Monday, June 26, 2017

Second Coffee Myth: Busted

The first myth of coffee is the myth of its origin about 1500 years ago in Abyssinia, in what is now Ethiopia. A goatherd named Kaldi is said to have noticed his goats dancing with extra energy. He also noticed that they were eating the fruit of some tall shrubs, so he chewed on them, got energized, and the rest is history.
Coffee: Fruit to grounds
The rest is also geography -- the Abyssinians only got as far as mashing the fruit into something like a power bar; it was across the Red Sea in Yemen that coffee as we know it began to emerge about a century later.

The second coffee myth comes much later, in the 1970s, and it actually includes the word "second." The myth goes like this:
Myth: Coffee is the second-most actively traded commodity, after oil.
This is a myth that I have repeated online, in classes, and in public lectures. I have read it on coffee web sites and many kinds of books about the beverage. And I have heard it in almost every documentary film about coffee that I have watched.

And, it appears, it is about as likely to be true as the legend of Kaldi. Perhaps less so.

Over the years, I have intended to look up the numbers behind the claim, to make sure that they were "still" true. The possibility that the claim was never true simply did not occur to me.

And then an alum shared Jon Greenberg's PolitiFact article No, Coffee Is Not the Second-Most Traded Commodity After Oil. The article is a bit blustery and inexplicably centers on Starbucks, but it usefully cites a couple of statistics and authorities that cast doubt on the second-most ranking. One of those incorrectly says that the claim was once true, which would give me comfort, but it turns out that even this is not the case.

Fortunately, Greenberg cites one authority I know personally -- Mark Pendergrast. When I first began preparing to teach coffee classes in 2005, I chose his book Uncommon Grounds as a text. Coincidentally, a teacher who was attending a geography workshop at which I was giving a short presentation on coffee said, "My uncle has written a book about coffee." It was the book I had already chosen, and I was able to arrange for him to speak on our campus as part of the send-off for my first coffee travel course. I later took a group of students who had read his book to meet him while we were touring a roastery near his home.

I mention those meetings because they took place after the book was published, but before Pendergrast had been made aware of the error shared by so many scholars of coffee. Scholar that he is, he doggedly researched the topic, going much deeper, of course, than the PolitiFact author could go. Details of his retraction were published in a 2009 issue of Coffee & Tea Trade Journal  with the cumbersome title Coffee second only to oil? Is coffee really the second largest commodity?, which is helpfully republished on The Free Library.

Pendergrast's best theory as to the origin of the myth is that it originally referred not to global trade, but to exports from developing countries. He explains this distinction clearly, and also explains why apples-to-apples comparisons (as it were) between the 1970s and today are no longer possible.

As careful as he is in the retraction, Pendergrast is also careful to emphasize that the ranking is not so important. However it is measured, the coffee business touches tens of millions of lives directly, along with wildlife habitat and water supplies throughout the tropics. Those of us who care deeply about those people and places should never have taken the "big is important" bait.

A second edition of Uncommon Grounds includes the correction, but as we all know -- retractions never travel as widely or quickly as errors. I am making it my duty as Coffee Maven -- beginning with this post -- to set the record straight.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

If I am in my car, I am almost certainly listening to public radio. We live in a place where thoughtful stories and interviews from NPR, PRI, APR, or BBC are available on one local station or another almost all the time. Recently I heard a few minutes near the end of this conversation with Salma Hayek.

We had heard a little about Hayek's latest film, in which she is an ordinary, working person who finds herself at a small dinner party with economically powerful -- ruthless, even -- guests in the home of one of her massage/reiki clients. This is the sort of film that we would usually just put on our list for eventual release online, but in part because of the interview, I joined Pam in wanting to catch it in the theater. During travel to visit family in Maryland, we did just that.
Beatriz at Dinner
She was invited but not welcome
This film can be seen as a sort of sequel to the T.C. Boyle novel Tortilla Curtain, which treats very similar tensions between people who are physically proximate but socially distant.

It is different in a couple of key ways. Most important is that the story brings its disparate characters into even more direct -- even personal -- contact with each other. This is a story of conversation, and as the most privileged character (Doug Strutt, played with glee by John Lithgow) sometimes steers the conversation with Hayek's Beatriz toward interrogation, she is increasingly emboldened to do the same. Not used to having his actions and values questioned, the tension between the two escalates uncomfortably.

A second key difference is that although both stories involve characters on opposite sides of racial and economic divides, the economic dichotomy is a bit different. If Boyle's wealthy were "one percenters" or even "1/10 percenters," Doug and his pals represent the billionaire class and their allies. And although Beatriz clearly comes from outside the gate, she is a professional with her own business. Though modest in the context of the home where the dinner takes place, her status is clearly different from the housekeeper played by Soledad St. Hilaire.


Written by Michael White and directed by Miguel Arteta, Beatriz at Dinner passes the Bechdel Test, many times over. The greatest fireworks are between Beatriz and Doug, and these interactions bring out the most timely (2017) political lessons. But the most important social lessons play out in the interactions between Beatriz and homeowner Cathy (played by Bostonian Connie Britton), who sees herself as both an admirer and friend of Beatriz.

When reviewing the IMDb page for the film, I noticed an interesting Bechdel connection, which cannot have been accidental. A film passes the Bechdel test only if a conversation takes place between two female characters who have names, and if that conversation is about something other than a man. A surprising number of films do not pass this simple test. Beatriz has conversations with all of the named characters, male and female. But other than herself, only the wealthy characters have names, and only Doug Strutt has a surname. The housekeeper in this film is no different than those in any of the films to which Hayek refers in her radio interview.

Environmental Geography

This film is so richly layered with respect to social and economic geography that I almost forgot to mention two threads of the story that are germane to the title of this blog. One is the phenomenon of wealthy trophy hunters slaughtering endangered large mammals as boost to their own egos, with devastating consequences. Doug Strutt is one such "hunter" who justifies his participation in these rigged hunts -- perhaps even to himself -- by arguing that they support wildlife management. Although such models commonly work in the U.S., Beatriz is rightly quite skeptical of the kinds of "hunts" that attract the likes of her dinner companion.

The other environmental problem that Beatriz and the rest of the guests see quite differently is cancer. This is especially poignant because her connection to the hosts of the party is the healing work she did with their daughter as she suffered from cancer. As much as Cathy, the mother, admires Beatriz as a healer, she is skeptical when Beatriz speaks of environmental factors that cause the disease. In this part of the conversation, she echoes Rachel Carson, who drew connections between pesticides and health risks that many people simply found to uncomfortable to believe. At this fictional dinner party, it is as if Carson has the opportunity to bring her findings about pollution directly to a powerful culprit.


Beatriz at Dinner does the viewer a favor of not resolving all of the questions it raises. It is a Hollywood film without a Hollywood resolution. It also makes good of magic realism, an important thread in much of the literature of Latin America.

Throughout the film, I thought of the irony of Hayek playing a character who is uncomfortable as a guest in a big, expensive house, even though she must own one. I wondered, in fact, if her own house was being used as the set, but from what I can tell on celebrity web sites, it is not. She does appear to own at least two houses larger than the one used in the film, and probably more than that. She is a multimillionaire married to a multibillionaire. She clearly has a Latina life that many film directors would consider implausible for a Latina character.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Writing Matters

Good writing is the best evidence of clear thinking.
Good writing is also hard work.
from Not-the-13th Grade

I wrote this aphorism myself more than 20 years ago. I had said it to a class, and then realized that it should be at the top of the writing pages I had created as part of my very first web site. My entire online life began, in fact, with this small effort to help my geography students to think more critically about their own writing.

I was reminded of this when my favorite librarian shared Dave Stuart's recent article, "Writing: The Most Underrated Twenty-First Century Skill," which she had found through one of her librarian newsletters.

I flinched momentarily at his use of the phrase "most underrated," but quickly realized he is absolutely right. Education is full of fads, and an increasingly consequential constellation of fads surrounds efforts to figure out what employers want from graduates and then to make damn sure we educators "give" it to them.

My own university is caught up in this, seeking to identify exactly which skills we provide in each class, and figuring out how to plan, validate, document and (Goddess help us) assess each such skill.

The result is less emphasis on three things we know build writing skills:
Sadly, outcome-driven fads that have worked poorly in K-12 education are now being inflicted on higher education, notwithstanding the important role of academic freedom that has been at the core of the latter heretofore. Today, university professors at all levels are being pushed to orient their courses toward narrowly defined workplace "skills," to the detriment of holistic skills in writing and -- by extension -- reasoning.

Those of us who teach at the university level already know well what outcome-based, data-driven "reforms" have done at the K-12 level. Many of our students arrive without much experience with sustained reading or with writing beyond a strictly prescribed, five-paragraph essay. Vocabularies and facility with syntax are shrinking, while a tendency toward passive learning is growing.

Nobody has expressed the value of reading for its own sake more eloquently than U.S. Representative (and civil-rights hero) John Lewis, upon receipt of the National Book Award. His admonition is part of my November 2016 post, Just Read.


Readers interested in reviews of some of my favorite books can have a look at my read shelf at Goodreads.

Unicorn Cult

One of my proudest moments as an academic came during a panel discussion on fair trade in 2013, when the economist sitting next to me wrote "pink unicorn" in her notebook, exclaiming that she would be borrowing my metaphor for her own teaching. This was especially gratifying to me, because I see almost the entire field of economics as deluded by its fixation on free markets.

What the Free Market looks like.
I recently became aware of Chris Floyd's short, brilliant, and important 2008 article, The God That Failed that sheds important light on how damaging that fixation has become, and how so many people have been taken in by it. Writing just after the bubble burst (and coincidentally, shortly before I started blogging), Floyd explains how the simplistic pronouncements of Thatcher, Reagan, and Norquist became deeply embedded in our politics over the previous three decades, normalizing the impoverishment of public institutions.

As dire as his words were in 2008, he could not have predicted the extent to which the public has accepted and even embraced austerity, transferring trillions of dollars from the bottom 80 percent to the top 1 percent via tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization.


I explain my use of the unicorn metaphor in my 2013 Return of the Pink Unicorn and 2014 Galloping Unicorns posts. Adam Smith's metaphor for the magical market, of course, is the invisible hand. See my 2012 Smashing Hand post for a Monty cartoon and links to several related, mildly risqué, comparisons.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Fifty Years of Temporary Living

Dalia & Bashir
As I have written in this space before, Sandy Tolan's novel* The Lemon Tree has been among the most powerful works I have assigned to my students. In my survey course The Developing World, I assign it to complement the traditional textbook chapter on the Middle East. I intended to assign this only once -- during the semester that it was our town and university community read, in which Mr. Tolan visited our campus. But the writing that resulted from this assignment was among the most thoughtful writing I have seen from my students, so I have continued to assign it.

The conflict over Palestine is one of the most important for U.S. foreign policy, but one that is little understood by most U.S. citizens, and understood in only the simplest terms by most of the rest. It is, of course, a conflict with a complicated geography and a complicated history, and both have implications for daily life in the West Bank and throughout the entire region. So while a few students have resisted this assignment -- because it is complex or because it challenges deeply-held assumptions -- many more have thanked me for it. The novel is beautifully written and delicately balanced.

All of this is timely during the anniversary week of the Six-Day War, which both preserved and expanded the state of Israel. NPR is marking the anniversary with a series of reports.

Two good places to start, I think, are the Encyclopedia Britannica West Bank article and Greg Myre's blog post about the efforts of 10 U.S. presidents to broker a lasting peace. His post includes a brief video in which Myre outlines the broad implications of the war for the U.S., Israel, and its neighbors.

Next, I suggest Dan Efron's report on the lack of historical understanding of the basic facts of the 1967 war; many in Israel are not aware that the settlements in the West Bank are contested. He argues that blurring of the lines is part of a deliberate effort to make the de facto settlements more difficult to reverse. Whether it is deliberate or not, his reference to weather maps is certainly correct. This image from today's official weather report gives no indication that the lands shown are anything but Israel proper.

All of this is by way of preparation for the two reports that reminded me most directly of Tolan's work. They are first-hand profiles of two men with connections in both the West Bank and the United States, one Jewish and one Palestinian.

Omar Omar was a young man studying abroad when the war took place, and though his family was in the West Bank, he was not allowed to return for many years, and instead moved to the United States. His story includes a fascinating chance encounter with a U.S. client after he did eventually return.

Conversely, Ephraim Bluth was a college student in the U.S. during the war, and decided to move to the West Bank in order to participate actively in securing Israel as a Jewish homeland.

For more background on The Lemon Tree, see the introduction and excerpt that were published on the PBS Frontline web site shortly after its publication. I also cite Tolan in my 2012 article Cool Arab Autumn and my 2017 Bilingual Street article.

For more information on the West Bank, see the West Bank occupation maps from Al-Jazeera and the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs OPT web site.

*novel: Two books that I regularly assign to students are described by their authors and publishers as novels, even though they are based on thorough research of the lives of actual people. I consider both books -- The Lemon Tree and In the Time of the Butterflies -- to be reliable sources of insight and information about their subjects, though their designation as novels does give me some slight discomfort.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

5 Themes, 50 States, 34 Birds

Spoiler Alert: Maryland Wins!
Image: via Nicholas Lund, Slate
Readers of this space know that I have a very broad conception of what constitutes geography, even environmental geography. Everything from cigarette butts to snowboards have been included in these posts. So my inclusion of a snarky column about the selection of state birds should come as no surprise. Birds are very geographic, after all!

I am taking the opportunity, however, to make some connections between Nicholas Lund's brilliant 2013 screed on state birds and the Five Themes of Geography identified by the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE).

Lund offers a state-by-state listing of officially designated birds, with a suggestion for a better choice in the vast majority of cases. His reasoning is as geographic as his humor is acerbic.

1. Location: Birds are found in specific locations, and nobody is a birder who is not also good with maps. In many cases, Lund's complaint about state birds is that they are found over a much broader range than the state that they are purported to represent. Most of the birds he recommends are not limited to a given state (they tend to migrate, after all), but he rightly prefers those that are not ubiquitous across the continent.

2. Place: This theme is the one that is most relevant to Lund's essay. Maryland and New Mexico, for example, have state birds that people can readily associate with those states. In many cases -- such as Florida -- Lund suggests a choice that people would automatically associate with the state, but which the state itself has not chosen. Birds, sports teams, food, music, topography, climate, vegetation, universities -- all of these and more come together to form what geographers call "sense of place." Smart state-bird choices can reinforce that kind of identity.

3. Human-Environment Interaction: Lund does not address this very directly, but the interaction is implied by his careful attention to the rich variety of bird species found in the United States. The National Audubon Society is one of our most important environmental organizations precisely because the fate of birds is so inextricably linked to the environmental behaviors of humans. Pollution, hunting, habitat alteration, and climate change all have important implications for birds. Birds also are among the aspects of the natural environment that humans can most enjoy.

4. Movement: The NCGE document above emphasizes the movement of humans and their goods and ideas, but movements in the natural world are also important to the study of geography. Whether it be birds, plants, air masses, or continents -- natural movements help to define and connect places. In my study of coffee, I find many parallels in the movements of birds and humans in the western hemisphere. See the Coffee & Conservation blog for many examples of the connections between migratory birds and coffee cultivation in the Americas.

Where Lund mentions 400 birds in Texas, it is not related to the great size of the state. Rather, he is referring to the convergence of flyways that essentially funnel more than half of all birds sighted in the United States into one small area in the southern tip of Texas. Because of the limited remaining habitat in that southern tip (where I lived from 1990 to 1994), all of those species can be found -- at different times of the year -- in just two small places: the Port Aransas and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges.

5. Region: Lund does not overtly address the concept of regions, but researching this post led me to an interesting example of how humans conceptualize regions. The aforementioned Audubon Society organizes its own activities on the basis of the flyways that are pursued by migratory birds. A large number of these converge in South Texas, but other flyways are important for organizing ornithological studies throughout the continent.
Image: Audubon Flyways

As Lund mentions, Texas has many birds that would be more distinctive candidates for state bird than the northern mockingbird. It is the only state for which he offers a short list of alternatives. Discussing this with my wife Pam, who lived with me in Texas for three years, we have another suggestion: the chachalaca. Our home in the Rio Grande Valley (which is not a valley, but that's another story) was in the southern tip of Texas and the northern edge of the chachalaca's range.

No place else has a bird that sounds like this. As the person who posted this video writes, it sounds like broken machinery. Texas is also were we attended Quaker meeting. That is -- 60-minute, silent meditation meeting. Chachalacas certainly were not conducive to that!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

E Pluribus New Orleans

... indivisible ...
I was in South Carolina the day in 2000 that the confederate flag was removed from the top of its capitol building and placed in a less prominent position at the edge of the grounds. As we drove along I-95, we listened to the announcers on the local public-radio affiliate describe the proceedings in hushed tones resembling the coverage of a state funeral.  Any doubt as to what was really at stake were erased by a fellow motorist in a pickup truck, who sped along with banners flying from two large poles in the bed of the truck -- one of the Confederacy itself and one of the Confederacy's spinoff -- the Ku Klux Klan.

I was reminded of all of this recently, when I learned that the great city of New Orleans was removing four major Confederate monuments from places of prominence. I was not surprised to learn that -- as in South Carolina and elsewhere -- supporters of the 1861 insurgency were on hand to protest. But I was pleased to learn that each removal event went forward without major incident.

From the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's eloquent speech on the significance of removing those icons. The SPLC indicates that the speech is a "defense" of the action, but it goes far beyond that posture. Some did contest the decision, and he had an obligation to justify it. 

He does much more, though, using the occasion to teach both some history, some civics, and some geography. The history lesson echoes the work of James Loewen in Lies Across America, who explains what monuments have to tell us about the past they commemorate, the past in which they were built, and the more recent past in which we find them. He explains that the installation of statues honoring the confederacy were part of a deliberate effort to reject the results of the civil war, and to perpetuate the harsh inequalities that precipitated that conflict -- revisionist histories notwithstanding.

The civics lesson concerns both the founding ideals of the country -- unity, equality, and the inclusion of everyone in the democratic project -- and the process by which his city worked toward realizing those ideals. His speech -- delivered with incredible clarity -- embraces individuals and institutions that were part of that process over the long arc of more than 150 years. For example, he acknowledges members of the Plessy family in the audience and the Ferguson family as participants in the process. I had forgotten most of what little I knew about that case. In reading about the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision today, I was reminded that the deplorable "separate but equal" decision was based in New Orleans. I also learned that Ferguson's error had been justified in part on a much earlier case decided in Massachusetts. Most importantly, though, descendants of both sides were recognized as part of the reconciliation process that led to the removal of the Confederate statues.

The geography lessons begin with a sweeping description of the diversity of the New Orleans community, which has been an essential hub in many civilizations over the past several thousand years -- and he ties all of this to jazz! At a finer scale, he makes clear why removing these symbols of a barbaric past is essential to unity in the present. He explains how the removal of the pernicious statuary is essential to creating a landscape that reflects the greatness and diversity of the New Orleans community.
All of this is very timely for geographers. The 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers will be meeting in New Orleans. My department's EarthView team will be there with our giant globe -- both at the conference itself and (we hope) in at least some nearby schools. I learned of the mayor's speech on the same day that the AAG and other leading geography organizations announced that the them for Geography Awareness Week (November 12-18, 2017) will be civil rights. Landrieu's speech will certainly be part of my teaching that week! 


I just learned that the mayor of Baltimore is considering the removal of public statues honoring Generals Lee & Jackson (who of course were the military leaders of the insurgency) and Supreme Court Justice Taney, who penned the odious Dred Scott decision. Anticipating fiscal objections, Mayor Pugh suggests that the statues could perhaps be auctioned, which it seems to me could create unintended complexities. An apologist for the Confederacy is indeed quoted in the story, blithely citing the cost as an objection. This is certainly a facile way to object to Mayor Pugh's suggestion without addressing the very real questions so eloquently examined by Mayor Landrieu above. 

Baltimore's previous mayor had interpretive signs added to the statue of the generals. The Taney statue is located a mile south of the spot where I was married.

Monday, May 15, 2017

NOLA: 90W, 30N

"You think of New Orleans, you know, like a place, longitude and latitude on a map on Earth, but in a sense, like New Orleans to me it is an address in the whole of the whole of existence. And if you match up with that address, if you're supposed to be here, then you'll feel it. You'll walk in here and you'll go, 'Whoa!'"
This explanation of New Orleans as a place comes halfway through the 2007 PBS American Experience documentary New Orleans. He captures beautifully the connection people have to this city that both cannot be real and must be real.

This is an hour well spent, stretching from the social and racial inequalities of the 1927 flood through the active segregation of the city mid-century and ending with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Those still-fresh wounds provide an excellent example of New Orleans as a deeply artistic community, as it looks deeply into the first Mardi Gras celebration after the flood.

The film ends (spoiler alert!) with more local insight:

"New Orleans' promise is, we could teach America how to be America. If anybody's listening."

See the PBS New Orleans page for more resources.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Is the red marker on land or in the water?
Image: captured from Google Maps, May 2017
Click to pan, zoom, and compare in future
The short answer is: yes.

This area south of New Orleans is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, and is a stark reminder of the fragility of coastal margins. The marker indicates the community of Terrebonne Bay, which has always been closely associated with the water, but whose very existence is now threatened by it.

In just four minutes, journalist Larry Yeoman paints a compelling word picture of this community, and explains the complex causes of its vulnerability to climate change. Local food production is becoming impossible, and both the diet and the fabric of a local community is being disrupted by forces both local and global.

This is, unfortunately, an example of what Dr. Mary Robinson -- former president of Ireland and now crusader for climate justice and honorary geographer -- describes as the geography of vulnerability.

Lagniappe (a Louisiana tradition that I often honor in this blog)

Terrebonne Bay is south not only of New Orleans (not shown), but also of Thibodaux (tib-uh-DOH), made famous by Hank Williams, The Carpenters, and my own Male Bonding Band in the song Jambalaya.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Climate Rejoinders

It was rain forests that originally drew me into geography; I had been focused on linguistics until a friend convinced me to take a course about the disappearing Amazon. Eventually, I found myself there, particularly in the very dynamic corner of the forest known as Rondônia in 1996, 2000, and 2003. The Amazon remains vast -- that "corner" is the size of Arizona -- and large swaths of continue to be vulnerable to poorly-conceived  schemes of all kinds. I was interested in the underlying processes that led to deforestation -- focusing not on the saws and fires but on the political economy that drove resource use and migration to forest regions.

The Rainforest Alliance was also focused on such questions at the time, and still is. Even if climate change were somehow "solved" tomorrow, we would still have significant environmental problems. But now we recognize that climate change is creating a milieu in which those problems are compounded. Of particular interest to me are high-elevation cloud forests, a subtype of rain forest that is even more vulnerable, and whose protection is the focus of many coffee farmers, including my friends at Selva Negra, which has RA certification. This work is essential, as both the forests and high-grown coffee itself are under threat.

Compounding the problem of climate change, of course, is that many decision-makers (from individuals to heads of state) either do not believe it is happening or pretend not to for short-term gain (as with many fossil-fuel lobbyists and their Congress Critters).

Seeing their work thwarted by poorly-informed arguments and junk science has frustrated the folks at Rainforest Alliance, and led them to create a handy list of responses to five common errors related to climate change. Their town is a bit snarky, but otherwise I find these useful.

I provide more detailed explanations for skeptics in several articles of my own elsewhere on this blog. In each case, I try to focus on the evidence and the physical principles, and to avoid simple references to authorities, which are generally not persuasive to opponents of anything. My favorite piece is Frosty Denial, which lays out the physics at a basic level. I recently added Early Warning to refute the common myth that climate scientists keep changing their minds about what is going on.

In between I did post one article that addresses the question of authority. In Not Just Nye, I include John Oliver's stunt that shows just how rare climate denial is among people who have studied the physics.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Early Warning

Although I was not paying attention at the time, the very first paper on climate change appeared in 1981, the year I graduated from high school. In those days, I was focused on linguistics and thought of my one geography class as an extended trivia quiz. Little did I know that learning and teaching about earth systems would soon become my life's work.

That first article appeared in the August 28 issue of Science, under the title Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, by NASA scientist James Hansen and six other atmospheric physicists used the term "global warming" six times. The bulk of the article is difficult to read, as it details the evidence for warming trends in the language of, well, science.

Data from the first publication on climate change.
No responsible scientist could ignore these trends.
The last couple of pages, however, are relatively easy to understand, and they describe the range of possible implications of this warming. If these pages were to be characterized by one word, it would be variability. That is, these scientists understood from the very beginning that because the planet and its climates are not uniform, the warming of the planet would have effects that would vary across space and over time.

I mention this because people who have not been reading the literature carefully sometimes assert that scientists introduced the term climate change once contradictory "evidence" began to appear. In fact, the words variability and variation appear a combined 35 times in this short article. More importantly, the phrase climate change appears 9 times in the ten pages of the very first scientific paper on the topic.

For more on Hansen's decisions to speak publicly on this topic, I recommend What Makes a Scientist Take a Stand? on the most recent installment of the TED Radio Hour.


At the end of last year, I finally worked up the courage to watch Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary about the denial of the science. I wrote about it in a post of the same name -- Before the Flood.

Several years before that, I wrote Frosty Denial, which outlines the physics in simpler terms and asks why those who deny the physics have not offered an alternative explanation. Not only is climate change evident, in retrospect it was inevitable. How could we not have a different climate, after shifting so much carbon to the atmosphere in such a short period of time?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Brutal Honesty

These are challenging times for reporters. As front-line defenders of democracy, they face unprecedented resistance from novice government workers who neither understand nor appreciate the purpose of their work. I was struck by this when I heard the frustrated response of the White House director to reporters concerned about the human cost of expected cuts in humanitarian aid.
I encourage readers to listen to the entire three-minute report, but this is the part that I found chilling.

Excerpt at 1:52:
MCDONOUGH: People will die. If the world does not do more, people will die.
PERALTA: In a press briefing last month, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney shrugged off the crises.(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) MICK MULVANEY: The president said specifically, hundreds of times - you covered him - I'm going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home.
Mick Mulvaney's tone is that of a bully who is exasperated by the question. I can agree with him on one thing: he is honest when he says that we should have expected this. We knew this was coming. I cannot agree with the implication, however, that brutal consequences are made somehow more acceptable by the fact that they were announced ahead of time.

The less honest part of his response, of course, is the claim that more money is being spent on "people back home." No such policies have been forthcoming. Just before this exchange, Peralta mentions a kind of aid that I used to help provide (in my very small way) when I worked for a U.S. Defense contractor. We made the Humanitarian Daily Rations that are being air-dropped in South Sudan.

Such life-savers are likely to become more scarce over time. Even the coldest-hearted and self-serving among us should be concerned about the ill will that such meanness will generate.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Donde Voy

If I am on my computer and in need of beautiful music, I often turn to Tish. Nothing is more relaxing than her voice, flowing back and forth between English and Spanish until I cannot remember which language the last phrase was in.

But gradually, I realize that her music is always at several levels -- the beauty of the words, the beauty of the images she portrays, and eventually some wisdom and some justice. Certainly this is the case with Donde Voy (Where I Go).

Image: PRX
She sings it in Spanish -- consult the line-by-line translation if needed. I will be using this to introduce several lessons about the geography of immigration during a teach-in this week.

Tish has been part of our family listening for 20 years, and frequently part of my teaching since 2010, when we saw her in person for the first (and so far only) time in Boston of all places. My post University of Tish, Passim Campus explains why her work is so important to us as a Latin Americanists. I also mention specific songs in my posts La Llorona and Semana de los Muertos.

Finally, in searching for a nice still photo (of which there are many), I found this image of Tish with a guitar on what turned out to be a nice introduction produced for the PRX series This Week in Texas Music History. Texas music scholar Gary Hartman describes the arc of a career that has taken Tish Hinojosa from Texas to Nashville to Taos and back again.

She is worldwide now, of course, running Mundo Tish from her home in Switzerland!


I wrote "finally" above, but I want to leave this very important song in a place where it might get noticed. With the political ascendency of those who think we have too much environmental regulation, it is important to consider how many chemicals are not regulated enough. A half century after Rachel Carson explained this to us in Silent Spring, we still need this reminder from Tish. No translation is needed -- this is one of the best examples of her ability to weave a story with two languages.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thimmamma Marrimanu

James Smithson never visited the United States, but he left our country an incredible gift: 100,000 coins that were to be used to fund an institution for learning and exploration. Thus was created the Smithsonian Institution in my home town. It would become not only the world's largest museum complex, but also a global leader in research. The intellectual breadth and depth of the organization enables it to publish an equally robust magazine -- every month Smithsonian draws on the global reach of the Smithsonian organization to bring a trove of geographic lessons to my mailbox.
It is from the most recent issue that I learned of Thimmamma Marrimanu in Andhra Pradesh, India. What appears to be a grove of trees in the center of the map image above is in fact a single tree -- a banyan tree with its own name and a history extending more than half a millennium.

Journalist Ben Crair and photojournalist Chiara Goia tell the tree's story in words and images. It is a great geographic story, in that it weaves together the human and physical dimensions of this giant tree's story.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Who Is Danish?

This Danish video has been seen well over 1.5 million times -- and more than 160,000 times in this subtitled version -- since it was posted last month.

 It is difficult to watch -- the man who produced it has even been accused of abusing these children -- by filming them as they hear words that fill the air in all too many places in these xenophobic times.

To learn about the context and consequences of this video, I recommend listening to the PRI broadcast from which I learned about it. The player below includes today's entire installment of The World (which I recommend); cue it to 15:42 to hear the segment in which Rupa Shenoy discusses this video in the context of current Danish politics and of her own experiences with identity in the United States.

I am encouraged that both Shenoy and the video's producer suggest that what I describe above as "these xenophobic times" are actually something a bit different. Xenophobia is in the air, certainly, in the United States and in many corners of Europe. But today's regressive politics can be viewed as nothing more than a backlash against the very real progress toward inclusion that all of these societies have been making.

The latter -- the progress, that is -- is exemplified by another Danish video that has been seen by many more millions. "All That We Share" reminds us -- with disarming and gentle humor -- that whatever divides us, far more unites us.

Some of our most rewarding days with Project EarthView happen we visit schools in which many -- sometimes even most -- of the children are first- or second-generation Americans. Connecting with such kids -- who are BOTH Americans and Guatemalans, Colombians, Egyptians, Sri Lankans, and so on -- reminds us of a fundamental truth: we are humans before we are any of these things.

AAW 2017 Events

I am not directly involved in Africa Awareness Week at BSU this year, though I will be attending some of the events and encouraging my students to do so. I'm posting all of the events here so that there is an additional way to find them online.

All locations are on the campus of Bridgewater State University

2017 AAW program

 Monday, March 27
Distinguished Lecture: West Africa’s Women of God: Alinesitoue and the Diola Prophetic Tradition, by Robert Baum, Dartmouth College, 2-3:15 pm, Dunn A

 Tuesday, March 28
Distinguished Lecture: Art & Agency in East Africa, by Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal, Founder, and director of the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC), Imbaseni, Tanzania, 11 am –12 pm & 12:30-1:30 pm, LIB 207  

Distinguished Lecture: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panthers, by Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal, Founder and director of the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC), Imbaseni, Tanzania2-3 pm, LIB 207

Distinguished Lecture: Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen, by Linda Heywood, Boston University2-3:15 pm, Dunn A

Performing African Awareness5:30-9 pm, Dunn A
       Guests:       Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal
                          Jazzmyn Red

Wednesday, March 29
Film Series, 10:10-11 am, Dunn A 
               African Christianity Rising

Thursday, March 30
African dance workshop with live djembe drumming, Issa Coulibaly, Crocodile River Music, 9:30- 10:45 am, Burnell 132 A

Distinguished Lecture: Africa and the Global Politics of Chocolate, by Carla Martin, Fine Cacao, and Chocolate Institute, Harvard University, 11 am-12; 15 pm, Dunn A

Friday, March 31
Curriculum Workshop “Incorporating Africa-related Curriculum Content in the Classroom”, by Barbara Brown and Breeanna Elliott, Outreach Program, BU African Studies Center, 12-2 pm, Burnell 108

Studying Abroad in Africa What to expect?  Meet with former students.
11 am-1 pm, Dunn A

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Bilingual Street

Since our university's One Book One Community program began in 2010, it has brought many excellent books to the attention of our university, local schools, and our town at large -- often bringing the author of the book to our campus for a public lecture. Whenever I can manage to align it with my own curriculum -- and I usually can -- I assign the book to one or more of my classes.

One such selection -- The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan -- was so valuable to my students that I have continued to assign it every semester in my online survey course, Geography of the Developing World. The in-depth narrative by this journalist about one very important part of the world is the perfect complement to the systematic coverage in the course's main text by the late, great geographer Dr. Harm de Blij.

NPR journailst Joanna Kakissis tells a contemporary tale that echoes Tolan's earlier work. She visits Asael Street, in the Abu Tor neighborhood of East Jerusalem. This very street had once been the de facto border between Israel and Jordan, before Jordan was pushed back a half-century ago. Since then, people have coexisted across lines of ethnicity, religion, and language -- corresponding generally to the literal line of the street itself. Her reporting focuses on those who are consciously -- if slowly -- building a community, beginning with learning each others' languages.

During an age of increasing fragmentation and fear, these three minutes of audio remind us that people can make choices about whether and how to form relationships, and how they are going to define the spaces in which they live.
Photo: Yaacov Lozowick
At the very beginning of the story, Kakissis mentions "the street of the book." I did a little bit of digging, because I thought that perhaps there was a library connection to be found. In fact, it seems, she was referring to the 2015 book A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God. A 2011 blog post by Yaacov Lozowick argues for keeping the street united. His photographs help him to make the case for unity and allow readers to develop a richer sense of the place.

Google Maps shows the proximity -- indeed the alignment -- of Asael Street with the 1949 Armistice Line, and a maze of crisscrossing streets and relict borders.

I write this as my own university south of Boston debates its core curriculum, from which the foreign-language requirement was recklessly removed about a decade ago. None of the current proposals include returning it, but many faculty members are pushing the matter. Firstly, many of us are astounded that we even have to debate this, since high schools in our area actually have a stronger standard that the university. Secondly, we see rising xenophobia as giving global education even more urgency. During the earlier debate, I outlined reasons to support language education in a modest page entitled Small World. These are ideas that the residents of Asael Street have taken to heart.

Tour de Bridgewater Ouest

When leaving Bridgewater for points north, we nearly always drive through an intersection in the center of West Bridgewater (more on the historical geography of that statement in our Bridgewaters Project blog). 

Traffic had become problematic as a growing number of vehicles tried to navigate the narrow, complicated intersection with inadequate turn lanes. We were therefore relieved when this became one of those "shovel-ready" projects funded by federal stimulus money.

I was in disbelief when I first saw the estimate of the time that would be required for construction, and was fascinated as we watched the entire area dug, redug, filled, and realigned over long months. One building was removed entirely so that trucks could turn safely around the northwest corner of the intersection.

The final result is a bit bewildering, and beyond the driving skills of many Bay Staters (who are not strictly interested in lane markings). It could have been made much simpler with the elimination of a few rarely-used options around the circle in the southwest quadrant. But on the whole cars and trucks can move a bit more safely and a lot more quickly through the crossing of Routes 106 and 28.

Which brings us to one geographic oddity: the bike lanes. In each direction, the engineers included an 86-foot-long bicycle lane. They are parallel to each other, between travel lanes and turning lanes. We understand that inclusion of such lanes must have been specified in the guidance documents for this new construction. But we cannot imagine how a bike could enter and then leave these lanes, unless it is magic (think Harry Potter's Platform 9-3/4) or a very special race, perhaps the Tour de Bridgewater Ouest. (Thanks to my favorite librarian for coining that.)

Here is the entire intersection in context -- perhaps brave cyclists will see a way through it that I cannot. For now, I'm sticking to boats for my muscle-powered locomotion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Coffee Origins and Terroir

Writing for Slate, Stephen Kearse asks "What Defines a Coffee's Terroir?" and provides some preliminary answers, beginning with the subtitle: "Country of origin is just the beginning." His story begins with his realization that the fact that his enjoyment of one Ethiopian coffee did not translate to a similar experience with all the coffees he encountered from that country, which as he points out is the birthplace of coffee -- the only place that Arabica grows wild. 

Geographic differences at a finer scale can influence the flavor of coffee -- from elevation, aspect, and slope to meso- or microclimatic variations to very important differences in soil composition. The human geography of variation in cultivation and processing are also important. Incidentally, Kearse focuses on two of these factors -- topography and climate. He erroneously uses the word "geography" for topography; "geography and climate" is like "vegetables and carrots" or "colors and red."  
MattiaATH/iStock via Slate
Learn more about Ethiopian coffees from George Howell, the roaster from
Acton, Massachusetts who introduced the terroir concept to coffee.
The second line of the article provides a hint about the author's age, which is to say he is at least a few years younger than I am. He became accustomed to scorched, flavored coffees in graduate school. While my wife and I were in graduate school -- after I had become a coffee drinker but long before I became a coffee maven -- we were part of the experiment by Folgers that paved the way for the broad marketing of flavored coffees. If he were much younger than I, though, he would have more likely been accustomed to the Keurig, which provides stale, weak, overpriced coffee, but not scorched coffee.

Kearse is correct, of course, that national borders do not fully define coffee terroir, though they do often provide hints to broad categories of flavor characteristics. He is also correct that annual variations in temperature and in the timing and amount of precipitation mean that specific locations will produce flavors that vary somewhat from year to year. I do not think those variations are commonly as dramatic as he suggests, nor do I think that micro-terroir at the scale of 1 hectare (2.47 acres) is commonly discernible. 

I agree with him in the main, however, and also with his suggestion that our impressions of flavor have something to do with our experience of a place, either directly or by association. He mentions the Ethiopian restaurants of Washington, DC; my strongest associations of course are with Nicaragua. Knowing that independent experts have judged some of my friends' coffees there the very best in the world only reinforces my natural tendency to favor coffees from anywhere in the country. The suggestibility of tasting results -- even among professional tasters -- has been documented for wine and I will admit there is a strong dose of it in coffee as well.


Like Stephen Kearse, I have spent some time exploring the trendy restaurants of my home town, and the Adams-Morgan neighborhood is especially rich in its offerings from Ethiopian and indeed the entire world. I particularly remember an Ethiopian restaurant so authentic that it did not have plates or utensils -- serving all food on large breads in the traditional manner. It even had Ethiopian beer. So when the coffee menu was brought out -- an entire little book -- I was expecting to see coffees of Oromia, Yirgacheffe, and so on. Rather, it was a collection of mixed drinks -- Irish Coffees and the like. So I asked about the coffee itself. "What kind of coffee is used in these drinks?" I wanted to know. The server was confused by my question, and consulted a manager. "American. Regular American," came the answer.  I tried later to connect this restaurant with an ethical supplier -- Deans Beans -- but the restaurant would not even acknowledge the samples of fair-trade, organic Ethiopian coffee that company sent. Like most restaurants, even this most authentic Ethiopian place relied on a regional coffee service whose main selling points are price and maintenance of the brewing equipment.

To learn more about the people behind Ethiopian coffee and the trading systems that disadvantage them, I recommend Black Gold.