Sunday, September 27, 2015

A jolt of environmental justice

What are the top forty environmental justice cases in U.S. history in terms of media attention, litigation, policy shifts and public opinion?  

You can read the list and learn about how we made it by reading an article published by Bernadette Grafton, Alejandro Colsa Perez, Katherine Hintzen, Sara Orvis, Paul Mohai and myself in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities available at Taylor & Francis Online.   We produced this recently published work with a diverse team of masters students in deep dialogue with activists and practitioners who have created this field and taken it to where it is today. 

Interested? There are several ways to learn more. Take a look at the website for the pioneering EJOLT project that set us on this path, and look out for a forthcoming article in Environmental Research Letters that goes into more depth on our interviews with leaders in the EJ field.  Or take a look at the start and end of the videos here (and below) from a panel on gender and environmental justice at the Environmental Justice Symposium hosted at Purdue University in April 2014 where I spoke alongside three remarkable experts:  Laura ZanottiSharlene Mollett, and Rosemary Ahtuangaruak   

Following Rosemary's lead in beginning by thinking about our mothers, I reflected on gender inequalities in my own family, and also in field sites and institutions within which  I have learned and worked. Rosemary's words helped me think about the ways our research only scratches the surface of EJ in the USA, in terms of types of conflicts, who studies them, and ways of experiencing them that are mediated by gender and generational issues. More broadly, I argued against the feminization of "applied" versus basic research, and of collaborative versus solo authored work in many fields. 


This recent publication affirms the potential of unabashedly "applied" and "collaborative" research, whether in the forests of the Central African Republic with foragers and engaged anthropologists like Melissa Remis and her students, or online with maps and networks about inequality and environmental rights with visionaries like Joan Martinez AlierPaul Mohai, and these young professionals. These are not just two different "sites" from which my "lab" extracts "data." These are places I where I have apprenticed. Gender specialized labor in forest foraging has taught me much about how to engage in balanced reciprocity in my collaborations with others, and how to navigate the academic forest, with its seasonality, its bounty, and also its dangers.


As for current transnational unfurling of the EJ banner, there is a strong need for further research, and it is voiced powerfully by Rosemary, in this earnest question and answer session  on Africa, Amazonia, Panama and the Arctic. The entire group at Purdue's EJ symposium was stellar; you can get a sense by reading the special issue of the journal, or watching the videos, recorded for live feed (or "Boilercast"--no, really...listen to the Q and A sessions and you'll hear how that term rolls off the tongue!) 

Thanks  Boilermakers!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Cage Free...a magic remedy?

Yesterday's news announced that strong consumer preference for cage-free eggs has tipped even fast food giant Macdonald's into making that change in their food supply chain (see the NPR  source for this picture of a cage-free facility in Hershey, PA; see also  Wall Street Journal).

It throws me back to days on friends' farms in recent summers, collecting eggs. My friend Marie until recently ran an egg farm near Montlucon in the heart of the French region known as L'Allier. She was ahead of the current cage-free curve. She kept her hens inside a large stone barn, with a doorway where they could also walk outside into an outdoor pen. Neither space was very large, nor did either boast the newest technologies for what the industry terms "manure removal" from cage free egg production facilities. But it produced lots and lots of tasty fresh eggs, and people came from miles around to pick them up, or met Marie and her partner, Bernard, at local markets to pick up their eggs.

Marie also grew gorgeous vegetables and herbs in and around huge hoop houses full of cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, verbena. The contrast struck me and my (then) seven year old daughter--such a difference between the sunlight and freshness of the plant production areas, and the dank, feather-strewn muck of the hen house (of course fresh straw went down as often as possible...but let's be honest, chickens are pretty filthy). But it wasn't just muck that struck; there was also the cluck. As we went to collect eggs or scatter grain outside in the  yard for them to eat, we joined many more timid hens in dodging the aggression of the bigger bullies. Many of the hens seemed stressed, racing around noisy and alarmed;  still, none were confined.

Our own quarters that week were the airy, renovated rooms of the old farmhouse for weekend visitors and tourists, with pastel wall paper, original woodwork, and new skylights, complete with en suite showers. In the morning we would creak open the old wooden shutters, then throw the french windows wide to take in the breeze and golden rays of rising sun on the eastern side of the building. At that hour, all was more or less quiet on the western, egg producing front.

Almost any farm is a mucky, clucky, multi-species system.  In this case, a purebred german shepherd was variously doted upon and chained or reprimanded. His presence helped keep the hens safe from predators, but his purview seemed cruelly roaming the hills with sheep for him!

Marie herself was moving slowly, having made a miraculous recovery from a tractor accident that had left her all but brain dead. Bernard had painstakingly stripped and repainted the guest rooms, renovating as she lay in the hospital for nearly a year, telling himself each day that she would again be awake to accompany him in the work, and enjoy the newfound beauty of the historic structure.

One day she did wake up; but this is no fairy tale. Farm life is hard on the humans and animals involved; it is less amenable to reform and improvement than naive consumer preference for a label like "cage free" might suggest. As Bernard stood in the historic old farm kitchen making us a spectacular chicken and cured lemon tagine in moroccan earthenware, Marie rolled cigarettes by the hearth, watching him with the German Shepherd at her feet. They spoke of their unhappiness in that life, of the lack of friends and community, the crushing regularity of the daily tasks.

Marie comes from a long line of sheep farmers in that very Bourbonnais region. Returning home to her roots she was realizing a dream of having her own farm there. She was raised as the one girl in a family of five or seven strapping boys, but she can shear a herd of sheep faster than any of her brothers.  Bernard's past is far more wide ranging; his talents are many, his parties are legendary if one can recall anything in detail about them, and his frustrations with closed, normative social worlds whether urban or rural lead him perilously close to rage at times.  To make matters more complicated, Bernard's appetite for talking of sex is insatiable--I think of him as a kind of sexual extension agent amidst the sometimes prudish, often stoic denizens of cage-free countrysides where talk tends more to the weather, or the whereabouts of a missing animal.

Not that Bernard's constant promiscuous patter wasn't a welcome reminder of eros in the life of a weary teacher and mommy. But I was glad for the language barrier excluding my daughter from the detailed discussions. As she nibbled tender chicken off the bone, Bernard happily crowed from the cookstove where he was already on to his next triumph: a molten chocolate dessert dish with loads of eggs and butter. His grey ponytail bobbing up and down as he gesticulated, he told us all about wealthy girls from Neuilly whom he had made scream for more in their pantries during his younger days as a cook and caterer in the Paris area. Marie chuckled patiently, until he got so carried away that he burned the chocolate a bit. Cursing, he threw the concoction in the sink and, stopping only to remark on a bit of knee poking out from under my skirt, dashed out to a local patisserie for an approximation of his intended dessert that nonetheless delighted my daughter.

He and Marie have since sold the farm near Montlucon, and instead bought an historic inn closer to the heart of Auvergne, Le Buron de la Coudaire in Renaudie. This spectacular and relatively empty rural region Puy de Dome boasts loads of what the french call "baba cools" or hippies, returning to the land as farmers. Bernard and Marie now focus more on producing food for their visitors at the auberge, gathering mushrooms, nuts and plants, and making their own pottery. I think it suits them better. I don't know what happened to all their hens, but I feel certain the German Shepherd went with them, and I hope he is happier too.

Meanwhile, back in Michigan, Naina and I have found fresh eggs to gather closer to home. The hens on Sandy Acres Farm live in conditions that seem much more humane than most...they  have a very large yard in which to roam, and a few of them roam even beyond the fence, which doesn't seem to bother our friends Shelley and Joe, the couple who built and run the farm. "Oh, there is a rogue hen or two, don't worry about them" they said, as they left us to farm sit for a few days this summer (I snapped the photo on the left at a fall harvest event on the farm).

There are turkeys, too, at Sandy Acres, and large families of wild turkeys strutting lazily across the fields where sheep and cattle graze, and gaze quietly at the birds' ceaseless scrabbling for scraps from the huge organic vegetable garden out back. When night falls at Sandy Acres the poultry retreat to a small henhouse they share with some rabbit cages. The rabbits, too, now have an outdoor yard for their daytime has taken years for this farm family to install all the fencing, shedding, and interior space they need. With each passing summer more gets completed, and they breath a sigh of relief at the gradually improving quality of life for themselves and their various animals. I am always mindful of the sweat and tears involved in every single post hole...the farm is made of straw bale adobe construction, and is entirely solar powered, so heavy equipment is limited to a minimum (see photo, by Oliver Uberti, for a feature on the Trumpeys as Homesteaders of the Year in last year's Mother Earth News).

The whole operation is a life dream concocted over ales during a study abroad in Scotland, where Joe and Shelley met. But this is no fairy tale either. As my daughter and I collect the eggs each morning we note the number of hens missing feathers, or even suffering from lacerations on their backs from the roosters' reproductive attentions. We always keep an eye on the hoses lying around the farmyard, lest we need to turn them on those aggressive roosters ourselves; it brings home the dynamics of aggression that are inherent in much animal life.Were we less delighted by the brilliant yellow yolked fresh eggs for breakfast each morning, would fewer roosters do and all could live in more peace?

Peaceful or not, the Sandy Acres chickens likely have a richer and more varied diet than almost any on the planet. The chemical free farm has a density and diversity of insect life that has made it a haven for bees when beekeepers for miles around are losing colonies each winter.  Robert Paehlke talks in his book Democracy's Dilemma  (MIT Press, from which I borrow this photo) about major historical moments in the evolution of capitalist and democratic systems: agrarian, industrial, and finally today's "electronic capitalism." He notes in his conclusions to that book that in an era of electronic capitalism, the conscience of the system as it struggles with democratic principles and processes will perforce reside with consumer concerns and choices. But what of producers? what of more and more of us trying our hand at production (as may be the solution to current disastrous rates of bee colony collapse, for example)?

When we do, we realize how few simple fixes exist for the quality of life of production animals. Incremental improvements are crucial, even if they appear to be steps backward in terms of the cleanliness or technology of large scale agriculture. As for any complex system, management measures must be adaptive, and remain attuned to emergent challenges. Further, when it comes to our food, we must get even more open to both producer and consumer concerns, on the parts of humans and the other life forms upon which we rely.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Tell Me What I Can and Can't Do, I Can Change the World...

As President Obama touched down in Kenya early on Friday July 24, 2015 Carmella Tal Tomey, Assistant Research Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, had only recently returned from Nairobi herself. Ella studies complex links between age, place, social and psychological factors, and physical impairment. She has recently expanded from research into what makes for healthy communities here in the U.S. to work within scientific communities overseas. She is developing video and slide materials to complement intimate, face to face workshops where she enables U.S. students and younger scholars to train with their international counterparts for more focused and effective writing, more responsible conduct of research, and more collaborative and productive careers. 

Our interview with co-hosts Jennifer Johnson and Sam Molnar was peppered with upbeat recent Kenyan dance tracks (playlist here), and great stories of her adventures there with colleagues and friends. We honed in on Ella’s collaboration with Professor Jesse Njoka, who directs the Center for Sustainable Dryland Ecosystems and Societies (CSDES) at the University of Nairobi (UoN). Other UoN faculty Judith S. Mbau and Stephen Merithi collaborated with Ella to facilitate the workshop. They are pictured here in a peer review writing exercise they plan to continue using within their own curricula and communities.

UM will host a “Metaworkshop” with African colleagues from Gabon, Kenya, and Ethiopia in October under the auspices of UM’s STEM-Africa initiative (Science, Technology, Environment/Engineering and Medicine/Math), African Studies Center and International Institute, and with support from colleagues at UCLA and Tulane working on a National Science Foundation PIRE grant in equatorial Africa. The meeting will review models for academic bridge building that can offer a next generation of scholars in sustainability and global health fields more integrative and collaborative training from early in their careers.

Previous Afro-optimist broadcasts on our show abound and the playlists range unapologetically across regions and eras. Our STEM Africa Partnerships broadcast starts with complex polyphonic pipe orchestras from Central African Republic, reflecting on the intricacies of African indigenous knowledge and practice. Then it takes us through Gil Scott Heron’s angry “Whitey on the Moon” poem set to rhythm, reflecting on asymmetric access to science within racist U.S. systems. It ends with Naeto MC singing “Things are Not the same…Ten over Ten” announcing positive change from his platform as the Nigerian “only MC with an MSc.”

In terms of talk, that hour we quote from the vision of STEM Africa leaders here on campus, Mechanical Engineer Elijah Kannety Asibu and Mathematician Nkem Nkumba who have engaged African scientists working internationally in considering scientific needs and strengths on the African continent. We also hear from Dr. Heather Eves, founding Director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, who has taught in higher ed settings from the DC metro area to the Caribbean, and mentored many conservation professionals from Cameroon to Kenya. Heather’s persistent constructive engagement parallels the care Ella Tomey takes with her curricular materials. Dr. Eves also address radio as a tool for scientific and policy awareness and debate in African settings, and creative writing as a vehicle for better connections among and between scholars from varied disciplines and the wider publics they seek to engage.

Another Afro-optimist broadcast from 2011 tackled the Africa-Asia Nexus, with a mix of Indian and African music. A lively discussion blazed in studio between Anthropologist Omolade Adunbi about his work on oil extraction where his family and friends live and work in the Niger Delta, Geographer Dr. Bilal Butt working in his native Kenya on pastoralism in national parks, and the School of Information’s Dr. Joyojeet Pal who hails from Mumbai but has worked on installing high speed wifi cables in rural Rwanda, and studying uptake of laptop technology in rural primary schools in India. You think you know the globalized green academy? Think again…

…and again. Just last year, Dr. Pete Larson led us on an audio tour of really heavy metal African rock, while talking about his own metal band and his research on malaria in Kenya. Hot indeed!  We updated that broadcast with this week's where we played more dance tunes from the techno and hip scenes in contemporary Nairobi, including artists like Just a Band and Wangechi, who is, according to recent interviews, completing university level studies in economics so who knows, maybe one day we can workshop with her too!

These days Pete Larson can be found blogging in English about the interfaces of epidemiology, development and culture, and teaching in Japanese as an Assistant Professor at University of Nagasaki, based in their Institute of Tropical Medicine Kenya Field Station. Pete also holds down an Adjunct Professor position right here at the UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, mentoring UM masters students like Mike Burbidge, pictured below. Mike and others are seeking better field understandings of pastoralism, wildlife management, and spatial and social aspects of zoonotic disease transmission. They live with families and work with Kenyan field research teams, as pictured below where Pete Larson and Mike Burbidge celebrate eid, the end of the Ramadan period, with neighbors and hosts in Kwale, Kenya.

Pete figured in today’s interview with Ella--especially in her tales of Nairobi nightlife, to which she was introduced right off the plane!  Unlike President Obama, Pete and the Michigan Difference team did not have a heavily armored and defended vehicle. But they did and do make a lot of impact on the lives of students and teachers at UoN (Nairobi), UN (Nagasaki), and UM (that’s right, Michigan). Welcome to the future. The revolution will not be televised. But if Ella Tal Tomey has her way, it will be collaboratively thought out, and carefully written about. Go Blue!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Of Rock and Roll and Revolutions

What timing, on the day the Confederate Flag was at last lowered from the South Carolina State House, we gathered in the studios of WCBN FM Ann Arbor for a broadcast on flags, festivals, and facing change in our nation. 

This photo depicts UM Prof of Music, Theater and Dance Mark Clague, whose work on the history of U.S. patriotic music can be found on his Star Spangled Music website. Here he is eyes closed, listening hard to one of several versions of Jimi Hendrix playing The Star Spangled Banner (or, as he puts it, singing with a guitar...) as UM undergrad student David Clive hosts the show. 

From Sharon Jones singing this land is MY land, to Hendrix's many versions of our national anthem, and finally Barack rocking Amazing Grace, we unpack on mike how symbols and melodies mean so many things to so many Americans. In the expert hand of Hot in Here founder Jennifer Johnson, we get our signature mix of scintillating talk and stone cold grooves for summer's hottest days. 

Listen in on the archive section of our web page to hear more about how music helps mark moments we we can, together, pivot and head in new historical Clague notes "history is more about the future than it is about the past." Do you agree? comment below, or at

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Let's start...a summer radio show

Summer is starting, and as the waves of teaching work recede, the Blogging can begin again. A summer blog? Slog? No, that sounds too wearying for the way this writing pulls thoughts out to play.

And, of course, given how much i have learned from Central African Republic (but also from Ireland), there is also the primordial importance of the spoken word.

So i'm proud to announce that the people i love to talk and listen with most these days, the production team of It's Hot in Here on WCBNFM Ann Arbor, are joining me in broadcasting every Friday at noon throughout the summer, for the first time since the show's inception in 2008.

And, yes, we'll also keep posting our blogcast archive over the weekend after the live show, giving you more links, videos, bios, and background on the issues discussed.

We're also working this summer to make the show easier for you to subscribe to as a podcast, or write into with your comments and suggestions of themes. Because we are broadcasting from the FM studio like a bunch of DJs, we won't always be able to air your calls like we often do from the Production A studio with its engineering booth.

Still, we want to hear from you! We want to thank our listeners for tuning in, for calling in, for keeping things hot. One of our founders, Jennifer Johnson, will be back in the studio this summer!

Check out our first show from Friday of Memorial Day weekend here.  And check back on that same site soon for the upcoming blogcast from last Friday's show on Food Sovereignty, which got some of the most exciting and excited calls we've had in a while.

Thank you Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the World.

Happy Summer!