Sunday, February 21, 2016

Climate Attack

Note: I began this post in November 2015, as world leaders (an over-used and often ill-deserved term) briefly focused on the Paris climate talks. (I posted some related material in December.) Of the many important aspects of climate disruption and climate justice under discussion, I was particularly interested in the point of view of low-lying island states, particularly those of the Pacific Ocean, as were students in my Geography of Climate Justice honors seminar. Low-lying states merit this concern because climate justice is concerned with disproportionate suffering from climate change relative to a community's contribution to the problem, and nowhere are the geographies of responsibility and vulnerability more disparate than the world's tiniest settled islands.

At around the same time as that meeting was taking place, we learned that many assets of the venerable National Geographic -- which in recent years had finally begun to cover climate change in important ways -- had been sold out to the pernicious Rupert Murdoch, and we feared he might have bought it specifically to silence its climate reporting.

A special issue on climate change was published just before the announcement of the deal --  and at the we wondered whether it might be the last. [December 2016 update: So far, we have not seen a Murdoch effect on the reporting, thankfully.]  The special issue -- "Cool It" -- includes excellent reporting on Kiribati (pronounced KEE-rah-BAHSS) by Kennedy Warne and Kadir Van Lohuizen, entitled  Rising Seas Threaten These Pacific Islands but Not Their Culture.

As individuals, the people of Kiribati think of their future like people anywhere do.
Photo: Kadir Van Lohuizen
This article is important not only for drawing attention to the plight of low-lying states, but also to the humanity of the people who live in them. Often, when we here of the dangers or discomforts of living in a particular place -- fires in California, tornadoes in Oklahoma,  winters in New England, drought in the Sertão --  we ask "Why would anybody live there?" The short answer is usually, "Because it is their home." Through stories and photos of daily life, Warne and Van Lohuizen help us to understand that Kiribati and its people deserve not just our sympathy, but our care.

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 Boston's WGBH climate reporter Heather Goldstone described vividly in The Angry Seas Will Kill Us. Despite the strong will to stay in their homeland described above, her story discusses planning and options that could include the first complete abandonment of a nation-state.

Kiribati shares some unusual characteristics with most of its Pacific neighbors -- tiny tracts of land are separated by immense expanses of water. In many cases, countries whose land area and population are comparable to a small city or large town are scattered over spaces measured in tens of thousands of square miles. The difficulty of creating effective maps of such territories is one reason that even professional geographers in the United States tend to know relatively little about these countries.

We do our best, though, teaching about Kiribati and other Pacific nations as part of our EarthView program.
Kiribati selfie, with the relatively large islands of Fiji closer to my ear.

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

Lagniappe -- Closer to Home

It truly gives no pleasure to mention that what has begun for Kiribati has also begun for the United States. It should be no surprise that the first climate refugees in the United States are on the margins of Louisiana, where an entire community is being moved from their homeland as it sinks and seas rise.

As reported in Daily Kos, a small community of Biloxi-Chitimacha are the first official refugees from rising seas in the lower 48 states. (Native communities in Alaska have already been displaced.) They are not the first internal climate refugees, necessarily, as the Oakies fled a regional climate disaster in the 1930s, but they are the first community to be resettled in toto from the Lower 48 as a result of global climate change.
Rising seas in Isle de Jean Charles. See the Daily Kos article for a link to a brief video documentary as well.

Lagniappe Deux -- A Glimmer

Researchers from the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole recently visited Kiribati and returned with some good news. For complicated reasons involving its position among ocean currents and the conservation efforts that have been undertaken, the corals of Kiribati appear to be in recovery. The severe bleaching has been reversed and the ecosystem is improving. This story DOES NOT let humans off the hook for continuing to warm and acidify oceans. But it is a reminder that our efforts to conserve and protect wildlands and wild oceans are worthwhile.

Slamming the Phone

A friend shared this thoughtful bit of poetry recently.

He introduced it with the phrase "guilty as charged," and I responded likewise. Guilt is not the goal, though; rather, pausing to think about how we can reduce the noise and increase the signal; how we can create space for attention by setting aside distractions. (All of the links in this article are to previous posts on this blog, relating to several aspects of our distraction culture.)

This friend is my age (well, almost) and we are both as tempted by the interuptions of technology as teenagers. In fact, I only see this friend in real life a couple times a year, so the technology itself is an important nexus of our friendship  And even this work by the poet Prince Ea came to me by way of Facebook, and features various ways of sharing it on Facebook and other platforms.

But still, his point is well taken and even if it is too late too unplug, we can be more mindful of how and when we connect.

I think the best place in a car for a cellphone is the trunk. For dinner at home, the best place is another room. For dinner in a restaurant, the OFF switch can be employed (I think every phone has one), as it can be in classrooms or when on a walk with friends.

We are flooded with micronews, cute news, strange news, staged news, and other forms of ever-less-relevant information that we miss the truly big stories.

The focus on our online life can be more than distracting, though: it can warp our priorities. On the same day I saw this video, I learned of the death of a dolphin in Argentina as a direct result of beachgoers who valued a selfie with the dolphin more than the dolphin itself.
With some effort, we can be smarter than this goldfish. Maybe.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Carnival: A Serious Party

The beautiful coastal town of Olinda (literally, "Oh, Beautiful") was among the earliest Portuguese settlements in Brazil and retains some of the best-preserved streetscapes from the earliest colonial period. My family enjoyed a brief visit in 2000, during a week-long stay in the nearby city of Recife.

Like all Brazilian cities -- NOT just Rio -- it was home this week to Carnival festivities, as millions enjoyed a "Fat Tuesday" before the discipline of Lent. (Although other Christian sects are gaining traction in Brazil and not all Brazilian Catholics adhere strictly to the faith, it retains the world's largest population of people identifying as Catholic, and this celebration remains among the most important traditions in Brazil.) One distinction of the celebrations in Olinda is the inclusion of giant puppets with all kinds of themes, both traditional and trendy. This year saw puppets representing David Bowie, for example, and Star Wars characters.

Most fascinating, though, were the puppets representing a specific, middle-aged police officer: Newton Ishii.
Image: Peno Carnaval
Catherine Osborn tells the story of Officer Ishii in a three-minute interview that reveals much about Brazil's unique ability to combine humor and outrage, and to use employ the arts in political protest and resistance.

After listening to the audio, it is worth reading more of the background that puts the story into context and explain why those wishing to see this most celebrated police officer will need to be satisfied with the masks now for sale -- he is on desk duty. You can also watch the music video that brings to life Brazil's schadenfreude over the arrests of its most aloof criminals.


All of this fun, of course, belies environmental, political, and financial woes that are profoundly bothersome for Brazil and Brazilians. In fact, the fun is simply a way to show that the misdeeds of Brazil's political and economic elites will not be allowed to define the rest of them. As Osborn's reporting tells us, this winking dissent really emerged in the culture during the dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, and had its darkest days -- with U.S. support -- from 1967 to 1975. As I have explained, the haunting song "Calice" appeared to be about the prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane but was actually an indictment of the dictatorship and by extension of our role in supporting it.

Lagniappe II

Those interested in Brazil might want to catch 500 years of its geographic history in the next few seconds.

Socialist Snow Removal

In the United States, presidential politics are heating up just as temperatures are dropping and snows are falling. It has led to more than a few joking references about "socialist snowplows," because of course the clearing of public roads is (for now, anyway) funded by public money.

What would genuinely socialist snow removal look like, though? As it turns out: amazing.

Boston-based Jason Margolis investigates snow removal in famously socialist -- and prosperous -- Stockholm, Sweden for his PRI report Snow on the road in Sweden -- no problem. If this story does not wipe the "American exceptionalism" smirk off our collective face, nothing will.

Stockholm is among Europe's snowiest cities (and holds a number of other high rankings for uncomfortable weather). Yet, the snow experience for the average commuter is much like mine was when I lived in Tucson: it is literally never a problem.

In fact, the Stockholm snow experience is better than my Tucson experience, because it is easier to get to work on a snowy day in Stockholm than it is on a sunny day in Tucson. Listen to the story if you have any doubt about this, or if you want to know how it is possible.

Or you can start with my summary. Stockholm succeeds in snow removal for a few basic reasons:

  1. City government understands that snow removal is an important public good. Implied in this is the understanding that failure to remove snow has significant costs that are borne by many residents at all income levels. 
  2. Everyone has an interest in reducing those costs related to delays and accidents caused by snow.
  3. The work required to remove snow is skilled work; it will be more effective to the extent that the work is valued, the workers fairly compensated, and the workers outfitted with the best available equipment.

Anybody who lived in Greater Boston in February 2015 knows point number 1. As our political season moves forward, we will learn how many -- in Boston and nationwide -- understand #2 and #3.


I took a special interest in this story, because I plowed snow for two years in the mid-1980s, with my own plow during the second year. Although I saw plenty of "socialist" plows in action, our work was almost entirely on private property. We, in fact, were able to make our money becasue the public-sector workers had cleared the paths between our commercial contracts. Like anybody who is "self-made" in the private sector, we were clearly dependent on public-sector workers.
Because my plowing days were years before phones merged with cameras, I have no photos of my 1980 Scout II with the plow, let alone of me driving it. So I have shamelessly appropriated this vintage image that does convey the experience. I absolutely loved plowing snow.
Lagniappe 2 (June 2018)

The plow in the image above is leading a bicycle, so I was reminded of this post when I saw the following video from Copenhagen just now.
Imagine if the United States invested in bicycle infrastructure like we do automobile infrastructure. We'd all be a bit healthier.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Abandoning El Salvador

In the United States, neither the people in general nor the media in particular are known for a long attention span. I have always assumed that Mexican poet Octavio Paz was thinking of acts of intervention when he famously wrote "Alas, poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" But the sentiment applies equally to our sins of omission -- our ability to forget one day what was demanding all of our attention the day before.

A recent example is the success of  Daesh/ISIS in distracting presidential contenders and much of the media and general public, through horrific acts in Paris and California. Both our angst and our xenophobia shifted quickly. The fear of migrant children from the South that had commanded so much attention in the summer and early autumn dropped away. But Central America and Mexico remain our close neighbors, and it behooves us to continue paying attention.
Senator Kennedy challenged young people to international service while he was a presidential candidate. The birth of the Peace Corps is considered to have started during this campaign appearance in 1960.
All of this is by way of preamble for several stories about U.S. connections to the region that warrant our attention. One is the announcement earlier this month that the United States is removing Peace Corps volunteers from El Salvador because of escalating violence there. The Obama Administration insists that the decision does not signify abandonment of the region, and cites ongoing spending on development. It is not clear, however, how development funds will be spent effectively without the involvement of those who work most closely with Salvadoran communities. The removal of volunteers may have been necessary, but it is also deeply concerning. It also takes place in the context of an administration that has missed many opportunities to promote justice in the region, despite its progressive reputation.

The decision also highlights concerns about deportations that continue to return young people to a region where their safety is far from assured. It also reminds us of the dark history of U.S. contributions to ongoing violence in the region itself and in deportation policies that enabled the growth of criminal gangs that now operate as close to home as Boston.

My interest in El Salvador began in the 1980s when I was working in a church in Silver Spring, Maryland that was part of a broad, interfaith movement that was providing sanctuary to refugees who in many instances needed protection while awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims. Under the Geneva Convention, many -- perhaps most -- of the 200,000 refugees who had reached the Washington, DC area were eligible for asylum.

But the Department of State usually insisted on deporting them as "economic migrants" and returning them to a war zone, even as migrants from far safer situations in Eastern Europe were granted asylum. I remember clearly a diplomat's answer to my question about this during a meeting with students at my university: to grant Salvadorans asylum would be to admit that the government we supported in their country was as violent as they claimed. So church people rallied around these refugees -- both in D.C. and on the Mexican border -- using their churches as the safe havens they have been for centuries. We eventually learned that U.S. allies in El Salvador had little regard for such niceties, as they began assassinating priests and nuns on church properties, eventually killing the Archbishop himself in a hospital chapel.

All of this is very relevant background for today's excellent discussion of Latino participation in U.S. politics on a recent hour of the On Point radio program. Three-quarters of Latinos in the United States are Mexican-American and most are not migrants, so the discussion is much broader than the question of Central American migration, and is essential to understanding the interplay between politics and demographics.

Wealth Feedback Patterns

In ecology -- and in systems theory generally -- we speak of feedback processes, which are responses within systems whereby outputs can affect inputs. They are of two basic kinds: positive and negative.

Positive feedback processes increase changes because the output "feeds back" to input in a way that causes more of the same kind of output. A common example is audio feedback, in which a microphone sends the amplified sound being output from the system speaker back through the amplifier, turning a small signal into a bigger one. Positive feedback processes help to accelerate changes.

Negative feedback is a process that tend to reverse changes. Perspiration is an example, since elevated body temperature leads to the transfer of moisture to the skin where it can evaporate and lower the temperature. Negative feedback processes help systems to tend toward stasis.

I often talk about these concepts in the context of climate change, since the warming signal triggers dozens of responses that feedback in either positive or negative ways, as defined above.

But the principles apply to all kinds of things, such as the economy and wealth distribution. Progressive tax schemes, for example, would be negative feedback mechanisms that slow changes in wealth distribution. To the extent that taxation causes the "rich to get poorer" or the "poor to get richer," negative feedback is at play.

But neither of those phrases sounds familiar, in part because we find so many mechanisms by which "the rich get richer" and "the poor get poorer." If that sounds a bit more familiar, it may be because so many processes work to reinforce changes in income. Earn a bit more money, and you might have a more reliable car, allowing you to earn more money. Suffer a financial loss from an unexpected car repair, and you might not have the money for gas to get to work. And so on.

As with climate change, the real world is complicated, and we all experience a lot of both kinds of feedback. Yet a Horatio Alger myth persists, suggesting not only that we can overcome poverty, but also that if we do not, it is our own fault. False hope ends up prevailing over solidarity, so that poor and middle-class folks often support policies that would only help them in the real world if they were actually rich.

All of which is by way of setting the context for an interesting set of studies that documents the degree to which one's wealth status is persistent across generation in the United States. The studies compare various measures of wealth and employment among adults with the economic status of their parents, and provides some insights into the reasons (feedback mechanisms) that tend to limit mobility.
Example: Earnings ranked by parental income
Note: Though it is not the focus of this research, the gender pay gap appears in all of the graphs cited
Exceptions abound, of course, but exceptions should not frame our policy choices. Sadly, they do.

In the Rings of Coffee

From the radio program Studio 360 comes an entirely visual story that demonstrates the degree to which coffee has captured my imagination -- and that of my friends. When people who know me find any kind of story related to coffee, they send it my way, thinking I will probably be interested. And they are almost always right. (See my main coffee page for some idea of the breadth involved, or search the word coffee on this blog.)

This particular example is about the British-Italian artist Carolina Maggio, and her fascinating ability to find artistic inspiration in coffee rings. Possessed of an extraordinary ability -- known as pareidolia -- to find patterns where others see randomness, she creates a wide variety of beautiful and even powerful works from the residue of spilled coffee.
The Annunciation, by Carolina Maggio
I am reminded of the work of Anká, an artist I met during my first visit to the Amazon. As we worked our way upstream to his rainforest redoubt, he kept pointing to the trees and naming famous historic figures, as though I should be able to see them in the trees. like Maggio, he could make these visions come alive for others, as in the woman greeting the dawn in this painting that hangs in our home -- probably our first "real" art purchase.
Read the Anká  story on my Folha da Frontera page
Why do coffee rings exist in the first place? Believe it or not, a team of physicists figured this out only in 1997, and their findings have implications for the design of ink-jet printers.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Hiring Humans

Some employers seeking to avoid the provisions of the Affordable Care Act have learned an interesting lessons about their workers and their businesses. The focus is on employment in fast-food, which is often cited as a sector that requires no skills. As a former master of the fryolater, I listened with interest. Decades before ACA, I knew my employers would rather hire 20 half-humans than 10 full humans.
All workers have value.
In this report, even the b-school consultants who assist employers in short-term cost-cutting are starting to rethink the proverbial race to the bottom as a management strategy.
The story is worth a careful listen. From it I take three lessons:

  1. There is no such thing as unskilled labor.
  2. Businesses benefit when they treat people as full humans.
  3. Despite the free-market ideology of its opponents, the lack of universal health care is itself a market disruption. ACA is a compromise that only partly addresses this.
In the following countries, health care is not a factor in deciding how to employ people:

The most intriguing characters in the story about health care are the fast-food managers. They are situated between the employers and most of the employees, having to negotiate difficult choices for workers who want to earn as much as they can, without earning too much to qualify for state aid. By subsidizing these workers, the state is actually subsidizing the restaurants, but the workers voluntarily limit their income to ensure that the subsidy remains in place.


The fry basket at the top of this story is a sieve, which is an apt metaphor for anti-human policies and practices related to labor, migration, and health care. A "human sieve" search on this blog leads to other posts about the problems that arise when greed tries to separate work from the humans who do it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

As Far As the Waters

For the past several years -- and especially since mid-2015 -- Acushnet has become an increasingly important part of this geographer's life. It is both a river I row on, a town I frequently drive through, and the focus of a fascinating community I am becoming a part of.  I was therefore grateful to find some details about its linguistic, cultural, and environmental meaning, courtesy of local history buff Joe Silvia.
Silvia's caption of this photo from the New Bedford Whaling Museum mentions that fishing was a safe pursuit in the Acushnet River "once upon a time." This photo is probably not from that time, but it is from a time before the dangers were well understood.
His 2013 essay subtitled Waterway that Helped Develop a Nation begins with the linguistic history of the pre-European indigenous people of the area that now surrounds the Acushnet River. He explains how a river only 8 miles in length came to play a pivotal role in the history of the region and indeed of the United States. He then provides a lot of details of the tragic history of toxic dumping in the river over a period of centuries, and concludes with the hope that his own daughter might live to see the river in its pristine condition.

One very positive step in that direction has been the restoration of a formerly industrial area very near the boundary between fresh and brackish water on the Acushnet -- where the river begins to meet the sea. I was fortunate enough to join a few other environmental professionals -- and to bring my guest geographers from Brazil -- on a preview tour of what is now the Acushnet Sawmill Park.

Restored with the leadership of the Buzzards Bay Coalition and the help of many public and private partners, this restoration is both cause for optimism and a sterling example of a single project that has benefits for water quality (on the river itself and in Buzzards Bay), flood control, wildlife habitat, vocational education, environmental education, and cultural heritage. My modest collection of photos from the October tour give a glimpse of this wonderful project.
This new fish ladder allows anadromous fish to return to breeding grounds for the first time in decades.


Some of my previous posts relating to the Acushnet include Whaleboat Delivery (about a morning row from the mouth of the river into the open ocean), Blue Boat Poem (a bit of reflection about my time on the water), and Harbor Learning (the beginnings of my involvement with the river and harbor, and some of my first lessons from it).

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