Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway

Source: The Other 98%
This image is a reminder that wealth is no guarantee of wisdom, as our wealthiest society proves itself ever less aware of how children learn best. I found this online a few days after learning of the satirical homage to the popular (in the U.S.) Do They Know It's Christmas? -- Feed the World song that pulled at heartstrings but did not build understanding in either direction across the Atlantic. In fact, the popular song reads much like the travel writing that is parodied by Binyavanga Wainaina in a classic article from Granta, How to Write About Africa.

The satire Radi-Aid: Africa For Norway evokes many tropes of the well-meaning but poorly informed. The satire is not bitter, though: the site is actually hosted in Norway.

I do participate in development projects, as do many of my students and colleagues. But those succeed best that begin with listening, and with the realization that  People Are More Alike Than Different, the guiding principle of my friends at the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development. The video above serves as a worthwhile reminder of how even our best efforts will be seen if we fail to remember this.

While I was mulling this post and thinking about how best to present these parodies, I heard a remarkably appropriate story from South Africa, a country whose struggles with HIV have been monumental, and whose government once took an approach that was as absurd as it was lethal. In South Africa Finds Its Way, Jason Beaubien recounts South Africa's difficulties -- both past and present -- but then describes the successes that have arisen as the country finds its own ways of coping with the highest infection rates in the world. Transmission is still a huge problem, but treatment is in many ways far ahead of U.S. and European responses.

Background -- Why I Shared This
Since preparing for my first study tour to Cape Verde in 2006, I have given a lot of thought to what it means for someone in the United States to promote justice abroad, particularly through travel with students, particularly in Africa, and particularly if students from Africa are part of the journey. What the hell do I know, after all, that would be of any use?

As an economic and environmental geographer, I know that countries on the periphery of the world economy suffer disproportionately from environmental problems and generate much of the wealth that accumulates in the economic core, with few of the benefits. As a cultural geographer and traveler, however, I know that these imbalances, however important, do not define people or places. As a parent and citizen in a core country, I also know that the concentration of wealth has not eliminated all of our problems, and in fact has created some that are absent in developing countries, or found only among their economic elites. How do I address these very real imbalances while also honoring the richness of the human societies behind such abstractions?

As I struggled with these questions about six months before my first Cape Verde study tour, an African-American environmental activist shifted my thinking with one simple statement: "You are a bridge," she said. "You do not need to have the answers. You just help people make the connections." Working at Bridgewater State University, I have found that metaphor most helpful in my studies abroad and in my classroom and online teaching.

Natural Gas: Plank to the Future

I usually try to find a source for images I use on my blog, but I keep finding images similar to this on web sites about online piracy -- without attribution! I would love at least to know the name of the artist.
On my way to "whaling" on Sunday morning, I heard two important stories about climate change, the second with direct relevance to my new hobby.


The phrase "Bridge to Nowhere" refers to the proposed Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska that would replace ferry service to the airport currently serving Ketchikan, Alaska. Even as it remains unbuilt, it estimated cost has continued to grow, reaching about $40,000 for each and every resident of the city. That would buy a lot of ferry rides, and the foolishness of the proposal has embarrassed even members of Congress in the proponents' own party. (See an overview and commentary to learn more about the most famous non-bridge in history.)

Politicians of both major parties -- and even some environmentalists -- regularly promote an even more costly boondoggle when they characterize natural gas as a bridge energy source. President Obama's "all of the above energy policy" is simply a refusal to acknowledge that natural gas is a fossil fuel. It burns more cleanly than coal or oil, but its recovery does more climate disruption than either of these. I have written extensively in this space about the pernicious nature of fracking as a recovery method. As civil engineer Tony Ingraffea explains in Climate Risks from Leaky Natural Gas Wells, however, even conventional wells are a huge source of climate disruption, long after the gas has driven our bus or heated our soup.
On a recent drive through Pennsylvania, we did not see these wells, but we saw a few of the thousand of trucks needed to carry water and equipment to them. We also saw plenty of evidence of the giddy economic bubble surrounding thi rush to extraction, from young guys in $50,000 pickups to real estate billboards and strip clubs.
Back to the metaphor that the industry and politicians and even some environmentalists like to use: natural gas is not a bridge. If it were, it would be connecting us in a reasonable amount of time to some other energy future. As currently operating, though, it simply serves as another way of ensuring that virtually all of the carbon stored several hundred million years before the arrival of human is put into the atmosphere in the blink of a geologist's eye. It is not a "bridge" in any meaningful sense, and actually generates profits while delaying real changes in the use of energy.


Otter warrior
 Inbar TrueFlight
After hearing this very discouraging story, I continued my drive to the historic whaling center of New Bedford Harbor, where I was to meet my crew for an hour or so of rowing our replica whaleboat around the harbor, where we would indulge in a close-up view of the historic whaleship Ernestina before heading very briefly out to sea.

So it was fitting that I heard a somewhat more encouraging story with a whaling connection. In Otters as Climate Defenders, environmental studies professor Chris Willmer explains a complicated sequence of event by which whaling in the Pacific a century ago contributes to climate change today, by limiting the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Enter the otter, whose restoration in the northern Pacific could be funded by the many millions of dollars of carbon credits that could be offset.


For introductory resources on climate change, please see my Inconvenient Geography page and be sure to click on the link back to this blog. For ongoing information about climate activism worldwide, join Bill McKibben's 350.org. To find out how the vulnerability and responsibility vary at a global scale, please see the Mary Robinson Foundation; for a focus on variable impacts in the United States, please see the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative page.

Finally, the best possible introduction to the topic is Carl Safina's beautiful and terrifying The View from Lazy Point, which is now required reading for all of my introductory Environmental Geography students. I first heard about the book from Safina himself on the program that is the source of both stories above -- Living on Earth.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Return of the Pink Unicorn

What a free market looks like
As I mentioned in a recent post about the deleterious effects of income inequality, free markets are exceedingly rare. This is important because the illusion of free markets informs so much policy-making with regard to the economy. Actually, "informs" is not the right word, since this unchecked assumption is at the heart of so many damaging policies.

As recently reported on the BBC, stocks fell briefly this week when minutes of a U.S. Federal Reserve meeting were released. This body meets periodically to set interest rates and to schedule the sale of U.S. debt instruments. Economists and investors spend an extraordinary amount of their time leading up to each meeting trying to figure out not only what the Fed will do, but also how it will impact markets, and how impacted markets will impact other markets, and so on.

The price of "freely traded" stocks are therefore influenced by fiscal policy, which in turn is the outcome of a political process. The value of money itself is similarly subject to policy decisions -- even the value of money in countries that have no power to set the policies. Even hints about upcoming decisions in Washington sent stocks tumbling in emerging markets in Asia -- billions of dollars lost in a single day because of possible changes in the way markets were to be manipulated.

Essential assumptions may be introduced at the beginning of a course on microeconomics, and they might just apply somewhere -- as in the land of the pink unicorns -- but the limiting nature of the assumptions is rarely scrutinized in mainstream discussions of finance, economics, or trade. The degree to which trading conditions are manipulated on the real Planet Earth is made very clear in the final scenes of the extraordinary documentary Black Gold, which take place at a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun. In this film about coffee, we see that trade negotiations held in heavily fortified conference centers are structured to continue favoring the rich, while the U.S. trade representative sneers at negotiators from the global periphery for attempting to take a stand on behalf of poor farmers. This disdainful attitude has been shared by trade officials of both major parties at least since the first Clinton administration, because liberals and conservatives alike know that "American prosperity" could not take place in a completely free market.

Whew! Just made it!
Image: PennLive
Former Texas Governor Anne Richards is widely credited with saying that George Bush the Elder was "born on third base and thought he hit a triple." She did not actually say this -- though fellow Texan Barry Switzer did, and many people think further fellow Texan Jim Hightower did -- but it would have been true of either of the Presidents Bush, as it was of candidate Romney: all were born into incredible privilege, created and maintained for them by others, and thought that they had done most of the achieving on their own.

But here is the rub: it is also true for most residents of wealthy countries. To believe otherwise is pure fantasy.

Maya: Forward through Time

Browsing the BBC web site (a great activity for geographers), I found a short photo essay about the Maya of Guatemala. The collection is erroneously entitled "Step back in time in Guatemala" and erroneously filed under "history."

In fact, it provides five snapshots that illustrate the historical roots of the contemporary geography of highland Guatemala. For a tourist, it may seem like a step back in time, but it is more appropriate to recognize the persistence of Mayan culture a half a millenium after Conquest.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Spirit Level

This cartoon is taken from the opening pages of Spirit Level, a 2011 book in which Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson describe the ways in which excessive inequality lowers the quality of life -- not only for the disadvantaged, but for those at the top of the economic pyramid.

As I have argued elsewhere, low taxes have become a political fetish -- a perversion damaging even those who think they are pleasuring themselves with the tax code and market interventions that concentrate wealth.

Wait ... why is there a pink unicorn in this post?

Image: Deposit Photos
Because a pink unicorn is just as common as a free market. Many occupy the top of an economic system that they think of as open and fair, but that actually include structures that benefit them in subtle ways. Others at the top of the economy know this very well, and manipulate the political process to enhance such structures.

As Pickett and Wilkinson show, however, those manipulations ultimately damage not only the poor and the middle class, but even the wealthy themselves.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Unprotected Space

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A disproportionate amount of my life is spent in the area framed above. It is just a mile of pavement, about halfway between our home and our daughter's boarding school. Although I live adjacent to my workplace and am therefore not a real commuter, I find myself traversing this space a couple of times a week -- or occasionally four times in a day -- for family errands or while transporting EarthView.

Although it looks innocent enough from satellite elevation, in real life this space is fraught, as it brings drivers from the two worst-driver states (MA #49, RI #50) into a high-speed (technically 55 but never patrolled -- too dangerous) area that requires daunting lane changes, and bewildering signage. A few dollars saved on ramp construction has most drivers entering this zone from the wrong side, while geographic oddities mean that driving from east to west here means going north and south at the same time, on several different highways -- 1, 93, 95, and 128.

At the western edge of the scene above is a rail station, serving both Amtrak and MBTA. Until this morning, I never realized the importance of something I see every time I pick someone up at this station -- open space. Much of the land surrounding University Avenue (named for I know not which of dozens of universities in the region, none of which is on this road) is as-yet undeveloped. Bulldozers are idling at the edges of fields, though, ready to turn "empty" space into dollars.

I was not in the area today; rather, I read the article Boston Globe article I-93, I-95 interchange project to benefit Westwood. Here the word "benefit" is used very narrowly. I considered the recent construction at the interchange of Route 24 and I-93 to be providing a benefit in that is reduces the danger involved in merging from the former onto the latter. The article describes further construction projects that would create more congestion in the short term but improve safety and reduce travel time in the medium term. The article cites greater access to the University Avenue lands as one of the "benefits" of ongoing construction in the area.

In the long term, however, just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, investment capital abhors accessible, undeveloped space. It is for this reason that improving highways does not necessarily reduce congestion.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Geography -- What It Is

I'm a geographer. Yes, I study rocks, but I'm not a geologist. I consider weather and climate when I study people--but I know the environment doesn't determine a culture's development. Hydrology and oceanography are cool. Please don't feel threatened just because I know about economic, political, and cultural globalization. I read Darwin, Lovelock, Marx, and Tuan--all in geography classes. The newspaper calls me a local historian. My neighbors think I'm an expert on roads. I hang out in cemeteries. I've served in government--far more successfully than the self-proclaimed "business experts." Capitals? I really haven't memorized them, thank you. But I can think spatially and holistically. I love my planet. I'm interdisciplinary. I'm a geographer.

The "I" above is a fellow geographer with the Facebook identity "Church of Geography," who posted that explanation along with the Princess Bride meme. It serves as an opening to a conversation I have had for several years now through this blog, whose main purpose is to provide the widest possible array of examples a geographic perspective.

Readers who have not already done so are invited to browse the blog for such examples, or to use the keyword or search functions (on the left of the screen or top of the screen, respectively) to see if I have tackled some topic of interest to you from a geographic perspective.

Of course, to some extent "geography" does mean what one thinks it means: knowing where things are does matter.