Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Good Read on a Vital Topic

The latest from my Good Reads account includes a link back to several posts on this blog.

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural WorldThe View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I learned of this book when my librarian spouse was engaged in a year-long project of reading "year of" books -- an entire genre of books whose authors dedicated a year to a particular topic or practice. This meta project involved reading two such books each month, and we shared a few of them. Since I am an environmental geographer, she read this one to me.

Around the same time, I was realizing that the textbook in my introductory environmental geography class was becoming a bit out-of-date, and in particular that it was not adequately addressing climate change. I decided to try assigning this book as the main text in that survey course, and I am very glad I did. It is the only book that large numbers of students THANK me for assigning.

This is all the more impressive because students really do struggle with this book. It is a beautifully written account of some very unpleasant -- one could say inconvenient -- truths about a rapidly changing world. Some students are offended that Safina does not do more to soften the blow, but most eventually come to appreciate his approach.

Like Rachel Carson before him, Safina is both a talented writer and a consummate scientist. He also reveals a deep love for his chosen home on Long Island sound and the many other places around the world that his work has taken him.

I should emphasize that although I use this as a textbook, it is not written that way. In the process of telling his stories and making his case, this biologist happens to cover many of the topics I feel I need to include in my geography course. He does it so beautifully that I am happy to provide a few supplements to cover those areas, so that my students and I can immerse ourselves in this important and beautiful work.

My environmental geography blog includes a number of items about Safina and this book: http://environmentalgeography.blogspo...

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Archdruid Encounters

I have had a goodreads account for a while, but have used it very little. When I was prompted to write a review, this book came to mind, as it helped to change the course of my life. I still recommend it, 30+ years later.

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book changed my life, I suppose. It was one of the very first environmental books I read -- assigned by professors in two different classes. By cosmic coincidence, we got to meet the "Archdruid" near the end of the course because one of the professors sat next to him on a plane. At the time, he had been drummed out of Sierra Club for being too radical, but the club eventually came around, and I met him again years later at a Sierra Club event.

The book itself set me on the path to the career I have 30 years later -- environmental geography -- and made me a fan of John McPhee and his approach to scholarship. Whatever he writes about -- and it is a wide range -- he approaches through individuals he finds who are deeply embedded in the topic.

In this case, the main individual is David Brower, champion of wilderness. Three separate segments of the book describe journeys to wild places -- an island, a mountain, and a lake -- with Brower and and engineer or developer with ideas about changing the place. It is honest and deep, and still important all these years later.

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Sunday, September 06, 2015

Triangle Spring

News from the "Northern Triangle" of Central America has recently been full of terrible stories of such violence and corruption that parents would rather send their children north with human smugglers than to risk keeping them at home. The United States has responded poorly at best, incarcerating many children whom scriptures, laws, and conscience would mandate we take in.
The Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is a subregion with geopolitical problems distinct from the very real but somewhat less critical problems of its neighbors.

It is in this context that I was glad to hear some positive news from the region -- on the political front, no less. A failed drug war and unfair trade policies are part of the problem in the region. Corruption, though, is another common problem, and it has reached dangerous -- almost unbelievable -- levels.

And public revulsion at the extreme corruption is what appears finally to be galvanizing effective social movements across the region. As reported by The Guardian, coalitions are being formed under a broad umbrella known as Our Central American Spring. Some corrupt officials -- past and present -- are actually being held accountable as a result of recent public pressure.
Activists and journalists are still at some risk, however, if they expose the wrong culprits. Washington is beginning to offer some support, but seems reluctant to abandon allies on the far right that it has trained and supported over many decades. See my posts With Christians Like This ... and September 11, 1973 for just a couple examples from the past, and Outsourced Horrors for a more recent example misplaced U.S. priorities in the region.  This is a time to pay close attention to the region, and to whether Washington keeps human rights at the forefront of its policy-making.

For more scholarly analysis of the current situation in the Northern Triangle, see the Wilson Center report Organized Crime in Central America.

Of course, daily life is much more nuanced -- and ultimately more important -- than political movements. Those who are interested in learning about one small corner of the Northern Triangle can read Mi Aventura Hondureña, the blog of a young friend of mine who spent the better part of the last two years teaching in a small community on northwest Honduras.

I want also to point out that Nicaragua -- though it has its share of problems, including corruption -- is not part of the Northern Triangle. The problems that Nicaragua does have stem from a much different historical trajectory, one result of which is relatively safe conditions in recent years. This has allowed me to take more than 100 students to Matagalpa, Nicaragua over the past decade, in an annual exploration of the geography of coffee. I mention this only because the geographic proximity leads many to assume that all of the countries in the region have the same set of conditions, discouraging many from experiences that would be valuable.