Fort McMurray and the Canadian Oil Sands

Years ago I toured the Fort McKay and an Oil Sands production facility. I was struck by the sheer scale of all aspects of the facility: the trucks the size of a small house; the tailings of sulphur, which formed a bright yellow block the size of an apartment building, and the pit, which seemed to stretch to the horizon. The oil company took my group to view some reclaimed tailings, which had been replanted with vegetation, and now had a small band of buffalo. If I remember correctly, the buffalo were cared for by the local aboriginal people.

What the company’s tour guide did not discuss was the issue of water, and the huge pools of contaminated water that no technology can currently clean. While most attention with the oil sands has focused on the issue of carbon, the issue of local environmental destruction is also pressing, and the impact that this industrial scale development has on regional communities. Amongst these communities are the indigenous peoples of the region. Much as is the case with fracking from North Dakota to Texas, how people view environmental issues is often influenced by their economic interests. For this reasons, many aboriginal communities have been divided not only by the Oil Sands, but also by issues of pipelines or mining.

I am teaching an online “Introduction to International Studies” course this quarter, and the most popular course materials have not been articles, podcasts or videos, but rather storyboards. Students love the interactive aspect of these media, which are often also beautiful. The Guardian has an excellent story board on the tar sands, which examines both the environmental and human questions raised by this development, which I highly recommend.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University.

Climate Change and War: the origins of the Syrian Conflict

Climatologists and social scientists have been debating whether a severe drought in the MIddle East may have led to the outbreak of war in that country for at least two years. I discussed this topic in a blog post published in 2013. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is now receiving a lot of attention for its detailed study of the question. So far, the best coverage that I have seen of the topic has been Andrew Freeman’s article, “The Seeds of War,” which combines text with photographs and graphics. I highly recommend this piece. You can also read the abstract for the original article here. Of course,  few questions are trickier than the causation of a war, which are multi-factorial. The anniversary of the outbreak of World War One last year led to a plethora of academic studies about that war’s causation. By its nature, it’s almost impossible to do counter-factual history; that is, to demonstrate what would have happened if something had not taken place. Nonetheless, the causal link in Syria between the collapse of the agricultural economy, the explosive growth of urban populations, and the breaking of social bonds, is a persuasive one. …

Sticky: an animated video about a rediscovered species

Lord Howe Island, Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lord Howe Island, Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Spring quarter I will teach a fully online version of an “Introduction to International and Global Studies.” As I was looking for documentary content for the class I came across this animated video that tells the story of the rediscovery of the Lord Howe Island stick insect. This species was believed to be extinct, after its habitat was over-run by rats introduced by Europeans. In 2001, however, a single surviving population was discovered on a lone shrub on Ball’s pyramid in the midst of the Pacific Ocean.

This animation is not designed for children, although they could view it too. The art work is gorgeous, and the use of colors creates a visually spectacular world. One reviewer used the word “haunting” to describe it’s impact. The first section of the video is silent, before the second half begins a narration by the discoverer of this population, Nicholas Carlile. He proves to be an engaging storyteller, who captures the wonder of this unique moment. The combination of visual design and compelling narrative have made this an award winner in the film festival circuit.

From Hawaii to the Georgia Islands, rats have overrun indigenous species and caused immense destruction. This beautiful video places the issue of invasive species into a particular context with an uplifting story. Strongly recommended.

Curious? You can view the video here.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Cod and Tuna: overfishing in Canada and the Mediterranean

"Sashimi Meal With Tuna And Bass" by artur84 at freeditigalphotos.net
“Sashimi Meal With Tuna And Bass” by artur84 at freeditigalphotos.net

This week I had my students watch a documentary, The Cost of Sushi, which describes how overfishing is endangering the tuna stocks in the Mediterranean. The reasons why are familiar from past disasters: the real needs of local communities and fisherman, the development of new fishing technologies and factory ships, the demand from foreign markets, the vast sums of money involved, and the uncertainty about how much fishing the stocks can actually take. In the case of the Mediterranean, what is clear by the end of the documentary is that much of the problem lies not only with the level of the quotas themselves, but also with the vast amount of illegal fishing that takes place. While the documentary clearly shows that huge amounts of tuna is being taken illegally -which environmental activists document both by tracing ships, and by genetically sampling tuna in markets- at no point are any corporations or individuals shown being held accountable. Given that a single tuna has sold for $1,76 million dollars (the current record), and the size of the waters involved, its easy to understand the difficulties that fisheries inspectors and activists face. Globally, the Atlantic blue fin tuna and Southern blue fin tuna are, respectively, endangered and critically endangered. Sadly, it seems that the local fishing communities, which have relied on this resource for many generations, will be the ones to suffer. …

A Book Review of Mark Willacy’s Fukushima

"Mt. Fuji, Japan" by Worakit Sirijinda
“Mt. Fuji, Japan” by Worakit Sirijinda

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is so recent that it’s been difficult to have a nuanced and thorough perspective on this event. Mark Willacy’s history attempts to tell the story of Fukushima through the stories of not only the people who lived in the area, but also the senior government officials who dealt with the crisis. Willacy has a deep knowledge of Japan, and had visited the area hit by the tsunami a year before the disaster. One of the strengths of the work is the extensive interviews Willacy undertook to build a detailed image of complex events. By using the techniques of narrative non-fiction, his book conveys information largely by showing the reader through scenes, which helps to show why data matters. With his deep knowledge of contemporary Japan, and his detailed interviews, Willacy creates a beautifully written and detailed account of this disaster. …

Hope and New Species

"World Map" by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net
“World Map” by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net

I just attended an excellent conference on Global Studies pedagogy at St. Cloud State in Minnesota. One challenge that faculty in the field discussed is that that our courses can too quickly adopt a “global problems” approach. This encourages students to become overwhelmed by the scale of global issues, and to view the world as a problematic and dangerous place. This is unlikely to either lead them to want to dive deeper into Global Studies or to do Study Abroad. For this reason, it’s important to focus not only on issues but also solutions. When covering key global problems -such as environmental issues- I try to also include models, such as Curitiba’s urban planning, or Bogota’s amazing bus system. I also think that it’s good to not forget positive news, even when focusing on deforestation or ethnic conflict. Once students have a sense that there’s hope, they are more inclined to focus on environmental issues or conflict resolution. …

New dolphin species discovered in the Amazon

Deep Forest Waterfall by Witthaya Phonsawat
Deep Forest Waterfall by Witthaya Phonsawat

In a recent post I talked about the discovery of a new species of tapir in the Amazon. What is amazing to me is that there are still large mammal species being “discovered” in the region. Within the last ten years a new monkey species was described scientifically for the first time, after having been identified within 60 miles of Manaus, the largest city in the Amazonian river basin. Of course, local and native peoples are already well aware of these animals, which they have hunted for long periods of time. Now, not a month after the last such discovery of a large mammal species in Amazonia, a new dolphin species has been described in a scientific journal. It is the first new species of river dolphin discovered in a 100 years. …

The Dangers of Nuclear Energy: Japan, France and the US

"Nuclear Power" by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net
“Nuclear Power” by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net

There have been some intriguing articles recently about nuclear energy, which demonstrate the challenges entailed with obtaining power from this resource. An article in Reuters described how homeless people are being recruited to work in the nuclear cleanup in Fukushima, Japan, because few other people are willing to take on such a dangerous task for minimum wage. The people recruited for this work are not the highly trained and motivated, but rather the most vulnerable. Sadly, major criminal syndicates appear to be involved in the recruitment process, which has meant that there are serious failures in oversight and record keeping. Another article has described how the farmer Masami Yoshizawa illegally entered the forbidden zone around the nuclear power plant to save cattle abandoned when people were forced to flee in the aftermath of the disaster. He described a horrible scene of neglect, in which cattle died with their mouths in their feeding troughs, as they waited for their farmers to return and care for them. The government does not know what to do with Masami, and so he is not officially recognized as living there, even though (my favorite detail) he still has his electricity and his telephone turned on. The nuclear disaster continues to have a major economic impact on the country; for example, South Korea still refuses to buy Japanese seafood. …

Syllabus for an “Amazon Rainforest” class.

"Scarlet Macaw" by Elwood W. McKay III
“Scarlet Macaw” by Elwood W. McKay III

I’ve been teaching a class on the Amazon rainforest for about fifteen years now, which provides a brief historical overview of Amazonia, before examining indigenous and environmental issues. A few words about the books for the course: students love David Campbell’s, Land of Ghosts, despite his sometimes challenging vocabulary, because of his evocative descriptions. But be forewarned about Mindlin’s, Barbecued Husbands. This is a book of erotic myths from the southwestern Amazon. The first time I used this book in a class, I had a delegation of students come to complain that I was requiring them to read material with sexual content; I made the use of the book (and attendance in the class discussion) optional. I also had another student explain why they hadn’t read the book by saying: “I loaned it to my housemate at the start of the quarter, and he’s refused to give it back.” I continue to use it as an optional text, and on that basis have not had any more student complaints. …

A large unknown mammal discovered in the Amazon

"Tropical Waterfall" by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee
“Tropical Waterfall” by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee

In an earlier blog post I discussed the fact that explorers and scientists are still making major new discoveries on our mysterious planet. If any still place holds many surprises it must be the Amazon. In 2009 I was staying in a lodge on the Rio Negro near Manaus, in the midst of the worst flooding that the Amazon had seen in sixty years. My wife and I took our two daughters down to the bank of the river. Swarms of small insects were attracted to the lights on the river bank. Fish would rise to the surface and surge up to catch the insects. And as we watched, a bat flew past and captured a fish, which hung twisting and flopping in its clutches. It happened so fast that I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. I think that I began my sentence, “that almost looked as if that bat just. . . ” But a minute later it happened again, and there was no question. There really are fish-eating bats in the Amazon. But now scientists have found something not only amazing but also unknown- at least to outsiders. …

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