Contemporary Human Geography

The territory of the Americas is demarcated into some 22 sovereign nation states and one overseas territory, Guyane (French Guiana). The geographical size, population, economic clout, and role in the world political system of these nation states, varies tremendously. The United States, as one of the world’s most powerful nation states, is both the region’s most populous nation, with close to 300 million inhabitants, as well as its most powerful. In terms of political and economic geography, the America’s clearly fall within the sphere of influence of the United States, but rapidly growing trade with China and its increasingly active diplomacy and economic investment in the region are challenging longstanding US hegemony. After the United States, Brazil and Mexico stand out as the most significant regional powers in terms of areal extent, population, and economic activity. Argentina has at times projected itself successfully as a regional power and leader, while Venezuela, bolstered by oil revenues and the vision of a charismatic leader, has recently attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to do so as well.

Population Characteristics

Overwhelmingly, the people of the Americas are urban dwellers, living in towns, cities, and major metropolitan centers, and their values and lifestyles reflect that fact. Throughout the region some 75–80% of the total population is urban, although in some countries, especially in Central America, the average is slightly lower. A few of the world’s most important urban places, as well as some of its most populous ones, are found here. New York, a city of about 10 million, is one of the world’s toptier metropolitan centers and a global center for financial activity. Other world class metropolitan centers whose populations near or exceed 10 million include Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires, while Mexico City and Sa˜o Paulo, whose populations exceed 20 million, are among the world’s most populous urban places.

Despite many shared cultural characteristics and similar economic systems, the nation states of the Americas vary tremendously in terms of their population numbers and socioeconomic status. The population of the region stands at about 850 million and represents slightly less than 15% of the world’s population. Population distribution is highly uneven, and most of the region’s population is concentrated along or near the coastal margins of the continents with vast interior regions which are sparsely populated (e.g., the Great Plains, the Pampas, the Amazon Basin). Overall, population densities in most countries are comparatively low and pressure on the natural resources modest. Central America is a notable exception, and there population densities are high and pressure on natural resources is also great. Among the various nation states, population distribution is also uneven and there is considerable variation between countries. The United States, with 300 million inhabitants, is the most populous country and alone accounts for well over one third of the entire regional population. Brazil and Mexico, with populations of about 190 and 105 million, respectively, are the next most populous nation states in the region. Nearly three fourths of the region’s total population resides in just these three countries. No other countries have populations that exceed 45 million inhabitants, and about half of the region’s nation states have populations of less than 10 million. A handful, are really mini states, with populations less than 1 million – BelizeGuyana, and Suriname.

Some parts of the Americas, notably Latin America, experienced rapid population growth during the twentieth century. In Brazil and Mexico, population numbers increased by a factor of five during the course of the century and similar patterns pertained in many Latin American countries. In the more economically developed nations of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay population growth was more modest. By the end of the twentieth century, population growth rates had begun to moderate as populations became increasingly urban, social norms and values changed, and birth control and abortion both became more widespread. Overall, the rate of natural population growth across Latin America stands at about 1.5%, although it is higher in Central America (>2.0) and less in the historically developed countries of South America (o1.0). In Anglo America, natural population growth rates are very low – 0.6 in the United States and 0.3 in Canada. In both cases however, pro immigration policies have lead to steady and appreciable increases in total population numbers since the 1960s as large numbers of both legal and illegal immigrants have migrated to those two countries.

Socioeconomic Conditions

Compared to many other major world regions, especially at a continental scale, for the vast majority of the population, socioeconomic conditions in the Americas are adequate and basic human needs are largely met. However, that said, income levels and socioeconomic conditions across the region are quite uneven. One way to explore the level of economic development of a region is to examine its gross national income (GNI) per capita. But, because the cost of the same goods or services can vary dramatically from one country to another, economists adjust the GNI using a measure called purchasing power parity (PPP). This measure, GNI PPP, measures how much in goods and services can be purchased in a particular country. Thus, it can be used to effectively compare the true purchasing power of money from one country to another and the standard of living.

Dramatic disparities in GNI–PPP are evident between Anglo America and Latin America. The United States and Canada are far and away the most eco nomically prosperous nation states of the Americas, where per capita GNI–PPP stands at US$44 260 and $34 610, respectively. In comparison to affluent Anglo America, there is a precipitous drop in the per capita GNI–PPP in Latin American countries. Surprisingly, despite a myriad of economic problems and economic policy blunders, Argentina has the highest per capita incomes in Latin America, US$15 000. Only a handful of other countries have per capita rates that exceed US$10 000 – Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. Many of the region’s remaining nation states have per capita GNI–PPP that is below US$5000, while the region’s poorest country is Bolivia with a rate of US$2900. Nevertheless, in some ways these data may misrepresent living conditions on the ground. Bolivia, for instance, is indeed a poor country, but hunger and abject poverty are not at all the rule.

Continuing advancements in communications technology and the spread of these technologies to all sectors of society will continue to transform the Americas promoting both economic and social integration. Telephones, cellular telephones, and Internet access have increased the level of social and political interaction throughout the Americas. In both the United States and Canada, there are more phones than people and telephone and cell phone service is essentially ubiquitous. Nearly 70% of Anglo America has access to the Internet, with both Canada and the United States enjoying similar levels of access.

In Latin America, access to telecommunications technology is more restricted especially in poorer countries and in rural environments, but in most urban environments and among at least the middle class, access to telephones, cell phones, and the Internet is common. In Mexico and Costa Rica, two comparatively well off countries, only about 25% of the population have access to either a telephone or a cell phone and this climbs to a high of over 40% in Chile. At the other end of the spectrum are countries like Guyana and Nicaragua where less than 10% of the population has access to a telephone or a cell phone. Access to computers and the Internet follows a similar pattern. About 20% of the population has access to these technologies in Mexico and Costa Rica, and this figure increases to 30–40% in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Nevertheless, in the region’s poorer nations, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Ecuador, this statistic does not exceed 10% (Figure 2).

Contemporary demographic and economic conditions in the Americas.