environment

Age of Fire

“Global temperature anomalies for 2015 compared to the 1951–1980 baseline. 2015 was the warmest year in the NASA/NOAA temperature record, which starts in 1880. It has since been superseded by 2016 (NASA/NOAA; 20 January 2016).” By NASA Scientific Visualization Studio – https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov / Goddard Space Flight Center – https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We live in an age of wildfire. Last year northern California was devastated. These fires are happening so frequently that it is impacting tourism in places like southern Oregon. Some people are becoming reluctant to plan to spend their summer vacation outdoors, because the air might be filled with choking smoke. In northern Alberta, Fort McMurray was nearly devoured by a wildfire in 2016. Everyone who has experienced recent summers in British Columbia, Canada likely has a story about the smoke, or about someone they know who feared having to relocate. And it’s not just the North American west that has been heavily impacted. In 2017 four separate wildfires killed 66 people in Portugal, while Australia has struggled with massive wildfires. How do we explain the changes that are impacting forests globally? …

Book Review: Retreat from a Rising Sea

Citation: From the public domain source, the US EPA (2014): “This figure shows average absolute sea level change, which refers to the height of the ocean surface, regardless of whether nearby land is rising or falling. Satellite data are based solely on measured sea level, while the long-term tide gauge data include a small correction factor because the size and shape of the oceans are changing slowly over time. […]The shaded band shows the likely range of values, based on the number of measurements collected and the precision of the methods used.
By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pilkey, Orrin H., et al. Retreat from a Rising Sea : Hard Decisions in an Age of Climate Change. Columbia University Press, 2016.

As I’ve worked on the previous editions of our textbook with Kim Brown, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s important for educators to recognize that our task is not only to teach about how humanity can prevent global warming, but also how humanity will need to adapt to climate change. There is now so much additional CO2 in the atmosphere that we are committed to global warming for generations to come. Perhaps no environmental impact will affect people as much rising sea levels, which is the central theme of Retreat from a Rising Sea. …

Hope and Fear in the Amazon

Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman
Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman

In the 1980s the global media gave extensive coverage to deforestation in Amazonia. Over the last thirty years, there has been a significant decline in media attention to this topic, which partly reflects very real progress that Brazil and neighboring countries have made in slowing deforestation. Still, the problem remains. In 2014, Brazil decided not to sign a UN agreement to defend forests.

I’ve been teaching a course on Amazonian history for 20 years, and I’ve never found such a good classroom resource on the topic as this storyboard by the Council on Foreign Relations. The storyboard combines small amounts of text, with imagery and short videos to place the issue into historical context. Many of the pages are dynamic; that is, there is movement in the background. Some of the maps are excellent. I also particularly liked the successive aerial shots of forest in the Brazilian state of Rondonia over ten year increments.

One weakness is that the storyboard focuses only on Brazil. While Brazil is the country that on its own has the largest Amazonian territories, it would have been useful to have more information on Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela as well. I also personally believe that dams are perhaps the greatest environmental threat in the region, and would like to have seen more coverage of this issue in the storyboard. Still, for any class that addresses environmental issues, this would be a great link in a course shell.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Will Jakarta be lost to the waters?

Globally, sea level rise will challenge coastal cities such as Miami, New Orleans, New York and Shanghai. All of these cities face overwhelming challenges, especially those located in developing nations. For a good look at the debates in one such city, Jakarta, I recommend Chris Bentley’s article in PRI, “Trying to confront a massive flood risk, Jakarta faces ‘problem on top of problem.'” While engineering solutions are possible, they come with their own moral and political issues.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The problem with de-extinction

"This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female, received from Dr. Goding in 1902." By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female, received from Dr. Goding in 1902.” By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In my “Introduction to International Studies” course my students this spring watched a TED talk by Stewart Brand that discussed the idea of bringing back extinct species. This idea has attracted a great deal of media attention, but major challenges remain As my students pointed out, there is distinction between bringing back an individual and bringing back a population. Population geneticists typically say that the minimum size for a viable population is fifty genetically distinct individuals. Even if one thylacine or passenger pigeon could be brought back, how could a population with sufficient genetic diversity be recreated? What would the experience of an individual animal that was brought back be like, if it was the sole member of its species in existence?

My students also asked the question: “Where do we draw the line in terms of time?” Do we bring back passenger pigeons? What about mammoths? Other ancient species?

Still, work in this area is moving forward quickly. Scientists are working to insert the DNA of mammoths into elephants, which might succeed in creating a viable population, although they note that much work remains. Would such an animal, however, truly be a mammoth? Efforts that do not depend on cloning –such as the TaurOs project, to restore the auroch- seem much more likely to achieve success. Despite the accelerating rate of technology, I believe that deextinction is more distant than most media coverage might suggest. Of course, I would love to be wrong, and to be able to travel to Tasmania to view thylacines in the wild.

My students, however, often suggested that more effort should be put into preserving existing species, such as the California condor, before investing in reclaiming lost animals. One of my students said that this technology should be used to help save the northern white rhino, for which there are no breeding pairs in existence. While students loved the idea of seeing extinct animals brought back, they felt that the environments in which they lived had to first be preserved for this effort to be meaningful.

That said, a few students felt very strongly that all of humanity had a strong moral responsibility to bring these species back. Some students also argued that bringing back extinct animals will also benefit entire ecosytems, so that the impact on the species alone wasn’t the major issue. One point that all students seemed to agree upon was that there is a difference between a species that has recently gone extinct due to humanity’s influence, and ancient species. Nobody wanted to see dinosaurs brought back.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

World Population Growth

In less than six minutes, this brief video from WorldPopulationHistory.org covers two millennia of the earth’s population growth. The final 20 seconds are visually powerful, and make clear why it is impossible to discuss environmental issues without addressing population.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

GIF of Global Warming

Like many people, I came across Edward Tufte’s book the Visual Display of Quantitative Information years ago and was fascinated with the charts and images that it contained. The graph that showed the diminishing size of the French army in Russia, matched against weather conditions, is terrifying in its simplicity. I do think that when people can see data, they can grasp abstract concepts that they might not have the time or patience to engage otherwise. For this reason, I love this new GIF by Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading, which shows the increase in global temperatures between 1850 and 1916. This might be a good tool to embed in a course shell during the “Environment” week of an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” course. On my version you will have to double-click the GIF to activate it; you can also view it here:

Ed Hawkins GIF of global temperatures through time.
Ed Hawkins GIF of global temperatures through time. Please double click to activate.

A Hidden Wonder in Brazil

It’s not true that the age of discovery is over, and everything worth knowing has already been found. We live in an age of revelations, such as the resting site of one of the ships from the lost Franklin expedition, an immense canyon in Greenland, and an unknown tapir in the Amazon. How can an mammal that travels in groups and weighs 200 pounds have remained undiscovered for so long? What is remarkable is the pace of the discoveries.  A new species of wolf has just been revealed in the Himalaya. Three new species of lemurs were discovered by researchers at the University of Kentucky. Multiple new species were just discovered in the ocean off of Atlantic Canada. Still, all of these discoveries are less surprising than the recent announcement that a coral reef exists at the mouth of the Amazon. The reef is the size of Delaware. Part of the reason that it hasn’t been studied before was that nobody thought that such a reef could exist in the fresh water and heavy sediments that pour into the ocean from the river. If we can miss an ecosystem 600 miles long (965 kilometers) long, what else is out there that we’re missing?

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Hakai Magazine

In International and Global Studies departments we often organize our curriculum by geographic region. At Portland State University, students in International and Global Studies can complete tracks in the major with a focus on Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. In many programs there is now a move towards focusing on topics in the curriculum, rather than geographic regions. For example, in my own department we created a track in development studies three years ago, and it is now the most popular track in the major. How might we organize information if we decided not to begin with geography as defined by our traditional boundaries?

Perhaps one answer might be that we would look at what unites regions at a truly global level. Hakai Magazine, for example, provides content about the world’s coastal regions and our oceans, with an emphasis on the environment and coastal populations. There is a good mix of long and short form material, and a truly global perspective. For anyone with an interest in the world’s oceans, this is a great resource.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Climate Change and the Middle East

Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.
Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.

I’ve blogged before regarding the argument that a disastrous drought helped to feed the conflict in Syria. It’s worth revisiting the topic, however, based on a report edited by Caitlin Werrel and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security.The report, “Climate Change and the Arab Spring,” was published in February 2013, and makes the argument that climate change was a key factor in the Arab Spring, although that is not to say that it caused the uprisings. The essays in the collection clarify the truly global factors that underpinned this event, from declining wheat production in China, which undermined food security in the Middle East, to the “transcendent challenges” created by climate change globally.

The link between drought and warfare is not new. This linkage, for example, may help explain the collapse of classical Mayan civilization in the 9th century in the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. The Mayan city-states faced both an epic drought, and -based on the archaeological record- widespread warfare perhaps beginning around 800 AD (Michael Coe, The Maya, 162-163, Jared Diamond, Collapse, 172-174). The historical connection between drought and conflict is a deep one. …

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