GEOGRAPHY’S primary focus is “where?” This question has been an essential part of human history from its outset. Knowing where there was water, food, safety, where were the cities and best trade products and special raw materials, especially flint and later metal for tools, was crucial to human and cultural evolution. The need as well as the desire (curiosity) to explore new places and experiences would seem an ingrained human characteristic. Certainly, the ability to predict seasonal cycles for migration and foods—simple survival—elevated those who knew the answers to special, probably shamanistic or priestly, positions.
There is little in this world that is not geographic in some way. Anything that has a place, any place that has an impact on human history, or any human activity is geographic. Once the geographer knows where things are, the analytical focus becomes one of how humans and place are related or interact. For example, how do desert people adapt? How do they conserve and use water? How and when do they move? What kinds of shelter have they evolved?
Geography is one of those subjects essential to understanding virtually everything; yet as we witness in the daily news of events around the world, it is studied and understood by few policy makers and politicians or even journalists. Geography is a subject that encompasses all the topics necessary for the Renaissance person: familiarity with the natural environment, society, and knowledge of cultures, distant and near places, economics, politics, physics, the atmosphere, the literature of places and cultures as it reflects its environment, as well as the mapping and measuring of spatial distributions and relationships.
There was a time when geographers necessarily focused on collecting and inventorying facts and data about places because much of the world was unknown. This basic need has not generally passed. Even in the 21st century an inventory of the location and nature of places, peoples, economies, species, and so on. remains essential, especially given the high rate of change. Fortunately we have satellite images that reveal not only what is there but how it is changing and the rate of change, both natural and human caused.
Once they have a basic inventory of the planet, geographers can begin to focus on human and environmental relations and the interactions between geography and politics, economics, and warfare. In the past, the geographic inventory sometimes was used for military purposes. Other times it was used for trade and economics. In the past, maps were so valuable they became closely held state secrets. Today, the widespread availability of geographic data on the internet and the use of global positioning satellites (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) have even led some to use latitude and longitude as their personal address. Travelers increasingly find GPS locations on signs in yacht harbors or desert road race landmarks. Computer mapping and satellite images have moved from the realm of military intelligence and the battlefield to applications in real estate and businesses as well as disease control, disaster monitoring and relief, and even hunting and fishing. Many large farmers in the U.S. Midwest now have GPS and GIS on their combines and tractors and use them to further increase their efficiency and productivity.
As the world has become more integrated via television, air travel and now the internet, knowledge of different places and cultures has likewise increased in value and necessity. Today, one may talk to a technician in India about a computer problem in the United States. Banks and institutions move money around the world in milliseconds. Tourists withdraw money from their local banks at bank machines all over the world. Cell phones are used by Mongol herdsmen in the middle of the Gobi to call relatives in Miami. Masai herdsmen in Kenya watch satellite television from around the world. Al Qaeda agents meet in Iguasu Falls to avoid Interpol and American security. Cell phones with cameras can be used to call home from virtually anyplace on the planet and may even send photos of people as well as places.
Most are familiar with the observation that those who ignore history are doomed to relive it, but we can add that those who ignore geography (distances, map projections, cultural distinctions, seasons, etc.) are doomed to face unnecessary difficulties and problems—personal, economic, and political. Certainly the economic and political events of the early 21st century continue to evidence this.
Geography and geographers are at the center of one of the newest and fastest growing industries in the world. The need to know where anything is—crime, raw materials, the enemy, political groups or voters—and then the total geographic context (when does a crime occur, what is the access to a raw material, what are the supply lines and disposition of an enemy, how have the voters voted and what are their ages, sex, ethnicity, etc.) is limitless. City planners need to know where property lines, soil types, tax status zones, and utilities lines (both above and below ground) are to provide a range of services from schools and hospitals to police and fire rescue. Military uses of digital maps and GPS to send planes, missiles, and covert units to specific houses—even windows and doors—are seen on nightly television in both the real world and various forms of entertainment.
People ignorant of world places, distances, cultures, and religions continue to create unnecessary problems. It is our hope that this encyclopedia may help fill the gap. To that end we have included some 750 articles that describe places, concepts, theories, people, and themes in world geography. From the Fulda Gap to the Hudson River, just about all countries, territories, and land masses are profiled. Icon maps and some 200 graphics, maps, and photos complement the text. In addition, a complete world atlas is presented in an appendix. It is this thorough accumulation and carefully edited information that comprises the encyclopedia.
This encyclopedia and its various parts provide both a basic geographic definition and context for the most modern applications of geography to geopolitical aspects and geographic facts related to ancient as well as modern history. To avoid a purely European or American view, we have sought and included contributors from all areas of the world.
You can use this work to find out about places familiar and exotic. There are basic (traditional) definitions and facts. But, more important, you can also find explanations of historical context and politics as well as the terms and ideas of modern technology. For students, it is important to recognize that geography can be used to study the distant past, from the age of dinosaurs to the earliest humans and the earliest civilizations. Geography also is highly relevant to our world of multinationals, global terrorism, and geopolitics.