Learn about geo-literacy—what it is, why it's important, and what we can do to advance geo-literacy in the U.S.
By Daniel C. Edelson, PhD
Friday, March 25, 2011
Whether they realize it or not, every member of our modern society makes far-reaching decisions every day. A far-reaching decision is one that has impacts far beyond the time and place where the decision is being made. For example, when commuters choose between driving or taking public transportation, when corporate boards consider whether they should shift manufacturing from one country to another, and when troops in the field translate orders into actions, they are all making far-reaching decisions.
While the impacts of any particular far-reaching decision may be small, the cumulative impact of the decisions made by millions or even billions of people is enormous. The National Geographic Society is working to prepare our young people for the far-reaching decisions they will face throughout their lives. To be prepared for these decisions, they must be able to recognize the far-reaching implications of the decisions they make, and they must be able to take those impacts into account when making decisions. This requires that they have three forms of understanding:
How our world works.
Modern science characterizes our world as a set of dynamic physical, biological, and social systems. These systems create, move, and transform resources. For example, in ecosystems, nutrients are created, transformed, and transported through food chains. Similarly, in economic systems, people transform natural resources into objects with economic value, which can be transported, used, traded, and sold. Every human decision is affected by these systems and has effects on them.
How our world is connected.
Today more than ever, every place in our world is connected to every other place. To understand the far-reaching implications of decisions, one must understand how human and natural systems connect places to each other. For example, in the 1980s, scientists discovered that the prevailing winds that speed flights from Chicago to Boston were also carrying power plant emissions from the Midwest that were causing acid rain in New England.
How to make well-reasoned decisions. Good decision-making involves systematic analysis of outcomes based on priorities. For example, in deciding where to build a road, a planner will establish priorities for cost, capacity, and impact on communities and the natural environment. He will then predict the outcomes of different options based on those criteria, and will weigh the tradeoffs between these options based on values associated with the different criteria.
The components of geo-literacy
National Geographic has adopted the term "geo-literacy" to describe the combination of understanding and skills that enable people to make far-reaching decisions.
Geo-literacy requires three kinds of reasoning:
A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the ways that human and natural systems function and interact.
A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the ways that people and places are connected to each other across time and space.
A geo-literate individual is able to weigh the potential impacts of their decisions systematically.
To be geo-literate is to be able to combine these three abilities to make good decisions.