I’ve never actually had a picture bring tears to my eyes before.

A Burmese child asked for more food during aid delivery in Dedaya, Myanmar. New York Times.


I’ve been doing a lot of academic reading lately in a relatively new area: mobilities. It comes out of sociology, with side branches in geography, communications, and planning, and it’s basically the social theory approach to transportation. The two main areas of work have been on automobility (about how our society is so inextricably tied with the auto that we can’t talk about the labor market, housing, economic development, or nearly anything else without cars being involved somewhere) and aeromobility (similarly, the way that long-distance and international transportation depend heavily on air transportation and airports). Aeromobility in particular looks at the way people are sorted as they pass through airports, especially through security screening procedures but also through sitting in first class/coach class, using the Admiral’s Club or equivalent, and even by choosing the airport in the first place (e.g., Ryanair and EasyJet ‘s practice of using secondary airports).

So this story in Chicago has caught my interest. Midway Airport has instituted a system that Denver and Salt Lake have been trying out, where passengers self-sort themselves into security lines based on their familiarity with procedures and thus with their speed. The three lines are coded according to the same symbols as ski runs: green circles for beginners, blue squares for the middle level, and black diamonds for the experts. As an earlier story noted, the familiarity of Midwesterners with ski run symbology is a dubious assumption, but the slow-medium-fast idea is pretty simple.

According to the article, the assumptions about who is slow, medium, and fast are also simple: “Workers helped steer flip-flop-wearing vacationers one way, and briefcase-toting business travelers the other. Moms and dads hauling the accouterments of parenthood—strollers, diaper bags and car seats—were funneled in yet another direction.” Now, it apparently is possible to switch lanes if you feel you’re more (or less) expert than TSA eyes designate you, but there are still some strong assumptions being made here. It reminds me of the pre-9/11 days when I went to meet my long-distance sweetie at the airport; every time I carried my backpack with me, I got the wipe-down treatment checking for drugs/explosives; no backpack, no extra check.

Of course, the self-identification may be problematic: the Tribune’s poll says nearly 70% of people consider themselves to be in the “expert” category, and 72% plan to use the black diamond lanes. (This is why I’d go for the blue square, myself; I’ve certainly traveled enough to know what I’m doing, but taking out the laptop and the liquids, taking off the jacket and shoes, and then reassembling myself at the other end takes an embarrassingly long time even when I’m careful to do things like send the backpack through before the laptop so I can pop the computer back in as soon as it comes through).

But it’s such a prime example of Foucault’s argument that modern society is more and more about disciplining (and sorting) ourselves, becoming docile bodies within the system. It’s also a great illustration of all of this mobilities literature that I’ve been reading, right here in the real world; so much for the ivory tower! In particular, it demonstrates how identity is becoming tied up with speed, and how the “kinetic elite” (as Rem Koolhas has termed them) are moving ever faster and more smoothly while those of us who are not visibly elite (e.g., with children, wearing flip-flops, not carrying a briefcase) are slowed down in our travels.

Besides, as one commenter on the Tribune’s website pointed out, we’re all going to sit at the same gate and wait anyway!

So there’s this big debate going on between the Democratic candidates right now about a “gas tax holiday” for the summer. On the one side, we have John McCain and Hillary Clinton and others arguing that for the sake of American families, who are paying much more for gas and food and other basic necessities than they were a year ago, we should drop eighteen cents off the price of gas. (In other words, the amount that gas prices have gone up in the past, I don’t know, two months.) On the other side, we have Barack Obama and others arguing that this is pointless, a short-term solution that’s only trying to win votes and not trying to make anything better in the long run. There’s no guarantee that the oil companies won’t raise prices because they can, and thus the gain from the tax holiday will be negative. And then an instant eighteen-cent hike will make Labor Day really fun!

What no one seems to be talking about (although it’s starting to appear in today’s papers; here’s one example) is what happens to that money the federal government collects from the gas tax. In the U.S., that money goes into the Highway Trust Fund, which funds road, transit, and pedestrian projects. The Buffalo News estimates that this proposed “tax holiday” would take almost $10 billion out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is already almost $5 billion in the hole for projects that Congress has already approved (mostly new construction, not maintenance). The gas tax is one of the few taxes in this country which has a pretty clear line of sight from how it’s collected to how it’s spent. So it’s also pretty easy to say that the $30 each of us on average would save over the summer is $30 per person that’s not being spent on filling potholes, installing sidewalks, or, I don’t know, fixing bridges. ‘Cause it’s not like road maintenance is a problem anywhere in this country.

The feminist blogs I read have been going through a major upheaval over the past few weeks. It’s made me think about the issue of white privilege from an academic point of view (surprise, surprise). Not from an I-want-to-study-this POV, but from a this-happens-here-too POV. See, geography is an overwhelmingly white discipline. Over the last decade, we’ve been hand-wringing like so many white liberal institutions/organizations, trying to figure out 1) why we’re so white, 2) what we can do about it, and 3) what difference it makes to our work. The last one is relatively easy to see: we marginalize other points of view, intentionally or not, and for a discipline that’s supposed to be about the relationship between humans and the environment, we miss out on a lot of those humans. The first one is the standard story of discrimination, I would guess; the discipline is also predominantly male, with the predomination larger the higher you go up the scale, and although the numbers have changed over time, history informs and explains the present. And by now there’s a certain amount of reinforcement going on; I would imagine that people of color feel geography doesn’t speak to their interests and concerns, so they don’t join in, and so on, and so on.

But the middle point is the hard one, and it’s the same one that parts of the blogosphere are struggling with right now. Initiatives to increase minority students and faculty can smack of bringing outsiders into our cozy little discipline as token representatives, instead of expanding our field of inquiry outward to include the topics that people of color are already working on. My previous department wanted desperately to hire a Hispanic woman because so many of their students fit that demographic and they wanted a role model in place. That’s great. However, I didn’t see the older white males in the department changing their areas of research or teaching to incorporate broader perspectives. (Neither did I, truth be told.) The argument seems to be that if we only had more brown or black or red people in our discipline, we’d be diverse, hooray! Cross one more thing off the to-do list. But does that change the practices we currently have, and force us to see how we perpetuate current inequalities? I doubt it.

For example, I think that in recent years, geography as a discipline has become more inclusive with regards to people with disabilities. Or at least, there’s been a lot of literature on the topic, although anecdotal evidence tells me that it’s perceived as largely written by people from that community and that others don’t necessarily see it as relevant to their own lives. Also, there’s been a series of conferences on race, ethnicity, and place, although I don’t know how diverse the papers and participants are.

My own research tends to focus on place rather than people; I’m not the world’s most outgoing person, and it takes a lot of emotional energy to reach out to potential collaborators, interviewees, informants, etc. I also tend to prefer to approach a problem inductively, not starting with a hypothesis or problem statement but starting with a phenomenon or pattern and seeing what’s going on. Of course, it’s easy from there to let my own privilege direct my interests to neighborhoods and communities like my own, instead of trying to look at how race, class, etc., are part of the transportation and urban sustainability issues that I’m interested in. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the idea that “this” (whatever “this” might be) isn’t an issue that has anything to do with women or POC (or disabled people, or LGBT people, etc.), and therefore I can ignore gender/race/etc. For example, how does urban sustainability intersect with social justice issues? How do transportation accessibility and externalities depend on race and class? Big time, I know.

The point is, this isn’t just a personal/blogosphere issue. It goes on in all professional realms, even among those of us who profess for a living. Examining our own privilege and how it informs the teaching we do and the knowledge we construct is critical because of the students we teach and the research we produce. Now more than ever.

Biofuels are one of the best examples imaginable of why geography matters.  Demand for fuel, food, and profits at the national and international levels are all connected in multiple and complicated ways.  This New York Times article lays it out very well, although they quote a number of people who seem to miss the point.  No, August Schumacher, rice may not be something that is used for biofuel, but when land is devoted to growing oil palms (now the world’s largest fruit crop) rather than rice, food prices go up.  No, Senator Grassley, corn is not likely to be directly consumed as food, esp. the feed corn that many of your Iowa farmers grow.  But when land is devoted to growing corn rather than soybeans, cooking oil prices go up.  And as the NYT pointed out a month or so ago, even the very poorest people who grow their own food still need to purchase cooking oil.  And if that one commodity goes up by 40%, they can’t cook their food.

Other stories of note: Housing Woes in U.S. Spread Around Globe, Retail Chains Going Bankrupt, and the end of the stockyards in South St. Paul.  We’re all connected.

I might be skeptical about the effects of a “green” Palazzo, but at the same time, there’s some interesting information in this article and the comments. It says Nevada is one of only two states to require that all public buildings be built or remodeled to meet LEED standards. Not one of the states I would have picked to have that requirement! I mean, they should, given that water consumption needs to be drastically reduced and the potential for solar and wind power is high, but “environmentally-friendly” and “Nevada” don’t traditionally go together. Just like Dallas, whose city council just passed an ordinance stating that all development, public and private, has to be built to the Silver level. Dallas? Go figure.

That’s one very encouraging sign about the green building phenomenon. It might be ecological modernization, it might be only a first step, but the kinds of places that are getting on board are not those traditionally thought of as “green”. Portland and Seattle may have led the charge, but there are so many other places now that are making both business and moral arguments for building green. That’s the kind of change that has to happen to make this truly a national phenomenon, and it’s great to see it taking place.

So the Palazzo Las Vegas has achieved Silver LEED certification, meaning that it has greatly reduced energy and water usage over a regular building, including solar-heated swimming pools, lighting sensors, and waste and materials recycling. On the other hand, given that there’s a Lamborghini dealership and dozens of high-end boutiques onsite, it’s hard to say that this is really environmentally friendly. I don’t really have a quarrel with the LEED system itself; it’s designed to work on buildings, not what people do inside them. It’s just hard to associate anything about overconsumptive Las Vegas with being green.