Chapter 2

Thinking Like a Geographer

In This Chapter

bulletThinking geographically

bulletTaking a look at two case studies

G eography is as much a way of thinking about the world as it is a body of information and concepts. Therefore, if you want to become good at geography, you must learn to think geographically. Remember when you were in the third grade and the teacher said, “Let’s all put on our thinking caps”? Cute line, wasn’t it? Well, I’m asking you to put on your thinking cap — your geography thinking cap, that is.

Thinking geographically is a process that involves a discreet set of skills. Therefore, this chapter is very different from the rest because it’s not, on the whole or in part, about the content of geography. Certainly, you will encounter a fair amount of information about a particular part of the world. If you remembered it, great, but that’s not the point. Instead, the goal is for you to learn how to think geographically and see that doing so facilitates a deeper understanding of the human and natural phenomena that geographers study.

Changing the Way You Think — Geographically

In Chapter 1, the content of geography was likened to a pizza pie, and The Six Essential Elements were presented as a way to “cut it up.” The same National Geography Standards that give us those Elements also present a series of related skills that together constitute the process of thinking geographically. They include:

bulletAsking Geographic Questions: Thinking geographically typically begins with the questions “Where?” and “Why?” Sticking with pizza, one might want to know where all of the pizza shops in town are located and why they are there. Conversely, a person going into the pizza business may want to know where a good location would be to open a new pizza shop, and why.

bulletAcquiring Geographic Information: Geographic information is information about locations and their characteristics. If you want to know where all the pizza shops are and why, then a first step may be to consult the Yellow Pages or some other directory. You may also visit the sites and acquire information about their characteristics. Similarly, someone going into the pizza business may do the same thing in order to learn the locations and characteristics of the sites that competitors have previously chosen.

bulletOrganizing Geographic Information: After geographic information has been collected, it needs to be organized in ways that facilitate interpretation and analysis. This may be achieved by grouping together relevant notes, or by constructing tables, diagrams, maps, or other graphics. Thus, the person who wants to understand the geography of pizza shops might produce a map of them based on information previously acquired. The person who is considering going into the pizza business may do the same.

bulletAnalyzing Geographic Information: Acquiring and organizing geographic information paves the way for analyzing geographic information. This is when the most heavy-duty thinking occurs. Analysis involves making comparisons, seeking relationships, and looking for connections between geographic information. What factors explain the locations of existing pizza shops? What factors make for a great location for a future pizza shop? Analyzing geographic information is kind of like playing a mystery game in which you use the information you previously acquired and organized to solve a puzzle.

bulletAnswering Geographic Questions: The process of thinking geographically culminates in the presentation of conclusions and generalizations based on the information that has been acquired, organized, and analyzed. It may reveal, for example, that pizza shops tend to be located in places that are readily accessible to a large number of people or that have lots of passers-by. Those conclusions may, of course, prove very useful to the person who wants to open a new pizza shop and is looking for the best possible location.

Thinking geographically entails two lines of thought that are similar as well as different. They are alike in that both involve the bulleted points listed previously. The difference is that one approach focuses on where things are located, while the other ponders where things should be located. To highlight this difference, the discussion above repeatedly referred to two people. One was trying to understand where pizza shops are located, and the other who was trying to determine where a pizza shop should be located. The following cases studies help reinforce these perspectives. Each poses a geographic question and challenges you to analyze geographic information before you arrive at an answer. That is, each has you thinking geographically. In doing so, you begin to acquire and develop important conceptual skills that constitute major mileposts in becoming a true geographer.

Case study #1: Where something is located

Where are African lions located and why? Obviously they live in Africa, but in what parts of Africa, and why? Those geographic questions are central to our first case study.

I’d love to be able to pack you off to Africa and have you acquire relevant geographic information, but that’s not very practical. Instead, I simply refer you to Figure 2-1, which presents geographic information that has been acquired and organized in a map. So where are African lions located? What’s the message of the map?

The answer is that African lions are much less widespread than they used to be. The map tells you this by using three kinds of shadings, the meanings of which are shown at the lower left of the map. One shade shows areas where lions are found at present. Another depicts where lions formerly roamed. The last indicates areas where, as far as anyone can tell, lions have never lived.

A fraction of its former self

Today, African lions in the wild live only in the handful of patches shown on the map, mainly the ones in southern and eastern Africa. But the map also tells us there was a time when the lion’s homeland consisted of a vast and contiguous hunk of Africa that stretched all the way from the Mediterranean coast in the north to the southernmost tip of the continent. Look at the map and visually compare the amount of territory that is lion country today versus the amount of former territory. I’m going to guess that the total land area that lions occupy today is no more than 15 to 20 percent of its former extent. In any event, present-day lion country is a fraction of its former size.

What in the world — or rather, what in Africa — happened to cause such a reduction in the size of lion country? Why did it happen? And what is the significance? I do not really expect you to have the answers at your fingertips. But take a few moments again, and this time see if you can’t come up with some possible reasons as to why lions live where the map says that they do, and why lion country has decreased so substantially.

Where lions hang out

First of all, where do lions live? No, I’m not asking you for a street address; but rather, in what kind of environment do lions tend to hang out? Here are a few choices of where your average well-adjusted lion might live:

bulletIn a forest

bulletIn a desert

bulletIn the mountains

bulletIn a grassland

bulletAnywhere it darn well pleases

Although the last choice has considerable merit, the best response is “in a grassland.” Lions generally live in grasslands. You may have known the answer because just about everybody has seen a TV wildlife documentary, which, in graphic detail, shows lions killing their next meal and then eating it. But just in case, next time you see one of those programs, concentrate on the physical setting instead of the kill. That’s right, skip the build-up . . . the eyeing of the herd . . . the stalk . . . the chase . . . the cute little impala meeting its untimely end. Instead, focus your attention on the surrounding countryside, and what you are bound to see is that this life and death drama is playing out on what is essentially an extensive grassland.

What gives with grasslands?

But what gives with grasslands? Or rather, why do lions choose to inhabit grasslands? Here are a few choices as to why lions live in grasslands:

bulletGreen is their favorite color.

bulletThat’s where those cute little impalas live.

bulletThey got into grass while they were in college.

bulletThey run into few trees.

bulletThe rents are low.

Although each choice could be correct, the best response is “that’s where those cute little impalas live.” Lions love impalas.

Indeed, they truly love them to death. Like all wild animals, lions tend to live in places where they can find relatively abundant food to their liking. So lions hang out where impalas, zebras, wildebeests, and other animals are on the menu. Lions, of course, are carnivores — meat-eaters. And nearly all the animals on the menu are herbivores — grass-eaters. So lions prefer to live in a grassland because, as far as they are concerned, it’s one big meat market.

Extinction made easy

Time to stop beating around the bush — and around the grassland, for that matter. The main message of the map is that lion country is a small fraction of its former size. And although the animal itself is not on the brink of extinction, things would appear to be headed in that direction. So what happened?

Perhaps it would be better if I personalized the question. Let’s say you really have it in for the king of beasts and want to get rid them. I’m talking extinction. What is a safe, easy, and effective way to go about it? You have a couple of options:

bulletShoot every last one of them

bulletTeach impalas self-defense

bulletDestroy their habitat

bulletForce them into early retirement

bulletPack them off to Australia

Although each response has some possibilities, the best choice is “destroy their habitat.” And that is indeed the main reason for the reduction of lion country from its former dimensions to its present ones and is also the reason why the lion is located where it is now.

A natural habitat can change for natural reasons or for unnatural reasons. As regards to the former, climate change is a major possibility. Natural grasslands are the result of a specific set of climatic characteristics. So if those climatic factors change, you would expect grasslands to change, too. Now, ample evidence exists of climate change in Africa. But the nature and extent of it is insufficient to explain the wholesale disappearance of grasslands over the wide area indicated on the map. So climate is not the culprit. Instead, the fault lies elsewhere and mainly takes the form of human beings.

Animal geography, Hollywood style

Movies may be responsible for more environmental misinformation than any other source. Thus, in the world according to Hollywood, animals have a maddening tendency to show up in locations where they have no business being. Sometimes the errors are rather obscure. For example, in the nativity scene at the start of Ben-Hur, a Holstein calf prances by the manger. Holsteins are those dairy cattle with the black and white splotches. The problem is the Holsteins come from Schleswig-Holstein, the part of Germany that borders Denmark. Two thousand years ago, there would not have been a Holstein anywhere near Bethlehem. Like I said, sometimes the errors are rather obscure. Then again, sometimes the errors are downright outrageous, and, in that regard, nothing beats Hollywood’s treatment of the African lion. Check out just about any of the old Tarzan movies, George of the Jungle, or a host of other flicks set in a rainforest. Almost inevitably, one or more lions show up. The problem, of course, is that a lion has a whole lot less business being in a rainforest than does a Holstein in Bethlehem. Lions do not live in rainforests. Period. They never did, don’t now, and never will. And the reason is simple. A lion has virtually nothing to eat in a rainforest — except maybe Tarzan.

Fewer lions? So what?

What, if anything, is the significance of the map and the story behind it? Is there any relevance? I believe so.

The pressure on natural habitats continues (and not only in Africa). Unless something is done to halt the tide, the great grasslands will continue to diminish and so, too, will the lions. Governments in affected areas are increasingly committed to heritage conservation and view protection of natural habitats and wildlife as part of that process. Thus, the average lion in the wild today lives in a national park or national game preserve. But pressure is being put on governments to open the parks to grazing and other activities that constitute “multiple use.” Local officials must make choices that concern balancing the desire for conservation with the needs of citizens.

The situation is relevant to other lands, including the United States. Lions don’t live in the wild in the U.S., but other animals do. And in many cases, their stories mimic the lion’s. That is, they are much less widespread than they used to be. National parks and preserves have helped stem their decline and some species have been successfully re-introduced to some areas. But human population growth, coupled with pressure for land development and multiple uses, make the future uncertain. In the U.S., as in Africa, choices must be made. Looking at the locations of animals and their habitats and thinking geographically about them help clarify the issues and processes that are involved and encourage informed decision-making.

Summing up

The answer to our geographical question (Where are African lions located and why?) is that lions are located in the parts of Africa shown on Figure 2-1 mainly because of habitat reduction that is human in origin. After posing the question, we analyzed geographic information that led to the answer, after which we pondered the implications of our findings to wildlife conservation elsewhere in the world. All in all, the focus was on thinking geographically so as to understand where things (African lions) are located.

Case study #2: Where something should be located

Where should a gas station be located, and why? Those questions are central to our second case study.

Thinking geographically about where something should be located has many important and useful applications. For example, consider the occupational endeavors called planning. That includes urban planning, regional planning, and transportation planning, to name just three. All are intimately concerned with the question of where things should be located. The business world also provides lots of useful applications. Choosing a good location is often an important determinant of whether an enterprise succeeds or fails. The questions posed previously call for a business decision based on the process of thinking geographically.

In this case study, assume that you want to go into the gas station business. Therefore, your relevant geographic question is “Where should my gas station be located?”

Similar to the first case study, I’d love to have you go around town and acquire pertinent geographic information. That would include finding prospective sites for your gas station, and identifying the factors that appear to be contributing to the success of existing gas stations that clearly are doing a lot of business. The latter is important because it helps you choose the prospective site that offers the best chance for success. But that’s a bit much to ask. So once again, assume that the footwork has been done, that relevant geographic information has been acquired, and that it has been organized in ways that include a map (which happens to be Figure 2-2).

The map shows two land parcels that are indicated by “A” and “B”. Assume each has an identical size, an affordable price, a busy thoroughfare alongside, and that other prospective sites for your gas station have been eliminated from consideration. Your final choice with be either “A” or “B.” Is one location clearly preferable?

Analysis of the geographical information indicates the two properties have one key difference: Property A is located on a corner lot, while Property B is in the middle of a block. Is that difference significant? Think about the location of every gas station you have ever seen. Is it on a corner or in the middle of a block? It’s almost always on a corner, isn’t it? And the main reason is that, on a daily basis, more cars (potential customers) pass by a corner lot as opposed to a middle-of the-block lot because the corner adjoins two roadways rather than one. In addition, corner lots are somewhat easier to enter and exit. Accordingly, the answer to your geographic question (Where should my gas station be located?) is lot A.

Summing up

In the process of choosing a location for your gas station, you have been thinking geographically once again. Only this time, however, you began by considering where something (a gas station) should be located. You then proceeded to acquire and organize (map) pertinent geographic information, analyze it, and answer the question.

Looking ahead

At the beginning of this case study I mentioned that thinking geographically about where something should be located has important applications in the fields of planning, business, and industry. Indeed, virtually every tool, concept, and content area of geography has useful applications. To reinforce this point, and to help you recognize the practical value of geography, Chapters 3 through 18 include a specific example. Be on the lookout for a sidebar whose title begins with “Applied Geography.”

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