World Fragility

This year’s Index of Global “fragility” (as reported in the Economist)has been released by the Fund for Peace (FfP) and it quite-well reflects the shifting political landscape around the world. Good news for Canadians – we are seen as being more stable this year than last. For obvious reasons, the US is sliding as are North Korea, Turkey and Brazil.

The graphics in the article make for a great lesson starters for Geopolitics, Media and Politics in general.

Fagile States Index


Ploughshares and Conflict Studies

ploughsharesDYK: In one year (2014), the world spent over $1.6 trillion on the military, over 1/3 of which was spent by one country…the United States.

DYK: The United States spends more on their military than the rest of NATO (#2) China(#3), Saudi Arabia (#4), Russia (#5), India and Japan COMBINED!!

Lately, I’ve been working with my Canadian and World Studies students on Conflict Studies. This has come out of our work in Current Affairs classes (once per week) which seems, every week, to revolve around conflicts. There is always, always, always conflicts in the news, but very little understanding around who is actually involved and why it’s happening in the first place. There is only so much a news organization can bring into a 30-second sound bite, which is what so much of the news is made up of.

ploughsharesEnter Project Ploughshares. Project Ploughshares started back in the 1970s. It grew out of a Mennonite Central Committee background and currently operates as an arms-length project of in the Canadian Council of Churches. To quote its website:

Project Ploughshares takes its name and its vision from the ancient biblical vision in the Book of Isaiah in which the material and human wealth consumed by military preparations are transformed into resources for human development, thereby removing the roots of war itself.

“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4

The value of is many-fold. It is a local organization to us, operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. It is dedicated to bettering the world: “A secure world without war • A just world at peace”. And, equally important, is its unbiased (read: “not churchy”),  authoritative/credible documentation of the numerous conflicts plaguing the planet today. Each year, it produces an Armed Conflict Report with a summary, interactive map and poster, to summarize the various conflicts, locations, combatants and human toll. My students are using the website to create info-posters to help others understand the background of what’s going on around the world.

It has been a real eye-opener for my students. They are beginning to see the complexity of each conflict with multiple layers of historical background and multi-party support of each side. They are also seeing the huge human toll, not just in news clips of a thousand here and 10,000 there, but in terms of the millions of people who have been internally and externally displaced over the years. They have also come to realize there is a whole area of study at the university level called Peace and Conflict Studies. Just one more realization of “what’s out there”.

Towards a new definition of Geography…

Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa
Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems and how they interact in the environment at the local, regional and global scales in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  1. What is the feature, process or system?
  2. Where is it found?
  3. Why there?
  4. How is it important?

I have recently updated my website to include a page on What is Geography?

I realize this sounds like navel-gazing to some extent, but I’ve been in a thirty year battle with the Five Themes of Geography, first introduced by the American Association of Geographers in 1984.

Location – Place – Human-Environment Interaction – Movement – Region

I have always found the five themes to be forced. To students sitting on the other side of the desk, they are five random words/concepts that unite only because a geography teacher gave them a handout and led them through a lesson, and, even then, the five concepts do not naturally flow, nor are they linked. they don’t “go” anywhere; they are just “there”.

Take Location and Place. Now, as a geographer, I know they are different (somewhat, anyway). But, c’mon, to most people they mean the same thing and will always mean the same thing. If you want to make something new and meaningful, don’t choose two words that are so closely linked that every thesaurus declares them the same (rightly or wrongly).

Then there is Human-Environment Interaction. Wow – what a mouthful compared to the other four  1-word themes. And, there’s no doubt this is a central theme. But it doesn’t fit amongst the other four,  almost trite, themes. Anyway – enough of this. The Five Themes do not work for me and never have.

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems…

Since entering teaching back in the early 1990s, I have always understood that Geography is where the sciences and humanities meet. Maybe this is a reflection of my own background as one who first completed a BSc (in Zoology, but always flirting with physical geography and biogeography) prior to completing a BA in Geography. I’ve always seen the disciplines of physical and human geography as a dichotomy, but one that is central to the concept of what geography is.

The shops in Karatu, Tanzania
Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

And we study more than just features – the processes that form those features and, ultimately, the systems are all central to our understanding of how the world works. Think of volcanoes, for example: they are features in the landscape but are also the result of physical processes. Those processes occur within a whole series of processes, all part of the Earth system we call plate tectonics. The same can be said of migration; it’s a process within the larger human systems of economics and politics. Yet, each of these phenomena – volcanoes and migration – occur at a variety of scales and interact within the greater environment.

…and how they interact in the environment…

Geography is where the two meet and interact: people responding to the physical world and physical world responding to us. This is the essence of geography and while it is espoused in the five themes it doesn’t carry them. When I developed my definition of geography many years ago, I recognized the importance of both disciplines as independent fields as well as the interactions between them. I took it one step further, though, to recognize how these fields operate at different scales.

…at the local, regional and global scales…

But more than that, learning is an investigative endeavour and students are naturally curious beings, so why not build that into our operative definition. To that end, I created a series of four questions to guide the inquirer from the known to the unknown from the simple to complex. They are a subset of the commonly-known 5Ws+H. As such, the questions encourage students to move up the hierarchy of learning. Students can determine where their understandings are and have a road map to where they need to go in working towards the next level. The questions turn the definition into an investigative framework.

…in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Where is it found?
  3. Why there?
  4. How is it important?

What is it? is further refined to What is the feature? or What is the process? or What is the system? and is meant to define the thing being investigated (a ___ is a ___ that ___s) and is descriptive in nature. It’s meant to be a simple introduction, low in the learning hierarchy, to bring in learners at all levels.

[Aside: There is a definite movement, as of late, to leap over these basic understandings. I first noticed it years ago when GIS became all the rage. Students were following recipe labs drawing polygons and querying databases without the slightest understanding of the underlying geography of the river systems or interactions. There wasn’t time to teach and learn those basics – a map had to be produced which analyzed and solved a problem. Hmmmm… the cart before the horse? It is also a trend in the new Gr 9 course from the Ontario Ministry of Education which is big on issues, but short on underlying concepts.]

Where is it found? begins to get at the geography of it all. Location is key – both absolute and relative. It also brings in the notions of site and situation – concepts I find easier to understand than absolute and relative locations.

Why there? or, more completely, why is the feature (or process or system) found there? or Why there and not elsewhere? begins to unravel the processes that create the feature. One of the key questions becomes: what processes created the feature? Students naturally move from description to explanation –”Why…?” begets “Because…” –  a higher level of understanding, distinct from description.

How is it important? is where it all comes together, where higher-level thinking skills are demanded. It’s where the two worlds – physical and human – interact. Students can delve into the depths of how the physical world influences our decisions and how our decisions and actions influence nature. Conflicts, issues, causes-effects-solutions, economics, politics, societies and cultures all come into play. I like how the textbook publishers Nelson have introduced the idea that geographers look at the world with each of these perspectives in mind. Brilliant. This is what sets us apart from every other discipline and what makes geography central to problem-solving.

Over the years, my students have responded very positively to this framework. When in doubt, just look to the four key questions to guide your inquiry, moving up the levels one step at a time.

Weekend Wandering 9: Are you a Gapminder?

GapminderWhat is it about Sweden and global development statistics? I remember first learning of the Demographic Transition model based on birth and death data from a village in Sweden dating back to 1749. Now, along comes Hans Rosling who is perhaps the most important statistician alive today. He is media savvy as evidenced by his numerous TED Talk appearances. But more importantly, he spreads a message of hope for the world that everyone else is missing. As the TED website says:

In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings.

HansRoslingYou may know of Hans Rosling from the animated bubble charts he walks you through like a sportscaster. If you’re a geographer and you haven’t heard of him, then you must – right now – watch this 10min TED Talk: Global population growth, box by box. It’s classic Hans Rosling and perhaps his most memorable video. But there’s more – much more.

In an effort to reduce world ignorance about statistics, data and how the world has changed, Hans Rosling and his son Ola, have co-founded the Gapminder Foundation. At their website you will find a number of up-to-date videos, animations and resources for better understanding how data is used constructively to show how the world is changing. If you’re an educator, then have a look at the downloadable teachers’ resources: 200 years that changed the world and  the Quiz about Global Development.

What is particularly interesting is their work in Ignorance with the Ignorance Project. Interestingly, they are using an icon of a chimpanzee. If you watch one of their TED Talk videos, you’ll know why. Basically, they ask intelligent people basic, multiple choice questions about the world and compare their answers to the reality. What becomes instantly apparent is how our knowledge of the world, based on our own personal biases and reinforced by media bias, has given us a rather distorted view of the world, so we are, in fact, out-performed by chimpanzees. Hans Rosling makes his point in this short YouTube clip from a Swedish or Danish television discussion (with English subtitles): Don’t use the media to understand the world. This is supported by data he presents in the TED Talk – How not to be ignorant about the world – where the media score no better than the rest of the public on basic world facts.

But there’s much more (I know, this is sounding like a late-night TV infomercial!) Gapminder has made available in their Downloads section, the Gapminder World Offline version for Mac, Windows and Linux. This will let you and your students “play” with the data – a perfect way for it to come alive in the classroom generating discussion and critical thinking. These are the animated bubble charts I referred to earlier, made famous by Hans Rosling’s ground-breaking TED Talk way back in 2006: The best stats you’ve ever seen. Call me a GeoGeek, but I can still remember watching that video for the first time and being amazed at how the same data and concepts I had been teaching for 15 years suddenly came alive. I couldn’t wait to show my classes and colleagues they next day.

Alternatively, you can go to the Gapminder World page and play with the data directly. The landing page shows the Wealth and Health of Nations, but you can select other charts under “Open Graph Menu” or you can directly choose x- and y-axes to create statistical comparisons. There is also a Map view for visualizing trends in one data point over time for geographic countries and regions. Powerful stuff!

Gapminder-CanadaOne trick I’ve just discovered… In Chart mode you can select “Play” to watch how the data changes over time. Run it through once then drag the time slider back to the start. Now here’s the cool part… Before selecting Play again, select a country: hover your cursor over a bubble to reveal the name. Once you’ve found the country you’re looking for, click on it. Now hit “Play” and you can watch the “trail” that country makes through time. I selected “Canada” and what becomes instantly apparent is the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 (and the end of WWI) and the effects of the Great Depression on incomes in the early 1930s. Very powerful stuff!

I’ve posted this as a Weekend Wandering because it’s the kind of website that just might capture your interest for a few hours. Being a holiday weekend (here in North America, anyway), you can spend your Labour Day Monday delving into the world of Gapminder – Enjoy!

NASA “gets” Global Climate Change

IMG_3495Of all the US organizations and institutions, I think NASA is one of the few that gets Global Climate Change correct. Their website Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet is a wonderful, media-rich website.

First of all, the people at NASA call it Global Climate Change (like the rest of the world) and not Global Warming. Americans seem to have attached themselves to this simplistic notion that it’s all about warming. Yes, Earth is warming as a whole, but it’s the climate changes that occur as a result of that warming that we need also to focus on such as flooding, drought, the increase in storm frequency and severity, etc. Furthermore, if they were to look beyond the averages, they would realize that amongst the warming, some places experience slight cooling.

Secondly, NASA leads with the global perspective – difficult to find in U.S. media. On the Images of Change page, for example, the lead visual is flooding in Mozambique from January 2015, followed by urban growth in Egypt. Imagine, leading with Sub-Saharan Africa; quite atypical of western media in general. And, the fact that the floods are topical and were so poorly covered by western media, despite almost 100 deaths, only goes to strengthen the significance of the NASA site. Keep up the great work, NASA!

For more information on Global climate Change, visit > Anthroposphere > Issues > Climate Change.

7:16am – It’s a Snow Day here in southern Ontario – more time to get out for a ski and explore Geography online!

Berkeley Earth

WinterTchangeWant climate data? How about data going back to the 1700s and data for 40,000 locations around the world? If you need an example of “big data” this is it – and it’s free and openly accessible for students and educators (and anyone else interested!) and is called Berkeley Earth.

What I found particularly intriguing is that Berkeley Earth is an independent, not-for-profit organization and their data and methods are completely transparent and open to scientific scrutiny. They tell us exactly how they go about their climate analysis and, as mentioned above, provide all their data. Having the data available allows educators to design a plethora of activities for students to learn data mining, mapping and charting and analysis – all with real climate data.

To quote their “About our Data” page, “The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study has … combin[ed] 1.6 billion temperature reports from 16 preexisting data archives. Whenever possible, we have used raw data rather than previously homogenized or edited data. … [T]he current archive contains over 39,000 unique stations. This is roughly five times the 7,280 stations found in the Global Historical Climatology Network Monthly data set (GHCN-M) that has served as the focus of many climate studies. ”

TO-ClimateChangeFor interest sake, I navigated to the Results by Location page and looked up Toronto, shown here. Incredible! it states, rather matter-of-factly that, based on aggregate historical data, the mean rate of temperature change around Toronto is 5.38°C (±0.41) – higher than I expected, but that seems to fit the model for more northern areas seeing a higher-than-global rate of temperature change.

Interestingly, rather than reporting using specific data from individual stations, with all their inherent sources of error, Berkeley Earth have worked to reduce error by averaging with nearby stations, thus creating a series of averages based on latitude and longitude. For this reason, the data for Toronto are the same as the data for Guelph as they both represent the location: 44.20 N, 80.50 W.

I can envision having students who are new to the notion of climate change (Mmmm, my Gr 7s come to mind…), building a global picture of climate change themselves based on this data and some interesting mapping features in Google Sheets (which we, as a school, use). this sounds like fun!

Just added to – Development page

HDII’ve been using HDI now for 20 years – about when it first came out, I believe. This week, as part of the Changing Populations unit in Canadian geography (Ontario), I will be working with students to develop an HDI-like index using 6 different Quality of Life indicators for 18 countries. They will be looking up the values, researching what the indicators mean and using Google Sheets to create spreadsheet of values and rankings to come up with an overall rank.

TZLifeThe goal of all this, in addition to learning the technical skills of spreadsheets, is to use the data to “predict where Canada’s immigrants will be applying from in the future”. I’m liking this new curriculum and how it is much more action-based.

All this prep had me working over the last little while to bolster the links on the Development page under Anthroposphere. The latest HDI link is there plus links to a variety of other indexes of development including the World Happiness Report, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index and, of course, the Economist’s Big Mac Index. You will also find a link on the page to my photos of Tanzanian Life under Explore. This is part of a growing number of images I am making available to students and teachers for educational use.