An Open Letter to the New York Times


In response to Bret Stephens’ debut as an op-ed columnist. NB if you want to voice your concern about the Gray Lady employing this person, there is an online petition protesting Stephens’ appointment.

To the Editors of the New York Times

As a climate scientist, I was unnerved by your appointment of Bret Stephens as a new op-ed columnist. However, as a long-time reader of the New York Times, I decided to trust your judgment.

However, Stephens’ first column indicates that your judgment has failed, and your willingness to court controversy and indulge the anti-intellectual bias of the right wing is now an abdication of your responsibility to fact-based journalism. Continue reading “An Open Letter to the New York Times”

On universities and social mobility

Readers interested in higher education might take a look at the recent article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books, Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality. One of its major points is that higher education may not be the locus of social opportunity it is supposed to be – in fact, it may be entrenching or even widening social inequality. This retrenchment of the haves and have-nots, like implicit racism, operates on a range of levels, many of which are subtle and complex.

At the top of the prestige pyramid, in highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments. This meager figure is often explained as the consequence of a regrettable reality: qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply do not exist in significant numbers. But it’s not so. A recent study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard shows that the great majority of high-achieving low-income students (those scoring at or above the ninetieth percentile on standardized tests, and with high school grades of A- or higher) never apply to any selective college, much less to several, as their better-off peers typically do.3 Their numbers, which Hoxby and Avery estimate at between 25,000 and 35,000 of each year’s high school seniors, “are much greater than college admissions staff generally believe,” in part because most such students get little if any counseling in high school about the intricate process of applying to a selective college—so they rarely do.

Continue reading “On universities and social mobility”

CFP: Discourse, Disaster, and the Urban Hazardscape

Note that this CFP has closed – I’m just leaving it up here for posterity.

Call for Papers for the 2015 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting. Chicago, IL. April 21-25, 2015

 Session Title: “Discourse, Disaster, and the Urban Hazardscape”

Session Organizers: Erin C. Bergren (UC Berkeley), Esther G. Kim (UC Berkeley)

Format: Paper presentations, followed by a facilitated discussion between presenters and audience


Our session begins with the understanding that disasters are catalytic processes which emerge from existing social relations and also have the power to trigger further change in socio-ecological systems (Watts 1983; Pelling and Dill 2010). This CFP seeks to engage in conversation with other scholars who apply the concepts of hazardscape and discourse as critical tools for better understanding these processes and relations behind environmental disasters.

The recent literature on environmental risks and vulnerabilities examines the dimensions of the produced hazardscape. As described by Cutter, Mitchell, and Scott, a hazardscape is a “mosaic of risks and hazards that affect people and the places they inhabit” (2000, p. 715). Mustafa takes an overtly political approach and refers to hazardscape as a “way of seeing that asserts power and as a socio-environmental space where the gaze of power is contested and struggled against to produce the lived reality of hazardous places” (2005, p. 566). Khan, Crozier, and Kennedy (2012) then extend hazardscape into the cognitive or behavioral sphere, adding locally-mediated perceptions of hazard and susceptibility to the physical and political dimensions noted above. The concept of hazardscape, then, emerges as a valuable tool for analyzing how disasters are produced by local hazard systems and the social-ecological relations of power and difference which modulate these systems.

Disasters, of course, are produced discursively as well as materially, and this session is also concerned with utilizing discourse as a critical theoretical tool. Described by Hajer as “a specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorizations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities” (1995, p. 44), discourse provides another analytic lens with which to unpack the construction of disaster. As the sociopolitical elements of hazardscapes illustrate, disasters are powerfully shaped by the ideas and meanings behind risk, hazards, and human/nature relationships (Bankoff 2001; Wisner et al 2004; Steinberg 2000). By explicitly utilizing discourse as a theoretical tool, we wish to investigate how discursive constructions of disaster intersect with the ways that hazardscapes are (re)produced, experienced, and resisted. At a more essential level, this session asks how discourse contributes to the construction of disasters, the reconfiguration of the urban hazardscape, and the different lived, embodied experiences of such a hazardscape.

Although hazardscapes can be found in every part of the world, we seek to examine the politics and production of hazardous landscapes within an urban context. As more and more of the global population come to reside in urban environments and as cities materialize from unique configurations of social and ecological factors, the ways in which discourse and hazardscapes converge to produce and/or respond to disasters is an important field of scholarly inquiry.

Papers can explore, but are not limited to, the following topics:

●     Uneven distributions of urban environmental hazards.

●     Opportunities for discursive contestation originating in disastrous situations.

●     Hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses of hazards, risk, and vulnerabilities.

●     How urban natures are framed in the discourse of disaster.

●     The different perceptions and experiences of disaster in urban, suburban, peri-urban contexts.

●     The impact of climate change to the construction and experience of hazards.

●     Case studies of disaster and hazards in Global South contexts.

●    Approaches in critical geography, political ecology, environmental justice.

Please submit abstracts to and  by Friday, October 31. We will get back to you by Monday, November 3.  


Bankoff, G. (2001). Rendering the world unsafe:‘ vulnerability ’as western discourse. Disasters, 25(1), 19-35.

Cutter, S. L., Mitchell, J. T., & Scott, M. S. (2000). Revealing the vulnerability of people and places: a case study of Georgetown County, South Carolina. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(4), 713-731

Khan, S., Crozier, M. J., & Kennedy, D. (2012). Influences of place characteristics on hazards, perception and response: a case study of the hazardscape of the Wellington Region, New Zealand. Natural Hazards, 62(2), 501-529

Mustafa, D. (2005). The Production of an Urban Hazardscape in Pakistan: Modernity, Vulnerability, and the Range of Choice. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(3), 566-586

Pelling, M., & Dill, K. (2010). Disaster politics: tipping points for change in the adaptation of sociopolitical regimes. Progress in Human Geography, 34(1), 21-37

Steinberg, T. (2000). Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Watts, M. (1983). On the poverty of theory: natural hazards research in context. In K. Hewitt (Ed.), Interpretations of Calamity (pp. 231-262). Boston: Allen and Unwin

Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., & Davis, I. (2004). At Risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability, and disasters (Second ed.). London: Routledge.

Are top university administrators overpaid?

Academics are applying for the open University of Alberta president’s job in groups of four – because even 1/4 of the salary offered would be a substantial increase in pay. The original foursome offered to each teach one undergraduate class a year (to “walk the walk”) and described how they would split the job in line with their academic areas of expertise (“Dr. Ward with her research on monstrosity and hybridity, is eminently suited to interact effectively with various levels of government”). There are now fourteen sets of academics applying for the job, in addition to the less-innovative single applicants.

Continue reading “Are top university administrators overpaid?”

my knowledge, your knowledge, our knowledge

As a scholar, it’s important to differentiate between the following:

  • epistemology
    What we think knowledge is  – i.e. what is valid knowledge and what is invalid knowledge? Why are we more likely to believe a scientist than someone in a mental hospital?
  • methodology
    A system for collecting knowledge based on epistemological assumptions of what can and can’t be known
  • methods
    The tools, systems, and protocols that people use for collecting knowledge in an epistemologically valid way.

Some scholars talk about research paradigms, which would be one level of abstraction beyond this – for example, the university research paradigm vs. an indigenous knowledge research paradigm. My concern with this is that paradigms are incompatible with one another – not like two different languages, but like human language vs. binary. Whereas I think different epistemologies can learn to talk through one another, through the translation of methodology. The key is transparency, being open about the many assumptions behind the knowledge-making and the knowledge-validation that people are doing (and, of course, this also assumes that members of the different epistemological communities are listening to and respecting one another).

Augie Fleras (2004) poses a series of questions which I think all researchers should be asking themselves about how they define knowledge and whose interests shape that definition:

•    Who defines the research plan?
•    What is worth knowing and who is entitled to know?
•    What does the researcher want to know, and is it knowable?
•    What counts for knowledge, and according to whom?
•    What methodologies [I would say methods] are appropriate?
•    Who will carry out, write, and publish this research?
•    Who owns the research?
•    How will the community share in and benefit from the research?
•    To whom is the research accountable in the community or the university?
•    Whose interests do the research serve?

Further reading

Fleras, A. (2004). “Researching together differently”: Bridging the research paradigm gap. Native Studies Review, 15(2), 117 – 129


“The Charitable Industrial Complex”

This is probably the best op-ed on international development I’ve ever read. It’s from last Friday’s Times, and is by scion Peter Buffett (ironically enough). I can’t say that a man with enough money to buy everyone in my family a house (and a pony) is the first person I would turn to for sensible, thoughtful commentary on the backhanded “charity” which is so commonly practiced by the wealthy, but… okay. Anyone who writes about Philanthropic Colonialism and has enough clout to get it printed in one of the world’s most widely read newspapers gets a thumbs-up from me. Continue reading ““The Charitable Industrial Complex””

towards a more “natural” definition of partnership

I love this NYT Op-Ed by David George Haskell, “Nature’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage“. It’s such a peak example of what you can do with the op-ed format: brief, clear, well-informed, but lyrical as the best nature writing. I think it’s an exquisite piece.

An inspection of the bark of these trees reveals garden snails grazing on thin, vertical lawns of lichens, yeasts and algae. Like the trees, each sexually mature snail makes both egg and sperm. Mating among these gastropods is charged with romantic tension; two males and two females are caught up in every embrace. Downstream from the Mall, at the outlet of the Potomac, marine snails called slipper shells add yet another twist: they begin life as males, before maturing into females.

the rules of engagement

A house collapsed after the 2008 Wisconsin Floods. Photo credit: US Air Force via the Great Lakes Echo.

I follow Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, on Twitter, and I respect both her work and her efforts to engage the evangelical community with the issue of climate change. She works at Texas Tech, in a part of the country not known for its fierce commitment to climate science, and has endured considerable harassment because of her job. A few days ago she got this reply during an exchange on Twitter from Anthony Watts, a climate skeptic blogger: Continue reading “the rules of engagement”