Images of Geography

Geography – the very name conjures up images of misty mountains, bubbling brooks, rapidly flowing rills, deep gorges, endless undulating plains, and majestic rivers, so slow-flowing that they almost seem indolent, yet with a hidden power that man has sought to harness for aeons. Geography, a subject that holds a fascination for anyone who cares to look around at the world, is also the bugbear of many a student. What with having to ‘know’ which is the second highest mountain in the world or the largest river or, even worse, the capital of Burkina Faso, the poor student is surrounded with apparently unrelated facts. Add to this the working knowledge that is required of such diverse topics as pressure belts, latitude, longitude, winds, ocean currents, clouds, dykes, sills, kartz regions and so on and so forth, and you have all the ingredients for creating a huge mental block. No wonder the average student shies away from the subject the way a horse shies away from a high hurdle. Geography, in reality, is far more than an inventory of burdensome information that benumbs the memory without conferring an understanding. It is the never- ending drama of the interaction of man and planet Earth – the world of incessant change. To quote – “Only flux and becoming are real, permanence and constancy are merely apparent.”– Heraclitus. This drama of the ever-changing planet compels our attention and demands an understanding of the real world.

‘Real World’ Geography

Geography – real world geography – is the art and science of location and place. It is about spatial patterns and spatial processes. Spatial processes do not respect political borders, socioeconomic status, definitions of developed or underdeveloped countries. These processes are about why polluting industries in Britain cause acid rain in Scandinavia, why a nuclear disaster in Chernobyl can affect peoples half the globe away, why a war in Kargil can endanger the environment a 1000 km south, why El Nino occurs and affects people all around the globe. Geography is the why and where of an ever-changing planet. Its objective is to discover the processes that move over space, connect events at different places and continually transform the location and character of everything.

Geography is also about the close kinship between human beings, animals and the planet Earth. The Lapps and Masai still follow migrating herds of reindeer and cattle in their endless trek for forage and water. Farmers for centuries have used the changing seasons to plant and harvest crops; then celebrated these changing seasons through rites and rituals of festivals that go back to ancient times. Fishermen have used the knowledge of ocean currents to find the best fishing grounds. Other seafarers have used the winds and currents to explore the vast oceans and reach new lands, finding much to their surprise that these new lands were already inhabited.

Human pressures today shape the Earth and the man-environment interaction as never before. Borders and boundaries change overnight, millions of refugees seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries, and job opportunities contribute to the ever-growing diasporas. Forests and farmlands are laid to waste, converted to cities and industrial parks. Homelessness, hunger, and overpopulation are ravaging parts of the planet. Everywhere our food, water and the very air we breathe are being endangered.

While Geography describes, analyses and explains events as well as processes over space, history describes, analyses and explains events and processes over time. Geography thus deals with the space within which historical events take place. What better example to illustrate this close relationship, than the study of the migration of the Polynesian people across the South Sea Islands, islands which are nothing but specks on the map. These people must have had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the winds, tides and currents to launch their great canoes and traverse vast ocean distances – an epic feat of navigation. They then successfully adapted to the new environment – ‘fitting in’ with the ecology – till the arrival of yet another irresistible force – the explorers from the industrialised west. History then describes this increasing contact, which the original occupants of these islands are yet to recover from.

The two realms of Geography

The word ‘geography’ in Greek means‘to describe Earth’. The study of geography has classically been divided into two realms. Physical Geography deals with the study of four closely related elements – the atmosphere (the air that surrounds us); the hydrosphere (all the water on the surface of the globe, in the ground and in the air); the lithosphere (the solid outer crust of the planet extending to a depth of 80 km); and the biosphere (an envelope of about 20 km where all organisms exist). In this realm Geography relies on the methods of the physical sciences. The second division is the human realm, what has often been called Human Geography. Human interaction with the natural environment and the many processes that this sets into motion, presents another multi-dimensional challenge of discovery for Geography as a social science.

The combined explanatory power of these two divisions is the raison d’être of Geography. Without a study of Geography that encompasses both of these realms, knowledge of the Earth remains fragmented and partial.

The challenge of teaching Geography from a human perspective

Our course content and syllabus – especially in the secondary school years - tend to look at Geography in precisely defined physical terms. There is much less attention paid to how human beings are affected by the environment and even less attention to the way we human beings have manipulated (and, to quite an extent, mutilated) the environment to suit our needs. Given this context, for me the challenge of teaching Geography is how to make real the interaction between humans and the earth, more specifically between each student and the earth.

Last year, we worked on how the teaching of Geography in class nine could be modified to include a range of interlinked perspectives. We attempted to develop a course centred around the understanding of natural cycles that sustain bio-diversity, how natural processes shape the Earth, how the varied physical environments shape the way humans have adapted, and in turn how they have set about modifying the environment to suit their lifestyles and, lastly, the global impact of changing lifestyles and the need to conserve our biodiversity.

We experimented with the above idea in the context of studying the natural climatic regions of the world. Apart from dealing with the natural regions as a whole, we did detailed studies of the temperate grasslands (prairies, steppes, etc.) and the tropical rainforests.

The approach to natural regions

We started the study by reviewing factors affecting climate and then proceeded to identify the major climatic natural regions (biomes) of the world. We then took up the study of each natural region separately, in some detail, but chose to focus on two in particular: the temperate grasslands and the tropical rainforests. After examining the essentials of location and climate, we studied why the biome was unique, what the climatic features that shaped it were, and why it could not be found anywhere else on earth. The next step was to look at the flora and fauna of that particular biome. Here we traced the evolution of the different species, and how each species is uniquely adapted to the climatic conditions encountered. Naturally, given the constraints of time, we took only representative species as examples of study.

The next step was to introduce man – his evolution, migrations and settling down. How human tribes adapted to the environment was brought home by case studies of the American Indians (temperate grasslands) and Amazon Indians (rainforests). Here the emphasis was on the close relationship these people enjoyed with the environment and how they looked upon the earth as sacred. And yet we tried to ensure that we would not get carried away in describing the tribal societies as utopian and attempted to study their histories, wars, ways of life, and social customs. We then moved on to early European influences on these societies – the dramatic as well as subtle changes these societies underwent as they came into contact with a ‘more advanced’ industrialized society. Finally, we looked at the present day environmental depredation being wreaked by a consumerist materialistic society in each of the biomes under study. To drive home the point, the students did a case study of the ‘Dust Bowl’ disaster in the American mid-west: its causes, after effects and attempts at restoration (tree planting, windbreaks, contour ploughing, mulching, etc). We traced the historical events that affected the ‘Dust bowl’ region: the effects of World War II on accelerating agriculture, the post war baby boom with its consequent increasing food demand, the shift to modern agricultural practices wherein increasing uses of fertiliser and pesticides ensured bumper harvests, the use of sprinkler irrigation (pivot pumps) and deep pumps to drain the natural aquifer system of the mid-west. We looked at the role of the government – particularly of the Soil Conservation Society and its subsidies to encourage farmers to leave land fallow. Some of the ‘economists’ in the class went on to talk about GATT and WTO, setting off a lively debate on their pros and cons.

With regard to the rainforests, the students worked at understanding the immense biodiversity of the rainforests, the way of life of the Amazon Indians, the early European contacts, to the present day massive deforestation and its effects on the global weather cycle, carbon dioxide build-up and greenhouse effect. They also studied how native Indian cultures were swallowed up by expanding consumer interests and the replacement of traditional healing methods with western medical systems as a direct result of the transmission of diseases which were alien to the native people (tuberculosis and syphilis to name two). To push their understanding further, a question was posed:‘Do human beings face a far greater challenge to their survival today than they did 10, 000 years ago?’ The choice whether to argue for or against the motion was left to the individual student. As expected, the majority of students wrote about such issues as global warming, deforestation, etc. often making‘politically correct’ statements. A small number wrote excellent pieces against the motion. While agreeing with the fact that there was wide scale environmental damage, they argued that there was also hope. A few advocated the use of technology to overcome potential problems and some felt that there could be a rising concern among the human race as a whole, which would bring to fore measures to combat this destruction. Some of these pieces were indeed thoughtprovoking for me as their teacher.

The approach to Physical Geography

The experiment with recasting the teaching of natural regions proved to be successful, and so we decided to re-work the teaching of Physical Geography as well. Physical Geography is usually taught with an emphasis on the natural processes that shape the earth’s surface, for eg. volcanic activity and landforms due to this, landforms produced by running water, by moving ice, and so on.

We wanted to help the students to not only understand the natural processes that shape the earth’s surface, but also to explore human interaction with the physical environment. This is best illustrated by a few case studies we did.

Case study: Earthquakes

After dealing with the causes and effects of earthquakes, we moved on to compare and contrast two earthquakes – the Kobe and Latur quakes, both of which recorded 6.8 on the Richter scale, by means of a worksheet. A series of questions helped the student understand human suffering, differences in the magnitude of damage, relief efforts, and finally they were able to analyse why the Latur quake was more destructive than the Kobe one. In the worksheet they also traced the major earthquakes over a 10- year period and linked their findings to the theory of plate tectonics. This helped them enhance their understanding of plate tectonics, earthquakes and the human response to these. (More recently, the devastating Gujarat earthquake also provided an occasion for a more immediate and poignant learning about the impact of thisnatural calamity.)

Case study: Water resources

Water is the most precious commodity on earth and the way in which it is being misused will soon lead to a major crisis. In fact, the next wars are predicted to be over water. In an effort to help students understand water as a precious resource, an extensive worksheet was designed in four parts.

Part 1 dealt with the processes of an ideal river valley system. Students were expected to answer questions on how the system might be affected by changes in various conditions (eg. a hot dry summer, a dam near the source, a city with tarmac and concrete, etc).

Part 2 of the worksheet dealt with the proposed Narmada Valley project in its entirety. The fact sheet that accompanied it was made as factual as possible with the various pros and cons of the project enumerated. Students were asked to extract the pros and cons and tabulate these. They then were divided into groups and asked to role-play the following people – a tribal oustee, a farmer in Gujarat in the main command area, a politician, a fisherman in the estuary and finally an environmentalist. They were also asked to suggest alternative measures to provide water and electricity to the area, which would have been benefited by the main canal.

Part 3 of the worksheet dealt with the phenomenon of annual flooding in north Bihar. Questions on the causes, whether embankments have any role, what are the problems faced in designing flood control systems in Bihar, the traditional methods of water use and agricultural practices (so uniquely adapted to the annual flooding) - all elicited a series of well thought-out and well-understood answers.

Part 4 of the worksheet dealt with an ideal river valley system wherein the students’ role-played a group of industrialists setting up a wood pulp industry and an industry in the lower course of the river. In this part the students’ understanding of the river valley system was tested and it dovetailed technology with conservation measures.

Overall, some really interesting answers on flood control systems and environmental protection systems showed that the students had grasped the subject well. In fact, during the role-play in respect to the Narmada valley, apart from the fairly self-evident concerns expressed by the ‘environmentalist’ and the ‘tribal oustee’, some well thoughtout responses were received from the student who played the role of the ‘traditional Kachh farmer’. She pleaded for some means of the benefits of the Narmada river reaching her drought-prone region, while suggesting that the environmental and tribal concerns were protected as best as possible. It showed that students were actually thinking about all that they had learned and more importantly, were able to apply it to the problem at hand.


I have attempted to trace the role of Geography in understanding the way in which the Planet Earth functions, how it is a living, pulsating organism forced to suffer the depredations of one species – the homo sapiens. My hope is that this approach will stimulate in the students an understanding that will shape the way they think and act and thereby help them to preserve the Earth’s environments and conserve precious resources.