Sunday, August 06, 2017

Old-School Microdistricts

In 2010-2011, I was writing quite a lot in on this blog about the advantages that would accrue from regionalizing some services in Massachusetts -- consolidating the work of towns that is done by counties in most of the United States. 

It would simplify communication between state agencies and local workers, and increase the proportion of funding that would go directly to services. As logical as some county-level service provision would be, it is not going to happen in my lifetime, because of the "illusion of local control," as Gov. Patrick and I described it in a 2009 discussion. We used the word "illusion" because the small scale of governance allows taxpayers to make detailed decisions -- like a town-meeting vote on whether to buy new tires for a police car (I exaggerate only slightly) -- while unfavorable economies of scale very much constrain those decisions. Overhead is quite high, with thousands of people employed managing things who could be much more usefully employed doing the things. Search the word "regionalization" on this blog to see some specific example or read my case for regionalization page for a detailed explanation.
Old Stone Schoolhouse. Image: Fairhaven Office of Tourism
This all came to mind yesterday as my favorite librarian and I visited this Old Stone Schoolhouse in the Oxford Village area of Fairhaven. Our main goal was to learn more about the history and geography of the seaside town that began being our part-time home about two years. The outing was certainly successful -- in less than an hour we learned a great deal from the "schoolmaster" docent who connected this 1828 structure to many Fairhaven events, personalities and structures. He also helped us to understand the daily life of teachers and students in nineteenth-century New England towns.

It was the story of the school's construction, though, that gave us new insight into the current resistance to regionalization. When Fairhaven was incorporated in 1812, it included what is now the town of Acushnet, immediately to the north. The two towns cover just under 35 square miles and today have a combined population of less than 25,000 people. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts required that school districts be formed within towns, with each district required to provide for the education of children in that district.

Here is the amazing bit: within this small town, NINETEEN districts were created. This made some sense, in an age when every child would walk to school. But by the end of the century, reform movements would consolidate districts at the town level to reduce variations in funding and in the quality of instruction.

So the town-level administration we find today — with 250 school districts where 20 would do, but where a couple thousand had been — is regionalization enough by nineteenth-century standards. And as anybody who has been in New England very long knows, nineteenth-century standards are, well, standard in many aspects of life.

Lagniappe: Climate Change

Among the many interesting stories we heard during our brief visit to the Old Stone Schoolhouse was one about the commute of a teacher who lived in the center of town, about a mile and a half south of the school to which she was assigned. This was unusual enough that stories were handed down of her walking to school along Main Street in the warmer months -- and ice skating along the Acushnet River in the winter. I have been rowing year-round in the Acushnet River for the past five years, and although I have encountered some ice along the margins and even slabs of ice in the open water, I have never encountered ice that one would even consider skating on.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Water Mosaic

We live on a water planet, yet clean water is scarce. Even on my own university campus, some students do not have adequate access to clean water during the day -- though bottled water is for sale at a cost about 3 times that of gasoline.

Artist Serge Belo calls attention to the importance of water by coordinating the work of 100 volunteers to make a remarkable mosaic from recovered rainwater. I recommend watching the video above and then reading about their project on Viral Mirror and On Note.

Water is an important part of the work we do as educators in Project EarthView; I recently posted an article about the global scale of fresh water, in response to a question from a student at Rumney Marsh Academy in Revere.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Name That Learner

The first time I purchased a digital camera, it was with professional-development funds from my college. I made the case that the camera would help me to learn student names, because it would make it easy for me to take "mug shots" at the beginning of the semester and put the photos into a spreadsheet.

In most of my larger classes, I have announced on the first day that the next class meeting would be "picture day." When possible, I have used wall maps as my "studio" background. I have found the process of cropping and inserting the photos to be a good way to start learning names, and calling roll from the photo-spreadsheet has made me much better -- though still far from great -- at learning names throughout the semester.
"Yes, you there."

I started the spreadsheet approach when I was in my 30s, and eventually started using it in my smaller classes. Whenever I have failed to do so, I have ended the semester being unsure of at least a few names. And even with this help, I am sometimes at a loss to name the student in front of me. I learned that for a person over 50, this becomes increasingly common, even with long-time acquaintances. So I will continue to whatever help I can get.

Much of that help can be found in Maryellen Weimer's recent article, The Importance of Learning Students' Names, in which she describes a number of additional techniques that I plan to try. More importantly, she makes a convincing case for involving students more directly in the process. Networking, after all, is an important benefit of education at all levels, and it is worth spending a little bit of class time to facilitate connections.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Medicare and Small-d democracy

Seminary was where I got my questions answered, and life was where I got my answers questioned.

Bill Moyers values both halves of this couplet -- he gained a lot in seminary school, and he gained a lot by moving beyond it. He goes on to say that he knows religion is a powerful animating force in people's lives, and that he has seen both great good and great harm motivated by it.

"You can't treat grandma this way."
These remarks come near the end of a remarkable and wide-ranging conversation between the best interviewer we have -- Terry Gross -- and an accomplished journalist (with a cabinet full of Emmys) who once held Sean Spicer's job under a very different president.

The conversation begins with Moyers describing how Lyndon Johnson patiently and skillfully did his homework to bring about the passage of Medicare. The discussion then ranges across broad themes of democracy, journalism, work, and mortality -- this is 36 minutes well spent.

Actually 72 minutes, because I will probably listen to this a second time soon.


I am glad that the conversation eventually turned to Moyers seminary days. One of the first things I learned about him was that he had attended on of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries that were in place in the 1970s -- I think some of them have since closed and all of them have been taken over by ideologues who pushed out the educators. He attended Southeastern in North Carolina; my father, mother, and I all attended Midwestern in Kansas City. (Though my dad attended "for reals" and my mother and I were in a non-credit program. I think I was the only teenager ever to do so.) In those days, both seminars had a reputation for both deepening one's religious understanding and broadening one's thinking.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Bridges and Habilitation

Earlier this month, I very much enjoyed listening to this story as I prepared our morning coffee. Although I did not know the people or projects described, I did know the setting, and the story felt familiar in at least two ways.

BSU students at PLUSAA in León
First, the project described is very much like the work of the Polus Center in León, Nicaragua -- more specifically the local projects supported by its Coffeelands Trust. As in the projects described by journalist Mónica Ortiz Uribe in northern Mexico, the clinics in Nicaragua -- PLUSAA and Walking Unidos -- empower people with limb loss or other severe injuries by providing prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs. The latter are made from simple, locally available materials and are adapted to local terrain. Even more importantly, much of the work is performed by people who themselves have suffered such injuries.

I was very pleased to hear that a very similar set of projects is underway in Sonora, northwest Mexico, near my former home in Tucson, Arizona. Both the objectives and the methods are very much like the projects many  students have visited with me in León. The immediate goal in all of these projects is mobility, but the ultimate purpose is to allow people to develop independence and an ability to contribute to the well-being of their families.

Both in Mexico and in Nicaragua, the projects are driven by local individuals and partners from the United States. In both cases, support from the U.S. Federal government plays a small role. In Nicaragua, this has been in the form of grants from the State Department's Agency for International Development (US-AID), directed at ameliorating some of the harm done by the 175,000 landmines that U.S.-backed insurgents placed throughout the country in the 1980s. In the case of Sonora, Mexico, aid has come in the form of equipment donated by the U.S. Northern Command.

Image: Wikimedia, 2010 view of Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona.
Note the presence of a huge wall through the city, though short-term crossings in both directions are common for work, shopping, or even fast food.  As with most U.S.-Mexico twin cities, the population is larger on the Mexico side. In this case, it is more than a ten-fold difference, roughly 220,000 versus 20,000.
This brings me to the second way in which the radio piece was instantly familiar. It does not describe the cartoon version of the borderlands that has been created for political purposes over the past several decades. Rather, it describes a spirit of cooperation and recognition of mutual interdependence that I observed during my seven years in the Arizona/Sonora and Texas/Tamaulipas borderlands, and that is described beautifully in Border People by historian Oscar Martinez.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thoreau at 200

Thoreau would have celebrated -- though in a subdued fashion to be sure -- his 200th birthday if he were still alive this week. He could have shared a cake with another great champion of justice 180 years his junior, as Malala Yousafzai ceased being a teenager and turned 20 on July 12.

Thoreau is one of those great figures whose work I came to know only gradually and a bit belatedly. I somehow earned all of my geography degrees -- with an emphasis on environmental geography -- without having any of his work assigned for my classes.

I have been mindful of that gap as I work with my own geography students -- particularly those who intend to pursue environmental professions. In an upper-level course on land protection, I introduce or reintroduce him through a children's book entitled Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. This does not include Thoreau's own writing, but it is a pleasant way to consider the importance Thoreau placed on slowing down and observing the landscape around him.

We then move into something a bit weightier, David Foster's book Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape, which was introduced just as I was preparing to teach a course on land protection for the first time. Foster manages one of the oldest research forests in the world -- Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. Foster has curated some of Thoreau's writings that were never intended to be published. They are the journal entries based on his daily walks, and because they were based on close, regular observation sustained over many years, they are rich with details about forests, farmland, and the relationships between the two at a time of rapid landscape change. When combined with the insights of a modern forest ecologist, they allow my students and me to think deeply about the implications of change as we seek to set aside land for long-term protection. The most essential lesson is that we cannot freeze landscapes in time.

On the occasion of Thoreau's bicentennial, I was pleased to find some thoughtful discussions of his life and his contributions. Writing for the New York Times, John Kaag and Clancy Martin remind us that despite his reputation as a hermit in the wilderness, at his cabin in Concord he was not really alone with nature. Present-day visitors are sometimes surprised that authorities allowed a train track to be built so close to his famous retreat, when in fact it was he who built his cabin in the woods just a short walk from the tracks. In fact, his careful observations of the interactions between train-engine sparks and flammable materials in the forest provide some of the fire-ecology lessons for my students.
Thanks to Thoreau, biologist Primack knows
that this blueberry is flowering early.

WBUR journalists Bob Oakes and Yasmin Amir used the occasion of Thoreau's birthday to have an important discussion about climate change with Boston University biologist Richard Primack. Thoreau's careful notes provide direct evidence of climate change in Concord, just west of Boston -- from thinning ice to shifts in the timing of events related to the arrival of seasons for plants and animals. As difficult as these shifts might be for humans to notice otherwise, they can be critical to the integrity of food webs.

Learn more from the Thoreau Society.

Seed Saving

As I was driving across the Midwest yesterday, I crossed time zones and moved from one public-radio market to another, so that I was able to hear some programs twice. Although I had the car well-stocked with music CDs, I prefer to drive to good discussions. Our dog was the only passenger, and she either likes NPR or does a good job pretending to.
Image: Indiana Grain
So I came to hear an interview about the global seed vault twice, as I drove past field after field of identical corn. When I see cornfields, it seems my eyes are playing tricks on me. The lack of genetic diversity gives the fields an odd kind of harmonics, as the identical structures of each plant create wave patterns with an unsettling symmetry. When Hollywood uses CGI to create masses of soldiers in a field, some randomness is introduced to make the image more realistic. Not so in corn fields -- every stalk is the same.

This was no ordinary interview about seeds. This was Terry Gross talking with Cary Fowler. Terry Gross is the best interviewer -- I have heard her interview hundreds of people over a period of more than 30 years. I remember Johnny Cash ending their interview by telling her, "You are really good at what you do." This is why I was happy to listen to the same interview twice in a row. Cary Fowler has the ultimate pursue-your-dreams. He went from thinking there should be a global repository of seeds to figuring out the perfect location for it (geography!) to building and directing it.

His sense of humor about the work comes out in his discussion with Gross, as do some of the ways that he and his spouse promote crop genetic diversity in their daily lives.

Back to those fields I was driving past. Agriculture is more productive than it has ever been, but it is also more vulnerable to perturbation. The very specialization that gives us high yields and disease resistance also cuts us off from the genetic richness from which such specialization is drawn.

Listen in:

Friday, July 14, 2017

Grazie, Agricoltori!

When the alarm sounded this morning -- ever-so gently -- I was tempted to roll back over. But I pushed through, knowing that in order to have the coffee, I would need to make the coffee. Most of the steps had already been taken care of by others -- planting the tree, tending the soil, harvesting, drying, milling had been done in East Timor, on the other side of the world. I had taken care of the roasting a couple of days ago, so all that remained was the grinding and brewing, which I would do with the accompaniment of Morning Edition.

After a few short items about the latest political fiascos, the hosts got my full attention by admitting that on many days, the program seems as if it is hosted by a giant cup of coffee. These people get up even earlier than I do, after all!

As I continued to prepare the Chemex, my industry was rewarded by the mellifluous voice of Sylvia Poggioli intoning on the virtues of Italian coffee culture.
In five minutes, she explains a lot about the geography of coffee shops in general and of Italian shops in particular, along with some interesting insights into some of the varieties of espresso drinks and the time of day it is considered appropriate to drink each. 

Poggioli's reporting draws on the expertise of the Coffee University, also known as the Illy training center. It was in the U.S. training center of Illy's rival Lavazza that I first became acquainted with the rudiments of caring for coffee at the brewing stage. I believe some of the voices I heard from Illy are also featured in the film Black Gold, a bold documentary that contrasts the refinement of coffee consumption with the destitution of coffee production in Ethiopia.

I enjoyed this report as much as I enjoyed the coffee in my favorite (and now twice=emptied) cup. But the report lacked one idea that I think should be part of any coffee discussion, so I supplied it in the title of this post: #thankthefarmers 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

California Coffee

Geographers often study agriculture, and for several good reasons. As a discipline concerned with earth systems, we can help to ascertain how a given crop fits into -- or does not fit into -- the ecology of the places where it is grown. Because agricultural systems move food grown in some places to people living in other places, it is rich with questions of movement, networks, and connections. Agriculture operates at the interface between people and the land, and so does geography.
Jay Ruskey on his coffee farm in Goleta, California.
This comes to mind as I read a story that a friend in the coffee industry recently shared about California coffee. Many people already associate coffee with the Golden State, because significant players in the specialty coffee movement have come from there, especially from the San Francisco area. One of these is Paul Katzeff, founder of Thanksgiving Coffee and a key importer for my friend Byron. The definitive coffee history book Uncommon Grounds includes subchapter entitled "God's Gift to Coffee." I met him briefly in Matagalpa during my very first trip to Nicaragua in 2006, and among many important things I learned in that quick conversation was that it is possible to grow coffee in California, as he was doing near his home.

This was not a complete shock -- geographers understand that a given crop can be grown just about anywhere if cost is not a factor. A classic example is that greenhouses can provide tomatoes for miners in Siberia. A lot of the work geographers have done on agriculture concerns identifying factors that influence crop choice, which include both climate and soil as one would expect, and the costs of labor, machinery and transportation.

Katzeff's coffee is akin to the Siberian tomatoes -- something he is willing to do at a high cost because of his passion for the crop, but not something that would be considered commercially viable.

CCC? Commercial California Coffee?

Until now, possibly. The photograph above was taken at an elevation of just 650 feet in Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara. That is a fraction of the elevation of most world-class coffee farms, and more than 10 degrees of latitude outside the traditional Coffee Belt.

It accompanies Stephanie Strom's recent New York Times article Your Coffee Is From Where? California? A widely-accomplished journalist who has recently focused on food, Strom's reporting on the emerging coffee-growing scene in California touches on several interesting aspects of the geography of coffee.

The first thing I noticed is that the coffee is associated with avocados. It was from coffee farmers we met during a 2008 visit to the Atitlan area of Guatemala that I learned that the two tree crops could thrive in the same environment. As coffee farmers throughout the world seek to diversify their crops as a protection against climate change, related pests, and market volatility, avocados are therefore one possibility.

Avocados do not, however, provide the shade needed for genuine shade-grown coffee, of which there are several kinds. Real shade-grown coffee conserves water, provides an ideal habitat for coffee as well as birds, other wildlife, and perhaps epiphytes. It provides appropriate conditions for organic and biodynamic coffee. Simply planting coffee next to trees of a similar size provides minimal shade benefits, and only the slight ecological benefits of duoculture over monoculture. (I made that word up, but I think I am correct on this critique.)

Second -- and even more important -- is the insights the article provides into the costs of growing coffee. As I write this, coffee futures are trading for $1.26 per pound of green, ready-to-export coffee; see the widget at the top-left of this screen for up-to-the-minute prices (shown per 100-pound bag). Customers tend to pay several times more than this, of course, to cover packaging, shipping, transportation, processing, brewing, and profits amounting to many hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Fair-trade prices are based on the minimum cost to produce coffee, and although this varies geographically, certification currently requires a payment of $1.40 or more. A story far more important than California coffee, therefore, is the story of how farmers get locked into agreements in which they do not even meet costs most years.

As the article points out, production costs in California are much higher, mainly because of prevailing labor and land costs. As with Hawaiian coffee, the higher costs will only be justified if truly remarkable flavors can be developed.  This presents California growers with an interesting challenge: mechanization is the only real way to keep costs under some kind of control, but mechanization -- particularly in the harvest -- is likely to reduce quality.

Brazil and Nicaragua Comparisons

Mechanization in coffee usually involves harvesting methods that simply shake each tree over a large pan that catches the fruit. Because Arabica coffee does not ripen at the same time, high-quality coffee is harvested by hand four or five times during the season. All of my friends in Nicaragua do this; my friends in Brazil do not, because the low elevation of their farm means that they cannot command a premium for quality, and therefore cannot afford to pay for handpicking at Brazil's higher labor costs. Hand-picking would improve the quality of their coffee, but not enough to justify the cost.

It remains to be seen whether California can square the circle of commanding a higher price without paying for human harvesters. As the article mentions, California growers are placing a great deal of their faith in selecting the best varietals. These are cultivated sub-species of Arabica, analogous to grape varietals. The Caturra mentioned in the article, for example, is commonly grown in Nicaragua as well as Colombia, and is known as Coffea arabica var. caturra. Each is best suited to particular conditions of soil and microclimate.

Coffee Calendar Countdown

Strom points out that the quantity of coffee being grown in California is still very small? How small? Much smaller than the quantity grown on Hawaii's 800 farms (it grows on every major island in that state -- it is not all about Kona). But Hawaii is small, too, in comparison to the huge quantity of coffee grown in the world.

As I thought about how to represent these differences graphically, I struggled with how to make California's crop visible on the same image as the world's crop. As I was playing with the math, I realized that another analogy might be helpful. Consider the year's coffee production, which in 2016 totaled just over 20 billion pounds -- enough to make something like a TRILLION cups of coffee.

Imagine the crop being consumed in this order through the calendar year: biggest producer, next biggest, then all the rest, followed by Hawaii and California at the very end. This is not possible, for a whole host of reasons, but as a thought experiment it is telling.

On January 1, we could begin drinking coffee from Brazil. In 2016, Brazil's coffee could have supplied the world right up through my birthday in early May. The second-largest producer is Vietnam, whose coffee could supply the world from then through Independence Day on July 4. That is correct -- well-known Brazil and little-known (in coffee terms) Vietnam supplied over half the world's coffee in 2016, though almost none of its specialty coffee.

From the summer months until Christmas, we could drink coffee from about 50 other countries throughout the coffee belt -- Mexico, Peru, Indonesia (mainly Java & Sumatra), Kenya, Ethiopia, and many more.

On Christmas Eve -- as a special treat -- we could start drinking coffee from Nicaragua, where my friends grow some of the highest-quality coffees in the world. On the afternoon of New Year's Day, perhaps around 5 p.m., it would be time to drink some Hawaiian coffee, which would take us through our evening celebrations. And then ONE SECOND BEFORE MIDNIGHT, the world could slurp down all of the coffee produced in California!

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.

From the Writer's Circle comes a list of ways to make writing a bit more interesting. The more we read, the more subtlety and precision our writing will have. The use of dictionaries and thesauri -- now available both in print and online -- is also essential.

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.