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Teaching Geography: Workshop 8

Global Forces / Local Impact

Readings for Workshop 8

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 8

The National Geography Standards highlighted in this workshop include Standards 3, 8, 11, 14, and 16. As you read, be thinking about how the standards apply in lessons you may have taught.

Standard 3: How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on the Earth's surface.

Thinking in spatial terms is essential to knowing and applying geography. It enables students to take an active, questioning approach to the world around them, and to ask what, where, when, and why questions about people, places, and environments. Thinking spatially enables students to formulate answers to critical questions about past, present, and future patterns of spatial organization, to anticipate the results of events in different locations, and to predict what might happen given specific conditions. Spatial concepts and generalizations are powerful tools for explaining the world at all scales, local to global. They are the building blocks on which geographic understanding develops.

Thinking in spatial terms means having the ability to describe and analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface. It is an ability that is central to a person being geographically literate.

Geographers refer to both the features of Earth's surface and activities that take place on Earth's surface as phenomena. The phenomena may be physical (topography, streams and rivers, climates, vegetation types, soils), human (towns and cities, population, highways, trade flows, the spread of a disease, national parks), or physical and human taken together (beach resorts in relation to climate, topography, or major population centers). The location and arrangement of both physical and human phenomena form regular and recurring patterns.

The description of a pattern of spatial organization begins by breaking it into its simplest components: points, lines, areas, and volumes. These four elements describe the spatial properties of objects: a school can be thought of as a point connected by roads (which are lines) leading to nearby parks and neighborhoods (which are areas), whereas a lake in a park can be thought of as a volume. The next step in the descriptive process is to use such concepts as location, distance, direction, density, and arrangement (linear, gridlike, random) to capture the relationships between the elements of the pattern. Thus the U.S. interstate highway system can be described as lines connecting points over an area—the arrangement is partly gridlike (with north-south and east-west routes as in the central United States) and partly radial or star-shaped (as in the highways centered on Atlanta)—and the pattern of interstates is denser in the East than it is in the West.

The analysis of a pattern of spatial organization proceeds with the use of such concepts as movement and flow, diffusion, cost of distance, hierarchy, linkage, and accessibility to explain the reasons for patterns and the functioning of the world. In the case of a physical pattern, such as a river system, there is a complex hierarchical arrangement linking small streams with small drainage basins and large rivers with drainage basins that are the sum total of all of the smaller drainage basins. There are proportional spatial relationships between stream and river length, width, volume, speed, and drainage-basin area. The gradual changes that can occur in these properties of a river system are related to climate, topography, and geology.

Central to geography is the belief that there is pattern, regularity, and reason to the locations of physical and human phenomena on Earth's surface and that there are spatial structure and spatial processes that give rise to them. Students must be encouraged to think about all aspects of the spatial organization of their world. Understanding the distribution and arrangement of the Earth's physical and human features depends on analyzing data gathered from observation and field study, working with maps and other geographic representations, and posing geographic questions and deriving geographic answers.

Spatial relationships, spatial structure, and spatial processes are simple to understand, despite their apparent unfamiliarity. For example, the spatial organization of human settlement on Earth's surface is generally a pattern of a few large cities, which are widely spaced, and many smaller towns, which are closer together. A comparative analysis of those cities and towns shows that cities offer a wide range of goods and services whereas small towns offer fewer goods and services. Taken together, the description and the analysis explain why consumers shop where they do, why they often buy different products at different locations, and also why changes occur in this spatial pattern.

Understanding patterns of spatial organization enables the geographically informed person to answer three fundamental geographic questions: Why are these phenomena located in these places? How did they get there? Why is this pattern significant? Description and analysis of patterns of spatial organization must occur at scales ranging from local to global.

Students confront a world that is increasingly interdependent. Widely separated places are interconnected as a consequence of improved transportation and communication networks. Human decisions at one location have physical impacts at another location. (For example, the decision to burn coal rather than oil in a power plant may result in acid rain damaging vegetation hundreds of miles away.)

Understanding such spatial linkages requires that students become familiar with a range of spatial concepts and models that can be used to describe and analyze patterns of spatial organization. This knowledge can be grounded in the students' own immediate experiences, and yet it will give the students the power to understand the arrangement of physical and human geographic phenomena anywhere on Earth.

Standard 8: The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on Earth's surface.

Ecosystems are a key element in the viability of planet Earth as human home. Populations of different plants and animals that live and interact together are called a community. When such a community interacts with the other three components of the physical environment—atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere —the result is an ecosystem. The cycles of flows and interconnections—physical, chemical, and biological—between the parts of ecosystems form the mosaic of Earth's environments. The geographically informed person needs to understand the spatial distribution, origins, functioning, and maintenance of different ecosystems and to comprehend how humans have intentionally or inadvertently modified these ecosystems.

Ecosystems form distinct regions on Earth's surface, which vary in size, shape, and complexity. They exist at a variety of scales, from small and very localized areas (e.g., a single stand of oak trees or a clump of xerophytic grasses) to larger areas with precise geographic boundaries (e.g., a pond, desert biome, island, or beach). Larger-scale ecosystems can form continent-wide belts, such as the tundra, taiga, and steppe of northern Asia. The largest ecosystem is the planet itself.

All elements of the environment, physical and human, are part of several different but nested ecosystems. Ecosystems, powered by solar energy, are dynamic and ever-changing. Changes in one ecosystem ripple through others with varying degrees of impact. As self-regulating open systems that maintain flows of energy and matter, they naturally move toward maturity, stability, and balance in the absence of major disturbances. In ecological terms, the physical environment can be seen as an interdependent web of production and consumption cycles. The atmosphere keeps plants and animals alive through solar energy, chemical exchanges (e.g., nitrogen-fixing and photosynthesis), and the provision of water. Through evapotranspiration, the atmosphere and plants help to purify water. Plants provide the energy to keep animals alive either directly through consumption or indirectly through their death and decay into the soil, where the resultant chemicals are taken up by new plants. Soils keep plants and animals alive and work to cleanse water. The root systems of plants and the mechanical and chemical effects of water percolating through bedrock create new soil layers. Ecosystems therefore help to recycle chemicals needed by living things to survive, redistribute waste products, control many of the pests that cause disease in both humans and plants, and offer a huge pool of resources for humans and other living creatures.

However, the stability and balance of ecosystems can be altered by large-scale natural events such as El Niño, volcanic eruptions, fire, or drought. But ecosystems are more drastically transformed by human activities. The web of ecological interdependency is fragile. Human intervention can shatter the balance of energy production and consumption. For example, the overgrazing of pasturelands, coupled with a period of drought, can lead to vegetation loss, the exposure of topsoil layers, and massive soil erosion (as occurred in the 1930s Dust Bowl). Tropical forest clear-cutting can lead to soil erosion and ecological breakdown, as is currently occurring in Amazonia. The construction of oil pipelines in tundra environments can threaten the movements of the caribou herds on which indigenous Inuit populations depend.

By knowing how ecosystems operate and change, students are able to understand the basic principles that should guide programs for environmental management. Students can understand the ways in which they are dependent on the living and nonliving systems of Earth for their survival. Knowing about ecosystems will enable them to learn how to make reasoned decisions, anticipate the consequences of their choices, and assume responsibility for the outcomes of their choices about the use of the physical environment. It is important that students become well-informed regarding ecosystem issues so they can evaluate conflicting points of view on the use of natural resources. The degree to which present and future generations understand their critical role in the natural functioning of ecosystems will determine in large measure the quality of human life on Earth.

Standard 11: The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface.

Resources are unevenly scattered across the surface of Earth, and no country has all of the resources it needs to survive and grow. Thus each country must trade with others, and Earth is a world of increasing global economic interdependence. Accordingly, the geographically informed person understands the spatial organization of economic, transportation, and communication systems, which produce and exchange the great variety of commodities—raw materials, manufactured goods, capital, and services— which constitute the global economy.

The spatial dimensions of economic activity and global interdependence are visible everywhere. Trucks haul frozen vegetables to markets hundreds of miles from growing areas and processing plants. Airplanes move large numbers of business passengers or vacationers. Highways, especially in developed countries, carry the cars of many commuters, tourists, and other travelers. The labels on products sold in American supermarkets typically identify the products as coming from other U.S. states and from other countries.

The spatial dimensions of economic activity are more and more complex. For example, petroleum is shipped from Southwest Asia, Africa, and Latin America to major energy-importing regions such as the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. Raw materials and food from tropical areas are exchanged for the processed or fabricated products of the mid-latitude developed countries. Components for vehicles and electronics equipment are made in Japan and the United States, shipped to South Korea and Mexico for partial assembly, returned to Japan and the United States for final assembly into finished products, then shipped all over the world.

Economic activities depend upon capital, resources, power supplies, labor, information, and land. The spatial patterns of industrial labor systems have changed over time. In much of Western Europe, for example, small-scale and spatially dispersed cottage industry was displaced by large-scale and concentrated factory industry after 1760. This change caused rural emigration, the growth of cities, and changes in gender and age roles. The factory has now been replaced by the office as the principal workplace in developed countries. In turn, telecommunications are diminishing the need for a person's physical presence in an office. Economic, social, and therefore spatial relationships change continuously.

The world economy has core areas where the availability of advanced technology and investment capital are central to economic development. In addition, it has semi-peripheries where lesser amounts of value are added to industry or agriculture, and peripheries where resource extraction or basic export agriculture are dominant. Local and world economies intermesh to create networks, movement patterns, transportation routes, market areas, and hinterlands.

In the developed countries of the world's core areas, business leaders are concerned with such issues as accessibility, connectivity, location, networks, functional regions, and spatial efficiency: factors that play an essential role in economic development and also reflect the spatial and economic interdependence of places on Earth.

In developing countries, such as Bangladesh and Guatemala, economic activities tend to be at a more basic level, with a substantial proportion of the population being engaged in the production of food and raw materials. Nonetheless, systems of interdependence have developed at the local, regional, and national levels. Subsistence farming often exists side by side with commercial agriculture. In China, for example, a government-regulated farming system provides for structured production and tight economic links of the rural population to nearby cities. In Latin America and Africa, rural people are leaving the land and migrating to large cities, in part to search for jobs and economic prosperity and in part as a response to overpopulation in marginal agricultural regions. Another important trend is industrialized countries continuing to export their labor-intensive processing and fabrication to developing countries. The recipient countries also profit from the arrangement financially but at a social price. The arrangement can put great strains on centuries-old societal structures in the recipient countries.

As world population grows, as energy costs increase, as time becomes more valuable, and as resources become depleted or discovered, societies need economic systems that are more efficient and responsive. It is particularly important, therefore, for students to understand world patterns and networks of economic interdependence and to realize that traditional patterns of trade, human migration, and cultural and political alliances are being altered as a consequence of global interdependence.

Standard 14: How human actions modify the physical environment.

Many of the important issues facing modern society are the consequences— intended and unintended, positive and negative—of human modifications of the physical environment. So it is that the daily news media chronicle such things as the building of dams and aqueducts to bring water to semiarid areas, the loss of wildlife habitat, the reforestation of denuded hills, the depletion of the ozone layer, the ecological effects of acid rain, the reduction of air pollution in certain urban areas, and the intensification of agricultural production through irrigation.

Environmental modifications have economic, social, and political implications for most of the world's people. Therefore, the geographically informed person must understand the reasons for and consequences of human modifications of the environment in different parts of the world.

Human adaptation to and modification of physical systems are influenced by the geographic context in which people live, their understanding of that context, and their technological ability and inclination to modify it to suit their changing need for things such as food, clothing, water, shelter, energy, and recreational facilities. In meeting their needs, they bring knowledge and technology to bear on physical systems.

Consequently, humans have altered the balance of nature in ways that have brought economic prosperity to some areas and created environmental dilemmas and crises in others. Clearing land for settlement, mining, and agriculture provides homes and livelihoods for some but alters physical systems and transforms human populations, wildlife, and vegetation. The inevitable by-products—garbage, air and water pollution, hazardous waste, the overburden from strip mining —place enormous demands on the capacity of physical systems to absorb and accommodate them.

The intended and unintended impacts on physical systems vary in scope and scale. They can be local and small-scale (e.g., the terracing of hillsides for rice growing in the Philippines and acid stream pollution from strip mining in eastern Pennsylvania), regional and medium-scale (e.g., the creation of agricultural polderlands in the Netherlands and of an urban heat island with its microclimatic effects in Chicago), or global and large-scale (e.g., the clearing of the forests of North America for agriculture or the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons).

Students must understand both the potential of a physical environment to meet human needs and the limitations of that same environment. They must be aware of and understand the causes and implications of different kinds of pollution, resource depletion, and land degradation and the effects of agriculture and manufacturing on the environment. They must know the locations of regions vulnerable to desertification, deforestation, and salinization, and be aware of the spatial impacts of technological hazards such as photochemical smog and acid rain. Students must be aware that current distribution patterns for many plant and animal species are a result of relocation diffusion by humans.

In addition, students must learn to pay careful attention to the relationships between population growth, urbanization, and the resultant stress on physical systems. The process of urbanization affects wildlife habitats, natural vegetation, and drainage patterns. Cities create their own microclimates and produce large amounts of solid waste, photochemical smog, and sewage. A growing world population stimulates increases in agriculture, urbanization, and industrialization. These processes expand demands on water resources, resulting in unintended environmental consequences that can alter water quality and quantity.

Understanding global interdependence begins with an understanding of global dependence: the modification of Earth's surface to meet human needs. When successful the relationship between people and the physical environment is adaptive; when the modifications are excessive the relationship is maladaptive. Increasingly, students will be required to make decisions about relationships between human needs and the physical environment. They will need to be able to understand the opportunities and limitations presented by the geographical context and to set those contexts within the local-to-global continuum.

Standard 16: The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.

A resource is any physical material that constitutes part of Earth and which people need and value. There are three basic resources—land, water, and air —that are essential to human survival. However, any other natural material also becomes a resource if and when it becomes available to humans. The geographically informed person must develop an understanding of this concept and of the changes in the spatial distribution, quantity, and quality of resources on Earth's surface.

Those changes occur because a resource is a cultural concept, with the value attached to any given resource varying from culture to culture and period to period. Value can be expressed in economic or monetary terms, in legal terms (as in the Clean Air Act), in terms of risk assessment, or in terms of ethics (the responsibility to preserve our National Parks for future generations). The value of a resource depends on human needs and the technology available for its extraction and use. Rock oil seeping from rocks in northwestern Pennsylvania was of only minor value as a medicine until a technology was developed in the mid-nineteenth century that enabled it to be refined into a lamp illuminant. Some resources that were once valuable are no longer important. For example, it was the availability of pine tar and tall timber—strategic materials valued by the English navy—that in the seventeenth century helped spur settlement in northern New England, but that region now uses its vegetative cover (and natural beauty) as a different type of resource: for recreation and tourism. Resources, therefore, are the result of people seeing a need and perceiving an opportunity to meet that need.

The quantity and quality of a resource is determined by whether it is a renewable, a nonrenewable, or a flow resource. Renewable resources, such as plants and animals, can replenish themselves after they have been used if their physical environment has not been destroyed. If trees are harvested carefully, a new forest will grow to replace the one that was cut. If animals eat grass in a pasture to a certain level, grass will grow again and provide food for animals in the future, as long as the carrying capacity of the land is not exceeded by the pressure of too many animals. Nonrenewable resources, such as minerals and fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), can be extracted and used only once. Flow resources, such as water, wind, and sunlight, are neither renewable nor nonrenewable because they must be used as, when, and where they occur. The energy in a river can be used to generate electricity, which can be transmitted over great distances. However, that energy must be captured by turbines as the water flows past or it will be lost.

The location of resources influences the distribution of people and their activities on the Earth. People live where they can earn a living. Human migration and settlement are linked to the availability of resources, ranging from fertile soils and supplies of freshwater to deposits of metals or pools of natural gas. The patterns of population distribution that result from the relationship between resources and employment change as needs and technologies change. In Colorado, for example, abandoned mining towns reflect the exhaustion of nonrenewable resources (silver and lead deposits), whereas ski resorts reflect the exploitation of renewable resources (snow and scenery).

Technology changes the ways in which humans appraise resources, and it may modify economic systems and population distributions. Changes in technology bring into play new ranges of resources from Earth's stock. Since the industrial revolution, for example, technology has shifted from waterpower to coal-generated steam to petroleum-powered engines, and different resources and their source locations have become important. The population of the Ruhr Valley in Germany, for example, grew rapidly in response to the new importance of coal and minerals in industrial ventures. Similarly, each innovation in the manufacture of steel brought a new resource to prominence in the United States and resulted in locational shifts in steel production and population growth.

Demands for resources vary spatially. More resources are used by economically developed countries than by developing countries. For example, the United States uses petroleum at a rate that is five times the world average. As countries develop economically, their demand for resources increases faster than their population grows. The wealth that accompanies economic development enables people to consume more. The consumption of a resource does not necessarily occur where the resource is produced or where the largest reserves of the resource are located. Most of the petroleum produced in Southwest Asia, for example, is consumed in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Sometimes, users of resources feel insecure when they have to depend on other places to supply them with materials that are so important to their economy and standard of living. This feeling of insecurity can become especially strong if two interdependent countries do not have good political relations, share the same values, or understand each other. In some situations, conflict over resources breaks out into warfare. One factor in Japan's involvement in World War II, for example, was that Japan lacked petroleum resources of its own and coveted oil fields elsewhere in Asia, especially after the United States threatened to cut off its petroleum exports to Japan.

Conflicts over resources are likely to increase as demand increases. Globally, the increase in demand tends to keep pace with the increase in population. More people on Earth means more need for fertilizers, building materials, food, energy, and everything else produced from resources. Accordingly, if the people of the world are to coexist, Earth's resources must be managed to guarantee adequate supplies for everyone. That means reserves of renewable resources need to be sustained at a productive level, new reserves of nonrenewable resources need to be found and exploited, new applications for flow resources need to be developed, and, wherever possible, cost-effective substitutes—especially for nonrenewable resources—need to be developed.

It is essential that students have a solid grasp of the different kinds of resources, of the ways in which humans value and use (and compete over) resources, and of the distribution of resources across Earth's surface.

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.