“His Blue Heaven” is an encouraging story about the recovery of a bird species previously in decline. Never listed as a Federal endangered species, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) was nonetheless in serious decline through the middle of the twentieth century, and was listed as a rare or threatened species on some state lists.
Writing for the Boston Globe, Carly Gelsinger describes Robert Benson’s lifelong commitment to the songbirds. A retiree living south of Boston in the town of Stoughton, he has been enamored of bluebirds since he was a child, and was delighted when their recovery began in the 1970s. Since then, he has done whatever he can to improve their chances for survival. Finding areas with generally supportive habitat, his main focus has been to design, build, and maintain nesting boxes that provide safety for the birds.
The natural range of Eastern Bluebirds is the entire eastern portion of North America, yet another example of a pattern associated with the well-known 100th meridian phenomenon. It entered decline throughout that region for a variety of reasons, the most important of which was pesticides, particularly the chlorinated hydrocarbons that were the subject of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Hampering the recovery has been competition for habitat with such introduced species as sparrows and starlings.
Bluebirds are worth saving, not only for the beauty of their plumage and their song, but also because of their direct benefits to humans. For example, bluebirds can contribute to the production of environmentally sustainable wine grapes. As part of a program of integrated pest management, bluebirds can reduce or eliminate the need for insecticides. In recent visits to South Coast vineyards in Massachusetts, I have enjoyed observing these benefits directly!
In his journals, Henry David Thoreau demonstrated the value of prolonged, careful observation as the key to understanding the complex relationships within natural communities. Similarly, Mr. Benson’s decades of careful observation allows him to understand bluebirds so profoundly that he has been able to design a variety of nesting boxes that are attractive to bluebirds but not to the sparrows or starlings that would occupy homes that would look very similar to most people.
1. Read the His Blue Heaven article carefully, and identify key geographic and ecological concepts beyond those mentioned above. Write an essay that describes how this story could compare to efforts to restore species or habitat local to your area.
2. Work with the North American Bluebird Society or similar organization to develop a project that would encourage species recovery on your campus or in your community.
I give a lot of public presentations about coffee, usually focused on the millions of farmers around the world who are reliant on this commodity for an often meager livelihood. My talks may also cover the proper preparation of coffee, my regular travel with students to Nicaragua, and even the development of a sense of place at the corner café.
During the question and answer period at the end of each talk, I usually get asked one of two questions: “What do you think of Starbucks?” and “What do you think of Dunkin’ Donuts?” The polite answer is the former appears slightly more concerned about the lives of farmers than the latter, and the only large, conventional farm I have been allowed to visit was a Starbucks “Cafe Practice” farm.
When the retail price of coffee is rising — as it is now — price becomes the main area of curiosity. To the question of why prices are rising, my initial inclination has been to answer “I don’t care,” because it usually is not very important. A 10 or 20 percent increase in the wholesale price of coffee would not make a significant difference in the household budget of even the most avid coffee drinker, and the chances of such an increase being transferred to a farm family (where it actually would make a difference) are nil.
So the topic did not interest me until late 2010, when the price increases at the wholesale level became substantial enough that some farmers did start to know about it. The first thing I noticed was that the price was rising so rapidly that some “coyotes” — often unscrupulous middlemen who tend to control local coffee markets — were often able to exceed fair-trade prices. What could be a very good bargain for farmers in the short term, however, was starting to undermine cooperatives that had taken years to establish. When the price of coffee falls in the future, the farmers may be without an organization to secure prices that meet the costs of production.
In the dominant free-trade model, commodity prices tend to fluctuate, as high prices draw producers and low prices draw consumers in a perpetual see-saw of demand and supply. Conventionally economists recognize the risk inherent in reliance on commodity income in such a circumstance, but it was the distinct contribution of Raúl Prebisch to demonstrate the dependency that arises from the secular decline of commodity prices relative to the prices of manufactured goods over the long term. The “earnings” line in the hypothetical cartoon below models the random fluctuation predicted by conventional economics; the “purchasing power” line models the combination of short-term random fluctuations and long-term decline that dependency theory predicts for commodity producers.
The combination of volatility, long-term decline in terms of trade, and specific historic circumstances led to the severe 1999 coffee crisis, which displaced many thousands of farm families. Some are calling the current, rapid price increases a “second coffee crisis,” because of the dynamic mentioned above that threatens the cohesion of local cooperatives.
California coffee buyer Max Nicholas-Fulmer offers the clearest explanation I have seen for the quick run-up in coffee prices. His January 2011 post on the Royal Coffee blog has, in fact, been republished widely, including on Coffee Buzz and in The Specialty Coffee Chronicle (2011n3).
The article offers several reasons for the increase in the price of coffee futures. The first is that single-origin specialty coffees are beginning to command substantial premiums that in turn are bringing up prices for futures on all Arabica coffees. Second, coffee yields and coffee quality are greatly dependent on consistent climate conditions, and for those conditions to be found in the same locations as specific properties of soil and topography. Nicholas-Fulmer gives several examples of the uncertainty in rainfall and its timing that are resulting from climate change. Finally, he describes the impact of suburban sprawl, which is no longer limited to industrial countries. Even in many coffee-producing countries of the global south, automobile-dependent growth puts farmland in direct competition with suburban land markets, enticing many to leave what has become an unprofitable land use.
As he wrote in January, coffee Certified Stocks (the “C” Market) were trading at $2.45 in New York, the highest it had been since the 1997 bubble, when it had reached $3.20. As I write today, it is even higher, at $2.70, so Nicholas-Fulmer’s observations appear to be relevant for the foreseeable future.
1. To learn about the relative prices of coffee at each stage of the commodity chain, play Kelly Whalen’s game Your Coffee Dollar, which is on the web site for the PBS-Frontline program on coffee in Mexico and Guatemala. The low values the game ascribes to coffee growers are actually optimistic — close to 97 percent of coffee is sold in conventional markets that tend to pay growers even less that the amounts suggested in this exercise.
2. Visit a local, independent coffee shop and inquire about where the coffee comes from, whether price fluctuations are affecting the shop, and how much the staff knows about the production areas of the coffee.
Although education reform efforts in the United States have focused on basic writing and math literacy, many leaders are increasingly concerned about the erosion of the country’s leadership in the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. For this reason, STEM education is increasingly the focus of education reformers and stakeholders from regional business groups to state governments to the White House science advisors.
In my own outreach work with K-12 students (mainly at the middle school level), the relationship between geography education and STEM education is increasingly clear. Because geography is both a social science and a physical science, the relationships between geography and STEM are sometimes less than clear.
In a recent letter to Dr. John Holdren, one of President Obama’s top science advisors, a coalition of geography organizations makes a strong case for geography and geospatial education as part of a national STEM-education policy. The Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO) includes both the Association of American Geographers and many organizations with more specific, technical missions, such as the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.
All of the groups agree that the current state of thinking on STEM is too narrow in its exclusion of geography. Specifically, they make the case for geographic education, which they note is missing from the PCAST report Prepare and Inspire: K-12 STEM Education for the Future. They make the following arguments for its inclusion:
- A 2009 White House budget calls for placed-based policies and programs
- A 2006 Department of Labor report identified geospatial technologies as one of twelve New and Emerging Occupations
- In 2010, the Department of Labor identified geography as a Knowledge and Skill Area central to employment involving the geospatial technologies it had previously identified
- The National Science Foundation provided $7 million in funding to geography research projects in 2009-2010
- National Geospatial Technology Center for Excellence is funded in part by NSF for the purpose of improving university-level geography education; strong geography education in the K-12 sector is a prerequisite for success in these efforts
- President Obama has said, “We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global.”
- The PCAST report itself warns that methods for teaching STEM disciplines must be developed that allows students to apply what they learn to real-world problems. Geography is an integrative discipline that is well-suited to this critical need.
The case for geographic education is not limited to careers and technology, of course; as I have argued before my own state government’s education officials, geography is an essential foundation for cultural literacy and public diplomacy as well, and are good preparation for a wide range of both STEM and non-STEM careers.
- Contact education leaders in your state – perhaps starting with the state’s Geographic Alliance – to learn the current status of geographic education in the state.
- Review the 18 standards for geography education identified in the Geography for Life project. Which of these are most relevant to the geospatial careers for which the COGO group advocates?
- Make a list of the geospatial technologies on which you rely – directly or indirectly – each day. How many e-commerce web sites, for example, employ Geographic Information Systems as part of their interface with potential customers?
Is everything in LA so over-dramatized? Uh, yes. Even a two-day 10 mile closure of the 405 freeway connecting the South Bay, Westside and Valley on July 15-18 for about 50 hours is big, big, everyday news in the Southland. There have been billboards, announcements, television and radio programs, websites, apps, and nearly everything you can imagine to prepare, navigate, and well, survive this weekend.
Here’s a screenshot of a typical 9am weekday look of LA area freeways:
This is an interesting phenomenon to a Geographer because of the intersections of the material infrastructure with the culturally ingrained car society. Remember Missing Persons’ song, “Walking in LA”? Well, according to that tune, “Nobody walks in LA,” and it’s pretty true. Southern Californians are all driving the freeways to get around or they are jamming up the main city arteries alone in their cars or on the notoriously inefficient bus system. Los Angeles’s urban development was historically driven by real estate and transportation (and water, too). Early on, there was a prescient design for freeways and boulevards to connect the suburban sprawl. Resultantly, the LA transportation network is denser than any other US city. This is confirmed in a 2009 article published by the University of California’s Transportation Center that delves into the problem of traffic congestion in Los Angeles. The area’s nearly endless freeways, all conspicuously titled as the one and only, The 5, The 101, The 10 and so on reveal the centrality of transportation in Southern California Life.
So, it is no wonder that Carmageddon is such a big deal. Caltrans, the State of California’s Transportation Department, launched a public relations campaign that started months out. Prominent figures, from local politicians to celebrities, have been doing their part to remind Southern Californians to plan ahead, stay away, or better yet, stay home. But, can Southern Californians really stay away? According to some of the dialog outside of the official PR campaign, they might not be able to. One commentator on a local network news website blatantly said, “I know myself and a lot of people from the San Gabriel Valley, and the Inland Empire, are planning on driving into L.A. to witness this spectacle and simply add to the chaotic fray.” Other exchanges illustrate the car-centric navigational-hubris of Los Angelinos. Some think they know the secret routes, that they own the freeways (if you’ve ever driven here, you’ve seen them charging up your rear view mirror, gesturing wildly at you, driving in service lanes, etc.). They have created apps to show real-time traffic on those supposed secret, alternate routes. Some of these alternate routes will not be found on the ground, and hook up with another high-in-the-sky transportation network: air. The airline JetBlue is selling $4 one-way fares as their “Over-the-405” special going from Long Beach in the South Bay to Burbank in the east Valley. The 600 seats sold out in a matter of hours. Another Southern California entrepreneur will be taking up patrons in a helicopter for a bird’s-eye view of the closure. If anything, the high-fliers seem to be more interested in seeing a vacant freeway, a blue-moon, hell-froze-over type of experience.
As for me, I’ll be staying at home in North Orange County observing; ready to capture an epic screenshot of a clogged Southland. Check back to find out if Southern California, “Survived Carmageddon.”