Population Geography

Oman and Yemen: So Similar, So Different…

Arabia Satellite ImageAt first glance, Oman and Yemen almost appear to be sibling states. They fairly evenly divide the southeastern slice of the Arabian Peninsula. Both countries have extensive highlands on their opposing extremities, which receive much more rainfall than the rest of region and thus allow intensive agriculture both within the uplands themselves and in the adjacent lowlands. They share the seasonally wet central coastal area of Dhofar/Al Mahrah. Both countries sit at the entrance of a vitally important strait that leads to a major sea (the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian [Arabian] Gulf in the case of Oman; the Bab-el-Mandeb leading to the Red Sea in the case of Yemen).

The histories of the two countries are also closely linked. Some sources date the formation of Oman to the migration of a large portion of the Azd tribe from Yemen in the first century CE, following the collapse of the Great Dam of Ma’rib, one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Oman, “The present-day name of the country, Oman, is believed to originate from the Arab tribes who migrated to its territory from the Uman region of Yemen; many such tribes settled in Oman, making a living by fishing, herding or stock breeding…” Both countries also share a similar historical dynamic in the tension between theocratically Imamate of Oman and Muscat Maporiented, inward-looking inland areas and more secular, cosmopolitan coastal regions. Key to understanding Omani history was the periodic tension between Oman Proper, generally ruled by the elected Ibadi Imams, and the coastal Sultanate of Muscat (before 1970, the official name of the country was “Muscat and Oman”). Similarly, the history of Yemen must be understood in the context of the long-lasting rivalry between the Zaidi Imamate of the northwestern highlands and the more secular rulers of the coastal and southern highland regions. Equally significant is the fact that Oman and Yemen were two of the world’s least internationally oriented and socio-economically developed countries in the mid-20th century.


Such similarities should not be exaggerated, however. Yemen’s highlands are much more extensive than those of Oman, and they receive significantly more rainfall. As a result, the population of Oman Yemen Population Density MapYemen is, and has long been, much larger than that of Oman. Oman, moreover, has nothing like Yemen’s Hadhramaut, a sizable desert area with abundant water in its deeply incised wadis (seasonal waterways), which allow intensive cultivation and settlement. But despite Yemen’s much larger population, Oman played a much more important world historical role in the early modern period, when its Muscat-based empire controlled large parts of the western Indian Ocean basin. “Yemen proper” (the more densely populated western third of the country), on the other hand, was never much of a power center in this period. The Hadhramis of the Hadhramaut, on the other hand, did play a major economic and cultural role across most of the Indian Ocean realm, with their diaspora taking them all the way to Indonesia.

Yemen Oman ComparedDespite their similarities, Yemen and Oman are today remarkably different places. Yemen is war-torn country at the edge of being a completely failed state. Even before its recent descent into chaos, it was noted for its poverty and general lack of development. Oman, on the other hand, is a stable and prosperous state, with a per capita GDP almost 20 times that of Yemen.

It is tempting to attribute Oman’s better fortunes solely to oil, as oil wealth has allowed its extraordinarily rapid progress in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the table posted here shows, Oman’s oil production is much higher than that of Yemen. The fact that Oman’s population is much lower, Yemen Oman Fertility Ratemoreover, means that its oil revenues go much further. Here the discrepancy between the two countries will only grow more pronounced, as Yemen’s birthrate in much higher than Oman’s, although it is dropping rapidly. Due to a combination of Yemen fast-growing population, chaotic politics, rampant insecurity, poverty, and general aridity, the country is experiencing a water crisis that could prove devastating within the next few decades. Oman faces problems of its own, most notably an impending oil production decline, but it will probably be able to adjust, given its more general developmental success and its small population. Much depends, however, on the sultanate’s uncertain political succession, as mentioned in a previous post.

The gargantuan difference between the two countries, however, also rests on institutions and even personalities. The tolerant, deliberative nature of Oman’s Ibadi religious establishment may be a foundation of the country’s success. A clear difference between the two counties is found in the characteristics of their recent governments. In Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, in power since 1970s, has been an autocratic but competent ruler who has been devoted to the welfare of his country. In Yemen, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power from 1978 to 2012, has been rather different figure. As argued by Thomas Juneau in 2010:

The president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, rules by maintaining a precarious balance among a variety of competing forces, including the military and the security apparatus, the main tribes, political parties and factions, and key clerics. By buying loyalty through patronage and ruling through a combination of cooptation, inclusion and coercion, Saleh has painstakingly built an “administrative feudal system”2 that has evolved into a mix of “kleptocracy and plutocracy.


Finally, some observers link Yemen’s failure to its notorious qat habit. Development is constrained, they argue, when virtually the entire urban male population of the country devotes almost every afternoon to the convivial chewing of the leaves of this mildly narcotic, water-demanding plant. Many Yemenis agree with this perspective. As was reported locally in 2012:

“Qat, the cursed plant in Yemen,” was the headline in a five-part series published by the Yemen Times in 2010, documenting extensively the social problems associated with qat chewing in the country. …

On January 12 [2-12], through social media, Yemenis are organizing an event called “I want Yemen to change – I will not store qat”. This event, organized by Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist based in Beirut and who made headlines with the “Shame Reuters” campaign, is a call for all Yemenis, wherever they are, to say no to qat, to not store any qat and to protest the cultivation and consumption of qat. International organizations should watch for this event and support the people of Yemen in making a transition that is much more difficult than any political process: That of building a new country in which the widespread cultivation and consumption of qat can be eventually replaced.

H=Greater Yemen MapDespite Yemen’s myriad problems, a “Greater Yemen” movement evidently still seeks the enlargement of the country, hoping to acquire the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia as well as Oman’s Dhofar Governorate. Right now, there seems to be a larger chance that a “Lesser Yemen” will emerge from the wreckage of the shattered state.



Oman and Yemen: So Similar, So Different… Read More »

Lecture Slides on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis

Dear Readers,

Military Spending per GDP mapYet again, other obligations have prevented me from making regular GeoCurrents posts. Most of my recent time has been devoted to preparing lectures for my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events. This week’s talk was on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis; the lecture slides are available at the link below (“MediterraneanMigration”). The remainder of this post summarizes those slides

The lecture began with an overview of recent events, using media headlines, maps, graphs, and quotations from various articles. The table on page 11 departs from this introduction, showing that although human smuggling—whether across the Mediterranean or anywhere else—is indeed a big business, it is much smaller than many other illicit activities, including that of counterfeiting auto parts (the table is from the invaluable site Havocscope: Global Black Market Information). Slides 14-19 consider some of the reasons why human smuggling and its associated fatalities have increased recently, including Italy’s abandonment of “Operation Mare Nostrum” and the construction of border barriers by Greece and Bulgaria.

The next slide simply outlines the remainder of the lecture: 1. Global Perspectives on Migration; 2. Local Particularities: Europe and the Mediterranean; 3. Response from Europe & Repercussions for Europe; 4. Contrasts with Australian Policy.

Slides 21-34 present maps and other visuals that try to capture the global dynamics of international migration. The overarching idea here is that people tend to move from poor and chaotic countries to wealthier and more stable ones. The best of these maps is a busy and somewhat dated French portrayal that contains a wealth of information. Slides 26 and 27 illustrate the under-appreciated fact that a major portion of migration occurs within the so-called Global South, going from poor countries to richer but still not “fully developed” ones. (In discussing slide 28, however, I critique the very notion of the “Global South,” as the conventional definition places a number of impoverished states on the “rich” side of the line [Tajikistan, Moldova] and quite a few wealthy countries on the “poor” side [Singapore, Qatar]). The next set of images gives information on a few particular instances of troubled international immigration in the “South,” including Nicaraguans moving to Costa Rica, Paraguayans and Bolivians going to Argentina, and Indonesians migrating to Malaysia. Slides 33 and 34 show that this process sometimes goes into reverse, as when Ivory Coast experienced protracted conflicts that resulted in millions of people from Burkina Faso and Mali fleeing back to their homelands.

With slide 35, the lecture returned to the current crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean. Slides 36-38 show migration routes, but not very accurately (the last of these maps appear to be the best). More significant is slide 39, which includes two tables showing the countries of origin of people illegally crossing the sea into Europe in recent months. This slide brings up the significant question of why these particular countries send so many would-be immigrants into Europe. Some are easy to explain on the basis of war and related calamities, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Others can be explained on the basis of severe repression, including the Gambia and Eritrea. A number of these slides (41-50) delve into the horrors of life in contemporary Eritrea. Beginning with slide 50, the lecture took on the issue of why Libya has become the main embarkation point for trans-Mediterranean migrants. Here I first explored the political chaos encountered now in Libya and then considered the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi in encouraging trans-Saharan immigration into his country. The final slides in this section examine to proximity of Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, considering as well the conditions found on that small island.

At this point, the lecture turned to the responses to the crisis found in Europe. Different European countries have had different reactions, and the EU’s “ten-point plan” has been wide criticized for being weak and ineffectual. Many Europeans, however, maintain that they have been unduly taken to task, especially considering the fact that Europe takes much more than its “fair share” of asylum seekers. Some European countries, however, attract many more asylum seekers than others (slide 73), but do so for different reasons. Sweden is particularly generous, while Hungary is merely located in an area that is easy to reach for many asylum seekers. Slides 76 and 77 examine Europe’s detention system for people claiming refugee status, considering as well the criticisms of this system by human-rights activists.

The next set of slides examine debates within Europe over the larger immigration issue. Images 98-82 consider the argument that Europe needs high levels of immigration due to its low birth rate and rapidly increasing dependency burden, showing as well the growing demographic imbalance between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. But as the next group of slides shows, Europeans are increasingly opposed to high levels of immigration, although sentiments vary considerably from country to country (with Italy and Sweden at opposite ends of the spectrum). Attitudes also vary widely in regard to the country-of-origin of would-be immigrants. Perhaps surprisingly, in Western Europe opposition to migration from Eastern Europe is almost as strong as that to migration from the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa.

Beginning with slide 86, the presentation considers the political ramifications for Europe of the migration crisis, focusing on the rise of so-called right-wing, anti-immigrant parties, most of which are also highly skeptical of the EU. In the lecture, efforts were made to differentiate the political philosophies of these various parties, which differ significantly. Map 89, for example, distinguishes the “extreme far right” from both the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although the distinction between the “extreme far right” (Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Attack in Bulgaria) and the other parties seems valid, I am not convinced about difference between the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although Alternative for Germany has often been portrayed as populist in the German press, as it is on the map, it appears to me to be more of a neo-liberal (or “classical liberal”) party. At any rate, the remainder of this section of slides provides more detail on number of these parties. As can be see, they generally have heavier representation in the European parliament than in the legislative chambers of their own countries.

A number of these parties would like Europe adopt immigration policies more like those of Australia. The final set of slides thus outline the Australian immigration system, examining policies on both asylum seekers and those seeking work permits through standard immigration channels.


Lecture Slides on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis Read More »

Ultimate Hypocrisy?: Indoor Marijuana Growing and the Environmental Movement

Indoor MarijuanaImagine if you will an alternative world in which the leaders of one of our most reviled industries – say tobacco – had just figured out a new way to marginally enhance the quality of their product while significantly boosting their profits, but at a gargantuan cost to the environment. In this hypothetical universe, tobacco researchers discovered that they could produce slightly more refined smoking material in high-tech growing factories than they could in outdoor fields buffeted by unpredictable weather events. This new production system proved additionally profitable by abolishing the traditional cropping cycle in favor of monthly harvests, eliminating the headaches associated with long-term storage and annual planning. But the key issue was that of leaf quality and aesthetics, as in this universe the social stigma against tobacco use was rapidly declining, and well-heeled, trendy smokers and tobacco retailers had become obsessed with excellence, wanting to deal only with the most premium grades. As it turned out, the tobacco harvested in the new antiseptic grow-ops was slightly smoother, slightly more potent, slightly less contaminated by organic impurities, and significantly more uniform than that grown under the sun. In this parallel world, even the finest Dominican cigars were now occasionally reviled as dirt-grown trash, scorned by the most posh smoke shops.

Imagine as well that a number of U.S. state governments were encouraging this development, in part to bolster their own coffers. Indoor tobacco could be grown in states that were climatically marginal or inappropriate for outdoor cultivation, and it could be overseen and taxed at every stage of the operation, from the cloning of tobacco plants, to the processing of cigarettes and other nicotine products, to the final retail sale in a limited number of closely regulated, state-sanctioned shops. And to protect their revenue streams, such states were even able to ban the importation of outdoor tobacco from both other parts of the country and foreign lands.

Carbon Footprint Indoor Marijuana1In this alternative world, as in ours, the environmental consequences of such a tobacco transformation would be huge. The growing facilities would have to replace sunlight with high-intensity artificial illumination, sucking energy with abandon and generating in the process a mammoth carbon footprint. And lighting would be only one of several energy demands in this brave new world of high tech farming. Extensive ventilation and dehumidification systems would be needed as well, as would air conditioning in the summer months. Many tobacco growers would even artificially ramp-up carbon dioxide concentrations to Indoor Marijuana Carbon Footprint 2enhance plant growth, with much of the added gas leaking into the atmosphere. These agro-factories would be as far removed from organic faming as possible, with virtually all plant nutrients supplied through chemical means. And although clean-room status would be the goal, insects and other pests would sometimes get through the defenses and would then multiply geometrically, given the absence of predators. As a result, heavy applications of biocides would be periodically necessary.

The resulting production system would of course produce expensive tobacco, unaffordable by the financially disadvantaged. As result, a market for a lower-grade product would persist. But recall that in this imagined scenario, a number of states had essentially outlawed cheaper tobacco grades through regulations, prohibitions, and rigorous taxation regimes. Illegal production would therefore spring up to meet the low-end demand. Mexican drug cartels, noted for their brutality and environmental disregard, would step into the resulting gap. Some low-quality tobacco would be smuggled across the southern border of the U.S., in operations that went hand-in-hand with heroin and cocaine trafficking as well as with 1144423_ME_marijuana-enviro_GEMextortion, kidnapping, and mass-murder. The same cartels would also establish clandestine tobacco farms in the U.S., tucked away in national forests, private timberlands, and other remote locales. Here they would be joined by a number of local, renegade mass-producers. Worked in part by exploited, undocumented immigrants, these outdoor tobacco “grows” would pollute streams with agricultural chemicals and human waste, and litter the landscape with plastic tubing, growing containers, and the basic garbage of human existence. As a result of these growers’ paranoia and vigilance, merely hiking through these areas would become a dangerous and potentially deadly activity. More troubling still, these farms would use copious amounts of rodenticide to extirpate tobacco-gnawing wood rats, which would in turn devastate the populations of small carnivores, pushing some, such as the fisher (Martes pennanti), to the brink of local extinction.

Indoor Marijuana FootprintThe environmental consequences of this tobacco transformation would be fairly obvious, but not to their full extent. Imagine, however, investigative journalists from publications such as Mother Jones running damning exposés (see here and here as well) that outlined in some detail the damage imparted by both indoor and large-scale, illicit, outdoor tobacco growing. One report demonstrated that in California alone, the factory-farming of tobacco accounted for nine percent of the state’s household electricity consumption in early 2014, and that nationwide the industry used the output equivalent to that of seven large coal-burning or nuclear power plants. Imagine as well that this industry was steadily expanding not just in California but in other states as well, many of which were climatically unsuitable for outdoor tobacco cultivation. As a result, state energy planners were beginning to wonder where all of the extra electricity would come from, and were therefore contemplating the construction of new power facilities.

In such a world, one could well image the resulting outrage of not just the environmental community, but also that of all advocates of responsible government and rational public policy. 4,600 pounds of carbon dioxide released for every pound of tobacco produced, and for what end? So that tobacco connoisseurs could enjoy a slightly more refined smoking experience? So that tobacco companies could avoid the need for annual planning? For this we would be willing to devote the entire output of seven—and counting—major power plants?

This entire scenario is, of course, ludicrous beyond all measure. As a result, indoor tobacco cultivation would be a non-starter, and even if it were somehow able to gain traction, it would arouse the immediate and overwhelming opposition of every green organization in existence, as well as that of a great many other powerful pressure groups. The alternative reality that I have sketched out above, in short, makes no sense, and thus would thus seem to be unimaginable.

Or is it? As my title indicates, all that one has to do is substitute “marijuana” for “tobacco,” and the bulk of this post describes the actual situation currently existing in California, Washington, and several other U.S. states that have partially or fully legalized the consumption and sale of cannabis. There are, of course, limits to this comparison. The legal environments of tobacco and marijuana remain distinctive across the country, and I do not intend to imply that the two products are in any way equivalent. The existing evidence, for example, indicates that cannabis does indeed have a variety of legitimate medical uses, whereas the idea of “medical tobacco” is hard to take seriously. (To be sure, tobacco can have therapeutic and perhaps even prophylactic effects for such diseases as Parkinson’s, but almost all medical authorities insist that the product’s harm greatly outweighs any of its potential benefits.) I could have constructed my hypothetical alternative around any other highly valued crop, particularly those that have a major snob-appeal factor. I picked tobacco largely for its shock value; where I live, there is a significantly greater social stigma attached to tobacco smoking than there is to cannabis consumption, and as result the absurdity of my little thought experiment is duly intensified.

The widespread antipathy to tobacco in U.S. environmental circles and among the political left more generally would ensure that any major expansion of its carbon footprint would generate massive opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, the situation could hardly be more different. Over the past several years, I have noticed no evidence of any concerted resistance among major environmental groups to the burgeoning indoor marijuana industry, and very little to environmentally destructive, large-scale cultivation carried out on remote lands.

Greenpeace Indoor MarijuanaTo see if such seeming lack of concern is indeed the case, I examined the websites of a number of well-known environmental groups, searching under such terms as “indoor marijuana,” and “cannabis.” Some of my findings are available in the screenshot images posted here. As can be seen, no results were returned from theNRDC Indoor Marijuana Audubon or the Greenpeace sites. The Natural Resources Defense Council highlighted an article about eco-friendly hemp clothing, as well as several warning about the dangers of indoor pollution stemming from marijuana Audubon Indoor Marijuanasmoking at home. 350.org, an 350.org indoor marijuanaorganization wholly devoted to fighting greenhouse gas emissions, would almost appear to advocate indoor cannabis cultivation; although its website contains no articles on the subject, it does run a number of search-linked advertisements for “grow lights” and “professional grow rooms.” The Sierra Club website, on the other hand, does bring up a significant number of articles. But as can be seen from the screenshot posted here, most of them concern weeds and pots rather than weed or pot, and indoor toilets rather Sierra Club Indoor Marijuanathan indoor grow-ops. The one result that does appear pertinent on first glance, marked with a red arrow on the image, turns out to be a red herring, as the article in question is actually about Massey Energy in West Virginia, a much more conventional Sierra Club target. When it comes to the massive energy consumption and colossal carbon footprint of indoor marijuana growing, an article in the Seattle Times sums up the situation nicely: “Leaders at other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Conservation Northwest say they have other priorities.”

CBD Indoor MarijuanaThe one prominent environmental organization that does appear to be concerned about the negative effects of certain forms of cannabis cultivation is the Center for Biological Diversity, as can be seen in another screenshot posted here. It appears that the Center worries only about those problems associated with outdoor cultivation, but that focus seems appropriate, given its mandate. Some local branches of the Sierra Club have also taken up this issue, with the Redwood Chapter describing large-scale illegal cultivation as “an Environmental Plague on the North Coast.” The Humboldt branch of Earth First!, on the other hand, appears to be completely unconcerned, despite the fact that it is situated at the epicenter of environmentally destructive, large-scale, outdoor grows, and despite the fact that the organization as a whole claims to brook “no compromise in the defense of Mother Earth.”

None of this, it is essential to note, should be taken as an indictment of marijuana growing per se. Cannabis is a hardy plant that thrives in a wide array of climatic conditions, although the most premium grades do require relatively low humidity levels during the crucial September-October maturation period. Most importantly, almost all the power that is needed for marijuana growing flows naturally from the sun. The small-scale growers whom I have interviewed never use insecticides, rodenticides, or any other toxic chemicals, and they strive to keep their footprints, carbon and otherwise, as small as possible (more on that in a later post). But they get no credit whatsoever for any of these efforts, either from the marijuana market itself or from the environmental community and its political allies. Here the paradoxes run deep indeed.

Indoor Marijuana Growing GuideThe burning question, of course, is that of why: why would green organizations turn a blind eye to this huge, rapidly expanding, and entirely unnecessary source of environmental degradation? Anti-environmentalists would likely respond by claiming that this is yet more evidence that the environmental movement is not what it claims to be, as its true goal is the dismantling of global capitalism rather than the protection of the atmosphere or of nature more generally. I do not, however, think that this is the case, as will be explained in the next GeoCurrents post.

Notes: In Washington, one of the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana, legal growing can be done outdoors, but all sources that I have found maintain that the vast bulk of the legal crop is cultivated indoors. For the source of the garbage photo posted above, see this LA Times article.  Note also that the statistics cited by Mother Jones and other sources are debated, but whatever the actual numbers are, it is clear that they are far from trivial.


Ultimate Hypocrisy?: Indoor Marijuana Growing and the Environmental Movement Read More »

NPR’s Incomplete Story on “Trimmigants” in the California Marijuana Industry

Emerald Triangle MapOn December 4, 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting story on a severely underreported matter: international seasonal labor migration to the “Golden Triangle” of marijuana cultivation in northwestern California. This report—“With Harvest Season, ‘Trimmigrants’ Flock To California’s Pot Capital”*—captured many of the more intriguing and important aspects of the phenomenon. But it also missed some significant things and made a few doubtful assertions. This post seeks to provide a more comprehensive picture.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to outline my own sources of information. Although the evidence in most GeoCurrents posts derives from a variety of published materials and on-line sources, this one relies entirely on oral interviews. Since my earliest years, I have spent a considerable amount of time recreating in Mendocino County, arguably California’s cannabis core (neighboring Humboldt County, however, would contest that claim). After a close friend moved to the county, I began to meet his neighbors and attend local events. I have been to road-association meetings, informal community gatherings, and even assemblies devoted to dealing with troublesome neighbors. The last-mentioned gathering led to a particularly riveting experience: an afternoon in a Mendocino County courtroom considering requests for restraining orders. As the case that I was interested in came last, I got to witness six compelling micro-dramas, several of which involved marijuana cultivation in one way or another. The tragedy, pathos, and unintended comedy of the proceedings surpassed anything that I have seen on film or in television shows.

I have devoted time to exploring Mendocino County because I find it an environmentally gorgeous and culturally captivating place. Eventually, although probably not until retirement, I plan to write a historical geography of the county, focusing on the history of land-use. I have not yet dipped into the local archives, but I have been informally gathering oral histories from talkative residents for some time.

After listening to the NPR story mentioned above, I arranged to meet first with a few marijuana growers and then with a group of itinerant workers to discuss the issues faced by “trimmigrants.” The growers interviewed all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. All of them found the NPR report to be insightful but incomplete and somewhat exaggerated. But my sample of growers, it is necessary to note, is both highly limited and confined to one small area. As a result, this post should not necessarily be taken as representative of the larger enterprise.

According to the NPR story, European trimmers are favored by most growers over American youths, who are often disparaged as “hippie kids.” The reporter interviewed a young man named Fermin who had been unsuccessfully seeking work for a month and was forced to “dumpster dive” for food. My sources were not surprised by Fermin’s plight, but they nonetheless expressed doubt that American trimmers per se face discrimination. In their operations, local youths are the first to be hired and the last to be let off. Partly this is due to basic community ties, but it is also a matter of these youngsters’ deep experience with a demanding job. One local girl joked about “being born with a pair of scissors in my hand,” and others told of not being allowed to watch television or listen to music as children until their daily allotments had been trimmed. But people like Fermin, scruffy outsiders with Pit Bull Terriers, would only be hired in a case of desperation.

Fermin’s problems extend beyond his appearance, choice of pet, and lack of local contacts to encompass his gender. Men, everyone agreed, are disfavored when it comes to the delicate job of trimming. Although they agreed that they were being “politically incorrect,” the growers insisted that women have, on average, much better fine-motor skills than men, as well as more patience with a grindingly monotonous task that often goes on for more than twelve hours a day. Trimmers are usually paid by the pound, as noted by NPR, and as a result the slower-working men make much less money than the generally faster women. But quality also factors in, as buds must be carefully manicured but not trimmed down so much as to cut into the weight, and workers must remain vigilant in searching for mold, the growers’ worst nightmare. Relatively few men, I was informed, can pass the test of the more demanding artisanal cannabis cultivators. When young men do find work, it is more often in harvesting, hanging buds, and covering unharvested plants with plastic sheeting before rain events. There is much less demand, however, for this kind of labor than there is for trimming.

Of the seasonal workers I interviewed, four were locals (three female, one male) and four were Spaniards (all female). Three of the Spaniards came from the same part of Spain, an area well known for both its high-end tourism and countercultural flair. Some of them have been coming to the Emerald Triangle for years, but one was on her first trip, having been tearfully forced to leave a 14-year-old daughter at home. They all talked about the difficulty of finding employment in Spain, and all maintained that a two-month stint in California could allow them to subsist for the rest of the year back home. Getting work for the full two months, however, did not always prove easy, as small-scale growers only hire trimming crews for a week or two. As a result, they had all traveled back and forth among different “grows” in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties. In finding such work, all were indebted to another person hailing from the same region of Spain. This woman’s outsized personality and immense knowledge of cannabis processing, gained in Morocco and India as well as in Spain and the United States, allows her to serve as a kind of informal, international go-between. When issues arose among the workers and between the workers and their employers, she would be called, in Spain, for consultation.

Other aspects of the NPR story generated skepticism among the growers. They scoffed at the assertion of one cultivator who claims to harvest eight pounds per plant, and then laughed when he said that the plants in question are of the OG Kush variety. Eight-pound plants are legendary: everyone has heard of them, but no one has actually seen one. And while OG Kush is indeed the cultivar of the year, in hot demand by the metropolitan cognoscenti, but it is a notoriously poor producer, usually yielding fewer than two pounds per plant. In the end, my sources could not decide whether the grower interviewed by NPR was greatly exaggerating the yield of his plants, or whether they themselves needed to do something to improve their own cultivation.

The NPR story ended, as these things often do, on a doleful note:

But as laws around the country change — making marijuana legal — analysts say the pay scale is bound to go down, making trimming more like any other low-paid farmwork. And, like farmwork across the country, marijuana production is already becoming mechanized — gradually making trimmigrants a thing of the past.

California-top-cash-crops-1024x638These assertions, not surprisingly, generated much discussion. The first elicited general agreement: the prospect of full legalization makes growers nervous. The idea that mechanization is replacing manual trimming, however, evoked only scoffing. Attempts have been made, they told me, but all have failed. One grower even purchased a $14,000 automatic trimmer a few years ago, a machine designed to process hops (Humulus [hops] and Cannabis are very closely related plants). But the buds had to be pre-trimmed before going into the mechanism, as it cannot handle large stems, and then post-trimmed after coming out, as medical-marijuana dispensaries are exacting customers. More problematic, the machine had to be shut down and cleaned several times an hour, as the resinous buds would quickly gum-up the cutting blades. After a few days of operation, the machine was put into storage and has remained there ever since.

But as alluded to above, threats to marijuana cultivation across the Emerald Triangle are very real. Prices are steadily dropping, and some growers are now having a difficult time making ends meet. The real problem is that of competition from indoor cultivation, which is coming to dominate the market. Indoor buds are more uniform than those grown under the sun, generally have less mold, and are usually more potent as well. As a result, they command a steep price premium, and many medical dispensaries are no longer even willing to sell outdoor pot.

The growers that I interviewed are both dumbfounded and heartbroken by this development, as indoor cannabis cultivation is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of agriculture imaginable, whereas their own “sun grown” product is environmentally benign. They cannot understand why the marijuana market, of all things, would disdain organic farming and instead embrace a hyper-technological, eco-hostile form of production. Regional and generational antipathies also come into play. My interviewees are mostly in their 50s and 60s, and they strongly identify with the neo-rural cultural values of the Emerald Triangle; their indoor competitors, in contrast, are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and are largely based in major metropolitan areas. “We invented this business in the 1970s,” my sources argued, “and we did so under extraordinarily adverse conditions, and now these environmentally unconscionable kids, these corporate wannabe LA pot-snobs, are undermining our livelihoods! How can that be?”

Farmers, in my experience, almost always complain, about both the weather and their agricultural markets, whether they grow wheat, corn, or cannabis. But as we shall see in subsequent posts coming next week, the environmental arguments made by Mendocino County pot growers are difficult to deny.

*The text version of this article at the NPR website is abbreviated; listen to the audio version for the full story.

Note that the location for the story has been keyed to Mendocino’s county seat, Ukiah, rather than to the actual places of cultivation and processing alluded to in the post.

NPR’s Incomplete Story on “Trimmigants” in the California Marijuana Industry Read More »

Eco-Authoritarian Catastrophism: The Dismal and Deluded Vision of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

(Note: The following post strays from the usual geopolitical concerns of GeoCurrents into the realm of environmental politics. It also deviates from the norm in being a polemical review of a particular book. Regular posts will resume shortly.)

UnknownAs with so many other hot-button debates, the climate change controversy leaves me repelled by the clamoring extremists on both sides. Global-warming denialists, as some are aptly called, regard the scientific establishment with such contempt that they abandon the realm of reason. In comment after comment posted on on-line articles and blogs, self-styled skeptics insist that carbon dioxide is such a scant component of the atmosphere that it could not possibly play any climatic role, while castigating mainstream climatologists as malevolent conspirators dedicated to destroying civilization. Yet on the equally aptly named alarmist side of the divide, reasonable concerns often yield to dismal fantasies of the type so elegantly described by Pascal Bruckner in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, upheld by exaggeration to the point of absurdity. More alarmingly, climate activism seems to be veering in an unabashedly authoritarian direction. In such a heated atmosphere, evenhanded positions are at the risk of being flooded out by a rising sea of mutual invective and misinformation.

This essay addresses only one side of this spectrum, that of the doomsayers who think we must forsake democracy and throttle our freedoms if we are to avoid a planetary catastrophe. Although it may seem paradoxical, my focus on the green extreme stems precisely from my conviction that anthropogenic climate change is a huge problem that demands determined action. Yet a sizable contingent of eco-radicals, I am convinced, consistently discredit this cause. By insisting that devastating climate change is only a few years away, they will probably undermine the movement’s public support, given the vastly more likely chance that warming will be gradual and punctuated. By engaging in mendacious reporting and misleading argumentation, they provide ample ammunition for their conspiracy-minded opponents. And by championing illiberal politics, they betray the public good that they ostensibly champion. It is a sad day indeed when an icon of liberalism such as Robert Kennedy Jr. can plausibly be deemed an “aspiring tyrant” for wanting to punish global-warming deniers.

A few off-hand comments by the flighty scion of an illustrious political family, however, are hardly enough to substantiate my admittedly harsh charges. But more damning examples of eco-authoritarianism are not difficult to find. For the present essay, I will limit my attention to one crucial text, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s 2014 The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Idiosyncratic though this book may be, its significance is undeniable. Its authors are widely noted experts in the politics and intellectual history of the climate change controversy, have previously co-written a seminal work, Merchants of Doubt. They teach, respectively, at Harvard University and the Cal Tech, and the book in question was published by Columbia University Press, one of the world’s most esteemed academic presses. Such widely respected public figures as Elizabeth Kolbert and Timothy E. Wirth provide effusive endorsements on the back cover. Kolbert goes so far at to claim that the book should be “required reading for anyone who works—or hopes to—in Washington.” Wirth tells us that unless we heed Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, we will have no chance of avoiding their “dire predictions.” The noted science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson chimes in as well, telling us that the book’s prognostications are “all too plausible.”

Before delving into Oreskes and Conway’s dismal predictions and authoritarian proposals, a few words about the structure and contents of their unusual book are in order. As the authors explain in their first two sentences, The Collapse of Western Civilization aims to “blend the two genres” of science fiction and history in order to “understand the present.” In actuality, virtually nothing that is recognizable as either science fiction or history is found between its covers. Instead, one encounters a brief text (52 pages*) that purports to be a straightforward account of the planetary catastrophes of the 21st century, written by a fictional historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China three hundred years after the final collapse of “Western Civilization” in 2093. This imagined author informs us that that Western Civilization was destroyed by its obsession with free markets and devotion to a “carbon-combustion complex,” which is contrasted with the authoritarian system of China that allowed it to survive and eventually help restabilize the global climate.

Global Warming Temperatures Map 2As the book claims to outline the “not only predictable but predicted” (p. 1) consequences of a fossil-fuel-based energy system, I will begin by examining the author’s actual foretelling. As it turns out, most of it is hyperbolic, going far behind even the most extreme warnings provided by climatologists. Consider, for example, Oreskes and Conway’s most grimly amusing nightmare: the mass die-off of dogs and cats in the early 2020s. Lest one conclude that I am exaggerating here, a direct quotation should suffice:

 [B]ut in 2023, the infamous “year of perpetual summer,” lived up to its name, taking 500,000 lives worldwide and costing nearly $500 billion in losses due to fires, crop failures, and the deaths of livestock and companion animals. The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners, but what was anomalous in 2023 soon became the new normal (p. 8-9).

Global Warming Temperatures Map 1Within a mere nine years, global warning could produce temperature spikes so elevated as to generate massive cat mortality? The idea is so ludicrous that I hardly know where to begin. Domestic cats, as anyone who has spent any time around them surely understands, are heat-seeking creatures; native to the Middle East and North Africa, they thrive in the world’s hottest environments. Yet Oreskes and Conway expect us to believe that within a few decades “normal” temperatures across much of “the West” will exceed the tolerance threshold of the house cat? If they really think that such a scenario is plausible, one must wonder why they delay the collapse until the late 21st century and excluded China from destruction, as it would seem that we will all be cooked well before then. (One might also wonder why wealthy Westerners would not allow their beloved companions to remain within their air-conditioned homes during the death-dealing heat waves of the 2020s, but that is a different matter altogether.)

The great cat catastrophe of 2023 is by no means the only instance of risible fear-mongering found in the book. It would seem that there is no limit to the horrors that global warming will spawn, including a resurgence of bubonic plague (p. 30) and the creation of “viral and retroviral agents never before seen” (p. 25). Even typhus is predicted to make a major comeback owing to “explosive increases in insect populations” (p. 25); although it is reasonable to imagine some insect species proliferating in a warmer world, I have a difficult time seeing a massive revival of body lice generating a typhus epidemic that could easily be forestalled by antibiotics. Or consider the authors’ overall depiction of the global scene in the late 21st century:

 [S]urvivors in northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to begin to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out (p.33).

Australia Maximum Temperatures MapWhy yes, of course; how could anyone be expected to survive global warming on continents as hot as Australia and Africa? The only problem with this assertion is the inconvenient fact that vast areas of both landmasses are not particularly warm. In Melbourne, Australia the average January (summer) high temperature is 78° F (26° C), only slightly above that of July in Paris. Hobart, a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants, posts summer temperatures virtually identical to those of Stockholm. ** Nor is Africa climatically extreme; most of South Africa is World Average Annual Temperature Maptemperate, and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco are cooler still. Throughout eastern and southern Africa, high elevations ensure equable conditions. Contrary to Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, inland Africa is generally less vulnerable to climate change than most parts of inland South America, owing mainly to its higher elevation. Currently, the average high temperature in the warmest month in Asunción, Paraguay is a whopping 10 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than that of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The same gap, moreover, is found in regard to the highest temperatures ever recorded in both locations.

Such temperature contrasts, however, are not the main issue. Rather, it is the fact that even the most extreme scientific predictions of possible global warming over the next century do not posit conditions that would preclude human life over vast expanses of the world. People can live quite well in hot climes, and can even do so without air conditioning. Perhaps Chicago will eventually become as warm as Dallas, which currently has an average July high temperature of 96° F (35.6° C), and perhaps Dallas could become as hot as Las Vegas, with its average July high of 104° F (40° C). But even with such a development, neither town would reach the current conditions of Kuwait City, with its average July high of 116° F (46.7° C) and sultry average July low of 87° F (30.7° C).

But perhaps Oreskes and Conway do not foresee all Australians and Africans perishing directly from heat, but rather as dying off from droughts, massive storms, and other climatic disasters—along with new heat-spawned viral diseases and sundry other mega-misfortunes. For the North American agricultural heartland, they seem to mainly fear devastating dry spells. Imagining conditions in the 2050s, they write:

As the Great North American Desert surged north and east, consuming the High Plains and destroying some of the world’s most productive farmland, the U.S. Government declared martial law to prevent food riots and looting (p. 25).

Africa 2060 Drought MapIt is true that many climate models indicate increasingly aridity over the Great Plains and the Corn Belt, which would certainly harm U.S. food production. But at the global scale, such thinking does not pan out, as a warmer world will almost certainly be a wetter world, enhancing agricultural potential in many dry areas—even if more precipitation does come in the form of torrential downpours. If some parts of Africa will lose their food-production potential, others may see it enhanced. Much of East Africa is shown in some models as acquiring a less drought-prone climate, as can be seen in the map posted here. And as is currently the case, most of Africa will remain immune from hurricanes and tornados, the increased intensity of which, moreover, is not assured. (The equatorial belt will always be cyclone-free, as the twisting Coriolis effect diminishes to nothing at latitude zero.) It must also be acknowledged that higher levels of carbon dioxide are to an uncertain extent associated with enhanced vegetative growth. Some evidence even indicates that elevated CO2 Tropical Cyclones Track Mapallows plants to better withstand aridity, as their gas-exchanging leaf pores (stomata) do not need to open as widely under such conditions, reducing transpiration and hence water loss. The mere mention of any such possible positive consequences of climate change, however, is widely regarded as intolerable heresy, and hence would never appear in a book like The Collapse of Western Civilization. I hesitate here as well, as I do not want to imply that the gains of climate change could somehow cancel the losses. In the end, however, honest disclosure of the existing evidence is an obligation of all serious scholars.

Regardless of whether climate change will undercut food production, Oreskes and Conway’s own prescription for dealing with the crisis would only intensify the problem. They strongly support, for example, biodiesel and other forms of biologically derived fuel, viewing “liquid biofuels for aviation” as nothing less than “crucial” (pp. 21, 24). Channeling biological production into the energy system, however, either diminishes the human food stream, raising the price and reducing the availability of staples, or detracts from natural ecosystems, diminishing the scope of non-human life. As Will Boisvert has devastatingly demonstrated, there is nothing at all green about biofuels.

Oreskes and Conway’s support of biofuels is linked to their dismissal of natural gas. They reserve particular contempt for the idea that gas could act as an environmentally beneficial “bridge to renewables.” Most of their arguments against gas are familiar, focused on such issues as the “fugitive emissions” that occur when carbon dioxide and methane “escape from wellheads into the atmosphere.” (p. 23). Such leakage is a genuine problem, but most experts think that it can be solved by technical means. Some of their other objections, however, are novel, such as the idea that natural gas will replace near-zero-emission nuclear energy and hydropower, especially in countries such as Canada (p. 23). Why such a substitution would occur is not specified, even though the possibility that it would is extraordinarily low. The costs of hydropower in particular are almost completely upfront; once a dam has been constructed and the turbines installed, the resulting power is cheap and hence not vulnerable to replacement by natural gas. The only reason why Canada might be tempted to dismantle its hydroelectric and nuclear facilities would be political pressure from environmental activists. Would Oreskes and Conway be among those urging the end these extremely low-carbon sources of power? One cannot tell from the book in question, but in other writings (here and here) Oreskes rebuffs nuclear power, due mainly to “difficulties inherent to the technology and its management.” It would thus appear that this particular objection to natural gas is self-cancelling.

Oreskes and Conway’s focus on the supposed sins of Western Civilization also demands further scrutiny. It is not merely the energy-hungry United States that they portray as essentially doomed, but also many of the world’s most environmentally oriented countries, which happen to be located in the European heartland of the West. The ultimate problem, they imply, is not the environmental policies of particular states, but rather the deeper cultural predilections of the Western world. Such “cultural practices” center around an “ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets” (p. ix) but also include such features as “excessively stringent standards for accepting [truth] claims.”

Such arguments are difficult to take seriously. Can one really claim that Germany suffers from an “ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets,” considering its fat subsidies for renewable energy as well as the recent collapse of the Free Democrats, the country’s only political party that embraces classical economic liberalism? Could France possibly be regarded as possessing such an obsession? One of the stumbling blocks here is the authors’ failure to define what they mean by “Western Civilization.” Although they never specify its geographical contours or seriously delve into its cultural content, they do give it oddly precise temporal boundaries: 1540-2093. How the initiation date of 1540 was selected is anyone’s guess. If anything civilizationally momentous occurred in this year, it has evidently escaped our historical accounts. Ironically, however, 1540 does occupy an intriguing position in climate history. According to the historical geographer Jan Buisman:

[T]he year 1540 was one with an even more severe summer than 2003. All over Europe, the heat wave lasted, off and on, for seven months, with parched fields and dried up rivers, such as the Rhine. People in Paris, France could walk on the riverbed of the Seine without getting their feet wet.

Dating the emergence of “Western Civilization” may be a relatively trivial matter, but the same cannot be said about Oreskes and Conway’s dismissal of “excessively stringent standards for accepting [truth] claims.” Here we encounter one of the book’s deeper paradoxes. The climate movement relies on its defense of science, leveling the charge of “science denialism” against its opponents whenever possible, yet here we find Oreskes and Conway attacking the very epistemological foundations of the entire endeavor. Nor is this their only instance of rejecting the standard practices of science. “Statistical significance,” they claim, is an outmoded concept that will someday be regarded as “archaic” (p. 61). In several passages, they lather contempt on “physical scientists,” those benighted practitioners, “overwhelmingly male,” who:

[E]mphasized study of the world’s physical constituents and processes … to the neglect of biological and social realms and focused on reductionist methodologies that impeded understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms (p. 60).

Oreskes and Conway embrace “interaction” to such as extent that they even regard “environment” as another concept that will eventually be dismissed as archaic, as it supposedly entails “separating humans from the rest of the world” (p. 55). In actuality, most people use the term “environment” precisely to highlight connections among humans and the rest of nature. But according to the authors, it was not until the coming of “radical thinkers such as Paul Ehrlich and Dennis and Donella Meadows” in the late 20th century that anyone “recognized that humans are part of the environment and dependent upon it” (p. 56). Such claims are preposterous, as the history of Western thought thoroughly demonstrates. To appreciate the historical depth of such recognition, I would recommend Clarence Glacken’s magisterial, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century.

Although many of the key scientific questions of the day do indeed demand, as Oreskes and Conway write, an “understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms,” it is equally imperative to recognize that most do not. Most of the issues addressed by chemists, physicists, and geologists have nothing to do with the social realm, and must be examined through a “reductionistic” lens if they are to be approached scientifically. To insist instead that they must be framed in a socio-biological context is to reject the methods of science at a fundamental level. Such a tactic risks reviving the intellectual atmosphere that led the Soviet Union to the disaster of ideologically contaminated research known as Lysenkoism. In the final analysis, the denial of science encountered in The Collapse of Western Civilization thus runs much deeper than that found among even the most determined climate-change skeptics, as it pivots on much more basic epistemological and methodological issues.

Not just science by also logic suffers at the hands of the author. They argue, for example, that it is a logical fallacy to contend that natural gas could serve as a “bridge to renewables,” due to the fact that analyses of the effects of natural-gas combustion on the atmosphere have been “incomplete” (p. 53-54). In actuality, this is an empirical issue, not one of logic per se.

The most troubling aspect of Oreskes and Conway’s book, however, is not its scare-tactics, its sloppy depictions of climatic patterns, or its attack on scientific standards. What is truly frightening is its embrace of authoritarian politics, coupled with its denigration of liberty and democracy. This is a tricky issue, however, as the authors’ pseudo-science-fictional narrative strategy provides an easy out, making it appear as if the authors actually value liberty and reject despotism. Oreskes contends in the interview that comes at the end of the book that the preservation of any freedoms that we still enjoy demands immediate and thoroughgoing action, as “delay increases the risk that authoritarian forms of government will come out ahead in the end” (p. 70). It is rather, the authors contend, supporters of the status quo who are undermining freedom by their failure to embrace the alarmist position. As they write:

And so the development that neo-liberals most dreaded—centralized government and loss of personal choice—was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place (p. 49).

This tactic, however, is disingenuous. No evidence is provided, for example, to indicate that autocratic governments respond more effectively to environmental crises than democratic ones. Rather, this thesis is merely assumed, despite the large body of evidence that points in the opposite direction. It is, moreover, an unfortunate fact that global carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to rise for some time regardless of any minuscule effect that the publication The Collapse of Western Civilization and similar books may have on public opinion. India, for example, has recently announced that it will prioritize economic development over climatic stabilization. The governments of many other countries concur, all but guaranteeing increasing emissions. As result, Oreskes and Conway may claim that they do not personally embrace authoritarianism, but their larger arguments hold that it is nonetheless necessary if civilization is to survive in any form. Finally, given their own predictions of shattering disruptions across the world, China’s geographical position ensures that it would suffer vastly more than Western Europe, the historical core of the supposedly doomed Western Civilization. In imagining China’s unlikely survival against the thrust of their own arguments, they evidently find something deeply compelling about its political system.

China’s intense vulnerability to the kind of climate change foreseen by Oreskes and Conway is undeniable. To begin with, most of the densely settled, agricultural productive areas of the country already experience pronounced summer heat. The huge metropolis of Chongqing, for example, has an average August high temperature of 92.5° F (33.6° C) as well as a sultry average low in the same month of 76.5° F (24.7° C), which makes it distinctly warmer than almost the entire expanse of southern Europe. Even the far northern Chinese city of Harbin post a warm daily mean July temperature of 73.4° F (23° C), which is virtually identical to that of Italy’s Milan (73.6° F/23.1° C). To be sure, the vast Tibetan Plateau of southwestern China has a cool climate, but most of it is too high, and hence Oreskes and Conway's Vision Maptoo oxygen deprived, to serve as a refuge for those fleeing climate disturbances. Only the Yunnan Plateau and few portions of the extreme north would be suitable resettlement zones in a world so hot as to depopulate (most of) Australia. (To illustrate the larger argument here, I have juxtaposed map details of southeastern China and southeastern Australia, extraced from several of the maps posted above.)

Global Warming Natural Disasters MapHigh temperatures, moreover, are by no means the only problems that China would face in the world imaged by Oreskes and Conway. The country is already highly susceptible to drought, especially its densely populated North China Plain. Massive engineering projects are now being constructed to alleviate water shortages in this region, although many experts doubt that they will be adequate. Desertification, likewise, is much more extreme in China today than in North America, let alone Europe. The same story is encountered in regard to flooding; it is no coincidence that most of the world’s truly devastating floods have occurred in China. And it goes without saying that the surge in tropical mega-storms predicted by the authors would have a vastly greater impact on China than on Europe. The same is true in regard to the terrifying northward surge of tropical diseases that the authors envisage. Finally, even specific calamities imagined by Oreskes and Conway, such as the failure of the Asian monsoon—generated it their view not by global warming but rather by geo-engineering efforts to forestall it (p. 27)—would devastate China but spare Europe. As a result of such considerations, it is odd indeed that the authors imagine China surviving while the Western Civilization of Europe perishes.

In a few passages, Oreskes and Conway seem to indicate that China will be able to meet the challenge of climate change with relative success due to its foresighted environmental policies. Considering China’s environmental record to date, this is a most curious argument. Although China does subsidize renewable energy—as do most Western countries—it continues to spew carbon dioxide with abandon. More important, it unquestionably prioritizes economic growth over environmental protection. The most recent figures show that China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions have just surpassed those of the European Union, which is an extraordinary development considering the fact that the EU is much more prosperous than China.

Oreskes and Conway’s depictions of China’s environmental advantages over the West, moreover, are far from convincing. Consider, for example, the following passage:

China, for instance, took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources. These efforts were little noticed and less emulated in the West, in part because Westerners viewed Chinese population control efforts as immoral … (p. 6).

In actuality, certain Western countries have made greater efforts than China to move to a non-carbon-based economy, albeit with checkered success.*** But any such accomplishments will have no impact on any particular country’s vulnerability to climate change, as greenhouse-gas emissions are a global rather than local matter. What is truly bizarre in this passage, however, is the idea that Western countries have failed to “emulate” China’s population-control policies. At present, virtually all Western countries, no matter how “the West” is defined, have birthrates below the replacement level. Many of them, moreover, post fertility-rate figures well below that of China, including Germany, Poland, Italy and Spain. Yet for all of this, Oreskes and Conway still think that it necessary to scold the West for its failure to enact coercive population control measures.

In other passages as well, Oreskes and Conway ardently support China’s one-child policy, imagining that by the 2040s it will, by necessity, be “widely implemented” across the world (p 24). Yet in actuality, it is not merely Western countries that have seen their fertility rates plunge well below the replacement level. Brazil, Iran, and Thailand fall into this category, as do all the states of southern India. Yet in all of these examples, birth-rate declines have occurred on a strictly voluntary basis, without the human-rights abuses that have accompanied the Chinese program. The drivers of such declining fertility are reasonably well understood, including broad-based economic and social development, mass public education (especially of girls), and even the availability of televised “soap operas” than model small but happy middle-class families. Evidently, the authors find such a gentle and accommodating path to demographic stability much less appealing the strong-arm approach of the Chinese government

In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Oreskes and Conway’s vision of China’s survival is rooted not in the country’s potential for enacting beneficial environmental policies, but rather in its current authoritarianism. Indeed, Erik Conway admits as much in the interview at the end of the book: “authoritarian states may well find it easier to make the changes necessary to survive rapid climate change” (p. 70). The despotic Chinese regime, in other words, is regarded as possessing the ability to force adaptive change on its population, unlike the liberty-besotted West. The authors imagine, for example, that China would be able to effectively arrange mass transfers of people away from inundated coastal plains and other eco-disaster zones. Admittedly, China does has some experience with such relocation programs, having expelled more that a million people from their homes when it began to fill the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam. Human-rights advocates, however, generally see such displacements as catastrophic in their own right, but such considerations seem to matter little to Oreskes and Conway.

Former U.S. senator Timothy Worth’s avidly blurbs The Collapse of Western Civilization, describing the scenario outlined by Oreskes and Conway as “chilling.” On that I would certainly agree, but what chills me are not their overwrought depictions of the coming global crisis, but rather their totalitarian response. On the final page of their text, their fictional mouthpiece tells us that three hundred years after the collapse of Western Civilization, “decentralization and redemocratization may be considered.” “May,” however,” turns out to be the operative term, as the passage goes on to note that, “others consider that outcome wishful, in light of the dreadful events of the past.”

Oreskes and Conway’s authoritarian inclinations are seemingly linked to their contempt for the West, which they identify with a dangerous devotion to personal freedom. The most telling passage to this effect is found in the authors’ interview, where Erik Conway states:

 To me, [The Collapse of Western Civilization] is hopeful. There will be a future for humanity, even if one no longer dominated by “Western Culture.”

No matter that Oreskes and Conway see every last person in Africa perishing, they still apparently find such a scenario promising as long as Western Culture perishes in the process.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, tens of millions of people have reached the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is a giant hoax perpetuated by corrupt scientific and journalistic establishments. In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account. Of particular significance are the writings of green extremists such as Oreskes and Conway themselves. By putting forth grotesque exaggerations, by engaging in misleading reportage, and by embracing authoritarian if not totalitarian politics, they discredit their own cause. The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.

The Collapse of Western Civilization is, of course, merely one thin book, and as such it must be asked whether it can be regarded as representative of even the extremist fringe of the climate movement. But in the final analysis it is not the book itself that disturbs me so much as its reception by the broader green community. Judging from published reviews and on-line comments, it would appear that acclamation has been the most common response. Such acclaim, however, is deeply ironic. Environmentalists generally regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as politically liberal. But when self-styled liberals embrace a work that is not merely illiberal but ostentatiously anti-liberal, I must wonder whether the mainstream environmental movement has any future at all.

*A “glossary of archaic terms,” and an interview with the authors, and a set of scholarly notes, bring the page count up to 89.

** It is true that the record high temperature of Hobart (107° F/42° C) exceeds that of both Paris (105° F/40.4° C) and Stockholm (97° F/36° C), but it is still well below the record high temperature of most cities in the U.S. Midwest. The figure for Saint Louis, for example, is 115° F (46° C).

*** Germany has probably gone farther than any other country in pushing renewable energy, but its success has been limited. Owning to its dismantling of nuclear reactors, it has been forced to increase its coal and biomass combustion, despite its surging solar and wind energy production. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions have increased, deforestation has accelerated, and energy prices have risen, placing a heavy burden on the poor.

Eco-Authoritarian Catastrophism: The Dismal and Deluded Vision of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway Read More »

State-Level Secession Movements in the United States: Northern Colorado and Jefferson

State of Northern Colorado MapThe intense political polarization of the United States is most clearly reflected by the dysfunctional nature of the federal government. At a more local scale, it is seen as well in the growing movement to create new states by splitting existing ones. Most of these cases involve the desire of people in rural, conservative counties to secede from the more liberal states in which they are currently located. A front-page story in the October 7 edition of the New York Times, for example, highlights a drive to devise a new state of “Northern Colorado.” Eleven Colorado counties will vote on a secession measure this November. As the Times article specifies, the move for separation was prompted by gun-control measures passed with support from the more metropolitan parts of the state. Other issues also play a role, as local voters are reportedly disturbed by “marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants.”

A number of geopolitical challenges, however, stand in the way of the movement to create new US states, and it is not clear if secession is a realistic possibility even if local voters strongly endorse it. Although the U.S. Constitution allows the formation of new states, territory cannot be taken from an existing state without the consent of both the federal government and the state in question. Such approval would be difficult to obtain, as any new state would automatically send two new senators to Washington D.C., upsetting the country’s political balance. Not surprisingly, no actual instance of state division has occurred since the pro-union counties of Virginia split off to form West Virginia at the height of the Civil War.

51st State  Initiative MapThe would-be state of Northern Colorado has its own particular problems as well. As the New York Times map indicates, the eleven counties voting on the measure this November are not contiguous, which would make any state that they would form a clumsy, two-part polity. With a population of only around 376,000, this new state would also be the least populous member of the union by a wide margin, with 200,000 fewer residents than 50th-place Wyoming. Most of this meager population, moreover, is concentrated in Weld Country, home to some 263,000 persons. Although Weld is the leader of the secession movement, it is also the most liberal of the disgruntled Colorado counties, having given Barack Obama 42 percent of its votes in 2012. (Intriguingly, Weld County’s main city, Greeley, played a minor role in the growth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by virtue of its liberality; Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s leading intellectual founder, considered Greeley’s church-sponsored dances in 1949 to be such “hotbeds of debauchery” that he turned passionately to the “Shade of the Quran” [the title of one of his main works]).

Although the eleven Colorado counties that are voting on secession this November would make a sparsely settled, discontiguous state, the movement’s backers have more ambitious plans. As the map taken from their website (“The 51st State Initiative”) shows, they also hope that a number of additional counties will join the cause. At its maximum extent, “Northern Colorado” would actually be more accurately described as “Peripheral Colorado,” excluding only the greater Denver metropolitan area along with a few sparsely populated Rocky Mountain counties noted for their ski resorts and affluent populations. Some of the counties marked for potential inclusion, however, make little political sense; heavily Hispanic Costilla County, for example, gave a higher proportion of its votes (73%) to Barack Obama in 2012 than did Boulder County (70%), the left-leaning home of the University of Colorado. The would-be state would also potentially reach into western Kansas and Nebraska; here the desire for secession is less clear, as both states are relatively rural and reliably conservative on most hot-button issues. For the core secessionist counties, other options are also being considered if the formation of a new state proves impossible, such as union with neighboring Wyoming.

State of Jefferson Population MapA more long-standing secession drive seeks to create the new state of Jefferson, to be carved out of far northern California and southern Oregon. The Jefferson movement got off to a strong start in 1942 when “a group of young men gained national media attention when, brandishing hunting rifles for dramatic effect, they stopped traffic on U.S Route 99 south of Yreka, and handed out copies of a Proclamation of Independence, stating that the state of Jefferson was in ‘patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon’” (as noted in the Wikipedia article on the topic).  The start of World War II cut the movement short, but it has continued to periodically resurface. In early September of this year, the Board of Supervisors of Siskiyou County voted 4-1 to “pursue seceding from California,” a move prompted by “a lack of representation in Sacramento for the Republican-majority county, [and] issues pertaining to water rights and the rural fire prevention fee.” Several weeks later, the Board of Supervisors in neighboring Modoc County voted 4-0 to join the movement. Similar proposals are being considered in other northern California counties, including Butte, Shasta and Lassen. “California is essentially ungovernable in its present size,” claims Mark Baird, a spokesperson for the Jefferson Declaration Committee.

The original Jefferson proposal included only a handful of counties, seven in the main version (three in California and four Oregon), and five in another (four in California and one in Oregon). More recent proposals are more ambitious; the State of Jefferson Project website features a map of the new state that would encompass nineteen counties. In all of these proposals, the modest town of Yreka (population 7,800) in Siskiyou County would serve as the capital. Regardless of which specific version is considered, Jefferson would have a fairly small population. The seven-county scheme would have only some 458,000 residents, over 80 percent of whom currently live in Oregon, while the nineteen-county version would have a population of roughly 1,416,000, a majority of whom currently live in California.

The Jefferson proposal, like most other state division ideas, is rooted primarily in population density and voting patterns. As the map posted to the left shows, far northern California and southern Oregon forms a low population zone sandwiched between the much more densely populated regions of greater Portland in northwestern Oregon and the San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas of California. It is also a reliably conservative, Republican-voting region, again in sharp contrast to the urban and suburban areas of both states. Although Oregon may appear to be a Republican-leaning state on the electoral map, the concentration of its population in the Portland metro area ensures its general support for candidates from the Democratic Party. In California, the electoral imbalance is even more pronounced, preventing the Republican Party from acting in a competitive manner in statewide elections.

State of Jefferson Politics MapA close analysis of electoral and population maps, however, shows that the proposed state of Jefferson encounters political problems of its own. In the seven-county version, the demographic core of the would-be state, containing almost half of its population, is Jackson County, Oregon. But Jackson is a “purple” or swing county that has been trending leftward over the past several decades. Although George W. Bush won it handily in 2000, with 54 percent of the vote, Jackson narrowly supported Barack Obama in 2008. As increasing numbers of people are moving from California’s Bay Area to Jackson’s cultured town of Ashland, site of Southern Oregon University and the noted Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it may well move further to the left in future elections. As a result, staunchly conservative Jefferson advocates may be advised to drop Jackson Country from their design.

The proposal for a larger state of Jefferson encounters similar problems. Two of its counties, Humboldt and Mendocino, are Democratic-voting—Mendocino strongly so—and two others, Butte* and Trinity, are now electoral toss-ups. Although the Jefferson website includes a plea for secession from Humboldt County based on the dire condition of the local logging industry, marijuana cultivation is a vastly more profitable business, and local cannabis growers and those who rely on their patronage would not in general be inclined to support membership in a conservative state. State of Jefferson advocates would find more backing if they were to focus their outreach efforts on the interior rather than the coastal counties of northern California.

*Butte is a relatively liberal county largely because of the presence of California State University, Chico, which has more than 16,000 students.


State-Level Secession Movements in the United States: Northern Colorado and Jefferson Read More »

Misleading Murder and Rape Maps, and the Sweden Rape Puzzle

World Murder Rate MapThe previous post on murder rates in Brazil featured a Wikipedia map of homicide rate by country, based on a 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That map, reproduced here, is less than ideal, as its highest category lumps together countries with hugely different homicide rates, ranging from 20.1 per 100,000 in Kyrgyzstan to 91.6 in Honduras. I therefore remapped the same data in 12 rather than six categories. I also used a two-color scheme, depicting low-murder-rate countries in varying shades of blue and high-murder-rate countries in red. Such a system better captures the huge variation in murder rates, which ranges from 0.3 per 100,000 (Iceland and Singapore) to almost 100 per 100,000 (Honduras).

World Murder Rate Geocurrents MapThe geographical patterns revealed by the map are clear. Murder is much more common in tropical Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia than it is in most of the rest of the world. Homicide is relatively rare in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East & North Africa.

But are such figures reliable? In general, murder data is considered to be one of the more reliable crime statistics, due in part to the mere severity of the offense. But that still does not mean that it is necessarily trustworthy. I am skeptical, for example, of the low homicide rate posted for Somalia (1.5), which is substantially below those of neighboring countries. Much of Somalia is wracked by extreme violence, although it can be difficult to determine whether an individual killing is best considered an act of murder or an incident of war. But more to the point, how could a country as anarchic as Somalia possibly gather dependable murder data?

The low reported murder rate in China has been received with some skepticism, as have official reports that it has been declining sharply in recent years. As The Economist recently reported:

Official figures show that the number of murder cases rose from fewer than 10,000 in 1981 to more than 28,000 in 2000. Since then it has dropped almost every year, to about 12,000 in 2011. China’s statistics bureau does not disclose which crimes are included in its murder data. Chinese scholars say that a single case might include several deaths, and that some killings which occur in the course of other violent crimes such as rape or robbery might be excluded. In a 2006 report, the World Health Organisation estimated that in 2002, when 26,300 murder cases were recorded in China, 38,000 people died from “homicide-related injuries”.

Homicide Data Source mapWhen I mentioned China’s supposedly low murder rate in my seminar on the history and geography of current global events this week, the one Chinese student in the class expressed strong doubt. According to her, murder for gambling debt is common in China but rarely recorded. Although I was unable to find systematic information on this topic, an internet search of “China, murder, gambling” does return a curiously large number of hits.

The authors of the UNODC report are well aware of such data problems, and they worked hard to overcome them. They have considered the discrepancies found among different sources of information for different countries, and they weight the results accordingly. For several parts of the world they have abandoned conventional “criminal justice data” in favor of “public health sources.”  In the process, they have revised murder rates of many African countries sharply upwards.

World Rape Rate MapIf global murder-rate figures are problematic, rape-rate figures appear to be almost worthless. Consider, for example, the Index Mundi rape-rate map posted here, which indicates that Sweden and New Zealand have some of the highest levels of rape in the world, and that Egypt has one of the lowest. Although the map comes with a disclaimer,* it is hardly adequate. Could anyone possibly believe that Sweden has a higher rape rate than Egypt? Egypt is currently suffering a rape epidemic so severe that it is becoming a diplomatic issue. Sweden, meanwhile, consistently rates as one of the most gender egalitarian, nonviolent countries in the world.

Yet it does appear that many people accept such official statistics, and are happy to use them to score ideological points. This occurs on both on the right and left sides of the political spectrum. In a letter to the government of Sweden, leftist filmmaker Michael Moore writes:

Let me say that again: nine out of ten times, when women [in Sweden] report they have been raped, you never even bother to start legal proceedings. No wonder that, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, it is now statistically more likely that someone in Sweden will be sexually assaulted than that they will be robbed. Message to rapists? Sweden loves you! So imagine our surprise when all of a sudden you decided to go after one Julian Assange [of Wikileaks fame] on sexual assault charges.

On the political right, an article in FrontPage also accepts Sweden’s official rape statistics on face value, but places all the blame on Muslim immigrants:

In 2003, Sweden’s rape statistics were higher than average at 9.24, but in 2005 they shot up to 36.8 and by 2008 were up to 53.2. Now they are almost certainly even higher as Muslim immigrants continue forming a larger percentage of the population. With Muslims represented in as many as 77 percent of the rape cases and a major increase in rape cases paralleling a major increase in Muslim immigration, the wages of Muslim immigration are proving to be a sexual assault epidemic by a misogynistic ideology.

Although Muslim immigrants have been responsible for many if not most recent cases of forcible rape in Sweden, the country’s extremely high official rape rate seems to be mostly a result of tabulation strategies. Many acts are counted as rape in Sweden that would not be so counted elsewhere. As explained recently in the BBC:

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries. But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely. In Sweden there has been this ambition explicitly to record every case of sexual violence separately, to make it visible in the statistics,” she says. “So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record – one victim, one type of crime, one record.”

Barriers to Rape Reporting MapMany countries exhibit the opposite tendency: the systematic under-reporting of rape. Rape cases are not reported for a variety of reasons, both cultural and institutional.

One strategy for determining the actual prevalence of rape is to examine obstacles to reporting the crime. The Woman Stats Project, which has created an intriguing map collection, has done precisely that, mapping the “Strength of Barriers to Reporting Rape.” As can be seen, cultural and legal obstacles are depicted as extreme across South and Southwest Asia, and much of Africa as well. The data source, however, is not specified, and I am skeptical of many of the claim advanced by the map. Are reporting barriers really much more intense in Germany than they are in Austria or Switzerland?  I have more serious misgivings about another map in the same cartographic series, which depicts the prevalence of rape. This map tells us that rape is non-existent in Armenia and Georgia, and that India, Pakistan, and Sudan have a lower prevalence of the crime than Iceland, Finland, and Australia. It also tells us that Brazil—another country currently experiencing a “rape epidemic”—suffers less rape than the Netherlands and at least six times less rape than Montenegro. The huge gaps between neighboring countries in Africa are also highly suspicious.

Prevalence of Rape MapWhen it comes to crime rates, it does seem that statistics—and maps based on those statistics—are often so misleading as to be essentially dishonest.

*The disclaimer reads as follows: “Note though that comparison of crime rates across countries needs to be be taken with a grain of salt, since in some countries the population may be reluctant to report certain types of crimes to the police.”


Misleading Murder and Rape Maps, and the Sweden Rape Puzzle Read More »

Dan Brown, Overpopulation, and the Plunging Fertility Rates of Turkey and Iran

Global overpopulation has recently returned to the public spotlight with the publication of Inferno, the latest offering from novelist Dan Brown, author of the 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code. A mystery thriller on the surface, Inferno is ultimately a piece of demographic fiction. As one reviewer notes, “The specter of a catastrophically overpopulated Earth, its desperate people grasping and clawing for diminishing resources, looms large over the novel. It’s a scene that evokes all the pain and suffering of Dante Alighieri’s vision of hell in “The Divine Comedy.” Brown himself stresses his Malthusian vision, noting in an interview that “Futurists don’t consider overpopulation one of the issues of the future. They consider it the issue of the future.” As is true of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno is striking hostile to the Roman Catholic Church, attacking it for its opposition to contraception and family planning. Taking on the Catholic Church has evidently not hurt sales; to the contrary, some reviewers almost seem to regard it as a marketing ploy. According to the Daily Mail, “The Da Vinci Code offended the Vatican, and was denounced by the Pope. What better publicity could an author hope for?”

Brown’s extraordinary popularity—with books sales of more than 200 million—seems to attract excessive criticism. According to the Belfast Times, his treatment at the hands of critics has been nothing less than “hellish.” Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, tells us that “Dan Brown Is Back, As Bad as Ever.” Many of the harsh reviews of Inferno focus on factual errors, some of which are rather petty. The Daily Beast, for example,  “fact-checks” the book and finds 10 significant “Mistakes, False Statements, and Oversimplifications.” A typical example runs as follows:

After hyping up the brains of heroine Dr. Sienna Brooks, with her enormous IQ of 208 (Stephen Hawking only scored 200) and her various degrees, Brown then presents her as unfamiliar with Venetian Carnival plague-doctor masks. Anyone who has been to Venice, or even watched a Travel Channel documentary about Venice, will know of them.

InfernoBut despite the unforgiving nature of the criticism, Brown’s central concern—that of human overpopulation threatening to overwhelm the planet—has gone almost unnoted. Evidently, this scenario seems reasonable to most reviewers. It is not. Fertility rates are declining if not plummeting almost everywhere, and have already gone below the replacement rate across much of the so-called Third World. After a few billion more people are added, a plateau will be reached and then a gradual fall will likely commence.

Brown’s more specific charges against the Roman Catholic Church are also problematic. Certainly one can object to the Church’s stance on contraception and family planning, but the fact remains that a minority of Catholics actually follow such teachings. Most primarily Catholic countries have birthrates close to or below the replacement level. Exceptions certainly exist, such as East Timor, the Philippines, and Guatemala. Many Catholic areas in Africa, moreover, have very high fertility levels. In Europe, however, the traditionally Catholic countries, except France and Ireland, have substantially lower birthrates than the historically Lutheran Nordic countries. Several Latin American countries of Catholic heritage have lower birthrates than the heavily Protestant areas of the United States.

Turkey Iran TFR GraphFertility QuizAs the reactions to Inferno make clear, an impending population catastrophe remains ingrained in the public imagination. As noted in the previous post on this issue, my own students substantially overestimated fertility rates across India. They also seem to find the idea of a global population explosion difficult to shake. After quizzing them on India’s birthrate a few weeks ago, I showed them fertility-rate maps of both South Asia and the world at large. Last Friday, I quizzed them again, this time on the demographic situations of Iran and Turkey. The image posted here shows my question, the response from the class, and the correct answer. As can be seen, most students expected  higher birthrates in these countries than they actually have.

As it turns out, Iran has experienced one of the world’s most precipitous birthrate declines, its total fertility rate falling from 6.52 in 1982 to 1.67 in 2010. This drop has led the Iranian government to another u-turn in family planning; the pro-natalist policy initiated after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was replaced by a family-planning agenda in 1989, but now large families are again encouraged. According to a recent article in the International Business Times:

Teheran officials, who have spearheaded a door-to-door campaign to spread a health education propaganda drive, want to spark a baby boom that would double the Iranian population to about 150 million. The Daily Telegraph reported that no less than 150,000 health workers have mobilized for the ambitious project, literally knocking on the doors of homes to encourage single-child families to have more offspring.

The fertility decline in Turkey has not been as steep as that of Iran, but it has been steady, the total fertility rate falling from 4.57 in 1979 to 2.06 in 2011. As in Iran, the country’s government is not pleased. As recently reported in Al-Monitor:

Himself a father of four, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdogan has urged married couples to have at least three children, pushing his message bluntly on every platform — from casual chats and wedding ceremonies to party meetings and diplomatic occasions. Arguing that a larger, youthful population will help propel Turkey into the world’s top 10 economies, he has vilified past policies of “family planning” and made bizarre warnings of plots “to wipe the Turkish nation off the global stage.” Recently, he has upped the bar even higher, calling for four or five children.

Turkey TFR MapOne of the reasons why Erdogan is so concerned about the Turkish fertility decline is its geographical imbalance. In the more prosperous western regions of the country, the fertility rate is now roughly 1.5 and falling, whereas in the Kurdish-speaking southeast it is roughly 3.5 and perhaps rising. As recently reported in International Business Times:

Thus, Turkey is facing a demographic time bomb — Kurds, who tend to be concentrated in the country’s impoverished southeast and are generally poorer and less educated — could conceivably outnumber Turks within about 30 years should present patterns persist.

Despite the dreams and plans of the Turkish and Iranian government, it seems highly unlikely that pro-natalist policies will result in a return to the high birth-rates of the past.

Dan Brown, Overpopulation, and the Plunging Fertility Rates of Turkey and Iran Read More »

Television and Fertility in India: Response to Critics

(Note to readers: My recent blog post on television and fertility in India has attracted some attention, including a detailed critique on the blog Challenging Civilization. This post is my response to this critique.)

First, I would like to thank Tom Smith at Challenging Civilization for taking the time write a thoughtful critique of my blog post on television and fertility decline in India. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Smith makes claims about my post that cannot be substantiated. I made no direct statements about Mr. Smith’s views on population growth, nor did I make any implications about them. I merely cited his blog post as evidence that some radical environmentalists look favorably on Jerry Mander’s arguments for the elimination of television.

As my post did not elaborate the precise forms of economic development that I advocate, his claim that “The growth-based, resource-intensive development model which Lewis would like us to follow faces the double bind of a peak in the oil …  and needing to drastically lower CO2 emissions” is unfair. In actuality, I strongly support a transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy, both for India and the rest of the world. I do champion economic growth, but I must emphasize that the continual expansion of the economy entails an increase in the value of goods and services produced, and not necessarily an incessant increase in the use of resources and energy. In many instances, the dematerialization of economic processes results in increasing value as well as declining demands on the natural environment. Video conferencing, for example, takes a much smaller toll than actual travel to meetings. By the same token, my blog posts, like those of Tom Smith, use less energy and resources than conventional print journalism.

Smith’s data on television in India are also misleading. Figures from 2001 are significantly out of date, and any data given for India as a whole misses the profound regional disparities that my article emphasizes. Similarly, linkages between rates of decline in fertility and television viewership need to be made at the local level, not at that of India as a whole. And besides, Indians often do watch television in the houses of their wealthier neighbors, “packing like sardines.” In fact, a lot of small-scale entrepreneurialism is encountered here, as many TV owners charge a small fee to visiting viewers. It is also misleading to imply that India lacks occupational and social mobility. Despite the caste system, such mobility is increasingly common, although it is vastly more pronounced in cities than in the countryside, especially those in the economically and socially progressive regions of the south and west. Even in countries more highly developed than India, moreover, communal television viewing can be widespread. As my blogging partner Asya Pereltsvaig notes from her own personal experience, “In Russia, people packed into the same room to watch TV even when—and even more so when—they lived in communal apartments, one family per one room, several families sharing bathroom and kitchen facilities.”

Smith’s warnings about the possible detrimental effects of television are valid. But the issue here is not mere viewing, but rather the extent of viewing. As Paracelsus, the “father of toxicology,” noted in the early 16th century, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” Incessant television watching can no doubt be toxic, but in moderation the practice can be beneficial, depending of course on what one chooses to watch.

In many countries, and especially the United States, a major shift has occurred over the past decade in regard to the social acceptance of homosexuality. Television, I suspect, has been highly influential here as well, as many shows now portray gay and lesbian people as normal characters, with the same charms and foibles as everyone else. A prime case in point is the delightful, creative, and often hilarious American situation comedy Modern Family.

And finally, when it comes to proposals for banning television, basic issues of human freedom must also be taken into account. Only a repressive government could, or would, seek to prohibit television viewing. Of course repressive governments often use television for their own propaganda purposes. The key issue here is thus programming freedom. Here I am reminded of Iran’s feckless policy of prohibiting satellite dishes, done in order to try to keep out Western television and its supposedly nefarious influences. As recently reported by France 24:

Iranian police have launched a new crackdown on satellite dishes, which many Iranians, especially in the capital, use to watch TV channels broadcasted from abroad. The police do this on a regular basis, but, despite changing tactics, our Observers in Tehran tell us this is a losing battle. Though satellite dishes are banned, Tehran’s rooftops are littered with them. The police regularly confiscate them, and, approximately once a year, launch a major crackdown.


Television and Fertility in India: Response to Critics Read More »

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation?

(Note: As can be seen, GeoCurrents has a new, more streamlined appearance. The “GeoNotes” feature has been replaced by section that highlights “featured posts,” as we found it increasingly difficult to differentiate regular posts from “notes.” We also hope that the new format will make it easier for readers to access older posts.

To initiate the new format, today’s post is longer and more map-intensive than most. It also deviates from the norm in another important aspect. In general, GeoCurrents avoids making policy recommendations: this post, however, breaks the rule.)


World Fertility Rate MapAs Stanford University, like many others, is advocating interactive approaches to teaching, I have been experimenting with a software system (Top Hat Monocle) that lets me quiz students as I lecture. In so doing, I can assess levels of knowledge and adjust my lectures accordingly. Overall, the experiment has proved useful, revealing that some issues are already understood, whereas others most definitely are not.

India TFR GraphThe one question that stymied almost all of my students concerned India’s birthrate. As their in-class answers revealed, most believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was roughly twice that of the United States, imagining that the average Indian woman could be expected to bear at least four children. Informal queries among colleagues and friends produced similar results. Most well-educated Americans, it would appear, are under the impression that India is still characterized by high fertility.

In actuality, India’s TFR is only 2.5—and falling steadily. This figure barely exceeds that of the United States. In 2011, the US fertility rate was estimated at 2.1, essentially the replacement level; a more recent study now pegs it at 1.93. Still, from a global perspective, India and the US fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map posted here.

TFR Selected Gountries GraphIn today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birth rates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birth rates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98). To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92). But as the Google Public Data chart posted here shows, even the Philippines has been experiencing a steady fall in TFR. The same is true of Afghanistan, the most fecund country outside of Africa, at least for the past 15 years. As can also be seen, TFR declines have been much more modest in such African countries as Niger and Tanzania. It must be acknowledged, however, that reductions in fertility are not necessarily permanent. As the New York Times recently reported, the decline of family planning services has already ticked up the birthrate in Egypt, threatening that country’s already tight demographic squeeze.

TFR African Countries GraphI find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media, escaping the attention of even highly educated Americans. The outdated idea that Mexico has a crushingly high birthrate continues to inform many discussions of immigration reform in the United States, even though Mexico’s TFR (2.32 in 2010) is only slightly above that of the United States. It almost seems as though we have collectively decided to ignore this momentous transformation of human behavior. Scholars and journalists alike continue to warn that global population is spiraling out of control. A recent LiveScience article, for example, quotes a co-author of an April 2013 Science report who argues that “the poorest nations are caught in a downward spiral that will deplete resources and cause a population explosion.” The article goes on to argue that “with the world population slated to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, many scientists and others worry that unchecked population growth and increasing consumption of natural resources will cause dire problems in the future.” Although the LiveScience article notes that the original report focused on sub-Saharan Africa, it does not mention the fact that high birth rates are in fact increasingly confined to that part of the world, or that fertility rates are persistently declining in almost every country in Africa, albeit slowly. Many African states, moreover, are still sparsely settled and can accommodate significantly larger populations. The Central African Republic, for example, has a population of less than 4.5 million in an area almost the size of France.

India is an instructive place for investigating fertility decline. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich* began his pivotal 1968 book The Population Bomb with a vignette of teeming New Delhi and the disasters it portended. Warning that overpopulation would soon spread massive famines across continents, Ehrlich advocated coercion: the “sterilization of all Indian males with three or more children” (Ehrlich, 1971 edition, p. 151). Responding in part to such dire prophesies and advice, India enacted a population campaign in the 1970s tilted toward forced sterilization. This widely despised program was quickly dismantled with little appreciable effect on India’s TFR, which continued along its steady downward path.

India Fertility MapIt can be deceptive, however, to view India as an undivided whole. As shown on the map posted here, fertility figures for half of India are actually below replacement level. Were it not for the Hindi-speaking heartland, India would already be looking at population stabilization and even decline. All the states of southern India post TFR figures below 1.9. A number of states in the far north and the northeast boast similarly low fertility levels, including West Bengal, noted for its swarming metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).

India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data, allow us to carefully examine ideas about fertility decline. The remainder of this post will do so through cartography, comparing the Indian fertility-rate map with maps of other social and economic indicators. Where spatial correlations are strong, underlying causes may be indicated. Such a technique is admittedly suggestive rather than conclusive, and it does not take into account institutional variables, such as family planning efforts. Still, some of the implications are intriguing.

India fertility literacy MapSeveral scholars have linked birthrate decline to female education. Educated women, they reason, generally prefer smaller families, allowing them to pursue their own interests while investing more resources and time in each child. As it turns out, the map of female literacy in India does exhibit striking similarities with the map of fertility. States with educated women, such as Kerala and Goa, have smaller families than those with widespread female illiteracy, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But this correlation, although strong, is of limited explanatory power, since Kerala and Goa rank high on every social indicator, just as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank low. A number of exceptions, moreover, are evident. Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, for example, combine low female literacy with low fertility, whereas in Meghalaya and Nagaland the pattern is reversed. Thus while the education of women is no doubt significant in reducing fertility levels, it is not the only factor at play.

India Fertility GDP MapGeneral levels of economic development, as reflected in per capita GDP, also fail to fully explain India’s fertility patterns. Again, map comparisons reveal congruences in some places but deviations in others. Low-fertility Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are not, by Indian terms, prosperous states. Gujarat in western India is well ahead of them economically, yet its fertility rate remains higher, slightly above the replacement level.


India Urbanization Fertility MapUrbanization often correlates with reduced fertility, and the rapid growth of India’s cities is probably linked to its declining birthrate. India as a whole, however, remains a predominantly rural country, so urbanization itself cannot be the answer. Note also that low-fertility Kerala and especially Himachal Pradesh have low urbanization levels, whereas in Mizoram the opposite situation prevails.


India HDI Fertility MapThe general level of social development makes another interesting comparison. The somewhat dated Human Development index map, from the Wikipedia, again deviates from the fertility map, especially in regard to low-HDI-ranking Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (Orissa), and high-ranking Nagaland and Manipur. The mapping of life expectancy, a major social indicator, again reveals both common features and anomalies. States with high life expectancies tend to have low India Longevity Fertility Mapbirthrates (Kerala, yet again), whereas those with low life expectancies tend to have high birthrates (Madhya Pradesh, especially). Yet while Odisha lags behind even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in terms of longevity, its TFR (2.2) is close to replacement, lower even than that of Gujarat.


India Fertility Electrification MapTechnological modernization is also worth examining. Here we use electrification as a proxy. The extent of electricity use varies tremendously across the country. All of southern and far northern India are now almost fully electrified, whereas in impoverished Bihar fewer than 20 percent of households have electric lights. Overall, the general pattern holds here as on the other maps, with interesting exceptions. Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, for example, have relatively high levels of electrification, yet are marked by elevated birthrates.

Some scholars have argued that recent fertility decreases in India and elsewhere in the Third World are more specifically linked to one technological innovation: television. The TV hypothesis is well-known in the field, discussed, for example, in the LiveScience article on the African population explosion mentioned above. In regard to India, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster argue persuasively that television works this magic mostly by enhancing the social position of women. As they state in their abstract:

This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on women’s status in rural India. Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing differential trends.

India Fertility TV Ownership MapAs it turns out, the map of television ownership in India does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map. Two anomalously low-fertility states with low levels of female education, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, score relatively high on TV penetration, as does West Bengal, which lags on several other important socio-economic indicators. The correlation is far from perfect: Mizoram ranks higher on the TV chart than its fertility figures would indicate, whereas Odisha and Assam rank lower. Odisha and Assam turn out to be a bit less exceptional in a related but broader and more gender-focused metric, that of “female exposure to media.” These figures, which include a television component, seem to provide the best overall correlation with the spatial patterns of Indian fertility.

India Fertility Media MapI suspect that the rapid drop in fertility in such countries as India and Brazil, as well as its association with television, has been missed in mainstream US commentary in part because it flies in the face of deeply ingrained expectations. That television viewing would help generate demographic stabilization would have come as a shock to those who warned of the ticking global population bomb in the 1960s. Many of these same critics regarded television as inauthentic, mind-numbing, and thought-controlling, and feared that by inculcating consumerism it would hasten environmental destruction. Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, was widely embraced by the green movement, and is still approvingly cited in such places as the “primitivist” blog Challenging Civilization. Mander argued not only that television singularly lacks democratic potential, but that it functions to enhance autocratic control.

Mander currently sits on the board of directors of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization alongside Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist. Shiva, best known for her campaigns against genetically modified crops, is deeply opposed to most aspects of modernity, calling for a return not just to organic farming but to a broadly traditional way of life, albeit without patriarchy and class (and caste) oppression. She gained global attention earlier this year when she responded to a prominent environmentalist advocating genetic engineering with the following tweet: “Mark Lynas saying farmers shd be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

Despite Vandana Shiva’s insistence to the contrary, most experts doubt that India could feed itself through non-modern farming. The “progressive contrarian” blogger Bernie Mooney concludes that Shiva is nothing less than “an elitist, anti-progress menace” whose program, if enacted, would not “help the poor of the world, [but would] only keep them at a subsistence level and more importantly, in their place.” Although Mooney’s assessment is harsh, it does seem likely that a return to traditional lifestyles would bring back high fertility levels, resulting in truly unsustainable population growth.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the transition to a low fertility regime, deemed necessary by almost all environmentalists, requires substantial modernization, particularly in the socio-cultural realm. Television depresses fertility because many of its offerings provide a model of middle-class families successfully grappling with the transition from tradition to modernity, helped by the fact that they have few children to support. In a study of declining fertility and television in Brazil, Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea point in particular to the role of soap operas (telenovelas):

We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior.  … Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices.

If it is true that soap operas have played a critical role in Brazil’s spectacular fertility decline—its TFR dropped from 6.25 in 1960 to 1.81 in 2011—the policy implications are momentous. But it will take a fundamental change in the way we talk about technology, population, and environment for this point to come across. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (2007, page 130) argue, old-school environmentalists typically prefer to “wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying even worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.” The data presented here confirm that it is time for a new mode of environmental rhetoric.

To return to our first map, fertility rates remain stubbornly high across tropical Africa. The analysis presented here would suggest that the best way to bring them down would be a three-pronged effort: female education, broad-based economic and social development, and mass electrification followed by the dissemination of soap-opera-heavy television. As it is, Africa’s television market is growing rapidly, but much of the programming so far has been heavily oriented toward sports. One can only hope that Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) and other African entertainment centers can provide the women-focused, locally appealing telenovelas that have been so strongly associated elsewhere with fertility reduction.

*Ehrlich is also one of the co-authors of the Science article referred to above.

Paul Ehrlich. 1968 (revised edition 1971). The Population Bomb. Sierra Club/Ballantine.

Jerry Mander. 1978. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. HarperCollins.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. 2007. Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Houghton Miflin.

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation? Read More »

The New York Times’ Flubbed China Cartograms

NY Times China Population CartogramAn interesting story in today’s (April 9) New York Times—“Hello, Cambodia: Wary of Events in China, Foreign Investors Head to the South”—is illustrated in the print edition with two striking cartograms of eastern Asia, one of which shows population and the other economic output. The cartogram legends claims that “countries and Chinese provinces are sized according to population” and, respectively to “economic output.” Actually, they are not. On the population cartogram, for example, compare the sizes of Hong Kong and Taiwan with that of Thailand. Is Thailand shown as almost ten times larger than Hong Kong and almost three times the size of Taiwan, as an accurate depiction would have it? Hardly.


NY Times China Economic CartogramThe real problem with the maps, however, is the claim that Chinese provinces are also sized according to these metrics. In actuality, it appears that no efforts were made to depict China’s first-order internal divisions (which include autonomous regions and direct-controlled municipalities in addition to standard provinces) in the manner of a cartogram. If this had been done, China would not retain its familiar shape, as can immediately be seen on an actual population cartogram of the country, produced by Worldmapper. On an economic cartogram, the shape distortion would be even more pronounced, as production is concentrated in the coastal provinces. As the Economist map shows, the GDP of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is roughly equivalent to that of Malta.

WorldMapperChinaPopulationCartogramThe New York Times cartograms also seemingly imply that Hong Kong is an independent country, rather than a “special administrative region” of China.




The New York Times’ Flubbed China Cartograms Read More »

The Core/Periphery Pattern in Egyptian Electoral Geography

Egyptian Constitutional Referendum MapEgypt’s troubled and insecure transition to democratic rule has exposed some intriguing political geographical patterns. Yet at first glance, maps of recent elections do not seem particularly revealing. Consider, for example, the December 2012 Constitutional Referendum, a measure favorable to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood that critics claim restricted basic freedoms and democratic governance. The referendum passed with almost 64 percent of the vote nationwide, going down to defeat only in Cairo and two governorates (as Egyptian provinces are termed) in the Nile Delta (Gharbia and Monufia). Otherwise, no striking patterns are evident on this map. The June 2012 final round of the Egyptian presidential election, in contrast, seemingly shows Egypt divided longitudinally, with the east supporting Ahmed Shafiq (with the exception of the far northeast), a military, secular figure closely identified with the old regime of Hosni Mubarak, and the west voting solidly for the winning candidate, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyprian Presidential Election MapThis east/west Egyptian divide, however, is more apparent than real. To grasp the actual nature of Egyptian electoral geography, it is first necessary to restrict discussion to the parts of the country that are actually inhabited, as most Egyptian territory has extraordinarily low population density. As can be seen on the map posted here, almost all Egyptians live in the narrow Nile Valley and triangular delta. If we restrict our vision to this zone, a different electoral-geographical pattern emerges. Instead of an east/west divide, we find a core-periphery division, with the core extending Egyptian Core Area Mapfrom greater Cairo into the interior portion of the delta, and the periphery including the Nile Valley of Upper (central and southern) Egypt and the fringes of the delta.

Nile delta Election MapAt this level, Egypt electoral geography can be viewed as pitting a strongly Islamist periphery against a core zone more skeptical of the religious agenda. The  December 2012 Constitutional Referendum, for example, received much less support in Cairo and the inner delta than it did in most others parts of the country, provided that one excludes the sparsely settled Red Sea and Southern Sinai governorates. Similarly, in the June 2012 final round of the presidential election, the winning candidate, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was triumphant almost everywhere except Cairo and the inner delta, which opted instead for Ahmed Shafiq, a figure closely identified with the old regime of Hosni Mubarak. (Many Shafiq-voters, it is essential to note, disdained him as a representative of the old regime, yet nonetheless preferred him to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate.)

With the exception of the city of Luxor, Morsi took the entire Nile Valley of Upper Egypt handily. Morsi did even better in the densely populated Fayoum Basin, an important off-shoot of the Nile Valley.

This core/periphery pattern is most clearly evident in the Nile Delta itself, as can be seen in Eric Schewe’s detailed map, posted here. As is clearly evident, Shafiq won an overwhelming victory in the central and especially the southern delta, whereas Morsi did well in the periphery, especially in the north and northwest. In a fascinating post, Schewe links this pattern to the history of land reclamation in the delta. Many of the areas that supported Morsi are marginal lands that came under irrigation and cultivation only in relatively recent times. As a result, they came to be characterized by large landholdings and numerous landless peasants. As the Mubarak regime was closely associated with landlord interests, Schewe contends, the poor population here was unwilling to support a figure closely associated with it. But as Schewe goes on to explain, this pattern does not necessarily obtain everywhere in Egypt:

While all of this doesn’t explain why a landless peasant would necessarily be a pious Muslim or want an Islamist government, it does explain why they would want to vote against an elitist ex-regime minister who curried favor with his landlord. The reclaimed land-Muslim Brotherhood pattern doesn’t hold everywhere. For example, in the South district of Port Said governorate, where the newest reclaimed land in the country is being rolled out of Lake Manzala in parallel strips, Shafiq took 66% (out of only 8500 votes).

Nile Delta Presidential Election First Round mapThe results of the first round of the election, contested by numerous candidates, reveal a similar but not identical pattern in the delta. In the map here (also by Schewe), one can see the core zone voting again for Shafiq and both the eastern and western peripheries opting for Islamists candidates, either for the Brotherhood’s Morsi or the independent Aboul-Fotouh. Monufia governorate in the inner Delta particularly favored Shafiq, giving him more than 45 percent of its votes. The north, on the other hand, along much of Cairo, favored Hamdeen Sabahi, identified with the older Nassarist political movement, based on a secular, Arab-socialist ideology. Sabahi did particularly well in the northern governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, taking over 45 percent of its votes in the first round.

The striking contrast between Kafr el-Sheikh and Monufia in the initial round of the Egyptian presidential election seems perplexing on first glance. Both are characterized by densely populated, intensively cultivated farmland dotted with towns and industrial cities, yet the former governorate strongly supported the Nasserist Sabahi and gave few votes to Shafiq, whereas in the latter governorate the situation was reversed. It is probably not coincidental that Hamdeen Sabahi was born in Kafr el-Sheikh, whereas Monufia was the birthplace of Hosni Mubarak as well as Anwar Sadat. Schewe thinks that machine-style politics were at play, arguing that, “This monolithic slab of dark blue tends to make me suspicious that the Shafiq voting machine not only used aggressive tactics in Al-Menoufiya [Monufia], but uniquely aggressive tactics.”

An urban/rural divide is also apparent on these maps, but not to the same extent as the split between the core and the periphery. Alexandria and Port Said stand out to some extent as having supported Shafiq in the final round, but the difference between the urban centers and the surrounding countryside is by no means overwhelming. Much the same can be said in regard to the important textile and cotton ginning cities of El-Mahalla El-Kubra and Tanta. Interestingly, El-Mahalla El-Kubra gave less support to Shafiq than its surrounding rural areas.

After performing this preliminary analysis, I turned to my colleague Joel Beinin, an expert in the political economy of Egypt, who was able to provide a much more nuanced explanation of these patterns. As Beinin explains:

Minufiyya Governorate, the section of the inner Delta where the pro-Shafiq vote was strongest, is the home of both Sadat and Mubarak and of Gamal Mubarak’s crony in chief and steel oligopolist Ahmad ‘Izz.  The two presidents invested a great deal in their native villages and the surrounding areas.  Izz employ(ed) well over 10,000 workers in Minufiyya in steel and ceramics in Sadat City in Minufiyya.  He had regularly mobilized them and peasants in the surrounding villages to vote for him in parliamentary elections.  There were reports that the networks that accomplished this are still in existence but were lying low.

Gharbiyya Governorate is the home of Misr Spinning and Weaving — 22,000 workers and the biggest industrial enterprise in Egypt.  I’m pretty sure that the no vote on the Constitution there is largely due to that.

One city that does stand out fairly strongly from its surrounding countryside in supporting Shafiq is Desouk, located in the socially conservative northwestern delta. Intriguingly, Desouk is noted for its religious nature, yet it gave more than 55 percent of its vote to the non-Islamist candidate. The key here is the city’s Sufi orientation. As the Wikipedia notes, “Desouk is a member of the Organization of Islamic Capitals and Citie, because there are important Islamic shrines in the city, like the tomb of Saint “Ibrahim El-Desouki” (13th century)…” The Desouki order of Sufi mystics, once closely tied to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, is still strongly associated with the city. And as Lee Keath and Sarah el Deeb explain in a Huffington Post article, “Shafiq also rallied … the widespread Muslim mystical sects known as Sufis, who fear the Brotherhood, which advocates implementing a harder line version of Islamic law.”

I am not able to offer any possible explanations for the strongly Shafic-voting area in the northeastern delta. Anyone?

The Core/Periphery Pattern in Egyptian Electoral Geography Read More »

Populating the Pilbara—And the Controversial Phenomenon of Gina Rinehart

As the previous post noted, the major urban areas of Australia have recently posted significant population gains whereas most rural areas have registered demographic declines. The situation is a bit different, however, in Western Australia, the world’s second largest (by territory) “stateoid” (or first-order political division of a sovereign state). To be sure, the outskirts of greater Perth have seen major population gains just as the agricultural heartland, the so-called Wheat Belt, has lost residents. But the rural Pilbara region in the northwest defies such tendencies, growing at a rapid clip. The Pilbara is still very lightly settled, with roughly 50,000 people living in 193,823 sq mi (502,000 km2), an area roughly the size of Spain. (The region is actually planning to capitalize on its sparse settlement, launching an “international tourism campaign targeting the Pilbara as a place where visitors can come and experience ‘nothing…’”) But with some of the richest mineral deposits on Earth, the Pilbara is developing rapidly, and hence is attracting new residents.

Settling people in the Pilbara has long been a controversial matter, as discussed in a previous GeoCurrents post. The region’s remote location and harsh natural conditions deter settlement, as does its extraordinarily high cost of living. As a result, most mine workers have been employed in a “fly in/fly out” basis, living permanently in Perth and “commuting” to the mines for intensive work stints of a week or two. Mining operations in the region have also invested heavily in automation. Gargantuan robot trucks and driverless trains are among the most recent innovations. But automation cannot meet all of the region’s labor demands, leading to an expanding population. Limited infrastructure, however, has generated a severe housing crunch. In some coastal areas, workers are increasingly living on boats, leading local officials to fret over lightly regulated “boatels” clogging up local harbors. One Australian politician recently described the Pilbara as a “basket case” where residents are “reduced to tears by high rents and inadequate services.”

As many Australians are reluctant to endure such conditions, the Pilbara’s business and governmental leaders are increasingly looking to foreign labor. A local council in the region recently announced that it “wants to import foreign workers for smaller businesses in the retail, hospitality and other sectors that are struggling to secure local employees.” The council is eyeing China and the Philippines as potential labor sources. Earlier this year, the Australian government agreed to a new initiative that would allow the Pilbara mining sector to bring in much larger numbers of workers from abroad. As reported in May by Australia’s ABC Rural news service:


The Federal Government has awarded its first Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) to Hancock Prospecting’s Roy Hill mine, allowing it to import overseas workers for the construction of the project.

The project is expected to demand 8,000 workers during construction and the EMA will allow Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting to bring in up to 1,700 foreign workers, but only after genuine efforts have been made to recruit Australians.

The agreement requires overseas workers to be paid the same as locals and also requires Hancock to provide 2,000 training places for domestic workers.


This agreement has been highly controversial for several reasons. Australia has long restricted blue-collar migration in order to maintain a high wage structure, and many Australians fear that this policy is now threatened. Some also think that the deal gives unfair advantage to Hancock Prospecting, the privately owned firm that controls vast land leases in the Pilbara, and to its controversial executive chair, Gina Rinehart. Rinehart is certainly a force to be reckoned with. She is often described as the richest Australian and as the world’s wealthiest woman, but such characterization may not do justice to her fortune. Her net worth is estimated to be as high as US$29 billion, and it is growing so rapidly—at A$52m a day*—that some experts think that she will soon become the richest person in the world.

Rinehart’s ambitions are by no means limited to the acquisition of wealth. She has recently purchased major shares in several media organizations, perhaps hoping to use such holdings to sway public opinion. Her political views are deeply conservative. She harshly criticizes Australia’s high taxes and extensive regulations, and she supports groups that deny global warming. She is especially critical of her country’s high wage rates, and she recently shocked many Australians when she declared that “Africans willing to work for $2 a day should be an inspiration.”

The fact that Rinehart’s political activities have intensified of late may be linked to threats to her ever-burgeoning fortune. The Pilbara mining industry, with its iron-ore mainstay, is tightly linked to China’s industrial expansion. As evidence mounts that the Chinese economy is slowing, concern grows in Western Australia that the mining boom may soon run out of steam.

Rinehart’s latest attempt to influence public opinion comes in the form of her recently published book, Northern Australia and then Some: Changes We Need to Make our Country Rich. The work is controversial, to say the least. Crikey (“Independent Media; Independent Minds”) reviewer Cameron Woodhead recently described the book as “weirdly amateur,” with ideas that are “mad beyond the dreams of Tamburlaine.” I was tempted to read the book myself in preparation for this post, until I learned that it contains a substantial selection of its author’s poetry, although doggerel might be the more appropriate term. As Woodhead frames the matter: “if you overlook the Genghis Khan-like sentiments, Gina’s verses are the kind of naïve art — articulate, with some command of metre — that might arouse the admiration of neighbours in the local paper”. He also provides a nice sampling, written in honor of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a former Premier of Queensland:


You travelled far and earned great fame, but always you stayed


To family and friends who supported you with time and love and


You spread decency and honour, pride in family and Queen.

And when others wavered from their path, your conscience

remained clean.

We can admire the Sir Joh legacy just by looking around your state.

Parkinson’s has laid you low, but you will always be

The very best Queenslander, especially for me.


Bjelke-Petersen was himself a highly controversial figure. As one of the commentators on Woodhead’s review (Christopher Nagle) memorably puts it: “Bjelkes may have been a corrupt tropical fascist bastardo, but he left his state solvent… Bless his miserable rotten heart.”

* As of May, 2012.


Populating the Pilbara—And the Controversial Phenomenon of Gina Rinehart Read More »

Australia’s Empty Countryside—and the Melbourne/Sydney Rivalry

Australia is well known for its low population density. With roughly 23 million people living in 2.9 million sq mi (7.7 million sq km) of land, it ranks sixth from bottom in this regard, following Mongolia, Namibia, Iceland, Suriname, and Mauritania. Australia is also known for its high degree of urbanization, although its 89.2 percent official urbanization figure places only in the world’s 16th position. Such a ranking is misleading, however, as many of the more urbanized countries are microstates or city-states, such as Nauru, San Marino, Monaco, and Singapore. Australia is also unusual in the degree to which its top metropolitan areas tower over its smaller cities. More than half of Australians live in greater Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

As a result of such intense metropolitanization in a low-density framework, maps of Australian population density can be misleading. A quick glance at a typical map in this genre shows the vast Outback as sparsely populated indeed, but also seemingly indicates moderately high populations densities in the climatically favored eastern, southeastern, and southwestern reaches of the country. But the brown areas on the map to the right, with only 1.1-10 residents per square kilometer, are still sparsely settled by global standards. On the map of Europe posted here, all such areas would fall into the lowest population density category.

The scarcity of rural population even in the relatively thickly settled Australian southeast was recently impressed upon me while driving on back roads from Sydney to Canberra.  The trip took my family and me through the administrative districts of Lithgow, Oberon, Upper Lachland, and Yass Valley, an area highlighted in blue on the map to the left. Part of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, this low-elevation (2,000-3,000 feet [600-900 meters]) hilly plateau is devoted largely to livestock production. I found the scenery delightful, with tree-dotted pastoral landscapes alternating with woodlands and the occasional pine plantation. Human habitations were few and far between, and the miniscule hamlets that dot similar areas in the American West were absent. The small towns that I did pass through, such as Oberon proper (population 2,500), struck me as economically healthy and relatively well-nucleated, without the sloppy sprawl that characterizes most towns of a similar size in the western United States.

Although such claims are based merely on casual observation over a single transect of the Australian countryside, the basic demographic realities can easily be gleaned from census records. Lithgow, Oberon, Upper Lachland, and Yass Valley together cover 7,457 square miles (19,300 square kilometers), an area about the size of Wales, Slovenia, or New Jersey. The region’s total population, however, is a mere 48,000. One way to appreciate the low density of the region is to contrast it to California, where a similar scarcity of settlement is encountered only in the most remote counties in the far north and the desert east. Siskiyou County makes a good analogue, with 45,000 people living in 6,347 sq mi (16,440 km2) of land. But Siskiyou is a remote, rugged, and partly desert county, whereas the Lithgow to Yass Valley corridor is a gentle pastoral land situated in the Australian national core zone.







The area in question has registered moderate population gains over the past decade, as can be seen in the map to the left. The same map, however, shows population decreases in most rural areas of New South Wales, along with a major expansion in greater Sydney, which has registered three-quarters of the state’s total population growth during this period. Similar patterns are evident in most parts of the country. Such trends indicate an intensification of Australia’s already stark urban/rural divide. While the pastoral Outback and the main agricultural regions continue to lose population, Australia’s major metropolitan areas are all expanding, especially along their suburban fringes. As a recent press release puts it:

Population growth in Australia between June 2001 and June 2011 was strongest in the outer suburbs, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The five areas with the largest growth in the country were all on the outskirts of Melbourne, with the largest increase in South Morang (up 32,200 people). Point Cook, Caroline Springs and Tarneit in Melbourne’s west followed, each with growth of more than 20,000 people.

If present trends continue, greater Melbourne will surpass greater Sydney before too long to become, once again, Australia’s largest urban area. Considering the deep rivalry between the two cities, such trends are significant. But as a recent article in The Punch (“Australia’s Best Conversation”) argues, the actual differences between Sydney and Melbourne are insignificant:

Melbourne is the city in the world most similar to Sydney. Well, it is. Forget the differences. …Sydney and Melbourne have much, much more in common than either of them ever care to admit. Truth is, the brashness of Sydney (as seen through Melbourne eyes) and the bleakness of Melbourne (as seen through Sydney eyes) are just two examples of differences between the cities which are wildly overblown.

The 200 comments posted on the article, however, indicate that the rivalry is taken seriously indeed, especially by Melbournians. Intriguingly, one of the commentators (“TheBrad”) argued that the distinctive cultures of two cities are most clearly evident in one media segment: “you can tell a lot about a state by their morning radio breakfast shows – Sydney is in your face & Melbourne is a yawn…” The comment seems tragically prescient, considering the fact that the antics of two Sydney radio “shock jocks”  has been linked to the suicide of a duped British nurse, Jacintha Saldanha.

Although Sydneysiders may tend to view Melbourne as bleak and stuffy, many knowledgeably observers think that it has a more vibrant music and arts scene than its rival. Emblematic of the cultural differences between the two cities, some argue, is the fact that the Kiwi (New Zealander) singer-songwriter Kimbra—“the mesmerizing trans-Tasman pop sensation”—recently decided to relocate to Melbourne, not Sydney.


Australia’s Empty Countryside—and the Melbourne/Sydney Rivalry Read More »

The Different Modes of Language Spread

In this second-to-last post on Indo-European origins and expansion, we turn once again to language diffusion, a cornerstone of the model employed by Bouckaert et al. A previous post asked whether languages actually spread by diffusion, arguing that the much more rapid process of advection is often more important. As was then pointed out, physical geographical factors, such as impassible mountains and fertile river corridors, guided such advectional movement. Today’s post considers language movement more generally—whether conceptualized as diffusion or advection—focusing more on the social than the natural environment.

A root error of Bouckaert et al. is regarding language expansion as a singular process. Actually, it can operate in two complete different modes: sometimes a language spreads with a group people, and sometimes it does so among different groups of people. To put it in most schematic terms, language movement occurs when a speaker moves from place A to neighboring place B, but it can also happen when a resident of A imparts his or her language to a resident of B. One process is basically demographic, the other conversional. In geohistorical terms, both forms of language expansion have been ubiquitous. They are generally meshed together in a complex manner, but sometimes one or the other process dominates. As they differ so fundamentally, it they could be realistically modeled in the same manner.

The clearest case of demographic expansion occurs when a single human group arrives on an uninhabited landmass and settles it. As the population expands in numbers and spreads geographically, its language will gradually differentiate into dialects and eventually into separate languages, as sub-populations pushing into new areas become socially separate and their forms of speech drift apart. Such linguistic differentiation could be arrested and reversed by state formation or the emergence of over-arching religious or other cultural institutions, but over the long span of the human past, divergence is usually the rule.

The settlement of Madagascar some 1,500 years ago is a prime example of such virgin-land expansion. Linguistic evidence confirms that the original Austronesian-speaking settlers arrived from Borneo in the Malay Archipelago. As their descendents spread over the mini-continent, their original language differentiated into dialects, some of which are regarded by linguistic splitters as separate languages (the Ethnologue lists ten). Later streams of migrants from the African mainland enhanced the island’s genetic diversity while introducing new linguistic elements, but the newcomers always adopted the language of the original settlers. As a result, all the indigenous forms of speech on Madagascar are very closely related, and are usually classified as variants of the single Malagasy macro-language.

Examples of the opposite process of conversional language expansion are common in today’s world. The process occurs whenever parents neglect to pass on their own mother tongue to their children, in favor of the language of one of their neighboring groups. Hundreds of languages have become endangered in over past generation alone by such changes in behavior. Most disappearing American Indian languages in the United States, for example, are in danger not because their populations are dying out or because their lands are being overrun by English speakers, but rather because decisions are made by parents to raise their children as English speakers.

Such processes of language abandonment and replacement are by no means limited to the modern world. A prime ancient example comes from the Philippine archipelago. Almost all Philippine languages belong to one branch of the Austronesian family, which is almost limited to the Philippines (see the map posted here). Such a pattern would seemingly indicate that the Philippines, like Madagascar, had been initially populated by a single group of settlers whose descendants subsequently spread over the archipelago as their language differentiated. But the actual demographic history of the Philippines was completely different. The original Austronesian settlers came to a land that had already been occupied by tens of thousands of years. Its indigenous* inhabitants were collectively called “Negritos” by Spanish authorities, a word meaning “small, dark-skinned people.” Their languages were undoubtedly unrelated to Austronesian, but we cannot say much beyond that. Although the Philippine indigenes have survived to this day, they abandoned their original tongues many centuries ago in favor of the Austronesian speech of the newcomers.

The social interactions between the Austronesian migrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the Philippines are poorly understood, but the key dynamics are evident. The newcomers were an agriculture people with much more highly developed technologies and forms of political integration than those held by the native foragers. The Austronesian migrants demographically overwhelmed most parts of the archipelago in short order, spreading their language(s) and well as their genes. Yet the indigenes held on in a number of rugged areas, particularly those characterized by heavy, year-round rainfall, such as the Sierra Madre Mountains of eastern Luzon** (in the winter dry season, the Sierra Madre catches rain from trade winds forced up-slope). From such redoubts, however, the indigenous foragers interacted extensively with their Austronesian neighbors, exchanging rain-forest products for agricultural and manufactured goods. Eventually, the languages of their trading partners fully “diffused” across their societies and then began to evolve in their own directions. Today, the several surviving “Negrito languages” are much more closely related to the languages of their neighbors than they are to each other. Strikingly similar processes have occurred elsewhere in the world. The most notable case is that of the “Pygmies” of central Africa, another group of diminutive, rainforest hunter-gatherers who long ago abandoned their own languages in favor of the tongues of their more numerous and powerful neighbors, in this case, languages in the Bantu sub-family of Niger-Congo.

The two cases explored above, Madagascar and northeastern Luzon, are best regarded as ends of a spectrum. Most examples of linguistic expansion involve both processes. When one language group expands it usually does so into the territory of a people speaking another language. As communication between natives and newcomers is essential, many individuals acquire a second language. Over time, such a process often leads to the linguistic conversion of the indigenous group—although advancing group are sometimes converted instead, in which case the language frontier retreats. Such encounters are generally accompanied by some conflict, as the native inhabitants typically resent the incursions of the newcomers, who in turn often use force to advance into new lands. To the extent that the indigenes are able to resist the settlers, they will delay the linguistic expansion. The effectiveness of any such resistance in turn depends on the relative numbers of the two groups and on their levels of political and technological development. Any realistic modeling of linguistic spread must take such factors into consideration.

Patterns of physical geographical play an important role here as well, as resistance by native inhabitants is usually more effective in areas of rough or otherwise difficult-to-traverse topography. In some cases, a particular climatic feature can stop language advance; the spreading Bantu-speakers, for example, encountered a firm barrier in the arid and Mediterranean climates of southwestern Africa, which precluded their faming practices and therefore created a refuge for peoples speaking Khoisan languages. Even the geometry of landmasses can play a role. As Anglo-Saxon speech spread across southern England, Celtic speakers were increasingly concentrated in the funnel-shaped peninsula of Cornwall, increasing their population density, shortening their defensive perimeter, and thereby enhancing their ability to resist the spread of English (further north, it was the rugged uplands of eastern Wales that afforded such protection).  Yet again, all such features must also be taken into account by any effective attempt to model language spread.

The movement of one language group into the territory of another typically results in complex and variable linguistic interactions. Outcomes again depend heavily on relative numbers and different levels of technological and political development. When a large group of technically advanced people spreads over a landscape occupied by scant numbers of less technically advanced people, the linguistic impact can be minimal. As English advanced across Australia, for example, it picked up place names, animal designations, and words for unique landscape features (such as billabong) from Aboriginal languages, but not much more. But when two groups with more similar levels of development come into contact, much more intensive linguistic interactions typically result. Sometimes the linguistic substrates bequeathed by vanquished populations can be profound at both the grammatical and lexical levels, at other times they are of little significance, and occasionally they seem to be minor at first glance but turn out to be surprisingly important.***

When a language group moves into the lands of a different people, the initial linguistic development is often that of widespread bilingualism. If the newcomers are dominant, as they often are, the subjugated indigenes will find advantage in learning the new language, but even members of the dominant group sometimes acquire the native tongue. Gender relations typically play a crucial role here as well. Men from the more powerful group often take women from the subordinated people, insisting that their native wives learn their language. Such women do so imperfectly, often imposing upon it sounds, words, and grammatical patterns from their native tongue. When they pass down the transformed language of their husbands to their children, a certain degree of linguistic fusion results.

The preceding discussion only hints at the possible complexities involved in the linguistic interactions that occur when one language group pushes into the territory of another. Even so, it deeply challenges the diffusion model of Bouckaert et al. Rather than advancing by steady progression, an expanding language often moves forward in a spatially dispersed manner, as its speakers establish themselves as a dominant social stratum in a foreign land. Many members of the native population will learn the new language, but they will at first continue rearing their own children in their own tongue. After a number of generations of such bilingualism, most parents in the indigenous group may opt to acculturate their infants in their second languages rather than in their mother tongues. As a result, a language could “spread” almost instantaneously over fairly sizable areas. Over broader areas, however, such a process is likely to be patchy, with some areas “converting” much sooner than others.

A prime example of such uneven processes of language change comes from Anatolia. Most of the region was Greek-speaking in the 11th century when the Turkish influx began. By the 13th century most of Anatolia was firmly under Turkish rule, and by the middle of the 15th century Greek political power had vanished everywhere. Throughout this period, Turkish gradually supplanted Greek, but along both the Black Sea coast and that of the Aegean Sea, largely bilingual but primarily Greek-speaking communities persisted until the expulsions of the early 20th century. And as we saw in an earlier post, mixed “Turkish-Greek” forms of speech emerged in some areas.

A second major challenge to the diffusion model emerging from this analysis involves the unpredictability of language change when two (or more) linguistic communities come to occupy the same general territory. Although one might expect that the language of the dominant group would always prevail, that is obviously not the case—if it were, England would have switched to a Romance language after the Norman conquest, and Russia would have ended up with a North Germanic language of its Variangian rulers. Instead, England kept a Germanic tongue, and Russia—a Slavic one.

Interesting examples of the uncertain nature of language change after a successful invasion come from the Danubian grasslands of central and southeastern Europe. From the fourth century to the ninth century CE, this area experienced four major incursions by non-Indo-European-speaking, militarily dominant, pastoral peoples from the steppe zone to the east: those of the Huns, the Eurasian Avars, the Bulgars, and the Magyars. All four groups built empires of a sort, and all subjugated the much more numerous local inhabitants. The Huns and the Avars, however, disappeared within a century or so with little trace, linguistic or otherwise. The Bulgars, on the other hand, built a kingdom so powerful that vestiges of it survive to this day in the form of Bulgaria, but their Turkic tongue vanished long ago, failing to maintain itself in the heavily Slavic environment over which the Bulgars ruled. The Magyars, on the other hand, were able to firmly establish their language, which is spoken today by roughly 15 million people, even though the Magyars themselves were a relatively small group, substantially outnumbered by the peoples that they dominated.

Could one have predicted the fates of the Hunnic, Avar, Bulgar, and Magyar languages merely from the basic facts of their migrations, conquests, and state formations? I rather doubt it, as far too many contingencies were involved over long periods and broad territories. More to the point, could any such processes be successfully modeled as instances of linguistic diffusion? Here the answer must be a definitive “no.” Of course Bouckaert et al. would object here, as they rule out all episodes involving the “rapid” spread of a single language. Yet over the past several thousand years, the rapid spread of single languages has been the stuff of linguistic history over broad segments of the terrestrial globe. If such processes are ignored, nonsense necessarily results.


*The term “indigenous” becomes problematic wherever multiple waves of settlement have impacted a particular place. The term is used here in the relative sense, referring simply to groups that predated other groups with which they are compared.

**Intriguingly, the most rugged area of northern Luzon, the Cordillera Central, did not serve as a refuge for the indigenous hunter-gatherers, as all of its recorded ethno-linguistic groups are descended from the Austronesian migrants. The Cordillera, the site of my own doctoral research, is an usual area in many respects, as it was historically characterized by higher population densities than those found in the adjacent lowlands to the east; dense populations, in turn, necessitated the construction of some of the world’s most elaborate agricultural terraces (see the photo to the left). In all likelihood, such high population density in the mountains resulted from Spanish pressure; residents of northern Luzon who did not want to submit to Spanish rule and forced Christianization fled to the uplands, where they had to build terraces in order to survive. Prior to this influx, small numbers of “Negritos” may have lived in parts of the Cordillera.

***Intriguingly, substrate influences that seem insignificant at first glance can actually turn out to be important. For decades, linguists looked for Celtic influences on English in the wrong places and thus could not find them; even such a recent, authoritative text as Baugh and Cable’s A History of the English Language (1993) states that, “Outside of place-names the influence of Celtic upon the English language is almost negligible” (p. 85). Currently, however, many of the linguistic peculiarities of English are being attributed to the Celts. These include the do-support construction (where do is required in questions and for negation), the diphthongization of long vowels (possibly, the first push that started the chain reaction of the Great Vowel Shift), expressing possession inside noun phrases, using the same –self items for reflexives (“John cut himself”) and intensifiers (“The president himself will visit”), using the same verb forms for both causative structures (“I broke the vase”) and inchoative ones (“The vase broke”), and the it-cleft (“It was a car that he bought”).



The Different Modes of Language Spread Read More »