Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 9/30/2005 [Archive]

Geography Matters

Geography Matters

Q&A Interview with author/professor/TV personality Harm di Blij

Nobody knows how to explain the importance of geographic literacy to citizens and leaders of the United States better than Harm de Blij, a Dutch-born author, professor and TV personality.

De Blij (pronounced duh Blay) says the short definition of geography is the study "of the way things are laid out, spatially." But as the NBC News "geography analyst" explains in his 30th book, "Why Geography Matters," geography is much more than memorizing mountain ranges and estuaries.

It's about presidents fully knowing the culture of countries like Iraq (before they decide to invade them). And it's about global-warming hysterics learning what all freshmen college geography students learn -- that Mother Earth has been in an Ice Age for 35 million years and our current balmy spell soon will come to an icy end no matter how much carbon we humans spew into the air.

I talked to the professor of geography at Michigan State University Wednesday by phone from his home on Cape Cod, a piece of land projecting into the waters off Massachusetts.

Q: So, should we be blaming what happened in New Orleans on global warming or geographic illiteracy?

A: That's a tough question. Certainly, there's a factor of geographic illiteracy, in the sense that we have been building below sea level there for a long time. We should have known that the levee system at some point was going to fail. Obviously, none of the building codes, none of the plans that were laid in the city of New Orleans, prepared for this. The fact is, it is possible to live below sea level. You just have to be willing to make the investment.

As for the global warming part, the jury is out on that. A well-known climatologist named Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia recently made a very good point. He said, look, first of all we've had these kinds of concentrations of hurricanes before. Secondly, the Atlantic is not the only place where hurricanes occur. They also occur in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean, and they are called cyclones over there. And if you add them all up this year, yes, the Atlantic season's been more active. But the Pacific and Indian Ocean seasons have been less severe and if you average it out, we are not having an exceptional year.

Q: Can you give us a quick synopsis of the book "Why Geography Matters"?

A: The objective of the book is this: We are geographically not illiterate, but inadequately schooled. As a result of this, we are very good at history and we're very good at looking at the way the world operates systemically, but we don't know very much about the way the world is laid out. As a result of that, we make foreign policy mistakes.

Vietnam was one. If Robert McNamara had taken one course in human geography or cultural geography before he sent the country in that direction, he might have done it differently. But there is no geography taught at Harvard or, for that matter, at Yale, where as you know President Bush got his education. I am convinced that we would not have engaged in the Iraq intervention if we had known the geography better. So my concern is that the geographic literacy and foreign policy priorities and risks are linked. And the less literate our leaders are in geography, the more dangerous it is for the country.

Q: You also talk in your book about the rise of China and how little we know about it.

A: I am constantly amazed at our lack of public awareness and knowledge of what will undoubtedly be the key adversary of the 21st century. You know there was all this talk about how little we knew about Vietnam, when we went into Vietnam. Now we have a situation far more serious, where a global superpower is on the rise. It isn't going to happen perhaps as soon as some of our naysayers are predicting, but I think there is little question that some time during this century we will have, shall I say, a contest for influence.

Every time I go to China I am impressed by how well the Chinese know us. What they know about our country, our politicians, our products, our way of looking at the world, our religious obsessions, and all those things. When I then come back here and go to a major university and ask some simple questions about China, we don't even know the names of their provinces and cities. It's a terrible asymmetry of knowledge and I think implicit in that is a foreign policy risk.

Q: We're being told over and over by the mainstream media and scientists as well that global warming is a real problem for earthlings. Yet you say we need to prepare for a quick climate change that will be a precipitous cooling. What's that all about?

A: We are living in an Ice Age -- which consists of long cold spells interrupted by short warm spells. This is something that every student in introductory geography learns all over the world. It started about 30 or 35 million years ago. It's been going on. It's been getting colder. Approximately, 30 million years ago, the Antarctic ice sheet began to form; 20 million years ago glaciers began to form in high mountains even in the tropical areas; 10 million years ago the Arctic Ocean froze over. About 1.8 million years ago, we began a sequence of events that is still going on, which is as follows: It is very cold for 100,000 years in a row -- never, of course, continuously cold, but up and down. Then it gets very warm, very quickly, and for about an average of 10,000 to 12,000 years it is about as warm as it is today. Then that ends with a precipitous cooling, and it is cold for another 100,000 years.

Just 18,000 years ago, ice sheets hundreds of feet high covered all of North America down to the Ohio River. All that melted when global warming started. It melted in a matter of a few thousand years. It was some dramatic event: Huge slabs of ice the size of the Canadian province of Quebec would slide into the ocean, raise the sea level, cool the water, change local climate. The coastal plains, along which we humans had been migrating, got inundated. It must have been an incredibly dramatic time.

Then about 7,000 years ago, it was warm like it is now and it has been that warm ever since. We are now at the point that the period of global warming like the one that got rid of the glaciers the last time has been going on for about 15,000 years. We are already well into the autumn of our warm spell. So even though we worry about global warming, I am saying that what we are likely to experience is an increasing number of extremes and then a collapse of the system and a return to glacial conditions. It's happened for 2 million years and it's going to happen again, whether or not we do to the atmosphere what we are doing. Nature will overpower our pollution of the atmosphere.

Q: What's your official position on global warming?

A: That it is existing, that it is happening, but that it will not go on indefinitely.

Q: And what should we or our government do about it?

A: Obviously, we need to reduce our impact on the atmosphere, not just here in the United States, but in the rest of the world. I was disappointed that the Clinton administration did not see a way to endorse the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto may not have been adequate. In fact, if you look at it, it is in some ways undoable. In other ways, it allows other countries to continue polluting while we inhibit our industries. But the fact is, as a political gesture, as a gesture of international cooperation and concern, we should have signed it and tried to live with it -- but we're not. That's one thing the government should do.

Q: What's this big deal about global warming? Other scientists must know what you know ... that Earth is in a short warm period now and that we'll return to long cold periods, right?

A: Absolutely. I have been accused by colleagues of being immoral for misleading the public. There is no doubt that global warming is happening. I have no doubt that there is a combination of natural warming of a kind we've had 18 times over the past 1.8 million years, plus some measure of human causation. But the fact of the matter is, even if we continue on as we are, nature will say to this planet, "It is time to go back to the norm," which is glaciation, and it will happen no matter what we do.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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