Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Environmental Geography Gamut

One of my goals in general-education classes is to ensure that students will emerge better able to interpret course-related news they encounter in the future. For this reason, my final exams often ask them to find a news item, describe it, and relate it to something they learned in the course. This is a pedagogic approach I learned from the work of geographer L. Dee Fink; it is also a way to ensure that I continue to learn from my students.

At the moment I am taking a break from grading summer courses to share some of the articles that came my way as the result of such an assignment, because all of them fit nicely into the theme of this blog -- and the title of the course in question -- Environmental Geography. (See my "What is environmental geography, anyway?" web page if you've been wondering about that title. Most of what is on this blog fits somehow into that category, though some of it is more appropriately called political, economic, or cultural geography.)

Here -- without elaboration, in the interest of time -- are the articles and radio pieces that students shared. Each one made a connection between the article and Carl Safina's book The View from Lazy Point. (See more Safina references throughout this blog.) In some cases, several students commented on the same stories, making different connections.

Supreme Court Blocks Obama Administration Plan on Power Plant Emissions. NPR June 29th, 2015.

Note From A Civilized City: Boston Parks To Offer Dispensers Of Free Sunscreen. WBUR June 26, 2015.

New Panda Count Brings Cheers And Debate. WBUR March 2, 2015.
Shameless and gratuitous use of cute charismatic megafauna.

Survival Of The Greenest Beer? Breweries Adapt To A Changing Climate. NPR June 24, 2015.

Risk of Extreme Weather From Climate Change to Rise Over Next Century, Report Says. New York Times, June 22, 2015.

Chinese Couples Urged to Have More Children. The Guardian June 29, 2015.

The Dutch Ruling On Climate Change That Could Have A Global Impact. NPR June 25, 2015.

The Evolution of Birdsong. Living on Earth, June 26, 2015.

Genetically Modified Salmon: Coming To A River Near You? NPR June 24, 2015.

How A Historical Blunder Helped Create The Water Crisis In The West. NPR June 25, 2015.
Image: NPR
To Tackle Food Waste, Big Grocery Chain Will Sell Produce Rejects. NPR June 17, 2015. (In searching for this, I also found Landfill of Lettuce by the same reporter.)

Decisions On Climate Change Will Affect Economic Future Of U.S. NPR June 22, 2015.

Save Wildlife, Save Yourself? NPR June 26, 2015.

Scientists Build Case for 'Sixth Extinction' ... and Say It Could Kill Us. NBC News. June 19, 2015.

OK, so I will elaborate on this one. This story was cited by a couple of students. I had seen the headline but had not yet worked up the nerve to read the article. Not only will I now be assigning it in some of my classes -- such as Land Protection -- but I will also be assigning the original article on which it is based:

Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.  Science Advances 1(5): June 19, 2015. Gerardo Cebellos, Paul Ehrlich, et al.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mas Musica

It was almost a decade ago that I made a small tour of Massachusetts college and university campuses, speaking on the cultural geography of Latin American music. The tour was sponsored by  MaCIE, and allowed me to meet a lot of interesting educators and students around the state. I am not a musicologist by any means, but I do find that music often reveals a lot about cultural geography, and my presentations consisted in discussing some examples. I carried around our Bose CD player and a suitcase of CDs at the time, and very much enjoyed myself.

I continue to find and enjoy new examples of culturally interesting music that I share with my students, though I do not attempt to update the Musica web site very often, but I occasionally add something to the blog. And today is such an occasion, as I just found a list of 11 Latina musicians who exemplify the great variety of music in the region.

I embed Fiesta from Bomba Estéreo simply because it is by far the most colorful and among the most modern of the examples collected by Marcelo Baéz on music.mic, but I encourage readers to watch all of the videos he has shared.
I found this article just as I was sharing the film Selena with my students and discussing my experience of living in South Texas during her rise and tragic fall. Both that film and the song "Sorry I Stole Your Man" by Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas reminds us that many Latin@s in the United States do not speak Spanish fluently.
Together,they are a rich lesson on the dynamic music of Latin America.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Oh, The Places to Go

I created the map below for students in our geography program, as a way to encourage them to explore the many fascinating places in our region. Each marker represents a convenient and rewarding destination that can be enjoyed from Bridgewater in a single day or perhaps even a few hours. 

I created it following a conversation with a colleague -- Dr. Vernon Domingo -- with whom I travel frequently. He asserted that our students should never have a boring date, because they have plenty of interesting places to take someone.

We are fortunate that Bridgewater is situated in the middle of such a diverse region, with an extraordinary variety of ways to learn about physical, human, and historical geography. We offer just a few here. When visiting any of these sites, be sure to explore the neighborhoods that surround them as well.

Details about what each of these places has to offer are in the GeoDates post on our department blog.


Dr. Domingo and I have had the privilege of getting to know many local communities -- especially in eastern Massachusetts -- through our travels with EarthView. The map below is a snapshot of visits to date. See the dynamic map for more recent visits in Massachusetts and for visits outside the region.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Three Flags, Three Colors

I post these flags for no other reason than the fact that I frequently forget which is which. I was reminded of this while watching Rosie Perez' excellent film ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas!

These three territories share the same three colors and each sports a single star, along with other design elements. All three were separated from Spain by the United States and the Spanish language remains associated with each, though to different degrees.


My favorite librarian reminds me that about 20 years ago, a court house in Texas was accidentally flying the flag of Chile. That is certainly a mistake I could have made.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Monarch Highway

When we lived in the southmost tip of Texas, one of our main environmental projects was to help improve a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande. The idea was to connect small fragments of wildlife habitat, using carefully-chosen strips of land to facilitate movement between patches of preserved land. This would magnify the benefits of available land. For example, if four fragments of 100 acres each are connected, the resulting land might not be quite as valuable -- from a biodiversity perspective -- as a 400-acre plot would be, but it would likely support greater genetic diversity than a 100-acre fragment. In other words, the value of fragmented habitat is no greater than that of the largest fragment.
When we lived in South Texas, we neverr saw a cluster of monarchs like this, but we knew that they gathered by the billions just a hundred miles or so away in Mexico, and we would see them on their way to and fro each year, thousands at a time.
Later, they became important to me as part of the story of Rachel Carson, as recounted on The American Experience.

Creating such corridors is as difficult as it is important. Habitat fragmentation occurs because people put the land between patches to human uses -- such as housing, commerce, transportation, and agriculture -- and some of these uses are difficult to reverse, even where there is a will do so. The effort in South Texas had been underway for more than a decade when we arrived, and two decades later, US Fish & Wildlife Service presents it as an aspiration, rather than a reality.

This is all prelude to a few stories I have encountered recently, regarding the protection of migratory butterflies and of bees. One of these is the news that actor extraordinaire and all-around great human Morgan Freeman has created his own reserve for bees in Mississippi. He makes the case that setting aside space for wildlife -- especially pollinators -- is important. One a much smaller scale, we have tried to do something similar, and have greatly increased the plant, bird, and insect biodiversity at Casa Hayes-Boh, a mere one-third of an acre that is part of the WWF Habitat program.

More directly relevant to the corridor concept is the effort to create a safe passage for monarch butterflies along the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota. This is the same highway that is considered the backbone of NAFTA trade among Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and is close to the natural flyways for this important and beautiful insect. The plan is part of the Whitehouse's comprehensive (though still nascent) plans to address the frighteningly rapid collapse of pollinator populations.

At this point, it is not clear from available documents exactly what will be dong along this corridor to facilitate migrations. Some combination of making certain plants available along the entire route while reducing pesticide use will be needed for a corridor of this kind to succeed. Because the corridor is not intended directly to support terrestrial species, this corridor can work without necessarily having the spatial continuity that characteristic of most corridor plans.

It is not yet clear exactly what form pesticide restrictions will take. The EPA has proposed temporary pesticide-free zones specifically to reverse the dangerous and costly decline of honeybees. The timing of the two announcements suggests a connection, but so far it is not clear where the proposed zones would be.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

We Eat Giant Babies

It was while making a simple dinner that I heard a wonderful interview about food and simplicity that explains a lot about what is wrong with modern food systems. The fact that our food has a system should be cause enough for alarm; this interview puts the problem in specific terms.

The interview was on this week's episode of America's Test Kitchen, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite radio programs. The episode is entitled "The Dorito Effect: The New Science of Creating Potent Flavor Chemicals to Market Bland Supermarket Foods" and it worth downloading it from the program's rather clumsy web site.

Drawing on evolutionary biology and chemistry, author Mark Schatzker explains the importance of flavor in food, the reasons non-food food "needs" artificial flavor, and the problems that is causing for our health.

(To understand my quirky title, you need to listen to the full interview.)

Spoiler alert: he ends the interview with the observation that "The path to better health is through better-tasting food."  This reminds me very much of the last line of my own recent TED Talk on the future of coffee.

Apparently to download a segment from America's Test Kitchen, you have to download the entire episode. But to do so is a treat. In addition to the main story on flavoring, there is a wonderful story about Iceland, which includes some fascinating insights on the geography of food in general and of coffee in particular.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Absent Presence

When I took typing in high school, I could never have imagined that such a quasi-scholarly activity would eventually become a threat to learning, never mind a sometimes lethal pursuit. After all,typing class and driving class were in different parts of the building, and we never thought of doing both at the same time.

Of course, in 1979 a typewriter weighed more than a bowling ball and was just as smart. It had no information, aside from what we were putting in it ourselves, and that remained only until we got to the bottom of  a page. So we could not be distracted by a typewriter.

Of course, "typing" on a phone, tablet, or laptop is now a completely different activity, because it creates instantaneous connections to other people, information, or entertainment. The quantity of connections is vast, and the ability to switch from one to another to another is instantaneous.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Saint Oscar

NOTE: My use of the word "saint" in the title of this post is a personal expression of my sentiments regarding Oscar Romero. He is not yet considered a saint, though he was declared a martyr this February and was beatified (declared "blessed") last weekend. These are steps on the way to sainthood.

I will be showing Romero in the first session of my Geography of Latin America course tomorrow. Normally, I would reserve this for a bit later in the course, after we have had time for "scaffolding" so that the students know more of the context.

But Oscar Romero has been very much in the news over the past several days, and this news has particular resonance with our region of greater Boston, and with our university in particular. So we will begin our study of Latin America with this story, tragic as it is.

I have written about the martyred archbishop elsewhere on this blog, most notably on the occasion of President Obama's 2011 visit to El Salvador, which was a Lost Opportunity to speak against the atrocities of that period. Since then, our president has actually re-employed some of the Reagan-era facilitators of those crimes.

NPR has followed the story of Romero's beatification with a number of excellent reports. On Morning Edition of May 25, Carrie Kahn examines the rifts that continue within the Salvadoran church, while Renee Montagne and John Allen of the Boston Globe explain the emergence of liberation theology more broadly. Contrary to popular belief, Pope Francis was not a supporter of that movement when he himself was a bishop in Argentina, where his alignment within a similarly divided church was a cause for concern when his papacy was being considered. Carrie Kahn explores the Romero story further in an excellent interview with Scott Simon.

In Sunday's paper, the Globe's Evan Allen further explains the importance or Romero's beatification in the Salvadoran community of East Boston. Those connections have a lot to do with the tireless work of Rep. Joseph Moakley -- for whom the Moakley Center on our campus is named -- on behalf of Salvadoran refugees and migrants, and his role in ending Reagan's wars in the region. The Moakley Institute at Suffolk University maintains papers that cover that important work, and the late Congressman explains his work in El Congresista, a short documentary produced by the institute.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Post-Aral Despair

Yes, those are two men walking in the desert and yes, they are walking past a fishing fleet. The nearest water is miles away, and it is toxic to fish. For years, I have thought that images such as this were the most distressing indications of one of the world's greatest environmental calamities -- the loss of the fourth-largest inland sea on the planet.

Sadly, the current issue of National Geographic describes a post-Aral hellscape that is worse than I realized. Waters divided among five nations and controlled by a sixth (the former USSR) have disappeared. I knew that this was a story of drought, greed, and dust. But it is also a story of oil, vodka, poison, and even slavery.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Earth Flows

The earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter and is sheathed by a comparatively very thin layer  of fluids that are critical to the balance of energy. As I tell students, without the oceans and atmosphere, the equatorial regions would be getting hotter and hotter while the poles got colder and colder. The equator is hotter than the poles, of course, but not hotter and hotter.

This image was captured at 7am on Thursday, May 14. The lines show wind direction at the surface, indicating the importance of flows toward and away from coastlines. The colors indicate temperature and show the importance of continentality. At this early hour of the day, land masses remain cooler than the oceans, and high elevations are cooler than low.

This image is from a project known as Natural Earth, an artistic rendering of winds or currents overlaid on data about speed, temperature, or pressure. From the very simple main page, click on the word "earth" for a menu of options that include mapping high-altitude winds or shifting backward or forward in time.
Full-disk image captured shortly after the regional image shown above.
Whatever parameters you choose, the flowing map reveals patterns that are both beautiful and informative.