Sunday, September 16, 2018

Rachel Carson's Third Wave

Rachel Carson (1907 to 1964) birdwatching at Woods Hole, Massachusetts,
where she began her work as a biologist.
Image: Rachel Carson Council by way of The Wildlife Society.
SPOILER ALERT: I learned something so surprising from the radio segment below that I recommend listening to it (about 18 minutes) before reading my comment. It's OK. I'll wait.
OK. Welcome back.

Did you find Rachel Carson Dreams of the Sea as interesting as I did? I hope so. As is so often the case, I heard part of this New Yorker Radio Hour piece while I was doing some errands. The timing was perfect, because I am re-reading Silent Spring with my students, with whom I recently watched the American Experience documentary about the writing and publication of that book. It is a wonderful hour-long biographical treatment that I think compliments the book perfectly, putting it in context and making clear its historic significance.

I was drawn into this piece by its description of the first wave of Rachel Carson's work, which was her writing about the marine environment. I knew that her fame arose from her writings about the life of the oceans, but I never understood what had made her work so distinctive. She spent a great deal of time paying very close attention to the life around her through careful observation. As with Henry David Thoreau a century before, it was patient, repeated observation over time that allowed her to draw inferences that others might have missed.  What seems to have made the first wave of her work particularly effective, however, was her attention to the relationships among all of the lifeforms she studied. She was in this sense a pioneering ecologist, something a bit more expansive than a naturalist.

The second wave of Rachel Carson's work, of course, was Silent Spring, in which she made the science of biochemistry accessible to the general public while being the first effective critic of what had become a completely unbridled approach to the development and application of pesticides.

The third wave of her work -- the "spoiler" I mention above -- would have been the research she was beginning to do on global climate change. She died from breast cancer on April 18, 1964, just as she was beginning to understand a pattern of warming in her own observations of various coastal waters. She was born on May 27, 1907 (sharing a birthday with my favorite librarian), which means that had she not succumbed to cancer, she could have been part of James Hansen's team when it published the first paper on climate change in 1981. More likely, in fact, that work of atmospheric scientists would have been read by a public already familiar with the problem from her biologist's point of view. As historian Jill Lepore observes in the radio piece, it is actually sad to realize how much Rachel Carson understood about climate change, because we know she might very well have been able to do something about it.

Lagniappe: Today's Context

I chose to begin my class on environmental regulations with the study of Rachel Carson because I am offering the course during a political season in which both the President and the Congress of the United States have set about destroying environmental protections that previous occupants of their offices enacted, in large part as a result of her work.

While writing this very post, for example, I learned that the government is reducing oversight of its own nuclear-weapons production facilities. As I explained in my posts Calice and Secretary NIMBY, the reckless approach to nuclear weapons is part of a much broader assault on environmental protections of all kinds. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently posted a must-watch video about the dangers of an even broader pattern of deregulation that is reversing progress in every segment of our society.

When the U.S. is ready to repair the damage currently being done, my students will be in a position to help. Meanwhile they can join with others who are working to protect the environment through state, local, private, and international efforts.

Please see my previous posts related to Rachel Carson, mostly the "second wave" of her legacy:
Rachel Carson Experience (2012)
Ruby Exposed, about the need for ongoing vigilance regarding pesticides (2014)
A Good Read on a Vital Topic, about the work of Carl Safina, the closest thing we have to a living Rachel Carson (2015)
Monarch Highway, about one of Rachel Carson's favorite insects (2015)
Donde Voy, which is about my other hero, Tish Hinojosa (2017)
Beatriz at Dinner, featuring yet another hero, Salma Hayek (2017)
Cancer and the Environment, with a link to the organization working on Cape Cod in Rachel Carson's name (2010)

Sunday, September 02, 2018


I started my Sunday with this discussion between journalist Guy Raz and volcanologist Andrés Ruzo, whose childhood conversations at home led him to an amazing discovery in the Amazon Basin of Peru. (Because it contains have of the basin, Brazil is the best-known of the Amazon countries, but several upstream neighbors also have vast tracts of the basin and its forests.)

I recommend listening to the audio and then watching Dr. Ruzo's full TED Talk, given in 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. His story begins with curiosity, legend, and history. It provides insight into indigenous knowledge, geothermal science, ecology, and the concept of ecotourism.

It even touches on coffee! And from the TED Radio summary, I learn of Dr. Ruzo's coffee connection. In addition to growing up in Peru, part of his childhood was near volcanoes in Nicaragua, which means he is not far removed from coffeelands.
Andrés Ruzo has written his story in The Boiling River

Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Post

In the United States, we do not elect kings. The Framers of the Constitution had been living in a monarchy, and they crafted the balance of powers among three branches of government to preclude its return. They did not foresee the advent of Sen. Mitch McConnell -- who does not share their vision -- but they did seem to understand that an additional protection was needed. Thus, in order to check the excesses of the three branches, they included protection of the Fourth Estate -- the press -- in the very First Amendment to their carefully written work. It is the only profession mentioned in the document.

The patriotism of those who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or stylus to smartphone) is at least as important to the protection of the republic as are that of those who put on any of the uniforms of the armed services. This is true of local journalists such as those assassinated in Annapolis this summer and those threatened by a terrorist in Boston more recently. Neither man was motivated solely by the current president, but both cited his constant anti-journalist rhetoric. They cited his incitement, as it were. The second perpetrator was released on very low bail, providing some insight into the sincerity of our nation's "war on terror" rhetoric.

All of which makes this a timely time to watch The Post, which celebrates the publication of the Pentagon Papers -- eventually as a book but initially as a blizzard of articles in dozens of newspapers.

The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg with a night patrol in Vietnam. As I watched the inevitable ambush, I said, "Why did anybody think this would work?" Which of course was the entire point of the story. Secretary McNamara knew that the war could not be won, and he was determined to keep this a secret, as was the monarchical Nixon.

Without the courage of the men and women of the Post, the war might still be going on, and Nixon might still be president. (That last bit is hyperbole, especially since he is dead. But he was very crafty.)

The words of three men stood out as I watched the film, though it was the personal and professional courage of publisher Kay Graham (played masterfully by Meryl Streep) that was most pivotal.

When told that the Post might be shut down for publishing the papers, Executive Editor Ben Bradley (as played by Tom Hanks) replied, "If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist."

Writing for the 6-3 majority that ruled in favor of the Post, Associate Justice Hugo Black declared:
"The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

Following his defeat, the imperious Nixon  (as played by Curzon Dobell) is heard to say -- just as his operatives are perpetrating a burglary a mile to the west -- "No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again." Clearly he had not taken the words of Justice Black to heart: the press does not serve at his pleasure.

Burying the Survivors

Photo: Geoffrey Scott Baker, resident of nearby Oella who calls Ellicott City his muse
I remember this riddle from middle school days -- "If a plane crashes on the U.S.-Canada border, where would they bury the survivors?" The punchline, of course, is that you don't bury survivors.

I was reminded of this when reading Ambitious Ellicott City flood prevention plan would tear down 19 buildings in historic downtown, by Baltimore Sun journalists Sarah Meehan and Jess Nocera. The headline is an accurate summary of what Howard County officials have proposed in response to the devastating floods of July 2016 (see my Flood Flash and and Flood Peak articles) and May 2018 (Flooding: It's Not in the Cards).

The headline hints at some of the problems with the response of county officials. The plan is indeed ambitious, in the way that Al Capone was ambitious at banks: it contemplates obliterating the victims. The financial cost to be paid by the county would be high, but the businesses that have rebuilt in the "flood zone" would not survive in new locations. They thrive because of the "sense of place" to which they have contributed for years or decades.

The plan announcement seeks to downplay the impact of the demolition by pointing out that 5 percent of the historic district would be affected, and this map with much less than 1 percent in red reinforces (and exaggerates) that message. Everyone who cares about the place, however, knows that this is the most important road segment on the map, or indeed in the entire county.

Moreover, the removal of buildings in the path of the flood waters will not "prevent" flooding. As detailed in the Preservation Maryland Statement on Ellicott City Demolition Proposal, the county's plan merely moves victims out of the way but does not even include study of the radically altered upstream hydrology that has driven the floods.
Main Street Ellicott City -- A walkable downtown with arts, history, architecture, cuisine, and coffee
The story is a reminder that climate change is leaving less room for error in many of our decisions about the environment. In this case, decisions about land use that would normally have made flooding quantitatively worse are now making it qualitatively worse -- a threshold has been crossed into an entirely new type of flood risk.


I have to admit that -- like many people from this part of Maryland -- I take the woes of Ellicott City personally. I have been a customer in most of the buildings slated for demolition, and my favorite librarian and I bought wedding gifts for each other in Discoveries.
Discoveries, around the anniversary of the 2016 flood. We tried to go again in May 2018, but downtown was thriving and we could not find a parking space. We were actually glad to see that. The next day, it was destroyed by a disaster resulting from climate change and poor land-use planning upstream.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Environmental Letters

I found this image while browsing for something to represent the idea of environmental regulations from the point of view of what the regs are meant to protect. It is from a short video in which the Canadian NGO West Coast Environmental Law makes a strong case for citizen participation in the details of environmental protection. 
Environmental Planning
Tom Daniels
Since I was hired to teach environmental geography in 1997, I have taught Environmental Regulations about once every alternate year. It had an even wonkier title when I first arrived, but the simple title to which I changed it reflects the applied (as opposed to theoretical) approach I take in the course.

More than anything else I teach, this course provides students with skills and knowledge that have direct workforce application. It is the course that draws most directly on my non-academic work in geography -- a single year between graduate programs in which I worked for what was then the world's largest civil and environmental engineering firm: Dames & Moore.

Combined with environmental courses in geography and other disciplines, this course helps all students who take it better understand how humans interact with the environment through the nitty-gritty of policy implementation. Some find related employment -- perhaps after some graduate study -- in government agencies or consulting firms. Incidentally, I would love to have more students from our business school take this course, since many firms now integrate environmental compliance into mission-centered positions such as inventory control.

One of those alumni helped me to find a new text for the course, as the one I had been using was becoming both dated and quite expensive (out-of-date textbooks gain value in warehouses faster than most financial instruments). The massive volume by Tom Daniels includes some land-management concepts that I cover in a different course, but most of it is relevant to the scope of this course, which has been the regulations that flow from major federal environmental-protection laws regarding hazardous waste and pollution.

At the beginning of the book is a lengthy -- but by no means exhaustive -- list of acronyms related to environmental planning and protection. These include such favorites as CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act -- better known as Superfund. I sometimes spell it $uperfund, because the mistakes of the past are VERY costly.

The acronyms are many because both the science and the legalities are complicated. This is not because bureaucrats enjoy complexity, but rather because every simple law to curtail pollution will be met with resistance that requires increasingly sophisticated methods to close potential loopholes. The so-called free market and common decency are not enough to make or keep the environment clean.

Enter JetPunk, a great example of how the business of naming companies has changed since the days of brick-and-mortar businesses. Company names related to those of the company's founding owners, its geographic location, or -- heaven forfend -- its actual product or service. Rather, it is trendy -- and a cheap way to signal one's trendiness -- to name a company by mashing together two unrelated words, such as "punk" and "jet."

I first became aware of JetPunk close to a decade ago, when a friend asked me to recommend online geography games for his kids. I enjoy the JetPunk map quizzes and use them with my own students. In fact, they figure prominently in the syllabus of the Advanced Global Thinking course I will begin offering next year. It seemed the perfect vehicle to help my enviro-regs students begin to learn some important acronyms, so I set about making a quiz for that purpose. I soon realized that there are A LOT of acronyms to learn, so I divided them thematically into three quizzes:

These overlap a bit, but serve to give my students -- and other interested learners -- manageable learning objects.

Lagniappe: The Context

This is the first time I have taught the course since the 2016 election, which has led to systematic efforts to dismantle environmental protections of all kinds at the Federal level. For this reason, I am grateful that the Daniels text is organized in a way that includes Federal programs but also details the work of state and local government as well as citizen-led organizations. All were important before, as the Federal programs have been far from perfectly effective, but are even more so in the coming months and years.

Even as I prepared these quizzes, several important reminders were making headlines. These relate to failures to protect the environment and public health even before 2016. In Michigan, a health official faces jail time over the failure to provide for clean water in Flint -- even as thousands of residents remain at risk. In Florida, failure to control nonpoint source pollutants has caused or enhanced dangerous blooms of both red tide and blue-green algae.

Looking at the environment more broadly, a recent report reminds us that in many parts of the world, environmental activism can be fatal. More optimistically, though, journalist Timothy Egan argues that broad attacks on longstanding environmental protections are likely to lead to a "Green Wave" in the November 2018 election. If so, my students will be well-positioned to help rebuild a fractured environmental infrastructure.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Nicaragua Update and Parallels

Journalist Carrie Kahn reports on legal measures that Nicaragua's increasingly authoritarian president has recently implemented to restrict dissent. In the guise of fighting terrorism, new laws appear to make free expression and free assembly even more difficult.

Ortega signals a willingness to continue ignoring human-rights organizations, the international community, the Catholic Church and to embolden a violent minority of Nicaraguans to commit atrocities in support of his regime.

For more details of how such a beautiful country arrived at such a terrible impasse so quickly, please see my #SOSnicaragua (May) and Nicaragua's Kent State (July) posts, as well as journalist Jon Lee Anderson's Fake News article, appearing in the current issue of the New Yorker. He describes Ortega's application of lessons learned from autocrates abroad.


Just as Ortega is intensifying his attacks on dissidence by branding protestors as terrorists, parallel strategies are emerging in the United States. While largely ignoring frequently violent white supremacists and allied fascist organizations, U.S. security forces are labeling their "antifa" opponents as terrorists.

It seems ludicrous to suggest that the United States could fall into a vortex such as the one that has engulfed Nicaragua, but the U.S. government is not currently signaling any contrary intent.

BBC Great Lakes

Just yesterday,  I learned about a special service of the BBC, known as BBC Great Lakes. It was established in 1994 by BBC journalists seeking to help reunite families in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. It continues to broadcast in the Kinyarwanda and Kirundi languages. Its online presence includes the newsy BBC Gahuza page,  as well as social media channels.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was from PRI's The World that I learned about this news service, in a piece entitled Memories of growing up in Bujumbura, in which producer Robert Misigaro reflects on the importance of a youth center in his home city, the capital of Burundi and shares music from that city.


The Great Lakes region of Africa is not merely a BBC construction; the term is sometimes used narrowly to refer to the are bordering Lakes Victoria and Lake Tanganyika.
Map source: ACCORD
More broadly, it refers to the 12 member countries of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, which was established by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, as the international community formally recognized the importance of cooperation on the many cross-border conflicts in this part of Africa. Scholar Patrick Kanyangara examines the background and current dynamics in his 2016 article Conflict in the Great Lakes Region.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Azorean Tea

Tea gardens of Cha Gorreana -- Photo: Kaizr
I teach several courses each year on coffee, but some while ago I offered a one-credit honors colloquium on tea -- more specifically on tea and climate change. I intended to do this just once, but we learned that it was a popular topic, so I have continued to offer it each semester. It has been a great way for me to keep meeting new honors students, whose curiosity and willingness to take intellectual risks is always invigorating.

The Azores are part of
It has also been a way for me to keep learning about tea, which remains a distant third behind coffee and chocolate in terms of my direct experience. Part of that learning came from the honors program itself, whose key staff person was an accomplished tea collector and hobbyist who would visit our class a couple of times each semester. She is still a consummate tea maven, but has recently moved on to another university.

As a sort of parting gift, she shared the article The Tea Capital of Europe Isn’t Where You Think It Is, recently published in the AFAR travel journal. I knew the answer right away because of her classroom visits -- which included first-hand accounts -- and samples -- from her visits to Azorean tea gardens. But from the article, I learned much more about the origins of tea in the archipelago.

The story reminds me of Sri Lanka -- in both cases, islands facing a blight on a major crop turned to tea.

I will eventually visit Chá Gorreana because of one of my hobbies -- rowing and sailing Azorean whaleboats. Maybe that's two hobbies...

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Hothouse Earth

Hearing this interview on my local NPR station today reminded me of The One Who Got Away ... the academic version.

When I was at University of Arizona during the early days of climate-change, Dr. Diana Liverman was a guest speaker a few times. I also met her -- and more importantly her graduate students -- at conferences. I almost transferred to Penn State, where she was on the faculty, even though PhD students do not really do that.

It did not work out, and she ended up coming to Arizona, too late for me to have a decent advisor, though I eventually wiggled my way through.

Hearing her cogent discussion on the radio took me way back, but I have no regrets -- I love what I do now and work with her would have kept me in the R-1 orbit.

Like many geographers, she is deeply worried but not yet resigned -- we could not continue to teach if we did not retain at least some hope. And like many geographers, her work is deeply interdisciplinary. The interview draws on a recent report -- Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene -- that she published with a global team of scientists from many disciplines.
I will be sharing this with many of my students, including those in my Environmental Regulations class this fall. In addition to her insights on the physical science, she mentions something that I will be stressing all semester: the U.S. Federal government is an important environmental actor, but it is not the only one. While it is abdicating its environmental responsibilities, other nations and our own state and local governments -- as well as individuals and private corporations -- must and will fill the void.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Nicaragua: Agualí

Over the weekend, New York Times journalist Kirk Semple and photojournalist Daniele Volpe provide a comprehensive update on the dire condition of Nicaragua. For those of us who love Nicaragua -- meaning anybody who has visited -- the title is heart-breaking, because it summarizes a dire condition that we could not have imagined six months ago: ‘There’s No Law’: Political Crisis Sends Nicaraguans Fleeing. (See my July 27 Nicaragua's Kent State post for a bit more about recent developments.)
Semple details the losses in the tourism industry that have resulted from
the government's lawless response to protests since April.
Photographer Volpe captures one of my very favorite places in this photo --
the usually bustling main square of Granada, now idle.
The NYT article hints at a question I have had since the very beginning. The second political life of the FSLN has relied on a strange combination of revolutionary rhetoric and nostalgia on the one hand (left) and alliance with ruthless economic elites on the other (right). Both are suffering in this crisis; I am especially surprised that the economic elites have not reigned in the president.

What to Do

From the United States, there is little that we can do, other than support international diplomatic efforts and the recent bipartisan Congressional Resolution 981. Given the sordid history of U.S. intervention, it is not productive to go further than this; we must leave it to the people of Nicaragua and diplomats in the region to bring about a political solution.

Meanwhile, we can provide moral support and material aid, which we have begun to do.

As of this writing, we are a few dollars away from wrapping up a fundraiser for emergency relief in several communities in Nicaragua. We -- a team from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia -- raised $1,500 in just over a week, which our close contacts in Matagalpa and Managua will use to provide food and medical supplies. This follows $3,000 raised in previous fundraisers by Bridgewater State alumni.

We are not done, though: we will soon be joining with friends in Nicaragua to launch an even bigger fundraiser, one that will have a longer-term impact. A team from Matagalpa Tours -- which has organized travel for me and more than 100 BSU students and faculty since 2009 -- has proposed an expansion of its non-profit Agualí program.

Details and an opportunity to donate will be added to this post in coming days.

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