The economic restructuring of the United States is reconfiguring cities, political alignments, rural patterns and so many more systems. I would like to highlight how retail has changed in the last few decades in the United States.
In the early 2000s, I was visiting a small, declining Pennsylvania town name Bradford. One of the residents was bemoaning the economic and demographic decline of this Appalachian city of about 10,000 residents, noting how the most ambitious and brightest high schoolers from the area have moved out, leading to brain drain. Many locally owned businesses on Main Street had been struggling, and the resident said, “Thank goodness for Walmart and the Dollar stores…those are the only things that are keeping business around this town.” Out of politeness to my host, I didn’t mention that I saw the opposite happening: Wal-Mart and the Dollar stores, were capitalizing on economies of scale to muscle out locally businesses, creating an economic pattern that would have negative long-term consequences on this community and others like it.
Bradford, PA is not unique, but emblematic of many places in the United States. Over 10,000 new dollar stores have sprouted up in the United States since 2000, especially in small towns and rural areas. Some places are starting to push pack, since the communities are not seeing this as a positive development for the community.
Online shopping is another persistent pattern of the last few decades that is reconfiguring our cities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these issues that were already under way. Department stores have been anchors of shopping malls, which themselves are struggling after overexpanding. Many department stores have gone under, and those remaining brick-and-mortar department stores are struggling against the online shopping paradigm shift. Business with continue, but it will not be business as usual.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER: Why can cheap retail stores have a negative impact on a local community? Can you see this anywhere in your community? How does online shopping positively and negatively impact your community?
SOURCES/Further Reading materials:
CITYLAB: The Dollar Store Backlash has begun
VOX: Death of the Department Store and the Middle Class (from November)
NY TIMES-Death of the Department Store (from April)
CNBC-Department stores could be in their last stages (from September)
There are many great cartographically-themed XKCD comic strips (here are a bunch of my favorites). This particular one ALMOST looks right and finding the inaccuracies is a little harder than you might think (yes, I am proud of myself for finding them all, and yes, that is the ridiculous bit of profession pride).
Questions to Ponder: When you see a map, do you assume that it is 100% accurate? If so, how come? Where you able to find the “missing states” in this psuedo-map?
“By now, the pandemic has disrupted Americans’ daily lives for nearly as long as a baby typically spends in the womb. This means that many children conceived in mid-March are weeks away from joining us in this disorienting new world, but just as notable are the children who won’t be joining us—the babies who would have been born were it not for the ongoing economic and public-health crises. These missing births, which could end up numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., will make up what’s been called the ‘COVID baby bust.’ The U.S. could have hundreds of thousands of fewer births next year than it would have in the absence of a pandemic.” SOURCE: The Atlantic
Changes in birth rates can have so many explanations because the the reasons for starting (or not starting) a family can be incredibly personal; part of that complexity requires that we recognize that those choices made by individuals are made within the economic, cultural, and political context of the places that they live. The pandemic has has obviously reshaped people’s plans about so many things in their life–including whether to have children, or when to have children.
“As winter approaches each year, a haze of toxic smog envelopes vast swaths of northern India, including the capital New Delhi, forcing authorities to shut schools and restrict the use of private vehicles. Unlike southern parts of the country, most arid regions of northern India, including New Delhi, struggle with dust, a common air pollutant. Environmental experts say New Delhi’s topography hobbles efforts by authorities to stave off the spike in pollution. In recent years, the problem has been exacerbated by the burning of crop residues in Punjab and Haryana states, part of the farm belt that borders New Delhi. Relatively prosperous farmers from Punjab and Haryana, India’s grain bowl, have started using mechanised harvesters to gather the rice crop, partly to overcome the problem of rising labour costs.” SOURCE: Al Jazeera
Mexico City has a reputation for horrible air pollution–and rightfully so–but Delhi’s air pollution is worse and this year it is off the charts. Much of India faces air pollution problems, but northern India, and especially Delhi sees the convergence of urban, agricultural, demographic, and environmental factors to exacerbate the problems. Geographic problems are often intertwined and is a good issue to use a S.P.E.E.D. or E.S.P.N. activity.
Do you need a case study on how to explore big data like the Observatory of Economic Complexity with students to uncover geographic patterns? This site let’s you ask interrelated questions and enter a rabbit hole of economic, geographic data. This is one of the best online tools for student projects in geography, so let me show you how the data visualizations can be used to make concrete observations that will unearth spatial relationships.
While I was wondering about the world largest coffee exporters, I looked at the Observatory of Economic Complexity’s data visualization tools. I was expecting to find mostly tropical countries where coffee is grown. I was baffled to find that Germany was listed as a major coffee exporter, along with many other Western European countries.
This at first seemed like a misprint but many European countries like Germany import import green coffee beans from a variety of tropical countries, so they are a major producer of coffee without growing a single bean. In fact, the world’s largest single port for shipping coffee is Hamburg.
The highlands of East Africa were the original hearth of coffee beans and today, countries like Ethiopia and Uganda export green coffee beans overwhelmingly to European countries which in turn, roasts them and then exports them internationally.
African coffee growers face some steep difficulties when it comes to exporting roasted coffee. This “value added” step would certainly increase the trading power of their agricultural commodities on the international trading market, but many European coffee labels already dominate that step in the commodity chain and have the made deep in-roads with consumers.
Exporting the finalized roasted coffee is but a very small part the overall German economy (the largest of the light green boxes-0.26% of total exports). For Ethiopia however, coffee exports is a major component of all their international trade (34.6%). Ethiopia produces something of high value, but is not positioned to extract a lot of profit from that commodity.
This is the crux of what makes decisions about free trade/fair trade difficult for individual consumers that are hoping to “vote with their pocketbook” to put their dollars in economic practices that they approve of. Commodity chains of so many products have become increasingly complex and these goods are more connected with far more places and workers than most would imagine. Simply reading the label does NOT tell the full story of most products and the economic geographies that produced them.
This is just one story about the global economy that can be unearthed by exploring the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Were you wondering about Ethiopia’s cut flowers or Uganda’s gold? There is an entire network of economic relations that waiting to be uncovered if you are curious and willing to explore the data. This is why it is one of the best online tools for student projects in geography.
This video from 60 Minutes (Nov 8th, 2020) is about many things related to the United States government’s plan to distribution a vaccine. The “oh so American” name of this is Operation Warp Speed, because clearly time is of the essence. I’m not a medical doctor or a chemist so I don’t want to focus on the creation of a vaccine, let’s just imagine that a workable vaccine is in place. What I want you to consider is this: how would you get this vaccine to the American people? This is a logistics problem and it requires a geographic solution. In the video (right around the 1:55 mark), you will see Geographic Information Systems (GIS) being used as key tools to make more informed decisions (notice the variety of data layers being used to jointly to understand the process better). As the great geography educator Joseph Manzo said, “Geography cannot solve all of the world’s problems; but no problem can be solved without Geography.”
There are many simmering conflicts around the world that are not fully resolved but that can intensify very quickly because the underlying issues remain tense even in periods of relative calm. The Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict centers around the ethnic Armenian enclave (Nargorno Karabakh) inside Azerbaijan. To make things more complicated, there is an exclave of Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) to the west of Armenia.
There have been ethnic/political tensions is this region for generations, but the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the status quo, and there was a cease-fire called in 1994, but that has dissolved in the last few weeks. Now, Turkey and Russia are both seeking to resolve the dispute (or carry out their regional ambitions if you like to approach this more cynically). This shows how a border conflict between two countries can quickly become a broader that can polarize the international community as countries “pick sides” in the conflict. While this is a distressing bit of news for global security and peace, this is a excellent case study to explore many political geographic topics; enclaves, exclaves, borders, sovereignty, devolution, international conflict, etc..
Al Jazeera (10/14)-Updates: Turkey denies accusations, Russia calls for truce
*The Sunday Times-Azerbaijan and Armenia accuse each other of breaking ceasefire
*The Jacobin Magazine-What’s Really Driving the Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict
Usually when we are talking about refugee topics, we think about it the immediate problems in refugee camps and the conclusion of all these problems will be resettlement of the refugees to a safer place…or so we think. I love this video for so many reasons, but especially because it concentrates on the many obstacles confronting refugees AFTER they are resettled in a new country. This documentary, Home Across Lands (FULL 1-hour version available here. The 8-minute version is available on Vimeo) was produced a little over 10 years ago by a Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based film company. This film is an intensely local portrayal of the many difficulties for refugees in a new country. Many haven’t heard about Eritreans refugee camps in Ethiopia, but this article from the Irish Times will give some context on the issue.
Questions to Ponder:
1-Why did so many of the Kumana need to leave Eritrea?
2-What were the economic difficulties of living in the Shimelba refugee camp?
3-What are some some of the political/legal challenges for refugees in a refugee camp?
3-What are some of the cultural struggles for refugees upon arriving to the United States?
4-What are some of the economic difficulties for refugees upon arriving to the United States?
5-How does the fact of refugees leaving impact their original homeland and it’s culture? How does the fact of refugees arriving to a new place impact their new home?
“The wonders of modern medicine and nutrition make it easy to believe we enjoy longer lives than at any time in human history, but we may not be that special after all.” SOURCE: BBC
This BBC article explores many of our assumptions about demographic issues before statistics were recorded. This article especially looks at the notion that our life span has been increasing throughout history. This would be a good article to get some background information about stage 1 of the demographic transition. In a nutshell, the article’s premise is that just because life expectancy is increasing, it does not mean that our lifespan is the main reason. The main reason life expectancy has improved is that more children are surviving their early years not because we have extended the lifespan of elderly so much.