Geographic Literacy in a Globalized World: Without it, We’re Lost

Kids at preschool using a globe to learn about geography.
Getty Images/skynesher.

In a lecture for the Long Now Foundation in April 2004 biologist being illiterate in a library to being bio-illiterate in the rainforest. "You wouldn't care about books if you couldn't read them," he said, "so why would you care about plant and animal species if you couldn't understand them?" While Dr. Janzen's topic was focused on biology, he raises an interesting question - can we care about or comprehend something that we know very little about or perhaps don't know exists? This question, which Dr. Janzen applied to biology, can be applied to almost any discipline… and geography is no exception.

If we apply Dr. Janzen's idea to geography, then being geo-illiterate would mean that we are unable to fully comprehend or understand the world: what's in it, where things are connected, and how it all works together. Geographer Charles Gritzner touches on this in his article, , writing, "To individuals lacking a well-developed 'mental map' of the Earth's surface and its varied mosaic of physical and human conditions--the very heart and soul of geographic knowledge--the globe must appear as a fragmented and confusing hodgepodge of meaningless and unrelated phenomena." By being geo-illiterate, we don't understand why drought in California affects tomato prices in Iowa, what the Strait of Hormuz has to do with the price of gas in Indiana, or what the island nation of Kiribati wants with Fiji.

What Is Geo-literacy?

The National Geographic Society as the understanding of human and natural systems and geographic and systematic decision-making. More specifically, it means being equipped to better understand the complexity of the world, how our decisions affect others (and vice versa), and the interconnectedness of this rich, diverse, and not-so-large world. This understanding of interconnectedness is very important, but quite often we don't think about it.

Every year National Geographic facilitates Geography Awareness Week during the third week of November. The goal of this week is to educate people through outreach activities and impress upon them the idea that we are all connected to the rest of the world through the decisions we make on a daily basis, including what foods we eat and the things we buy. There's a new theme every year and, coincidentally, the theme in 2012 was "declare your interdependence."

Making the Case for Geo-literacy

The purpose of geo-literacy, of the National Geographic Society, is to empower people to "make decisions in real-world contexts." This empowerment means being fully aware of what decisions we are making and what the effects of our decisions will be. People, especially in the developed world, make decisions every day that are far-reaching and affect more than just the locality in which they reside. Their decisions may appear small in scale, at least initially. But, as Dr. Edelson reminds us, if you multiply individual decision making times a few million (or even a few billion), "the cumulative impacts can be enormous." Professor Harm de Blij, author of Why Geography Matters agrees with Dr. Edelson and writes, "As the democratic nation that elects representatives whose decisions affect not just America but the entire world, we Americans have an obligation to be well-informed about our small and functionally-shrinking planet."

Through advances in technology, economic development, and international trade, the world in which we live is becoming relatively smaller and smaller every day - a phenomenon known as globalization. This process increases the interconnectedness of the peoples, cultures, and systems, which makes geo-literacy more important than ever. Dr. Edelson sees this as a good reason to make the case for increased learning about geography, noting that, "Having a geo-literate populace is critical for, among many things, maintaining economic competitiveness, quality of life, and national security in our modern, interconnected world." Understanding geography is the key to understanding interconnectedness.

Around the world, countries have recognized the importance of geo-literacy and a sound geographic education. According to Dr. Gritzner, many developed (and even some less developed) countries have put geography at the core of their social science curriculum. In the United States in the past, we've struggled with geography's place in education. "What's worse, Dr. Gritzner laments, "our interest and curiosity seem to be lacking as well." But recently we seem to be making some headway, especially because of new geography tools like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics that geography jobs will grow 35% from 2010 - 2020, a much faster rate than the average career. But, because the total number of geography jobs is currently quite small, there's still much work to do.

Consequences of Geo-illiteracy

According to Professor de Blij, geo-literacy is a matter of national security. In Why Geography Matters, he makes the case that the United States has struggled in the past and sometimes continues to struggle today with military action and diplomacy because in the countries where we have an interest "too few Americans know the regions, speak the languages, comprehend the faiths, understand the rhythms of life, and realize the depth of feelings." This, he argues, is a result of the lack of geographic education in the U.S. He also makes the prediction that the next global competitor is China. "And how many of us," he asks, "understand China any more than we understood Southeast Asia forty years ago?"


Perhaps we can capture a glimpse of a topic completely foreign to us, but can we truly appreciate and understand something which we know nothing about - faceless cultures and nameless places? Indeed the answer is no. But even though we don't need a doctorate in geography to start understanding the world - we can't stand idly by either. It's up to us to take some initiative to get out there and explore our neighborhoods, our communities, our geographies. We live in an age where limitless informational resources are at our fingertips: we can get National Geographic Magazine electronically on our tablets, watch a myriad of documentaries online, and peruse landscapes with Google Earth. Perhaps the best method, though, is still sitting down in a quiet place with a globe or an atlas, and letting the mind wonder. Once we make the effort, the unknown can become known… and therefore, real.