Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Coffee Belwethers

When my university invited applications for the first TED Talks to be held on our campus, I jumped at the chance to spend 12 minutes with an audience that was deeply interested in thinking deeply about the future of our university. We were asked to talk about the university in 2040, and my first thought, of course, was to talk about our coffee situation at that time. In Coffee Bellwethers, I describe how the future of coffee relates to our campus as a community committed to sustainability and justice, and how it relates to the future of the planet as a whole.

More details of this vision are included in a Coffee Proposal that I developed with students and coffee experts over the years, but which so far has not been implemented. The proposal's Facebook page is a place to follow -- and lead -- ongoing efforts to move our campus toward a brighter coffee future.

Image: Roast Magazine
Pop-up shops of this kind could be integral to a campus committed to justice.
A few weeks after giving my TEDx Talk, I heard a very interesting story on the TED Radio Hour that underlines the importance of cafes in universities. In Where Do Good Ideas Come From?, Guy Raz shares Steven Johnson's insights about the importance of collaboration in the gradual accumulation of ideas, in contrast to the "Eureka" moments that are not so often important. In his TED talk, Johnson extolls the coffee house as an ideal place to foster such collaboration.

Coffee Belwethers -- the TEDx Talk as Written

Two years ago, I was dining with colleagues in a restaurant just a few blocks from this hall. As the server brought water to our table, she hesitated as if she might know me. When she returned a minute later, she had figured out the connection, and she knew that the connection was about coffee. We had met only once before, at Logan Airport, but my face was familiar from family photographs.

This was because her daughter is a Bridgewater State College graduate who had participated in our first travel course in Nicaragua. She had learned about the geography of coffee first-hand, and had brought the lessons home. This was, in fact, not the first time that a relative of that student had brought the coffee connection to my attention. A two-week encounter with coffee and the people who grow it had changed this student’s view of the world and she had shared that with everyone she knew.
Bridgewater State University has a reputation for caring about coffee. More than a hundred of our students and alumni have made that journey to the coffeelands of Nicaragua to learn from farmers first-hand. Hundreds more have studied coffee in semester-long courses, and have shared their knowledge in community-wide coffee fairs. Many have done both.

I am here this evening because I want to make sure that in 2040 we are a campus that still has a reputation for its focus on coffee. And more importantly, that we deserve it.
But this is not JUST about coffee. For the next few minutes I want to borrow this coffee cup from the BSU of 2040. What is in that cup will tell us a lot – not just about our coffee reputation – but about our campus and the world it is part of.

Coffee will be, in fact, our bellwether. When it occurred to me to use that term in the title of this talk, it also occurred to me to make sure I knew what it meant, and I am glad I did, because I had been mistaken about its meaning. I had thought it was a nautical term, and always pictured a bell for ships, having something to do with weather.

But just as there is no X in cat, there is no A in bellwether, and it has nothing to do with rain, sleet, or even snow. A wether, it turns out, is a sheep – not the lead sheep and not the following sheep, but a member of the flock to which a bell is attached. The shepherd knows that wherever the bell can be heard, the flock can be found.

Where our coffee is, so too is our campus.
How can a cup of coffee be so important? There are three basic reasons. First, it employs a lot of people; second, it uses a lot of land; third, we consume it locally.

Today, up to ten million people make their living putting coffee in that cup. The only thing we trade more than coffee – in this whole world – is petroleum. By 2040, we had better not be trading so much oil, so coffee could and should be the most traded commodity on the planet in 2040.
Most of the ten million people who depend on coffee today are small farmers in the tropics and their families. I do not mean that the farmers are small, of course, but that they grow their coffee on farms averaging only a few acres and producing a few hundred or maybe a few thousand pounds of coffee each year.

At ten dollars a pound, a few thousand pounds sounds like it would provide a very nice living in most places in the coffee belt. But although ten dollars might be what we pay, it is not close to what most farmers earn. The costs of shipping, packaging, processing and marketing take most of the money that we pay for coffee.

Unfair trading practices take most of the rest. This is why the way we buy coffee matters so much. For millions of small farmers and their families, those trading practices can be the difference between poverty and dignity. For some, it can be the difference between life and death.

Even the most free of free markets operate within a set of rules, and in coffee, those rules put most of the risk on the backs of the small producers. As with all commodities, the prices fluctuate, but coffee buyers are able to protect themselves against fluctuations by purchasing financial instruments known as futures.

In coffee, we have the opportunity to protect the small producers from some of that fluctuation, and to help them build a future. Not a paper future, but a real future.

To understand how this can be, let’s turn from the cup to the fruit. Yes, coffee is a fruit, and this is what it looks like on the tree. And yes, coffee is also a tree. Everyone who drinks from a 2040 BSU coffee cup will have some understanding of this, and will know the major steps between the field and the cup. Because of the way we will serve coffee in 2040 at BSU, they will know the geography of coffee.

In 2015, the major way to protect a farmer from price fluctuations is a system called fair trade. Small farmers organize into cooperatives, and make arrangements with coffee importers to guarantee them a minimum price to cover the cost of production and a fair income. The farmers learn a lot about the market they serve. They also cooperate in the early steps of shipping and processing, so that they can earn a little more of that ten dollars.

As a university, we have committed to the fair trade model, but we are not actively following it. Over the next 25 years we can catch up on our commitments and make sure that every farmer who sends us coffee is earning a fair living in return.

We need to challenge even that goal, though. In 2040, we should be doing much better than fair trade.
Between now and 2040 we have a chance to change the coffee market itself, and to make fair trade unnecessary. Between now and 2040, if we apply what we learn about coffee off campus to our coffee on campus, we can be a model for other North American universities and the millions of cups of coffee they serve each day.

Model cafés on our campus can connect students to the farmers more directly. And the more students know about farmers, the less they will tolerate “free” trade as it currently operates. This will make “fair” trade unnecessary as more campuses follow our lead.

The second reason that cup of coffee matters is the land. This tree is on land in the community of La Corona, in Matagalpa Nicaragua. My friend Alfredo planted it there, and his family is able to make a good living from it because of fair trade.

In caring for that tree – and growing it organically – Alfredo and his family are protecting that piece of land. They are protecting the water of their own community, and of the city below. They are also providing habitat for birds that might even migrate to Bridgewater in the spring.

At least some of that coffee in 2040 should come from this farm. But there is no guarantee that it will, because of climate change. We are talking about the future this evening, but climate change is not a future event. I am pretty certain, in fact, that the tree in this photograph does not exist. We are looking at a victim of climate change already.

Coffee farmers wanting to earn a fair living must produce high-quality coffee. And as with high-quality wine, the coffee is very sensitive to differences in soil and climate. Organic farmers care for the soil, but we have to take care of the climate, or it will not matter.

The best coffee grows at high elevation. As the temperature increases, farmers have to go higher. Even if that is possible – and it usually is not – the soil will not be the same. And even while the AVERAGE temperature and rainfall is allowing Alfredo and his neighbors to produce good coffee, the timing of temperature and rainfall is already changing dramatically. This affects yields and quality, and it also makes way for diseases. Many trees in Central America – probably including this one – have been lost to roya, a blight that has been made very common by shifting weather patterns.

Coffee lovers are fortunate that Alfredo and his neighbors have replanted them. We need to get serious about climate change now, so that coffee continues to be possible in 2040.

The third reason to care about coffee is much more local. If we still have coffee in 2040, the coffee in our 2040 BSU cup will come from farmers who have been treated fairly on land that they have cared for well. It will also come IN a cup, not FROM a cup. By that I mean that the single-serve machines that are currently filling landfills will not be present on our campus, nor will they be needed. Instead, we will have actual people preparing and serving the coffee.

A student-led café will be at the heart of each of our major buildings, fomenting conversation, teaching about coffee, and providing meaningful employment. We will be roasting our own coffee so that it is fresh, and doing so in solar roasters on some of our sunny rooftops. That technology already exists, and we have plenty of time to adopt it by 2040. 

Rather than relying on vending machines, each café will provide real coffee – or tea or cocoa or juice – and real food that is as local as possible. Each café will be a place where we practice what we teach about social justice, sustainability, connections to our region, and critical thinking. The coffee cup of BSU 2040 can truly be a model for thousands of other campuses.

The last thing I will say about the coffee of BSU 2040 is that it will be delicious. When people ask me – and they often do – if fair-trade, organic coffee is as good as regular coffee, I say of course not. It is better, because if we take care of the land and the farmers and the roasters and the brewers, our reward will be in the cup.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Midnight at the Oasis

This photograph put two songs in my head at once: Midnight at the Oasis and Hotel California.
From The Daily Mail comes a nice photo essay about Huacachina, a genuine oasis in southern Peru. It is a reminder that if the name of a place or person seems unpronounceable, it probably just requires a careful second look. Sound out the name of this little town, and you will hear that it is actually a beautiful name -- it reminds me of the week my favorite librarian and I spent in Huaracondo, Peru last May. I must admit I never thought I would really learn that name, but now it rolls off the tongue (wok-a-CHEE-nah).

The photographs from Huacachina are fascinating, though one of them caused me to question just how isolated it is. The truth is more incredible than the false impression given by the story. It is hardly isolated at all, being located just on the outskirts of Ica, a city of 200,000 souls in a very dry part of Peru.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Unwelcome Irish

As I prepare the traditional (for Casa Hayes-Boh) mashed potato casserole, I think of two stories that highlight how much has changed in the 170 or so years since the Irish landed in the U.S. in great numbers.

The first comes from one of my favorite history writers, Kenneth C. Davis, who describes the Bible Riots of 1844, in which xenophobia and religious intolerance led to violence against Irish immigrants. He had also written more extensively about this in a 2010 Smithsonian article.
Of course the Irish eventually went on to be considered mainstream, but that required generations. It should not be surprising that in a war taking place in the same decade as the greatest Irish migration, more than a few Irish-American soldiers defected to the side of their Catholic brethren to the south. The result: the San Patricios soldiers are celebrated to this day in Mexico, though as individuals many ended in U.S. Army gallows.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Food Oasis

For several years, my students and I have been among those discussing food deserts. I mentioned it in my 2011 post Dignity Desert, about a KFC ad campaign that seemed at first to be a parody and in 2013 in Vertical Katrina. Some of my students and I have used the USDA Food Access Research Atlas to understand the spatial patterns of the problem, and more recently I have found that Feeding America is helping people not only to find information about food, but to find food itself.

Chef Ismael Samad
It is in this context that I read about Chef Ismael Samad, who is among a growing number of people taking creative, direct action to address the problem of a food availability in urban areas. I learned about his work while visiting rural Vermont, where I found a copy of vermont's LOCAL BANQUET in our room. Being interested in both food and food geography, I was glad to find it.

I was especially interested to see that Chef Samad -- trained as a chef and as an environmental biologist -- is helping to bring the energy of the gleaning movement to the problem of urban food availability.

The result is a restaurant set to open on Codman Square in Dorchester that will offer better food at a lower price than competing fast-food outlets. The Daily Table article emphasizes the fact that the gleaning movement is not about substandard food: it is about putting good food to good use, when it would otherwise be wasted. By using such food for about 60 to 70 percent of its ingredients, this new restaurant will offer casual meals or ingredients that facilitate healthy home cooking, at an attractive price.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ultimate Map Collector

If a ten-minute video about a map collection can bring a tear to your eye, it is this one. And if that happens, you might just be a geographer at heart. Please enjoy this video, and then read the rest of the story. Then learn much more about cities of the future from CITYLAB.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Slow-moving Disaster

Eastern Massachusetts has seen a succession of blizzards over the past month, resulting in many lost days of school and work, the ruination of regional public transportation (which had been operating with seriously deferred maintenance for decades), many traffic accidents, battles over already limited parking, and roof collapses, all with the added bonus of complaining and political finger-pointing.
Over 35,000 truckloads of snow have been removed from Boston, and it is still everywhere.
Image: WGBH
So it has been seriously inconvenient and even dangerous, and periodically over the past several weeks formal emergencies have been declared.

I had been wondering, however, whether the term "disaster" might apply, slow-moving though it may be in comparison to a wildfire, earthquake, or tornado event. Northeastern University engineering professor Ozlem Ergun recently moved to Boston (quite a welcome, Dr. Ergun!) and has been wondering the same thing. Specifically, she is an expert on debris, and made useful comparisons to post-earthquake Haiti during a discussion of our "Debris Event" on WGBH. Like me, she is also worried about what will happen when all of this snow melts. Specifically, she advocates planning for the debris that is likely to be liberated when all of this snow starts flowing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fires and Explosions? What Fires and Explosions?

In my honors class yesterday we were discussing, among other things, alternatives to fossil fuels. Renewable or perpetual sources such as wind and solar power engender some skepticism because they are considered new and untested. In pointing out that despite some limitations and possible inconveniences, they are inherently safer that our petroleum economy, I cited recent tanker-train accidents such as the explosion last week in West Virginia, which also spilled oil into a local river.  I mentioned it in comparison to the far worse petroleum explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in which the downtown was destroyed and 43 people were killed.

None of the students had heard of either event.

The good news is that they were more stunned than I was that two such important stories had escaped their notice. These are honors students who had signed up for a class on climate change, and yet neither of these stories had penetrated the layers of distraction in which so many of us are shrouded.

We spoke briefly about Bread & Circus -- the attention diverted to everything that is not important, as I wrote about previously with respect to Bristol Palin in 2010 and WalMart in 2013.

Further good news; these students are now especially keen to pursue a more substantive media diet.


Atlantic reporter Derek Thompson writes that my students are far from alone in being disconnected from traditional news sources. Journalism in the Age of the Accidental News Junkie describes how social media has become both a platform and a filter for news, even as traditional reporting remains important as a point of origin.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Christo Negro | Diablo Blanco

As its name implies, the Public Radio International program The World is like a non-credit college of geography on the air. The February 20 broadcast included a story about Carnival in Rio, which might be expected, but it also included a reminder that Carnival is not limited to Rio and New Orleans.

Portobelo is a town on the north coast of Panama, in a province (Colón) named for Columbus. It is the site of a Carnival pageant that subverts conventional notions of race and religion. University of North Carolina professor and hip-hop artist Pierce Freelon describes how a tradition that includes the playful use of blackface is part of a complex critique of colonialism.

El Diablo in Portobelo

Monday, February 16, 2015

Designing for Joy

I enjoyed the Redesign for Joy segment on Studio 360 when I heard it on air yesterday, even before I realized that the story was going to include some specifically geographic examples. Most notable of these is the efforts of former Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, who was named World Mayor in 2004 for what is now a fairly obvious innovation. He demonstrated that more cheerful paint could improve his city; that work has now spread far beyond Albania, and I even witnessed some examples in Managua last month.
The first project. Photo by Edi Rama
His project started modestly, and the first example (above) could be described simply as "not dreary." From there the work became increasingly daring -- and increasingly effective. The one below is much like the building I noticed in Managua. See 8 Views of Tirana for details and further examples.
Photo: David Dufresne
A quick image search on Google yields even more examples, many of which are from other parts of the world where leaders have been inspired to employ positive design in their cities.

I return to the interview, though, because Ingrid Fetell shares something much more profound and exciting than the cityscapes, as important as they are. Her work connects cognitive science with design -- and careful attention to both -- in order to recognize the kinds of places that encourage joy, and to apply those insights to improving the design of places that typically do not. She shares this work on her Aesthetics of Joy blog, and is working with Studio 360 producers to solicit ideas for places that could use a joy treatment. See the interview summary for details. Meanwhile, bring yourself a bit of joy simply by listening!

While we are at it, though, we should not miss a chance to learn more about both the site and situation of Tirana. Use the "earth" and "map" settings and pan and zoom to explore Tirana to your heart's content.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When to Say "When"

A certain concentration of wealth is a good thing -- the wealthy and the aspiring wealthy assure us -- because it creates incentives. This is probably true. I really do not mind being a bit wealthier than I was at a younger age, and I know that my modest wealth allows me to provide for the employment of others. So sure, let's have a bit of wealth concentration.
Image: The Guardian
But how much would wealth need to be concentrated in order for it to be considered too concentrated? What if everyone in the world had a dollar a day, except for one guy who had everything else ... would that be too much? How close to that perverse scenario will our economy get before people object? Apparently, as close as it is now.

The graphic is similar to the Top Ten I shared recently in my Untenable Gap post, but is perhaps all the more dramatic because it is comparing two groups of people -- one about the size of a typical college calculus class and the other group number more than all of the people in the world outside of Asia.

That is:
people now have as much wealth as
people. It cannot proportional to differences in work ethic, cleverness, or even luck.

For the results to be this skewed, the game has to be rigged. Not rigged likc an underinflated football, but rigged like an entire political system that has been taken captive.

For readers not familiar with Oxfam, it is a British non-governmental organization (NGO) that not only studies poverty, but actively works on strategies to alleviate it. Oxfam has, for example, been a leader not only in promoting the fair-trade model, but also in holding it to a high standard. The same Oxfam Report responsible for the 80-vs-billions graphic also found that the "bottom 99 percent" control as much wealth as the top one percent on a global basis.

In other words, as of this evening, the top
people control as much wealth as the
of us at the bottom (apologies to my highly wealthy readers for not including you among "us" but the reasons may be evident).

According to the Global Rich List, as a mid-career professional in the United States, I'm actually in the upper echelons of that lower 99 percent, but the wealth of working people cannot compare to those who actually operate the levers of the world economy. I have tried to capture this distinction in the very simple graphic of my own, shown at right.

The 73 million at the top are shown in pink at the top, and control as much wealth as those shown below in yellow.

At the moment, it remains popular to brand as "socialist" any suggestion that this is not a viable balance, but the pendulum is swinging away from that view, as a growing number of people recognize that this is not "capitalism" either, if by that we mean an economic system that rewards ambition and hard work.