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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Babcock-Lumish: In the Wake of Icelandic Volcano, Geography is Not Dead

By Terry Babcock-Lumish

ROME -- Though it may have prompted dialogue among those in foreign policy circles, America was far from atwitter in response to Defense Secretary Robert Gates posing a rhetorical question last year. Asking “How could the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the unknown Bosnia and Herzegovina affect Americans, or the annexation of a little patch of ground called Sudetenland, or a French defeat in a place called Dien Bien Phu, or the return of an obscure cleric to Tehran, or the radicalization of a Saudi construction tycoon's son?” failed to shake anyone up in the ways earthquakes and now Eyjafjallajokull is rattling lives. Perhaps academic geographers have been too polite to say “I told you so” and continued on with their dusty maps while sipping tea.

For many of us who learned geography as the memorization and regurgitation of countries and capitals, it may be time to reconsider. With a landscape agitated by tea parties and economic woes, it strikes this writer as naïve that we note with only passing interest that the predominant story of 2010 involves various flavors of episodic agitation. Lest we be too hard on ourselves, though Eratosthenes may have instigated geographic studies in the third century, his contemporaries were not quite atwitter either. His experiments were politely respected even if not earth-shattering.

Contemporary geographical studies seek to understand our interrelated planet in its full complexity, from the physical to the human. As we mark this fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, this geographer applauds founders such as Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes for shaking up communities and governments across the globe to consider the import of a dynamic earth. Still, a day does not a movement make, and a limited understanding of human and natural experience takes us only so far. In the face of everything from blizzards to floods, earthquakes and volcanoes, it may be easy to avert our eyes from the world around us, particularly when the Pavlovian ping of the latest message or tweet sucks us back into our ever-growing electronic world.

Spouting tea is not the same as reading its leaves. For those perpetuating the folly that events in remote places need not engage the United States, they might benefit from a refresher course in geography. A brief glance at global research agendas reveals that today’s donors stimulate a great deal of innovative work at the intersection of disciplines, as evidenced by the proliferation of multidisciplinary research grants and interdisciplinary higher education opportunities. In some instances, there is exciting work to be found in these spaces, but at times, dialogue is anything but new.

Rather, we may be revealing evidence that American universities, government funding bodies, and institutional investors alike have divorced themselves intellectually or administratively from geography – a discipline that has long since captured the study of the earth’s peoples and places, its physical and social processes, tensions, dynamics, and differences across cultures and terrains – only to return under “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” labels. As a discipline, applied geography is tackling many of the thorniest challenges facing society today: geopolitics, climate change, globalization, and beyond.

But what of those who insist geography is dead? For those who insist modern information and communication technologies facilitates everything from seamless global dialogue to revolutions in contemporary workplaces and integrated financial markets, certainly they know of which they speak. Our world is a dramatically more interconnected one than it was during Eratosthenes and even Nelson’s day. However, it would be reckless to assume a magically homogenized world. Rather than being lulled into the false sense of security the chairborne amongst us enjoy while navigating across time zones from the comfort of our bathrobes and bunny slippers, increased global engagement invites other communities and cultures into our daily lives and ratchets up the importance of developing appreciation – even if not familiarity – with that which might have previously been foreign. Secretary Gates gets this, but how then to encourage others to think like geographers?

In recent years American policymakers have failed to apply an organized intellectual effort to understand nuance, assess trends, forecast challenges and opportunities, and ultimately manage policy formulation and implementation as efficiently and effectively as possible. Kyoto, Iraq, and the global financial crisis spring to mind. In our increasingly complex and global society, the greatest threats facing not only America are very much cross-border and characterized by considerable uncertainties, competing agendas, resource constraints, and utter disregard for political boundaries.

Individuals may be well-equipped to manage familiar problems, but understanding novelty can stymie even our best and brightest. Migrating clouds of volcanic ash are novel, but so is cyberwarfare or H1N1. No matter how expert within professional silos, only once we enjoy an equally sophisticated understanding of places and regions may we make decisions with precision, effect, and integrity. How many decision-makers fully recognize the implications of their efforts in context, from global to local?

As we live and work in an integrated world, the value of appreciating and using systems-oriented approaches can only serve us more effectively. They are likely to demonstrate greater return on investment, as we continue to allocate billions of dollars and treasure, and lives are weighed in the balance. As informed citizens of the world, we have a responsibility to understand our planet and the power exercised on those whose lives are affected through daily decisions and actions and natural phenomena alike. This week, you need only ask a contributor to Kenya’s burgeoning export market of perishable flowers, a foiled European tour operator, or a military spouse counting down the days until a loved one returns only to be faced with the uncertainty of an extended deployment. Next week or next year is anyone’s guess, but until then, building capacity to analyze challenges and to respond may serve us well. Let us consider three challenges in turn.

Peer-reviewed scientific evidence on climate change demonstrates that the ecological, economic, sociocultural, and migratory implications of global warming are profound. Climate change is poised to brandish its most devastating effects on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, those currently least equipped for adaptation. By exploring the dynamics of environmental policymaking and international negotiations, we logically invoke implications for natural resource management, investment in alternative energy research and development, and issues of agricultural productivity, biodiversity, industrialization, desertification, infrastructure development, and land use planning. How do policymakers – often generalists – learn from specialists to engage in the processes of negotiation, policymaking, and planning, taking into consideration a complex range of geographies, time horizons, agendas, issues, and budgets?

Let us turn to security. With a focus on geopolitical investment for international economic development, the interplay of politics, power, and geography can scarcely be underestimated. With American forces in the midst of two ongoing conflicts with deep-seated international, historical, tribal, ethno-sectarian, religious, and organizational threads interwoven, we cannot miscalculate the centuries-old responsibilities and complexities decision-makers, regardless of flag or administration, have inherited.

No geographical region has been more embroiled in controversy than that which is the historic home to the world’s three major religions, where today a demographic youth bulge simmers and socioeconomic and natural resource disparities persist. While some would dispute the linkages between Jerusalem and our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that a Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed sparked widespread protests in Afghanistan demonstrates the interconnectedness of security challenges to America and the world. History is replete with examples of conflict based on claims ranging from honor, love, pride, and land, to natural resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, and water. Now then, might there be common means of learning from experience to tackle what are truly daunting jobs?

In our global economy, the implications are profound for trillions of dollars circumnavigating the globe in a matter of seconds, the realities of international labor and remittance markets, or the cradle-to-grave experience of commodities with the inception of containerization. Even in the midst of challenging financial times, mobile technologies have afforded people throughout the world opportunities to leapfrog laying fiber-optic cable or “bricks and mortar” infrastructure, revolutionizing the means by which we view time horizons, mobility, communication, and even our wallets. Economic actors must comprehend the spread of technology and questions raised about the locus of power in financial markets in a holistic fashion.

My interests are anything but academic. That is, disciplinary power grabs matter to me not in the least. Rather, social, economic, and environmental outcomes drive my concern. To that end, let us not underestimate geography. Bridging the gap between study and practice will serve not only key decision-makers but all of us well. Professional geographers comprise a community who understand the importance of studying the nexus of contemporary economic, political, and global systems with a pragmatic eye. However, we need not all become professional geographers. Rather, thinking like geographers can prepare us all to engage in a more informed and effective manner, regardless of our chosen profession. Understanding our role in the world remains a herculean feat if we have not had opportunity to begin to study the world itself in all its complexities.

Despite the strengths of the American liberal arts education, throughout our professional careers we are often working within institutional confines and constraints. Where and when tackling the world’s most pressing challenges with lives and livelihoods at stake, artificial or intellectual limits seem Lilliputian in import – and yet they exist. Where many marvel at how seemingly minor or isolated events turn the course of history – often responding reactively or addressing piecemeal symptoms rather than root problems – those most successful on the international stage aptly delineate comprehensive strategies and call for coherent and coordinated response. What would Eratosthenes do?

Dr. Terry Babcock-Lumish is currently a Visiting Research Associate at the School of Geography and the Environment and Associate Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. She is also President of Islay Consulting LLC with clients such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. A Harry S. Truman Scholar, she has worked in local, state, and federal government in America, most recently in the President's Council of Economic Advisers as a Presidential Management Fellow and previously as a Lilly Community Assistance Fellow supporting Indiana Governor Frank O'Bannon's Children's Environmental Initiative. Upon leaving the White House in 2001, Dr Babcock-Lumish served as a researcher for two books by former Vice President Al Gore. She writes from Rome, where she has been stranded since volcanic ash grounded flights throughout Europe.


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