Geography


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.

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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.

So, making major life-changing decisions like leaving your teaching-centered institution for a Big 10 research-centered institution takes up a lot of time. Who’d’a thunk it? It’s not official yet, but unofficially, it’s off to Midwestern State U next year for me and my spouse. More on that later, as it continues to sink in that this is actually happening.

On to more important things (or at least more interesting ones). A friend of mine went to Malta over winter break and brought back a copy of the bus map for me (I’m an easy person to get souvenirs for). Besides being one of the most confusing and yet plainest transit maps I’ve seen (and just how many bus routes do you need in a place that’s only eleven miles by eleven miles?), it has some really wicked keen place names. I would expect place names in Malta to be a fascinating combination of Italian, Arabic, Turkish, and English, and they don’t disappoint.

Tarxien. Senglea. Qrendi. Ghaxaq. (Too bad you can’t use these in Scrabble.) Siggiewi. Naxxar. Dingli. The runner up is Kuncizzjoni, but the coolest name on the map, and possibly the coolest place name ever, is:

M’Xlokk.

I rarely ever say this about names or words in other languages, because I hate sounding like a dumb American who thinks English is the only acceptable language and anything else is weird or abnormal, but I have no idea how you pronounce that. But I love it.

(Aha! Five minutes of Googling has determined that it appears to be an abbreviation for Marsaxlokk, where the “x” has a “sh” sound. Still looks cool to me.)

As wary as I am of any move to restrict border crossings because of the often racist motivations behind those restrictions, this is problematic. As part of NAFTA, we agreed to allow Mexican trucks full access to our roads, and we’re finally being forced to give it a try. There’s two main problems with this: 1) safety concerns because there are no restrictions on the number of hours Mexican truck drivers can work (and driver fatigue is a major cause of road accidents), and 2) pollution concerns, because of higher levels of sulfur in the diesel south of the border and trucks that aren’t held to U.S. emissions standards (much less California standards).

The article notes that there is a California law requiring that Mexican trucks meet U.S. emissions standards, but “It remains unclear, state environmental officials said, what that law will mean for the new pilot program.” In other words, NAFTA’s Chapter 11 provision means that Mexican trucking companies could sue California or the U.S. for environmental regulations that cost them money. So, in other words, all of the gains that California has achieved in improving air quality over the last few decades are about to go out the window in the name of global trade.

So, it looks like SoCal is on its way to the driest winter ever, based on the current rainfall totals. Yet another example of the Mediterranean climate; after nearly breaking the record for the most rain in a winter a couple of years ago, now they’re on their way to breaking the record in the other direction. Gotta love that “average” rainfall.

Of course, this winter might just be a taste of things to come, as climatologists think we’ve been in an unusually wet period over the last century or so. As global weather patterns shift, SoCal could be looking at a lot less moisture, so that the small water districts that are able to use groundwater and snowmelt are going to have to rely on outside sources like the Colorado River or the L.A. Aqueduct, putting a tighter and tighter squeeze on those sources.

Makes me glad I’m probably moving back to the Midwest this year…

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