Friday, April 21, 2017

Climate Rejoinders

It was rain forests that originally drew me into geography; I had been focused on linguistics until a friend convinced me to take a course about the disappearing Amazon. Eventually, I found myself there, particularly in the very dynamic corner of the forest known as Rondônia in 1996, 2000, and 2003. The Amazon remains vast -- that "corner" is the size of Arizona -- and large swaths of continue to be vulnerable to poorly-conceived  schemes of all kinds. I was interested in the underlying processes that led to deforestation -- focusing not on the saws and fires but on the political economy that drove resource use and migration to forest regions.

The Rainforest Alliance was also focused on such questions at the time, and still is. Even if climate change were somehow "solved" tomorrow, we would still have significant environmental problems. But now we recognize that climate change is creating a milieu in which those problems are compounded. Of particular interest to me are high-elevation cloud forests, a subtype of rain forest that is even more vulnerable, and whose protection is the focus of many coffee farmers, including my friends at Selva Negra, which has RA certification. This work is essential, as both the forests and high-grown coffee itself are under threat.

Compounding the problem of climate change, of course, is that many decision-makers (from individuals to heads of state) either do not believe it is happening or pretend not to for short-term gain (as with many fossil-fuel lobbyists and their Congress Critters).

Seeing their work thwarted by poorly-informed arguments and junk science has frustrated the folks at Rainforest Alliance, and led them to create a handy list of responses to five common errors related to climate change. Their town is a bit snarky, but otherwise I find these useful.

I provide more detailed explanations for skeptics in several articles of my own elsewhere on this blog. In each case, I try to focus on the evidence and the physical principles, and to avoid simple references to authorities, which are generally not persuasive to opponents of anything. My favorite piece is Frosty Denial, which lays out the physics at a basic level. I recently added Early Warning to refute the common myth that climate scientists keep changing their minds about what is going on.

In between I did post one article that addresses the question of authority. In Not Just Nye, I include John Oliver's stunt that shows just how rare climate denial is among people who have studied the physics.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Early Warning

Although I was not paying attention at the time, the very first paper on climate change appeared in 1981, the year I graduated from high school. In those days, I was focused on linguistics and thought of my one geography class as an extended trivia quiz. Little did I know that learning and teaching about earth systems would soon become my life's work.

That first article appeared in the August 28 issue of Science, under the title Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, by NASA scientist James Hansen and six other atmospheric physicists used the term "global warming" six times. The bulk of the article is difficult to read, as it details the evidence for warming trends in the language of, well, science.

Data from the first publication on climate change.
No responsible scientist could ignore these trends.
The last couple of pages, however, are relatively easy to understand, and they describe the range of possible implications of this warming. If these pages were to be characterized by one word, it would be variability. That is, these scientists understood from the very beginning that because the planet and its climates are not uniform, the warming of the planet would have effects that would vary across space and over time.

I mention this because people who have not been reading the literature carefully sometimes assert that scientists introduced the term climate change once contradictory "evidence" began to appear. In fact, the words variability and variation appear a combined 35 times in this short article. More importantly, the phrase climate change appears 9 times in the ten pages of the very first scientific paper on the topic.

For more on Hansen's decisions to speak publicly on this topic, I recommend What Makes a Scientist Take a Stand? on the most recent installment of the TED Radio Hour.


At the end of last year, I finally worked up the courage to watch Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary about the denial of the science. I wrote about it in a post of the same name -- Before the Flood.

Several years before that, I wrote Frosty Denial, which outlines the physics in simpler terms and asks why those who deny the physics have not offered an alternative explanation. Not only is climate change evident, in retrospect it was inevitable. How could we not have a different climate, after shifting so much carbon to the atmosphere in such a short period of time?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Brutal Honesty

These are challenging times for reporters. As front-line defenders of democracy, they face unprecedented resistance from novice government workers who neither understand nor appreciate the purpose of their work. I was struck by this when I heard the frustrated response of the White House director to reporters concerned about the human cost of expected cuts in humanitarian aid.
I encourage readers to listen to the entire three-minute report, but this is the part that I found chilling.

Excerpt at 1:52:
MCDONOUGH: People will die. If the world does not do more, people will die.
PERALTA: In a press briefing last month, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney shrugged off the crises.(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) MICK MULVANEY: The president said specifically, hundreds of times - you covered him - I'm going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home.
Mick Mulvaney's tone is that of a bully who is exasperated by the question. I can agree with him on one thing: he is honest when he says that we should have expected this. We knew this was coming. I cannot agree with the implication, however, that brutal consequences are made somehow more acceptable by the fact that they were announced ahead of time.

The less honest part of his response, of course, is the claim that more money is being spent on "people back home." No such policies have been forthcoming. Just before this exchange, Peralta mentions a kind of aid that I used to help provide (in my very small way) when I worked for a U.S. Defense contractor. We made the Humanitarian Daily Rations that are being air-dropped in South Sudan.

Such life-savers are likely to become more scarce over time. Even the coldest-hearted and self-serving among us should be concerned about the ill will that such meanness will generate.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Donde Voy

If I am on my computer and in need of beautiful music, I often turn to Tish. Nothing is more relaxing than her voice, flowing back and forth between English and Spanish until I cannot remember which language the last phrase was in.

But gradually, I realize that her music is always at several levels -- the beauty of the words, the beauty of the images she portrays, and eventually some wisdom and some justice. Certainly this is the case with Donde Voy (Where I Go).

Image: PRX
She sings it in Spanish -- consult the line-by-line translation if needed. I will be using this to introduce several lessons about the geography of immigration during a teach-in this week.

Tish has been part of our family listening for 20 years, and frequently part of my teaching since 2010, when we saw her in person for the first (and so far only) time in Boston of all places. My post University of Tish, Passim Campus explains why her work is so important to us as a Latin Americanists. I also mention specific songs in my posts La Llorona and Semana de los Muertos.

Finally, in searching for a nice still photo (of which there are many), I found this image of Tish with a guitar on what turned out to be a nice introduction produced for the PRX series This Week in Texas Music History. Texas music scholar Gary Hartman describes the arc of a career that has taken Tish Hinojosa from Texas to Nashville to Taos and back again.

She is worldwide now, of course, running Mundo Tish from her home in Switzerland!


I wrote "finally" above, but I want to leave this very important song in a place where it might get noticed. With the political ascendency of those who think we have too much environmental regulation, it is important to consider how many chemicals are not regulated enough. A half century after Rachel Carson explained this to us in Silent Spring, we still need this reminder from Tish. No translation is needed -- this is one of the best examples of her ability to weave a story with two languages.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thimmamma Marrimanu

James Smithson never visited the United States, but he left our country an incredible gift: 100,000 coins that were to be used to fund an institution for learning and exploration. Thus was created the Smithsonian Institution in my home town. It would become not only the world's largest museum complex, but also a global leader in research. The intellectual breadth and depth of the organization enables it to publish an equally robust magazine -- every month Smithsonian draws on the global reach of the Smithsonian organization to bring a trove of geographic lessons to my mailbox.
It is from the most recent issue that I learned of Thimmamma Marrimanu in Andhra Pradesh, India. What appears to be a grove of trees in the center of the map image above is in fact a single tree -- a banyan tree with its own name and a history extending more than half a millennium.

Journalist Ben Crair and photojournalist Chiara Goia tell the tree's story in words and images. It is a great geographic story, in that it weaves together the human and physical dimensions of this giant tree's story.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Who Is Danish?

This Danish video has been seen well over 1.5 million times -- and more than 160,000 times in this subtitled version -- since it was posted last month.

 It is difficult to watch -- the man who produced it has even been accused of abusing these children -- by filming them as they hear words that fill the air in all too many places in these xenophobic times.

To learn about the context and consequences of this video, I recommend listening to the PRI broadcast from which I learned about it. The player below includes today's entire installment of The World (which I recommend); cue it to 15:42 to hear the segment in which Rupa Shenoy discusses this video in the context of current Danish politics and of her own experiences with identity in the United States.

I am encouraged that both Shenoy and the video's producer suggest that what I describe above as "these xenophobic times" are actually something a bit different. Xenophobia is in the air, certainly, in the United States and in many corners of Europe. But today's regressive politics can be viewed as nothing more than a backlash against the very real progress toward inclusion that all of these societies have been making.

The latter -- the progress, that is -- is exemplified by another Danish video that has been seen by many more millions. "All That We Share" reminds us -- with disarming and gentle humor -- that whatever divides us, far more unites us.

Some of our most rewarding days with Project EarthView happen we visit schools in which many -- sometimes even most -- of the children are first- or second-generation Americans. Connecting with such kids -- who are BOTH Americans and Guatemalans, Colombians, Egyptians, Sri Lankans, and so on -- reminds us of a fundamental truth: we are humans before we are any of these things.

AAW 2017 Events

I am not directly involved in Africa Awareness Week at BSU this year, though I will be attending some of the events and encouraging my students to do so. I'm posting all of the events here so that there is an additional way to find them online.

All locations are on the campus of Bridgewater State University

2017 AAW program

 Monday, March 27
Distinguished Lecture: West Africa’s Women of God: Alinesitoue and the Diola Prophetic Tradition, by Robert Baum, Dartmouth College, 2-3:15 pm, Dunn A

 Tuesday, March 28
Distinguished Lecture: Art & Agency in East Africa, by Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal, Founder, and director of the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC), Imbaseni, Tanzania, 11 am –12 pm & 12:30-1:30 pm, LIB 207  

Distinguished Lecture: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panthers, by Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal, Founder and director of the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC), Imbaseni, Tanzania2-3 pm, LIB 207

Distinguished Lecture: Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen, by Linda Heywood, Boston University2-3:15 pm, Dunn A

Performing African Awareness5:30-9 pm, Dunn A
       Guests:       Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal
                          Jazzmyn Red

Wednesday, March 29
Film Series, 10:10-11 am, Dunn A 
               African Christianity Rising

Thursday, March 30
African dance workshop with live djembe drumming, Issa Coulibaly, Crocodile River Music, 9:30- 10:45 am, Burnell 132 A

Distinguished Lecture: Africa and the Global Politics of Chocolate, by Carla Martin, Fine Cacao, and Chocolate Institute, Harvard University, 11 am-12; 15 pm, Dunn A

Friday, March 31
Curriculum Workshop “Incorporating Africa-related Curriculum Content in the Classroom”, by Barbara Brown and Breeanna Elliott, Outreach Program, BU African Studies Center, 12-2 pm, Burnell 108

Studying Abroad in Africa What to expect?  Meet with former students.
11 am-1 pm, Dunn A

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Bilingual Street

Since our university's One Book One Community program began in 2010, it has brought many excellent books to the attention of our university, local schools, and our town at large -- often bringing the author of the book to our campus for a public lecture. Whenever I can manage to align it with my own curriculum -- and I usually can -- I assign the book to one or more of my classes.

One such selection -- The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan -- was so valuable to my students that I have continued to assign it every semester in my online survey course, Geography of the Developing World. The in-depth narrative by this journalist about one very important part of the world is the perfect complement to the systematic coverage in the course's main text by the late, great geographer Dr. Harm de Blij.

NPR journailst Joanna Kakissis tells a contemporary tale that echoes Tolan's earlier work. She visits Asael Street, in the Abu Tor neighborhood of East Jerusalem. This very street had once been the de facto border between Israel and Jordan, before Jordan was pushed back a half-century ago. Since then, people have coexisted across lines of ethnicity, religion, and language -- corresponding generally to the literal line of the street itself. Her reporting focuses on those who are consciously -- if slowly -- building a community, beginning with learning each others' languages.

During an age of increasing fragmentation and fear, these three minutes of audio remind us that people can make choices about whether and how to form relationships, and how they are going to define the spaces in which they live.
Photo: Yaacov Lozowick
At the very beginning of the story, Kakissis mentions "the street of the book." I did a little bit of digging, because I thought that perhaps there was a library connection to be found. In fact, it seems, she was referring to the 2015 book A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God. A 2011 blog post by Yaacov Lozowick argues for keeping the street united. His photographs help him to make the case for unity and allow readers to develop a richer sense of the place.

Google Maps shows the proximity -- indeed the alignment -- of Asael Street with the 1949 Armistice Line, and a maze of crisscrossing streets and relict borders.

I write this as my own university south of Boston debates its core curriculum, from which the foreign-language requirement was recklessly removed about a decade ago. None of the current proposals include returning it, but many faculty members are pushing the matter. Firstly, many of us are astounded that we even have to debate this, since high schools in our area actually have a stronger standard that the university. Secondly, we see rising xenophobia as giving global education even more urgency. During the earlier debate, I outlined reasons to support language education in a modest page entitled Small World. These are ideas that the residents of Asael Street have taken to heart.

Tour de Bridgewater Ouest

When leaving Bridgewater for points north, we nearly always drive through an intersection in the center of West Bridgewater (more on the historical geography of that statement in our Bridgewaters Project blog). 

Traffic had become problematic as a growing number of vehicles tried to navigate the narrow, complicated intersection with inadequate turn lanes. We were therefore relieved when this became one of those "shovel-ready" projects funded by federal stimulus money.

I was in disbelief when I first saw the estimate of the time that would be required for construction, and was fascinated as we watched the entire area dug, redug, filled, and realigned over long months. One building was removed entirely so that trucks could turn safely around the northwest corner of the intersection.

The final result is a bit bewildering, and beyond the driving skills of many Bay Staters (who are not strictly interested in lane markings). It could have been made much simpler with the elimination of a few rarely-used options around the circle in the southwest quadrant. But on the whole cars and trucks can move a bit more safely and a lot more quickly through the crossing of Routes 106 and 28.

Which brings us to one geographic oddity: the bike lanes. In each direction, the engineers included an 86-foot-long bicycle lane. They are parallel to each other, between travel lanes and turning lanes. We understand that inclusion of such lanes must have been specified in the guidance documents for this new construction. But we cannot imagine how a bike could enter and then leave these lanes, unless it is magic (think Harry Potter's Platform 9-3/4) or a very special race, perhaps the Tour de Bridgewater Ouest. (Thanks to my favorite librarian for coining that.)

Here is the entire intersection in context -- perhaps brave cyclists will see a way through it that I cannot. For now, I'm sticking to boats for my muscle-powered locomotion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Coffee Origins and Terroir

Writing for Slate, Stephen Kearse asks "What Defines a Coffee's Terroir?" and provides some preliminary answers, beginning with the subtitle: "Country of origin is just the beginning." His story begins with his realization that the fact that his enjoyment of one Ethiopian coffee did not translate to a similar experience with all the coffees he encountered from that country, which as he points out is the birthplace of coffee -- the only place that Arabica grows wild. 

Geographic differences at a finer scale can influence the flavor of coffee -- from elevation, aspect, and slope to meso- or microclimatic variations to very important differences in soil composition. The human geography of variation in cultivation and processing are also important. Incidentally, Kearse focuses on two of these factors -- topography and climate. He erroneously uses the word "geography" for topography; "geography and climate" is like "vegetables and carrots" or "colors and red."  
MattiaATH/iStock via Slate
Learn more about Ethiopian coffees from George Howell, the roaster from
Acton, Massachusetts who introduced the terroir concept to coffee.
The second line of the article provides a hint about the author's age, which is to say he is at least a few years younger than I am. He became accustomed to scorched, flavored coffees in graduate school. While my wife and I were in graduate school -- after I had become a coffee drinker but long before I became a coffee maven -- we were part of the experiment by Folgers that paved the way for the broad marketing of flavored coffees. If he were much younger than I, though, he would have more likely been accustomed to the Keurig, which provides stale, weak, overpriced coffee, but not scorched coffee.

Kearse is correct, of course, that national borders do not fully define coffee terroir, though they do often provide hints to broad categories of flavor characteristics. He is also correct that annual variations in temperature and in the timing and amount of precipitation mean that specific locations will produce flavors that vary somewhat from year to year. I do not think those variations are commonly as dramatic as he suggests, nor do I think that micro-terroir at the scale of 1 hectare (2.47 acres) is commonly discernible. 

I agree with him in the main, however, and also with his suggestion that our impressions of flavor have something to do with our experience of a place, either directly or by association. He mentions the Ethiopian restaurants of Washington, DC; my strongest associations of course are with Nicaragua. Knowing that independent experts have judged some of my friends' coffees there the very best in the world only reinforces my natural tendency to favor coffees from anywhere in the country. The suggestibility of tasting results -- even among professional tasters -- has been documented for wine and I will admit there is a strong dose of it in coffee as well.


Like Stephen Kearse, I have spent some time exploring the trendy restaurants of my home town, and the Adams-Morgan neighborhood is especially rich in its offerings from Ethiopian and indeed the entire world. I particularly remember an Ethiopian restaurant so authentic that it did not have plates or utensils -- serving all food on large breads in the traditional manner. It even had Ethiopian beer. So when the coffee menu was brought out -- an entire little book -- I was expecting to see coffees of Oromia, Yirgacheffe, and so on. Rather, it was a collection of mixed drinks -- Irish Coffees and the like. So I asked about the coffee itself. "What kind of coffee is used in these drinks?" I wanted to know. The server was confused by my question, and consulted a manager. "American. Regular American," came the answer.  I tried later to connect this restaurant with an ethical supplier -- Deans Beans -- but the restaurant would not even acknowledge the samples of fair-trade, organic Ethiopian coffee that company sent. Like most restaurants, even this most authentic Ethiopian place relied on a regional coffee service whose main selling points are price and maintenance of the brewing equipment.

To learn more about the people behind Ethiopian coffee and the trading systems that disadvantage them, I recommend Black Gold.