There has mixed response to my posts on disaster awareness among college students (well, the Horn of Africa drought among my current students) – see posts here and here.  Some see something hopeful and interesting in the idea that the students want more complex explanations for the problems they see.  Others are significantly more negative, suggesting that people such as my students are just symptomatic of a larger societal, if not species-level, lack of empathy for distant others.  I fall on the optimistic side of things, perhaps because I am a geographer.  Let me explain…

Geography, as a discipline, spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about how places are created and maintained.  Places are not locations (folks get this mixed up all the time) – places are our experiences of particular locations – at least this is how I choose to think about it.  And when you think of it that way, it becomes impossible to see life in a particular place as independent from events in other places.  The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina is shaped by the weather, the cost of living, the infrastructure, the schools (I am a parent), etc.  But each of these is in turn shaped by other factors that transcend Columbia.  The cost of living and state of the infrastructure are intimately tied to the history of the state of South Carolina within the United States (where the South has historically been the underdeveloped agrarian other of the industrialized Northeast), but are also tied to the global economy. South Carolina is now the last stopping point for large-scale manufacturing before it heads out of the US to find the most favorable conditions of production possible.  The overseas shift of the textile industry wrought devastation on the state’s economy…and relatively few in the state seem able to come to grips with the fact they were ground up in the jaws of a new global economy that has already spit them out.  Even the weather is being reshaped by global factors that drive climate change, as a new regime of reduced rainfall seems to be settling in.  At what point do you stop calling a prolonged rainfall deficit a drought and start calling it the new normal?  Turns out about three decades. We are about 20 years into a significant decline in precipitation, so we are getting there.  Thus, the policy decisions (regarding industrial policy and emissions policy) of actors in China and India drive shifts in the economy and environment of the State of South Carolina.  We are thoroughly tied up in larger global forces here.  To understand South Carolina today, we have to understand the larger world today – there is simply no way around this.

As soon as this lesson settles in (and it can take a while), it becomes obvious that these forces flow both ways – that is, as Columbia, SC is constituted by global forces, so too what we do here in Columbia contributes to global forces that play out in other places.  Thus, when we vote for federal lawmakers who keep absurd ethanol subsidies in place no matter what the price/maize production conditions, we create a driver of food price increases that can radiate around the world.  And while we in Columbia feel those increases, when the price of a loaf of bread goes up by a dollar, most of us are inconvenienced and annoyed.  For someone who was already living on less than $2/day, this same price increase blows up their capacity to feed themselves.

All of this then goes back to my earlier point about what the students wanted – complex explanations.  The kids already get it, folks – they already understand an interconnected world (to some extent), and they mistrust oversimplified explanations.  When you feed them simple explanations, you often have to root out the interconnections that connect us to events in other parts of the world – the very things that students would grab on to.  In short, by oversimplifying things, we are making it harder for people to feel connected to the places in which things like famine happen.

The lesson: find yourself a geographer, work with them to tell the damn story in all its complex glory, and get out of the way.  The kids are waiting…