Flashback Friday.

The AP has an interesting website about wildfires from 2002 to 2006. Each year, most wildfires occurred west of the Continental Divide:

Many of these areas are forested. Others are desert or shortgrass prairie:

There are a lot of reasons for wildfires–climate and ecology, periodic droughts, humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, the “vast majority” of wildfires are due to human activity. Many scientists expect climate change to increase wildfires.

Many wildfires affect land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For most of the 1900s, the BLM had a policy of total fire suppression to protect valuable timber and private property.

Occasional burns were part of forest ecology. Fires came through, burning forest litter relatively quickly, then moving on or dying out. Healthy taller trees were generally unaffected; their branches were often out of the reach of flames and bark provided protection. Usually the fire moved on before trees had ignited. And some types of seeds required exposure to a fire to sprout.

Complete fire suppression allowed leaves, pine needles, brush, fallen branches, etc., to build up. Wildfires then became more intense and destructive: they were hotter, flames reached higher, and thicker layers of forest litter meant the fire lingered longer.

As a result, an uncontrolled wildfire was often more destructive. Trees were more likely to burn or to smolder and reignite a fire several days later. Hotter fires with higher flames are more dangerous to fight, and can also more easily jump naturally-occurring or artificial firebreaks. They may burn a larger area than they would otherwise, and thus do more of the damage that total fire suppression policies were supposed to prevent.

In the last few decades the BLM has recognized the importance of occasional fires in forest ecology. Fires are no longer seen as inherently bad. In some areas “controlled burns” are set to burn up some of the dry underbrush and mimic the effects of naturally-occurring fires.

But it’s not easy to undo decades of fire suppression. A controlled burn sometimes turns out to be hard to control, especially with such a buildup of forest litter. Property owners often oppose controlled burns because they fear the possibility of one getting out of hand. So the policy of fire suppression has in many ways backed forest managers into a corner: it led to changes in forests that make it difficult to change course now, even though doing so might reduce the destructive effects of wildfires when they do occur.

Given this, I’m always interested when wildfires are described as “natural disasters.” What makes something a natural disaster? The term implies a destructive situation that is not human-caused but rather emerges from “the environment.” As the case of wildfires shows, the situation is often more complex than this, because what appear to be “natural” processes are often affected by humans… and because we are, of course, part of the environment, despite the tendency to think of human societies and “nature” as separate entities.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.

And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.

But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:

 

Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.

Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?

I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

Beautiful:2 (1)

Disgusting:10

Dirt:15

Soil:16

In the classic book, Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas points to the social construction of dirt. She writes:

There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.

If dirt and dirtiness is socially constructed, what do things we identify as dirt, filth, rubbish, and refuse have in common?

Douglas suggests that dirt is really a matter of disorganization. Literally, that a thing becomes dirt or garbage when it is out-of-place. “Dirt,” she writes, “offends against order.”

Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.

I chose the images above to try and illustrate this idea. Hair in the drain, like dirt on our hands, is out-of-place. It doesn’t belong there. In both cases, our reaction is disgust. Hair on the head, in contrast, is beautiful and becoming, while dirt outside is life-giving soil and part of the beauty of nature.

Images royalty free from Getty. Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Every year the National Priorities Project helps Americans understand how the money they paid in federal taxes was spent. Here’s the data for 2014:

2

Since the 1940s, individual Americans have paid 40-50% of the federal government’s bills through taxes on income and investment. Another chunk (about 1/3rd today) is paid in the form of payroll taxes for things like social security and medicare. This year, corporate taxes made up only about 11% of the federal government’s revenue; this is way down from a historic high of almost 40% in 1943.

3

Visit the National Priorities Project here and find out where state tax dollars went, how each state benefits from federal tax dollars, and who gets the biggest tax breaks. Or fiddle around with how you would organize American priorities.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

President Obama continues to press for a form of fast track approval to ensure Congressional support for two major trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership Agreement (with 11 other countries) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (with the entire European Union).

Both agreements, based on leaks of current negotiating positions, have been structured to promote business interests and will have negative consequences for working people relative to their wages and working conditions, access to public services, and the environment.

These agreements are being negotiated in secret: even members of Congress are locked out of the negotiating process.  The only people that know what is happening and are in a position to shape the end result are the U.S. trade representative and a select group of 566 advisory group members selected by the U.S. trade representative.

Thanks to a recent Washington Post post we can see who these advisory group members are and, by extension, whose interests are served by the negotiations.  According to the blog post, 480 or 85% of the members are from either industry or trade association groups.  The remaining 15% are academics or members of unions, civil society organizations, or government committees.  The blog post includes actual names and affiliations.

Here we can see the general picture of corporate domination of U.S. trade policy as illustrated by the Washington Post.
3
9 10

In short, corporate interests are well placed to directly shape our trade policies.  No wonder drafts of these treaties include chapters that, among other things, lengthen patent protection for drugs, promote capital mobility and privatization of public enterprises, and allow corporations to sue governments in supra-national secret tribunals if public policies reduce expected profits.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front and Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Flashback Friday.

In an NPR segment, Professor Daniel Pauly discussed overfishing of the world’s oceans. In particular, populations of popular fish such as cod and bluefin tuna have dropped significantly (the increased global desire for sushi having a major impact on tuna).

So what’s a fishing industry to do as it becomes harder to find fish? Of course, they can go farther out into the ocean, or fish deeper into it, looking for populations of popular fish that haven’t been overharvested yet, and they did that. The other option? Switch to species of fish that haven’t been heavily fished yet, usually because they weren’t popular.

As a result, Pauly points out that in the past decade we’ve seen a number of formerly unpopular fish rebranded in an effort to make them seem more palatable.

So, for instance, the “slimehead”…

Orange_roughy_TW_400px

…becomes the “orange roughy.”

And the “Patagonian toothfish”…

08bass600

…is now the “Chilean sea bass” (which was subsequently depleted).

It’s a great example of rebranding; what’s especially interesting to me is that the reason for it is the collapse of so many popular fish populations. The fishing industry has to convince people to eat fish that were previously unappealing because it has largely destroyed the basis of its own existence.

Originally posted in 2009. For a different example of rebranding fish, see our post on PETA’s Sea Kitten campaign.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Urban planning is a partisan issue. The graph below, produced by the Pew Research Center, shows that the American public are evenly split between small, walkable communities (48%) and sprawling suburbs with McMansions (49%), but that split is strongly partisan.

77% of consistent liberals want to live in neighborhoods where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” In contrast, 75% of consistent conservatives prefer it when “houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.”

12

Relatedly, Americans are about evenly split between those who prefer to live in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, but there is a clear partisan divide.

11

And everyone seems to agree that they want to be near family, good schools, and the outdoors, but liberals are significantly more likely to care if they’re near art museums and theaters.

13

I’m familiar with the idea of the urban liberal and the rural conservative, but I’m still surprised by the strength of these correlations. If the preferences hold true in real life, it means that there is significant partisan residential segregation. That would translate into fewer friendships between people on different sides of the political spectrum, fewer conversations that help them see the others’ point of view, and more cross-group animosity.

In fact, that’s exactly what we see: a strongly partisan population that doesn’t talk to each other very much.

H/t Conrad Hackett. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

1786347

An article at Scientific American draws attention to the environmental cost of the commodification of flowers as a symbol of love.  Carolyn Wheelan writes:

[Roses] are… fragile and almost always flown to the U.S. from warmer climes in South America, where roughly 80 percent of our roses take root; to warm the hearts of European sweethearts, they are most often imported from Africa. They are then hauled in temperature-controlled trucks across the U.S. or the Continent and locked up overnight in cold boxes before their onward journey to the florists of the world… sending the roughly 100 million roses of a typical Valentine’s Day produces some 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from field to U.S. florist.

When flowers aren’t shipped in to cooler climates, they must be grown in greenhouses, like the Yuzhny Greenhouse Farm in Russia pictured above.  Some flower farms take the form of vast arrays of greenhouses that use energy to maintain a microclimate out of synch with the climate in which they are situated.

The SciAm article does a good job of pointing out that not all flower farms are equal and there are lots of more and less environmentally- and socially-conscious choices.Fair trade, worker-conscious, organic, and otherwise environmentally-friendly flower companies claim to offer an alternative.  Florverde, for example, advertises its flowers as “for the earth, for the workers, for you”:

Originally posted in 2009. h/t Jezebel.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.