Tag Archives: ecological footprint

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. Bull kelp and other marine plants on the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a removed marine world, but their proximity is revealed in remote mapping that promises to remap the role of seaweed in coastal ecosystems, and offer a picture of the terrifying prospects of ocean warming and climate change.

The relatively recent contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore where they long provided such dense habitats may soon start to contract in ways never before experienced. The remapping of kelp forests, and the problems of their contraction of treasured habitat, reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone–a region where land and sea interact. Underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, integral to coastal biodiversity that imparts a specific character to the California coast, and a sense of where we are–as well as makes it a destination for countless Pacific pelagic, shorebirds, and insects, as well as shellfish and fish. But the decimation of kelp forests, tied to an absence of predators to urchins, but more broadly to the ocean warming of coastal waters, as well as potentially an unprecedented increase in coastal pollution, makes both the mapping of the shrinking of kelp forests and the deciphering of that shrinking pressing problems of mapping, destined to impact a large variety of ocean and land-dwelling species.

The need for such mapping underscores all of our relation to the vital ecosystem of the shores and coastal ocean–even if we too often bracket it from our daily lives. While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.

Bull kelp forest coverage at four sites on the North Coast of California,from aerial surveys (California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.

The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.

NASA Earth Observatory., image by Mke Taylor (NASA) using USGS data

Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.

For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.

While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

The Cognitive Clouding of Global Warming: Paris and Pittsburgh; Creditors and Debtors

The argument of America First seems to have been extended to its logical conclusion as the apparently selected President of the United States has single-handedly subtracted the nation from a map of climate change.  By denying the place of the United States in the Paris Climate Accords, President Trump seems, in the most charitable interpretation, to have acted on his own instincts for what was the benefit that accrued to the country in the very short term, and after looking at the balance books of the United States government for what might have been the first time, decided that America had no real part in the map of the future of a warming world.  Rather than outright denying global warming or climate change, Trump decided that the conventions established to contain it by the world’s nations had no immediate advantage for the United States.  

The result wasn’t really to subtract the United States from the ecumene, but from the phenomenon or at least the collective reaction of the world to climate change, and openly declare the supremacy of his own personal opinion–as if by executive fiat–on the matter. The personal position which he advanced was so personal, perhaps, to be presented in terms of his own clouded thinking on the matter, or at least by seizing it to create what he saw as a wedge between national consistencies, and to use wildly incommensurate forms of data to create the impression of his own expertise on the issue–and to mislead the nation.  For Donald Trump took advantage of his having Presidential podium to diss the Paris Accords by a torrent of alliteration developed by a clever speechwriter as resting on a “cornucopia of dystopian, dishonest and discredited data.”  Even if one wants to admire the mesmerizingly deceptive excess of alliteration, the notion of rooting an initial response to planetary climate change in the perspective of one nation–the United States of America–which produced the lion’s share of greenhouse gasses–is only designed to distort.  

By pretending to unmask the Paris Accords as in fact a bum economic deal for the United States, as if it were solely designed to “handicap” one national economy, set a sad standard for the values of public office.  For as Trump dismissed data on climate change as discredited with mock-rage, and vowed that the entire affair had been designed by foreign groups who had already “collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices” and were desiring to continue to inflict similar damage.

But the large future on trade imbalances–which he treated as the bottom line–he staged a spectacle of being aggrieved that seemed to take on the problems of the nation, with little sense of what was at stake.  Trump’s televised live speech was preeminently designed only to distract from the data on which the Accords had been based.  And even as Trump sought to pound his chest by describing the Accord as a “bad deal for Americans,” that in truth “to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”  By turning attention to an America First perspective on global warming, Trump sought to replace the international scope of the challenge–and intent of the much-negotiated Climate Accords–by suggesting that it obscured American interests, even if it only took America’s good will for granted.  As if explaining to his televised audience that the agreement only “disadvantages the United States in relation to other countries,” with the result of “leaving American workers–who [sic] I love–. . . to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs [and] lower wages,” he concealed the actual economics of withdrawing from the Accords were buried beneath boasts to have secured “350 billion of military and economic development for the US” and to help American businesses, workers, taxpayers, and citizens.  

In continuing to dismiss the data out of hand about the expanded production of greenhouse gasses, Trump seems to seek to overturn the deceptions of data visualizations that have alerted the United States and world about the consequences of unrestrained or unbridled climate change. Trump ridiculed the true target of the nearly universally approved Accords, scoffing at the abilities to reduce global temperatures; instead, he concentrated on broad figures of lost jobs in manufacturing and industries that are in fact small sectors of the national economy, and incommensurable with the dangers of ignoring global warming and climate change, or the exigencies of taking steps to counter its recent growth.

global warming
Increased Likelihood of Temperature Surpassing Previous Records by 2050 and 2080

Sea Surface Temperatures against a Historical Baseline of a Century Ago/Climate Central

As if years of accumulated data of earth observation could be dismissed as deceptive out of hand by executive authority, independent of an accurate judgement of its measurement, Trump dismissed expert opinion with the air of a true populist whose heart lay in the defense of the American people and their well-being–as if they could be abstracted and prioritized above the world’s  Trump’s largely rambling if gravely delivered comments in the Rose Garden press conference that painted himself as daily fighting for the country cemented the alliance of populism and a war on science by its odd substitution of bad economic data for good scientific data.  

The switch is one in which his administration has specialized.  His address certainly culminated an outright dismissal of scientific conclusions based on a distorted America First picture of the world, where a stolid declaration that “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords” made sense as form of national defense–despite the potential global catastrophe that rising global temperatures and sea surface temperatures threaten. Is the technique of juxtaposing statistics and muddying data an attempt to undermine evidence, or an illustration of his insecurity with giving authority to data, or to scientific authority, the mirrors his concern about concealing “his profound illiteracy,” or his insecurity about illiteracy, that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues not only distance his own speech from words, and discredits their currency, but an insecurity of having to rely on language and linguistic skills alone, in ways that might be well seen as analogues to his plentiful use of all caps on social media, as stepping outside of the language of public life to a medium more direct and complicit with his audience, if outside the usage standards of a written language.

The catastrophes were minimized by being argued to be based on “discredited data” in a bizarre flourish designed to dismiss scientific concensus  Trump conspicuously faulted not only the “discredited” but distracting nature of data  in the speech he gave in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2017 that supposedly justified his announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 to limit heat-trapping emissions of carbon fuels that have been tied to observed climate change.  Rather than foreground the international nature of the accords among agreed upon by almost 200 nations, trump advanced the need to heed local interests, perversely, but even more perversely argued that the Accords resulted from disinformation.  He spoke to the world to chastise their recognition of scientific observations, in so doing destabilizing not only global alliances but undermining a long-negotiated climate policy by pulling the rug out from long accepted consensus not only of climate scientists but a role of national leadership that sought to remedy the failure of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.  Trump turned his back on the Climate Accords on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions  by proclaiming their unfairness to American interests, and attacking unwanted constraints on American industry, through his own deployment of data that was even more discredited as an excuse to walk away from the prospect of a greener world.

Exiting the Green.png  Al Drago/New York Times

1. If Trump steered the nation away from green energy and into darkness, Vladimir Putin seemed to mock Trump’s rationale for the withdrawal when he mused, jokingly but ever so darkly, that “maybe the current [U.S.] president thinks they are not fully thought-through,” making open fun of Donald Trump’s image of global leadership by wryly noting in ways that echoed the absurdity of Trump’s defense of the local in place of the global.  “We don’t feel here that the temperature is going hotter here, . . . I hear they are saying it snowed in Moscow today and its raining here, very cold,” Putin noted, as if relishing undermining long-established trends in climate data by invoking a populist championing of local knowledge as if it trumped the advantages of earth observation that satellite observation has long provided.   Populism trumped expertise and Putin laughed at the possibility that the Accords might soon fail as a result.

Given the longstanding desire of Moscow to be released from constraints on exploring the billions of tons of Arctic oil on which Russia has chosen to gamble, Trump’s almost purposive blindness to a changing environmental politics of the global economy astounds for its parochialism, and its championing of place to dismiss undeniable effects of climate change that seems closely tied to carbon emissions.  For with a false populism that championed the limited perspective of one place in the world–or one’s own personal experience–Trump dismissed the maps and projections of climate change, on the basis that the “deal” was simply “BAD.”  And as a man who views everything as yet another deal, while he pronounced readiness to “renegotiate” an accord he sought to cast as a failure of President Obama to represent America’s interests, the rebuke fell flatly as the accord was never designed to be renegotiable.

Putin’s remarks were met by scattered laughter of recognition, and some smirks at the decision of the American president to withdraw form a long-negotiated set of accords to the collective dismay of our military and environmental allies, and its implicit endorsement of deniers of climate change.  The potential “axis of mass destruction” France’s climate minister has cautioned against might indeed be one of mass distraction.  For in dismissing and indeed disdaining the historical accords to limit carbon emissions, Trump sought a soundbite sufficient to stoke suspicions the climate treaty.  He sought to cast it as yet another deeply rigged system of which he had taken to compulsively warning Americans.  Such a metaphor of bounty was jarring to reconcile with onerous economic burdens cited as the prime motivations for deciding to reject the Paris Accords on Climate Change.  The jarring cognitive coinage seemed to connote its negative by a disorienting litotes; but perhaps the most striking element of the entire news conference was that Trump offered no data that backed up his own pronouncements and appearance of steadfast or only obstinate personal resolve.

Before the coherence of the embodiment of climate change in maps, Trumps jarringly juxtaposed radically different sorts of statistic to snow the nation–and the world–by disorienting his audience, on which Trump turned to a litany of complaints and perceived offenses striking for providing no data of any sort, save several bits of false data.  As much as Trump betrayed uneven command over the data on climate change, as if embedding discrete numbers in unclear fashion that supported a self-evident argument, as if they addressed one of the most carefully documented changes in the atmosphere of the world.  By juxtaposing a threat that “could cost Americans as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025“–a number described as extreme but decontextualized to exaggerate its effect, framed by the dismissive statement  “Believe me, this is not what we need!“– with a projected small temperature decrease of two tenths of a degree Celsius–“Think of that!  This much”–as if to indicate the minuscule return that the “deal” offered to the United States that would have made it worthy accepting its costs–


The gesture seemed designed to juxtapose the honesty of direct communication with the deceit of the experts.   Trump’s notion of direct communication concealed the surreal enjambment of disproportionate numbers more striking by the difference of their scale than their meaning.  Of a piece with his citation of partial statistics that exaggerate his points, from “95 Million not in the U.S. labor force” as if to imply they are all unsuccessfully looking for work, targeting some 8 million immigrants as “illegal aliens”ready for deportation, or how immigrants coast American taxpayers “billions of dollars a year.”   Such large figures deploy discredited data difficult to process to conjure fears by overwhelming audience, distracting from specific problems with large numbers that communicate an illusion of expertise, or even overwhelm their judgment by talking points disseminated in deeply questionable media sources.

If the power of this juxtaposition of unrelated numbers gained their effectiveness because of a lack of numeracy–Trump’s claim of 100 million social media followers lumps his followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, many of whom may be the same people, and other fake persona —the numbers seem to exist for their rhetorical effect alone, as if to awe by their size and dismiss by the miniscule benefits they might provide. The point of contrasting such large and small statistics was to suggest the poor priorities of the previous administration, and dilute form the consensus reached on the modeling of climate change.  To be sure, the Trump administration also barters in fake facts on Fox News Sunday. inflating the number of jobs in coal industries, that show a misleading sense of the government’s relation to the national economy, generating a range of falsehoods that disable fact-checking, obscuring the fact that the global marketplace increasingly gives preference to cleaner energy and clean energy jobs more quickly others sectors of our national economy beyond energy industries.  The ties of Trump’s administration to fossil fuels–from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Energy to the Secretary of the Interior down–employ the obsfuscating tactics of fossil fuel industries to obscure benefits of low-carbon fuels.  Indeed, the inability to “renegotiate” a deal where each nation set its own levels of energy usage rendered Trump’s promise of the prospect of renegotiation meaningless and unclear, even if it was intended to create the appearance of him sounding reasonable and amiable enough on nightly television news.

Broad hands.png
Cheriss May/Spia via AP

Another point of the citation of false data was to evoke a sense of false populism, by asking how the Accords could ever add up.  In isolating foregrounded statistics great and small, tightly juxtaposed for rhetorical effect, the intent seems consciously to bombard the audience to disorienting effect.  We know Trump has disdain for expertise, and indeed the intersection between a sense of populism with disdain or rejection of science may be endemic:  in formulating responses to a global question like climate change that he has had no familiarity with save in terms of margins of profits and regulations.  Rather than consulting experts, the President has prepared for public statements by consulting sympathetic FOX media figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle who pander by endorsing the notion of a climate conspiracy–not experts, who use data as obscuring foils, suggesting an ecology of information originating from pro-fossil fuel industry groups.

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, Donald J. Trump, Global Warming, statistics

Smelling the Coffee

Coffee beans elegantly strewn across the gridded surface of a burlap sack may map the entire world; but they can only belie the fact that the area suitable for growing coffee beans stands to be reduced by as much as half by 2050, if climate change continues. In the face of increasing demands for fresh beans from developed countries, Arabica beans that have long flourished in the ecology of tropical highlands may well stop receiving the year-round rains that not only enable but nourish their growth, and demand more water than the ground naturally holds.  

If that isn’t as great a wake-up call as the aroma of coffee, what is?  As we shop for single-origin coffee from a variety of global locations, we might do well to consider not only the global footprint of coffee beans, beyond the bird-friendliness and fair trade nature of the beans we brew, but the networks of global exchange by which the brew was not only long nourished, but has expanded to become almost a new lingua franca of the globe. As the number of coffee stores and outlets in airports has multiplied, in a mark of the escalating global demand, the way beans map the world is perhaps less important than the global networks that have facilitated coffee to travel and to circulate so intensively and so abundantly.When accomplished food photographer Adam Gault captured an image of roasted beans on a burlap bag, situated on an what seems an Ortelian projection, woven burlap threads recalling a graticule, or just the art of coffee roasting, as beans on burlap are almost a sub-genre of Gault’s work. the absence of the smell of coffee seemed a sanitization of the routes by which beans are shipped globally from the equatorial belt of coffee-growing, but a joke on the near-global appeal of caffeinating with a dark roast. Gault’s clever photograph dates from the Iraq War, curiously, the first to be based on use of GPS satellites as a sort of proof-of-purchase illustration or test of GPS in a global environment, if the points rendered by beans on the equirectangular faux graticule of a coffee bag suggested the enabling of coffee transport from growing zones as a more pleasant upside to how the nineteen satellites then in orbit allowed “coalition” forces run by American command centers to pinpoint the enemy n a desert terrain.

Burlap Poster featuring the photograph Coffee Beans Forming World Map On Burlap by Adam Gault

Adam Gault, “Coffee Beans Forming World Map on Burlap” (1991)

But the double duty that the coffee bag served as a time-tested GPS grid of coffee beans showed off the emergence of coffee roasting as a global network, allowing beans from economically disadvantaged regions to arrive smoothly onto the counters of Starbucks, Peets, or Nero for a morning ritual of pleasure. The 1991 print has since become a stock image and shorthand for globalism and globalization, displayed as a mural in coffee shops, that has a clear correlate in the sourcing of coffees from around the equatorial belt, in parallel to the growth of coffee shops as meeting places to sample the distillation of blends defined by place-names, condensed into a drip coffee brew. The photograph strikes one as a record of the reach of coffee farms and plantations, but brackets the global impact of coffee, not to mention the ties of coffee to climate–those networks of trade seem to advertise the global proximity of place to fresh coffee at any point in the world, the roasted bean a neat play on the point-based geography that has been rendered suddenly proximate to the farming of fresh coffee for a customer’s pleasure.

The pleasure of coffee is hardly captured in the image, however, and part of the appeal of the popular “map” may lie in seeing a cartographic joke removed from the ways we sense coffee–its aroma and its taste–both hardly able to be be captured in a purely visual register, as much as questions of what real map a near-global availability of coffee conceals. It is something of a resolution to the question of the great Viennese philosopher posed in a work he completed in Salzburg, toward the end of World War II, investigating the uses of language, and their relation to lived experience, that pondered the lack of words to describe the aroma of coffee–“Describe the aroma of coffee–why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking?–But how dow we even get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? have you ever felt the lack of such a description? have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?“–that may relate to his own interest in describing a Proustian recognition of coffee upon returning from Cambridge to Vienna, taking coffee’s aroma as a case of how any object is described in words, or what language game that might define the familiar ritual of coffee-drinking. If not able to translate the aroma, it might be flattened to a suitably rustic burlap screen, whose appearance a visual crutch orienting you to a variety of pleasant aromas which exist outside language, if hiding the wheels of a global infrastructure of cultivation and shipping allows the barista to fill your cup.

Americans were sold the image of a nearby “land of coffee” of bucolic cultivation in the postwar period, arriving from afar in a world of interconnected global commerce, long before World War II. We were apt to forget how the organization of coffee crops is an inheritance of the plantation economy immersed in a geography of natural resources and ecological imbalances created by climate change. If the history of the plantation and land conversion gained less place as coffee was first promoted as a modern convenience arriving effortlessly and extracted painlessly from a far-off land of abundance whose aroma would summon Americans to their morning coffee in early morning waking hours and as they moved from unconscious life to bracingly hot cups of a steaming beverage, whose aroma triggers in Pavlovian fashion a re-awakening as the welcome taste of coffee and cream to start the day.

“World of Coffee,” Colombian Pavilion, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco 1939

The ‘Land of Coffee’ promoted at the International Exposition noted but concealed the clearing of grounds, weeding, picking “cherries,” washed and fermented and re-washed before air dried in the tropical air for a long voyage to preparing a smooth, rich, amber-clear brew, enjoyed as a rich blend. The travel of coffee beans was black-boxed for the customers, concealing the remote cultivation of beans from a global bean-growing belt since massively grown on a global scale of production.

Coffee Bean Growing Belt Planet Coffee

Today, we know vaguely brand-sounding sites of the farming of coffee beans, of varied intensity and darkness, on a richly described palettes that often assume greater importance as a register of sense-perception than the beans’ provenance. The place-names of coffee beans are a richly robust exotic geography of their own, fair trade, to be sure, but almost independent from an actual global geography, lying like a set of reference points existing detached and at a remove from an physical ecosystem or geography. If coffees are classified as shade-grown, organic, bird-friendliness or not grown in the forest canopy, the remove of coffee from geography growing in proportion to its market and customer demand, not to mention the 500,000 families farming coffee beans in Colombia’s mountainous highlands alone.

If the promoters of Colombian coffee at the Colombian Pavilion promised “the greatest writers, poets, scholars have long been and are today great users of coffee,” which “sharpens the mind” as it “buoys the spirit,” as well as improving physical health and morale, proven by Washington’s classification of coffee as indispensable to mobilized troops, the provision of coffee seemed a peace-time dividend of the beverage grown in plateaus “at the very gates of the Panama Canal,” in a country whose climate, soil, and altitude were perfectly adapted to producing fine coffees for its northern neighbor–and offered a detailed mapping of census of coffee growers and distances of shipping from plantations, from the recent geodetic survey that revealed the with harvesting seasons, free for coffee businesses, marked the scientific status of maps made of Latin America by the American Geographic Society of New York since 1922, rather than state agencies, of apparent authority–elevations, hard-edged contours, and colored relief, even where little surveying occurred: Colombia Growers used the geodetic survey to plot the coffee survey to sell Americans an image confirming the dominance of Colombian goods, using a map made to promote American cartographic imperialism, as well as international trade. (It may appear quaint that the upper left time-table notes distances of plantations and farms to nearby shipping ports, rather quaintly, to promote the well-connected nature of Colombian coffee farms to a global shipping network, but the large bulk of bean transit still arrives today by container ship.). If the timetable of distances from farms to coastal shipping ports seems quaint, the same ports ship beans globally today.

Featured image of this map

Coffee Map of the Republic of Colombia, World’s Largest Producer of Mild Coffees, Prepared by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, 1: 2,750,000 (1933)

Distances from Coffee Centers of Production to Five Coastal Shipping Ports

The global terrain of coffee production has almost astronomically grown to meet current consumption levels, at a briskness that can barely compare to population growth, moving beans from the equatorial band of coffee farming across the globe. Globally, 25 million farmers now rely on their production of the beans today–most of whom are small farmers–but rising temperatures predicted could radically reduce and effectively circumscribe what those in the know call the “coffee map” that tracks the traffic in beans, their shipping across seas, and arrival for roasting, before arriving in the United States of America, in a huge infrastructure of extraction and transport of container ships moving beans globally.

The residents of the United States appear to be perhaps so least problematically united by consuming caffeine that when Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz floated his name as a credible Independent candidate for U.S. President, able to shift a stubbornly challenging electoral map tilted to Republicans, it provoked pangs of angst in the Democratic Party, almost akin to reflux. The emergence of coffee as a new social glue in the United States was perhaps hardly new, but coffee-drinking may be our final national ritual. Starbucks offers an early morning altar of waking sociability, with an ubiquity that probably led Howard Shultz to imagine that the drink’s national popularity might lead to his election even in an age of increasingly oppositional–if not confrontational–politics of hyper-partisan divisions. Shultz’s candidacy might be probably in what is increasingly a nation of coffee- drinkers, where consensus might be best defined around a hot morning beverage, or at least one proven susceptible to coffee marketers, where satisfaction can be perhaps most easily imagined in relation to well-roasted beans. Is drinking coffee together one of the few rites that persists in a landscape of bowling alone?

The threat of self-candidacy of the coffee bean mogul once seemed a clever gambit to reach beyond parties, perhaps one destined to follow the fear of a post-Trump oligarchy that deflated the Democratic Party, and inspired critical commentary from the oligarchical crowd of Bloomberg, Buffett, et al., who presented the real threat of a coffee-driven candidacy as a thwarting of the American people. While the coffee once flowed from Colombia as a sign of America’s cartographic imperialism over Latin America, the image of Shultz as a moderator of the current Pax Americana seems to have tried to convert coffee to a new symbol of American global supremacy in an era of globalization, as if the task of transporting, roasting, and brewing rotating blends sourced from equatorial lands for globally dispersed markets provided a bracing surrogate of American global dominance. Perhaps his candidacy can be understood domestically–Shultz’s popularity as embodying American power grew as if the promise to lower the prices of a venti might tilt the electoral map, and meet cravings that the nation had become plagued: the conversion of beans to espresso-based drinks like cappuccino pose questions rooted in old-style economic geography, however, of shipping beans to roasteries, whose currency demand mapping, as the absence of geographic reflection seems suddenly to render global consciousness soluble in a cuppa joe.

If Howard Schultz coasts on a new wave of the capital of coffee’s aroma, a model of self-fashioning of economic wealth refreshingly different from Bloomberg, Trump, and Buffett, with profit margins far more rooted in investment in intangibles, we might remember coffee’s clear ties to processes of global warming we rarely see in a cup of coffee or scoop of invitingly glistening dark beans. In the lure of the inviting coffee cup, we are perhaps most apt to forget the global fears of deforestation, environmental devastation, shrinking groundwater, and sensitive habitat all underlie the triggering aromas and inviting sight of those scoops of fresh dark-roasted beans. His candidacy can be understood just as well as a form of displacing concerns about global warming, climate change, fragmented ecosystems, and habitat loss, in which plentiful ventis keeps arriving on the counter or in customers’ to go cups, preserving a new normal that sanctions Americans’ continued oblivious consumption of caffeine. If the transport and global sourcing of coffee continues, normality might seem to be able to be preserved.

The sorts of disruption in growing beans that localized drought in those tropical highlands seems almost destined to bring–as the worst dry spell in decades that hit Brazil’s coffee belt, destroying a third of the crop or a decline by a half in coffee bean yields in Tanzania since the 1960s, as temperatures warm and the ground becomes more wet, stand to grow not only the price of the two and a quarter billion cups of coffee we humans consume daily, in what seems like a private experience, meaning that the beans will no longer be so abundant in those burlap bags, or so plentifully and bounteously displayed in buckets that tempt the spending of a few bills on an easy pick-me-up that feels all too eerily like an intravenous feed.

In Columbia alone, coffee leaf rust that is the consequence of weather that is both warmer and wetter stand to damage some 60% of the country’s agricultural land by 2050, making for a decreased abundance of beans and ever more removed cup of joe.  Indeed, coffee beans are particular enough about growing conditions that to remain optimal conditions of production, the temperature should remain between 18–21°C, and once rising above 23°C, bean quality declines and the plant grows far too fast, noticeably changing its taste, flavor bouquet, and aroma . . . with a detectable shift occurs with only a rise of only half of a degree at the wrong time in the growing season, in ways that could change coffee harvests far sooner that one might expect.

Coffee beans map

More than any other sector of life, the tremendous growth of coffee consumption over the past decades invites a daily morning exercise of geographic literacy.  In hubs of metropolitan coffee drinking, the local origins of beans are invested with a provenance that is supplemented by detailed descriptions of their practices of cultivation.  The geographic here primarily signifies or maps to the gastronomic; provenance of coffee has a deeper resonance than the locations of their roasting, and erases the huge distances traversed in their transportation or the local climates in which they were produced. The importation of coffees and costs of coffee farming are naturalized within local coffee bars as a geographic palate, as we’re accustomed to having Sulawesi, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania among the rotating coffees of the week, and in our cups; their names, instead of the once-dominantColumbian or Brazil beans, are part of our routines that are often stripped of geographic signification as place-names–even though they might be better understood as a geographic lesson with climate warming as its subject.

The Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, with offices in New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as New York, thanked the Consulate General in the booklet that it printed for the Colombian Pavillion in the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco–an occasion to mark the anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, some twenty four years earlier at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, rhetorically asking readers in openly boosterish terms, “How about a second cup of Colombian coffee?” The all caps response–“IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”–sought to refute fears of the jitters, lack of sleep, or uneasy stomach that coffee-drinking might bring, as it promoted Colombia coffee as the world’s best among global varietals–with some considerable cartographic license–

–if the climactic map that it worked from suggested the deeply colonial cartography of coffee beans on what seems a zonal map, but which is credited to Rand McNally & Co as authoritative record of the global climates in which coffee beans actually grew. On the heels of the recent remapping of much of Latin America in apparently authoritative form by the

“Coffee Growing Countries Follow the Equator,” from The Land of Coffee (1939)

While Colombia showed itself in all caps, second only to Brazil as a coffee exporter, the pamphlet oriented readers to the global market for coffee in the then-current language of globalism. “If you were to fly around the world, following the path of the Equator, and if you could look out across the half of the Tropical Zone on either side of your plane,” it began, using the novelty of the Air Age to describe the accessibility to global markets to which American coffee drinkers could benefit, “you would behold the fifty or more countries–some of them large to be sure, some of them but tiny islands–in which coffee today grows.” While “coffee did not always grow the length of this wide belt that circles the earth at the tropics,” the global networks of trade that facilitated its global spread from the 9th century, when a humble Arabian goat herder was “credited” with the discovery that the roasted beans might create a beverage, if a more survivalist story of a Dervish, Hadji Omer, exiled from the land of Mocha in 1285, survived for days on the berries of one coffee tree while in hiding, was the first to steep some beans after browning them in an open fire, whose popularity was only cemented as the popularity it won in Turkish coffee houses in Constantinople, drawing customers from deserted mosques, lead to the fad to move first to Venice by 1615, and New York soon after by 1640, coffee houses were founded there in and Boston in the colonial period, before the dissemination of the plant to French colonies from Martinique to the East Indies shifted the “map of coffee growing” to lead grounds for coffee planting to Cuba, leading land to be cleared in Colombia, after Spanish colonization introduced the bean to the South American mainland.

Today, the most globalist of all coffee chains, Starbucks, openly invites us, in the age of globalism, to remember a map as a decorative object, where place names are overlapping and indeed colliding with descriptors of the good on a map that seems more decorative than geographical in content, recurring as a backdrop for savoring the aromas of its blends, the global map colored, predictably, a rich coffee-shaded hue, all boundaries elided or obscured in a world that seems saturated by java, as if for the benefit of the drinker’s taste, providing a decorative map to enhance the drinking experience in a roadside Starbucks, on Highway 5.

The lush landscapes in the faux manuscript nautical map overwhelms whatever denotative content of the tropics. The majestic wall map was quite intentionally reduced to a backdrop for taking a coffee break, pausing in one’s itinerary as one is driving along a California freeway and pausing at a rest stop.  It is striking that there is barely any attempt in this mock-antique global map of even making any place legible, only vaguely  treating the map as a sort of division of coffee flavors, but treating the globe as saturated by the flavor of beans–rather than of states or nations; descriptors are suspended as if disembodied, across a mock gold-leaf field, indicating the earthy, herbal, and chocolate tastes of coffees from “Asia” or the “Pacific”–rather than specifying distinctions of beans originating from Indonesia, Yemen, Java, Bali, New Guinea, or Ethiopia, where the leafs of coffee plants stretch, beneath the Tropic of Cancer.  The lands are a uniform brown, saturated with coffee flavors of disturbingly uniform tone, the descriptors lie on a gold field as if to offer themselves as what we sense as coffee consumers.

Indeed, the triumphal map seemed to almsot displaced by the beans’ descriptor of the beans, whose deeply colored beans provide the more compelling descriptor of the coffee that seems to have indeed displaced the very legibility of place, if not its notion in a map, as they become the site of sensing the flavors of “nutty” coffee beans, the islands are left distinctly defined but without any sense of sovereign identity, and the number of coastal islands of possible cultivation almost infinite in number.

As we drink coffee daily, and isolate the coffee-drinking experience as an ecstatic one that almost exists without place–but is based on the construction of a place to drink coffee apart from the work world or the street, in a space of selective privilege and almost private intimacy, can maps even help to process the origins of coffee plants, or the mystification of converting a place-name to a descriptor, in ways that seem to extract the beans’ flavor from their site of origin?  

They might not disrupt the individual experience of a good cup of coffee, an intensely pleasurable and even intensely neurologically stimulating activity, but map the names tied to the pleasure off caffeination to the broader land of the land, moving from the domestic sphere of coffee drinking and the half-private space of cafés where the precious brown liquid now circulates before being imbibed at considerable costs, all too easily concealed in the privacy of our pleasures–


Louis Marin-Bonnet, “Woman Taking Coffee” (1774) Cooper Hewitt (inked engraving)

–to the global world in which this space must be situated. and the global markets on which they our all too easily internalized habits of caffeination increasingly depend.

The lopsided distribution of this conversion of toponymy into gastronomy is evident in a map of where this huge rise of coffee consumption and importation has occurred.  If coffee beans were introduced to the future United States in the eighteenth century, coffee has become among the leading importers of beans worldwide.  Americans now consume some 23 gallons each day (or 22.1 according to Wikipedia)–but declined far below the 48 gallons Americans were said to consume annually in 1946–0r the 62 gallons downed annually in far chillier Finland.  Yet it has become part of bloodstream–literally–and an unprecedented (although we lacked earlier metrics) 161,000 folks listed coffee making or serving as a “skill” in 2013.

Screen shot 2013-02-11 at 9.26.23 AM

We might call this the browning of North America, ignoring that the distribution of local blends, pioneered by Peets and popularized by Starbucks, before being refined by Blue Bottle or Four Barrel, masks variations in a topography of coffee drinking in the United States far more variegated than the homogeneous brown of the United States.  (The fact that Canada is yellow may seem comforting, but conceals the very urban nature of this social ritual:  notice how those brown dots congregate around Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa . . . )   The absurdity of nationally ranking habits of daily caffeination aside (although there’s an academic press title in here somewhere), the most striking aspect of this map is the huge area of the world left in white, shown here only from the equator since no countries below the equator import coffee beans in such quantity.

Indeed, the ten largest coffee importers, mapped in yellow, not brown, suggests the sharp imbalance of equatorial countries whose products tend to wake up folks in northern climes, in a map whose palette is a ramp that seems composed of light and dark roasts.


National Geographic

The more detailed mapping of the production of coffee by bags of beans, mapped by Oxfam for 2001, showed a nicely skewed data distribution, with those non-growing regions left suitably blank, as if they thirsted for the brown stimulant that came pouring (or steaming) in from equatorial climes:

Oxfam 2001


There is a clear “coffee belt” whose discovery and demarcation the Coffee Grower Association of Hamburg claims responsibility for:


German Coffee Association

The Starbucks map referenced geographic precision of “our coffee belt” in decorative terms, as the flower and pods of the beans overlap the geographical content, and the letters on the map are changed to almost decorative forms, colored the hue of coffee.


And a lot of imported coffee is needed–creating what has indeed long been a pretty big business interest in the US, even before the boutiques of metropolitan areas from the 1990s.  Even if, once this huge amount of unroasted beans is divided per capita, rendering regions like Canada and Scandinavia distinctly darker, and measured by consumption of cups/day alone, the geographic distribution looks a bit different in 2011 when mapping coffee consumption per capita in this clickable map of circa 2008:

2011 coffee map

Which returns us to the interests that all maps conceal.  By the alchemy of toponymy, the regions from which the beans themselves derive, of course, come from the very equatorial regions that are the sites of forestry. Far from a bucolic image of verdant plains, the expansion of coffee growing has made significant incursions in local habitat, in danger of disrupting ecological niches that this map of coffee-growing conveniently obscures by depicting the bean as growing in undisturbed areas of verdant green.

This is evident in this far more anodyne map, prepared by someone trained in the school of quite openly neo-corporate graphic design:

I appreciate the hand-drawn oval projection, crafted with care in the midwest city of big shoulders, which suggests that if all roads led to Rome, all beans flow to Chicago:

Global sources of coffee on ms map

A more informed map might link the cultivation not only to forested regions, but to the very “hot spots” whose local biodiversity is most threatened by global warming, and where the inefficient use of water widespread in coffee cultivation least practical and most pernicious.  For it is not only equatorial areas, but from the driest areas on earth:


Conservation International

The overlap of ‘hot spots’ map onto coffee-growing regions alarms; coffee cultivation is widespread in 16 of the 34 most threatened ecosystems.  And this is the tip of the iceberg, to use a somewhat mixed metaphor unless one considers iced coffee, of the paradox: privileging the locality of cultivation in maps of caffeine consumption reinforces the fragility of local ecosystems.  This is a very different map, speaking map now, from the manner that an  earlier cartographical image set the details of consumption as an inevitable but conscious choice, concentrated in one icon, as opposed to the naturalization of growing in isolated pockets of uniform unattractive gray of our analytic objectivity, suggesting the weight of coffee consumption by its distribution of black donuts–an interesting symbolic choice:

Indeed, the conscious coffee drinkers at the Water Footprint in the Netherlands have mapped the severely disproportionate gross virtual water import that results worldwide:

Coffee's Water Footpring


The “flows” of coffee beans might be mapped, if somewhat less legibly, in comparison to those of chocolate, whose parallel commerce from the New World matches it as a popular stimulant from the New World, as Marcie Norton reminds us, that in fact was similar in its function to coffee:

In part, this is a local story, with much of the jumping value of java able to be registered in the Port of Oakland. If the bar graph which groups all beans as a whole, independent of destination, it confirms Oakland’s significance as a global hub of the importation of coffee beans. By 2012, the burgeoning Bay Area community of coffee roasting in the Bay Area took advantage of the fact that Oakland is the second largest site of coffee importation in America, thanks in no small part to the Panama Canal, as engineers who work in Silicon Valley began to scrutinize the thermodynamics of roasting in popcorn poppers or Whirly Pops, stove top, and propane-powered barrel roasters, as close study of roasting past the first and second crack of beans that approached the Maillard process led to the latest expansion of food prep knowledge, as the valuation of the beans imported through Oakland encouraged DIY roasters to fill their kitchens with smoke, seeking the perfect smokiness and acidity in beans whose specific burnt sugar, fig, oatmeal stout, pumpkin and pepitas map worlds of taste contained (and accessible) in coffee beans.

Coffee Mavens' Perfect Roast Starts at Home - WSJ

The jump of coffee cravings stateside have expanded at an unprecedented rate fed by Starbucks, with the kilogram consumption of coffee bags breaking world records, per Bloomberg, driven by a nation of junkies whose cravings may only continue to break global records and encouraging disposable incomes devoted to feeding an addiction that is increasingly part of the local landscape of coffee houses.

Java Junkies in U.S. Driving Global Coffee Demand to Record - Bloomberg

Let’s recall the lopsided nature of a current map of coffee indulgence that this demand reflects–

–as we note odd emptiness of the very areas where the extractive powers of coffee were so long based if we return back to the Starbucks map from which we began, the areas of Europe, now colored a dun caffeinated color, obscuring that it is the center from which the rage of coffee consumption began.


We might consider the possibility of a re-mapping our daily habits or affectation for caffeination, through this map of the network of coffee distribution and consumption, removed from most familiar geographic categories.  The schematic map is courtesy San Jose-trained Roxanne Pasibe:

Or we might consider the huge environmental shifts that the market for farming beans has created, in the “hotspots” for coffee growing that creates new pressures on sustainable lands, and wilderness areas alike, compromising and threatening biological diversity across the equatorial belt. Coffee growing regions now exist in clear overlap with some thirty-four biodiversity hotspots, creating questions, as sustained consumption of the stimulant has spread across the globe with ever greater intensity, that it may compromise both the forest community and biodiversity, as the tentacles of its global trade threaten land stewardship in the most sensitive habitats whose conservation is endangered by coffee farms.

In the initial graphic, the beans naturally drop to the ground, and into our bags. Let’s try to map how they come to get there, and into our cups.

Coffee Heart.png

Climate Institute


Filed under climate change, Coffee, economic geography,, Global Warming, water footprints