“If there were a contest for the 2020 event with the most far-reaching implications for global peace and security, the field would be crowded. From the coronavirus pandemic to climate change’s growing impact, the Trump administration’s scorched-earth policies after Joe Biden’s election, the Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, it has been an eventful year. In 2021, the world will be dealing with the aftermath and sifting through the debris.
In Sudan, Lebanon, and Venezuela, to mention but a few examples, one can expect the number of unemployed to grow, real incomes to collapse, governments to face mounting difficulties paying security forces, and the general population to increasingly rely on state support at a time when states are least equipped to provide it. The lines separating economic dissatisfaction from social unrest, and social unrest from outbreaks of violence, are thin.”
There are always some ‘hot spots’ around the world that might boil over into armed conflict, and some that are already at that stage, but that we collectively might have forgotten about during the pandemic. These 10 conflicts are highlighted to list some of the geopolitically most pertinent conflicts in the world right now.
If you haven’t been following the news in Russia, it is time to start. Sometime we are so focused on our own country’s issues, that we fail to see recognize the significance of world news. Currently (late January, 2021), the streets of Russia are full of unrest and more blazenly against Putin’s regime than the have in the last few decades (explore this map with the various protests across Russia). I’m not making predictions, but this has the feeling of a geopolitical event that could topple a regime. If that does happen, we need to keep our eyes on the ground. First, what is the backstory of Alexey Navalny, that the protesters are asking to be released? This article from the New Yorker is a great primer to the backstory of Alexey Navalny’s push to shine the light on corruption within Putin’s regime. Second, how is the Russian government handling the protests and the what might it mean for the regime? There are main great articles, but read a few to stay current on this topic.
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?
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..