Saturday, April 26, 2014

CoffeeLab: Stories about Coffee -- April 30, 5:30 pm

Project GreenLab Discussion Series
Wednesday, April 30, 5:30 pm, Conant 459
Pizza, soft drinks, cookies and Nicaraguan coffee!

"Without my morning coffee I'm just like a dried up piece of roast goat."   
-- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The following is from an announcement posted by BSU chemistry professor Dr. Ed Brush, who is the organizer of the GreenLab Discussion Series.

Come to CoffeeLab event to find out the real identity of this mad scientist (hint: local coffee nerds may already know) and what he has to say about FrankenCoffee.
Our final GreenLab guest speaker for the semester will be Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan of the BSU Geography Department, coordinator of Project EarthView, and our campus and regional Coffee Maven. Dr. Hayes-Bohanan’s coffee obsession began when he started to understand how the fair-trade movement was helping to improve the lives of farm families who work very hard to produce fine coffees and who earn very little for their efforts. He has taken students to the coffee lands of Nicaragua, and has also visited coffee lands in Guatemala and Brazil. His coffee index page (below) is now the gateway to all of his coffee endeavors, from the romantic and the divine to the culinary and the commercial.

We will also be treated to samples of fresh-roasted Nicaraguan coffee!  Dr. Hayes-Bohanan’s presentation will lead to a future discussion on caffeine, where it’s found naturally, and why its appearing in foods that target kids.


Following the GreenLab discussion participants are invited to visit the BSU Observatory for their weekly viewing of the night skies.

The Project GreenLab discussion series focuses on developing a better understanding of the role of chemicals in our daily lives. These discussions are open to the BSU campus community, and to the general public.

The mission of Project GreenLab is to bring the Principles of Green Chemistry into research, curriculum development and outreach education. Project GreenLab is an outreach initiative of the Bridgewater State University Center for the Advancement of STEM Education (CASE).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Meaningful Seal

My favorite librarian and I have been reading Unfamiliar Fishes, a surprising book by humorist and public-radio personality Sarah Vowell. The pleasant surprise of the book is Vowell's caliber as a scholar and historian of colonialism -- particularly colonialism as it relates to religion. The unpleasant surprise is the hubris and audacity described on just about every page of the book.

As Pam read a passage from the middle of the book today, I was actually startled by a level of audacity that was surprising, even in the context of this sordid tale of impure puritans abroad. Act 16:9, Vowell explains, was cited by the New Englander conquistadors of Hawaii as an excuse to Christianize the islands, just as their forebears had convinced themselves that Native Americans had invited them to the shores of Massachusetts.
As Vowell points out -- and as Pam already knew -- this delusion is immortalized in the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which served as the first seal of our adopted state. In mid-conquest, the words "Come over and help us" were put in the mouth of the conquered. Nothing illustrates American exceptionalism better than this. If colonization was both ordained by God and desired by the colonized, it is very difficult to think critically about America as just another member of the community of nations.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ruby Exposed


Image: George McLean
Ruby was a glorious red-tail hawk that was celebrated in the city of Cambridge, one of a nesting pair with many human admirers. A week ago, however, Ruby was found at the base of the nest she shared with Buzz, having succumbed to the effects of rat poison. A half century after Rachel Carson warned of the effects of pesticides -- particularly on top predators -- the use of poisons remains surprisingly unregulated.

The environmental concerns surrounding the management of pests in urban settings are as complex as they are in agriculture, but it is no less important to address them more seriously. Charismatic megafauna such as hawks and eagles draw attention to risks that are much broader, whether they relate to low-dose chronic exposures as detailed in Silent Spring or in high-dose acute exposures brought on by the careless use of rat traps by restaurants.



Ruby was found under the tree in which she had been nesting at the Fresh Pond Mall (which seems to be more "mall" than "fresh" or "pond") in Cambridge. It is perhaps surprising that although she was nesting in a built-up area, the poisoning seems to have occurred in the open space of the Mount Auburn Cemetery a half-mile to the south.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nuts Have a Geography, Too

Some people assume that coffee is the only commodity that has my attention, and it is true that I have more than a passing interest in the beverage, and especially in the lands and peoples responsible for the bean that is the second-most traded commodity in the world (oil being the first).

I use geography to teach about coffee and coffee to teach about geography, though, and many of the lessons of this agricultural commodity are applicable to many others. I am very proud that my daughter recognized this recently, when she excitedly shared


The Luckiest Nut in the World from Emily James on Vimeo.

Just as a coffee bean is not a bean, a peanut is not a nut, nor is a ground nut. We learn from this film that at one time, ground nuts were the leading export of the country of Senegal. As Paloma rightly concluded, an economy dependent on a food staple that she had never heard of was probably not a very prosperous economy.

This brilliant and engaging little film deftly describes the ways in which dependence on commodities keeps some countries at the periphery of the world economy indefinitely, and how the manipulation of the rules that govern trade reinforce the core-periphery dichotomy.

The entire tale is told from the point of view of an all-American peanut, a self-reflective character that gradually comes to understand his position of privilege relative to the ground nuts, cashews, and Brazil nuts of Senegal, Mozambique, and Bolivia, respectively. (Most Brazil nuts grow in Bolivia! Who knew?)

In its very funny way, this film provides an education in political economy over the space of a typical sit-com episode. Emily James uses this jaunty peanut to explain the many ways in which the system that looks like a free-trade, even playing field is actually manipulated in important ways, each to the disadvantage of farmers in developing countries. Understanding the prevalence of distorted markets is the first step toward fairness in trade.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have mentioned three other important -- and generally entertaining resources for learning more. Most entertaining and relevant, perhaps, is King Corn, which describes the incredibly contrived market in corn. Policies that make corn profitable for U.S. farmers and cheap for U.S. consumers are not just bad for the federal budget; they make life difficult for farmers around the world.

In my Cups and Summits post, I describe the other two films -- Black Gold and The Girl in the Cafe -- that tell other aspects of the story. Though one is a documentary and the other a feature film, both provide behind-the-scenes looks into the process that makes "free trade" agreements anything but free.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ideologies of Destruction

Which has killed more Texans: Muslim extremism or libertarianism?

Photo: LM Otero/AP

This week marked the one-year anniversary of two deadly bombings, both ultimately the result of deadly ideologies. The best-known of these was the cowardly detonation of two home-made devices at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and grievously injuring many more. As with most people in my region, I was stunned and offended, have followed the case closely, and have contributed to the fund for victims.

Two days after the bombing in Boston, a much larger explosion took place in the town of West, Texas (located in central Texas). As with any story from Texas, Wade Goodwyn best tells the story of the explosion and of the rollercoaster year that followed. Nearly 20 years after Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City with 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate, Don and Wanda Adair stored 100 times that amount of the bomb-making material in a wooden shed. As his report makes clear, ideology may prevent the prevention of future such disasters. Even residents of the town victimized by the explosion are loathe to blame the couple who put them at risk.

Back in Boston, the anniversary of the West explosion was recognized in a report on Here & Now that asked What's Being Done to Prevent Another Fertilizer Plant Explosion? Sadly, the answer is very little. Perhaps if the Adairs were from another religion, the response would have been more decisive, but free-market fetishism continues to thrive, and will continue to kill.

April, by the way, is a very tough month for ammonium nitrate explosions in Texas and Oklahoma:

April 16, 1947: Texas City, Texas -- 581 killed, including most of the fire department
April 19, 1985: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma -- 168 killed, including most of a preschool
April 17, 2013: West, Texas -- 15 killed, including 13 firefighters

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Economic Baggage

For almost as long as I have been a geographer, I have asserted that the border between Mexico and the United States is the steepest in the world in economic terms. Mexico is figuratively far from the poorest country on earth, but it is literally very near one of the richest. As I've written in Human Sieve and elsewhere on this blog, the human cost of this disparity is enormous.

From my favorite librarian I learned that at least one border is steeper, and the reality of life at that border -- especially for women -- is difficult to believe. Spain meets Africa directly in two Moroccan port cities -- Ceuta and Melilla -- exclaves that are on the African continent but legally part of the European Union. It is, in fact, EU security rules that have created an unthinkable level of despair on the edges of the town of Melilla.



As detailed in Suzanne Daley's excellent reporting in the New York Times, Melilla is quite literally a Borderline Where Women Bear the Weight. Morocco is not the poorest country in Africa, nor is Spain the richest country in Europe, but the income disparity between the two is about twenty-fold -- a disparity about five times greater than the gap between Mexico and the United States.

Because a loophole in the customs rules provides for a tax exemption for any cargo than can plausibly be considered "luggage" and parcels up to 100 kilograms are considered to meet that criterion, carrying large parcels across the border, pretending it is luggage, is the only viable employment for many Melillans.

Because jurisdictions between private and official security forces in the two countries are muddled, no authorities are willing to protect the women who have been pursuing this trade from trampling by men who are turning to this difficult work in greater numbers.

The women of Melilla compete with each other and with men for the opportunity to be the world's most oppressed baggage handlers.



Love Canal Recap

The Mindset List produced each year by the librarians at Beloit College in Wisconsin is a reminder of the gradualness with which one generation fades into another ... and another. The librarians produce the list as a service to fellow academics; otherwise, we fail to notice bits of "common knowledge" that are no longer common. When I was a student, for example, even those who did not know any details about Love Canal knew that it was a very serious situation indeed -- an environmental disaster with serious political ramifications. Those two words could be invoked almost like a weapon, to indicate a very grave situation.

A few years ago, I realized that the phrase had no meaning at all for most students, and eventually realized that a whole host of powerful phrases has lost their power -- from "Iran hostage" to "Sandinista" to "Silent Spring" to "Population Bomb." As with so many things, we Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are getting special attention in terms of lost cultural touchstones -- in the form of the Mindset List itself and in the form of a wonderful new video series from the New York Times. The Retro Report is a series of more than thirty (so far) short videos that revisit stories from the past -- many of them stories more likely to be remembered by Boomers than by our students or children.


The video about Love Canal is both a thorough introduction and a very interesting update of this pivotal story in the environmental history of the United States. My 2011 Ditching EPA post makes the case for the continued relevance of the Love Canal debacle.