Geographic Smartness and Global Understanding

I love Geography because it can give us a sense of the world. Geography helps me navigate streets without a GPS; it helps me understand the environment and the world I live in; it gives me a keen understanding of the patterns and processes that shape human society; it helps me understand the spatial aspects of interactions between humans and the natural world; and it helps me understand the natural and human uniqueness or the character of a particular region. Though Geography has been a big part of my life for many years, I am not well versed in all Geographic facts. Nevertheless, I am always open to learning. No one needs all the facts, all we need is the love of learning and thoughtfulness, which leads to the true understanding of what we learn; this is true for Geography and all subjects.

Geographic smartness is more than naming countries, capital cities, and landmarks; it is the understanding of how people and places interact, where things come from, and where the world is going. It is about understanding global connections, people, culture, economy, and the environment. Geographic smartness and global understanding are more important today than at any other time in human history because this is the global age. Many of our problems and challenges, as well as opportunities and successes extend beyond national and continental boundaries. And I believe that the majority of the problems in the world can be fixed or at least be reduced if more people understand geography. To understand Geography is to understand oneself, others and the world.

The level of geographic ignorance that people display almost on a daily basis is quite disturbing. I have talked to Africans who don’t have a clue where Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and Ethiopia and many other African countries are on the map despite that these countries have received more than their fair share of media coverage in the last 30 years. I remember visiting Nigeria in 2005 and was talking to someone about my experience in East Africa. When I mentioned Uganda, she asked me if that is in Kenya. I was surprised but I was in for a bigger shock. When I mentioned Tanzania, she asked me where that is; that was double jeopardy! This is a college graduate who studied science as well as geography in high school; we may need to ask her Geography teacher(s) some questions!

I was equally speaking to a highly placed, widely traveled man in Nigeria who insisted that Nigerians do not have anything in common with Liberians beyond black skin; this comment was very unfortunate. I have heard educated people talk about America, London, Italy, Barcelona and Germany as good places to live in the same sentence without bathing an eyelid. The sad thing is that this level of ignorance is not limited to foreign places; people’s knowledge of their own country can be disturbingly limited and that is why stereotypes, prejudiced ethnicity and warped nationalism abound. I remember arriving in Kenya in 2003 and within 72 hours, I heard all the prejudices and stereotypes about every ethnic group in that country. In the United States, many people do not understand the geography of the state they live in beyond the abstract.

Ever since I moved to the United States permanently in 2008, I have lost my identity as a Yoruba or a Nigerian to a country that does not exist: Africa! I guess many Americans confuse Africa with Europe or the United States in one way or the other. Africa is unlike Europe or the United States. Europe is a relatively small continent compared to Africa; Europe is the second smallest continent and it is about the size of the Sahara. If Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Ukraine are excluded from Europe, then you are left with Europe that is smaller than North Africa. Many Americans don’t even know what to think of Africa but have the tendency to treat Africa as a giant-sized country and not as a continent of many countries. The continental United States is about the size of the 28 countries of West and Central Africa.

Africa is not a continental country like Australia; it is the second largest continent after Asia and larger than North America by about 2.3 million square miles. If you combine the physical size of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, and Australia, what you get is an area as large as Africa. Africa is almost twice the size of South America and almost the size of the three smallest continents combined. Therefore, when someone tells me that have been to Africa, I always ask them where? I don’t often hear people say they have traveled to Asia; they are specific about the country they visited: Japan, Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia…… I don’t know why Africa or South America should be treated differently.

Geographic illiteracy is a problem in the world and the basis of many of local and regional conflicts. Despite the wealth of geographic information that is available in the United States, many Americans do not understand the world yet we are a superpower. I would think the situation is even worse in Russia and China. However, we don’t have any excuse in this country because we are a free nation; we have incredible access to information compared to what is obtainable in many countries but we are not taking advantage of these resources. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and despite the news coverage about that country for many years, many Americans do not know exactly where that country is in the Middle East. The U.S., in the 1990’s, intervened in Bosnia as well as in Somalia and if you ask many Americans today about these countries, you will be surprised about how little people know about the two countries.

If you ask many Americans the largest Muslim country in the world, they would likely say it is Saudi Arabia or Iran with confidence. Yet, it is Indonesia. The media is to be partly blamed for this. The U.S. media report images and stories without explaining the regional context to the American audience; the same applies to the coverage of local and international news. Who want to be distracted by all the mess in the world? We are sucked in by the hottest computer or video game, latest fads, some competition or reality TV show, and everything else that material prosperity avails us; there is nothing wrong with any of these. After all, the outside world seems so damn scary, depressing, and far away if you follow international news. Yet, this bubble of security is just an illusion that is punctured all too often–Avian flu, Ebola, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, border crisis….

We lose as individuals and as a society when we are not geographically smart. George W. Bush may  have acted differently with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan if he was geographically smart; maybe fewer Americans would have supported the invasion of both countries if they understood their human and political geography. Bill Clinton may have acted differently with Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the rising tide of global terrorism if he and the decision-makers of his administration were geographically fluent; Mr. Clinton was probably too distracted by other things! When geographic illiterates depend on GPS solely for navigation, they sometimes end up in an accident or even in the ocean! Those who have some geographic sense would know when a GPS may be misleading them due to inaccurate map data. Moreover, geographic illiteracy closes us up to the world and we end up hating other people, nationalities, religion, etc.

It is this geographic illiteracy that motivated many conservative Americans to rail against France for not supporting the invasion of Iraq during the second Bush administration; it is what drives many news about Israel and Palestine; and it is at the heart of the war on drugs and terror. This is not surprising because many politicians of the world’s most powerful country do not understand how the United States function within the world! You just have to listen to some of our Congressmen and Senators as well as highly placed politicians make comments. This is unfortunate because if they cannot understand the relationships among people and places that provide an important context for world events, how are they suppose to make good laws and policies that affect people in and outside this country?

We hear all the time how the Chinese economy is booming and how manufacturing is declining in America. But do you know that the United States is the world’s largest exporter of goods, services, ideas, fashion….? It is not China, which is the largest exporter of goods; we export more basic goods, more high-tech products, and services than any other country in the world. American goods, services and lifestyle are more desirable in the world than those of Chinese. The value of U.S. manufactured goods are higher more than ever–semiconductors, airplanes and drones, motor vehicle parts, computers, telecoms equipment, electronics, and other capital goods. When you hear people railing against outsourcing, Made-in-China and India products, and the declining U.S. economy, please know that they are not giving the full picture of the American or the global economy.

And while it may seem that American companies are the only ones investing abroad, foreign companies are investing heavily in the United States due to the large market size. Shell (Anglo-Dutch), Unilever (Anglo-Dutch), Toyota Motor (Japanese), Honda (Japanese), Nissan Motor (Japanese), Sony (Japanese), Volkswagen (German), Daimler AG (German), BASF (German), T-Mobile (German), Nestle (Swiss), Adecco (Swiss), Fiat (Italian), Samsung (South Korean), LG (South Korean), and Cemex (Mexican) just to name a few are foreign companies in the United States that have invested billions of dollars and employ millions of Americans. For global prosperity to be even, wealth, people, jobs, capital, and knowledge must be mobile in all directions and that is what is taking place. Do you know that the number of people living in absolute poverty in China is about half the size of the U.S. population?

In the same vein, non-governmental players in China are not about to displace the global influence of Hollywood, U.S. scientists and entrepreneurs, and America’s non-governmental organizations. Chinese universities are not about to rival Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Caltech, Columbia, John Hopkins, Cornell and many prestigious American colleges and universities in terms of attracting the best and brightest international students. The United States not only goods and services, we also export civil society. U.S. academia, activist groups, charities, civic groups and clubs, churches and religious bodies, foundations, policy institutions, professional associations, and other civic institutions are active around the world.

The big challenge for many people when it comes to Geography is that they were taught disjointed geographic facts in school–atmosphere, political boundaries, landforms, climate, hydrologic cycle, rivers, oceans, etc. These facts are not often useful in the real world; except for Geography “nerds” like me, people don’t use them. If you really want to learn geography, you may have to teach yourself using an interdisciplinary framework or a systems approach. A good way to learn Geography is to learn what to do with it or how it can help solve problems. I am telling you, Geography can change your world and it can change the whole world. My wife works for ESRI, the world’s largest mapping technology company, and on a daily basis, geographic information professionals at this company are at the forefront of providing systems and tools that helps people, institutions and governments to make sound decisions based on sound geographical analysis.

The solutions provided by the aforementioned company and many others in the field of geographic information has revolutionized aid and development, defense and intelligence, education, public health, conservation, environmental management, transportation, public safety, location-based services, utilities and communications, land administration, elections, urban and regional planning, real estate, marketing, and other fields. The International Rescue Committee, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UnitedHealth, Sierra Club, U.S. Forest Service, Chase Bank, United States Postal Service, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Verizon, Zillow, Home Depot, and Starbucks all have one thing in common these days; they use geographic information in making strategic and operational decisions. Geography is more than what many people think it is; you probably consume more geography than you think you do!

For geography to make sense, you must know more than geographical facts; you must be able to analyze geographical attributes, locations, spatial relationships… When you learn to do that, then you will know how your actions affect others and can predict or explain how what is happening elsewhere will affect you or our country without resorting to diabolic explanations. Without the analytical ability that geographic smartness provide, people cannot be expected to make good decisions about where to live and work, when to buy a home, how to transport themselves in eco-friendly ways, what to buy and how to dispose of waste responsibly, how to prepare for natural disasters, whether to go to war with a particular country, where to locate a store or factory, price goods and services appropriately, or how to market goods abroad; and the list goes on. That is why we all need to learn some Geography.

It is never too late to be geographic smart or gain global understanding. You can start today; there are plenty of online resources and apps to help you as well as books, magazines and maps. You can learn on your local streets or on the freeway on a daily basis and there are plenty of cheap maps and globes out there you can purchase. But the best way to learn is to open yourself to the world. Talk to people, listen to them and their stories, and read more about people to learn about human geography; avoid digital distractions and soak in your environment when you drive and walk; and ask people detailed questions about where they come from and read a little bit about places you hear about in conversations or through the news media. All it takes to be geographic smart is “paying attention” and “following-up” to gain understanding. If you know other ways, please make sure to comment and share with us how we can all learn to be smarter geographically.


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