'Understanding the Changing Planet'

Image of Alexander Murphy, professor of geographyRemember the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study? Probably not, so here's a quick review of the highlights about then-recent U.S. high school graduates:

• 63 percent could not find Iraq on a map (despite the then three-year-old war)
• 75 percent could not locate Israel
• Less than 50 percent could place Ohio on a map
• Barely 33 percent could find Louisiana (six months after Hurricane Katrina)

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Think that's bad? Four years earlier U.S. high-school graduates trailed well behind students from Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Sweden in how well they handled geography.

New discussion about geography and how the geographical sciences actually may provide a roadmap to help the world address a growing list of challenges -- among them how to deal with climate change -- is about to begin.

Sometime this summer, a 220-page booklet "Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences" will be published by the National Academies. It represents two years of information gathering and analysis by 12 U.S. scientists who served on a committee chaired by the University of Oregon's Alexander B. Murphy, professor of geography and holder of the Rippey Chair in Liberal Arts & Sciences.

"There is something wrong when you don't have any kind of mental image of how the world is organized in terms of its physical or human characteristics, or the relationship between the two," Alexander said. "Up until the last decade, geography went through a period, especially in the United States, of significant marginalization in the curriculum. In K-12, it practically disappeared. We became the only industrialized country in the world where you could literally go from kindergarten to college and never have a serious class in geography."

In the face of survey results of students and the potential worldwide impact of global climate changes on such things as resource access, demography, health and geopolitics, four organizations -- the National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey, National Geographic Society and Association of American Geographers -- funded a concerted effort to turn things around. Next, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, organized the committee.

"It was suggested that we pursue a fairly broad-ranging study to look across the geographical sciences, especially the science-side, and consider the big questions of the day," Murphy said. "We asked what kinds of geographical research can help us address these issues."

The study committee developed 11 strategic questions, each of which is addressed in the report:

• How are we changing the physical environment of Earth’s surface?

• How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?

• How are climate and other environmental changes affecting the vulnerabilities of coupled human–environment systems?

• How and where will 10 billion people live?

• How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?

• How does where we live affect our health?

• How is the movement of people, goods, and ideas changing the world?

• How is economic globalization affecting inequality?

• How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace and stability?

• How might we better observe, analyze, and visualize a changing world?

• What are the societal implications of citizen mapping and mapping citizens?

"This report is intended for geographers, and also for policymakers, journalists, scholars and citizens beyond geography," wrote Carol Harden, professor of geography at the University of Tennessee and president of the Association of American Geographers, in a newsletter to members. "I would add deans, provosts, parents, students and employers to the list."

In a summary report, Murphy and his committee colleagues -- including Dawn J. Wright of Oregon State University and Victoria Lawson of the University of Washington, Seattle -- wrote that the goals identified "have a strong likelihood of achieving significant and demonstrable results in the next 5–10 years" and they can be investigated with existing methods and sources of data or with those expected to be available soon.

Murphy's committee concludes: "Given the extent and magnitude of the geographical transformations currently unfolding, it will be imperative to understand why changes happen in particular places. … In these efforts, the geographical science community has an opportunity to enhance key support systems to mobilize research infrastructure, training and outreach efforts to focus progress towards these goals."

The book currently is available in PDF format from the National Academies Press. You can view and order the book, even try to read it, online at the NAP website.