Author Archives: I-Hsien Porter

About I-Hsien Porter

Research postgraduate in the Department of Geography, Durham University

Place and politics

I-Hsien Porter

Against a backdrop of continuing ‘Occupy’ protests in major cities in the Global North (see Sarah Mills’ earlier article, below), the Guardian recently reported one multinational company’s concerns for the future.

Starbucks is one of a number of global companies pushing for action on climate change. The effects of climate change are already being felt by coffee growers and have the potential to disrupt global supply chains.

It is easy to question whether Starbucks’ motives for encouraging action on climate change are altruistic. However, many companies now promote Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), an idea of ‘doing good’ either to offset their negative impact on local environments and societies or simply because they are in a position to do so.

In a recent paper in Geography Compass, Trinia Hamiliton explores how CSR practices affect topics typically studied by geographers. These include local development, access to political processes and the interplay between different scales of economic and social processes.

While CSR has the potential to influence business decision making, there are many conflicting processes at work. Geographers are well placed to offer a deeper understanding of some of the issues.

The Guardian (19 Oct 2011) Starbucks concerned world coffee supply is threatened by climate change.

  Hamilton, T. (2011) Putting corporate responsibility in its place. Geography Compass 5 (10): 710-722

A physical hazard and human problem

Hurricane Irene viewed from space, August 2011

I-Hsien Porter

This year’s hurricane season is drawing to a close, with the east coast of the USA receiving its fair share of damage. Hurricane Irene, in late August, caused the deaths of 40 people and led President Barack Obama to approve a $1.5bn relief fund. The following week, Tropical Storm Lee caused one death and left 16,000 people without power.

In a recent paper in Geography Compass, Jason Senkbeil and others argue that the USA’s hurricane problem is caused by a complex, interconnected series of physical and human processes.

Much of the damage that resulted from Hurricane Irene was not caused by the high winds on their own. Storm surges, tornadoes, heavy rain and flooding are all associated with hurricanes and tropical storms. The physical processes that cause harm to human lives, buildings and infrastructure are a complex mix. They include the main, or primary, event (in this case, the hurricane) and the resulting secondary hazards (such as heavy rain causing flooding, then leading to a landslide, for example).

We wouldn’t be particularly concerned about all this, however, if there weren’t also people living in the path of the hurricane. There may be many complex processes that draw people to live in particular places. Different people are affected in different ways and also have different capacities to respond to a hazard. For example, ordering residents to evacuate from an area is not particularly productive if those people have no mode of transport with which they can do so. In a post on this blog last month, Kelly Wakefield discussed how we understand natural hazards and some of the societal implications of this.

Senkbeil et al. argue that all these factors must be understood for our response to natural hazards to be effective. That, say the authors, is something that an interdisciplinary subject such as geography, is well placed to deliver.

The Guardian (6 September 2011) Hurricane Irene relief fund estimated at $1.5bn

Senkbeil, J. C., Brommer, D. M. and Comstock, I. J. (2011) Tropical Cyclone Hazards in the USA. Geography Compass 5 (8): 544-563

Giving carbon a social life

I-Hsien Porter

Last week, the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne announced “green measures” to encourage energy companies to invest in renewable energy.

By imposing a surcharge on non-renewable energy sources, the plans aim to make renewable energy a more financially attractive investment.

However, renewable energy sources (particularly wind farms and nuclear power) are not without their critics. There was also a warning that household electricity bills could rise by 30% as the surcharge on non-renewable energy is passed onto consumers.

So carbon emissions are not just a physical process driving climate change. Carbon is now a market commodity. Geographers are well placed to study its economic, social and political implications.

Michael Goodman and Emily Boyd introduce this month’s special edition of The Geographical Journal with an editorial on the “social life” of carbon.

International conferences, such asCopenhagenin 2010, have demonstrated that governments have limited ability to agree and enforce regulations. Ultimately, it is the choices and politics of consumers themselves that will drive the response of multinational companies and regulators.

Framing carbon in terms of social, economic and political processes, as well as a physical one, allows geographers to contribute to understanding and encouraging a reduced reliance on carbon.

The Daily Telegraph (9th July 2011) ‘Power bills to soar by 30% in ‘green’ reforms.’

Goodman, M. K. and Boyd, E. (2011) ‘A social life for carbon? Commodification, markets and care.’ The Geographical Journal 177 (2): 102-109

Squeezing the rainforest

I-Hsien Porter

The Guardian recently reported that the Brazilian authorities have begun a ‘crackdown’ on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Monitoring the rainforest with satellite imagery and aerial photographs, Brazil’s environmental protection service seek to fine or imprison those involved in illegal logging.

Such action may be locally effective in the short term. However, with such a large area to police, it is easy for loggers to move their activities elsewhere. Increased attention on one area of the Amazon merely takes the focus away from other regions.

In a 2005 paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Mark Maslin and others take a long term perspective.

Drawing on geological records, Maslin et al. argue that the Amazon rainforest has been a permanent feature ofSouth Americafor the past 55 million years. Having survived for such a long time, you might expect the rainforest to be able to withstand current pressures of deforestation and climate change.

However, Maslin et al. also argue that the rapid pace of environmental change is without precedent in the historical record. Temperatures are rising too fast for the forest to migrate. In any case, the pressure placed on land for agriculture and other human activities is squeezing the available space.

It is difficult to see how anything can cope with the scale of the problem, not least the complex politics and economics involved. However, by placing the scale of change in the context of the geological record, Maslin et al. demonstrate just how urgently action is needed.

The Guardian (21st May 2011) Brazil’s crackdown on deforestation of the Amazon

Maslin, M., Malhi, Y., Phillips, O., Cowling, S. (2005) ‘New views on an old forest: assessing the longevity, resilience and future of the Amazon rainforest’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30:477-499

Religion, science and geography

I-Hsien Porter

Adi Holzer, "Die Taufe"Earlier this month, it was announced that the astronomer Martin Rees had been awarded the Templeton Prize. Administered by the Templeton Foundation, the prize rewards a person who has made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

Critics of the Templeton Foundation warn against placing religion on a par with science, arguing that the two are “incompatible.”

However, as a geographer, I’m interested in seeking to understand the world around us. To this end, I believe that science and religion are both important forms of knowledge. Religion cannot explain the complex mechanisms of climate change. Nor can ‘rational’ science can fully understand the social, cultural, emotional and spiritual complexities of people around the world; our actions are often apparently irrational.

A quick search for ‘religion’ through the geographical journals linked on the right of this page returns dozens of articles. In one paper in Area, Benedikt Korf discusses an idea of “spiritual geographies” – engaging with religion, rather than treating religion as an object for scientific study.

Korf argues that, in research, much is to be gained from engaging with both science and religion. Such an approach offers a broader understanding of how we humans interact with our world. It also provides a useful context in which to critique the motivations for our research; for example, whether geographers should be seeking to actively change some of the situations we encounter.

Science is not without its own uncertainties and assumptions. So to frame science as superior to religion is itself an act of belief. I don’t intend to argue that religion is a viable alternative on its own. However, as geographers, much is to be gained from listening to both, as forms of knowledge and a means to understanding our world.

The Guardian (6th April 2011) ‘Martin Rees wins controversial £1m Templeton Prize’

Korf, B. (2006) ‘Geography and Benedict XVI’, Area 38 (3) 326-329

Balance of power

Fukushima nuclear power plant, after the 2011 earthquake.

I-Hsien Porter

Recent events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake last month, had caused many to question the safety of nuclear power.

The dangers are clear: from images of smoke or steam rising from the plant, to reports of unsafe radiation levels in food and water supplies as far away as Tokyo.

There are nonetheless dangers associated with the oil, gas and coal energy-producing industries. The past twelve months have seen coal mining accidents in Chile, New Zealand and China, oil and gas tankers caught up in piracy off Somalia, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. However, these events have led few people to question the safety of traditional sources of power.

There must therefore be more to arguments around different sources of energy than just ‘safety’. Issues of public perception, moral values and justice also play a role. In a paper in Area, Gordon Walker and Noel Cass review the relationship between the public and the mechanisms by which energy is delivered.

The widely accepted need to make major reductions in carbon emissions, in order to mitigate global climate change, is causing our reliance on fossil fuels to be rebalanced in favour of renewable energy. Walker and Cass argue for the role of geography in understanding how social values influence this rebalancing, and how society is affected by its impacts.

BBC News: reports on the earthquake and subsequent impact on the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan.

 Walker, G. and Cass, N. (2007) ‘Carbon reduction, ‘the public’ and renewable energy: engaging with socio-technical configurations. Area 39 (4): 458-469

Mapping carbon emissions

I-Hsien Porter

Power stationThe Guardian website recently published a map of carbon emissions by country. There were few surprises. China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. hile recession-hit Europe and America have seen a fall in their emissions due to reductions in industrial output, it has not been enough to offset the rapid expansion of emerging economies in China and India. Developing countries in South America and Africa have some of the smallest carbon emissions in the world.

It might have been helpful to see this illustrated in relation to carbon emissions per person, since countries are not all the same size. However, it provides a useful indication of where strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might be best focused.

Market based solutions, where carbon is commodified (e.g. carbon credits), have become the focus for international strategies to reduce emissions. However, in a recent paper in The Geographical Journal, Samuel Randalls warns of the dangers of this approach.

Simplifying carbon emissions into a quantity that must be managed comes with broader ethical and moral issues. Management of the issue by distant national or international markets makes assumptions about the fair allocation of personal carbon allowances.

Randalls argues that wider political participation is needed to consider the ethical implications of imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution across countries with different cultural and social characteristics.

The Guardian (31st January 2011) ‘An atlas of pollution: The world in carbon dioxide emissions.’

Randalls, S. (2011) ‘Broadening debates on climate change ethics: beyond carbon calculation.’ The Geographical Journal [Early View]