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.

I wake up at 4:55 AM each and every morning. Why? Well, in part, because I can, because I have the freedom to choose at what time I’m going to start my day. This is not true of every day mind you, as many things can change an individual’s schedule or routine. That said, I get up that early, again in part, because when my door most often unlocks, at about 5:15 AM, I don’t want to be in the cell any more where I’ve been for the last number of hours.

I most often choose to eat plain oatmeal with peanut butter, (unless it’s Sunday when the chow hall typically serves eggs, potatoes and toast) because in part I don’t want to experience anymore of the chow hall that I reasonably have to, and because I can afford to eat oatmeal (at $1.00 per pound) and peanut butter (at $2.15 per 16 oz. container) for breakfast.

Work starts at 6:00 AM and I count myself as extremely fortunate to have what we call an industries job. This is an 8-hour a day, 5-days a week, job, in the penitentiary’s industrial laundry. We process linen from the surrounding hospitals, colleges, institutions, etc. Between 1 million and 1 and a half million pounds per month of linen gets processed through our facility. I work in the maintenance department, which is responsible for keeping the equipment running smoothly, maintaining operation of the machinery, scheduling down time for repairs, etc. This job also pays exceedingly well (comparably speaking) as instead of the average monthly income of around $45.00 I earn roughly $150.00 monthly. This has allowed me to maintain regular contact with family through phone calls at 0.16 per minute ($4.80 for a 30-minute phone call) purchase some items to make life more livable through supplementing the food provided from the chow hall with items from canteen / commissary, as well as pay off my restitution and court fees over the last 17-years of roughly $15,000.00 so that should I one day regain an opportunity to live in the community, I’ll be able to start that life without monetary debt.

Typically, around noon I’ll have lunch, which most often gets eaten in that place I’d rather not frequent, the chow hall. Our menu rotates every 3-months (by seasons) with few exceptions, and while that isn’t horrible for a couple of years, when you start passing decades by, it gets redundant and the desire to consume food outside of what gets offered day in and day out grows. I’ve come to think of what I eat as simply fuel.

Between 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock I’m off work and might try to get outside for some sunshine if I’m lucky enough, maybe some exercise, jog around the track or just walk some laps with someone who I need to catch up with for however long. Otherwise it’s reading, studying for work, educational purposes, etc.

Dinner is around 5 PM, that same chow hall that I’d most often rather not go to, however I don’t want to suggest that the food is so bad that we can’t eat it because that’s not the case, many here are well overweight, it’s simply the choices those individuals choose to make in how and what they consume, what level of activity they participate in, whether due to their abilities or basic drive, and what medical conditions may exist in their lives.

During the evening hours I try to write letters, read, call family and friends, maybe attend a function or fundraiser if I’m fortunate enough be involved in something of that nature, educational opportunities, youth outreach programs, etc. For many however, it’s nothing more than watching TV or staring at a blank wall. Again, I’m fortunate, both in my personal agency and my outlook on life.

When I’m asked about “what prison is like” I offer that it is an extremely lonely place, where every moment of every day is dictated for you, and where there’s tremendous opportunities for self-reflection. In the movies, on TV, and through media coverage, you see individuals that get swept up into the justice system and there’s this emphasis on the crime, the trial, entry into prison…then there’s a few scenes of portrayed prison, walking the yard with the tough guys, pumping iron, watching your back in the shower room, etc. and lastly this great experience of being released from prison, back to spending time with family and friends, BBQ’s in the summer-time, and so on and so forth. All very “event orientated” without the day-to-day experiences put on display. In part that’s because you can’t show the day-to-day loneliness, the feelings of exclusion, the feelings of shame and cowardice that accompany an individual’s incarceration. The realization that we’ve not only victimized our actual victims through whatever offense(s) we’ve committed, but we’ve additionally victimized our own families, the community, society as a whole, our friends and loved ones, everyone in fact that we come in contact with. The courts, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, juries, corrections officers, police, detective… and the list goes on and on!

So what do I hope to get across here? For starters, we as prisoners are human beings, individuals who have failed society for whatever reasons and though no excuse relieves us from our poor life decisions, without hope and help to be better people, without redemption, society is all but lost in its entirety through our bad behaviors. In a discussion group with college students not long ago, after describing some of the opportunities available here in the penitentiary in which I reside, one student asked me if we as prisoners deserved such opportunities. I paused before answering that society deserves us to have such opportunities, because if we do not come out of prison with more skills and a more productive mindset then we came in with, we are destined to once again fail society.

This is a day in the life of a prisoner… one who considers himself extremely fortunate in countless ways and for just as many reasons.

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Cross-posted at Public Criminology and Rise Up. The thumbnail is a photo of another prisoner and is posted on the tumblr site: We Are the 1 in 100.

Trevor is the current President of the Lifers Unlimited Club and a leader of RISE UP! (Reaching Inside to See Everyone’s Unlimited Potential), a youth empowerment program at the Oregon State Penitentiary. To see more writing/advice from the men in RISE UP!, please check out the program’s blog at www.riseuposp.com and feel free to comment there.  They would love to hear from you.

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:

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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.

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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.

In the working and middle class neighborhoods of many Southern cities, you fill find rows of “shotgun” houses. These houses are long and narrow, consisting of three or more rooms in a row. Originally, there would have been no indoor plumbing — they date back to the early 1800s in the U.S. — and, so, no bathroom or kitchen.

Here’s a photograph of a shotgun house I took in the 7th ward of New Orleans. It gives you an idea of just how skinny they are.

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In a traditional shotgun house, there are no hallways, just doors that take a person from one room to the next. Here’s my rendition of a shotgun floor plan; doors are usually all in a row:

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At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes the possible origins and sociological significance of this housing form. He follows folklorist John Michael Vlach, who has argued that shotgun houses are indigenous to Western and Central Africa, arriving in the American South via Haiti. Campella writes:

Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, shotgun houses are found in the parts of town originally settled by free people of color, people who would have identified as Creole, and a variety of immigrants. Outside of New Orleans, we tend to see shotgun houses in places with large black populations.

The house, though, doesn’t just represent a building technique, it tells a story about how families were expected to interact. Shotgun houses offer essentially zero privacy. Everyone has to tromp through everyone’s room to get around the house. There’s no expectation that a child won’t just walk into their parents’ room at literally any time, or vice versa. There’s no way around it.

“According to some theories,” then, Campanella says:

…cultures that produced shotgun houses… tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.

Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off.

Sure enough, in the part of New Orleans settled by people of Anglo-Saxon descent, shotgun houses are much less common and, instead, homes are more “privacy-conscious.”

Over time, as even New Orleans became more and more culturally Anglo-Saxon — and as the housing form increasingly became associated with poverty — shotguns fell out of favor.  They’re enjoying a renaissance today but, as Campanella notes, many renovations of these historic buildings include a fancy, new hallway.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

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.

I encourage everyone to go read this very smart and very sad essay from Alex Andreuo at The Guardian. It’s a condemnation of defensive architecture, a euphemism for strategies that make the urban landscape inhospitable to the homeless.

They include benches with dividers that make it impossible to lie down, spikes and protrusions on window ledges and in front of store windows, forests of pointed cement structures under bridges and freeways, emissions of high pitched sounds, and sprinklers that intermittently go off on sidewalks to prevent camping overnight. There is also perpetually sticky anti-climb paint and corner urination guards, plus “viewing gardens” that take up space that might be attractive to homeless people:

Here are some examples from a collection at Dismal Garden:41b 1c 2311

Here’s a picture of anti-encampment spikes featured at The Guardian:

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Andreuo writes of the psychological effect of these structures. They tell homeless people quite clearly that they are not wanted and that others not only don’t care, but are actively antagonistic to their comfort and well being. He says:

Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations…

If the corporations have turned to aggressive tactics, governments seem to simply be in denial. They offer few resources to homeless people and the ones they do offer are insufficient to serve everyone. Andreuo continues:

We curse the destitute for urinating in public spaces with no thought about how far the nearest free public toilet might be. We blame them for their poor hygiene without questioning the lack of public facilities for washing… Free shelters, unless one belongs to a particularly vulnerable group, are actually extremely rare.

He then connects the dots. “Fundamental misunderstanding of destitution,” he argues, “is designed to exonerate the rest from responsibility and insulate them from perceiving risk.” If homeless people are just failing to do right by themselves or take the help available to them, then only they are to blame for their situation. And, if only they are to blame, we don’t have to worry that, given just the right turn of events, it could happen to us.

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.

Last month’s edition of Contexts had a fascinating article by Amin Ghaziani titled Lesbian Geographies. Most of us are familiar with the idea of a “gayborhood,” a neighborhood enclave that attracts gay men. It turns out that lesbians have enclaves, too, but they’re not always the same ones.

Here’s the frequency of same-sex female couples (top) and same-sex male couples (bottom) in U.S. counties. Census data tracks same-sex couples but not individuals, so the conclusions here are based on couples.

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What are the differences between where same-sex female and same-sex male couples live?

First, Same-sex female couples are more likely than their male counterparts to live in rural areas. Ghaziani thinks that “cultural cues regarding masculinity and femininity play a part.” As one interviewee told sociologist Emily Kazyak:

If you’re a flaming gay queen, they’re like, “Oh, you’re a freak, I’m scared of you.” But if you’re a really butch woman and you’re working at a factory, I think [living in the midwest is] a little easier.

If being “butch” is normative for people living in rural environments, lesbians who perform masculinity might fit in better than gay men who don’t.

Second, non-heterosexual women are about three times as likely as non-heterosexual men to be raising a child under 18. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, parents are more likely to be looking for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and non-postage stamp-sized apartments.

Finally, there’s evidence that gay men price lesbians out. Gay men are notorious for gentrifying neighborhoods, but data shows that lesbians usually get there first. When non-heterosexual men arrive, they accelerate the gentrification, often making it less possible for non-heterosexual women to afford to stay. Thanks to the gender pay gap, times two, women living with women don’t generally make as much money as men living with men.

Or, they might leave because they don’t want to be around so many men. Ghaziani writes:

Gay men are still men, after all, and they are not exempt from the sexism that saturates our society. In reflecting on her experiences in the gay village of Manchester, England, one lesbian described gay men as “quite intimidating. They’re not very welcoming towards women.”

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.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (here and here) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.

Consider the ways that the immediate environment shapes a child’s development. It does so physically. Air and soil pollution, noise, and traffic, for example, measurably affect children’s health, stress, and cognitive development. Local institutions and resources, such as the policing, quality of the schools, availability of health services, food options, parks, and so on matter, as well. And the social environment may matter most of all. Growing up in a community with gangs, dangerous streets, discouraging role models, confused social expectations, and few connections to outsiders commanding resources is a burden for any child. Just getting by day-to-day can be a struggle. (In a pair of studies, Sharkey found that a violent crime occurring near black children’s homes in the days before they took a standardized test reduced their scores on the test, presumably because of anxiety and distraction.)

In their research on historical effects, Sharkey and co-author Felix Elwert used a survey that has followed thousands of American families since 1968 (the PSID). The researchers know much about the adults in the survey, including where they lived when they were around 16, about the children they had and where those children lived around the age of six. The researchers also have the results from cognitive tests administered to those children in 2002.

Sharkey and Elwert found that living in a neighborhood where 20 percent or more of the residents are poor — many other things being held constant (including the parents’ education, health, and attitudes) — seems to lower the test scores of children. And so does having a parent who grew up in such a neighborhood. The effect on children of living in a poor neighborhood and having parents who had also are substantially greater than the effect of only the second generation living in a poor neighborhood. Moreover, the children of two generations of poor neighborhoods do much worse than those of two generations who managed to stay out of poor neighborhoods (over half a standard deviation worse). For technical reasons, these statistical results probably underestimate the real effect of neighborhood poverty on scores.

What appears to have happened is this: Survey respondents in the first generation who grew up in poor neighborhoods ran higher risks than other respondents, on average getting less education and worse jobs, if any, and bearing more physical, social, and psychological problems. Not surprisingly, they tended to end up in poor neighborhoods as adults. When this first generation became parents, they commonly passed on some of their personal disadvantages, such as weak reading skills, to their own children. And they also passed on their places, raising the second generation in poor neighborhoods, which further hampered their children. In this way, Sharkey and Elwert argue, neighborhood problems dragged down (at least) two generations.

No discussion of neighborhood effects can ignore the racial dimension, because the residential segregation of blacks has been and, though reduced, continues to be extreme: 41 percent of the African-American parent-child pairs in the study grew up in poor neighborhoods in both generations; only 2 percent of white families did. Poor whites were less likely to live in concentrated areas of poverty and are more likely to get out of them if they did. The weight of the past is much heavier for some than others.

Claude Fischer is a sociologist at UC Berkeley, is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. This post originally appeared at Made in America and was re-posted on the Boston Review BR Blog.