Sunday, July 29, 2018

Incurious America

In his unfortunately-titled 2009 book Idiot America, Boston sports writer Charles P. Pierce describes the growing aversion in his country -- and mine -- for public policies that are grounded in facts. I consider the title unfortunate because it is guaranteed to raise hackles more than it will invite readers, and in the process a very well-reasoned and researched book is not well known.

Writing a few years before the web of deception strategies was condensed to just two words -- fake news -- Pierce identified three great premises of idiot America:
  • Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
  • Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it
  • Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
I would use the term "incurious America" instead and might add a corollary:
  • My opinion is as good as your expertise
For it is the continued assault on the value of inquiry, research, and knowledge itself that relate most directly to my work and identity as a scholar and educator. 

Pierce begins building his case with charlatans who were manipulating public discourse in the United States as early as 1787, citing example after example of one or more of his three premises, culminating in the first century of this decade, when several completely optional wars were sold to an uncritical public on a series of unsubstantiated claims. Of course, we remain mired in those wars, and will never be done paying for them.

An important stage in the progression of mendacity in America is, of course, that species known as the tobacco lawyer. They succeeded for decades -- killing my grandfather, aunt, uncle, and many others in the process -- by manipulating the notion of "doubt" in scientific discourse.

What is a repudiated trickster to do once the tobacco industry is (somewhat) cowed? Climate denial, that's what! He introduces the story of climate denial with an undeniable example in Alaska that is connected to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where I spend much of my time. In fact, I started my day in New Bedford aboard a replica Beetle boat, the whale-hunting boats that were invented in New Bedford and carried to all the world's oceans on this city's whaleships.

In his chapter "How We Look at the Sea," Pierce tells the story of 33 whaleships -- mostly from New Bedford -- that were trapped and ultimately crushed by the 1871 winter ice pack that was forming near Point Belcher in the Chukchi Sea. All of the ships were lost, though all 1200 crew (and, oddly, family) members were saved. In a story depicted and often told in the New Bedford Whaling Museum (of which I am a proud member), we learn that $1,600,000 worth of oil, bone, and baleen of bowhead whales was left behind. It was salvaged by Iñupiaq, many of whom live on the nearby island of Shishmaref.

What does this have to do with climate change? Two things: first, the crush of winter ice ice took place in August. Ice is no longer a threat at that time of year. Second, the island of Shishmaref is now endangered by rising waters and rising temperatures. Significant shoreline had been lost at the time of Pierce's writing, and it has only gotten worse. People who relied on annual rhythms of ice and a year-round presence of permafrost for thousands of years are front-line witnesses to phenomena that can only be denied from the comfort of office space on K Street.

In my courses on climate change, I used to begin -- as I might in some other subjects -- by asking students to write down what they already know about the topic. My intention was to figure out how much basic physics I would need to introduce early in the class. I have learned two things: first, I need to introduce all of the relevant physics. Second, students think they know something about competing theories that would explain away climate change, but they do not.


The full title of Pierce's book includes a colon, which is how we know it is scholarly! The subtitle is How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, which points to an increasingly common peeve of mine. In the name of "patriotism" many edicts made and even some laws passed that unduly restrict freedom and exhibit cowardice. Particularly bitter is the irony surrounding such restrictions being placed around the singing of -- and genuflecting toward -- our national anthem, as if its last line had no meaning whatever. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Nicaragua's Kent State

Note: This is an update on the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua. For detailed background, please see the #SOSNicaragua article that I posted on May 17 and continued to update until this week.

A friend in Nicaragua shared this terrible map today. It shows the geographic depiction of the killings at protests between April 18 and July 25. This is a pace of state-sponsored killing equivalent to a Kent State massacre every day. In a country 1/50th the size of the United States, the impact of such repression is difficult to imagine. 

Not since the Somoza regime has the Nicaraguan government turned on a crowd in this way, though we are aware of previous acts of repression by the Ortega regime in recent years.

International condemnation has been widespread, including a bipartisan resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives. Perhaps anticipating that rebuke, Ortega sat for an interview with Fox News Monday night. Given the scant attention this story has gotten in the United States, the reporter does an admirable job of navigating the interview with a recalcitrant Ortega, who lies about almost everything but the name of his country. He does his best to advance the theory that the victims are the perpetrators of the violence. The next day, journalist Tom Phillips wrote a cogent analysis of the interview and the current state of affairs in Nicaragua. His reporting is the best recent overview I have seen, and is a reminder of the value of keeping journalists posted in a region so that they can learn its nuances.

The text of House Resolution 981 mentioned in the interview is available; I will be following any further U.S. actions with great attention. So far, I am cautiously optimistic about this response. Given the very troubled history of U.S. involvement in the country, it is important that any official response be very measured.

My hardworking, generous, optimistic friends throughout the country are affected directly. Many of them cannot get to work, for example, because buses are not running. If peace does not return in the next couple months, the coffee harvest will not get to market, eliminating the most important infusion of cash for most rural families in the north. For that reason -- and because I have not yet seen NGOs step into this area of need -- we have launched a short-term campaign for relief funds to share with the coffee communities with which we work directly.

As I am posting this, I have learned about some additional projects that our partners in Nicaragua are undertaking, and for which they will need our support. Please check this space for further developments.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Quesadilla with Cheese

The title of this post is redundant -- like "chili con carne with meat" -- but it is in fact how a U.S. visitor to Mexico City would need to get a quesadilla that would meet the key expectation of queso-ness.

Reporting for PRI's The World, journalist Maya Kroth recently explored the culinary and linguistic story of the cheeseless quesadilla.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Gentrification Outcomes

A recent hour of the NPR program On Point explored the question shown below. I had the luxury -- I must have been in the car for a long ride -- of hearing the whole conversation as it aired last week. Fortunately, journalist extraordinaire Linda Wertheimer had nearly a full hour to mull various aspects of the question with some bright people who have given it a lot of thought.

I recommend listening to the whole program -- including the calls from listeners -- for some important thoughts about a question I would frame in a slightly different way. As posed in the title, it seems that a binary answer is being sought. I would rather ask, "How can we maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of gentrification?" I would not have thought of it this way before hearing this program.

One of the callers in particular caught my attention. The experience of Portland, Maine validates the finding mentioned earlier in the program, that gentrification is not limited to large cities. I had been in Portland for the first time just a few weeks ago -- strange, since it is only a few hours from our home -- and had seen many of the positive things typically associated with gentrification. Food, arts, and music are providing for a gainful, interesting employment and an enjoyable city to visit or in which to reside.

But the caller validated another, more commonly raised concern about gentrification: rapidly rising prices. I had just seen evidence of that, from my safe distance as a potential tourist. Planning a driving trip to Nova Scotia, our first thought was to start with a short jaunt to Portland so we could continue to explore it. I started, of course, with hotel options, and found numbers like this:
I am certain that pricing in other seasons will be lower, so we might plan a shoulder-season return at some point. After all, I barely scratched the surface of the coffee scene in Portland. But during this high season, a weekend in Portland would cost as much as a week in comparable lodgings elsewhere on our journey.

Lagniappe: As I thought about this some more -- about the competition for space pushing even relatively prosperous travelers away from this booming downtown -- I realized that I was forgetting an important facet of tourism that could prove very important in a place like Portland. The numbers on the Air BnB map of downtown are much lower, and they are clustered more toward the western side of downtown.
Note: I am writing this post from Canada, so the Air BnB site is showing
Canadian dollars. At today's rate, the US dollar prices would be
about 25 percent less than these figures. 
Clearly, many residents of Portland are crafting a strategy for staying in their homes that involves taking advantage of the very high costs of traditional hotels.

As I mention above, the changing economic landscape of a city is complicated, and we owe it to ourselves to think deeply about how to get the best outcomes for communities experiencing change. The hour-long discussion above is a very good start.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fireworks and Climate Change

The geography of climate change is complicated. With the entire state located far from the oceans and thousands of feet above sea-level, Colorado is safe from the rising water that is central to so many discussions of climate change and climate justice.

This does not make Colorado -- or the rest of the western highlands of North America -- safe from climate change. As journalist Grace Hood recently reported on NPR, climate-related increases in fire hazard are causing many communities to make the difficult decision of canceling -- or greatly modifying -- traditional fireworks. In places where a carelessly discarded cigarette can ignite a blaze that burns thousands of square miles, fireworks are being reconsidered.

Note: Grace Hood speaks with an actual geography professor as part of this story! Dr. Balch is an expert in -- among other things -- landscape ecology. Although I have not have the expertise in this area that she does, I was fortunate to take one graduate course in landscape ecology. From that course in the biology department, I first learned of the counterintuitive relationship between our successes in fire suppression (think Smokey the Bear) and the increasing volatility of forest fires and wildfires.

It was only after a half-century or so of success that the danger became clear. In an extensive area that has not burned in 50 or more years, the ordinary patchwork of high- and low-fuel areas is replaced with a uniformly abundant fuel load. This means that forests or srublands that had evolved with small fires every couple decades would now face fires that were rare, but impossible to stop once started. Moreover, the relatively benign ground fires would increasingly be replaced by much hotter canopy fires.

Almost every fire season, I have added a post about the latest evidence of the increasingly complicated and dangerous outcomes of these landscape changes. In my 2015 Frontier on Fire, I discuss some of the basic ideas of fire ecology, in the context of the severe season experienced in Alaska that year. The article includes a link to a thorough exploration by environmental journalist Steve Curwood. In Fires of the Future are Here (2017), I point to a number of other excellent resources on fire ecology and possible management responses.

In Wildfire Anniversary (2010), I write about a very local example of the fire danger resulting directly from successful fire suppression. The 1964 Miles Standish fire was an early example that burned strongly, only 20 miles southeast of our Bridgewater campus. Some modern management practices have been undertaken since then, but it is not yet clear whether that forest (shown above) has the requisite landscape diversity to prevent a similar fire.

In Hot or Not (2012), I addressed the reluctance of political candidates -- regardless of ideology -- to make connections between wild fire can climate change.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Coffee from the Maven to Mandelas

When I was asked to provide coffee for some of the morning class sessions of our university's visiting Mandela Fellows, I decided to provide a different coffee each day. Each coffee gives us a chance to explore something a bit different about the geography of coffee.

Coffee is produced to some extent in almost every home country of this year's
class of Mandela Fellows. Among these, the best known for coffee are Ethiopia
and Uganda. South Africa is a bit of a surprise -- it is outside the Coffee Belt but
produces a small amount of very good coffee.
All of the coffees I am providing are fair-trade, organic coffees from Deans Beans in the town of Orange, Massachusetts -- about 100 miles northwest of our campus. The proprietor is Dean Cycon, a leader in authentic fair trade, and the author of Javatrekker, a book I use in all of the courses I teach about coffee. Every coffee his company sells is grown by cooperatives he has visited personally; most of them are described in his book, and all are described on roastery's web site.

A feature of the web site that reflects the whimsy that Cycon brings to the very serious work of coffee is the ability of customers to create their own blends and packaging. Of the coffees I am preparing for the Mandela Fellows, two are custom labels for this event and the other two are standard offerings. The labels are shown here in the order I will be serving them.

BSU Mandela Fellows 2018

Almost all coffee is from one of types -- the Arabica species or the robusta variety of the canephora species. The majority -- about 70 percent -- is Arabica. It is the more difficult to grow and does not have as much caffeine, but its flavor is generally preferred and its price higher. All of the coffee we will share this week is Arabica, which in a way is misnamed! Coffea arabica should really be called Coffea ethiopica, because it originated in a place that is now part of Ethiopia. Yes: humans and coffee began in the same part of Africa!

It is for this reason that I chose coffee from the Sidamo region of Ethiopia for our welcome. The region is featured in the 2006 film Black Gold, which I show many of my students, and in Javatrekker. The film -- which can be borrowed or viewed online through the BSU Maxwell library -- features Tadesse Meskela,  from whose cooperative Deans Beans purchased this coffee.

Timor Atsabe

My selection of coffees for the week is guided by my desire to share coffees that are geographically diverse and that allow me to focus on different aspects of what makes coffee important. For Tuesday's coffee, I chose Timor Astabe, from one of the world's newest countries: East Timor. Growers in East Timor are the subject of the short coffee documentary One Cup (scratchy versions of which can be viewed at the Internet Archive).

NoCO2 Peru

For Thursday's coffee, I decided to emphasize the relationship between coffee and climate change. Because it is a crop with very specific requirements of rainfall, temperature, and especially the timing of rainfall, climate change is part of the discussion of any coffee. In Peru, coffee farmers have the added concern of dependency on glaciers high above the coffeelands for part of their water supply.

It is for that reason that Deans Beans chose a partner cooperative in Peru for its first carbon-offsee coffee, NoCO2 Peru. This inspired me and my colleague Dr. Rob Hellström to plan Coffee and Climate Change, a course that would involve other Peru cooperatives and periglacial research stations in the Andes. Unfortunately, we have not yet taught the course, but it could happen in our summer 2020 session.

Ben Linder Birthday 2018

Today would be the 59th attainment day of Ben Linder, a civil engineer from the United States who was assassinated during the Contra War in Nicaragua. His birthday would be tomorrow, July 7. Today's coffee is named in his honor, and was harvested in the communities of northern Nicaragua to which he was bringing renewable electric power at the time he was killed.

He has now been deceased for longer than he was physically alive, but his spirit lives on in the work that he did, the work he inspired, and in the gratitude of communities to which he provided light. His story is told in the book The Death of Ben Linder and in the half-hour documentary film American/Sandinista.

More than 100 BSU students have visited the grave where he is buried in honor, and several dozen have visited his hydroelectric projects or the cafés that were established in his name by victims of the war. Our students have been inspired to propose a Ben Linder Café on our campus, and we are still hopeful that it will one day be serving students, staff, and visitors in the atrium DMF Science and Mathematics Center.

What You Can Do

BLC on Facebook
To see more delicious, ethical coffee -- and education about coffee -- at BSU, please like the Ben Linder Café page on Facebook, follow posts there, and invite your friends to do the same. Contact me (  if you would like a café education program for your club or other organization.

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