Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Busy Week for Geography!

Last week was a busy one for geography education in Massachusetts -- especially on local CBS affiliates!

On Tuesday the 7th, news anchor Paula Ebben dedicated her Eye on Education feature to Family Geography Night that had taken place the previous week at North Andover Middle School.

This award-winning night has been organized by MGA member Robert  Poirier each of the past six years, and in 2011 is was recognized by the Massachusetts Senate for educational excellence. As shown in the video above, many teachers and other volunteers commit their time to an evening of truly engaged learning involving both students and their families.
Then on Thursday evening, MGA members Vernon Domingo and James Hayes-Bohanan visited the studios. They were able to thank Paula Ebbens in person for her support of geography while waiting to go on air with Dan Rea. The two had been on Nightside with Dan Rea once before, and were glad to be back on this program, which is heard throughout eastern North America because of the night-time range of strong AM radio signals.

Be sure to listen to the entire hour (the play button is in a black box just below the program description. The many interesting calls from listeners included one from a graduate of our department now teaching in Florida. Brenda reminded us and the rest of the audience that geography is both a physical science and a social science.

Geography is, in fact, at the intersection of STEM Education and Global Education. This is one reason that geography is a vital discipline for 21st-century learning. It is a subject that informs and enriches understanding of many related fields. Geographers are, in fact, especially well prepared for making interdisciplinary connections.

As Dan Rea made very clear during the discussion, however, we cannot rely on a sprinkling of geography in the courses to substitute for a sound education in geography itself.

The discussion included current efforts toward that end in the Massachusetts Legislature. Thanks to broad, bipartisan, and bicameral effort that includes the Legislature's only geographer, the body is considering An Act Relative to Geography Education. The Joint Committee on Education and Senate Committee on Ways and Means have approved the measure, but it is currently awaiting approval by technical committees. The bill provides an opportunity for Massachusetts to declare its support of geographic literacy through an annual Geography Education Week. More importantly, it would create a fixed-term Geography Commission to examine the ways to improve geography education throughout Massachusetts.
Many legislators have become aware of the gaps in geography education through MGA State House visits with EarthView.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Climate Change: The Business Case

At the time of this writing, many in the United States are clamoring for more dramatic action against Ebola, a disease that killed 4,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea before garnering any significant attention in the United States. Ebola is getting virtually no attention as a humanitarian disaster, even though Liberia is a country created by the United States. But as a frightening possibility, the most far-fetched scenarios are driving the public discussion.

Meanwhile, many continue to deny threats for which there is much more compelling evidence. The biggest of these is climate change, which in many ways is a far bigger threat than Ebola.

The snapshot below is from an animation of surface-temperature changes that summarizes in a basic form the extensive evidence compiled by NASA, regarding observed trends.
NASA: 1963 frame, part of a 1880-2013 time series of annual average temperatures
These results are not surprising, given the rapid release of carbon from the surface, the relative scarcity of carbon in the atmosphere, and the small size of the atmospheric layer in which carbon is stored. As I have written elsewhere, it is not plausible for anything but warming to result from this combination of factors.
These images are just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of the evidence that NASA provides, for those who need convincing. As I wrote a year ago in Climate Foxholes, however, most people are ready to move on to figuring out what kinds of impacts will continue, and to consider what to do about them. Among these is Business Insider, which has published articles related to many aspects of climate change. These include a recent survey of 25 Devastating Effects of Climate Change, some of which are already underway.

Threats to our favorite foods and drinks can sometimes garner attention most readily, as with recent reports on the impact of Ebola on chocolate prices. It is perhaps for that reason that the authors included wine as a potential victim of climate change. I admit to being concerned as wine consumer (and small-scale vintner), but I also know that this is an impact far more importance to wine-producing communities than it is to me. The resolution of this map is a bit fuzzy, but it is showing that some areas currently suitable for wine will become unsuitable, while other areas -- shown in blue -- will actually become more suitable. This is far from a break-even scenario, though, because the soils, human resources, and infrastructure needed for wine are in the areas of existing production. The same is true for coffee, tea. and other specialized crops.
Image: Dickinson et al, Climate Change, Wine, and Conservation
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2013
Because I am currently working on a proposal for an entire course on climate justice, I reading the survey of 25 impacts with particular attention to the challenge Dr. Mary Robinson has issued to geographers. Speaking to the AAG in 2012, the former president of Ireland explained the geographic and social variability of climate-change causes, consequences, and vulnerabilities. With that in mind, it can be seen that no particular person will suffer from all 25 of the consequences listed (nor all of those unlisted). But each of the consequences of climate change has its own particular geography, and some people are going to be much more vulnerable overall than others.


As often happens, I found something interesting just after posting the discussion above. One of the reasons that geographers need to be involved in climate change is that geographic trends that are not directly related to climate change interact in ways that add significant complexity. A very important example is the geography of water usage in the United States. The population is increasing most rapidly in areas that are dry and getting drier, but where people use more water than in wetter regions. Current pricing structures -- which result in part from significant Federal subsidies for water in the arid West -- seem likely to compound current and future droughts.

Image: Brad Plumer on Vox -- Maps of Water Use

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Geography of Murk and Muck

Just about everything has a geography, including the illicit disposal of automobiles. A group of friends who were organizing clean-ups along the Merrimack River north of Boston discovered this about a decade ago when the water level was lowered for maintenance of a dam, revealing a river full of cars. There is even a coffee connection here, in that the water so resembles black coffee that this was essentially unknown. Even now, divers locate the cars by feel, not sight.

Those friends created a non-profit organization focused solely on the removal of cars from the bottom of the river. In a fascinating report published today as the group passes the 50-car milestone, Boston Globe journalist Billy Baker describes how these volunteers address the physical, ecological, financial, and legal implications of this complicated work.

This is becoming a routine, as the Clean River Project specializes in the removal of cars from difficult circumstances. Image: Mark Lorenz. See image gallery with story for more.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Día del Libro

In coming days, the Hayes-Bohs are likely to make an exception to our usual rule of avoiding the opening day of anything. Some people thrive on the excitement, but we would rather check out a new store, sports season, or film after the crowds have subsided. Depending on the weather (that's a long story), however, we might make it to the opening day of a new film called The Book of Life.
The reason for the unusual title of this post ("Day of the Book") is that director Jorge Gutierrez -- in his interview with Mandalit del Barco -- describes some difficulty in using the holiday name "Día De Los Muertos" ("Day of the Dead") for his work because of efforts by Disney to copyright the name of the holiday! Hear more about the making of this film from his interview on Latino USA.
Fortunately, despite such annoyances -- and the tendency of the holiday to be associated with low-rent horror films -- Gutierrez was able to find a producer willing to support a film that celebrates the true meaning of the holiday, which has to do with honoring departed family and friends, who remain more connected in many Latin American contexts than they do elsewhere.

Whether we make it to opening day or not, we look forward to seeing this independent film soon, though the trailer suggests the production does not entirely succeed in avoiding the Disneyfication effect.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Soccer World

From the delightful program Only a Game comes a great story about the geography of soccer and fishing. Yes, the geography of both -- centered on the small city of Unalaska.

In English, is sounds like a place not much like Alaska, and I'm tempted to call it "Very Alaska" in response. The name, however, has nothing to do with "not" and everything to do with "near." The Unangan people who first inhabited it called it Ounalashka, meaning "near the peninsula."

It is also connected to the entire world. On the map above, zoom out to see how very remote this community is. Its situation is isolated: in almost any direction, one could travel for thousands of miles before finding neighbors. Zooming in, however, reveals why the town is connected to so many places around the world. Its site is fortuitous, though, for making global connections. The city's harbor is doubly sheltered, as Iliuliuk Bay is tucked away within Unalaska Bay, on the Bering Sea side of the island. (From the National Park Service I just learned of the great strategic importance of this and neighboring islands during World War II, the only U.S. territory to be occupied by Japan.)

The city is in the United States, which means could be expected to have little or no tradition of soccer. But it is visited by fishing fleets from all the rest of the world, and it has embraced the soccer traditions that all of those sailors bring to the city, celebrated with its International Friendship Cup over the past several decades.

The story is about a community celebrating the connections it has with the rest of the world, and learning some of the ways in which people are more alike than different.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Victorian Remote Control

On this date 101 years ago, President Wilson completed the Panama Canal while sitting in his office. He neither flew nor took a car, which are the two alternatives shown above. Rather, he used what author Tom Standage has called the Victorian Internet, also known as the telegraph, to detonate the last remaining dike at Gamboa. Removing those last few feet of dirt shortened a New York-to-San Francisco journey by 7,872 miles -- nearly the diameter of the entire planet.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Crux of the Battle

The battle with the so-called Islamic State has reached a new level of complexity, having to do with the location of the latest fighting. Yesterday evening, PRI producer Joyce Hackel provided a very helpful explanation of what is at stake for the United States in Kobanê, Syria.

(I use the term "so-called" because ISIS is not a state, nor is it truly Islamic.)

This excellent piece of journalism begins with a vivid picture -- in words -- of what is going on in this town, and then a careful explanation of the different ways in which this matters to the United States, Europe, Turkey, and various groups within the region.

In their conversation with Rep. Stephen Lynch today, WGBH journalists Jim Braude and Margery Eagan spoke in more detail about the issues at stake here. I listened attentively because -- believe it or not -- Rep. Lynch was in the region today, and at one point it had been planned for me to be with him! I do not always agree with Rep. Lynch, but he has taken the time to learn this region first-hand and seems to have learned from the mistakes that led him to vote for the Iraq war on faulty information.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Real Patriotism

Real patriotism, it seems to me, celebrates what is best about one's country, and commits to making it even better. This is the essence of AmeriCorps, the national-service organization that recently celebrated 20 years of good work. Tens of thousands of recent high-school and college graduates -- including quite a few of my former students -- have served their country in parks, streams, schools, libraries, gymnasiums, health centers from sea to shining sea.

As reported in the Boston Globe, four of the presidents in this file photo -- George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton -- participated in 20th anniversary celebrations of AmeriCorps. (The program began after President Carter had left office.)

At the White House, at Kennebunkport, and at a total of 95 celebrations across the country, Americans across the political spectrum  lauded this cost-effective program that builds skills while improving the communities in which we live.

Tufts University Dean Alan Solomont explains that AmeriCorps is really just the latest chapter in a century-long commitment to public service in the United States. Most people understand its importance -- which is the domestic counterpart to the international service of soldiers and diplomats. He explains, however, that the dysfunctional United States Congress has been unwilling to fund it to the level that these presidents have requested.

The reasons for this lack of patriotism are several. First is the embrace of many members of Congress of the twin fetishes of privatization and tax cuts. Although spending on Americorps is trivial in comparison to weapons systems or bank bailouts, AmeriCorps volunteers cannot rent or purchase Congress Critters, so they are an easy target for cost-cutting. Second, although the Constitution requires voters to choose representatives, the manipulation of district boundaries and voting rules allows the process to be reversed, and a significant number of representatives are able to choose voters who support the ideologies of their patrons on K Street.

The result is a lamentable situation in which none of us -- poor or wealthy -- is living in a country that is as good as it could be. As the study Spirit Level found, we are all better off if we are all better off.

Friday, September 26, 2014

How Germy is that Keurig?

In just a few years, the Keurig has become a wildly popular way to brew coffee. Relative to other methods, it offers slightly more convenience in exchange for extremely high costs, poor quality, and excessive packaging.

I have been unable to wrap my head around a central paradox of the rise of Keurig, which  has been contemporaneous with my own development as a coffee maven. That paradox is that shortly after it was launched, Keurig was purchased by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which was still a mid-sized coffee roaster in our region. I have meet Green Mountain staff on several occasions while exploring socially and environmentally sustainable coffee in Matagalpa, and I know the company does a lot of good. Even though a lot of that good work continues, by growing its business around convenience at all costs, that work is diluted -- as diluted as the coffee itself. For every partnership with a halo brand such as Newman's Own, there is a dalliance with such perditious brands as the dreaded Dunkin Donuts. With Keurig, GMCR has lost its way.

The power of convenience is so strong, however, that Keurig continues to grow. Even if they eschew the overpriced pods from the manufacturer (I had the privilege of watching these get filled at the factory -- truly amazing, but not worth $40-$70 per pound), people find a way to keep using their Keurigs. Even if they know about the waste and the poor quality (even the best coffee cannot stand up to the Keurig treatment), they embrace these machines. (For alternatives, see my Coffee Care page.)

But perhaps the latest news will change that .What if the Keurig is just disgusting? When microbiologist Erin Chamberlik found that she could not get the inside of the Keurig dry, she started a little investigation, and concluded that she had no choice but to Kick the Keurig to the Curb.

I am reminded that in my own building -- a $100,000,000 science facility -- we have no real coffee source, though students, faculty, and staff have proposed a world-class café. So in addition to the unsustainable vending machines in the lobby, the offices of scientists are gradually filling with unsustainable -- and unhealthy -- coffee machines.

Note: To learn more about efforts to change the coffee culture at BSU, visit the Ben Linder Cafe page on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


In teaching about the disparities in the world space-economy, I often begin the discussion with a story of a series of walks I took in Washington, D.C. with Brazilian geography students a few years ago. We were staying at a hotel in Chinatown while attending a conference at George Washington University. Of course the major highlight of such a walk is the White House, and our visitors were excited when we were ushered off a street for a motorcade -- it was only a dozen cars, though, so clearly not the president, but still exciting.

I was more interested, though, in their reaction to a rather boring, gray structure a few blocks to the north. When they noticed the World Bank (for policy nerds, the WB has nothing to do with entertainment television), they would pretend to expectorate in its general direction.

What could cause such a crude reaction among these otherwise refined young scholars, especially in regard to an institution most of their U.S. peers have never heard of? The answer: SAPs -- Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (the difference between the two is a subtlety for real policy nerds) as a result of loan defaults dating back to the debt crisis of the 1980s. Yes, it was in the decade before these students were born that reckless lending officers in the private banks of the United States and Europe colluded with corrupt (or worse) governments in developing countries to create a credit bubble far greater than that created by George W. Bush in 2008.

The result of the ensuing collapse was penury for hundreds of millions of people and a significant threat to the world banking system. As I explain on my (somewhat out-of-date) International Debt Relief page, the U.S. Treasury stepped in to rescue the lenders, turning bad private loans into somewhat more stable public loans. The net result was that multilateral lending agencies ended up with immense influence on the fiscal decision making of scores of developing countries.

All of this is necessary background to understanding the importance of a new bank being formed by the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The financial implications in the short run may be modest, but this marks a determination on the part of these countries to ensure that their financial successes result in more policy independence.

As I prepared this post, I was reminded that it is not just the IMF that disregards the sovereignty of some nation-states -- professional soccer has done the same.

The differences between presidents Vladimir Putin and Dilma Rousseff are emblematic of the very divergent nature of the five countries that form the new bank. But economic sovereignty is a goal they all share.