Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fireworks and Climate Change

The geography of climate change is complicated. With the entire state located far from the oceans and thousands of feet above sea-level, Colorado is safe from the rising water that is central to so many discussions of climate change and climate justice.

This does not make Colorado -- or the rest of the western highlands of North America -- safe from climate change. As journalist Grace Hood recently reported on NPR, climate-related increases in fire hazard are causing many communities to make the difficult decision of canceling -- or greatly modifying -- traditional fireworks. In places where a carelessly discarded cigarette can ignite a blaze that burns thousands of square miles, fireworks are being reconsidered.

Note: Grace Hood speaks with an actual geography professor as part of this story! Dr. Balch is an expert in -- among other things -- landscape ecology. Although I have not have the expertise in this area that she does, I was fortunate to take one graduate course in landscape ecology. From that course in the biology department, I first learned of the counterintuitive relationship between our successes in fire suppression (think Smokey the Bear) and the increasing volatility of forest fires and wildfires.

It was only after a half-century or so of success that the danger became clear. In an extensive area that has not burned in 50 or more years, the ordinary patchwork of high- and low-fuel areas is replaced with a uniformly abundant fuel load. This means that forests or srublands that had evolved with small fires every couple decades would now face fires that were rare, but impossible to stop once started. Moreover, the relatively benign ground fires would increasingly be replaced by much hotter canopy fires.

Almost every fire season, I have added a post about the latest evidence of the increasingly complicated and dangerous outcomes of these landscape changes. In my 2015 Frontier on Fire, I discuss some of the basic ideas of fire ecology, in the context of the severe season experienced in Alaska that year. The article includes a link to a thorough exploration by environmental journalist Steve Curwood. In Fires of the Future are Here (2017), I point to a number of other excellent resources on fire ecology and possible management responses.

In Wildfire Anniversary (2010), I write about a very local example of the fire danger resulting directly from successful fire suppression. The 1964 Miles Standish fire was an early example that burned strongly, only 20 miles southeast of our Bridgewater campus. Some modern management practices have been undertaken since then, but it is not yet clear whether that forest (shown above) has the requisite landscape diversity to prevent a similar fire.

In Hot or Not (2012), I addressed the reluctance of political candidates -- regardless of ideology -- to make connections between wild fire can climate change.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Coffee from the Maven to Mandelas

When I was asked to provide coffee for some of the morning class sessions of our university's visiting Mandela Fellows, I decided to provide a different coffee each day. Each coffee gives us a chance to explore something a bit different about the geography of coffee.

Coffee is produced to some extent in almost every home country of this year's
class of Mandela Fellows. Among these, the best known for coffee are Ethiopia
and Uganda. South Africa is a bit of a surprise -- it is outside the Coffee Belt but
produces a small amount of very good coffee.
All of the coffees I am providing are fair-trade, organic coffees from Deans Beans in the town of Orange, Massachusetts -- about 100 miles northwest of our campus. The proprietor is Dean Cycon, a leader in authentic fair trade, and the author of Javatrekker, a book I use in all of the courses I teach about coffee. Every coffee his company sells is grown by cooperatives he has visited personally; most of them are described in his book, and all are described on roastery's web site.

A feature of the web site that reflects the whimsy that Cycon brings to the very serious work of coffee is the ability of customers to create their own blends and packaging. Of the coffees I am preparing for the Mandela Fellows, two are custom labels for this event and the other two are standard offerings. The labels are shown here in the order I will be serving them.

BSU Mandela Fellows 2018

Almost all coffee is from one of types -- the Arabica species or the robusta variety of the canephora species. The majority -- about 70 percent -- is Arabica. It is the more difficult to grow and does not have as much caffeine, but its flavor is generally preferred and its price higher. All of the coffee we will share this week is Arabica, which in a way is misnamed! Coffea arabica should really be called Coffea ethiopica, because it originated in a place that is now part of Ethiopia. Yes: humans and coffee began in the same part of Africa!

It is for this reason that I chose coffee from the Sidamo region of Ethiopia for our welcome. The region is featured in the 2006 film Black Gold, which I show many of my students, and in Javatrekker. The film -- which can be borrowed or viewed online through the BSU Maxwell library -- features Tadesse Meskela,  from whose cooperative Deans Beans purchased this coffee.

Timor Atsabe

My selection of coffees for the week is guided by my desire to share coffees that are geographically diverse and that allow me to focus on different aspects of what makes coffee important. For Tuesday's coffee, I chose Timor Astabe, from one of the world's newest countries: East Timor. Growers in East Timor are the subject of the short coffee documentary One Cup (scratchy versions of which can be viewed at the Internet Archive).

NoCO2 Peru

For Thursday's coffee, I decided to emphasize the relationship between coffee and climate change. Because it is a crop with very specific requirements of rainfall, temperature, and especially the timing of rainfall, climate change is part of the discussion of any coffee. In Peru, coffee farmers have the added concern of dependency on glaciers high above the coffeelands for part of their water supply.

It is for that reason that Deans Beans chose a partner cooperative in Peru for its first carbon-offsee coffee, NoCO2 Peru. This inspired me and my colleague Dr. Rob Hellström to plan Coffee and Climate Change, a course that would involve other Peru cooperatives and periglacial research stations in the Andes. Unfortunately, we have not yet taught the course, but it could happen in our summer 2020 session.

Ben Linder Birthday 2018

Today would be the 59th attainment day of Ben Linder, a civil engineer from the United States who was assassinated during the Contra War in Nicaragua. His birthday would be tomorrow, July 7. Today's coffee is named in his honor, and was harvested in the communities of northern Nicaragua to which he was bringing renewable electric power at the time he was killed.

He has now been deceased for longer than he was physically alive, but his spirit lives on in the work that he did, the work he inspired, and in the gratitude of communities to which he provided light. His story is told in the book The Death of Ben Linder and in the half-hour documentary film American/Sandinista.

More than 100 BSU students have visited the grave where he is buried in honor, and several dozen have visited his hydroelectric projects or the cafés that were established in his name by victims of the war. Our students have been inspired to propose a Ben Linder Café on our campus, and we are still hopeful that it will one day be serving students, staff, and visitors in the atrium DMF Science and Mathematics Center.

What You Can Do

BLC on Facebook
To see more delicious, ethical coffee -- and education about coffee -- at BSU, please like the Ben Linder Café page on Facebook, follow posts there, and invite your friends to do the same. Contact me (  if you would like a café education program for your club or other organization.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Venezuela Fallacy

The once-thriving country of Venezuela has been suffering severe political and economic problems for close to two decades, under the presidencies of Hugo Chaves and Nicolás Madura. The distress is now so severe that at least 2 million Venezuelans are refugees, and many who remain in the country are suffering badly.
President Maduro fails his country
Because both presidents have been socialists, some opponents of socialism apply several logical fallacies to conclude that it proves socialism is disastrous. Writing for Yahoo! Finance, market journalist Dion Rabouin explains why socialism per se is not the cause of Venezuela's woes.

This is especially important to me as I watch a different kind of political and humanitarian disaster unfold in Nicaragua. There the president continues to speak as a leftist while governing from the far right; this has created a dangerous kind of confusion among those few U.S. politicians who are paying attention.


With the recent rise of democratic socialist in U.S. politics -- most notably with the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- the word "socialist" is getting even more attention. It is also being deliberately confused with the national socialism, which of course is abbreviated "Nazi." Thus do people who write more than they read and speak more than they understand spread the idea that Bernie Sanders and Adolph Hitler share a political philosophy.

Querida Tierra de Leyenda

The PRI radio program The World is -- as the name implies -- a font of geographic knowledge. Sometimes I am lucky enough to catch the entire program. Yesterday I heard only a few short bits during the broadcast and the rebroadcast. It turns out that what I heard was the last minute and later the first minute of a two-minute story. Entitled The History of Latin America in One Song. PRI has recently improved the online archive of the show, so that the segment can be found by that title at the end of the list of segments comprising the entire episode.

The story is about Mexican-Canadian musician Boogát's upbeat homage to Latin America.

The song includes a bit of slang and a lot of proper nouns, so people who only somewhat speak Spanish -- like me -- might want to consult the printed lyrics and translation on Musixmatch.

Boogát - Aquí
The song indeed celebrates history and biography, but I notice a lot of geography in these few words. The song might just push aside Santana's Africa Bamba as the selection with which I launch my Latin America geography course next semester!

It will certainly be featured in the course, because it celebrates a lot of the people and places I would be including anyway. Here I am using the lyrics as a way to provide links to some of those people and places. It will take me a while to get them all. Where possible, I will point to links on my own blogs.

Y me gusta así, querida tierra de leyenda
Ahí, todo tiene onda
Y me gusta aquí, América Latina

Frida Kahlo, Diego Maradona
Jodorowski, Liniers, La Mona
Quino, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Pelé, Jorge Luis Borges

Iñarritu, Iguazu
Mercedes Sosa, Copacabana
Chespirito, el Popo
Victor Jara, la Cordillera

Luis Alberto del Paraná, el Paraná
Pancho Villa, el río Amazonas
Allende, el Caribe, Aguanile
Pablo Escobar, Simon Bolivar

Dj Playero, Astor Piazzola
Machu Pichu, el lago Titicaca
El desierto de sal de Atacama
Atahualpa Yupanqui, Ipacaraí

Aquí, todo tiene onda
Y me gusta así, querida tierra de leyenda
Ahí, todo tiene onda
Y me gusta aquí, América Latina

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Coffee Readiness

We not only survived the 2012 Zombie Apocalypse in Livermore Falls; we got the zombies to wash our van. 
GQ is a font of wisdom on all kinds of subjects, so it should not be surprising that writer Cam Wolf has written about a serious matter of disaster preparedness: what about coffee?

He interviews a number of survivalists who make some interesting arguments about the value of coffee in an emergency, not only for its direct benefits in terms of energy and comfort, but also for its potential value as a tradable commodity. As cigarettes are to the prison yard, so coffee would be to extended off-grid survival.

Sudden Coffee cupping lab.
As someone who was marketing combat and humanitarian rations in the period leading up to the Y2K scare, I know that long-term shelf stability is a key to such preparations. Otherwise, "preppers" (as Wolf calls them) would need to replenish their supply kits as often as they go to the grocery store. For this reason, they focus on freeze-dried coffee, though they claim to have found one that is substantially better than -- maybe even better than -- fresh-brewed coffee.

Sudden Coffee is "beloved among coffee snobs," according to Wolf, and employs an actual barista champion, according to the company web site. The involvement of Umeko Motoyoshi in "each step" of the process notwithstanding, I am very skeptical that any amount of care in the brewing process would allow the quality of coffee to remain intact through lyophilization and extended storage. I am also skeptical of coffee companies that claim to be trading directly but that provide no transparency about their sources.

The Sudden Coffee web site claims to offer "free" samples for the cost of shipping, but the online interface turns the sample order into a monthly subscription for that would provide instant coffee at a cost of $3 a cup! Thanks but no thanks. If I were a more cynical Coffee Maven, I might surmise that the entire GC article is simply part of a ruse to drive customers to this overpriced offer.

Wolf bolsters his claim by noting that humans and coffee originated in the same place, disregarding the millions of years it took for one to discover the other. Still, I certainly agree that coffee matters, and suggest a less costly approach for those who wish to hunker down in java readiness.

Once coffee is harvested, milled, and dried, it is generally considered shelf-stable for periods of two years or more.  Coffees with extremely refined flavor notes will lose some of those notes more quickly, but the vast majority of coffees are fine for several years once their internal moisture has gotten to the 11-13 percent range. I buy really good green coffee for the equivalent of 10 to 20 cents per cup, and roast it as I need it. My roasting is not expert, but it is so fresh that the result is still better than any coffee I can buy in my town.

Assuming there is a way to get fire and clean water in the apocalypse -- two rather bold assumptions -- a preparation kit that included a French press, a cast-iron skillet, and 10 to 20 pounds of green coffee could keep a survivor going for months. And for those interested in having something valuable to trade, a couple hundred bucks invested with Deans Beans could be worth thousands in a land overrun by zombies.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Geography, Race, and Colorism

The April 2018 issue of National Geographic focuses on race, and begins with a critical look at the magazine's own sordid history on the topic. As new Editor-in-Chief Sarah Goldberg writes in her introduction, "It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them."
From the NatGeo 2018 caption: Photographer Frank Schreider
 shows men from Timor island his camera in a 1962 issue.
The magazine often ran photos of “uncivilized” native people
seemingly fascinated by “civilized” Westerners’ technology.
Editor Goldberg was also part of a broader discussion about representations of the past in a March 2018 episode of On the Media.
On the same day I first read the National Geographic editorial (I got a bit behind on the magazine), I heard Shades of Privilege, an intriguing and important story about colorism as a particularly insidious form of racism in several national contexts.

Together, I believe these items are good starting points for deeper discussion about the depths of bias. The National Geographic article is particularly important for geographers who are trying to renew interest in geographic education. We already must overcome a stereotype of geographic education as boring; to the extent that the magazine spoke for the discipline, we must also overcome the notion that doing away with geography might have been a progressive choice until the very recent past.

Misplaced Confidence

It is sad -- an inexplicable, really -- that the fisherfolk of Louisiana were counting on the current administration to protect fisheries from the ravages of the petroleum industry. One reason we have Federal environmental laws is that state and local politicians so often pursue a regulatory race to the bottom, and few places have found a lower bottom than Louisiana.
Those who depend on the Atchafalaya for their livelihood also depend upon the
Federal government for protection from polluters.
Image: Photojournalist Vaughn Hillyard, NBC News

That leaves the Federal government -- through its Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, and other branches -- as the best hope for the protection of fisheries against polluters. As I wrote in Eagle and Condor in 2016, politicians of both major parties have been overly friendly to the developers of pipelines. It should come as no surprise that a deeply anti-environment and anti-science administration would offer even less resistance to those who threaten Louisiana's riparian environments.


This blog includes many references to Louisiana. I will highlight just two relatively recent examples, one bad and one good: Louisiana in Tough Shape and Hot Island Hot Spot.

Humans Should Act Our Age

Our geologic age, that is.

Geologists who define ages and epochs according to the rise and fall of organisms have come to realize that one particular species has dramatically altered the earth in ways that will be detectable well into the future. That species is us: Homo sapiens sapiens. As the name implies, higher-order thinking distinguishes us from the rest of our genus, and indeed from the rest of all life. It may be both our doing and our undoing.

A lot of that thinking has been directed at the extraction of resources that could be used both for energy and for useful products. Those resources, especially coal, petroleum, and natural gas, provided both concentrated energy and material -- plastic -- that could be used to manufacture almost literally anything.

The Anthropocene (human age) is so called because that process of extraction has fundamentally changed the Earth in ways that some humans have difficulty believing. The earth is indeed so vast -- comprising billions of cubic miles of material -- that it seems unlikely that a "mere" humans could affect it in any significant way.

The first step in understanding how this is possible is to think about the spatial scale of Earth's environments. I help to run an educational project called EarthView, in which we take a giant, inflatable globe to school gyms. We point out that on a 20-foot globe, almost everything that counts in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere -- indeed, the entire biosphere -- is within 1/5 of an inch of the surface. At the scale of an ordinary classroom, all of our resources are within the thickness of the paper covering it.

The second step in understanding how humans can significantly alter the planet is to think about the temporal (time) scale of human activity. Over a few millennia of civilization, humans have changed land-use patterns through hunting, fire, and agriculture. And in just a couple of centuries, we have extracted fossil fuels that have formed over a period of about 300,000,000 years. We use energy for our homes, factories, planes, trains and automobiles that was derived by photosynthesis when India was still attached to Antarctica.

About half of the oil, coal, and natural gas are formed from decayed layers of plants and animals that were growing during the carboniferous period and developed under heat and pressure ever since have been released into the atmosphere and oceans in just two centuries. In half a century, much of that has been turned into plastics that -- whether dutifully recycled or not -- have accumulated into Texas-sized sludge islands in the oceans.
Anthropocene imagined. Image: Shutterstock by way of NPR.
Note vertical exaggeration of the near-surface features.
The Earth has a diameter of 8,000 miles; almost all of our experience is
within a layer that is far less that 1 percent of that thickness.
Thus have geologists recognized our new age. The ability of our children and their children's children to thrive -- or even to survive -- the changes will depend upon our taking much greater interest in what we have wrought, and much greater responsibility for ameliorating the damage.

To this end, the most recent edition of the Ted Radio Hour is dedicated to understanding the Anthropocene and considering our responsibilities. The discussion begins with a paleontologist's perspective on the evidence we are leaving future geologists, and then turns to several discussions of our impact on biodiversity, including the potential of landscape ecology to reduce further harm.


For more on the basics that drive the climate part of our epochal impact, see my earlier posts Frosty Denial and Early Warning. For beautifully written, nuanced discussion of the localized impacts of climate change throughout the world, please see my various blog posts referencing the works of Carl Safina and read his book The View from Lazy Point.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ben Linder Café Poster

The image below is a snapshot of a tri-fold poster I created for use in promoting a proposal to establish the Ben Linder Café at Bridgewater State University.

The purpose of this post is to share the slide set that comprises the individual sheets that are included on the poster. BSU community members: please contact me to arrange for use of the poster at an event. I can lend it to BSU students who have been closely involved in the project, send the poster to an event with one of those students, or bring it myself if my schedule permits.

The center panel describes the main features of the café and its relation to the legacy of Ben Linder. The left panel 
describes the problematic coffee options currently available at BSU.
The right panel describes the MANY ways in which BSU is a coffee
leader, except on the campus itself.

(Please note: using "Ben Linder" as a search term on this blog will point to many of the ways in which his legacy has inspired Bridgewater State students. The Coffee Belwethers [sic] post is a good introduction to our vision of sustainable coffee for the campus.)


A couple of days after completing this poster, I found something that I will find a way to add -- a pedicafé! That is, a pedicab outfitted as a portable café. The owner and builder was kind enough to let me pose on it as if driving it.
I was actually a little emotional at the chance to pretend-drive
this café trike at the Saturday farmers market at Fairhaven High School.
Silly Bean Coffee offers delicious iced and nitro coffee from Armeno.
BSU students have suggested something like this in the past, but seeing one in action made me realize that this kind of café could be an essential part of a coffee strategy at BSU.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Tell Them They Can't Hug

This was an order that Antar Davidson could not follow.

Davidson was -- until last week -- an employee of a privately-operated detention center in Tucson, where I lived from 1990 to 1994. As a trilingual person, he had a lot to offer children, and he did, until he no longer could.

Please listen carefully to his story. In it, he explains how he noticed the shift in policy not from the news, but from the number and demeanor of the children in his care and the behavior of his supervisors. Please take five minutes to listen to his story; it is not easy, especially for any person who has been a parent or a sibling or a child. But it is important.
The claims of "whataboutism" defenders of fascist and policies and tendencies fall away when exposed to the first-hand testimony of this young man, who put family values ahead of conformity. Read more about Davidson's experience in an LA Times article by journalist Molly Hennessy-Fiske. She posted the story from McAllen, Texas, which was my other former home along the US-Mexico border.

Antar Davidson is my newest hero. We need more genuine Americans like him.

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