[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Challenge of Defining Geo-Literacy

"Geo Learning"

National Geographic Society logoA column by Daniel C. Edelson,
Vice President for Education, National Geographic Society

photo of Daniel EdelsonFor quite some time, I've been struggling with the challenge of how to explain to the general public what geo-literacy is and why it is important. Over more than a year, with a lot of help from others, I've developed a definition that captures the essence of geo-literacy and resonates with both academic and applied geographers.

As I've written in this space before, geo-literacy is preparation for making geographic and far-reaching decisions. Geographic decisions are decisions about location or transportation; far-reaching decisions are decisions that have remote consequences. Geo-literacy requires three abilities:

If you are an ArcNews reader, then the odds are good that these three bullets mean something pretty specific to you and that your interpretation of these bullets is pretty close to mine.

My challenge is that these bullets do not mean much to most Americans. Not only do most Americans lack these abilities, I believe that most of them have never even heard anyone talk about them. Phrases like reasoning about systems, geographic reasoning, and systematic decision making do not convey much meaning to people who have never been taught those skills. Worse, they do not have the power of name recognition the way algebra and calculus do.

The challenge here is how to convey a message about the importance of knowing something to people who don't know it themselves and to do it without (a) making them feel bad for something that is not their fault or (b) putting them off with a tone of superiority.

I am writing this column because I don't know how to solve this challenge, and I am looking for help. I am pretty sure, however, that the path to the solution lies through compelling examples. I argue that the reason modern societies need to provide their citizens with geo-education is the big cost that people pay individually and collectively for geo-illiteracy. My hunch is that the right examples of these costs will convince people.

I have collected a few examples, but I am hoping that, through the power of social networking, the readers of this column will help me build a compelling library of examples. Please give me feedback on my examples and share yours with me on Twitter (@NatGeoEdelson) or Facebook (

Here are a few examples drawn from modern American life, some of them from my own experiences:

A geo-literate individual should be able to take constraints and considerations into account to optimize choices about locations. This is a case of geographic reasoning. For example, when people are not able to identify and weigh their commuting options successfully, they pay costs in the forms of wasted money, lost time, and frustration that only grow over time. When owners of small retail businesses or decision makers in large retail businesses make poor decisions about location, they pay for their failures in geographic reasoning in lost business, which translates directly into lower revenues for the company and reduced economic opportunity for the workforce.

The cost of a store or restaurant closing because of a poorly chosen location goes far beyond the business owner. It is an economic loss for the community. We currently consider the frequent failure of retail establishments to just be a part of life. However, a substantial percentage of these failures is a direct result of poor geographic reasoning that could be prevented, leading to substantial economic benefits.

Another important kind of geographic reasoning is not about where to do something but about whether to do something in a particular location. For example, in the last decade, citizens of America and many other nations have faced decisions about whether they should send troops to fight wars in foreign lands, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. A geo-literate individual should be able to analyze information about locations to form an independent assessment of the appropriateness of a proposed action in those locations.

I would have more confidence in the democratic decision-making process about military deployments in America if more Americans were able to interpret thematic maps showing topography, ethnic and religious populations, and distribution of natural resources. I believe there are many valid arguments on both sides for whether the United States should have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which may outweigh geographic considerations. However, I worry about the role of the public in making decisions like these in a society where many are not able to reason systematically about geographic factors.

Even though there is no way to determine, even in retrospect, whether we have made the right decision about military deployments, we can still assess the costs associated with those decisions. In the case of these large-scale military deployments, the costs are measured in billions of dollars, thousands of lost lives, and hundreds of thousands of lives permanently changed.

A geo-literate individual should be able to anticipate remote impacts of local decisions. This is a case of reasoning about systems. For example, in the Chesapeake Bay watershed where I live, state governments advise residents to only wash their cars at car washes because the runoff affects water quality in the bay. If most people who receive this advice do not understand the impact of detergent and other runoff from roads on aquatic ecosystems—which most don't—and do not understand where the water that leaves the bottom of their driveway goes—which most also don't—then the odds that they will follow that advice are very low.

The same goes for farmers and fertilizer, though farmers in the Chesapeake watershed are subject to laws restricting runoff, not just advisories. If farmers do not understand the effects of fertilizer runoff and they know that their state government cannot afford to enforce runoff laws, they are unlikely to expend much effort to obey them.

The result of uninformed decision making about runoff is an enormous environmental and financial cost resulting from millions of individual decisions with far-reaching consequences. The fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, and many others, are all threatened by runoff. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of individuals who depend directly or indirectly on fishing in those locations are threatened.

Those are three examples of how the widespread lack of geo-literacy can add up to huge societal costs. What do you think? Are these compelling? Do you have others you can share with me? Let me know.

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map