Category Archives: geography

A woman’s Place

A woman’s place is in the home.

We’ve all heard the phrase. What does it mean, really? Most of the time, people are using the phrase to speak of women’s place in a metaphorical sense – “place” means women’s roles, the tasks they are expected to perform, their characteristics, the type of work they do.

But of course, all these tasks don’t take place in an abstract etheric realm. They take place in the physical, 3-D spaces in which we move around. This is something that I wish more activists and philosophers would take into account. My belief in atheism and naturalism tells me that the 3-D world is the place that matters, because that’s where people live their lives.

So that’s why I’m interested in geography and municipal planning. The assumptions about the respective roles of men and women manifest in the physical world in specific ways. We take the built environment that forms the majority of our experience with the physical world for granted most of the time. We should keep in mind that we are moving through the physical manifestations of the thoughts of planners and builders who lived generations before us. Mostly, in the USA (I live there and am most familiar with the history of planning there), these planners and builders were white men. Bet you never saw that one coming.

Planning is a relatively young profession – it only got started about 100 – 120 years ago, and it really came into its own as an academic and professional discipline right in the middle of the 20th century, just as the mythology of the nuclear Leave-It-To-Beaver 2.5 kids and a picket fence was reaching its ascendency. It is not a coincidence that this era can also be considered the zenith of America’s love affair with the automobile. This was an era when Christianity, heterosexuality, and strict gender roles were strictly enforced and questioned only in small radical pockets of nascent resistance to the status quo. A woman’s place was, quite literally, in the home. A man’s place was in the public world, in government, in academia, in medicine, science, etc. These strict divisions of labor were reflected in the designs chosen by the planners of the time: the suburb. Residential areas were strictly separated from offices or industrial parks. Streets were planned and built with one purpose in mind: to quickly move large numbers of automobiles from homes to workplaces and back. Sidewalks were an afterthought.

While this design was convenient for the men who had to traverse physical space only twice a day, when going to and from work, it was less so for the women and caretakers who had to find ways to physically transport their children to and from school, fetch groceries, perhaps care for elderly relatives, and so on. The physical separation of suburban housing from centers of civic power, workplaces, retail, and other outlets for communal activities was in fact a driving force behind the housewife’s malaise that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.

Today, the assumption of rigidly divided roles between male/public and female/private are being eroded. And while governments have passed laws outlawing gender discrimination in the workplace, and private companies have undertaken measures to make it easier for their employees to balance the demands of career and parenting, all measures which contribute to women’s equality by giving them more opportunity to participate in public life, the physical layout of our cities and towns is a significant obstacle to achieving those goals. The intensification of sprawl since the postwar era has brought a drastic increase in commuting times, which translates into increased difficulty for the people who are charged with caring for and transporting children and elderly relatives to and from school, extracurricular activities, and doctors’ appointments – tasks which still disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women.

Feminist critique of urban planning is one contributing factor to the dramatic shifts that have taken place in the discipline of urban planning during the past few decades. This critique dovetails a lot of the time with critiques offered by environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, and sustainability advocates. Today, the urban planner is no longer a visionary in his ivory tower, passing down inspired visions to be stamped upon the landscape – rather, the planner is a communicator, a facilitator, bringing together various stakeholders in the community, listening to their needs, and trying to find a balance among all of them. The strict division between private and public life is no longer taken as a given – planners, city officials, and architects are seeing the value of “mixed-use” communities, that is, communities where housing, retail, office space, schools, nursing homes, and, to a certain extent, manufacturing are in relatively close proximity to each other. This sort of spatial design clears the path to participation in public life by women, the elderly, and children – all groups whose needs were severely neglected by the previous generations of planners.

I do not believe any movement for social change can succeed without changing the physical layout of the communities in which they are trying to create change – fortunately, influencing policy on the municipal level is far easier than influencing policy on the national or even state level. I urge any activist who wants to create real change to consider how their ideas can be implemented at the municipal, town, or village level, because it’s at that scale that small actions, such as painting an intersection can have big impacts, like decreasing traffic fatalities and fighting urban blight.

The physical dimensions of justice and injustice are too rarely discussed in most activist circles, but knowledge of the physical layout of your community is absolutely essential to succeeding in any activist or political campaign. And challenging the status quo often entails taking control and altering physical spaces, as we saw with the Occupy movement last year. If society fully adopts the feminist belief that a woman’s place is anywhere in the world, then our streets, public squares, government buildings, homes, and workplaces will eventually look very different from what we are accustomed to. Feminism will physically, literally transform the world.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Architecture, Feminism, geography

Austin, Here I Come!

I have been so busy during the past couple of weeks. Spending a lot of time out in the rural areas where there’s little cell coverage, much less free wifi. I have so many things that I want to write about but here is the most important thing right now: tomorrow I get on a plane and will arrive in Austin TX for the American Atheist Convention!

Just the fact that I have a Surly Amy Scholarship to go to this event has pretty much forced my out of the closet with a whole bunch of people. I tell them that I’m going to Austin, and they ask why, and I tell them. It’s pretty awesome.

Tonight I was reminded that there are awesome people and cool things happening pretty much everywhere–a neighbor of mine hosted a house party/acoustic concert which was well attended, though I have my complaints about the etiquette of some of the attendees–why go to such an event if you just want to talk over the music at the top of your lungs?–but it’s nice to be reminded that my little upstate wannabe-city isn’t a complete washout in terms of art and culture.

I have made arrangements to rent a bike for the weekend and I intend to take full advantage of that rental. I’ve heard, via colleagues in the transportation planning field, that Austin is a great place to bike (relatively), so I plan on testing that out.

This is going to be, first of all, WARM. Second of all, lots of fun. More updates will follow as events warrant.

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Filed under anti-theism, blogging, Cool stuff, geography, travel

Carbon Crop

I recently discovered the website Information is Beautiful, run by David McCandless. As a person with interest and some experience in creating maps, I truly respect the work that has gone into these thoughtful, elegant representations of reality. Please click on the link, because the image you see above is cropped. The original graphic gives much more terrifying detail about the possible outcomes of 3 – 6 degrees of warming, which seems likely, including the flooding of coastal cities, reduction in crop yields, ocean acidification and attendant fishery collapses, droughts, severe hurricanes.

This is an excellent graphic – I already knew most of the information in it, but one thing that leaped out at me, which I hadn’t really grokked before. That is the fact that fossil fuel extraction companies already possess in their reserves enough oil and gas to push us into ecological catastrophe. And of course they are still proposing new pipelines, new wells in the Arctic and the Gulf, the Tar Sands, and that’s before you even leave North America.

I hope you click that link and take a look – the image you see above is a cropped version of the original.

I have to confess that I am pessimistic about the future of our civilization. I’m pretty sanguine about the ultimate survival of humans qua humans, but that’s cold comfort when I consider the fact that my sister’s grandchildren may only know about the internet from stories told by bitter old survivors.

Let’s think for a minute about a few of the things we would have to do in order to really get serious about climate change. According to the experts who provided the data behind the image from Information is Beautiful, we have about 10 – 13 years to get really serious about doing something to stop or slow greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Transportation: widespread replacement of fuel infrastructure for individual vehicles. Development of hydrogen or electric vehicles. Better yet, severe cutbacks in use of personal vehicles and large increase in public transportation and automobile alternatives such as bicycles
  • Food: complete redesign of food production and distribution systems so that fewer calories of oil are burned in the process of growing the good and the process of moving it to the market that needs it, and agricultural land is managed sustainably so that it requires fewer fossil fuel-based inputs
  • Housing: efficiency retrofits for all existing housing stock, stringent efficiency requirements for new construction, including possible the requirement of passive solar design and solar hot water heating
  • Energy: complete redesign of electrical grid so it can deal with decentralized power production as well as peaks of various types of energy production throughout the day
  • Consumer goods: entities that produce material goods for consumption should be responsible for entire life cycle of pollution generated by production, including greenhouse gases burned in transporting raw materials and finished goods from extraction to manufacture to market. “Recycle” would be a silly, redundant word, because it should be unthinkable to manufacture a product that can only be used once

These are all things which are completely doable – but they’re nearly impossible because our political system has been captured and subverted – and some of the same companies that are planning this irresponsible development of further fossil fuel extraction are the same that are causing the profound disconnect between what the constituents of our allegedly representative democracy want and need, and what their elected representatives are willing to do for them.

Take one example – in the housing category, one simple thing we could do is pass a law that all roof shingles and other roofing materials must be white or light-colored. This would increase the albedo, or average reflectivity of the land surface in the country, and that would slow the process of warming by sending more heat back out into space rather than keeping it here to get trapped by those greenhouse gases. And can you imagine the outcry from right wing Congressional representatives and the right wing media? How dare the government tell homeowners what color to paint their roofs! It’s unthinkable, at least for national legislation in the USA. Just that one tiny little thing.

So I’m pessimistic. Sad to say. I really hope I’m wrong, but I’m deadly scared that I’m right – and if I allow myself to contemplate the information, my heart starts to break and I can’t finish the work I was trying to do.

I do have suggestions for how we can achieve a change in our political system dramatic enough for us to make the drastic changes required to deal effectively with climate change, and I want to write about those too – but I doubt that 10 – 15 years is enough time to implement that change. I am still going to try, though.

EDIT: I have no idea why WordPress insists on transforming my hyperlinked text into text that is also HUGE.

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March 6, 2013 · 1:46 am

Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers

Redlining map of Charlotte, NC: Courtesy of UNC's Digital Innovation LabToday, February 24th, is the fourth Sunday in February, and as such it is the third annual Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers.

In 2011, Donald Wright first proposed holding a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers without asking anyone’s permission; he didn’t wait to see if hundreds of people would line up behind the idea before taking that first step and creating a Day of Solidarity in Houston, Texas. Although there doesn’t seem to be much promotion for the Day of Solidarity this year, no one has to wait for permission to celebrate the Day of Solidarity either. If anyone, anywhere, wants to celebrate the DoS, please, go right ahead and create your own event; contact other nonbelievers in your own community and decide how you’d like to spend that time with each other: share a meal; visit an art gallery or museum; go see a movie or a play; go ice-skating; etc. Make some phone calls, post your event on your own Facebook page as well as on the DoS Facebook page; celebrate, and remain an activist—not just a joiner—for the rest of the year; make a commitment to social change. Right now, what society needs are people who are committed to social change; we have enough talkers, and in order to create meaningful change, we must each assume leadership by doing the right thing—with or without company!

The future as well as the integrity of the secular community depends not on people who do as they are told, but on those of us who are both independent thinkers and activists.

–Naima Washington

So, when I was 12 or 13, I was walking down Main Street, passing the department store, heading for the library, and I saw a group of black boys, high schoolers or college students. I remember noticing how my heart sped up with fear. Somehow I’d absorbed the idea that young black men are extra dangerous – more so than the “average” (read: white) man. This didn’t really jive with my young nerdy embrace of the Vulcan ethos, “IDIC,” Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. Difference is not to be feared, so I thought, and so I believed consciously, but subconsciously I feared those young men. It’s a vivid memory, perhaps because the cognitive dissonance was so strong.

My parents were proud of being supportive of the civil rights movement, and emphasized ideas about equality. They were not big on enforcing or obeying gender stereotypes. They spoke approvingly about MLK Junior and beamed with pride when I “went steady” in 7th grade with a cute dark-skinned boy in the 8th grade who won the dance contest at the Junior High Dance, and gave me the blue teddy bear he won thereby as a Valentine’s Day present. And yet there I was, acting out the stereotype that young black men and boys are violent thugs.

That experience is one among many that predisposed me to quickly grasp the concept that racism is a system in which we all participate, sometimes without intending to or even knowing that we are. I think that’s something that white can do to help the struggle against racism – have an accurate understanding of racism and how it works. Embrace the Smooth Model of racism – it’s about the effects, not the intent.

Think about your neighborhood for a minute. Then consider that, concurrent to the public apartheid of Jim Crow, there was also a fully legal and government-sanctioned program of segregation by neighborhood and sometimes by town. This practice was called “redlining” and if you’re not familiar with the practice, basically it meant banks and the Federal Housing Authority collaborating to identify and map neighborhoods that were “good investments” and which were “too risky.” The Wiki page has a pretty succinct description, so I’ll just put it here:

Such maps defined many minority neighborhoods in cities as ineligible to receive financing. The maps were based on assumptions about the community, not accurate assessments of an individual’s or household’s ability to satisfy standard lending criteria. Since African-Americans were unwelcome in white neighborhoods, which frequently instituted racial restrictive covenants to keep them out, the policy effectively meant that blacks could not secure mortgage loans at all.

Emphasis mine. See how skepticism comes into play here? Racism clouded the ability of the white men making those maps to accurately assess reality. And because of that, they did a lot of damage: they made it nearly impossible for several generations of black families to get mortgages for their houses, loans for their businesses, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods.

That’s just one area in which the basic material substrate of our lives is so heavily influenced by our history of racialized injustice here in the USA. The house you live in, the neighborhood, how far you have to drive to get groceries (whether you have to drive, too), and of course whether your family has generations of wealth-generating home ownership to draw on. Pick a realm of life–education, medicine, environmental hazards, work, whatever–and there’s a similar story of deliberate exclusion, papered over by the pretense that the Civil Rights movement was, like, a million years ago, and slavery was a million years before that, and everything’s copacetic now. This is an attitude that a.) does not withstand critical inquiry; as I just demonstrated, the footprints of racism are everywhere, if you don’t deliberately blind yourself to them and b.) does active harm to the project of achieving equality. When you have one group of people asking, “How can we solve this problem?” and another group is saying, “There is no problem here,” there can’t be any productive dialogue. The question of whether racism, and other bigotries, are a problem in the atheist/skeptic community (as they are in ALL communities, without exception) is a binary question: either it is a problem, or it is not. The correct answer is that there is a problem. As skeptics, we need to stop being patient with those who insist that there is no problem. They should have no more credibility than creationists or climate change deniers.

Eventually this will happen, but we can help it along by not taking discussions of how you may have come across as racist so personally, and by paying attention, getting accurate information, and applying critical thinking. And of course speaking out against racism as often and as loudly as possible, joining actions, donating to organizations such as Sikivu Hutchinson’s Women’s Leadership Project.

This is my very small contribution to the Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers this year. Next year I hope to join in again, with a bit more lead time – I think I heard about it just a couple of weeks ago for the first time – and I hope you’ll join in too.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Anti-racism, Atheism, geography

I Was Wrong

Rod SerlingAlphas is not Binghamton’s sole pop culture referent. Apparently Rod Serling lived in upstate NY or maintained strong ties throughout his life, and Twilight Zone is scattered with references to it, including Binghamton, but also Syracuse, Ithaca, and even dear old Tully. I didn’t know this until I mentioned my blog post to a friend and he told me about it. I definitely feel like this is a major piece of supporting evidence for my thesis that Binghamton NY is an extremely weird place.

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Filed under geography, Hometown, Pop culture, TV, Upstate NY

Watch Out Or We’ll Send You To Binghamton!

Binghamton 021

Binghamton. It’s a weird, lonely place.

I started watching the TV show “Alphas” recently. It’s a Skiffy series, another X-Men ripoff like “Heroes.” I’m a sucker for anything remotely sci-fi. I enjoy the escapism of getting into alternate worlds. Which is why I appreciate convincing, realistic world-building. In the series, our heroes operate out of their office in NYC most of the time. But of course there are other people with superpowers, who aren’t interested in using them for good, and what happens to them? They get sent to Binghamton. So, most episodes contain a derogatory reference to the city I’m living in now. “You better shape up or we’re going to send you do Binghamton!” There was even a moment in one episode where one of the non-superpowered government agents complains that he was led to believe that accepting this assignment would lead to a cushy job and a nice house in the suburbs of DC, but nooo. He’s still stuck in upstate New York.

Well, it’s appropriate. Some quick googling reveals that the show’s pilot was filmed in Toronto, New York’s most popular understudy, so I would be surprised if a film crew actually made it out to Binghamton. Not only that, but I mentioned it to a few people who have been living here longer than I have and they hadn’t heard of it, and a film crew for a TV show in a tiny city like this one would definitely be remembered. But they really ought to. As the photo above reveals, Binghamton is a spooky place. Full of abandoned buildings, overgrown railroads, defunct factories, and empty warehouses with smashed-in and boarded-up windows (though, give credit where it’s due, the City’s housing and planning staff have actually been making a dent in the neighborhood blight around here).

From a Seriable interview that predates the second season, producer Zak Penn explains how he and Ira Steven Behr arrived at the decision.

“Both Ira and I grew up in New York, and we didn’t want the location of this facility to be somewhere that seemed obvious or nefarious, We wanted to avoid the traditional tropes of the underground lair or being housed on a prison barge in New York Harbor.
I don’t know if it’s clear in the mythology of the show, but there’s a whole research and scientific aspect to the facility up there, so Binghamton was partly chosen because it’s connected to the university. I can’t tell you it was years of research for why it was Binghamton and not SUNY Purchase or somewhere else.”

Ah, so, it’s Binghamton University’s fault! Actually, BU is one of the better SUNY schools, or so I hear, so many that’s why it’s not SUNY Purchase.

I appreciate the producers’ cleverness in substituting “remote, economically depressed upstate city no one has heard of” for the more typical secret government facility in the tunnels under Manhattan. Having people threaten each other with being sent to Binghamton–having characters try desperately to escape Binghamton–it rings all too true to me. At least I can be sure that if/when I do get out of here, no superpowered government agents will be tracking me down.

Mr. Penn promised to “destroy all of Binghamton” in the following season, which just concluded, without the total destruction of Binghamton, but a girl can always hope.

Hey, I kid, I kid. I don’t actually want to see Binghamton destroyed. Transformed? Yes, definitely. And do I want to stay here forever? Not hardly, but it’s not really Binghamton’s fault–I’m a traveler at heart. But the fact that the only major pop culture reference to the city I’m living in is a top-secret prison for freaks and weirdos does capture a small piece of what it’s like to grow up in New York’s rust belt, in the rural boondocks just a couple hours away from the Greatest City in the World.

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Filed under Art, geography, Hometown, Personal, TV