The week that was

This week I:

– saw a banana slug on my way to class – the first one I’ve seen since I’ve been able to call the banana slug my school mascot!

– made a loaf of rye buttermilk bread from this newly released cookbook.  Yum!

– took advantage of an office-mate’s recommendation to back up my computer with Carbonite.  Besides backing up your files, it also lets you access everything on your computer anywhere you have an internet connection. Awesome!

– after two and a half years of revisions, submitted an article based on my master’s research findings to its first academic journal.  I felt proud and productive for about 45 minutes, and then fell into a sad, empty kind of state.  My writer and researcher friends tell me this is common.  : (

– guided my students into the murky waters of writing a literature review. So far so good.

– had some of my photos published as an accompaniment to an article on the recent agreement to allow California industries to offset their pollution by purchasing pollution credits in Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil. Check out the backstory in my post.

– read the following in preparation for the Supreme Court case on climate change that was heard on Tuesday. (Now I need to find out what the actual verdict was, and how it impacts the case in Alaska I described in a recent post)

– got a phone call from the post office saying that my new bees had arrived in the mail!  They are now settled safely into their new diggs, and being, well, busy little bees.

– indulged my fantasy of being a scholar-farmer by doing some grading at 5th Crow Farm.  The fantasy part, however, doesn’t involve my car smelling like PSG after lending a hand with errands (that’s Peruvian Seagull Guano for those of you not in the know). It also doesn’t involve the earth trying to eat my shoes as I navigate the mud in my “stylish and inappropriate” footwear of choice: clogs.

– realized, again, that nothing makes me feel incompetent faster than trying to hang out with farmers while they are working.

Bees at the post office – in the box they were shipped in

What do people from California have in common with people from Chiapas?

What do people from California have in common with people from Chiapas?  Read Jeff Conant’s latest article on AlterNet today to find out!  Be sure to check out the slideshow that accompanies it too – it includes some of my photos from the San Joaquin Valley.  Some of them have already been published elsewhere and some are new (like the one below).  All were chosen by the author to help readers visualize some of the toxicity problems in the San Joaquin Valley so they might better understand why some Valley residents participated in the recent lawsuit against California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.  See my other post on this topic here.

Jeff used to be my boss at the Hesperian Foundation when we worked on this book together (Spanish translation coming soon!).  He came to Hesperian after getting booted out of Mexico for, as I understand it, the crime of volunteering on small scale water distribution systems in Zapatista communities in Chiapas.  I left Hesperian to get a master’s degree at UC Davis, where I researched the Central Valley environmental justice movement.  Through the twists and turns of current events, our working lives have crossed paths again, this time through concerns about how a policy designed to slow climate change might negatively impact poor people in both California and Chiapas.

In our past life together, Jeff’s job was to write a book and mine was to get it illustrated, so providing photos for his article this week was a fun twist on an old theme.

power lines

Is my furniture trying to kill me?

Is my furniture trying to kill me?  This question has been lurking in the back of my mind ever since I met Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute several years ago, and it’s not a comfortable thing to think about each time I time I flop down on my sofa after a long day at work.

My science writer friend Erik Vance just published an article in Scientific American on the science behind toxic flame retardants used in furniture foam.  The occasion for the piece is a current legislative proposal intended to reduce the amount of flame retardants in California furniture.  (Don’t worry, supporters of the bill say the flame retardants weren’t doing that much to keep your house from burning down in the first place, and anyway, the toxic fumes from the flame retardants would kill you before the fire would).

Toxic exposure isn’t really something you can buy your way out of, but if you want to give it a shot, check out these furniture purchasing guidelines.

You might also enjoy reading about the wild life that Blum has led as a scientist and mountain climber, I know I did!

Water wars in the Central Valley

In my work in the Central Valley, I’ve focused more on problems with drinking water, which comes from groundwater, than I have on water for agriculture, which comes from highly contested surface water.  Nonetheless, in my travels I see many signs of struggle over agricultural water allotments.  “Congress-created dustbowl” signs appear on land next to the freeway and in some rest-stops trucks have been turned into giant political water posters.

So I enjoyed reading Matt Black’s article about recent agricultural water restrictions over my morning tea today.  He  speaks to the way water allotments are a zero sum game in our state: cuts for agriculture take farmland out of production in favor of preserving healthy riverine ecosystems further upstream and vice versa.  Mostly, Black focuses on the impact of the agricultural cuts on the poor who live precariously on the fringes of the agricultural economy.  This paragraph was particularly eloquent:

“As I watch this ersatz abundance turn to dust, I’m left conflicted.  When a group of farmers and politicians pose for news cameras in front of destitute housewives in a bread line, it feels outrageous.  Don’t they know that families here have relied on food handouts for years?  Are they really using their workers’ poverty – a poverty born of decades of exploitative wages – to get more subsidized water?” 


I was also pleased to recognize one of the photos in this essay as the cover photo of the inaugural edition of Boom: A Journal of California, which I also published a piece in.  You can see more of Black’s photos on his personal website.

The week that was

This week was more of a backward slide than a forward march.  I:

– rescheduled my office hours, cancelled a writing group, missed lecture, and cancelled a guest lecture

– went to the doctor’s office three times in two days

– convalesced by watching the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice (1995) – not to be confused with the more recent Keira Knightley version (which I also watched)

– Checked and made varying degrees of comments on 80 pieces of student work and taught two, two hour labs.

– was warmed by offers from friends and neighbors to buy my groceries, drop off movies, and clear a pile of branches from my back yard

– read articles on the dilemmas of increasing open access to scholarly knowledge here and here

– said to my lunch companion, “This is the life!” as we sat down to eat at the college cafeteria – not because the food is so great, but because the view is

– enjoyed this beautiful bunch of ranunculus in my bathroom

Foodies and farmworkers unite!

I was pleased to find this report in my virtual in-box this week:

Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, by Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation and the United Farm Workers of America, March 2011.

It’s great to see farmworker issues getting some attention, but what really caught my eye was the fact that a foodie group and a farmworker group had co-authored the report together.

After spending years incrementally improving the environmental impacts and profitability of food production through organic agriculture and other labeling systems, foodies have become increasingly interested in improving the social conditions of food production too.  While this conversation has most often centered around how to make improvements in working conditions on organic farms, this new report takes a much broader view.  It analyzes working conditions for farmworkers nation-wide, as well as the scanty legal protections available to them.

One of the current debates in foodie circles centers on the pros and cons of trying to solve our food system’s problems with market-based tools: organic certification, fair-trade certification, buying local, etc.  Should we rely on voluntary improvements by individual farmers who can then charge more for their products to consumers willing and able to spend more?  Or should we focus instead on legislative solutions that require improvements by all farmers?  While foodies have mostly used market-based solutions in their work, farmworkers groups have focused largely on legislative solutions.

My reading of the report suggests that its authors are pursuing a middle path.  They hope that increasing the visibility of farmworker problems in this country will also increase consumer interest in purchasing food that is grown under safe, dignified working conditions.  Then, more farmers will want to participate in labeling programs that require improvements in working conditions. These increasingly popular labeling programs will then help generate more interest in and awareness about the problems facing farmworkers, helping legislative solutions become politically feasible.  I’ll be watching to see where this foodie/farmworker partnership will lead.

Here’s a few other items of interest that passed through my in-box last week:

View from Nob Hill, San Francisco, circa 1300 AD

How many of you have admired one of California’s many stunning views and thought to yourself, I wonder what this would have looked like a few hundred years ago?  I spent last night enjoyably looking through a book my Dad shared with me that did just that.  “A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California” combines scientist Laura Cunninham’s field notes, sketches, paintings and prose into a rich exploration of California’s natural heritage.  I was delighted to see so many familiar places transformed through her expert eye. A painting of San Jose before there was San Jose, the South Bay before there were the salt ponds, before and after pictures of El Cerrito Hill and Lake Merritt, overlays of the Sacramento River in 1874 and 1974…. I also enjoyed geeking out on some of her nice charts and diagrams, and mentally comparing them to similar illustrations I’ve designed.  While it is sad to see these vanished landscapes brought to life so vividly, it would be sadder still not to even know what we’ve lost.