Saturday, December 16, 2017

Putting Voter Suppression on the Map

As I mentioned in Dying to Vote after watching Selma last year, fear of black voters was the main motivator of those who violently opposed the civil-rights movement. Overcoming obstacles to the vote likewise became the chief concern of the movement. A half-century after the shameful events in Alabama, we all celebrate a narrow victory over bigotry in Alabama that would have been won by a wider margin, had the spirit of Bull Conner not continued to guide the state's political leadership.

The current "Weekend Read" article by the Southern Poverty Law Center is essential reading for anybody who is interested in the foundational concept of one person, one vote. That is, it should be essential reading for everybody. It details the many ways in which political elites in Alabama continue to work against the voting rights of African Americans. It is a very well-researched article, full of links to careful documentation of its alarming claims.

The 2013 reversal of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act led to predictable -- and predicted --outcomes. Alabama was among the first states to follow the Supreme Court's dog whistle, and to enact rules touted as preventing voter fraud but calculated to suppress votes.

An example can be found on the map of states in which a required photo-ID cannot be obtained, because of the closure of licensing offices. The U.S. Department of Transportation has confirmed what those who know Alabama can discern right away: this map disproportionately favors white voters.
Map: Kyle Whitmire
As blogger Kyle Whitmire of discerned by making his own map, the closure of licensing offices was guided by race. Just as a driver's license became essential to exercising one's Constitutional right to vote, the state closed licensing facilities in 8 of the 10 counties with the greatest proportion of minority voters, including many counties in the state's famed Black Belt, a region (shown in blue below) that voted most heavily for Doug Jones in the recent special election for the U.S. Senate.
Narrow victory over voter suppression.
Map: New York Times
The state did not limit its voter suppression to the one-two punch of requiring drivers licenses and then selectively closing the offices where they could be obtained. Ironically, Secretary of State John Merrill argued against the automatic voter registration that many states now attach to those very same licenses. Apparently in complete ignorance of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he argued that "just because you turned 18 doesn't give you the right to do anything."

Alabama is not the sole exponent of voter suppression in the U.S., of course, nor has the practice historically been limited to one party or the other. As the demographics of the country shift toward more racial diversity, however, the use of maps, registration rules, immigration law, and criminal law to suppress votes increases.

All of these tools are increasingly favored as ways for politicians to choose their voters, rather than taking the risk of allowing the reverse to happen. My Bad Salamander post cites some particularly egregious examples of mapping with political intent; my Embattled Borderlands and Human Sieve posts, while not specifically about voting, hint at the political uses of immigration policies.


Although many of Roy Moore's partisan supporters argued that the "voters of Alabama" should settle the question of whether the accused pedofile should serve as a U.S. Senator, they are now working feverishly to suppress those voters for just long enough to preclude their input on a "tax bill" that will restructure wealth distribution, environmental protection, health care, reproductive rights, and much more. Sen. Mitch McConnell -- who initially opposed Roy Moore -- is now rushing the bill through the senate, while delaying the seating of Senator Jones, a well-known nemesis of the KKK.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Ventura's Second Burn

As reported by CNBC, recent fires in California have been quite startling when viewed in satellite images, most dramatically in the December 5 image above, captured by the European Space Agency Sentinel-2. The report includes the long-archaic superlative "visible from space," which is also true of objects as small as my garage on publicly-available imagery and as small as my dog's eyelashes with spy satellites. (Well, maybe I exaggerate; I have no way of knowing.)

Back to the original story -- the reporting provides several examples of the use of geotechnologies on the part of NASA and other agencies both for monitoring climate change and other changes in earth systems, and to guiding responses to disasters. It may be in part because the monitoring verifies uncomfortable truths about human interactions with the environment, that NASA is being directed to return its focus to lunar exploration.

Using clear-sky imagery -- from NASA by way of Google -- the same area of Ventura County can be seen to include not only seascapes, hilly scrubland, and urban areas, but also active petroleum exploration. Into the area between Dulah and Route 33 to see that each of the speckles in that part of the image is a parking pad around a petroleum well.

Lagniappe: Artistic Relief

Like many people of a certain age, I cannot hear the words "Ventura County" without this song playing in my head, as it has been doing now for a couple of weeks. The YouTube user "Stay Tuned" has done us the favor of creating a slideshow that pays homage to the beauty of the area in more settled times.

Monday, December 11, 2017


I write this post from our family's "Whaling House" near the historic whaling port of New Bedford, where we are members of the Whaling Museum. I am also an active member Whaling City Rowing and the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society, where I have learned how to row whaleboats. We even have a harpoon leaning in the corner. 

Like many others in the area, I enjoy the stories of Moby-Dick and the Essex, and learning about the lives of those who worked in this most gruesome of trades for more than a century. I have learned that I need to be careful, as my enthusiasm has occasionally given students the impression that I actually hunt whales myself. That became clear when I showed a class this image of spermaceti oil that was recovered from a beached sperm whale on Nantucket.  
Pure spermaceti oil at the Whaling Museum of Nantucket; for a brief time,  this snapshot I took was the official WikiMedia image of the historic material. 
I had to assure the class that I had not hunted the whale from which these samples were collected, and that I fully support the end of whale-hunting. Indeed, the institutions I mention above all support the protection of whales, though some whaling nations continue to block protection measures.

All of this is prelude to two important stories that I heard on the radio yesterday that I see as related to each other, and to the problem of the finity of natural resources. Both stories were reported by the talented science journalists Dr. Heather Goldstone and Elsa Parton on Living Lab Radio.

I recommend taking the time to listen to each story carefully, and to contemplate what they teach us about the interactions among perpetual, renewable, and finite resources. (Vocabulary note: Some geographers, including this one, consider "renewable" the appropriate term for biological resources that can be renewed but whose overuse can lead to their decline. More common usage also applies the term "renewable" to resources we would call "perpetual," such as wind and solar power.)

The first story is an interview with Frank O'Sullivan, who has co-authored important studies on the futures of natural gas and of solar energy. In Can We Skip?, he and Heather Goldstone spend 15 minutes carefully comparing the two and addressing whether one can be viewed as a bridge to the other. The reasons that natural gas is environmentally better than coal are explained, as are recent and expected trends in its use, particularly in New England. The conversation also details why natural gas is neither a permanent solution nor something we can easily abandon right now.
Image: Smithsonian Ocean Portal
From this story about 21st-century energy resources, the program moved to the latest of several it has aired on the plight of the right whale, whose demise was part of the story of energy a century ago. The name of this whale (actually three related species of baleen whale) reveals something about its plight. 

A source of both baleen (the plastic of pre-petroleum days) and lamp oil, whalers referred to these species as the "right" ones to hunt. A vast, renewable, and seemingly infinite resource was thus hunted to a small fraction of its prior population.  The official marine mammal of Massachusetts now numbers only 450 individuals, which are dying at a steady rate because of collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, especially lobster pots. A conversation with Woods Hole expert Mark Baumgartner explains what has made this great whale so vulnerable, and promising technology to help save it from extinction.

I was interested to hear these two stories together, because of two earlier posts on this blog that connect fossil fuels and whaling -- Peak Whale (2011) and Plank to the Future (2013).

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Pottersville Public

SPOILER ALERT: I take it for granted that everyone has seen It's A Wonderful Life, but of course each person has to have a first time. If you have not yet seen this, please go find it and come back to this commentary. I think it is especially important to watch it if English is not your first language -- as with the film Wizard of Oz, this is full of expressions that have become common in American English.

My favorite librarian and I have watched It's a Wonderful Life together just about every year we have been together, and I know I had watched it quite a few times before that; so I have seen it at least three dozen times.

We know every line, and find ourselves speaking lines from the film to each other throughout the year. Among the most common:
"I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society."
"She's ... she's just about to close up the library!"
Last week, we had a special treat, seeing it on the big screen at the historic Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford. When I hear the cliché that films are better on the big screen, I think of films with sweeping landscapes -- or seascapes, as in Moby-Dick. We had seen that film on the same screen a few weeks ago -- in the audience with some who had watched it with Gregory Peck during its premiere. The Z (of which we are members) has been working with the mayor to organize free screenings of classic films.

I did not expect as much from the big-screen viewing of the Jimmy Stewart classic, which is focused very closely on one person and his relationships with other people. Sweeping landscapes have nothing to do with it. I was pleased to learn that I was mistaken -- seeing the film as the director intended reveals so much about a director's craft that a small screen cannot convey.

As well as I know the story, seeing it on the large screen allowed me to fall more deeply into it than usual. I frequently think about the class implications of the dystopian sequence at the end of the film. Without the equalizing influence of George Bailey and the Building & Loan, the already uneven distribution of wealth in Bedford Falls becomes more extreme. Capra paints a grim alternative history, plunging the viewer for just a dozen minutes or so into a community that has spun out of control.

And yet, and yet ...

Even in Pottersville, even in the fevered imaginings of the selfish Henry Potter -- "a warped, frustrated old man" -- there is a public library. Increasingly, public libraries -- along with public schools, streets, and other basic services -- face drastic cuts and even elimination.

We only see its exterior, and the lighting is spooky. But in Pottersville, public funds support a public library. The most selfish, self-serving person Frank Capra could imagine would be considered a political moderate today, when all public services are subject to elimination or privatization. In some jurisdictions, Potter would be too liberal to be elected to Congress, at risk of being "primaried" by someone more stingy than he.


The day after we watched IAWL on the big screen for the first time, we saw it on stage. The Massasoit (Community College) Theater Company performed a lovely adaptation that allowed me once again to lose myself in this compelling story.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

From Tragedy to Gratitude

Photo: Boston Discovery Guide
Today is the 100th anniversary of a terrible tragedy in Halifax, Nova Scotia -- a maritime accident leading to an explosion whose destructive power would not be exceeded until the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. It is also the beginning of a century-long (so far) story of redemption and gratitude.

I learned the general outline of this story shortly after moving to the Boston area in 1997, but I learned a lot more from a brief conversation on NPR's Morning Edition today. Journalist Steve Inskeep discusses the accident in the context of U.S.-Canadian relations with John U. Bacon, author of The Great Halifax Explosion.

Spoiler alert: I knew that the people of Halifax continue to send the best Christmas tree they can find to Boston in gratitude for the help that came from our city to theirs. From this conversation, however, I learned just how significant the gesture was in the context of strained relations between the two countries at the time. In our dangerously xenophobic times a century later, it is good to be reminded that most people are of good will.

I mentioned the radio story to a colleague and friend who teaches the geographies of Canada and the United States in my department. She shared a number of resources, including a map that will help listeners better understand the accident and an excerpt from the CBC production Shattered City.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Bears Ears Reversal

Photo: Tim Peterson, Grand Canyon Trust
A week after insulting Navajo veterans of World War II -- the code talkers who helped to win the war in the Pacific -- under a portrait of the odious Andrew Jackson, the president of the United States announced the unprecedented removal of National Monument status from over 1,000,000 acres of land in Utah whose protection had been sought by Navajo and other tribes. Fortunately, the United States does still have three branches of government, and it is possible that a Federal court will agree that that the Antiquities Act does not give a president this authority.

Still, as widely reported yesterday, the president is asserting just such authority in Utah, and if successful he may try to do the same in many other states, though not in Montana.

In the NPR report above, Matt Anderson argues that President Obama's naming of the Bears Ears National Monument had itself been overreach, and that reverting to BLM status would keep "the areas open and accessible to locals who depend on this land for their daily lives." The image he hopes to convey is of family farmers grazing animals on highly-regulated rangelands, but it cannot be denied that coal, oil, and natural gas leases would also be made possible if yesterday's decision is upheld.

Without sensing the irony of their own claims, some opponents argue that indigenous opponents of the rollback are located far away, and that local, non-indigenous voices should have priority. The displacement of native people from their land is thus used as an argument against their standing to discuss it.

Later on Monday, All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly spoke with Ute Indian Shaun Chapoose about Native American responses to the announcement.

The reversal of federal protection is unprecedented -- with the 1,300,000-acre Monument reduced to just 228,000.
Map: State of Utah, by way of Grand Canyon Trust

Lagniappe: It Gets Worse

Immediately after seeing to the removal of 2,000,000 acres (an area bigger than Delaware) from these the National Monuments, Secretary Zinke urged the president to reduce the size of four more protected areas: Nevada's Gold Butte, the Cascade-Siskiyou of Oregon and California, the Pacific Remote Islands, and the Rose Atoll. The last of these is an area of protected marine resources covering an area larger than Massachusetts.
Next on the secretary's agenda: Cascade-Siskiyou.
In addition to unspecified reductions in the size of each of these monuments, the secretary recommends changing the way restrictions are enforced on all national monuments. Even if this attempt to rewrite of the Antiquities Act does not survive court challenges, it will waste countless hours of time -- and millions of dollars -- that environmental organizations and federal employees could be spending on actually protecting the environment.

Without any shame, the secretary declared that his recommendations reflect the will of the people, dismissing 2.8 million public comments that he admitted were mostly counter to his recommendation. By "the people" he meant those people he prefers to listen to, some of which are not actually people at all. He further continues to associate himself with the signer of the 1906 Act, Teddy Roosevelt. Again, without shame.

The same announcement includes expanded protection in Montana itself, where his political ambitions outweigh his general preference for environmental destruction.

UPDATE: Even Worse

It is with some hesitation I add even more bad news to this post, but new information about this decision is unsettling and needs to be shared. If the courts allow the executive order to stand, Bears Ears will be open not only to grazing, but also to the mining of uranium. This has nothing whatsoever to do with public use of the land; it has to do with pleasing political donors. A map of the uranium potential accompanies the story behind the president's decision.
Map: Washington Post
July 2018 further update

It is now clear that the documents used to justify the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument were selectively censored to hide known benefits of the protection the area had been receiving. Someone should be going to jail for this, but will more likely be going to the bank.

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