In which I learn 3 mind-boggling geographical ideas

You know how sometimes you discover AFTER graduation what you really wish you had taken more classes in? For me, it’s geography. I never took a single geography class while I was in college. And since I’m about to dive into an extended reading project focused on geography, I thought I’d better start with an introduction. So… I bought a (used, older version) textbook and read it… cover to cover… for fun.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you can tell someone is a serious geek when they do homework in their spare time. (Fun fact: Before I learned to read and write I would color with markers on paper and turn it in to my teacher mother as my “homework”. True story.)

human geographyAnyway. The textbook I chose to read was Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture. I think they’re up to edition ten by now, but I got the eighth edition to save a few bucks. I was more interested in the broader geographical principles than in having the most up-to-date stats and examples. And learn broad geographical principles I did! I really enjoyed trying on a new lens through which to view the world — and it even became practically useful, as you’ll see below! There was a lot of new (and some familiar) information in my textbook, but three main ideas really struck me and stuck with me, and I’ll spend a little time delving into each one.

1. Scale covers over a multitude of sins

One of the pretty foundational geographical principles I learned in the very first chapter is the concept of “scale“. Basically, this means that it matters on what level(s) you look at an issue — for example, at a national, regional, or local level.

When I first read this concept, I was like “Duh… I know how to read maps.” But the far-reaching implications of this principle became clear just a few days later.

As a part of Daniel’s and my web presence consulting business, I write blog posts for a client who works in the healthcare realm. In writing a piece about how Obamacare premiums are projected to change for 2015, I found this article whose headline (“Obamacare premiums slated to rise by an average of 7.5 percent”) touts a smaller-than-previously-projected national increase in healthcare premiums for plans provided through the Affordable Care Act. What lurks beneath this title — and what I discovered after reading the rest of the article — is that looking only at the national average TOTALLY OBSCURES the fact that predictions for premium changes state by state vary wildly. For example, the premiums in Indiana may rise as much as 15%, while premiums in Oregon are predicted to drop by about 2%. Not only that, but if you zoom in even further to different sub-markets within states, you find even MORE variation. Some customers in Nevada might have their premiums go up by 36%, and the premiums for some customers in Arizona could drop by 23%.

The point of this is to illustrate how scale can be used to completely twist and spin (or just get more perspective on) any issue, depending how you look at it. If I was a rabid Obamacare hater, I could truthfully write a headline of “Obamacare premiums skyrocket by 36% for some customers”. Or if I was a rabid Obamacare over-zealot, I could truthfully write a headline of “Obamacare premiums predicted to decrease, lower costs by 23% for some”. And those are BOTH TECHNICALLY TRUE.

Basically, in the principle of scale we discover the genesis of the saying “lies, damned lies, and statistics” — because changes in scale enable us to turn statistics into lies. Mind-boggling.

2. The idea of the modern nation-state is… well, modern.

I still remember how I felt back in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. It was something along the lines of, “Countries can still DO that???” After years of schooling and memorizing where everything went on a world map that had nice, solid, unchanging borders, I was shocked to learn that a modern nation-state would ever actually overtly attack another nation-state. They were both internationally recognized by the other nation-states, and all that conflict stuff was ancient history, from before those nice solid boundary lines got put on a map… right? Maps are PERMANENT, right?

Wrong! The textbook gives a brief overview:

The political map of the world… becomes so natural-looking to us that we begin to think it is natural.

The world map of states is anything but natural. The mosaic of states on the map represents a way of politically organizing space (into states) that is fewer than 400 years old. Just as people create places, imparting character to space and shaping culture, people make states. States and state boundaries are made, shaped, and refined by people, their actions, and their history. Even the idea of dividing the world into territorially defined states is one created and exported by people. (p.222)

Whoa. The mind-blowing is exacerbated by the distinction drawn between territoriality (asserting control over a specific geographical area) and sovereignty, which is a complex concept that basically means a body (e.g. a government or a leader) has political and military control over a people or territory — but it doesn’t have to always be the same territory:

American Indian tribes behaved territorially but not necessarily exclusively. Plains tribes shared hunting grounds with neighboring tribes who were friendly, and they fought over hunting grounds with neighboring tribes who were unfriendly. Territorial boundaries were shifting; they were not delineated on the ground. Plains tribes also held territory communally — individual tribal members did not “own” land. In a political sense, territoriality was most expressed by tribes [rather than individuals] within the Plains. Similarly, in Southeast Asia and in Africa, the concept of sovereignty and state-like political entitles also existed. In all of these places and in Europe before the mid-1600s, sovereignty was expressed over a people rather than a defined and bordered territory. A sovereign had subjects who followed (and happened to live in a place) rather than a defined space to rule. (p.223, emphasis added)

DUDE. So basically, the idea of sovereignty and territory (a) always going hand-in-hand and (b) being fixed and unchangeable on a map is TOTALLY NEW AND WEIRD. Which is funny, because I didn’t really know that until, you know, now. I feel like the entire of history just opened up into a giant realm of WHAT. (Total side note: I feel slightly impressed that this description of Native tribal sovereignty is vaguely similar to Daniel’s metaphor about gas molecules back at the beginning of LH/WK. /end of self-congratulation party)

The textbook quips, “Once you become a geographer, you begin to question every map you examine” (p.149). So far I’ve found that to be true — and that has made the idea of the modern nation-state get even fuzzier. When I look at a map now, I find myself asking more questions than I get answers: When did these particular boundary lines get drawn? Who drew them? What ethnic or language groups are present within these borders? How do they feel about the borders — is their group bisected by political boundaries, or do they have some recognition in their political home state? What natural features are contained within or used to demarcate the borders of this country? Who named the country? Who named and designated its capital? What do those decisions say about who holds power and what’s important to this country’s culture and history? 

…And of course, it’s just not possible to cram ALL that information into one map! Which means I have now embarked on the endless quest of geographical question-asking. I guess I’m a real geographer now, because I’ll never look at any map again without thinking of a million questions! Luckily I hope to start answering some of them as I read more of the books in this project (e.g. place-naming… can’t wait for that book!).

3. Where does our crap go?

I like recycling as much as the next gal, but I guess I never really thought very far along the chain of what happens to my trash after the garbage truck picks it up. As such, I was rather shocked to read the following little segment on waste disposal in my textbook:

According to current estimates, the United States produces about 1.7 kilograms (3.7 pounds) of solid waste per person per day, which adds up to well over 160 million metric tons (just under 180 million tons) per year. … Disposal of these wastes is a major worldwide problem. The growing volume of waste must be put somewhere, but space for it is no longer easy to find. … The number of suitable sites for sanitary landfills is decreasing… and it is increasingly difficult to design new sites. In the United States landfill capacity has been reached or will soon be reached in about a dozen States, most of them in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and those States must now buy space from other States for this purpose. Trucking or sending garbage by rail to distant landfills is very expensive, but there are few alternatives.

Similar problems arise on a global scale. The United States, the European Union, and Japan export solid (including hazardous) wastes to countries in Africa, Middle and South America, and East Asia. While these countries are paid for accepting the waste, they do not have the capacity to treat it properly. So the waste often is dumped in open landfills, where it creates the very hazards that the exporters want to avoid. (p.404, emphasis added)

So basically we’re running out of places to pile our crap. (Side Question: Doesn’t it ever break down? Or are we just producing more trash too quickly?) That’s a bit alarming already, and we haven’t even gotten to the section about toxic and radioactive waste yet…

High-level radioactive waste [emits strong radiation; produced by nuclear power and weapons facilities] is extremely dangerous and difficult to get rid of. Fuel rods from nuclear reactors will remain radioactive for thousands of years and must be stored in remote places where they will not contaminate water, air, or any other part of the environment.

They must be taken OUTSIDE THE ENVIRONMENT!!! …Wait a minute…….

In fact, no satisfactory means or place for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste has been found. (p.404-405, emphasis added)

Okay — I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to know that being exposed to radiation is BAD. Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Bonus: What about the potatoes?

Oh — and for those of you who are here because I asked where potatoes come from back in the last post, look! I already have an answer for you!

The corn (maize) we associate with the American Corn Belt diffused from Central America and Southern Mexico into North America. … The white potato we associate with Ireland and Idaho came originally from the Andean highlands but was brought to Europe in the 1600s where it became a staple from Ireland to the eastern expanses of the North European Plain. The banana we associate with Central America came from Southeast Asia, as did a variety of yams. (p.334)

This world is SO COMPLEX. And I’m just starting to dig into it! =)

Tune in next time for a journey through 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.


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