• Julie Urbanik

Geography by Danny Dorling and Carl Lee

Many people believe that the field of geography is all about ‘maps and facts,’ mainly due to memories of time spent in school learning states, capitals, rivers and the like. Geography as memorization is not really challenged by the mainstream media’s use of maps that adults encounter, either. Geography as a way to orient yourself in the world, whether during a discussion of the latest US airstrikes on the news or following the voice of your GPS mapping software to take you somewhere are certainly all valid; geographers, however, know geography as a much more comprehensive field.

Indeed, it is the mission of The Coordinates Society to engage more people in experiencing geography on a daily basis. In this vein, Danny Dorling and Carl Lee’s book, Geography, is a helpful introduction to geography’s bigger picture. Dorling is a professor of geography at the University of Oxford and Lee is currently a tutor in the Department for Lifelong Learning at the University of Sheffield. In 150 pages of straightforward writing, the authors take five chapters to discuss what they see as key themes: geography’s tradition, globalization, equality, sustainability, and the role of geography in mapping the future. The text is accompanied by map illustrations by Benjamin Henning.


The book opens with the story of the MSC Oscar, which was the world’s largest container ship when it traveled from China to the Netherlands in 2015. It can “transport 13.8 million solar panels or 1.15 million washing machines or 39,000 cars” at one time. For the authors, this ship represents what they see as the epitome of the main issues of global concern. A ship such as the MSC Oscar carries goods around the world and connects consumers to producers using natural resources at every step of the journey. Such a ship begs such diverse questions as: How can such a huge ship even float? Why is it better to ship than fly? Why do countries need to import/export so many goods? What are these products? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? These are all the questions a geographer would ask. In fact, for the authors, “nothing lies outside the purview of geography because everything is connected to everything else.”

For Dorling and Lee, geography’s greatest strength – especially at this particular time in human society – is its ability to synthesize. Geographers are trained to not only understand where things happen and why, but to understand how events are connected to other places and events. Indeed, “once you begin to see how everything is connected to everything else there is no turning back.” Geographers in some ways are like those intrepid toddlers always asking “why?” Geography uses the ‘maps and facts’ aspect to describe and visualize the world, but it is also an explanatory framework that helps us understand that ‘why.’

In their discussion of geography’s traditions, they remind us that the field has a history of both exploration and exploitation. For centuries, Kingdoms and Empires often turned outward to see what existed elsewhere. This was especially true for societies in Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia. While gaining knowledge held a certain value in and of itself, what was gleaned was often used politically. The explorers, the maps they drew, and the reports they brought home were all used to answer questions such as: Who lived in these new places and what were these places like? What resources were there? What, if any, trade relations could be had? What has changed with the geography practiced now is our ability to look forward and backward, inward and outward – to understand consequences of actions and behaviors in a manner that we have never previously been able to.

For example, many people think that globalization began in the modern era with the international movement of manufacturing, the rise of air travel, and the advent of the Internet. As Dorling and Lee demonstrate, however, our current phase of globalization is really just a change in form and scale of planetary connections that have been going on for centuries. From the ancient empire of Rome, which covered the Mediterranean region, to the famous ‘Silk Road’ connecting the Mediterranean cultures with China and allowing Xi'an, in today’s northwest China, to become a city of 1 million people by 700, to the rise of the European colonial expansion into Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia, which brought together foods such as chicken, potatoes, coffee, and cocoa, in addition to the forced movement of millions of people as slaves, the world has been ‘globalized’ to the extent of trade connections and technological capacities.

Understanding the historical geography of globalization allows us to study its impacts across human and natural systems. Earlier forms of globalization resulted in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in terms of political-social-environmental stability, and this bifurcated global structure remains largely intact today. While on the one hand it is clear that advances in medicine, living standards (e.g., indoor plumbing, refrigeration, year-round farming), and education have enabled millions of people to live better lives, we continue to live in a world where, in 2014, “the wealthiest 85 people in the world had assets worth $1 trillion – the same as the total wealth of the poorest half of the global population, some 3.6 billion people.” This difference in wealth translates into vastly different opportunities for education, health, political participation, and a fundamental experience of being alive rather than simply trying to survive.

Some people might normalize these differences – saying the world has always been unequal and that inequality is simply ‘natural’ to human societies. What Dorling and Lee would like us to see is that geographers ask us to step back and recognize that we don’t have to accept that inequality is natural, in the same way that globally we have, for the most part, come to see that slavery is not natural, that women are not less than men nor darker skinned peoples less than lighter skinned peoples, that people of different sexual identities are not diseased or deviant, or that poor people are less than rich people. We understand these relationships now because we have been able to compare them across time and space, and because many people have challenged the systems that normalize them.

Globalization and inequality are, today, inseparable from the authors' third theme – that of sustainability or “inter-connectivity.” The current form of globalization was facilitated by the harnessing of fossil fuels as an energy source. While the resulting industrial technologies advanced human society in numerous ways, we know now that fossil fuel consumption is also a driving force in planetary change. In today’s Anthropocene, a term for the geologic age we are in where humans are the main force impacting the planet, human advances have come at the expense of biodiversity, clean water, clean soils, clean air, and over-consumption of natural resources such as fish, wood, and farmland.

It is simply no longer possible to look at natural systems as separate from human systems, nor to ignore questions of inequality among human groups. It is becoming more and more clear that the biggest change needed to move to a positive future for humans and the planet is to make “the transition from an individualistic to a collective mentality.” Indeed, “in a globalized world no individual, community or society is an island…”

Given that this book is part of the landmark series, Ideas in Profile: Small Introductions to Big Topics by Profile Books, I think the authors succeed admirably. The book is accessible and does not contain any unnecessarily complex terms or lines of thought that would require a scholarly background. Their tour of the history of geography and its role as a global, synthesizing science is as comprehensive as a ‘small introduction’ can be without becoming too political or too general.

While I understand the authors’ desire to frame geography as a science, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with the relationship between geography and the human spirit. In my view, one of geography’s greatest strengths is that it synthesizes not only our knowledge of the world but also requires us to integrate meaning-making into that synthesis. For example, many people are ‘on board’ with sustainable consumption or fair labor practices, but not solely for rational reasons – it is because they care and feel an emotional connection to the planet, to other humans, and perhaps to the wonder of the world as a whole. Geography inspires as much as it informs and we need, now more than ever, pathways to inspiration and connection.

To answer the question: What kind of world do we want to live in? requires geography. What Dorling and Lee have succeeded in doing here is to demonstrate why and how geography is so much more than ‘maps and facts.’ They call it the “enabling” subject because it allows us to join “physics with culture, biology with philosophy, and even zoology with architecture.” It is a call to see, to learn, and to care. In Greek, geo is ‘earth’ and graphy is ‘writing’ – geography as ‘earth-writing’ “is to write about almost everything we know, everywhere we live and all that we cherish most.”

#geography #globalization

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