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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Decreasing Increase

This graph shows the rate of human population year-by-year since 1951.  Notice that it has been in decline throughout most of that time.  How is it, then, that the human population has grown by billions during my lifetime and  we expect to gain about  2 billion more people by the middle of the century.
Graph source: worldometers
Note: a 2-percent growth rate results in doubling every 35 years
A 1.2-percent growth rate, every 58 year
During this period, world population nearly tripled, from 2.7 to 7.3 billion

A Dark and Stormy Night

To understand how this is possible I need to start with the story about the misconceptions surrounding population change. This story goes way back, decades ago, to an evening in Cambridge Massachusetts. It was a dark and stormy night on the campus of Harvard University. A young divinity student who would eventually become a professor of mine decided to go to a lecture over at the Harvard business school. The speaker was a famous businessperson, perhaps one of the most famous in the world, though few know his name today.

Because it was a dark and stormy night very few people were in attendance, so Young Tom the divinity student had the opportunity to venture a question after the lecture. His question was this:  “Mr. Kroc, Why are there no salad at McDonald’s?” As I mentioned, this young man was to become an old professor of this old professor, so this was many years ago, before the days of salads at McDonald’s. And the speaker was Ray Kroc, the chief executive of McDonald’s.

Because it’s a hamburger place!” was his first answer, but Tom  pressed him about the the importance of having other other options.

“Well,” Mr. Kroc continued, “we have done extensive studies of Seventh-Day Adventists and we have learned that there are not enough of them to sustain a salad menu at McDonald’s.” It was from the story that I learned – and I think even young Tom the divinity student had learned – that about half of Seventh-day Adventists in the United States are vegetarian.

“That is not the only reason to be a vegetarian,” Tom replied, now entering a bit of a debate with one of the wealthiest people on the planet.  “What other possible reason could they have?” Mr. Kroc stammered,  for it was truly beyond his comprehension that someone would avoid meat unless they thought God was telling them to.

“Well,” Tom replied,  some people are concerned for animal welfare -- Mr. Kroc grunted but Tom continued -- and people are trying to eat lower on the food chain because of their concern for starvation around the world.

“Starvation? There’s no such thing as starvation,” he groused. “Don’t you watch the news?” asked Tom, straining in disbelief. “What about this Sahel? What about the Biafra children?”

“Well,  if they are starving ... it’s their own fault.”  Blaming the poor for their misery has long been a habit of the wealthy.  And then the punchline: “They’re breeding like rabbits."

Breeding like rabbits.

These three words stopped Tom in his tracks, and caused him to repeat the story countless times, as I have done in the years since I took his class. The rich give birth; the poor breed. And if population growth is making food scarce -- as it was at the time -- it must be because of more breeding.

Demographic Transition

Demographers and geographers know that this is a *misconception, commonly held though it is. Birth rates do fluctuate, but populations grow only modestly when birth rates increase. They grow dramatically when death rates decrease, and during the middle of the twentieth century, they were doing exactly that. Because of improvements in the availability of medicine -- particularly vaccines -- and high-yield crops, death rates fells quickly in many parts of the world -- falling much more quickly than birth rates tend to rise. 

Following World War II, for the first time in human history, death rates decreased in places that were not undergoing enough economic growth to sustain significantly more people. Population growth was therefore both unprecedented and problematic. The 1968 publication of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich was the first widely-known description of the growth itself and of its potential to outstrip resources on a global scale. 

Ehrlich was scorned by some for his pessimism -- though his most dire predictions did actually come to pass -- as many believed that the planet was simply too vast to be impacted seriously by humans. We are indeed on a giant sphere, 8,000 miles in diameter. But all of our resource comes from very near the surface of that sphere, and all of our pollution remains in that same thin layer of the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. 

Geographers also know that not all parts of the sphere are created equal. Seven tenths of the surface is covered by deep salt water, most of which sustains only a minimal amount of biological activity. The vast majority of food from the oceans is found on continental-shelf areas that comprise just 2 percent of the total. Similarly, most land areas are too cold, too high, too wet, or too dry to sustain settled agriculture without significant artificial inputs. Just 13 percent of the land surface is considered arable (farmable), and ALL of the good farmland is already in use either for farming or for more remunerative urban uses. Humans already use all of the good land and a good bit of the marginal land.

Just after Ehrlich's book -- and perhaps to some degree because of it -- the rate of population growth began gradually to decline, as indicated in the graph above. This was the result of many factors, some related to intentional policies and others relating to feedbacks in the system. Known as the demographic transition, the conditions that accelerate population growth often lead to reduced birth rates in subsequent generations, and these changes actually continue to this day. Without them, population would already have passed 10 billion. Have a good look at the worldometers population page for a second-by-second estimate of the population (nearing 7,500,000,000 at the moment) and a lot of other ways of visualizing and understanding of demographic change.

Among many other cool visuals, the worldometer population page includes a 2000-year graph of human population that allows users to zoom in specific time frames. I use it here to approximate period shown on the natural-increase graph at the top of this post.

My Good News from Gorongosa post discusses the ecological implications of the century of rapid population growth from 1950 to 2050, and points to the original article "The Bottleneck," E.O. Wilson's excellent description of how this has happened and what it means. We can be concerned about the inexorable momentum of population growth, while being somewhat relieved that there is an end in sight... at least for those young enough to live to the middle of this century. Natural resources, ecosystems, and species that survive until 2050 will still face challenges from human activity, but a growing human population will not be one of them.

Lagniappe: Salad

Careful readers will note that McDonald's does of course have salads now, and might be wondering whether our young seminarian and his bold questions played a role. Sadly, no. Salad at McDonald's was literally an "over my dead body" thing, not appearing until 1985, when Mr. Kroc (1902-1984) was safely in the ground and for sure not coming back. His wife Joan lived until 2003. I do not know whether she played a role, but I have noticed that she is a generous funder of public radio, a cause I do not imagine Ray would have supported.

And another lagniappe: Science

Humans are innovative of course, and we have placed a lot of faith in science and technology to avert disaster as a population grows rapidly on a finite earth. But we also live in an era -- in the United States, at least -- in which the denial of science is widespread, greatly limiting our ability to employ it for adaptation.

*misconception: no pun intended, but my favorite librarian noticed