Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Discovering Our Own Neighborhoods

Atlas Obscura is always a trove of geographic insight; the geographically curious can spend hours perusing the online or print version.

A recent contribution by journalist Lauren Vespoli offers even more to the geographically curious (including hints as to how and why we should all be geographically curious). In How to Dig Into the History of Your City, Town, or Neighborhood, she describes how she has used newly-found down time to explore her own surround -- and to engage friends to do the same. This is very creative online bonding! As she makes clear throughout the piece, the history comes in many forms and so do the processes of discovery.
Geographic discovery involves inquiry about
the ordinary in our midst.
She describes several tools that are familiar to me as a professional geographer -- such as Sanborn maps -- and other fascinating tools I had never heard of. I am most excited about using the Archipedia, which has well over 100 listings in each of two cities I teach as honors colloquia -- New Orleans and Detroit. Sadly, none of the fascinating buildings of Brockton (about which I teach an honors seminar) are this database, but I have other resources for exploring that city formerly known as North Bridgewater.

Among the tools Vespoli introduces is another I learned about from a fellow geographer just recently. Mapping Inequality is an impressive online collection of the maps used by the Federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation to guide mortgage rate-setting. In the guise of managing institutional financial risk, these maps also imposed or reinforced geographic patterns of racial discrimination through the practice of redlining. For many communities across the United States, researchers can discover whether their own neighborhoods fell inside or outside of those red lines.

I will also use this in my course Environmental Regulations, because this kind of research -- while enjoyable in its own right -- is potentially quite useful in some of the detailed work necessary to protect us from environmental contamination. Because pollutants from the past can be just as dangerous as chemicals currently in use, searching for possible relict sources of pollution is an excellent application of geographic skills.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Dam Shame

I did my entire master's thesis on dams, so I feel emboldened to make more than the usual number of dam-related puns whenever the topic of dams comes up. And for the same reasons, I make sure that the topic comes up more than it does around normal people. That said, the title of this post is slightly mismatched to the topic, because the people responsible for the recent dam failure in Edenville, Michigan and for the associated toxic-waste disaster downstream seem to have exactly zero shame.

Shortly before a catastrophic failure. Image: NPR.
I am including a few items that relate to different geographic lessons about this failure. First is from a rather nerdy geomorphology perspective, but it illustrates sometihng everyone should know about dams.


Every dam has a spillway at some level below the top of the dam -- usually at least a few feet lower. This spillway defines what should be the maximum level of water behind the dam. It must be designed with a capacity to allow for ANY possible flow of water around the dam. If water is allowed to flow over the wall of the dam ("topping" the dam) failure is quite likely. This is especially true of earthen dams, but is also a danger with concrete or stone dams. Dave Petley's American Geophysical Union blog post on which I found this video includes more technical details, including some that are in the form of questions, as this system is much more complicated than it appears to non-specialists.

The failure of this dam brings immediately to mind the 1889 Johnstown Flood. In both cases, innocent downstream communities were devastated by a failure of both engineering and conscience. Wealthy owners had been warned that their structures were unlikely to survive expected rain events, but chose to risk not only their investments but also the properties -- and the very lives -- of downstream neighbors. Lee Mueller, the owner of the Edenville Dam, is doubly culpable because he has actively ignored federal and state safety regulators and he must know the history of Johnstown. He is a perfect illustration of the need for environmental regulations, and the need to empower those agencies charged with enforcing them. Sadly, at least 2,500 dams in the United States are considered dangerous, meaning that they are both in a position to cause deaths if they fail and in a state of repair that makes such failures more likely than they ought to be.

When I commented about the good luck that nobody was killed by the Edenville collapse (though thousands were evacuated and millions of dollars of damage was done), a friend and former professor of mine quickly corrected me: nobody died as an immediate result of the collapse, but the flood damage included the inundation of an inadequately prepared chemical plant downstream.

As I explain in my 2016 Houston, Too Close to New Orleans post, tanks storing hazardous chemicals are required to be surrounded by secondary containment, meaning a wall or berm that will contain the chemical in the event of flooding or failure of the tank. I know this because I have done the calculations for such containment in Puerto Rico. The inside dimensions must be adequate to contain the entire contents of the dam, plus a small freeboard capacity. Similarly, the outside dimensions (height above ground) must be high enough to withstand a 100-year flood. Tanks on Dow properties downstream from Edenville were not adequately contained, so my friend is correct that increased casualties are likely. But they will be the result of long-term, low-dose chemical exposure that will be impossible to document on an individual basis.

In the case of the Dow facility, it is not yet clear what the nature of the miscalculation was; it could very well be that the berms met legal requirements and failed anyway. This is because the regulations worst-case conditions on which regulations are based might assume only meteorological flooding, not that caused by independent failures upstream. Moreover, the 100-year flood level is no longer an adequate way to estimate flood risk. It describes a flood that would have a 1/100 probability of being exceeded in any given year in the past. As I explain in my 2018 post Not in the Cards, even in the hands of statisticians, hydrologists, and engineers who do understand precisely what the term does and does not mean (and these people are rare), existing records are not adequate to estimate flood probabilities, because climate change means that today's conditions are statistically not related to those of the past.

Ellicott City Comparison

Image: Scott Weaver
I was reminded of the flood-interval problem in the recent Save Our Town episode (s3e10) of Gordon Ramsay's 24 Hours to Hell and Back. Careful readers of this blog (if there are any) might know that "Our Town" refers to Ellicott City, Maryland, whose 2016 and 2018 floods I have written about in Flood Flash and Burying the Survivors, as well as Not in the Cards. No dam was involved in these catastrophes, but other aspects of the story are relevant.

We are not fans of reality television -- even if it pertains to food -- but of course we watched this show with great attention (and through torrents of tears, to be honest). PLEASE watch it if you can, because ultimately it is a hopeful story. Because it is not a show about hydrology, though, it is understandable that a mistaken comment about the floods was included without correction. Someone in the program said that the town had been struck by two 1,000-year floods. They did not go on to say that the odds of this would be close to one in a million, but it is implied. The reality, unfortunately, is that the floods in Ellicott City were inevitable given. climate change and recklessly inadequate regulation of upstream land use. The three blog posts above describe the details.

Incidentally, Ellicott City is still vulnerable, but engineering remedies -- including those described in Ramsay's show -- have likely reduced the risk in general terms and have removed some of the most vulnerable victims completely.

Lagniappe

Strictly speaking, my master's thesis was not about dams: it was about soil erosion. But the unexpectedly rapid sedimentation of a reservoir behind a medium-scale dam was the motive for our study, and we examined several dozen small-scale reservoirs to study the problem. When we started the project, I could barely discern small reservoirs on aerial photos; after a full year of study, I felt as though I knew some of them personally.

I am not certain to what extent dam safety has been a factor in the decision, but I recently learned that a small dam about a mile from my house in Bridgewater is slated for removal. This will create some environmental benefits and some environmental hazards (principally from the draining of artificial wetlands and the possible liberation of long-dormant toxic sediments). I will be following that with nerdy interest!

Neighborhood Pride

The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco has long been home for many transgender people. Even in the context of a city with a strong reputation as a safe haven for GLBTQ people, however, the neighborhood has not always met the needs of its transgender residents.

Community leaders worked with city officials to create Compton's Transgender Cultural District in 2017. It is named for the site of the Compton's Cafeteria Riots of 1966, a pivotal event in the community's history, similar to the better-known Stonewall uprising in New York City three years later.

In this brief 2019 story, journalist Chloe Veltman tells the story of the neighborhood's transformation with the help of resident Honey Mahogany and city planner Brian Cheu.



Today, the district provides affirmation, a sense of place, safety, and support for economic development. The cultural projects of the district include advocacy, celebration, and education both in real-life events and online projects. The personal stories collected on its YouTube channel are a good place to learn, for people inside and outside of the community. For example, Kelly Kelly explains specifically why having this geographic space is important to her.
Map: Transgender District SF Map Page

The district's sense of place is promoted in a variety of ways, including lamp posts and of course Instagram.


Lagniappe

Any success in improving a neighborhood leads almost inevitably to concerns about gentrification: the tendency of improvements to make a neighborhood unaffordable for its residents. This can happen in a variety of circumstances. The first neighborhood I remember living in was Seven Corners in Falls Church, Virginia. It was rather modest when we lived there in the 1960s. My great grandparents happened to move into the same area in the late 1970s, and had financial difficulty staying when improvements were made to many of the apartments there. Upgrades have continued, so that it is now difficult to find any house in the area for under $600,000.

In many cases where the arts have been part of a conscious project of community development, property values can rise much more dramatically, often to the detriment of many of the same people who made the renewal possible in the first place. I have addressed the gentrification question in three different posts on this blog. Gentrification Outcomes (2018) is the broadest of these, drawing on excellent journalism by Linda Wertheimer. My 2016 Gentrifeination post explores the very specific role of coffee in gentrification. Most recently, Somerville Success (2020) focuses on the role of zoning in promoting the development of a city near Boston, with a link to a talk about gentrification there.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Gambling with Macau

I have long been fascinated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in my courses on Latin America, I mention the many levels of audacity it represents, starting with the vagueness of its definition with respect to the Cape Verde archipelago and ending with the fact that two guys in Europe decided that a meeting with a third guy was the way to settle their differences over how to divide up the right to subjugate much of the rest of the world. I've been so fascinated, in fact, that a visit to the site of that meeting is on my agenda for a (now postponed) family trip to Europe.
Every once in a while I am reminded that the line across the Atlantic had a counterpart on the other side of the globe, established by the Treaty of Saragossa. I found this map of both on the very informative Doctrine of Discovery page posted by Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer, a professor of history retired from Humboldt State University. Those reminders usually relate to the tiny Lusophone countries of East Timor or Macau (Macao) -- that is, coffee or gambling.

And this morning it was the latter -- the UrbanX course I am taking online features a 2016 article by journalist Simon Lewis about plummeting casino revenues in Macau. I include it here because it describes several aspects of the economic and cultural geography of this tiny country while explaining the counterintuitive finding that falling revenues might be a positive trend for its citizenry. Gambling addiction is often seen as an individual problem, but the experience of Macau illustrates the damage that can result when governments or entire economies become dependent on it.



The article includes this video from the Macao Government Tourism Office, in which historian Julian Davison explores the city, making many connections between its unique local features and its global position along what he calls the maritime silk road. We also learn that its name derives from the Portuguese spelling of the name of a Chinese ocean goddess -- this naturally reminds me of Iemanja/Yemaya. This is broadly similar to that of nearby Hong Kong, but with Portuguese rather than British connections.



How small is Macau? Even smaller than I realized. At 45 square miles, it is only twice as large as the small town I live in. I used the magic of The True Size to bring its shape to my neighborhood in southeastern Massachusetts for comparison.
Comparison: The True Size 



Monday, May 25, 2020

Somerville Success

As part of the CitiesX course I am taking online, I very much enjoyed this 2018 with Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts.



I learned some interesting things about a city near Boston I have visited only a few times, and I recommend the discussion for anybody who is trying to imagine improving how their own communities work.

The mayor's approach to leadership is also refreshing -- it involves long-term, deep listening. His discussion with Professor Ed Glaeser is short on details, but he references another talk that provides some more specific examples of how Somerville has succeeded. That talk was easy to find -- city planner George Proakis addressing a TEDx Somerville event in 2014.

Proakis starts with a fascinating primer on the origins of urban zoning in the United States before turning to a discussion of the process Somerville pursued in changing its zoning code that year. Spoiler alert: both talks include a gem that should be obvious, but sadly is not: if we plan our cities for cars, we are going to get cars. We cannot plan for cars and hope for walkability!



Bonus: Proakis mentions Artisans Asylum as an example of an enterprise that would be difficult to categorize under traditional zoning rules. It is the first makerspace I heard of, and traditional zoning struggles with whether to call these education spaces or manufacturing spaces. I learned of Artisans Asylum when my son had an internship there -- in teaching the tenants how to use the equipment, he developed skills that have been very useful to him as an artist.

I have not gotten to them in the course yet, but at least three other videos relate to Somerville: Happiness Survey, Green Line, Gentrification.

Lagniappe

One of the ways to tell that Somerville is succeeding is that it has an extraordinary array of coffee shops -- a friend who used to live there has introduced me to a couple of them. I look forward to visiting again after the plague, to see how coffee fits into the Assembly Square area in particular.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Nicaragua on BBC

While doing some homework for the edX course I am taking, I consulted the BBC country profile for Nicaragua. I was shocked to see that it has not been updated since May 2018, and that the update at that time does not represent the brutal reality of Ortega's crackdown on dissent. 

Below is the message I sent BBC. I hope to have a reply soon, and will update this post if I do.

-----------------------------------------------------------
I turned to this profile because I have come to distrust the CIA Factbook, as some sections -- especially in Latin America -- have been edited for political purposes over the years.

So I was shocked to see what BBC has for Nicaragua, two years after the events of April 2018. It is no longer at all accurate to consider Ortega "left wing" nor is it reasonable to end the country profile with the withdrawal of the social-security "reforms" that sparked the protests of that month. Hundreds were killed and thousands more arrested or disappeared.

Coverage of the crisis in the US and UK was late (NPR did not air anything about this until the day after I contacted them) and scant, but there have been stories on BBC itself that would help to update this page.

Thanks for all you do at BBC to provide reliable coverage throughout the world. I hope you can act quickly to amend this entry.
-----------------------------------------------------------


Friday, May 22, 2020

Guardian Women

An April 2020 post on the blog A Mighty Girl highlights the contributions of 16 women to the protection of the planet. The list starts with Anna Botstoff Comstock and Kate Sessions, born before the U.S. Civil War to Greta Thunberg, born in this still-young century.

I know the work of several of these women, but others were introduced to me by this listicle, entitled Guardians of the Planet: 16 Women Environmentalists You Should Know. I am using the list in the online summer version of my introductory Environmental Geography course. I have taught the course in many formats, using a traditional textbook by my master's advisor for many years.

Almost a decade ago, I found a book that has worked better in many ways, The View from Lazy Point by MacArthur genius Carl Safina. I have already been supplementing the book in a few ways -- it was never intended to be used in this sort of class, after all -- and decided that I should create some supplemental activities using this list. Many of the most important environmental leaders on the planet are women -- including the original tree huggers -- and their words and works have been the basis of many of my other classes.

I am having each student read this article and do just a little research about one of the women on the list. Because enrollment in the class has recently surpassed the number of women described here, I have added a few more guardians of note. (Enrollment in the course is still open, so I might add a few more by next week). These links point to Wikipedia entries, a starting point comparable to what the listicle itself provides:

I have already given the students in this class plenty to grapple with in this five-week class, so I am grateful to my favorite librarian for helping me to craft a bibliographic assignment that requires the students to explore the contributions of these women without taking on too much additional work. 

They will also be helping me to create a map that locates all of the guardians we are studying -- including Carl Safina.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Fun Final Exam

World's Longest Walk: Ciencianautas

When I announced that I was teaching a new course -- Advanced Global Thinking -- many of my friends congratulated me on the title (I was really pretty proud of it) and said they wished they could take it. I offered it for the first time this spring with a great group of graduating geography majors. I very much enjoyed our conversations during the first half of the semester, which ended up including global thinking about a global pandemic -- something we were well prepared to discuss but could not have anticipated.

Near the end of the semester, I noticed an interesting post on a Brazilian science Facebook page, and realized instantly that I had material for our final exam. Before posting the exam, we had some online discussion of the 2009 ocean crossing by Katie Spotz, which our EarthView program had followed avidly. Coincidentally, Katie contacted me right after that discussion, to share her newest project - a walk across Maine. More on that later (though you can donate now).

My students enjoyed writing this exam and I very much enjoyed reading their answers, each of which emphasized very different geographic concepts. Some students even shared the challenge with their families, which inspires me to post it here publicly, so anybody with curiosity and a little time on their hands can have the same fun.

Herewith, the exam question:

Please see the link on Ciencianautas (Science Explorers or Sciencenauts -- an example of something that works better in its original language than in translation). See what you can discern from the post before looking at my translation below.

https://www.facebook.com/Ciencianautas/photos/a.1709068902751505/2704726053185780/?type=1&theater

🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏

This map shows one of the longest uninterrupted walks that you can make on the Earth. A journey leaving Cape Town, South Africa, ending in Magadan, Russia. This represents a distance of 22,387 km.

Google Maps estimates that it would take 4,492 hours to navigate, which means 187 days of walking uninterrupted. If you were to decide to walk 8 hours per day (much more reasonable), it would take 562 days to make the trip.

🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏🌍🌎🌏

Now the assignment. Imagine that you were going to take this trip in 2018-2019, and write an essay of 5-7 pages describing how you would use human and physical geography in the planning process. [After some discussion, we decided to take Covid-19 considerations out of the exam. Those playing at home can choose a near-future time frame if they would like to focus on the geographic implications of the pandemic.]

PLEASE know that I realize you cannot write a comprehensive plan in the coming week. To do so in reality would require a year or more. But choose a few aspects of this journey and explain how you would apply your geographic expertise to plan those aspects. Choose a couple of things -- or maybe even just one thing -- that highlights your geographic skills.

ALSO: I understand that one risk of an online exam is that you can end up spending far more time on it than the two hours normally alloted. Please do not spend all of your waking hours on this. But please give it some thought and then write an essay you would enjoy reading. And of course, please read your essay for style and grammar before turning it in.

Make sure to give the essay a good title; you probably cannot do that until you are nearly done with the essay. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Lagniappe

Here are some related links, including recent post on this very blog and some pages my students recommended after doing this research:

Longest Walk on Brilliant Maps -- perhaps the original source of the map above.

Tom's World Walk -- a very modest and average guy on a very long walk. Bonus: his web page starts with a reference to a very geographic song I've blogged about.

The journey envisioned above is a long-distance walk, but if it uses a designated long-distance trail, such a use is coincidental. Many long walks are inspired by the very existence of such trails, the most famous in the United States being the Appalachian Trail. My recent Trail Protection post discusses some of the legal, management, and policy questions relating to such trails, including a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Isolating During Ramadan

One of the stories I heard on PRI's The World yesterday afternoon caught my attention in several phases. The report by PRI journalist Halima Gikandi begins with a broad assessment of the likely impact of the Covid-19 virus on the continent as a whole. Almost every country has reported cases, but they have been relatively few so far. The pandemic is spreading slowly but is expected eventually to overwhelm health-care resources in many places.

The report then turned to the experience of one family in Nairobi. Like approximately 10 percent of Kenyans, this is a Muslim family, and like all Muslim families, Ramadan is a time for being together. I had been only vaguely aware of Ramadan this year, and certainly had not realized we were 3/4 of the way through the month. The reporting describes the difficulty of the neighborhood of Eastleigh, where part of this family lives.


Note that the place names are a remnant of Kenya's colonial past: they are almost equally divided between English and Swahili. 

Eastleigh is a struggling neighborhood in the best of times, and its normally limited access to food has been reduced by public-health closures. The municipal government is struggling to assure residents that it is the high concentration of virus cases and not the religious identity of residents that is responsible. As with many places -- including the United States -- the pandemic is highlighting social issues that might be present but not be widely acknowledged in "normal" times.

The full title of Gikandi's report is Ramadan in Nairobi during a pandemic.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Vermeer's Geographer, 1669-2020

The Geographer, Vermeer 1668-1669
Another Geographer, Pam Hayes-Bohanan 2020
People have found some very creative ways to make the best of the boredom that ensues when our civic duty requires us to #stayhome during the global Coronavirus pandemic. One I just learned about from a student is the Getty Museum Challenge, in which people recreate famous works of art by modeling with materials already in their own homes.

When I saw what my student had done -- and before I realized it had already become so widespread -- my mind went immediately to The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer. I have long thought that a younger version of me looked quite a lot like Vermeer's model; Pam soon started identifying props in our house. A scheme was hatched!

Before creating the scene, I had spent some (minimal) time learning more about the painting. From Dianne Durante's "A Moment of Insight" I learned that there is some dispute about whether the wall in the original is exactly the same color as the wall in our living room. We are going to say, "YES!" More importantly, I learned about the importance of each prop and some ways to think about the differences in the state of mind between The Geographer and The Astronomer, which Vermeer had painted just the year before.


Some notes on the props: As a geographer, I should -- and once did -- have the dividers (a.k.a. compass) for making measurements on the map. My father gave me his long ago, and it is probably in my office. The office is only 600 yards from our house, but I decided that this would be against the spirit both of the challenge and of the #stayhome orders. Moreover, I was not sure they would be found. Chopsticks to the rescue!

I do not have any 350-year-old maps, but I do have a 90-year-old atlas, so I opened it to a map of the Netherlands and set it upon our National Geographic pouffe. An old map tapestry that used to be in our house is no more, but I realized that the tones of one of my favorite summer shirts would be a reasonable stand-in, so I draped it over the pouffe.

The globe is one of those stone-inlay items that used to be super-expensive until they became mass-market. From a distance, its frame works well. For the books, I thought about some anonymous old leather-bound books we have, but I grabbed a handful of Tolkien instead. He was my first somewhat scholarly interest, and during her tenure at a bookstore while we were dating, Pam helped me to build a pretty complete collection of his work.

Pam recognized the importance of the scroll that the original Geographer was leaning on; not having a scroll handy, she found a serviceable shelf!

Finally, I trimmed my beard for the photo, but did not shave it. Having accidently left my razor at a friend's house in Vancouver, Washington in 1996 without turning back, I decided against giving up the beard for my art.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Food Resilience, Not

Those who protest (sometimes violently) against common-sense measures to protect public health during the Coronavirus pandemic are attacking the immediate cause of the severe dislocations they are facing: mandates from state or local government. But what really should concern them are much deeper patterns. Short-term measures to protect public health are merely exposing deep fault lines that have run through our society for some decades; it is not difficult to imagine a world in which the same stay-at-home measures would not cause such immediate and widespread dislocation.

In an interview with environmental journalist Steve Curwood, author (and one-time BSU visitor) Michael Pollan explains this with remarkable clarity in a 14-minute radio segment entitled Coronavirus Shocks US Food System. He describes the disconnect between two geographies of food in the United States: that of grocery stores and that of food service (such as restaurants and schools).

Spoiler alert: he mentions a third, much more resilient segment as well. He cites several examples of local food networks that have found ways to adjust distribution patterns -- away from restaurants and toward farm-box subscriptions, for example. This corroborates recent reporting from Australia, where planners have found that suburban sprawl has made Melbourne more vulnerable -- both to food-supply disruption and to wildfire.

All of the above has to do with what is available in the food system; sadly, another dimension of the crisis is the rapidly growing number of people who cannot afford food even if it is for sale at relatively low prices. Since the 1980s, social safety nets have eroded along with wages; a great number of people in what many still call the wealthiest nation on earth (it is not) cannot afford to eat if they miss a paycheck. 
Cars in Minneapolis queuing for food pantry (trailer in upper-right)
Photo: Mother Jones
As of this writing, the Federal government has authorized $9,000,000,000,000 that is called "stimulus" or "relief" but which is not targeted at those who most urgently need it. The result is a shockingly rapid surge in those seeking relieve at through local food banks, as documented by Mother Jones in mid-April.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Market turmOIL

Q: What is going on with oil markets now? Is it:

Peak,
Valley,
Demand-driven,
Supply-driven,
Globalization,
Deglobalization,
Calamity,
Opportunity,
Orchestrated,
or Accidental?

A: Yes.

All of these realities really do seem to be part of the oil-market landscape in this pandemic season in which the futures market for oil went sharply negative for the first time in history, two days ahead of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

This did not mean that we were being paid to fuel our jalopies, but it did mean that many changes are afoot in this most important industry. The causes and consequences for economies, employment, and the environment are complicated.
Pumping Oil at Negative (in theory) Prices
Image: Getty via On Point
Journalist extraordinaire Meghna Chakrabarti led an excellent discussion of the countervailing winds facing the oil industry in Low Prices, Full Storage Tanks: What's Next For The Oil Industry, part of the On Point program's Coronavirus Hours series. She gathered an interesting guest list for this discussion. The hour opens with an energy and economy reporter and the owner of a small oil company, both from Texas. Most of the time is spent with a petroleum economist and an international affairs specialist. The combination is an excellent one, and even the economist has some valuable insights.

Most intriguing: the economist suggests that some oil might be left in the ground at the end of all the transitions being discussed. Whether or not this is possible is, from the point of view of climate disruption, the most important of the many topics covered in this fascinating hour.

Bonus: The On Point production team has included an extensive reading list on the episode web page for exploring all of these questions further.

Lagniappe:

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Clean Water Win

A couple of days after the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a surprising ruling on a complicated case involving the Clean Water Act, a 1972 law signed by Nixon (originally under a different name) and often seen as one of the signal achievements of the original Earth Day.

Before reading about the ruling, it may be helpful to listen to NPR journalist Ryan Finnerty's  reporting on the case as it was heard by SCOTUS in November 2019.

I somehow missed news of last week's ruling until I saw a link to Steve Hanley's article US Supreme Court Decides Clean Water Act Applies To Groundwater on a site called CleanTecnica, which describes the case in terms of its partisan implications. Journalist Adam Liptak provides a more dispassionate description of the case in Clean Water Act Covers Groundwater Discharges, Supreme Court Rules for the New York Times. Writing for SCOTUS Blog, Lisa Heinzerling dissects the legal philosophies at play.
Connections between ground water and surface water vary,
but often are this simple.
Image: BYJU'S
The result is considered a victory by the environmental groups that filed the suit, because it reduces polluters' ability to claim that water flowing underground is immune from the Clean Water Act -- what plaintiffs and some justices consider a loophole.

I use the phrase "is considered a victory" because nobody is quite certain what the ultimate impact of this case will be. As often happens, the Court has returned the case to a lower court with some direction, but that court might have more than the usual latitude in deciphering the court's intent.

Underlying (pun intended, I guess) all of this complication is the fact that Federal jurisdiction over water has in many ways been limited to navigable waterways, a term that originated in the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, and whose definition has never engendered a lot of consensus.

For me, this ruling will have been a victory for the environment only if it helps to bring about an end to the dangerous practice of oil extraction through hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The current drop in oil prices will sideline fracking for the next year or two, but legal action will be needed to prevent it from continuing to destroy the quality of ground water in places with minimally accessible petroleum deposits. See my Imagine No Fracking (2012) Non-Oil Futures (2012), and More Than Modified (2014) posts for more on the dangers of pumping toxic solutions into damaged aquifers.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

COVID-19 Hope from Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall in the Gombe Reserve, 1965
I have given too much thought, perhaps, to the assertion by Henry Mitchell that "all anybody needs to know about prizes is that Mozart never won one." This started because I must have heard the quote not long before the only time (so far) I was in a room with Jane Goodall.

My one chance at a photo -
dim but magical!
I was in my hometown (Washington, DC) in the historic Wardman Park Hotel, where my brother, father, and both grandfathers had worked in various capacities. We had brought our EarthView globe for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers.

While we were there, we learned that she would be speaking as the first recipient of the Atlas Award,: a new prize that professional geographers in North America were to begin bestowing on people from outside the profession who had made a profound lifetime contribution to our discipline.

As hundreds of geographers sat in rapt attention as she spoke to us so eloquently about the planet we study, I realized that she was doing us a favor by coming to receive this award, not the other way around. As I look at her Wikipedia page a decade later, I see that the Atlas Award is not even included among her prizes (I'm trying to fix that). Unlike Mozart, her good work has been recognized with gratitude and admiration in her lifetime.

So it was once again with rapt attention that I listened to her March 20, 2020 message about the crisis currently gripping our planet. Her hope is not a glib or shallow one -- she does not hesitate to point out how dire the Coronavirus pandemic has become. But she is clear about what we must do now and highlights the lessons those who survive this must take forward.


Lagniappe

I was also fortunate to be in a room in New York City when Dr. Mary Robinson became the second recipient in 2012. In that case, the acceptance speech -- a video of which is still on my blog -- served not only as my introduction to the concept of climate justice, but as the essential outline of an honors course I was to offer several times in succeeding years. I have not been present for any of the subsequent ceremonies, though Noam Chomsky did speak at my church once. Inexplicably, the AAG web page lists at least some of these awards with the wrong dates.

April 26 update: some good news...

During the blessing of the animals service (online) at my church today, I learned that Jane Goodall's main web page is simply a channel for encouragement. Have a look at her Good for All News for a bit of hope every day.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Cabo = Cape Verde

Having read earlier today that Cabo Verde had not yet reported any Coronavirus cases, I was saddened and surprised to see it marked on the definitive Global Cases map from ESRI and Johns Hopkins, which as of this writing (10pm EDT) indicated 305,234 cases worldwide, up by five thousand from when I checked earlier today.

When I zoomed in, I noticed two dots where Cabo Verde should be. Clicking on each in turn, I noticed the problem:
and 

The country has 4 active cases, reported under the new and old names of the country. A former Portuguese colony that became independent in 1975, it has been called Cabo Verde for centuries, Cape Verde in English.

It has also represented incorrectly on maps in many ways over the years. I completed my doctorate in geography without being quite sure where or what these islands were, because I saw so many contradictions on maps -- some of them suggesting they were still part of Portugal, others indicating that the name referred both to the islands and to a point of land (a cape) in Senegal.

In 2013, the United Nations ceased using the name "Cape Verde" at all, insisting that Cabo Verde should be used, even in an English context. In southeastern Massachusetts -- home of the biggest Cape Verdean / Cabo Verdean / Kabuverdianu community outside the country itself -- I often read and hear both of these versions of the name, and a couple more.

 Geographer Tanya Basu reported on the name change for National Geographic at the time, and explained the bit about Senegal in the process.

The Johns Hopkins map synthesized databases from at least six organizations: Esri, WHO, HERE, GARMIN, NOAA, and USGS (all of these employ geographers, by the way). It appears that at least one of these is using the old name. I will of course be contacting some of these agencies to report the error while the numbers are still small.

Lagniappe

For general information about the geography of Cabo Verde, see my 2018 Basics post. For the story of another mistake I noticed in an online map of the country, see my 2013 Google In, Google Out post.

For the story and photos of my 2006 travel course, see my Cabo Verde - Cape Verde
Geography of Sustainable Development - Geografia do desenvolimento sustenavel web page. Since then, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the country, and to give a presentation at a Cabo Verde conference at my own university. I have also begun to study Kriolu (one of the two national languages, similar to but distinct from Portuguese) and to help develop a minor in Cape Verdean Studies at Bridgewater State University. I will eventually be offering a Fogo version of my Geography of Coffee travel course as my own contribution to that academic minor.

Update

About 15 hours after I contacted the Johns Hopkins team, the error was corrected. It appears the total incidence as of this writing is 3. I do not know if they are on more than one of the islands or all on the same island.
1:30 p.m. EDT, March 22, 2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Trail Protection

In alternate autumn semesters, I enjoy a class we call Land Protection. When I started teaching it, I used a more cumbersome name that I inherited from the professor who first developed it. I think the name had been put together by a committee, and I was glad I was able to find a simpler way to describe what he and I have both endeavored to do with the course -- over what has now become something like four decades.

I took the name from a book that I continue to use each time I teach the course: Protecting the Land: Conservation Easements Past, Present, and Future, an edited collection published by Island Press in 2000. The book includes case studies about the efforts to protect land in many parts of the United States. In this case, "protect" means to put restrict the development of the land  through various legal and financial arrangements, so that it remains as open space -- fields, forests and the like -- or agricultural land. The cases include a lot of different organizations and strategies, as well as land being protected for different reasons. I really do enjoy it, and I think my students do, too.

One of the cases is of particular interest to me as a geographer, because the spatial arrangement of the case raises so many unusual considerations. The development of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail involved nonprofit organizations and several levels of government, and a linear trail raises all kinds of questions about scale, finance and property rights. Such a trail also makes accessible wild (or somewhat wild) lands available to a large number of people who might otherwise not get to visit such places.

Finally, in this particular case, the places include sites that reveal the fascinating (to me) geomorphology of glaciers. They have not been in Wisconsin for over 20,000 years, but they have shaped almost every acre of the Badger State. And even the part they missed (the Driftless Area) is fascinating to those who care about such things. In fact, when driving across Wisconsin (one of my favorite states) with my favorite librarian (who is also my spouse despite suffering through my graduate work in geomorphology), I once got way too excited when I realized I was in the Driftless Area for the first time.

All of this came to mind in recent weeks as I found a couple of interesting stories about other trails. The first was Supreme Court Pipeline Fight Could Disrupt How The Appalachian Trail Is Run, a radio story by radio journalist Becky Sullivan. I look forward to listening to it with my Land Protection students, because this is the most famous of U.S. trails, and like the Ice Age Trail, its management includes a complex mix of federal and other entities. By the time I offer the class again, the Supreme Court will have ruled on this case, and we will have plenty to discuss about both the practical questions of how pipelines cross protected areas and the technical questions of jurisdiction.
The second trail story to come to my attention is America's First Coast-To-Coast Bike Path Is Over Halfway Finished, posted in August 2019 by blogger Ryan Ford. In describing progress on the trail, he explains some of the strategies for making such long-distance connections as this ambitious, 3,700-mile path, and some of the obstacles to do so. Many partners are needed for such efforts, but the lead organization in this case is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The name itself is a strong hint about one of the key strategies: use abandoned railroad rights-of-way wherever possible. In the middle of the 19th century, the United States made it ridiculously lucrative to build railroads. The result was a half century of building tracks parallel to each other all over the continent. Eventually, the redundant tracks started to be removed, and active rail mileage has declined ever since its peak in 1910. This left long, narrow strips of land that had been selected and modified to be a level as possible, often not useful for any practical development, and running continuously through land that would otherwise be costly to buy. As a result, securing the rights to use this land for walking and biking has been a priority of conservation and recreation groups for generations.

All of these issues are relevant to the Bay Circuit Trail, a very long-term project much closer to home. In fact, part of it runs within sight of our classroom (though not along the active train tracks we can see from our window), and students in the class a few years ago actually did some work to help develop local legs of the trail known as the Nunckatessett Greenway.

Lagniappe

The other book I have used since the first time I taught the course is even older by one year. David Foster's book Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape was published in 1999 and draws on journals written by Henry David Thoreau a century and a half before that. It is an excellent discussion of how and why the landscape of New England has changed from mostly forested to mostly deforested to mostly forested again, with plenty of suggestions about what this means for managing land in this region, where most of my students have been raised and are likely to stay. (Because as expensive and often dysfunctional as it is, New England is beautiful and diverse and fascinating.)

 I frequently consider alternatives and have sometimes added a third book (several different titles) to the mix, but these remain the constants, as long as they remain available. The combination prepares people well for paid or volunteer work in land trusts or conservation commissions -- two types of organizations that I have worked with and that are very integral to resilience and sustainability efforts at the regional or community level.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Oil: Costs and Prices


The price of the benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil has fallen by more than half since the beginning of the year. So many other things are out of kilter in the world that many folks have hardly noticed. To the question of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, the answer is: it depends.

Of course, that is always the answer when prices change, but it is a far more appropriate answer than usual in this case. At a minimum, the answer depends upon:
  • what country is being considered
  • what sector of the economy within that country
  • what time frame is of interest
  • whether economic or environmental factors are being considered
  • whether the environmental factor is climate change or water quality
  • whether one is considering solar or wind alternatives, or oil itself
  • whether you believe in climate change
Just kidding about climate change: this has climate implications whether people believe it or not.

Credit for these factors goes to two excellent reports on the recent slide, which is generally attributed to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. That is, between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Vladimir Putin -- two people who have rather unusual relationships with the current U.S. president. If this is a price war, it is no ordinary one, as each of these actors sees benefits in the geopolitical and economic consequences that are unfolding in the short term.

Rather than elaborate some of the tradeoffs to which my small list alludes, I refer readers to those excellent reports, which I am assigning to students in my Advanced Global Thinking class because there are so many complex geographical questions raised here.

I would start with the March 9 New York Times article Saudi Oil Price Cut Is a Market Shock With Wide Tremors by Clifford Krauss and then listen -- at least twice -- to Cheap Oil and the Climate, a discussion between Steve Curwood of Living on Earth (LOE) and Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International.

The transcript of the LOE discussion includes this aerial photograph of Jonah Field in Wyoming. One can easily imagine the dozens of wells reaching into this deposit, like straws in a giant scorpion bowl. It is an excellent example of the relationships among price, scarcity, and technology in the extraction of any mineral. Whether this is an oil deposit is a question of how much oil is present but also of what the price of oil is. It appears and disappears with price fluctuations. 

Tom and the Volcano

Just a few weeks ago, a hiker on Mauna Loa found this bomb. More precisely, they re-found it, leading to a retelling of its remarkable story.
Rocks that fall from the ejecta of a volcano are called bombs, but this was a bomb dropped deliberately into the volcano 85 years earlier.

The photo was not taken by the hiker; it was taken as part of a 1977 study of the bombing, which had taken place in late 1935. It was one of 40 bombs dropped in the volcano to protect the water supply of Hilo.

The rediscovery of the bomb led to the retelling of the story by the staff of the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory, the agency whose founder had organized the bombing. Their account -- in blog posts dated March 5 and March 12 -- provides insight into volcanology as a descriptive and occasionally prescriptive discipline.



The red icon on this map of the Island of Hawai'i marks the Wailuku River, which reaches the sea at nearby Hilo. In late 1935, lava flowing from Mauna Loa was approaching the city. If the flow reached the Wailuku River just upstream of the city, its water supply could be interrupted.

Volcanologist Thomas Jaggar asked the Army Air Corps to bomb the flow, and this succeeded in stopping it. Better put: forty bombs were dropped, the flow slowed, and the river was spared. The volcanologist claimed victory, but even the pilots were skeptical -- presumably because they could see the scale of the flow relative to the magnitude of the munitions they used.

The story reminds me of one of the first environmental geography books I read: The Control of Nature by John McPhee, a Princeton professor of English, now emeritus, who is one of the best geography writers I know. Among the three stories he tells is one of an effort to divert a lava flow in Iceland. Rather than dropping bombs, the citizenry confronted the volcano in that story with water hoses. Read McPhee's engaging account to learn why that was not as crazy as it sounds.

Lagniappe: The Gap Band

This MTV classic has been running in my mind since I first read the story. Welcome to my earworm.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Beyond Translation

My wife Pamela and I famously met in French class, and though her French is much better than mine (because she regularly went to that class and then several more), neither of us speak it well. We did manage to put together enough phrases to navigate a weekend in rural Quebec about a decade ago, and if the current COVID-19 crisis abates in time, we'll brave a couple of days in France while passing between places where we speak the local languages more effectively -- Great Britain (sort of), Spain, and Portugal. Fingers crossed for that.

Meanwhile, I'm intrigued by a nice little story about learning French in order better to enjoy the rich cultural tapestry of the United States itself. The more one knows French, the more they can enjoy the food, music, and people of New Orleans. I know Rosetta Stone as language-learning software, but it also sponsors travel courses and a blog about language learning.
Louisiana parishes
Credit: Ian Young, Rosetta Stone
 
One tag used on the blog is words beyond translation, which points to articles that deeply explore just a few examples of words like ojalΓ‘ (Spanish) and retrouvailles (French) that are exactly that: words for which the dictionary will provide an English equivalent, but which it is. worth learning the language to understand more fully. The Portuguese word saudades would be another great entry in this series. It can be translated as "longing" or "missing" but means so much more. I explored the word in my newsletter Folha da Frontera during my first visit to Brazil in 1996.

I am teaching honors colloquia about New Orleans this year, specifically because I find the city interesting but have never had a chance to go. Music has been a big part of the class and we have also discussed the importance of education in the French language there. Exploring the Big Easy from afar with my honors students, I am looking forward to our eventual visit. We will brush up on our French before we go, and we will stay at La Belle Esplanade, a tiny hotel whose main purpose is to immerse people in the culture of the "real" New Orleans.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Mary or Joseph?

BSU rallies with PRIDE / February 2012
Facebook recently reminded me of the anniversary of this photograph, taken by a friend and former student, unbeknownst to me at the time. It comes as several relevant stories have come to my attention. Our campus had rallied around a student who had been assaulted for their gender identity -- whoever was carrying the flag during the walk across campus asked me to hold it while they went to the podium here in front of our main administration building.

The moment is a reminder both of the progress we have made and the very real dangers that remain for GLBTQ people in our country and abroad. This was taken at a time when I was supporting only my students and neighbors and friends -- I did not know at the time that this would later become something I do for my family.

Young Reilly Horan
Photo: The Moth
I think of this when I contemplate a father in Columbus who attempts to censor a book about gender identity because he thinks his daughter is too young to learn that gender identity is not always what it appears to be. He publicly fights to keep that information from all of the young people in his city, amplifying his own ignorance of gender in the process (he calls transgender people "cross-dressers" for example). The very public stand he is taking while his child is young assumes that she will never need him as an ally. This could prove to be a tragic miscalculation.

A more positive story I heard around the same time was that of Reilly Horan, which she tells as part of an episode of The Moth Radio Hour entitled It's the Little Things. She was serving food at a family restaurant on Martha's Vineyard when a child's question about her khakis helped her to process a lifetime of questions about gender. It is as thoughtful an exploration of gender identity as I have heard.

I recommend the entire episode, but can also suggest skipping to 34:20 for the start of Reilly's moving reflections.

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen via NPR
Driveway moments are familiar to regular listeners of public radio. They occur when we are listening to a story while running errands, and when we stop the car, we decide to sit with the radio on because a story has so captivated us. The story of musician Katie Pruitt's debut album led to just such a moment for me, though it was in a parking lot rather than my driveway, and I have to admit that tears were involved.

What began as a typical story about the music of a young singer-songwriter turned out to be the story of her coming out as a lesbian. And then it became the story of a parent's coming to terms with her child's sexual orientation.

Please have a listen, and maybe grab a tissue first. Jennifer Pruitt has words every parent should hear.

Lagniappe

What does all of this have to do with geography?

Everything. Have a look at the blog of the AAG Queer and Trans Geographies Specialty Group for examples of spatial perspectives on sexual orientation and gender identity. I must admit I liked our previous name better: Sexuality and Space.

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