Geographies of Bread and Water in the 21st Century

Geography is a big discipline, both in terms of its global purview and the wide spectrum of scholarly perspectives geographers bring to bear. We should not be shy about applying ourselves to some of the biggest and most complex problems facing the world. What could be a more critical problem then providing bread and water to support the planet’s population now and in the year 2050 when over 9 million people will depend on the finite resources of the earth for sustenance? This past month the United Nations held a High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and issued its first tracking report on global sustainable development. U.N. officials noted that today approximately 800 million people suffer from hunger and 2 billion face challenges of water scarcity.

Of course, the challenges of food and water scarcity are not homogenously distributed across a “flat earth.” Looking at the 2015 – Hunger Map prepared by the U.N. World Food Programme, we can see an uneven geography where undernourishment afflicts less than 5 percent of the population in North America, Europe, Australia and considerable portions of South America and Asia. In stark contrast, across large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa greater than 25 percent to 35 percent of the population are undernourished. Similarly, the world is not flat when it comes to water scarcity. The U.N. World Water Assessment Map displays a geography that contains some elements of the Hunger Map, but also some important differences. According to the U.N. World Water Assessment Programme, water scarcity also afflicts much of sub-Saharan Africa, but water scarcity also extends in a broad stroke across Northern Africa, the Near East and into southern and central Asia as well. Areas such as northern Mexico and the adjacent southwestern United States and southeastern Australia are also experiencing water scarcity.

As if the current global food and water situation is not troubling enough, the prognosis for the future indicates even more challenges ahead. In 2009, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization produced in a hallmark report that concluded increasing human population size coupled with economic growth, urbanization and demands for high-quality food products will result in the need for a ~70 percent increase in agricultural productivity by 2050. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization this would require some 3 billion tonnes additional cereal production each year, as well as an additional 200 million tonnes of meat production. The U.N.’s estimates on future water scarcity are also not reassuring. The World Water Assessment Programme concludes that by 2025, some 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with significant water scarcity.

The impacts of anthropogenic climate change on agricultural productivity at 2050 are not entirely clear. As an example, in a 2012 review published in Plant Physiology, David Lobell and Sharon Gourdji suggested that even under pessimistic scenarios it is unlikely that net global declines in agriculture will occur at 2050. On the other hand, a 2014 study published in Nature Climate Change by Senthold Asseng and a number of co-authors including Charles Jones of the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland and Fulu Tao of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources of the Chinese Academy of Sciences concluded that with each additional degree of warming, global wheat production could decline by 6 percent.

The conclusions of the U.N. World Water Assessment Programme in terms of future water scarcity are concerning. Under current climate change scenarios, it is possible that close to 50 percent of the world’s population will be living in regions experiencing high water stress as early as 2030. Although the greatest number of regions likely to be afflicted by severe water scarcity lie in sub-Saharan Africa, there is little cause for those in highly developed countries to be sanguine. The Colorado River reservoir system upon which much of the Southwest receives water and hydroelectric power is already facing unprecedented low-water stresses. A recent paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Julia Vano and others, including Dennis Lettenmaie, now at the UCLA Geography Department, suggests that over the 21st century the river is likely to experience decades of flow significantly lower than observed in the 20th century when the reservoir system was developed.

Wheat harvest in Gujerat, one of the top 10 wheat-producing states in India. Due to recent aridity, India may need to import some five million metric tons of wheat in 2016-17. (Photo courtesy of Glen M MacDonald)

Just as today, forecasts for the future of food and water resources indicate that regional variability will be a key feature of scarcity and a critical component in addressing global challenges. Geographers have helped lead the way in appreciation of this. Diana Liverman, now at the Department of Geography of the University of Arizona, pointed this out almost 25 years ago in her work such as that with Cynthia Rosenzweig, on “Predicted effects of climate change on agriculture: A comparison of temperate and tropical regions.” More recently, William Easterling, a geographer at Penn State, and his co-authors of the chapter “Food, Fibre, and Forest Products” in the 2007 International Program on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment provide important and clear elucidation of the spatial heterogeneity in the agricultural impacts of climate change. The food and water challenges are inherently geographical in nature and the spatial scales we need be concerned with range from the global to the national and down to the individual field. Considered from a biological and physical environmental perspective one can clearly see the role that agricultural geographers and geographical hydrologists, climatologists and pedologists can and have been playing. However, it will take more than that from our discipline.

Consider again the maps and reports that the U.N. has produced on hunger and water scarcity. If environment, in the form of climate or soils etc., were the sole determinant of hunger or water scarcity we would expect neat correspondence between food challenges and isotherms or isohyets etc., but that is not the case. Rather we see much spatial diversity in these patterns, which can be attributed to differing socioeconomic conditions. In some cases, countries with undernourishment rates of less than 5 percent, lie adjacent or close to countries with rates of more than 25 percent or greater than 35 percent. This is particularly true in Africa, but is also seen in parts of South America, Central America and Asia. Water scarcity also shows such national heterogeneity. The U.N. World Water Assessment is explicit in separating those regions, such as the American Southwest, suffering from physical water scarcity and those, such as sub-Saharan nations, suffering from economically induced water scarcity. Environment has a role in the geography of food and water scarcity, but clearly the causes arise from a more complex amalgamation of environment with socioeconomic factors.

Famine in Africa today chillingly illustrates the complexity of the food security problems we face in terms of causal factors and solutions. According to the U.N., a current climatic drought, coupled in some regions with the occurrence of damaging flood events, has placed as many as 18 million people in need of food assistance in countries such as Malawi, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. At the same time, civil war in South Sudan is a major contributor to a food crisis facing almost five million people while in Nigeria the barbarity of Boko Haram terrorists is a major factor in placing over 4 million people in risk of famine. In all these countries, external food aid from global sources is a critical short-term solution to avoid mass starvation. However, the cost of this for the six other countries mentioned above will be over $500 million and is largely paid for by more developed countries beyond Africa. It is sobering to consider that in 2011 over 100 Republican congressional representatives called for the defunding of a principal contributor to such efforts, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Politics and economics far distant from crisis zones of food and water scarcity can have a huge impact. In the longer term, solutions will include locally improved agriculture and water systems, but that is not likely to completely suffice. Food transference, along with maintaining the global political and economic ability for such transfers, will remain a critical component of famine relief and the overall food and water security of the planet. Thus, solutions must also consider a global perspective in terms of the earth’s overall capacity to meet the total food and freshwater needs of over 9 billion people by 2050. This is a challenge that reaches far into the realms of economic, transportation, political, cultural and conflict geography.

There is hope that the food and water challenges we face can be surmounted as we move through the 21st century. It is important to remember that although much remains to be done, there has been remarkable progress made in terms of alleviating global famine over the past 50 years. Up until the 1970’s, great famines killed an average of 1 million people annually and this has declined to as low as 50,000 people today, according to some estimates. Similarly, since 1990, there have been improvements in access to safe drinking water in places such as sub-Saharan Africa where such access has risen from 50 percent to 60 percent of the population. Looking forward, a recent study led by Wolfram Mauser of the Department of Geography at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Germany and published in Nature Communications estimated that with improved farm management and more efficient spatial allocation of crops, the global food biomass requirements by 2050 could be met even if there was no expansion in world cropland area.

The importance of geography and the geographical perspective in feeding and watering a world population that is climbing to some 9 million people, was recognized in the 2010 National Research Council study “Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences.” A chapter was devoted to “How Will We Sustainably Feed Everyone in the Coming Decade and Beyond?”. The chapter outlines the ways in which geographical research contributes to understanding and solving the global food challenges and then posits some critical research questions for geographers. I invite you to read the full chapter for further exposition and consider the research questions raised there. Here I will simply quote the concluding statement:

Sustainably feeding Earth’s population over the coming decade and beyond requires better understanding of how food systems interact with environmental change, how they are connected across regions, and how they are influenced by changing economic, political, and technological circumstances. The geographical sciences’ analysis of food production and consumption, when coupled with recent conceptual and methodological advances, can provide new insights into this critically important research arena.” (p 65).

 What role then can the AAG play in furthering this strategic area of geography? We are fortunate to have many talented geographers working across a broad spectrum of the discipline who have direct or ancillary contributions to make in their research, teaching and public communication. We also have specialty groups in Geographies of Food and Agriculture and Water Resources that bring together like-minded geographers to work directly on these issues through research and education. Those working in the geographical tradition of political geography, notably the members of our Cultural and Political Ecology specialty group, have long grappled with the complex environmental and socioeconomic nexus that influences development and sustainability — particularly in the global south. This helps provide a foundation for integrated multi-perspective work. However, I think we can do more to build from this. We can further promote innovative research and educational initiatives on food and water within the dedicated specialty groups mentioned, but we must also work to build even greater linkages to other geographers and our other specialty groups to develop grand and cross-cutting initiatives that tackle the complex environmental, technological, economic, social, political and cultural nexus that is at the heart of providing bread and water for the world’s populations. In such efforts geographical information sciences and remote sensing are key skills that geography brings to bear along with the perspectives noted above. Sessions at our annual meetings and special issues in our journals that seek to tackle these truly grand questions of feeding the world from multiple, but integrated, geographical perspectives form an important pathway. Inviting experts from outside geography to our meetings and to work with us on our research and educational activities will also contribute to this goal. Finally, helping our members share their research and geographical perspectives on world food and water issues with the public, is an important contribution our association can make. The global garden and its fountains are in need of help, and we, as individual geographers and as an association are an important part of the solution.

Join the conversation and share your thoughts on Twitter #PresidentAAG or leave a comment below. 

—Glen M. MacDonald

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0012


The End(s) of Geography?

Serving as your President is a singular honor, but also one that is more than a little daunting. My trepidation arises from three sources. First, with the honor of being elected President comes the responsibility to ably serve the aspirations of a wonderful, but large and highly diverse membership. Second, our past Presidents have set a very high bar of achievements against which new incumbents are sure to be measured. These are big shoes to fill. So, before I move on to my third point, allow me to thank the Members of the AAG for their confidence. I also thank our immediate past Presidents Sarah Bednarz, Mona Domash and Julie Winkler for the inspiration and warm friendship they have provided. In the end, all I can promise is that I will do my very best to serve all our Members and further the legacy of our past Presidents. What I would ask in return is that you share your ideas and experience with me. Be sure to let me know if I miss an important concern or stray off course in addressing such issues. I am very teachable.

Now, allow me to address the third reason why I feel a particularly strong sense of obligation in serving as President of the AAG at this juncture in the history of the Association. This revolves around the value and health of the discipline of Geography, and the very geographical perspectives it engenders. I suppose this existential question might be boiled down to — are we at “the end of geography’? In 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote explicitly about the “Demise of Geography” at the conclusion to Chapter 5 in his book Future Shock. His argument being that geography was losing any importance as people tended to move rapidly from place to place and correlations between societal diversity and place were disappearing. In the four decades since then, the continued ease of transporting people, goods and services over great distance, the explosive rise in information and communication technologies (ITC) and the myriad other phenomena encapsulated in the term globalization have prompted many others to proclaim the demise of geography, or at least wonder about the decreasing importance of space and place as significant forces in driving economic and social differences. The catch phrase ‘geography is dead’ has become a facile cliché in some corners of the ITC and globalization worlds. Works such as The World Is Flat: by Thomas Friedman (2005) and Geography is Dead: How America Lost its Sense of Direction by Brian McCabe (2012) and The End of Geography: The Changing Nature of the International System and the Challenge to International Law (2014) by Sir Daniel Bethlehem provide more nuanced and thought provoking perspectives on certain aspects of this proposition.

In the same vein one might consider the health of Geography as an academic discipline. From the dissolution of the Geography departments at Harvard, Chicago and UC Davis, the last century saw some notable losses to academic geography. In such circumstances a strong professional academic association is invaluable to unite geographers and champion the discipline. Yet we are facing a general climate of flat or declining membership in many such associations. As Denise Lee Yohn wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review (2016), professional association membership is in widespread decline in part because ICT provides online informal social and professional networking opportunities and access to content such as journal articles that negate the necessity of formal association membership. She also notes that Millennials are generally less inclined to value formal networking and organizations than earlier generations.

However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of geography have been greatly exaggerated. In physical geography and across human geography from economic to cultural perspectives, geographers have demonstrated the power that space and place retain in shaping the world. Indeed, the deeper we look the more we find that many aspects of our own perceptions of the world and resulting actions are formed by our experiences of place and space. We also see how gender, race, economic status and other attributes color how we perceive and respond to differences in space and place. Some discussions and illustrative examples of the importance of geography in the context of globalization may be found in works such as Imagining Globalization by Doreen Massey (1999), The Exaggerated Death of Geography by Kevin Morgan (2004), Geographers and Globalization by Yehua Wei (2006) and Is Geography ‘Dead’ or ‘Destiny’ in a Globalizing World by Anthony Howell (2013). Realization of the critical importance of geography is currently extending well beyond the discipline. This florescence is driven by the scholarly insights provided by geographers and others working from geographical perspectives and by the geographically orientated manifestations of the ITC phenomenon in the form of Geographic Information Sciences and the proliferation of remote sensing, mapping and other spatial based applications that are delivered to us on our computers and smart phones at the flick of a finger. Academic geography programs still face challenges on some campuses, but we are arguably not in the dire straits one might have expected in the latter decades of the last century. Of note here is the fact that in 2005 Harvard established the Center for Geographic Analysis. Two years later Villanova established a new Department of Geography and the Environment. I recently spoke at the annual seminar series held by the Geography Graduate Group at UC Davis. There I met an exciting group of faculty and graduate students, from diverse academic backgrounds, but all drawn together by shared interest in geography and the perspectives it offers. I also see on my own campus and beyond the reach of geographical perspectives and techniques in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Although admittedly idiosyncratic, from my perspective, interest in geography and geographical perspectives and techniques is very much on the rise in many corners of the academy. Finally, the AAG is certainly not in decline. We now have almost 12,000 members and drew some 9,000 to the recent Annual Meeting in San Francisco. We also see that a large proportion of those members are undergraduate and graduate students representing the critical Millennial generation. About 30% of our membership is drawn from outside the United States and this coupled with the variety of our annual meeting sessions and range of our affinity groups represent a staggering diversity of scholarly perspectives and pursuits.

So, my trepidation in taking up the Presidency is not about the end of geography, but rather how terribly important I feel geography and the AAG is in tackling the critical societal and environmental problems the world faces today. These challenges and the importance of geography in addressing them is driven in part by the very forces of globalization and ICT that others have assumed would lead to the end of geography. The reach of our actions extends globally as too can the actions of actors in the remotest corners of the globe. Actions from far away can reverberate directly to us wherever we are. Geographical differences in economy, culture, environment, etc., strongly influence these interactions. The more geographers look the more we find a geographically complex world. This is as true for biophysical attributes such as the genetic structure of species or micro-climatic differences as it is for cultural or economic diversity. Therefore, as geographers we know the world is not flat. Rather we recognize that we confront a world that is comprised of a dizzying array of bumps, peaks, hollows and chasms. This diverse human and environmental topography confounds easy answers to critical questions such as how we will feed a world of nine billion?; how will we support an urban population that will comprise 75% of that nine billion?; how will this population impact the environment, including the earth’s climate and how will that environment impact us?; how will all these factors as well as globalization affect human cultures?; how do we study and cope with all these challenges in an increasingly post-factual world in which the capacity and desire to embrace and support reasoned thought and rational actions is often under attack?

Perhaps nothing illustrates the opportunities and challenges we face better than circumstances during my writing of this column. At present I have the benefit of writing on a computer designed in the United States and assembled in China. The computer is networked via fiber optics to the UCLA library system. I am, however, 400 miles away from UCLA at an elevation of just over 8,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada of California. Thanks to a small satellite dish I have been able to watch the BBC News from London while I work. What I have been watching is the vote by the United Kingdom to try and turn back the tide of globalization by exiting the European Union. Almost instantly stock markets around the world, including the Dow, plummeted in response to the potential economic and political implications. A truly globalized experience. However, within the UK the vote was strongly geographically structured with Scotland, Northern Ireland and London being against the exit. Scotland is now considering a second referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. This could split the nation along clear geographic lines. The strong exit vote in England and Wales was driven by a geographically prescribed sense of British (English largely) identity, a reaction against elites and intellectuals, disdain for increasing EU regulations, including environmental ones and fears about an influx of refugees from civil war, the depravations of ISIS, and lack of food and water in Syria and adjacent refugee camps some 2,500 miles away. None of this is understandable or will be manageable without consideration of geography. It demonstrates the forces of both global connectedness and global geographic diversity operating on multiple scales.

Rather, than asking is this the end of geography, given the plethora of issues facing the world which are intrinsically tied to space and place, the real question for our discipline and our association must be – what are the ends of geography? By this I mean what are the issues that geographers have a special opportunity and responsibility to study? How can we formulate and translate our work to produce and disseminate results that are policy relevant, actionable and accessible to wider audiences both inside and outside academia? How do we recruit and educate new generations of geographers who can take up these responsibilities in the future?  How, given the diversity of issues confronting us and the diversity within our discipline, do we generate coherence and build synergies in our departments and in the AAG? These are the questions I hope to address in the remaining 11 Presidential columns. There are no easy answers, but given the challenges we face and the responsibility we have as individual geographers and an association, they are questions we must tackle together. I look forward to a year of sharing my thoughts and benefiting from yours.

Join the conversation and share your views on Twitter #PresidentAAG

— Glen M. MacDonald

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0011


Glen MacDonald on Remembering John Muir

Remembering John Muir on the Centennial of His Passing:
Writer, Naturalist, Scientist, Activist, Geographer?

[Glen MacDonald also is organizing a featured panel session, “Geographers on John Muir: Assessing His Legacy and Relevance After 100 Years,” for the 2015 AAG annual meeting in Chicago, April 21-25. More information will be available soon.]

John Muir died in Los Angeles, California on Christmas Eve, 1914 with the pages of an unfinished manuscript on Alaska beside him in his hospital bed. As we mark the centenary of Muir’s passing what might we say about him from the perspective of Geography? Muir can claim many titles — writer, naturalist, scientist and environmental activist. Can we also consider him a geographer? Certainly Muir worked and wrote in a very formative period for American Geography and the Association of American Geographers. Although he received honorary degrees from the University of California, Wisconsin, Harvard and Yale, Muir never earned a formal university diploma. He did, however, attend the University of Wisconsin for two years starting in the 1860’s. Alas, this was long before the establishment of the Department of Geography there. But then founding lights of the AAG, including William Morris David, educated in the 19th century like Muir, did not hold degrees in the then incipient field of geography either. In Muir’s case his academic interests focused on chemistry, geology and botany. Through Ezra Carr, a Professor of Natural Sciences, Muir was likely introduced to the then revolutionary theories of Louis Agassiz regarding Pleistocene glaciation and this became a lifelong interest. Muir would also become acquainted with the controversial theories on evolution articulated by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Although Agassiz was to remain deeply hostile to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the ideas of both of these men were highly influential in the thinking of Muir as well as creators of the AAG such William Morris Davis. More than this though, Muir, like Davis and every geographer of the time, was profoundly influenced by that foundational figure of modern geography, Alexander von Humboldt. Indeed, in 1866 Muir wrote to his mentor and confident Jeanne Carr “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt!” Muir’s regard for Humboldt, his intellectual development in the natural sciences and his intense interest in combining both geology and botany reflects the same scholarly, and at the time revolutionary, crucible that formed the science of Davis and Clements. By inclination and available education he was arguably as much a geographer as many of the founders of the AAG.

A scan of a more than 100-year-old photo of Muir by C. F. Lummis taken in 1901.
Owned by: Glen M. MacDonald
John Muir Memorial Chair
Distinguished Professor of
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and
The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
Los Angeles, CA

Like Davis, Muir was a sharp observationalist-inductivist who moved beyond the descriptive confines of natural history and sought to explain nature rather than simply observe and record. Within the earth sciences, Muir’s work on glacial features and evidence of past glaciation coupled with his theory on the glacial origins of Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada valleys stands as an important and lasting contribution. Physical geography is sometimes delineated from geology through its attention to modern processes and landforms. In this regard Muir showed a similar inclination. He was the first to discover living glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. This work, published in 1873 in the American Journal of Science and Arts must have been particularly sweet for Muir as it reinforced his position in a well-known scientific disagreement with Josiah Dwight Whitney, a Professor of Geology at Harvard and head of the California Geological Survey, who argued, incorrectly, that the Yosemite Valley was a tectonic feature. However, if geography is indeed the integrative science, then Muir was to more than equal many founders of the AAG in his desire and capability of spanning the earth and life sciences. Muir wrote many descriptions of the distributions of montane and alpine flora, but my favorite, and certainly most integrative was his study of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). In his 1876 monograph published as a Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Muir analyzed the contemporary distribution of the species along the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, noted its environmental relations and particularly its disjunct distribution. The latter he attributed to the fragmentation of its range by Pleistocene glaciers emanating from the High Sierra. Now, today we know Muir had an overstated belief in the extent and role of glaciation and new research shows that the geographic distribution of giant sequoia may largely be explained by micro-climate, but the questions he asked remain topical. Muir also presaged the current focus of many geographers on the long-term trajectories and uncertain future of plant animal species in the face of human impact. Consider his pondering the future of the giant sequoia in his 1876 “What area does Sequoia now occupy as the principal tree? Was the species ever more extensively distributed in the Sierra during post-glacial times? Is the species verging on extinction? And if so, then to what causes will its extinction be due? What have been its relation to climate, soils and to other coniferous trees with which it is associated? What are those relations now? What are they likely to be in the future?” These are the same questions biogeographers are asking about a multitude of endangered species.

Muir’s scientific work and his writings were no doubt well known by many of the founders and first members of the AAG. What of his actual engagement with professional geography and his regard by the discipline at that time? It is notable that Muir was a member of the Committee for Arrangements, along with William Morris Davis and a number of eminent geographers for the 8th International Geographic Congress in 1904. His impact on our discipline clearly transcended his passing. It is striking to me that the 1958 Honorary Presidential Address by John Leighly at the first Annual Meeting of the AAG to be held on the west coast was entitled “John Muir’s Image Of The West.” I was alerted to Muir’s quote regarding von Humboldt through Leighly’s speech. Today, 100 years past his death, although citations to Muir’s scientific papers may be sparse, his ideas on the importance of past glaciations and his books such as My First Summer in the Sierra or Our National Parks remain widely known by geographers investigating questions of physical geography, conservation or human-nature perception and interactions. As Muir is in the pantheon of thinkers who developed modern environmentalism and conservation, it would be hard to find any geographer who has not been exposed to the work and philosophy of Muir in the course of their education. Geographer activists knowingly or unknowing are also taking a page from his book, most strikingly developed during his emotional and ultimately failed attempt to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley. For generations these ideas have undoubtedly helped formulate the thinking of geographers and through them the course of the AAG. So, although never formally a trained geographer, Muir was drawn by the same forces of curiosity and cross-disciplinary inquiry that have propelled geographers and geography over the past century.  I am inclined to consider him a true geographer and one of our seminal figures. As he so fervently desired in 1866, Muir was and is “a Humboldt.”  (John Muir: Born April 21, 1838, Dunbar, Scotland; Died December 24, 1914, Los Angeles, CA)

Glen MacDonald is distinguished professor and inaugural John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA. He engages Geography with scholars, policy makers, writers, artists, activists and others to look at contemporary nature and people issues in the American West.

Glen MacDonald also is organizing a featured panel session, “Geographers on John Muir: Assessing His Legacy and Relevance After 100 Years,” for the 2015 AAG annual meeting in Chicago, April 21-25. More information will be available soon.

DOI: 10.14433/2014.0019