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Teaching Geography: Workshop 2

Latin America

Readings for Workshop 2

The following material comes from Chapter 4 of Geography for Life. You may read it here or in its complete form in your text. For additional readings, go to Resources.

The National Geography Standards for Workshop 2

The National Geography Standards highlighted in this workshop include Standards 4, 7, 9, and 15. As you read, be thinking about how the standards apply in lessons you may have taught.

Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places.

People's lives are grounded in particular places. We come from a place, we live in a place, and we preserve and exhibit fierce pride over places. Our sense of self is intimately entwined with that of place. Who we are is often inseparable from where we are. Places are human creations and the geographically informed person must understand the genesis, evolution, and meaning of places.

Places are parts of Earth's space, large or small, that have been endowed with meaning by humans. They include continents, islands, countries, regions, states, cities, neighborhoods, villages, rural areas, and uninhabited areas. They usually have names and boundaries. Each place possesses a distinctive set of tangible and intangible characteristics that helps to distinguish it from other places. Places are characterized by their physical and human properties. Their physical characteristics include climate, landforms, soils, hydrology, vegetation, and animal life. Their human characteristics include language, religion, political systems, economic systems, population distribution, and quality of life.

Places change over time as both physical and human processes operate to modify Earth's surface. Few places remain unchanged for long and these changes have a wide range of consequences. As knowledge, ideologies, values, resources, and technologies change, people make place-altering decisions about how to use land, how to organize society, and ways in which to relate (such as economically or politically) to nearby and distant places. Out of these processes emerge new places, with existing places being reorganized and expanded, other places declining, and some places disappearing. Places change in size and complexity and in economic, political, and cultural importance as networks of relationships between places are altered through population expansion, the rise and fall of empires, changes in climate and other physical systems, and changes in transportation and communication technologies. A place can be dramatically altered by events both near and far.

Knowing how and why places change enables people to understand the need for knowledgeable and collaborative decision-making about where to locate schools, factories, and other things and how to make wise use of features of the physical environment such as soil, air, water, and vegetation. Knowing the physical and human characteristics of their own places influences how people think about who they are, because their identity is inextricably bound up with their place in life and the world. Personal identity, community identity, and national identity are rooted in place and attachment to place. Knowing about other places influences how people understand other peoples, cultures, and regions of the world. Knowledge of places at all scales, local to global, is incorporated into people's mental maps of the world.

Students need an understanding of why places are the way they are, because it can enrich their own sense of identity with a particular place and enable them to comprehend and appreciate both the similarities and differences of places around their own community, state, country, and planet.

Standard 7: The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface.

Physical processes create, maintain, and modify Earth's physical features and environments. Because the physical environment is the essential background for all human activity on Earth, the geographically informed person must understand the processes that produce those features.

Physical processes can be grouped into four categories: those operating in the atmosphere (i.e., climate and meteorology), those operating in the lithosphere (e.g., plate tectonics, erosion, and soil formation), those operating in the hydrosphere (e.g., the circulation of the oceans and the hydrologic cycle), and those operating in the biosphere (e.g., plant and animal communities and ecosystems).

By understanding the interaction within and between these categories of physical processes, the geographically informed person can pose and answer certain fundamental questions: What does the surface of Earth look like? How have it s features been formed? What is the nature of these features and how do they interact? How and why are they changing? What are the spatially distinct combinations of environmental features? How are these environmental features related to past, present, and prospective human uses of Earth? The answers to these questions lead to an understanding of how Earth serves as the home of all plants and animals, including humans.

Processes shape and maintain the physical environment. Therefore it is vital that students appreciate the complex relationships between processes and resultant features, and how these relationships give rise to patterns of spatial organization. For example, in a region such as southern California, the physical landscape is constantly reshaped by a complex set of interacting physical processes: earthquakes, coastal erosion, land subsidence owing to subsurface oil and water extraction, flash floods and landslides caused by heavy rainfall in the spring, and drought and the loss of chaparral vegetation from fire in the dry summer weeks. In turn, these processes show chains of interaction: the chaparral vegetation is the biosphere's response to the climate and soil. Given the expected variations in rainfall in this Mediterranean climate regime, the chaparral becomes dormant and is prone to fire; however, clearance of the chaparral vegetation, especially in the canyons of steep hills, exposes the surface to flash flooding and soil erosion.

Five basic ideas help to explain the interactions and effects of physical processes. These are known as system, boundary, force, state of equilibrium, and threshold. A system is a collection of elements that are mutually connected and therefore influence one another to form a unified whole (e.g., the hydrologic cycle). Each system has boundaries, either real or arbitrary, within which it operates. Some forces, such as gravity and weather, activate and drive processes; other forces, such as friction, resist change and act to maintain the status quo. Systems exist in different states. When a system is in equilibrium, driving forces such as gravity and resisting forces such as friction are in balance. However, when a threshold - the point at which change may occur - is reached adjustment takes place. For example, an avalanche occurs when gravity, acting on deep layers of snow, overcomes the friction that was holding the snow mass in place (i.e., a state of equilibrium gives way when a threshold is reached). After the avalanche a new state of equilibrium is established.

It is essential that students understand the physical processes that act upon Earth and that such processes affect the choices made by people in different regions of the United States. Knowledge of these processes is required for dealing with such commonplace issues as: evaluating locations of relative safety in an earthquake-prone region; purchasing a home in a floodplain; coping with the threat of sinkholes and subsidence in a landscape underlain by limestone deposits; building a house in an area that has shrink-swell clay soils.

It is also essential that students learn to make intelligent predictions about future events and evaluate the short- and long-term effects of physical events on places and regions. Evaluating reports of world climate change requires knowing the factors that affect climate and weather in general and how the natural environment functions in particular regions. Climate and weather affect more than just personal decision-making on a daily basis. They are major factors in understanding world economic conditions over longer periods. Many important natural resources are formed by physical processes that occur in relatively few places on Earth. Understanding physical processes and the patterns of resources they produce is vital to understanding not only the physical geography of Earth's surface but also the strategic relationships between nations and world trade patterns.

Understanding physical processes enables the geographically informed person to link the personal with the societal, the short term with the long term, and the local with the global dimensions of Earth.

Standard 9: The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.

Human population has increased dramatically over the last few centuries. In 1830, more than 900 million people inhabited Earth. As the twenty-first century approached, Earth's population was nearly six billion. At the same time, extraordinarily large and dense clusters of people are growing: Tokyo has already reached a population in excess of 25 million. The geographically informed person must understand that the growth, distribution, and movements of people on Earth's surface are the driving forces behind not only human events—social, cultural, political, and economic—but also certain physical events, such as large-scale flooding, resource depletion, and ecological breakdown.

Students need to develop an understanding of the interaction of the human and environmental factors that help to explain the characteristics of human populations, as well as their distribution and movements. The distribution and density of Earth's population reflect the planet's topography, soils, vegetation, and climate types (ecosystems); available resources; and level of economic development. Population growth rates are influenced by such factors as education (especially of women), religion, telecommunications, urbanization, and employment opportunities. Mortality rates are influenced by the availability of medical services, food, shelter, health services, and the overall age and sex distribution of the population.

Another key population characteristic is growth, which may be described in terms of fertility and mortality, crude birthrates and death rates, natural increase and doubling time, and population structure (age and sex distribution). These basic demographic concepts help bring focus to the human factors that explain population distributions and densities, growth patterns, and population projections. Population pyramids, for example, indicate the differential effects of past events, such as wars, disease, famine, improved sanitation, and vaccination programs, on birthrates and death rates and gender. An analysis of specific age cohorts enables predictions to be made. For example, a large proportion zero to 15 years old suggests rapid population, which will soon require significant resources to support the elderly. Both predictions could have significant geographic implications for a community; for example, a young population could create a need for more housing and schools, whereas an older population could create a need for more retirement and medical facilities. Such demographic analyses can be performed at all scales.

Almost every country is experiencing increased urbanization. Across Earth peasant and pastoral life is giving way to the more economically promising lure of life in cities, as people seeking better jobs or more income move to areas where opportunities are better. The majority of the world's people are moving toward a way of life that only a minority of people experienced less than a century ago. Population geographers predict that Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Bombay, Shanghai, Lagos, and Mexico City will be the 21st century's massive population centers. However, people in some developed countries are giving up the economic advantages of city life for the ease and attractions of suburbs and small towns, especially those with access to employment in metropolitan areas.

Migration is one of the most distinctive and visible characteristics of human populations, and it leads to significant reshaping of population distribution and character. It is a dynamic process that is constantly changing Earth's landscapes and modifying its cultures. It takes place at a variety of scales and in different contexts. At international scales geographers track the flows of immigrants and emigrants. At national scales they consider net regional balances of in- and out-migrants or the flows from rural to urban areas, which are a principal cause of urbanization. At a local scale they consider the continuous mobility of college students, retirees, and tourists or the changes of address that occur without necessarily resulting in a job change or change in friendship patterns.

The context of migration varies from voluntary and discretionary (the search for a better place to live), to voluntary but unavoidable (the search for a place to live), to involuntary and unavoidable (the denial of the right to choose a place to live).

In the two voluntary contexts, migration often results from the weighing of factors at the point of origin and at potential destinations against the costs (financial and emotional) of moving. "Pull" factors may make another place seem more attractive and therefore influence the decision to move. Other factors are unpleasant enough to "push" the migrant out of the local setting and toward another area. These factors reflect people's objective knowledge of places and also their secondhand impressions. As a consequence, many countries have experienced waves of people going from settled areas to new lands in the interior (e.g., the westward movement in the United States in the nineteenth century and the move from the southeast coast to the interior of Brazil starting in the 1960s, when the new capital city of Brasilia was built).

Voluntary and unavoidable migration occurs when much of a region's or country's population is impelled into migration streams, such as the millions of Irish who fled to the United States in the 1840s because of the potato famine or the millions of Somalis, Sudanese, and Rwandans who moved in the 1990s because of drought, famine, and civil war. However, some migrations are forced and involuntary. Such was the case with African Americans who were taken to North and South America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to work as slave laborers on sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations.

Demographic shifts rearrange patterns of population and create new human landscapes. Natural increase, war, famine, and disease play decisive roles in influencing why many people live where they do. Migration sets people in motion as they leave one place, strike out for a second, and possibly settle in a third. Intervening obstacles influence the patterns of migration. Physical barriers such as deserts, mountains, rivers, and seas or cultural barriers such as political boundaries, languages, economic conditions, and cultural traditions determine how people move and where they settle.

It is essential that students develop an understanding of the dynamics of population characteristics, distributions, and migration, and in particular of how population distribution (in terms of size and characteristics) is linked to the components of fertility, mortality, and mobility.

Standard 15: How physical systems affect human systems.

No matter what the spatial scale, Earth's surface presents a picture of physical diversity in terms of soils, climates, vegetation, and topography. That diversity offers a range of environmental contexts for people. The geographically informed person must understand how humans are able to live in various kinds of physical environments—not only those of the familiar mid-latitudes but also those that seem less conducive to intensive settlement such as the Arctic tundra and the Equatorial rain forest—and the role physical features of those environments play in shaping human activities.

To live in any given physical environment humans must develop patterns of spatial organization, which take advantage of opportunities offered and avoid or minimize the effects of limitations. Physical systems and environmental characteristics do not, by themselves, determine the pattern of human activity. If the incentives are great enough settlement is possible, although at great cost and risk. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline and construction techniques used in tundra-area settlements are evidence of the extent of human ingenuity. However, the environment does place limitations on human societies (e.g., a glaciated region with its complex of features—thin, rocky water-logged soils and unique landforms —offers few opportunities for commercial agriculture).

A central concept is the idea of carrying capacity: the maximum, sustained level of use of an environment that is possible without incurring significant environmental destruction. Environments vary in their carrying capacity, and people's failure to understand it—or their inability to live within it—can lead to environmental disaster. Cyclical environmental change, especially in semiarid environments, can pose particular problems for human use of that environment and can lead to desertification, famine, and mass migration, as has occurred in the Sahel of north-central Africa. The relationship between any environment and its inhabitants is mediated by decisions about how much to consume and in what ways to consume. Energy conservation, water conservation, and recycling can have significant effects on patterns of environmental use.

In modern times human have used technology as a means of reducing the potential effect of physical systems on human activity. In the United States, for example, the wide-spread introduction of air-conditioning has allowed people to relocate to the South and Southwest, regions previously considered less suited to settlement. And in various regions of Earth, use of the airplane has made it possible to establish settlements and industries in hitherto inaccessible places. However, the use of technology to overcome physical impediments to human activity can also have wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected consequences. For instance, the attempt to control rivers by building dams and dredging waterways to prevent destructive and life-threatening floods can also lead to diminished soil replenishment, increased water salinity, reduced flow of sediment to oceans, and increased riverbank erosion.

In addition to carrying-capacity limitations, the physical environment often imposes significant costs on human society. Natural hazards are defined as processes or events in the physical environment that are not caused by humans but whose consequences can be harmful. They cost the United States billions of dollars each year. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, storms, floods, forest fires, and insect infestations are events that are not preventable and whose precise location, timing, and magnitude are not predictable. Their negative consequences can be reduced by understanding the potential vulnerability of different groups of people and by implementing a variety of strategies such as improved building design, land-use regulation, warning systems, and public education.

Whether the issue is the mitigation of a natural hazard or recognition of carrying capacity, students need to understand the characteristics and spatial properties of the physical environment. It is essential that they be able to translate an understanding of the physical processes and patterns that shape Earth's surface into a picture of that surface as a potential home for people. That home can hold only so many people or be used only in certain ways without incurring costs. Judgment as to the acceptability of those costs requires an understanding of environmental opportunities and constraints.

The above material is from Geography for Life: The National Geography Standards, 1994, The Geography Education Standards Project. Reprinted with the permission of the National Geographic Society.