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Our Nation is Sinking: The Maldives and Global Warming

by Benjamin Sacks

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

The Maldives is sinking. Like several other South Asian and Oceanic archipelagos, the Maldives’s topography suffers from a lethal combination of high surface erosion and rising sea levels. The former stems from the islands’ soft soils, but most scientists agree that the latter is a direct consequence of global warming. Although rising sea levels may not pose much of a concern to residents of Salisbury or Kinross, it has become an extraordinarily important issue for a country where the highest point above sea level is a paltry 2.4 metres. Heightening tensions, the archipelago is remarkably dense and urbanised. In Malé, the country’s political, social, and cultural capital, Over 100,000 people reside on an island with an area less than 6 square kilometres (2.24 miles).

The Maldives’ susceptibility to erosion and land loss has been acknowledged for at least a century. In a 1901 Royal Geographical Society expedition, J Stanley Gardiner noted how the islands of Minikoi Atoll were sharply controlled by currents (pp. 287-88). But Gardiner evidently recognised the beauty in the erosion process. ‘Together with the washing away of the land’, he recalled in The Geographical Journal, ‘fresh conditions tend to be found on its reefs’ (p. 293). But what Gardiner perceived as interesting, if not dangerous phenomena proved increasingly problematic in the years following the Maldives’ independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. In the early 1990s, British geographers and climate specialists repeatedly warned that such archipelagos as the Maldives were at increasing risk of flooding or disappearing altogether. Even a ‘slightly higher rise in sea level increase the areas of potential inundation, threaten[ing] the existence of certain island states (e.g. the Maldives) (Jones p. 127)’. Rising sea levels and increased erosion prompted Erlet Cater to accuse, in 1995 article in The Geographical Journal, the Maldives’ government of willful negligence and destruction for the sake of tourism. Cater identified a increasingly negative cycle:

  1. Rising sea levels and increasingly fast erosion led to fewer tourists, and hence much-needed income.
  2. To increase tourism levels, Malé increased mining of coral reefs around the islands, selling the dried corals as souvenirs and permitting tourists to travel in and around the fragile reefs.
  3. Coral levels plummeted, not only creating an oceanic environmental crisis, but destroying islands’ natural barrier against erosion. Erosion increased, to the shock and amazement of officials.
  4. The Maldives tried to both stem rising water levels and continue fostering tourism through coral sales. They failed in both instances.

As if deliberately echoing Cater’s call to action, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami most violently demonstrated the existential threat the Maldives faced. Although the country suffered remarkably few casualties relative to its neighbours, much of the islands were completely flooded, quickly leading to a national disaster. Malé – and most government administration and private business – came to a chaotic standstill for weeks while locals tried to apprise the situation on dozens of widely scattered and isolated islands.

In the most recent edition of The Geographical Journal (June 2014), Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) returned to the Maldives question, albeit with a new – and fascinating – perspective. In order to combat rising sea levels, recent successive Maldivian governments have sought to resettle thousands of residents from some of the more remote, impassable islands to larger, more populated, and accessible atolls. In total, the government intends to reorganise the country’s total population – currently thought to reside on some 200 islands and oversize reefs – onto about ten larger islands.

On the surface this appears logical, (relatively) efficient for a small state with a small population, and even honourable, given the Maldives’ enormous environmental obstacles. As Kothari explains, however, Malé is also influenced by longstanding political and economic priorities; environmental concerns, to an extent at least, have become a convenient mask. Although the government’s commitment to drastic environmental reforms is undeniable (In 2009 then-President Mohamed Nasheed pronounced that the Maldives intends to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2020), ‘environmental concerns have also been used to justify and legitimise other agendas’ (p. 135). Since the early years of independence, both the government and private sector elites have pushed for population consolidation as a means of reorganising national spending, raising the profile of tourism, and effecting greater political and social control (pp. 136-37). Although some Maldivians have vocally resisted the government’s declarations, the very real threat posed by climate change seems to have swung the balance far in Malé’s favour.

How does the Maldives’ approach and handling of rising sea levels and increasing land erosion compare to other, similarly at-risk states? Kiribati? Micronesia? Nauru? Has climate change become a front for consolidating other agendas?

 J Stanley Gardiner, ‘The Formation of the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 19.3 (Mar., 1902): 277-96.

 Erlet Cater, ‘Environmental Contradictions in Sustainable Tourism‘, The Geographical Journal 161.1 (Mar., 1995): 21-28.

 David K C Jones, ‘Global Warming and Geomorphology‘, The Geographical Journal 159.2 (Jul., 1993): 124-30.

 Richard Warrick and Graham Farmer, ‘The Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change and Rising Sea Level: Implications for Development‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 15.1 (1990): 5-20.

 Uma Kothari, ‘Political discourses of climate change and migration: resettlement policies in the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 180.2 (Jun., 2014): 130-40.

Spatial and Local Factors in Understanding Financial Crises

By Benjamin Sacks

Picturesque Pforzheim, Germany belies local and regional financial woes. (c) 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Picturesque Pforzheim, Germany belies local and regional financial woes. (Image credit: Parlacre (CC 0)

Geography, economics, and finance are intimately linked disciplines, a relationship that is sometimes misunderstood or ignored entirely by contemporary media. Port access, weather, spatial and network relations between various tiers of government, private sector businesses, and third-party (e.g. academic) institutions, even the positioning of financial headquarters – as recent threats from Standard Life and Lloyds to relocate from Edinburgh to London in the event of Scottish independence demonstrate – can all drastically affect financial markets, long-term monetary stability, and the ability of particular precincts or sectors to recover from such recessions as the 2008-2010 global financial crisis.

In the most recent suite of articles in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Reijer P Hendrikse (University of Amsterdam) and James D Sidaway (National University of Singapore) undertook a focused study of Pforzheim, a German city of some 120,000 people in Baden-Württemberg, near the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. In ‘Financial wizardry and the Golden City’, Hendrikse and Sidaway critiqued the media’s focus on national-level bailouts, arguing that provincial- and city-level bailouts and financial negotiations were just as, if not more important to comprehending both the scale of the 2008-2010 crisis as well as possible solutions. Further, they recalled and adopted David Harvey’s 2011 argument criticising French and German media pundits and financial analysts alike who saw ‘the crisis in cultural or even nationalist terms'; as somehow a ‘distinctive Anglo-Saxon disease’ based in London and New York City.

The authors chose to examine Germany, in part, because of that country’s apparent economic stability in the face of difficult industrial and economic issues in neighbouring Eurozone states. Berlin famously directed the bailout of several EU member states: Greece, Portugal, and Spain. But a closer examination revealed a significantly more complex and debt-ridden landscape. Various German cities were ‘like Greek islands within Germany’, Die Tageszeitung reported, ‘having slowly but surely drowned in their debts over recent years’ (p. 195). Pforzheim, following a trend blazoned by other cities in the Rhine heartland, bought a large series of Deutsche Bank interest-rate swaps. This speculative maneuvre, popular in the world of hedge funds and day-trading currency exchanges, permits institutions (e.g. a city) to obtain a more cost-efficient fixed-rate interest arrangement enjoyed by another corporation. Ideally, both parties benefit from reduced interest-rate-associated costs. However, the risks are highly variable, and dependent on the financial stability of both parties. As A R Sorkin described, and Hendrikse and Sidaway reiterated, German cities were ‘gambling that [their] costs would be would be lower and taking on the risk that they could be many times higher’ (p. 196).

Theoretically, Pforzheim should have been a model city. After enduring a horrific bombing campaign near the end of the Second World War, Pforzheim’s economic base recovered, thanks to longstanding jewelry and watchmaking industries in the city. But Pforzheim’s geographical location limited its growth. The city shares Baden-Württemberg with Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and Mannheim, each major cities with significant economic and political clout. These cities traditionally attracted major corporations away from such smaller, more specialised urban centres as Pforzheim. Although the financial stresses of the late-2000s put pressure on all German cities, smaller, less economically vibrant communities suffered significantly worse. A Pforzheim administrator summarised the city’s awkward geostrategic situation: ‘We are a jewelry- and watchmaking city that has brought a relatively mono-structured economy’, more sensitive to economic shifts than larger, more diverse cities as Frankfurt-am-Main and Cologne (pp. 198-99). In a dangerous game of financial roulette, Pforzheim and other small German cities engaged in increasingly complicated and risky collaborations with German and EU financial institutions – unaware of these banks’ own instabilities. Pforzheim’s recession, the authors concluded, was demonstrative of how integrated German and continental European financial markets are to Anglo-Saxon banking paradigms, even as they continue to assert a supposedly distinct, fiscally conservative methodology and culture.

60-world2Robert Peston, ‘EU Law may force RBS and Lloyds to become English‘, BBC News, 5 March 2014.

60-world2Robert Peston, ‘Is Standard Life alone?‘, BBC News, 27 February 2014.

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Reijer P Hendrikse and James D Sidaway, ‘Financial wizardry and the Golden City: tracking the financial crisis through Pforzheim, Germany‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (2014): 195-208.

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David Harvey, ‘Roepke lecture in economic geography – crises, geographical disruptions and the uneven development of political responses’, Economic Geography 87 (2011): 1-22.

books_iconA R Sorkin, ‘Towns in Europe learn about swaps the hard way’, The New York Times 16 April 2010.

The Future of European Aviation?

by Benjamin Sacks

Proposed European FABs.

Proposed European FABs.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökul volcano on 20 March 2010 demonstrated the weaknesses in Europe’s diverse air traffic control network. As a massive ash cloud up to 8 kilometres high gradually extended across western Europe, forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights and stranding millions of passengers across the entire continent. Although European air controllers correctly prioritised passenger safety above all other factors, the scenario left many airline industry commentators and journalists frustrated with the European Union’s apparent inability to swiftly and effectively act on changing meteorological and airline information. With few exceptions, the maintenance of separate airspace quadrants by each EU member, each with different processes, response mechanisms, as well as external pressures from airlines and politicians, all contributed to delayed and even contradictory responses in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Oslo.

In Eyjafjallajökull’s wake, the International Aviation Transportation Authority (IATA), in cooperation with the EU, proposed the establishment a single European air zone, divided into nine ‘functional airspace blocks’. Citing the current system’s woefully inefficiency – e.g., ‘With fewer air traffic controllers the United States FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] is able to deliver 70% more controlled flight hours than Europe]’ – the IATA / EU consortium called for a reorganisation, or ‘rationalisation’ of air traffic control hierarchies, technological modernisation, and substantially better (and more transparent) communication between national aviation authorities. Optimistically entitled ‘Single European Sky’ (SES), officials set a date of 4 December 2012 for its implementation.

But, as Dr Christopher Lawless (Durham University) reminds us in his March 2014 Geographical Journal commentary, 4 December 2012 came and went with little change. Only two of the nine blocks – Denmark-Sweden and UK-Ireland – had reached operational status. National-level aviation oversight bodies – intended to be the vanguard of transnational cooperation – had made little progress in communicating or facilitating with their neighbouring counterparts. Bickering, unsurprisingly, had early on replaced collaboration. At the EU Aviation Summit in Limassol, Cyprus, Siim Kallas, European Commission joint Vice President and Transport Commissioner, attacked EU states for ‘their “undue protection of national interests'” (Lawless p. 76).

Of the seven non-operational airspace blocks, two (Iberian Peninsula and Central Mediterranean) had not even progressed beyond the ‘definition stage’ (p. 77). Fearing the loss of their jobs and the complete overhaul of learned ATC procedures, French and German air traffic controllers repeatedly threatened strikes.

Lawless examined SES’s problematic history through Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim’s 2009 paradigm of ‘sociotechnical imaginary’. The European SES programme sought to mix technological requirements with larger political aspirations, inevitably leading to discord between various member states. Airlines, already struggling to break even financially, balked at restructuring costs (p.80). Spatially, air spaces were eventually designed along largely existing geographical and geopolitical lines, as the UK-Ireland, Denmark-Sweden, and Italy-Mediterranean sectors clearly demonstrate (p. 78). In reality, these geopolitically-influenced air spaces make little sense with the traffic patterns of most passenger flights:

[T]he highest density region of European air traffic…spans a corridor encompassing the airspace of the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Under the current arrangement, this straddles four separate FABs…(p. 78).

Lawless concludes by calling for a comprehensive inquiry into sovereign states’ concerns, risk assessments, and considerations, and re-drawing the air space landscape in a more logical (and less state-specific) manner. Ultimately, he stressed that even such ‘apolitical’ projects as SES are unfortunately ridden with politics, negotiation, and self-interests.

The SES debate will continue to fascinate observers for some time. Agonising, protracted discussions over the future of London’s airspace – the world’s busiest – between Conservative officials, led by Boris Johnson, and Labour opponents seem unlikely to end amicably, or soon. This regional crisis, combined with Britain’s current national debate over its long-term role within the EU, will only further complicate the SES’s possible re-development and implementation.    

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Gertisser R, Eyjafjallajökull volcano causes widepread disruption to European air trafficGeology Today 26.3 (May-Jun.: 2010), 94-95.

books_icon IATA / EU, A Blueprint for the Single European Sky: Delivering on safety, environment, capacity and cost-effectiveness, 2011.

books_icon Lawless C, Commentary: Bounding the vision of a Single European SkyThe Geographical Journal, 180.1 (Mar., 2014): 76-82.

60-world2 Sacks B, Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh ReminderGeography Directions, 18 February 2011.

60-world2 Q&A: EU response to Iceland volcano ashBBC News, 25 May 2011.

60-world2 Iceland volcano ash: German air traffic resumingBBC News, 25 May 2011.

60-world2 Hofmann K, French, German ATCs postpone strikes over Single European SkyAir Transport World, 24 January 2014.

 

The Local vs Global in Caribbean Sugar

by Benjamin Sacks

Cut sugarcane waiting for transport and processing. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

Cut sugarcane waiting for transport and processing. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

The Caribbean, with over five hundred years of continual direct Old and New World involvement, remains a unique world region. At present, the Greater and Lesser Antilles comprise a motley collection of European and North American overseas possessions (including four French département d’outre-mer, two American unincorporated territories, and one French, six British, and six Dutch overseas territories), independent democracies, and one of the world’s last remaining Communist states. It is home to some of the world’s poorest nations by GDP per capita (Haiti) and some of its wealthiest (Cayman Islands). Few independent countries, however, enjoy full autonomy; most remain subject to strong European and American influence. Consequently, the Caribbean has often been subject to European Union economic, political, and social policies. Sugar has been at the centre of Europe-Caribbean relations since the late sixteenth century, and continues to play a dynamic role.

Most pre-existing scholarly studies of the lucrative EU-Caribbean sugar relationship have focused on high level negotiations, or generalised trends between islands and regions. Peter Jackson (University of Sheffield), Neil Ward (University of East Anglia), and Polly Russell’s (The British Library) 2009 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers article sought to bridge the gap between thematic and local conceptions: they carefully examined moral questions and concerns in the international sugar industry, albeit from a Euro-centric perspective, interviewing British farmers and market trade representatives.

But what of the sugar growers themselves? The labourers who harvest sugarcane, process it, and prepare it in an uphill battle to somehow satiate the world’s ever-growing demands? In the most recent issue of Area, Pamela Richardson-Ngwenya (University of KwaZulu-Natal) sought to examine the local impact of EU-Caribbean sugar policy reforms, particularly in recent light of what she described as ‘the on-going entrenchment of neoliberal principles in the EU’s trade regime’. Richardson-Ngwenya followed Clarence Thompson, a Barbados sugar farmer, through his daily routines and his negotiations with other farmers and local agencies concerning prices, wages, and regulation. Thompson and his colleagues remain steadfast supporters of the Caribbean sugar industry, a trade that, according to the World Bank, the West Indies should wind down and ‘move on’ from in favour of considerably larger Brazilian production efforts. Thompson, in recorded video interviews, articulated the centrality of sugarcane beyond its immediate EU-centric impact: ‘Let me tell you something: if we ever stop planting sugar cane in Barbados, the whole island is finished. Because sugar cane is the only crop that keep the island into cultivation. It’s the best crop we have’. The lives and experiences of such farmers as Thompson remind us that industries are often more than the ‘bottom line’ – they represent ways of life, and can resound with deep historical and cultural meanings.

60-world2 2013, Country Comparison: GDP – Per Capita (PPP)The CIA World Factbook 2013, accessed 18 June 2013.

60-world2 2013, The EU’s relations with the CaribbeanEuropean Union External Action, 25 January 2013, accessed 18 June 2013.

books_icon Jackson, P, N Ward, and P Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibilityTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series, 34, 12-24.

books_icon Richardson-Ngwenya, P, 2013, Situated knowledge and the EU sugar reform: a Caribbean life historyArea45, 188-97.

On the history of sugar, see Sidney W Mintz’s extensive scholarship:

books_icon 1960, Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History, New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

books_icon 1985, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York: Viking.

Content Alert: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 37, Issue 4 (October 2012) is Available Online Now

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Volume 37, Issue 4 Pages 477– 657, October 2012

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Content Alert: Geography Compass, Volume 6, Issue 8 (August 2012) is Available Online Now

Geography CompassVolume 6, Issue 8 Pages 455-511, August 2012

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Content Alert: Geography Compass, Volume 6, Issue 7 (July 2012) is Available Online Now

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Commentary

Static imaginations and the possibilities of radical change: reflecting on the Arab Spring
Federico Caprotti and Eleanor Xin Gao
Article first published online: 19 JUN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01110.x

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Wootton Bassett and the political spaces of remembrance and mourning
K Neil Jenkings, Nick Megoran, Rachel Woodward and Daniel Bos
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Content Alert: Geography Compass, Volume 6, Issue 6 (June 2012) is Available Online Now

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