Saturday, December 26, 2020

Jane Goodall: Climate, Community, Coffee

I found a recent installment of the BBC radio program HARDtalk to be uncharacteristically uplifting. In a rebroadcast of a segment that originally aired in July 2020, Dr. Jane Goodall did discuss some hard truths, but she also offered listeners hope of a way forward in this most dismal year.

Dame Jane Goodall. Image: BBC

I am sharing this interview with students in several of my courses because she explains the importance of connecting environmental protection with human rights and she describes exactly how that connection is made: by listening to the people most directly involved. She carries out this work with communities and individuals worldwide through two organizations -- the think tank/foundation Jane Goodall Institute and the youth movement Roots and Shoots.

More specifically, I am sharing this with students in my coffee classes because one of her many projects involves a cooperative of coffee farmers near the Gombe National Park, as the site of her original field work is now known. I first learned of the project when Gombe Reserve Coffee was being sold by Green Mountain Coffee. Jane Goodall continues to work with the Kanyovu Coffee Cooperative Society, a consortium of 12 coffee collectives representing 7,600 farmers near the park. Because sustainable coffee farming is a form of agroforestry, it can provide a critical buffer in areas adjacent to protected parks such as Gombe. Since the partnership with Green Mountain Coffee ended, I have not been able to find this coffee at a retail level, but the Goodall Institute and US-AID both continue to support the work of these growers.

Farmers protecting forests near Gombe
Image: Jane Goodall Institute

I was lucky enough to be in a room with Dr. Goodall just once, when she was kind enough to accept the first Atlas Award from the American Association of Geographers in 2010. This award is given by our national organization to a person who advances the values of geography but who does not identify primarily as a geographer. The HARDtalk interview reveals an interesting connection between geography and her work as an anthropologist: at a pivotal moment early in her studies in Gombe, National Geographic decided to report on her work. In the 2010 article Being Jane Goodall, the magazine reflects on the the first half century of her remarkable career. (This link is for NatGeo members only, but the article is available through most libraries.)

January 2022 Update: Amid much sad news at the new year -- including the death of E.O. Wilson -- a BBC interview with Jane Goodall was a bright spot. Her discussion with BBC's Climate Editor Justin Rowlatt is a thorough exploration of Lessons from the forest for climate change. It is a great example of the kind of geographic thinking we need at this crossroads in the life of our planet.

Lagniappe: Gorongosa

Thinking about Jane Goodall's embrace of local communities as an integral part of her environmental work reminds me of another example of a prominent scientist who partners with local experts. In my 2017 post Good News from Gorongosa, I introduce a wonderful documentary about the relationship between Tonga Torcida, a young man in a part of Mozambique that has been inhabited for 300,000 years and the imminent biologist E.O. Wilson.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Post-Peak Oil


Detail of photo by Adriana Loureiro Fernandez
for Bloomberg Green

Perhaps the most profane guest lecturer I ever brought to campus was James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. I qualify this with "perhaps" because I also helped to bring Junot Díaz to campus. Kunstler is certainly the more curmudgeonly of the two: a professional pessimist for whom dire predictions are a moral imperative. It is as if we were stepping off a curb in front of a fast-moving bus, and he is trying to push us out of its path with books, lectures, and profanity-laden blog posts.

I was reminded of this by a recent story from Bloomberg. In Toxic Spills in Venezuela Offer a Bleak Vision of the End of Oil, journalists Fabiola Zerpa, Peter Millard, and Andrew Rosati describe the multiple environmental catastrophes that are accompanying the financial collapse of what was once a leading national petroleum industry.

As the article describes in detail, the demise of petroleum in Venezuela is following a path that is not likely to play out in other producing areas. It is, after all, failing to refine oil while it still has plenty. Most other oil fields -- and the global oil field as a whole -- will not run aground financially until reserves are proportionally much scarcer than they are in Venezuela at the moment. 

But the tale is a cautionary one for another reason: it is difficult enough to get polluters to take financial responsibility for the havoc they cause while they are profitable. It is much more difficult when they have run out of money. It is for this reason that regulatory programs such as RCRA in the United States require industries to show strong financial reserves as part of any process of permitting potentially polluting facilities. 

As oil reserves dwindle worldwide -- and all of them will -- abandoned fields and infrastructure will require close scrutiny. Unfortunately, many of the costs of our oil addiction are likely to be borne by generations who do not enjoy the benefits.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Latin America: Globalization & Cohesion

Visiting the Elqui Valley of Chile for a solar eclipse in 2019.

Where is Latin America exactly, and why is it called that?

What causes deforestation in the Amazon, and why does it matter?

Infamous BR-364 
See note below

What do migration patterns have to do with the price of coffee?

How is land connected to political upheaval in the region?

How does climate change affect Latin America, and how are people responding?

What can we learn about Latin America from its music?

These questions and many more are part of one of my favorite courses -- 

GEOG 381 is Latin America: Globalization & Cohesion
Tuesdays 11:00am-12:15pm
In the spring 2021 semester it is offered fully online, partly synchronous. This is a complicated way to say that we will have one Zoom meeting a week, with students working independently otherwise.

International development amid the diverse global cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean is considered as globalization is balanced with local identities from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. Common themes that define the region are contrasted with unique developments at national and local scales. 

The course meets four requirements of the Core Curriculum: CGCL; CMCL; CSOC; CWRT
Global Culture; Multiculturalism; Social and Behavioral Sciences; Writing Intensive
It also fulfills requirements in all four geography concentrations, the geography minor, and the LACS minor. An Honors Contract credit is available for students completing departmental honors in geography.

I became a Latin Americanist geographer because of one of the problems mentioned above: Amazon deforestation. As I learned more about the region -- eventually earning a doctoral minor in Latin American Area Studies -- I have become enamored of its many cultures, climates, and landscapes. I have had the good fortune of visiting all the countries shown in green below -- returning many times to Brazil, Mexico, and Nicaragua. I also lived for seven years in the Borderlands of Arizona and Texas, which should be included in any discussion of the region.

Map from MapChart

For more ideas related to this course, please explore the posts I have labeled GEOG381 in this blog.

Photo Notes
I struggled to find a photo to illustrate this blog post -- even my own modest experience in Latin America has been quite varied. I have been hot, cold, high, low, wet, and dry. I have seen beautiful and occasionally terrible things. I have met so many wonderful people. I compulsively take photos, and each of the thousands I have taken (or have been taken of me) tells a different story.

At the top of this page is a photo my spouse (who is a BSU librarian and Spanish professor) took during our July 2019 visit to Chile and Argentina to view a total eclipse of the sun. We learned why people make such a big deal out of those journeys. Traveling as two Latin Americanists made our travel to view the eclipse a very rich experience, as we could do so independently and appreciate many things about the people and places we traversed.

The BR-364 photo is one that I did not take; I found it on a Facebook group called Rondônia, Minha Querida Rondônia. Like many groups, it features nostalgic photos of a particular place, in this case the Brazilian state where I did my dissertation research in 1996 and to which I returned in 2000, 2003, and 2019. The phrase "minha querida" means "my dear" and it signifies the affection many people feel for their home state, despite it being a place I chose to research specifically because of its many problems. The muddy road BR-364 (usually called Três-Meia-Quatro) is at the heart of thousands of migration stories and one of the world's most severe and prolonged episodes of deforestation. The story behind this photo will occupy about two weeks of our course, and will touch on many aspects of the geography of an entire region.

The final photo -- the sea of flags -- was taken in the spring of 2018 in Nicaragua, not by me. I led study tours in Nicaragua almost every year from 2006 to 2018, almost always in January. In April of 2018, politics in the country took a very dark turn, which I describe in a series of posts tagged #SOSNicaragua -- a hashtag that is also on the back of my car to this day. Although this looks like an ordinary photograph, to understand the photo and the reactions to it is to understand a complicated story of political geography that stretches back decades.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Thanks to Doctor Ogbuagu

This map depicts key points in the early life and education of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a researcher at Yale University known for his work on AIDS and more recently on Pfizer's vaccine for the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

Like many, I learned of his contribution from this tweet issued last week by the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. The tweet is put in the context of Dr. Ogbuagbu's overall career in an article by journalist Haleem Olatunji on TheCable, a Nigerian online journal.

The story illustrates the importance of scientific cooperation in general and of the mobility of scholars across international borders. For many, it provides what might be surprising evidence of the high quality of medical education in a developing country. For me, it is a welcome story of diplomatic professionals doing what they do best: highlighting that which unites us.

Lagniappe: Biafra

I am glad I took a moment to map the places that were mentioned in Olatunji's article. For then it becomes clear that Dr. Obguagbu was raised and educated primarily in Biafra, a region whose attempt to secede from Nigeria was the crux of a civil war and the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel I have been reading with students in my course Africa: People, Resources, and Development. Reading that novel helps me to understand some of the quite negative replies I found under the aforementioned tweet -- the division in Nigeria is very much alive, a half century after the civil war.

Approximate boundaries of Biafra within Nigeria: Wikipedia

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Climate Action and the Executive See-Saw

The U.S. Constitution neither defines nor precludes presidential executive orders, but every president since George Washington has issued at least one. The sole exception was William Henry Harrison, who died in office after only 31 days. In more recent presidencies, this would be ample time to issue orders, some of which are ready for a new president's signature before the Mayflower moving van has left the White House grounds on inauguration day.

Political observers now expect a sheaf of executive orders to be ready with each new administration because -- to some degree -- executive orders are sometimes made to be broken. This will certainly be the case with regard to executive action related to the environment in general and climate change in particular when the Biden Administration takes office on January 20, 2021.

Sadly, public policy is sometimes a game.
Image: Card Cow

A pair of recent segments from the public-radio program Living On Earth provide an overview of recent executive actions related to climate change and informed speculation about orders that may be issued just before and just after the moving vans arrive.

In March 2020, program host and environmental journalist extraordinaire Steve Curwood spoke with law professor Jody Freeman about the EPA's rush to rollback regulations before the election. The discussion draws on her experience as Counselor for Energy and Climate Change in the Obama administration, to quickly describe the most important environmental protections that are at stake. 

This is good preparation for a segment that aired today, in which Curwood returns to the topic of executive orders with economist Joe Aldy, who served on President Obama's 2008-2009 transition team. They explore President-elect Biden's environmental priorities. Aldy's experience 12 years ago gives him keen insight into what the outgoing president is likely to do and what tools the incoming president has available -- including the degree to which control of the Senate will matter.


Just as I was posting this, I found a more detailed description of President-elect Biden's climate-related transition plans by journalists and Adam Aton and Jean Chemnick. The intention to address climate in nearly every department of government suggests the need for interdisciplinary approaches to the deepening climate crisis.

Moving two families during a ceremony -- even a long ceremony -- is daunting, but it is done every 4 to 8 years in the People's House. I once read that Mayflower (which seriously botched the 1997 Hayes-Boh family move) was always hired, but a quick image search suggests that competent companies also get the job sometimes, as in the January 2001 move shown above.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Warm Heart of Malawi

The World Through a Lens is a weekly series of explorations provided by the photojournalists of the New York Times  as a welcome diversion from the isolation many are experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Malawians: What turned a single visit to Malawi into a lifetime connection.
Photo credit: Marcus Westburg

The contribution of Sweden's Marcus Westberg begins with a two-day assignment in Malawi that has turned into a relationship lasting most of his adult life. We went to the small village of Senga Bay to take photos 14 years ago, when a water-supply well (borehole) was being installed. He was soon captivated by the country, the people, and the lake that helps to define both.

Over time, he came to understand the phrase Malawians use to describe their culture: the warm heart of Africa. His photo essay is a treasure; and though it captures a single recent journey, both the words and the images are borne of a connection built over more than a decade.

Please enjoy the photographs Westburg shares with us; you will feel the warmth and the heart. You will also gain some insight into matters that are important in Malawi and throughout many other countries of the African continent.

I am always intrigued by the map of Malawi -- the country and its eponymous inland sea are almost the same shape. 

BONUS: For his second entry in the NYT series, Westburg shares his experiences in and along the Luangwa River of Zambia. In this case, humans are not his focus: these photos are all about the charismatic megafauna.

Frolicking hippos -- their name is from the Greek for "river horse."
Photo: Marcus Westburg

If you like Westburg's work -- and how can you not? -- consider following his social-media links at the bottom of the article.


I am grateful for Westburg's essay because he so beautifully conveys something similar to my own experiences in a couple different places. My choice of a human-centered photo and my awkward caption about finding Malawians in Malawi are deliberate. In 2006 --- around the same time as Westburg's first visit to Malawi -- I went to Nicaragua with the intention of leading a coffee tour there one time, and moving on to another coffee country the next year. I have taken more than 100 people there during 12 visits so far, and I am in touch with someone from Nicaragua almost every day. In turn, many of those 100 people who went with me for a single visit have returned and built long-term relationships. The reason: we did not just meet Nicaragua; we met Nicaraguans.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Maritime Hermitages

Environmental geography is concerned with understanding environmental problems, of course, but it is also about appreciating places. Photojournalist Alex Ingraham has spent some time visiting the very small islands of coastal Great Britain, meeting the caretakers who in many cases are the sole inhabitants. 

The laboratories, guest quarters, and library of Skokholm, Wales.
Image: NY Times Photojournalist Alex Ingram

They get to know some remote places in a very intimate way, and through Ingraham's lens and narrative, we are given glimpses of these remarkable places and the rewards and tribulations of an isolated lifestyle. 

I cannot help but wonder when there might be an opening as warden of Skokholm, which has two people and one library. I think it would be a good retirement job for my favorite librarian and me to share. 


This essay is part of The World Through a Lens -- a weekly series of explorations provided by the New York Times  as a welcome diversion from the isolation many are experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Belle Isle Memorial


Belle Isle -- Beautiful Island Indeed

In the middle of the Detroit River -- between the Detroit waterfront and the Riverside Drive in Windsor, Ontario -- Belle Isle is a small island beloved by the people of Detroit. 

It was therefore the perfect place to memorialize Detroiters who have been lost to the Coronavirus pandemic. It seems especially fitting that the memorial would take the same form as many other ceremonies this year -- a car parade. 


Near the end of the story, people wax nostalgic about the radio program of Martha Jean McQueen. Her prayerful pronouncements voiced over the music of Rev. James Cleveland are typical of the excerpts I could find online. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

EVOnline at NERC 2020 - Join us Nov 2


The EarthView team is proud to be part of the NERC 2020 online conference for social studies educators throughout the northeastern United States and beyond. The 50th anniversary of this illustrious gathering is taking place fully online. EarthView has been featured at several real-world NERC meetings, and we are very happy to continue the tradition.

As the awkward staging of the welcome message above suggests, Covid-19 safety was a key consideration as we made EVOnline field trip that will be part of our session on Monday, November 2. Please join us -- registration is free but is required by October 26 (one week in advance). 

The webinar session begins with a "field trip" comprising about a dozen brief presentations using the EarthView globe and some of our EarthMap giant floor maps. This will be followed by a discussion of the use of such maps in learning geography and social studies, with Q&A moderated by Andrea Weng, the president of our BSU Geography Club. We will conclude with our team's recommendation of resources for online learning at all levels.

A link to the entire presentation will be made available on this blog post after the event; it will include links to individual segments of the field trip, for use in classrooms and by those teaching and learning at home.

See the NERC 2020 page for registration and the World Beyond Borders page for details our session. Please register (for free) by October 26 to receive the Zoom link for our session and to arrange for PDP credits if needed. 

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Ten Shillings, Six Pence: 10/6

My favorite librarian habitually checks the National Day calendar, looking for things that might be fun to celebrate, and this often inspires special meals in our household. It also leads to odd discoveries, such as the Mad Hatter Day.
Chapeleiro Maluco

The "holiday" began in Colorado in 1986, simply as an excuse for "crazy" or whimsical behaviors, especially involving the wearing of hats. When I posted this photo online, a friend in Brazil immediately commented with the Portuguese version of the term, and some virtual chuckles followed.

As detailed in a Mad Hatter Day article in the Panache section of Economic Times, the manic character is associated with Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, though he never used that exact name for his character the Hatter. The article explains why today's date is used to celebrate the character. 

It errs, however, in associating the "madness" of haberdashers with their use of lead; mercury was the real culprit, as mentioned in the video above. It is an easy mistake to have made: both are metals known to be neurotoxins, and in reality the toxicity of mercury is gravely serious. In fact, I am justifying the time I am spending on this blog post by the fact that I am sharing it with my Environmental Regulations class later this morning. We will make some comparisons between mercury and dichlordiphenyltrichloroethane, which we have been studying for the past few weeks. 

Mercury and DDT are different in many ways, but both are subject to biomagnification in fatty tissue and were in use for decades before their toxicity was understood. Both exemplify the limitations of free markets when managing environmental risks.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Coffee Creek Quality

One-minute excerpt of S5E1 of Schitt's Creek, a fair-use clip for educational purposes. May be blocked in some locations; may not be used on monetized sites.

"Coffee Movie!" or "Library Movie!" are expressions we use in the Hayes-Boh household to express our joy when encountering our favorite subjects in a film or a television show. A fantasy sabbatical project of mine, for example, would be to string together all of the coffee references in M*A*S*H; my favorite librarian even has a television tag for entries in her famous "Library" Books blog.

Our pandemic television roster now includes Schitt's Creek, a series to which we are late arrivals. The low-brow veneer covers some rather clever humor in a series that is essentially an inversion of The Beverly Hillbillies. Some scenes are set in a café, but the one that caught our attention takes place in the lobby of the very modest motel that is more central to the series. 

John first mentions coffee as nothing more than a caffeine vehicle -- fuel for a tired person. Stevie tries to discourage him, suggesting that even his low expectations of quality will not be met. 

Coffee quality matters, even when expectations are low. Coffee passes through 50 or more steps from seed to cup, and choices at each step affect quality. Sometimes I can tell that nearly every step went awry.

On June 26 of this year, I was pleased to be part of a wide-ranging discussion of coffee quality with two worker-owners of one of my favorite coffee companies: Equal Exchange. This was a public presentation via Zoom, for citizen-consumers all over the United States. If you have not already seen it, I invite you to watch the archive video, as we talk about the positive correlation between the relationships with farmers and the final quality in the cup. 

I provide links and put the discussion in context with two separate blog posts -- Fair Trade on my Aw, Professor blog and Micro Quality on this one. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Virtual Café

I try to learn something new about coffee every day. Friends who grow coffee or are otherwise involved in the coffee industry often help to make this happen -- as do those who have studied coffee with me. Sometimes they recommend a new café or ask me a question to which I do not know the answer. Most recently it was a coffee alum sharing this video and asking "what is this contraption?"
I had never seen one of these, but told her that it is similar to a vacuum press. These are more popular in Japan than in the U.S., though I do have one. It is shown in somewhat improper use in the 1961 "This Is Coffee" video that I show in my classes. But this is clearly more complicated -- on my second viewing I realized that it is, among other things, a steampunk variant on the usual model.

To learn more, I decided to find the café online. For a while, my endeavors were quite confusing. Eventually, I learned that the cafè is an extension of an elaborate persona developed by the barista shown above. The Dungeons & Dragons reference is not immediately clear, but to those whose misspent youth included countless hours gathered around graph paper "dungeons" and rolling dice, the elaborate nature of this faux café does seem a reasonable outgrowth of the game. 

I don't think we I can replicate this coffee, though I'm sure one of my industry friends will tell me if I can. Meanwhile, the virtual tavern is a delightful place to visit for wit and insight on many topics. 


As I was closing some of the many open tabs in my browser, I noticed that my search for "vacuum press" has also revealed the name of this contraption. It is a balance syphon coffee maker and it is available from a certain global retailer. I will see if it is available elsewhere before I decide whether to add one to my fleet of coffee makers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Not So Long Ago


The image above has been circulating online this year. If someone can tell me the original source, I would love to add a citation. I could spend the rest of this week commenting on it, because it relates to so much of what is wrong in the United States today. I will, in fact, no doubt be editing this post. 

But for now I am using it to refer to one of the many ways in which the "get over it" response to racial injustice is wrong: the practice of redlining. I have heard the term for many years, but learned only recently that maps were published with actual red lines on them. The importance of this practice is included in a PowerPoint file posted by Shane Wiegand for the Landmark Society.

More specifically, a digital atlas of such maps has been published as Mapping Inequality by the University of Richmond. This is a very important resource that details the practice and allows users to see how specific urban neighborhoods were characterized for the purpose of lending authorities during the 1930s. It is impossible to suppose that such stark definitions of desirable and undesirable neighborhoods could be without consequence today.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


On the eve of autumn -- just as the air crispened and my favorite librarian updated our living-room altar for the season -- I chanced upon this image of the 2020 edition of the #FightEvilReadBooks t-shirt. Yes, it apparently is a series, one of many nifty items for bibliophiles offered by Out of Print.

The design serves as an important reminder -- and in these benighted times we need these often -- that the best antidote to ignorance and bias is simply to read well and read broadly. National hero Rep. John Lewis (taken from us this summer, a week before the loss of my own mother) put it well when receiving the National Book Award: Just Read (please listen to his words, even if you are already convinced).

Reading is also the most reliable pathway to good writing, as I detail on my Writing Tips page.

For more specific advice on reading in an ecosystem designed to thwart genuine learning, I recommend the lessons from top journalists that I describe in my 2017 Emotional Skepticism post.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Fire Resistance

Forests have evolved with fire. Humans entered forested landscapes very late in those complicated relationships, with results that have ranged from problematic to catastrophic. In California, for example, more land burned this week in early September than in all of last year. 

Fires have been. getting more dangerous, expensive, and common. This story gives the best quick overview of how this situation has come about, why it cannot be solved easily, and which human factors can be addressed. 

Five minutes is not enough time to thoroughly explain all of this, but sharp NPR reporters found the right experts to introduce the problem and some remedies.

To learn more, please explore some of the other forest fire posts on this blog or take my Land Protection class (GEOG 332) in Fall 2021 to learn more. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Acknowledging Lands

I have lived in many parts of Turtle Island:

  • Pauquunaukit (Wampanoag)
  • Carrizo/Comecrudo & Coahuiltecan
  • Hohokam, O'odham, Sobaipuri, Tohono O'odham (Papago)
  • Adena, Hopewell, Miami, Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage)
  • Piscataway
  • Kaw (Kansa), Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Očeti Sakówin (Sioux), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage)
  • Manahoac
  • Nacotchtank (Anacostan), Piscataway

These are the original inhabitants of all of the places I have resided in the United States, known by their current names (in reverse order of my time residing in each):

  • Bridgewater and Fairhaven, Massachusetts
  • Pharr, Texas
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Oxford, Ohio
  • Catonsville and Annapolis, Maryland
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Nokesville, Chantilly, and Herndon, Virginia
  • Washington, District.of Columbia
I highlighted in blue the names that were familiar to me at the time I lived in some of the places. As a non-indigenous resident of Massachusetts, Ohio, and Arizona, I have been aware of some but not all of the indigenous people of those places. In Arizona, I had occasional indirect contact with Tohono O'odham people during ceremonies, including one to which the public was invited on their reservation land and another that was an ecumenical service at my church there. In Massachusetts, I have had the privilege of much more direct contact and friendship with Wampanoag neighbors and colleagues. 
Sachem Rock in what is now West Bridgewater, Massachusetts

In Ohio, the university I attended and the lake where I did my master's thesis were named for the Miami people, but the people themselves had long ago been forcibly removed to Florida (not to the part where the relatively new city by that name is located) and then to reservations elsewhere. To its shame, the university used a slur for its team names, and alumni who will not accept the new Redhawks name can still find the old logo in online stores. 

I notice two things about the geography of the indigenous land uses. First, 

I found the names of indigenous people associated with each of my homes by sending the common names by text to 907-312-5085. More information, caveats, and a Facebook Messenger option are posted on the Land Acknowledgement page established by Code for Anchorage (Dena'ina Elnena).

Monday, August 31, 2020

Plantation Discourses

The story of Dutch podcast partners Peggy Bouva and Maartje Duin began with an awkward conversation about the connections between their families. Both live in Holland, but Duin -- a journalist -- discovered that they were connected by a plantation in the former Dutch colony of Suriname.

They discuss their podcast, their friendship, and their travels together in a recent appearance with Joanna Kakissis on NPR's Morning Edition. (Careful listeners will notice that "slaves" is used as a noun in the introduction to the conversation, though "enslaved persons" is used in the conversation itself. This reflects a growing recognition that it is dehumanizing to identify people solely by the bad circumstances or crimes that have affected them.)

Although the podcast itself appears to be available only in Dutch at the moment, Google Translate offers some sense of the summary of each episode of The Plantation of Our Ancestors in other languages, and includes links to other resources, some of which are available in English. These include Mapping Slavery NL, which portrays historical places relating to slavery on the map of the Dutch colonial empire.

The description of the mapping project highlights on advantage Dutch and some other European folks have over those of us in the United States: they know that their countries were part of the metropol, that is, at the centers of global empires. Denial of its imperial nature is a treasured myth in my country, even though no empire has ever been bigger.

As pro-slavery statues are toppled by vote, by edict, or by protestors, some decry the loss of history. In most cases, however, the history remains to be uncovered, whatever happens to icons of bronze men on bronze horses. As we finally grapple seriously with the ongoing implications of slavery, conversations such as those between these Bouva and Duin are essential. 


Even at my seemingly far remove, I have derived a benefit from the ill-gotten glories of Holland's trafficking in humans. Among the artists supported by that immense wealth are both Rembrandt and Vermeer. My answer to the Getty Art Challenge of 2020 was a recreation of Vermeer's The Geographer

My entry in the Getty Art Challenge, special edition for Pride Week.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Angola's Singer, Sprinter ... and Geographer


Bonga Kueda: His beard is no simple matter

Harry Graham's 2018 interview with Angolan musician Bonga Kueda is a half hour very well spent. It is an engaging conversation with an artist whose life traces the arc of modern Angolan history. He describes his journey from music to running and back to music, all while telling Angola's colonial and post-colonial story. 

He mentions three major genres of Angolan music, and it might be difficult to know what he is saying if these are unfamiliar; a friend who has worked in Angola shared the correct spellings: Kuduro, Kizomba, and Semba. This is not the same as Brazilian Samba, though the latter may have been derived from Semba.

The stories of independence in Angola, Cabo Verde, and other Lusophone nations are intertwined with the 1975 fall of Salazar in Portugal itself. These events are much more recent than many of our contemporaries seem to think; it is almost too soon to talk about post-colonialism.

The conversation is presented for an English-speaking audience, but Bantu, Portuguese, and French are heard in the background throughout. Despite the deep pain Portugal has caused for his country, the main interview takes place by phone from a barber shop in Lisbon.

I add the label "geographer" to his story even though it is not cited in the interview. Growing up in colonial schools, Bonga had to learn the rivers of Portugal, but his own country was not part of the curriculum. At a young age, he taught himself the geography of his own country and took "Bonga" as a way of rejecting the name given him at birth as the subject of an empire. It is therefore quite ironic that he conducts the interview quite in the seat of that empire.


When looking for the music of Bonga online, I found a recording of Sodade that he made with Cabo Verde's national treasure Cesária Evora.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Shifting Wheels


Biking in Chicago (a city I now visit regularly)
Image: David Schaper, NPR

As people start to move about a little more -- perhaps too much more -- many of us are doing so differently than we did before. Until a vaccine is found -- and taken widely -- transportation patterns are shifting. In a brief radio piece, Journalist David Schaper explores the shifting patterns that are already noticeable. He then discusses which of these patterns might become permanent, and the degree to which some of the changes fit with long-term goals of city planners.

I will be sharing this story with students in my urban geography and global thinking courses. Those who wish to explore the topic further might also enjoy the free CitiesX course I am taking online at Harvard.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Brockton Honors

In the Fall 2020 semester, I will be teaching a First-Year Seminar entitled Discovering Brockton, which I first offered under the title Geography of Brockton in 2008, when the First-Year Seminar requirement at Bridgewater State University was new. To date, I have taught the course five or six times, most recently as a Commonwealth Honors course.

GEOG 199: Whether a student is a life-long resident or a newcomer to the area, this provides a deep introduction both to the City of Brockton and the academic discipline of geography. The city’s rich heritage of innovation and its many layers of cultural identity are the background for examining challenges ranging from water supply to economic development. The course meets only once per week so that students have the opportunity to visit – in a university vehicle – the city’s people, cultural landscape, and key institutions through direct visits. Students are responsible for significant writing and research between weekly class meetings, so that each meeting can maximize time in the City of Champions.  
Each student in the class will explore the boundary between the City of Brockton and
one of the eight towns it borders. Contrasts between cities and towns - whether tangible
or intangible - are hugely important to understanding the
 geographies of Massachusetts.

The Bridge
: years ago, a young person I met at a conference helped me to find a metaphor for my teaching that has proven helpful ever since. (I have tried in vain to find her again to express my thanks, but it has not been possible; that is another story.) Rather than mastering content that I deliver to students, I endeavor to connect them to ideas and to other people from whom they (and I) can learn. This course has been a perfect example -- I do have some insights and theoretical perspectives to share directly, and also some places I can take students where they can develop some of their own ideas. But in this course, I am often just that bridge (or chauffeur) connecting them to some real expertise. Quite a few people have helped with this course in the past, and I will be calling on some of them -- and some new connections -- this year.

FALL 2020: I am offering this course fully online, because required social-distancing standards cannot reasonably be met. This means that the popular van rides in and around the city will not be possible. I will be recording some of the walking and "windshield survey" mini-tours on my own, realizing that they will not be quite the same. Likewise, I am asking some of the people with whom I normally would arrange for in-person meetings to provide connections in other ways, whether it be Zoom meetings, pre-recorded presentations, or reference to online materials about their organizations or projects.

The class is scheduled 1:50 to 4:30 on Wednesdays. I will use some of that time for my own presentations. To provide for breaks and to simplify the scheduling of guests, I will endeavor to have guest speakers at 2:00 and 3:00, for up to 50 minutes. Some group guests might occupy both slots on a given day.

It is in fact for these potential collaborators that I created this blog post, by way of providing context for the favors I am asking of them.


A brief note about the FYS and SYS series of courses: FYS Geography of Brockton was one of a small group of pilot courses before the requirement as finalized. Before teaching the course, I even joined several Bridgewater State College (as we were known then) colleagues at a conference in Tucson organized by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience. I also piloted the Secret Life of Coffee as a Second-Year seminar the following year, and have taught about 20 sections of that course.

Students enrolled at Bridgewater State University during their first or second year (by credit count, not calendar) are required to take First- and Second-Year Seminars, respectively. Our advising program specifies the exceptions for students arriving with transfer credits, but for most students, these courses are integral to our Core Curriculum. The seminars allow students to practice writing or speaking skills in the context of a particular topic that is of special interest to the faculty member who is leading the course. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Supporting Agualí

As many of you know, Nicaragua is near and dear to my heart. In January 2006, I intended to take students there just once. One of those students returned the following year, and I took a total of more than 100 students and colleagues and my own family members over the next decade. Many of those students have returned with me or on their own, and many more of them tell me that their visit was one of the most important experiences of their life. It is my home away from home, and I am in contact with one or more friends in Nicaragua every single day.

Things went seriously awry there in April 2018, so I have not been back -- though one of my Nicaraguan friends co-led my January 2020 travel course in Costa Rica. In fact it is that friend -- Ernesto Ocampo -- with whom I have been working most directly on a new project to help the people of northern Nicaragua. By "working with" him, I mean that he and others in Matagalpa have been doing terrific work to help their community, and I've been consulting with him on how to share that work with potential supporters in North America and Europe.

Nicaragua faces a triple crisis: the global pandemic and economic recession are compounded by the political repression that I have described in some detail elsewhere on this blog. Ernesto and others are responding with a comprehensive approach that integrates community development, environmental education, and English-language education. It is best described by our mutual friend Sage from Chicago -- please keep reading Sage's excellent description of this exciting work, and please join us and other friends of Nicaragua in sharing the project and pledging financial support.

Note that the sponsorships being suggested could be shared as part of a project for a class, club, or religious organization, or simply a group of friends wishing to make the world a better place!

Read all about it at Agualí
Sage writes:

Please consider sponsoring a student for Estación Biológica Agualí's new and exciting project investing in a new generation of environmental leaders in Nicaragua.

Here's an overview from program materials:

"The Agualí Biological Station has created a one-a-half year program for 25 young people that facilitates high-quality education, using English-learning as a tool to acquire new skills in environmental education and multiple other skills."
"In order to carry on with this project, we need people who will be willing to sponsor as many students as possible, the cost for the whole program is worth twice than requested; however, we ask for a contribution of USD 40 per month for each student, and other costs will be covered by the Biological Station and Matagalpa Tours."

There are different sponsorship opportunities that you can explore at this link:

Sponsorship keeps the program 100% free for students, keeping people afloat during these difficult times - in particular in economies that rely on tourism. Agualí's educational model is holistic - not just English language education, but also a base in subjects from permaculture to trail building to theater - the skills to create a graduating cohort of professional naturalists and environmental educators.

You can commit to a one-time donation or recurring sponsorship for a part or all of the program. For example, I have committed to sponsor one students at $40/month for 12 months. You also have the option to be put in contact with the student you are sponsoring and have a more intimate look into the program and the amazing work that is happening at Estación Biológica Agualí.

Head to to check out the other work Agualí is doing, and send me a message to access a comprehensive overview of the program through email - I hope that you will consider supporting the amazing work of Ernesto Ocampo and the Agualí team!

James again:

Feel free to contact me with any questions. I would also be happy to set up a video chat with Ernesto, myself and any potential supporters.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mitigating Flood

Scholars Jacob Bradt and Carolyn Kousky recently analyzed the most recent data on flood insurance claims in the United States in studies published by the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School. Claims vary considerably from year to year (they call the data "spikey"), but claims have been increasing. Moreover, the average value of each claim is increasing dramatically. As with any good business-school presentation, this graph of claim values is already adjusted for inflation. That is to say: more damage is being done by floods in real terms.

I learned of this study from the notes published to complement the following radio segment, which I recommend highly. In just four minutes, NPR journalist Rebecca Herscher conveys the implications of this trend in both personal and policy terms.

As her reporting illustrates, the rising cost of claims is putting increasing pressure on the mitigation efforts of the federal government. For decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sought to reduce flood damage through mitigation: simply purchasing properties considered particularly vulnerable to flooding.

As the number and value of properties actually damaged by flooding increases, so too does the cost of meaningful mitigation. The focus of the story is on the increasing importance of funding of flood mitigation by state governments, as they realize that FEMA funding is not keeping up with the increase in damage resulting from land-use patterns and climate change. As I wrote in Climate Foxholes back in 2013, climate denial is not an option for those with real-world responsibilities such as planning and insurance.

Much of my writing on this topic has been inspired by the painful experiences of flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, a charming mill town just a few miles from the campus where I became a geographer. My 2018 post Not in the Cards post includes the most direct explanation of the changing math of assessing flood risk; my more recent Dam Shame post includes links to each of my Ellicott City posts and a link to the recovery efforts of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey.


Herscher reports from two states where I have lived -- Virginia and Texas. The water official she interviews in Texas has both a great Texas accent and a fun aptronym.

Career tip: if all of this mitigation work sounds like a job for geographers, that is because it is. A few years ago a student enrolled in our department because of her background in public safety and her  interest in emergency preparedness. She is now one of many geographers working for FEMA. As the NPR story suggests, there will be increasing need for geographers in similar agencies at the state and local level.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Belts and Roads, Worldwide

Shopkeeper Amaleea Hayu supports the rail link in Malaysia,
which of course will have benefits along with its costs.
One reason I teach is that it helps me to keep learning. It was from a student in my summer class that I learned of an article describing the BRI -- China's Belt & Road Initiative, a major series of projects of which I had only the vaguest understanding.

Its scope is enormous -- trillions of dollars of infrastructure spending in 125 countries over the next three decades. This story in Sierra magazine describes the destructive potential of just one small segment of the ambitious work, in Malaysia. It also describes the problematic relationships among those who finance these projects and those who are responsible for regulating them. Patterns established by colonial projects the world over will be easy to recognize.


Those interested in the wetlands aspects of this article might be interested in my other articles that mention wetlands, including Louisiana in Tough Shape and Hot Island Hotspot.

Micro Quality

I was pleased to be part of an online discussion of coffee quality recently -- specifically about the connections between cupping quality and the quality of life for the people who grow the coffee. The short version: better quality is good for producers.  Feel free to watch the long version of our discussion, entitled Our Version of the Perfect Cup, and to read about the context of that conversation.

This discussion was part of an ongoing series of educational events organized by the Equal Exchange Action Forum, the citizen-consumer arm of the fair-trade company. Equal is known for its leadership in coffee, but now sells cocoa, tea, cashews, and other products on behalf of small farmers throughout the world. The Action Forum allows its customers to think deeply about the entire food system and to collaborate on making it healthier and fairer for people and the planet.
A central premise of our discussion is that higher quality in the coffee itself is associated with the development of producer communities. It also reflects one of the principle benefits of the entire fair-trade movement in my view: greater transparency and better connections between those who produce food (if we count coffee as a food) and those who consume it. As we explain, prior to the fair-trade movement, farmers has little if any information about the quality (and therefore the real value) of their products.

So please listen to the conversation in which we explore these connections; for those who have not given much to how high quality is achieved in coffee or why it matters, I think we provide a worthwhile introduction. As we explain in our discussion, an important aspect of improving coffee quality is the selection of better-quality coffee at various stages. From picking the coffee through roasting it, the best beans can be separated to get increasingly high-scoring results in the cup (coffee is scored much like wine).
Mild spoiler alert: I went looking for an image like this on
Instagram while watching one of the videos below. I should
not have been surprised that the first good example I found
was posted by the same person! It is part of a series of slides that
presents his case about microlots in a different way.
But please note that my co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain the problems that can arise from a focus on microlots, which are at the far end of the quality distribution. Microlots are very small batches of coffee -- perhaps just a couple of 100-pound bags -- that have been cultivated, selected, and processed with great care. They have the potential to earn premiums far above the price of ordinary coffee, and even more than most specialty coffee.

My co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain this during our conversation, and afterwards he shared two videos from Colombia that explain why high quality being good does not mean that extremely high quality is better. In two segments that are part of a series of videos about coffee economics on the Cedro Alto Coffee channel, Karl Weinhold explains the math of microlots and how that math tends to work against farmers, and especially farmer cooperatives. Hint: it is not simply a matter of only a few farmers getting the premium prices; even those getting the premiums might not fare well overall.

To be honest,  I had not thought seriously about the potential downside of microlots until we began to prepare for our presentation.  I remember the thrill of visited a mill specializing in microlots during my January 2018 visit to Estelí, Nicaragua. For a coffee nerd who cares about the farmers, the land, and the cup, it was exhilarating. So learning about the potential downside of ultrahigh quality was sobering.
Africa-bed drying of microlots in Estelí, Nicaragua. These beans are being
dried with extraordinary care, in lots as small as 5 pounds (nanolots).

Long before I knew anything about quality in coffee, I read and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Phaedrus, #1). Much of the book concerns Robert Pirsig's maddening (literally) pursuit of the meaning of the word "quality." The rest of the book concerns a long ride on a motorcycle.

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