Geography’s Nature and Perspectives
Imagine that you could transport yourself back in time to the early 1960s and visit the Lake Chad region in Africa. You would find yourself wandering along the shores of one of the largest lakes in Africa – a lake straddling the boundaries of four newly independent countries: Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger. You would see a rich lakecentered ecosystem providing life-giving water and food for a few million people living near its shores. Most of the people you met would rely on the lake’s abundant fish harvests, but you would notice farming and pastoralist communities as well. You might hear stories of tensions between different ethno-cultural groups, but not of armed conflict. During your explorations of the physical environment near the lake you would find significant woodland stands in some places, but sparser vegetation elsewhere because of the challenges presented by the long winter dry season. You might well be aware of the ecological fragility of the region, but you would be encouraged by an agreement entered into by the four states sharing the Lake Chad Basin setting forth a plan for cooperative management of the Basin’s development.
A visit today would be a very different experience. You would find a lake that has lost 90 percent of its 1960 surface area (plate 1
), and a fish population that is a shadow of its former self. You would see a human population more than twice its 1960s size, but with abandoned villages in some areas and newly established makeshift settlements in others. As you wandered around you would encounter far fewer people making their living from fishing and far more from agriculture, and you would see evidence of major land-use conflicts resulting from the expansion of agriculture into pasture land. You would also likely be aware of deep tensions between the different states controlling parts of the Basin – and indeed between state authorities and local peoples.
You would also see the impact of Boko Haram, a radical Jihadist insurgency movement that took root in northern Nigeria in the early 2000s and instigated an armed uprising aimed at establishing an Islamic state grounded on strict (many would say corrupt) Sharia law principles. Boko Haram’s advance into the Lake Chad region, and the military response of autocratic governmental authorities (often with support from the West), resulted in the displacement of well over two million people, the loss of thousands of lives to conflict and abduction, and a food crisis that has left some 20 percent of the people in the area facing acute malnutrition.
How can we understand what has happened to the Lake Chad Basin (LCB) – or its relative invisibility in much of the wider world? (In late 2017 the New Yorker
referred to the LCB as the site of the world’s most complex, troubling humanitarian disaster,1
yet outside the surrounding area and the confines of a handful of international aid organizations, few people know anything about it.) The situation is enormously complex. Long-term fluctuations in the size of Lake Chad are driven by natural forces, but its rapid shrinkage in the late twentieth century was also tied to the expansion of irrigated agriculture in response to population growth and a shift to larger-scale commercialized farming of export crops. Simultaneously, drought conditions have worsened in the face of a lethal combination of global climate change resulting from the burning of fossil fuels around the planet
and air pollution emanating from Europe that has affected air circulation patterns. Moreover, decades of poor governance and economic marginalization have made it difficult for many of the inhabitants to respond to changing conditions and have helped pave the way for the rise of the Boko Haram movement, which itself grew out of a more widespread turn toward radicalism in Southwest Asia and North Africa in the early 2000s. All of this has unfolded against the backdrop of a wider world in which most of those living in better-off regions pay little attention to the Sahel – a semi-arid zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara Desert and wetter regions to the south.
There is no easy way to unravel the complexities at play in the LCB, but it is impossible even to begin to grasp what has happened there without considering a few geographical fundamentals:
Location and place characteristics matter. The developments described above are the product of a unique conjunction of environmental and human circumstances at a particular spot on Earth’s surface. There is no other place on the planet where people are facing the same mix of human and physically driven environmental challenges: a decline in precipitation going back decades; the disruption of traditional flows of people and goods resulting from the creation of political boundaries and associated power dynamics; a lethal combination of violent insurgency and militaristic responses; and major socio-economic upheavals resulting from local ethnic divisions, the baggage of colonial arrangements, and the involvement of foreign governments and business concerns seeking to advance economic and political interests. The point is that the particularities of the geographical setting are of critical importance both to explaining what has happened there and to assessing the strengths and limitations of general understandings.
Human and physical processes are intertwined. The LCB is not facing either an environmental challenge or a human challenge; it is facing a combined human–environment challenge. This challenge manifests itself in a variety of ways. To cite just one example, the human and natural forces behind the shrinking of Lake Chad in the 1970s and 1980s created the perfect conditions for the expansion of the tsetse fly population, which led to an outbreak of disease in the cows on which island communities in the lake depended – in turn precipitating migration away from the islands that disrupted both the ecological and the ethnic balance in places where the migrants settled. If we only look at human or at physical factors, we can’t understand what happened or why.
Spatial variations are revealing. We need to document and analyze the changing character of the LCB’s physical and human landscape to assess what has happened and what might be done to address the crisis. By mapping and analyzing changes in the lake’s surface, the surrounding vegetation, and settlement patterns using remote sensing and on-the-ground data collection, we can gain critical insights into the physical and human forces that are altering the character of the lake and disrupting the lives of the people who depend on it. Malnutrition is a much greater problem in some parts of the LCB than in others; looking at where the problem is more or less severe (i.e., its variations across space) can help us understand who is being affected – why, where, and how.
We need to look beyond the local. The LCB crisis is not simply a consequence of localized developments. Simplistic views of the crisis that focus solely on population growth, ethnic conflict, or resource management practices in the Basin fail to reckon with the myriad ways in which it is deeply affected by developments originating far outside the region. The human and physical forces behind the drought are driven by global-scale processes. The colonial order resulted in a political pattern that divided the Basin into competing segments, which sparked, or at least hardened, intra-regional animosities. The expansion of water-intensive commercial agriculture was driven by consumption preferences and economic arrangements emanating principally from Europe. The rise of Boko Haram was inspired by developments in Southwest Asia and found fertile ground in an area long marginalized by outside powers. In pursuing their geopolitical objectives, France, the United States, and other powers have helped solidify the power of corrupt state authorities; and they have responded to Boko Haram in ways that have cost countless lives and threatened economic stability in the region.
Our understandings, priorities, and actions are shaped by unexamined geographical assumptions. The limited attention paid to the LCB’s challenges by the outside world reflects a widespread tendency in North America, Europe, and East Asia to relegate Sub-Saharan Africa to the margins. It is difficult to imagine that if a crisis of the same magnitude occurred in southern Europe it would receive so little attention. Paradoxically, even writing about the crisis as I have done here risks reinforcing the all-too-common, deeply troubling tendency among those outside of Africa to view the continent as a disaster zone, to ignore its enormous diversity, and to write it off as hopeless. The comparative global invisibility of what has happened in the LCB reveals the power of geographical imaginations to shape what gets attention, where resources are deployed, and how understandings develop.
The LCB crisis is, to be sure, extreme, but it is instructive of the types of circumstances that need to be taken into consideration when addressing developments in almost any place. It also serves as a signal example of the importance of bringing geographical perspectives to bear on issues and problems. Geography is an academic discipline and subject of study that explores – and promotes critical thinking about – how the world is organized, the environments and patterns that exist on the ground or that humans create in their minds, the interconnections that exist between the physical and human environment, and the nature of places and regions. Geography, in short, offers a critically important window into the diverse nature and character of the planet that serves as humanity’s home.
The Allure and Power of Geographical Understanding
Ever since early humans sketched primitive maps in the dirt, the quest for geographical understanding has helped people make sense of the world around them. Systematic assessments of the organization and character of Earth’s surface allowed early scholars to figure out that the world was round; provided useful insights into where to locate settlements, plant crops, and find resources; promoted understanding of the workings of the physical environment; and, quite literally, helped human beings find their way. Through the ages advances in geographical understanding made it possible for people to explore the remotest corners of our planet and develop understandings of the interconnections that link the human and biophysical world. Like many bodies of knowledge, geography has served negative as well as positive ends: rapacious champions of colonialism used geographical knowledge to facilitate the exploitation of peoples and environments. Yet without some appreciation for geography we would be unable to comprehend how the world is organized and our place in it.
The search for geographical understandings traces its roots to human curiosity about other places. As the basic properties of Earth’s surface became better known, attention shifted to what geographical arrangements could tell us about the planet – what, for example, the configuration of landmasses and the spatial arrangement of landforms reveal about the movement of tectonic plates; how the placement of political boundaries influences access to resources; how the organization of cities shapes people’s activity patterns; and how the location of health clinics and grocery stores advantages some communities while disadvantaging others.
Since geographical arrangements are always evolving – cities expand, people move to new places, streams shift courses, the complex of economic activities in neighborhoods changes – the search for geographical understanding is never ending. Indeed, the importance of that search is growing because of the rate and extent of the geographical changes currently unfolding on Earth’s surface. Sea levels are rising; large numbers of species are facing extinction; cities are exploding in size and population; the connections between distant places are being remade; people are moving around the planet at a previously unknown pace; record-breaking numbers of individuals are crowding into environmentally fragile places; and inequalities among and between places are escalating at an alarming rate. A recent study of the US National Research Council drew attention to the implications of these changes for geography:
Stanford ecologist Hal Mooney has suggested that we are living in “the era of the geographer” – a time when the formal discipline of geography’s long-standing concern with the changing spatial organization and material character of Earth’s surface and with the reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment are becoming increasingly central to science and society.2
The critical importance of geography in the contemporary era also becomes clear when one considers the growing avail...