Part I

Getting Grounded: The Geographic Basics

In this part . . .

Each and every academic discipline has its own particular and peculiar subject matter. Geography is no exception, but my, how things have changed!

For the longest period, geography was concerned primarily with mapping the world and acquiring facts about places. It has since become a much more analytical pursuit. Thus, the time-honored imperative to know where things are located is complemented by an equally strong (if not stronger) desire to know why they occur where they do. Also, geography has become an applied discipline that seeks to identify the best location for a hospital, store, factory, or other facility.

In this part, you will learn about the key concepts and methods of contemporary geography as well as the principal tools and techniques of the trade. Among other things you will see how exciting technologies are giving geographers unprecedented perspectives on where and why.

Chapter 1

Geography: Understanding a World of Difference

In This Chapter

bulletContemplating a complex planet

bulletUnearthing myths

bulletTracing the ancient roots of geography to the modern discipline

bulletFinding a new way to look at geography

bulletGoing over some basic concepts

Y ou live on a very interesting planet, a world of never-ending variety — mountains and plains, oceans and rivers, deserts and forests. If, as Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” then one could hardly imagine a greater range of sets and scenery than exists on planet Earth.

You are an actor on that stage, and you are not alone. The entire cast number more than six billion, and they are as diverse as their Earthly stage. They practice dozens of religions, speak many hundreds of languages, and display thousands of cultures. They live in scattered farmhouses, large cities, and every-size settlement in between. They practice every kind of livelihood imaginable and, in innumerable ways great and small, have interacted with and changed the natural environment forever.

So “interesting planet” and “never-ending variety” turn out to be code for “complex.” Truly, this is a complex world in which no two areas are exactly alike. On the one hand, this complexity makes for a very fascinating planet. But on the other hand, the prospect of learning all about this complexity can be overwhelming, or at least sometimes seems to be. Fortunately, one subject seeks to make sense of it all and, usually, does a pretty good job: Geography.

Geography: Making Sense of It All

People are fascinated by the world in which they live. They want to know what it’s like and why it is the way it is. Most importantly, they want to understand their place in it. Geography satisfies this curiosity and provides practical knowledge and skills that people find useful in their personal and professional lives. This is nothing new.

From ancient roots . . .


Geography comes from two ancient Greek words: ge, meaning “the Earth,” and graphe, meaning “to describe.” So, when the ancient Greeks practiced geography, they described the Earth. Stated less literally, they noted the location of things, recorded the characteristics of areas near and far, and used that information in matters of trade, commerce, communication, and administration.

Disputed paternity

A Greek named Eratosthenes (died about 192 B.C.) is sometimes called the “Father of Geography” since he coined the word “geography.” The Greeks themselves called Homer the “Father of Geography” because his epic poem, Odyssey, written about a thousand years before Eratosthenes was born, is the oldest account of the fringe of the Greek world. In addition to these gentlemen, at least two other men have been named “Father of Geography,” all of which suggests a very interesting paternity suit. But I digress. That the story goes back to the days of the Greeks tells us that geography is a very old subject. People of every age and culture have sought to know and understand their immediate surroundings and the world beyond. They stood at the edges of seas and imagined distant shores. They wondered what lies on the other side of a mountain or beyond the horizon. Ultimately, of course, they acted upon those speculations. They explored. They left old lands and occupied new lands. And as a result, millennia later, explorers like Columbus and Magellan found humans almost everywhere they went.

Links to exploration


Geographers from ancient Greece through the 19th century were largely devoted to exploring the world, gathering information about newfound lands, and indicating their locations as accurately as possible on maps. Sometimes the great explorers and thinkers got it right, and sometimes they did not (see the sidebar called “Measuring the Earth”). But in any event, geography and exploration became intertwined; so, “doing geography” became closely associated with making maps, studying maps, and memorizing the locations of things (see Chapters 3 through 5 for information on locating things and creating and reading maps).


Measuring the Earth

In the third century B.C., the Greek scholar Eratosthenes made a remarkably accurate measurement of Earth’s circumference. At Syene (near Aswan, Egypt), the sun illuminated the bottom of a well only one day every year. Eratosthenes inferred correctly this could only happen if the sun were directly overhead the well — that is, 90º above the horizon. By comparing that sun angle with another one measured in Alexandria, Egypt, on the same day the sun was directly overhead at Syene, Eratosthenes deduced that the distance between the two locations was one-fiftieth (1/50th) of Earth’s circumference. Thus, if he could measure the distance from Syene to Alexandria and multiply that number times 50, the answer would be the distance around the entire Earth.

There are diverse accounts of the method of measurement. Some say Eratosthenes had his assistants count camel strides (yes, camel strides) that they measured in stade, the Greek unit of measurement. In any event, he came up with a distance of 500 miles between Syene and Alexandria. That meant Earth was about [500 x 50 =] 25,000 miles around. (“About” because the relationship between stade and miles is not exactly known.) The actual average circumference is 24,680 miles so Eratosthenes was very close.

About a century-and-a-half later, another Greek named Posidonius calculated Earth’s circumference and came up with 18,000 miles. Posidonius’ measurement became the generally accepted distance thanks to Strabo, the great Roman chronicler, who simply did not believe that the Earth could be as big as Eratosthenes said it was. About 18 A.D. Strabo wrote his Geography, which became the most influential treatise on the subject for more than a millennium. Geography credited the calculations of Posidonius and rejected those of Eratosthenes. And that leads to an interesting bit of speculation. Columbus was familiar with Geography, so he was aware of the official calculation of Earth’s circumference — 18,000 miles. Had he known the true circumference was 25,000 miles, like Eratosthenes said, Columbus would have known that China was thousands of miles farther to the west than Strabo suggested. And if he had known the true distance to China, would Columbus ever have set sail?

. . . To modern discipline

During the past century, and especially during the past several decades, geography has blossomed and diversified. Old approaches that focused on location and description have been complemented by new approaches that emphasize analysis, explanation, and significance. On top of that, satellites, computers, and other technologies now allow geographers to record and analyze information about the Earth to an extent and degree of sophistication that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

As a result, modern geographers are into all kinds of stuff. Some specialize in patterns of climate and climate change. Others investigate the distribution of diseases, or the location of health care facilities. Still others specialize in urban and regional planning, or resource conservation, or issues of social justice, or patterns of crime, or optimal locations for businesses. . . . — the list goes on and on. Certainly, the ancient ge and graphe still apply, but geography is much more than it used to be.

Exposing Misconceptions: More Than Maps and Trivia

Geography is a widely misunderstood subject. Many people believe it’s only about making maps, studying maps, and memorizing locations. One reason is that polls and pundits occasionally decry the “geographic ignorance” of Americans, which usually means the average person doesn’t know where important things are located. Presumably, therefore, if you memorize the world map, then you “know geography.” Another reason is that on many TV quiz shows, contestants are occasionally asked “geography questions.” Almost always, the answer is a fact that can be understood by studying a map and/or memorizing the locations of things or events.

Knowledge of the location of things is important and useful. Everything happens somewhere; and if you know the where, then the event has meaning that it otherwise would not. So map memorization is cool, but you need to keep it in perspective. Memorizing locations is to geography what memorizing dates is to history, or what memorizing the multiplication table is to mathematics. Namely, it’s a foundation — a base — upon which you can build and develop deeper understandings. The bottom line is: There is more to geographic awareness than whereness. And the goal of this book is to uncover how to get beyond whereness when finding out about geography.

In what country is New Mexico?

New Mexico bills itself as “The Land of Enchantment.” That slogan is written on their license plates. Or rather, it used to be. Now the license plates say, “New Mexico, USA.” Geographic ignorance is the reason for the change. Sadly, many Americans do not know that New Mexico is one of the 50 States. They figure the name refers to that country south of Texas. Think I’m kidding? Some New Mexicans can tell you geographic horror stories. Take the high school student who applied for admission to a Midwestern university, only to be told that his application had to be re-routed through the foreign student office because, well, New Mexico is a foreign country. Naturally, tourism and business development can’t help but suffer if Americans don’t know that New Mexico is part of their country. So the New Mexicans have seen to it: good-bye “Land of Enchantment” and hello “New Mexico, USA.”

Taking a Look at the New Geography

Geographers still make maps and study them, and certainly, geography still consists of subject matter that cries out to be memorized. But the “old geography” of map memorization and descriptive studies has been complemented by a “new geography” that emphasizes analysis, explanation, and significance.

What is the capital city of Nigeria?

To highlight the difference between old and new geography, first consider this question: What is the capital city of Nigeria? Do you know? The question is classic “old geography,” and the answer is Abuja.

Why is Abuja the capital of Nigeria?


Now consider this question: Why is Abuja the capital city of Nigeria? That’s right, “Why?” This question is classic “new geography” because it involves analysis, explanation, and significance. The capital of Nigeria could be any number of cities. Indeed, until 1991, the capital was Lagos. A country doesn’t just decide to move its capital every day. So why did the Nigerians move theirs? Here are three reasons:

bulletA pleasant setting for expansion: Lagos occupies a low-lying peninsula. It has little room for expansion, and the climate is hot and muggy. Abuja has plenty of room for expansion and, being located in the Central Highlands, has a climate that is much more pleasant.

bulletIn the middle of it all: Lagos is on the fringe of the country. Abuja is in the middle. Having the capital in the center of the country is important because Nigeria is a developing country with a commensurate transportation system. That’s a polite way to say travel can be tedious and difficult. Thus, a central location maximizes access to the seat of power and has important symbolic value, too.

bulletPeace and harmony: Nigerians are divided into some 200 ethnic groups. Some are large and have a history of mutual animosity, which, exacerbated by religious differences, sometimes manifests itself in riots and killings. Ethnically and culturally, therefore, Nigeria is something of a powder keg. So government planners sought to locate the capital in an area that is not dominated by any of the big ethnic groups nor by a single religion. Abuja fit the bill.


To sum up, I asked two questions: “What is the capital of Nigeria?” and “Why is Abuja the capital of Nigeria?” Nothing is wrong with either question. But I trust you agree that the second is the more profound of the two. It calls for a deeper, more analytical brand of thinking. As “new geography,” it leaves you with a more penetrating perspective on the geography of Nigeria and the significance of a number of factors. Chapter 2 expands on how to “think” geographically.

Getting to the Essentials

In addition to focusing on the “new geography,” this volume makes use of unifying concepts that will help you to understand the breadth and structure of geography. But what are these unifying concepts? Yogi Berra once supposedly ordered a pizza pie and was asked if he wanted it cut into four slices or eight. He opted for four and explained, “I don’t think I can eat eight.” Whether or not the story is true, a pizza pie is a pizza pie, no matter how you slice it up. The same is true of geography. In a manner of speaking, it’s a very big pizza pie. Over the years, geographers have devised different ways to cut it up in order to help people like you grasp its breadth and content.

The “geography pizza slices” I’m going to introduce you to are The Six Essential Elements. They were developed as part of the National Geography Standards (see Geography For Life: The National Geography Standards, 1994, pages 32-35, published by Diane Publishing Company), which describe in detail “what the geographically informed person knows and understands.” The National Geography Standards serve as a guide to education reform in the United States as it pertains to the teaching of geography. They were written with the advice and input of professionals who specialize in diverse aspects of geography and, accordingly, represent a broad consensus of the scope and structure of geography. Specifically, therefore, I have chosen The Six Essential Elements to describe the content of geography for the following three reasons:

bulletThey are more up-to-date than any alternative scheme and take a very broad, inclusive view of geography.

bulletAs part and parcel of the National Geography Standards, they have a degree of authority and authenticity that alternative sets of unifying concepts cannot match.

bulletThey are probably imbedded in your local public school curriculum. If yours is one of the majority of states that recently has undergone standards-based education reform, then schools in your area probably utilize the National Geography Standards and, thus, the six essential elements, which are at the heart of these standards. The six essential elements are:

• The world in spatial terms

• Places and regions

• Physical systems

• Human systems

• Environment and society

• Uses of geography

These may sound somewhat imposing, but rest assured, they refer to simple concepts that you encounter in your everyday life. Indeed, you are already familiar with each of them, though perhaps not by their formal titles. I can prove it to you.

Where things are in the world: The world in spatial terms

You probably have a preferred grocery store, clothing store, and restaurant, plus a map in your head that tells you where they are and how to get to them. What’s more, you could probably conjure up a route to visit all three in a single excursion and draw me a sketch map of the itinerary. If so, then you are already familiar with the world in spatial terms (see Figure 1-1).


Spatial refers to the location and distribution of things and how they interrelate. Accordingly, the world in spatial terms responds to geography’s most fundamental question: Where? Getting a handle on this element involves:

bulletKnowing how to use and read maps and atlases

bulletAcquiring a general understanding of the tools and techniques that geographers use to accurately locate things

bulletBeing able to indicate the location of something using the system of latitude and longitude, or plain language

bulletSeeing relationships that explain the locations of things

bulletRecalling from memory the location of things on Earth’s surface

These are basic skills to build on. On top of that, you’ll never have to worry if somebody tells you to “Get lost!”

Chapter 2, which shows you how to think like a geographer, is very much about understanding the world in spatial terms. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are devoted to location and maps, and, therefore, focus rather directly on this element. In addition, most other chapters will contain at least one map. Thus, you will encounter the world in spatial terms again and again throughout this book.

What locations are like: Places and regions

What’ll it be for your next vacation? The mountains? The shore? Chances are you have mulled over questions like these that concern different areas with different characteristics. If so, then you are already familiar with places and regions.

Place: What a location looks like

Place responds to another important geographical question: “What is it like?” Place refers to the human and physical features that characterize different parts of Earth and that are responsible for making one location look different from the next. The terminology may puzzle you, because in everyday speech, people commonly use location and place interchangeably. In geography, however, these two terms have separate and distinct meanings. Location tells you where. Place tells you what it’s like.

Region: A bunch of locations with something in common

A region is an area of Earth, large or small, that has one or more things in common. So when you say “I’m going to the mountains” or “I’m heading for the shore,” you refer to an area — a region — that has a certain set of characteristics over a broad area. Figure 1-2 shows a sandy region.

Regions make it easier to comprehend our Earthly home. After all, Earth consists of gazillions of locations, each of which has its own particular and peculiar characteristics. Knowing every last one of them would be impossible. But we can simplify the challenge by grouping together contiguous locations that have one or more things in common — Gobi Desert, Islamic realm, tropical rainforest, Chinatown, the Great Lakes, suburbia — Each of these is a region. Some are big and some are small. Some refer to physical characteristics. Some refer to human characteristics. Some do both. But each facilitates the task of understanding the world.

Features that characterize different locations on Earth and, therefore, epi-tomize the concept of place, will be the focus of several chapters. These include landforms (Chapters 6 and 7), climates (Chapter 10), population (Chapter 11), culture (Chapter 13), economic activity (Chapter 15), and urbanization (Chapter 17). Each of these characteristics, of course, pertains not only to particular locations, but also to large areas as well. Thus, they also serve to characterize and define regions.

Why things are the way they are: Physical systems

I bet you have a favorite time of year, a favorite season. You probably also have a least-favorite season. No doubt you can tell me why you like some seasons more than others, and you can probably sprinkle your rationale with personal anecdotes about good times and bad. If that sounds about right, then you are already familiar with physical systems. Figure 1-3 shows one type of physical system.

Atmosphere, land, and water are the principal components of the physical world. Geography seeks to understand how these phenomena vary from one location to the next and why. Geographers aren’t content to know what the world looks like. They also want to know how it works. That involves understanding the natural processes that shape and modify Earth’s surface (see Chapters 6 and 7), cause particular climates to occur in particular places (see Chapters 9 and 10), or result in some parts of Earth having too little water and others too much (see Chapter 8).

Giving that human touch: Human systems

Have you ever visited a locale that has many more or many fewer people than where you live? Have you ever moved a long distance? Have you ever visited a foreign country? Have you ever noticed that most of your shoes and clothing are made in a foreign country? Have you ever attempted to talk to someone, only to discover that person does not speak your language? If so, then you are already familiar with human systems. Figure 1-4 shows an example of the human system.

Human beings characterize Earth’s surface. That is, not only do humans live here, but by constructing cities, making farms, laying railways, and building other things, humans are an actual part of Earth’s surface. Culture, trade, commerce, and government largely determine the specific ways in which people are part of the Earth. And because these institutions are so diverse, so, too, are the human characteristics that are part of Earth’s surface. Key aspects of human geography will be dealt with in separate chapters. They include population characteristics (see Chapter 11), movement and migration (see Chapter 12), cultural attributes (see Chapter 13), division of Earth into political units (see Chapter 14), economic activity (see Chapter 15), and urbanization (see Chapter 17).

Interacting with the world around us: Environment and society

Do you remember a farm or piece of countryside that is now a shopping center or a housing development? Have you ever experienced air pollution or water pollution? Have you ever had to cope with a severe storm, flood, or earthquake (see Figure 1-5)? If so, then you are already familiar with environment and society.

Human beings and the natural environment interact in many ways. For example, people play a very important role in shaping and modifying the natural world. Some results of this interaction may be visually pleasing, such as the skyline of Paris, or the terraced rice paddies of Southeast Asia, or the English countryside. But other results may be troubling, such as pollution and global deforestation. References to human impact on the environment will appear in several chapters, particularly the ones dealing with water (see Chapter 8), natural resources (see Chapter 16), and urbanization (see Chapter 17). Most importantly, an entire chapter will be devoted to matters of environmental quality (see Chapter 18).

And while people impact the environment, environmental phenomena impact people. Climate affects agriculture and other human activity (see Chapters 9 and 10). Landforms and related processes and hazards affect life and property (see Chapters 6 and 7). The geography of water impacts settlement and commerce (see Chapter 8). In a nutshell, relationships between environment and society are pervasive and profound — and for those reasons will manifest themselves in several chapters.

Putting geography to use: Uses of geography

Have you ever used a road map to plan a trip? Have you ever visited a historical site and looked at maps and exhibits that help you understand the past? Have you ever attended a meeting or read an article concerning a proposal that would change the physical character of your neighborhood? If so, then you are already familiar with the uses of geography.

You can use geography to understand the past, interpret the present, or plan for the future. That is, you can use geography to understand the extent of former empires, to understand why your city looks the way it does, or to choose the location of a new factory. Geography is, therefore, a very useful and powerful tool. To help reinforce this point, every one of the content chapters (see Chapters 2 through 18) will contain specific examples of putting geography to practical use. In addition, the concluding Part of Tens contains a chapter on careers in geography (see Chapter 21).

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