Wednesday, May 24, 2017

E Pluribus New Orleans

... indivisible ...
I was in South Carolina the day in 2000 that the confederate flag was removed from the top of its capitol building and placed in a less prominent position at the edge of the grounds. As we drove along I-95, we listened to the announcers on the local public-radio affiliate describe the proceedings in hushed tones resembling the coverage of a state funeral.  Any doubt as to what was really at stake were erased by a fellow motorist in a pickup truck, who sped along with banners flying from two large poles in the bed of the truck -- one of the Confederacy itself and one of the Confederacy's spinoff -- the Ku Klux Klan.

I was reminded of all of this recently, when I learned that the great city of New Orleans was removing four major Confederate monuments from places of prominence. I was not surprised to learn that -- as in South Carolina and elsewhere -- supporters of the 1861 insurgency were on hand to protest. But I was pleased to learn that each removal event went forward without major incident.

From the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's eloquent speech on the significance of removing those icons. The SPLC indicates that the speech is a "defense" of the action, but it goes far beyond that posture. Some did contest the decision, and he had an obligation to justify it. 

He does much more, though, using the occasion to teach both some history, some civics, and some geography. The history lesson echoes the work of James Loewen in Lies Across America, who explains what monuments have to tell us about the past they commemorate, the past in which they were built, and the more recent past in which we find them. He explains that the installation of statues honoring the confederacy were part of a deliberate effort to reject the results of the civil war, and to perpetuate the harsh inequalities that precipitated that conflict -- revisionist histories notwithstanding.

The civics lesson concerns both the founding ideals of the country -- unity, equality, and the inclusion of everyone in the democratic project -- and the process by which his city worked toward realizing those ideals. His speech -- delivered with incredible clarity -- embraces individuals and institutions that were part of that process over the long arc of more than 150 years. For example, he acknowledges members of the Plessy family in the audience and the Ferguson family as participants in the process. I had forgotten most of what little I knew about that case. In reading about the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision today, I was reminded that the deplorable "separate but equal" decision was based in New Orleans. I also learned that Ferguson's error had been justified in part on a much earlier case decided in Massachusetts. Most importantly, though, descendants of both sides were recognized as part of the reconciliation process that led to the removal of the Confederate statues.

The geography lessons begin with a sweeping description of the diversity of the New Orleans community, which has been an essential hub in many civilizations over the past several thousand years -- and he ties all of this to jazz! At a finer scale, he makes clear why removing these symbols of a barbaric past is essential to unity in the present. He explains how the removal of the pernicious statuary is essential to creating a landscape that reflects the greatness and diversity of the New Orleans community.
All of this is very timely for geographers. The 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers will be meeting in New Orleans. My department's EarthView team will be there with our giant globe -- both at the conference itself and (we hope) in at least some nearby schools. I learned of the mayor's speech on the same day that the AAG and other leading geography organizations announced that the them for Geography Awareness Week (November 12-18, 2017) will be civil rights. Landrieu's speech will certainly be part of my teaching that week! 

Monday, May 15, 2017

NOLA: 90W, 30N

"You think of New Orleans, you know, like a place, longitude and latitude on a map on Earth, but in a sense, like New Orleans to me it is an address in the whole of the whole of existence. And if you match up with that address, if you're supposed to be here, then you'll feel it. You'll walk in here and you'll go, 'Whoa!'"
This explanation of New Orleans as a place comes halfway through the 2007 PBS American Experience documentary New Orleans. He captures beautifully the connection people have to this city that both cannot be real and must be real.

This is an hour well spent, stretching from the social and racial inequalities of the 1927 flood through the active segregation of the city mid-century and ending with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Those still-fresh wounds provide an excellent example of New Orleans as a deeply artistic community, as it looks deeply into the first Mardi Gras celebration after the flood.

The film ends (spoiler alert!) with more local insight:

"New Orleans' promise is, we could teach America how to be America. If anybody's listening."

See the PBS New Orleans page for more resources.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Is the red marker on land or in the water?
Image: captured from Google Maps, May 2017
Click to pan, zoom, and compare in future
The short answer is: yes.

This area south of New Orleans is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, and is a stark reminder of the fragility of coastal margins. The marker indicates the community of Terrebonne Bay, which has always been closely associated with the water, but whose very existence is now threatened by it.

In just four minutes, journalist Larry Yeoman paints a compelling word picture of this community, and explains the complex causes of its vulnerability to climate change. Local food production is becoming impossible, and both the diet and the fabric of a local community is being disrupted by forces both local and global.

This is, unfortunately, an example of what Dr. Mary Robinson -- former president of Ireland and now crusader for climate justice and honorary geographer -- describes as the geography of vulnerability.

Lagniappe (a Louisiana tradition that I often honor in this blog)

Terrebonne Bay is south not only of New Orleans (not shown), but also of Thibodaux (tib-uh-DOH), made famous by Hank Williams, The Carpenters, and my own Male Bonding Band in the song Jambalaya.

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