Monday, June 29, 2009

The Presidential Map

Thanks to geographer Matt Rosenberg at geography.about.com for sharing this image. It shows a president exercising his geogrpahic curiosity -- we could have used that in recent years!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Thoroughly Un-American Institution

Throughout the Cold War, the United States operated the notorious School of the Americas at Ft. Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. This article from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs explains how this training center contributed to some of the worst human-rights abuses on the part of Latin American dictatorships.

As the article mentions, the U.S. Congress is in a position to start making amends. After the school was strengthened and renamed (WHINSEC) by the second Bush Administration, Congress came close to shutting it down last year. Meanwhile, Congress is currently debating whether to publish the names of its graduates. (June 26 update: Congress has given preliminary approval to this amendment, mostly along party lines.)

Understanding SOA/WHINSEC is important to understanding world-wide concerns about U.S. military interventions.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hard Times for New England’s 3-Deckers

Thanks to Pam Hayes-Bohanan for this great article, which is full of geographic lessons. Most important is the great illustration of what geographers call "sense of place." The writer uses the phrase to describe how the physical form and arrangement of triple-decker houses contribute to neighborhood identity in many old mill towns throughout New England.

The article also describes how triple-deckers are particularly vulnerable to the sometimes destructive practices of real estate speculators, by comparing dereliction rates between triple deckers and other kinds of housing. The problem is that triple deckers are inviting targets for speculation. As long as markets are trending upward, such speculators can actually contribute to the rehabilitation of homes and the improvement of neighborhoods. The relatively low cost of the buildings, however, makes them very easy to abandon if markets slacken. When large numbers are abandoned in a short period of time, a neighorhood can quickly spiral downward.

A third interesting bit of geography is the fact that triple deckers could not legally be built today in most places. They are too compact; zoning requires sprawling, low-density residential building. Even the single-family home my family lives in would not be legal today, as it sits on a 0.3-acre lot. This affords me easy access to work, shops, a train station, church, and neighbors -- but it would be illegal to build today. When we started the US-Brazil Consortium on Urban Development (UBCUD), I was fortunate enough to bring James Howard Kunstler to our campus to explain this paradox. He does so very well in his book The Geography of Nowhere.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Geography unfolding daily

A bright young geography student recently expressed surprise that I was still reading the Boston Globe, seeming honestly to believe that it has nothing worth reading. Aside from the fact that the article I was mentioning is about geography and cites yours truly and one of our BSC students, this started me to thinking about my need to help people understand the connections between newspapers and geography. Indeed, I see newspapers as fundamental to civilization as we know it.

Many people dismiss newspapers, saying that they can get their news online. The most reliable and robust online content, however, comes from newspapers. Online sources that are independent of newspapers are fine -- they contribute to a rich dialog. But they supplement and critique -- rather than replace -- professional journalists. Government and industry are held accountable by a combination of independent writers and news organizations.


Fortunately, the Newseum is now available to help me make the case. The physical Newseum is located in my hometown (Washington, DC), but its online presence is even more important. Every day, it features the covers of hundreds of papers, from Kingston to Kuala Lumpur! I know of no other way to gain insight into the geographic diversity of world views. The Newseum site also includes a memorial to those who have given their lives in the pursuit of journalism.


Newspapers are not the sole source of great journalism, by the way. I listen regularly to National Public Radio and the BBC, which together give me somewhat different perspectives on the news every day. Some journalism takes place on television still, but its professionalism -- at least in the United States -- is plummeting.


I use newspapers (primarily their online editions, of course) and radio sources (again, online versions) on a regular basis in my teaching. I also do my best to include local newspapers in my efforts to raise awareness of geographic education in our region.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Water for Sale

Environmental geography is concerned with the relationship between humans and the environment; increasing efforts to limit access to water deserve special scrutiny. We live on a water planet, but 99 percent of the water is either salty or frozen. Much of what is left is either polluted or in locations far from the greatest human need.

Given this critical scenario, governments and international institutions should be focused on providing MORE access to clean, safe, and renewable water. In reality, however, such institutions often conspire with corporations such as Bechtel to give poor people LESS access to water.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs is a scholarly organization concerned with important political and economic developments in Latin America. COHA's attention to the issue of water privatization is indicative of the growing importance of access to clean water and the potential for conflict over this critical resource.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Variety and Geography

When a term is hard to define, sometimes examples are helpful. The list of specialty groups of the Association of American Geographers do this quite nicely for geography. From the list describing dozens of specialization and affinity groups in our professional association, one can get a sense of the incredible breadth of the discipline -- from the mountians to the prairies and from religion to gender, almost any subject can benefit from a geographic perspective. Explore the list and the links to find out how geography relates to the things that interest you most.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Great Divide Beer

I had a terrific Belgica Ale with lunch at the Phoenix Emporium in Ellicott City, Maryland. The server helped me with the pronunciation -- "BELL-eekuh" -- and the bottle informed me about the origins of the ingredients. I was pleased with the ale itself and with the brief geography lesson on the label. Great Divide (in Colorado, naturally) takes pride in the variety of beverages it offers, and educates its customers about flavors, origins, and food pairings.

Very geographic!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Message in a Bottle

Plastic is lightweight and does not go away. Even if recycled into various forms and products, it is ultimately quite likely to end up in the ocean. This Sierra article describes the problem.


Solid for less waste

One of my environmental students introduced me to LUSH, a global personal-care company that has a great way to reduce packaging: solids instead of liquids.

Fordlandia

From the NPR photo gallery
I had learned long ago of Henry Ford's misadventures in the Amazon, but I did not realize the extent of his folly. In this extended radio story, author Greg Grandin discusses the story and his new book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City. Ford is one of many people who endeavored to bring their own understandings of order and progress to the rain forest. Like the others, the results were disastrous in terms of his own project and desctructive of the local environment. Grandin describes the social disconnect quite well, and points out that not one drop of latex from Fordlandia was ever used in a car.

The lesson about unbridled capitalism and misplaced confidence in technology was not learned, however. Daniel Ludwig repeated many of Ford's errors a couple generations later, with results that were at least as disastrous. A 1978 Time magazine story brims with optimism, but a more recent retrospective in Philanthropy provides a good overview of what was lost (aside from $1,000,000,000) in Ludwig's folly.

My own experience in the region began with my dissertation on urbanization and deforestation in the western Amazon state of Rondonia, which experienced extremely high rates of both processes in the 1970s and 1980s. I fell in love with the place, however, and began to think very critically about the contrasts between how it was viewed by residents and how it was viewed from outside. This led me to my work with a Brazilian colleague on Olhares Sobre a Amazonia, which examines perceptions and misperceptions of the region over the past century or so. We are currently working on a second edition. My contribution to that book and my other writings on the Amazon are included on my Rondonia Web, along with some of my photographs and links to more recent work elsewhere in Brazil.

After his service as president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt visited an area just to the east of where I did my work, on the border between Rondonia and Mato Grosso (a state whose name means "big jungle.") The River of Doubt is a recent book that tells the story of his journey in a compelling, exciting, and also critical manner. Shorter articles about his exploration include a description from PBS, and a 1914 article from the New York Times.

Although the area of the Amazon that Roosevelt and I both visited is now home to almost two million people, I have a map on my wall from closer to his time that has one word written across an otherwise blank space: UNEXPLORED. Of course it was not unknown to the indigenous people who lived there, but from the point of view of outsiders, only the places immediately adjacent to major rivers was known in any way.

Costly Care

If anybody still doubts that the United States needs single-payer health care, this story might close the case. What we see as "freedom" is fundamentally and increasingly flawed. I worked for three years in McAllen, Texas, and thought I understood many of the unusual things about this border city. Even I was surprised to find that it ranks near the top in per-capita medical spending. Since it ranks near the bottom in terms of income, this is especially problematic.

I do recall that my first doctor in neighboring Pharr was exceedingly fixated on money and not focused on understanding what patients needed. I later found a better doctor in McAllen, and my wife also had some good doctors there. But in a city with very high drop-out and illiteracy rates, we were better prepared than most to ask the right questions.

Painterly Visions

Walking through Adams Morgan in DC last night, we noticed this terrific mural, the first major work in DC to include President Obama. It is on Mama Ayesha's restaurant, and shows the restaurant's founder (now deceased) in a "group photo" with every president since Eisenhower.
This is a great example of what geographers call "sense of place." It is celebratory art that represents the city as a whole and says something important about how this business sees itself fitting into that city.

As with any kind of mural that shows a series, we were wondering about the intention to continue this one. From the image online, it appears that the artist has left room to include just one more president, the 45th.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ultimate Coffee Shop

This story on NPR's Morning Edition illustrates the valuable role coffee shops can play in community cohesion. When the town of Ellsworth lost its last coffee shop, community members created The Front Porch Cafe. This is a real ministry, contributing in a conscious way to a positive sense of place in a community that is facing difficult economic times.

I have added a link to my page on the Geography of Coffee Shops, and hope to visit the next time I am in the Midwest.

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