Geography was a 'green' discipline long before 'green' was popular. Let’s explore ten ways that geography and environmental education are inextricably linked.
First, every environmental issue from pollution to habitat to biodiversity has a geographic component — it occurs somewhere, exhibits spatial patterns, and affects multiple facets of the human and physical environment. For example, coastal erosion is a natural process but can be exacerbated by human practices. It is affected by land use, elevation, ocean currents, weather, climate, and other processes. Each process operates differently depending on region, scale, and interaction with other processes. Understanding these processes can be accomplished using a book that I co-authored entitled Essentials of the Environment
, published by Hodder Education. Environmental studies are enhanced by studying geography.
Second, and conversely, geography is enhanced by environmental studies. From Earth-Sun relationships, to climate, currents, biomes, and much more, studying the environment is a key part of physical geography and human geography.
Third, a central geographic theme is examining the interaction between humans and the environment. How does the environment, through daily weather and long-term climate, plants and animals, landforms, water, hazards, and soil, affect people? How do these factors affect urbanization, agriculture, water quality and quantity, tourism, and culture? Conversely, how do humans affect their environment? Environmental issues are bound up in scale, place, cultural practices, and the biosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and anthrosphere. To teach about human-environment interaction requires a firm foundation in geographic content, skills, and perspective.
Fourth, studying environmental issues in tandem with geography lends relevancy to these issues. The central themes that geographers have studied for years have become topics on daily newscasts. Pollution, traffic, habitat loss, climate change, erosion, and others have caused some to claim that the 21st Century is the 'Geographic Century'. Environmental concerns have become global issues, increasingly impact our everyday lives, and are complex, requiring interdisciplinary, holistic, spatial thinking.
Fifth, teaching sustainable agriculture, development, ecotourism, energy, and other topics requires grounding in geography. For students to understand ways to live in harmony with the environment, they must understand the connections between their own actions to global processes, and hence the principles of global processes from the carbon cycle to global trade.
Sixth, students who learn about geography and environmental studies develop key critical thinking skills and understand how to carefully evaluate and use data. Assessing environmental data is especially important due to its increasing volume and diversity and its often sensitive and politically-charged nature. 'Crowdsourced' data is now appearing from 'citizen science' initiatives, on pine beetle infestation, the date of the first frost, and other topics that are increasingly geotagged and mapped. Students and graduates grounded in geography and environmental studies will be in demand to help make sense of this deluge of incoming data.
Seventh, geography students apply geotechnologies to understand environmental issues. Grappling with issues requires tools that can handle a large volume and a wide variety of data, to model scenarios and analyze patterns. These tools include GIS, remote sensing, GPS, and scientific probes and methods, to help answer such questions as 'How does pH vary along this river, and why?' 'How do tree species and height change depending on slope angle and direction, and why?' 'Why does wind speed and direction vary across Europe?' Geotechnologies were developed by the geographic community to solve problems. Student using these tools gain key skills in demand in the workforce. Eighth, students who are well grounded in geographic principles are better able to use data at a variety of scales, contexts, systematically and holistically, and use quantitative and qualitative approaches. Geography graduates are better decision makers. Studying geography and environmental studies is an applied science — it leads to action.
Ninth, learning is often most effective when it takes place outdoors. Fieldwork has a long and rich history within geography. Students can collect data, sketch, create video and photographs, and much more. They develop an appreciation for the balance of nature (or the 'unbalance') and the connectedness of the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. Studies show that if students do not receive repeated, deep immersion in natural places while young, they will not value nor appreciate natural places or issues as adult decision-makers.
Tenth, given the widespread environmental concerns faced by the modern world, it is imperative that students study and understand about these issues not only to equip
them for life in the 21st Century, but to ensure
that we emerge at the end of the 21st Century sustainably. How can we expect decision-makers to care
about the planet unless they have learned about the planet? And how can they learn
about the planet unless they study geography and the environment?
Joseph J. Kerski