Sunday, June 26, 2011

Digging Back


Among the many jobs I had before becoming a geography professor was one I call "dry-cleaner inspector." My actual titles at that time were "Geographer" and "Assistant Regulatory Analyst" in the Cincinnati office of a global engineering firm that was then called Dames & Moore. I actually worked on a variety of projects, but the most common assignments were Phase I investigations for property transfer.

Simply put, when clients purchased commercial property, they would employ us to perform due diligence to determine whether the property could be expected to harbor environmental hazards, such as soil contaminated by an old spill or material leaking from a buried chemical or fuel storage tank. This kind of research is necessary because financial and legal liability for such contamination can extend to both prior and current owners of a property. (This may seem unfair, but it entirely necessary to eliminate the "shell game" approach that polluters have used to escape liability in the past.) Our Phase I investigations involved documentary research, interviews, and site visits. If any of these avenues suggested likely contamination sources, we would recommend a Phase II investigation that would include sampling in relevant media -- air, soil, water and/or building materials.

The properties I investigated included warehouses, garages, offices, and manufacturing plants, but at least 20 of the properties were dry cleaners, in about 10 different states. The common thread for these was a Cincinnati law firm that represented a British client that in turn was buying hundreds of dry cleaning operations throughout the United States. I cannot remember the name and you have never heard of it, because they always left the local name and managers in place.

When I was doing this work in 1989-1990 (and part-time in south-most Texas about four years later), all of the relevant documents existed on paper. Therefore when I first learned about a project, my first step was to make travel arrangements to visit both the store itself (usually there were two or three clustered in the same city) and to visit local and state offices that would have the records I needed. (This contributed nicely to my County Map Project, which was actually inspired by other workers in the same office.) My second step would be to make phone calls to order certain materials that I knew could be mailed to me. These included topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. I would also order any aerial photography I could find, primarily through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These resources would give me some understanding of the literal "lay of the land" around a property and also some clues about current and past uses in and around the property that might pose environmental hazards. For example, the fire insurance maps might show PCB oil or asbestos as a good thing, because they were associated with fire safety, though we now think of them principally in terms of the serious health risks they pose.

I apply this experience to a student exercise in my introductory environmental geography course and in more detail in an upper-level course on environmental regulations. For better or worse, many parts of a Phase I investigation can now be done online. I think "better" because of the convenience, efficiency, and completeness of record searches that previously required a lot of time and expense and a little bit of luck in finding the right office. I think "worse," though, because the availability of online tools has pushed the price of Phase I work so low that many such investigations are done by people who never visit the facilities they are investigating ... and the only serious problem I ever found in a Phase I was something I discovered during my site visit that was not in any of the paper records.

For teaching purposes, though, the online materials are terrific, and have become much more convenient even in the past few years. The US Environmental Protection Agency continues to improve online access, bringing a lot of databases together in the Envirofacts portal. Many of these were previously linked from the Surf Your Watershed portal, which remains an excellent source for information about regional water quality and cooperating organizations.

Sanborn Maps were originally designed to guide the pricing of property insurance. They are very detailed and frequently updated, being most actively used during a period (late-19th through mid-20th centuries) of tremendous growth of industries that operated without meaningful controls on pollution. The maps can often be found in local libraries -- I actually required students in my Geography of Brockton course to study them. They are also available online, though at considerable expense. (At Dames & Moore I routinely paid $45 per sheet for photocopies, and online subscriptions today are quite expensive.) Users of the BSU Maxwell Library have access to the entire set of Massachusetts Sanborn maps; a link is provided on the Geography MaxGuide.

The textbook I use for the upper-level course (Ortolano's Environmental Regulation) is over a decade old but remains the most comprehensive explanation of the regulatory programs that are still in place to address environmental hazards in the United States.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Coffee Comics

Regular readers of this blog will know that I consider coffee an essential element of environmental geography. Google the phrase "geography of coffee" to see just how serious I can be about this beverage. I have created pages on coffee shops, coffee roasters, coffee films, coffee photos -- even coffee romance.

What I really wish I had, though, would be a nice collection coffee comics. The creators of newspaper comics (we called them "the funnies" when I was a kid) apparently include quite a few coffee enthusiasts. Most consistent are Brian Basset and Robert Harrell, whose Adam@Home strip is a virtual coffee festival. (See their Father's Day coffee special, for example!)

Today, however, it is Bliss by Harry Bliss that really resonates:


I am fussy about coffee. I am about quality way over quantity. I probably could not even drink the dregs that are likely to be stuck to the bottom of the coffee pot shown in this strip. Still, I am reminded of a class session about two years ago. 

I was deeply engaged in a conversation about some readings (readings about coffee, that is), when a student raised her hand and with a serious tone said, "I have a question." 

"Sure," I said, "what is it?"

"Just how much coffee do you drink?"

I remember holding my hand out to show her -- and the rest of the class -- that I could still hold it steady.

"See. Not too much."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Goode and Evil Maps

Thanks once again to geographer Matt Rosenberg for a great geography story. This time, Matt describes the background of an atlas that many geographers know and love. Goode's World Atlas, now in its 22 edition, began as an antidote to the all-too-common Mercator projection.

I have always taken the projection for granted in these atlases, being more impressed by the overall quality of the content, the careful selection of map scale, and the variety of thematic maps. I did not know that, in a 1908 speech, Professor Goode told the AAG that the Mercator projection is evil!

See Matt's article for the whole story and see the commentary on projections that I created for our K-12 EarthView blog.

One Cup -- Timor Coffee


One Cup is a 30-minute documentary about the coffee industry in Timor-Leste (East Timor). It describes the role of fair trade in the recovery of a once-vibrant coffee industry ravaged by war. It is among the best coffee videos I have seen, comparable to Black Gold but shorter and not as graphic. (Yes, the plight of coffee farmers is often dire enough to make for unpleasant viewing.)

I first saw the film when BSU's Social Justice League showed it a number of years ago, and fortunately I have a copy on my computer. It had disappeared from the usual sites, but thanks to the non-profit Internet Archive, it is now available for download or streaming in a number of formats.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That's How!

This afternoon I heard Terry Gross -- one of my favorite radio interviewers -- talking with illustrator and children's book author Christoph Niemann about his work and his unusual insights into everything from mental maps and parenting to the nature of sleeping and waking.

I highly recommend listening to the wide-ranging interview and viewing the remarkable slideshow that accompanies the summary. The tile work in his bathroom is a geographic wonder and the understanding his boys have of the New York subway system is a parenting triumph.

Countries and Anomalies



Most readers know that I am part of a team in the BSU Geography Department that takes a giant globe known as EarthView to schools and public viewing events, with close to 30,000 people -- in small groups -- joining us inside the globe in the three years we have had it. EarthView is a hand-painted, physical globe, which means that the only national boundaries that are well-defined on the globe are those of island nations such as New Zealand and Madagascar. Even where boundaries are fairly easy to discern, countries are not labeled, so I have been endeavoring to learn the locations of all the world's countries. This is especially helpful since someone with a doctorate in geography really should know where all the countries are, just as I would expect a "real" doctor to know where all my bones are! And there are roughly the same number to keep track of.

In geography school, though, we do not just sit around memorizing maps, so I actually did not know more than 85 or 90 percent of the locations until recently. A handy tool for improving my performance has been the geography games at JetPunk (apparently the key to naming web sites is to join any two, unrelated nouns with a further unrelated graphic). I learned about JetPunk when I put together my Geography Games page a couple years ago, and recently I have found several of the puzzles quite useful. The first (shown below) gives a user 12 minutes to type the names of 195 countries. Fortunately, many common misspellings are allowed, so it is quite forgiving. As names are correctly entered, each country is shaded on a single map and the name appears alphabetically in one of about a half-dozen clusters. About 20 countries are too small to appear at the scale used, so the map and list work together.


I find several other quizzes on this site quite useful. Each of these is focused on a region -- I have used "Central America" (which includes the Greater and Lesser Antilles), Oceania, and Europe. In each case, I already knew where the larger countries are located, but the game has greatly improved my mental map of the smaller countries.

A comparison of these games with EarthView and other maps leads to some important geographic questions about exactly what constitutes a country. Last autumn, for example, I was very interested in an unusual story from Tokelau, which I thought was a small country in the Pacific Ocean. It turns out that Tokelau -- like many of the planet's small islands -- is actually under the sovereignty of another country, in this case New Zealand. The JetPunk games, incidentally, seem to use United Nations membership as a principle criterion, though membership currently stands at 192, and Switzerland was only added in 2002. A new book from Lonely Planet has a more expansive definition, providing travel and geographic information for 230 countries. 

As it turns out, although many of the world's countries are recognized nation-states, in scores of cases the connection between a nation and a state are complex, compromised, and/or contested. Thanks to geographer Matt Rosenberg for drawing my attention to a very interesting world map that highlights some examples. 

CLICK to ENLARGE
The Revised Map of Geopolitical Anomalies appears, with a key, on the GeoCurrents blog. The examples on this single sheet could keep a geographer busy for days with quibbles, further examples, clarifications, and disputations! Having other work to do, I will just mention a few items that jumped off the page for me. 

First, the key mentions Taiwan as "the most unrecognized state," describing some of the convoluted ways to which other countries sometimes refer to the island nation. I am reminded of Macedonia, one of the countries that emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Although widely recognized, objections to the name by Greece Macedonia have led it to be included in the United Nations in the "T" section of the alphabet, as in "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."

The map and key refer to several exclaves, which are portions of national territory -- such as Alaska -- that are not adjacent to the "main" portion of their respective countries. France is cited as having the greatest number of exclaves -- accounting for many of those islands in the Pacific whose names and locations I have not yet learned and giving France economic control of many thousands of square miles of ocean. I was reminded, though, that I just learned that one of the newest and smallest countries in the world actually has an exclave. 

Timor-Leste -- also known as East Timor -- has belonged to Portugal, the Netherlands, Japan, and Indonesia, finally being admitted to the United Nations as an independent nation in 2002, after the loss of many thousands of lives. I knew that Timor-Leste controlled the eastern half of the island of Timor, but I only recently learned that tiny as it is, this nation has an exclave on the northwest side of the island. 

Incidentally, the name "East Timor" is redundant in the same way that "Sahara Desert" is. Just as sahara is an Arabic word that can mean desert, the word timor is Malay, meaning east. One of its previous names, in fact, was Timur Timor.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Public Risk for Private Gain

Red Bull Stadium from NJ.com
How do the rich make their money? They get poor people to make it for them. Increasingly, they get the middle class not only to make their money for them, but to shoulder the riskiest parts of their speculative investments. The story of Harrison, New Jersey -- a less-affluent neighbor of Newark -- and the titan of Red Bull is a recent case in point.

In 2006, the town agreed to underwrite the purchase of land on which billionaire Deitrich Mateschitz would build a professional soccer stadium. The usual arguments were made in favor of exorbitant public investment in a private sports venture. George Zoffinger, then president of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, was among those who criticized the deal, and he was widely criticized for his pessimism.


As the Boston Globe reported yesterday, the city invested so deeply that is now in financial ruin, with mounting debt, layoffs of public workers, and a credit rating in the lower reaches of junk-bond territory. Bloomberg News reports that city officials remain optimistic, even as they prepare to sell off other city assets in order to continue making payments on the land that continues to enrich Mr. Mateschitz.

This story makes me wish for the good old days, when the robber barons could measure their pay in multiples of hundreds in comparison to that of their workers. In the case of Harrison, the arrangement of a literal playing field is an apt metaphor. The CEO of Wal-Mart now takes home more each hour than most of his employees make in a year, and yet the judicial and legislative branches continue to tilt the (figurative) playing field in his favor. Professor (and former Labor Secretary) Robert Reich gives a two-minute overview of how this fits into much broader trends.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

PRW: People's Republic of Wal-Mart

The title of this post revolves around several ironies.

First and foremost, a "republic" is a kind of country, but I apply it to Wal-Mart because it is bigger -- in economic terms -- than the vast majority of countries. Second, "People's Republic" is associated with socialist economies, and though the rhetoric of corporations is laissez-faire, in practice they have no qualms receiving government largess. Third, the allusion to socialism is especially apt for Wal-Mart, whose workers are so impoverished that they host welfare offices in their stores.

It was first noticed in 1995 that about half of the largest economies in the world were corporations, and it is still true. The following are the world's 100 largest economies, as of 2010 (China has since overtaken Japan). Those in ALL CAPS are not countries; they are private firms. As explained in the film The Corporation, firms have gained all the rights of people with none of the responsibilities. In Lazy Point Year, author Carl Safina explains how this distinction ensures that the economic power will continue to eclipse political power unless people move decisively to move toward a new paradigm. The economy, he argues, is a subsidiary of the environment, but the imperatives of corporate growth are likely to reverse that, so that in one natural realm after another, the economy will swallow the world. It happened with whales and is happening with oil and the very atmosphere and oceans.


United States
Japan
China
Germany
France
UK
Italy
Brazil
Spain
Canada
India
Russia
Australia
Mexico
Korea
Netherlands
Turkey
Indonesia
Switzerland
Belgium
Poland
WAL-MART STORES
Sweden
Norway
Austria
Taiwan
Saudia Arabia
Venezuela
Greece
Islamic Republic of Iran
Argentina
Denmark
South Africa
ROYAL DUTCH SHELL
EXXON MOBIL
Thailand
BP
Finland
United Arab Emirates
Columbia
Portugal
Ireland
Hong Kong SAR
TOYOTA MOTOR
JAPAN POST HOLDINGS
Czech Republic
Israel
Malaysia
Egypt
SINOPEC
STATE GRID
Singapore
AXA
Nigeria
Pakistan
CHINA NATIONAL PETROLEUM
CHEVRON
ING GROUP
Chile
Romania
Phillipines
GENERAL ELECTRIC
BANK OF AMERICA CORP.
VOLKSWAGEN
Algeria
CONOCOPHILLIPS
BNP PARIBAS
Hungary
Peru
ASSICURAZIONI GENERALI
ALLIANZ
AT&T
CARREFOUR
FORD MOTOR
New Zealand
ENI
Ukraine
J.P. MORGAN & CHASE & CO
HEWLETT-PACKARD
E.ON
BERKSHIRE-HATHAWAY
Kuwait
GDF SUEZ
DAIMLER
NIPPON TELEGRAPH & TELEPHONE
Kazakhstan
SAMSUNG
CITIGROUP
VERIZON COMMUNICATIONS
MCKESSON
CRÉDIT AGRICOLE
BANCO SANTANDER
GENERAL MOTORS
HSBC HOLDINGS
SIEMENS
AMERICAN INTL. GROUP
LLOYDS BANKING GROUP
CARDINAL HEALTH
NESTLÉ

Sources: Global Trends, Fortune 500, and IMF Read the full report for caveats, trends and comparisons.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Geography: It's the Law

More to the point: geography should be the law. My colleagues in the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance have spent more than a decade trying to convince the education bureaucracy in Massachusetts to expand geography education beyond 4th and 7th grade; I joined the effort in earnest when it became clear to me that the current regulations do not even allow for teachers to become fully qualified to teach even this minimal geography curriculum.

Fortunately, we live in a democracy, and today -- Flag Day -- we took the case to the People's House, in this case the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Education. Two previous visits to the State House with our giant EarthView globe had piqued the interest of several legislators, prompting Senator Stephen Brewer -- as part of a bipartisan group -- to introduce SB182, a bill in support of geography education.

I was one of five educators who spoke in support of the bill in a hearing chaired by Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, herself a former public-school teacher. Nobody testified against the bill, though we do still expect  resistance from some quarters. At the senator's request, I gave only a summary of the remarks below, which I had submitted in writing as part of a packet assembled for the committee by my MGA colleagues. The committee was receptive to the case we made in support of the bill, and reporters in the room seemed interested as well.

June 14, 2011
Joint Committee on Education
Massachusetts General Court

Dear Members of the Joint Committee:

Good morning. I am Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan, professor of geography at Bridgewater State University and part of the EarthView team that takes a 20-foot inflatable globe to Massachusetts schools on a weekly basis. We have had 25,000 Massachusetts students use EarthView. Most were delighted; some ecstatic -- a 7th grader last week tried to hug the whole thing! By essentially cutting off geography education after 7th grade, we are failing to capitalize on the natural curiosity young people have about their world, from the local neighborhood to the planet as a whole.

We are fortunate that one of the world’s foremost geographers resides here in Massachusetts. Dr. Harm de Blij of Chatham has written scores of geography books and was the geography editor for Good Morning America on the day in 1990 that Iraq invaded Kuwait. War, as they say, is how Americans learn geography, and for many viewers his impromptu map was the beginning of a very crucial geography lesson that was to unfold over coming days and years.

I mention Dr. de Blij because of two things he said during visits to our campus. “Ignorance of geography,” he said, “is a threat to our national security.” We are the country with the most to gain or lose from our interactions with nearly 200 other countries on the planet. The economic, strategic, and cultural connections between and among them affect us in countless ways. Yet we are behind most of them in the study of geography. We need geography to understand, protect, and promote our interests. In this changing world, we need every well-informed citizen we can get.

Dr. de Blij also said, “There are no unemployed geographers,” which is very nearly true. The GPS units many of us have in our cars may look like magic, but of course they are not. The only billionaire I’ve known personally was the geographer who developed the trip-routing technologies that underlie so many of the applications we now see. The geospatial tools that power GPS units are now used in rapidly growing industries related to everything from locational analysis, supply-chain management, and environmental management to dynamic marketing, public safety and law-enforcement.

As you know, tornadoes have recently had a tragic impact in the Commonwealth. Geographic tools such as weather forecasting and hazard communication, however, were responsible for limiting the loss of life. Following the disaster, geographic tools in supply-chain management and logistics have facilitated the deployment of utility personnel and accelerate the delivery of needed building materials.

The geo-technology sector continues to grow and to become more deeply woven into other fields. We cannot afford not to prepare our young people to enter the 21st century job market with an understanding of these technologies and how they connect to the real world around them.

The impetus for my involvement in this vital issue was an encounter with a student shortly after I became chair of the geography department. Laura had transferred from New Hampshire to be closer to family, and chose Bridgewater because it had programs in both geography and secondary education. After she got on campus she realized that she could not do both. Laura applies her geographic education as a banker now; in New Hampshire she could have been a teacher instead.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.

Supporters of SB182 gather after the hearing.
Students from 42° 24' 07" N; 72° 06' 47" W
a.k.a. Quabbin Middle School
prepared this poster explaining the benefits of the
geography bill. (Click to enlarge.)
So far, I have seen media coverage of this hearing only from State House News Service, a subscription-only service for regional media. The following is an excerpt from the SHNS article "Lawmakers Pitched on Financial Literacy, Genocide, Geography Education" by Matt Murphy:


Some educators cautioned lawmakers that however "well intentioned" these proposal[s] are, public school districts coping with diminished state aid and limited financial resources don't have the time or money to implement new unfunded mandates.
"It will be an exceptional burden to local school districts if these programs are mandated without accompanying resources," Needham Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said, adding that there is not enough time in the school day to teach the material.
Rep. Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown) said she had been convinced by students at Harwich High School to file her bill (H 1064) requiring the teaching of genocide.
"We must teach about the mistakes and horrors of the past so we don't repeat those mistakes in the future," Peake said.
Many educators were also on hand carrying inflatable globes in support of legislation (S 182) filed by Sen. Stephen Brewer, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, that would revise the state's history and social science frameworks to include geography at all grade levels, and include geography in MCAS testing. The bill would also establish an additional license for teachers to obtain in order to teach geography.
"We have no geography beyond the 6th grade. That's a tragedy," said Bridgewater State University Professor Vernon Domingo, a member of the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance.
Domingo, a professor of geography, said," It's not your grandfather's geography," noting that students must be able to identify places like Afghanistan, Egypt or the Ukraine to properly understand events happening around the world.
Professor James Hayes Bohanan, the chair of the geography department at Bridgewater State and also a professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies, said geography is about more than pinpointing places on a map, but also about understanding trade, goods, immigration patterns and the importance of different world centers.
"Ignorance of geography is a threat to our national security," Bohanan [sic] said.



During the period we were at the hearing, Superintendent Gutekanst was the only "educator" to speak against any of the proposed measures, and he did so without any addressing the merits of any of the proposals discussed in the hearing. He did not mention the money wasted by a surfeit of administrators in the Commonwealth, which has at least 10 times as many superintendents as it should. Regionalizing school districts and reducing the reliance on high-stakes testing would free up more than enough time and money to teach all the subjects that need to be taught!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super Simplistic

Waiting for Superman is a documentary that does document a serious and complex problem. It focuses on families whose best hope for a quality education is a district-wide lottery for magnet or charter schools. The film shows that these hopes are all-too-often dashed. If it stopped at that, it would be a bit more useful than it is. But it goes on to pontificate, and the solutions offered are both vague and simplistic.

It is shameful that the accident of birth undermines the potential of so many students and that the lottery systems are just as arbitrary and unfair. The film ignores a fundamental truth about charter schools: their selectivity is itself a significant explanatory variable with respect to their success.

The lottery scenes are powerful, dramatizing the difference between "in" and "out." But the film does not explore one very strong possibility: If every one of the "loosing" students were to be placed into the same school -- any school -- it would be a better school, because of the motivation of the students and families involved.

The opening scenes portray some truly bad classrooms, a la the opening scenes of Blackboard Jungle or Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The implication is that these are simply bad teachers. Could the filmmaker really picture himself walking into such a classroom and making it better?

Rather than focus on weeding out "bad" teachers -- and admittedly this process should be simplified in some districts -- he should have spent at least a few minutes trying to figure out HOW they became so ineffective. I spend a lot of time in schools, and I've seen some pretty bad teachers -- perhaps 5 percent, as the film suggests. But I am confident that none of them started out with that intention. It would be worthwhile to explore what goes wrong, why it is concentrated geographically, and what to do about it.

Geography is the other flaw in this film, which notes a spatial correlation between failing schools and depressed neighborhoods, but it arbitrarily chooses to blame the latter on the former. No evidence is presented, aside from the implication that because good education is possible in such settings, the settings have nothing to do with failing schools.

This central fallacy of the film leads inevitably to the assertion in the closing credits: "The problem is complex; the solution is simple." Such a canard shuts down the debate that other parts of the film demonstrate is so necessary.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Peak Whale

Peak Oil: We've Been Here Before (NGS photo)
In January, I wrote about Tom Ashbrook's interview with Carl Safina, author of The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. We are reading the book together now; it is a beautiful telling of some ugly truths. For example:
"Formerly, whales were the world's wells, civilization's chief source of oil, and we pumped the sea nearly dry of them. Now many wish to pump it dry of petroleum, incurring deeper risks at deeper depths (and not just in the Gulf of Mexico). We appear to have leanred little of whales and nothing of oil. Japan, Norway, and Iceland cannot get beyond their blood thirst, nor we our oil addiction. The average Yank uses twice as much fossil fuel as the average Brit. Compared to 1970, we in the United States use half again as much energy, have increased our paved-road miles by half again, upped our vehicle miles driven by more than 175 percent, and increased the size of our new homes by half again. In 2007 the United States was burning over twenty million barrels of oil a day, about the same as the industrial behemoths Japan, Germany, Russia, China, and India -- combined. God bless us indeed." (p. 83)
We have the advantage of hindsight with regard to the decimated stocks of whales and their oil. Sadly, as Safina indicates, our oil addiction has made the most obvious explanations suspect. Peak oil is denied, while people blame high fuel prices on every short-term cause that comes to mind. Clearly, just as regional oil fields have reached their peak and entered decline in many places, so too has the global oil supply.

See humpback whales at NGS.

Lagniappe


ROCK OIL vs WHALE OIL (courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum, August 27, 2014)- 155 yrs ago today, Col. Edwin Drake struck oil at 69 ft. in a well he was drilling near Titusville, PA for a group of Connecticut investors who had hired him to prospect for petroleum, then called 'mineral oil' or 'rock oil' because it flowed from the earth and not from whales. Drake's well proved prospect drilling successful. It was the beginning of the end for whale oil. This 1861 cartoon depicts whales celebrating the new era, which changed the world and made countless fortunes. But Drake died a poor man, living on a small pension in later years.

Got Moose?

Q: How do you know you are near the site of a recent moose or deer crash in Maine? 
A: You are in Maine, on a road.
Photo: Paloma Bohanan
We have lived in southern New England for almost 14 years. Moose (Alces alces) live in northern New England, with their range gradually expanding southward. We travel a fair bit, so we expected to have seen one before now. We have traveled in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire on several occasions, often venturing out at dusk and in the spring and fall, when moose are said to be roaming. We even spent two days in Algonquin Provincial Park, which is said to have the greatest concentration of moose in the world. We have been warned -- WARNED -- not to joke around about moose. Any bit of carelessness while driving could put us at serious risk of a moose-car collision. There are no winners, as each party is quite dangerous to the other.

Whenever we drive in moose territory, we half-joke at the warning signs and scour the roadsides for moose, particularly in and near wetlands. Prior to our visit to Bridgewater, Maine last weekend, our reward for all this effort had been a sighting of the tail end of a moose entering the forest (and fleeing a crowd of gawkers) in Algonquin and the disturbing view of a freshly killed moose splayed out over a guard rail near Glen, New Hampshire.

We only half joke about the warning signs, of course, because we know that the threat of collision is real, especially at night. Deep down, we dreaded the possibility that our first real encounter might be calamitous. We were therefore very pleased to have our first good view of a moose in a roadside pond between Van Buren and Caribou, Maine last weekend. (Our hotel clerk assures us there are no caribou in Maine, by the way.) Paloma was able to snap several photos of this lovely girl as she scrounged the bottom of the pond for edible muck. According to the most recent Maine DOT's dot map of collisions with moose or deer, the highway was the site of one or more such crashes per mile along this stretch between 2005 and 2007.

The dot map is part of MDOT's most recent moose-safety poster, which also includes the choropleth map below. Whereas the dot map shows that the greatest density of moose collisions is in south-central Maine, the choropleth map is normalized for traffic flow, and indicates that the risk per mile driven is far higher in Aroostook County. The poster is one of many educational and statistical products available on MDOT's safety page, which is entirely devoted to vehicle-animal crashes.

MDOT: Click to Enlarge
Maine Wildlife Gallery
Several factors combine to explain why moose-car collisions have become so common, even as observation of living moose remains elusive. Expansion of agriculture pushed moose out of most of New England several hundred years ago, as roughly 80 percent of forest was converted to cropland. The eventual abandonment of agriculture once again created favorable habitat for moose, and occasional clearing for timber made their return easier and earlier in the far north of the region. By the 1970s, however, moose began to reappear in north-central Massachusetts where about 900 are thought to live now. The shape, size, and habits of moose make them particularly vulnerable to cars (and vice-versa), as explained on Mass Wildlife's Living with Moose page. Learn more about moose in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere from Mooseworld.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Monterrey Falling

Tourism continues in Monterrey:
See Travel Plus Wine
I have written several posts about the growing violence in northern Mexico, particularly in Juarez and areas near my former home in the Rio Grande Valley. A friend from the Valley recently shared an important if frightening  report about the growing violence in Monterrey, a prosperous city that is increasingly controlled by the Zetas. The analysis -- entitled If Monterrey Falls, Mexico Falls -- describes the vastly increased spatial scale of Zetas operations, and the threat posed to Mexico as a whole. At the title implies, a situation is rapidly developing in northeast Mexico that approaches an insurgent-state condition.

The immediate cause of the turmoil, of course, is the ruthless criminality of the Zetas themselves, but damage they do is made possible by several underlying factors. The incredible profits generated by U.S. demand for illicit drugs -- even marijuana -- has funded the rise of the Zetas. They readily obtain weapons from poorly regulated gun sales in the United States and more recently from the military-grade weapons with which we flooded Central America in the 1980s and 1990s.

Perhaps more important than either of these factors, though, is the huge income gap in Monterrey. While a few live in walled palaces and commute by helicopter, many work in factories for $5.25 a day. The low wages contribute to huge profits for maquila owners while providing those of us in the United States cheap access to a variety of consumer goods.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Just Bananas


A tiny AP article in my local paper alerted me to a very important lawsuit that was recently filed against Chiquita. As described in more detail in the Miami Herald, over 4,000 plaintiffs are suing the banana company for its support of right-wing paramilitary death squads, which routinely kill bystanders in their fight with the left-wing insurgency of FARC. The suit has some chance of success, because Chiquita was already convicted of the activity in a criminal case in 2007. The suit is being brought by Searcy Law in West Palm Beach, which is still seeking plaintiffs for the class-action suit.

As important as it is to hold Chiquita responsible for its support of terrorists in Colombia, and the U.S. Department of Justice is to be commended for its successful prosecution of Chiquita. Still, terrorists operating within the Colombian military itself have not been so designated by the United States, and in fact continue to receive tacit support through Plan Colombia. The importance of this connection was made clear by a visit to our campus last year of Martha Giraldo, whose father was assassinated by government forces.

The Chiquita case concludes more than a century of violence associated with its involvement -- and that of other fruit companies -- in Colombia and Central America. It is this violent legacy that makes bananas a particularly important market for the fair-trade movement, after coffee. The movement and the reasons for it are described in some detail by Henry Frundt in his book Fair Bananas, which my favorite librarian reviewed in The Meaning of Label.

The Maxwell Library at BSU has quite a few books on this important history, including:


Soluri, John. 2005. Banana cultures: agriculture, consumption, and environmental change in Honduras and the United States.

Slocum, Karla. 2006. Free Trade & Freedom: Neoliberalism, Place, and Nation in the Caribbean.

Bucheli, Marcelo. 2005. Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000

Dosal, Paul J. 1993. Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala, 1899-1944

Wilson, Charles Morrow. 1947. Empire in Green and Gold; The Story of the American Banana Trade