Tag Archives: Fresno

How an effective drought reshapes an urban bird community (a thesis seminar)

A few years ago we began what we hoped would be a long-term study of how urban water policy and water use by people affects the diversity and distribution of other species that share the city’s habitats with us. The “city” in question is the Fresno-Clovis metro area in California’s Central Valley, and the “we” in question refers to the multidisciplinary team I pulled together to successfully compete for one of the Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA) – Exploratory Award grants given by National Science Foundation and US Forest Service. That grant was how my research directly benefited from President Obama’s stimulus package in his first term, and the relatively small two-year award came with a great deal of (eventually dashed) hope that there would be money to actually grow it into a real long-term research network.

We had a unique opportunity in Fresno-Clovis to study how human water use in cities influences biodiversity in a “found experiment” since the City of Fresno had just begun installing water meters in this quite large arid southwestern city. We were able to survey the city for birds, plants, and human perceptions of water before water metering went into effect in 2013, and stretch our NSF grant dollars to continue studying them in the years after. It has been fascinating to watch this urban ecosystem change over these years, and grapple with the challenge of tracking how people’s choices have changed and how biodiversity is changing in response to what people do in their yards and throughout the city. Our challenge became further complicated by another unplanned perturbation of water in this system: the onset and deepening of the drought over California in these recent years. The NSF grant funded a number of graduate thesis projects (and undergraduate students helping with the research) at Fresno State, and their work has opened up new questions for us to pursue, even as we look for other ways to fund the work for the long-term.

Today I am back in Fresno (having recently moved to North Carolina State University to join a new interdisciplinary faculty cluster for Leadership in Public Science, in case you missed that news) for the culmination of another Masters thesis from this project. My student Stephanie Slonka will defend her thesis today, where she has conducted the first detailed analysis of how bird species diversity and abundance have changed in Fresno-Clovis over recent years by comparing data from bird census (from the Fresno Bird Count) and habitat surveys from several years before water metering went into effect and more recent post-metering years. The increased cost of metered water combined with the drought (and calls from the California Governor) has caused people to reduce the amount of water they poured into their yards, creating a more “effective drought” with much less water available in the landscape. Meanwhile, the bird community in Fresno has also changed significantly, showing lower number of species and smaller overall population in recent post-meter/drought years compared to the pre-metering period. What does this mean? If you want an answer to that, you can come to the Fresno State campus today to hear Stephanie defend her thesis where she explores these dynamics.

post-metering-model

 

A thesis defense is a landmark event both for the student and the advisor, and I am proud to see another student achieve this today. Stephanie’s thesis exit seminar will happen at 4:30PM today, in Science II, room 110. Here is her seminar flyer with further details if you wish to attend.

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Nelson Mandela and the long walk to reconciling humanity with nature

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. Somehow, it even caught the eye of the Ecological Society of America, which posted about it on their blog. Here’s my original version of the essay, before it was edited down for broadcast.

MandelaMonument sustainability quote

The iconic Nelson Mandela monument via Fr Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.

While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest moral beacons is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars, the world would have understood, maybe even condoned him had he gone after his oppressors seeking retribution for the injustices he and his fellow black South Africans had suffered under the white rulers of apartheid.

Instead, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. Subverting any desire for victor’s justice, he found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.

Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership, and accepted the path of reconciliation to bring South Africa into the community of nations as a new kind of democracy and a leader in the so-called Dark Continent. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their countries.

While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we extend the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?

Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature is marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity for some members of our species. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction, if not right over that cliff. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.

Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when they result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and to be good stewards of the land for future generations?

Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just like he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks any conscience to offer us a path at redemption. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done—if we are to ride out this Anthropocene extinction crisis with our civilization intact.

Mandela once said

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Nature, of course, is not our enemy, although we’ve been acting like all of Earth is enemy territory we must conquer. In 2003, speaking at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in South Africa, Mandela also said

A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.

Can we make peace with the Earth, start working with Nature and transform ourselves into her partner?

Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela turned around to celebrate his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and rebuild our relationship with Nature? That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

On the perils of drawing permanent lines on a fluid canvas, or demarcating landscapes on a dynamic planet

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share a somewhat longer version of my essay where I ponder the predicament our species finds itself in, having gone extremely territorial in its conquest of the planet’s resources.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence?

Territoriality is the bane of human existence. We human beings are an aggressively territorial lot, willing to defend what territory we claim to be ours against all comers using whatever means we can devise. By no means the only species to be strongly territorial, we surely are the most extreme in our territoriality.

Many animal species like to mark out and defend territories to ensure access to crucial resources such as food, water, shelter, nesting sites, and mates. Many will defend their territories aggressively, even risking injury or death to stave off challengers. You can see this every day all around us: in the sweet song of birds in our gardens, which are usually males proclaiming dominion over the garden, and in the way our dogs mark their territories at every fence- and lamp-post we happen to walk them by. Even plants show subtle territoriality, engaging in covert chemical warfare underground to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies and sucking away “their” supply of water and nutrients.

Yet hardly any other species takes territoriality as far as we have done. Most species reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species and maybe a few other direct competitors. Even when they physically or chemically mark the boundaries of their territories, these demarcations are hardly permanent. Scent marking, scratches in tree barks, vocal proclamations: these are what reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals carve out the world’s resources for their exclusive use. And, of course, these boundary lines are just as ephemeral as the lives of the individuals (and sometimes families) marking them.

Each individual may develop a strong sense of place, even an emotional attachment to some piece of land, or coral reef, or tree, or rock, but only rarely do they pass this on to their progeny, who often tend to disperse away into new areas to seek their own fortunes, set up their own new territories. Boundaries may be defended fiercely, but they remain fluid and diffuse and are ever changing, especially as the geographic ranges of species wax and wane and change on our dynamically changing planet.

Human beings have taken territoriality to whole new levels. We have not only sought to make our territories permanent, building fences and walls to keep intruders out, but even enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws regulating ownership and inheritance. Unlike in any other species, we exhibit territoriality across a whole hierarchy of social levels: from individual and family homes to clan and tribal domains to kingdoms and empires to modern nation states and coalitions among them.

We have demarcated the Earth’s entire surface in cartesian lines scaling up and down these territorial hierarchies. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the ocean and the air and the very skies. Uniquely, we also seek to control every element that occurs within our domains, extending our territoriality against every other species on the planet. Whether it is ants or cockroaches in our kitchens, geckos in our living rooms, squirrels and monkeys in our gardens, or invasive species we label as aliens within our national boundaries, our pan-territoriality puts us at constant war against a whole host of species merely trying to eke out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.

Political World Map as Pangea 200 300 million years ago  Imgur

Unfortunately, our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything has ever stayed put in one place for ever, not even the very continents over which we continue to wage epic and devastating wars for resources. A key to evolutionary success on such a dynamic planet is a species’ ability to adapt to the changing landscape, and a fluidity of movement to match the ever changing zones of suitable climate and geology. Yet we have painted ourselves into cartesian prisons, investing so much in defending pieces of land and volumes of water that may not remain the same for long. Rising sea levels threaten cities that we thought we were building for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of the deserts as climate zones shift, and glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, drastically changing the shape of the lands, with no little help from our own industry. And every other species tries to pick up and move along with these changes, extending its range towards the poles—or to the brink of extinction as suitable habitats disappear permanently. Yet we continue to cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of climate change. We are setting ourselves up for inevitable disaster, like a child building elaborate sand castles below the high-tide line on a beach, or an obsessive compulsive painter desperately trying to draw permanent lines on a liquid canvas.

Much of human history can be told as a series of tales about individuals and groups of people fighting each other over pieces of this demarcated landscape. History is also generally written by the victors and the survivors. To be able to write our own future history, we must first figure out, collectively, how to survive past our own ecologically disastrous fossil-fuel-burning industrial age. If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.

A thirsty city of the American West meters itself to save water

My most recent contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a few weeks ago. The audio is available in the archives. In this commentary, I congratulated Fresno on completing the installation of home water meters, and exhorted fellow Fresnans to turn off their sprinklers and learn how to grow a beautiful garden while saving water. Since today is World Water Day, in what is also the International Year of Water Cooperation, I am posting the transcript of my commentary here as well

 

The Moral Is 2012-2013          KVPR (February 2013

Written by Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology, CSU Fresno

Congratulations Fresno! You are no longer an anachronism. Though rather late to the party, Fresno ushered in 2013 by turning over a huge environmental leaf with the announcement that every home in the city now had a water meter installed. So let us congratulate Fresno for joining other Valley cities in taking an important step towards better environmental stewardship!

Many Fresnans had already started seeing changes in their water bills that now show the actual amount of water consumed in the household, and the charge per gallon. For decades, Fresno (alongside our state capitol Sacramento) had been a peculiar holdout, stubbornly refusing to even measure its water use, let alone to make residents pay accordingly. This frontier mentality had us living in a semidesert ecosystem (defined as one receiving between 10-16 inches of rainfall annually) but consuming more water than most American cities: over 300 gallons per person per day! 

Our profligate use of water allowed us to grow lush landscapes of lawns shaded by trees to evoke ancestral homelands in wetter places. Never mind that we were depleting the valley’s ground water even as our city continued to sprawl. As a recent study from Fresno State found (full disclosure: I am the lead investigator of this project), most of us living here are aware at some level that we live in a dry part of the world. Indeed the lack of heavy rainfall or snowfall may be part of the region’s draw! Yet, most of us also want big lawns where our children can play, and a variety of thirsty trees to shade our yards and homes in the summer.

How do we square this circle then, between our desire for personal landscapes of remembered lushness, and the reality of depleting water resources in the desert we inhabit? We can begin by recognizing the inherent incompatibility. The city, under duress from state and federal agencies, has taken the first big step towards better stewardship of our water supply. We residents can respond in two ways: complain about the suddenly high price of our expansive lawns; or rethink our landscape and its place in local ecology, and transition to water-wise yards that can provide most of the same aesthetic and recreational benefits as before, but less thirstily. Many of us are already doing this, and the new water bills will encourage more to explore alternatives. Let us make this an opportunity to find creative ways to ensure the long-term sustainability of our water supply while making our own habitats friendlier to nature.

Fresno’s water conundrum is a microcosm of humanity’s frayed relationship with nature. The Earth is overcrowded compared to a century ago, but the bigger problem is that each one of us now consumes far more resources (or wants to) than a generation ago. Our very economic model is based on perpetual growth, which is at odds with a finite planet. Time for us to turn off our sprinklers and pause the growth bandwagon to repair our relationship with nature, to stop being mere consumers and become stewards of planet Earth.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti

War correspondence for The Nature of Cities

A few months ago, while attending the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Bombay, I met David Maddox of Sound Science, an organization he co-founded in 2004. David is an urban ecologist and conservationist who opted out of academia and is doing great things for urban conservation, adaptive management, and science communication. He recently put together a fine online portal for wide-ranging essays about nature in the city on this semi-urban planet of ours: The Nature of Cities blog. As David says though, this has already become rather more of a platform for longer-form essays about urban ecology than a typical blog – and that I think is a very fine thing thing. He has done an excellent job of bringing together a great (and still growing) group of writers from around the world—urban ecologists of every stripe from academics to activists, designers to planners to economists—who are sharing their insights and perspectives on what nature means in this urban world.

After some terrific discussions—including on a long bus ride where we sat together in the evening traffic winding our way past Dharavi to the Cricket Club of India for dinner—David invited me to join The Nature of Cities as a regular contributor. I am honored to be part of this collective through which David is curating a veritable archive of contemporary thought in urban ecology. Whether I bring anything of value to this conversation… well, you be the judge. My first contribution to the blog, where I don the hat of a frontier correspondent reporting about water use and abuse in Fresno based on my group’s research, went up this past Sunday. It is a much longer essay than my average blog post here, but worth your while, I hope. Allow me to lead you on with this teaser graphic:

Urban Water Use in the Cadillac Desert

Do leave a comment below the post (or here – but better there) if so moved. And don’t forget to bookmark / subscribe to The Nature of Cities!

Talking trash on Valley Public Radio

I continue my contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio with another essay to be broadcast during this morning’s Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. The audio will later be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, I am posting the text of my essay (slightly expanded and linkified) below.

I wrote this essay during Thanksgiving weekend, that celebration of American cornucopia which is now increasingly marred by the ever-earlier manufactured rush of Christmas shopping, with Black Friday this year starting on Thursday, i.e., on Thanksgiving! As Jon Stewart later noted, Christmas is now eating other holidays, egged on by a marketing push in an economy wedded to ever-increasing consumption of goods, damn the environmental consequences.

Interestingly, a short while after I sent my essay in to the series editor, the Fresno City Council voted (closely, 4-3, after a heated debate) in favor of a measure pushed by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource the city’s garbage collection to a private company, ostensibly to save money and get revenue from the company to balance the city budget. Ironically, a few days later, National Geographic lauded Fresno as “a city serious about recycling”, since it now keeps 73% of its trash out of landfills, making Fresno number 1 in the nation for recycling. Shortly after that, the garbage outsourcing measure passed a second round of voting by the same margin, so the city is one step closer to losing its nationally leading recycling program. I haven’t seen much discussion in the local media about what happens to the excellent recycling program, nor how the city plans to make sure that the private contractor will maintain quality of service. We will see how it all shakes out, I suppose, but the outlook is not very good, and the city leadership’s shortsightedness is disappointing if predictable.

All of this adds to the context within which I happened to write this essay, intending to make broader points about our garbage-spewing consumer culture. So here is my essay:


Can you imagine ever running out of garbage?

Maybe it has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, the one about how entropy or the amount of disorder in a system will always increase. Or maybe it is this time of year, between Black Friday and Christmas / Boxing Day, when we are constantly exhorted to go out and buy things, things we may or may not need, but things we should want, because they are bright and shiny and cool, and offer momentary happiness in sharing gifts, or because this is how we are supposed to help businesses stay in the black, and help the economy! Accompanying all this jolly holiday consumption, of course, is a growing mound of garbage from all the packaging and the gift-wrapping, and the unwanted or rejected gifts that end up, eventually, in our landfills. It is hard to imagine us running out of garbage!

These days we are running out of many of the earth’s natural resources, ranging from oil and other fossil fuels, to drinking water, to even the fertility of our soils. In this time of scarcity, if there is one thing that we are in no danger of exhausting, surely it is our supply of garbage. So how can we run out of the stuff? And what would that even mean?

Well, as it happens, the country of Sweden is running low on garbage lately, so much so that they import it from neighboring Norway—and get paid for taking it off Norway’s hands! So efficient have the Swedes become at recycling and composting all of their household waste that only 4% of it ends up in landfills. As a result, they simply aren’t producing enough trash any more!

Wait! Not enough trash? Not enough for what?

For generating energy, of course!

According to a recent NPR story, Sweden runs one of the most successful waste-to-energy programs in the world, generating one-fifth of the nation’s district heating, and powering a quarter million homes. But now, because its citizens have become so conscientious about minding their own household waste, Sweden has to turn to other countries for garbage. Isn’t that a nicer problem to have than the litany of more depressing environmental challenges we face these days?

Why don’t we all do this? Kill two birds with one stone: reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reduce our need for fossil fuels in the process.

Indeed, Fresno County is now entertaining proposals for a new garbage-fueled power plant. And, Fresno is already recognized as a national leader for its recycling programs. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern landfill: the pioneering design of the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, a National Historic Landmark, set the standard for municipal waste management in 20th century America. Now Fresno can lead us again as the 21st century standard-bearer, by turning our trash into energy!

Dungbeetles Canthon simplex rolling a ball of dung.
Nature’s recycling crew at work, because in natural ecosystems, everything is recycled

In nature, there was never such a thing as garbage until humans came along, because any waste produced by one species is consumed by another in the circle of life. Our industrial civilization, paradoxically efficient and wasteful, broke the circle, and this may be the first time that a single species has generated too much waste for ecosystems to handle. 

We must close the circle again, and soon, before our planet is dead and covered in giant trash heaps.


Skyscraping towers of garbage on a desolate earth, as seen in Wall•E

A planet running short of garbage? Why, that’s how ours was not too long ago, and how it can be again if we put our ingenuity to solving the problems we have created.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti

Reconciliation ecology and the soul of a university (a radio essay)

My reading of the following essay will be broadcast as part of the series “The Moral Is” (to which I have been contributing for a year now) on Valley Public Radio today, July 3, 2012, during the local morning program Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. At some point in the future, it will be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, here is the text of my essay (adapted from my open letter to President Welty in the wake of the recent deforestation on our campus) in its original form – it was condensed just a little bit to make it radio-worthy. I hope you find my voice is at least as suited as my face for radio…

Fall colors in the now deforested Lot J

A view of gorgeous fall colors in the urban forest on our campus that was cut down last month to create more parking spaces

Is a university more than a collection of buildings where classes are held so students can get their money’s worth of diplomas? To whom does a public university belong: the faculty and students who live and work there and make it their community, or administrators and politicians who control the fate of a campus with top-down decisions? Does a university have a soul, and if it does, how do we protect and nurture it during economically difficult times? Does a university have a responsibility to model, on its own campus, some of the solutions to the difficult challenges facing society?

I ponder these questions as a tenured faculty member at California State University, Fresno – also known by its new brand name as “Fresno State”. The adoption of that brand, with a logo that no one likes, is symbolic of how out-of-touch our upper administration is with much of the campus community. Campus leaders created a more visible and tragic symbol recently when they literally tore a chunk of life out of campus by chopping down a mature urban forest to expand parking. This was a massive failure from our university at multiple levels: failure to consult with the campus community before cutting down 200 mature trees; and lack of any broader vision for building a sustainable green campus as a model for urban development. Deforestation to expand parking on a campus recently added to Princeton Review’s list of Green Campuses seriously undermines Fresno State’s credibility. I am also deeply hurt because the deforestation destroyed a significant part of my outdoor research and teaching laboratory.

I study and teach Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. I work with policy makers, planners, and citizens to find ways to soften our environmental impact while improving quality of life for humans. Our campus provides primary field study sites. Students do original research here, including in the now deforested parking lots. We document how these seemingly barren urban spaces support many wildlife species, including federally protected migratory birds; the Fox Squirrel, a campus mascot celebrated during Squirrel Week; Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, and other birds of prey living on campus. Their habitats now stand bereft of the tree canopy that provided valuable resources. How do I teach reconciliation ecology if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus?

The need for more parking when we are curtailing enrollment is curious, and this approach shows a complete lack of ecological foresight. Was it really necessary to cut down 200 mature trees, which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to add 600 parking spots? When the whole world is looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and when most urban dwellers are increasingly disconnected with nature, must we really cut down an urban forest to encourage more driving?

The leaders who navigate our campus through extremely difficult financial times must not overlook the ramifications of decisions thrust upon an increasingly alienated and demoralized academic community. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts to soften the hard edges of our campus’s physical and psychological footprint will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead more bearable. It can also turn adversities into opportunities for genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable campus for the long-term future of this century-old university. After all, the university lies at the heart of both, our intellectual and environmental commons, and nurtures the soul of our entire community.

How the athletic tail wags the academic dog at the new “Fresno State”

As of yesterday, I no longer work for California State University, Fresno. I got my tenure at that institution almost two years ago and have been an Associate Professor in the Biology Department ever since. I still have my lab and office in the same Biology building, and I still have that view from my window of the Sierras, currently hiding under ominous dark clouds as the state reels under today’s rainstorm. But our campus too is under some dark clouds these days. So I’m still here. But I’m not at California State University, Fresno any more.

You see, amid continuing budgetary woes, fee hikes, classes being cut, labs straining to accommodate too many students desperate to graduate, understaffed offices, faculty unrest over stalled labor negotiations… a whole litany of troubles, the powers that be on our campus decided that what we really needed was a makeover!! Who doesn’t feel better after getting a fresh haircut, a snazzy dress, and some makeup, right? Maybe a spa treatment (and a colonic cleansing… nah, scratch that) too? What better way to cheer oneself up? So, while we faculty have been struggling to maintain the quality of education in our overcrowded classrooms (e.g., I’ve currently got 72 students in my upper division writing- and experimental-labs-intensive Ecology course this semester – up from the normal cap of 48!), and fighting off attempts to dissolve our entire college of science and mathematics and other “reorganization” plans, those powers-that-be were working with a makeover team to cheer us all up!

Who knew?! You guys… you shouldn’t have!! 

No, really: you shouldn’t have.

But – Surprise!! – you did it anyway. And so, with much fanfare, our new face was unveiled yesterday: all tarted up in skimpy red and white (our “traditional colors”) with a bulldog’s paw (from our sports teams’ mascot, a bulldog) tattooed across our cheeks, and brand new triple-Ds sticking out beneath our chin, like the cheap cheerleaders we are now for the all important athletic brand of Fresno State! Hurray!!

Fslogonew

Feel better now? You sure? You really should, you know! After all, they’ve been deliberating on this re-branding for three years (the same three years that the university has been sinking under the budget cuts… but don’t think about how many people were working on this makeover during that time!). Further, they reassure us, it was truly a cheap makeover too (can’t you tell?), because they couldn’t hire an outside consultant to do a professional job either! Over these years, focus groups and surveys apparently kept telling them that the brand identity people associate with this campus is “Fresno State”, which has been the brand of our athletics division, along with the bulldog as our mascot. And they really identified us with those three D’s too: “Discovery. Diversity. Distinction.” Not, as a wag has it: “Denial. Desperation. Despair.” Call it the three stages of academic grief, and we’re clearly in the desperation stage of hoping for miracles from a makeover, even if much of the faculty is already in despair. But this is the age of education as a free-market commodity, so branded we must be!

The provost does reassure us though that we haven’t officially changed our formal name – but you’ll be hard pressed to find the old formal name on the new website. And with perception governing so much of reality these days, how long before that formal name is forgotten too? Indeed, we no longer even have the word “University” in our new brand name at the top of our new website! I wonder what those focus groups thought we do around here if they no longer think “university” when they think of this campus! So, after celebrating our centennial year just recently, that word doesn’t even fit in our new “brand identity” any more. 

Last November, during one of the series of open forums we had on campus over the proposal to dissolve the College of Science & Mathematics (among other colleges/departments also under similar axes), when someone on the Budget Task Force said that the reorganization plans under discussion only affected the “instructional side of the university”, one of my senior colleagues in the college stood up to remind the provost and everyone else assembled that “we are not simply the ‘instructional side of the university’ – we are the university.” Our passion managed to save the college, for now, but we may be losing the whole game. For little did we know, as we applauded that quaint sentiment that afternoon, that soon we would have to stop calling ourselves a university at all!

Why didn’t they go the whole hog though, I wonder, and actually sell out to a real brand name and bring in some real hard cash? Wouldn’t we have been better off branded as, say… the Doritos Locos Taco State? After all, Fresno was also one of the test markets that launched that exciting new product into the national fast food chain! Looks like consumer focus groups in the valley sure can pick winner brands… maybe there is hope for us after all in an exciting new world of branded drive-through fast-food style “education”! Who needs the sad old “university” any more?

Thus do we begin our second century, no more a university, but a brand, one that came branded in the minds of our sports fans, who apparently think nothing of the thousands of students we graduate from our classrooms every year, or the reams of scholarship we produce. Never mind that, during my tenure on this campus, my department alone has, under shrinking budgets, faculty attrition (down from 22 to about 16) and staff cuts, managed to not only hold the line, but raise the quality of our education. Or that my (shrinking body of) colleagues and I have produced (since 2006) with our hardworking graduate and undergraduate students: 128 peer-reviewed publications, 431 research presentations at conferences, and raised over $10 million in external grants; all while maintaining heavy and increasing class loads under a sharply higher student to faculty ratio. All this, at a non-research (non-RO1) campus where the running joke (on us, surely… hahaha…) is that research is a “required hobby” because we only get paid to teach (and serve on committees), but if we want to get tenure and promotion, why we must produce research and scholarship! Talk about an unfunded mandate. And these numbers are right at the tip of my typing fingers because just this week we had to submitt a deprtmental self-study as part of our 7-year program review where our entire department will be scrutinized to make sure we are up to snuff and maintaining standards on par with other biology programs at other universities. I wonder if the reviewers will notice that we’ve actually dropped the word “university” from our campus name, which should raise the question: what standards should we be upholding really? The normal academic ones? Or some new free-market benchmarks gleaned from some focus groups? Uh-oh… we forgot to do focus groups in our self-study! I hope we don’t get dinged because of that.

While we academics have been sweating to keep up our research productivity and make sure our students graduate successfully, the athletics guys must’ve been really burning up the tracks and fields something fierce, eh? Do tell me if that is the case, for I’ve been too busy in my classes and labs to notice the smoke. Until now… when I look up and realize that they’ve got their brand burned into our flesh now, and in the process have even burned off the word “university” from our “brand identity”. Oops!

We do get to keep the dog’s paw tattoo and the triple-Ds, though! At least Zaphod Beeblebrox may like us more now – and ain’t that something?

But I protesteth too much, for the only thing worrying local news organizations about our new branding ad logo is that Timeout, the campus mascot, isn’t featured in it more prominently! Time for mere academics like me to accept the writing on the wall, perhaps. For this is how the athletics tail wags the academic dog on our campus now. Enjoy the branding. Don’t mind me if I feel like a little flea about to be swatted off the fur of this overly-made-over bulldog.

Archaeologist Brian Fagan to visit Fresno State this week (and a repost)

I just learnt that archaeologist and writer Brian Fagan is visiting my campus this week – tomorrow (Mar 6) in fact – but I will miss his visit! I’ve been wanting to bring him to Fresno for some time now – and here I am stuck in Mumbai when he does actually arrive on campus! If you are on Fresno and reading this, please do go to his talk on the Fresno State campus tomorrow. Here’s more info on the event, which is open to the public:

Fagan_march_6

Meanwhile, since I won’t be able to participate in the event, let me at least throw in my tuppence remotely, by sharing something I had written about him a few years ago. The following is a repost:

“This is a very serious issue, in fact…”

“… that’s why you’re on this show!”

That was perhaps the most ironic exchange between Brian Fagan (who said the first part) and Jon Stewart (who came back with the swift self-deprecating retort) tonight on The Daily Show where Fagan came on to talk about his new book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations“. The Daily Show’s promo blurb for today’s show had a link to Fagan’s blog, where he wrote this interesting post about the forecasts of prolonged droughts in some parts of the world being the silent elephants in the climate change discussion. And it was when he was discussing that very point when the above ironic exchange occurred during the interview (look for it @ 3:35 min in the video below the fold) – a double dose of irony if you will!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Brian Fagan
www.thedailyshow.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:164181
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, I was touched by another post discussing the Indian monsoon in a historical context, with the opening making me ache for my favorite season of the year back home:

“The peacocks danced at eventide”, wrote the sixth-century Indian writer Subdandhu of the onset of the monsoon. The monsoon is much more than a matter of meteorology in India and Pakistan. The very fabric of human existence unfolds around two seasons–the wet and the dry. The wet season brings warm, moist conditions and heavy rain, carried by the monsoon winds blowing inland from the ocean. The other half of the year, the arid season, enjoys cool, dry air from the north. The coming of the monsoon is a highlight of the year to those who suffered through the buildup after the pleasant winter months–weeks of torrid heat. Colonel Edward Tennant of the British East India Company wrote in 1886: “The sly, instead of its brilliant blue, assumes the sullen tint of lead. . . . The days become overcast and hot, banks of clouds rise over the ocean to the west. . . . At last the sudden lightning flash among the hills, and shoot through the clouds that overhang the sea, and with a crash of thunder the monsoon bursts over the hungry land.” My father was a civil servant in the British Raj in the Punjab during the 1920s. Even in his extreme old age, he could vividly recall the most epochal day of the year, when India became cold and grey, like distant England.

Trust me, it is actually quite unlike England, being grey, yes, but definitely not cold – but rather invitingly cool after a blazing hot summer! Oh how I miss the march of those grey clouds across the Bombay coastline…

Fagan goes on to describe the discovery of correlations between the Indian monsoon and El Nìno events in the Pacific…

Generations of meteorologists have tried to forecast monsoons, notable among them Sir Gilbert Walker, a brilliant statistician with a passion for flutes and atmospheric pressure, who is remembered for his discovery of the Southern Oscillation, the driving force behind El Nino and its opposite cousin, La Nina. There is now fairly general Agreement that monsoon failures sometimes, but not invariably, coincide with El Nino conditions in the Pacific, as was the case with the terrible famine and monsoon failure of 1875-6, which killed tens of thousands and ravaged at least a third of Bengal.

… before adding some strong words about the historical context of the famine and the culpability of the British empire:

While much of India starved, the British Raj was busy exporting grain to the world market. Meanwhile, the Viceroy, the eccentric and erratic Lord Lytton, who happened to be Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, was preoccupied with a gigantic durbar in Delhi, which included a week-long feast for 68,000 maharajahs and officials. An English journalist estimated that at least 100,000 rural farmers perished during the festivities, which were designed to be gaudy enough to impress the orientals”. Lytton’s shameful famine policy was one of laissez faire. The historian Mike Davis, whose book Late Victorian Holocausts should be required reading for every historian of the nineteenth century, estimates that at least 20-30 million tropical farmers perished during that century as a result of drought, famine, and famine-related diseases.

And as Fagan rounds off with an alarm bell about how future wars will be fought over water even as we waste our current resources on unnecessary wars while avoiding facing the real problems looming ahead, I’m reminded of the Indian journalist P. Sainath’s powerful book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts.