Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Good Read on a Vital Topic

The latest from my Good Reads account includes a link back to several posts on this blog.

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural WorldThe View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I learned of this book when my librarian spouse was engaged in a year-long project of reading "year of" books -- an entire genre of books whose authors dedicated a year to a particular topic or practice. This meta project involved reading two such books each month, and we shared a few of them. Since I am an environmental geographer, she read this one to me.

Around the same time, I was realizing that the textbook in my introductory environmental geography class was becoming a bit out-of-date, and in particular that it was not adequately addressing climate change. I decided to try assigning this book as the main text in that survey course, and I am very glad I did. It is the only book that large numbers of students THANK me for assigning.

This is all the more impressive because students really do struggle with this book. It is a beautifully written account of some very unpleasant -- one could say inconvenient -- truths about a rapidly changing world. Some students are offended that Safina does not do more to soften the blow, but most eventually come to appreciate his approach.

Like Rachel Carson before him, Safina is both a talented writer and a consummate scientist. He also reveals a deep love for his chosen home on Long Island sound and the many other places around the world that his work has taken him.

I should emphasize that although I use this as a textbook, it is not written that way. In the process of telling his stories and making his case, this biologist happens to cover many of the topics I feel I need to include in my geography course. He does it so beautifully that I am happy to provide a few supplements to cover those areas, so that my students and I can immerse ourselves in this important and beautiful work.

My environmental geography blog includes a number of items about Safina and this book: http://environmentalgeography.blogspo...

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Archdruid Encounters

I have had a goodreads account for a while, but have used it very little. When I was prompted to write a review, this book came to mind, as it helped to change the course of my life. I still recommend it, 30+ years later.

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book changed my life, I suppose. It was one of the very first environmental books I read -- assigned by professors in two different classes. By cosmic coincidence, we got to meet the "Archdruid" near the end of the course because one of the professors sat next to him on a plane. At the time, he had been drummed out of Sierra Club for being too radical, but the club eventually came around, and I met him again years later at a Sierra Club event.

The book itself set me on the path to the career I have 30 years later -- environmental geography -- and made me a fan of John McPhee and his approach to scholarship. Whatever he writes about -- and it is a wide range -- he approaches through individuals he finds who are deeply embedded in the topic.

In this case, the main individual is David Brower, champion of wilderness. Three separate segments of the book describe journeys to wild places -- an island, a mountain, and a lake -- with Brower and and engineer or developer with ideas about changing the place. It is honest and deep, and still important all these years later.

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Sunday, September 06, 2015

Triangle Spring

News from the "Northern Triangle" of Central America has recently been full of terrible stories of such violence and corruption that parents would rather send their children north with human smugglers than to risk keeping them at home. The United States has responded poorly at best, incarcerating many children whom scriptures, laws, and conscience would mandate we take in.
The Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is a subregion with geopolitical problems distinct from the very real but somewhat less critical problems of its neighbors.

It is in this context that I was glad to hear some positive news from the region -- on the political front, no less. A failed drug war and unfair trade policies are part of the problem in the region. Corruption, though, is another common problem, and it has reached dangerous -- almost unbelievable -- levels.

And public revulsion at the extreme corruption is what appears finally to be galvanizing effective social movements across the region. As reported by The Guardian, coalitions are being formed under a broad umbrella known as Our Central American Spring. Some corrupt officials -- past and present -- are actually being held accountable as a result of recent public pressure.
Activists and journalists are still at some risk, however, if they expose the wrong culprits. Washington is beginning to offer some support, but seems reluctant to abandon allies on the far right that it has trained and supported over many decades. See my posts With Christians Like This ... and September 11, 1973 for just a couple examples from the past, and Outsourced Horrors for a more recent example misplaced U.S. priorities in the region.  This is a time to pay close attention to the region, and to whether Washington keeps human rights at the forefront of its policy-making.

For more scholarly analysis of the current situation in the Northern Triangle, see the Wilson Center report Organized Crime in Central America.

Of course, daily life is much more nuanced -- and ultimately more important -- than political movements. Those who are interested in learning about one small corner of the Northern Triangle can read Mi Aventura Hondureña, the blog of a young friend of mine who spent the better part of the last two years teaching in a small community on northwest Honduras.

I want also to point out that Nicaragua -- though it has its share of problems, including corruption -- is not part of the Northern Triangle. The problems that Nicaragua does have stem from a much different historical trajectory, one result of which is relatively safe conditions in recent years. This has allowed me to take more than 100 students to Matagalpa, Nicaragua over the past decade, in an annual exploration of the geography of coffee. I mention this only because the geographic proximity leads many to assume that all of the countries in the region have the same set of conditions, discouraging many from experiences that would be valuable.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not One Human

When I was a high school student in Kansas City, Missouri, our history class included a great deal about the importance of Missouri in the Civil War. To hear my teacher tell it, Missouri is where the outcome really was determined. During my time in the Show Me State, I spent a couple of weeks in Columbia ... long enough to know that "Cruisin' the Loop" was the main weekend activity.

These Missouri memories came together for me today, as I learned about a very geographic scandal in the capital.

The scandal involves a peculiar case of gerrymandering, an all-too-common phenomenon by which politicians try to choose their voters instead of risking the opposite. I have written about the practice extensively on this blog, especially in the 2010 post Article One: Enumeration.

This quasi-governmental business district includes just one voter.
But its goal was to include zero.
The Columbia case goes far beyond the usual tricks in which geographic skills are put to sinister uses. The usual idea is to create legislative districts that will maximize the numeric advantage of incumbents. This is reprehensible and counter to the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. It turns elections into a game, a game in which the odds are stacked in favor of the house. But at least it is a game that allows humans to vote.

The Missouri scheme tried to go a step further. Business "leaders" along the Loop in Columbia conspired to draw a boundary around a "community improvement district" in such a way that humans would not be able to vote at all. If they could achieve that, Missouri law would allow the right to vote to transfer to the businesses themselves. The fact that Missouri allows voting to default to businesses if no humans are available suggests that this scheme might have a precedent.

The reasons for the scheme were complicated, and apparently they hoped nobody would notice. They formed the district in order to make some shared capital improvements. They even used it to levy a small property-tax surcharge on themselves.

The bulk of the improvements, though, would be paid (or more accurately, repaid -- they already spent the money) by a special sales tax. In addition to shifting the cost of capital improvements to retail customers in this way, the businesses (some of which would not even have customers affected by the tax) would be able to pay an executive director with those funds.

It was because they feared voters would not approve such a regressive form of taxation -- Robin Hood in reverse, really -- they conspired to make sure no humans would get to vote on the matter.
Taxation without representation. We had a little set-to about that in Boston a while back.
It is that executive director who comes out looking the worst when they discovered that the evil clever geographers involved in this scheme might have been evil enough, but they were not clever enough. They allowed a single, pesky human to be included in the district. Jen Henderson is a student renting an apartment in the district who is not only a voter, but also an informed voter. She was pressured to disenfranchise herself so that "voting" would revert to businesses. (Scare quotes used because I still believe voting is something that only human citizens can do.) Once she learned what a serious game she was now part of, this young citizen took her civic duty very seriously and learned all she could about the issues involved. She has not announced how she will vote, but she has made it very clear she WILL vote.

Politicians who seek to disenfranchise voters are sometimes called "conservatives," but they really have no interest in conserving "American values" of democracy. Rather, they eschew Lincoln's words about the purpose of the Civil War, which was to ensure

"that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Although the Columbia case could be dismissed as a quirky story with only very localized impact, it is indicative of a political climate in which the humanity of individuals is systematically separated from what they can provide in practical terms. The rights to vote, express opinions, organize, and peaceably assemble are essential aspects of our humanity.

They are increasingly separated, however, from our ability to provide work or, as it turns out, pay taxes and fees. My essays on immigration and the human sieve describe this phenomenon in the arena of immigration policy, in which labor somehow crosses the border, but civil rights remains on the other side.

Friday, August 21, 2015

351 Town Names; No Rules

Massachusetts comprises 351 cities and towns; as I have written elsewhere, each is considered something like a sovereign nation, with all the efficiency that implies.

Some of the towns -- such as Bridgewater -- are compound English words that are easy to pronounce. Some are compound English words that are easy to pronounce but strange -- such as Braintree, while at least one is a native-American word that sounds like an odd English word: Mashpee.

But just as some common surnames have Massachusetts-only pronunciations (Gonsalves and Lopez each drop a syllable here), many of the cities and towns are difficult for foreigners to pronounce. And in this context, "foreigner" might include anyone not born in the town in question. Even apparently simple names -- like Dartmouth -- are not what they seem. Others sound almost nothing like they are spelled.

For some levity and instruction, we turn of course to YouTube.

First, some out-of-staters try ten of the hardest. This includes maps and a lot of earnest, if failed, attempts. In some cases, it is actually difficult to avoid obscenity. The entire concept of letters is called into question.

The GuyBoys -- whoever they are -- give it a try. Listen to the end for some meta comments.

Finally, a few more, with funny pictures.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Brazil Buzz

From that bottomless font of listicles comes some subtle insights into Brazilian culture. Buzzfeed presented ten Brazilian cultural traits to a group of "gringos" and recorded their responses. I am not going to translate the whole article, but I do provide the highlights below. All of them ring true, and most of them are quite familiar to me, based on visits over the past two decades to various places, mainly in Rondonia and Santa Catarina. 

This image is from the "final considerations" portion of the article. See the original article for more cool and fascinating images.

See the original article for the replies from Buzzfeed's original panel. If you don't read Portuguese, ask a friend who does to read them with you -- some of the reactions are hilarious. My own thoughts are in italics below.

1. Tomar mais de um banho por dia.

Take more than one shower a day.

This is especially common in the warmer parts of the country, and in fact the chance to take a shower will be offered to guests arriving in a home, much as they might be offered a drink. When I was in the Amazon -- a place that can be humid, smoky, and dusty all at the same time -- I often took 2, 3, or even 4 showers in a day.

This is not as wasteful as it sounds for two reasons First, these are not the long showers that North Americans often take until their water heaters are drained. Second, most Brazilian homes do not have water-heater tanks. If anything, a water heater is a small electric heater attached directly to the shower head. Not being terrified of these is another cultural distinction!

2. Escovar os dentes no trabalho.

Brush teeth at work.

I am not sure why this is not more common in other countries. 

3. Sentar ao lado do parceiro no restaurante.

Sit next to a partner at a restaurant.
I had not really noticed this, but as one respondent noted, it does make kissing your date easier.

4. Segurar sanduíche com guardanapo e comer pizza com garfo e faca.

Hold a sandwich with a napkin and eat pizza with a fork and knife.
Brazilians also tend to eat while sitting down in one place. Eating while walking or driving seems uncivilized to them. Because it is.

5. Chamar todo mundo pelo primeiro nome (inclusive a presidente da República).

Call everyone by their first name, including the president of the country.
Surnames are sometimes complicated; first names are more fun and often more unique.

6. Jogar papel higiênico sujo em um lixinho ao lado da privada.

Put toilet paper in a wastebasket next to the toilet.
This certainly got the most animated reactions from the Buzzfeed crowd. I don't think the article explains that this is common throughout Latin America, and has to do with the limitations of plumbing. Even where the plumbing could handle toilet paper, though, the habit is deeply ingrained. Of course most of the gringos on the Buzzfeed panel were horrified by this, but it really is not a big deal. Most of those little waste baskets are covered, and most are emptied frequently. It is not something that Brazilians -- or frequent visitors to Brazil -- expend much energy thinking about.

7. Ter 30 dias de férias por ano e mais de dez dias de feriados.

Have 30 days of vacation per year and more than ten days of holidays.
Something else that should be common. Can we really not get our work done in 220 days? I think that one reason Brazilians are so productive is that they know how to take a vacation -- or even a coffee break -- in a way that allows them to return to work more focused.

8. Comer abacate como fruta, inclusive com açúcar.

Eat avocado as a fruit, even with sugar.
I actually never noticed this.

9. Marcar o horário de uma festa sabendo que as pessoas só vão chegar duas ou três horas depois.

Mark the time for a party, knowing that people are only going to arrive two or three hours later.
If a party is scheduled for six, people will start getting ready at six -- to go join other friends who are on the way to the party. Around 8:30, people who have been gathering in smaller groups for a couple hours will arrive, and the room will go from empty to electric.

10. Terminar mensagens com “abraços” ou “beijos”, mesmo com pessoas que você não conhece pessoalmente.

End messages with "hugs" or "kisses," even with people you do not know personally.
There is really no down side to this.

Cultural geography examines the patterns that help to give regions an identity, to distinguish one place from another. It often begins with "big picture" cultural characteristics such as language, religion, food, and music. These are certainly important, but the finer points of ordinary life -- the mores of a culture -- can be even more instructive.

See my Musica page for more thoughts on the relationship between visible features of a culture and its deeper components.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Venice on the Charles ...

... and Other Encouraging Stories
I teach about geographic problems -- political, economic, and especially environmental -- because I think the problems are important. And I teach the complexities of the problems because I think we are far beyond simple solutions and wishful thinking. I know, however, that the insights of a geographer can begin to sound like a dismal refrain after a while. As we used to paraphrase my undergraduate advisor, "We're going to hell in a handbasket."

But I keep teaching because I know that we have somehow managed to persist for three decades past those doom-and-gloom classes of my undergraduate days, and I imagine my students (and with luck myself) will be here three decades from now. And we might as well make the best of it. The very best we can.

So with today's post I share a single link to a handful of very encouraging stories about urban environments in the face of climate change. Yes, I used "encouraging," "urban," and "climate change" in the same sentence. This episode of Living On Earth is full of valuable lessons.

I was, ironically, on a long drive when I heard this program. I missed the first segment or two, but each of the rest was both intriguing and encouraging -- uplifting, even. (I'll get the bad news out of the way now. Going back to the online version, I learned that the first segment mentioned Miami, an extremely vulnerable city that is set to be the victim of both climate change and climate denial. But enough of that.)

I enjoyed learning about the work on information technologies that promise to give Helsinkians (Helsinkers?) more choices in transportation for individual journeys while greatly reducing both traffic and parking overall. Then I learned about the thorough integration of green roofs in Copenhagen, where great attention to detail provides benefits for individual buildings and for the city as a whole. Green roofs are very important for ameliorating the urban heat-island effect, which adds several degrees of heating to regionally prevalent temperatures. Then I learned that the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil has put together a compendium of suggestions for improving urban environments. His interview alone is a rich education. Rather than writing a manual about recreating the improvements in his city -- often called the best-planned in the world -- he brings together snippets of innovation from many places. His emphasis is on good ideas that can be implemented quickly. If his ideas can be implemented in Brazilian government (with a reputation for extreme bureaucracy) there is at least a little hope for those of us working in bureaucratic university environments.

The icing on the proverbial cake, though, was about the Back Bay of Boston, where I was walking with a Brazilian colleague just a couple of days ago. About 1/3 of Beantown (also known as the Hub of the Universe) was marsh or open water two centuries ago. It is among the world cities most vulnerable to rising seas, because so much of it was in the sea so recently. Some cities are erecting hard barriers, and some -- like New York City -- are working on soft barriers. The answer for Boston might be something else entirely: bringing the ocean in. Listen to the final segment to learn about a vision for tidal canals inside the city of Boston!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ordering Progress ... and a Side of Fries

For some in Brazil, the national motto "Order and Progress" could be
 "Order some Fries...That's Progress!" 
In an era of increasingly rapid global connections, the diffusion of innovations can be both more rapid and more thorough than in the past. I was reminded of this by the recent story of the cyber-shaming of Bela Gil.

First of all, cyber-shaming itself is an export of which my country should not be proud. The incredible power of computing and communicating is too often employed to give thousands of people the opportunity to behave as sand-lot bullies, picking on people over minor flaws, real or imagined.
Second, the particular reason that the Brazilian food writer Bela Gil is being harassed is that many of her fellow Brazilians have mistaken processed food for economic progress. Gil's flaw? Packing a healthy lunch for her daughter. Really.

Friday, July 31, 2015

… and Northern Ireland, Sir!

The title of this post is a phrase that comes to mind every time I consider the question of what exactly is meant by the terms England, Great Britain, and the UK. That shortest of monikers is an abbreviation, of course, for United Kingdom. But that in turn is shorthand for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But if you took geography with Norman (Stormin’ Norman) Little at North Kansas City High School in the 1970s, the word “Sir!” was added, as it was to all place names during recitations.
Yes, we had recitations as the main form of learning geography – in a room full of maps, half standard and half without any labels – we spent almost every class session in oral-quiz mode. If we failed to answer correctly – or if we failed to end with “Sir!” – the response would be “Young man (or lady) … that will be five points off your next examination!”
This approach to teaching geography had two results, one surprising and one to be expected. The surprise is that most students were fond of Mr. Little. They had actually painted “Stormin’ Norman” to give him an unofficial reserved parking space for his beloved Ford Pinto. He was “old school” with an official one-room schoolhouse on his resume, so I think we all just thought of him as quaint in a way that younger teachers could not have been.
The unsurprising result is that I finished high school with a geography course under my belt, and no idea that it was an actual academic discipline. We spent less than a day on any real geographic questions, so I never even looked at geography as an option when I started college.
But I digress. The real point here is to learn a bit more about the country, nation, state, and island we sometimes just call “the Brits.” Fortunately, we have the help of CGP Grey, who provides a lovely romp through this thicket of nomenclature.

And we don’t have to call him “Sir.”

NOTE: This is actually the third time I've mentioned this video. For some different contexts, see Queen Lisa? (2012) and Borderlines (2013).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dependent Development

When  we lived in Arizona (1990 to 1994), I was aware of deep fissures in the political philosophies prevalent in the desert Southwest, particularly with respect to land and water. This was the home, after all, of Barry Goldwater and of an abiding and even growing form of libertarian thinking. I was there to study political ecology and to prepare for my work in one of the world's very wet places -- Rondonia -- but I also thought quite a lot about what it meant to live in this very dry place.

I quickly realized that even the most fiercely independent westerners are highly dependent -- like it or not -- on the federal government. I became familiar with the contradictions of "welfare ranchers" such as the petulant Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who famously refuses to pay his rent. His tantrum has now inspired legislators in several western states to attempt land grabs that would amount to acre-by-acre secessions from the United States.
I also knew that our own ability to live, work and study depended upon highly subsidized water, but a recent Living on Earth story helped me to understand that dependence much more fully. It explains connections among politics, water, electricity, agriculture, and climate change, all focused on the infamous Navajo Generating Station. I use the word "infamous" because I have long known it as a major source of air pollution that often creates an ugly haze over the Grand Canyon. I did not realize, though, that its main purpose is pumping water against gravity to supply the cities and farms of Arizona, Nevada, and southern California. Nor did I realize that it is the third-most important source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Steve Curwood explains who benefits from this arrangement, and why change is so unlikely.