Geography and Critical Issues
To most Americans, geography is about place names. Concerns about geographic ignorance usually focus on people's inability to locate cities, countries, and rivers on a world map, and geographic instruction is often equated with conveying information about remote parts of the world. From this perspective it may be a surprise to some that geography has relevance to many of the critical issues facing society in the late twentieth century.
Geographers and others using geographic knowledge and perspectives, in fact, are engaged in valuable research and teaching on matters ranging from environmental change to social conflict. The value of these activities derives from geography's focus on the evolving character and organization of the Earth's surface, on the ways in which the interactions of physical and human phenomena in space create distinctive places and regions, and on the influences those places and regions have on a wide range of natural and human events and processes. Such concerns are not simply exercises in expanding the encyclopedic knowledge of faraway places; they go to the heart of some of the most urgent questions before decision makers today: How should societies respond to the accelerated pace of environmental degradation in many parts of the world? What are the underlying causes and consequences of the growing disparities between rich and poor? What are the mechanisms that drive the global climate system? What causes the severe floods that have occurred in recent years, and how can society cope with such events? How is technology changing economic and social systems?
Addressing such questions goes far beyond the abilities and insights of any one discipline. Yet each question embodies fundamental geographic dimen-
sions—dimensions that are ignored at society's risk. The geographic perspective is concerned with the significance of place and space on processes and phenomena (see Chapter 3 for a fuller discussion). The geographic perspective motivates such questions as: Why is a particular phenomenon found in some places but not others? What does the spatial distribution of vegetation or homeless people or language traits tell us about how physical and human processes work? How do phenomena found in the same place influence one another, and how do phenomena found at different places influence one another? How do processes that operate at one geographic scale affect processes at other scales? What is the importance of location for efforts to effect (or avoid) political, social, economic, or environmental change?
The importance of the geographic perspective to many contemporary "critical issues" for society is illustrated by a few selected examples in the following sections.
Perhaps the main reason for American society's strong interest in geography in the 1990s is a sense that jobs, income, and entrepreneurial opportunities in the United States are connected with the global marketplace. The United States is caught up in the profoundly important process of global economic restructuring, in which every nation seeks competitive advantage in providing products and services that global consumers want. U.S. citizens no longer have the highest average standard of living in the world, and many citizens believe that other countries are doing a better job than the United States in responding to new economic conditions. Moreover, U.S. cities and regions are dealing with other dimensions of global economic change, such as reduced military spending with the end of the Cold War and increased interest in environmental sustainability.
Geography is expected to ensure a flow of accurate, timely, and useful information about the rest of the world, but it is more than a repository of place facts. It asks, for example: How and why do commodities, money, information, and power flow from one place to another? What characteristics of a place cause it to do better economically than another? What actions are best taken at national, regional, or local scales to improve economic development? How does global economic change relate to global environmental change?
Geographers contribute to understanding and responding to global economic change through their focus on place and space—in this context, the effects of place (location) and space (the connections between locations at different scales) on economic change and development. For example, Glasmeier and Howland (1995) used the heterogeneous and rapidly growing service sector to study the impacts of advanced information technologies on the growth of rural areas in the United States, recognizing the distinctiveness of rural areas as well as the social, economic, and geographic differences among rural areas. Geographers
view nations not only as pieces of a mosaic but as mosaics themselves, that is, of geographically varying combinations of local knowledge and resources. Geographers go beyond regional estimates of production costs and product markets to understand the complex relationships among regional political, social, and environmental conditions and processes. Markusen (1987), for instance, has reviewed the economic and political history of regions and regionalism within the United States to relate political movements and economic structure in an historical and geographic context. Geographers examine location as a factor influencing the connections of particular places to global changes and flows.
A good example of a geographic perspective in action is an analysis of relationships between regional economic growth in the United States and patterns of military expenditures, which was led by Ann Markusen and Peter Hall (Markusen et al., 1991). This analysis suggested that publicly financed industrial production has a different geographic pattern than privately funded industrial activity because of strategic considerations such as the decentralization of production and the importance of relationships among defense contractors, military offices, and congressional budget decisions. Further, it suggested that different periods of military spending have different geographies, but spending in each period has considerable spatial concentration. For instance, "hot wars" such as World War II, Korea, and Vietnam tended to reinforce the prominence of existing industrial centers in the Northeast and Midwest, whereas Cold War spending patterns tended to shift military procurement toward the South, West, and New England. These concentrations make it difficult for regions dependent on military spending to adjust when the nation moves from one period to another.
Such research findings have helped the federal government appreciate the importance of formulating programs to help defense-dependent communities adjust to plant and facility closings and other impacts of defense spending cuts. For instance, these findings have been influential in stimulating initiatives to educate state and local economic development officials about reemployment strategies and options for plant and facility reuse.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, there is growing concern that humans are irreparably degrading the physical environment that supports them. A wide range of human activities contributes to this problem, including the pollution of air, land, and water as a result of industrial and agricultural activities. In many parts of the world the quality of the air has declined to the point that plant and animal communities are threatened, as well as human health. The heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture and the expanding quantity of waste that must be stored on or near the Earth's surface are impairing the quality of the land surface of the planet.
Understanding and confronting the environmental degradation problem
requires more than a physical analysis of particular pollutants or an institutional analysis of decision making structures. It also requires geographic analysis. Why do polluting industries concentrate in particular locations? Where do pollutants go once they leave a factory or dump? Where are the best places to locate polluting industries and hazardous waste disposal facilities? What is the relationship between political and environmental patterns, and how does the disjunction between the two influence efforts to confront environmental degradation? Answering geographic questions of this sort requires careful analysis of the spatial character of pollution and the dynamic interactions between humans and their environment as a function of place.
As one example, during and shortly after the Manhattan Project,1 workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico released some plutonium onto nearby canyon floors where it became attached to sedimentary particles. In subsequent decades, natural processes moved some of the sediments and their attached plutonium to the Rio Grande River, raising concerns about environmental and health hazards (Graf, 1994). Geographic analysis of the flows of plutonium through the general river system revealed that, on an average annual basis, 90 percent of the plutonium moving through the system was from sources other than the laboratory discharges—for example, fallout from atomic testing (see Figure 2.1). During some critical years, however, the contribution of plutonium from the laboratory amounted to as much as 86 percent of the total. No matter what the source, however, analysis of the plutonium budget and flows showed that only half of the plutonium entering the river was being transported through the system. The other half was being stored in the river system itself, and with a half-life of 24,000 years remains as a potential hazard, particularly if it is concentrated at some point up the food chain.
The location of these stored hazardous materials is, in fact, controlled by the spatial mechanics of the river system. In the northern Rio Grande River, plutonium absorbed into sediment is most often stored in floodplain deposits, channel fills, and reservoir sediments close to the point of its injection into the river system. Concentrations of plutonium in these sedimentary deposits are one to two orders of magnitude greater than concentrations in active channel sediments. In this way, understanding specific and localized geomorphic processes allowed this environmental hazard to be pinpointed, thereby improving risk assessment and mitigation measures.
During the past two decades, ethnic conflict has undermined the existing social and political orders of many cities, countries, and world regions. Conflicts
between ethnic groups are manifest at a variety of scales, and in some cases they are precipitating major humanitarian crises. Consequently, ethnic conflict has increasingly attracted the attention of the scientific and policy making communities. Efforts are being made to understand the causes and consequences of ethnic conflict, and policy makers are grappling with ways of mitigating intergroup hostilities.
Serious research on ethnic conflict has been hindered by the tendency on the part of many academics and policy makers to focus largely on individual nations and states. This very tendency shows why geography is so critical to the
study of ethnic conflict. People look at and approach the world based on particular—often unacknowledged and untested—understandings of how it should be organized and territorially delimited. In the absence of any systematic analysis of those geographic understandings, the geography of ethnic conflict can easily be reduced simply to an exercise in naming the regions in which groups are located.
A serious geographic analysis of ethnic conflict can shed light on the spatial, territorial, and environmental dimensions of ethnic group interaction. It raises questions about the nature and significance of particular political-territorial structures, the role of boundaries, the character of flows between places of influence and control, and the role of the physical environment in shaping conflict and cooperation. Geographic work along these lines has clear implications for developing policy responses to ethnic conflicts. More broadly, it focuses attention on issues that are fundamental to an understanding of the dynamics of ethnic conflict, including the degree of legitimacy accorded particular territorial arrangements by different populations, the ways in which economic and social arrangements are at odds with dominant territorial structures, the implications of territorial arrangements for intergroup relations and understandings, and the effects of regional inequalities on political and social stability.
The insights to be gained from a geographic perspective on ethnic conflict can be illustrated by the geographic analysis of the Vance-Owen partition plan for Bosnia after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s (Jordan, 1993). The Vance-Owen plan came out of an attempt to divide the country on the basis of highly generalized ethnolinguistic maps. Analysis of daily commuting patterns (see Figure 2.2) showed, however, that the territorial units on which the Vance-Owen plan was based bore no relationship to the social and economic organization of Bosnia prior to the outbreak of conflict, which helped to explain why the Vance-Owen plan was so strongly opposed by those living there. In addition, analyses by geographers in the U.S. Department of State pointed out that by defining a large number of ethnic enclaves the Vance-Owen plan would result in an enormous amount of boundary length between opposing groups. When adversaries are not committed to peace, increasing boundaries between them may not be a promising avenue for conflict resolution. Taking into account geographic considerations of this sort is critical if policy analysts are to contribute to the resolution of complex disputes such as the one in Bosnia.
How can society provide for the health needs of an aging population in the face of escalating costs, increasing dependence on publicly provided services, and tightening public sector fiscal constraints? What responses are needed to help curtail the spread of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)? How can society meet the needs of those who cannot afford adequate health care? Questions of this sort have attracted considerable attention of late in both academic
and policy making arenas. Indeed, such questions have assumed a sense of urgency as concerns have grown about the cost of, and equitable access to, health care services.
Geography has an important role to play in addressing such questions. Health care services are provided in particular places; effective decisions about where a particular service should be located must take into consideration the spatial organization of people, health problems, and related services. By focusing attention on locational efficiencies, a geographic analysis can point to specific ways of providing needed health care services cost effectively and, in many instances, can point to better ways of providing critical health services.
An example of the application of geographic perspectives to health care concerns low-birth-weight babies. Low-birth-weight children often have health
problems that reduce their quality of life and that are costly to treat. Preventive health measures to reduce the incidence of low-birth-weight infants are therefore socially desirable and helpful in reducing future health care costs. One analysis in Iowa (Armstrong et al., 1991) showed that mothers who lived far from the hospital where their child was delivered were more likely to have a low-birth-weight infant. Why would we find this particular relationship? A map of Iowa (see Figure 2.3) shows the locations of hospitals that have more than 75 births per year. Large areas of the state are more than 20 miles from such a hospital. At the time of this study in 1990, it was the practice of the state to provide financial assistance for maternal and child health services only to hospitals with more than 75 births per year. This geographic analysis led to a review of that practice to consider supporting some smaller, rural hospitals that were strategically located to serve women in more remote areas. After 1990, the Iowa State Department of Public Health made state-supported nutrition, nursing, and maternal education services more accessible to pregnant women in the state by expanding Medicaid requirements so that a larger proportion of women became eligible to receive such services.
Beyond the question of infrastructure provision, geographic analysis has much to contribute to an understanding of the spread of disease. Ever since the source of a cholera epidemic was identified by mapping the distribution of cholera cases in nineteenth-century London, geographic analysis has been an important
component of epidemiology. With the rise of new virulent viruses, the importance of a geographic perspective on infectious diseases is more critical than ever. Studies of the diffusion of AIDS (e.g., Gould, 1993; see Sidebar 5.9) offer the promise of enhancing our understanding of not only the behavior of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) but also the social and political conditions that have been most conducive to the spread of the virus.
Global Climate Change
During the summer of 1993, record rainfall brought devastating floods to the American Midwest. Plagued by drought only a few years earlier, California experienced damaging floods during the winter of 1994/1995. The summer of 1995 produced record heat waves throughout the United States and an unusually large number of tropical hurricanes. Are these weather events harbingers of long-term climate change that many experts predict based on their assessments of changes in the concentration of ''greenhouse gases" in the Earth's atmosphere? Do they portend more frequent climate-related disasters than in the past?
Addressing these questions requires an understanding of the nature and dynamics of climate change. Climate change involves enormously complex interactions among the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere (see Figure 2.4). These interactions vary significantly across spatial scales. Thus, geographic perspectives that consider place and scale are essential for understanding potential climate changes. For example, geographers have been leaders in contributing to our understanding of large-scale climate patterns, especially those associated with the hydrologic cycle. As one instance, geographic research has shown that considerably more precipitation reaches the Earth's surface than most previous estimates suggest—and many climate models would indicate (Willmott and Legates, 1991).
One important facet of understanding global climate change is appreciating the nature of climatic variations since the last glacial maximum. By mapping past climate variations, identifying regional continuities, and focusing on the spatial relationships between climate and vegetation patterns, geographic analysis contributes to the larger interdisciplinary efforts to understand the operation of the climate system—past, present, and future. These contributions, in turn, are critical to the development of numerical models that are needed if scientists are to understand the extent to which humans may be modifying the climate system and the implications of those modifications.
COHMAP—the Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project—is an example of a recent interdisciplinary climate change research project with a strong geographic component (COHMAP, 1988; Wright et al., 1993). The simulations developed by COHMAP showed how variations in macroscale controls of climate—for example, the size of ice sheets, ocean temperatures, composition of the atmosphere, and the latitudinal and seasonal distributions of solar radiation—govern regional patterns of climate change (see Figure 2.5).
COHMAP illustrates the kind of understanding that follows from an explicit geographic component within a larger interdisciplinary climate change study (Root and Schneider, 1995). Mapping and spatial analysis were essential in expressing and comparing the results of the COHMAP simulations and syntheses (Wright and Bartlein, 1993).
One of the greatest challenges facing American society in the late twentieth century concerns education. The needs to improve the skills of the labor force and to meet the challenges of democratic citizenship in a fast-changing, increasingly complex world present enormous educational challenges (U.S. Department of Education, 1992; U.S. Department of Labor, 1991). What do tomorrow's citizens need to know to function effectively in a world characterized by both a globalized economy and changing local circumstances? What should schools be teaching students who may well hold several different kinds of jobs during the course of their lives? What educational experiences can promote personal enrichment in an age of television, telecommunications, computers, and hypermobility?
It is clear that geography must be a part of any serious effort to meet the educational challenges implicit in these questions. Students need to be exposed to ideas and perspectives that cut across the physical-human divide, that consider how developments in one place influence those in other places, that focus attention on the ways in which local circumstances affect understandings and activities, and that foster an appreciation for the diversity of peoples and landscapes that comprise the Earth's surface. Recent outcries over the lack of geography in school curricula (see Chapter 1) reflect a growing recognition that an understanding of such matters is essential if the students of today are to function effectively in the world of tomorrow.
In response to demands for more and better instruction in geography, a set of voluntary national standards for geography education at the kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) levels has been developed by a coalition of geographers and other educators (Geography Education Standards Project, 1994). In addition, geography alliances have been formed by the National Geographic Society in all 50 states to help school teachers become more effective geography instructors. The College Board is also adding a course and examination in geography to its Advanced Placement Program. These initiatives reflect an understanding that geography is not a luxury in a school curriculum. Instead, it is a necessary component of any reform initiative aimed at preparing students for the challenges of the twenty-first century.
In 1989 the Bush administration convened an education summit of the nation's governors at which they agreed that new goals needed to be established for American education. They determined that teaching and learning at the K-12 level should focus on a limited number of specific core subjects, including geography. Ultimately, national education goals were incorporated into legislation—the Educate America Act, which became public law in 1994. The act specifically included geography as a core subject, not only because geographic literacy was deemed to be important but also because geography instruction would be a vehicle for increasing classroom attention to contemporary issues and for integrating the content and skills associated with other core subjects.
Given the fundamental geographic underpinnings of so many critical issues facing society today, there is a clear need for an assessment of the role of geography in contemporary America. To provide such an assessment, this report turns first to a consideration of the discipline's perspectives and techniques (Chapters 3 and 4). This is followed by an examination of the relevance of the discipline in the scientific and policy making arenas (Chapters 5 and 6). The report then concludes with a discussion of the challenges facing the discipline (Chapter 7) and the adjustments that are needed (Chapter 8) if geography is to respond to the demands being placed on it by scientists, policy makers, educators, and the private sector.