to slow the rate of increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The research was recently published in Science and reported on the TakePart blog. The prototype shown above might resemble any number of electronics projects I put together as a kid, but it is more like a leaf than anything else.

The researchers have found a way to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a way that allows them to produce usable fuel, using techniques and materials that make the process more efficient than heretofore possible.

When the fuel is burned, it returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, so this is not a technique for long-term carbon sequestration. It is, rather, a carbon-neutral way to replace fossil fuels; the timing of the extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere makes all the difference. It is analogous to using firewood (as I am doing right now) instead of coal to heat one's home.
Firewood cut by a local tree service; stacked in my garage this morning.
The firewood example is instructive; as I write this, a fire in my fireplace is returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It was removed from the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis within recent decades, is being returned to the atmosphere as I write this, and will again be taken out of the atmosphere by new trees growing where these were removed. The entire cycle might last 50 to 100 years or so, and the effect on the climate is nil.

Climate disruption occurs when burning fuel returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere many millions of years after it was removed. The now-familiar Keeling Curve shows a steady increase atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past three centuries, accelerating during my lifetime.
Global levels of carbon dioxide since the onset of industrial uses of fossil fuels. The concentration has grown from 280 ppm to over 400 pmm, with 350 ppm a goal of many experts interested in finding  a level that would facilitate adaptation measures.
This graph is known as the Keeling Curve, which shows the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is a trace gas -- still less than 1/20th of one percent of the atmosphere -- but a very important one because of its ability to trap outgoing energy in the infrared portion of the spectrum. Gases of this kind are called greenhouse gases, and without them Earth would be no more livable than the moon. My Frosty Denial post explains the basic physics of the relationship between increased concentrations of these gases and increased temperatures.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America, carbon dioxide accounted for 280 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere -- 0.028 percent. As measured in the tiny bubbles of air recovered from ice cores, the quantity barely changed as fossil-fuel use increased in just one small part of the world. But as industrial uses of oil, coal, and natural gas increased and broadened geographically, the concentration steadily increased as well.

That dinosaur in the gas tank was not real, for two reasons.
The organic material in fuel is plant, not animal biomass.
 And the dinosaurs are far too young. 
The key to understanding the increase is understanding the role of time. All of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels originated in that very same atmosphere. It was removed by the process of photosynthesis, building plant biomass that would eventually be compressed and transformed into coal, mainly during the Carboniferous period. Most of the world's coal was formed from plant materials over a 60,000,000 period that ended 299,000,000 years ago.

It is difficult to imagine just how long ago this was; for comparison, keep in mind that dinosaurs did not start to appear until the Mesozoic Period, more than 50,000,000 years after most of the coal had been deposited, The story is similar for oil and natural gas -- most of it was formed over a very long time period, very long ago. Within the first 200 years of industrialization, humans have burned something close to half of the fossil fuels, releasing the carbon back to the atmosphere thousands of times more rapidly than it was withdrawn.

In retrospect, it is no surprise that this increased the concentration of carbon dioxide from 280 ppm to 350 ppm by the time I entered college in the 1980s, and to 400 ppm and beyond during my adult life (so far). The perils caused by this increase include rising seas, shifting crop seasons, and the steady creep of tropical blights and diseases into formerly temperate regions. No longer a future worry, the changes are widely apparent and developing so rapidly that no single remedy can be considered sufficient. Improvements in technology need to be coupled with changes in the uses of energy, as well as measures to protect the most vulnerable people.

At this point, the key question about the carbon-capturing technology described above is whether it can be deployed at a sufficient scale and efficiency to be economically viable. If it is successful, it could help to slow the rate at which carbon dioxide continues to increase in the atmosphere. For the reasons described above, it cannot actually bring those levels DOWN -- only slow their increase. Even if this becomes a "silver bullet" technology, we will have to do much more to protect Earth's climates.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Border IRL

The border between the U.S. and Mexico has loomed large in the twisted political season of 2016 -- larger than life, in fact. Much opining, mansplaining, and bloviating was in the air, spoken by and spoken to people with little experience of the border itself. I started this post prior to the election, to draw attention to some realities of the border itself.

I lived on the border for seven before moving to New England, and although that was twenty years ago, I continue to think and read about it quite often. My time away from the border constantly reminds me that for most people in the United States, it is an abstraction.

Not every person who lives there will reach the same conclusions that I have -- some of my good friends have spent many more years there than I and may view it differently. But I think it is important to look at it from an IRL perspective -- what is it like In Real Life?

First comes a report about the recent rapid increase in hardened borders worldwide.

The report goes on to detail the physical walls and other security measures that currently exist along the border between the United States and Mexico. To those not familiar with the region, this might resemble an open door, but the unwalled stretches are places of incredibly harsh terrain, deadly climatic extremes, and isolation. Even these areas, though, are under constant surveillance, by permanently anchored dirigibles and other devices.

To get a sense of just how rugged the border area is, The Intercept team produced a video of the entire border as seen from satellite imagery downloaded from Google Maps. The six-minute virtual flyover surprised even me with the amount of difficult, open terrain. The project is entitled "Best of Luck with the Wall" because at reveals just how daunting a task a coast-to-coast wall would be. The text accompanying the film explains some of the ways that the border has already become an immense nexus of surveillance data.

Migration, of course, has much more to do with economic, social and political factors than with physical barriers or even policing. Those are important factors as well, but in the absence of serious discussion of the costs, benefits, and causes of migration, wall construction will be a disappointment -- to everyone except the contractors who are hired to build them. Those who saw the Big Dig project in Boston swell from $3 billion to $14 billion have some idea of what a great southern wall would actually cost.

Click to enlarge and explore. Purple icons mark where my wife Pamela and I lived in the 1990s; blue icons mark places I have crossed (Pam crossed all but one of these), and yellow icons mark places I really wish I had crossed but have not yet had a chance. Zoom in to each icon for a closer view and a bit of my story in the place.

One of those is the easternmost crossing -- less than a mile from my former classroom at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Although technically a delta rather than a valley, and really not very "grande" near its mouth, the term RGV refers to the flatlands to the south and east of Laredo on both sides of the border. It is a cultural region with a long history of tight interconnections. The UT-RGV system now includes several campuses. In the mid-1990s I taught at this one, when the campus was know by the names of two schools that had merged -- it really was called UTB-TSC: The University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. I am disappointed, actually, that "Southmost" has been dropped from the name. When participating in a 5K run on this campus once, we kept being interrupted by federal agencies asking if we had seen migrants -- we were that far south. More constructively, when I taught evening classes here, about 1/3 of my students were Mexican nationals who lived at home and walked across the border for their classes. Simpler times.

Lagniappe -- Values
As I continue to think about walls and fences, I keep coming across this aphorism. It reflects how my family tries to live, and I think it is how most people in our country try to act at a personal level. There really is no reason to avoid this way of thinking at a global scale.

NEW November 2017 -- see ESRI's map story by Krista Schlyer.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Eagle and Condor

Image: Lakota Country Times

NPR begins a story with the phrase "a pipeline about to be built," in effect conceding defeat for the Sioux people and the water they are standing to protect.  The story continues quite usefully, though, in describing Sioux leader Dave Archambault's call for peace and prayers as they seek to stop a pipeline. The conversation includes an instructive examination of how notions of private property inform the current conflict at Standing Rock.

Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa reports on her the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota, where indigenous people from throughout the world have united to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline. This report is a bit longer than a typical NPR piece, but well worth listening to in its entirety, as she puts this particular conflict in a hemispheric context. She cites the eagle and condor prophecy, about the coming together of indigenous people of North and South America.

Maps of the project available online have been of remarkably poor quality. Thankfully, a cartographer-blogger named Northland Iguana has recognized the problem and created their own map. The accompanying blog post describes the problems with existing maps and geographic considerations regarding the conflict itself.

Latest News

As of November 2, the latest development in this story is that President Obama has expressed willingness to intervene in the routing decision. For over two centuries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for issuing permits for any activity or construction that modifies or impacts navigable waterways in the United States. This makes it the oldest environmental agency in the United States, and of course it reports to the President through the Secretary of the Army. President Obama has not suggested that he would heed the broader call from indigenous people and climate activists to prohibit this project, nor has he pledged quick action on routing.

He has, however, expressed willingness to intervene regarding some of the most immediate concerns of the protesters.

And A Bit Later News ...

On November 3, the Los Angeles Times published a persuasive and informative editorial urging a complete stop to the pipeline project, citing not only the specific problems with the route -- which was moved closer to indigenous people in order to protect non-indigenous people -- but also the relationship of this project to climate change.

Coalitions and Resistance

Members of the clergy from across the United States participated in a prayer circle during a pipeline protest on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Image and article: Boston Globe.


#StandingRockSyllabus is a definitive collection of maps, timelines, blog posts, letters, and other resources related to the protectors at Standing Rock.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Bryson's Belt

My favorite librarian and I have a habit of reading books aloud together (mostly she to me), and one of our favorite (or favourite) authors to read together is Bill Bryson, perhaps best known for A Walk in the Woods, a featured in our community-wide reading program a couple of years ago and later turned into a film in which Robert Redford played Our Hero.

He is a writer from Iowa who spent two decades living in England. His trans-Atlantic writing life (abetted by his trans-Atlantic family life) help to make him a wry observer of culture on both sides of "the Pond," better able than most anybody to entertain the citizens of each country with the foibles of the other.
Box Hill in Surrey, from the London Telegrahp excerpt of Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain.
This evening, I was taking a turn at reading in The Road to Little Dribbling when I found myself reading this remarkable exposition on environmental geography (at the beginning of Chapter 9: Day Trips). It is very instructive about both the UK and the USA.
Stand on the eastern slopes of Noar Hill in Hampshire and you have a view that is prett well unimprovable. Orchards, fields and dark woods sit handomely upon the landscape. Here and there village rooftops and church spires poke through the trees. It is lovely and timeless and tranquilly spacious, as English views so often are. It seems miles from anywhere, yet not far off over the Surrey Hills is London. Get in a car and in about an hour you can be in Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. To me, that is a miracle, that a city as vast and demanding as London can have prospects like this on its very doorstep, in every direction.
What accounts for the great bulk of this sumptuousness is the Metropolitan Green Belt, a ring of preserved landscape, mostly woods and farmland, encircling London and several other English towns and cities with the single-minded intention of alleviating sprawl. The notion of green belts was enshrined in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and is to my mind the most intelligent, farsighted, thrillingly and self-evidently successful land management policy any nation has ever devised.
And now many people want to discard it.
The Economist magazine, for one, has for years argued that the green belts should be cast aside as a hindrance to growth. As an Economist writer editorializes from a dementia facility somewhere in the Home Counties: "The green belts that stop development around big cities should go, or at least be greatly weakened. They increase journey times without adding to human happiness."
Well, they add a great deal to my happiness, you pompous, over-educated twit. Perhaps I see this differently from others because I come from the Land of Shocking Sprawl. From time to time these days I drive with my wife from Denver International Airport to Vail,high in the Colorado Rockies, to visit our son Sam. It is a two-hour drive and the first hour is taken up with just getting out of Denver. It is a permanent astonishment to me how much support an American lifestyle needs -- shopping malls, distribution centers, storage depots, gas stations, zillion-screen multiplex cinemas, gyms, teeth-whitening clinics, business parks, motels, propane storage facilities, compounds holding flocks of U-Haul trailers or FedEx trucks, car dealerships, food outlets of a million types, and endless miles of suburban houses all straining to get a view of distant mountains.
Travel twenty-five or thirty miles out from London and you get Windsor Great Park or Epping Forest or Box Hill. Travel twenty-five or thirty miles out from Denver and you just get more Denver. I suppose Britain must have all this infrastructure, too, though I honestly don't know where most of it is. What I do know is that it isn't in the fields and farmland that ring every city. If that is not a glory, I don't know what is.
Being "over-educated" is of course not the problem with the errant writer at against whom Bryson is railing here, for there is no such thing as too much education. There is, however, such a thing as too much faith in free markets -- a fetish of mainstream economists. Bryson goes one for a few more pages to give a remarkably cogent explanation of why the efforts to dismantle Britain's green belts should be resisted. It is a primer in land-use dynamics that I will be using as a text in future sections of my Land Protection course. I also need to add this post to my page on sprawl.

Enough of the economics, though. This blog -- and Bryson's book -- are about the real world. This is the place that inspired Bryson to write the words above.

From Bryson's description in this and the previous chapter -- and by exploring the area online -- it is evident that this is simply a lovely site. As geographers, we zoom in to learn about sites -- the characteristics of places -- and we zoom out to learn about situation -- the context of places.

Noar Hill is situated between London and the sea, in a zone that surely could support the kind of sprawl that surrounds places like Denver, Atlanta, New York, and Dallas. But it need not!

Bryson's polemic in favor of green belts is just one of countless reasons to read this and his other works -- he is genuinely funny, a modern Mark Twain with a keen sense of geography..

Monday, October 10, 2016

Los Muertos Explorations

A half-painted face is meant to represent the quick transition between life and death.
Image: Fact #11 of 12 Facts about El Día de Muertos from Abuelita
This year I am going to have an actual costume for Halloween (not my usual "aging hippy professor" routine), but I'm still more focused on the next day: El Día de los Muertos! The image above is from a nice listicle on BuzzFeed from the folks at Abuelita cocoa.

As I do a quick search on this blog, I see that I have already posted quite a lot about this holiday, so this post will just serve as a bit of a directional sign to some that I have already posted:

On El Día de los Muertos in 2011, I recognized Benjamin Linder with Los Muertos: PRESENTES!  This posts describes the annual visits (in January, rather than November) of Bridgewater State students to the grave of Benjamin Linder in Matagalpa, and our ongoing efforts to open a cafe in his honor.

I wrote Día del Libro (2014) a couple weeks ahead of the premiere of The Book of Life, an earnest attempt to bring the spirit of this holiday to a feature-length film.

In 2015, Semana de Los Muertos post describes a full week of celebrating the holiday, and points to quite a few earlier stories and videos about this important cross-quarter day -- ranging from the somber to the silly.

Finally, although she is more associated with places than with dates, this is always a good time of year to remember La Llorona. I highly recommend the three videos that I posted in 2010 to tell three versions of the La Llorona story: traditional, comical, and political.

Sunday, October 09, 2016


I begin this post with some Kompa music, featuring sound and some landscapes of Haiti. Map Marye is a story that could happen anywhere -- about a family reluctant to accept a marriage. It is a reminder that place should be defined not solely by their problems, but also by their strengths.

It is also an important time to remember that the effects of injustices can be deep and long-lasting. In the case of Haiti, the injustices of two centuries ago continue to cost lives.

As the Guardian UK and others have reported, Haiti suffered the vast majority of casualties from Hurricane Matthew 2016, with 877 dead having been counted as of the weekend following the storm. The Guardian also laments the disparity in media coverage relative to the actual damage caused by the storm in Haiti and the U.S.

Post-storm research will undoubtedly show that one of the proximate reasons for the extremely high death toll is the lack of forest cover on the eastern side of Hispaniola -- a condition that began with clear-cutting during French colonization and one made impossible to remedy because of ongoing underdevelopment.

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's most dramatic illustration of the development of underdevelopment, a framework that contradicts the prevailing wisdom that a "rising tide raises all boats" by focusing on the ways in which wealth accumulating in the core of the world economy is facilitated by impoverishment in the periphery.

A more striking example than Haiti and France would be difficult to imagine. In 1804, the people of Haiti used Enlightenment ideas they had gleaned from France and the United States to become the first people in the Western Hemisphere to free themselves from slavery and the only the second country in the same hemisphere to be free of European colonizers.

But the French managed to impose a penalty on the self-liberated colony -- a penalty that it continues to pay. Two decades after its defeat in Haiti, France sent a flotilla of naval vessels to extort 150,000,000 gold francs -- the equivalent of US$17,000,000,000 today. The excuse was that the freed slaves needed to pay for the land on which they had been enslaved.

Haiti never recovered from the robbery of an entire decade of income from the entire country. In 2015, the government of France considered repayment, and has at least forgiven modern-era debts as a gesture. But the prosperity that France enjoys today was built in part on both the enslavement of the people of Haiti and that 1825 extortion. The country can afford reparations that would go a long way toward the reduction of vulnerability to storms in Haiti today.

And now to us...

Knowing that the people of Haiti are just that -- people -- and that they are in need, it does little good to critique the underlying causes of that need if we are not also willing to step up and help. Over 800 people are now known to have died, and more than 350,000 are left in urgent need of help because of the loss of crops, homes, and bridges.

Large organizations such as the Red Cross are notoriously ineffective in Haiti, and downright larcenous in their corporate structure. During our fundraising and education efforts in Bridgewater following the 2010 earthquake, we directed all of it to Partners in Health, which puts 94 percent of donations directly into service in Haiti. (Our gift back in 2010 was processed at over 100 percent because of matching funds and a donor who covered administrative costs.)

Working long-term in Haiti and with Haitians -- Partners in Health remains an excellent choice for contributing to Matthew 2016 relief.

Man Mansplaining

Cliff Clavin, Poster Boy of Male Answer Syndrome since 1992
I understand the irony -- even the audacity -- of a man writing about mansplaining. In my defense, my purpose here is to share some resources written by others about the phenomenon, in hopes of helping both men and women to navigate communication better -- in the workplace, in classrooms, and in everyday life. I recently shared all of these resources with students in my senior seminar, which includes a lot of work on career readiness.

What Is It?

For many, the September 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was an introduction to the term "mansplaining." In her article Donald Trump’s Interruptions of Hillary Clinton are Familiar to Women, Boston Globe correspondent Carly Sitrin explains that it is a problematic communication pattern that goes far beyond these individuals.

Mansplaining is a relatively new term for a specific kind of behavior whose general type was identified in the 1990s. In his Male Answer Syndrome post on Dear Artist, Robert Glenn provides a good introduction to the broader phenomenon known as Male Answer Syndrome.

The term was originated by Jane Campbell in 1992, appearing first in Details magazine and then more broadly in Utne Reader (to which my favorite librarian and I had a subscription at the time, thankfully). Neither of those sources is readily available, but computer scientist Anand Natrajan has posted an unformatted version on their site.

How Does It Grow?

After introducing all of these articles to my students, I thought a bit about two factors that tend to foster too much conversational confidence in men while diminishing it in women.

For example, it has been shown that boys and girls are about equal in their math aptitude -- both as tested and as self-reported -- until middle school After that, a divergence begins that is largely explained by communication patterns in classrooms. It has been shown that the amount of time an instructor will wait for a student to solve a problem varies greatly between male and female students, regardless of the teacher's gender. In other words, teachers generally offer more encouragement to male students by waiting optimistically for them to arrive at answers, while more quickly passing over female students as soon as they hesitate to answer a question.

Actress and mathematician Danica McKellar spoke about girls and math on NPR a number of years ago and has written several books on the subject.

Male-centric conversation is reinforced in film. An amazing number of films -- including some I very much enjoy otherwise -- fail to rise above the very low bar of the Bechdel Test. A film passes the test if the following conditions are met just once:

  1. The movie has to have at least two named women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man
A surprising number of films -- even films made in 2016, after the test has been well-known for years -- fail the test. See a complete list at This is not to suggest that every movie should have female characters inserted into the story in such a way to pass the test. But it does show how accustomed we have begun to hearing only male voices.

What To Do?

What to do with all of this insight? Venture capitalist Chris Lyman suggests learning one powerful phrase, and using it whenever one is caught by the urge to supply empty answers: I Don't Know.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Good News from Gorongosa

The Film Notes page I created for my students provides a lot more detail about the film mentioned below, with links to resources related to specific things mentioned in the film. Feel free to use them while watching The Guide.

I share a lot of bad news on this blog, and here is a bit more: we have so damaged the planet that it is no longer sufficient to seek ways of avoiding further damage through minor efforts such as recycling bottles and cans. If the future is to be anything but bleak, we must engage in restoration, not merely protection.

But here is some good news: restoration is exactly what some people are doing, such as the people in and out of Mozambique who are restoring the Gorongosa National Park.

Our Vision from Gorongosa National Park on Vimeo.

People have lived in the Gorongosa area for 300,000 years -- 10,000 human generations. A little over a century ago, the need to protect it from overuse was recognized, and for most of the 20th Century its natural communities did benefit from preservation efforts.

In recent decades, however, war in Mozambique harmed and endangered both the natural communities of Gorongosa and the human communities closely connected to it. The Gorongosa timeline outlines the place's story from pre-history through colonization to protection and conflict.

Most recently, a positive story has emerged, as local and global people are working together to restore the park's ecosystems by healing its connections to surrounding human communities. The results include an ecotourism initiative that is much deeper than most, which is explored in The Guide, which is the story of the relationship between Gorongosa neighbor Tonga Torcida and the imminent biologist E.O. Wilson.
Global-local teamwork: Wilson & Torcida in The Guide.
(Link above is to Amazon Prime; it is also on YouTube, though perhaps slightly abridged.)

The global importance of the work in Gorongosa and in similar "ark" environments throughout the world was described by E.O. Wilson himself in the February 2002 article "The Bottleneck." (This link is to the Scientific American site where the issue can be purchased; the article is readily available in libraries as well).

When I started studying demographics in the 1980s, we were concerned that human population was experiencing exponential growth that was exhibiting a "J-curve" trajectory. That is, the compounding of population growth was leading to increases that seemed destined to accelerate for decades to come. Around the turn of this century, however, negative feedback processes began to slow that growth. A pattern that seemed to have no end in sight now seemed to have an end point -- a likely plateau of human population at around 9 or 10 billion in the middle of this century. This is known as "S-curve" or sigmoidal growth; we are currently in a long period of population that increases at a decreasing rates.

(Note: a year after this post, I wrote A Decreasing Increase to explain the above graph in more detail. It is a reality of demographic momentum that is difficult to grasp at first.)

For those concerned -- as we all should be -- about providing resources for the growing population, this is good news. It means that our task, though daunting, is not infinite. If we can find a way to support ourselves sustainably until 2050, we should be able to do so after that date. In The Bottleneck, Wilson makes a corollary claim -- any species and wild lands that we can protect until 2050 have a reasonable chance of being protected for the long term.

Update August 2019 (with links updated in 2022)

I watched the full version of The Guide documentary shortly after writing this post, and watched it again after I read a new story about coffee (see below) on the margins of the park. (The preceding link points to filmmaker notes, but no longer to the film itself; see the HHMI YouTube version to watch it.) The film is a welcome respite from the bad news that assails us daily. Not only does it offer hope and beauty, but it lets the viewer witness the rapidly growing friendship between an old New Englander and a young African -- two men from vastly different worlds who find they have a tremendous amount in common. Just try to get through 40 minutes without shedding any joyful tears!

Among the great treats -- E.O. Wilson had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before the age of 82, and yet is able to identify the genus and species of every critter brought to him by local kids -- except those previously unknown to science.

I hope to have the good fortune to visit this park some day. Because the history of colonization connects Mozambique to Brazil, I do speak the local language.

Lagniappe (Coffee-related)
Children taking a break in coffee fields near Gorongosa park. ABC's caption optimistically ignores the fact that these kids are probably participating in the harvest alongside their older relatives.

My well-known interest in all things related to the geography of coffee means that friends regularly forward stories to me that I might otherwise miss. Most recently, it was the coordinator of our campus study-abroad programs who shared Coffee growers help reforest Mozambique's Mount Gorongosa, a story by Andrew Meldrum by way of AP and CBS.

Although the photograph belies claims that the coffee is shade-grown, this is nonetheless a potentially positive story of environmental protection and community development; as The Guide makes clear, the two are intricately connected. The coffee trees themselves provide an important ecological service as a buffer between the carefully protected park itself and surrounding lands with no protection from hunting or clearing. 

The buffer effect is much greater -- and the coffee much better -- if genuine shade-grown methods are employed. I have sent a message to the person directing agricultural partnerships around the park, to see if he can provide more details about the coffee cultivation. Mozambique continues to be a very small producer of coffee, with the entire country growing less than some individual farms in other countries. For it to succeed as an economic-development project, the coffees of the Gorongosa region would need to be grown with attention to quality and perhaps distinct varietals. 

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